22 Apr 2014

**CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON ONE OF ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK**
 
Recently, I was listening to an excellent panel discussion on Orange is The New Black. Like most people who have found themselves hopelessly addicted to the programme, binge-watching every episode in a matter of a days and then lying around bereft waiting for the new series to be released, I loved the series for its varied, realistic and very raw cast of characters, the fact it put women's stories centre stage, and of course the fact that as well as heart-wrenching it is also very, very funny.

And yet, unfortunately, it seems that one piece of pop culture that focuses on real women - old women, black women, Latina women, overweight women, butch women, trans women as well as white, young, slim, cisgender feminine women - is apparently still one piece too many for some. A male listener put his hand up during the Q & A section of the discussion and said that he thought the depiction of men in the show was “horrendous”, that the sex scenes in the show were “horrendous”, and that the fictional prison was “a matriarchy”. I could almost feel a collective sigh of “Oh, for fucks’ sake, can we not avoid someone whining ‘What about teh menz?’ for even one frickin’ hour?” go through the women seated in the room, and although the speakers gave dignified answers, none of them said what I’d really like to have heard them say in response to this man.

Firstly, I’d have said, let’s address your real issue. Do you really care that some men (and it is only some men, as there also sympathetic and ambiguous male characters in the show) are portrayed as power-abusing shits in OITNB, or can you just not stand the fact that all the male characters play second fiddle to the female ensemble? Because I’m guessing that’s your real problem. Not that Pornstache is a corrupt, sleazy, excuse for a human being who abuses drug-addicted prisoners for his own sexual gratification, gropes Piper, tries to blackmail Red and lets Trish die of an OD to cover his own back. Not that Healey is a homophobe who at first is apparently helping Piper but is so appalled at the prospect of her being a lesbian that he ends up trying to control and punish her. Or even that prison guard Luschek is a drunk racist with little concern for his charges. But that all these men are in the periphery of the storyline, not central to it. I’m betting that’s what gets your goat – that men don't get the spotlight in this series.

So I’d say to you, try to imagine a world where men are rarely, if ever centre stage. Where men are portrayed as, at best helpers and supporters to female characters whose lives are the truly important ones, and at worst, as visually pleasing window dressing to fill out the story, or simply absent. Where male audiences are expected to be grateful that in a cast of women, there might be one token male character. Where men are never portrayed in nuanced or complex ways, but instead are fitted into insultingly simple tropes of dutiful spouses, disposable sex objects, smart and ugly or attractive and dumb. Where the sexuality of men over 35 is rarely if ever acknowledged, and where lead roles for men over 35 are even rarer. Where same-sex relationships between men are considered mere tantalizing fodder for the opposite sex to masturbate over, rather than serious and loving connections.

It’s a pretty shitty world, isn’t it? Not one that you want to be in, really, is it? Well, that’s the media world women are expected to accept without complaint, and perhaps that’s your real fear about TV programmes which break the mould becoming popular. You’re afraid that the fire hydrant will become the dog, and that women will treat men with the same contempt that has been foisted upon us by decades of a medium that wants to reduce us to tiresome tropes. But I’d say, don’t assume women will descend to such a level; consider that women might like to level the playing field upward. Also, consider that depicting the men who do terrible things to women is not an attack on all men, nor on you as an individual, but rather something that is not done enough, or that is done in cringeworthy ways which manage to romanticize abuse, implicate the victim as complicit in her abuse, and excuse the perpetrator. Yes, it’s uncomfortable watching these things. Perhaps it makes you feel guilty for sharing your gender identity with these people. So I’d say to you, how do you think it feels seeing your gender constantly represented as inferior, mindless, disposable? Women have had to endure far more tarring with the broad strokes of the same brush than you ever will, so if I were you I’d be grateful that a couple of shitty prison guards is the worst depiction of manhood you’ve ever had to endure.

All that aside, the questioner's take on the programme, as one panellist pointed out, is also overly simplistic. It ignores that fact that the behaviour of the women in the show is also pretty ‘horrendous’. Every female character is flawed – how could they not be, they have all done enough to end up in prison, after all! – and some are so deluded, selfish or aggressive that most of their value to the show is as comedy fodder or serve as contrast to our OK-she’s-may-be-in-prison-and-she-messes-her-lovers-around-a-lot-but-she-never-did-anything-that-bad-so-we-still-like-her protagonist, Piper. There are also deeply sympathetic male characters, such as John, the young and na├»ve prison guard who falls in love with Daya. Although Healey’s relationship with Piper is troubled, there is a sense that he has genuine sympathy for her and wants to help her, even though he goes about this in a controlling and paternalistic manner. We see that his life outside of the prison is not without its frustrations, and we are privy to his troubled relationship with his Russian wife. Like the women, the men in OITNB are not two-dimensional caricatures, but rather fleshed-out, convincing portraits of imperfect human beings. Even Pornstache is not devoid of empathic characteristics - his lousy attitude towards women seems to originate more from loneliness and frustration rather than misogyny, as demonstrated by his tenderness towards Daya when he believes that she reciprocates his feelings. The sex scenes between them may be uncomfortable for us as viewers, knowing as we do that Daya is faking feelings for Mendez in order to frame him, but they are not violent or degrading, as we might expect from his character, and the balance of power is ambiguous - it is as easy for us to laugh at Mendez starry-eyed delusions that Daya loves him as it is to cringe for Daya's ordeal of having sex with a man she despises.
 
As for that old hooey about matriarchies? Please. As one panellist pointed out, the power of Figuroa, the female assistant to the warden is entirely derived from the unseen male figure she serves, and it can hardly be said that she acts as much of a friend to the prisoners, instead prioritising the prison's media image and financial outlook over any human considerations. Yes, amongst the prisoners some of the older women hold sway over the younger ones - Red alternates between playing mother and dictator to her favourite women - but these relationships are entirely a result of the artificial and limited circumstances within which they take place. Outside of the prison, it is doubtful that many of the women would forge links with each other due to their differing class and race positions, and it is also highly doubtful that they would be able exercise the kind of power that they can exercise over their follow prisoners, over anyone on the outside. If this is an environment where "women rule", then this says a great deal about just how restrictive circumstances have to be before women can wield any power. The power of the oppressed is simply not comparable to any kind of real power - yes, the women forge alliances, make deals, barter for goods, protect their allies and attack those who threaten them, but they do so out of necessity - because they're in fucking prison. To say that this reflects any kind of genuinely empowering structure of female relationships is frankly insulting, and no more true than suggesting that zoo animals (to which the women are compared in the programme's title music) have more power than their keepers.
 
Still love the show though. Roll on June!

19 Apr 2014

Navigating Kink While Feminist: My Presentation from PCA/ACA 2014

I've just spent a wonderful week in Chicago at the American Popular Culture Association's 44th Annual conference. There I was lucky enough to present in a BDSM/Fetish Studies Panel, where I talked about my adventures in kink, feminism and pop culture, three topics I researched in depth when writing my 2012 'Thinking Kink' blog series for Bitch magazine.

My presentation was received very well and I had some fantastic fellow presenters. I also had the honour of seeing my paper being the first to sell out on the 'Scholar Exchange' table, and as a result I promised I would upload my presentation for those who missed out.
 
Here is the text of my speech:
 



And here are the accompanying Powerpoint slides:
 


Feel free to share, but please ensure the work is properly attributed, please do not remove the copyright notice, and do not alter it in any way .

Happy reading and thank you to everyone who took an interest in my work!

11 Apr 2014

I'm thrilled to be off to Chicago to speak at the American Culture/Popular Culture Association's National Conference. On Wednesday April 16, I'll be giving a talk on my 'Thinking Kink' blog series and reflecting on what I learnt from writing about the intersection of feminism, BDSM and pop culture.

If you're around, do come see me speaking in the "Critical Scrutiny of BDSM" session, taking place in "Houston" between 1.15 and 2.45pm.

I'll be uploading my presentation slides and text shortly after the conference finishes on Saturday 19th April, so do check back in if you'd like to read them.

9 Apr 2014

Katha Pollitt, Melissa Gira Grant, and Sex Work

I read with interest Katha Pollitt's piece for The Nation, "Why Do So Many Leftists Want Sex Work to be The New Normal?", which was inspired by Melissa Gira Grant's controversial new book in defence of sex work, Playing The Whore (which I have already explored in length in this post). It's somewhat disappointing to see so many great feminists falling for pernicious myths about sex work, and I wonder what it is that's stopping them seeing past the often-trotted-out misconceptions about sex work, what it is, and what it means for gender relations.
 
Pollitt sets her thoughts up in the deeply unhelpful, divisive manner that anti-sex-work feminists seem unable to discard. Her first move is to sarcastically over-simplify the point that Gira Grant's book is making. "Now, selling sex is sex work—just another service job, with good points and bad—and if you suggest that the women who perform it are anything less than free agents, perhaps even “empowered” if they make enough money, you’re just a prude". Nowhere in her book does Grant say anything that could be considered a call for everyone to embrace sex work in the name of liberation, but anti-SW fems clearly feel so offended by the suggestion that they sanction a way of having sex that they personally deem unacceptable, that they feel the need to come out swinging with sarky comments like these.
 
Pollitt pulls out all of the anti-SW arguments, accusing Gira Grant of not saying enough about "the women at the heart of this debate: those who are enslaved and coerced—illegal immigrants, young girls, runaways and throwaways, many of them survivors of sexual trauma, as well as transwomen and others cast out of mainstream society." This assumes that anti-SW feminists have the right to set the terms of the debate, even when those terms are irrelevant and inaccurate. No one fights more loudly than sex workers themselves for  the right women and men to do sex work free from coercion, harm and stigma; the idea that you cannot believe sex work is a job if you also condemn the idea that anyone ever be forced into it is a massive red herring. Why should Gira Grant be obliged to be a spokesperson for trafficked women, when what she is talking about is consensual, freely chosen sex work? And if you're going to come straight back at me with "Well, it's impossible to untangle the two, sex work and trafficking go hand in hand", are you then also going to say that we should smash the restaurant industry to smithereens and make domestic service illegal, because both of those industries have a helluva lot of shady underparts where people (mostly poor, vulnerable women) are trafficked, exploited and harmed? If not, then you have to accept that defending a type of work does not entail that you spend all your time apologising for and advocating for those who have been abused in ways that are (sometimes only tangentially) related to that industry. Because it goes without saying that any 'job' where someone has their passport taken off them, is lied to, is locked in a basement and beaten, underfed, not paid or exploited is not a job at all, it's a terrible crime. So why do we insist that Grant not allowed to talk about sex work without having to constantly stop and remind us about those for whom sex is not a job, but a horrendous coercive nightmare? We wouldn't just be trying to derail her argument and demand that she justify herself in a way that anti-SW fems are never asked to, now, would we?
 
That brings to my next point, the inevitable idea that as long as some women are trafficked, no real consent to sex work exists. This, as Grant points out in her book, is a very dangerous argument to make, as it inadvertently supports the already-too-common idea that sex workers cannot be raped. If, against the background of a sexist society built upon male privilege, sex workers' choice to do their job is meaningless, then presumably so is their consent. If they are so brainwashed by the patriarchy that we don't believe their consent to do their job is 'real', then presumably the flipside, their withdrawal of consent to parts of that job, can't be real either. Feminists can't have it both ways. We can't say that we believe in women, that we trust women (one of the major pro-choice slogans), that women are worthy of a place in this world to make decisions, make changes and do important work that affects and shapes society, and then suggest that certain subsets of women are just too stupid to know when they're being conditioned by the patriarchy. It doesn't just hack at the very foundations of feminism, but it's also obnoxiously elitist. As Gayle Rubin once said of anti-BDSM  feminist writing "the erotic preferences of the writer seem to be presumed as universal". Pollitt and anti-sex-work feminists impose a similar assumption by treating sex as a sacred cow, a different, unique case. She rejects the idea that "all service work [can be] collapsed into one", and clearly thinks that there is a difference between being up to your arms in food grease for £4.50 an hour and performing oral sex for say, £80 an hour (I have done the former, in a pub kitchen when I was 20, while hearing about my colleague's sister doing the latter. I know who I felt was "the mug" in that particular situation). But that is simply her opinion. She sees sex as something different from baking bread, lugging hods of bricks about, cleaning toilets, changing incontinence pads on drooling people with Parkinson's (the latter being another job your writer has done). And I believe that's because at root, she holds a fundamental idea about how sex should be, which she is trying to impose on the rest of us.
 
Pollitt argues that what she objects to is the asymmetry of it all, the fact it's mostly men who buy sex and women who sell it. This, she claims, feeds into a culture of entitlement. And yes, this is something that used to trouble me too. Why, I wondered, if men can just buy sex, would they ever bother being nice to a woman when there's clearly no need for that effort? (When I voiced this to a sex worker on Twitter, she said something along the lines of "God, URGH, I hate the idea of someone 'being nice to me' just because they think it'll get them sex!"). Pollitt suggests that sex work sends out the message that "men are entitled to sex without attracting a partner, even to the limited extent of a pickup in a bar, much less pleasing or satisfying her". This is where I think a lot of anti-SW fems draw artificial lines. As I said in my piece about Gira Grant's book, "all sex, paid for or not, exists on a continuum". Is there really as much of a difference between paying for sex and the aforementioned "pickup in a bar" as Pollitt thinks there is? Can we guarantee that the man who goes out for a one-night stand has any interest in pleasing or satisfying the women he finds (if indeed he does find one), or is it safer to assume he probably just wants a quick fuck? And what of his female partner, do we assume that she is also interested in mutual pleasure and intimacy, or might she just be someone who wants to get laid? In a world of fuck buddies, friends with benefits, play partners, one night stands and a million other ways to have casual sex, it's clear that humanity strongly rejects the idea that there is one right or best way to do sex. And we have not got a shot in hell of assuring that all or any of these ways of making genitals meet involves respect, equality or even pleasure (although obviously one would hope that at least some of them do), because we cannot police the bedroom, and hopefully, as feminists, we have no wish to either. Yet according to anti-SW feminists, as soon as sex is paid for, and that transaction goes from male to female, that particular act of sex somehow becomes instantly wrong and a way of propping up the patriarchy.As I also said in my post, if we apply this thinking consistently, then "Does that mean that every man who buys dinner for a woman and then has sex with her afterwards gets his kicks not from the sex, but from the impact on his credit card that two nice steaks will have? Does that mean that men whose wives do not work in order to care for children are secretly high-fiving themselves at 'owning' the 'commodity' of their wife's body every time they have sex with her?"
 
In my limited dealings with sex workers (mostly online, via Twitter, email and blogs), the issue of women buying sex has often been raised. Several sex workers have said to me that they believe the gender asymmetry of sex purchase has a lot less to do with the stereotype of male demand (and the accompanying icky idea of female unwillingness, this myth that women 'don't really like sex' and just do it to please men) and much more to do with the fact women are much more advantageously placed when it comes to finding casual sex partners. My male friends have unanimously told me how easy it is to be a single woman in a nightclub, as opposed to a single man. One is constantly policed, viewed as sleazy, desperate or creepy. The other is "just having fun". (And yes I know the ubiquitous creepy man in a nightclub who inevitably finds a way to wreck women's nights by sleazing on them deserves to be policed, but that is not the point I'm making here.) In my local area, single women can get into a swinger's club for £15 - for single men it's £35, if they're allowed in at all (some nights are listed as just "couples and single women"). We assume that we live in this society where everything defaults to men, where women and our lives and our bodies are constantly controlled so that we will fit a stereotype that pleases men. And yet, my intelligent, attractive, polite 29 year-old male friends will tell you that they do not experience a society that is out to please them at all. Instead they experience rejection, insecurity and fear of being perceived precisely as that "sleazy man". They find approaching girls difficult, awkward and riddled with potential for (sometimes extremely rude) rejection. They feel that the power is anywhere but in their hands.
 
As a slim-ish, young-ish, white woman with feminine presentation I have to acknowledge that on balance, it's pretty easy for me to go out and find casual sex, if that's what I want., and definitely easier for me than it is for my male counterparts. Even if I couldn't access sex so easily, I doubt I'd want to simply pay someone to pleasure me, but that's just me - it's not evidence that as Pollitt and anti-SW feminists assume, that women all desire this meaningful, 'connected', loving type of sex (and I don't, anyway - the very idea sends me to sleep). Plus, if Pollitt's assumption that we live in a society of male sexual entitlement, or that the existence of sex work props that up, is true, then why aren't all my male friends who struggle with girls just giving up and going to sex workers? Why are they still meeting women the 'normal way', forming relationships, going through the struggle of making connections, if all men are just supposed to want callous, uncaring, casual sex? And why do we assume that all sex work involves only the latter kind of sex, or that all non-paid for sex entails meaningful, tender encounters where both partners fully acknowledge each other's humanity? We do not have any grounds for making these assumptions other than our own prejudices. Which is why we should be listening to the likes of Gira Grant, a former sex worker herself, who actually has experience of the issue we are so blithely theorising about.
 
Pollitt is trying to throw sex workers a bone by saying "It’s one thing to say sex workers shouldn’t be stigmatized, let alone put in jail." However, she betrays the notion that she truly supports sex workers in any way by immediately going on to say "But when feminists argue that sex work should be normalized, they accept male privilege they would attack in any other area." So where exactly does that leave sex workers? Can't stigmatize them, but can't normalize them either. Erm... It doesn't seem particularly sisterly to sigh "Well, we'll accept that your work has to exist if we really must, and if it'll keep you out of jail, but I don't want to hear anyone saying anything good about it, nor do I want any slowing of our fight to ultimately end the profession you're in." It seems patronising and dictatorial.
 
None of us are going to live long enough to see the feminist utopia come to fruition, so ultimately none of us know what it's going to look like. Maybe it'll be a Marxist paradise where no one pays for anything - not sex or clothes or bread or writing (yo!). Maybe instead it'll be a gender-equal sexual free-for-all, where women and men, old and young, gay, straight, trans, able and disabled people sometimes have sex in exchange for something else, and sometimes have it for no reason other than pleasure, and no one gives a frig (several SWs suggested to me that they believed more women would pay for sex if there was less stigma and more ways to guarantee personal safety). But you don't get to dictate what this "most feminist" world would look like based on nothing other than your own personal prejudices. If you don't like the idea of sex work, fine. (Sometimes I really don't, either.) You don't like what (you think) the existence of the sex industry says about gender, or the effect you believe it has on relations between the genders. But til you can show me irrefutable proof that a woman accepting cash for sex is worse or different than a woman accepting an engagement ring worth thousands of pounds in return for nothing other than her sexual loyalty, or that one or both of those women are so disempowered by the sexist society we live in that their actions cannot be said to be feely chosen, you don't get to dictate that we can't say anything positive about sex workers lest we "normalize" them.

31 Mar 2014

The Complications of Compliments

"If it's not too anti-feminist to say this...."
"Can I be horrendously sexist for a minute?"
"I'm about to say something misogynistic..."
 
These are not phrases that immediately precede words of terrible sexism, as one might think. It's entirely understandable that that's exactly what you're expecting to hear, as we all know that as soon as someone utters the words "I'm not racist, but....", they're guaranteed to finish the sentence with a proclamation of racial prejudice. Ditto "I'm not a homophobe, but...", "I've got nothing against them, but..." and all other passive-aggressive forms of expressing bigotry.
 
However, these three phrases were uttered by men in my life, intelligent men who know that any expression of sexism to my ears will be met with a rebuke so forceful it will burn their faces off, so one might expect them to tread a bit more carefully than the average caveman who complains about gays or people with brown skin or thinks sexist jokes are a way to impress a woman. And you'd be right. What followed the three phrases above were not jokes about washing up or domestic violence, not proclamations that the gender pay gap is just women's fault for wanting to have babies, not suggestions that wearing a short skirt is 'asking for it' nor any of the garden-variety expressions of misogyny that one unfortunately still encounters far too often in this supposedly progressive society. Instead, two were compliments about my appearance, and the other was an admission from a male friend that he had had sexual thoughts about a woman he saw that day.
 
So why such caution in expressing these non-earth-shattering thoughts? Has the stereotype of feminism as hostile to all matters sexual and appearance-based really permeated so far that even the smart, feminist-friendly men in my life are afraid to say "You look nice today?" or "I found the woman in front of me in the queue attractive?".
 
If it has, I'm not going to blame feminism for this misunderstanding. To my mind, it's pretty easy to understand. Feminism never made it a crime to comment on a woman's appearance. What feminism has always objected to, is the treatment of women as if their appearance is the first, or only, thing that matters about them, the disproportionate focus placed on the appearance of women, while men's appearances are secondary to their (already assumed) capabilities as people, the insane pressure on women to appear a certain way, and the framing of female sexuality as nothing more than a performance to visually appeal to others and please men.
 
Unfortunately, paranoia about endorsing any of the last four phenomena appears to be halting men from even entering the arena of complimenting women, to the point where they find it safer to just say nothing, rather than risk a torrent of infuriated abuse. Again, I repeat, that's not feminism's fault - if anything, it's the fault of an insidiously-planted and still much-supported warping of feminism's image to that of the (and oh, god I really hate using this phrase) man-hating, humourless harridan.
 
Even though a quick glance around the average feminist meeting will show you plenty of young, slim, white, long-haired, feminine women whose appearance could frankly not be more media-friendly and who tend to outnumber those who prefer short hair or lumberjack shirts, the feared yet mythical misandrist warrior is still the face of feminism in so many people's minds. Even in those of the men who know and love myself (young-ish, size 10, long-haired, make-up and dress-wearing) and many other feminist women in all our multi-faceted, strident glory. How is it that such a tired and offensive stereotype still manages to wash away these men's knowledge of real women, and replace it with the notion that if they tell me I look nice today, they're going to get their face smashed in?
 
It fucks me off that debates still rage about whether we should be trying to make feminism less 'scary', more accessible and more 'appealing'. I say, absolutely not. I say, I'm all for educating and explaining, but I'm dead against pandering, and I am not dressing up my belief system as anything other than its own messy, furious glory in order to placate those who demand such a disguise in the first place. If you aren't sympathetic to feminism's aims to begin with - and that's not the same as admitting you don't know a lot about it, or don't understand certain parts of it, because those admissions are not a problem in themselves - then it's not my job to make it 'prettier' for you. If you can read and you've got internet access (which your reading my blog implies you do!), then you have all you need to educate yourself. If you're already thinking "Wot, I might not be able to refer to women who reject me as 'prick-teasing sluts'?" with outrage, then me trying to glossy-up feminism for you ain't gonna achieve a damn thing - your problems with women run deeper than any argument I can offer in favour of not treating them like shit.
 
But to the 'good guys' who are confused, who feel that the demand for respect sometimes jars with the way they look at, or think about, women, and feel guilty about that fact, I'll say this. It's OK to find people attractive. It's OK to notice a stranger's body parts. It's OK to fantasize, and even though I know there are feminists out there who deeply disagree with this, I believe it's OK to have fantasies that seem dirty, violent, disrespectful, or involve language or imagery that you would not dream of describing out loud. Why? Because they're just fucking fantasies. They're not hurting anyone. If you're feeling like you want to make those fantasies a reality in a way that disregards the agency or bodily autonomy of another person, then that's a problem, yes. But I refer you to my comments above - if that's your problem, it's not an issue for feminism. It's an issue for the therapist's couch, and that's where you should be heading for guidance. As I said in my previous post about porn addiction, I don't care what sexual fantasies a man has, or what his thoughts are about a woman's appearance, as long as he continues to behave in a way that respects women as full people, not just bodies, and not just there for his entertainment. I'm not interested in policing what's in anyone's head - because god knows I'd be thrown in the clink sharpish if people could see some of what goes on in mine.
 
Also, while there are some lucky people who genuinely don't care about how they look, most of us - male and female - do. Although I agree that the disproportionate emphasis on female appearance is evidence of a sexist society, and that our increasingly visual culture is threatening to spiral out of control, I don't think caring about looks per se is evidence that we're warped as a species. Far from it, I think it's quite natural. Animals groom themselves and so do we. In some Native American societies, it was the men who plucked their eyebrows and painted their faces to appeal to the women. We all want to be noticed, we want to be found attractive, and in most cases, that's because we would rather like to have some sex. If I was planning to celibate for the rest of my life, then I might take a lot less care over my appearance (and who knows, I might still strike lucky, because much as a sexist society tells me I'm nothing without my hair done, my make-up flawless, my legs shaved etck, I can recognise that I'm not actually hideous without those things), but the reality is that I'm a pretty highly-sexed individual, and I want the people I find attractive to want to have sex with me. Shocker! So if someone I know and trust compliments me on my appearance - whether or not they're the object of my attraction -  I might be quite pleased, because it's a little bit of confirmation that my career as a sexually active human being is likely to continue.
 
What I'm not going to be pleased about are the following: wolf whistles, car horns being honked, strangers shouting comments about my appearance in the street, comments that reduce me to nothing other than body parts, being touched without my consent, and a million other sleazy, disrespectful approaches that every woman you know will have experienced at some point in her life. What's the difference between this and my male friend telling me I look nice? It's pretty simple. In one scenario, I know I am being seen as a full, varied and complex human being, with feelings, thoughts, values and a personality as well as a face, hair, a bum, boobs and a vagina, and I know this because the person addressing me has known, loved and respected me for 15 years. In all the other scenarios, I instead experience the horrible sensation of having my humanity disregarded and being defined by nothing more than my body. That's the difference. Every woman knows it, because we've all experienced the shitty, undermining and often threatening way in which the latter is carried out, and if he cares about women at all, every man will make sure he knows that difference too.
 
Now, some man (or woman) might be looking at me from across the street and thinking about my bum or boobs or vagina in a way that makes them feel guilty. They may be having 'animalistic' thoughts, filthy fantasies, imagining my body in all kinds of naughty positions. But unless that person uses their thoughts as an excuse to approach me in a way that reduces me to nothing other than a receptive body, I do not care what they're thinking. I have no wish to condemn that person as anti-feminist. A person having dirty thoughts about me and still respecting me as a human being are not mutually exclusive. If you think the two are, then that is your problem to resolve, not feminism's.
 
It's really not that complicated.

12 Mar 2014

How polyamory got me thinking about female solidarity

Whenever the media is lacking in convenient reasons to take a pop at feminism, you can be sure it will manufacture one sharpish. Whether it's Lily Allen's most recent bit of stirring about how apparently feminism is worthless because it has just descended into one big bitch fight or the gleefully seized-upon controversy over Paris Lees' assertion that she doesn't mind cat-calls, the image of modern (and especially online) feminism seems to be one of a world turned in on itself, where we spend not enough time fighting the real enemies (sexual and physical violence against women, attacks on our reproductive rights, media sexism, economic discrimination and so on) and too much time telling each other we're "doing feminism wrong."
 
Only this morning I saw a comment on an article about Femen, demanding that we stop using the word 'feminists' to describe the problematic Ukrainian group, because they a) have Islamophobic views and b) use their bare breasts to get their point across. Well, shit. Betty Friedan and NOW used to condemn lesbians as "the lavender menace" and exclude them from the women's rights movement, yet interestingly we don't deny these wealthy, middle-class American women the right to call themselves feminists just because they held shitty views in the past. But any attempt at feminism from a former Eastern Bloc country must apparently be slapped down if it's not as media-literate as, or politically aligned with, privileged US and UK feminists. I'm not interested in adding fuel to that fire. You want to call yourself a feminist, you go right ahead - none of us have the monopoly on that phrase. None of us are perfect, or free from prejudice, however much we like to think we're the enlightened ones. For the record, I can't stand Femen's tactics - but I appreciate that they are grown women doing what they think is right. Just as much as I am.
 
This links in to what I was thinking about earlier today, which was how it's difficult to be in any large group of women without the automatic assumption that it will be riddled with in-fighting. This is a view particularly perpetuated by sexists, who like to believe that women are simply too competitive with and disloyal to each other to ever truly unite. They love that old joke "If women ran the world, there would be no wars...just a load of jealous countries not talking to each other." Cos ha ha HAA, women may not be quite so prone to warmongering, murder, mutilation, rape and OK-ing drone attacks, but they're still just so BITCHY there's no chance they could ever actually create a true sisterhood, and that's clearly worse, right?! If Country A thinks that Country B looks better in that dress than she does, well, better man the cruise missiles, cos there's going to be an international catfight (ah yes, "catfight", that lovely term that trivialises and reduces female anger to a humorous and hopefully erotic sideshow for men to enjoy).
 
I spend a lot of time amongst a large number of women (and a slightly smaller, but ever-growing, number of men) in my roller derby team. Unsurprisingly, I do witness disagreements, personality clashes and unpleasantness between women in this community. I see it like you'd see it in any workplace, academic institution, or group of friends. I see it from some women, and not from others. I also see it occur between the men but funnily enough, when men criticise each other behind each other's backs (and hoboy, do they ever), they're never called 'bitchy' for it, nor is this used as the basis to accuse the entire male sex of being incapable of ever showing loyalty to each other.
 
This made me think about how women are both set up to compete with each other, then promptly criticised and demonised for doing so by both feminists and sexists alike. Which in turn led me back (and yes I know I'm hopping across a lot of concepts today, but stick with me, I'm having a lot of thoughts) to my previous post on how polyamory seems to promote a more feminist view of relationships. When you're open to the idea of your lover finding other people (and if you're a largely heterosexual woman like myself, that means other women) attractive, you have to abandon the monogamous line of thinking that attention for other women must indicate a lack thereof for you, or that male approval of other women means the loss of such approval for you. And yes yes obviously in an ideal world no one would be seeking anyone's approval, but let's put that aside for now and acknowledge that in the real world we all do seek validation of our attractiveness, regardless of our gender or sexual orientation. Because it's nice to feel wanted and sexy, and it's especially nice to feel like someone wants to have sex with you, particularly when you would really like to have sex with them.
 
But it's not easy. These things don't come instinctively. For whatever reason, when my lover says "X Girl is hot", I don't immediately feel overwhelmed with happiness that X Girl's beauty is being appreciated by someone, or pleased for my lover that he is able to honestly express his sexuality in front of me. Instead, what I feel is insecure. I assume that a comparison is being made, and I'm coming out of it unfavourably. I feel worried, that my lover is going to find someone else whose physique is preferrable or superior to mine, and not like my body any more, or not like it as much as he did previously. I'm doing all the things that monogamy has taught me - seeing love, sexuality and affection as a zero-sum game, whereby one person's gain must mean another one's loss, demanding a version of my lover that doesn't exist, demanding behaviour that I myself cannot promise in return, and basically viewing the world of love and sex as one of scarcity. But I'm also doing all the things sexism has taught me - viewing another woman as a competitor, rather than a player on the same team, assigning an importance to both hers and my physical appearance that ranks it above everything else about us, and viewing male approval of that appearance as the most important/only opinion that counts. I'm also forgetting that one of the main reasons I'm polyamorous is because I'm a pretty intense appreciator of the opposite sex myself, and I reserve the right to express that without feeling guilty or like a monster for it (as I did for many years in mono relationships).
 
So along with all the learning and growing that polyamory requires you to do in shaking off your monogamous conditioning, I think it also demands some feminist growth. It takes a lot of strength to always show solidarity to other women. Especially when, as I've found on my polyamorous journey, some of them are apt to judge, hate on or spread rumours about you for daring to be a woman who will not settle down with one man. I've had moments when I'm very tempted to wreak the kind of havoc on others' personal lives that they have tried to do to me, and even though I know that walking away from such temptation and being 'the bigger person' is the right thing to do, it still feels bittersweet when it would be so easy to hurt those hypocrites the way they are trying to hurt me. Being ethical does not always feel like its own reward, but I have to believe in the long game, and believe that trying to take down other women simply because they cannot get their heads around the way I live, ain't feminism. Neither is hating on, or being jealous or suspicious of another woman who has done nothing wrong to me except attract the attention/appreciation of my male lover. A sexist society teaches me to see that woman as a competitor, as a superior, up-herself bitch who I need to 'bring down'. Demanding a better society means that I need to drag myself up, and see that woman as just another flawed person trying to get on in this horrendous cultural pressure-cooker. The most feminist thing I can do is be kind towards that woman, and also kind to myself, by remembering that a compliment aimed at someone other than myself is not an insult to me by proxy.
 
Because that's sexism's greatest secret. When we start liking ourselves, and start liking other women, then we really do pose a threat, one so great that all sexists can think to do to mask their fear of female unity is to make jokes about catfights.