All the “-isms” and Why They Matter.

“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”

– Scott WoodsScottWoods2748_small

This quote has spent the past several days circulating among my Facebook friends, and it in combination with some internet infighting has made me really want to address the understanding and use of “-isms.” Racism, Sexism, Cissexism, are all examples.

(It’s somewhat unfortunate that the above quote regards racism, because that is the one “-ism” that doesn’t follow the sort of language pattern I want to discuss. But, the description of the term as it is can be applied to most any “-ism.”)

There is an important actual and linguistic difference between individualized and institutionalized marginalization. Individual marginalization has terms like misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, etc. It refers to the ways in which a person or discrete small group of individuals are hateful to another. The “-isms” refer to institutionalized, internalized, ways of thinking and behaving that marginalize others without any conscious intent to do so. Here are some examples:

If a man tells a woman he’s going to rape her because she refused to accept his romantic advances, he’s a misogynist. If a person with no ill will toward women honestly believes women are “just different” and that’s why women are often less successful in science and math, they are being sexist.

If someone calls a trans* person a “trap,” or a “tranny,” they’re being transphobic. The fact that people actually feel the need to legislate the use of “correct” bathrooms because they’re really concerned about how genitalia align with bodily functions, they’re being cissexist. Or, for a more “polite” example, when every fucking interview with a trans* person crashes and burns because the interviewer asks about the interviewee’s genitalia, those interviewers are being cissexist.

Waving a sign that says “God Hates Fags” is homophobic. When a gay couple gets married and everyone legitimately wonders who’s going to wear the dress vs the tux (no matter the gender of the couple), that is heterosexist, though in this case the term more frequently used is heteronormative.

Telling a polyamorous person that she is “cheating” on her husband with her other partner(s) is polyphobic (I’m not 100% sure that’s a word, but it really ought to be). When filling out a medical form regarding sexual history, and there’s only one space for a “primary” or “main” partner, that’s monogamism.

And, as I mentioned at the beginning, racism is more difficult to parse out because there is only one term. If someone calls a black person the n-slur, they’re being racist.The appropriation of the cultural mores of another race because you think it’s fun and will make you cool, is racist. The prosecution of drug charges that results in an overwhelmingly black prison population, is also racist. The differences in behaviors and intentions all just have one word, and frankly throw my whole argument out of whack. But, it wouldn’t be the English language if a few words didn’t follow the rules.

The upshot of all this, as with any of my commentary about marginalized groups, is to check your privilege before you say something. No, you might not be transphobic, you might not be homophobic, you might not be polyphobic or misogynist or a hateful person of any sort. But, the insidious thing about “-isms” is that they can thrive without hate. They can be perpetuated without malice or intention. As Woods states, “It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you.” Whether or not we “like” black people, gay people, women, etc., we still view those who are different from ourselves in particular ways that can very easily become marginalizing.

If you are not a member of the particular marginalized group you’re discussing or interacting with, you’re liable to fall into an “-ism” trap because that’s just the way we’re brought up to think. Woods refers to this trap as a vast ocean we’re floating in, “a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it.” The privileged perspective that gives rise to the many “-isms” is an integrated parts of our lives that we have to consciously and constantly resist in order to truly support those who are not privileged in the same ways we are.

This last bit about “in the same ways we are” is important. A lot of people think they can’t be marginalizing because they are marginalized. Being poly does not make you magically a queer ally, being trans* does not make you immune from racism, etc. Every group carries unique sets of privileges that allow them to marginalize other groups. 

There are already a lot of resources addressing how to deal with privilege and be a true ally, and I don’t think I need to become one more. The simple point I’m trying to make is that a lot of us think that just because we aren’t hateful people means that we automatically do not marginalize others, and that’s simply untrue. Not being hateful is a solid baseline, but to work our way out of the deeply ingrained “-isms” that teach us what is normal and what is other, is an ongoing and difficult process. Though, I would argue, it is a necessary one to be an actualized person and full member of humanity at large.

 

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Who Is “Undateable:” How Pop Comedy is Feeding Misogyny

Undateable book coverThere is a new comedy playing on NBC entitled “Undateable.” The program is based on a book of the same name by Ellen Rakieten and Anne Coyle. I confess, I have not yet watched the show, but the idea that this book – which I have read – could be turned into a TV show, gave me serious pause. The book is a list of traits which, the author assures, will make a man completely undesirable to women. Most of these traits are incredibly shallow and completely arbitrary. To fit oneself to the author’s ideal of manhood would be challenging at best, but more likely personally limiting, stifling personal expression in order to make him ideal mate material. For example: it’s unacceptable to have body piercings or multiple tattoos, but it’s also unacceptable to wear tube socks or fanny packs (don’t be too edgy or too wholesome). It’s unacceptable to go shirtless in public or to go to conventions (don’t be too confident or too nerdy). It’s unacceptable to try to look rich if you aren’t, to wear the wrong hairstyle on your head OR your body, to read on the toilet (no, really), work out too much – or not enough, own the wrong pet (which apparently is anything but a dog), and the list goes on. Frankly, from reading this book I can’t imagine what kind of man IS dateable.

There’s a point to this, let me get there.

This new TV show inspired a lovely (as-always) “article” from Buzzfeed entitled “11 Signs You are Definitely in the Friendzone.” The entire notion of “the friendzone” is one I keep hoping will be abandoned because we’ve all finally figured out that it’s the product of whiny misogynists with a massive sense of entitlement. The problem is, the innate misogyny in the entire cultural notion of “the friendzone” is constantly being softened by articles like this that make it look like a simple experience we can all relate to and smile at together.

The Friendzone is not a simple or a benign concept. There are generally two states of existence labeled as “the friendzone.” First is the one propagated by popular media, the amusing shell we like to pretend misogynists are referring to when they lament being “friendzoned.” This is the simple, common, experience where you have two people in a platonic relationship where one person has unrequited romantic desire for the other. We’ve all been there. Either the person with the crush gets over it and then it’s just friendship, or the person with the crush can’t handle the discomfort and the relationship ends. Pretty simple. By that definition, I’ve been “in the friendzone.” But that’s not some classification I was stuck in because I’m not good enough dating material, or because the other person thought they were too good for me, or anything like that. We were just…friends. That’s it. And this simple go-to definition is all most of the world pictures when we hear those words.

The second definition of the friendzone is the complicated, dangerous, insidious one that is perpetuated by the aforementioned whiny misogynists. It’s where a “nice guy” has a crush on a girl. So he becomes her friend, or at least behaves as such, in the hopes of it leading to a romantic relationship. When it doesn’t, for any reason, he believes he has been cheated, that he has put in the time and effort required for repayment in romance and/or sex. He feels slighted by her lack of interest, and because he’s sure that he’s “nice,” that he’s “the good guy,” he begins to believe that girls only like “assholes.” In his mind, this is obvious, because if he is nice, and she doesn’t like him then clearly she doesn’t like people that are nice.

That idea, that girls only like assholes, can go bad in two ways (yes, I know, I’m branching and branching, but they’ll come back together in the end I promise). The first is that the guy decides to BECOME an asshole. This gives rise to pick-up artists and RedPillers who objectify and assault women because they believe that it’s the best way to get laid. If they don’t take what they want (often in the form of sexual assault) they believe that they’ll never get it. The worst part is, in a literal sense, these strategies work. Because yes, if someone gets a girl drunk, or psychologically manipulates her, he might wind up having sex with her. The fact that this sex is barely consensual at best doesn’t matter. It still counts as a success, and thus the man can tell his buddies “See? I told you women only want assholes. When I was nice I never got laid, but now I do.”

The other end of the spectrum is groups like PUAHate, the forum frequented by Elliot Rodger before his shooting spree. This group seethes against the women who won’t have sex with them. They believe they deserve women’s bodies, and that women are simply awful for not sharing. An article on Jezebel.com described them most aptly:

“PUAHate, as other outlets have discussed, is an offshoot of the Pick Up Artist community populated by men (and, allegedly, women) who believe Pick Up Artistry to be a sham waste of money not because women are more than “targets” and “prey,” but because women are fucking hopeless cunts who can’t be convinced to give nice guys a chance. Women, argue PUAHaters, will only go out with good looking alpha males and would never look twice at anyone who isn’t a musclebound dreamboat with a six-figure income, and most men will never be those things, and so the world is against them and life is unfair.”

If your head works like mine, you’re starting to see the branches come back together. If not, here goes.

PUAHaters, who gave rise to a multiple murderer, believe that women are only interested in a very narrow category of men, an unattainable ideal, that they can never achieve.

The book Undateable, written by women, is describing the exact, very narrow category of manhood that has permission to be with women.

In short: pop culture, you’re not helping.

I’m not blaming this book for misogyny. That would be insane.

What I am saying is that when pop media insist on perpetuating the stereotype that women only desire this very specific, “ideal,” type of man, existing misogynists feel justified in their hatred. When a misogynist has formed his opinion that women will never want him because he wears the wrong clothes, has the wrong hobbies, has the wrong body, or is just plain “too nice,” he needs to be disillusioned, not shown examples showing him that he’s right.

I am not failing to acknowledge that this is comedy. I know this. But comedy needs to take on stereotypes, satirize them, and thereby tear them down. The book Undateable, instead, laughs at the “undateable” men, rather than the prejudicial attitudes that determined these qualities to be negative in the first place. I hoped that the book’s conclusion would at least provide me with some hope. That it would say “yeah, we’re saying these men are undateable, but hey to each their own, it’s really not our place to judge anyone.” That’s not what I got. What I actually got was additional mockery with a splash of self-objectification (“Lose the nasty flavor saver and go pull some ass.” PULL some ASS? Really, ladies? Do you want the man you’re dating to think of you as “some ass” that he’s “pulling?”).

This is here solely to prove that despite my long absence, I am not dead, and this is not a ghost writer.

This is here solely to prove that despite my long absence, I am not dead, and this is not a ghost writer.

Again, I am not contending that this sort of material, or the jocular attitude toward the “friendzone,” or any other misguided forms of comedy are the source of the deep misogyny found in PUAHate, the MRA, or The Red Pill. But when misogyny has become as widespread and dangerous as Elliot Rodger has proven it to be, I truly believe it is the responsibility of every media outlet, from the news, to comedy, to this dinky little blog in a corner of the internet, to make itself part of the solution. The ongoing refusal of the aforementioned media to acknowledge the depth of the problem, and therefore to deny responsibility for creating a solution, is what I find deplorable.

No Means No: A Feminist Fantasy.

In the fight against rape culture, many feminists feel we need to work beyond the “no means no” catchphrase toward a more cooperative, positive view of consent, where consent means “yes” instead of just “not no.” I agree with that idea, but I don’t think it’s time to leave behind “no means no,” yet.

Many folks, on an intellectual level, acknowledge that “no means no,” but there are certain parts of our minds that say “well, but maybe it doesn’t this time.” The incredibly sad reason for that is that sometimes that part of the mind is right. There are still people out there who use “no” as a tool for manipulation, for whom “no” is a tease that means “maybe” or means “work harder.” It sucks, but they’re out there. And as long as “no” is used to mean anything other than “I don’t want this to happen, please stop,” we can’t abandon “no means no” for greener, more enlightened pastures.

So, here’s my fantasy. Let’s imagine a scenario, where one person is attempting to use “no” to sexually manipulate their partner. Heck, let’s roleplay it out.

Person A: Hey, do you want to come upstairs?

Person B: (blushing, using engaging body language) No, I don’t know if I should.

Person A: Ok, well, have a good night. (Exits)

Here’s what just happened: person A, the sexual initiator, can tell that person B is being manipulative and deceptive, but has accepted the “no” answer and terminated the encounter. B is probably going to be really annoyed by this. S/he’s going to try to chew out A later, and A is going to say  “but you said no, and I took you at your word.” Thus B will learn not to do that any more.

This is my fantasy, and I say fantasy because I know that for most people instilling a lesson about consent and rape culture is less important than the immediate opportunity for a sexual encounter. But when “no” sometimes really does mean “keep going,” how are we supposed to teach people the universal statement that “no means no?” The lesson becomes disingenuous. So, in addition to teaching people that as the sexual initiators “no means no,” we need to also teach clear communication of consent, and to never use “no” unless you really mean it.

“Nobody Wants To See That!”

“There are some people you just don’t want to see naked.”

This is a phrase I’ve heard bandied about so often that it almost seems like a truism, especially when I hear it from the mouths of people that I value and respect. These are, generally speaking, good open-minded people, and so when they say something that sounds so obvious, the first response I think is “well, yeah.”

Then I thought about it.

And I thought about what it meant. I thought “is this true?” and “is this shaming?” The answers were no, and yes.

The first question: Is this true? For me, no it isn’t. There is not a single body on this planet that I wouldn’t love to see with enough confidence, freedom from fear, and shamelessness to be exposed openly. If every person I saw walking down the street every day was nude without fear of reprisal or violence, without self-consciousness about their sexual appeal, and without the baffling moral notion that to be exposed is to somehow disrespect oneself, I’d be downright thrilled. I would look at each and every body with respect and pleasure, and there is no person on this earth that I would not want to see that way.

The second question is, I think, more important because it applies more to the rest of the world that doesn’t have my desire to liberate naked bodies. “Is this shaming?” Absolutely yes, and I think that’s a question that more of us need to ask ourselves every time we open our mouths. The shaming question goes back to an issue I’ve already tackled, the fact that sexuality and nudity are needlessly conflated, and that a body that is not sexually desirable is considered repugnant. “There are some people you just don’t want to see naked,” translates to, “If a body is not sexually appealing to me, it ought to be covered up.” There are many bodies in this world that are not sexually appealing to me – in fact, I’d venture to say most of them – but I have no right to expect my sexual preferences to control others’ bodies. Nor should those preferences affect the way others feel about their bodies.

So, you know. Think about what you say. Don’t say shaming crap. If you think you might possibly be saying shaming crap, imagine someone was saying it about you. If that hurts your feelings, then it’s shaming. Don’t say it.

How to Acknowledge Privilege

As I have stated from the start in this blog, I find myself in a position of tenuous balance between privilege and otherness. On the one hand I am white, cis-gendered, educated, and middle class. On the other, I am a woman, queer, and poly. This means that I frequently find myself contemplating what privilege really means, and how to appropriately acknowledge the ways in which I view the world from a privileged position.

A lot of folks balk at the idea of privilege, reacting as though acknowledging their personal privilege means abandoning the value of their opinions. This is a common view among the MRA (men’s rights activist) people: they reject the notion of their own privilege because they believe acknowledgment will require them to always be wrong. Thus, they insist they are not privileged, and rather trot out all their personal insecurities as weak arguments against it.

On the opposite side, which is where I sometimes find myself sliding, there is the overreaction to one’s own privilege that results in a fear of expressing opinions outside of my personal purview. I will sometimes completely avoid weighing in on any subject which I can’t address from experience, because I believe that my personal privilege colors my opinion enough to be not only invalid but potentially insensitive. For example, I would be happy to absorb, but resist ever engaging in, a conversation about trans* visibility, because I believe my cis-gendered perspective is incapable of presenting a valid statement on the subject.

That fear is not actually legitimate. I can educate myself and participate in discourse on subjects that I do not personally experience. And I can do so without disowning my experience of privilege. The how is a little tricky for me.

For those just tuning in to the world of useful life knowledge, when I talk about privilege I am referring to the ingrained perspective on the world which a person gains when they are in a normative position for their culture. For example, here in the US, and particularly in the Midwest where I make my home, the perspective on gender of a person who is cis-gendered is a privileged perspective. Sexuality for a heterosexual, race for a white person, religion for a Christian, etc.

My mind both rails against and shudders at my personal experience of privilege. Sometimes I feel like I should be allowed to relate to all oppressed groups, because I fall into several categories of otherness myself. The pride in me says, “I’m not normative, I’m alternative in all these ways, there’s no way I’m privileged.” Other times I see all the ways in which my privilege blinds me, and I just want to apologize to everyone, or find some way to eliminate my privilege, which of course isn’t possible without completely chucking out all cultural norms.

There is a balance to be struck. The experience of privilege can’t be eliminated or ignored. Most of us live with it in one way or another. At the same time, we shouldn’t hide from any subject on which we have a privileged perspective, because increasing our understanding will allow us to participate in important issues, even if they’re not ones we ourselves experience. I want to be a positive force for things like trans* issues, but I can’t do that if I believe my privileged position makes me incapable of it.

The fact is, privilege is ok. It’s not something I chose – I didn’t one day decide which normative molds I was going to fit and which ones I wasn’t. Privilege is not something to treat with shame or fear. It’s something to acknowledge openly, and factor into my daily experiences, seeing the ways in which it colors my opinions without feeling the compulsion to immediately negate those opinions.

I’m sure that for anyone with a background in women’s studies, queer theory, gender studies, etc, this whole post has been a 101-level snore. Personally, I have no academic background on these subjects. I gather my knowledge through blogs, articles, and experience. So sometimes my revelations are really a little bit basic. But I hope that for some folks, what I have to say can be as helpful as it is for me to get it written down.

How to be Your Favorite Barista’s Favorite Customer

Yeah, I know, this has nothing to do with feminism, polyamory, queer culture, or anything deep and intellectually hip. But, I think it’s the sort of thing a lot of people might enjoy a free primer on, especially if you’re that person that thinks the barista is cute but has no idea how to chat him/her up.

There are a lot of great bloggers out there who have written a lot of great pieces on how not to be a douchebag in a restaurant or coffee shop. And those offer a fantastic baseline. But if you want to be the customer that the staff goes “Where’s so-and-so, I haven’t seen him/her in awhile?” (and says it with regret rather than celebration), there aren’t a ton of guides for it. So I’m writing one.

1: Tip Generously.

Yes, this seems incredibly obvious, but I’d also like to point out that everyone’s idea of “generously” is different. You don’t have to break the bank and drop a $5 tip every time you buy a $4 latte. But do it the first time. If you really want to, do it again once every month or two, but that first $5 bill in the jar is guaranteed to get the employee’s attention. Afterward, tip with paper money, every time. The people who think that only their change goes in the jar often leave $.08 tips on their $3.92 lattes, and those people suck. The ones that always put paper in the jar, we see you and we love you.

Note: this obviously also applies to the write-in credit card tips.

2: Speak Kindly

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No, I don’t wear this to work every day. Yes, I did actually work in it.

Sometimes, things go wrong. Maybe it’s like an hour before our weekly delivery comes in and we’re out of all the things. That sucks. You’ve been denied the almond milk for your latte, the bacon for your breakfast sandwich, and we have no chocolate chip scones so you’re stuck with a blueberry muffin. These things are frustrating.

Here’s the thing. Chances are good that we’re just as frustrated as you are. My life runs most smoothly when a customer rattles of a list of things they want, and all I have to say is “I’ll bring it right out to you.” So, when you’re in a situation where you’re not getting what you want, think for a minute if the problem is likely to be the barista’s fault. If it isn’t don’t give him/her a hard time about it. It won’t make your bacon magically appear, and it will make the barista hate you forever. Seriously, one bad-mouthing and the staff WILL hate you FOREVER.

Additionally, I’m very happy to make whatever weird concoction you want to drink/eat, and am able and willing to work off-menu for you. But if you act like that’s something you’re entitled to, rather than a favor I’m gladly giving, I won’t want to do it any more. So, be kind.

And, you know what? Sometimes you’ve had a bad day. I get that. Sometimes I’ve had a bad day too, but I’m still kind to my customers because I’m obligated to be. You don’t have that obligation, but if you bring your bad day to my counter, I’ll remember you, and not fondly. If I didn’t cause your bad day, don’t take it out on me. The customer who always smiles back at me when I smile at him/her, that’s the one I love.

3: Jog My Memory

I really really want to remember the name and favorite beverage of every customer that enters my shop more than once a week. I don’t. And if I don’t remember what you order, it’s not because I don’t like you. It’s because there are many regulars, who all want different things, and especially if you like something complicated it takes me awhile to store it in the memory banks.

With that in mind, if I say “what can I get for you?” please don’t say “my usual.” If I remembered your “usual,” I wouldn’t be asking that question. I’d be saying something like “so, your usual mocha?” Instead, try “my usual ____(fill in the item).” That way, I will not only get a reminder of what you want, I’ll associate it in my head as what you will typically want in the future.

Pro tip: If you never tell me your name, I won’t know it. If you want me to remember you better, introduce yourself. If you’re shy, run a tab. I’ll have to write down your name and remember it until you close your tab. Next time I see you, it might stick.

4: Remember my Name

This rule doesn’t apply across the board, because addressing me by name comes with a little bit of protocol. There have been several people in my shop that are friends-of-friends, who come up and address me by name like we know each other, but I don’t know who they are. This puts me in the awkward position of saying “oh, hey, you, yeah, hi there you, how are you?” with no clue who you are. So, going back to my pro tip, introduce yourself. And after that, it’s totally encouraged to remember my name.

So! We have learned some rules, now let’s have some role-play (I know, getting kinky). Let’s say it’s your second or third time in the shop, and you introduced yourself on your first visit.

Me: Hey, (your name), how’s it going?

You: Hi (my name), I’m pretty good.

Me: Great, what can I get for you?

You: I’ll take my usual breakfast sandwich, and medium latte with skim.

Me: Oh, I’m really sorry, we just ran out of the wheat bagels you like – can we put your sandwich on a plain bagel instead?

You: Actually, I think I’ll try it on wheat toast today.

Me: We can totally do that. Your total is $9.69.

You: (hands me money, puts a couple of singles in the tip jar)

Ta-da, you were a model customer just now. And here’s another pro tip: if you work to be the customer the staff remembers and likes, you’ll get unexpected perks, I swear it. It might be an extra piece of bacon on your sandwich, it might be a little more generous side of chips, or it might be “hey I just came up with an awesome idea for a milkshake, you wanna try it?”

I love my job, and I love (most of) my regular customers. And going to a place where the staff is happy to see you, is never a bad thing.

Pain: The Fuck Me and the Fuck You

I’m a masochist. A sadomasochist, technically, but today we’re not talking about my sadistic side. I recently started dating a vanilla (I know, horrors!) and a few months ago, in the “getting to know you” phase of things, he asked me about my relationship with S&M and what being a masochist is all about, for me.

I didn’t realize just how hard my desires are to explain until I had to explain them to someone for whom the answer to “you know what I mean?” will never be yes. With other kinky folk, I can say, “well, you know how blah blah blah makes you feel like so and so etc?” And they say “oh yeah totally and also blah blah blah.” But now I was starting from scratch, with no expectation that he would relate, or already know what I’m talking about before I put it into words.

I don’t think I did that great of a job explaining it to him.

Part of the trouble with explaining what it’s like being a masochist is that, for me, pain serves a lot of functions depending on what I want from the scene. Much in the way that people have sex for a lot of different reasons (for the physical pleasure, to feel loved by their partner(s), to feel forgiven after an argument, to vent frustration with each other, and on and on), I crave pain for a lot of different reasons.

It might also be useful to back up and clarify the definition of “pain.” My very favorite sex educator, Midori, doesn’t talk about pain when she talks about S&M. She refers to “intense sensation.” Her reasoning goes kind of like this: a person just finished a long scene, where s/he was bound to a cross and whipped bloody. Tears stream down his/her face, and s/he is floaty and exhausted. Then s/he steps down from the cross and stubs his/her toe. Suddenly s/he doesn’t love pain so much anymore. I don’t necessarily agree with her choice to nix the word pain, but I’d go with “controlled pain.” The stubbed toe is uncontrolled pain. Accidental pain is generally unwanted pain. It’s pretty rare that even the most thoroughgoing masochist will burn him/herself on the stove and be pleased about it.

So when I talk about pain in this post, I’m talking about controlled pain. I’m talking about getting tied up, beaten, stretched, shoved, crushed and pushed to my limits by someone who knows what s/he’s doing and has my consent.

Definition covered? Good! Moving on.

When I think about being a masochist, there are two big umbrella categories of pain I think of. I call them the “fuck me” and the “fuck you.” As in, when I’m in pain, I’ll be screaming either “fuck me,” or “fuck you.”

20121117_171330The first kind of pain, the “fuck me” kind, is pain that I like. This kind of pain is pretty straightforward if you have a basic understanding of body chemistry and endorphins and such. When I get aroused, the lines of pain and pleasure get pretty blurry. And that’s all there is to that. So that means that I enjoy things like having my hair pulled or getting bitten, or smacked, as a part of sex. It feels good, it makes me wet. The fact that it does that for me and not for everyone is, I suppose, simply a difference in body chemistry.

The second category of pain, the “fuck you” kind, is the kind I don’t like. This pain makes me cuss and scream and sometimes cry in pain and rage because I hate it. But I still want it, and I still ask for it, and I’m pleased and content afterwards. Explaining this process to someone who is neither sadist nor masochist is problematic. Why do I want something that I hate? What do I get out of it?

The easiest answer would be catharsis. The misery and the rage are a release of emotion, kind of a brain dump. In the same way that some people scream and throw things and commit acts of violence against inanimate objects as a safe release for their emotions, I like to be hurt. That answer is true, but incomplete. The drained feeling when I’ve screamed and cried and my body is aching and throbbing is cathartic. But there’s something else going on in my head as well.

When I play hard with someone, when s/he gives me the “fuck you” kind of pain, it has to be someone that I trust completely, because I’m asking this person to dig into all the nasty darkness inside me and make me feel it on the outside. I’m asking my top to make me feel misery and fear and pain and rage, and to expose all of it. I don’t like to display my negative emotions in front of anyone. I consider myself pretty emotionally honest, and I’ll tell a person how I’m feeling, but I don’t like to show it. I don’t like to cry where people can see, and if I show anger I will be comically hyperbolic so it’s made non-threatening. I am pretty emotionally fragile, and because of that my emotions scare me; I constantly worry that exposing my emotions to other people will scare them too. Thus will I be pegged as “that crazy girl,” and henceforth be unlikeable. Is this a rational fear? Probably not. But it’s one I suffer from constantly, and more so within a romantic relationship, because it comes with not only a higher expectation of emotional honesty, but higher stakes if I scare the person off.

However, if the reason I’m sobbing and screaming and crying is because I spent the last 30 minutes getting caned, no one could blame me for that. I can be as vulnerable and messy as I need to be, and trust that the person I’m with expects it, and knows how to handle it. And even better, I know that my partner won’t feel the guilt that often comes with seeing someone they love in pain. If the reason I’m crying is because I’m anxious, my partner feels the need to take some kind of responsibility, that they should be making me happier. And once my partner starts to be upset, I shut my own flow of feelings off and take care of them. During a scene, my partner is making my cry on purpose, because I asked for it. My extreme emotional reaction is not going to cause guilt or worry, because it was intentional and controlled.

At this point, I realize it’s starting to look like I use pain as therapy. I don’t know if it makes it any better to point out that I’m also in therapy, but I will also say that therapy helps me in a very different way. When I see my therapist, I speak candidly about my emotions, including the hurtful and irrational ones, and the parts of my life that are affecting them. Together, we develop strategies to more effectively deal with the parts of my life that cause anxiety and pain.

When I go into a scene where I want the “fuck you” pain, I’m not trying to fix anything. I’m not trying to resolve my anxiety, I’m just giving myself permission to display all the darkness and the madness that fly around my head all day. I can give up all semblance of the emotional control, and even sanity, that define my daily existence. Afterward, if it’s a good scene, the otherwise constant noise in my head is muffled for a little while. I’m exhausted, drained, and quiet. And my partner is there with me, to hold me until I come back to being myself. I’ve exposed everything about my mind that frightens me, and my partner has caused it, seen it, and is ready to keep loving me afterward. In much the same way that having sex with my partner reaffirms that they love me and find me attractive, being hurt by a partner reaffirms that I can trust them, and that they’re not afraid of my darkness.

Every time I’ve read and revised this post, it still aches of incompletion. I don’t think there are words for the kind of satisfaction that comes from being broken by someone I love. I don’t know that I can really properly explain how it makes me feel, and why I crave it. I do hope that I’ve at least chipped away at a little of the mystery.

Prom: Slut-Shaming and Teen Sexuality

I am asking for trouble. I am begging for the internet world at large to hate on me. Am I this much of a masochist? Am I really going to go here?

Yeah, yeah I am. I’m a 25-year-old with no children, about to write a post about parenting teenagers.

The only excuse I can offer is that I was a teenager myself less than a decade ago. Please don’t kill me.

Recently I read this article regarding high school prom dress codes, and the accusation that they are “slut-shaming” female attendees through tight restrictions on acceptable female apparel in an attempt to avoid creating a “distraction.”

This is a deeply complex issue, and being not a parent I can’t even hope to cover every aspect of what’s happening here. But I will try to break it down into as many cogent pieces as possible.

First, let’s look at the motivation behind restrictive dress codes for female students. For anyone who has never read a school dress code, “distraction” is public school code for “boners.” The goal of these rules – which usually include provisions for length of skirts/shorts, exposure of bellies and cleavage, and general skin coverage –  is to prevent teenage girls from looking too sexually provocative and giving boys boners. That reasoning in itself is problematic because of its assumption that an exposed body is inherently sexual, a concern I have posted on at length already. Girls are being taught that to expose their body is to provoke sexual responses. If A, then B, no mitigating factors. Even the people militating against the dress-codes as “slut-shaming” are buying into this argument, because if an exposed body is not sexual, then there is no slut to shame, just a girl in shorts.

The exposure of the body is not necessarily sexual, but it certainly can be. Working from a position where girls are specifically wearing revealing clothing to look sexy, we can see a lot of reasons why they might be prevented from doing so:

1) Adults don’t believe teenage girls are capable of understanding and controlling their own sexual availability. If a girl looks like she wants sex, that might mean that she does. Obviously she’s too young to make informed sexual opinions, so if we make it LOOK like she’s not interested in being sexually provocative, then she will no longer BE interested. This argument is clearly fallacious. If you put a girl in a nun’s habit, it won’t actually change her sexual interests, it will just create a false front.

This particular issue is complicated by the fact that many teenage girls aren’t actually interested in being sexually provocative out of any sense of desire, but merely because that’s what girls are “supposed to” look like. Female teen sexuality is deeply damaged by the fact that many girls feel the need to exude sexual desirability, but without sexual desire of their own that goes with it. In this regard, I absolutely understand the impulse to control what she wears, so that she can be forgiven for not putting on a sexual facade she may not want in the first place. However, that’s something to have a conversation with a girl about, instead of simply legislating her wardrobe. If she feels uncomfortable among her peers because of sexual expectations, discuss them and work to change the expectations.

2) Adults don’t believe teenage boys are capable of controlling their own sexual impulses. We have a wealth of news stories about teen boys sexually assaulting girls, and the classic knee-jerk response is to try to make girls less sexually interesting to boys so that boys will stop doing awful things to them. The trouble with this is that we’re placing the onus on the girls – as usual – to control boys’ impulses, instead of teaching boys to control those impulses. Instead of teaching young people about consent, we’re trying to shut off their urges by concealing temptation. That’s simply not going to happen – and, worse, we’re punishing girls for supposedly creating these urges if they don’t properly conceal themselves.

3) Adults are uncomfortable viewing teenage girls as sexually desirable. A high school girl is, physically, pretty much an adult. She may grow another inch or two, she may gain half a cup size in college, but her body is a grown-up body. How I feel about her emotional or sexual maturity is a question for another insanely long post, but because of their physical maturity, adult authority figures become uncomfortable seeing sexually appealing teenage girls. They are unavailable due to the difference in social stratum, but stir desire nonetheless. That’s a little scary for a lot of people. (I’m not talking here about parents. I’m talking about teachers, administrators, chaperones.)

4) If a teenage girl dresses in a sexually provocative manner, adults believe that she is sexually active and that is “icky.” This one is more about the parents than the other authority figures. Many parents want to live under the illusion that their teenagers are not having sex. Most people start their sexual lives as teenagers, so this is very much an illusion. But it’s much easier to maintain the illusion that my (hypothetical) daughter is not having sex if she does not look sexy.

In the end, I’ll say that teen sex is incredibly problematic. I don’t think that sexually objectifying dress codes fix anything. If a girl shows up to prom in an outfit that causes concern among the adults, maybe ask her about it instead of sending her home. If the problem is that we’re worried whether teens are having safe, joyful, consensual sex lives, the issue is not her dress, it’s why she’s wearing it. If, as I suspect, the issue is not that we’re concerned about teenagers having healthy sex lives but are, rather, attempting to prevent teenagers from having sex lives at all, well then stop it. Just stop it. Restrictive dress-codes are about as effective at controlling teen sexuality as abstinence-only education: which is to say, not at all.

One last thing, and I promise it will be brief: a lot of folks have commented on the gender disparity between explanations of “appropriate” prom attire. I don’t know what kind of proms these people were going to, but all the ones I’ve seen the guys wear approximately one thing: a tux. It comes in colors, vest or no vest, bowtie or straight tie, but it’s all the damn same. It just is. The difference in rules isn’t sexist, it’s a fact of men’s formalwear. Whether or not the difference between men’s and women’s formalwear is inherently sexist is a question for not right now.

Preferred Pronouns – Asking a Hard Question

One of my pet projects in my silly little queer poly feminist sex-positive life is to deconstruct ideas of politeness, and thereby better understand why we treat people the way we do, and whether some attempts to be “polite” are actually undermining our abilities to be better people.

As always, I’m leading in with a big grand statement rather than just telling you what’s on my mind. As the title suggests, what is on my mind tonight is preferred pronouns. Knowing which pronoun to apply to a particular person is primarily a relevant concern for the queer community, but it should be an issue for consideration among all American English speakers. (I don’t know a damn thing about etiquette or linguistics in any other cultures or languages, so I won’t even try to speak to them [Haha, speak to them! See what I did there?])

It’s becoming an increasingly accepted practice among the queer community that when you meet a person who is not blatantly masculine or feminine – or, in many circles, when you meet anyone at all – you ask him/her/ze/them for his/her/zir/their preferred pronoun. If you somehow got on my blog and don’t know what I mean by that, here’s a for-instance.

I’ve just met someone at a party. It appears to me that this person is biologically male, but this person is wearing a dress and makeup. The individual is introduced to me as Robin. Robin’s gender is ambiguous to me, so I say to Robin, “Hello Robin, it’s very nice to meet you. What are your preferred pronouns?” Robin then tells me he, she, ze, they, or some variation. Sometimes a person will even tell me “I don’t care.” This discloses to me Robin’s chosen gender identity, thus preventing me from making incorrect assumptions and being offensive.

With me so far? Good.

This is me from the summer after 8th grade. Most of the bullshit from my classmates happened in middle school, but this is the closest pic to that time period that I could find.

This is me from the summer after 8th grade. Most of the bullshit from my classmates happened in middle school, but this is the closest pic to that time period that I could find.

For a long time, I had trouble accepting this custom. When I was growing up, I would have people ask me (or ask my friends) “are you a boy or a girl?” as an insult. I was never particularly androgynous, even at my most pubescently awkward stages. Yes, I admit, I often wore men’s jeans, and by the end of 8th grade I had a short haircut. But my figure was never terribly angular, in the typically masculine way. So that means that “are you a boy or a girl?” really meant, “you’re a very ugly girl.” And I didn’t enjoy that.

Additionally, asking someone for their preferred pronoun made me uncomfortable because I was raised to understand that even if you aren’t trying to be mean, asking someone “are you a boy or a girl?” is rude. And the reason that it’s rude is because you’re telling this person that you can’t tell his/her/zir/their gender just by looking. And, here’s the payoff, not being able to judge a person’s gender by sight is a bad thing. Thus, you don’t ask.

Well, I’ve reached a point in my life where I understand that gender is not a binary, that people don’t have to fit into an either-or world, and that even if a person wants to live in a concrete male or female gender identity, it doesn’t have to present itself through typical masculine/feminine visuals. What that means is that to look at a person and not be able to judge gender right away is not a negative reflection on that person. When I see someone and I can’t tell if that person is a man, a woman, neither or both, it doesn’t mean that person is failing at his/her/zir/their gender by being visually ambiguous. And therefore, asking someone about preferred pronouns respects his/her/zir/their personal choice to select a gender identity, and expresses my willingness to accept that identity, no matter what it is.

The important difference, I think, is that I’ve developed the understanding that gender identity is a choice. And by that I am not trying to invoke nature/nurture arguments, but simply to say that it doesn’t matter what a person looks like, or what kind of genitalia that person has: whatever identity a person discloses to me, that’s the truth.

Edit: I was looking so hard for this image when I wrote this post last night, but wasn’t able to get my hands on it. This has been the best visual aid for gender identification that I’ve ever come across. No, I didn’t create it, and unfortunately I don’t know who did or I’d be happy to give appropriate credit.270873_168099213351707_1010752796_n

I Am Not An Erotic Writer

I don’t write erotic fiction. I used to, a long time ago – well, I started a long time ago, then wrote in fits and starts for a few years. I don’t any more, though sometimes I want to.

I have thought about writing new erotic fiction. I’ve thought about it while I’m fantasizing, thinking maybe someone else might enjoy this as much as I do. Sometimes I will send a fantasy to its object, and usually that person enjoys reading it. But it never makes it into solid narrative form.

Today I was thinking about why that is. I am generally of the opinion that a strong narrative needs a compelling visual element, and my sexual arousal is usually not very visual. That is, when I’m imagining pleasure, I’m not thinking of the cut abs, angular cheekbones, and throbbing manhoods that represent sexually appealing masculinity (ok, so maybe I’m thinking about throbbing manhoods sometimes). What I’m thinking of is a person who makes me feel good. I’m thinking of the feel of their lips brushing my neck, the weight of their body on top of me, or the sounds they make when they’re about to orgasm.

Much as they make me drool, I’m not thinking of Sean Maher, January Jones, or John Barrowman. I’m not imagining a beautiful body, I’m imagining the beautiful things that a person can do to me, and the ways that I can make someone feel.

I think about the powerful, direct jolt from the nape of my neck straight into the depths of my pussy whenever someone buries their fingers in my hair and pulls, hard. I think about the way their tongue feels on my nipples, or their fingernails digging into my hips when I’m getting fucked from behind.

Photo by Molly Algernon

Photo by Molly Algernon

I don’t really think about the look of a body. I don’t dream of perky breasts or long legs. I am conscious of such things, and even somewhat adept at describing them. My old fictions can attest to that. But those descriptions always read as disingenuous, because the way a body looks is never what draws my interest or fuels my desire. I will admit that looking into someone’s eyes and seeing lust in them certainly does move me, but that look, no matter the writer, is one that can’t be truly shared in print. Words never really capture that flame that hides behind the iris and says “I want you, you take my breath away.”

Something seems to be missing from my story when I share the touch of a hand, the grip of teeth, the strength of a thrust, but my reader can’t see us. If I’m sharing with a person while I’m fantasizing, it’s easy. I am me, and you are you, and the image is ready-made. But for a wider readership, I want to be able to offer something real, something tangible, not the passionate affair of ghosts.

So I don’t write erotic fiction, though I still want to. I find myself inspired by another writer, who intersperses his sexual interludes with bits of internal monologue, sometimes wandering along tangents for several paragraphs, before reminding me that he’s got a woman’s mouth on his cock. That kind of narrative makes me feel like I’m inside his convoluted mind while he’s fucking, rather than being an observer. I love that. Perhaps, if I can capture that feeling within the context of my own experience, it won’t matter if my actors have no visages. We’ll see.