Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘dating

The Perils of Polyamory: Living Alone

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I’m moving house. I’m tired of the dripping tap and the leak under the sink, and I’m tired of plumbers who do things like ransack my kitchen bowls to mix grout in. I don’t want needles and broken WKD bottles on my doorstep, and I don’t want to live next to a main road. So I’ve been looking, and it’s been hell.

The first flat we viewed was a cheap studio. It was on a private road, in a grand building with stained glass windows. A stained glass face looked back at me in the bathroom, next to the toilet tank, which was over the bath. In the bedroom, there was a single bed.

“Is it possible,” I asked, “to bring my double bed?”

“Where would we put this one?” The landlord spread his hands in helplessness. The tip, I was tempted to suggest.

“I’m afraid it’s a dealbreaker.” I told him.

“You’re not allowed a double bed in a studio,” he said , “it’s illegal. If the environmental health inspector came round…” I managed to get control of my eyebrows before they rose too far, and I nodded, as if to an excited lunatic or toddler. I edged towards the door.

I knew they were Christians, someone had placed Church pamphlets in the hallway, and these men had the shoes of pamphleteers. Single people, I surmised, must be prevented from fornication by any means possible, including the restriction of space. I didn’t bring up the oodles of hot, sweaty, lesbian sex I’ve had in single beds. The conversation got around to my current landlord, and my flat above a church. “Oh! You know Rev. Awfully-Important!” was quickly followed by, “about the bed, I’m sure we can work something out.” Do Christian contacts legitimate sprawling sex, or do they just provide a guarantee that you’re not going to get up to anything naughty?

In the next place I looked at, a dingy hallway led to a dingy living room, where the current tenant sat in a beanie and hoodie next to the gas fire. The kitchen was a galley overhung by mysterious boxes of wires and the bedroom, looking out onto the road, prominently displayed a conversation-piece fuse box. The shower room was mottled with mould. “We expect it to go very quickly.” Smiled the letting agent.

“I’ll let you know.” I said. I sat outside in the car, and wondered what I’d done to deserve this.

If I was single and wealthy, this would be easy. Single and poor is different. Single makes everything more expensive. If I had a partner, we’d be going halves on a one, two or three bed property, any of which would be cheaper than all of a studio. And they’d be nicer.* The rooms would be bigger, the kitchen would be suitable for culinary activities more complex than heating a tin of soup. If I were in a live-in relationship, not only would I have another contributor to housing costs, but there’s a chance that contributor would have a full time job. A full time job gets you a mortgage, a mortgage gets you somewhere cheaper than a rental property where you’re allowed to put up shelves and paint the skirting boards with polka dots. Suddenly, you’re not looking round dark, mouldering rooms with mysterious stains on pieced-together carpets. You’re looking at somewhere you might actually want to live.

I know it doesn’t always work like that. I know I could be shackled to a man who drinks the mortgage payments, or insists (horror!) on eschewing a proper career to pursue dreams like publication. Nevertheless, pairing up does more than just double your chances of finding at least one stable income. The world is set up for couples, and living alone is an aberration, something that should only be attempted from a position of great wealth and privilege.

Most single people can comfort themselves with the thought that they will, someday, find the person they want to live with. For us polyamorous types, it’s more complicated. Many people simplify it by dividing their love lives into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ relationships, so that the romance-mortgage-Labrador-children path can be pursued with a designated partner, while the others know where they stand. Those picked as a primary by another partner presumably stand in the gardens of their nice homes, while the passed-over secondaries lurk in their dingy studios. The primary/secondary hierarchy feels, to me, nasty and degrading. I don’t rank my friends by importance, why would I do that to my partners? Whatever it is that we’re doing, whether it’s fucking or sailing or drinking tea, it has an integrity which shouldn’t be belittled by a statement of someone else’s primacy. And so I muddle along, hoping not to stand on too many toes, and being grateful for the accommodations made for me.

But back to housing. The lover already has a house. It’s a very nice house, and I envy him, but he lives in it with his wife. Perhaps some poly families live together in mansions in a big, hippish love-in. All I can say is that even if you like me very much, living with me is a trial. To do it for your partner, you’d have to be a saint. One of the dead ones.

Realistically, I’m on my own. I’m going to pay a high price for my obstinacy in refusing to find myself an unentangled partner. I could look on the bright side and reflect that solo living means freedom, but I’ve seen too many horrible flats recently to feel that’s true. Nevertheless, I’ve picked one, a tiny flat with oddly-shaped rooms and a door opening directly from the living room onto the driveway. And I’m determined to turn this relationship to account, because if there’s one thing I’m bad at, it’s moving.

My usual approach is to begin packing the week before. Then, the day before the move, I look around with surprise at my home, wondering where I got so much stuff. I discover that the first boxes I packed block access to other possessions, and that they’re too heavy to lift. I despair of one room and move to another. I think about stopping for lunch, but remember that there’s nothing left in the house but frozen puff pastry and the mung beans that have survived five house moves unopened, so I begin to pack the spices and spill turmeric over my hands. Eventually a friend or lover calls by and pretends to help, but really spends their time berating me about the apparently inefficient or dangerous way I’m filling the car. At some point we give up, unpack the duvet, and fall into bed. The next day, at the other end, tired and hungry, I look at the piles of boxes and begin to assess the damage to my possessions. I imagine a life with an adequate number of bookcases and begin to make alphabetised piles of books which topple in the night.

This time it’s going to be different. This time I’m going to buy a bed before I move in, not make a nest of duvets on the floor and wait until Christmas. I’m already preparing. I increased my stock of teaspoons fourfold this week—the lover’s wife gave me some.

The lover says he know how to do this. He knows where to buy furniture and how to get an awkwardly shaped object down the stairs, he knows how to Tetris a car and measure a sofa. He knows, he says, how to get me to my new home with little crying and most of my things.** Polyamory, leaves me in a very small flat, but if it gets me to my new flat without a tantrum, I’ll sing it’s praises to the skies.

*’Ah!’ you’re thinking, ‘but she could share a house!’ I could, but past experience shows that I’m not a very nice person in the mornings, and I’m untidy and intolerant at all times of day. Also, my income currently relies on having a space to entertain clients in private for up to three hours at a time, and housemates blundering in with take away wouldn’t really add to what I’m trying to achieve.

**In case you’re doubting the lover’s ability, he has already shown himself to have house-inspecting talents far beyond mine. He pointed out in one place, for example, that it wasn’t possible to get in the shower while standing up, and that in any case it would flood the flat downstairs.

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Written by Not an Odalisque

January 17, 2012 at 1:39 am

The Perils of Polyamory II: When Things are Tough

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My life’s a disaster right now. Admittedly, it’s improved since the week I spent in bed hardly able to speak through the pain and the fug of codeine; I can type, peel potatoes and feed the cat all by myself, but it’s still not working. When I broke my bones I’d just finished my MA and was looking for work. Now, after weeks of enforced idleness, I’m fuzzy-headed and tired, wondering if my brain has wasted away as my muscles have. This doesn’t feel like post-university looking, this feeling like unemployment.

So, somehow, I have too many priorities. I need a job that pays the rent: to find jobs, apply for them, and field calls from recruitment agents telling me that’s an old job that should’ve been taken down. I need to do well at the couple of hours work I have got, tutoring which involves a few weeks’ worth of reading that isn’t counted in my hourly wage.* I need to do my physio and get my fitness back so I can manage a working day. I’m desperate to get out of the inner city area that’s making life look so bleak, so flat hunting’s imperative. I need to do something about the fact that weeks of sitting around have made me horribly, grotesquely fat. And at some point I’m going to have to think about my commitments to other people.

Concentrating on the things I have to do to make my life bearable again, I’m losing the things I did before. There’s no time to write the novel I spent the last year on. I’m not healed enough for dancing or cycling, my arm aches when I try to sew. I’m too tired and stressed for socialising. Last week the lover decided to take me to his house, away from the leaking sink and the unhoovered floor. We made it as far as the city centre before I recalled leaving a window open, and overcome by misery and indecision, stood leaning into the wind feeling the tears turn from warm to cold on my cheeks. I cried all the way home, where we found the window closed.

In this mental state, I’m not interested in sex or kink. I’ve stopped reading kinky blogs, I’ve retreated from sexual, violent books by the likes of Angela Carter into the safety of Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. I don’t want to hear even the mildest of threats or the nicest of sexual compliments. I don’t want to be told I’m pretty, I don’t feel it’s true but I do feel it’s demanding something. And right now I don’t want to have to give it. I don’t even want to think about it.

Where’s the poor lover in all of this? He’s listening to my plans, lifting heavy objects, hugging me when I can’t stop crying in the night and trying very, very hard not to touch me in ways I could interpret as sexual. That’s crap for him. In poly, though, every decision you make involves everyone else. None of us know, truly, what’s going on with the others; we didn’t sign up to tell our darkest secrets to the group, we each became involved with different people, and we share things with them when we want to. The lover knows, therefore, that even if I don’t have any pockets I like to carry my purse if we’re arguing away from home, due to an unpleasant experience in Beijing, but he doesn’t know how deep my sorrow was when I was cast as a sheep in a nativity play. The extended poly group know neither, why would they?

The lover’s with his wife tonight. They don’t know that the corner of the sheet’s come off my bed and I can’t get it back on. They don’t know that, after the lover told me that he couldn’t give me the weekend away from my flat we’d planned, because of commitments to the poly family, I cried about how bleak the next week feels without it. The awful thing is, the ignorance goes both ways. How many nights has the lover spent here looking after me when he was needed at home? How many times have I thought sending him home for quality time with his wife was a good idea when that only took her from her girlfriend?

This blog post is self-indulgent, I imagine I’ll feel embarrassed about it soon. Those emotions serve a purpose. Our own pain, and that of those closest to us, is intense and real, but we don’t, we can’t, feel everyone else’s, we simply don’t have the emotional capacity to let that much suffering in. Talking about mine in such detail is asking you to do just that, and it’s not a reasonable request. In poly, how does one communicate the circumstances emotions create, without demanding that everyone in the group has infinite reserves of kindness not at all restricted by emotions of their own?

Discerning your partner’s needs and asking for your own to be met is a challenge in monogamous relationships, even in the good times. The delicacy required to get it right in poly is probably always going to be beyond me. At the moment it feels like asking for the moon. I wouldn’t give up the freedom of poly for anything, but, God, I wish it was easy.

*I’m tutoring a student who wants to get the same A Level results I did, in the same subjects. He thinks this will improve his career opportunities. I don’t think it’s occurred to him that, ten years on, I’m teaching for a pittance. I’m not going to bring it up.

Written by Not an Odalisque

November 17, 2011 at 12:35 am

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Jealousy

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Non-poly people, on learning I’m polyamorous, always want to know if I’m jealous. I say that I’m not, and receive a puzzled look, then usually a statement that they would get jealous, that they just couldn’t do it, which is strange because I’ve never invited them to. It’s a lie, of course. I do get jealous, I just don’t get jealous about sex. Not often enough to justify telling a partner that my feelings should influence their actions, anyway. I could count my experiences of sexual jealousy on one hand, which is rather convenient, in poly.

But I do get jealous. I get horribly, irrationally jealous. I get jealous of people I hardly know. I’m jealous of friends of friends for being diverting and funny. I’m jealous of kinksters on Twitter who have more play and have better pain tolerances than I do. I’m jealous of friends’ partners because they get to see a side of my friends I’ll never know. I’m jealous of writers who have had their work published, even though I’ve never sent anything to a literary agent. I burned with jealousy when my father praised his girlfriend’s daughter’s cooking. She hadn’t even left home, my reaction was ridiculous.

I’m an only child, perhaps I never learned to share. That’s given me a useful perspective, though: I can’t help but recognise how petty I am. I can’t tell my friends not to have other friends, or boyfriends, no matter how insecure and envious I feel, it wouldn’t even occur to me, because I have no right to regulate their lives. If I did, though, there would be a helpful conversation about my insecurity or a row about the best way to make pastry, depending on our moods. There certainly wouldn’t be any level of acquiescence. Having learned to allow friends their freedom, I can’t see why friends I sleep with should be treated any worse.

Sometimes I can see the workings of jealousy in my petty mind, even as I’m feeling it. My father’s praising about his girlfriend’s daughter’s* cooking hurt. It still hurts, and it’s been a couple of years now. He never praises me, in fact he doesn’t show enough interest to hear of things he might praise me for. And he particularly never praises my cooking, because he never eats it. Offered it, he’s been known to opt for peanuts or crackers and cheese instead. He says that’s because he doesn’t like vegetarian food, but where’s the meat in a packet of peanuts? Where? WHERE?!

The comment that Millie was an excellent cook was like a fissure in the dam, a jet of my anger and hurt spewed out; all the feelings about my father’s lack of interest in me hit me in a flood. Those feelings may be big and important personally, but they really don’t have anything to do with Millie’s culinary skills. Jealousy is all about me, and it’s not going to be fixed by someone else, even if Millie serves something ugly and poisonous at a fancy dinner party. Unless it’s to my father, I suppose.

As far as sex goes, I stave off insecurity by only sleeping with people who I’m pretty confident think I’m attractive. They’re going to think other people are attractive, too, but they’d think that even if they weren’t allowed to act on their desires. I’m comfortable if I’m sure I’m near the top of the list, which limits my range of sexual partners but does wonders for my self-esteem. I do catch myself in little waves of jealousy about play partners’ play partners, which mostly boil down to “she/he has a less wobbly bottom and a better pain tolerance than me.” Those feelings have little to do with the person I’m jealous of and a lot to do with my relationship with my own bottom. I suppose if it reached a critical level I’d have to have a conversation with play partners about whether playing with someone who cries so easily and wobbles so much is fun, and reserve myself for the extremely enthusiastic, as I do with lovers. I’m hoping, however, that kinky confidence will grow with experience, as sexual confidence did.

I’m willing to work at it because jealousy is such a horrible feeling. On a selfish level, I just don’t want the experience of it, but I don’t want to be a partner who limits the people I’m with (rather the reverse). Dealing with jealousy brings freedom. I get the freedom to do what I want sexually, which is important to me because, goodness, I want to do a lot of things! I also get the freedom to refuse what I don’t want. Whenever I’ve been with monogamous people, whether I’ve signed up to those rules or not, there’s been a horrible, horrible pressure. We’re in love. He wants to be with me forever, he doesn’t want anyone else. And may he please suck my toes? And I think, how awful to have a burning desire to suck toes, to want that fulfilment, and never to get it. To go your whole life without this simple thing, to die with it undone, for me. It’s a huge sacrifice. And would it be so awful to have my toes sucked, to provide great happiness to the person who would lay down his life for me? And I try to say yes, but…no, I can’t do it. So I feel guilty, and he wonders why I look so downcast and bake so much. Eventually the relationship ends in guilt and recrimination.

I’m exaggerating (slightly), but the core point about the pressure of monogamy is sincere. To supply everything that someone wants sexually is going to require doing things you’d rather not do. After many years of trying to seem interested as sweet nothings were whispered, look enthusiastic during gentle thrusting, and pretend I like the taste of cock, I’ve come to terms with my kinks. I don’t want to go back to doing things I don’t enjoy. That’s why it’s nice to say to my partner, “You want toe sucking/gentle sensuousness/consensual sex? Go find someone else to do that with.” He can, and he will, in the same way that he presumably does with his desires for blondes, or men, for which I really don’t fit the ticket. And I’m happy, because I like him, and I want him to have things he likes.

In the middle of all this freedom: freedom for me to see other people, for him to see other people, for me to say no, the obvious question is whether there’s a point when I’ll want less freedom and more security. The idea of my lover chatting up men at the Folsom Street Fair this week didn’t trouble me, the idea of him having a fling doesn’t, but how would I feel if someone became so important in his life that he didn’t have time for me? Probably quite hurt. But—and I’ve managed not to say this to a non-poly questioner yet—throwing your lover over for another isn’t a phenomenon restricted to the poly world. It’s a story as old as creation, in fact, wasn’t it Lillith’s first crime? So I’ll take the risk of being replaced as we all do, but comforted by the knowledge that I’ll see my usurper coming. There’s a chance I’ll be jealous then.

*Let’s call her Millie. It’s easy to say ‘Millie’ disparagingly.

Written by Not an Odalisque

October 4, 2011 at 1:20 am

‘Don’t let’s talk about being in love, OK?’

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Some time ago a friend said that he wasn’t falling in love with me. Oddly, even though I have no romantic inclinations towards him, it was even more awkward than if he had declared his undying affection. At least I’d know what to say to that; I’ve had some practice. I said goodbye. I got onto a train and I tried to read, but instead commenced re-examining my words and actions for the past several months, looking for those which could be misinterpreted as expressions of love. Even with my obsessive nature and considerable critical abilities, I was unable to sustain it for three hours straight, and was distracted by thoughts of love in general. I had obviously failed to communicate my position on love, or I wouldn’t be being warned off by anyone.

Love is like expensive ice cream. People tell me how great it is, how comforting. They say they crave it and describe taking a two litre tub of it to bed at the end of a terrible day. I’ve tried it and found that it’s, well, like eating frozen cream. I’m more of a sorbet girl myself, but ice and fruit aren’t ever going to elicit the response from me that Ben and Jerry’s does in others. That’s fine; I’ll not take ice cream. But if there is momentary incredulity about my not desiring ice cream, there is outright denial of my wish not to get romantically entangled.

My biggest problem is this: those who challenge me aren’t entirely wrong. Even if I don’t like ice cream, I would like to believe that a cure for unhappiness could be bought in pots. Of course I want someone who accepts me for who I am. I want someone to think it’s sweet that I can never remember the name of the main character and adorable that I can’t organise a cupboard in such a way that things don’t fall out. However, I live in the real world, have experienced the pain as the items have hit me on the way down, and have a realistic expectation about people’s reactions.

I’m tempted by the promise of love. And by the seductions of extended metaphors.

Being with people thinking of love is like being in a supermarket. Supermarkets make me panic. This time last year they left me breathless, stumbling through crowds searching for the door, hardly able to remember my own name. Nowadays, I avoid that by going in with a shopping list at 2am. Supermarkets scare me because they seem to be trying to turn me into a different person. I think I only need milk and bread flour, but before I’ve gone a few paces hundreds of products have been suggested. I stride past them with certainty that I don’t need shower gel or heel cream or hair mayonnaise (yes, that one’s real). By the time I’ve passed the books, DVDs and Christmas decorations I begin to think something’s not quite right. Other people want these things. They are there, picking up action movies and artificial trees. I must be a very picky. At the fruit and veg I feel ought to get something. I may think I want tomatoes, but from a range of eight types, with wildly differing price tags in no way reflective of variation in the tomato eating experience, I feel totally unable to make a choice. It seems there’s an interpretative system which everyone else is in on, allowing them to pick the right one, but no one’s told me the secret. By the time I get to the bread aisle and find that, among the hundreds of options, there isn’t a crusty brown loaf, I feel there’s something horribly broken inside, dividing me from the rest of humanity and confirming that I’m just not the person I ought to be.

That’s how I feel about love. I can recognise the utter duds, the men who email me on fetish sites with photos of their willies and the drooling guys in bars who tell me I’m the most beautiful girl they’ve ever seen as they ‘accidentally’ brush my leg. These are the blue cheeses and the value sausages of love—you’re amazed that anyone has even tried them. Most people aren’t like that. I find people interesting. Some of them announce their love, and I try, as with the tomatoes, to imagine what it would be like to pick this one, or that. I never seem to be the tomato buyer they wanted me to be.

Love demands attention. As an intense personal experience, it cannot be denied. Even as a person tells you that they want nothing from you, their love is given for free, it is whispering the question, “why don’t you pick me? Here I am. Better than any other bread on the aisle.”

Every time someone says they love me, I have to bite my tongue so as not to say “but you don’t know me.” There’s a constant tension between revealing enough for your liking to apply to me, and making myself the sort of person you would like. People have said they love me on the basis of my listening to expositions on Kandinsky when totally uninterested, defining words when I think they are perfectly capable of using a dictionary, agreeing with their philosophies I think are banal. I can’t believe that their experience was all that different; these are the compromises life is made of.

One man said he loved me on a Friday and dumped me on the Sunday. Apparently he couldn’t deal with me being flogged by other men. I’d like to think that a propensity to being flogged by other men is an integral part of my character, so we’d obviously misunderstood each other somewhere along the line. I think I’ve worked out why. In depictions, love is a spontaneous, explosive force that sweeps objections out of its way. That’s fine when you’re Mr. Darcy and by overcoming petty doubts you prove your love and give your girl a really big house. I, however, quite like myself, my life, my way of doing things. I don’t need any explosions.

So I’m not looking for love. I am looking for people to sleep with, play with, tie me up, hit me with things or read me stories in bed. I’d like to meet first-readers, coffee-drinkers and re-organisers of kitchen cupboards. I’d be very grateful to the person who can explain the end of Selima Hill’s poem Don’t Let’s Talk About Being in Love, as it has been troubling be for years. For a few minutes you could be my special someone. I think we could both be happy with that.

Written by Not an Odalisque

October 13, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Flirt With Me, I’m Single

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I get tired of representations of single women. There seem to be two options: the desperate, pathetic girl, seeking her one true love, in the style of Bridget Jones; or the strong, successful woman who hasn’t yet realised that fulfilment will come when she meets her man and sacrifices her independence for something better. What binds them? The great, gaping man-shaped hole in a single woman’s life. Men don’t get the same treatment, the assumption seems to be that, for them, single life involves the favourable absence of scatter cushions and the freedom to have sex with a lot of different women.

Life isn’t really a romantic comedy, so I’ll step away from the stereotypes for a minute. A couple of weeks ago a new acquaintance asked me if I had a boyfriend. When I said no, he said, “we’ll have to get you one, then.” I wanted so say “No, we really don’t!” but it would have seemed rude.

I spend so much time fighting other people’s expectations that there’s no room for the truth about being single. When someone assumes that a single woman wants a partner, I want to challenge their assumption. When men assume that because you don’t have a boyfriend, you’re likely to be interested in them, I want to detail to them their defects and then point out the woman on the other side of the room whom I’d much rather date (I have never actually done this). I refuse to be filed under “desperate or emotionally stunted,” however hard they try.

The problem with being single isn’t, it turns out, the long, cold, lonely nights. You can buy an electric blanket and wait for spring. I love being single: for several months, now, I’ve been revelling in my clean bed sheets and freedom to do what I want without owing anyone an explanation. I have to say it’s rather nice. The sex is usually better when powered by batteries than by the idiosyncrasies of male anatomy, and there has been a sharp decline in annoying requests for early morning blow-jobs.

That isn’t to say that it’s all good. Society is set up for people in pairs. If I was dating, I wouldn’t be writing this right now, but instead spending my Friday evening watching burlesque cabaret or dancing to Rock and Roll music, both options I had to forgo because I didn’t want to attend alone. If I had a partner, dance workshops would be a few pounds cheaper. If I had a partner, we would, together, be able to finish a head of broccoli before it went off. These annoyances aren’t terribly important. I’m not happy at missing out on a fun Friday evening, but the solution to my problems would not be a lover, but a dance partner who came around to tea. There’s quite a difference.

The real problem with being single is hyper-awareness. It works in two ways. You don’t have the cast iron excuse of being in a relationship, so you have to make sure you never get to the point of needing an excuse for not being interested in someone. That means constantly monitoring them, and yourself, for anything that edges you towards an indication of interest. Conversely, you can desire those indications of interest, and find yourself reading much more into something than was intended.

It probably sounds like I’m being contrary, wanting to put people off and collect evidence of their desire. There are a range of factors at play there. One is that in many cases these are different people; I meet many who I would emphatically reject, some I’d get into bed with, one or two to whom I would serve breakfast. Another is that, while I am happy enough without a partner, it is nice when people step into the role now and again. When there’s no one at home telling you you’re sexy, a few minutes of flirting and the odd compliment can make you happy. Yes, it would be better if the world were not structured in such a way to make a woman value herself according to her desirability to men. Mostly, I do quite well at ignoring what they think, but I’m only human, and I was socialised into patriarchy, just like everyone else.

The problem comes when you’re so hyper-aware of these tiny modulations that it borders on obsessive. Last week a man told me that I had a nice smile. He said it was nice to dance with a tall woman. He commented on my wiggle, and when I enquired whether it was a good thing or a bad one, he said, “it works for me.” I think the clincher, though, was when I bemoaned the fact that I am too tall (and, being in proportion, too heavy) for the moves in which the male partner picks you up and throws you around, and he said “I’d throw you around.” There was something in his tone that evoked actions beyond dancing.

I saw him last night. He requested a dance, but never came to claim it.

Week after week this happens: the conversation I interpret as flirtatious, the build of expectation and the resulting disappointment. I wonder sometimes if the disappointment is inevitable. Does it happen because I’m not attractive, or interesting, or a good enough dancer? The more likely scenario is that there was never any flirting at all, since if most of these men had shown any sign of real intent, I would have run for the hills. Only from the safe place of believing they’ll never make a move can I enjoy their attention. So we go around in circles of real, imagined and simulated desire.

None of my friends, during periods of singleness, has ever mentioned this problem. They’ve spoken about the difficulty of the sexual drought, their feelings of freedom, healing, despair, loneliness, and boredom when they haven’t had partners. I wonder, therefore, whether this obsessive reading of relations with others is a personal quirk or one of those things which everyone does, and everyone feels is too silly to mention. I’d love to know, so please tell me if you do it, too.

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 30, 2010 at 8:47 pm

Tell Me How To Say “No”

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A few months ago I resolved to start saying “no.” I think that the part of me that tells potential partners to go away is missing; I’m trying to find it. It isn’t all about sex, you understand. I still haven’t managed to tell my father that I’m not going to read the copy of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ he bought me for Christmas. I’m likely to assent to a coffee, a meal, or a slow dance, and then realise that I haven’t been wary enough of romantic expectations.

You see, people come along with their narratives of who they want me to be, and I don’t want to disappoint them. They seem so happy when I get it right. Because of that, I’ve played successively the ingénue, the other woman, the struggling writer and the sunny girlfriend. But it has to stop. People get so disappointed when they find out their ingénue is someone else’s femme fatale.

More than a year ago I was sat at a bar in Prague airport waiting for my friends. I’d already spent the flight there playing the idealistic charity worker to a fellow passenger’s successful but jaded businessman. I wanted to start my holiday with a coffee and some quiet time, but a man came in, got a drink and wandered over.

“What are you writing?”

“My diary,” I say.

“Am I in it?” he asks.

“I’m afraid not.” I reply.

“Where are you from?” he wants to know. I don’t want to talk to him, but all the time he keeps asking questions I can’t get out of the conversation without being rude. By the time he’s suggesting that he sets me up in a little flat to be his “private English tutor” I feel like I’ve led him on so much by engaging in conversation that I can’t tell him to take his sleazy proposal elsewhere. I find myself making excuses rather than looking at him disdainfully and stalking off. Sighing with relief when my friends appear, I escape. You may think that these problems don’t arise very often. You’re wrong. I was asked out by three men during a ten minute walk from the tube to my destination in London recently.

The situation in Prague wasn’t too difficult, since only a very small proportion of my social circle can be found there. Other areas are more complicated. I once had a boss who used to ring me in the middle of the night for pointless conversations about the next day’s meetings. I never did find out quite what that meant. A married man asks you to meet for coffee. Do you trust that he’s faithful? Last time that happened to me I found myself in the other woman role before I even realised that his wife didn’t know my name. After that incident I decided to carry a big, flashing sign saying “No, Thank You”.

There are three problems with my sign. One is that I tend to sabotage it. Auto-flirt if triggers when I don’t want to answer the question or feel the need to keep someone at arm’s length. I’m flirted with auto-flirt almost always activates immediately. If you’re an older man with a bit of authority to your presence I have no chance. For me, flirting with such a man represents both conformity and resistance, it is a vehicle for pushing at the boundaries a little, while being rewarded with a bit of approval.

The second problem is that there are a few people I don’t want to wave a “no” sign at. I don’t know that I want to wave a “yes” sign, either, but I’d take the opportunity to find out. There’s a rather nice man I see at dancing, for example, who I’ve thought about more than once. If I began flirting with him exclusively, however, he might realise that I’ve thought about him. It all sounds a bit too risky to me.

My biggest problem, though, is that being hyper-aware of messages means I don’t get to do things that are fun. I don’t get to go for coffees with interesting—if unattractive—people, I don’t get to do the close moves at modern jive for fear of feeling a hard-on pressed against my thigh (yes, that really happened, and it was icky). These seem like silly sacrifices, because I’m sure most men can drink coffee and dance close without a thought to their willies. If you’re male, please let me know if I’m right.

So what am I to do? Declare this a failed experiment and indulge my need for universal approval with playacting and/ or prostitution? Fight the flirting and live with the limitations on my drinking and dancing? Please, if you’re a good girl, tell me how you do it!

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 1, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Snog Marry Strangle With A Burning Bra?

with 2 comments

I don’t watch television very often, but the last time I did, it left an impression on me. Key terms would be ‘horror’, ‘disgust’ and ‘worry’. The show I saw was “Snog Marry Avoid?”

The premise is this: the body of a woman wearing lots of make-up and little clothing is subjected to our gaze. An unflattering picture of her is shown to men on the street, who give their opinions on her desirability. A faux-computer completes a “make-under” and everyone agrees that she looks much better now.

Last night we had Petergay, a 22 year old law student from Brixton, who goes clubbing in revealing outfits. Her mother particularly objects to the nipple tassels. She is filmed posing in her kitchen, so that we can indulge our voyeurism while thinking her ridiculous, her clubbing outfit incongruous in the domestic sphere. Petergay has loads of confidence. She says she loves being naked, she doesn’t want to be skinny, but is proud of her curves, in her own words she’s “unforgettable.” She says she would be ugly without the make-up, but cheerfully removes it on national television.

With an unflattering photograph of Petergay in her nipple-tassels, a crew heads out to ask men on the street what they think of her. Women aren’t asked; lesbians don’t count. 90% of men say they would avoid her because she looks “mad” and “scary.” She’s frightening the men away! Not men that she feels any desire for, just men in general. The simulated computer uses this as justification for insults, and the clinching argument for the conclusion that Petergay needs to be transformed.

The normativity of this method hardly needs to be spelt out. Asking a random sample of men on the street assumes heterosexuality. Asking them to assess her based on a photograph privileges her looks over say, her personality or her law degree, and is objectifying. Asking them to choose from “snog, marry, avoid?” gives only two relationship options (you’re not in a relationship if you’re running the other way). “Snog” is a not very cleverly coded way of saying “fuck”. They are asking would you fuck this girl and leave her or fuck this girl and keep her? Say hello to the virgin-whore dichotomy, the outmoded belief that women can either be wives and mothers or sex objects. The establishment usually favours the former, and so does the BBC.

Next, Petergay gets slagged off by a faux-computer. She’s “ridiculous”, a “naked boob-bearer”, a “nipple flashing naked nightmare”. She is told that she should look more natural, then given a new haircut, outfit and make-up.

I almost never go out with as much make up and jewellery as Petergay was wearing after her “make-under.” Huge earrings dangled from her ears, an ill-fitting dress revealed curves, cleavage and leg, and she could hardly walk in her high heels.

Note that the aim of the new, natural look is still attractiveness to men, but now concealing artificial elements of beauty. Petergay does not cease wearing make-up, merely has it applied in such a way that an illusion may be created that she isn’t. “Natural Beauty” doesn’t remove artifice, it adds another layer.

Nonetheless, Petergay looked anything but natural. “Natural” for women is, apparently, not very natural at all. Presenting it as natural gives it a currency it does not deserve, and conflates an aesthetic norm of femininity with innate characteristics. Women do not wear makeup, earrings and nylon because they are women, but because they are conforming with an ideal of femininity. It is a different ideal to nipple-tassles and fake eyelashes, but not any more natural. Being naked, after all, was surely more natural than encasing herself in man-made fabrics.

90% of men on the street wanted to snog Petergay in her new outfit. 10% wanted to marry her. I’m sure that this law student is looking for someone whose life partner is chosen on the basis of a photograph.

The programme went on. An overweight girl with a manga-based look was ridiculed but not made over. Another girl was told to wear less fake tan and looser fitting clothes. Men and female family members cooed over the changes. Petergay reappeared in a tight-fitting, partially transparent outfit to tell us that she now has a boyfriend and he prefers her new, “natural” look. Everyone congratulates themselves on the difference they have made to the world.

The rationale of this programme, rammed home at every possible opportunity, is that women should dress more demurely in order to be attractive to men. At various points in the programme, the women’s original looks are critically associated with excessive drinking, hedonistic culture, lack of education and lack of sophistication. They are encouraged to change because then they will be perceived differently. In other words, the message is that women should accept that dressing in the way they think is sexy, expressing their sexuality visually, is in opposition to being taken seriously. “I’m doing a law degree” doesn’t trump a pair of pink hot pants.

Interestingly, the make-unders often conceal their subjects’ sexuality with an appeal to childhood. Just before Petergay removes her make-up, the ‘Personal Overhaul Device’ shows a picture of her as a young girl, saying that she looked “pretty” and implying that she should do away with the trappings of adulthood, returning to her childhood self. The second transformation creates a look of childhood innocence with flowers in the hair. It isn’t surprising that a pastiche of innocence is used to conceal sexuality, but it is problematic when the justification for the new look is that people will better recognise the women’s abilities.

I’m not saying these women didn’t look silly, but if they saw me out in my voluminous ankle-length skirt and hand knitted jumper they probably wouldn’t think much of my style. In fact, the objects of the make-under were fantastic challenges to the ideology. They didn’t accept that their sexuality undermined their other qualities, they laughed in the face of the ‘Personal Overhaul Device’ when it presented the results of its meaningless survey. Petergay told it “I don’t know what sort of people you’re asking this, you need to go to Brixton.”

She made a very good point. Brixton is predominantly working class. What does this show associate with the ‘unnatural’ look? Drinking, hedonism, lack of education and lack of sophistication. Doesn’t that sound a lot like a middle class view of the working class?

The show isn’t just sexist, it purveys a middle class morality. Hiding behind a mechanical voice, it pretends that its standards are universal, rather than situated in a specific culture. It simultaneously criticises women for dressing in a way which attracts male attention and tells them to dress to solicit the right kind of male attention. It does all this while looking at half-naked women with a voyeuristic gaze which cements its hypocritical nature.

The pressure which society puts upon women to create a sexualised appearance is worrying. Amanda Hess addresses the subject very well here .Shows like ‘Snog Marry Avoid?’ don’t help women, they make the problem much, much worse.

Written by Not an Odalisque

March 15, 2010 at 3:17 pm