24 Jul 2015

Ashley Madison, Marriage and Polyamory

After hackers infiltrated the dating site Ashley Madison, aimed specifically at people who want to have an affair, everyone's suddenly got an opinion on marriage, monogamy and the relationship models held up to us as desirable. People have also got a lot of opinions on privacy and morality, and I have to say that I am reluctantly on the side of those who defend the right of consenting adults to do whatever dirt they wish and who feel the hackers could have used their skills and energy much more wisely to expose, say, nefarious government practices, terrorism threats, child abuse or any other activity that's actually illegal. Yes, I hate cheaters. But being weak and human is not a crime. Yes, it's not exactly as simple as saying no one is getting hurt or exploited - the cheated-on partner is clearly going to be hella hurt if and when they find out what their partner has been up to, but it's not for any single person, or indeed group of hackers, to stand as judge, jury and executioner of the 37 million users of the Ashley Madison website.

Privacy issues aside, I do broadly agree with the Guardian article "In the Ashley Madison era, marriage needs a rethink," recently penned by Gaby Hinsliff. Extra-marital affairs are clearly happening on a large scale. More of a nuanced response than simple finger wagging or tutting are clearly needed. One of the reasons I'm suspicious of marriage and long-term monogamy as an institution is that I'm just not convinced it's evolved alongside the world we live in, nor am I sure it was ever designed to bring the mythical happiness that we in the modern world are convinced it must entail. A commenter on Hinsliff's article says that marriage made sense when we lived half as long, had much less technology around to make our lives easier, and needed children for their support and labour. They add "cosmopolitan capitalism is a poisonous environment for marriage." Lefty soapboxes aside, I think they've got a point. As one of Piers Paul Read's characters (incidentally, female) says in his book The Misogynist, the modern marriage has now become "a relationship between two rival bisexuals both working and both cooking and both parenting so that neither needs the other except for some kind of psychological ego boost which is hard to sustain over the years." With the competing demands of work, leisure, self-improvement, extended family and raising children, maintaining an unflagging bond with one other person for 60 years seems like a taller order than ever. People will, of course, point to feminism as the cause of all this, which is a red herring - yes, the character in question does say that marriage is simpler in South America, where men simply expect their wives to "bear their children and run their homes and put up with their intolerable old mothers," but no one in their right minds actually thinks that retrogression to such a world is actually desirable (or even possible). Capitalism has a lot to answer for, as does aspirational culture (which I discuss to some extent in this post, i.e. the insidious messages we're constantly sent that you *need* a bigger house/flasher car/better school for your kids/more exotic holidays/the newest gadget/job promotion, and that to refuse all that and be content to simply get by is nothing short of a crime). I also think there is simply a failure of imagination going on about how to do relationships. People seem to opt for the extremes of either demanding we return to a conservative nuclear family (preferrably where the man is the breadwinner and women have abandoned all those pesky ideas about financial independence or shared parenting), uphold "virtues" such as the willingness to stick with a miserable relationship, or admit that we're all basically amoral scumbugs with restless loins and give up on marriage altogether.

Even Hinsliff's article, which is refreshingly honest in its willingness to ask uncomfortable questions such as "Can you really remain endlessly fascinating to each other and only each other, for up to 70 years?" and "If lifelong fidelity is becoming one of those laws that everyone tacitly accepts gets broken, like cycling on pavements or speeding on motorways, does that mean marriage itself is in need of a reboot?" is still unwilling to offer answers beyond monogamy. She makes a throwaway reference to polyamory in her closing paragraphs, but frames it as the kind of alternative that's *so* alternative that it's still not really an option - "Most committed couples still set out intending to forsake all others and plenty achieve it, which suggests that aiming any lower smacks of an unhappily self-fulfilling prophecy unless you’re both genuine open-marriage enthusiasts." Even though this statement is kind of weak - "Most" isn't quantified, and neither is the "plenty" which constitutes a smaller segment of this "most" - the possibility of open marriage isn't given any airtime or exploration in Hinsliff's article. That seems bizarre in a piece that's trying to honestly deal with the fact that at least 37 million people (and in reality, obviously, many many more undocumented cheaters) are seeking or having affairs outside of their supposedly monogamous relationships. Non-monogamy shouldn't be set up as a panacea to cheating, for reasons I'll shortly outline, but nor should it be dismissed out of hand as "something you presumably don't want to do or hear anything about unless you're like, one of those crazy hippies."

Polyamory demands a reframing of the concept of fidelity, as well as offering new perspectives on sex and relationships that could be viewed as very liberating, but instead is often perceived as threatening and therefore shut down before it's even been explored. Polyamory is a rejection of the notion that love is finite, ring-fenced and only valid/acceptable as long as it's limited to being shared with one person at a time (at least, in a romantic sense - it's fine to have and love more than one friend, child, or family member, but for some reason we draw the line at romantic relationships, and my next sentence alludes to what I think is most of the reason why). It's also a rejection of the notion that your commitment to someone can be measured by your refusal to have genital contact with anyone but them, even people you would quite like to have genital contact with. Because let's face it, that is still the benchmark for fidelity, isn't it - the people on Ashley Madison aren't seeking someone else to watch films with, go on long walks with, shop in B&Q with - they're looking for sex. Sex with someone new and therefore exciting. Sex with someone forbidden, and therefore exciting. Even though there are a million ways you can betray your partner - and the lying that accompanies cheating often begins long before the actual sex, and is often the most hurtful part of the betrayal - we assign sex the status of being the deal-breaker. Polyamory forces us to acknowledge some painful truths - that both we and our partners may be attracted to other people during the course of our relationship, and may act on it - while aiming to remove that which makes infidelity so painful; the lying. So why, in an article where Hinsliff considers various "alternatives" to traditional marriage - "starter marriages", being together but living apart, "safety blanket" marriages or "I want kids but I'm running out of time and I don't want to do it alone" marriages - is polyamory never considered? Most of the options she names sound to me exactly like the kind of relationships people are already practising but just not labelling as she has; the idea of people marrying for security, out of parental urges, fear of being alone or on a hopeful but not entirely convinced gamble that it'll work isn't really anything new. Whereas the idea of consensual nonmonogamy is still pretty radical. Why not at least give it some airtime by considering it, rather than writing it off as a "niche interest"?

As I've found to my disappointment, nonmonogamy can't save everyone, though. There are just some dyed-in-the-wool cheaters out there who want nothing less than the thrill and the dirt of the forbidden, and would probably find themselves unable to proceed honestly even if they were presented with a poly relationship on a plate. As I wrote in a previous post on polyamory, such people "are so used to practising the art of lying that honesty is a stranger to them. Plus, polyamory probably wouldn't give them the twisted kicks they get out of their self-destructive behaviour." The only solution for these people is the therapist's chair, and even then there's only any point in that if they don't just keep lying once they get there. If we learn anything from human history, it's that no relationship structure, however permissive, can save people from themselves. I think some people get married hoping it'll change them, rein them in, make them a better person, and really they're just passing the buck, because you either make those changes yourself, and make yourself that person, or it's not going to happen. A relationship structure doesn't impose itself from the outside and change you. You either commit to it and do it wholeheartedly, or you'll end up simply warping the structure to suit your own ends. Which, if you're highly sexed and thrill-seeking, is likely to end in tears if you don't seek a relationship with someone similar, in a format that allows you to express those parts of yourself without feeling limited. But if you do decide to go poly, you've still got to decide to do it honestly. It involves a level of self-awareness, as well as a level of consideration for others, that not everyone is willing to reach for.

Commenters on Hinsliff's piece label it "grim and sociopathic" for daring to suggest that people want more than the current relationship model offers them. I think it's more accurate to call it realistic and honest. Another, perhaps more prosaic individual suggests "there are three entirely different sorts of relationships: the person you sleep with, the person you live with and the person you want to have your children with. It is unlikely that all three of those people are the same person, which is the core of the problem - when it works, it is clearly brilliant, but it is so fragile that people will often overlook one of the three to try and keep it together." In my limited experience, domesticity can certainly drive a person to want to separate the first party from the second and third parties, perhaps going some way to explaining why I, as a highly sexed individual, have no interest in cohabiting (and have never wanted children anyway). I just think that it's kind of dishonest to claim you're "rethinking marriage" or to act like you're putting forward a radical idea when you're not actually offering anything new, and are still merely advocating for long-term monogamy - just under the guise of different names - but trying to do so in a way that mitigates the horrible fact that millions of people out there want to cheat, have cheated, or are currently cheating on their partner. The sad fact is, nothing can mitigate that. It's depressing, soul-destroying, and enough to make you never want to trust another human being again. But there are more options than just becoming further entrenched in your views that we all just need to pull our bloody socks up and try harder, or that relationships are doomed and we should all just throw caution to the wind and rut openly in the streets. A media fond of polarising everything would do well to remember that alternatives can be, and are being, succesfully practised.

13 Jul 2015

Subversive or Complicit? The Female Dominant in Popular Culture (Extract from "Thinking Kink")

“To fall at the feet of an imperious mistress, obey her mandates, or implore pardon, were for me the most exquisite enjoyments. . .”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions

The first time I was asked to dominate a man, it came as something of a surprise to me. I was attending my first play party, ostensibly as part of research for my writing. I had found some knee-high boots with pointed toes at a flea market the previous weekend, and with the help of sale rails and thrift stores, had put together an approximation of what I thought constituted a kinky enough outfit to allow me to blend in. An older man began chatting with me and complimented me on the boots, and then said “Can I ask you a question?” I tentatively responded, “OK,” and he said “Would you kick me in the balls?” 

Being asked to deliberately hurt another human being, especially in a way that women are taught to strenuously avoid unless the man in question is attacking us, disrupted my thought process to the extent that I was actually speechless for a good 30 seconds. The devil on my shoulder said “Well, you could…” while the sensible voice in my head said “Don’t be ridiculous!” I finally opted for a terribly British and polite “No, thank you” and the man drifted off. I was later told that he found a woman to fulfil his desires, and I was glad for him, but also glad that I had said no. I figured that there was a right way to inflict that kind of pain, and since I didn’t know what it was, it was best that I refuse. Later, while watching The Notorious Bettie Page as part of my research for this book, my experience as a reluctant domme came back to me as I watched the scene where one of Bettie’s fans approaches her at a party. “Doesn’t it just make you sick to see guys like me groveling?” he hisses lasciviously. “Doesn’t it just make you want to crush us, humiliate us, punish us?” he asks, hopefully. Bettie gently lets him down by saying “No, I’m sure you’re a very nice guy.” 

This brief and rather sweet scene highlights the difference between the female dominant as she is constructed on camera, and how she is in real life. Bettie Page may have been the first and most famous bondage model, but off the clock she had no interest in fulfilling her male fans’ desires to be humiliated by her. Yet it can be hard to get past the mainstream media depiction of the female dominant (domme, dominatrix, domina, mistress, etc.) when we’re given so few nuanced representations of her: movies, TV shows and music videos tend not to deviate from a fairly repetitive, and some might say unimaginative, stereotype. The domme must be a ball-buster (pun sort of intended, given my aforementioned experience), a man-hater, an aggressive, sadistic shrew. She must exhibit no traditionally ‘feminine’ qualities, as these are equated with weakness. Her clothes must signal her role in an exaggerated fashion, be this through a uniform implying a position of authority, or the restrictive costume of corset and spike heels. 

To the average feminist, the idea that strength can only be signified through aggression and the ability to inflict pain is little more than a belief that traditionally masculine qualities are superior ones-- “might is right”, if you will. Yet despite these troubling nods to a restrictive gender binary, in my research I repeatedly came across misguided attempts to defend BDSM as feminist via the very existence of the female domme. People’s (sometimes understandable) discomfort with the idea of women submitting to men in kink, and inability to reconcile this with feminist thought, was often allayed with the argument “There are dominant women and submissive men too!”. While I could understand where these people were coming from, I thought that their dividing of kinksters into “Acceptable/Feminist” and “Unacceptable/Anti-feminist” involved the kind of judgmental imposition of artificial categories that those fighting for free sexual expression should reject. I also thought it rested on a misperception of feminism that harks back to the ugly stereotypes put about by right-wing conservatives--that feminists wish to oppress, harm and possibly even kill men in their ‘FemiNazi’ quest to create a matriarchy. To me, women dominating men is no more or less feminist than any other configuration of kink--male dom/fem sub, fem dom/fem sub, male dom/male sub--unless we believe that to take a spanking represents some kind of crushing defeat for one’s gender, and furthermore, that what feminism wants is the crushing defeat of men. 

The very fact that the female dominant is treated as such an artificial construct perhaps says the most about how we view power and femininity. Until Christian Grey came along, there were few, if any, images of a male dominant in a BDSM sense in popular culture. One might suggest that this is because dominance is assumed to be the default position for men, therefore there is no need to create a character to represent such a figure. Aside from the odd stereotype of the “leather daddy” turning up in shows such as Arrested Development (and usually in the context of gay male culture anyway), there is not much of a flipside to the female dominant--she stands alone, defined by her difference from her gender, whereas the figure of the male dominant often blends in as simply another man. The assumption that dominance is naturally a male state, and therefore unnatural for females, is another reason we should treat the pop culture depiction of the female domme with caution. There is much to suggest that she is held up as special, interesting, comical, a character with which to make a statement by pop culture producers, precisely because she doesn’t “act like a typical woman.” 

The above is an extract from Thinking Kink: The Collision of BDSM, Feminism and Popular Culture, published by McFarland. Copyright Catherine Scott 2015. All rights reserved.

To read this chapter in full, check out Thinking Kink: The Collision of BDSM, Feminism and Popular Culture, now available to buy in the US and UK, online and in all good bookstores!

10 Jun 2015

Queering Time

I got to thinking about time when I read Helen Stuhr-Rommereim’s excellent essay “A Delicate Time: Queer Temporality in Torpor” (from You Must Make Your Death Public: A Collection of Texts and Media on the Work of Chris Kraus, ed. Mira Mattar). In it, she suggests that the socially constructed view of time as both linear and goal-oriented is both harmful and potentially false, referring to “teleologies of happiness…in which one’s relationship with the self is defined by speculative investment towards a point of future pay off which is necessarily never going to arrive.” This really struck a chord with me. I’ve always loved the exchange in the film Dazed and Confused, where slightly dorky high schoolers Cynthia, Mike and Tony question the social structures that push them towards endlessly regressing future goals.

Cynthia: Don’t you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future?

Tony: Yeah, I know. Like it’s all preparation.

Cynthia: Right. But what are we preparing ourselves for?

Mike: Death.

Tony: Life of the party!

Cynthia:You know, but that’s valid. Because if we’re all going to die anyway, shouldn’t we be enjoying ourselves now? I’d like to quit thinking of the present as some minor, insignificant preamble to something else.

And yet, that’s exactly how it’s set up. School, university, work – it’s all presented to you as something you do in order to secure a better future for yourself. Or, as Philip Larkin puts it in his excellent poem “Next, Please,”

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say

It’s not just careers, either – it’s material acquisition. Unless you’re upper middle class or just upper class and are presented with a brand new car on your 17th birthday, it’s pretty much a rite of passage in UK society that your first car will be secondhand, thirdhand, “an old banger,” a hunk of junk that you proudly drive around, secure in the knowledge that one day you’ll be able to afford something better. Because you’ll be earning more, because that’s how time works – everything’s supposed to get better. You’re supposed to get more successful, more wealthy, and have the possessions to show for it. If your first property is a shoebox or in a grotty area, never mind – the next one will be bigger and in a nicer area. As Struhr-Rommereim writes, this kind of “normative becoming” underpins all our Western “conceptions of success and achievement – getting an education, having a job that leads to a better job, having a house, even reaching certain thresholds of health and beauty.”

Or, as Larkin puts it, in awaiting the future, we are effectively watching the horizon, as
the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.

But as Larkin and Struhr-Rommereim point out, therein lies the problem. Expectation can be exactly what prevents us enjoying the things we desire when they finally arrive. Because it’s not just possessing the thing – the car, the house, the job, the relationship – that we imagine, it’s how it’s going to feel. And hapless optimists that we are, we expect that it’s going to feel nothing less than amazing.

So if it doesn’t, we feel wrong-footed. Ashamed. We feel like we have to lie, overcompensate for our lack of appropriate reaction. We feel like there’s something wrong with us for not being able to experience the emotion we’re expected to experience in line with the acquisition of the things that are supposed to make us happy. Or, as Struhr-Rommereim writes, “happiness, by guiding us towards certain objects, is restrictive in requiring us not to be unhappy with the acquisition of those objects, making unhappiness a failure or a deviance.” Larkin adds:

they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach… 
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.

I’m lucky enough to call myself a homeowner. And I do love my house; I say I love it so much I could marry it, and it’s not much of an exaggeration. I love the physical reality of my own space to do with as I please, But I also love what it represents. No more renting. No more rent rises every six months, no more letting agents asking for £200 “admin fees” to sort out a few pieces of paper, no more having to ask permission to put a hook in a wall, no more paying someone else’s mortgage. And security. I’m a believer in what Douglas Coupland wrote in Eleanor Rigby, that a rich man is always just a rich man, whereas a rich woman is only ever a poor woman who happens to have money. My purple-painted, Hindu-god populated corner of the world represents something I might need to fall back on later in life – and since I’m not having children, I’m aware that it’s down to me to look after me.

But in the first few weeks when everyone was asking me if I loved my house? It was sometimes hard to come up with the required response. I loved the fact that the weeks of tedious waiting for solicitors and estate agents to get their act together was over. I loved the fact that I could (for the second time) move out of my parents’ house and this time believe it was permanent. But how did I actually feel? Knackered, skint, covered in paint and sawdust, and like I could sleep for a month. The expected “happiness” wouldn’t materialise until some time later, such as during the winter months, when I’d lay on my sofa, look up at the ceilings I painted with my own hands, and think “all this is mine.” I still get those moments, and it’s great. But I expect I’ll get them less as I get used to the fact the house is mine and start to take it for granted. And there, as Larkin says, is the fleeting nature of happiness, contentment, satisfaction. It’s no sooner present than it’s past. And then we’re on to the next thing. Or as Struhr-Rommereim writes, "cruel optimism occurs when the act of waiting for those boats to arrive is what makes it impossible to have what those boats should bring."

Enjoying the now is so hard to do, especially when we live in a goal-oriented society that frowns upon any standing still. We’re told we should always be moving, moving on to the next thing, that inertia isn’t just death, it's a sin, it’s laziness. People put framed copies of William Henry Davies' poem Leisure - which asks “What is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” - in their bathrooms and then never stop to read it or think about what it means because their lives don’t allow them that luxury. Earn, produce, consume, never stop. Then when we start melting down, suffering from stress, depression, mental illness, we go for therapy and we’re told to be mindful. To be in the moment. To breathe, to smell the flowers, watch the clouds. And we find we don’t know how, because we were never taught. We were taught that to be in the moment is a crime. From every teacher rapping knuckles telling us to work faster, to every micromanaging boss breathing down your neck and tut-tutting if you dare to lean back in your chair and take a moment to just be. 

Right now, I’m in a coffee shop on my laptop, with my phone by my side. There’s music playing, there’s the hiss of the milk steamer, the crackle of the guy eating crisps five feet to my left, the chatter of the other customers, the breeze coming in from the open back door, the light breaking through the clouds on the high street…and I’ve probably got at least 6 different things on my mind, (that's just the conscious part, anyway) and trying to stop my brain from multi-tasking or perpetually living in the future is more trouble than it’s worth right now. I’ve got to collect my car from where it’s being fixed for a fee I need to find more work to pay for, so I’m worrying about that. I’ve got to post that letter, answer that email, go and do a care shift because freelance writing currently doesn’t pay enough for me to do that full time, get stuff ready for tomorrow because I’m having a day out, go and do my hobby that I love. And I’m not complaining about any of this, because I recognise I’m ridiculously privileged and live an insanely comfortable life. I’m just saying that the way we live doesn’t equip us, nor enable us, to live in the moment or appreciate the present.

Returning to Cynthia’s point, the need to keep our lives so frantically busy does point to an avoidance of the truth that none of us want to face – that we’re all going to die, we’re unlikely to be remembered or make much of a mark upon the world beyond our immediate family, and if, like me, you’re an atheist, there ain’t no afterlife or any vindication or justification for the running around we’ve been doing on this anthill for the 80 years or so we managed it. Larkin says that we believe our ship will come in, that it will bring with it  all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong.

He ends on the distinctly unsettling but, to me, utterly accurate verse:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

The realisation that death is coming for us all one day can either depress you or mobilise you. I suppose for me it does a bit of both. Fighting against the tide of social pressures that would rather have me mindless than mindful, doing a job I dislike just to acquire money I don’t need in order to own things I’ll soon grow bored of and a property I leave empty all day in order to do said job, can be exhausting. I’m lucky to be able to reject that pressure – although I bowed to it for many years and ended up depressed, three stone heavier and ready to walk out into traffic, I loathed my life so much – and lucky to be able to freelance, working from home, enjoying my home, my time, my work. But it takes guts and nerves. Not cracking and going back to full time employment when funds get low takes a steely disposition. So does living my life on my terms when it comes to relationships. Rejecting the narrative of long term monogamy, because I know it’s not right for me, takes intense self-knowledge and conviction, a thick skin against the judgmental bullshit of others, and the ability to reassure oneself, in the lonely 4am moments of panic that we all get, that it’s OK to have occasions of doubt, but better to have those while happily and honestly polyamorous, rather than experiencing them after having surrendered to marriage and suddenly realising it doesn’t suit you. And as for not having kids? Again, you’ve got to know yourself and develop a duck’s oily sheen in order to let all the obnoxious and predictable comments slide off you, but it’s not that tricky once you’ve looked around at your peaceful home, full bank account and unmarked body to remember you love your life the way it is.

People do make the choice to get married and have kids, and that’s great for them – as long as it’s what they really want. But I have a strong suspicion that a lot of people are lulled into one or both of these things by the destructive social narratives that make us think our lives are a) lacking without them and b) will be automatically fulfilled once we gain them. I think those people also experience great distress when the promised happiness that these things are meant to deliver doesn’t materialise. The woman currently ignoring her child while she plays on her phone and he runs around the coffee shop annoying other patrons doesn’t seem to be experiencing much, if any, joy from her offspring. And yes, I’m being overly simplistic to imply that means having kids brings no joy at all, but from what I can tell, a lot of this joy comes retrospectively rather than in the moment. That’s what no one is told until it’s too late. That’s why you have countless anonymous parents posting in terms of deep shame on Reddit that they wish they’d never had their kids and they wish someone had told them how tiring, stressful, boring and destructive to their relationship it was going to be. Yes, you’re allowed to jokingly say “Oh, I could strangle them sometimes!” but actually admitting that the thing everyone tells you will fulfil you has just turned out to be a massive, sticky-faced, screaming, tedious disappointment remains taboo.

This is where a queering of time and a rejection of goal-oriented society – or at least more honesty about the true nature of these goals we are told to work towards - might serve us well. Writing about one of Chris Kraus' characters, Sylvie, who leaves behind her marriage and desperation for a baby to have casual sex with strangers, Struhr-Rommereim writes "Sylvie finds solace and satisfaction in sex that bears no suggestion of a future, no shadow of a narrative. . . The point is not that casual sex is more favourable than long-term, committed relationships or children, only that for Sylvie it offered a way out of what became a limiting and damaging relationship with the future." The reason this is so liberating is because it's a refusal to bow to the aggressive demand that we all be perpetually in motion towards socially sanctioned goals, and is instead an affirmation of one's choice to engage in things for their own sake, as ends in themselves, to seek pleasure without purpose. It's a rejection of the idea that "happiness can be found in perpetual improvement, in a constant orientation towards the future as the place where things will be better, and better in a very specific way." Radically reframing our conception of time away from this might take some brain-bending, but it's a very interesting prospect.

I'll leave the last word to Mike, the loveable dork from Dazed and Confused, who, when he admits he's having second thoughts about becoming a lawyer, is asked by his friends "What do you want to do then?"

Mike's response? An impassioned "I wanna dance."

27 May 2015

Women on Leashes: Kink In The Public Eye

Ah, women being walked on leashes. One may have thought that since Snoop Dogg announced he is now going to respect women (having claimed that he only called them bitches and whores in the past because he didn't know any better, bless him) there'd be no more public displays of such imagery for anyone to get up in arms about. Yet this past week I ended up seeing two stories about this within a few days of each other, and since I've like, written a book on how BDSM is portrayed in pop culture and its implications for feminism, I thought it behooved me to take a closer look at these tales and how they're framed.
The first, a story on Complex.com, a pop culture news site, kicked off with the headline "Australian Playboy Calls Himself Candyman and Walks Women on Leashes." I have to say, before I encountered this story I had never heard of Travers Beynon, who is apparently "known as Australia's Hugh Hefner", so I'm immediately wondering if this piece is going to actually provide more of the oxygen of publicity to someone relatively unknown outside their native country. 

In somewhat prurient and scandalised tones, the article goes on to say "On Instagram, Beynon frequently posts photos from his multimillion-dollar "Candy Shop Mansion," where women who've auditioned to be his "angels" pose for photos, sometimes as furniture. There's this photo where women serve as chairs and tables for a game of chess. (How civilized!)" There follows a video where we can see plenty more exposed female flesh on show in Beynon's flashy mansion, including sushi being eaten off a naked woman's body, and a man (not Beynon, perhaps one of his staff?) walking two bikini-clad women on leashes, one of whom is apparently Beynon's wife. The reporter mentions that the grandparents of his wife are concerned that this is a 'toxic' environment for her two children. Beynon's defence is that he's a hardworking family man, and the imagery he's posting on Instagram are merely promotion for his tobacco company.

The reporter says "This is arguably not OK, and I'm glad that Beynon is coming under fire for posting pictures of human beings on leashes. While he claims that his wife is impressed by his lifestyle and is laughing her head off at all the media attention that his home is receiving, I still have to wonder if everyone in this photo [shows photo of three men sitting on the backs of women who are on all fours] is comfortable with what's going on."

There's a lot going on here, but as often seems to be the case, there's still a fairly predictable template being followed:
1) Get outraged at the treatment of women by X, while simultaneously giving more publicity to X and also showing as many pictures as possible of the supposedly degrading treatment and exposed butts, boobs, thighs, cracks and cleavages.
2) Dismiss the possibility that any of the women involved have agency and/or free choice.
3) Play the "THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!" card
4) Impose own values on to the behaviour of consenting adults

If this seems like lazy 'choice' feminism to you, I think it's worth adding that I would love to live in a world where I never had to be assaulted by another bronzed female butt crack or cleavage on my TV, computer or in a magazine or on a billboard, ever, ever again. The commodification of the female form both sickens and exhausts me. I would love it if music videos were about music, adverts were about the products they were trying to sell, and that the biggest ripples in global news were caused by genuinely amazing events that indicated progress for the human race, rather than the fact that Kacey Cuomo has dyed her eyebrows pink. However, as a pop culture commentator, I know that's not the world we live in. Under capitalism, everyone's trying to hustle, and earn money the quickest way they can. For Travers Beynon, that way is apparently by running a tobacco company, buffing up his body til he resembles a condom full of walnuts, building a kitsch, gilded bubblegum palace of bling and babes, and showing it to the world. Apparently, it's working. There are still many men out there who secretly think Hugh Hefner has got it made, even though plenty more of us consider him a pretty sad and creepy old man unable to deal with women as equals. Beynon is apparently appealing to the first category through his Instagram account, and if he gets some public criticism along the way, well, it's just more exposure, right?

Then there's the women who participate in the supposedly oh-so-shocking pictures. We need to stop to consider that they may also be hustling the best way they see fit. Are we to assume they are in those pictures under duress? That they are coerced into the lifestyle they enjoy in the big blinging mansion? FFS, there are plenty of women who consent to be walked on leashes or serve as human furniture out in the real world, and if you go into a BDSM club or look on Fetlife you'll soon meet them. You'll find they're regular women with jobs, children, partners, bills to pay, and you'll find that they all choose to do what they're doing. They just don't turn up on Instagram for pop culture commentators to disapprove of in the name of feminism, but they remain adults in control of their own lives and I believe Beynon's female companions do too, even if the former group's actions may be more about private pleasure and the latter more about creating public ripples to ultimately generate more income.  

This brings me onto the second story which I saw on Jezebel a few days later, which tells a bit of a non-story about a couple who were asked to leave a New York mall because the man was walking his female companion on a leash. There's an accompanying photo of the woman, wearing a thick collar with large spikes, kneeling on the pavement. You can only see the legs of her male companion. She's fully clothed and smiling. I found it hard to know how to feel about the story because I generally fell between two stools - I couldn't fully agree with the outraged commentators who wrote "Keep it in the bedroom, assholes," or sarcastically referred to "the public degradation of another human, shockingly, and soo unexpectedly, a woman," or went straight for the "What about children who saw this?!" line (see how it keeps coming up? How much time and energy is expended on fretting about what kids might actually think when kids spend so little time thinking about anything than the Frozen song?), but nor could I get totally on board with the writer's groovy, laid-back, "I'm from San Francisco where anything goes," attitude which adds up to: what they were doing isn't inherently sexual, kids who saw the couple will understand it was just make-believe, and it's not as bad as some weird stuff she's seen in public, including a man defecating on her porch. Hmmmm.

Both stories raise the questions, which has reared its head again and again in my writing on kink, on how far it's acceptable to inflict BDSM play on a viewing public. In the case of the first story, I doubt that the instance of the women being walked on leashes has nearly as much to do with BDSM, as it does with getting as many hits as possible on Instagram. Maybe the man and two women in the picture are genuinely playing a kinky game that they all find pleasurable, but I somehow doubt it - it just comes across as too staged. The couple in the second story do seem more like they are enjoying the thrill of public play, inadvertently yet crucially showing how the hottest kink scenes can take place when everyone is fully clothed and there's not a bikini or bum crack in sight, but as someone points out in the comments, there's no way to get the consent of everyone who has to view them, and if some people find it offensive or upsetting, that goes against the SSC (safe, sane, consensual) or RACK (risk aware consensual kink) mantras that are the foundation of the BDSM community.

However, I think it's important to ask ourselves why these images are potentially offensive. In response to the commenter who calls the mall couple's act degrading, another commenter immediately calls them on their assumption that the leashed woman feels degraded rather than empowered. This simplistic statement also obscures the fact that there can be empowerment/pleasure/erotic thrills found in that which we are supposed to find degrading, precisely because they are roles which are considered humiliating and which we are therefore not supposed to desire. One wonders if there would have been similar outcry if the gender roles had been reversed, if a woman had been thrown out of a mall for walking a man on a leash (would that even have happened?), or if Travers Beynon was a female feathering her nest with a bevy of thong-clad men on leashes? I understand that it's not as simple as that, because we're not talking about a simple and equal switch of positions. There is no equivalent history to that of male violence against and oppression of women. There is no equivalent culture of objectification and dehumanisation of the male form. It's just not the same. People get uncomfortable seeing women in positions of sexual submission to men because it's too close to what is still sadly really going on out there at times - rape, sexual violence, sexual harassment, sexual coercion, enslavement, trafficking. But what is really, really important to remember is that the existence of the latter should not lead to the censorship or condemnation of the former. That does not help any of us. Treating content, consenting adult women like they need to be protected does not help protect the women who really are in danger. Assuming that women don't know what they really want or like and sneering oh my god how could they really be comfortable doing such a thing merely echoes the voices of misogynists who want to portray us as brainless playthings and then use that to excuse their violence against their female form. 

It's tricky, though. I'd still probably be on the side of the mall cop who thew the couple out, because I do believe in a time and a place for things, and I think it's disingenuous to imply that there isn't at least some kind of sexual element to collar/leash play. Even if it's not sexual for that particular couple, it's undeniably BDSM-themed, and definitely originates from a place that's going to be tricky to explain to kids - or, for that matter, a lot of older people (trying to explain the BDSM acronym to my mum, who's in her 60s, has been fun - she's asked me on about 6 occasions to remind her what it stands for and what it actually means). I don't subscribe to the argument that "Kids are going to see it and think that's how it's OK to treat women," because that kind of epistemic leap involves enough mental gymnastics when you're an adult, let alone for a child. Listening to The Prodigy's Firestarter at age 12 didn't make me believe that arson was a great idea, reading The Story of O at age 19 didn't make me think that it was normal or expected that a woman should run off and submit to a palace full of perverts, and no one or ten or hundred images makes a child think it's OK to treat a woman like crap. With regards to the mall couple, I do generally agree that it runs counter to BDSM ethics to inflict kink play on an unsuspecting public, although I wonder if Travers Beynon's Instagram feed comes with any kind of warning. I'd guess that the type of people who want to follow him are probably used to, ready for, or actively seeking the kind of images he puts out there. I probably have more truck with those criticising him, who are happy to reproduce his images with no kind of warning just so they can add a disapproving commentary, therefore giving more exposure to depictions of women that they claim to find demeaning.

***To read more essays on BDSM, feminism and pop culture, check out my new book "Thinking Kink," which is now out in the US and the UKAvailable in both paperback and eBook***

6 May 2015

BDSM and feminism: Kink-shaming and victim-blaming

Defending BDSM is a fraught process for feminists. On the one hand, you have misogynists and rape apologists telling you that women are just 'asking' to be assaulted, coerced, violated, beaten and raped, an insidious culture that makes any woman who enjoys consensual kink feel like she is a traitor all female victims of violence. On the other, you have (some) feminists telling you that while they support your right to choose whatever sexual practices you find pleasurable, if you like BDSM (especially as a submissive/masochist) it's probably just due to toxic patriarchal social conditioning and you should probably "work to change that" (genuine quote from a feminist discussing BDSM).

Then you have stories like the awful Jian Ghomeshi allegations that continue to emerge, whereby an alleged abuser is trying to mitigate the charges against him by claiming they took place under the umbrella of consensual kink. His accusers say differently. Rape apologists say "well, it's their word against his." Feminists say #IBelieverHer but suspect that these women are merely going to be dragged through the mill of being disbelieved, scrutinised and publicly attacked and possibly not see any justice at the end of it, because we know that's what happens to the majority of sexual assault victims. Radical feminists say What do you expect? and That's what happens when you say BDSM is OK, it becomes a cover for assault. Of course, there are quite a few radfems out there who believe that all BDSM is assault anyway, and that any woman who claims she consents to it is just brainwashed by the patriarchy into believing she actually wants to participate in this activity. 

This is where I encounter a particular logic fail with feminist criticism of BDSM. Does it not seem paradoxical to anyone else to be part of a movement that fights for women's right to be seen as full, autonomous, intelligent beings with agency while claiming that women who make sexual choices you don't agree with are too stupid to know what they're doing? As Margaret Hunt writes in her excellent "Report on a Conference on Feminism, Sexuality and Power: The Elect Clash with the Perverse," "leaps of logic like these only make sense if one really believes that adult women who choose to be the bottom in an S/M exchange are equivalent to children, while their tops are equivalent to pathological murderers." Yet it's not just the obvious corners of anti-sex work, anti-pornography, radical feminism that such viewpoints emerge. I was seriously disappointed to read this recent article by Emer O' Toole "This murder in Ireland has made me rethink my sexual practices," (The Guardian, 31st March 2015) where O' Toole claims that, despite having happily participated in BDSM previously, she now finds it difficult to reconcile with the fact a woman was murdered by a man she was in a BDSM relationship with. The tagline is "I wonder if we can continue to deny any links between kinky sex and wider societal abuse of women," the accompanying picture is a still from F**** S**** o* G*** and the caption to that claims that in that movie "a reluctant, inexperienced and infatuated young girl is controlled and beaten by a rich sadist" - read here to see why I believe that's a total mischaracterisation of that particular storyline.

From the outset of O' Toole's piece I got the sense that this was going to be yet another anti-kink article, this time more cleverly concealed than the usual feminist condemnation by the fact the author claims she is a BDSM practitioner. Sadly, I wasn't wrong. She starts by demanding that we examine "the social context that allowed a man to convince a woman that his sexual desire to stab and kill her was within the bounds of the acceptable," as if it's somehow a foregone conclusion that "social context" was what drove Graham Dwyer to murder his partner. This is followed by an epistemic leap so vast it requires a parachute to accompany it, when O' Toole says that this means we also need to pay "attention to the cultural mainstreaming of BDSM."

I probably should have stopped reading there, because my responses were already descending into teenage grunts. My response to that particular sentence was Why? and Says who? After the Columbine killings, hysterical hand-wringers told us to look to Marilyn Manson and violent films/video games for the source of the senseless violence that two 15 year-olds visited upon their classmates and teachers. Anyone with half a brain said no, I will not resort to such blind, simplistic scapegoating. Music doesn't kill people, video games don't kill people. And consensual play with ropes, floggers, gags and cuffs doesn't cause the rape and murder of women, Whenever we blame anything but the rapist for the rape, the murderer for the murder, we shift responsibility from the criminal and to something else (sadly, as happens far too often in the case of sexual assault, we shift it on to the victim). If you're a feminist, you know that short skirts, drinking and flirting don't cause rape. So why are you suddenly training your sights on PVC outfits and erotic power play and claiming that they are responsible for domestic violence and murder?

Partly because it's an interesting and trendy thing to be talking about, I guess, in light of *that film* and *that book*'s popularity, otherwise I doubt The Guardian would have commissioned O' Toole's piece, But her supposedly kink-friendly feminism is just woman-shaming and kink-shaming in a leather disguise. She says "I’m making this critique not as a kink-shamer, but as a challenge to myself: what are my reasons and justifications for inviting or accepting male sexual violence?" Again, the teenager in me responds WHO CARES? Not because I'm being rude or dismissive, but because funnily enough, as a feminist, I don't think we should be asking women to put a disproportionate amount of weight and stress upon themselves by interrogating their desires any more than anyone else does in this society. Why is it always on us as women to analyse ourselves, to scrutinise ourselves, and, according to the great Radical Feminist Handbook of How Acceptable Egalitarian Sex should be done, probably find ourselves wanting? Wherefore the privilege of the unexamined life, the unapologised-for libido? Isn't that something men enjoy? So why are we demanding that women give that up and instead flagellate ourselves (pun so very intended) for the things that give us pleasure in this so-often thankless and joyless life?

Citing one study about self-proclaimed porn addicts as evidence that porn creates a desire for violence (if you read the article, it actually only states that people who are predisposed to already enjoy looking at violent porn tend to seek it out - shocker), O' Toole accepts on one hand that kink gives people a safe space to enjoy desires that are not acceptable to release in everyday life, but then demands that we never forget that a racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist society is still sitting in the kink club with us. Does she really think that any one, apart from those in the most privileged social groups, can ever forget that fact? So why is she asking that we continue to beat ourselves over the head with guilt about the fact our BDSM practices may resemble sexist, racist, transphobic or ableist violence (I remember reading about a disabled man who liked to be called 'cripple' and dragged out of his chair and abused during kink scenes - his play may shock me and many people, but that itself is not reason enough for me to tell him he should not be doing it). What reason is there, apart from the fact that this one horrible murder has clearly made O' Toole feel guilty about her own sexual practices, to demand that we start "conscientiously examining a) the social conditions that have led to our fetishisation of female pain and submission, and b) the ways in which our sexual practices strengthen and reinforce those social conditions?" These very statements imply to me that despite claiming to be a BDSM practitioner, O'Toole has not thought very long or hard about kink or feminism. She assumes there must be a social basis for the desires of any woman who enjoys pain or submission, yet that assumption pretty much at one fell swoop disregards all female sexual agency, the existence of female switches and male submissives, and women who feel their submissive desires exist in spite of, not because of, their upbringing (quote Mollena Williams: "I was taught that being strong was the first thing you had to be, especially ... as a black woman. To be submissive, to be obedient, was NOT acceptable.")  There is also, of course, the underlying assumption that O' Toole's own viewpoint is objective and neutral, rather than coloured, as everyone's must be, by their own experiences and background. As Margaret Hunt writes, in a statement that could be applied to every radical feminist condemnation of women's sexual practices, "The argument that there is no free choice in the world is never all-inclusive. It always admits the existence of a small group which is morally superior to the corrupt mass." And that is where the logic fail happens. If O' Toole believes we are all so easily brainwashed, then how come she has magically managed to avoid the same fate as the rest of us? What exactly is it about her that makes her qualified to say that women's choice to participate in BDSM is somehow linked to, possibly even partially responsible for, one terrible murder? 

If we really want to look at things that have left women likely to be murdered by partners, we could look at: cuts to domestic violence services, slow legal machinery that mean getting injunctions and getting a violent partner removed from the family home could take days or even weeks (now thankfully much improved), victim-blaming narratives ("Why didn't she leave?" "She must have provoked him") and a culture of silence around domestic violence - the very term implies a "private matter" or "just a domestic," a language that seriously needs to change. BDSM did not kill Elaine O' Hara, and I take massive offence at O' Toole's last statement, that O' Hara's "submissive desires left her vulnerable to male aggression in the most tragic way possible." The only thing Elaine O'Hara's submissive desires left her open to, it would seem, was having her sexual preferences blamed for her death rather than her murdering partner. I'll say it again - if you wouldn't blame a short skirt for rape, then don't blame BDSM for a murder. BLAME THE MURDERER. O' Toole is criticising BDSM for somehow making it easier for abuse to go undetected - even though plenty of abuse goes undetected, excused or apologised for in the vanilla world - yet she is playing by the same rulebook of rape apologists by implying that Elaine O'Hara "left herself open" to getting murdered just because she was a submissive.

This is pretty disgusting. It's also ignorant - it disregards the many lengths submissives and masochists go to to protect themselves, precautions that many vanilla people don't bother to take when meeting someone for a date (arranging a 'check-in' call with a friend, letting someone know the name, online username, address of the person you're meeting), it assumes that "submissive as part of kink" = "weak in everyday life" (and anyone making that assumption will get a big, rude shock when they meet some actual subs) and, as I've pointed out above, it presumes that there are things women can and should be doing to protect themselves from male violence. But what could Elaine O' Hara have done? Not been married to this man? Right, well, perhaps it's marriage we should be protesting against, not BDSM. But then she might still have met this man, or dated him, or worked with him, or just walked past him one night in the street. And he still might have violently murdered her. So the best she could do is move to a remote island with no men on, right? Funnily enough, no one ever suggests that. Because that would be silly, that would be extreme. But saying that enjoying a spanking from your partner means you contributed to your own murder? That's fine to say. Even from someone who claims to be feminist, who claims to be pro-kink.

So, no, I'm not going to accept that I am obliged to examine my sexual practices and consider how they contribute to a society that blames rape and murder victims for their own violations, because I think the only thing which contributes to such a society is the belief that it's always down to women to change, behave differently and re-wire ourselves, because that belief is predicated on the mistaken idea that there's anything we can do to avoid violation, and that belief in turn - however well-meant - comes from a solid landscape of victim-blaming. So I let (read: asked) a guy pull my hair, put his hand round my throat, slam me against a wall - so the fuck what? Does it make feminists like O'Toole feel better if they know that this took place with my full consent and enthusiastic desire, while in my own home, wearing clothes of my own choice, that the wall I got slammed against belongs to me, and I paid for it with my own money, that the guy and I laughed and chatted and drank Um Bongo before and after it took place? Does it help if I add that I've never experienced any coercive sexual behaviour from any of the men I've practised BDSM with, whereas I know plenty of women who've experienced the same in vanilla relationships? Do you know, I don't care if it does - because I shouldn't be obliged to state these things just to make my preferences sound 'acceptable' to the feminist anti-kink police. Because what I do in my sex life, however unpalatable or odd it may seem to others, is not hurting anyone, and is bringing me freedom and pleasure. Fuck anyone who tries to shame me for that by using a woman's horrific death as their excuse.

***To read more essays on BDSM, feminism and pop culture, check out my new book "Thinking Kink," which is now out in the US and the UK.***

17 Apr 2015

Gender and roller derby - are we as progressive as we think we are?

There's been a lot of conversation in the roller derby community about transgender skaters this week, some of it extremely sombre in light of the suicide of a trans junior skater, Sam Taub, in the States. There has been other, more positive news regarding the acceptance and accommodation of non-gender-conforming skaters, and following the awful, needless death of Sam/Casper #57 (believed to be as a result of transphobic bullying) a lot of people vowing to create a roller derby community that is free of bullying and supportive of trans skaters.

I think this is absolutely a vow that everyone in the community needs to take - not to mention anyone in any community - but I think people need to go further than just making pledges. It's important that we really think about how assumptions about gender, and accompanying, often hidden sexism, underpin so much casual talk and thoughtless humour that take place in our sporting scene. Even in roller derby, a community that is considered more progressive than most when it comes to gender, sexuality and self-expression, I've witnessed or heard about the following:

- femaleness being used as in insult - "I'm going to treat you like a girl." "You're just a woman with a beard"
- women being criticised/mocked by other women for having body hair
- women's sexual behaviour being judged by other women
- sex between men joked about, with the implication that it's degrading (especially for the receptive partner)
- trans skaters being told they could do with some 'tips' on 'how to pass'
- a woman joking that she was going to check another skater's genitalia to make sure she was female

It can be hard to draw a line between what's an acceptable amount of twatting about in a sport that by its very nature requires a developed sense of humour and an ability to brush off insults - this is, after all, a game in which you will spend much of your time falling over, being hit and having to laugh about it. You will encounter trash talk from other teams. You will hear off-colour jokes. You'll hear a lot of smut talked, and you'll accidentally touch more bums, boobs and crotches than even an overworked healthcare professional. I can't claim that every joke, comment or action I've ever made while participating in this sport will have been devoid of the potential to offend someone. But thinking about how to create a community that makes people feel able to express their gender identity without being harassed about it, the thought occurs that maybe we all need to be pulled up sharp.

Because it's not just about outright bullying, although obviously that needs to be stamped on. But it's easy to pride ourselves on not being part of the problem if we only target the blatant types of harassment. It's too easy to pat yourself on the back and say "Well, I never call anyone 'fag', 'bulldyke' or 'tranny,' so I'm cool," or "Well I use X's correct pronouns, so I'm obviously not transphobic," but I think what really needs to happen is a deep - and potentially uncomfortable - examination of our underlying prejudices. And it's not easy. For example, several of my teen years were spent laughing at The League of Gentleman, a deeply dark UK comedy from the late 90s/early 2000s in which most of the women characters were played by men in drag. The comedy wasn't derived from this fact as such, but there was one transgender character 'Barbara the taxi driver', and pretty much all the laughs at her scenes were based around her deep voice, her chest hair and total failure to 'pass' as a woman. You never saw Barbara's face and never found out anything about her other than the fact she was trans. Some of the laughs were more directed at her passengers' obvious discomfort as Babs described the details of her transition in colourful language - "Me nipples are like bullets" - but looking back on it, it's hard to really defend the show as it was pretty much ticking every "Let's laugh at the man in a dress," box imaginable. Babs was a caricature, not a person. So, you might say, were most other characters on TLOG - a paedophile school teacher, a cursed vet, a vile Job Centre Officer, a corrupt butcher, the inbred owners of the Local Shop - but it's disingenuous to deny that the portrayal of trans people in popular culture is something of a mirror to how we view them in real life. Not long ago it was OK to make the brown-skinned person the butt of the joke in UK comedy, or the gay person. Ceasing to take the piss out of trans people has been a bit of an afterthought, and a stage we're still in the process of reaching.

I love the fact that in roller derby there are people willing to challenge the idea that a man wearing brightly coloured leggings is degrading. I like the fact that enough guys do things like this that it no longer becomes about "He might be gay" "He might be a cross dresser," or "That makes him feminine," and it just simply becomes a fact of "He has chosen to wear those leggings, and that is all that matters." (Obviously, if any of the other three statements are true, that also shouldn't be an issue - but my point is that we need to start uncoupling styles of dress from assumptions about gender or sexuality) However, there still remains, to an extent, the idea that to make a man dress like a woman is degrading. At one recent game there was a bout where, to raise money for charity, you could pay for 'extras' such as silly rule additions to the game, or forfeits for skaters. At one point, a group paid for a male skater to wear a tutu for several jams. Now, you could say that this was more about fun and fancy dress - if you're trying to look dead serious in no-nonsense black, a bright red tutu is going to shit up your game look whether you're male or female. And also, unless you are a ballet dancer or one of those women who wears fantastic 50s frocks with layers of netting underneath, you're probably going to be pretty uncomfortable wearing a tutu, whoever you are. But I would also say that it's being deliberately obtuse to say there's absolutely no connection to gender whatsoever. Roller derby started out all-female. It also, in its current incarnation (2006 or so onwards) did start with a lot of girls wearing tutus as part of the brightly coloured, fun, fishnets-n-hotpants aesthetic that the sport still retains to some extent. For a guy to don that clothing is certainly to flip the script, but what's actually meant to be funny about it? Why's it something people pay money to see? I can only think that it's because a guy having to dress as a woman is seen as degrading. And why do we think that, unless we think that being a woman is degrading? Sexism and transphobia, they're more closely linked than you might think.

My team trains co-ed and I generally really like that fact, as I think it does encourage us to see each other simply as 'skaters' rather than 'guys' and 'gals', it allows everyone to challenge themselves in different ways, and it puts paid to blanket assumptions about one gender being 'better' at any particular skill than the other. I love the fact that our skaters look and dress however they're most comfortable both at training and on bout day, that I feel comfortable say, wearing no bra on a hot training day, or changing shorts in front of a room full of people, knowing that no one is going to comment or lech or stare in a way that sadly, as a woman, you come to expect in the outside world. But sexism can appear in more subtle ways. If you believe - and I kind of do - that homophobia is the fear that men will treat you the way you treat women, then you realise that every act of anti-gay aggression isn't just about guys, it's about women too. It's about straight men saying to gay men "You act like a woman, and that is shameful." 

Put a group of guys together and you will inevitably encounter jokes about each others' sexuality. Add some close physical contact - which is unavoidable in roller derby - and it's only a matter of time before the gay jokes start. Some men, mindful of the notion that only a man truly comfortable with his heterosexuality won't mind being called gay, like to defuse this by playing 'gay chicken', a bit like the scene in Philadelphia when Denzel Washington's lawyer character, asked if the fact he's defending a gay man means he's now getting "light in the loafers" himself, responds "Yeah. I'm changing. I'm on the prowl for a man, a man like you," to the dismay of his terrified, homophobic questioner. And I've seen this employed by male skaters, and I think it's both a brave and funny way to deal with homophobes (see also "What are you, gay or something?" "Give us a kiss and I'll tell you.") And not all gay-related humour in the roller derby community that I've seen is about demeaning homosexuality, but rather challenging the discomfort of the homophobic heterosexual - such as the guy I saw caressing his own nipples in order to psyche out another male player. But I've also seen the standard gay-is-degrading, a-man-who-lets-another-man-penetrate-him-is-a-figure-of-fun jokes, and that disappoints me. And if I were a gay or trans player, it'd make me think twice about being out amongst such people. 

I think the roller derby community is still light years ahead of mainstream culture in many ways. It will never be perfect, because you can't achieve a perfect microcosm that's removed from the real world - it's just not possible. Most people seem to accept, or don't know or don't care that I'm polyamorous, kinky and highly sexed, but there'll always be the odd sniffy comment, cos that's people and that's life. Fortunately, most of it is sufficiently removed from me that I feel able to carry on being my sweet self. I'd like to think that other people whose modus operandi differs from what's demanded of them by narrow cultural expectations - be that being female and having hairy pits, or being male and enjoying wearing skirts, or being fat, or extremely skinny, or being a butch woman, a femme guy, an androgynous, gender fluid individual, wearing no make-up, wearing loads of make-up, having tattoos, piercings and crazy coloured hair - feel similarly free and safe to be themselves in the derby community in a way that they might not elsewhere in society. I just think that there's always more to do, always aspects of our beliefs, prejudices and narratives that we can be examining. Because culture never stops evolving, and the fact that the comedy I enjoyed as a teen would now be viewed as transphobic is not a sign of 'political correctness gone mad', it's a sign that people are learning to be less dickheaded. We are pretty damn good at this in the roller derby community, but we must never stop trying to be better.