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.

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.

The Objectification Spectrum, and Where Flattering Meets Rude

This is obviously not my first post about objectification, consent to be gazed upon, or the concept of respect regarding sexual gazing. These are pet subjects for me, but I don’t want to re-cover ground I’ve already trod upon. However, I had a recent experience that made me question when and how one can and should give consent to being physically objectified, and the responsibility of the gazer in such situations.

Right, so that was incredibly vague. Here’s what happened:

A few weeks ago I went to a private BDSM play party, wherein I was generally comfortable and among friends, but the party was sufficiently well-attended I certainly didn’t know everyone. I was naked save for a piece of body jewelry, and received a lot of friendly comments toward my recently finished tattoo. At one point in the evening, a couple of men were standing behind me, one commenting on my tattoo, the other commenting on my body, making jokes to the effect of “oh, she has a tattoo? I didn’t notice.” They couldn’t have been more than a foot away, and I heard every word they said.

I was extremely uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable not because they were enjoying looking at my body, but because by commenting on it while so close to me, they either completely forgot that I was a person who was capable of hearing them, or they didn’t care. This I did not appreciate. I confess to being shy, and therefore generally unhappy with being spoken to by strangers, but at that close range I would much rather be spoken to than spoken about. I felt that my personhood was somehow being taken from me by being so freely commented upon without any nod to my living presence near them.

So, the next question in my mind was, what would have been the right way for that scenario to unfold? I suppose ideally, these men would have introduced themselves, and then shared their opinions with me, rather than simply near me. Second best would be to keep their comments to themselves until I was out of earshot, because while it’s generally considered rude to talk about other people, at least by avoiding being overheard they would be acknowledging that I am a person who can hear.

The other – much more complicated – question is, where on the spectrum does some kind of spoken communication need to happen to constitute consent? I’ve said before that I believe to make something visible is consent for it to be seen. To be looked at does not require explicit consent. Obviously, any thoughts that go along with looking also don’t. I can fantasize about whomever I want, whenever I want. Look at any part of me that you can see without touching – that’s fair game. Think your free personal thoughts about what you see, as innocuous or lewd as they may be.

But what comes next? To give consent of any kind involves some kind of spoken interaction, so it seems like speaking to someone should be a free action (to steal a term from RPG’s). On the other hand, street harassment often takes the form of words and is certainly not okay. I absolutely love this comic I found on the subject:

street_harassment1

Comic by Barry Deutsch – click through to read.

I’m constantly thinking about where lines are drawn, and the distinction here between what is a compliment and what is harassment gave me a lot of food for thought. It’s (mostly) not the words that make the difference. If a person at the aforementioned party approached me, made eye contact, and said “I think you have an incredibly hot ass,” I would not be threatened. I might be a little awkward, but I’d be flattered. It might even “make my day.” But when someone calls those words out to me on the street, it makes me very nervous.

The easy answer is that the line is about motivation, but since we can’t know someone else’s motives, it’s not a workable solution. I don’t know if the person talking to me wants to pick me up, assault me, or just offer me a compliment in passing. I can’t know, in either circumstance.

I really wanted a big “ta-da!” to close this out, but I’m honestly stymied. I can tell you with certainty that verbally expressing sexual desire toward a woman is not inherently harassment, but I can’t tell you exactly what is. Especially because there’s also a realm in between acceptable and unacceptable, and that is “rude.” What the men at the party did to me was rude. It was not harassment, but it wasn’t ok either. It was rude, which is somewhere between the two.

While I may not have a pretty bow to wrap this up in, I will say this line of thinking is making me realize how difficult it can be for men to honestly express their sexual desires toward women. If I was a good person who was often in fear of being labeled a predator, I’d err dramatically on the side of caution, and would thereby probably not have any sex ever. The lines are blurry, and as a woman I’m generally viewed as less threatening and therefore less likely to accidentally find myself on the wrong side of the line. As a woman, that line is interesting to contemplate. If I were a man, it would terrify me.

Cheating Confessions, Part 2: His Best Friend’s Penis

Cis-men – especially heterosexual cis-men – are widely assumed to be fiercely competitive, and in my experience this assumption has frequently proven true. In my poly lifestyle I find my male partners often take a long time becoming accustomed to one another and realizing they don’t have to fight for dominance. Mostly, though, this competition is subtle: scrutinizing each other’s behavior, being possessive of me, that sort of thing. I have only once, in my lifetime sexual history (which, I admit, is less than a decade), had a man directly ask me to compare his sexual performance, and specifically the size of his cock, to that of another man. True story.

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I’m really enjoying posting photos corresponding to the phases of my life I write about. This is from fall 2006, at a friend’s birthday party.

The fall of my sophomore year of college, I came back to campus (after a very eventful summer which is a subject for another story) and to my boyfriend Alex who was at this time unaware of my sexual indiscretions. We only stayed together about two weeks into the school year; just enough time for one more cheat before the break-up. When I say this is “part 2” I’m really not speaking chronologically: there were two other men in the interim, but this story is related to part 1 so I’m telling it first. Yes, I hear you, get on with it. Right, so where was I. Just got back to campus for sophomore year of college, Fall 2006.

Scott had gone back to his parents’ house in north Florida to go to another college, and I found myself becoming closer with his best friend, Tyler. I had gotten to know Tyler pretty well the previous year, and our friendship was quite similar to the one I had with Scott. Tyler, though, was more fickle in his affections, and the year before I often found myself ignored by him for a month or more at a time. When he was interested, however, we spent a lot of time together, and I spent quite a few nights in his bed (which was, conveniently, across the hall in the dorms). Like Scott, we didn’t have sex at first; unlike Scott, I didn’t have sex with Tyler until sophomore year, and we then had the opportunity for repeat performances.

Only the first time he and I had sex was while I was still with Alex, so I suppose this is only partly a cheating story, and mostly just a bad-fucking story.

Tyler knew throughout our friendship that I was involved with Scott, and sometimes looking back on it I think they might have talked about me quite a lot, possibly even turned the whole thing into a game between them. I find myself wondering about that because the first time I saw Tyler’s cock he outright asked me if it was bigger/better than Scott’s. I figure he was hoping for an answer he could rub in his best friend’s face. Well, to be perfectly honest, I only ever interacted with Scott’s penis one time, the room was dark, and I didn’t get a very good look. That was my answer, and it was the truth.

Tyler, though, was damned proud of his equipment and wanted it flattered: not without reason, as it was sizable and very interesting looking when it was hard. That sounds like a left-handed compliment, but I generally don’t have a lot of comments to offer about the aesthetics of a penis. Interesting means I liked to look at it, and that’s about the best compliment I’ve got in that department. I was nonetheless a bit flabbergasted by his directness in asking about his best friend’s package in opposition with his own.

Unfortunately for Tyler, his cockiness (see what I did there?) got the better of him, and he failed to actually figure out how a woman’s body works. Apparently someone informed him that big dicks gave women orgasms, and he stopped reading the manual after that. Obviously he wasn’t completely hopeless or I wouldn’t have spent so many nights in bed with him before getting formally introduced to the aforementioned penis. Tyler was extremely seductive and arousing before he got into my pants – hell, with the amount of time and effort he put into being with me at that time, he was practically my boyfriend. And he was a good one, then. We spent loads of time together, often in his car (a Tiburon, which at the time I thought was bitchin’ but now I realize is the staple vehicle of douchebags…though he and Scott both had absolutely beautiful sound systems in their cars, and we would often just drive around with the windows open listening to music. I sometimes think that their cars seduced me as much as they did. Beautiful music and vibrating engines will do that to a girl. Aaaaanyway, this was the longest parenthetical ever.) since we were college students with no money for real dates. In public, he was affectionate – in private, he was very physically attentive. He could get me panting and desperately wet with his touch.

This part of the story is depressing for me - allow me to soften it with this funny picture of me climbing a dead tree. Also from fall 2006.

This part of the story is depressing for me – allow me to soften it with this funny picture of me climbing a dead tree. Also from fall 2006.

All that completely turned around when our relationship became directly – which is to say penetratively – sexual. His idea of sex was to kiss me long enough to get me naked, then the condom went on and it was time for penetration. I often wasn’t wet at all, because, well, why would I be? This was yet another reason I grew to hate condoms over the years – if I’m not moderately lubricated already, the condom will effectively parch me completely. And then, bad friction. Bad friction while he pumped away on top of me, in missionary position, on a squeaky dorm bed. I did my best to tighten my muscles around him to get some deeper sensation, but with no warm-up my vagina would have none of it. I have never in my life faked an orgasm, but I admit I played up my enjoyment with him quite a lot.

After we had sex a few times, our relationship changed drastically. No longer courting me, he didn’t go out of his way to see me or be kind to me. And apparently dissatisfied with my sexual performance, he would openly mock me in front of our mutual friends, saying that I would “just lie there.” I’m pretty sure the phrase “dead fish” came up once or twice (which, for anyone other than him who has ever had sex with me, is obviously laughable). Generally he was a complete jerk, and then would ask if I was coming up to his room at night – though he often sent me back to my own room afterwards, which this semester wasn’t even in the same building as his. I admit, I went up to that room more than once after this behavior started. It took some time for it to sink in that he really was going to go ahead and treat me like crap now.

Tyler also asked me about his sexual abilities compared with Scott’s, and I don’t remember what I told him, but in hindsight comparing the experiences is amusing to me. When Scott left our college, he told me that he regretted not being around to pursue a real romantic relationship with me. After I started having sex with Tyler, our relationship became significantly less intimate than it was before. Funny things.

The only overall positive experience of having sex with Tyler that I can remember was a threesome that we had with my best girlfriend at the time. She and I had a sexually active friendship, and on several occasions had threesomes with guys that I was involved with. We had a lovely sexual chemistry, so the experiences were universally pretty awesome, and this was no exception. I think we managed to get Tyler caught up enough in our pheromones that the encounter was a satisfying one for everyone. She later theorized that he was using me to get into bed with her, but I don’t necessarily buy that. I briefly considered posting one of the many photos I have of her and me together, but unlike the men in these stories I still care about her enough to be interested in preserving her privacy.

As usual, with these little stories and glimpses, there’s no moral or nice little tie-in to end the story. Though I think I will end that story with this one: not long after Tyler and I stopped having sex (which was less a direct break-up and more a tapering off of contact), Scott came to visit us on campus. We were sitting outside smoking, and I headed inside to go to bed. Scott got up, and gave me a hug, and we were generally happy to see each other and catch up that night. Tyler got up to hug me, and I blew him off. He said something about why didn’t he get a hug, he thought he was my friend, something meant to be comical but also was a little petulant. I told him of course we’re not friends, you’re not even nice to me. BA-ZING! Yeah, no, not a great burn, but I almost never say anything mean to anyone, so being honest like that felt really good. It was really nice to place being honest about my feelings over not being rude.

Nudity, Sexuality, Body-Positivity: Why my sexiness (or lack thereof) has no bearing on my body-positive viewpoint.

Obviously this is all sex appeal. Photo by Allan Crain.

There is an idea in our culture that a naked human body is somehow inherently sexual. This is a fact that we take for granted in our everyday lives, to the point that I would be surprised if at least a few people didn’t read that sentence and think “wait, it’s not?” When I marched in the 2012 Pride parade wearing denim shorts and a pair of pasties, myself and a few other girls in similar garb were berated on the grounds that this was not “family friendly.” The implication there being, of course, that we were sexually explicit and therefore inappropriate for children’s eyes. We weren’t performing any sexual behaviors – we weren’t making out with each other, caressing our own or anyone else’s bodies, or making lewd gestures or comments. We simply had a whole lot of exposed skin. And frankly, at Pride, I think that ought to be ok, especially since it happens in June which in my city is approximately a billion degrees.

When Congressman Barney Frank was interviewed by CNS News regarding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in December of 2010, he was asked to address the issue of straight and homosexual men being required to shower together. His response was one of mock dismay, and he goes on to refer to it as a “silly issue,” asking “what is it you think goes on when you shower with homosexuals?”

The interviewer was offering the implication that if homosexual men were to share a shower with other men, heterosexual or otherwise, they would inevitably become aroused by the presence of naked male bodies. Because these men are attracted to men, being around them while nude will surely result in arousal. Congressmen Frank’s rebuttal is that showering is not a sex act, and heterosexual men are not going to be threatened by the presence of homosexuals in their showers. He says that homosexuals, “don’t get [them]selves dry-cleaned, [they] tend to take showers.” He defuses the sexual innuendo of the interviewer’s question by comparing showering to laundry, and I am on board with his comparison. In many ways, showering is a lot closer to laundry than it is to sex, but because it involves naked bodies a sexual association is inevitably placed upon it.

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Pictured: Debi Laszewski, professional bodybuilder, personal trainer, and model.

This assumption is so far reaching that we take it for granted, but it has troubling implications. If the purpose of the naked body is solely to fuck, then its sexual appeal becomes the most important measure of its worth. This is not only utterly wrong but often downright foolish. Here’s a not-very-funny story: I have a friend who is a college professor and body builder. He told me a story about a 19-year-old male student who walked into his office one day and saw a photo on his desktop of an award-winning female body builder, a friend of his. The student’s immediate reaction was “I wouldn’t fuck THAT!”

Needless to say, the student got an earful from his professor, but my simple response to this mindless outburst would be simply “so what?” This woman is taking mindful control of her body, and winning awards for it. It is hers to design and build to her specifications, and she prizes it enough to pit herself against other bodies in competition – and comes out on top! Yet somehow this young man seemed to think that his sexual desire – or lack thereof – for this woman was a legitimate basis on which to judge her body. He intentionally disparaged her body solely because he did not want to have sex with it. That’s more than mean, that’s insane.

This train of thinking about nudity, sexuality, and sexual desirability, makes the body-positivity movement immensely more difficult to propagate. I’ve heard people issue “reassurance” to women about their bodies by telling them, in essence, “there’s somebody out there who’s into that.” If the best thing you can tell a woman insecure about her naked body is that there’s someone in the world who’d want to fuck it, you’ve got an utterly warped sense of the human body. Telling women that they don’t have to conform to the Western white-hetero-middle-class ideals of beauty is a good start. Tell women that they don’t have to look like a Victoria’s Secret model. But don’t tell them that the reason they don’t have to look that way is because someone will still think they’re sexy. It’s probably true, and it’s good to feel sexy. But how fuckable a person’s body is doesn’t measure the value of that body.

People’s bodies are constantly judged with a sexual slant. Men disparage female body builders because nobody wants a woman who looks “like a man.” A sexy photograph of a tattooed woman on Facebook got the comment, “Interesting post but someday she’s gonna want to just git nekkid with someone…” These comments are not only disparaging a person’s body based on its sexual appeal, they’re judging people based on the bodies they’ve created ON PURPOSE. This is important to me.

I think the judgment of a modded body is different from the more common (but equally reprehensible) activities of fat-bashing and thin-bashing and judgment of any sort of natural bodily design. Those kinds of comments carry the implication that the person being judged is somehow unfortunate, that they should change their body to improve it, because obviously no one WANTS to be “like that,” whether the “that” in question is fat, thin, small breasted, large-assed, whatever. There’s a different flavor of ignorance there, that the person is somehow incomplete or needs improvement.

When someone flings sexually-based judgments at a modded body, it’s as if they’re saying the person has done something wrong. “Your body is for my enjoyment, so what on earth compelled you to do that to it?” seems to be the question. It’s almost accusatory.

I know that distinction was a bit of a transgression from my point, so I’ll bring it back around. In both cases, bodies are being viewed in terms of whether or not people want to have sex with them. And really, the only people I care about when it comes to their opinion on my fuckability, are my partners. My body image ought not to be based on my “attractiveness.” (I say ought not to because I’ll admit I get hung up on it too.) It should be based on what I’ve done with it, and whether my treatment of my body is what I desire, and whether said treatment is obtaining the desired results. For example, I’m incredibly pleased and satisfied with the tattoo on my back. I’m less pleased and satisfied with the current shape of my legs, because I don’t run as often as I want to. I’m not displeased with my legs because they aren’t sexy: I’m displeased because I’m working toward a goal and am not achieving it to my personal satisfaction.

My sister likes to argue with me over the term body-positivity, and say that really it ought to be body-neutrality. Bodies are not inherently positive OR negative, and we do not have the right to judge or shame the bodies of others. Thus, neutral. I’ll agree with that; however body-positivity for me isn’t necessarily the same as self-love, -image, or -esteem. Body positivity is about accepting other people’s body choices as their own, and encouraging their intentional bodies. I will confess a distaste for people with apathy toward their own bodies. But if you are owning and creating your body to your personal specifications, you are what body-positivity is about for me. I don’t care if you love yourself, or if you look in the mirror and feel pretty, or whatever. It’s about acknowledging your body as your instrument, and owning its shape and maintenance. It’s about self-consciousness, rather than self-esteem. And it’s completely incompatible with the sexual objectification of the naked body, which is all about becoming desirable to a non-existent and unreachable public opinion. The non-consensual sexualization of my body destroys my agency by framing it in terms I didn’t choose or create, based on a standard that is ill-defined and worse-understood. It cannot possibly coexist with my idea of body-positivity, and frankly I like my opinions better.

Drinking and Kinking in Christina Aguilera’s “Not Myself Tonight”

I wrote this several years ago, and never really had anywhere to put it before now. And now, I have a venue where I get to write about WHATEVER I WANT. So, I tidied it up a bit, and now you’re getting a critique of a sexy music video.

If you haven’t seen the video I’m talking about, the song is “Not Myself Tonight” by Christina Aguilera.

This is an example of a surprisingly common phenomenon where the imagery of a music video has almost nothing to do with the content of the song. The song seems to be about a girl who’s getting drunk, grinding on the dance floor, and making out with strangers. Pretty standard fare, really, with the exception of Christina Aguilera employing the word “fuck” – something I don’t recall her ever doing.

notmyselftonightImage-wise, this video is PRETTY. It’s a bit of a kink clusterfuck, ranging from kitten-play-style crawling on the floor in a collar, with a bowl in front of her; to playing dance-floor dominatrix, pulling hair and making a room full of back up dancers kneel around her. You also see such costume gems as a high-fashion gimp and what appears to be a drag queen in a vinyl teddy and big big hair. Also, my personal favorite, the blinged-out ball-gag.

So, yeah, ok, I’m not telling you anything you wouldn’t know watching this video by yourself. However, there’s something else going on in there. Most of the song doesn’t match up with the imagery Christina is presenting, but what does align is lots and lots of kink with lines like “I’m feeling unusual,” “I’m out of character,” etc. The implication, of course, being that sometimes nice girls want to get naughty. As the type who likes to be naughty pretty much all the time, I’m not sure how much I like that message. I think Christina is trying to dance around kink, not quite embracing it, but showing it to us so we believe she’s edgy.

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Say what you want about the much more popular Rihanna song “S&M” (which took a lot of judgment from the vanilla and kink communities alike when it came out), but she went all out with her message. She said, shamelessly, “Feels so good being bad, there’s no way I’m turning back.” Christina is saying “I’m out of character.”*

“If you really knew me you’d know it’s not the norm,” are Aguilera’s words. What I hear is, “If I don’t embrace this fully, then you can’t judge me.” She’s walking that fine line that appeals to the vanilla man: she’s a freak SOMETIMES. She thinks that vinyl is sexy SOMETIMES, but she won’t threaten your manhood by being a dominant woman. She likes to make out with girls SOMETIMES, but don’t worry, your manhood is not threatened because she’s still straight. “If you don’t like it fuck you,” she says, but she also says it’s just for tonight. In the long term, she’s safe, vanilla, heteronormative Christina.

I just stuck this photo in here because I have a shoe fetish. Ballet heels. Yum.

I just stuck this photo in here because I have a shoe fetish. Ballet heels. Yum.

It also plays to the more dangerous stereotype of the sexually uninhibited drunk woman. She says “I’m taking shots,” and “I’m normally in the corner just standing,” but because she’s drunk she’s “getting crazy.” Yes, alcohol does reduce inhibition. Obviously I’m not saying that it doesn’t. But perpetuating the image of the girl who acts wild because she’s drunk sucks for many reasons. First, is the problem of guys who intentionally get girls drunk to create this effect and thereby get laid. The logic is, it’s not that the girl doesn’t WANT to have sex, she’s just uptight and needs to get loosened up with some drink. Feminists and other people with brains call this acquaintance rape or, at best, coercion.

The second problem is that it feeds the idea that women AREN’T sexually free when they’re sober. A normal, sober, woman ought to be standing in the corner. And when you’re sober you shouldn’t want to kiss the boys and the girls. But when you’re drunk you get a pass. That both encourages permissiveness of bad behavior while drinking (“I didn’t mean to cheat on you, I was drunk”) and discourages sexual freedom while sober. Sexual uninhibited-ness, within the confines of safe, sane, consensual activity, is a GOOD THING. It’s not something to be excused away with drink.

After watching this video a few times, my feelings remain mixed. I do have all of the previously listed moral qualms with her message. At the same time, I think the costumes, the choreography, the whole production, are all breathtaking. I could watch her pour liquid latex on herself all day and never get tired of it. Freeze the video at 1:09. Thank me later. Aesthetically, I am in love with this video!

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You’re welcome.

So I am left ambivalent. Perhaps I’ll superimpose another song onto the video for this one, so my eyes can be happy while my ears are left unoffended. I wonder how “Hotel California” would line up?**

*Fun fact regarding timelines: Christina Aguilera’s “Not Myself Tonight” video was released in April 2010 (the full album “Bionic” was released in June). Rihanna’s “S&M” video was released in January 2011 (the album, “Loud,” was released the previous November). In every way, Christina’s song was first. So obviously Christina was not riding the coat-tails of Rihanna’s successful video. And “Not Myself Tonight” was nowhere NEAR the hit that “S&M” was, so we certainly can’t say the opposite. If the two influenced each other at all, maybe Rihanna saw Christina’s video and wanted to take it one step further? Who knows?

** The “Hotel California” thing was totally a joke, but if you play “S&M” over the video for “Not Myself Tonight,” it almost works. Sadly, “S&M” is almost a full minute longer, so that kinda fucks that up. But other than that, the music and choreography look uncannily good together.