Posts Tagged ‘masculinity’

2010 31 Jan

[advice] Masculinity & African activism

I’ve been getting a lot of very encouraging email lately; here’s some excerpts from an exchange I found particularly interesting. Posted with permission:

Hi Clarisse,

A friend showed me your blog and I just wanted to say that I think you’re fantastic.

I’m a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and I recently facilitated a Feminist Student Union “SexualiTea” — a discussion topic with, yeah, tea — on masculinities in society and at Reed and I used your article Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 3: Space For Men along with the Every Girl / Every Boy poster at the beginning to spark thoughts for the group. This event was a huge success! We had over 50 people in attendance, including 10 or 15 men. It was a really honest, vulnerable, productive, and holistic conversation. We talked about gender binary pressures as children; how can personality traits be de-gendered so that a male who takes pride in being strong isn’t intrinsically stream-rolling women as equally strong leaders or pushing them into an opposite weak category; a transman brought up what behaviors he had to lose as the result of transitioning and changing his presented gender — “I was told I’d have to tone down or lose my crude, perverted, and loud sense of humor because as a man I’d be seen as a Really Big Creep and not just a rugby dyke”; etc. The men were really forthcoming and aside from a minor terrible moment that I was able to turn around as the faciliatator (“so having seen Jackson Katz speak about gender violence, I would be interested in hearing any personal stories about rape from the women in the room” “actually, rape is a large enough burden to bear without having to educate men about rape, in public, whenever rape is brought up as a topic presumably by someone who’s never experienced it. I’d suggest reading up on your own and educating yourself and listening with respect if and when a survivor decides to tell you about their experience.”) — but really, the biggest obstacle that came up was the dynamic of female feminist students purporting 2nd wave views who obliviously steamrolled the conversation, spoke the loudest, the most frequent, tried to control the conversation with an specific end goal in mind, and took up the most space. It almost seemed like the end question for me on this topic wasn’t how to get men to be in these spaces to critically examine masculinities and let male sexualities flourish because many men were not hesitant to show up and take part and really try their best, but how to hold mainstream, second wave feminists accountable for their own oppressive dynamics and how to get them to relax, ease up, open up some space, cede some old ideology?

The other thing that I wanted to talk to you about is for this project that a friend and I are doing about skin bleaching creams in Africa since you seem to be a well-plugged in activist and might have more access to this type of info being currently located in Africa. Do you know of any organizations that do work to educate the populous about the ill effects of these creams? There seems to be a huge amount of scholarly research on the topic as well as some journalistic coverage, but it seems like it stops there — so far none of the articles mention efforts of international policy platforms or organizations like Doctors Without Borders really actively fighting to stop the creams from being on the market, educating and empowering the populace about how they are damaging and toxic and addictive. My friend and I are trying to come up with a program where we’d tour doing educational presentations, do self-esteem workshops, and try to bring in doctors/med students to treat people. It seems like we may have to base our project off of the anti-tobacco attempts in some ways — but that kind of “don’t use this commodity because it’s bad for your health” doesn’t have anything to say about collonialism, race, gender, poverty, etc … though again, that’s also a typical failure of the anti-tobacco campaigns not touching issues specific to queer youth and working class people. Maybe you know of an organization or a person that I could network with? Do you think that the organization that you’re working with that does HIV/AIDS stuff would have any helpful materials?

Thanks! Take care. If you come to Portland / the Pacific Northwest / the West Coast I’d love to have you do an event at Reed College.


I wrote back:

Hi Zoe!

Firstly, thanks for this letter.  If I were likely to be anywhere near the West Coast of America anytime soon, I’d totally take you up on your offer to do something at Reed. I am so proud that my series was helpful to your masculinity event. That’s exactly the kind of effect I’m aiming for with my blog and other activism, and it’s incredibly validating to get feedback like this.  And yeah, the opening up of space for not-quite-feminist gender discussions is such a hard question.  I think a lot of feminists are genuinely afraid of losing the ground we’ve gained so far, especially considering the fact that so much feminist time must currently go towards explaining why we haven’t “already won” (“No, really, look, we did yet another study to demonstrate how women are still disadvantaged in the workplace ….”).  I have a hard time blaming feminists for that, or for having a gender agenda that primarily benefits feminism.  But promoting that agenda shouldn’t stifle any well-intentioned others ….

As for Africa.  I doubt I or my organization can assist you directly, although I might be able to share some teaching materials; and organizations like MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) are primarily concerned with things like, you know, distributing anti-retroviral drugs to people who will otherwise die of AIDS and educating the population about multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.  A lot of people on the ground here are rather tired of self-esteem workshops and warnings about How They Ought To Take Charge Of Their Health, at least in my area. And certainly, anyone with the mental and emotional energy to worry about colonialism and the effects of their chosen skin cream is probably hugely privileged.

Having said that, I think that if you aimed your program at the more privileged populations — for instance, students in universities — you might be able to develop some interesting partnerships.  Do you have any African expatriate professors at Reed, or an African Studies department, that you might consult?  Do you know any Africans and have you discussed this with them?  If you decide to go ahead with this, then I cannot emphasize enough that you need local partners who will help you develop your workshops such that they are culturally appropriate and intelligible (though it’s worth keeping in mind that a lot of the people I’ve worked with seem likely to defer to Americans and unlikely to offer meaningful critiques of our ideas to our faces, so you may have to really work hard for feedback; then again, maybe it’s different at universities).  It is really a bad idea to develop the workshops Stateside and propagate them without assistance from someone who knows your target population — with enough willpower and energy you could probably get away with doing so, but that doesn’t mean it will be effective.

If you are dedicated to this project, then I think your best course would be to find a program that will allow you to come live in Africa and get a lot of cultural exposure first.  Maybe you and your friend could at least take a semester away at an African university?  Honestly though, one thing I think I’ve already learned from my time here is that I was much more awesome and successful as an educator in the USA than I can be here. I don’t regret coming, and I think I may actually accomplish one or two things as long as I am patient and stick around for years, and I think I am learning a lot that will be relevant when I go home, but … trying to teach people without sharing their cultural context feels like, I don’t know, trying to type with one hand cut off.

I don’t mean to discourage you, it’s just that getting people to change their unhealthy behaviors is hard enough for the groups that are already living and working here; and a lot of well-meaning outsiders come in and fling money or programs at this populace, rarely with ideal effect. It seems like often they’ll try on African traditional dress, grin winningly for the camera, and then run away home without even trying to meaningfully evaluate the fruits of their so-called efforts. Not that I’m getting cynical or anything.

Thanks again for your letter.  SexualiTea sounds awesome; wish I could see it in action!

2010 25 Jan

Where are all the male dominant bloggers?

Today I had a thought that stopped me in my tracks: I don’t believe I have ever read a single blog post by a male-identified BDSM dominant and/or sadist. I’ve kept this blog for over a year now, and y’all can see from the blogroll on the right-hand side that I’ve encountered a fair number of cool sex blogs; but I don’t recall ever seeing a male top’s blog.

Off the top of my head, I can think of many (oft-updated!) examples of the other combinations. For female bottoms there is of course myself, and violetwhite writes in a lovely, highly personal style. Female tops also represent: over a year after I found it, I can still recall my electrifying first reading of Trinity at SM-Feminist; a trio of clever female tops recently started a group effort called Topologies. And it’s not like it’s just women writing sex blogs — for male bottoms there’s the amazing activist maymay at Maybe Maimed But Never Harmed, the eloquent Orlando at In Scarlet Ink, my adorable college and Chicago-based friend Danny at Sex, Art and Politics, and the always-incisive Thomas of Yes Means Yes fame. And then there’s the queer butch top Sinclair “Sugarbutch” Sexsmith; and I have never seen a trans person’s blog strictly dedicated to BDSM, but Chicago’s own extraordinary Hazel/Cedar sometimes notes her kink experience as a BDSM-switch.

It’s certainly not that analytical, intelligent, well-spoken (and -written) male tops don’t exist. They definitely do. I mean, I’m in a position to know.

Wait, wait, I just thought of one — a dear friend, Sammael in Atlanta. How could I forget him? Well, I forgot him (briefly) because he almost never posts; I definitely wouldn’t know about his blog if I wasn’t real-life friends with him. I’ll have to email him and ask why ….

Because that is the question, isn’t it? Why?

Are they out there, and am I just missing them? But in all the sex-positive blog posts I’ve read, surely there should have been one citation of a male top’s post, sometime, somewhere. Or do they just feel that they have nothing to contribute?

In my masculinity series, I mentioned that I once met a cis male BDSMer who said, “Why bother talking about male sexuality? It’s the norm. Fish don’t have a word for water.” As it happens, he’s a top. Is that how many male tops feel? Certainly, anti-BDSM radical feminists will claim that our society is centered on, even encourages male tops — an assertion that is, I think, born from a complete misunderstanding of what BDSM is plus total failure to recognize the stigma around it. (Take this quotation from well-known BDSM writer Jay Wiseman about his coming-out experience, when he started recognizing his own kinky desires: “I decided to keep myself under surveillance. I made up my mind that I was not going to hurt anybody. If I thought I was turning into someone that would harm somebody else, then I would either put myself in a mental institution or commit suicide. And thus I lived, waiting and watching to see if I was turning into someone that I needed to shoot.”)

Is it partly that they fear misinterpretation, fear being seen as abusers? Certainly, as a female submissive I’ve always felt hyperaware of how my experiences could potentially be read as Supporting The Patriarchy. And I dated one mostly-vanilla guy for two years who enjoyed being somewhat dominant/sadistic in bed, but who was absolutely appalled by the idea of other people seeing him as a top. Indeed, I — being a rather straightforward girl — am often read as dominant (especially by people unfamiliar with BDSM), and in public situations my ex would deliberately play that up such that most people, if they knew about the BDSM thing, assumed I was the domme.

Is it that male tops are blogging but unlikely to be part of the sex-positive blogosphere, because they are unlikely to be familiar with (or unlikely to subscribe to) the feminist language/viewpoint that anchors the community? This feels to me like it might be true …. Maybe because — as I’ve pointed out before — the more stereotypical a man’s sexual identity (and sexual dominance, while stigmatized in its own right, is certainly more stereotypical for a man than submission), the less likely he is to examine gender issues and thence be attracted to feminism. But if that’s the case, what communities are they part of?

But still, among those analytical, intelligent, well-spoken (and -written) male tops that I’ve known, at least as many have been feminist as the analytical, intelligent male bottoms, female tops, and female bottoms I’ve known. So, back to square one: they exist, but for some reason aren’t writing blogs about their male toppish experiences.

Or are they? I’d like to hear more about the experiences of male tops. I hope I’m wrong and/or misinformed, and there’s lots of relevant blogs out there. Post ’em if you got ’em, friends.

UPDATE: Since writing this post, I have determined that there is actually no shortage of male dominant blogs. The question of how I missed them all is … a question for another day.

2009 30 Dec

Sex-positive women aren’t out to steal your man

Note: This post is a bit feminist-theoretical.

Radical feminists* attack BDSM (and many other marginalized sexual identities) on a variety of ideological grounds — usually claiming that it’s Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome (an assertion that is not only unproveable but is also usually stated in really hurtful terms, thereby serving mainly to drive kinky people away from feminism or guilt-trip kinky people into suppressing their desires). But another tactic many radical feminists use against us is slut-shaming, including resentful declarations that sex-positive feminists are getting all the sexual attention. (They often patronizingly call us “fun feminists”, as if we wouldn’t hold our opinions if we weren’t trying to be fun! fun! fun! As if our opinions can’t be serious, and/or aren’t worth taking seriously.)

If I make the mistake of announcing that I’m into S&M in an unfamiliar vanilla group, then yeah — it’s true — I do get hit on more. Because the stigma around BDSM is particularly sexualized. But that kind of attention isn’t actually what I want, and it frequently takes really unpleasant forms. For instance, before I left Chicago I went on one of my friend Ken’s Chicago Sex Tours. Because it was a sex-related event, I introduced myself to the tour group as Clarisse the S&M activist. Immediately, people had questions, which is fine and great — that’s part of why I’m an activist: to answer those questions. But they also had assumptions — most obviously the man who grabbed my ass while I was ahead of him in a stairwell. Obviously, that dude’s tiny mind was thinking what most similar dudes (and many radical feminists — but I’ll get to this in a minute) think: “Woohoo! A girl who’s into S&M! She must have no boundaries at all! Clearly I can grab her ass with impunity!”

I didn’t want to make a huge scene at Ken’s event, so I just twisted away and told the guy in a freezing tone: “If you do that again without my consent, I’ll kick your ass.” And avoided him for the rest of the tour. (God, what a complete assmonkey. I get angry all over again just thinking about it. I’d like to believe that he realized he was being an ass and won’t do something similar again, but I’ve encountered too many asshole men like him to be sure that he internalized the point. In fact, I bet that if I had decided to make a scene and confront him directly, he would have been all injured innocence. “But you’ve been talking about crazy sexual acts all night! What do you mean I wasn’t supposed to grab your ass? You can’t blame a guy for being a little confused! She was wearing a short skirt, Judge!” Argh. But I’m getting distracted. Let me return to the main point.)

(edit Really, maybe I should have made a scene. To his credit, Ken read this post and Direct Messaged me on Twitter to say, “I am so sorry that happened on my tour! Had I known I would have kicked his ass. I had no idea.” At the time, I just didn’t want to disrupt the space because I was enjoying the event, etc. Who knows? Even in hindsight it’s hard to say. But again, back to the main point. end of edit)

Which is: so how was that dude similar to some radical feminists? Because there are radical feminists out there who describe sex-positive women as “freely sexually available” — usually in tones of rage, resentment and disgust. Yes, they use that phrase. They’re so angry at us for daring to indulge our badwrong sexuality that they fall into the exact same patriarchal trap that Tour Dude did. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that sex-positive women have boundaries and preferences, too. Radical feminists of this stripe are (as Renegade Evolution deconstructs in the aforementioned link) actually part of the problem, because they reinforce the awful dialectic around sexuality that they claim to oppose. They are basically stating that any woman who dares to freely express her sexuality thereby sacrifices her right to sexual boundaries. They are declaring us infinitely rapeable — throwing out our rights to bodily integrity just as Tour Dude did.

Why must they do this? Why?!

When I think back to my pre-BDSM days — the days when my opinions were considerably more stereotypical-radical-feminist than they are now — and when I look around the Internet, here’s one of the reasons I find: such feminists actually believe that we don’t have any boundaries, which — combined with some really awful social conceptions of men — makes them feel threatened. The ladies who call kinky women “freely sexually available” are freaking out partly because they feel like we’re setting up some kind of crazy “standard” for how to behave that they can’t match. One example collected from the Internet: these comments about how sex-positive women are stealing men from more virtuous ladies. But a better example comes from my own life:

I clearly remember the sexual anxiety from my undergraduate days. For one thing, I had no real idea of what my sexual needs were; I knew they weren’t being met, but I tried not to think about it because I didn’t even know where to start, so thinking about how I wasn’t getting what I wanted just made me feel awkward and confused, like I’d failed as a liberated woman, plus I thought my boyfriends would resent me if I said something like “I’m not satisfied and I need to explore more, though I have no idea what direction to go in — will you help me?”,** and anyway I figured that the sex I was having was good enough. I mean, at least I was having sex, right? At least I had a boyfriend, right? And since I’d been deemed Worthy Of Having Sex And A Boyfriend, my first responsibility was to Please My Man, right? I clearly remember feeling sick and hurt whenever I watched porn because I knew it wasn’t what I wanted, and yet I couldn’t believe that my boyfriends — who I knew were watching porn, and were all watching the same porn, because everyone knows all men watch the same porn, right? — I couldn’t believe that my boyfriends were happily “settling” for me, if those images were what they chose to get off to when they were alone. I couldn’t believe that I would still be desirable to a man who was used to porn. I couldn’t believe that a man wouldn’t secretly be let down by me in bed, because I couldn’t “match up” to women in porn. And I therefore felt like there was a cage of social pressure closing around me, stifling me: telling me that I had to “perform” like women in the porn I saw, whether I liked it or not; telling me that the only way to be good in bed was to act the way porn women did, even if it didn’t feel like that behavior was right for me at all.

It was awful. It hurt. A lot. I still remember all that mixed-up anxiety and pain with a shudder.

What cured me was (a) realizing that there are many different kinds of porn out there and that different people have very different tastes; (b) properly exploring my sexual needs — especially my repressed BDSM identity — and learning exactly what it means to have sexual fantasies that hold no bearing on how I feel about my partners. But I still remember feeling sick, watching those porn actresses enact a script that didn’t feel right for me. And I can imagine a very short jump from how I felt then to how a woman might feel, if she thought that “all men want the same thing” and her own sexual preferences didn’t fit that script — how such a woman might feel if she were confronted with women who professed to like those things, and even to like all kinds of crazier more perverted things …. Indeed, women who want “super-perverse” things would probably make such a woman feel like we’re setting an “even worse standard” than porn, because everyone knows that all men (those slobby hungry beasts) will always desire the most perverse possible thing, right? For such a woman, surely other women who enjoy the acts she doesn’t want to do would seem like a pressure-cage; the same way porn felt like a pressure-cage for me, once upon a time.

(I’m not saying all radical feminists feel this way. I’m just saying, I suspect that some feminists who attack sex-positivity are just trying to break out of those awful societal pressure-cages in their own way. And I sympathize. But that doesn’t make it okay to tell me I ought not realize my own sexuality in the way I want, the way I need to realize it.)

And this has brought me to the other big problem. Another thing disappeared by these awful ideas — women being “freely sexually available”; sex-positive women “stealing men”; men all preferring a certain stereotypical idea of porn — what’s disappeared here is the fact that men have different sexual desires. In other words, these attitudes can only persist as long as one has a really narrow view of men in general. Yes! A man who desires you, my lady, may very well not desire porn sex — or may very well not desire me, the crazy kinky girl! It’s true! People are sexually different! Even men are sexually different! Who would ever have thought?

As a matter of fact, my BDSM identity makes it considerably harder for me to find partners. Really! Yeah, it means that folks hit on me more, but that’s only because they’re operating on a stereotype that doesn’t truly come close to describing me. In reality, most men — like most women — are basically vanilla; and even if they’re into S&M, they’re into very mild S&M. I dated one man for two years who was initially attracted to me partly because I was just discovering BDSM, and he wanted to explore it with me … but ultimately, one of the sorest spots that developed in our relationship was that I needed experiences way more hardcore than he wanted to give. (This experience made me decide to never, ever again date a vanilla-but-questioning guy, because they don’t know what they want and they’ll only break my heart. I am not very good at following this dictum.)

To wind up this post, I’ll share one more example: a former friend of mine who I’ll call Bert. Bert was hitting on me aggressively after he found out about the BDSM thing; he was making all kinds of S&M-ish innuendoes. At the time I was lonely and confused and I’d just had a nasty breakup, so I thought, okay, why not? I told him to write me a letter describing what he wanted to do. Here’s what he wrote:

so i was thinking silk ties or scarves to bind the the other one’s hands and 10 minute intervals of hedonistic pleasure taking turns pushing, pulling and releasing each other’s buttons, knobs, valves, etc…? i.e. fingers do the walking, thar she blows, abc, cum here, hummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, omg.

This letter had the effect of making me smile ruefully and shake my head. Why? Because it is not even close to what I’m into. Restraints don’t usually even enter my fantasies at all, but when they do, they ain’t flimsy little silk scarves — they’re being used to actually hold someone (often, me) down. Someone who’s screaming in agony. Someone who’s begging for mercy.

I wrote back:

Oh, dear.  I was imagining something significantly more painful.

… and Bert never hit on me again. Heaven only knows what would have happened if I’d explicitly told him what I’m into. He’d probably hide in the corner every time I entered the room.

* This is not to say that there aren’t lots of radical feminists who are careful, tolerant, open-hearted people and whom I really admire. Honestly, I have a lot of radical feminism in my own outlook.

** Indeed, when I finally got up the courage to say this to a partner in my late teens, he told me that he didn’t feel that assisting me with sexual exploration was his job and he was perfectly satisfied with the way things were, thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen: the portrait of sexual entitlement. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

2009 9 Dec

Manliness and Feminism: the followup

In late October I posted a three-part series under the title “Questions I’d Like To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men” (Part 1: Who Cares?; Part 2: Men’s Rights; Part 3: Space For Men). These posts kicked up more of a furor than I anticipated, with a bunch of cross-postings and responses on other blogs.* It all gave me a huge number of new perspectives to synthesize, which is part of why it took me so long to post this followup … but here I am!

I really want this followup to be readable to people who didn’t bother with the initial three posts, so please let me know if I fail!

* * *

Introducing myself, and One Correction

Please allow me to introduce myself. I think those posts probably make more sense (as will large swaths of this one) if you know who I am, and they got linked around to so many non-regular readers that most of the audience now doesn’t.

I go by Clarisse. It is not my real name, because I am a sex-positive and, in particular, pro-BDSM** activist, and being all-the-way-out-of-the-closet about kink can have serious, long-term repercussions for someone’s life (the most pressing for me, right now, being employability: my immediate superiors here in Africa know about my BDSM identity, but the larger rather conservative organization sure as hell doesn’t). Identifying as feminist and pro-BDSM can be really fraught territory — many avowed feminists regard BDSM with suspicion and some, on the more extreme end, with outright hatred. (Famous German feminist Alice Schwarzer once said, “Female masochism is collaboration.” Many feminist spaces have a long tradition of excluding or marginalizing BDSM, like the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, which incidentally has a similar history with trans people. Nine Deuce, a popular radical feminist blogger, has been known to assert that sadists are morally obligated to either repress their sadistic desires or kill themselves. For example.) In her post “Healing My Broken Feminist Heart”, Audacia Ray talks about how much it hurts to identify as a feminist and yet be told, often, that the way you realize your personal sexuality is unfeminist; I’ve been meaning to write a response to that post for ages, because boy do I know how that feels. (I swear, I have the biggest crush on Audacia Ray. I want to be her when I grow up.)

I am Chicago-based in that I lived there for years before I moved here to Africa in order to work in HIV/AIDS mitigation, and I suspect I’ll move back there when my contract ends. In Chicago, I lectured on BDSM and sexual communication, and I created and curated a fabulous sex-positive film series and discussion group that it broke my heart to leave. (The film series was so successful that a group of loyalists gathered, formed a committee, and have continued it without me! Yes!)

My feminist history isn’t very “official”, though I was raised by two very feminist people. For instance, I haven’t read most of the classic feminist authors. My degree is in Philosophy, Religious Studies and Studio Art, not anything gender-related — and when I was in college I remember that I often viewed hard-line feminist assertions with suspicion. I would irritably characterize them as “conspiracy theories”: these people seemed to think there was some secret society of evil men sitting around and plotting to ruin their lives, which clearly was not the case! Ah, youth … :grin: The problem is, of course, exacerbated by the fact that definitions of feminism have become so varied and so many different issues have been attached to feminism by different people.***

In other words, almost my entire gender/sex background is idiosyncratic and self-trained. I certainly can’t hope to match the massive theoretical background that many Internet gender commentators have. And I am very familiar with having my experience discounted and dismissed in a feminist context (“Sorry, BDSM is abuse. Period. If you enjoy BDSM, you’re mentally ill or you have Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome”). These are some of the reasons I tried to spend my entire Entitled Cis Het Men post series asking questions, rather than making assertions.

The posts weren’t intended to be prescriptive — I don’t have much of an agenda beyond “create more conversations around sex and gender”. There is of course my agenda (shared by almost every human alive) of “convincing people to agree with me” and “getting people to join my cool club or at least admire it from afar”, but I don’t personally have any pressing Grand Policy Goals. One commenter who went by Sailorman over at Alas said, on the third post: I read this thread with interest, but it is of course basically a very extended and well written TPHMT argument? I don’t know what the acronym means, but I’m honestly sort of annoyed by any attempt to boil those three posts down to a single argument, because I tried so hard to make it clear that a single argument was not my intent, with that series. I really am just interested in exploring various and often very discrete masculinity-related questions. No, really, I am. No, really, I am.


2009 22 Nov

Redefining masculinity for the HIV/AIDS fight in southern Africa

I can’t speak for all of Southern Africa, but certainly, the area where I’m currently doing HIV/AIDS work is inundated in HIV/AIDS ad campaigns. There are ten million taglines, ten billion posters and stickers and t-shirts and events and commercials and shoutouts on the radio and and and …. Every other billboard is HIV-related. Every khumbi (van in the public transit system) has at least one sticker. Every class in school incorporates AIDS into the curriculum; even kids studying math draw graphs of HIV prevalence. I have never seen anything like this level of media coverage for anything in America, anything at all.

I was recently intrigued to note a new permutation on the back of a sports magazine. (Sorry, these images aren’t great — there ain’t no scanners here, so I had to use my digital camera.)

One of the hardest things to do here is get southern African men to test and to talk. Women are perfectly willing to speak about how multiple partners contributes to the disease’s spread, for instance; women are, indeed, usually eager to discuss some of the problems of abuse and male entitlement that are contributing to HIV/AIDS. (Warning: that link is really depressing.) Men, not so much.

Here’s an article describing the campaign whose ad I’m highlighting here. Excerpt:

Until now, most AIDS schemes have centred on health centres, which are used mainly by women.

“It is hard to go to a clinic and acknowledge your vulnerability as a man,” said Dean Peacock, coordinator at Sonke Gender Justice Network, one of the groups working to engage men.

But men still hold the upper hand in sexual relations, so the “Brothers for Life” campaign aims to convince men to use condoms while also improving their access to treatment.

Currently, women account for three quarters of the HIV tests conducted in South Africa, and two thirds of the anti-retroviral drugs dispensed. What’s more, men tend to seek treatment later than women, when their immune systems are already weakened.

“There is nothing especially made for men. We need to do something to talk to men,” said Mzi Lwana, head of the Men and Aids program at the HIV research unit at Witwatersrand University.

The “Brothers for Life” icon, in the ad’s lower right corner, looks like this:

Which sure looks manly to me. But the most interesting and culturally revealing part is the text, which I’ll close-up on:

“There is a new man in South Africa. A man who takes responsibility for his actions. A man who chooses a single partner over multiple chances with HIV. A man whose self-worth is not determined by the number of women he can have. A man who makes no excuses for unprotected sex, even after drinking. A man who supports his partner and protects his children. A man who respects his woman and never lifts a hand to her. A man who knows that the choices we make today will determine whether we see tomorrow. I am that man. And you are my brother. Yenza kahle — do the right thing.”

This reminds me of a presentation I saw at the 2009 Alternative Sexualities conference at the Center on Halsted; I was on a panel about BDSM communities, but secretly I was most excited about the chance to sit in on the other panels and lectures. One of my favorites was a gent named David Moskowitz from the Center for Disease Control, who told us that a whopping 25% of leathermen surveyed at International Mr. Leather tested HIV-positive, and correlated the risk of unsafe sex with a host of interesting factors such as whether the person in question was dominant, submissive, a switch, etc. (Moskowitz planned to publish his data in an upcoming issue of “Journal of AIDS and Behavior”, but I don’t know whether that happened or not.)

After describing the statistics, he started to talk about possible interventions. The gay leather subculture is very focused on ideals of masculinity; I asked whether he’d considered a “masculinity campaign” around condom usage.

“Yeah, that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?” he said. “Be a man, use a condom …. Right now we’re focusing on recruiting community leaders to talk about safer sex, though. We’ve found allying with such figures to be the most effective strategy.”

I wish I could ask David Moskowitz about this South Africa campaign. Is this really going to work — even a little? Is it possible to influence, to remake, something as deep-rooted as gender conceptions with a publicity campaign? Does it make sense to try and redefine manliness to a purpose? Isn’t that kind of patronizing to men? The two questions I find myself caught between most are, firstly, is it a useful campaign — and secondly, is it a morally good one?

One interesting point that came up in the fracas that resulted from my three masculinity posts (followup coming soon, really! I’ve been busy with a conference) was that many men who are genuinely willing to talk about gender are frustrated and alienated by discussions of masculinity because those discussions are not male-centered. Is the Brothers for Life campaign focused on men’s needs, or is it attempting to redefine masculinity in a way that men will perceive as serving an agenda that doesn’t work for them?

The thing that makes me feel less uneasy about that is that it’s men running the campaign, and so I don’t feel quite as much as if values are being imposed. Additionally, the campaign seems quite concerned about — not just stopping abuses by men — but creating space for men to get testing, counseling, et cetera. I think the idea of having a male-centered clinic is smart, for instance, because I see so very many clinics and testing facilities staffed almost entirely (if not entirely) by women. I suppose one could make the argument that this is “men’s fault” for not stepping up as much as women do, but perhaps this is due less to social irresponsibility than to general male discomfort in relevant spaces.

2009 24 Oct

Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 3: Space for Men

Click here for the previous installment, “Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 2: Men’s Rights”.

* * *

I’m about to assert something that makes me nervous, because I worry that people are going to stick me in the “asshole MRA” box. Don’t get me wrong: I certainly don’t think that women have it better, overall, than men do. But I do wonder whether it might be good for feminists to acknowledge that — although we don’t experience nearly as much privilege as men — there are a lot of advantages women experience that men don’t.

Because women aren’t seen as threatening, we have an easier time doing confrontational things like approaching strangers on the street. Because women aren’t seen as fighters, we stand a lower chance of being mugged than men do. Because women are seen as emotional, we’re given a huge amount of social space to consider and discuss our feelings. I can work with and be affectionate with children far more easily than a man could. I can be explicit and overt about my sexuality without being viewed as a creep.

And there are at least a few recurring complaints about how trying to be masculine can suck. First and foremost: that men don’t feel they’ve been taught to process their emotions, or don’t feel allowed to display them. Another: that they’re perceived as less manly if they don’t achieve success through a career, especially if they aren’t the main breadwinner for their family. A third: that men are expected to be sexually insatiable, or always to be sexually available.

Of course, it’s worth noting that the advantages women experience are almost always the flip side of unfortunate stereotypes. For instance, one might say that women get more social space for emotion because we’re stereotyped as irrational and hysterical. But that doesn’t change the fact that most of us easily grasp that space, while most men don’t. And if we can reject the Oppression Olympics for just one minute and stop thinking about who’s got it worse, it becomes clear that the advantages and drawbacks associated with being both male and female are intertwined. The two systems reinforce, and cannot function without, each other. The gender binary may not hurt everyone equally, but it hurts everyone. As those beautiful “Every Girl / Every Boy” posters say, the most obvious example is: “For every girl who is tired of acting weak when she is strong, there is a boy tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable.”

I do suspect that it may not be psychologically realistic to ask people from our underdog-loving culture to embrace an image of themselves as privileged; my thoughts turn again to the trans man who hated the thought of being a white male. But if we feminists can’t work productively from a stance that acknowledges our social advantages, how can we expect straight/dominant/big-dicked men to do it?

Could feminist acknowledgment of the women’s gender-based advantages help pave the way for more men to acknowledge male privilege? Could feminist acknowledgment of the advantages on both sides of the gender binary help us better grasp what sucks about being a guy?

Am I citing Thomas Millar too much here? Well, at least once, he frustrated me. Amongst the comments on one blog post, I thought he was stating his views about stereotypical guys rather harshly. I suggested that it might be better to seek common ground, or at least to explain things gently; he said he wasn’t interested — “I think we all work with some people where they are and can’t soft-sell our views enough to deal with others.” He added, “If I’m going to alienate someone for saying what I think too bluntly, I’ll pick entitled cis het dudes.”

I won’t pretend I didn’t laugh when I read that — but I worried about it, too. I’ve had an enormous number of experiences trying to discuss feminism/sex/gender with men in which the men tensed, bristled, and closed me out. I don’t think it was always because those guys couldn’t stand the thought of losing their privilege, either. I think a lot of dudes have been led to feel that they have no place in gender discussions — that those discussions will always be about what men are doing wrong, and that no one’s prepared to work with them where they are.

All groups have outsiders. Movements inevitably form themselves around oppositional forces. As someone who’s spent her share of time feeling feminist rage, I’d say that being filled with feminist rage is totally understandable. And seriously, don’t get me wrong: I’m not giving unfeminist guys a free pass. I’m not happy about the fact that so many men are apparently alienated from feminism because us radicals are too confrontational — or too uncomfortably correct — for their fragile masculine egos to handle. (I’m being sarcastic! Mostly.) I’m really not happy about the fact that I’ve got to think about marketing anti-oppression — in a just universe, wouldn’t anti-oppression market itself?

But at the same time, I’m a realist. I know this isn’t a just universe, and I want to use tactics that’ll achieve my goals. Which are: I’d really like to find more men at my side in the sex and gender wars. I’d really like to talk to more guys who don’t see ideas stamped with feminism as an attack — rather, as an opportunity for alliance. Plus, if we’re going to think in terms of cold hard tactics, it’s worth noting that normative men hold most of the power in America. (That’s part of what we’re complaining about, right?) So swelling our ranks with The Oppressive Class means we can ruthlessly use their power for good.

Can we do better at making feminist discourses around gender and sexuality open to normative men, without driving ourselves crazy? How can we make our movement open to, and accepting of, normative men? Put another way, how do we convince normative men to support us?

Maybe we don’t need a lot of normative men in the camp of sex and gender radicals; maybe we’ll be happier without silly Gender Studies 101 questions clotting our discussions. Still, even if we don’t try to “recruit” them, I’d love to see more widespread analysis of masculinity and masculine sexuality amongst normative dudes … if only because getting a sense for their societal boxes might simply make them happier. If only because I think they’ve got their own liberation to strive for.

So at the very least, I’d like to contribute to an America where serious examination of masculinity and male sexuality can flourish.

That’s my final question. How do I do it?

* * *

Click here for the followup post I wrote after this whole series went explodey.

* * *

This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

* * *

2009 20 Oct

Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 2: Men’s Rights

Click here for the first installment, “Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 1: Who Cares?”

* * *

In the 2006 documentary “Boy I Am“, a trans man talks about how one of his mental barriers to transitioning was the fact that after transition, he would be a “white male”. And, he laughs, the “last thing in the world” he wanted to be was a white male!

A year or two ago, I attended a lecture by Jackson Katz, a rather overtly masculine, cis male anti-abuse educator who lectures in colleges around the country. Bullet-headed and aggressive in stance, he said a lot of valuable things — particularly about how men ought to take ownership of problems we traditionally consider “women’s issues”. It’s certainly true that if we want to end male abuse of women, men must participate in the movement. But although Katz discussed some issues of masculinity, I heard little about how we can make things better for men. His proposition of a men’s movement was centered around correcting the things some men are doing wrong. (I attended in the company of my friends Danny, who blogs at Sex, Art & Politics, and Sammael, who started his own BDSM blog this year. Hey guys, got any good memories of Katz?)

Although they’re often watered down, many feminist concepts have gone mainstream. For instance, Americans have some consciousness of traditional feminist critiques about how women’s bodies are represented in the media. Indeed, that consciousness has become so endemic that, in a grandly ironic twist, marketers now capitalize on it to sell beauty products: the nationwide Dove Campaign for Real Beauty attempts to use deconstruction of the media’s representation of women to sell Dove soap. Americans are also quite aware of men as the privileged class — sometimes regarded outright as the oppressors.

But this shift in awareness about gender issues faced by women has not been accompanied by a widespread understanding of gender issues faced by men. And that creates situations like an activist working towards a masculinity movement that talks mainly about how men are hurting women, or a trans man who has trouble with the idea of transitioning partly because he doesn’t want to be a white man — one of the oppressors.

How can awareness of oppressive dynamics make it difficult for men to own their masculinity? Does male privilege ever make life harder for men? When does male privilege blind us to oppression of masculinity? There’s some mainstream awareness of gender issues faced by women; is there any similar awareness of the problems of masculinity?

A good friend of mine first caught my attention by talking about gender. We encountered each other at a BDSM meetup, and when I mentioned that I’d been thinking about the boxes around masculine sexuality, he launched into a rant about oppressive sexual dynamics. He gave me references to complex sexuality blogs and intelligently used words like “heteronormative” and “patriarchy”. But a month or so after we started talking, I mentioned his interest in gender issues … and he gave me a puzzled look. “I’m not really into gender studies,” he said.

He talks about sex, gender and culture all the time — but he also specifically identifies as highly masculine, and felt that to be at odds with identifying as someone who questions masculinity. As Thomas Millar writes: “There’s a huge unstated assumption that to even address the question [of male sexuality], for men, is to mark one’s self as ‘other.’ … cis het men are brought up to fear that their masculinity could ever be called into question. By even opening up a dialog, I think some folks fear that they are conceding that their sexuality is not uncontroversial.”

Men currently experience this problem in a way that women do not. In other words, women don’t risk being seen as unfeminine as easily as men risk being seen as unmasculine; nor do we have quite the same fears about it. In 2008, a group of researchers published a paper called “Precarious Manhood”. Their concluding statement: “Our findings suggest that real men experience their gender as a tenuous status that they may at any time lose and about which they readily experience anxiety and threat.” Earlier in the paper, they wrote that — although “our focus on manhood does not deny the importance of women’s gender-related struggles” — “Women who do not live up to cultural standards of femininity may be punished, rejected, or viewed as ‘unladylike,’ but rarely will their very status as women be questioned in the same way as men’s status often is.” *

When is it to a man’s disadvantage to publicly examine and question masculinity? Surely the mere act of questioning and examining gender does not make a man less masculine; how can we work against the perception that it does?

At the same time, though, this isn’t a “with us or against us” situation: men who don’t choose to identify as non-normative also don’t tend to join the “opposition”. By “opposition” I mean folks like “Men’s Rights Activists” (on the Internet we call them MRAs). MRAs — at least according to my stereotype of them — are conscious of social and legal disadvantages suffered by men, such as the fact that men are at a severe disadvantage in child custody cases; at the same time, they’re blind to male privilege. It’s a deadly combination. My personal favorite MRA quotation ever is, “White men are the most discriminated-against group in the country.” ** Mercifully, MRAs are a fringe group, but they make a big impression.

My “not into gender studies” friend once told me that although he frequently deconstructs problems of masculinity in the privacy of his own mind, he doesn’t like to publicly have those conversations because he doesn’t want to sound like an MRA. He said, “A lot of the time, men who want to think seriously about masculinity won’t talk about it aloud because we really don’t want to be that,” emphasizing “that” with loathing. He later added, “It’s very tricky to discuss masculinity yet avoid simply devolving into male entitlement. That’s the crux of the problem with the ‘Men’s Movement’ assholes — none of them are addressing the underlying problems of masculinity.  They’re just whining about not receiving the privileges their cultural conditioning tells them to expect.”

How do the current “men’s rights movements” discourage men who might, in a different climate, be very interested in discussing masculinity? Assuming men can reclaim the “pro-masculinity movement” from MRAs, do any men feel motivated to do so? Can men occupy the middle ground between MRAs and LGBTQ, feminist, or other leftist discussions of gender — that is, can men find space to discuss masculinity without being aligned with “one side or the other”?

All too frequently in radical sex/gender circles, the theme has been blame. Men in particular are excoriated for failing to adequately support feminism — or criticized for failing to join the fight against oppressive sex and gender norms — but few ideas are offered for how men can be supportive and non-oppressive while remaining overtly masculine, especially if their sexuality is normative (e.g., straight/dominant/big-dicked).

There are fragments: some insight might be drawn from the ways in which many BDSM communities create non-oppressive frameworks within which we have our deliciously oppressive sex. With practice, one can get shockingly good at preserving a heavy dominant/submissive dynamic that still allows both partners to talk about their other needs. Surely that understanding of sexual roles vs. other needs could be adapted to the service of gender identity. Yet so many BDSMers still fall prey to the same old gendered preconceptions.

Don’t get me wrong: of course anyone would deserve plenty of blame if they refused to let go of their entitlement, or chose not to examine the ways their behavior might support an oppressive system. But I think men exist who are willing to do those things, yet feel blocked from relevant discussions because participating creates anxiety about their sexual or gender identity. It strikes me as unreasonable to attack them for that. Choosing to present one’s sexuality and/or gender identity in a normative way is not in itself a sin. It’s not fair to expect people to fit themselves into a box that doesn’t suit them — not even for The All-Important Cause of better understanding sex and gender.

Where can we find ideas for how men can be both supportive and non-oppressive, and overtly masculine? How can we make it to normative men’s advantage to analyze masculine norms? What does it look like to be masculine, but liberated from the strictures of stereotypical masculinity? How can we contribute to a Men’s Movement that encompasses all three bases — being perceived as masculine, acknowledging male privilege, and deconstructing the problems of masculinity?

* * *

* Vandello et al. “Precarious Manhood.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 95, No. 6, 1325 – 1339. 2008.

* Kuster, Elizabeth. Exorcising Your Ex. Fireside, 1996. (I know, it’s hardly the most official of references — but isn’t it a great quotation?)

* * *

Click here for the next installment, “Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 3: Space For Men”.

* * *

This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

* * *

2009 18 Oct

Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 1: Who Cares?

Over the summer, I wrote a 3500-word piece about masculinity. It touched on some themes I’ve messed around with before, most notably in my reviews of the Sex+++ documentaries “Private Dicks: Men Exposed” and “Boy I Am.” I fondly hoped that I might be able to do something “real” with it, but I’ve gotten rather immersed in my work here in Africa — and I’ve been having some trouble keeping up with America, due to irregular Internet access. Today, I managed to catch up with some of my blogroll and saw that Audacia Ray recently posted some thoughts about masculinity, including excellent links to various new frontiers in the masculinity conversation. Looks like the topic is really heating up — finally! I’ve been obsessing about it off and on for years, and it’s exciting to think that people might finally talk to me about it.

So, rather than letting my masculinity piece languish under a rug — since I’ll probably never be able to do anything official with it before the conversation moves on, anyway — I’m just going to serialize it here. (I’d post the whole thing at once, but I don’t want to inflict 3500 words on everyone’s blog reader!)

* * *

Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 1: Who Cares?

Why do I care about masculinity?

I’m rather perverted, but not enormously queer. I present as femme, and — although I’ve been known to tease my sensitive (frequently long-haired) lovers for being “unmasculine” — I fall in love with men. I’m hardly one to go for the “manly man” type, but at heart, I love knowing that I’m fucking a man.

However, because I’m cis and straight, I feel profoundly at a loss when trying to articulate problems of (for lack of a better phrase) “Men’s Empowerment”. The issues don’t feel “native” to me; I’ve intersected with these questions mainly through the lens of lovers and friends. Watching their struggle is demoralizing, but trying to imagine how I can give them feedback is more demoralizing.

A male friend once wrote to me, “I think you personally find expressions of masculinity hot, but you also have no patience with sexism. You’ve caught on that it’s tricky for men to figure out how to deliver both of these things you need, that you don’t have a lot of good direction to give to fellas about it, and that neither does anyone else.”

How can men be supportive and non-oppressive while remaining overtly masculine?

On top of my limited perspective, there’s been an echoing lack of discourse — that is, very little mainstream acknowledgement of the problems of masculinity. The primary factor in that silence is that normative cis men themselves tend to be flatly unwilling to discuss gender/sex issues. Often, their first objection is that the discussion is neither important nor relevant. This is true even within subcultures centered around sexual analysis, like the BDSM world — I once met a cis male BDSMer who said, “Why bother talking about male sexuality? It’s the norm. Fish don’t have a word for water.”

But if masculine sexuality is water and we’re fish, why doesn’t that motivate us to examine it more — not less?

Don’t get me wrong: I agree that America’s sexual conceptions are centered around stereotypical male sexuality, and I agree that this is damaging and problematic. Believe me, I’m furious that it took me many years to reconceive “actual” sex around acts other than good ole penis-in-vagina penetration! But if American stereotypes and ideas of sexuality are male-centered, then surely that makes it more useful for us to be thinking about male sexuality — not less.

And those male-centered ideas of sexuality aren’t centered around all men — just stereotypical men. LGBTQ men are obvious examples whose sexuality falls outside the norm; fortunately for them, they’ve created some spaces to discuss that. But there are lots of other non-normative guys who aren’t gay or queer, yet feel very similar sexual alienation — and because there’s so little discourse about masculinity outside LGBTQ circles, they usually just don’t talk about it.

What does it mean to be a cis het man whose sexuality isn’t normative? Which straight cis guys don’t fit — and hence, feel alienated from — our current overarching sexual stereotypes?

Guys who identify as straight BDSM submissives are one fabulous example of non-normative men who are frequently alienated from mainstream masculine sexuality, but who often don’t have a forum. Men with small penises are a second. There are lots of others. In the words of sex blogger and essayist Thomas Millar: “The common understanding of male sexuality is a stereotype, an ultra-narrow group of desires and activities oriented around PIV [penis-in-vagina], anal intercourse and blowjobs; oriented around cissexual women partners having certain very narrow groups of physical characteristics.”

Still, that doesn’t mean that straight, dominant, big-dicked dudes who love boning thin chicks feel totally okay about the current state of affairs. It just means they tend to have less immediate motivation to question it. They also have less of an eye for spotting gender oppression, because — though they’ve got their own boxes hemming them in — they’re still more privileged than the rest of us, and the nature of privilege is to blind the privileged class to its existence.

A male submissive once told me, “Lots of heteronormative men know something is wrong with the way we think about sex and gender. I can see them struggling with it when we talk. They can’t put their finger on it; they have a hard time engaging it. But I engage it all the time; I have to, because my sexuality opposes it.”

When is it to a man’s advantage to examine and question masculinity and stereotypes of male sexuality? Which men are motivated to do so?

It’s tempting to assert that men whose desires fit neatly (or at least mostly) within the stereotype have it made — after all, their sexuality works within the norm so many of us struggle to escape. But I’ve had this assumption corrected several times, usually by smart “stereotypical” men themselves. At one point, while developing a sexuality workshop, I sent the outline to a bunch of friends. The original draft contained this paragraph: “Our sexual scripts favor a certain stereotype of men and male sexual pleasure, which makes it hard for women to figure out what we really want and what we really enjoy, and also makes it harder for non-stereotypical men to figure that out.” One friend sent that paragraph back, having quietly appended: “… as well as for stereotypical men to discover or explore new desires beyond the stereotypical script.”

When we discuss the limitations around sexuality from a non-normative perspective, how do we exclude normative people who might develop themselves in new directions if they had the chance? What do normative men stand to gain by thinking outside the box about masculinity and sexuality?

* * *

Click here for the next installment, “Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 2: Men’s Rights.”

* * *

This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

* * *

2009 20 Jun

Sex-positive documentary report #10: “Boy I Am”

Since next week I’m going to Africa forever and ever, “Boy I Am” — the June 9th screening at my sex-positive documentary film series — was the last one I’ll be able to attend in person. The film series will continue. It’s going to be coordinated by our amazing Hull-House Education Coordinator Lisa, plus discussion facilitators we recruited from among regular Sex+++ attendees! But I, alas, will be far away being eaten by lions. (Yes. Eaten by lions! … I’m getting a bit loopy from lack of sleep, caused by running around trying to wrap up my life.)

Happily, though, the June 9th screening was a really good one … okay, they’re all really good. But this was really good! There were lots of people in attendance (I’d estimate 30-40), which surprised me — as I said in my last sex-positive documentary report, I was figuring that attendance would generally be lower for the second half of the series. Maybe some people were tempted to come by the presence of filmmaker Sam Feder, who was a great contributor to the discussion! Or maybe I’m just wrong about what films have wide appeal. Or maybe now Sex+++ is getting famous enough that people are just excited about Sex+++, more than about any particular film. Hey, I hoped to start an ongoing salon … it seems like I’ve somewhat succeeded!

Distributed by Women Make Movies, the documentary “Boy I Am” is a fascinating look at the stigma faced by female-to-male transpeople — not just in general, but within specific liberal subcultures one might assume would be trans-friendly, such as lesbian/gay groups or feminist groups.

I’m a BDSM activist, so one of the topics I related to most was the way some forms of radical sexuality have frequently been excluded from gay/lesbian or feminist communities. I’ve read about this before — for instance, the Michigan Womyn’s Festival has in the past famously excluded BDSM activities from its site on the grounds that BDSM is inherently oppressive, etc etc. Only after I learned about the anti-BDSM incidents at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival did I hear about the much higher-profile anti-trans policies; unlike the anti-BDSM policies, the anti-trans policies continue to this day.

I think there’s two issues at stake here, and there were quotations in “Boy I Am” that admirably represented both of those issues. One quotation: “there’s no way to be male without misogyny” … the idea being that identifying as male — or, worse, choosing to identify as male — brings with it an inherent anti-woman bias. I feel like if the woman in question were discussing BDSM, she might say: “There’s no way to exercise power without being oppressive.” Arguments like these are based on a grain of truth — that privilege is terribly easy to both abuse, and forget — and for that reason, they can be compelling in the right company. But they erase the importance of individual differences and desires; and they assume that we can’t learn to outthink our biases, or negotiate our potentially “privileged” and “oppressive” desires in ways that don’t hurt other people.

The other quotation: the “existence [of radical sexualities like trans or BDSM within the lesbian/gay movement] demands a higher level of tolerance than [many L/G activists] are willing to fight for”. The idea being that lesbian/gay people may feel that they are “normal” enough to have a chance at social acceptance — but if they band together with more “extreme” sexualities, they’re worried that they’ll lose their chance. You can see some of this attitude in this Salon article from a couple of years ago, titled “Gay Rights and the Transgendered” by John Aravosis:

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act was first introduced 30 years ago. In all that time, it only protected sexual orientation and never included gender identity. This year, that changed, and gender identity was added to the bill. Coincidentally, this year is also the first time that ENDA actually has a real chance of passing both the House and Senate — but only if gender identity isn’t in the bill. … [Everyone I spoke to about this] felt bad about taking gender identity out of ENDA, everyone supported transgender rights, and everyone told me “pass it anyway.”

Their main argument, which I support: practical politics. Civil rights legislation — hell, all legislation — is a series of compromises. You rarely get everything you want, nor do you get it all at once. Blacks, for example, won the right to vote in 1870. Women didn’t get that same right until 1920. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided a large umbrella of rights based on race, religion, sex and national origin, but failed to mention gays or people with disabilities. People with disabilities were finally given specific rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but gays as a class have still to be granted a single civil right at the federal level. If we waited until society was ready to accept each and every member of the civil rights community before passing any civil rights legislation, we’d have no civil rights laws at all. Someone is always left behind, at least temporarily. It stinks, but it’s the way it’s always worked, and it’s the way you win.

(Thanks for the link to Sex, Art and Politics.)

On the surface, Aravosis makes a reasonable argument. But when I read the rest of the article, I get an uneasy feeling that this has less to do with practical politics … and more to do with the author’s biases. For instance, Aravosis calls bisexuals “only part-time gays”, and his dislike of trans is even more transparent (teehee): “A lot of gays have been scratching their heads for 10 years trying to figure out what they have in common with transsexuals, or at the very least why transgendered people qualify as our siblings rather than our cousins.”

I might consider the idea that civil rights move slowly to be a reasonable argument … but calling bisexuals “part-time gays”, or wondering what gay people have in common with transsexuals, is simply bizarre. It’s obvious what all alternative sexualities and gender identities have in common: the idea that consent matters more than knee-jerk bias; the idea that everyone has sovereignty over our own bodies. Gaining equal treatment for alternative sexuality can’t just be about convincing people that individual acts or specific identities are okay — because worrying about individual acts in themselves is part of what gives people anxiety about alternative sexuality in the first place.

If we say: “Okay, straight sex and gay sex is fine but I don’t support bisexuality,” we’re making the same mistake that the “normals” make when they say: “Straight sex is fine, but I don’t support homosexuality.” This movement cannot be about acts; it must be about the context of those acts. Consent has to be what matters more than appearance. That’s the only coherent philosophy.

Other points brought up by “Boy I Am”:

+ Some women talked about how they think transitioning stems from women’s negative body image. They argued that it’s really hard to feel okay about our bodies growing up; that women always feel uncomfortable in our bodies, and that female-to-male transpeople transition more because they hate being female — less because they want to be male. They were bothered by this; one was angry, and called it “audacity”. She resented female-to-male transpeople for “walking away” from the issues of femininity that she constantly felt compelled to confront herself. It seems clear to me that this is based more on resentment and frustration than on any rational critique of trans in itself. And while I’m sympathetic to women who hate our culture’s misogyny, I think we always need to make sure that we don’t attack/dislike others personally just because we feel shafted by society.

+ Every human body is a modified body: we all eat hormone-modified foods, we take medications, we wear makeup and piercings and tattoos — indeed, we wear clothing! When we allow smaller modifications like those, it seems strange to prevent larger modifications. One might ask, where’s the line? Well, the line … again … is consent. It’s not the acts, it’s not the body changes in themselves — it’s consent. Always.

+ Is there ever a premature time to transition? How young should we allow people to get trans surgery? I don’t think we do kids any favors by preventing them from dressing / appearing as they wish. I think the surgery question for me boils down to this: why is there ever a reason to prevent someone from getting trans surgery, if the person wants it? If that person recognizes the costs and accepts any potential risks, what right does anyone have to stop that person from doing what they want with their body? If we prevent kids from transitioning, then I think we need to be very clear about why we’re doing it. If we believe that people can do whatever consensual things they want with their own bodies, then the only reason it’s different for kids is if we claim that there are different rules about consent for children. And maybe there are different rules about consent for children — but if we believe that, then we need to be clear that we’re talking about those rules when we prevent kids from transitioning … not anti-trans bias.

1500 words this time! And I have to go pack for Africa; this’ll be my last overly-long Sex+++ documentary report. To summarize — “Boy I Am” is a really layered, fascinating movie. I give it five stars, and I’m glad it was my last one … it means I get to leave on a super-up note.

It’s been great, guys, and I encourage you all to come out to the next film — Tuesday June 23rd, “On the Downlow”. It’s about underground Black gay life. Have fun! Rock the rest of this film series for me!

2009 9 Jun

Sex-positive documentary report #9: “The Aggressives”

Cross-posted at

We’re settling into a smaller audience at my sex-positive documentary film series — I think it’s possible that July 28 (which I have mentally dubbed “porn night”) will draw the same kind of standing-room-only audiences we had at some of the earlier screenings, but I’m guessing that we’ll otherwise continue to have smallish audiences (15-30 people). This doesn’t particularly worry me; I somewhat expected it, in fact. The early films I scheduled for the series are both difficult to find information about — few mainstream venues screen documentaries about BDSM! — and quite accessible in tone. That is, early Sex+++ documentaries were more along the lines of introductory or “101”, while the films I’ve scheduled later tend to be about more complicated or esoteric topics.

For instance, “The Aggressives” is about a specific lesbian subculture ….

… and I liked the film a lot! Thanks to Seventh Art Releasing for letting us screen it. And I loved the discussion after the documentary even more — it was very focused, with some eloquent and diverse perspectives. I left grinning ear to ear.

The documentary is about the “Aggressive” subculture in New York — possibly it also exists elsewhere; I don’t know enough about this topic to say — which is composed of lesbians of color. Apparently, Aggressive women focus on creating very butch identities, and have contests/balls where they compete to be the most masculine; these balls feature dress-up themes like “construction worker vs. painter” or “businessman vs. blue collar”. Interestingly and perhaps obviously, this means that many Aggressives work hard to fit themselves into stereotypes of masculinity. Not only do they seek to look “obviously” masculine, but to change other patterns of behavior, like speech and body language; and some do go on male hormones.

Indeed, there was one fascinating interview in which an Aggressive talked about how she sees male hormones as an “edge” in the Aggressive contests, and cited this as temptation to take hormones. It was not apparent to me whether she was as interested in being masculine, as she was in beating other Aggressives at the masculinity game. And maybe it’s worth noting that this particular Aggressive’s femme girlfriend said she wasn’t too excited about the idea of her partner going on hormones — “I still like a woman,” she said.

One description I found for this film on the Internet states that the Aggressives challenge gender stereotypes by acting the way they do. But one question that came up in the discussion group was — do they? If Aggressive identity is focused around being stereotypically masculine, then arguably they’re working more to reinforce our cultural assumptions about gender than to challenge them. There was some footage showing Aggressives doing very “macho”, “dominant” things like rapping misogynistically, or ordering femme lesbians to perform for them. One Aggressive talks about teaching boys to be men and says, “You don’t have to be a man to teach someone how to be one — it’s about being responsible, being the breadwinner.”

So, it does seem as though many Aggressives still fall prey to gendered preconceptions. On the other hand, the film also noted the existence of women who identified as Aggressive … but femme rather than butch! I wish the film had spent more time explaining what exactly it might mean to be a “femme Aggressive”. It seemed as though some Aggressives might switch between roles, but I’m not sure about that.

Speaking of switching puts me in mind of my experiences as a BDSM switch, and takes me to another thought I had during the post-film discussion: there were such obvious dynamics of power between femmes and butches in the Aggressive subculture … it made me wonder what kind of BDSM practices might exist in these relationships, and how those practices might be negotiated. It also seems possible to me that some people in the subculture might be attracted to the ideas of power, strength and dominance so obviously typified in certain Aggressive stances — I wonder if some Aggressives are more attracted to the power dynamics than they are to the lesbian (or, for some, trans) aspect of being Aggressive.

Obviously, this is wild theorizing on my part, and highly biased at that — I am far more exposed to BDSM and BDSM desires than I am to LGBTQ. But I have met multiple people who stated that the BDSM aspects of their sexuality “trump” their straight vs. LGBTQ orientation. My last entry was about the idea of BDSM as an orientation, and Laura Antoniou left a comment that included the statement: As Califia once wrote many years ago, I’d rather be left on a deserted island with a kinky man than a vanilla lesbian; SM trumps gender identity and my otherwise primary orientation to other girls. So, who knows? I’d love to talk to some Aggressives sometime about power dynamics and violence in bed.

This also highlights another question I’ve thought about a lot — how does the available culture shape how we approach alternative sexuality? That is, what happens to someone who has BDSM desires if that person is never exposed to a subculture devoted to BDSM? I see myself as “oriented towards BDSM”, but what would my BDSM practices look like if there weren’t an available subculture showing me certain images of BDSM? If I’d been exposed to the Aggressive subculture and never exposed to the BDSM subculture, would I have been likely to incorporate myself into that? Conversely, is it possible that some of the lesbians who find themselves in the Aggressive subculture are there more because it’s the lesbian community that’s available to them, than because they’re drawn to masculine women or power or … whatever?

Argh, over a thousand words and I’m only halfway through my notes … and I have to run! I feel like I never have time to get out all my thoughts about these films. Oh well. You can buy “The Aggressives” online at the website for Seventh Art Releasing. And I definitely encourage all and sundry to attend the next Sex+++ screening. That’s tonight, Tuesday the 9th, 7 PM as always! The documentary featured will be “Boy I Am”: a look at the experience of three young female-to-male transpeople, and the way they’re treated — not just by society at large — but also by some queer and feminist groups that see female-to-male transitioning as culturally suspect or problematic. Thanks to Women Make Movies for letting us screen it.

“Boy I Am” will actually be the last Sex+++ screening I facilitate because I will soon be taking advantage of a professional opportunity abroad, but the film series will continue in my absence. I’ll post more on that soon — in the meantime, I hope to see you here at Hull-House Museum … very soon!