Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘gender

Rapists and Changing Rooms

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Yesterday a judge in Hull sentenced a man to five years for rape and reassured him he wasn’t ‘a classic rapist’. He did have a previous conviction for battery, and he did that fairly classic thing of taking a woman out for drinks and having sex with her after she’d thrown up and passed out. The judge says he “lost control of usual restraint,” because she was a pretty girl. Could happen to anyone, yeah? Of course, the last time I suffered a lapse of restraint, I made a lasagne, but gender differences and all that.

Fitting-Room

This cast light, for me, an another link I clicked this morning, about a trans woman who was let down by a lingerie shop, which wouldn’t arrange a fitting or use of the changing rooms. The shop would only allow penis-free people to use all their facilities, and wanted a ‘delicate conversation’ about their new customer’s genitals. Understandably, she thought her privates where, well, private. The shop said they wanted to protect their staff. Others are rightly pointing out that trans women are more sinned against than sinning, when it comes to violent encounters, but the problem wasn’t that she was a trans woman, the problem was that she may have had a penis.

As women, we’re constantly assessing the signification of situations and actions. Not whether someone is dangerous—how on earth are we meant to know that?—but whether our actions could be twisted into a story which involves an invitation or a ‘loss of control’.   Our first jobs, in shops and bars, are often where we train in this. My first lesson in pulling a pint taught me a lot: don’t let a man instructing you stand behind you or guide your hands, because when he gropes you, it seems like you should have stopped him earlier, and he can use the excuse that he was overcome with desire, in that position.

There’s a special logic that men use to get you into this situation. The man who wants to walk you home, to get you into his car or the stock room, will imply that you’re accusing him of being untrustworthy if you hesitate. Do you think he’s one of those awful men who’d grope you in a stockroom? Of course he’s not, it’s insulting that you would think that! Unable to justify your reticence—because what would constitute proof that this is the sort of man to grope you in a stockroom?—you have to go along with it. Then, somehow, the meaning of your action is retrospectively changed. It was an invitation, you got him in a position where he was overcome by temptation.

A man offers you a lift, for example, saying it’s not safe walking home by yourself. If you find a polite way to say, “maybe it isn’t safe with you, either,” he’s wounded. He’s one of the good guys. You get in his car. He doesn’t take you straight home, don’t you want to have a drink at his place/his mate’s place/this bar? Insisting on going home is hard, you don’t know where you are so you’re in his power. If you make a fuss, all friendliness will go, and he’ll be insulted by your lack of trust in him. If you go for the drink, it makes a statement (see the rape case above). If you don’t, you’re still going to have that awful moment with his hand on your leg, but you must have wanted that, because you got in the car with him, and it’s hard to resist when your leg’s only a handbrake away.*

This method works so well because while it’s easy to think an unknown stranger could do terrible things to you, it’s hard to tell someone he’s that stranger. We all learn to do it, in time, and we learn the cardinal rule: never be alone in a small space with a man.

I want to be very clear here, that this isn’t about sexuality, it’s about signifiers. I’m sure there are evil lesbian gropers out here (if you are one, please do get in touch, I wouldn’t mind a bit of evil lesbian groping), but being in an enclosed space with a woman doesn’t mean the same thing. The woman who got someone drunk and raped her wouldn’t be told that she just lost normal restraint.** In our culture, the penis is the great, overriding excuse. It’s not a good one, but it’s almost universally accepted. That weird belief some men have that gay men are liable to jump on them and begin doing unspeakable things at any moment? It comes from the same place.

What has this got to do with some poor woman’s bra fitting? Well, if you put her in the penis-owning category, it looks an awful lot like the process I’ve just described seedy men executing. What she’s asking for is to be alone in an enclosed space with a woman. She says you can trust her, she’s insulted that you don’t. Trans supporters online point out that she can’t be in that category, because she identifies as a woman, and trans folk are the victims, usually, not the perpetrators.

That’s a much more logical argument than any the seedy men normally give, but is self-identification a better system than the penis/no penis one, for working out when you’re in a dangerous situation? Those men self-identify as “good guys” almost every time. I don’t think that, on the self-identification standard, we’re going to have a surge of men turning up at lingerie departments self-identifying as women in order to grope the staff, but I’m still not comfortable with it. When your thoughts about yourself trump my thoughts about us when deciding my actions for my safety, I have no power. I’m not signing up.

I understand being angry about being turned away from a lingerie shop, I would be, too. I suspect that the truth is there aren’t enough visible trans women walking into shops to be factored into the system. Given that the safety of women is at stake, though, I think we need a better argument than ‘she identifies as a woman’. My preferred approach would be stomping on the ideas of men like that judge in Hull with big, snakeskin heels until sixteen year olds don’t have to learn how to avoid being groped by middle aged men and women don’t have to avoid mixing alcohol and male acquaintances. That project’s been going for a while, though, so I doubt it will be finished in time for the next trans woman who wants a bra.

What can I say? We’re all trapped here. The women who have to avoid being alone with men and trans women, the women who are excluded from changing rooms, the men who cross the road five times on the way home to avoid walking up behind a woman like an attacker in the night. Don’t get any with shop owners, get angry with the people we’re guarding against. Get angry with the people who make us live in fear.

*Mandatory disclaimer: not all men.

**What the lesbian rapist would be told is interesting and irrelevant.

 

Written by Not an Odalisque

July 4, 2014 at 1:39 pm

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How to be Attractive

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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.

cosmo

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.

Written by Not an Odalisque

March 26, 2013 at 5:31 pm

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Adventures in Heteronormative Culture: The Ceroc Dance ‘Weekender’

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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!

Written by Not an Odalisque

October 12, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Misogyny at Carnival Divine

The love interest in my novel is a burlesque dancer, and writers have to research. So, hardship as it is, I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time watching girls take off their clothes. I’ve clapped encouragingly through some truly terrible routines, I’ve bought earplugs to cope with the noise at Slippery Belle and I swear that next time I’ll remember to take a lemon of my own, because, as the bartender put it, “this isn’t the sort of establishment that puts lemon in gin.” I thought I knew the worse bits of the scene. Then, last week, I went to Carnival Divine.

I’d heard good things about Carnival Divine and the calibre of the performers was obviously higher than at my usual, sticky-floored, lemonless hang out. I booked a table and I wore my shiniest shoes. Sipping my strawberry daiquiri, I waited excitedly for the show to start. The acts were good. The costumes were beautiful. Kitty Bang Bang is one of the best performers I’ve seen, and when she stepped off the stage in her paw-print pasties, leaving one or two audience members with milk splodges on their clothes, I clapped and cheered with everyone else. The next act was Puppetual Motion. A man behind a taped-together cardboard screen readied his finger puppets.

I won’t go into everything that wasn’t politically correct, because I don’t really know what the non-racist’s response should be when people make fun of Frenchmen, and I’ve no clue what the sponge-puppet’s accent implied. I’ll tell you what made me really angry. It was the song about domestic violence.

The puppet told us he’d had a girlfriend and said he, “came home to find her sucking my best friend’s dick.” His reaction was to try to ruin her life in every way he could, from getting her sacked to downloading child porn on her computer. I didn’t find it funny, because the underlying assumption was that a woman whose sexuality didn’t conform to his wishes deserved to have her life destroyed, but I do recognise that anger at infidelity is not uncommon. It was when he sang that he was going to smash his guitar in her face that I felt the burning in my gut. It was a comic song about a man beating up his ex-girlfriend. People laughed and cheered. They applauded Peter Kennedy as he crept off the stage, concealing himself behind his piece of cardboard. I couldn’t clap. There was a buzzing in my head. I was so angry. I’m still so angry.

I expect to come across jokes about violence and misogyny in my everyday life. I expect to hear that women’s sexuality should be policed violently. Years ago I did the number crunching for this report and found that 10% of Northern Irish students thought violence was acceptable if your girlfriend nags, flirts or refuses to have sex. That’s slightly higher than the UK average. In the room of, say two hundred people the other night, perhaps there were fifteen who held those attitudes. And if they think that punching your girlfriend is a reasonable response to her asking one too many times if you’re going to do the dishes, something more than that is probably appropriate for when she has a sexual encounter with your friend. The man on stage, and all the people cheering him, surely reassured those people that they are right.

I’m angry and upset, more than I would be if I’d overheard a stranger’s conversation or seen it on the television. I’ve seen burlesque as a space where women’s sexuality is accepted. I’ve seen performances by fat women, skinny women, heavily pregnant women, trans women, women in drag, lesbians and queers: Women who don’t do what they’re told, from dieting to sleeping with men to putting on a nice skirt. And I thought I was in a place where they were recognised as attractive people, people with agency, whose sexuality we (for want of a better word) celebrate. It took the lover to point it out to me, but the reason I was so upset was that the rules Peter Kennedy was applying, that women’s sexuality should be limited by a male partner, judge every women in the room. He judged the women who were dancing for us (sluts!) and all of us watching (whores!). He implied we should be beaten up. Unfortunately I do expect that in many places. I just never thought I’d hear it at a burlesque show.

I’m angry, and I doubt myself. Surely by the logic that says Peter Kennedy is promoting violence or contributing to a culture in which it is normal and acceptable, I should judge other humorous songs. What about Tom Lehrer’s narrative of murder and mutilation, which I’m quite happy to laugh at? Is that allowed, since cutting off your girlfriend’s hand is rare, while women are injured and killed trying to leave their partners quite often? And how much defence does humour provide? How do you judge the delicate balance between showing a character and supporting the character’s views? I have a degree in English Literature, an MA in Cultural Theory, and very nearly another MA in Creative Writing, and I still can’t answer that question.

I started to doubt myself a little less, reading Kitty Stryker on the subject of FetLife tweeting a “drunk hooker joke”:

When people call you out on the entitlement that often comes with such humor, reflect on why it’s so important to you to cling to your “joke.” Is it that important to you to tell drunk hooker jokes? Really? Is that an important part of your sense of humor? Why? Does freedom of speech include hate speech? Should it? Where do you draw the line on what constitutes such speech? If you say something offensive, is it really so terrible to apologize? Is that “political correctness gone wild” or just being a polite human being who doesn’t like to inflict hurt on others and apologizes when things they do or say adds to institutionalized violence?

On the night of the show, I tweeted:

I was shocked that @carnivaldivine hosted an act, Puppetual Motion, with a misogynistic song about domestic violence. Empowering women?!

I received the reply:

Every act is a parody, even the finger puppets.

It had been deleted by morning. So my question is, Carnival Divine, is it that important to you that Peter Kennedy gets to tell his beat-your-girlfriend jokes? Perhaps you think I’m overreacting. Perhaps I should try to see the funny side. But I doubt that I’ll see the satirical humour of the next song about the joys of domestic violence, either. I doubt the other people in the room who’ve been subject to violence from a partner (one in four women and one in six men, so a probably significant proportion of those present) appreciate the sparkling wit of such songs. With Puppetual Motion as Carnival Divine’s “resident puppeteer”, I’m going to have to think very hard about giving up going to one of Manchester’s best burlesque nights. Given the empowering, celebratory atmosphere of the burlesque world I know, I think that’s really very sad.

Written by Not an Odalisque

September 2, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Will You Be My Male Friend?

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I think it was the all-girls schooling. Or maybe my father didn’t read me enough adventure stories at bedtime when I was child. Whatever the reason, I simply can’t make male friends. I think I may give up and become a lesbian separatist or a nun.

It usually goes like this: I’ll meet a man who knows something interesting, or tells amusing stories, or is simply there when I’m alone, clutching a wineglass and canapé hoping, desperately, for someone who doesn’t mind me hanging around. We’ll have a good enough time to make it worth exchanging contact details. We’ll meet again and at the end of one of these meetings, I’ll leave thinking, “It was all in my mind. Of course I can make male friends, it’s easy, look how comfortable we are together!” Little do I know that as I’m thinking this, he’s staring fixedly at my receding backside.

If there’s a feeling of disappointment when, on some future date, I check that I haven’t spilled something on my top and realise that there are only two things he could be staring at, there’s also a sense of hope. Any number of people might like me on spec, but to still find me attractive once you know about the unshaven legs and the Ke$ha albums seems unlikely, if not veritably perverse. So when sex or spanking is suggested* I tend to think, “well, at least he’s heard about the schoolgirl outfits, so he won’t run, screaming, freaked out by the kinkery.”

I have fun—what would be the point if I didn’t?—and feel a few smug moments of pity for others who have to put up with blokes there every night making the bed stinky in order to get what I can have for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon, if it suits. Then, inevitably, one of two awful things happens: Either he declares his undying love, or he declares that I’ll never be worthy of such adulation. The former generally terminates the friendship. The latter just makes a big mess.

After all, it’s one thing to know that someone thinks you’re fun, worth talking to on the phone and going out of the way to visit. It’s entirely another to be told that you’re good enough to do that with, but not of the necessary material for anything more. That’s perfectly horrid! Suddenly I’m second best (or third best, or fourth, I hate to think! I’ve managed to prevent anyone communicating my official ranking to date). The good times together are sucked dry, it instantly becomes clear that while I was enjoying my friend’s company, he was killing time until someone better showed up. That isn’t a nice thought, even if it’s exactly what I was doing with him.

Fortunately, I seem to be perfecting the process with practice, and it’s definitely speeding up. A couple of years ago it took months for a male friend to work up to a declaration of love. I’ve had two communications of intention not to from men in one season, and neither of them took more than a week. This saves a lot of time and energy, but doesn’t exactly solve the problem.

I feel like I’m playing cowboys and Indians, complete with feather headdress and slightly-too-short Princess Tiger Lily dress, when suddenly everyone puts down their toy guns to tell me whether they’re really intending to go to war. While I’m still tied up. I’m usually enjoying our game, but it feels childish to bring that up while everyone is talking about grown up things.

Can you help? I need to discover the following things:

1. How does one distinguish men who fancy you politely from men who don’t fancy you at all? Is there some sort of handshake?

2. What are rules regulating intersexual friendship? Are there taboo topics for the chaste? (I ask this after realising I discussed my knickers which two men last week. I asked the second if it was inappropriate, but he assured me it was a perfectly acceptable topic).

3. How does one assure a man that he doesn’t need to assure you that he’s not getting overly attached, without inadvertently perpetuating the cycle of insult or slipping down the slope towards in infinite regress of reassurance?

Failing that, does anyone know of a nunnery with spaces for irreligious types?

*Or sex and spanking. According to vanilla custom, sex is suggested, and spanking may be tentatively put forward as a possibility after that proposal is accepted. In the kinky world, it’s the other way around, because we know that sex is the really weird, gross, thing.

Written by Not an Odalisque

January 19, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Aiming at Amis

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Once a fortnight I resist throwing things at Martin Amis. Usually books, but it depends what else is to hand. I haven’t had the guts to knit during sessions with him, but if I did, I’d launch my needles like javelins. Amis isn’t evil—he hasn’t killed people or spoken at the theatre—he just has a habit of making smug pronouncements that force me to sit on my hands for fear of doing something violent.

Today he announced the end of class and gender discrimination. The only oppressive system left, apparently, focuses on age, so we should concern ourselves with the old. Martin Amis is white, male, and not getting any younger. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see why his concern lies where it does.

We made some points about education, I pointed out that class affects identity, and pulled some faces. What I didn’t do was rant and gesticulate, talk about the disproportionate number of women living in poverty, weep over the woman jailed because her abuser pressured her into retracting her rape claim, or demand to know why he hadn’t set a single novel by a female author. It wouldn’t have felt appropriate. He’s eminent, after all. Most of the eminent people are old, white men.

I’ve never taken the toffee-hammer approach to feminism. Generally, I think we’re like to get further if we don’t give everyone a reason to write us off as hysterical madwomen. So I wait my turn and voice my disagreements, if invited, politely. Even if I haven’t bothered to shave my legs, I’ve put on a skirt, hold-ups and some new Chanel foundation that I really couldn’t afford. I’m a nice, middle-class girl, after all.

Sometimes I imagine a life in which I wasn’t polite. I replay the moment when Martin Amis said that women should stop sleeping with gloomy novelists, because it only encourages them, and visualise myself saying what every woman in the room must have been thinking: that he didn’t have a chance with us, and sex with women isn’t some sort of rewards system for writers, in fact, some of them are women. I’d go back and tell all the guys who talk about their aggressive driving that they are dicks, and strip off in front of men who harass me on the street. Every time a man made a sexist comment while pretending to seek understanding of women or feminism I would slap his face and walk away.

I know that this isn’t how you build understanding or change minds. I realise that people are more likely to forget what you told them than how you made them feel. I have ideals and mediation training and Martin Amis’s autobiography. None of that changes this: I want to throw things at Martin Amis. If I’m arrested for assault, will the feminists bail me out?

Written by Not an Odalisque

November 24, 2010 at 12:01 am

If You Read This, You’ll Discover I’m A Monster

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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.

Written by Not an Odalisque

September 28, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Princesses Don’t Mow Lawns

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I cried today because I couldn’t start the lawnmower. I don’t know what I did wrong. I put the slidy thing in the right position, beside the lightning bolt, I held down the lever on the handle and I pulled the string many, many times. I discovered on the first pull that the handle on the string hurts my fingers, so I got out a cloth and used it for cushioning. Then I pulled and pulled and pulled. I had three goes today, and during the last one I pulled that string twenty-one times. I think I’ve also pulled a muscle in my right side. The grass isn’t any shorter, though.

It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? I’m twenty-six, I’ve travelled the world, lived alone, got an MA and learned to make passable jams and dresses. I’m a responsible adult. Nevertheless, I can’t mow the lawn.

I’m slightly confused. I recognise I’m not strong or mechanically minded. In fact, when I was fourteen my Design and Technology teacher greeted my mother at parents’ evening with a stricken face and the words, “she’s not thinking of doing DT for GCSE, is she?!” I wonder, though, what proportion of the population is strong and mechanically minded. I don’t have bulging muscles, but I am young and fit. How do older people cut their lawns? I know plenty of middle aged, divorced women who almost wobble when you look at them. Do they live with meadows out the back?

The uncut lawn isn’t the end of the world. At some point my father will come home and do it himself. He’ll be slightly frustrated because he’d asked me to do it, and perhaps he’ll even suspect that I’m feigning weakness to get out of the chore. The matter isn’t helped by the fact that his glamorous girlfriend is a real, honest to god, Independent Woman. When a lass has her own scaffolding, you can pretty much guarantee that she would laugh in the face of lawnmowers. I know that some women escape girly uselessness, I just can’t work out how to do it myself.

I hate it when the misogynists assume that I can’t do things for myself. Being a woman doesn’t mean that I’m weak. It can be even worse, though, when the feminists assume that I’m strong. I’m not. Admitting that I can’t start the lawnmower, or that I struggle to open the garage door, makes me feel like I’m not a proper feminist. I’m not strong enough to be one.

I mentioned in a previous post that I lost my keys a couple of weeks ago, and found myself stranded twenty miles from my locked house. The keys turned up in someone else’s handbag. They had been discovered that very night, as I was searching the dance hall for them. The owner of the handbag wanted to drive back and give them to me. I think a phone call would have done the trick, myself. She did neither, though, because her friend told her, “she’s a strong, independent woman, she’ll be fine.”

I was fine, not because I was strong and independent, but because I had help. I’m not quite sure what “strong” and “independent” meant, in the context, unless they implied “wealthy enough to pay for a hotel and a taxi.” I don’t know when proving we weren’t princesses waiting in towers for knights in shining armour became being totally unreliant on anyone other than ourselves.

Feminists, please give over. Congratulations if you have superpowers, I’m afraid I don’t. All of us, men and women, need help sometimes. Occasionally we even have to be rescued. For now, though, all I want is for someone to show me how to start the lawnmower.

Written by Not an Odalisque

August 16, 2010 at 10:09 pm

I’m Slightly Annoyed By The Way You Misinterpret

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Everyone is posting about Eminem and Rihanna’s song ‘Love the Way You Lie’. I’m not going to give you a whole load of links, because, frankly, the discussion has already begun to bore me.

Here’s my confession: I love the song. I liked it on the radio. I loved the more explicit version which I downloaded and listened to thirty times in a week. It turned me on, and made me feel slightly sick. For two days it put me into a delicate mental state in which I was ready to flee, cry or fuck at any moment.

The song is, apparently, about domestic violence. The problem with typing “about domestic violence” is that it puts it into a space that’s about funding refuges and using phrases like “cycle of abuse.” It reduces it to a social issue. That’s like describing ‘Lolita’ as “a book about child abuse.” It is, but anyone who has read it knows that it is much more than that.

Some people are saying that the video is good, as it will raise awareness of domestic violence. What this raised awareness is meant to do, I’m really not sure. If there’s a surge of donations to shelters and interventions to protect women from their partners, I’ll stand corrected, but I can’t see it happening. Some people say it’s terrible, glorifying violence and putting women at risk. Perhaps there’s something in that. I doubt that people are so easily influenced as to begin beating up with girlfriends because they heard a song, though, so if it has such an effect (and, really, I doubt it) we have to look at culture more widely for explanations. Others are in between, saying that it’s good to raise awareness, but Rihanna should have been given more lines, or we shouldn’t be told the perpetrator’s side of the story, because we should focus on the victim. There’s also a lot about the history of the singers, but I can hardly keep track of the personal lives of people I know, so I’m not giving headspace to random celebrities.

It all misses the point. It’s a song. It depicts part of human experience, and it fulfils its obligation to honesty and to beauty, in my opinion, as a work of art. You may think it fails, that it doesn’t communicate an experience or that the words and music are badly arranged. Those are valid criticisms, unlike the one that it doesn’t read like a Refuge information leaflet. You like the topic but prefer your violence committed by women? I recommend ‘Goodbye Earl’.

I have an interesting story about ‘Goodbye Earl’, actually. I know two very responsible, socially aware parents who worked hard to keep their children out of gendered roles, and, being pacifists, never gave them toy guns or allowed violent games. One day they asked what their little girl was playing with her friends, and were horrified to hear that their game was to act out the murder of a man by his wife, taking it in turns to be the wife and come up with imaginative murder techniques. ‘How did she get such a thing into her head?’ they asked themselves, and then her. She’d heard her mother singing along to ‘Earl Has to Die’ once, in the kitchen.

It made me giggle. It also made me see why some parents want to protect their children from things which they aren’t going to understand, and which may influence them. So I entirely comprehend why ‘Love the Way You Lie’ had to be edited for the radio. The edited version, however, troubles me much more than the explicit one. What happens if you take all the sex and violence out of the story about a relationship full of sex and violence? You get a very sinister love song. We don’t know why he’s lying to her. We don’t know why she’s burning. We don’t know that he hits or, or pins her down, or what he’s going to do to her if she leaves. We do know that they have a tempestuous relationship and she loves it. That is something much more dangerous.

Written by Not an Odalisque

August 7, 2010 at 10:25 pm

There’s Always A Creepy Man

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“There’s always one creep,” a man said to me last week, before twirling me around and semi-ironically staring at my breasts, “at least one.” I have to say that I like this man. He’s one of my regular dance partners, a proper Yorkshire man, quiet to the point of gruffness, who teases me over the inordinate quantity of hair with which I occasionally hit men in the face (entirely by accident) as I twirl. I’ve brought him cake and he’s offered to have a whip-round so I can pay for a proper haircut. We get on, but he doesn’t understand about the creeps.

I’ve just about had it with the creeps. I used to have better tolerance levels. I used to be able to think it was a laugh, that it was an odd sort of compliment to receive someone’s attention. If I’m entirely honest, I’ve sometimes been a little disappointed not to have been the object of more creepiness. There are so many books about young, beautiful things catching the eyes of teachers and uncles, throwing them into paroxysms and crises which I would have been flattered to cause.

I didn’t have the sun-kissed body, slender legs and shiny hair of the charming teenager of those novels. I didn’t even have a white tennis skirt. Instead I had a cloud of frizzy hair and the pale complexion that comes of spending too much time in the library with a dusty volume of Tennyson. So when I did meet my first creepy man, he wasn’t of the vintage car and picnic hamper variety, he was a hairy homunculus with an overworked wife and a study full of poetry books. We read each other’s poems, he talked about Ruskin, I flirted outrageously and one day at his daughter’s sleepover he put my hand on his penis. Suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore.

I didn’t tell anyone and I did my best to avoid him. It took me years to work out that it wasn’t my fault.

That’s the problem with creepy men. You’re never sure whether you’re imagining the creepiness. Afterwards, instead of feeling angry, you feel guilty, and keep it to yourself. You think that to be getting that sort of attention you must be doing something wrong.

Now I wonder, if I had told someone, what would have happened. Would he have been dragged off to prison for molesting underage girls, or would someone have had a quiet word with me about being more careful in future?

I was rather blasé about the creeps after that. Nothing that bad was going to happen, I thought. To my credit, I was right. I managed to wriggle out of the grasp of every creep. Even when my boss pressed several glasses of rice wine on me and sent me home in a taxi alone with a colleague who’d been trying to get into my pants all evening. It somehow culminated in him declaring I was like a daughter to him and putting me on the phone to his very confused wife. All part of a colourful experience, I thought as I plotted a route off-campus which wouldn’t take me past his office.

I don’t know why I attract the creeps. I don’t know why, the last time I was in London, I was asked out by three men between the tube station and my friend’s house, or why, the time before, someone followed me to her door. I don’t know why it’s me who men choose to feel up when we’re dancing, or why they think that I will be receptive to their advances as they offer a phone number or a walk home. Are you thinking that these things happen to all women, not just to me? I know that they happen to me significantly more than they do to my friends, I don’t know how often they happen to you. More importantly to me, I honestly don’t know why they happen. I’ve been through so many reasons. Am I too friendly, too smiley, too open, too likely to flirt, too sluttily dressed? I’ve tried changing my behaviour in all sorts of ways, but it keeps on coming. I begin to think that blaming myself is like feeling guilty for having conversations about poetry when I was fourteen. It’s wasn’t my action, it was his.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to find a polite way to tell a man twice my age that I’m really not interested. I’ve been hiding behind pillars to avoid a man at dancing who stares at me. I don’t know if he still does it, as I’m scared of encouraging him by looking his way. Last night a man put my hand on his penis again, this time over his trousers. When you’re in the middle of a crowded room, snatching your hand away from someone’s crotch, you do begin to ask what’s going on.

I still don’t think anything terrible is going to happen. Dance halls are not good venues for assault, sexual or otherwise. Overfriendly middle aged men are more lonely than violent. All the same, I can’t tell you how much I wish they would stop.

I’ve tried telling people about the staring man. I’m told that he’s reacting to my nice dress, that he thinks I’m attractive. It’s been implied that I’m paranoid. It’s difficult, apparently, watching women dance. There’s always one creep, it’s no big deal. Some men find it difficult to interact with women, we should make ourselves clear. The men don’t take it seriously; I wonder if they have considered who they are aligning themselves with?

At midnight last night I scanned the room to see if anyone was available for the last dance. An overweight man lumbered towards me, and I thought “if he waddles, rather than walks, how is he going to dance?” Nevertheless, I politely accepted his invitation, on the basis that good manners cost me only the length of a single track. I submitted to being pressed into his sweaty side and having my hips and waist pawed for a couple of minutes, then escaped his clutches. A couple of minutes later he appeared beside me and leered, “are you here alone?” At the same moment I realised I’d lost my keys. I was stranded twenty miles from my locked house, in the middle of the night, with a creepy man who wouldn’t leave me be. I tried to shake him by walking to the car park and back, but he waited. I repeatedly told him I’d be fine, but he lurked, and as the crowd cleared I realised I would soon be alone with him. I thought I’d managed to lose him, but he pulled up in a car and told me to get in. I was rescued by a woman half my height and weight, who told him, in no uncertain terms, where to go.*

She made me very, very happy.

I’ve had enough of creepy men. You should have, too. On a bad day I feel as if I’m living my life under siege. I think if a single one of the men I’ve mentioned it to understood that, they wouldn’t make excuses for the starers, the pinchers, the feelers and the lurkers. They wouldn’t want to think of themselves as in the same category. They don’t have to do anything inappropriately manly, there’s no need for a confrontation, but, men, I could do with a hand. If you see me struggling to get away from another creep, because there’s always going to be another one, you could make your presence known. Perhaps you could even whisk me off for a nice, chaste dance. I can’t tell you how much I would appreciate it.

*It isn’t relevant to creepy men, but you might like to know that my rescuer and her friend, both good friends of my father, calmed me down, drove me home, offered to climb up ladders and through windows, but didn’t have to because I had neglected to lock the back door. United with my spare set of car keys, I was driven back to my car and not left alone until they’d checked I was happy, safe and sufficiently fuelled. Some people are just amazing.

Written by Not an Odalisque

July 31, 2010 at 4:51 pm