Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’
Only two novels have ever made me sob in a café. I don’t mean that I blinked a couple of tears from my eyes and looked around soulfully. My face was smeared with the tears I’d unsuccessfully tried to wipe away, my nose was running and, as I came up on the worst bits, I made little mewling sounds. I put the book down and breathed slowly to regain control, but couldn’t stop reading for more than a few seconds. One of the books those books was Anna Karenina. The other was ‘Taming the Beast’.
The first time I read it I was in a spin for a week. Near the end I was in a café in Derry, ignoring my lunch, unable to stop reading, but pausing sometimes to search for a dry patch of handkerchief. My boyfriend came back from his errand to find me with a red, puffy face and a bowl of cold broth. I tried to explain: he was dangerous, she was going to let him have her, and I wanted her to, and I wanted him to, and it was so, so, awful. A week later he bought me a copy of ‘The Courage To Heal’, he clearly thought that the only explanation for such twisted thinking was the trauma of abuse. Lacking any such history, though, I’m still looking for other reasons.
I’ve reread the book twice this year. It’s about a girl who loves poems and her English teacher, the affair they have when she’s fourteen and the affair they have when she’s twenty-two. It’s got white panties, asphyxiation, a precocious girl and a stern older man, but my reaction goes beyond my list of kinks. It isn’t porn, there’s an emotional truth it in that I can’t quite decipher.
The first time I read it, I’d just finished ‘Daddy’s Girl’, a story about a woman who plays the little girl to her sadistic ‘Daddy’. It’s a story that starts as porn, for those of us who like that sort of thing: naughty girls being spanked, special clothing to be torn off during rapes in the garden, a rich, sophisticated man who knows his girl is special.* It becomes a story about how reality reasserts itself: Daddy’s doesn’t always know best and sometimes he isn’t there when you need him, you might just have to stand on your own. That upset me, because I want the fantasy of an older man who’ll always love me and always make things right. I want it the same way I think some people want God, as a self-validation and a safety net rolled into one. All the same, ‘Taming the Beast’ leaves me with a greater sense of loss.
In ‘Daddy’s Girl’ the narrator loses her Daddy when she realises that the man can’t live up to the fantasy. Sarah, the narrator of ‘Taming the Beast’, sees her lover’s self-justifications, his blaming her for his loss of control, the fact that his need to beat her is at odds with his position as the sensible, caring adult who should be in charge. Sarah is under no illusions, she knows he’s a sadistic criminal, and she wants it, she’ll give up everything for it. She doesn’t care if she dies.
Then he lifted his head, looked into her eyes and slapped her hard across the face. ‘Dear God, Sarah! Why won’t you let me do this right? Why won’t you let me treat you with respect?’
Sarah knew that he could not see how ridiculous his question was. He didn’t see that biting her legs and slapping her face was less satisfying than a mutually satisfying screw. She didn’t know why this intrigued her when any sane person would be disturbed. She could see the twisted logic, the distorted morality, the dangerous self-justification; it’s just that she didn’t mind.
I think that’s what upsets me. Not only seeing the limitations of the fantasy, as in ‘Daddy’s Girl’, but knowing that the impulse doesn’t dissipate, even when it is demonstrated that it’s flawed. There’s something akin to Sarah’s decision at the centre of most of my kinks, the choosing something without reference to the self. Submission involves a suppression of the self, pain reduces the self by narrowing focus to sensation and shutting everything else out, and pain that seems unbearable is not only engrossing, but pushes you to a limit at which you’ll happily give up anything, if only that will make it stop. Pain trumps integrity. In a sense, my kinks involve chasing dissolution of myself, and I’m sad that I can’t take it as far as the impulse goes, because I have other priorities: staying alive, achieving something, independence from fallible lovers and crutches.
On the other hand, interesting and Bataillian as this analysis is, I do wonder if my feelings are baser. I envy Sarah her story. I want to be the girl whose teacher loves her enough to risk seducing her, beat her, teach her poetry and come back for her eight years later when she’s all grown up. I’m disappointed that I can’t have that in real life, which seems mundane and filled with ordinariness and washing up in comparison. Then it struck me that I did have what Sarah had when I was fourteen, and it felt very different.
I was one of those teenagers who suddenly discovered the power of her sexuality and couldn’t restrain myself to trying to form a relationship with one of the boys of the best local independent. I wanted to be thought irresistible by everyone: the bus driver, the teachers, friend’s brothers, friend’s fathers, and probably any workmen visiting friends’ houses. I remember getting cold in the doorway turning the charm on the pizza delivery guy (and I got cold pizza, too). My school made us wear blue check summer dresses, primary-school style, until we were sixteen (my mother memorably told the head they were ‘a paedophile’s delight’). I used to loll in the grounds under the cherry trees, wearing daisy chain circlets and reddening my lips with sticky cherry lollipops, parodying what I was. Now, I associate the memory of my doing that with one man.
He was a friend’s father. He worked in publishing, in a low-level job that sounded much more impressive at the time. Like Sarah’s Mr. Carr, he told me I was brilliant, intelligent, and understood him like no one else. He showed me his poetry, which he’d shown no one before, not even his wife. He taught me the word ‘pertinent’. He played me the Sisters of Mercy and he told me about Ruskin’s love life. I felt special, beautiful, chosen. Then one weekend, at my friend’s sleepover, in the kitchen, next to the living room where his wife and daughter were having breakfast, he put his hand up my nightdress and onto my breast. I left the kitchen. He sat next to me on the sofa and drew my duvet across his lap. He held my hand. I thought that perhaps he was sorry. He pulled my hand across to his hot, hard penis. I looked down at his daughter sitting by our feet. I didn’t know what to say, so I just pulled my hand away, and put it, which the other, on top of the duvet.
Writing this I feel disgusted, angry, ashamed, let down by all the people who should have educated me about what to do in such circumstances (I had nails!), guilty and sad. I don’t feel turned on. For months I avoided accepting lifts and visits with varying amounts of success, for years I blamed myself, I still feel terrible that I didn’t say something to someone who could have curbed his activities. I realise that none of this was particularly hard-core, but there’s one notable thing about it: it isn’t seductive like ‘Taming the Beast’. I could argue that Sarah’s lover was more handsome, erudite, etc. He undoubtedly was from her perspective, but like me she saw through his conflicting and simultaneously held visions of who he was (and who she was, for that matter). I saw through my molester, too, but it mattered less when our shared activity was preferring poems to chemistry homework. A hand on the penis is a great clarifier: I enjoyed admiration, but wasn’t foolish enough to desire him. I knew, even then, that I was better than that.
I think my tears throughout ‘Taming the Beast’ are for a fantasy shattered. I fall into it again every time, I want to be the girl who knows her Keats so well that her teacher can’t help himself. And then, as the plot progresses, and Sarah gives up more and more (including, eventually, her studies of poetry) I want to follow her, so very badly, but I can see clearly, and I’m sad that what ought to be raging passion turns out to be nothing but gropes beside the toaster and furtive grabbing under a duvet while watching daytime television.* I’m crying for the limited nature of every role play scene, and the fact that I have to be a grown up and look after myself.
I’ve read it twice this year, and I know it backwards. I want more books like this in my life. So, dearest readers, since you’ve made it through 1,500 words of post, will you do one more thing for me? Tell me which books leave you off-balance and make you ask questions about who you are. I do so very much want to know.
*It’s unfortunately got all the hallmarks of paperback pornography, too: long passages during which the author describes her bottom, and a world in which inappropriate behaviour is always an accepted sexual advance. I can’t think what would be said if I decided to take a bath with the door open half way through one of my friend’s parties. I imagine it wouldn’t be, “that Not, she just can’t help doing sexy things!” Feel free to invite me to better parties.
**This point could be made just as well with ‘Lolita’, but everyone’s already read that, and they should be spending more time talking about Nabokov’s amazing language, narratorial perspective and tension, anyway.
I’m not very good at talking about my kink. You might think that someone who blogs about the kinky things she’s done would happily rattle off lists of things she would like to do. Recording what has happened, though, is mere note-taking; speaking about desire is more akin to divination.
What I can do is document my systematic failure to tell anyone what I want. My first forays into formal kink (to be distinguished from casual kink, during which one must maintain deniability and use something fluffy from Ann Summers) were based on HH’s enticing scenarios. All I had to do was embellish on a story of his invention, and any embarrassing details could be blamed on the characters or dramatic imperative. It wasn’t that I wanted to be beaten, but that the narrative simply demanded it. Unfortunately, HH obviously deemed the story-based approach to kink insufficient and sent me a limits list. I’d seen one of these before, at the University Pride Society’s Annual Bondage Lecture. I’d taken it home, looked up several words and quickly put it down again.
HH’s scene questionnaire had ticky boxes and 0-5 scales, so you could note past participation and current eagerness. I tried, I really did. I started by putting a definite tick next to ‘hand spanking’ at the top of the list, then considered my degree of desire for hand spanking. After some time I decided that “it depends” was the only truthful answer. There are hand spankings and there are hand spankings, some are more tolerable than others. Some moments are better than others, too; a hand spanking which interrupts a gripping chapter is less welcome than one which enlivens a quiet afternoon. A general fondness for hand spankings doesn’t indicate that they’ll always be wanted. Especially, I reflected, as there’s one moment at which I can reliably predict that I’ll feel a strong dislike of hand spankings, and that is when they are happening. I could be bursting with desire for a spanking, I could have pushed cheekiness into downright rudeness in order to provoke one, but within minutes I’m squirming and begging for it to stop. I decided to leave hand spankings to one side and put a tick next to ‘tawsing’. Then I went through the same mental process before failing to indicate my degree of eagerness for the strap.
I managed almost a page of ticks and crosses before I got bored. My next attempt to complete the list coincided with a particularly playful mood. That’s the only explanation I have for the kamikaze spirit in which I annotated ‘Caning’ with, “Maybe I should save myself for someone who can manage parallel lines,”* and ‘Birching’ with, “One of the things I’m less eager to try. Maybe that’s a reason to do it.” Next to ‘Act as Object’ I wrote a little summary of Juliette’s adventures with Minski and, clearly on a literary roll, further down I quoted Frost—“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” The questionnaire provided several pages of such amusement. After a while, though, it struck me that this perhaps wasn’t the approach HH wished me to take. I looked at my scrawling and decided not to mention it again.
My silence wasn’t effective. HH asked if I was finished. I put forward cogent arguments about the flaws inherent in the ticky-box approach to kink. HH demanded my completed form. I said I’d make a final attempt to shoehorn my sexuality into scales from 0-5 while I was on the train. On my arrival, I realised I’d forgotten to. Honest.
As a compromise, I proposed a conversational approach, with more nuance and less quantification. That fell through when HH printed himself a copy of the list and got out a pencil. I tried my best to answer his questions; I definitely communicated my aversion to feet, incomprehension of rubber and physical factors preventing me passing for a Japanese schoolgirl. Other areas were harder to address. By the end, HH was interpreting my silences; apparently my most eloquent communications take the form of blushing and looking away.
Silences blossom from embarrassment, ignorance, and even the tendency to mentally recite poems rather than consider the horrors of birching. My most insoluble silences, though, are rooted in the central paradox of a desire for pain. The things I like best, I don’t like at all. They hurt. That doesn’t diminish the high or the delicious feeling of being in someone’s power, but that power would be demonstrably false if it was only used to do things I like. I want to hate it. Then I want a hug. I’m pretty sure that’s a sound, if ill-expressed, position. When people ask what I’m into, though, “whatever you like that I really don’t, except feet and some other stuff I probably haven’t heard of yet,” doesn’t feel like a useful answer.
I do have fantasies, of course, and relating those would be an option. However, while long, organically growing narratives about kidnap, captivity and rape are very nice in one’s head, they aren’t exactly the sort of thing one brings up over tea and scones. Even if I did find the relevant moment to say “actually, I was thinking this morning about being half-drowned” I don’t think I’d be too pleased if a play partner went off to run a cold bath in response. Holding me underwater is something we might work up to after many months of non-lethal play. Or not. I do prefer the version of myself that keeps breathing.
Fortunately, my fantasies have been getting less extreme. Significantly sillier, but also less likely to result in death or vitamin D deficiency.** I’m haunted by images of a schoolgirl self: a girl in a green gymslip and a white blouse, with a sash around her waist and a boater over her curls. She’s a good girl, and she’s trying, but the lessons are so very boring, and her teacher doesn’t understand the difficulty involved in listening to him drone on. In a truly worrying turn of events I’ve even found myself fantasising about the academic content of her classes. English grammar is the most desirable, but I’d take European geography or the fun bits of history (the eras when they’re pillaging nunneries and chopping people’s heads off, not making import/export law).*** I suppose I could tell play partners that I’d like to wear an unflattering outfit and learn the bits of English so boring they’d given up teaching them by the time I went to school. Then I could try to explain that I’d like to be spanked because I’d just hate it. The drowning has a certain classiness about it, in comparison.
Does anyone know of a remedy for coyness? Or have a better expression of the pain paradox? More importantly, does anyone want to teach me a lesson? I think I need a few classes lined up before I blow my pocket money on a gymslip.
*I’d been particularly wriggly during my last caning.
**My exploration of scene was stalled, incidentally, by a boyfriend who claimed the opposite would happen. Kink escalates; apparently a couple of taps on the bum are a gateway which leads ultimately to a day when a pale, scarred version of you will shudder on the street outside a grubby basement dungeon where you hope to get your next fix of flesh hook suspension. Either I’m an anomaly or he was talking claptrap, I’ll leave you to decide.
***That was all absolutely true when I typed it. Later, in bed with ‘Third Year at Malory Towers’ I read this:
“’Where’s Mavis? I haven’t seen her all evening.’
‘She said she had a singing lesson,’ said Darrell. ‘But what a long one it must have been! Well, she’ll come along when Mr. Young’s finished with her, I suppose.’”
My mind wandered to activities not usually in the lesson-plan. I’m sure I’m not the first girl to have been corrupted by Enid Blyton.
I met up with a strange man from the internet recently. Before we met, he pointed out to me that I knew far more about his kink than he does about mine, because he blogs on his while I limit myself to safer topics, such as feminism and pretty dresses (he didn’t actually mention pretty dresses, but I’m sure that was an oversight). My advantage probably lay more in the fact that I’ve read books by his ex-girlfriend, while he doesn’t know of the books people have shoehorned me into. Suffice it to say I’m not sharing, as, unlike him, I’m not the love interest but the maker of trifles.
It got me wondering why I don’t blog about kink. Sharing experiences of sexualities which aren’t publicly sanctioned is good. It was a big step towards freedom in second-wave feminism when books like “Our Bodies, Ourselves” sparked conversations between women independent of male ‘experts’. Freud’s theories about the right type of orgasm must have started looking rather silly in the light of real women’s experiences. Similarly, gay sex seems to have stopped being the love that dare not speak its name and become the love that wears something eye-catching and shouts its pet names from the rooftops and parade floats. Talking about it was not the sole cause of gay liberation, perhaps, but a small contributory factor.
Kinksters aren’t a poor, oppressed group, but they aren’t exactly accepted, either. I don’t just mean the tabloid treatment of Max Mosley or the “dungeon” owners in Devon. I mean the scare-mongering about causal links between violent pornography and rape. I mean the idea that a woman doesn’t have the agency to choose to be submissive. I mean the worry I feel that I may lose credibility if I tell you too much about myself.
That’s one reason I haven’t gone into detail about my kink, but it’s also a reason why I should. The problem is that I don’t have a final answer on what my kink is. Sexuality is infinitely malleable, and finding a vocabulary to write about it may change it. The fetish community displays a striking uniformity of bizarre tastes. In my vanilla experience I’ve met men obsessed with my shoulders, my hair, my age, a particular expression, my tone of voice when I want something, the way I exhale smoke from a cigarette, my stare over my reading glasses. What do we get in the kink community? Floggers and clothes made out of tree sap. What if I wake up a cookie-cutter “slave” or “little girl” just because I enjoy a screwed up power dynamic?
If the language of the BDSM community is dangerous, the language I’m more familiar with, that of theory, is no better and has the added disadvantage of opacity. I can talk around the issue using Sade, Bataille, Blanchot, Hegel, Bakhtin and, on a good day, Kristeva (although the good days are getting fewer and further between). I can make intertextual allusions through novels and pornographic texts. All of this is, however, to come at it crab-like. I can’t find the words, and I don’t trust them not to find me.
Does it sound like I’m making excuses? I suspect that I am. I don’t want to tell you about my kink because I’m haunted by everyone who ever disapproved. The ex-boyfriend who dug for evidence of buried childhood trauma. The ex-boyfriend who thought it was an all-access pass. The confused vanilla friends. They combine into an angel on my shoulder telling me that if only I were to stop wanting kinky things, I could be good and pure and loveable, citizen of a lemon-scented world and creator of incredibly fluffy cakes.* That angel is nothing, however, in comparison to the fear that feminists inspire. You see, I know that when the things I fantasise about happen, they really aren’t fun. Being hit by a man isn’t just painful, it’s bloody terrifying. Being raped is a really crappy experience, and it lasts. It’s still possible to turn me into a rabbit in the headlights by making a sudden movement or catching the wrong tone in your voice. I don’t want to feed the myth that that is what women want. It isn’t. Every time I see a kinkster talk about his “natural dominance” or “a woman’s place” I feel as if I’ve committed an act of violence against feminism.
One final worry: I secretly snigger at other people’s kinks. Sometimes they make me feel vaguely ill. You might, too.
Were those good enough reasons? No, I didn’t think so. So I’m going to try to tell you about my kink.
I like to be in somebody’s power. I like to feel that there’s no way out, no way to re-establish my own will, and my only option is to do as I’m told. That’s not enough, though, otherwise I would enjoy getting stuck in traffic jams. I like to be valued. I rather like being rewarded when I’m good: instant justice from an immediate authority. Even being disapproved of, or punished, is proof that somebody cares. And—oh!—I like to be punished. I like it even when it’s not fair. Maybe especially when it’s not fair. And when, unfairly, my protestations that it’s not fair have been silenced on pain of even more punishment.
I don’t like pain. It doesn’t magically become pleasure between one end of the nerve and the other. It just bloody hurts. I’ll admit to enjoying in a sense of smugness produced by tolerating pain, but that doesn’t get to the core of it. The core is when I’m crying and begging for the pain to stop. It isn’t something I like; it’s something I want.
I want more than a beating, of course. It’s all the parts. It’s when I can’t meet someone’s eye in case he sees what I’m thinking.** It’s his slow, deliberate movements, when I’m almost trembling but he’s in no rush. It’s wondering what he’s going to do with his belt as he takes it off. Blushing. Squirming. Being held down by someone’s weight. It’s gasping for air. It’s clinging on to him for dear life afterwards. It’s thumbprints around my wrists in the morning and bruises I didn’t know I had. None of that gets to the bottom of it. I’ve been beaten and been nowhere near this place, I’ve felt it in nothing more tangible than a look.
This is a part of me that never really disappears, it only recedes. The same frisson is there in hearing someone speak for me in a foreign language, teach me a new word, choose a good wine, converse on a topic they are knowledgeable about, lead me well in a dance, make me blush, get me lost in a story or say me they’re proud of me. All of those are less intense variations on the same power.
Do you want to know why? So do I. I’d tell you my theory, but you’ve been reading for a long time, so now isn’t the moment to torture you with Hegel. I’m not a sadist, after all.
So, there you have it, as coherent an account of my kink as I am able to give. You’d better tell me whether or not you want to hear more. I’ll try my very best to do as I’m told.
*My cakes are remarkably fluffy, actually, but that’s because my daddy bought me a Kenwood Chef. My real daddy, not a pervy older man.
** I like it when women do these things, too, but the English language doesn’t lend itself to bisexuality, so I picked a gender and stuck with it.
One of the things I love about writing is indulging my runaway imagination. It’s not daydreaming, it’s productive visualisation! Another of the things I love about it is the way that my own life can be cut up and stuck back together in different ways to create something much more meaningful (hopefully) than the original experience. The problem, I find, is when the two come together.
I didn’t realise that I could be a writer until I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography. I noticed that his magic realism was created by relating incidents from his life out of order and without the background information which would make them coherent, and I thought ‘I can do that!’ I don’t have to make something out of nothing; I don’t have to write in a vacuum. I can take characters and situations from my real life, and no one is going to brandish a manuscript at me shouting, “you’re not a real writer. You didn’t create this character, I can tell it’s my Aunt Marg!” In fact, my published friends tell me that Aunt Margs and their friends are excessively pleased to see themselves in print, to the point of deluding themselves that they are the models for characters they do not resemble.
So when I’m writing a story I sometimes pick a personal experience, which comes with its own cast of real people who I adapt to my requirements. Similarly, when I need a character, I often cast around my acquaintance for someone who fits the bill. Don’t worry, almost everyone is changed beyond recognition as I tweak and stretch them into who I need them to be.
All of this means that I spend a lot of time daydreaming about people. Add to that this fact: I haven’t had sex since January.
Don’t imagine that I am sad about my celibacy. I’m revelling in fresh-smelling sheets and the freedom to do what I want without having to notify anyone. I’m not even seeking casual sex, since I find myself a much more reliable provider of pleasure than almost anyone else.
That said, as I’ve mentioned in this blog before, sexual deprivation does lead me to notice sexual possibilities a lot more. And I, for the sake of my writing, have given my mind permission to go wandering off down these garden paths.
For example, there is a beautiful woman at my dance class. She is an excellent dancer. She is curvy, she has a pretty face and a tiny waist. She wears tight, tight dresses with low necklines and high hemlines. I don’t know how everyone else in the room is doing, but I have to make a conscious effort not to stare fixedly at her for the duration of the evening. And she’s the sort of girl where looking immediately leads to thoughts of touching.
I don’t know her name. I’ve never spoken to her, and I probably never will. I have, however, put her in a story. I wanted an object of forbidden lust for my main character, and there she was, ready-made and lust-inducing. She made it very easy to write the sex scenes. The only thing I worry about is my inability to look her in the eye. To be fair, it has always been difficult to drag my gaze up that far.
My imaginative investment in my mystery dancing girl has been productive. Sometimes, though, one thinks around in circles for a long time without working out precisely where the idea is going, and it never reaches paper. Such is the case with mystery dancer number two.
I have been told this man’s name more than once and forgotten it. One dances with a lot of men at classes and freestyles, and just to confuse you they change their clothes, sometimes halfway through the evening, and they often pop up at venues where you weren’t expecting to see them. I’ve given up trying to keep track. This man stuck in my mind because I found myself unintentionally flirting with him. The next week he flirted with me, while I tried to look demure. After that, I spent a week fantasising about him.
I don’t mean sexual fantasies. I always think it is a little rude to use real people as mental masturbation aids. A man once told me that I’d “given” him roughly thirty orgasms in a month. Not only did I think the numbers were probably inflated (did the man have no porn!?) and not only did I think that it demonstrated obsession rather than affection, but I also felt just a little violated. This is my body. If we’ve been together you’re entitled to the odd memory-wank, but this is icky. And, I imagine, sticky.
So I don’t mean that I settle down with my toy collection and conjure up images. In fact, it is much worse than that. I’ve invented a whole life for him: A history, hobbies and interests, friends and family members, a career, a taste for beef and beer stew, a best friend’s punky lesbian daughter. He’s taken me for days out at stately homes. He’s refused to come to a strip club with me as research for my novel. He’s invited me to dinner parties where I’ve been terrifically bored all night but made up for it by supplying a great breakfast. We had a terrible fight after I got uptight about the age gap, and he got angry with me for snogging his best friend’s daughter or smoking in his bedroom (it wasn’t entirely clear which, I’d done both), but we reconciled. He’s never taken me shopping, because he hates it so much. All of his bed linen is white.
So in my life there are two people about whom I know a set of real facts and a set of fictional facts. Both are important and relevant to me, but the fiction has a much stronger relation to my everyday life. One of them is already in a story, so I need to remember the fictions and add to them as she develops. The man may never make it onto the page, but he might, so I can’t abandon him yet, and in any case I am sure that he will influence some of my other characters. I don’t want to give him up.
Not only does this mean that I have to be very vigilant at separating the fact from the fiction when I do see these people face to face (enquiring after the health of imaginary family members would look foolish, for example), but I also have to guard against emotional indiscretions. When I saw my older man across the hall last week I felt a rush of affection. Then I remembered that he didn’t exist, so I avoided him for the rest of the night.
Do you find yourself living more in fantasy than reality? How do you maintain the divide? Let me know, just so I can be sure that I’m not fantasising my readers, too.
I write stories. I try to tackle the issues people debate in the abstract with a personal approach. One of my characters has decided that she’s going to work at a lap dancing club. I hadn’t planned it, but it seems like an interesting path. Feminist writers and bloggers have a lot to say on the topic, as do campaign groups like Object. It is much harder to find the views of the people who work in the industry, or the clients. My personal experience is limited to seeing some pole dancing once in a lesbian club in Soho.
Why am I writing about something I haven’t experienced? If I don’t, then all I will ever produce is my autobiography. I think it is going to be interesting in terms of understanding gender construction, objectification, power relationships and sexuality, all of which are my area. We’ll see what happens.
I need more input. Have you ever worked doing lap dancing or pole dancing? Have you ever paid for these services? I want to hear from you. I realise that the experience is not uniform, the people, their motivations, what goes on at work all varies. Nonetheless, my character is a representation of people who seem to be talked about more than heard. If I have more information she can be a better representation.
I will take anything I can get. How did you get into it? How do you spend your time at work? What are the good bits, which bits don’t you like? Do you feel that it changes other people’s perceptions of you? How do you feel about your employers and the customers? Anything you want to tell me will be welcomed.
For the customers, I would love to know what your time at a club is like, what you enjoy about it, how the experience makes you feel, or whatever you want to share.
I don’t need anyone to tell me “lap dancing is wrong because…” I already know those arguments. If your story ends with “boo” or “yay” that’s great, though.
You can post in the comments section or email me at email@example.com. For this, I offer you my everlasting gratitude. Many, many thanks.
Today is International Women’s Day. When I lived in China it was celebrated with a day off work, here in the UK it seems to be used as a vehicle for examining the progress of feminism in the national press. I think I preferred the Chinese version.
If you’re a Guardian reader (and what self-flagellating British liberal isn’t?) you’ll have noticed that every feminist issue recently has come with a quote or from Natasha Walters on the sorry state of feminism. She has a new book out, and, I suspect, a friend on the editorial board. Combine her oft-repeated argument that women are increasingly participating in their own objectification with the recent report on the sexualisation of children, though, and you would be forgiven for thinking half of the British population are disguising themselves as sex-dolls and hookers in order to tempt men to stuff five pound notes into their bras.
There has always been pressure on women to look good, but there has rarely been so much pressure on women to look like porn stars. Access to and use of pornography, strip clubs and prostitutes is now widespread. The number of men using prostitutes doubled in the 1990s (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/mar/06/charlotte-raven-feminism-madonna-price) the number of lap-dancing clubs has risen 1,150% since 1997 (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1252734/Domesday-Book-2010-Strip-clubs-soaring-libraries-disappearing–figures-lay-bare-life-modern-Britain.html). Broadband connections are pretty common, too; who doesn’t look at porn?
Men are paying for women’s bodies and it is very visible. When the bus stop is outside the strip club, you wait outside the strip club (bad planning, Liverpool City Council!). You can’t insulate yourself from the media. This week I’ve seen several hardcore pornographic pictures I didn’t want to see, through internet advertising. I’ve heard radio adverts in which breathy women seem to promise sex in return for scrap metal (that was quite odd). Even the photos in my cookery books seem to focus on the body of the author, rather than her baking.
This makes a lot of us feel insecure. There’s a little voice at the back of our minds saying that men want women who look like that, rather than like me. It’s not enough to make meringues, I have to find the opportunity to sensuously lick something gloopy off my finger while I do it. There will always be someone there to exploit that insecurity, because there’s money in it, so they try to sell you make-up, clothes, diet pills, breast implants and pussy dye (yes, I said pussy dye: http://www.mynewpinkbutton.com/category/29754061681/1/Beauty-Product.htm). There are two common responses: to try to look better, or to assert that looks don’t matter. Join them or beat them.
Enter feminism, which tries to offer ways of valuing women that aren’t about how desirable they are to men. In the earliest days Mary Wollstonecraft wrote about women’s education for that reason. Women fought to be able to go to work for that reason. We thought we’d mostly won. So when we see society pushing women back into the role of sex object, when we see Tesco selling pole dancing kits as children’s toys (http://www.feministing.com/archives/005946.html) and stationers selling Playboy merchandise to little girls (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2005/aug/15/pressandpublishing.genderissues), feminists get angry. But who should we be angry with?
We should ask ourselves why feminist ideas on how to value women aren’t accepted, while sexual objectification is. Because it really is. Teenagers want to be glamour models, they cite Katie Price as a role model (http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/s/161/161338_naked_ambition_rubs_off_on_teen_girls.html) . There’s something rather patronising about the way feminists wring their hands and blame culture for brainwashing children. Could it possibly be that they just don’t like our version of who they should be?
This issue crystallised for me when I came across this.
It can be seen as a great feminist response to a song in which a woman claims value only in terms of men’s desire, suggesting an empowering alternative in which we value women’s brains. Sounds great. But what if you can’t get an A in it?
Some girls just aren’t that brainy. They aren’t going to become lawyers or doctors, and it’s not because they are disadvantaged, or lack encouragement. We ask that only the best pursue those careers. Most women aren’t the best. Most men aren’t, either. What does feminism have to offer them?
Feminism is a mostly middle-class movement. It campaigns on middle class issues. Working class women did not fight to be allowed to work, they had always worked, out of economic necessity rather than a desire for fulfilment and independence. Today the work ethic, education and career success are part of middle class values. They also seem to be feminist values. We are proud that women are achieving the positions middle class men covet. To do that you should work hard, get a good education and an important job. The problem is that a good education is not available to a lot of working class girls. Even in my position as middle-class, with my private schooling and postgraduate education, I can’t claim that my career has much sparkle. What if I had been to a school with a 50% GCSE pass rate? What if I didn’t have any role models who worked? What if I just saw through the rhetoric which told me I had to combine career-woman, domestic goddess and sex kitten, when I could choose just one?
I don’t have an alternative system to propose. I judge women (indeed, everyone) on a diverse range of factors, many of them idiosyncratic, like whether they agree with my reading of Nietzsche and if they share my sense of humour. It would be easy to say that everyone is special and has their own unique contribution to make to the world, but that rather misses the point. It is an idea which loses its currency when you’re sat next to a bore at dinner.
What I do know is that what we are doing isn’t working. Feminism isn’t speaking to most women. Why don’t we offer them something different?
I had been planning a light-hearted post about women’s orgasms, but then I read this:
Rape Case Dropped. A woman was denied the right to have her alleged rapists put on trial because she had shared fantasies of group sex on MSN messenger. She intended to have sex with one man, but, she says, when she reached his house she found several more men who forced her to have sex with them. Let me repeat the reason why these men weren’t tried: she had told somebody about her sexual fantasies.
Fantasy is not consent. I used to daydream about accidental explosions during chemistry class, but I wouldn’t have thanked the person who actually made a bomb. In no other area of the law is fantasising about something an agreement to action.
When it comes to rape we don’t think straight. We make excuses for perpetrators, often along the lines of “she was asking for it.” If she really was asking for it, it wouldn’t have been rape, but a surprising proportion of people blame the victim. I did the number-crunching at Amnesty International for this study Amnesty International Study. It shows that almost half of Northern Irish university students believe that a woman is to some degree responsible for being raped if she has behaved in a flirtatious manner and almost a third believe she is if she is wearing ‘sexy or revealing clothing’. One in ten students considers violence acceptable against a girlfriend who nags, flirts with other men or refuses to have sex.
Would a thief be acquitted he said “I only stole the Ferrari because it was so shiny and red”? Would its owner be blamed because he washed and polished it? If I broke into a shop, could I excuse myself by saying that I had seen the advertising and it made me really, really want what was inside? It would be absurd.
In truth, that’s because the analogies don’t make much sense. If I stole a Ferrari, I would then have a Ferrari, with all of the same features as a legitimately purchased one. If you rape someone, it isn’t going to be the same experience as consensual sex. She’s not going to light candles or lick your nipples or whisper how much she wants you in your ear. So I can’t help thinking that, if you’re a rapist, you aren’t actually after those things.
So let’s reassess the ‘temptations’ (fantasy, flirtation, sexy clothes) from another perspective. What sort of a woman has sexual fantasies, wears sexy clothing and flirts? It’s not the good girl.
Our culture distinguishes between two types of women: virgins and whores. It isn’t all that long ago that a woman’s virginity was her most precious possession and her virtue was measured by her chastity. Yes, we’ve had the sexual revolution, but I think the 6.5% conviction rate for rape tells us a lot about the rate of actual change. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have mentioned to a man that I find both men and women attractive, or that I’ve visited a fetish club, only to find that his eyes have glazed over for a moment and he’s lost to his own thoughts. Soon after he will make a move, or reveal an assumption about the sorts of activities I may be willing to engage in (group sex, for instance) and I will realise that I’ve been put in the bad girl box. Sometimes that’s fun, because it makes me attractive and provides opportunities to play. It isn’t an accurate perception of who I am, though, and that can be a problem.
Bad girls, you see, can’t be raped. A recent study of men who use prostitutes found that a quarter of those questioned thought that the very concept of raping a prostitute or call girl was “ridiculous.” I’m not saying this is a representative sample of the population, but how would you feel if one in four of your clients thought that forcing you to have sex with them wasn’t in any way out of line? Twenty-seven per cent of our interviewees explained that once he pays, the customer is entitled to engage in any act he chooses with the woman he buys. Any act. What a terrifying position to be in.
The prostitute is the most extreme example of the bad girl in popular perception. As such, she is seen as radically different from other women. One interviewee said “the very fact that they’re prepared to do that job where others won’t even if skint, there’s some capability inside them that permits them to do it, to not be disgusted by this, a normal woman would be if she was asked to do it.” Another man concluded, “They must be able to have sex more often because they do it all day. They don’t mind foregoing a lover or romance or a married partner…. They don’t mind going to people’s homes for sex. They don’t mind having sex with anyone.” One interviewee who struggled with the notion that prostitution damages women rationalised it by believing that women in prostitution are, unlike other women, intrinsically indecent and slutty:
“It’s a dirty job in my humble opinion, having sex for money isn’t a decent thing for a human being. I wouldn’t go out on a date or be in a relationship with one of them. I don’t see myself going out with someone who has been paid for sex. I’m an old fashioned person, Roman Catholic. In high school, boys don’t want to go out with slutty girls. Part of my brain is divided – like a wall. I think two different ways about women.”
This last quote brings up an important point. Not only are prostitutes intrinsically different from other women, they are also desirable. Why else does he pay to have sex with them? Presumably because of their supposed difference, their indecency, sluttiness, lack of disgust and discrimination.
So what of women who do not take payment for sex, but share some behaviours with those who do? Women who, say, have a lot of sex with a number of different men, outside long-term loving relationships? Woman go to some lengths to attract men? Those who put on mini-skirts and go out looking for casual sex of a weekend? They, too, fall into the ‘bad girl’ category. Can you rape one of them? The prevalence of terms like ‘date rape’ implies that while you can, this is a lesser form of rape. A girl who spends and evening with a man, drinks alcohol with him and goes to his home has diminished rights.
The logical conclusion of this was reached with the support for Roman Polanski, who gave a thirteen year old alcohol and drugs then raped her. Some of the greatest artists alive today have protested against his arrest. Whoopi Goldberg says it wasn’t ‘rape rape’. Our divisions into categories of rape have come so far that when a man in his forties drugs a child and fucks her up the ass we find a way to argue that it wasn’t really, truly rape.
What do you have to be to be sure that you aren’t going to be laughed at when you report your rape, as one of the victims of John Worboys says was when she went to the police? I think you’d better be a virgin wearing Laura Ashley who was jumped by a stranger late at night. A few witnesses and a couple of broken bones, would help, too.
How did we get to a situation in which behaviours common to most women, such as trying to look attractive and flirting, became signifiers for an identity which apparently invited violence? I think it is due to desire and jealousy. Men like bad girls. We have a communal fantasy, dating back to Eve, of women with insatiable sexual appetites. These women are beautiful, they are seductive and they want you. Who wouldn’t want a woman like that? Men want them, so, to some degree, women try to be them. We style our hair, put on our makeup and choose the sexiest clothes. We learn to give killer blow jobs and to walk in high heels. I do it, too. I do it because although I know I’m brilliant on the basis of my knowledge of Foucault and ability to make a fantastic chocolate trifle, most people are never going to be exposed to these things. Anyone likes women has a chance of falling for my curling tresses and reddened lips. I like the attention, who doesn’t? Not making an effort to be attractive makes a big statement in our society. Who wants to be a hairy-legged lesbian?
While men like bad girls, they wouldn’t want their mother or their wife to be one. Their liking is specifically sexual. The image is seductive because it communicates availability. A woman who is sexually voracious and indiscriminate in her choice of partner will certainly sleep with you. Her dedication to dick frees a man from his inadequacies (he can’t talk to me about Foucault, but that doesn’t matter, he can certainly supply a cock) and from commitment, since she’s not attached to any of his specificities. The fact that her experience and longing imply that she knows how to please a man and is gagging to do so (gagging, in some cases, being far too accurate a word) add to the perfection of the fantasy.
The possibility of rape would shatter the fantasy completely, predicated as it is on sexual availability. For men who cherish this fantasy, then, it is easy to see why there would be little sympathy for allegations of rape if someone isn’t squeaky clean. And the number of men who do wish to preserve it is surprisingly high, in my experience.
What about women? Surely we can see more easily the complexities of the situation? We have all experienced the difficulty of balancing sexual liberation with sexual objectification. In the report I worked on, however, women’s views were similar to men’s, with a high percentage excusing rape in cases involving low cut tops or flirtatious behaviour. So what have women got against the bad girl? I think we fear her. We know men want her. Our boyfriends and husbands desire her, possibly more than they desire us. Men have affairs, they visit prostitutes, and sometimes they hurt their loved ones very much in the process. Who do you want to blame, the man you love or the woman who ‘seduced’ him?
The ‘bad girl’ is competition. I know this because I feel it, too. In a very small way, intermittently, I am envious of those who are better at seducing men than I am. I know that what I actually want is a man who loves me on a deeper level than noticing that I have great legs, but it doesn’t change my reaction. I know that other women feel this, too, because I’ve seen the marketing campaigns for mascara and heard about the national obsession with weight loss from all of my female friends. I notice that there is a whole genre of magazines dedicated to telling you the difficulties of celebrities’ lives and printing pictures of them on bad hair days. We want to be the most attractive, and when we can’t, in some nasty, hidden part of ourselves, we want to see the winners suffer.
What punishment would be more fitting than rape? You want to be a sexual object? Well, there you are then. These are the consequences. It’s the same plot as any number of novels, the good girl gets the guy, the bad girl gets her comeuppance.
There is a flaw. The girl we are talking about is a fantasy, albeit a fantasy that has a profound impact on who we are. Most prostitutes aren’t sexually voracious; many are traumatised, drug-addicted, coerced or just in need of money. Most women playing the bad girl role have a lot more to their characters. Those that don’t must have had good reasons for turning themselves into a male fantasy, reasons which made them crave the approval and attention it brings. My guesses at those reasons would be isolation, loneliness, low self-esteem, self-loathing, even.
I’m not saying that the bad girl role isn’t a fun one to play. I enjoy being bad and I’ve got the outfits to prove it. It’s something I do, though, not something I am. It doesn’t change my right to say “no.”
It doesn’t matter who she is, how she’s acted, or what you’ve done with her before. If she doesn’t want to do it, if she is subjected to force, violence, coercion or manipulation, it is rape. There’s a very simple way to check whether she wants to have sex, you can ask her, and see if she says “yes” or “no.” The criminal justice system in the UK is improving its services to rape victims, albeit too slowly and in spite of judges like Robert Brown. Wider perceptions, however, show that we have difficulty separating fantasy from reality. These are real people, real lives, so get over it.
Special thanks to Daisy for bringing this to my attention.
Apparently it’s all very simple. I am trying to use my beauty to seduce a mate who will father my children. I’ll judge him by his strength, status and power. I’ll try to remain captivating for as long as I can, so that he will provide for my children, rather than pursue his goal of promiscuous, indiscriminate sex with younger women (probably secretaries). I should really stop writing and pluck my eyebrows.
This is what evolutionary psychology tells me, anyway. The thesis is that I am pre-programmed to act in this way, because I inherited the genes from ancestors who did it and survived. As objections clamour in my mind to be heard, the one that shouts the loudest is “if that’s true, then how, after all these years of men choosing beautiful women, do we still have so many utterly ugly women?”, but I’ll put that to one side for now.
What I find interesting is the time which they choose to fix on, when men killed hairy mammoths and women dusted the cave. It’s the same one fantasised by both Hobbes and Rousseau, a ‘state of Nature’ before culture got its grubby hands on us and bent us to its will. It’s the one early anthropologists thought they had discovered in Africa and the colonies when they were trying to prove that white people are better because they are ‘more civilised’. The idea of a time before culture is very appealing; in it we can find an image of our purer selves freed from the mores of society, freed even from morality.
Another thing I find interesting is how terminally useless we are at understanding other societies. Even today, in a globalised society with better communication technology than has ever been known, British Islamophobia has reached such fevered levels that I sometimes wonder if we’ve moved far beyond maps with “Here Be Dragons!” written on them. When European artists went east they came back with paintings of hordes of scantily clad sexually available women. Few of them bothered mentioning that they hadn’t actually been allowed inside the harem, and the women’s more accurate paintings strangely didn’t prove as popular. When anthropologists went to Africa they told tales of animalistic, super-sexed women. The kind who leave scratch marks on your back.
Are you noticing a theme here? Yes, when men don’t know the answer, they fantasise about sex. Reporting on cultures, they fantasise one in which the women are sexually available. It’s hardly a new discovery, Homer represented it pretty well with Odysseus’ sexual exploits. To be fair, I’m prone to the occasional fantasy about sexually available women myself. It gets dangerous, however, when you call it science. Well respected men published studies about the sexual voracity of African races; black women still have a reputation for animal lust and are constantly depicted that way in pornography. Harem images, I’m sure, have influenced our understanding of relationships in the Muslim world and fed into our burka panic.
So what does this tell us about evolutionary psychology? It tells us to be wary of conclusions drawn from examination of another society, because we may well be mistaken about the nature of that society. It tells us to be suspicious if the tale we are being told is one of the candy-shop of girls variety. And is it? I’m afraid so. Evolutionary psychologists envision a society in which women did their utmost to be pleasing and men slept around, so we do it, too. I do wonder what their wives think.
I think we can learn more from the fact of evolutionary psychology’s speculation than we can from its contents. Men like to envision a world in which they get to shag pretty women. Hang on, we already knew that. So why go to all the effort of putting the label of science on it? Because most people believe that there is objective truth to be found in science. If you take the long view, most science, most of the time, has been wrong, but we are positive about its potential. Often we find what we want to find. So why do we want to find that men are promiscuous and women clingy?
I suspect that it is because you can do a lot of things with the word “natural.” It sells everything from face cream to potatoes. Being a vegetarian, I hear the argument “it’s only natural” often from defensive meat-eaters. I usually suppress the retort that I could name any number of natural things they wouldn’t do in front of me. So when we fantasise about a prehistoric time when we did what was natural, what is our response to it? A bit of philandering only natural. So’s rape, too, when you come to think of it.
I’m not saying that there’s a mass conspiracy of evolutionary psychologists advocating rape. I’m not even saying that even a significant proportion of the population would think like that. I’m just pointing out that when we dip into science, we should recall its tendency to disguise mass communal fantasies. We should keep in mind the Black and Asian women still fighting inaccurate perceptions today. We should remember that these are real people, including the gays, lesbians, childless, promiscuous women and, God love them, the monogamous men.