15 Nov 2015

#NoDickPics - why is revenge porn so gendered?

I posted this tweet recently because, well, it just can't be said enough. Since revenge porn was made a crime in the UK in April this year, the Guardian reports that there are 8 female complainants for every male complainant. Which could make you think that women are going apeshit sending out nekkid pictures of themselves, while men are much more circumspect about the matter. But we know that's not the case: as any woman who has received an unwanted dick pic will tell you, there’s a big demographic who love sending out pictures of their genitals whether the recipients have asked for it or not, and that's straight men. For whatever reason, these men don't seem to end up shamed, humiliated, blackmailed or threatened with exposure (literally) in the way that women who dare to share explicit pictures of themselves with their lovers do. 

As plenty of women in possession of a computer or mobile phone will tell you, you don’t have to be dating, have expressed an interest in, or even made contact with a man for the explicit selfies to start flooding in. As a lesbian woman recently mentioned to me, you don’t even have to be straight; presumably chaps think the allure of their penis is so irresistible that it will “turn” gay women. As I can testify myself, even when you ARE having a sexual relationship with a man, and have explicitly TOLD him that you don't like receiving dick pics, you will get the inevitable, "I know you said you don't really like them, but..." message that warns of an incoming genital image. Two different lovers have done that to me, presuming that while all other penis images must leave me cold, theirs will be the magic one that will suddenly have me rubbing myself against my phone screen with arousal. Apparently there is no arena in which a woman's "no" will not be interpreted as "please transgress my boundaries and I'll surely find it seductive." 

I asked a friend recently "WHY do men DO THAT?" and she theorised that perhaps the men who send these shots really don't have any idea of how common it is to receive unwanted dick pics, and therefore assume they're doing something special, different and interesting. Maybe there's something in that. Maybe it really is pure personal arrogance, the thought that "everyone else's junk must surely look awful, but the image of MINE will be the one that will set this woman's loins afire!" Maybe it's an inversion of (some) men's own wishes, the idea that because they would love it if women sent pictures of our bits to them, the same must be true in reverse. Sorry chaps, but it's just not. I don't know how erotic disembodied genitals ever are, to be honest. Much as I loathe those hoary old stereotypes about "women just aren't as visually aroused as men," (and can tell you they are BS anyway) I'm also not going to lie; if I find someone attractive, I'd rather see a whole picture of all of them (faces are still nice, after all! When did people stop wanting to see those?) than a snapshot of just their junk, and better than that, would rather encounter them in person, and be able to engage all my senses in being near the whole of their person. Also, perhaps one of the reasons women don't find dick pics erotic is because we're genuinely only interested in erect penises as far as we can actually do something with them. I don't find a picture of a vibrator sexy. But I might find playing with it extremely fun. The same kind of goes for men's junk: unless it's here, in person, about to offer me some actual physical pleasure, I'm just not going to get hot and bothered by the sight of it. 

Given the proliferation of dick pics, it does speak volumes to me that the majority of people having their explicit pictures used against them are women. Yes, in an ideal world no one would be a vindictive jackass and try to shame their ex-partners for having dared to share intimate images or videos with them. But since "revenge porn" is a thing, why the hell are the victims almost always women, when there are so many men out there who could also see their jobs, relationships and reputations shattered with a quick upload from a vengeful woman (and not necessarily someone he'd even been intimate with - as we've covered earlier, there doesn't need to be any pre-existing relationship in order for for dick pics to get sent)? To me, it's at least partly a sign that we're stuck in archaic ways of thinking that dictate women should be shamed for having been sexual while it's a source of pride for men; as I say in an earlier post, revenge porn wouldn't be a thing without sexism. Because then having explicit pictures of you made public would not be considered the worst thing that could happen to a woman; it would not be considered humiliating, shameful and traumatising. And perhaps the fact that it isn't considered an equally awful fate for a man is why women are less likely to use revenge porn as a tool to get back at male exes; or perhaps it just doesn't occur to women to try and sexually shame their exes (although that seems unlikely, especially if a breakup has been acrimonious). One woman has recently been blackmailing men via threats to release nude videos of them recorded on Skype, so there is apparently enough money in men's fear of sexual exposure to get the con artists involved. I just think, if next time we encounter a story of a woman being victimised through revenge porn. every woman who's ever received an unwanted or inappropriate dick pic made it public, there'd be a sudden and rapid emptying of workplaces, family homes and pubs, as all the men who think it's OK to impose their sexuality on women ran to hide...

12 Oct 2015

Trainwrecks, woman-children and expectations of feminist gratitude

If there's anything more likely to prompt a display of wilful ingratitude, it's being told that you should be grateful for something. The meal that the seven year-old was happily eating a minute ago gets shoved to one side as soon as their parents point out that they that should be thankful for it because kids in the developing world are starving. Someone says "well, at least you have your health," when you're bitching about some other aspect of your life, and you want to say "FUCK MY HEALTH, I'M TRYING TO HAVE A GOOD OLD COMPLAIN HERE!" And of course, there's the enraging response to any woman who dares to suggest that feminism in the first world still has a way to go: "At least you're not in Saudi Arabia/Sudan/DRC/Iran, women there have it much worse."

Sometimes I feel like these expectations of gratitude (which often are really saying "Be grateful, even though the bar is set so low for what you should be grateful for that it's frankly insulting" or "Be grateful, because I'm just not interested in hearing anything else") come from inside the feminist community. Every so often a woman or TV programme or other media artefact will come along that will have everyone buzzing about what a game-changer it is. Case in point: Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that managed to feature a strong, non-sexualised female lead, pass the Bechdel test with flying colours, and feature enough guns, explosions and fast vehicles to please action movie buffs too. Yet, great as it was to see such a film emerge, it was depressing that its success was even worthy of comment. It's 2015, for fuck's sake - why should a female lead in an action movie still be noteworthy? Why should we have to be pleased that Charlize Theron's character didn't prance around in a catsuit, and that women with actual wrinkles and grey hair got some decent airtime during the movie? These things should be the very damn least we can expect from a movie, not something we should feel grateful for, and the fact we're still expected to speaks volumes to me about how feminism still has to go.

I was reminded of this reading a friend's status on Facebook this morning. Heather Carper, who amongst various talents is a social justice activist (and someone who provided some invaluable input to my book) wrote:
I officially don't get the point of Amy Schumer. I understand that being "fat by Hollywood standards" is a thing, and being blunt about being sexually voracious is potentially an anti-slut-shaming/ fat-shaming thing. But ultimately it mostly feels like things that should have been scandalous/gross/ funny when we were in Junior High. . .
This echoes my own thoughts on the matter. Now, granted, just because we're all women/feminists doesn't mean every woman's work is going to be our taste. Perhaps Schumer's comedy is just not the type my friend and I enjoy. That doesn't make it bad, or anti-feminist, and she has every right to be putting it out there and enjoying her success. But the fact that Schumer is being held up by the media, and by many feminists (she was Ms. magazine's cover star this summer) as a trailblazer for women is the part that really doesn't sit right with me. 

I went to see Trainwreck, the Judd Apatow film starring Schumer, a few months ago, and let's just say it's a good thing it was a free screening because I thought it was such a poor film that I would have been angry had I spent any money on it. It wasn't funny. It wasn't feminist. It centred around a fairly dislikeable, one-dimensional, self-absorbed white woman who happened to be slightly chunkier than the average Hollywood actress. The latter aspect was about as feminist or trailblazing as the film got, because otherwise it seemed like an attempt to shoehorn every possible cliche about sad spinsters into 120 minutes. It showed Amy being desperate for love, having various unfunny sexual mishaps, and eventually changing herself (and dressing up in a "sexy" cheerleader's outfit - WTAF?) to try and please a man. Oh, and it was kind of homophobic too, Paging Emma Goldman, I think we lost our feminism somewhere...

Now the defence of this is that, if we've truly achieved equality, films should show women as equally flawed and capable of making mistakes as men. But that's not really what was going on here. Rather than suggesting that women can be imperfect and still be OK, the film actually just reinforced a load of conservative cliche about women and relationships: as Nicholas Barber pointed out in The Independent, 
Amy’s hedonistic streak must be erased so she can end up with her Prince Charming, Bill Hader’s clean-cut doctor. Transformed and reformed, she ultimately gives away all her alcohol and drug paraphernalia and confesses her envious admiration for the married-with-children sister she once mocked. . .Yuck. For a film that spends so much time subverting romcom conventions, it’s amazing how lovingly it ends up embracing them.
Women still aren't allowed to be imperfect without them ending up "fixed" in some way - via a makeover or a man. While it'd be a great start to see more body shapes like Schumer's on screen, the behaviour of her character doesn't seem particularly rebellious, any more than say, Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham's character in Girls, whose main flaw is her mind-boggling self-absorption.

This, as Heather pointed out on her status today, is a privilege only afforded to some women, namely white, middle-class women. Being inefficient and immature is not a risk many women can take. Writing about the new trope of "woman-child" as embodied by characters such as Hannah, Amy and Annie from Bridesmaids in the current issue of Bitch magazine, Sarah Sahim says  
In Western society, people of color must often work several times as hard for the same amount of success and recognition as a white person, often at the price of cultural assimilation. (And then watch while white mediocrity is hailed as an edgy new stereotype). . .If a woman of color was presented as a woman-child [in a TV show], all-too-familiar racist rhetoric would start to play out. A young woman of color who slacks off at work and smokes pot would be dismissed as lazy and ungrateful.
Heather wrote something similar on her status today, pointing out that the risks are simply different; Amy Schumer may still run the risk of being slut-shamed for talking graphically about sex, but she won't be "presumed a wanton babymaker that must be controlled because of your skin colour." I also agree that the individualistic philosophy that interprets one woman having the platform to publicly caricature her sex life as somehow sex-positive progress for all women needs taking down. How exactly is an awkward sex scene between Schumer's character and her dim boyfriend (who is apparently closeted gay - someone explain to me why that's meant to be funny rather than just horrible?) a step forward for womankind?

This brings me to a point I think can never be made enough - because there is still such a dearth of films where women are the default characters, not just helpmeets for the male characters, not just a romantic mirror for the male lead to see himself in, not completely absent and not just a token Smurfette (Yo, Sicario!), there is still such a big fuss made when films like Trainwreck and comedians like Schumer come along. We fall over ourselves to call them feminist and progressive when, judged against any objective standards, they're actually pretty poor. No one looks at Mad Men's lead character Don Draper in all his conflicted, repressed, cowardly, philandering glory and says "He's such a complex and flawed man - what a great MALE character," because they don't need to - male characters are considered the default. No one holds Jon Hamm up as a fantastic role model and ground breaker for men for playing such a character. Men aren't expected to be grateful that such an actor or role exists. Because it's just presumed that they will exist. Of course male actors will get to play complicated and richly painted roles. And of course their characters won't be held up as something all men should be grateful for. Wow, Seth Rogen and Zach Galifanakis have done SO MUCH for the right of men to be chubby and bearded and still appear in movies, haven't they? Yet no one tells men to be grateful for that. Because  actually, they kinda had that right all along.

So, good luck to Amy, Lena, Sarah Silverman and all the other female writer and comedians out there putting their energies into depicting women who don't have their shit together. But don't confuse the fact that they're able to get their work out there (which does spell progress) with their work being progressive (which it generally really isn't). And don't tell me to be grateful for their success. I'll be grateful when the bar isn't set so low any more that I stop being expected to fawn over any successful woman just because she's a woman, rather than having the luxury to stop consider whether her work is any good and whether it uplifts other women, or just her own self-image and bank balance.

3 Sep 2015

Motherhood, Work and Marissa Mayer

"I don't think that I consider myself a feminist. . . I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable. . . but I don't have, I think, the militant drive and the chip on the shoulder that comes with that."

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo

It's easy to portray feminism as humourless, whiny and unreasonable, and subscribe to the philosophy of ruthless individualism that says "I'm alright, ergo any other woman complaining is just being pathetic." There's probably no greater example of this when a wealthy, educated white woman implies that feminism is for women with a "chip on their shoulder." Or perhaps there is - when this woman announces she only intends to take as much "limited time off" after giving birth to twins as she did with her last pregnancy (a fortnight) and "work throughout" her pregnancy.

The fact said woman is expected to make a statement at all about her plans demonstrates exactly why we still need feminism - did anyone ask Mark Zuckerburg how he'll combine family and work after the recent announcement that his wife is pregnant, or how much time he intends to take off for paternity leave? Have they fuck. The fact one woman is being held up and scrutinised as the ultimate example of how to combine motherhood and work also demonstrates why we need feminism - because we still treat people who manage to be CEOs and mothers as special and interesting cases, rather than the norm. In the rush to condemn Mayer for behaving like a robot, for shitting on other women, for making the need for maternity leave seem unreasonable and indulgent, I haven't seen anyone ask whether perhaps her husband intends to take a more involved role in parenting their twins, freeing her up to return to work. The focus remains on women's actions, and on finding them wanting. Until that changes, feminism remains necessary - even if those who enjoy the gains of feminism while publicly distancing themselves from the movement would like to pretend otherwise.

Nowhere is it more apparent that the work of feminism remains in its infancy than the battleground of motherhood and work. As someone who intends to remain childfree for life, I often feel like I've gotten off easy; I'll never have to endure any of these shocking experiences, from being insidiously squeezed out of my job, to simply being sacked or made redundant on completely specious grounds, all for the crime of trying to combine mothering with work. True, I'll still be looked at as a womb on legs by many employers, and suffer the resulting discrimination - as one respondent says, "It’s obvious employers don’t want to hire women who are in their 30s out of fear they’ll disappear on maternity leave," and several other report that employers aren't shy of asking women about their plans for marriage and motherhood, even though this strikes me as illegal under equality legislation. However, by not having children, I do feel like I'm refusing to give my reproductive labour to a society, and in particular a work culture, that will only punish me for doing so - and that feels like a powerful statement. One I should not need to make if, as some would seductively like to persuade us, feminism's work is truly done and complaining about pregnancy related discrimination is just self-indulgent "negativity," as Marissa Mayer seems to imply.

Ultimately, Marissa Mayer can, should and will do what the hell she wants, and quite rightly. I do question how much of a "choice" it is to take two weeks' maternity leave in a culture that prizes long hours, presenteeism, and inflexible working as signs of commitment, but I also applaud Mayer for having at least extended decent parental leave options to Yahoo employees, when the USA is notoriously behind the rest of the world in terms of lacking any statutory parental pay. Surely the rules affecting employees down on the ground are of far more import (and will hopefully set a precendent for other tech companies) than the choices of one extraordinarily privileged woman? How Meyer intends to manage such short maternity leave is up to her, but one can bet it's not without a hell of a lot of support, and much of it being the kind that money can buy. Most women can't afford a nanny, and don't live in a household where one (or even both) partners can afford to take time off to care for a newborn, and it's their struggles we should be focusing on instead. Marissa Mayer is a red herring; let's stop criticising her life choices and start critiquing the culture that still punishes women for daring to try and combine motherhood and work, banish the phrase "trying to have it all" to the dustbin of history where it should long have been slung (has ANYONE ever accused a man who's a father and an employee of trying to "have it all"?!),  and  promote working policies that allow everyone, regardless of gender, to comfortably adjust to the hurricane that is the arrival of a newborn.

21 Aug 2015

Sex work, writing work, care work, unpaid work

Online media has recently been full of news stories and opinion pieces on Amnesty International's decision to take a stance on the decriminalisation of sex work. The debate itself is so polarised and seems to result in such deep entrenchment on both sides that I've no interest in getting into it here and now - and anyway, I doubt there's anything I could say that hasn't already been covered elsewhere in the media. However, what I want to think about is exactly that: the way the Western media (read: UK and US outlets) deal with this issue. Watching Amnesty debate being vehemently fought over by pro- and anti-decriminalisation advocates on social media, feminist blogs and in major news outlets, it occurs to this feminist that the way the issues surrounding sex work are reported remain deeply retrogressive.

Every piece I read on the subject, whether pro- or anti-decrim, was accompanied by a picture of an anonymous woman, clad in a short skirt, high heels or other revealing/"sexy" clothing, standing on a dark street corner, leaning into a car, or on display in a window (Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, Daily Mail, CNN). Articles were by human rights lawyers, prominent feminists or Amnesty staff, but the voices of sex workers were conspicuous by their absence, unless a pseudonymous victim of abuse was being interviewed, usually giving graphic details of violence and sexual coercion. MSBNC interviewed a district attorney, a professor, and a writer on Melissa Harris-Perry's show, but no one with any direct experience of the industry.

This is where media outlets on both sides of the debate fail hard. The voices of the women (and men) whose lives and work are being batted about like so many feminist footballs are either completely omitted, or if they are included, it's as footnote to the voices of "real" experts (read privileged academics, head of NGOs, Hollywood actors), or in order to bolster the already established opinions of the writer/campaigner.

In the case of anti-decrim op-eds, these usually dismiss the validity of the term sex work because the writer deems all sex work exploitation, and yet they often ask that women in this industry re-exploit themselves by detailing their horrendous experiences. I've read more graphic, bordering-on-pornographic, tales of both real and imagined sexual and physical abuse in anti-sex work articles than I have anywhere else ("imagined" meaning when the writer details the hypothetical horrendous acts that they believe women will be forced to submit to if sex work is decriminalised, and yes I've read this kind of thing). While I appreciate that the authors are trying to appeal to what they see as the much-needed compassion of the reader, their tactics come across as not dissimilar from that of anti-abortion advocates - cheap, nasty shock tactics that take real stories of women's lives and then use them to bolster the profile of individuals already privileged enough to have a platform. Feminists often decry PETA for their abysmal uses of the female body in its ad campaigns, rightly pointing out that, whatever your cause, throwing women under the bus is never an acceptable way to get attention for it. Yet by demanding a constant supply of horror stories from women who were victims of trafficking, violence or coercion in the sex industry, anti-decrim feminists are doing much of the same. As Melissa Gira Grant writes in her book Playing The Whore, supporters of the abolition of sex work claim that sex work objectifies its operatives, yet  “it’s objectification too, when these “supporters” represent sex workers as degraded, as victims and as titillating object lessons.”

Pro-decrim articles have not necessarily been any more enlightened in their tactics. The media outlets featuring them remained happy to use usually decapitated images of scantily clad women's bodies as shorthand for sex work. I've never seen one of these pictures accompanied by a caption "posed by models," so I assume these women are real sex workers and wonder if any of them were actually asked for permission to be photographed? As Gira Grant also writes in her book, “The portrait of street-level prostitution. . . as it’s on display in media accounts – a woman, most often a woman of color, standing in a short skirt and leaning into a car or pacing toward one – is a powerful yet lazily constructed composite." The Guardian published a sole article in favour of decriminalisation, written by a (pseudonymous) sex worker and still accompanied by the requisite photograph of two women in short skirts on a dark street. This was the only article by an actual sex worker which I read on this subject, despite dozens of op-eds on it appearing in major media outlets over the last few weeks. 

The fact the sex worker in question doesn't use her real name shows how stigmatised her job remains - thanks in no small part to this bizarre media prurience surrounding sex work which means we view the industry as full of shadowy, headless figures in thigh-high boots, but containing no actual real people - and I suppose it's not surprising that there are few others like her willing to come forward and actually pen a piece for a major newspaper, given the risks of being outed, the amount of abuse she's likely to face, and the fact that if she is pro-decrim, she will be expected to defend her job to a degree that people in few other industries are obliged to. Nonetheless, I'm glad she wrote it, and for an outlet that pays, too. Nothing gets my goat more than people being asked to provide written content for free by newspapers who pay their staff writers yet come up with BS excuses like "we don't have a budget for online content" or "we only pay professional writers;" and sadly, I see it more and more. The Guardian social care blog asks carers (yes, us badly paid, disrespected, overworked and underappreciated souls who evacuate bowels and wash bodies and are treated like disposable monkeys for it) to write about their experiences, but as far as I know, doesn't pay for the privilege. I'm a writer and a care worker. Want to know why I do the latter job? Because the former doesn't pay enough. Needless to say, I don't write for anyone for free these days, and I'm sure as shit not going to indulge in the supreme irony of giving my time and skill to write about how badly paid care work is, for an outlet that won't pay me for that writing.

In a similar spirit, as Melissa Gira Grant documents, journalists are happy to ask sex workers not just to provide their stories for free, but also in her case - as a journalist who has done sex work in the past - they pretty much expect them to help write their pieces. In this great blog post, which reflects many of my own gripes about being expected to work for free, Gira Grant refers to various instances where journalists have expected her to function as a seam of sex work anecdotes that they can mine at any time - such as when a journalist asked her to critique his article after she declined to be interviewed by him, or when a feminist emailed Gira Grant less than twelve hours before the programme she was making aired, seeking to “pick her brain,” or when "a TV producer wanted me to introduce her to sex workers from Craigslist so she could tell their stories, [telling] me “It’s not work I’m asking you to do, it’s an introduction, and a way to shed light on an important and under-reported issue.” And, quite rightly, Melissa Gira Grant tells them all where to get off.

Gira Grant states: "I am on my own kind of strike from doing anyone else’s work on sex work. I will not answer your requests. I will not give you interviews. I will not be a token on your program. I will not direct you to resources. I will not introduce you to subjects. I will not do work you are paid to do."

It seems the media is only interested in sex workers as long as it can use them for a bit of easy, quick titillating clickbait, detail their horror stories or relentlessly perky happy hooker tales (like this piece by a worker in one of Nevada's legal brothels, incidentally written for Independent Voices, another outlet that doesn't pay its writers), or as Gira Grant finds, basically ask them to do journalists' jobs for them.

Wherever we stand on the issue of sex work, coverage of it needs to be held to higher journalistic standards if it is going to be reported on in any meaningful and feminist way. This means journalists doing their jobs, and if necessary, letting those who actually know firsthand what they're talking about take centre stage, and be acknowledged and remunerated for telling their stories. This means editors thinking of something other than the laziest possible accompanying photos when they encounter an article on sex work (as someone who keeps their blog relatively image free, I doubt this will ever be realistically considered, but I do wonder exactly why any accompanying image is necessary at all in many cases - it seems like a pretty feminist act to refuse to reduce the sex work debate to pictures of women's body parts). This means any news outlets that pays its writers can damn well pay everyone who writes for them, journalist or not, if it wants them to create content for what is, after all, a profit-making enterprise, and ditto interviewees or sources who are helping create that content. Til then, all we're going to get is more cliches, no meaningful discourse, just soundbites, dogma and the voices of real people muffled and stepped over by those with an axe to grind or an article to pitch.

***I recommend any freelancer who is sick of being asked to work for free joins this group***

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!