Throwing Out The Baby With The Bathwater – Sexual Hygiene and Advertising

One of the issues that often gets all wrapped up in feminism and empowerment is vaginal odor. How are vaginas supposed to smell? How are we supposed to clean them? These are surprisingly fraught questions, considering we don’t think that hard about any other part of our bodies. I don’t see a lot of political groups campaigning against deodorant or shampoo, though sexism is rampant in those ads as well. But feminists get really angry about advertising for any sort of vaginal hygiene product. I’m not going to say that those ads aren’t regularly sexist, because they are. The difference is that instead of attacking the sexist ad campaign, people are opposing the product being advertised.

deodorant adHere’s an example. This is a men’s deodorant ad. It’s a fairly typical sexualized rendition of a woman, with the added bonus that she is rendered non-threatening by cooking a turkey in a 1950’s style oven (subtle, right?). The tag line, “Can she make you lose control?” tells us how desirable she is, and that this deodorant is SO amazing that you can look at her and not get all sweaty. Right. I’m not going to even bother with the issues of male sexuality and their depiction in mass media in this post, so that’s enough said for that ad.

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Click through to see the full-size image and read the text.

Switch to a women’s deodorant ad. Here we have…well…a fairly typical sexualized rendition of a woman, though in this case she is posed to be less “come-hither” and more “look-at-me!” But here we’re supposed to want to BE the woman, because she is brave, and look at how she waves that scarf around. We’re ready to expose our skin because this product has made that skin acceptable to be seen in public. (Don’t even get me started on advertising for razor blades along those lines.)

My point is, we can look at these ads and say “why yes, those are sexist and stupid,” without throwing away all our deodorant.

Here’s my stance on the whole line of vaginal hygiene products. Douching, and anything that is designed to rinse out the inside of your vagina is scary and dangerous and bad for you. Don’t do it. However, a lot of the companies that make douches also make body washes designed to be used externally, that clean your vulva without interfering with the natural pH levels the way soap does. I think that’s pretty great. Eve Ensler wrote, in the ever-famous Vagina Monologues, “I don’t want my pussy to smell like rain.” I don’t either, Eve. However, I also don’t want it to smell like I just came home from the gym – you know, after I come home from the gym. I don’t want lingering male fluids getting unpleasant after I have sex. And I don’t agree that “just water” is the right way to clean it. It’s true that soap is harsh and you shouldn’t use it. But for fuck’s sake, it’s 2013, and science has produced products that you CAN use on your vulva and not screw up your pH balance. And you can buy ones that smell like nothing. Not like roses, or rain. They have no scent at all. They just clean off the gym-sweat or the cum or the stubborn blood stains during shark week, without making me smell like I’m trying to perfume away my natural vaginal odor. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

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Click through to see the full-size image and read the text.

On the other hand, there is something very obviously wrong with the way these products are sold to us. They aren’t pitched for the uses I described above – they’re not just another soap or deodorant. Having a clean vagina, we are led to believe, makes us better women.

This is not an article in a magazine that just happens to have a Summer’s Eve ad underneath it. This whole page is the ad. Yes, that’s right, they wrote up an entire bogus article on being a strong professional woman, only to turn it around at the end and tell you that the best way to be successful is to have a pleasant smelling vagina. Thank you, Summer’s Eve, for reducing my worth to my sexual organs and their hygiene. Fun fact: unless a woman is suffering from a serious infection, a vagina cannot be smelled from across the room. I promise, no woman’s boss will ever judge her based on vaginal cleanliness, unless said boss is fucking her. And that just made this ad go from annoying to creepy.

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Click through to see the full-size image and read the text.

This one I just…I hardly know where to begin. Helen of Troy was already the most beautiful woman in the world, but if only she had tried OUR products! Really? Did that really make it into print? The most legendary beauty in Western history: well, she was pretty great, but she would have been better if she douched. A woman’s value, in this case her beauty, once again dependent upon how she cleans her vagina. What the hell.

My point is, these ads are stupid and terrible, but so are those deodorant ads. Just because the ideology that a product is trying to sell us is complete sexist tripe doesn’t mean that the product itself is worthless. A woman shouldn’t measure her value by how much her vagina smells like flowers, or soap, or vagina; but that doesn’t mean she necessarily ought not to use a cleaning product. The Secret ad is trying to sell me self-confidence, and I reject their shallow notion of confidence, but I’m still going to buy deodorant. Summer’s Eve is trying to sell us self-worth, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t just buy body wash.

Cheating Confessions, Part 1

I have a long standing issue with impulse control. By that I don’t mean that I find myself unable to control my desires. I mean that I understand exactly what I’m doing, I know that I can stop at any moment, I know there are consequences to my actions. But, frequently, I’ll just go ahead and do it anyway. This trait frightened me when I was going through my sexual exploration phase.

When I say sexual exploration, what I mean is cheating on Alex. I was a fairly attractive girl, and guys did pay attention. Teenage guys, who have the mental capacity of a grub and the sex drive of one of those little test rats with the pleasure buttons.

The first one was named Scott. We met my freshman year of college – I don’t have a good story about how we met, just a fairly cliched mental image. There were concrete benches in the courtyard of our dorms. It was night-time, we were under a street lamp on a bench. He was in the seat, I was perched on the back because I am incapable of sitting properly in a chair. It’s not especially telling, I know, though I suppose I could make that scene into a metaphor for how I dangled the carrot of sexual possibility in front of him for the rest of that year.

Our “friendship” consisted of spending a lot of time together, casually, like real friends, in public venues. We’d eat lunch together in the cafeteria, had mutual friends, went to parties, you know, college friend stuff. But then in the evenings he would ask me to come hang out alone in the room with him. Inevitably, we’d wind up cuddling in his bed, where he would systematically attempt to fuck me, and I would attempt to get as much gratification out of the experience as I could without doing so.

Early on, I was not only resistant but a tad spiteful. Once, he told me he wanted to get me drunk, so that I would lower my inhibitions and sleep with him. A short time later, I went to my first college party, and got drunk for the first time. After three Parrot Bay Coconut-and-Diet Cokes, I picked up the phone and called him. My first and only drunk dial. It consisted of the following witty dialogue:

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There’s me, at the party where I made my first (and last) drunk dial. Did I mention it was pirate themed?

Scott: Hello?

Me: Hey, guess what? I’m drunk right now!! And guess who I’m not fooling around with? You!!

Scott: What?

Click

Yep. That was it. The epitome of wit, and class, I know. The problem was, the desire between us really was mutual. I wanted him as much as he wanted me, and we both knew it. But I was still in a supposedly monogamous relationship, and imposed nonsensical letter-of-the-law boundaries on myself to assuage my guilt in getting involved with Scott. Sure, I sometimes spent the night in his bed, where we would never sleep, but tease and grope each other all night. But I never kissed him, and I never let him take my clothes off. So, obviously I wasn’t cheating. Right.

When I’m feeling particularly uncharitable, I often look back on that experience as a seduction – that Scott was slowly coercing me, and I was resistant. But I think that’s mostly to keep myself from feeling like a terrible person. I encouraged his advances, even while rebuffing when he tried to push the lines. Though, I will say, he was a person with a track record for assaulting girls, so though he never forced anything on me, my view of him is colored by something he did to a friend of mine. I’m not here to share her story, as it’s not mine to tell, but suffice it to say that though our desires were mutual, he wasn’t always as equitable in his interactions with girls.

Anyway, the end of the story is utterly predictable. The day before move-out, spring of my freshman year. Scott was transferring to another school, so our teasing and seduction games had to end one way or another. I figured what the hell, we’re never going to see each other again. So, that night I spent the night in his room, and we had sex. It was…lackluster. Not tragic, but I remember very little of it (and no, I wasn’t drunk), which tells me it couldn’t have been great. He was a pretty good kisser, I remember that part. The next day he moved back to Jacksonville. We exchanged a few instant messages after that – when I told him I’d broken up with Alex he said he regretted not staying in town to pursue a relationship with me. I saw him once more after that, the next year when he came to visit some friends that stayed at my college. So, there’s another of my sex stories with an anticlimactic ending.

With This Ring – What Marriage Means to Me as a Polyamorist

This blog was originally posted in Life on the Swingset on November 28, 2012.

I went to therapy for the first time last week. Between the recent breakup with my (our) girlfriend, and general marital stresses at home, it was time to find someone to vent on that would actually be able to help, instead of just thoughtfully nodding at me and offering hugs. Not that I don’t like hugs.

One of the questions that my new, delightful, poly-friendly therapist posed to me was about marriage. We were discussing commitment, and she asked what marriage meant to me in terms of commitment, and how it’s different from a long-term boyfriend/girlfriend type of relationship.

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Here’s me, playing with my dress on my wedding day. Photo by Brenda Sandhouse.

This is actually a pretty poignant and pertinent question for me, especially because I’ve seen so many people that seem to be on board with polyamory or open relationships, until marriage becomes a question. In an online article about an open marriage, I read a horribly vindictive comment that basically said “Sure, it’s great to fuck around when you’re young, but once you get married, it means you need to be monogamous forever.” Worse, we encountered a similar sentiment in real life with the parents of one of the girls in my constellation. My husband had to deal with his girlfriend’s dad basically treating him like a confused frat boy. His sentiment was that you know, it’s great that you can get this many girls to fall in love with you, but you’re married now. Stop that. He treated the idea of multiple partners as a great thing for a young man that wants to sow his wild oats, but that’s all. So my husband’s girlfriend’s father is now treating her like a homewrecker, and is concerned on my behalf for my marriage – mind you, I’ve never met this man.

So, no. Marriage does not mean it’s time to sever all the polyamorous connections and commit to monogamy with my one and only. Pardon my severity, monogamous folks, but that’s stupid. If I wanted to be monogamous, I would be monogamous with my boyfriend or girlfriend just the same as my husband or wife. I want to be polyamorous, and therefore I will do so with my boyfriend or girlfriend just the same as my husband or wife. Which brings up another issue I’ve come up against. I’ve heard a lot of people – poly folks included! – who have assumed marriage is off the table with any new partners because they’re already married. Yes, it’s true, unless we all move to Northern Africa or Southeast Asia, we can’t be legally polygamous. Sad, but true. But just speaking for myself, I don’t need the government to rubber-stamp my marriage in order for me to consider myself married. I am legally married to my husband, but personally that part of the marriage was primarily to make our financial lives easier. We’re now able to be on the same health insurance, and I think both our credit scores got a little better. We file our taxes together – by which I mean he does it for us, so big win for me. But I didn’t need the government to tell me when I was married – I just needed them to give me permission to do all those annoying money things. This means that I am open to the idea of being married again. It hasn’t come up, but it is hypothetically an option.

Ok, I hear all your frustrated sighs, enough stalling and explaining what marriage does NOT mean to me. What marriage does mean to me, is that if I decide to marry someone, I’m choosing them forever. I know, in the world of the 50% divorce rate, that doesn’t seem to be what marriage is about anymore. The fact that the phrase “starter marriage” even exists is evidence of that. Polyamory may have scrapped a lot of the terminology of the standard wedding ceremony (“forsaking all others,” for example), but I hold strongly to the “’til death to us part” portion. A wedding, to me, is a promise made among people in the witness of family, friends, and your optional deity of choice, that no matter what happens, that relationship will survive. My husband and I promised each other that we are committed to each other for the rest of our lives, and not just because we’ve legally tethered ourselves together. To me, the difference between being “partners,” “together,” “in a relationship,” etc, and being “married,” is the promise of forever.

That’s my easy definition, now let’s throw a kink in it, because my constellation are a bunch of kinky bastards. I’m gonna talk about my boyfriend. He’s got two ex-wives under his belt, and as

such will not get married again. Period. Hard limit. And we accepted that as part of the deal when we got together. The question – and fear – that boundary raised in me was about how much he was willing to commit to a relationship. Based on my personal definition of marriage, “never getting married” meant “never making promises.” It meant forever wasn’t an option. But the world doesn’t operate on my definitions of things. So when he told me he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me, I started doing some hard thinking. Once again, I do not have a gift-wrapped platitude to close with, because life doesn’t come with those. But I am reconsidering the meaning of commitment, within marriage and outside of it. The one thing that is certain about polyamory is that you have to let your definitions be fluid. All of them.

Star Speaks Out, Part 2: Feminism and a Man’s Right to Desire

This blog was originally posted in Life on the Swingset on January 30, 2013.

I want to initially apologize for writing so deeply within a heteronormative frame of reference, but let’s face it, that’s the world we live in. Many of the issues I find myself confronting when it comes to rape culture and sex-positivity are within the context of stereotypical masculine and feminine traits: the ways that men lust after women, the feelings women have toward one another regarding competition for men, and the way women “ought to” feel about being desired by men. There are worlds of other issues when we consider queer issues alongside this, but mine is just a humble blog and I don’t quite have the training under my belt for all that.

So, now that that’s out of the way, I want to talk about the shame we associate with desire, and how that translates into sex-negativity and rape culture. A friend of mine was discussing with me the Facebook photo referenced in my previous post, and he commented that “Let’s say it is tantalizing: the real issue is that you don’t get to jump on it just because you’re tantalized. […] we (men) can feel sexual, feel attraction, and can (must!) choose our humanity over the leg humping reaction.” While this seems to be a simple affirmation of any sex-positive woman’s argument, that just because you want it doesn’t mean you can have it, it also reminded me that there’s another issue at hand: a man’s right to want it in the first place!

A sickeningly saccharine and unintentionally harmful blog post entitled “Ten Things I Want to Tell Teenage Girls,” advises young women as they enter into their burgeoning sexuality, that boys will desire them, and that’s bad. She says:

If you choose to wear shirts that show off your boobs, you will attract boys. To be more specific, you will attract the kind of boys that like to look down girls’ shirts. If you want to date a guy who likes to look at other girls’ boobs and chase skirts, then great job; keep it up. If you don’t want to date a guy who ogles at the breasts of other women, then maybe you should stop offering your own breasts up for the ogling. All attention is not equal. You think you want attention, but you don’t. You want respect.

There are so many issues with these few short sentences, I don’t know where to begin! She believes that she is empowering young women to demand respect by concealing their bodies. Because it is, in her mind, obvious that any woman who is sexually desirable is not respectable, and that to gain respect you have to withhold sex.

Furthermore, she is demonizing any man who likes to look at breasts (which I think she fails to realize is all of them.) In her mind, for a man to look upon a woman with desire is immediately to disrespect her, because…well, actually I don’t know because why. Because only bad girls have sex? Because men don’t have sex with women they respect, they just marry them? Because being sexually objectified is mutually exclusive with being personally valued? Beats me on the because, but the message is clear that “boys that like to look down girls’ shirts” are not boys you want to be with. Men who desire women are bad men. The comment “You think you want attention, but you don’t. You want respect,” (apart from being incredibly demeaning by telling her readers what they really want, because obviously she knows better) is making the blatant assumption that attention and respect are mutually exclusive.

A view of male sexuality where any man who lusts after a woman is the kind of man you’re too good for creates a confusing, warped framework for a relationship. Where does sexuality fit into a romantic relationship, if women intentionally select men who don’t express sexual desire? My friend that I mentioned earlier was “called out” in an internet discussion because in his profile picture – a lovely photo from his wedding where both parties are positively glowing with bliss – he appears to be gazing at his wife’s breasts. He was criticized for looking at his own wife’s body. I’m going to say that again, because it baffles me so utterly. He was judged, not for checking out random women at the club, not for watching pornography or objectifying his waitress, but for looking at his wife in a way the critic perceived as lustful.

While I’m 100% in support of the idea that a man’s desire for a woman does not instill in him any rights regarding her body, it’s insane to think that for a man to desire a woman at all somehow makes him a lesser man. I sure as hell don’t want a romantic relationship with a man who doesn’t want to fuck me. What would I do with him? It would either be a friendship, or one of those tragic suburban sexless marriages.

Conversely, because women should be vying for “respect” instead of attention, a woman who desires sex, and likes or is attracted to men who lust after her, must have low self-esteem and she just isn’t brave enough to pursue what she really wants. As my friend put it in his own blog, “Our culture for a long time and on both sides of the Liberal-Conservative divide, has imagined that young women have a choice among two alternatives: you can like good boys or bad boys, depending on your level of self-esteem.” Good boys are the kind who “respect” women, bad boys are the kind who look at breasts.

This sort of ideology is often confuscated with feminism, because feminists fight for the rights of women to be treated like people, and sexual desire is often lumped in with simple objectification as a stripping of women’s rights. Unfortunately the distinction between misogynistic objectification, and healthy sexual desire, is often subtle. If a man is staring at my breasts, does he think of me as a worthless piece of flesh, or does he just find my breasts attractive? Has he stopped viewing me as a human being? In that moment of being looked at, I don’t know. But to hate all expressions of lust because they might imply that I’m being objectified and dehumanized is incredibly pessimistic. It’s a salt-the-earth approach to women’s sexual rights.

All of these points are related, so here’s the part where I wrap it all up in a neat little bow.

If sex’s value is based on its unavailability, then the less men desire you, and the fewer men have access to your sexuality, the more you’re worth. Therefore, the more you desire sex, and the more you access your sexuality, the less you and it are worth, and therefore men have the right to take it from you at their leisure. Valuing yourself means avoiding sex and the men who want to have it with you. Men who sexually desire women inherently disrespect them because they want to lower their sexual property value.

This is the sex-negative argument in a propaganda-free, totally not feel-good nutshell.

My sex-positive lifestyle argument is that sex is good, and my body isn’t a commodity. Wanting to fuck me is awesome, and I encourage it. Men, women, and anyone in between have the right to desire me, and to look upon any part of my body exposed to their view. That right does not imply any additional rights regarding touching me, or even addressing me impolitely. I have had many sexual partners over the course of my lifetime, and I would like to have more. Each person I have had sex with does not make the next person’s experience of fucking me any less valuable. Giving my body freely with my consent to another does not mean that I can be assumed to give it away for free.

Star Speaks Out, Part 1: A Non-Monogamist’s take on Sex-Positivity, Exhibitionism, and Rape Culture

This blog was originally posted in Life on the Swingset on January 23, 2013.

Alternately titled, let’s see how many current events buzz-words I can fit into one title.

Recently I’ve become very interested in the debates surrounding American rape culture, specifically its intersections with sex-positivity and feminism. I stipulate “American” rape culture, because the cultural norms and expectations that produce drunken frat-party violations are vastly different from those that produced the recent gang-rape reported in India, or others outside our Western frame of reference.

As a sex-positive non-monogamist, I often feel that in the mono-normative world where sex is a commodity, subject to supply and demand, my sexuality is devalued and I am one of “those women.” Those women are the bad girls, the promiscuous girls, the ones who (gasp!) like to have sex. We’ve all heard the phrase “no one will buy the cow when they can get the milk for free,” and when I refer to the commodification of sex, that’s the perfect accessible example. People, and women especially, are taught that sex is a good that we have to offer someone else, and that we have to preserve, and even amplify, the value of that good. We make our sexuality more valuable by decreasing the supply, to thereby increase demand. Because apparently my vagina is a widget.

(Please don’t confuse this symbolic commodification of women’s sexualities by mono-normative society as the same as the literal commodification of a woman’s sexuality in the cases of pornography, prostitution, or stripping. These are their own issues, involving another scale of consent, objectification, and economics. That’s not what I’m talking about here.)

The worldwide SlutWalk organization has coined the slogan “still not asking for it,” to encapsulate their philosophy that a woman’s personal behavior is never an invitation for sexual contact, and consent has to be offered, rather than assumed. I think the reason that these sorts of organizations even have to make those sorts of slogans, is because if a woman’s sexuality is a commodity, wherein its value is based on its availability, then a woman who is sex-positive, sexually active, or just confident enough to display her body, has a low to non-existent sexual value. Thus, sex with her can or should be “free.” Payment, in the forms of consent and mutual enjoyment, is unnecessary because her sexuality has no value. This sounds like the view of a sociopath when put forth that explicitly, but I’ve seen comments from average men (and worse, other women!) in internet forums that put forth this very idea in less direct terms. A woman at a SlutWalk stood topless with body-paint proclaiming “Still Not Asking For It,” and one woman’s comment on this Facebook photo was “I love and respect my body to the point where only one man deserves to look at my naked breasts.” The point she’s making is that she believes that her body and her sexuality will decrease in value the more people it is exposed to. That if she exposes her breasts to other men, that means that they will be worth less because the sight is something someone has to “deserve.”

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My wardrobe choice for the Pride parade in 2012. Photo by Allan Crain.

Let’s connect this to me, the sex-pos polyamorous exhibitionist. Yesterday, I intentionally wore a revealing, provocative outfit to work because I wanted to be looked at. I felt delightfully objectified as I saw my friends, coworkers, and customers staring at my body. One of the men I work with said it took him at least the first hour of the shift before he wasn’t staring at my ass constantly. I love and respect my body to the point where I want every damn person to look at it, and beyond that to the point that I believe that even if every person on this earth saw my naked body, that wouldn’t give a single one of them the right to touch it without my consent. I believe that the value of my body is not based on who I hide it from, it’s based on my value as a person, a human being with rights.

Another Facebook comment, also by a woman, on the aforementioned photo, said, “Keep that shit in the privacy of your own home, and maybe you wouldn’t be giving off slutty vibes to everyone. You don’t buy a fucking skin tight dress that pretty much shows your breasts and beaver just because you want to, you do it to get looks from others, and guess what BAD PEOPLE LOOK TOO.” (Internet-style typos corrected.) She’s telling us two important things. One is that she believes that “giving off slutty vibes” is inherently bad, and puts a woman in the position of being in the wrong even before she may be violated. She later says “You walk around like a slut you will get treated like one.” Which, to those of us who value sluts, and the freedom to be one as a life choice, sounds like a fine deal. Treated like a slut? Ok, great, that means you’ll respect my sexual decisions, which happen to be open and varied. That is, of course, not what she means. When she says I may be “treated like a slut,” she means treated like my sexuality has no value, and that I don’t deserve respect because I don’t demand it in the traditional method of hiding and fearing my own body. Her other point is a more subtle and insidious implication. When she says that dressing slutty is an invitation for people to look, and that this will include “bad people,” i.e. rapists, what’s she’s quietly implying is that the invitation to look is an invitation to touch, to molest. That simply being exposed and gazed at, and allowing herself to be seen by “bad people,” she deserves whatever she gets, because the responsibility for respect is not being placed upon the toucher, but the touched.

Eve Ensler‘s piece from the Vagina Monologues entitled “My Short Skirt,” comes so close to hitting the nail on the head for me. She says “My short skirt is not an invitation, a provocation, an indication, that I want it, or give it.” Yes, Ms. Ensler! True! She also says, “My short skirt, believe it or not, has nothing to do with you.” Well, maybe she misses the mark a bit. My short skirt has everything to do with you. Unless I wear my short skirt all alone in my living room, my short skirt is for you to look upon, for you to see me and consider my body, with desire, disgust, confusion, or whatever feeling moves you. It is not an invitation to touch or to approach, but it is present to your gaze and you may look, because that’s why we choose any clothing. Unless we’re wearing camouflage, when we pick our clothes we’re picking what we want people to see when they look at us.

As any active kinkster or swinger can tell you, consent is king in our minority communities. The sort of behavior shrugged at by the general public, things like street harassment, or unwanted touching by friends or peers, are absolute taboo within the context of a dungeon or a swinger party. I admit I’m reaching a bit out of my element regarding swing clubs/parties as I’ve never been to one, but as I understand the rules are very similar to that of a dungeon, where I do have quite a bit of experience. In these environments it is simply unacceptable to touch another person without their explicit consent, even if they are stark naked, sexually aroused, or otherwise wildly desirable. Because these communities know that our desires do not convey to us any rights.

This is already becoming very long, so I’ve decided to split the post into two. Tune in next time for the tie-in to feminism, and the issue of respect for sexual men as well as women.

Shit’s Different: Another Take on Jealousy in Polyamory

This blog was originally posted in Life on the Swingset on January 31, 2o12.

I go to trivia pretty frequently. At the venue where I play trivia, the rules change halfway through the game. Our host, as we get into the new round, reminds us every week that “Shit’s different, pay attention.”

I’m telling you this because I’m using it as a metaphor for my poly life. Yes, really.

One of the most common questions that gets thrown out into the ether by people entering the world of non-monogamy, is “How do you deal with jealousy?” This is a totally valid and important question, but it’s also important to remember that jealousy is a different animal in a polyamorous relationship than in a monogamous one.

I recently explained my feelings on jealousy in one of my family’s non-monogamy discussion groups. My step-husband-in-law (or “metamour,” for those of you who prefer fancy terminology) said it was one of the best explanations he has ever heard, so I thought I may be on to something worth sharing. Here’s my take. In a monogamous relationship, if I am jealous of someone, it is because I believe my partner is interested in that person and therefore might leave me. If I am not in a monogamous relationship, if my partner is interested in someone else, he will pursue her, maybe date her and he will not leave me. I am free from the fear that my husband’s romantic involvement with someone new will necessitate the end of our marriage.

This does not mean that there is no jealousy in polyamorous relationships. If it weren’t utterly gauche I would put that sentence in enormous red text. I’m not trying to tell anyone that poly relationships are jealousy-free. I’m also not saying that some people don’t fear abandonment within their poly relationships. I’m just saying that shit’s different. So. Disclaimer done, back to me.

I don’t get jealous.

Yep, I just said that. Really.

Please don’t start throwing things at me yet.

Here’s the thing about jealousy. Jealousy is all about fear. It’s about being afraid of losing your partner to someone else. I experience a lot of challenging negative emotions, ones that are often mis-diagnosed as jealousy, but what I don’t feel is fear. What I do experience are insecurity, loneliness, and envy. These feelings are easily confused with jealousy, because they arise at similar times.

For example, when my husband is on a date with someone, and I have no plans, I might feel loneliness. If he’s met a new girl, and she’s especially beautiful, I’ll feel insecure. If we’re at a party, and he’s getting lots of attention and flirtation, I may be envious. But none of those things are jealousy, because they do not come with the fear that my husband will leave me.

This is the reason that jealousy in others confuses me. Oh wait, I haven’t told you that yet. Here’s another tidbit about me and why I’m abnormal – and, I think, wired for the non-monogamous life. I don’t understand why people get jealous as often as they do, and I have a hard time communicating and empathizing with a person experiencing jealousy. I’m unable to relate to an irrational fear of abandonment, because I don’t experience it myself.

You could argue that it has to do with my parents not getting divorced when I was young, or some other fascinating thing about my childhood, but the fact is, when someone tells me that s/he is going to stick around I believe it. I don’t worry that abandonment will come out of the blue – that one day my spouse will up and leave unexpectedly. And so when he does meet a new girl, or spends a lot of time flirting with someone, it doesn’t cause fear. Therefore, when I see jealousy in someone else whose relationship is apparently stable, my reaction is confusion. I want to help and sympathise, but I simply don’t get it.

“My partner is interested in someone new and that fact in and of itself is upsetting to me,” is a sentiment I have no way of mentally processing.

Change the motivation, replace it with something concrete, and I am totally there. Sympathy hat is on.

“My partner is interested in someone new and my belief that she is prettier than me is upsetting to me.” Yep, all over that.

“My partner is interested in someone new and the fact that he forgets to do things with me because he is spending time with her is upsetting to me.” Hoo boy. Totally with you there.

You get the idea. So when I say I don’t get jealous, I don’t want to feel like I’m telling the world I’m the magical poly-fairy who never has negative emotional reactions to her life. What I am saying is that I feel a degree of safety in polyamory that I don’t believe I could have in a monogamous relationship. In my relationship, as it is, the only people who can end it are myself and my husband. His romantic and sexual feelings for other women do not threaten the security of our relationship because they can exist alongside it. If we were monogamous, I would fear the “other woman.” I would be afraid that someone better than me could come along and take him from me. But why would my husband leave me for another woman if he can be with me, and with her?

This does go both ways, by the way. My own wandering heart and libido used to scare me. When I was in a monogamous relationship, the flutters of attraction always came with a sickness in my stomach, a fear that I would cheat or that I would ruin my existing relationship by getting interested in someone new. But I am interested in someone new all the time. And when I love someone, I don’t want to wander off to the new thing at the expense of my love. That’s silly.

So, back to the real moral of the story: shit’s different. My mind has wandered all over this page so I’ll try to sum this up as succinctly as possible.

Jealousy is the fear that my partner’s romantic/sexual interest in a new person will cause my partner to leave me.

In a monogamous relationship, overcoming jealousy involves establishing complete trust that my partner will never develop an interest in a new person to a level that would violate the boundaries of monogamy and thus necessitate the end of the relationship.

In a polyamorous relationship, overcoming jealousy involves the (much simpler, I believe) process of accepting that my partner’s new romantic/sexual interest is not a reflection on the state of our relationship and can exist independently from it.

The Rules – Constant Communication in Polyamorous Relationships

This blog was originally posted in Life on the Swingset on June 19, 2012.

I live by two non-negotiable rules in my relationships, which are the foundation for my sense of security and trust with any other human being and the starting point from which all other relationship boundaries are built. The rules are, “Talk about everything, all the time,” and “No surprises.” The first rule is the most important, as the second is something of an offshoot from it, but these are the standards to which I hold myself and the people with whom I surround myself.

Talk about everything, all the time. This sounds like the simple answer that is always given when someone is offering relationship advice. “Talk to your partner!” “Communicate!” In a way, yes, that is what it is. But this rule is a lot more than that. I apply my rules not only to my romantic partners, but to anyone in my life whose opinion and trust are valuable to me. When I say, “talk about everything, all the time,” I really mean that I want to know everything. Not all news is good news, and not all bad news has a solution, but allowing anything to go unsaid leads to secrets and, potentially, lies.

Rather than vague admonitions, I’ll offer you an example. In my previous post regarding grey areas of affection, I referenced a person in my life who falls into a nebulous category. He is in a monogamous marriage, but he and I share an acknowledged chemistry which we play upon to our mutual advantage. From a certain perspective, a person might argue that it would have been wiser for us to leave any attraction or interest unspoken, because to mention it is acknowledging its existence and asking for trouble for the person in the monogamous situation. My counter-argument is that to leave the attraction unspoken and “understood” is first off assuming that both people understand what’s going on, which is not necessarily true. Second, to avoid that conversation prevents an honest and useful discourse regarding the emotional and physical boundaries of the relationship. Relationship boundaries are tailored to the people involved, and if two people aren’t fully honest with each other, they can’t set boundaries that will keep them both emotionally satisfied and secure.

I once heard a person in a monogamous relationship say that she felt betrayed by a partner’s interest in someone new not when that emotional attachment occurred, but when it was acknowledged. Her partner told his outside interest that he had feelings for her, they discussed it, and accepted that it was mutual but couldn’t lead anywhere. His partner felt that if he had said nothing to this girl, she would not have felt betrayed by him, because to express the emotion makes it somehow more real. I can understand the visceral, emotional urges that make this sound like a really good idea. If he hadn’t told her, then they could just keep being friends and pretend like nothing was between them. The trouble with pretending, though, is that it’s a whole lot like lying. While this guy’s girlfriend might have felt more secure if he kept his outside feelings a secret, he would have been betraying his friend by concealing his true feelings for her. How we treat our friends is based on how we feel about them. That sounds incredibly obvious and inane, but if we aren’t honest about how we feel about one another, we can’t develop legitimate relationships. Imagine the opposite – if a friend secretly despised me, that would have to come to light or our relationship would be poisonous.

Another issue that I find disconcerting is the idea of leaving something unspoken and understood. This idea is that you and another person both know something about your feelings toward one another, but you intentionally don’t address it directly. I refuse to leave anything “understood” between myself an a person that I care about. I am easily confused and misled by subtlety, and I would rather be utterly gauche with my bluntness than misunderstand someone’s intentions. I have often said that I would be much happier if a person who is interested in me would simply state it point-blank to my face than try to hit on me, gauge my reactions, and move slowly. This is because I will assume that everyone falls slightly on the positive side of neutral in their feelings toward me unless I am explicitly told otherwise. This means hitting on me is a generally ineffective strategy. The end result on more than one occasion has been that a person assumed I had no interest and moved on, when in fact I had no idea what was really going on. This is a frustrating problem that is, I think, incredibly easy to alleviate.

Talking about everything all the time is also the best way to implement the “no surprises” rule. I have shared quite a few details with my partners that have, in retrospect, turned out to be trivial, because I am trying to stave off the possibility of a surprise in the future. For example, if I’ve been flirting with someone but I’m not sure if real mutual interest will develop, I still tell my partners about it. Because I think they would rather know about flirting that doesn’t lead anywhere than have the reverse happen: Surprise! So-and-so asked me out, or so-and-so and I made out at the bar last night. When I used to maintain an online dating profile, I would tell my husband about anyone who I exchanged more than two or three messages with. The vast majority of them came to nothing, but I would rather be overly cautious. Unexpected changes seriously mess with my comfort level, so I do my best to avoid pushing them onto anyone else, and I expect the people around me to do the same. While my partners have the right to seek both physical and emotional relationships with anyone they deem worthy, if I were to find out after the fact that one of them had a sexual encounter that I had no forewarning of, I would be devastated. If a person I considered a close friend revealed that they had an emotional or sexual attraction to me that I was not made aware of, I would be offended. Surprises are never good for me.

With the exception of presents, presents are good.

Advertising, or Why Watching Television is Hard

nba-commercials

Isn’t it so funny? Because see, Asian men are short and basketball players are tall. Contrast is amusing!

I saw a commercial last night for some cel phone thing that let you get NBA information all the time. I don’t really care about sports, or confusing phone add-ons, so I don’t recall exactly what they were trying to sell me. But this was the story: an Asian family is coming downstairs for breakfast, only to see that their dad has transformed into some famous tall black basketball player – I didn’t catch his name. See? Don’t care about sports. Anyway, his pajamas are super short and he looks very silly, he has a dialogue with his son to the effect of “you look different!” The mother looks at him, and in sultry-voice says “I’ve got something for you to do.” Cut to him cleaning the gutters without a ladder. The end.

On the surface, it’s basically “ha-ha, that’s so funny, he’s cleaning gutters because he’s tall.” And what they’re selling you is a famous basketball player in your house. If you had this phone thing, it’d be like having this basketball player at your disposal all the time. How fun for you!

Unfortunately, commercials (and all of television) are always rich with layers, usually exploiting negative cultural expectations regarding race, sex, and class. In this case, we’re given the Asian mom supposedly coming on to the big black man. This resonates with our expectation: big black men are virile, Asian women look cold on the surface, but are all secretly wild and kinky in bed. But it turns around! She wants him to clean the gutters! That’s funny because while it doesn’t follow the expectation of the dialogue, we’re still not surprised: this is a woman with a child, and a woman who looks her middle-age. Those women don’t want to have sex, they just want their husbands to do chores for them. So it’s a funny twist that doesn’t take us outside our realm of anticipated stereotypes.

This is how I watch television. All the time. On one hand, it’s incredibly frustrating, because I can’t just laugh at a joke. I can’t just sit through a love scene without picking apart its implications. On…well, not the other hand, but maybe the other side of the other hand, it’s also incredibly frustrating because I know that so many people just DO laugh at the jokes, and enjoy the scenes, and just buy it all without examining what their entertainment is telling them.

The worst culprit, of course, is advertising, because it is specifically aimed at selling you something, and only has a very short time to do so. However, whenever I see an ad get called out for encouraging dangerous cultural biases, there will inevitably be some detractor telling us that we’ve got our collective panties in a twist and it’s “just a commercial.” For example, this delightful ad for Audi aired during the Superbowl this year.

audi-superbowl-commercialThe commercial creates a subtle environment, in which every moment plays a part. The kid starts out anxious, unhappy that he’s going to prom alone. The mother’s reassurance is ineffective, but the father hands him the keys to the Audi and says “have fun.” A look of shock passes over his face, but now that he can drive the Audi, he’s more confident. He parks in the principal’s space, marches into the prom, and kisses the prom queen without introduction or overture. He’s cheered by the general assembly, but the prom king gives him a black eye. He drives home, exultant, and fades out to Audi telling us: “Bravery. It’s what defines us.”

Let’s go over what this kid did, and someone please tell me what was brave about it? He parks in the principal’s parking space. This is defiant, not brave. It exemplifies bravery as willingness to take something that does not belong to you (that part’s important, read it again). He kisses the prom queen, who does not even know he’s there until he’s touching her. That’s not bravery, that’s assault. It is again exemplifying bravery as willingness to take what you want regardless of the consequences. It frames the prom queen as a “what,” rather than a “who.”

The commercial was posted on the Slutwalk Facebook page, saying:
“Grabbing someone and kissing them without their permission is not Brave, it’s Cowardly, and it is Assault. Just because we’re women doesn’t mean that our default state of existence is community property. No Thanks to Venables Bell & Partners for creating this Audi ad, and inspiring a generation of consumers watching the ads at the Super Bowl to think that grabbing and kissing someone without their permission = Brave.”

One of the first responses was from a man who said, “It didn’t look as if she minded? And being a fictional account I don’t think anyone playing with a full deck would somehow misunderstand the message. Sex sells and we’d be tilting at windmills to try and stop it.”

This comment demonstrates two of the most popular flaws in thinking, first about sexual assault, and the second about the media’s impact on our consciousness.

So, the first comment: “it didn’t look as if she minded,” is an incredibly common response to an unexpected and non-consensual sexual interaction that is generally considered minor, such as a kiss. Lots of people in this internet discussion echoed that sentiment. The first issue with this comment is that consent can’t be given retroactively. That’s not how consent works. “Go for it, if s/he likes it then it was consensual,” is not an acceptable way to approach sexual contact. You’re rolling the dice that the girl you’re assaulting is into that kind of thing. And that’s just backwards thinking. The bigger issue with this comment is that he is himself forgetting his second statement, that this is a constructed fictional account. Of course she didn’t mind, she was scripted not to mind because we’re being fed a scenario in which the assailant’s behavior is lauded as “brave.” If she didn’t smile, it wouldn’t be a good ad.

The second half of his argument is that “being a fictional account I don’t think anyone playing with a full deck would somehow misunderstand the message,” and that “Sex sells and we’d be tilting at windmills to try and stop it.” He’s right about that second half, but what he’s not considering is what kind of sex is being sold here.

What he’s trying to argue, that anyone “playing with a full deck,” should supposedly be able to see, is that this is a kid with low self-esteem who just got to kiss the prom queen. You can kiss the prom queen too, if you drive an Audi. That simple. But advertising is not that simple. Rooms full of people spend lots of time and money planning and scripting these ads. There’s a reason that the prom queen didn’t approach him as he got out of his car, saying “Nice car, wanna fuck?” That would still be selling sex, and the nerd would still get to kiss the prom queen, but the message would be completely different.

The message Audi wants to sell us is that this kid is brave. And being brave, he is defiant. He takes things that don’t belong to him. That includes the principal’s parking space, and the prom queen – even when he gets punched in the eye by the person that prom queen belongs to, it was worth it, because he was brave.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Audi is trying to make the boys of America into rapists. I’m not calling them malicious. I’m saying that this is a culturally acceptable message to send, and by including it in their ad, they are keeping it alive while organizations like SlutWalk are trying so hard to kill it and replace it with consent culture.

While people like the Facebook commenter want us to believe that commercials are no big deal, that anyone “playing with a full deck” can see that it’s just fiction, the problem is that most people (him included) don’t put this much thought into the media they consume. I’d guess most people saw this commercial and thought “that’s so sweet, the nerd got the girl.” They thought, yeah, he is brave. Go you, boy in the Audi. They did NOT think, for a second, hey maybe that prom queen is a person. Maybe taking a kiss from the prom queen isn’t the same as taking the principal’s parking space. Maybe there’s something wrong here.

Popular culture and entertainment media feed each other in an endless loop, and accepting unacceptable behaviors in media representation makes the jobs of feminism, racial equity, consent culture, or any other group trying to prevent their own marginalization, so much harder. So, maybe it is “just a commercial,” but there are millions out there like it, and they keep getting made because people keep buying into their messages.

Body Positivity and Penis Size – What You Have versus What It Does

This blog was originally posted in Life on the Swingset on May 23, 2012.

I will confess, this post is not directly about swinging, poly, etc. However, as a sexually liberated group, I felt like I needed to share my feelings on a particular issue with this readership. Penis size judgement.

I have fallen madly in love with the body-positive movement. Let’s do away with body shaming of all kinds, and teach people who the only person who needs to love a body is its owner. Your value judgment is not a part of my body. I am in favor of this, and women everywhere are learning to embrace their ribs, their rolls, their nose hairs and the weird-shaped freckles on their nipples. We the body-positive are, slowly but surely, empowering the world. But we are falling down on the job in one crucial area.

I recently read an article online entitled Is a Small Penis a Feminist Issue? The writer of this article avers that while she really wants to be egalitarian, and tell men that all penises are equally beautiful and valuable, she can’t because “preference aside, we all know that different dicks feel different.” What she’s saying is not a lie, but she has utterly missed the point. Yes, it’s true, different dicks do feel different, but that doesn’t matter. The value of a penis is not its relationship to a vagina, or an asshole, or a mouth, or anything other than itself. Making someone else feel good does not determine whether a penis is good any more than being aesthetically appealing to a male determines whether a pair of breasts is good.

If we can shout from the roof-tops that all our bodies are beautiful, and all our bodies are good, why are we still treating penises like tools that only exist for their use-value? Women are embracing their vaginas for what they are, but penises are still viewed in light of what they do. It is true that there is a cultural idea that women are and men do. Women are for looking at. Men do things, make things, work. And because the idea of body-positivity is primarily centered around aesthetics, I suppose it is unsurprising that it caught on for women’s genitals faster than men’s. There are lots of books full of photos of vulvas, so that they can be looked upon and admired in all shapes and sizes. This is good. If there is a book like that of penises, someone please point me toward it. I want it for the human sexuality library at my job. Because I have never heard of such a thing.

I’m not trying to say that we don’t have the right to preferences. I have them, certainly. I know what I like and what I don’t, and I am allowed to have that. What I’m not allowed to do is act like my preference in what kind of penis makes my body feel good is the same thing as deciding what kind of penis is good. The author of this article tries to work her way toward this conclusion when she says that “like having fat, we tend to treat having a small penis like a character flaw. These aren’t character flaws!” She edges her way toward the right answer, but winds up her article going right back to the issue of what women like as the judgment of whether the penis is good.

Her final conclusion is that “Sure, there are women for whom a small dick is not a problem. But just like a lot of men are attracted to women with huge, perfect breasts, a lot of women prefer a big dick.”

First of all, her use of the term “perfect breasts” made me die a little inside, but while it’s a symptom of her overall misunderstanding of body positivity, it’s not what I’m discussing right now. The question of whether or not having a small penis is a “problem” is answered solely in terms of what women prefer. Having a small dick is a problem for some women. That may be true, but that’s the woman’s problem, not the penis’s. I wouldn’t be able to survive in this world if I thought that the value of my breasts, or my vulva, or any part of me, was determined by how much another person liked it. No more should any man think that the beauty and value of his penis are determined by how well it can please someone else.