Friday, June 22, 2012

Dear Stranger: More Nuance less Sensationalism

This morning when I opened the Stranger's website I was initially delighted to see they had a pull out feature specifically highlighting queer voices on the issue of marriageI got a tingly hopeful feeling in my belly. I read through them in the order listed. I felt increasingly disappointed with each one (that's a bit of an exaggeration there were a few I liked). I definitely do grok the value of folks sharing their stories and experiences surrounding marriage. But man did I find this series lacking and problematic.

I was disappointed that the Stranger's marriage articles failed to mention legal benefits in any significant way. Marriage benefits were mentioned briefly in a few of the articles but with very little detail or critique and more as a gimmicks or features. There was no reference to the fact that the reason this step toward marriage equality (and yes same sex marriage is only one step in a long journey) is important might be because our government specifically offers legal benefits to certain types of family structures (straight, cisgendered, monogamous) and excludes others with divergent familial configurations (gay, lesbian, genderqueer, non-monogamous, poly). At best in my mind marriage is the ultimate validation of chosen family. And I think everyone deserves to choose who they call family (and receive equal fucking benefits!).

I find nothing inherently romantic about marriage. I see marriage (and really any sort of commitment stated formally or otherwise) as a container for romance and companionship. It sets the stage for love & companionship to happen. It is scaffolding for repeated and sustainable feelings and acts of love and care. Marriage is not love. Just as a stage is not a play. Historically love and marriage were combined in cultural narratives (fairytales) to sugarcoat the financial, status-driven approach to marriage which was the norm in so many cultures worldwide.
The conflation of love and marriage is old and broken. It uses the individually defined (and socially undefined) mantle of "love" to mask the very real legal and societal benefits being married affords certain citizens.

In a addition to the scant mention actual marriage benefits, I also found this series awash in an overabundance of party/drinking/drug culture. The first three articles listed in the pull out directly describe, and even encourage drinking specifically. I'm not opposed to drinking. But it's not something I want to fly up immediately in the minds of straight folks (and yes TONS of straight folks read the Stranger) when they hear the word "queer". I'm not saying that the Stranger is consciously contributing to this misconception of LGBTQ folks, but seriously, fronting this series with boozy articles is not helping.

Two activities described in these boozy articles are particularly out of line with what I'd consider to be ethical/consensual behavior. In one article there is a lack of communication about the author's intent for inviting "everyone we found attractive" to a party that included donut eating; an activity which the author clearly alludes to as sexually arousing. This is using and objectifying folks without their consent or knowledge. Which is pretty fucking shitty. In another article the author describes being flanked and consequently ogled and felt up by a heterosexual couple. Yes non monogamous couples do this. It's rude and even looked down upon in most poly communities (srsly just google the term unicorn hunters).

The article that turned my stomach the most portrayed folks in open relationships so stereotypically I had to put in eyedrops after reading it. Oh the onslaught of eye rolls it inspired. Publicizing partying/orgies as poly culture is old, needlessly sensational news. The article describes not one but two women in open marriages as "very sexual". Folks in open relationships are represented in these articles as doing nothing more than fucking (or wanting to fuck) more than one partner. Now, I have nothing against promiscuity (& I use this term in sex-positively to mean fucking lots of people), far from it in fact. I think it's super that folks with high sex drives, diverse appetites and the capacity to fuck many and often can peruse their desires, but honestly that's just not me! And it's not most of the poly folks I know and love in my community. There are many motivations for having an open/poly relationship. Sex is one among those many. And quite frankly, I don't want folks to think "orgy" or to think I'm always on the prowl when I tell them I'm poly.

Whenever I come out to a friend as polyamorous I have to work against the sensationalized images portrayed in articles like these. I have to make space to give a small lecture about communication, dates, commitment, balance etc.... I then invite what I hope to be a continuous Q&A about poly ("If you have questions about my relationships you are welcome to ask now or at any time!"). I keep this lecture as dry, sexless, and logistical as possible. When people hear words like "polyamory" and "open relationship" they almost always think about polyfidelity (having sex with multiple people which the articles portray fantastically). While this is part how I run of my romantic relationships it is not the most important and especially not what I want to be the most visible aspect of my relationships. I consider my sex life more private than my romantic life. Which is why I find myself resenting it when folks have (or rather think they have) a representative idea of what my sex life looks like before I've even had a chance to talk about what my relationships actually look like. When I tell you I'm polyamorous it does not mean I am telling you about my wild, wasted sexcapades (trust me, you'll know when I'm telling you about those!) I am telling you about my relationships.

PS: This conversation about polygamous marriage fails to address any concerns or wishes polyamorous/non-monogamous folks actually have about wanting to mary multiple people. (link suggestions?)

PPS: Yes, for folks wondering, I am aware that these articles are meant to show how fucked up "traditional" marriage already is. But is that (backward) approach to supporting same-sex marriage REALLY productive? It's both cynical and childish in a "yeah but your shit's fucked up too" kinda way. This is not dialogue or effective critique of "traditional" marriage. It's sensationalism inviting the judgement of the readers.

Friday, June 8, 2012

An Open Letter to Anti-Porn and Anti-Kink Feminists/Activists

I attended a take back the night event last night at SCCC hoping for a re-imagining of how to make streets safer for everyone. How to make them freer of violence both physical and otherwise. I was nervous coming in. I have lingering issues with institutions of higher learning (as a first gen college attendee & someone who has been asked to leave a college program). I got lost in the building that had told me in authoritative white letters at the entrance that said "only students beyond this point". I had the harrowing feeling I used to have in college. I felt afraid someone would point me out as a nonbelonger and that I would be 86ed.

Eventually I stopped being lost & found the room. Inside there were two friends who both gave me much needed hugs. This helped immensely. The room itself felt both jovial and anxious. There were folks wearing stickers that said "If you can't imagine a world without porn.... then you're fucked" (as if fucked is the worst thing you can be).

I was heartened by the first few announcements which included a welcome and a support person from the counseling office letting folks know that they were available if anyone became distressed or got triggered. The use of the word "trigger" gave me good feelings

The first speaker to come up and begin talking in earnest about the night’s intents and activities began to talk about pornography as an incarnation of misogyny and violence against women. In an effort to construct an argument she listed several types of penetration as well as money shots as evidence of exploitation. She also told the story of another Take Back the Night event
where dissenting bystanders were brought to a local porn shop which had a prominent display of “torture porn”. She spoke with what I interpreted as disgust about the bruises and other evidence of pain play that was on display.That was the moment I felt most acutely that I should leave.

I began to feel that the writing I had brought to share (which was specifically about generating consent culture between everyone) where not appropriate for this event. I would not have felt comfortable or supported sharing my stories about being assaulted by women. In that moment I felt as if the space was specifically focused to discuss herterosexual male-to-female violence. I felt my preferences and wants being erased & pathologized. I felt encouraged to censor myself rather than extend compassionate/considerate consentful communication about needs/wants and boundaries. I felt very clearly that I was being asked to impose on myself an oppressive restriction over my own wants/preferences. Because well...

I like simulated exploitation. I like bruises. These are (some of) my preferences. They are not disgusting (as some find them to be). The denial of my wants/preferences is what is.

Porn does not directly cause cultural misogyny &/or violence against women. The vast majority of what comes out if the industry certainly subscribes to and profits greatly from the cultures of violence and misogyny but it didn't invent it nor doesn't hold the whole of these destructive forces in its realm. Messages about violence and misogyny and anti-consent start way before a kid sees their first porno.

Channelling rage against porn (and kink) in this way is not useful. It will have little/no effect on a hugely successful industry, but even more than that: it stomps all over the agency of any woman or otherwise non-privileged person (folks of color and trans folks) participating in sex work or kink. I could not stand for/with the way the speaker erased the agency of (female) sex-workers (film stars) and kinky folks and even pathologized them exclusively as victims. This is why I chose to leave the room. Women, hell, people in general, don’t need to be saved from their sexual choices and preferences.

I understand the caring impetus behind wanting to divest violence from sex. It has been a point of dissonance I am still struggling to resolve. But I want to do more than just critique what happened last night. I want to at least offer an explanation and entry point for folks who are unfamiliar with kink and sex- & sexworker-positive culture.

I'd like to propose a new language for fucking. Let’s talk about engaging in sexual activity in terms of "lead" and "follow" (you can substitute the words “give” & “receive/take”). I hope that by using this language I can draw a parallel between the experiences of folks who prefer vanilla/nonkinky sex and those who enjoy to kinky sex.

A feature common to kinky sex is the (often vilified) use of the roles of dom/sub
or top/bottom. A good way for folks who prefer vanilla sex to conceptualize these roles would be for them to think first about their own sexual activities or fantasies. In those scenarios who leads and who follows?

Even in the least kinky of intimate activities shared between more than one person someone leads & someone else consents to follow. To say that this lead/follow power dynamic is inherently misogynist or sexist (even if they aftermath such as bruises cuts and scars are disturbing to you personally) denies the person in the role of follower any ability to consent. It can also pigeonhole them as powerless victims. It also denies the incredible care, energy, and responsibility it takes to lead/top/dom another person through an intensely vulnerable experience.

The position of follow can and often is rife with power and agency. The role of lead, however extreme it may look, can and often is full of awareness and a beautiful sense of collaboration and athletic-style encouragement. When a person takes on a role of less/more power within the boundaries of sex/play it does not mean they are tied to that role of power in any other way. Healthy BSDM requires an high level of awareness surrounding power dynamics, it does not always but certainly can actually contribute to better and more regular practices of consent.

Part of the fun of sex is the process of working with our words and bodies to navigate the tension between whether you/your partner(s) will follow their/your lead. Often in a kinky context an important facet of the play/sex is that folks are pushing the limits of how far they can go in the roles of lead and follow.Think of this as them being serious athletes seeking to push their limits

Yes there is a risk and sometimes a simulation of risk but it is not uncommon at all for humans to engage in situations of risk or simulated risk to push themselves to new level or even just for the rush of it (rollar coasters come to mind). There have even been studies that demonstrate sexual and romantic arousal to be more likely in situations of heightened danger or risk.

Like endurance-based athleticism, kink is not for everyone for reasons both physiological related to personal and preference.

Regardless of how far a person wants/doesn’t want to push/be pushed in their sex there will always be a tension between the position of lead and follow-- between the objectifier and the objectified, between Dom & sub or top and bottom. The decision of how to approach that tensions in a way that would be most pleasurable and least damaging is a decision best left to the individual and those with whom they share their sex lives. To mandate a level of “safe” or “nonviolent” sex without leaving space for that variances of sexual tension would sanitize and sedate so many sex lives. We can’t get rid of objectification and the lead/follow roles it involves (without drugs/surgery). It’s the support structure of sex itself. Sex is the agreement to enter into the lead or follow position of drawn out, intimate objectification. You either lead with your objectification or follow in being objectified by the leader. This process of objectification is not dirty. It is what human animals do.