Posts Tagged ‘identity’
I’ve spent a lot of my life worrying about being attractive. I started in my teens, from the position of believing myself to be grotesque and repulsive, as most people do. I spent a while trying to learn to be less repulsive from my peers, who had their own strategies, from sex to self-harm, and settled for a while on religiously following magazine beauty tips. I soon stopped, because they were obviously stupid, and often contradictory.
I got older. I felt less grotesque. I learned how to be attractive from conversations and observation of friends, a method which promotes constant comparison. Like anyone faced with a situation they can’t control, but really need to, I created achievable goals. If I keep my eyebrows plucked, my hair styled, my legs, armpits and pubis shaved, my face made up, and my clothes flattering, I’ll be attractive. When that failed, I relied on inherent, if transitory qualities. As long as I’m under 30, I’ll be attractive. That sort of thing.
At some point in the last few years, all of the things I used to do to ensure I was attractive fell by the wayside. Shaving is a faff. Wearing foundation gives me spots. Daily washing and styling uses up valuable sleeping time. I’m not willing to pay the heating bills that sexy nighties cause. In fact, I’m not even willing to stump up for a new silk nighty at this juncture. Some of my university friends are turning thirty this year.
A strange thing has happened. I haven’t got less attractive.
While I’ve been distracted by other things, like earning a living and writing a novel, I’ve forgotten to compare myself to other people. Suddenly, now I’m not noticing the miniscule differences, I can see how attractive most of my friends are. The ones who value grooming, the ones who rarely shower, the ones who’ve lost weight, gained weight, not bought a new outfit in a year, the ones in porn and the ones who hide behind laptops and screen personas. I’m not delusional, I don’t suddenly believe that we’re all equally beautiful and special, but I do note that we make an attractive group, me and my friends. . I wish I could go back and tell my thirteen year old self. I wouldn’t tell her that it’s ok, she’s attractive after all. I’d tell her that being attractive isn’t half as hard as everyone makes out.
It would be nice to think that this is the result of some kind of inherent, immutable beauty shining though. Sadly, I don’t think it is. Beauty is something that catches your attention when you aren’t expecting it, you can notice it when no one else has. You know beautiful things about your partner that no one else does. It can make you interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily make you attractive.
When we talk about attractiveness in ways that affect us personally, like who to spend your life with, it operates a lot like beauty, and it’s mostly dependent on personal taste. In superficial interactions, though, personal taste doesn’t come into it so much. In these, attractiveness is a category, and you can assess it in a glance. The category of attractive woman is what the men at the library are reacting to when they say mildly flirtatious things, what the shop assistant reacts to when she suggests a particular dress, what makes people glance at my boyfriend to decide whether he belongs next to me. It’s what divides me from the overweight girl in the baggy clothes when men look around the room at dancing. They don’t seek beauty, they don’t search my face for evidence that I’m their deepest desire. They look just long enough to determine where I belong in the order of things. That doesn’t mean the overweight girl isn’t beautiful, and I’d be very surprised if she didn’t turn some of the men on. When they approach her, though, they do it differently to how they approach me. When they watch her dance, they do it less openly, and when they thank her, there’s a very slightly different tone. I bet she doesn’t get asked why she doesn’t bring her boyfriend along as often as I do, but that’ just speculation.
Now that I’ve noticed this (yes, you might say that it took me long enough), I’m horrified to notice the ways my categorisation is, and is not, in my control. I’m almost in the category by default because I’m under forty (yes, I moved the goalposts), have an acceptable BMI, and no visible impairment. I suspect that being white helps, too, if only because in a mostly white culture, it doesn’t carry interpretive questions or baggage. The biggest factor under my own control is probably my weight, but even here I have a natural advantage in my height, which allows me to get podgier than a short person before anyone notices. After that it’s mostly a case of not doing things: not getting lots of piercings or tattoos, not wearing crazily colours stripy things, getting dreadlocks, hanging spikes and metal from my clothes. I’d have to put some effort in. Just not caring enough to shave or dress prettily wouldn’t cut it.
I ought to be reassured to discover how easy it is to be attractive. Mostly, though, I’m looking at the rules of the club, and wondering why I wanted in.
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!
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
I type this with aching arms. You’d know that, if you could see me, because I have mottled bruises on each upper arm. I look like a soft fruit that’s been dropped and retrieved.
I like marks. When tops have offered post-beating arnica applications, I have refused on the basis that I’d like to preserve the bruising. It isn’t a purely aesthetic decision; I like to think that marks justify the wriggling and screaming that went on while the pain was being inflicted. Sometimes marks risk betraying my predilections to the world, of course. A few months ago, freshly caned, I went dancing in a swirly dress. A partner said to me, “your outfit is very…aerodynamic.”
“Is that another way of saying it lifts when I twirl?” I asked.
“Well, maybe you should get your mother to buy you some big knickers.” He said.
I considered saying, “I don’t think I want knickers from beyond the grave,” but that seemed inappropriate. I conducted a mental review of that evening’s knickers and decided they provided sufficient coverage and laciness. And then I remembered the six livid stripes across my bottom, and my face went as red as the weals.I didn’t come up with a good comeback. I asked my next partner whether my dress was too revealing, though, and he was reassuring. I decided I was probably being wound up. Then I was thrown into a drop, and felt my skirt catch, high, on the arms that caught me. The thought that staid Stockport was seeing my cane marks left me slightly off balance all evening. The next day I bought some very big frilly knickers, which keep me safe from exposure as long as no one marks my thighs.
I didn’t even think of hiding the more innocent-looking bruises on my arms I displayed them without a thought at my grandparent’s wedding anniversary and no one made a comment. I took my cardigan off in class and no one said a thing. I went out dancing, though, and every partner seemed strangely interested. “What happened?” “Did someone grab you too hard?” “Are those love bites?” (I think that man thought he was funny) “Everyone is talking about you, asking how you got those bruises.” Now, unlike cane stripes, a bruise on the arm has many non-kinky explanations. The problem is, none of those explanations were true. The truth is, my lover punched me. Repeatedly. That didn’t seem to be the thing to say.
I tried to wriggle out of commenting as much as I could. As I was mumbling a response, one man said, “That looks like a punch to me.”
“Hmm,” I said.
I’m not ashamed of my kinkiness. I don’t find it necessary to sneak about and tell lies. At the same time, there’s no need to involve people who haven’t consented in something they don’t much like, by constantly displaying it (I wish others would apply this logic to penises and football). I don’t own any long sleeved dancing dresses, and my bruises have been topped up with a few extra punches since last week.
Fellow kinksters, how do you deal with visible bruises? Do you wear them proudly, announce their origins and enjoy the shocked looks? Vanilla readers (I assume there must be some) are you offended by bruising? Would you call the police if I told you my lover had punched me? And can any of you lend me a long-sleeved dress?
What is a girl to do when she doesn’t want a relationship, but does want to be spanked? She’s to sit in rooms of people who like giving spankings, and look hopeful. Or in my case, look shy and concentrate on her knitting. Tonight I’m going, alone, to Club Lash. I’ve spent two evenings sewing my Little Red Riding Hood outfit. What I haven’t done, though, is work out how to talk to strangers. This makes it unlikely that I’ll find my Big Bad Wolf.
I spend a lot of time at the edge of groups. The habit must have formed at school, when to escape the queuing and noise of the dining hall I would take an apple to the library and spend an hour with Tennyson. By the time I left school I could recite the whole of The Lady of Shalott, but hadn’t worked out how to unobtrusively join a table of acquaintances. It turns out that in day to day life, there’s more call for the latter.
If setting down my tray is a challenge, imagine how much more difficult it is to strike up a conversation in a fetish club. “Have you learned this week’s Latin vocab?”doesn’t have an obvious kinky equivalent (or maybe it does. If you think of one, do add it as a comment). Standing in the corner at a kinky party I can feel as alienated as I did on the hockey field. Watching someone insert needles into his girlfriend’s flesh, or instructing an acquaintance to lick her boots, I have as little understanding of their pleasures as I did of the girls clashing sticks in the mud—maybe less. I don’t feel like part of the group. I want to do the grown-up equivalent of retreating to the library and burying myself in Tennyson, but since I accidentally gave up smoking recently, I can’t even do that.
I continue conversations with various people on kinky websites, but very few of them go anywhere and most of them fizzle out in due to business or disgust at my correspondent’s poor spelling and grammar. Very few of them lead to friendships or play.
The result is that my forays into kink have been mostly limited to visits to HH. I may not feel like part of his group, but his group isn’t present, and at his house browsing the library seems to be an acceptable activity. The dark side of getting to know HH has been the appearance of his wider circle in my online life (and the pain and suffering, but judging by the photos and the damage, his hand is getting lighter).* Soon after I mentioned his name on this blog, I found myself mentioned on theirs, their comments on mine, and a host of new, interesting people appearing on my Twitter feed. They are friendly and nice. Recently some of them have advised me on feeling safe when I meet strange men from the internet and comforted me during panics at the prospect of purchasing train tickets. You may be thinking that I should appreciate the way everyone is so warm and welcoming in this online world. I do, but I also feel like a fraud.
What would happen if they met me? This voyeuristic reader of blogs and tweets? There are any number of things they could dislike about me in real life, from pre-caffeine grumpiness to an inability to participate in conversations about popular culture. That troubles me less, though, than them discovering that I’m a wimp. All the time they haven’t seen me, I’m able to maintain the delusion that I’m a bit like them. In the same way that I’m able to feel an indefinable sense of fellowship with other shoppers at the organic, vegan supermarket. “You,” I whisper in my mind, “are like me. You take joy in the vibrant colours of squashes, the meaty firmness of tofu and the scratchy fabric of a fair-trade, organic shopping bag.” Kinksters, I’d like to think, find a pleasure similar to mine in the livid reds of cane stripes and the pale shades of vulnerability. That’s all very nice in theory, but the people at the vegan supermarket have never seen me nip across the road afterwards for a box of eggs, and, with the exception of HH, no one knows quite how much of a wimp I am.
My last punishment was a caning for not buying train tickets in good time (although the logic behind this escapes me). I was shaking as I bent over. I was sweating before the first stroke even landed. When it did, I thought I wouldn’t be able to take the rest. I didn’t think I would even be able to take the next one. The pain and the fear were excruciating. During every second it was happening I wanted it to stop. I begged and pleaded when he had hardly begun. The last shred of my dignity vanished with the first swish of the cane. That evening, I counted five lines across my buttocks. Of a meagre eight strokes, only five had landed with sufficient impact to leave a mark. It was nowhere near as bad as my first caning. With shame, I realised that I had made an inordinate fuss. Do I think I can be braver next time? Hardly.
Other people in the kink world appear to have dignity, bravery, and sensible pain thresholds. They may reasonably, if erroneously, expect the same of me, and are sure to be disappointed. It seems safer to lurk at the edges and look in. Is there a community of kinky wusses? If you meet anyone who likes beating wimpy girls, send them over, I’ll be sitting in the corner, wearing a red cape and reading Mariana.
* In the interests of transparency, I should admit that I’d engaged with the blog and twitter feed of one interesting spanking model HH knows before I met him. A friend I know through spiritual and campaigning groups was following her. I don’t like to think about it.
I think that if you met me you would believe that I’m a nice girl. Middle class. Rather shy. Prone to thinking that everyone has read Byron and agrees on the importance of soup spoons. On the first day of my course nice women mothered me and bought me bakewell tart. That’s the girl they bought it for.
Now and again other parts slip out. I forget that in a discussion about pole dancing you shouldn’t admit that you’ve actually seen any, and especially shouldn’t admit that you were in a lesbian bar in Soho at the time. I forget that reading ‘120 Days of Sodom’ on the train will get me funny looks. Mostly, I forget that there are a number of topics you’re meant to come at sideways, and shock people with frankness where they expected allusion.
In everyday life, it isn’t too difficult to keep parts of myself separate. I remember to be nice to my granny when she asks why I haven’t got a nice boy, and don’t need to additionally remind myself not to tell her I don’t want a nice boy, but a big, nasty man who’ll do unspeakable things to me. I don’t need to talk about Kristeva’s theory of abjection when I call Estates to report a blocked toilet. I remember who I’m speaking to, and everything flows from there.
That isn’t the case with writing. When you write something down, anyone can read it, but you’ll never write that sex scene with your granny sitting on your shoulder. In fact, you’ll never write anything if you’re trying to please everyone, and everyone, you see, is your potential audience. Will Milly from the chip shop appreciate that parody of the Commedia dell’arte? I doubt it. Your old tutor, though, author of numerous books on the subject, will probably laugh at your childish attempts. It’s best to put them all out of your mind.
So I conjure an ideal reader. You, dearest, are a reader of Byron, an owner of soup spoons (possibly also a supplier, have you any spare?) and a lover of bakewell tart. You aren’t scandalised by pole dancing or kink, and you’ve read at least the first half of ‘The Powers of Horror’, you’ve met Columbine and Harlequin. You’re perfect, and you’ll reinvent yourself tomorrow when I begin another piece.
If you’re reading this and you don’t fit that description, I consider that to be your problem. There are people whose opinions matter to me very deeply, but all of them have got better things to do than read my ramblings. The rest of you will just have to take me as I am.
If only it were always that way. I’m taking a Creative Writing course. Now and again I have to sit in a room with your readers. Talk to them, lunch with them, see them drink soup from polystyrene cups. How are they going to react if my stories aren’t nice?
I’m not nice. I’m rather monstrous. If I’m to render an honest account of my experience (and it’s the only experience I have to offer) then that monstrosity is going to come out one way or another. I can’t see a way around that. I’ve found myself to be really very bad at writing poems about flowers.
You might say (although you won’t, if you’re my ideal reader) that I should try harder on the flower poems. My thinking is this: Women spend an awful lot of their time pretending not to be the monsters they are (no doubt men do, too); we pluck and shave, bite our tongues and paint our faces, and keep quiet about desire or periods or hating having to do the washing up. It hasn’t done us very much good. It’s one of the reasons we’re still stuck not only with the image of women as beautiful, good and pure, but also with having to do the dishes. To fall in with society’s expectations is to deny what we are, and, in some sense, to tell a lie. The right to write about our whole selves has been fought for in the courts and won. That means that I get the chance to read ‘Baise-Moi’ and think “fuck, yeah!”
The best story I’ve written recently includes a rape. It includes the word “purpling”. It is filled with sticky sexual anecdotes which may not be true to the letter, but are true to the spirit, of things that happened to me. I want to hand it in, but I’m gripped by this anxiety: what will people think of me?
Did Nabokov worry that people would think he was a paedophile? Shakespeare a poisoner? Dostoevsky a thief? Tolstoy an adulterer? I don’t know. It seems quite likely that, soon, all the people on my course will think I’m a weirdo. Perhaps then, in search of acceptance, I’ll begin to value you, my darling, perfect, reader.
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.
I own a very girly dress. It’s pink and it’s floral. It sports bows and butterflies. It’s the sort of dress which you only buy because your inner five year old is going to throw a tantrum in the middle of the shop if you don’t let her have it. I bought it because it was the perfect dancing dress. By which I mean not that it had a swirly skirt, but that it was great for sweating in: no sleeves, breathable, washable. I’m a practical woman at heart. All the same, I had an indecisive moment. I stood in the changing room and asked, “Could you take me seriously in this dress?”
“Perhaps,” the assistant replied, “if you tried for a really serious expression.”
I bought it anyway.
Last night I put it on, stood in front of a mirror and thought to myself, “the tongue piercing really doesn’t go.” Usually I think that it provides a subtle, slightly surprising, edge to my image. With the pink dress, wasn’t provocative, it was downright unsettling. Little girly really doesn’t go with something that makes you think of blow jobs.
I sallied out to go dancing. Three compliments later I was feeling good about my dress. Then my father told me, “Two people have said to me tonight, ‘When she first started dancing, she always wore black. Now she looks so pretty and feminine.’” Skipping over the change of seasons, the loss of a dress size and the necessity for investment in clothes suitable for dancing, this seems a strange sort of comment. I’m being praised for becoming more feminine. Being feminine is a good thing. Why? Is it intrinsically good, or do good things come of it?
Nothing very good came of it last night. I didn’t notice any men queuing up to dance with me. No one gallantly fetched me water or chivalrously carried my shoes to the car. One, tiny interaction made me realise the assumptions that people made, though.
I stopped to buy beer. I do so about once a fortnight. Same place, same product, same transaction. This time: different dress. As I approach the counter a lad comments “I wouldn’t have you down for a Fosters drinker.” I wouldn’t, either, three of the four cans were for my father, but then this petrol station doesn’t stock my preferred drink, a good pale ale, which I told him. He was very surprised that I even knew what a pale ale was. Women in girly dresses, it seems, aren’t meant to know their beers. Nevertheless, I went to pay.
I was IDed. I’m twenty-six. I’m five foot ten. I looked like I was twenty by the time I was fourteen. No one ever IDs me. Until I put on the pink dress. To make up for it, though, the cashier flirted his little heart out and made funny jokes about being a potential stalker. He gave me a voucher I hadn’t earned and a cheery wave as I drove away.
It’s only one evening. A couple of tiny incidents. Definitely not a representative sample of society. But I’m left with these two things: praise for looking more girly, and the results of looking more girly, including assumptions of youth, ignorance, willingness to flirt and desire for gifts.
I know that I make a choice when I get dressed about the assumptions I invite. I know that if I wanted to be taken seriously I could probably manage it with a sharp, black suit. What worries me is the pressure to look girly, and thus to choose the assumptions I experienced last night. Women may seem to have a range of available dress codes, but you try going out looking butch and see how much trouble you get for not conforming in comparison to the advantages (assumptions about your sexuality may be problematic for you, too, but since I’m basing my knowledge of this on my ex-girlfriend I don’t know how that one will affect you). I will never know how much the way I dress everyday affects how people treat me, to find out would require replacing my wardrobe overnight. It must be said that this would hardly be an issue if I were a man.
I’m not going to give up my girly dress, although I might get a pink sparkly tongue stud to complete the look.* I think the answer is going to be in balance. My next purchase will have to be something so different from the very girly dress that it throws the whole identity of the wearer into doubt. I think I’ve found it. How about a pretty halter dress on which the cherries, on closer inspection, turn out to be bright, red skulls?
*I’m not really going to do that, it would be unspeakably vulgar.
I feel the need to come out. There’s something I haven’t told you about myself. You may have made assumptions, if you read this blog, because I’m feminist, I’m pro-sex and I’m always prepared to get angry with men who don’t let me have my way, but here it is: I don’t believe in abortion. I think abortion is wrong. Very wrong. In the same category as rape and murder. Mostly because I think it is murder.
I can cope with the fact that the world disagrees with me. This is hardly the first area in which I have maintained a belief in the face of public opinion. I’m a feminist. I’m a vegetarian (something many meat eaters seem to regard as a personal insult to them). I wear a white poppy for Remembrance Sunday. I don’t particularly like ice-cream. I hardly shy away from making controversial statements; it’s different, though, with abortion.
There are communities I rely on to cater to my beliefs, sometimes literally, with hommous sandwiches, groups of people who respect diversity and value every individual. It’s just lovely. Whether I’m socialising or reading a blog, it is comforting to know that people share core beliefs, that I don’t have to be constantly defensive as a woman, was someone who sleeps with women, or even as someone who chooses not to eat meat. That feeling isn’t something I get in mainstream culture, but I find it among feminists, kinksters, campaigners and other groups. They accept me, and all my quirks, except this one.
Take this discussion at The F-Word, for example. Anyone who expresses an anti-abortion viewpoint is likely to get responses like this:
“stop pretending you’re a feminist. Anyone who supports a blastocyst/embryo/foetus over an actual living breathing woman is not a feminist. There is no anti-choice argument which does not eventually lead to: shut up and get back in the kitchen because God Said So.” (Politicalguineaupig)
“Please don’t call yourselves ‘pro-life’ or feminist because you are neither. Condemning a woman to give birth to a child even if it costs her her own life is not pro-life. It is anti-woman and anti-feminist. [...]Pro-life is all about taking away the rights of women. That’s all it is about and that’s all it ever was and will be about. [...]shut up, go away and don’t make other women’s difficult choices even more difficult with your cruel, stupid, judgemental behaviour.” (Paula)
You can see why I didn’t persist after my one, feeble, contribution. So here I am, in my space, giving an explanation.
First of all, let’s clear up some misconceptions. I’m not religious. I was not brought up in a religious household, and I am not currently under the influence of any religious nutters. I don’t believe in God. So my objections to abortion do not originate with a pronouncement by the Pope or deep-seated repression. If, however, you thought that I must be religious because anyone who disagrees with you must be convinced through faith, rather than reason, then you ought to be mightily ashamed. Religious people do great work, and are as much possessed of rational faculty as you are. I know some pretty dumb atheists, too. I, on the other hand, have a degree in philosophy, which included in depth study of ethics. I am not irrational, I am not uninformed.
I think women are great and I think sex is great. I think that sex with women is great fun, too, but that’s another matter. I certainly don’t believe that women should be defined by their reproductive abilities, and I think that you could come to that conclusion very quickly by scanning through other posts on this blog. I don’t disapprove of sex, or believe that it should be punishable by babies. More sex would be good, actually, if you’ve got any to offer, do get in touch.
Are you convinced yet? Do you acknowledge the possibility of an irreligious, feminist, sex-positive woman who has come to the considered opinion that abortion is wrong?
I’m not on a moral mission. I haven’t joined any campaigning organisations, I don’t picket outside clinics or berate teenagers who want abortions. You have to pick your battles and I’ve got other issues to get angry about. Since we’ve got this far, though, I’ll tell you what I believe.
Killing people is wrong. Choosing an arbitrary moment when something ceases being a thing and becomes a person is ridiculous. I know that it is wrong to kill a baby at birth. How long before that is it right? Is there a magical moment, is a switch flipped? No. It is human life from the start, and killing people is wrong.
I recognise that some people think killing people is right. They support the death penalty, join armies, become arms dealers, they get elected and start wars or roam the streets looking for victims. I’ve met many people in the armed forces who I respect, who are trying to do good, but I have no problem with saying that we disagree. It’s a personal belief, that killing people is wrong. Lots of people agree with me, though.
That’s why I don’t believe in abortion. It’s that simple. I’m not unaware of the pain and suffering that pregnancy can cause. Getting pregnant is one of my worst nightmares, and I have advantages many others don’t. I have a lot of sympathy for women who don’t want to be pregnant, just as I have a lot of sympathy for people caught up in conflicts. That doesn’t make their actions right, though. No one is born with an urge to harm others, that is a product of circumstance. I can empathise, but I can’t agree.
I’m not trying to get into an argument on abortion rights, there are plenty more unambiguous villains than pregnant teenagers which we can agree to tackle. While we’re doing that, perhaps you would be good enough to recognise my existence. I’m feminist and anti-abortion. Get over it.
Have you noticed how everyone in government looks the same? Have a scan through the pictures in this article. Now close your eyes and try to list the differences between Clegg and Cameron. They were born in the same year, they both went to rather good private schools and now, I suspect, buy their suits in the same shops. They have beautiful, white wives who bear children and wear reassuringly feminine uncomfortable-looking shoes.
It is hardly news that privileged people get to the top. If private schools and good suits didn’t lead to success, no one would bother paying for them. Our society isn’t fairly structured. We knew this. So as Clegg and Cameron surround themselves with people like them, a cabinet of 19 white men and four women, one of whom is the only non-white member, why are we suddenly making a fuss?
People are calling for positive discrimination, for quotas and for all-woman shortlists. Let’s imagine the men in power gave us everything we asked for: women flood in to take the top jobs. Who do you think we would get?
My initial fear is that we would get more of the same. Women like Theresa May, the Equality Minister with the homophobic voting record, or Jacqui Smith, lover of ID cards, 42 day detention and draconian “anti-terrorist” legislation. How about Harriet Harman, who proposed legislation to ensure that MP’s expenses wouldn’t be made public, presumably to hide the misdeeds of those, like Smith, who used the expenses system to defraud the public? I’m not going to write about Anne Widdecombe; I think it is enough just to mention her name.
The women who get to the top aren’t going to be the disenfranchised and powerless any more than the men are. They aren’t going to be any more intelligent, compassionate or honest than the men, either. The history of parliament shows that, despite their efforts, they are unlikely even to be better dressed. Yes, they will see things from a woman’s point of view, but the important question is surely which woman? We don’t all think alike.
I don’t trust these privileged, ambitious women. They aren’t like me. By that I don’t mean that they aren’t white, middle-class, privately educated and female—they probably are. I mean that they don’t think the way that I do, they don’t believe the things that I believe. Find me someone who shares my political beliefs and I will vote for him or her, because issues like civil liberties, welcoming immigrants and scrapping Trident are more important to me than the individual’s gender.
All this builds up to my biggest problem. Expecting that women, if elected, will act in the interests of women, is sexist. Do we restrict male politicians to acting on behalf of only half the country? If we did have a system in which each MP was only there to represent people like themselves, then we would merely have systematised the screwing of every minority. I voted for a candidate in a wheelchair, and he lost. Does the lack of wheelchair-using MPs in parliament indicate that we should stop legislating on disability issues and roll back the requirement for ramps?
Yes, the fact that there are more men called David in the cabinet than there are women is shocking. It is a terrible indictment of our society. I’m afraid that the solution is a long-term one, and it can’t be achieved with a quota or a bring-your-wife-to-work-day. We need to give all women the encouragement and fair treatment they deserve. We need to take women seriously. And we need to never, ever, publish another article on the colour of the Prime Minister’s wife’s shoes.