Posts Tagged ‘privilege’

2010 29 Jan

Sex-positive in southern Africa

Right before I came out here, I was recruited by an online magazine to write about sexuality in Africa and my experience thereof. I wrote some columns, sent them to the magazine … and was told they weren’t quite right. So I sold them to CarnalNation instead! Here’s a roundup of my first four CN pieces; I doubt this is the last time I’ll publish with them, as CN (and editor Chris Hall in particular) is very awesome.

January 7: Rest In Peace, Pitseng Vilakati
I met an incredible, high-profile lesbian activist and wanted to be friends, but soon after she was murdered … and her partner charged with the crime.

January 14: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 1: Abstinence
In which I discuss how my relationship started with my current boyfriend, a Baha’i convert who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage (the pseudonym I chose for him was, therefore, Chastity Boy). I also describe some of my hesitations in promoting abstinence as a good sexual choice, even though it is a legitimately wise one in a place that’s so beset by HIV.

January 21: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 2: Be Faithful
Polygamy makes things difficult by setting norms that encourage lots of multiple concurrent partnerships, which is a spectacular method of spreading HIV. This was the hardest piece to write so far, because it’s so incredibly complicated! Halfway through I realized that my draft consisted of a beginning, an end, and eight incomplete sentences in the middle, at which point I freaked out and begged Chastity Boy for advice. He helped a lot with the cleanup, and I’m pretty happy with the result, although I do wish that I’d made it clearer that — while polygamy is definitely part of the problem, as is the gender gap — a bigger problem from a health perspective is that the ideal of polygamy sets the norm at multiple concurrent sexual relationships even for unmarried people (rather than the safer, though not morally superior, serial monogamy widely practiced in America).

January 28: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 3: Condoms
You’d think that people in a place where up to 40% of the population tests positive would be really careful about condoms, wouldn’t you? Especially when free condoms are widely available and everyone knows that they protect against HIV? You’d be wrong.

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 17 Apr

My KinkForAll NYC presentation: Outreach, media management, privilege, BDSM orientation, more!

Back in March, I attended a sex-positive unconference in New York City called KinkForAll; it was mostly slanted towards BDSM, but there was a lot of generally sex-positive talk as well. (You can read my post-KinkForAll followup thoughts by clicking here!) Part of the deal at KinkForAll was that everyone contributed in some way to the event, many of us by doing 20-minute presentations. I loved the loose, quasi-anarchist conference model. It worked very effectively (and if you’re interested in that kind of thing, I encourage you to read more at the KinkForAll website about how such events are organized).

At KinkForAll New York City (KFANYC), event organizer Maymay felt strongly that he wanted all the available information made further available to the general public, so he recorded all the presentations to be posted on the Internet. I don’t post images of myself, so he just took an audio recording of my quick talk on BDSM outreach strategies. You can download the recording by clicking here.

I had less than 20 minutes, and I didn’t have much time that week to prepare for KFANYC … to my ear, my talk sounds rushed and disorganized. I guess that’s how it goes. Certainly, expect it to be informal when you listen to it!

Now let me give some references and clarify some points:


+ Most importantly, check out my sex-positive documentary film series at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum!

+ Here’s the interview I did with Daniel Bergner, who wrote a “New York Times Magazine” article on female sexual desire as well as The Other Side of Desire, a book profiling four sexual fetishists.

+ I describe Pleasure Salon NYC during the recording, and there’s an interchange with Selina Fire. A month after that presentation, I got a committee together to start a Chicago version of Pleasure Salon, and it was awesome! If you’re in Chicago, come out to the next Chicago Pleasure Salon — they’re on first Tuesdays, 6-10, at Villains (649 S. Clark).

+ On the recording I quickly note that I attended a Chicago Bloggers Meetup, but I don’t mention the coolest thing that came out of that meetup: Arvan Reese, who organizes the thing, was inspired to start a new community blog on Sex / Gender / Body! One of my favorite things about doing this sex-positive outreach activism has been seeing my message inspire other people to go out and do similar projects. This movement is gaining some serious traction, people. The Sex / Gender / Body community blog goes live next month, and I’m psyched.

Followup Thoughts and Clarifications

+ I think I was a bit disingenuous about tactics on getting out a diverse audience — because that’s not something at which I am succeeding very well. That is, I think I’ve definitely succeeded at getting people with a huge range of sexual experience out to the Sex+++ Film Series, though the crowd is still a bit slanted towards the BDSM community (of course, that’s the community I’m most personally involved in, so this makes sense). But I have not succeeded at getting out — say — lower-income people. In other words: I’m doing well at some kinds of inclusiveness and outreach, badly at others.

Maymay wrote a great followup KFANYC post, and in the comments I talked about how I think these events are awesome but I really want to see more efforts to get different kinds of participants in on the mix. The sex-positive movement is overwhelmingly white and middle- to upper-middle-class; how can we make the information we offer accessible to other demographics? After I left my comment on Maymay’s post, there were a bunch of really great comments. My favorite was one from subversivesub:

To me, the solution is neither outreach nor (necessarily) changing one’s project but identifying what the absent demographic groups are already doing, or considering if there’s a good reason why those groups aren’t presently part of your group — and may not want to be. I think the question is not so much “how can we get more people involved” but “how can we act in solidarity with people who may not want to organize/act with us but with whom we share some sort of affinity.”

… to which I responded:

I think that the way we develop our communities is, or at least can be, separate from the way we choose to spread information. I also think that we can expand the audience to which we make our information accessible, without changing our community. Indeed, for me, it’s not really a question of getting more people into our community (though that does frequently seem to be a collateral effect of my approach). It’s more a question of ensuring that more people (a) know our community exists in the first place, (b) are not under false impressions regarding our community, and (c) can easily access the information we have to offer.

Of course KFA is a community-building event as well as an information-spreading event. But I am under the strong impression that it is designed and intended mostly an an information-spreading event. This is certainly how I would promote it if I had time to organize one in Chicago.

I think that the approach you suggest — “How can we act in solidarity with people who may not want to organize/act with us but with whom we share some sort of affinity?” — is not actually very different from the approach I am suggesting, which might be summarized as: “How can we frame the information we’re offering such that it is accessible to people who may not want to organize/act with us but with whom we share some sort of affinity?”

So my answer to this question is: I don’t know, and I’m always open to suggestions and conversations about it. In fact, I’m due to have lunch soon with someone who wants to start a kink group for people of color … hopefully I’ll have time to blog about that when it happens, though the list of topics I want to blog on is already as long as my arm ….

I don’t necessarily want everyone to agree with me about everything regarding sex, although I must admit I think it would be super awesome if everyone agreed there is no “should”. But I do, at the least, want everyone to have access to information that can help form healthy, safe, consensual sexuality. I want everyone to know where they can go for that information, and to feel welcome if they seek it out.

+ Another thing I may have been disingenuous about: my immense privilege. I try to be as aware as I can of the incredible privilege I carry through my life: I’m white, upper-middle-class, well-educated, mostly heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, naturally slender, with live parents … there’s probably others I’m forgetting. The reason I bring this up is that I think privilege was a hugely important factor in my ability to start the Sex+++ Film Series, and I didn’t acknowledge that enough.

For instance, the most obvious factor: I am privileged to have the familial and personal financial support that enables me to work at an extremely flexible part-time job; I would never have been able to do this free series if I didn’t have a huge amount of spare time. The same goes for a lot of my other activism.

But I still think there’s a lot that everyone can do, even if they don’t have a ton of time or resources! Support local sex-positive events and groups. Write letters to the editor opposing sex-negative press coverage. Try to be frank, open and tolerant about all forms of consensual sexuality in your everyday life — for instance, don’t insult furries at the local BDSM meetup. Outreach and activism aren’t just the domain of dedicated activists: they’re attitudes; they include small habits everyone can get into, small actions anyone can take.

+ Lastly: I stand by my comments on “the orientation model” of sexuality. I still think that our biggest message should not be, “I can’t help my sexuality!” but should rather be, “Whether or not my sexuality is ‘built in’ or a choice, I have the right to do whatever I want with my body and with other consenting adults!”

But we probably shouldn’t entirely abandon the orientation model, because it’s got a lot of legal and cultural power. For instance, check out this recent British Columbia case that could determine whether BDSM becomes a legally protected sexual orientation … i.e., whether it becomes illegal in British Columbia to discriminate against people based on their BDSM choices. My favorite part of that article is the end, which quotes sexologist Charles Moser as he lays out a very clear, eloquent case for BDSM as a sexual orientation.

I’m unwilling to outright reject a powerful potential tool for social acceptance. So on that level, I think it’s cool to talk about BDSM (and all types of alternative sexuality) as an orientation. I just also think that a good priority for the sex-positive movement would be shifting the discourse so that it’s less about whether or not we choose our sexuality, and more about the fact that we have the right to make whatever sexual choices we want.