Posts Tagged ‘culture’
I spent most of the weekend making porn. On Sunday, I waved a friend off as she went to another city to make porn. On Monday, I read this article. I sighed, and wondered why we’re still having the same conversation.
To summarise: Lying feminists pretend that porn is feminist. It isn’t. Porn is not about freedom, but economics, and therefore stems from abuse, involves coercion and incites criminality. There is too little feminist porn, and in any case it hardly seems to be porn at all. If feminist porn succeeds, it will be absorbed into the mainstream and made toothless. We should ban pornography outright, or at least ask questions about where it comes from. The pornography-meat metaphor isn’t getting tough and stringy.
If you’ve read Gold’s article, with all its prolonged blow jobs and anal penetration, my weekend of semi-clothed photographs, like the one below, and spanking story writing will seem tame. It was hardly ethnically-specific disembodied penis performs opaque metaphor.* Tame things don’t count in the debate about contemporary pornography, because the conversation is always about hardcore film, which allows for specific feminist narrative. Female performers are cast as victims, making them unreliable witnesses until they’ve stopped performing and started talking about how much the experience damaged them, or played on their childhood trauma. The narrowing to one type of pornography, and one narrative of it, effectively silences women.
Inside me, there’s a second wave feminist jumping up and down and waving a literature textbook. How were women kept out of the canon for so long? It wasn’t because they didn’t write, but because their writing didn’t count. The form was wrong, they wrote diaries when men wrote sonnets and plays. The content was wrong, they wrote about domestic affairs when men wrote about monarchs and wars. The perspective was wrong, they painted individual psychological portraits when men wrote with lofty omnipotence about huge casts of characters. Later, feminists dug out women’s writing, and re-drew the boundaries of literature to fit it in. We made the collective discovery that were women writers beyond Sappho, Julian of Norwich and Jane Austen. It had been hidden, not because it wasn’t there, but because nobody talked about it. Women’s work just wasn’t considered, for the most part, to be the proper stuff.
What’s this got to do with pornography? Well, some women are setting up hardcore porn sites, which may or may not look like the ones that are already there. Some women are posing for photos in their vintage lingerie, and whether they sell them or not, they’re still making porn, just as Anne Lister was writing in her diary when lesbian women weren’t represented in literary fiction. Lots of women are writing erotic stories, and say what you like about the quality of many of them, but after the Fifty Shades phenomenon, we can no longer claim that they don’t sell. Sometimes women express their sexuality, sometimes they do what they think the reader wants, or go along with the photographer’s idea. Sometimes they’re in it for themselves and sometimes they’re in it for the money. If I ere in it for the money, I’d have to admit that I’m doing it wrong.
I don’t share all of Gold’s fears about the effects of pornography, although I too am made uncomfortable by porn filmed with low production values, little respect for women, a large dose of racism and a set of linguistic and visual signs that would make Derrida weep. Feminist projects can fail to be feminist, and the label can be used by unscrupulous women with a crazy urge to make enough money to pay the rent. However, the reason that the few women doing feminist porn projects are the focus of all this adulation and criticism is that we’re still focussing on the porn that men produce and consume. While we look at them, and at feminist attempts to do what they do, we obscure work by women in other forms.
I’m not about to go into hardcore film. Spanking films, maybe. Nicely lit photographs of me wearing stockings and looking ecstatic about the fact that I have toes, definitely. Stories and novels, just you try to stop me! The latter things count, so I’m refusing to feel I’m not qualified to comment on the experience of making pornography.
Does making pornography feel feminist? Not really. It isn’t like an assertiveness training course or a take back the night march. In gender equality terms, it’s kind of neutral. I like it that way; not everything in life has to be a battleground. There’s a chance that the worry that I look podgy in this photo stems from a sexist cultural imperative for the female body to conform to unattainable beauty standards.** In that case, the most feminist thing to do is embrace the failure of my stomach to be flat, and post it anyway. I have a feeling I know what Tanya Gold would say to that.
*Who comes up with tags like ‘creampie’ and ‘black cock bangs x’ anyway?
**I also wish we’d remembered to take the cane off the wall before we took this picture, but I can’t think of an interesting feminist disappointment about that.
I don’t like books about walking a long way in cold climates. I know why people read them, it’s all about the resilience of man and the discovery that while we feel weak and worn during the slog to the office, we would shine if truly challenged. All the same, it’s not a surprising discovery that if you get very cold your toes fall off, and not everyone gets to make friends with the Dalai Lama at the end of it. Often, you just die, and even if people briefly think that was noble, it isn’t going to make you feel like it was a better idea than staying home and making model planes.
However, in the last few weeks I’ve obsessively imbibed apocalypse stories. The Year of the Flood, Life As We Knew It, Jericho (trust me, you have to be obsessed to finish that), Survivors, The Death of Grass, All Fall Down (about the Black Death, which felt like the end of the world) and other plague books set in the future and the past (in the case of Doomsday Book, both). They tell us the same things as long-walk-in-the-cold books, that we can survive extreme conditions—the breakdown of society, little food, no energy—and, because it’s easier than that, that we can survive every day life. Why the obsession? I think my everyday has something to do with it. I’m looking for stories of people surviving what I’m surviving. Cold. Uncertain food supplies. And more cold.
This is my first winter in the Very Cold Flat. The windows are cracked and single glazed and there are no radiators in the lofty rooms. Mankind lived without central heating and double glazing for thousands of years, I realise, and they did it without little electric heaters on wheels, but everyone was doing it. People wore clothes appropriate to the temperature, and if you looked silly in the jumper your granny knitted, so did everyone else. Not now, though. I’m the only person I know who can see my breath in every room of my house, and most of my friends don’t wear mittens to bed. There’s something debilitating about cold. I don’t want to leave my warm spot, in my warm bedroom, and go to the cold living room. I don’t want to get chilled styling my wet hair, which has led to the discovery that I have a natural centre parting. I don’t want to take off my mittens to wash up. I can’t do laundry, because in these temperatures my clothes will never dry. I guess I’m not getting hot and sweaty in my three pairs of socks, anyway.
It’s not just the cold, though, it’s the money. I’ve been sick for a long time, and that doesn’t combine well with temping and self-employment, so it’s months since I made enough to cover the rent. Being sick is thrifty in its own ways—expenditure on coffees, drinks and meals out has fallen significantly—but you can’t stop eating. The lover’s been helping by cooking and hiding left overs in the fridge and freezer (a machine I’ve considered turning off, since the temperature dropped). Some days he surprises me with pats of butter or bags of bagels. It’s lovely. It does, however, mean that my fridge currently contains a lump of goat’s cheese left over from Christmas, half a bottle of tonic and cucumber that failed to become a crudité on New Year’s Eve. Food appears, or doesn’t, according to the vagaries of the lover and his train times. Yesterday I finished the Christmas cake for lunch.
My cupboards don’t seem bare, there’s probably something edible hiding in there somewhere, so I sent the lover off to the arctic region of the flat to make a list of what I have: eleven types of flour, oils, the Christmas chocolate haul, £50 worth of tea and six jars of homemade jam (one with added glass shards). That would be great, if it wasn’t for the final problem in my post-apocalyptic kitchen—the oven died on Christmas day. I wonder if you can make bread in the microwave? I’ve been munching luxury Christmas cake, Finest biscuits, Hotel Chocolat chocolates, all the time wishing for a good, solid, vegetable dish.
So what have I learned from my apocalypse research that could improve my situation? I’ve learned to stockpile tinned food and bottled water, although I think I’d go for dried lentils and chick peas, and raisins, since they’ve got more calories by weight, and if you’re not near a source of fresh water you’ll die anyway. That’s something I should have done earlier, though, in the supermarket trips of yore. I’ve learned that when the apocalypse comes, one usually finds oneself in the company of a trained fighter and someone who knows a lot about how to make and repair things. Unfortunately, I’ve ended up with a scientist who has a gammy hip, and an asthmatic audio-engineer who’ll be useful only if the threat is the aliens from Mars Attacks. If it got really bad, I could rush across the country to my father, who may be more resourceful, but the same memory always puts me off: when he came to drive me home after I broke my collar bone and elbow, and he didn’t let me off loading the car. Maybe that’s the kind of determined approach that would get me through the end of the world, but I think I’d rather share my lentils with someone else.
If a real apocalypse comes, I’ll probably owe it to the Lover and his wife to stick with them. The lover’s wife, in a fit of insanity, offered to sleep at mine for a few days and give me the use of her house. It’s heavenly. There’s central heating, not one, but two ovens, and even her cat’s warmer than mine. My first night there was so fabulously toasty that I took off my jumper to sleep. I got up in the morning, pressed myself against the radiator, and looked at the snow coming down outside. Then, because the apocalypse hasn’t happened yet, my phone rang. “I just wanted to let you know the heating’s broken,” my boss told me, “bring a jumper.” And so it begins again, but I know I’ll survive, because imaginary people have been through worse.
I’m writing this in the lover’s house, because I don’t want to go home.
Earlier, sitting on my bed, in my dressing gown, talking to the lover on the phone, I heard a noise. It was a lot like the sound of my front door opening. It couldn’t be, though, because the front door was locked, and the only other person with a key, the person, in fact, who surely locked the door as he left my house last night, was calling me from work on his lunch break. I chatted a bit more, then I heard another sound. I went out to see if the cat was eating my gladioli, and there was a middle aged lady standing at the bottom of the stairs.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I’m looking for Hard As Nails,*” she said.
“It’s next door,” I told her.
“This isn’t the manicurist?” she said.
“This is my home.” I thought she might leave then. The moment when she opened my door and stood on my post would have been a good moment. The minute when she pushed open the next door and looked up my stairs to the cat’s scratching post would have been good too. I can see how it may have seemed rude to leave just as a woman in her dressing gown asked her why she was here, but now seemed like the perfect moment to apologise and get the fuck out of my flat. Instead, she asked for more directions.
“This is the first time I’ve been.” She said. Well, yes.
After she left, I frantically locked the door. Then I called the lover back, and shouted, a lot. I don’t think he’ll repeat the mistake for a while.
Middle aged lady in hallway, looking for a manicure. No big deal, right? Well, no. I would consider it a favour if she’d stolen the yellow pages from the doormat, and she did, albeit slowly, go away without a fight. So why am I freaked out?
Partially, it’s because I’m scared of what goes on around my home. A couple of weeks ago I heard screaming and begging in the middle of the night. I opened the kitchen window and shouted,
“Are you ok down there? Do you want me to call the police?”
“Yeah,” a voice answered from the dark.
“Well, keep it down then,” I said. He was either ok, or wanted me to call the police. The cops arrived within about 30 seconds, in six police cars with flashing lights, which was nice.
Since then I’ve had an irrational fear that whoever was threatening someone in the alleyway behind my house that night is going to come round and smash up my car for thwarting him, which is a bit silly since it might just have been a couple arguing about the gas bill. That my door was unlocked all night brings out terrifying imaginings. Still, I suspect that isn’t really the root of my fear. It’s probably this:
I was once in bed with my girlfriend on a lazish sort of morning, when I was living in private halls. The door was locked, this time. I was in the middle of my room, walking to the bathroom, wearing nothing at all, when I heard a key in the door. There was a strange man standing in the doorway. He walked into my room. I said. “Get out!”
He didn’t stop. He told me he was here to test the electrics in my room. He kept walking towards me. I started yelling, “Leave now!” over and over. He kept telling he he wouldn’t go. Eventually, I must have mustered enough of a commanding tone, because he said he’d give me a minute. I put on my dressing gown, and stormed out to find he’d retreated to the kitchen. I demanded to know what he thought he was doing. He explained that since students slept late, he had a key and just went into the rooms and got on with his work. I said there was no way he was coming into my room now. He said I had to let him in, I’d been given notice by the sign on reception (“Electrical checks will be carried out in this building on …”). I said he had no right to walk into my room without permission. He sighed and exchanged a “silly women!” look with the teenage trainee he’d brought along. My girlfriend and I went to complain at reception. By the time we got back, they were in my room again.
I’ve developed a bit of a thing about people in my space since then. That might be why I yelled at the man from United Utilities yesterday when he turned off the water to my flat without telling me he was going to. It might be why I wasn’t friendly and helpful to the silly woman in my hallway. It might be why my landlady saying she’d let the surveyor in if I wasn’t there drove me to blind rage.
And you know why? It’s salami slices. The men are going to exchange that ‘hysterical woman!’ look sooner or later, so why not make that sooner? The man who pressures you into letting him walk you home is going to pressure you into letting him in for coffee, and the man who pressures you into a dance is going to pressure you into a close move; before you know it, there’s a penis poking you in the hip. The next place my girlfriend lived featured a landlady who used to hang around in the hallways of the shared house, and eventually turned up with two big men to force their way into her bedroom and take away her bed. Each individual step is only mildly objectionable, but it’s the journey that matters.
I’m stopping them sooner, the harassers and the landlords. And I’m getting an intruder alarm.
*Comedy shop names substituted to protect my address.
On Sunday I walked out of the front row of a burlesque show during a song about intimate partner violence. If you think you’ve read this post before, you kind of have, except that I had less courage in the last one. This time I’d had chance to think. I’d already sat through a song about killing a lover who wants to leave, and displaying his dismembered body parts. As the audience applauded at the end I’d stared at the performer, hoping he’d catch my eye. I’d told the lover how upset I was during the interval. When the performer returned in the second half I was hopeful. He’d been fairly funny during the song before the abusive, murderous one, he’d sung about dogging. But, no, he sang, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, and if you leave me I’m going to kill you.” It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny twice. I couldn’t sit through it, I couldn’t sit still. Also, I kind of needed to pee. So I left. When I returned, the compere asked, “Were you somewhere important?” That’s when I told the all the people at the Lowry that I was offended by the act. I guess the singer heard, too.
So now I’ve been upset by people singing about violence towards their partners at two burlesque events. Is it just coincidence? Or is it a genre?
The odd thing about this particular performer is that I know people he knows. Hell, I like people he knows, and they like his performances. So I began wondering whether they had heard the song very differently, in a different context. We’ve all made jokes that have fallen flat because we told them in the wrong place, to the wrong people. Like when an assistant got me to try on a particularly zipped and pocketed pair of cycling trousers with Velcro cuffs, and I told him they would be ok if I was going camping with dykes. The joke would have been ok if he’d known I’ve fallen for butch women, that I’m a card-carrying SM Dyke.
About a week after I saw Joe Black, I came across this interview with the author of 50 Shades of Grey. Everything that I’ve read about this book encourages me to hate it. Everything that I’ve read of this book (the first page, while stood in Sainsbury’s) convinces me it is very, very badly written. It’s Twilight fan fic, Twilight being a series that glamourizes abusive relationships in books for impressionable teenagers. I hate this book because it represents BDSM as unsafe and non-consensual, and represents kinksters as traumatised and damaged. And most of all, I hate this book because I’ve nearly finished writing a novel about kinky relationships, and I don’t like the idea that it will be lumped in with, or worse, compared to, this trash. I’m writing about kink honestly and wholeheartedly, and I’m looking at a success that tells big fat lies about it. I’m primed to hate.
But…the woman’s kind of sweet. She says the book is her midlife crisis. She’s amusing about frantically tapping it into her phone on the train. And she happily admits that she can’t write. I begin to wonder, am I
hating something out of context?
If my flatmate was an avid Twilight reader, I would sigh, and get her a copy of Wuthering Heights packaged for Twilight readers for Christmas. I wouldn’t be angry with her. If for two years she spent all her spare time obsessively writing out her erotic fantasies, I’d try to get her out more. In fact, I’d take her to kinky events where she could meet similar obsessives, who write their own sexual fantasies on their blogs. I wouldn’t be angry with her, although I might hope that her life picks up soon.
When you’re writing a blog for your kinky acquaintances on Fetlife you don’t have a responsibility to represent kinky people or play in any particular way. When you’ve sold 2 million copies of a book, that’s 2 million people you’ve misinformed. I’m sure she didn’t write it with that many people in mind, but there you go. The audience matters.
Which leads me back to Mr. Joe Black, and his audience at the Lowry. The lover pointed out that he normally plays to audiences of Goths. Much as I’m sure there is intimate partner violence in the Goth community, it would have sounded much more like an amusing take on Gothic eroticisation of death. In the bar he’s playing soon in York, Stereo, the audience would be a bit less mainstream, and the song would sound less like it’s reinforcing mainstream values. The Lowry, unfortunately, has the most thuggish audience I’ve ever seen at a burlesque show. Slippery Belle there featured a man yelling, “Show us your tits!” at the compere, and being cheered by a significant proportion of the audience. At this show, the compere made a song and dance (literally) about being gay, but the prevailing assumptions were that the audience was straight. The female performers draped themselves over the men, never the women. A singer danced with a man two chairs away from me, he groped her, she pushed him off, and he groped her again. Sexual violence, albeit in a form all of us have experienced, wasn’t a distant possibility, it was going on right there. The reality of people killed by their partners as they try to leave was a bit too close.
From now on, I’m going to try hard to ensure my writing communicates its tone effectively enough that the contents can’t be misunderstood. If it’s a fantasy about schoolgirl canings, there should be no way that you can think that I believe schoolgirls ought to be caned, if it’s my personal take on what it’s like to be a splosher, you should be conscious throughout that I have never practiced, nor knowingly conversed with a practitioner of, sploshing. It will be good for my writing, and it would be good for us all to take a little more responsibility for what we say. Don’t let the bastards think you agree.
I’m moving house. I’m tired of the dripping tap and the leak under the sink, and I’m tired of plumbers who do things like ransack my kitchen bowls to mix grout in. I don’t want needles and broken WKD bottles on my doorstep, and I don’t want to live next to a main road. So I’ve been looking, and it’s been hell.
The first flat we viewed was a cheap studio. It was on a private road, in a grand building with stained glass windows. A stained glass face looked back at me in the bathroom, next to the toilet tank, which was over the bath. In the bedroom, there was a single bed.
“Is it possible,” I asked, “to bring my double bed?”
“Where would we put this one?” The landlord spread his hands in helplessness. The tip, I was tempted to suggest.
“I’m afraid it’s a dealbreaker.” I told him.
“You’re not allowed a double bed in a studio,” he said , “it’s illegal. If the environmental health inspector came round…” I managed to get control of my eyebrows before they rose too far, and I nodded, as if to an excited lunatic or toddler. I edged towards the door.
I knew they were Christians, someone had placed Church pamphlets in the hallway, and these men had the shoes of pamphleteers. Single people, I surmised, must be prevented from fornication by any means possible, including the restriction of space. I didn’t bring up the oodles of hot, sweaty, lesbian sex I’ve had in single beds. The conversation got around to my current landlord, and my flat above a church. “Oh! You know Rev. Awfully-Important!” was quickly followed by, “about the bed, I’m sure we can work something out.” Do Christian contacts legitimate sprawling sex, or do they just provide a guarantee that you’re not going to get up to anything naughty?
In the next place I looked at, a dingy hallway led to a dingy living room, where the current tenant sat in a beanie and hoodie next to the gas fire. The kitchen was a galley overhung by mysterious boxes of wires and the bedroom, looking out onto the road, prominently displayed a conversation-piece fuse box. The shower room was mottled with mould. “We expect it to go very quickly.” Smiled the letting agent.
“I’ll let you know.” I said. I sat outside in the car, and wondered what I’d done to deserve this.
If I was single and wealthy, this would be easy. Single and poor is different. Single makes everything more expensive. If I had a partner, we’d be going halves on a one, two or three bed property, any of which would be cheaper than all of a studio. And they’d be nicer.* The rooms would be bigger, the kitchen would be suitable for culinary activities more complex than heating a tin of soup. If I were in a live-in relationship, not only would I have another contributor to housing costs, but there’s a chance that contributor would have a full time job. A full time job gets you a mortgage, a mortgage gets you somewhere cheaper than a rental property where you’re allowed to put up shelves and paint the skirting boards with polka dots. Suddenly, you’re not looking round dark, mouldering rooms with mysterious stains on pieced-together carpets. You’re looking at somewhere you might actually want to live.
I know it doesn’t always work like that. I know I could be shackled to a man who drinks the mortgage payments, or insists (horror!) on eschewing a proper career to pursue dreams like publication. Nevertheless, pairing up does more than just double your chances of finding at least one stable income. The world is set up for couples, and living alone is an aberration, something that should only be attempted from a position of great wealth and privilege.
Most single people can comfort themselves with the thought that they will, someday, find the person they want to live with. For us polyamorous types, it’s more complicated. Many people simplify it by dividing their love lives into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ relationships, so that the romance-mortgage-Labrador-children path can be pursued with a designated partner, while the others know where they stand. Those picked as a primary by another partner presumably stand in the gardens of their nice homes, while the passed-over secondaries lurk in their dingy studios. The primary/secondary hierarchy feels, to me, nasty and degrading. I don’t rank my friends by importance, why would I do that to my partners? Whatever it is that we’re doing, whether it’s fucking or sailing or drinking tea, it has an integrity which shouldn’t be belittled by a statement of someone else’s primacy. And so I muddle along, hoping not to stand on too many toes, and being grateful for the accommodations made for me.
But back to housing. The lover already has a house. It’s a very nice house, and I envy him, but he lives in it with his wife. Perhaps some poly families live together in mansions in a big, hippish love-in. All I can say is that even if you like me very much, living with me is a trial. To do it for your partner, you’d have to be a saint. One of the dead ones.
Realistically, I’m on my own. I’m going to pay a high price for my obstinacy in refusing to find myself an unentangled partner. I could look on the bright side and reflect that solo living means freedom, but I’ve seen too many horrible flats recently to feel that’s true. Nevertheless, I’ve picked one, a tiny flat with oddly-shaped rooms and a door opening directly from the living room onto the driveway. And I’m determined to turn this relationship to account, because if there’s one thing I’m bad at, it’s moving.
My usual approach is to begin packing the week before. Then, the day before the move, I look around with surprise at my home, wondering where I got so much stuff. I discover that the first boxes I packed block access to other possessions, and that they’re too heavy to lift. I despair of one room and move to another. I think about stopping for lunch, but remember that there’s nothing left in the house but frozen puff pastry and the mung beans that have survived five house moves unopened, so I begin to pack the spices and spill turmeric over my hands. Eventually a friend or lover calls by and pretends to help, but really spends their time berating me about the apparently inefficient or dangerous way I’m filling the car. At some point we give up, unpack the duvet, and fall into bed. The next day, at the other end, tired and hungry, I look at the piles of boxes and begin to assess the damage to my possessions. I imagine a life with an adequate number of bookcases and begin to make alphabetised piles of books which topple in the night.
This time it’s going to be different. This time I’m going to buy a bed before I move in, not make a nest of duvets on the floor and wait until Christmas. I’m already preparing. I increased my stock of teaspoons fourfold this week—the lover’s wife gave me some.
The lover says he know how to do this. He knows where to buy furniture and how to get an awkwardly shaped object down the stairs, he knows how to Tetris a car and measure a sofa. He knows, he says, how to get me to my new home with little crying and most of my things.** Polyamory, leaves me in a very small flat, but if it gets me to my new flat without a tantrum, I’ll sing it’s praises to the skies.
*’Ah!’ you’re thinking, ‘but she could share a house!’ I could, but past experience shows that I’m not a very nice person in the mornings, and I’m untidy and intolerant at all times of day. Also, my income currently relies on having a space to entertain clients in private for up to three hours at a time, and housemates blundering in with take away wouldn’t really add to what I’m trying to achieve.
**In case you’re doubting the lover’s ability, he has already shown himself to have house-inspecting talents far beyond mine. He pointed out in one place, for example, that it wasn’t possible to get in the shower while standing up, and that in any case it would flood the flat downstairs.
In my last post, I tried to stay away from the topic of whether some kinky events should have an age limit. Generally, I’ve found this to be a debate where many more people are speaking than listening, and everyone’s getting personally offended. It’s one I see often on message boards, and any discussion that will predictably reach the point where someone says, “you’re going to get sued!” within the first ten responses seems like one best avoided to me. However, Abel brought up the issue in his comment, and when my reply reached a certain length I decided the topic deserved its own post. So here I am, another voice in the din.
In my last post I tried to gesture towards an acceptable level of discrimination. In small scenes, that level is low. To make an analogy, when I lived in Coventry the gay community was small, so we all—gays, lesbians, bears, cross-dressers, leatherdykes, that man in the high heels and PVC—had to share a space, and the only acceptable discrimination was against the straight men who turned up looking for threesomes. That shouldn’t be overlooked: straight people seeking sex weren’t welcome. That’s acceptable, I think, because they were welcome in almost every other bar in the city, but it was discrimination nonetheless. In Manchester, where the gay scene is huge, different places cater to different groups, and there’s no reason for the lesbian femmes to encroach on the space of the gay men who like to party in their y-fronts, other than in the shared smoking area at Legends. People divide into their special interest groups when they get a chance. If there’s only one club in town, and they won’t let me in, it’s important. If there are three, and one of them suits my interest but I’m excluded from the other two, there’s no reason for me to be upset. I don’t go, for example, to the Gentlemen’s Munch, or rubber events, because I’m not a man and I don’t enjoy rubber. I don’t complain to the rubberists that I’m being left out, I just go to events that do interest me.
Of course, what may not be obvious on a club-by-club basis may be a wider cultural problem, leaving one group routinely excluded. So I have no problem, in a large scene, with the existence of clubs dedicated to black domme women and the male subs who like them (yes, they exist), even if I find the kink itself a little troublesome. However, if there weren’t places for white women or lesbians to go, if white women were a group generally thought to be unattractive, I’d have a problem. It’s the same logic that says it’s ok to have government initiatives to help women, gays, minority ethnic groups, etc, without a mainstream equivalent: they’re disadvantaged, and attacks on them are more troubling than attacks on the groups with more power and position. One of my many uncomfoprtable feelings about FemSub, is that it includes those who have a good position on the scene (female subs and male dominants) and excludes those who have a less privileged position (male subs) and anyone who maintains an ambiguous identity around their gender or kink (queers and switches, for example).
And so to the Under 35s. Manchester has a large scene, with so many munches that they actually clash with each other, the Under 35s with the Spanko munch, for example. And people over 35 aren’t a disadvantaged minority group. In the scene, they often have advantages of experience and the money to spend on toys and playspaces that younger people don’t. Yes, 35 is an arbitrary cut-off point, but all such boundaries are arbitrary. What definition of blackness are the clubs for black dommes using? How large do you have to be to attend events for Big Beautiful Women? How much do you have to like spanking to qualify as a spanko?
One of the reasons I came to Manchester was the fact that the scene was large enough to divide into groups by interest. When I was picking my city, it was SM Dykes that convinced me of the vibrancy of Manchester’s scene. Dykes excludes men, it’s a group of women who like to play with women. Yesterday, when everyone in my poly group was there except the lover, too male to attend, he probably did feel a bit sorry for himself. We had a Christmas party, during which I managed to be one of the last three bottoms still in musical spankings (yay!), and was tied up with tinsel for a Christmas bondage tableaux. It was fabulous, it was absurd, and it was peopled with woman from all over the North. I found myself chatting to a girl from my hometown about the club where I had my first lesbian kiss. Would she have come if we removed discrimination and let men in? I doubt it. People travel a long way to be part of the Manchester scene because they know that they can find an event that suits them. For the annual SM Dykes conference they come from all over Europe. Discrimination is in fact a strength, not a weakness, of the scene.
How would I feel if I was an older person with an under 35 partner who wanted to go? Probably not great. A bit like the lover feels when he’s told he has to learn how to make something to be allowed at the Crafty Munch, or I feel when everyone’s talking excitedly about the scene they did last weekend. It’s the same way I feel when I’m not invited to a party (although the last time it turned out that I had been invited but hadn’t realised, and didn’t get to go because I was too proud to ask). Well, you know what, have your own party. Show people how fabulous you are! If you’re anything like me, it won’t be a very big party, but you’ll actually like the people who are there. And if you have your very own, you’re in charge of who is excluded, so you can avoid getting stuck beside the nibbles with a girl who’s into spanking, having to listen politely as she goes on and on about culture and discrimination in the scene.
This week it was suggested that Manchester Under 35′s Munch allow over 35 year olds in, if they have youthful enough partners. I’ve never been particularly interested in debates about age-limited munches, except to note that I’d never invite the people decrying them to a party, because they’d probably be sending out for more beer when I’m rinsing glasses and yawning pointedly. However, responses to the suggestion have been fascinating. There’s a terrifying number of people who think it’s acceptable that younger people should never go to events without their partners. A significant proportion of members don’t think the age limit is about having something in common with other attendees, but about keeping, “predatory older doms” (PODs?) out. I began to ask some questions. Why are so many older people angry about not being able to come? Why can’t young women go to events unaccompanied by their partners? Why is there such a perceived threat of PODs? The answer is obvious: young women are valuable. Everyone wants us. Don’t you just want to tie us up and beat us? Well you can’t, we’re taking our hot, youthful flesh to that pub over there, and shutting you out. Feel free to peer at the goodies through the window.
I’m exaggerating a little. In any case, the rhetoric of the fetish scene is one of inclusivity and acceptance, where many tastes are represented. We’re brought together by our difference from the mainstream; you might not share my love of canings, but you share my sense of exclusion. Because there are so few of us, we have to share a space, so we respect one another. Where there are enough people, we divide into groups by preference to make places where we can go to get what we want, and we exclude those who don’t share our tastes. And that’s personal preference, right? You can’t criticise people for that, surely? Well, it’s not quite that simple.
At 19 I tended not to sleep with fat women, trans or genderqueer people (fat men were less of a problem for me – go figure). At 27, it’s naive to think of that as “just personal taste” and have started to challenge received wisdom about what qualities are sexually desirable. As a result, I’ve had some fantastic sex (and indeed relationships) with beautiful people I would otherwise not have considered as potential lovers.
It’s easy, after the initial “Oh God, what made me like this!?” stage for kinksters to think that because they don’t share obviously mainstream tastes, they exist in a social vacuum as far as their desires are concerned. I think it’s worth considering the factors that shape them. That’s why I remain vaguely insulted by FemSub, for example, even though I can understand why people would want a space where they know they can meet someone of their preference. There’s something distasteful in providing a space for what seems to be the most common and acceptable dynamic, the one that’s closest to the mainstream, and excluding everyone else. And don’t get me started on the advice that there may be play, “should the ladies choose.” Consent isn’t an issue for men, apparently!
But I digress. It’s naive to expect the kink scene to be free of the prejudices the rest of society has: sexism, herteronormativity, racism, the belief that high heels are a good thing. Perhaps I should count myself lucky since I fit my box well; a bisexual submissive woman is a better thing to be, given the prejudices of our little subculture, than, say, a submissive man with a urine fetish. There are women who do better out of conventional beauty standards than I do (I’m never going to be able to do anything about these hips) but I’m on the right side of acceptable, and hairy legs aside, it helps that I’m femme. That’s probably why it took me so long to feel uncomfortable with the scene’s values. I was doing fine out of them.
A while ago the lover and I were talking about the spanko community I know through blogs and Twitter, but for the most part don’t know in real life. He observed that, compared to us, they’re ‘so straight’. “Some of the women are bi” I said. The men aren’t though, or if they are they keep it quiet. The prevalent dynamic is M/f, with (and I say this from the outside, with extremely limited knowledge) a preference for youth among the fs. Presumably they’re brought together by a shared taste, but that doesn’t stop me feeling sad when I look through what’s being shared as hot (Abel’s collection of photos, say) or criticised as not (such as this tall spankee) that I’m not getting any younger, skinnier or shorter.*
I’ve loved the idea of being fresh meat for the predatory older man since before it would have been legal, but just as an idea. Well, I’ve loved it once or twice as a reality, too, but queasily, and before I discovered kink. Now that I’m here, in this world where fantasy becomes play so easily, I’d like to enjoy being preyed on, in my youth and innocence, by older men who covet it, without the real-life repercussions of feeling I lose value with every passing day, or that my partners like my lack of wrinkles or my naivety more than my experience or knowledge or any of the things that make me me. I’d like a world where spanking models don’t have to lie about their ages, and where we don’t think we have to keep predatory doms out of the Under 35′s Munch.
Is it possible, given that I spent half of last year battling a crush on a beautiful woman in her forties (no luck, she has a younger boyfriend), that I have a bit of a thing for a woman who was old enough to be releasing records in the 1980s (and I know I’m not the only one), and that the kink scene is built on such weird tastes as fancying a woman over thirty, that I could find a kinky space where youth isn’t—ahem—fetishized? Or am I being naive?
*Ok, I find it hard to want to be shorter, it must make it difficult to breathe in lifts. And reach high things. I sometimes feel too tall for my kink, though.
This weekend I’m going for my first “dance weekender” which is distinguished from an ordinary weekend by £130 and the addition of the letters “er”. It’s not classy and it’s not cool; it’s at Pontins. I’m dreading three nights on the lumpy mattress of in my “budget chalet,” but not as much as I’m dreading the suppressing my feminist rage for three days. If I never blog again, it’s possible I’ll have exploded in ‘The Chill Out Zone’, look for pieces of my body there.
Ceroc has never scored high on the subtle-understanding-of-gender metre. They provide training and examinations in dance teaching, but their teachers don’t think anything of calling women ‘girls’ and making jokes about how the stranger I’m dancing with wants to grope me. The average punter doesn’t seem to mind, though; in fact, indignities caused by fellow dancers are much greater than with the teachers. I’ve never been felt up by a teacher. I’ve never been pressured to do close moves I’ve said I don’t want to do by a teacher. I’ve never been complimented on imagined weight loss and then had my imagined positive reaction parodied by a teacher. That’s all been fellow dancers. Sometimes I look around the room and think that I’m the only one there to dance, everyone else seems to be involved in a vast, insulting and semi-consensual meat market. At least no one has followed me home from the dance hall in an attempt to start a sexual relationship, as happened to one woman I know. So I don’t suppose that many of their other customers care about the awful way Ceroc handles gender identity issues, and I don’t suppose they’ll change any time soon. Most people won’t even see a problem.
Ceroc weekends operate “gender balanced booking” and use it to attract people to their events. I can see why. It’s frustrating to be at an event where there are twice as many women as men, because you’ll only be able to dance half the time, or less than half, as some women have partners to monopolise. I’ve left early after hours of boredom because of a bad gender imbalance.
There are two ways to deal with the problem. One is to separate gender from dancing role, so that the make up of the crowd doesn’t define the evening. The other is to exclude some women or include more men to balance the numbers. It as the reverse of the problem so many fetish and swingers’ clubs have.
As a feminist, I tend towards the first option. In dances like Lindy Hop, which attract a younger, more liberal crowd, I see plenty of women leading. It happens occasionally in jive, and is usually a symptom of a man shortage. To convince more women to lead and men to follow, we would have to reform the culture of jive. At your first lesson you’d have to be told you can choose to lead or follow, we’d have to change the language of ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ to ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ and take all of the gendered assumptions (whether that’s jokes about groping to comments on men having better spatial awareness) out of the lessons. The whole sexualised atmosphere of partner dancing would have to be dialled back. That would suit me well, as I’m uncomfortable with the assumption that the men I dance with are having a sexual interaction with me—one’s over eighty—and I suspect it contributes to them not respecting my boundaries.
I have to recognise, though, that I’m not like most jivers. There’s a reason it feels like a meat market: a lot of people are there to find sexual partners. I’ve seen the vultures swoop in at the beginning of the freestyle, after the lesson, in their tight dresses and high heels, to flirt with the men. Hundreds of men seem to have awkwardly tried to ask me out, or ascertain if I’m single. I’ve learned to recognise the recently-divorced look, and the look of the nice guy whose friends have told to get out and meet people. They want to dance with people of the opposite sex because most of them are straight. How many hobbies bring you into contact, physical contact, with so many people of the opposite sex over the course of an evening? And if you can’t think of scintillating conversation you can just concentrate on the moves. Do the men who are enjoying this really want the women clamouring to dance with them just to pair off together? Do the women want to forego the chance of meeting someone who’ll sleep with them, so they can dance with their friends instead? It seems unlikely.
That’s the cuddly side of heteronormative culture, straight people who don’t mind gays, but don’t want them getting in the way. There’s a nastier side to it, though. I’ve attended one (non-Ceroc) jive club where an individual was forced to leave because (s)he didn’t conform to the expected gender roles. (S)he wore a dress, and had masculine characteristics. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know whether (s)he was a male-to-female trans woman, a cross-dresser, or any other gender variation. I do know that (s)he wasn’t allowed to take part in the lessons because some men complained they weren’t comfortable dancing with another man. They felt that the finger-tip touch necessary for jive was too sexual. They were happy to do it with any woman in the room, and happy to see women do it together (lesbianism doesn’t count, right?) but not with men. So the people who ran the club saved its male members from such an awful fate.
At what point does recognising the desires of the (straight) majority cross from pragmatism to homophobia and transpobia? I don’t know. I’d be happier, though, if I thought the question had crossed the minds of the people running Ceroc. They explain their gender balancing here:
We made the decision to introduce gender balancing into the weekender market as we believe very strongly that both boys and girls should have the same freestyle opportunities.
Absent a major overhaul of jive culture, this is understandable. What’s less understandable is the wording. I’m not a girl. I haven’t been a girl for nine years, and I’m one of the younger members. This is the sort of language they use throughout the website and literature. There’s also a conflation of “male,” “man” and any other word signifying the individual may have a penis. Take this email they sent me, a woman who has already booked:
All the accommodation for this event has sold out. However, if you are a MALE and have a friend who has already booked an apartment and can accommodate you, then for £99 (per person) you can still come and enjoy this event.
They repeat at the end that the offer is only available to “MALES”.
To try to stop people cheating the system by pretending to be MALE when they are not in possession of a penis, stewards will be checking that everyone is wearing the correct colour-coded wristband (I haven’t got it yet, but who thinks it’s going to be pink?). How they’re going to check? Will men have to strip at the entrance to the dance hall to display an all-important penis? For women, will just unbuttoning a blouse be ok?
I’m lucky, I wear dresses and make up and feel relatively comfortable with my birth gender (as long as people don’t make stupid comments about multitasking), so I don’t think that I’ll be misgendered even though I don’t shave my legs. That gains me admission to a club I don’t really want to be part of, because what happens to the butches, trans people, the queers and the intersexed? Why should they have to justify themselves at a dance event? And who are these stewards to tell me that they know more about my gender identity than I do?
If it really is about dancing, and not about getting straight people laid, than committing to leading for the weekend should have as much weight as having been born with a willy. If it is about getting laid, I’ll stay in Manchester and do it a more cheaply and enjoyably with people who know better than to call me ‘girl’ or use ‘female’ as a noun.
Here’s my plan: next time I’ll go in drag. Who’ll chip in for a couple of natty three-piece suits and a pair of snazzy black and white wingtips? I’ll provide the hat. Not only will I dance better than half of those willy-owners who claim to lead, I’ll look a hundred times more suave. Send cravats!
The love interest in my novel is a burlesque dancer, and writers have to research. So, hardship as it is, I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time watching girls take off their clothes. I’ve clapped encouragingly through some truly terrible routines, I’ve bought earplugs to cope with the noise at Slippery Belle and I swear that next time I’ll remember to take a lemon of my own, because, as the bartender put it, “this isn’t the sort of establishment that puts lemon in gin.” I thought I knew the worse bits of the scene. Then, last week, I went to Carnival Divine.
I’d heard good things about Carnival Divine and the calibre of the performers was obviously higher than at my usual, sticky-floored, lemonless hang out. I booked a table and I wore my shiniest shoes. Sipping my strawberry daiquiri, I waited excitedly for the show to start. The acts were good. The costumes were beautiful. Kitty Bang Bang is one of the best performers I’ve seen, and when she stepped off the stage in her paw-print pasties, leaving one or two audience members with milk splodges on their clothes, I clapped and cheered with everyone else. The next act was Puppetual Motion. A man behind a taped-together cardboard screen readied his finger puppets.
I won’t go into everything that wasn’t politically correct, because I don’t really know what the non-racist’s response should be when people make fun of Frenchmen, and I’ve no clue what the sponge-puppet’s accent implied. I’ll tell you what made me really angry. It was the song about domestic violence.
The puppet told us he’d had a girlfriend and said he, “came home to find her sucking my best friend’s dick.” His reaction was to try to ruin her life in every way he could, from getting her sacked to downloading child porn on her computer. I didn’t find it funny, because the underlying assumption was that a woman whose sexuality didn’t conform to his wishes deserved to have her life destroyed, but I do recognise that anger at infidelity is not uncommon. It was when he sang that he was going to smash his guitar in her face that I felt the burning in my gut. It was a comic song about a man beating up his ex-girlfriend. People laughed and cheered. They applauded Peter Kennedy as he crept off the stage, concealing himself behind his piece of cardboard. I couldn’t clap. There was a buzzing in my head. I was so angry. I’m still so angry.
I expect to come across jokes about violence and misogyny in my everyday life. I expect to hear that women’s sexuality should be policed violently. Years ago I did the number crunching for this report and found that 10% of Northern Irish students thought violence was acceptable if your girlfriend nags, flirts or refuses to have sex. That’s slightly higher than the UK average. In the room of, say two hundred people the other night, perhaps there were fifteen who held those attitudes. And if they think that punching your girlfriend is a reasonable response to her asking one too many times if you’re going to do the dishes, something more than that is probably appropriate for when she has a sexual encounter with your friend. The man on stage, and all the people cheering him, surely reassured those people that they are right.
I’m angry and upset, more than I would be if I’d overheard a stranger’s conversation or seen it on the television. I’ve seen burlesque as a space where women’s sexuality is accepted. I’ve seen performances by fat women, skinny women, heavily pregnant women, trans women, women in drag, lesbians and queers: Women who don’t do what they’re told, from dieting to sleeping with men to putting on a nice skirt. And I thought I was in a place where they were recognised as attractive people, people with agency, whose sexuality we (for want of a better word) celebrate. It took the lover to point it out to me, but the reason I was so upset was that the rules Peter Kennedy was applying, that women’s sexuality should be limited by a male partner, judge every women in the room. He judged the women who were dancing for us (sluts!) and all of us watching (whores!). He implied we should be beaten up. Unfortunately I do expect that in many places. I just never thought I’d hear it at a burlesque show.
I’m angry, and I doubt myself. Surely by the logic that says Peter Kennedy is promoting violence or contributing to a culture in which it is normal and acceptable, I should judge other humorous songs. What about Tom Lehrer’s narrative of murder and mutilation, which I’m quite happy to laugh at? Is that allowed, since cutting off your girlfriend’s hand is rare, while women are injured and killed trying to leave their partners quite often? And how much defence does humour provide? How do you judge the delicate balance between showing a character and supporting the character’s views? I have a degree in English Literature, an MA in Cultural Theory, and very nearly another MA in Creative Writing, and I still can’t answer that question.
I started to doubt myself a little less, reading Kitty Stryker on the subject of FetLife tweeting a “drunk hooker joke”:
When people call you out on the entitlement that often comes with such humor, reflect on why it’s so important to you to cling to your “joke.” Is it that important to you to tell drunk hooker jokes? Really? Is that an important part of your sense of humor? Why? Does freedom of speech include hate speech? Should it? Where do you draw the line on what constitutes such speech? If you say something offensive, is it really so terrible to apologize? Is that “political correctness gone wild” or just being a polite human being who doesn’t like to inflict hurt on others and apologizes when things they do or say adds to institutionalized violence?
On the night of the show, I tweeted:
I was shocked that @carnivaldivine hosted an act, Puppetual Motion, with a misogynistic song about domestic violence. Empowering women?!
I received the reply:
Every act is a parody, even the finger puppets.
It had been deleted by morning. So my question is, Carnival Divine, is it that important to you that Peter Kennedy gets to tell his beat-your-girlfriend jokes? Perhaps you think I’m overreacting. Perhaps I should try to see the funny side. But I doubt that I’ll see the satirical humour of the next song about the joys of domestic violence, either. I doubt the other people in the room who’ve been subject to violence from a partner (one in four women and one in six men, so a probably significant proportion of those present) appreciate the sparkling wit of such songs. With Puppetual Motion as Carnival Divine’s “resident puppeteer”, I’m going to have to think very hard about giving up going to one of Manchester’s best burlesque nights. Given the empowering, celebratory atmosphere of the burlesque world I know, I think that’s really very sad.
This article appeared in the Guardian this morning, about a midwife who was dismissed from work for wearing a silver collar. The collar symbolises her status as a (willing) slave in a loving relationship. At an employment tribunal, she argued this was discriminatory because the collar, as a symbol of her beliefs, is equivalent to a religious symbol. I don’t know the details of her dismissal, which may really be about who makes the tea or whether she tends to tell bad jokes, so I won’t go into the rights and wrongs of it. The politics of the situation interests me, though. Should I, as a fellow fetishist (albeit not a collar-wearing type), see her as a kinky crusader, or another person determined to make us all seem a bit, well, odd?
The most ubiquitous relationship symbol is the ring. We all know what it means, and almost all married people wear them. And marriage is the dominant relationship form. Wearing a wedding ring is telling the world, “My sexuality isn’t strange or threatening, it’s kept within bounds. There’s no need to be frightened, I’m just like you.” It is literally legitimising. And although we all know that there are married people who have affairs, sometimes with people of their own sex, visit prostitutes, whip serving girls, etc, it is noticeable that heterosexuality and monogamy are almost universally expected of the married couple. Your friend who likes to take drugs and have unprotected sex with strangers in dark rooms is a riskier dinner party invitation than the married one. The married one might, nowadays, have a male partner, who spends time with him making gourmet food in their granite-surfaced kitchen (yes, you’re learning a bit about my background), and legitimisation explains a lot about why so many want gay marriage. That man, when he settles down, wouldn’t mind the symbol that shows he’s part of your club.
The problem, though, is that the more we contribute to the idea that marriage is the norm, the harder we make it for everyone else. In my day to day life I find it absolutely infuriating that everyone assumes I’m straight and monogamous. People around me make jokes about dykes and transsexuals, ask if I have a boyfriend, never a girlfriend, and take the answer as an indicator of my availability. And if the monogamous masses assuming I’m one of them is annoying, it’s nothing in comparison to the pressure when I do get involved with a man. Suddenly everyone assumes I’m on the road to monogamous wedded blissness. You can fight that among friends, but your commitment to your lesbian lover probably isn’t something to bring up with the boyfriend’s family over Easter lunch.
The prevailing assumption of heterosexual monogamy legitimised by marriage makes life that little bit more difficult for the rest of us. The teenager who thinks he’s broken believes it partially because he don’t know of anyone who likes boys, or non-consent, or polyamory, he only sees a monolithic wall of marriage obscuring the true variety of relationships. It creates an atmosphere in which any public figure’s non-monogamy or visits to a pro-domme are titillating news. People have to hide who they are, so it’s a self-perpetuating system of pain and fear. And not the good kind.*
Sharing our kinky identities would normalise alternative relationships. We’ve come a long way with homosexuality just by going on about it until people stopped being shocked. So should we wear our collars with pride?
Even though it is one of the most prevalent symbols in the BDSM community, the collar is only meaningful to a very small group of people, those participating in a Domination/submission dynamic to a peculiar degree. A brief search brought up a large number of symbols pertinent to my situation which I’ve never come across before. Since I’m a (kind of) bisexual seeing a polyamorous married bear, in a relationship with D/s elements, do I need a charm-collar to show all my proclivities to the world?
Heaping importance on the collar surely invites the proliferation of symbols. It may be terribly important to me to express that I’m a queer promiscuous pansexual bottom as oppose to a bisexual polyamorous submissive, but only people already in my community will know what I’m on about. And people get so terribly het up about symbols. Whenever I begin to think they’re harmless I remember that the Holy Cross school trouble, which involved adults shouting swear words and throwing stones at primary school children (and ended with a pipe bomb), started with a dispute over the location of a flag. Yes, it’s an extreme example there’s no tool to rouse emotion like a symbol.
I can’t help feeling that symbols are ultimately divisive. So we legitimise your relationship by recognising your collar, and the girl who wants her princess dynamic recognised through her tiara is left out in the cold. How many do we have to accept before we’ve given everyone’s identity the recognition it deserves? In my perfect world symbols would proliferate until they lost all meaning, or the dominant ones would lose their ascendency. It would be lovely if wedding rings, like gifts of lingerie, declarations of love or promises of beatings, made a personal, not a public, statement.
I don’t feel any political allegiance to the woman with the slave collar. I do hope, though, in the interests of increasing the amount of freedom and happiness in the world, that she wins her appeal. Surely she’s been through more than enough to be allowed to wear that collar.
*You might be reading this thinking “But I’m extremely happy in my heterosexual monogamous relationship and I don’t see what’s wrong with making a lifelong commitment to my man, throwing a big party and making our friends buy us a lot of expensive kitchenware.” Well, I suppose there isn’t, although I think you could give something back and buy a single friend a nice dinner service or some Le Creuset. Just be aware that you’re contributing to others’ difficulties by using the system that suits you so well. You can do more than wring your hands about it. Ian Goggin and Kristin Skarsholt refuse to participate in inequality from their position of privilege. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12046624