3 Sep 2015

Motherhood, Work and Marissa Mayer

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

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo

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

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

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

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

21 Aug 2015

Sex work, writing work, care work, unpaid work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 Jul 2015

Ashley Madison, Marriage and Polyamory

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 Jul 2015

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

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

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Jun 2015

Queering Time

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

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

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

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

Mike: Death.

Tony: Life of the party!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 May 2015

Women on Leashes: Kink In The Public Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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