Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sex Clubs: A History Lesson

I love stumbling across alternative-sexuality history lessons. I love it because we're absent from most history accounts, due both to censorship and to our predecessors' desire for their own privacy. And then sexually liberated people and conservative reactionaries end up with the same misguided belief that rampant, shameless sexuality is something Westerners invented in the 1960's.

So I highly recommend Tony Perrottet's recent article for, "Hellfire Holidays," about the sex clubs of 18th-century Britain. As Perrottet reports, "Sadly, during the prudish Victorian era, most references to these naughty clubs were scotched from the historical record. Horrified relatives burned embarrassing documents and club regalia. But their subversive antics survived in pornographic novels, travel guides to risqué tourist sites, and, of course, popular memory."

When most people first fall into an alternate-sex community, it does feel exotic and revolutionary. But seriously, the novelty and "naughtiness" wear off after a couple years. Despite getting off on exoticism, and despite mainstream shock, we the currently living haven't invented anything new. We have antecedents' example to follow and adapt; we simply have to study history that didn't make it to our textbooks.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Advice Column and the Prostitute

First, thank you to LaPrincipessa for a great post on the gender double-standard in adultery. I say thank you both because LaPrincipessa makes good points, and because she alerted me to the news that Ashley Dupre, one of the prostitutes involved in the Eliot Spitzer scandal, now has her own dating advice column with the New York Post. I realize that the New York Post has the same owner as Fox News, and mostly offers the same grossly oversimplified right-wing propraganda and celebrity gossip, but there's an idea with serious potential. The first step toward empowering a stigmatized group - such as sex-workers - is allowing individuals to tell their own stories to a wide audience. Objectively, Ashley Dupre has a lot of experience with sex, and likely a different perspective from my own, and which makes me curious what she has to say. Also, for everyone protesting that Ashley Dupre is a shameful whore, cover pages like:
continue to sell newspapers.

But then, the column itself disappoints me. Because Ashley Dupre has herself an attentive audience that she could enlighten on the realities of sex work and relationships, and so far all she's doing with it is repeating the same clichés we hear everywhere else. I don't find any of it explicitly offensive - which is more than I can say for more-mainstream Dear Abby or Ask Amy columns making the blogosphere rounds, or most of the New York Post. Ashley Dupre just prints (all heteronormative people's) meaninglessly broad questions (i.e. "Are there telltale signs a man isn't happy in his marriage?") and then answers with brief, cliché generalizations.

The one with which I personally would diverge is "Q: My boyfriend wants to know how many men I've slept with. Do I give an honest answer? A: You don't give him an answer at all. It's really none of his business (and vice versa)... Some things are better left unsaid." It's a perfectly ethical answer, but I'm curious why the advice-seeker's boyfriend wants to know. If he's prone to slut-shaming or uncontrollable jealousy, that should be relevant to whether the advice-seeker wants to date him. Personally, I don't care about anyone's tally, but hearing stories about my partners' exes helps me understand the person my partner is now. I don't demand 100% disclosure of everyone they ever touched before meeting me, because they deserve privacy and because some of those stories aren't as important or as interesting as others. But they're usually good stories. I also understand that most people have higher sexual jealousy than I do, in which case Dupre's advice is respectable. But it irks me that she writes as if all advice-seekers and all of their significant others will reach the same conclusions.

I suspect the culprit may be the New York Post, because Ashley Dupre does appear much more aware of human variation in her appearance on The View (which I also wouldn't normally cite for its affirmation of non-conformity). As she says in the clip below, "...And then there's the guy that screws around just because he can screw around. Most of the time, these are the men that should not be married. Or they should be in a relationship with someone who shares the same moral beliefs as them and be swingers...."

It's refreshing to see someone on a mainstream network talk-show talking so openly and shamelessly about sex work, and "I refuse to let what I did define me." I'm just crossing my fingers that her individual perspective may eventually shine through somewhere in her advice column, instead of merely repeating the New York Post's trite lowest-common-denominator drivel.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Experiments in Neurochemistry

Since the last time I wrote about my premenstrual dysphoric disorder, I've had a couple particularly bad episodes of it, and I finally took all my friends' advice and went to a psychiatrist. Then, for the past month, I've been pondering what took me so many years. Part of it, I'm sure, was a general distrust of doctors and pharmaceuticals - anyone who stands to earn money by convincing me that my brain is "wrong" and that they can "fix" me. But some of my resistance has also been existential. As horrifically unpleasant as PMDD feels, it remains an intense passion. If my strongest feelings can be erased by taking pills, then what am I anyway? What does that mean for the rest of my emotions and for my personality? Is my entire consciousness mere hormone levels and neurochemistry?

Luckily, my psychiatrist earned my trust after asking if I've ever experienced panic attacks. I answered that I think I've had a couple in my life, but they're not a regular problem; I think the last one was a couple weeks before my wedding. She laughed and said, "That's normal; that's just part of being a bride." She didn't pretend that she could make me rational and happy all the time, or even that I should be rational and happy all the time. So I like her.

So for the last week, I've been exploring the sensation of being on a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. And it's been a pretty good week: All the little things that traumatize me on PMDD, or annoy me normally, have been mildly funny. On the first full day, I also had an intense dizzy spell that lasted almost two hours. But even then, I appreciated that I could explain to my co-workers, "I feel dizzy"; dizziness at the office doesn't have the stigma that crying does.

I've since lowered the dose, so the dizziness has been mild, but I'm still not entirely "myself." The SSRI-taking version of me is noticeably slower and more forgetful; my mind occasionally goes blank, even mid-sentence as I'm talking. But then, I also got through an entire month without dysphoria. The night that I would usually spend in the fetal position sobbing, instead I had dinner and great conversation with friends.

If "feeling like myself" means feeling like the 3/4 of time that I'm not premenstrual, then the SSRI is still much closer to "feeling like myself" than PMDD. I've always identified a bit with the absent-minded professor stereotype. So if I miss bits of conversation around me, is that the SSRI, or is that my natural daydreaming? I'll never know for sure.

Without the SSRI, if clients yell at me, how much of my distress is rational and how much is the PMDD? I'll never know for sure.

I'll be experimenting with a different SSRI next month to see if another version makes me less light-headed, but I'm entirely sold. Even if I still can't answer the questions of what the drugs mean for my "true" self. My "true" self is even more centered in my physical body than I thought.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Poly Perspective on Celebrity Scandal

I was at my boring desk job today, and my co-workers were talking about the Tiger Woods scandal in my earshot. They know a lot more than I do about the Tiger Woods scandal, because I haven't read a single article past the headline - because I really don't care. I don't play or watch golf, and most athlete/Hollywood celebrity scandals are tediously interchangeable, and Tiger Woods and I just don't have much influence over each other's lives. I don't feel a need to start caring about him now; if you're reading this outside of the U.S. and don't know what I'm talking about, Google him.

But one of my co-worker's more incredulous comments made me cringe with silent frustration: "And he's married to a supermodel!! And he cheated on her anyway!"

Okay, so here's the thing about sex with more than one person: Sometimes it really has nothing whatsoever to do with the original partner. I'll admit, of course, sometimes it does. Sometimes people first fall out of love with their "primary" significant other for any number of examples of incompatibility, and they stick around a doomed relationship either because they're too afraid to be alone until they find the next partner, or because they're too afraid to hurt the other person's feelings (which invariably backfires), or because of habit. Then they lie to their partners or spite them, which is where the real betrayal happens. I take it (from osmosis) that Tiger Woods lied to a lot of women, which makes him a liar. The women who trusted him have every right to feel outrage toward a liar, and I wouldn't begrudge any self-righteous co-worker banter over that.

But, writing as an honest adulteress, sometimes people just have sex with more than one person because they're attracted to more than one person - not because there's anything at all wrong in the original relationship. No one would seriously argue that having the Beatles or show-tunes on my iPod means that I must not actually love 1990's alternative music after all. And most people concede that it is possible to love more than one parent, more than one child, or more than one friend. I have sex with my boyfriend because I enjoy sex with my boyfriend, not because I don't enjoy sex with my husband. I quite emphatically enjoy sex with both of them, and I also enjoy that their bodies and specific preferences are different, because I enjoy variety. We're not insulting each other by rejecting monogamy. I like when my my partners are dating smart hotties; egotistically I like that they have good taste in women.

Yes, of course, cheating is different. But how many cheaters realize that honest non-monogamy exists as an alternative? I cheated on an ex a few times before I had ever heard of polyamory, because I didn't know then how else to handle being in love with two people. Would Tiger Woods have been more honest with the women in his life if he had had less justification to assume they'd react so very badly? Maybe and maybe not, but I wouldn't know; we're not that close.

Furthermore, there's really no correlation between supermodels and better marriages. Physical beauty is useful for initially attracting people, but it doesn't do much for sustaining meaningful relationships. Physical beauty doesn't even necessarily correlate with better sex; beauty doesn't signify sexual confidence, or experience, or creativity, or generosity, or compatible kinks, or stamina, or empathy, or any number of qualities that matter more to sexual satisfaction than looking pretty in photographs does.

I appreciate jaw-droppingly-hot TV stars like Gale Harold and Alyson Hannigan as much as the next person, but I still don't imagine that they're sexy enough to make monogamy sound tempting to me.

So... how is a modeling career in any way relevant?

I'm not sure, but I do know how often the banter of monogamous people feels alienating to me.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Hitchcock and the Tramp

Recently, I finally got to see Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 film noir classic Notorious. And it was delightfully refreshing - especially in light of the inordinate amount of press going to the Twilight series these days, and its message that True Love (TM) must be chaste, obsessive, and monogamous, and that True Love (TM) mostly comes to good girls who wait.

Back in 1946, Alfred Hitchcock made his movie about the great romance of, in the parlance of the times, a "loose woman." As Notorious opens, our heroine Alicia Huberman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is freely enjoying the drinking and casual-sex parts of life. Into her life walks Mr. Devlin, played by Cary Grant, who talks her into a job with the U.S. government spying on Nazi war criminals. Alicia and Devlin quickly fall into a love affair, even as bad-girl Alicia smirks, "Every time you look at me I can see it running over the spokes: ...Once a tramp, always a tramp," and later, "You're sore because you've fallen for a drunk." Censorship rules at the time prohibited nudity or kissing more than three seconds on film; Hitchcock followed only the letter of those laws with the intimately sexy sequence starting at 3:30 below.

Not giving away much, as it becomes reasonably predictable, Alicia also starts having sex with the Nazi that Devlin has hired her to spy on. Which she discloses to her lover right after giving him other espionage-related intelligence: "Just a minor item but you may want it for the record. You can add Sebastian's name to my list of playmates." His initial reaction is predictably hurt and hurtful: "It wouldn't have been pretty if I had believed in you." But for all the accusations that Alicia is a loose woman, a tramp, an alcoholic, or a whore, her sexual charms very effectively earn the Nazis' trust, which is what makes her a competent spy. She knows exactly who she is, and why she does what she does; and what she does involves putting herself in great physical danger for the cause of fighting fascism. Without her "loose" sexual confidence, she wouldn't be as capable of a heroine.

This is not a film about polyamory, because obviously there is no honesty in reporting one's lover's activities to his enemy's government. But it is a film that exposes the falsehood that romantic love - with all the glory of Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant - must necessitate sexual exclusivity. The "tramp" risking her life for patriotism blends the binary between "bad girl" and "good girl." And in the end, love proves more important (and more interesting) than sexual jealousy.

Especially with all the New Moon billboards I have to pass on a daily basis, I am grateful to Alfred Hitchcock for a thriller glorifying the romance and the accomplishments of a slut.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Lolita Wolf in the New York Times

Check out her beautiful photo essay, "The Kinky Lover":

Politics and Pretty Boys Without Shirts

So the Playgirl shots of Levi Johnston were released yesterday. I have to admit that I, like Jolie du Pre, have really been looking forward to them. ...Except, the couple pictures that have been released without charge aren't too exciting.

Surely relevantly, I'm sick to death of hearing about his ex-future-mother-in-law, whom I like to refer to either as "Bible Spice" or "Caribou Barbie." (I wish I could take credit for coming up with either.) For weeks, my Google Reader has been flooded with articles exposing the arch-conservative's hypocrisy, lies, and incompetence - sometimes with good satire. And honestly, I can't pay attention anymore. In her ideology, liberals are the direct tools of Satan, so the frothing wrath of liberals only helps her. All I want is for her to fade back into obscurity where she belongs, and I already regret this post's collaboration in keeping her famous.

But if I can't make her disappear, I can certainly enjoy a hot guy with his shirt off. Especially a hot guy who promotes safer sex on TV (however inarticulately). After Johnston came to fame on the heels of a politician who stands by abstinence-only policies that didn't even work for her own household and who charged rape victims for their own evidence, his juxtaposed sex-positivism is refreshing.

Watch CBS Videos Online

But after all that anticipation and political debate, the pictures are pretty bland. Yes, he's a very pretty boy. But at least in the teaser shots, he looks just like every other shirtless pretty teenage boy on television. For all the spite against Caribou Barbie and the hypocritical sex-negativity she stands for, I somehow expected the actual photographs of her nemesis to be more... interesting. (If anyone who has paid $19.95 to Playgirl for the rest of the shots found any more compelling, please do tell!)

Furthermore, I also find it important to note the double standard in Levi Johnston's current opportunities vs. Bristol Palin's. They participated in the exact same act at the same time together: Now he gets the glamorous contracts and Fleshbot Award, and she gets all the responsibility of raising a baby. Although Johnston has also claimed on TV that he would love to spend more time with his baby. (Who knows?) And I'm sure the media would love to buy a comparable Bristol-Palin-porn shoot. (Although she'd be subject to intense slut-shaming, if the reaction to Meghan McCain in pajamas is any indication.)

I appreciate Levi Johnston's calls for the comprehensive sex ed that he didn't get, but he's still an inarticulate teenager. ...But he does look pretty without a shirt.

Enjoy the pretty boy without a shirt.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Semantics of BDSM vs. Kink

I recently had the pleasure of dinner with someone who had traveled from another state to give a presentation at my local dungeon. Over dinner, we discussed his leadership work with his local Next Generation group. (For those who don't know, "The Next Generation" or "TNG" is a common name for BDSM-centered social groups for younger adults, usually age 18-35. There is no central TNG leadership as far as I'm aware, but there are TNG's in many cities throughout the U.S.) One of the changes he's been trying to make in his local TNG, he explained, was semantic. Instead of using the acronym "BDSM," (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism), he refers to the groups' members exclusively as "kinky." Instead of "munches," they have "meet and greets."

"What's the difference?" asked everyone at our dinner table after the dungeon presentation.

"Oh, there's no difference at all, really. But for some reason, it seems to scare people less. When I tell people that I'm into BDSM, I get all the scared looks. But if I say I'm a little kinky, people are more likely to smirk or find it hot. It's more 'naughty' and less scary. Even if I'm doing the exact same things."

Which launched a conversation on whether or not we should be obligated to worry about scaring people outside the community. If we really cared what mainstream society thought of us, we probably wouldn't have met in our local dungeon in the first place. Regardless of vocabulary, openly embracing alternative sexuality requires a certain amount of ability to ignore judgment of others.

"But," he argued, "it's really not for vanilla people. I mean, greater acceptance is a perk, but I think de-mystifying is more important to people who are kinky but are still scared to admit it. If changing the semantics makes them feel more comfortable about joining us, then that's great."

Which brings back my clear memories of worrying that kinky desire made me a bad feminist, and/or crazy, and/or unlovable, and how those worries decimated my self-esteem in college. I can't say now if I might have read and absorbed SM 101 earlier if it had been called "Kink 101." (To maintain my honest disclosures, I still haven't read SM 101.) But I can't begrudge anything that might help nervous, newbie kinksters feel less freakish than I did.

At the same time, though, I fought hard for my acceptance of BDSM and for the courage to start going to munches. So I have an instinctual resentment to any implication that I ought to be more considerate of people who still think my lifestyle is scary. I know that it isn't. Most of my first munch revolved around a game of Scrabble. The first time I saw other people having sex in front of me (at my first BDSM party), I was eating brownies on the other side of the room, and the couple people I knew there were eating brownies with me and quoting Monty Python. I keep a public blog about my scary, scary sexuality now, and yet (alas) I still spend more hours per week in my fluorescent-lit office cubicle with bad coffee than I do actually having kinky sex. I don't feel even a little bit scary, and caring what other people think is exhausting.

So I'm unlikely to entirely drop the words "BDSM" or "munch" from my vocabulary. I use "kink" and "meet and greet" interchangeably with them, because they mean the same thing. But I can't help but wonder whether or not changing such semantics really would work for changing minds, or how one would even find closeted kinksters to ask them.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Sexy Violence in the Pentecostal Hell House

For two primary reasons, I generally avoid writing about the American Moral-Majority-type Evangelical Christian movement. First, I think they already get overwhelmingly more attention than they deserve, and second, I don't want to humor the part of their binary-based ideology that classifies every person as either (a) Christian or (b) sexually liberal, and defines both camps in part by their mutual enmity. But I'm going to break my own boycott for a moment, because I was that enthralled by This American Life's recently repeated episode featuring Hell House.

As Ira Glass explains about ten minutes into the episode:
In 1999, documentary filmmaker George Ratliff read about a church in Cedar Hill, Texas, which is a suburb of Dallas, that was staging a re-creation of the Columbine Massacre. That church, Trinity Church, was putting on a haunted house, called Hell House. They'd been doing it every year for years, each Halloween. The Columbine scene was just one scene of about a dozen. There was also an abortion scene, there was a scene where a gay man dies of AIDS, and a scene where a mom meets a man on the internet and then deserts her family for that man... And the point is: Devils are around us, trying to trip us up, every day. Sin is real; the devil's real; so you better get right with God.
Which I was ready to dismiss as more generic conservative preaching - until I heard the actual sound-clip of teenage actors reenacting the death of Cassie Bernall (renamed "Carrie"). George Ratliff narrates the extreme violence onstage, including real handguns and props, and then we hear hysterical screaming and sobbing teenage voices: "Do you believe in God? Yes! I said do you believe in God? Yes, I believe in God!" and a gunshot. This was recorded in October 1999, only six months after the actual shooting. And despite my lifetime of secular liberalism, the sound-clip spooks me exactly as much as it's supposed to.

It unnerves me because, as intended, the impassioned shrieks make me momentarily forget my rational arguments about there being more than two potential lifestyles in all of human possibility. The violence shocks. It's terrifying, and thereby riveting theater. Staged violence has been holding audience attention at least since Oedipus killed his own father and then gouged out his own eyes, more than four hundred years before Jesus was born.

But fear makes an ironic tool for promoting chastity, because fear is sexy. That's how it grabs such rapt attention in the first place. Fear and good sex both defy reasonable arguments; they both tap us into powerfully primal, impulsive forces. Personally, few things snap me into a feeling horny as instantaneously as a lover's hand firmly on my throat. Fear forces me to focus all of my attention, and to give up the illusion that I can control everything. It's sexy as hell.

I can only imagine that, if I believed that everyone without shame of their sexuality went to hell, hell would be even sexier.

Which George Ratliff notices while watching the 2000 Hell House auditions:
The girls all want to be the suicide girl or the abortion girl, because those are the roles where you get to scream and cry and emote the most... Nearly everybody wants to play a sinner. Nobody wants to play a saint... Maybe it's just more fun to be evil onstage than good. Maybe playing a church-going, God-fearing Christian is just not that interesting if you are a church-going, God-fearing Christian. The organizers usually have to go out and recruit some hapless kids to play the good Christian roles...

If you ask the teenagers straight up if they have fun pretending to shoot their classmates or do drugs at a rave, they're all good Christian kids and know better than to admit that they enjoyed themselves... But Hell House is the biggest event of the year for Trinity Church. After three weeks of performances... the kids all get dressed up to the nines for an event that is the equivalent of prom night for them. They call it the Hell House Oscars.
He then plays a clip of Pentecostal teenager Liz Simmons accepting a "Suicide Award" for her portrayal of a character who goes to a rave, "sips her spiked drink, freaks out, gets gang-raped, and ends up killing herself, after admitting that her dad had molested her as a child."

It's too easy to point out all the levels of absurdity and offense of the premise, from the explicit blaming-the-rape-victim to the implication that just listening to non-Christian music will kill you. What's more interesting about Liz Simmons's acceptance speech is her Texan-accented cheeriness:
Well, I couldn't have done it without my rapers, so thank you Brent and David. And I just want to say it was really an honor to do this part. At first I was real uncomfortable with it, you know, when I heard that I was going to have to raped, and I was like, okay, what's that gonna be like, but it ended up being a lot of fun, and- [Laughter.] Okay, wait, I didn't say that right. No, I just really got to, got to meet a lot of people that I didn't know, and I had a- [Laughter.] Okay, this is only getting worse.
And then it would be too easy to point out that Liz Simmons didn't learn anything at all about drugs, or suicide, or rape, or even correct vocabulary word for "rapist." Obviously gaining a deeper understanding is not the point. The intended point is to panic teenagers out of sex and violence.

And the reason that so many teenagers audition for Hell House - and the reason so many other teenagers will pay $7 to watch - is that they've already figured out that portraying sex and violence is exciting.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Queering Heterosexuality

Part of straight privilege is a general lack of expectation to question if or how we're really straight: People are usually assumed straight until they come out otherwise, and that gets the stamp of "normal."

But "normal" is such a vague and unhelpful way to write oneself off. Recently, I was reading the excellent essay anthology Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire, ed. Merri Lisa Johnson, and I came across Merri Lisa Johnson's plea for what she calls "queering heterosexuality": straight people adopting tenets of the queer rights movement, such as, "less restrictive gender roles," "nonreproductive sexuality, justified by pleasure alone," and "the nuclear family as one relationship configuration among many, not the norm." Because challenging rigid definitions of love and sexuality benefits everyone. Then, as I ponder my own "queered heterosexuality," I find myself daydreaming again about my friend J.

J and I met when we started high school, and we quickly became best friends and partners in our adolescent angst. One night when we were sixteen, I was comforting J over having recently been dumped by her boyfriend, and J declared in grand adolescent fashion that she hated all men, and from now on she would just be a lesbian. Single myself at the time, I told her that I agreed. And we repeated that we were totally serious - so we kissed each other on the lips. My heart somersaulted. And she started laughing with what I understood to be the glee of rebellion, and not really the glee of attraction to me.

After that, our "lesbian relationship" became one of our many inside jokes. We never got as far as kissing with tongues, and we continued to agonize over various cute boys (and agonize that our crushes undermined our status as autonomous, empowered women). But we would rage together against the boring narrow-mindedness of the suburb where we lived, and we'd walk through the mall holding hands and occasionally kissing on the lips, and then we'd claim disappointment when the strangers around us failed to react with any shock. I moved to another state a few months after the first kiss, and we wrote many long letters to each other. Her envelopes were always addressed to "Annabelle L.L. River," and only I knew that "L.L." stood for "Lesbian Lover."

The longer the "joke" went on, the worse it started to sting me when she would laugh about it. Because, I realized gradually, I really did want to do more with J than hold her hand at the mall. I wanted her. Her casual touch electrified me. But I didn't have any idea what to do about it, because I feared that revealing my genuine lust would ruin the "joke." Anyway, we were straight. We had to be straight, because we couldn't get rid of our lust for boys. J was the only girl I'd ever felt the same way about, and we were both pretty femme. Her exception to my heterosexuality bewildered me.

In the years since J and I lost contact, I've come to accept that sexual orientation doesn't work as a binary of either (a) straight or (b) gay - not even as a "tri-nary" including (c) bi. I prefer the Kinsey Scale by sexologist Alfred Kinsey, which sets up orientation as a continuous spectrum from 0 - 6, with 0 being exclusively straight and 6 being exclusively gay. Which still isn't a complete model, since he didn't leave clear space for transsexuals or intersex people. Anyway, I still usually call myself "straight," because it's briefer and simpler than calling myself a, "1 on the Kinsey scale," and because I'm madly in love with two cis men. But I've had a handful of very sexy encounters with women since I gave up the idea that I "couldn't" because "straight."

Later in the same essay anthology, Merri Lisa Johnson words it this way:
I recognize this reluctant identification now as common among bisexuals, never feeling quite bi enough, thinking only equal attraction and equal sex with men and women qualifies as "real" bisexuality. Those feminist porn stars on the west coast who make sex-ed videos with their cohabitational male and female partners are the "real" bisexuals; I'll just sit in the back and sneak out early.

...I lean toward being a heterosexual-identified bisexual woman... but bisexuality infuses my identity in small ways... and in large ways as well, like recognizing how fine the line is between friendship, desire, and fucking, challenging neat divisions like het/homo, mind/body, intellect/erotic, friend/lover. It's just not that simple.
So maybe by someone's definition I'm actually bi, but then, who's deciding exactly how much same-sex experience and/or desire tips the scale? And more importantly, who cares? There are no one-size-fits-all labels, and heterosexuality could use a good queering.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Havelock Ellis and Olive Schreiner: A History Mini-Lesson

For all the increasing mainstream news coverage of polyamory, most articles still take the perspective of "exposing" something very new and innovative. Which I understand, because most people haven't heard of us. I've had a lot of positive coming-out experiences to a lot of open-minded people, but I've never come to out to anyone outside the BDSM Scene without having to explain what "polyamory" actually means. Certainly the campaign for visibility is a relatively recent phenomenon. The word was only coined in 1990, and The Ethical Slut only published in 1997. Before that, the terms "polygamy" oddly classified us with authoritative patriarchies (like Mormons), or phrases like "open relationship" inappropriately trivialized our "secondary" partners. Even "open relationships" get sensationalized as a modern phenomenon; a recent CNN article claims, "The 1970s introduced the concept of 'open marriage.'" (Emphasis mine.)

And many poly people enjoy the idea that we're doing something totally revolutionary. And maybe we are, in the sense that we have so few conspicuous precedents to follow. Except, if one reads the right history books, one finds that contemporary poly people aren't as original as we often credit ourselves. Which comforts me, because representing "The Next Sexual Revolution" puts a lot of pressure on my quotidian life, and hearing that my life "is enough to make any monogamist's head spin" makes me feel freakish. So I've started studying my history.

Starting with My Other Self: The Letters of Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis, 1884-1920, ed. Yaffa Claire Draznin, 1992. For some background history, Henry Havelock Ellis was one of the first published academic sexologists, and Olive Schreiner was a feminist author. Despite living in Victorian society, they formed a close, occasionally romantic friendship based on their equal intellects. The letters are full of philosophy, book recommendations, constructive criticism of each other's writing, and their shared passion for women's rights - when controversial women's rights included the right to vote and the right of married women to own property. In 1890, Ellis married Edith Lees. "Edith was a lesbian and had a number of affairs with women during their marriage, just as Havelock Ellis has some passionate (if asexual) affairs with other women; the two regularly discusses their respective affairs with each other." (Draznin, p. 468).

Excerpts that particularly warmed my heart:
I have just been going through Miss [Caroline] Haddon's paper which arrived again for the third time this afternoon. It is still more improved and is really a splendid paper... It is no longer a mere plea for polygomy. She says, for instance, that some women need for their mental development not only a large amount of sexual indulgence, but variety. I shall send it to the Westminster [Review] now.
-Havelock Ellis to Olive Schreiner, December 18, 1884
I must live to write that story I've had in my head so many years, about the woman who marries a man who's loved another woman as a mistress before and how she gets the other woman so beautifully to live with them. What Aldis says about monogamy being our present highest aim but something higher coming after it, I've felt so long but never seen expressed anywhere.
-Olive Schreiner to Havelock Ellis, July 7, 1885
I see she [Caroline Haddon] represents you as saying that all marriage must be monogamous. But that is a mistake - is it not? - unless you have changed your opinion lately. You would not set down any rigid dogma like that which weakens rather than strengthens one's position. There must always be variations under natural and healthful conditions.
-Havelock Ellis to Olive Schreiner, February 2, 1886
I believe the only remedy for the agony and suffering that sex inflicts is absolute truthfulness and openness. Not after you are found out but before!! I do not believe a man or woman ever enters on a real sex relation with a man [or] woman without knowing they are sexually attracted to one another. If it is only a few hours before you would have time to tell the person whose sexual life you had forever bound with yours what you are feeling.
-Olive Schreiner to Havelock Ellis, December 12, 1911
So much for the "new" sexual revolution and my own strangeness.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Adventures of a "Bad Girl" with Sinus Congestion

In the cultural binary between "good girls" and "bad girls," I definitely spent my formative years as a "good girl": I got straight A's, mostly didn't drink or smoke pot until college, and I was too insecure to act on my slutty fantasies. But then I became a sadomasochistic polyamorous adulteress who writes about sex on the internet, which I'm told now qualifies me as a "bad girl." So today I was waiting in line at Walgreens to buy Kleenex for my runny nose (you know, the way that "bad girls" do) and I was highly amused to see that this month's issue of Cosmopolitan proclaims on its cover: "Bad Girl Issue: For Sexy Bitches Only."

The magnificent Evil Slut Clique has already intelligently skewered the November 2009 issue of Cosmo (as they've done to previous issues), and I should confess that I didn't actually spend $4.29 to bring the magazine home to quote it more accurately. But considering my own "bad girl" credentials - and the long line to buy Kleenex - I caved to my curiosity and flipped to find out which "bad girls" made the honor list. And there in the top left corner of the page was Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, First Lady of France, and a reference to her infamous quote, I‘m monogamous from time to time, but I prefer polygamy and polyandry.

And maybe I'm just naive, but I got excited. I dislike Bruni's husband's politics, but has Cosmopolitan really caught up to the possibility of honest non-monogamy?!

Then I turned the page for tips on how to be a better "bad girl." Top of the page: Get really good at telling white lies, so you don't get caught. First example: If you tell your boyfriend that your ex wasn't at the party you went to, make up more details about the party where you "didn't" see your ex.

I'm sorry, but lying doesn't make you a fun/sexy/exciting "bad girl"; it just makes you a liar. More lies will make your first lie more believable for a while, but then you'll need lies to protect those lies, and then to avoid getting caught you'll need to remember all the lies. The truth is easier on the conscience, builds much stronger relationships, and is much easier to remember. Besides my genuine confusion: Why would seeing an ex be worth lying about? Polyamory isn't for everyone, but if your significant other becomes intolerably jealous that easily, and/or doesn't trust you, and/or doesn't have any reason to trust you, then do you actually like dating them?

But wait! If I reject monogamy, and I reject dishonesty, does that make me a "bad girl" or a "good girl"?

Surprise: It's like celebrating "bad girls" reinforces another false binary, and doesn't actually liberate anyone.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Embracing the "woo-woo" in kink

For many self-identified sadomasochists, BDSM is an expression of spirituality as much as sexuality. And I should disclose that I haven't been one of those people, because I've never been highly spiritual. I enjoy certain religious rituals too much to call myself an atheist: The rituals generally mean time with my family and large quantities of food, and who can argue against that? From my religious standpoint, a story doesn't have to be literally true to be relevant or powerful, and I generally prefer the world the five senses.

But there's a sizable overlap between the Western polyamory subculture and pagan subculture. Stick around the poly or BDSM scenes long enough, and you're bound to hear someone quoting Raven Kaldera's Pagan Polyamory: Becoming a Tribe of Hearts or Easton & Hardy's Radical Ecstasy: SM Journeys to Transcendence. You're bound to hear people talking about their play in terms of energy work and chakras and tantra. There are whole workshops on spiritual BDSM. And I've always reacted to it the same way that I react to more "mainstream" religions, which involves faith that it works for other people, but no personal inner connection.

I try not to offend people by using the phrase "woo-woo" - but I do have a lot of respect for people who sometimes refer to their own spirituality as "a little woo-woo." Humor and self-awareness make almost anything more accessible.

So about a week ago I attended a presentation on negotiating spontaneous mini-kink-scenes, and I jumped up as a volunteer because I'm exhibitionist. And then the presenter announced that this was going to be the "woo-woo" portion of the class. He asked me if I've worked much with my chakras before, and I admitted no. He said that that was fine; all I had to do was maintain eye contact with him, and he would open up his own first chakra and then pass the energy into me. Which, I have to admit, sounded pretty woo-woo. But I focused into his eyes, and - even though we had never met, and five minutes earlier I had found him charismatic and intelligent but not especially sexually attractive - I suddenly felt an enormous wave of very real sexual tension. After a few moments he broke off eye contact to speak to the audience again, and I felt flustered, almost dizzy.

I took my seat again and snuggled up to my husband, and the class went on. About ten minutes later, the presenter asked how I was doing again, and I honestly answered, "Fine." He nodded and pointed out to everyone, "See, we were working up some great sexual energy for a minute there. But now our connection is mostly gone, because she took the energy and passed it on to her partner there. Which is great; that's exactly what polyamory is all about." To which I say: Indeed.

The next day I was still pondering the notion that "woo-woo" energy-passing from opening up certain chakras might work on me after all, and I finally started skimming Radical Ecstasy. (My husband got a copy as a present from an ex-girlfriend, and neither of us had ever read it.) I had always assumed that it would be inaccessibly "woo-woo" to a secular girl like me, but then I read Janet Hardy's passage:
What is sacred, I think, is attention... If all I can think about is how much money there is in my checking account and whether the $200 tire will last twice as long as the $100 one, I miss the astonishing realization that the tread under my hand passed through the rain forest and the steel mill and the conference room of a Madison Avenue ad agency and the shipping department of Costco; and that handing my credit card to the clerk has connected me with hundreds of people I'll never meet, with trees I can't climb and a factory whose workings I don't begin to understand; and that I breathed in molecules from those people's skin and oxygen exhaled by those trees and pollution floating in the air from that factory before I ever considered buying the tires.

It is with some reluctance - well, kicking and screaming, honestly - that I've come to conclude that the energy, or kundalini, or life force, or whatever it is we are writing about in this book, is absolutely real: when something lifts me off the floor and slams me against a wall, that's evidence enough for me. But nothing about it strikes me as particulary "spiritual." To me, it's a physical energy, just like electricity: a form of energy that we don't have the right instruments to measure yet.

Now if that's spiritual, then everything is spiritual. And, yeah, of course everything is spiritual, but used that way the word has no meaning - when I look up a word in the dictionary, I like to find a more precise definition than "See also: all other words in the dictionary" - so we're back to the beginning.
And once I actually pay attention, I find that some tenets of "woo-woo" spirituality aren't so different from my own beliefs after all.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Filament Magazine: The Thinking Woman's Crumpet

To clarify from my celebration of "Dress Like a Whore" Day: I do understand the Feminism 101 concepts of the "male gaze" and its companion objectification, wherein women are reduced to bodies existing only for men's pleasure. There is already a huge assortment of feminist treatises showing how objectification and unrealistic beauty expectations damage women. But then, however problematically, none of my Women's Studies courses have stopped me from feeling a great erotic charge from intentional exhibitionism. So for years I've been working to articulate how I, as woman, can occasionally enjoy the role of the flashy slut without being reduced to "only" a slut. (Step one is the deliberate choice.)

And then a fellow kinky female friend introduced me to the brilliant Filament magazine, subtitled "The Thinking Woman's Crumpet." Instead of fighting the erotic "gaze" as inherently evil, Filament fights for straight women's right to gaze at men.

To put a philosophy behind its glossy pages of beautiful naked men, editor Suraya Sidhu Singh writes in Volume II:
It's hard to imagine how a society in which women are seen as erotic subjects by men, but men are not seen as erotic subjects by women, can also be a society in which broader equality exists... The vista in every newsagent suggests that being an erotic subject is a gender role, not a personal choice.
And continues on Filament's FAQ page:

Surely popularising erotic images of men legitimises degrading images of women?
‘Erotic’ and ‘degrading’ are polar opposites as far as we’re concerned. It’s natural to be attracted to viewing the human form erotically, and there is nothing inherently degrading about the subject being less clothed or more aroused. In conducting our research we’ve been heartened by the kinds of things that women are asking to see, namely more erotic imagery that depicts the subject as a person, not a sex object. We’re proud of catering to such twisted fancies.

These things research says women like in an image, it would be safe to assume men like the opposite?

No, in fact, that would probably be wrong. If anything, research suggests men and women find similar image qualities erotic.
The assumption that women and men are chalk and cheese is perhaps what led erotic image aimed at women to be so unappealing to women in the past. Erotic images for men are almost always shot in colour and in recognisable locations, and the models are usually looking at the camera. Meanwhile, supposedly erotic images for women are usually in black and white, shot on a plain studio backgrounds and often, the model’s whole head is out of frame. There was never any evidence to suggest women liked that kind of thing; it arose from the assumption that male and female erotic tastes were oppositional, which is wrong.

But what's especially refreshing about Filament (and little other pornography I've found on the internet or newsstands) is that it also presumes its readers' intellect. Instead of selling itself as "naughty," Filament intersperses between its nude photographs well-written articles that aren't necessarily "sexy." For example, Issue 2 includes a history of England's 19th-century prostitution laws, one woman's experience raising a child with cerebral palsy, and an explanation of the Afro-Brazilian art of capoeira - along with advice for strap-on pegging. It's almost as if they think women who want to look at and/or fuck pretty men also enjoy intellectual learning!

Which really should not be a novel idea, but then, I've never seen a magazine quite like it before.

Filament is based out of England but ships anywhere in the world. Support them.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

In Praise of "Dress Like a Whore" Day

It's almost Halloween again, which at least in the United States means it's time for the annual panic shared equally by the right and the left: Girls' Halloween costumes are too slutty.

Now, I'll quickly agree that most pre-packaged "sexy" Halloween costumes for women are just ridiculous. (Take for example Sexy Finding Nemo, Sexy Taxi, or Sexy Policewoman with the word "Busted" across her chest.) They're also expensive and poorly made: Despite the ubiquity of the Leg Avenue brand, I've never worn any of their clothing twice without ripping it, and yet they charge over $50 for a costume. I confess that I drooled a little over their wood nymph costume hanging in a store window this year, but I'm an average size 10, and I could barely get the size-large over my head without ripping. When I gave it back to the salesgirl and told her it was too small, the salesgirl (who was visibly shorter and skinnier than I am) nodded and confessed that she didn't know who's supposed to fit in these. Regardless of what you want to be or how much skin you want to display or conceal, making or thrifting your own costume is more creative and usually more fun.

But the media and blogosphere don't seem especially concerned about pricing, quality, or size-ism of pre-packaged costumes. The politically correct concern for Halloween costumes is to protect our impressionable daughters from the dangers of sexuality. And yes, of course, children should be strongly protected from sexual coercion of any kind. But I think the concerned conservatives and the concerned feminists both underestimate how early puberty naturally sparks lust. I started masturbating and writing long obsessive diary-entries about "cute boys" when I was eleven. I could barely look the "cute boys" in the eye when I was eleven, but that's when the hormones set off my private imagination.

So I wholeheartedly agree that the little girl in this short-skirted ragdoll costume is too young for sex. But I don't believe that her short skirt necessarily means that she is having sex, or even that she will in the next few years. I would like to think that she'll have a fulfilling, self-aware, consensual sex life in ten or fifteen years - and puberty is when most people start the long process of self-discovery and experimental fantasy that makes that possible. If a teen or "tween" girl wants to play-act in a shorter skirt than she would usually wear, I think it's less empowering to shame her than to make sure that her sexual beliefs are medically accurate; that she understands that her own pleasure is as important as any hypothetical partner's; that she has the support of trustworthy adults and friends; and that she has enough self-confidence to say no and walk away from anything that makes her uncomfortable. What scares me is the confusion and low self-esteem that follow the juxtaposition of pre-packaged, consumer "sexiness" and abstinence-only "education" teaching our daughters to shame "sluts."

Halloween is one night a year to celebrate fantasy. Really KJ Dell'Antonia said it best:

"I distinctly remember the annual struggle to come up with a Halloween costume that conveyed my hidden assets and yet didn't look like I was trying too hard, and certainly anything that involved fishnet tights invariably fit the bill. When everything fell together, the feeling I remember best was one of power—of flaunting what felt like a rebellious choice in front of peers and adults alike, risk free. Were men and boys looking at me in inappropriate ways? I guarantee that I hoped so. I also guarantee that I knew—as do the vast majority of people—that I was not inviting my drama teacher to go all Roman Polanski on me."

So I will laugh at the inanity of dressing up as a "Sexy Martini Glass," and I will delight in my once-a-year opportunity to wear my fetish clothes down the street. To the people cringing at teen girls' thighs, I have to say: Pick your battles.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pro-Polyamory-Rights, Pro-Disability-Rights Lesbian appointed to EEOC

Is there any way that I can sufficiently thank Chai Feldblum?

Last week Barack Obama appointed Chai Feldblum as the first open lesbian to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her Georgetown Law professor biography page lists some of her outstanding and diverse credentials in the realm of fighting discrimination:

"J.D. Harvard... A former law clerk for First Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Frank M. Coffin, and Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, Professor Feldblum has been a leading advocate and scholar in the areas of disability rights, health and welfare rights, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, and workplace issues. She played a leading role in the drafting and negotiating of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. She has also helped draft and negotiate the Employment Nondiscrimination Act and various medical privacy bills and regulations."

All of the above issues are good fights worth fighting, and all will inspire the usual name-calling and fear-mongering from the radical right. But in an especially rare move for someone entering the public spotlight, Chai Feldblum also signed the statement "Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision For All Our Families and Relationships" - along with her esteemed company of Gloria Steinum, Judith Butler, Betty Dodson, and Barbara Ehrenreich. The Catholic News Agency's headline calls it a "'Manifesto' that Praised Polygamy", but then, the Catholic News Agency hasn't done enough research to realize that we usually now prefer the term "polyamory" over "polygamy." What the statement actually says, in part, is:

Marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others. A majority of people – whatever their sexual and gender identities – do not live in traditional nuclear families. They stand to gain from alternative forms of household recognition beyond one-size-fits-all marriage. For example:

· Single parent households

· Senior citizens living together and serving as each other’s caregivers (think Golden Girls)

· Blended and extended families

· Children being raised in multiple households or by unmarried parents

· Adult children living with and caring for their parents

· Senior citizens who are the primary caregivers to their grandchildren or other relatives

· Close friends or siblings living in non-conjugal relationships and serving as each other’s primary support and caregivers

· Households in which there is more than one conjugal partner

· Care-giving relationships that provide support to those living with extended illness such as HIV/AIDS.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

There is the usual, predictable right-wing backlash, which I don't feel like gracing with much attention, except that it maintains its entirely ignorant assumption that "households in which there is more than one conjugal partner" characterize only patriarchal Mormons, Muslims, and "cultists." I laughed aloud at Rev. James Heisner's statement through the John Birch Society:

"Technically, the Beyond Marriage defense of 'loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner' would include not only polygamy but also polyandry, but it’s not hard to imagine that “loving households” that include more than one husband sitting on the sofa and telling the wife to get them another beer isn’t really all that high on the agenda of folks like Professor Feldblum."

In part because my last three years of polyandrous polyamory have been some of the happiest of my life, and in part because it's rare to see a male conservative paint such an offensive stereotype of men. Another poly woman had already commented teaching Rev. Heisner the word "polyamory"; my response is on the John Birch Society's Comments section and also below:

Speaking as a legally married woman who has also had a boyfriend for the last three years, and who has always been entirely honest with my husband and has his support: I assure you that polyandry is actually just as real as polygamy, and we are are grateful for Ms. Feldblum's support. I am not "normally associated with Moslems and cultists," and I do call myself a feminist. And yes, most of the modern people who honestly maintain multiple romantic relationships at the same time prefer the term "polyamory." The most respected books about polyamory - The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, and Opening Up by Tristan Taormino - were both written by women.

Reconciling feminism and multiple loving partners isn't difficult at all: Feminism is all about the freedom of choice. What strikes me as both offensive and simply ignorant is your assertion that polyandry can only mean "more than one husband sitting on the sofa and telling the wife to get them another beer." Do you actually believe that a man's only role in a romantic relationship is to sit on the sofa and demand beer?

....Thank you Chai Feldblum. You are a beacon of hope, and may you have many productive years on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Bureaucracy of "Holy Matrimony"

About six weeks after my wedding, I'm finally getting around to legally changing my name. Which is a highly personal and arguably an eccentric choice for me to make as a polyamorous feminist. I've heard all the arguments for keeping one's maiden name, and I confess that I have no rational argument against them. My husband and I are still separate individuals. ...But for a few weeks after the wedding, every time I said, heard, or signed my name with my husband's last name, I did get a kick of girlish glee. It's a cool name. And now that the novelty is wearing off of it, my maiden name has started sounding increasingly strange to me.

So now that I'm succumbing to this "traditional" marriage custom, I've had a lot of time of sitting in fluorescent-lit government lobbies to ponder the difference between the personal/cultural recognition of marriage and the government's recognition of marriage. Because the inescapable part of any government institution is that it involves a rather a lot of very dull paperwork and standing in line. Which I am willing to do for all of the pragmatic legal advantages of a public record that my husband and I will be sharing our taxes, property, and financial decisions, and in order to have the name that I now prefer to be called listed on my legal identification and credit accounts. But after spending an absurd amount of money on a "search fee" to get our marriage-certification papers from the county (which didn't even guarantee that the county was going to find them), and filling out dozens of forms with my social security number, my parents' social security numbers, and my husband's social security number, I am freshly baffled how politicians and pundits argue that "traditional" marriage laws have any relationship whatsoever to any religious values.

My husband and I did have a religious officiant, in accordance with our families' cultures. But our chosen religious officiant also performs same-sex ceremonies, and proclaimed during our ceremony that marriage is not something that the government or even he could confer onto us. Marriage is a relationship that we had already built. Then, for our association with a liberal humanist congregation, we get the exact same legal treatment as married strict-Evangelicals or married atheists.

So now that I'm getting familiar with those legal aspects, I would be entirely fascinated to meet someone who actually believes that spending the first two hours waiting to be called at the Social Security Administration only to be told that I didn't have the proper paperwork from the county (and that the Social Security agent had no idea how I should go about getting the county's paperwork) is part of a religious, holy sacrament. (And I haven't even gotten around to the Department of Motor Vehicles or the State Department.)

Some liberals - and even Forbes Magazine - have argued convincingly that the government should stop recognizing marriages altogether. But legal marriage is a convenient shortcut for so many legal issues that would otherwise end up in lawsuits or without the weaker party's ability to enforce their rights: who owns property, who gets property if someone dies without a will, who is allowed to or legally obligated to take care of children, who's allowed to make decisions if we're medically incapacitated, etc. etc. The laws are objectionable in many ways, including the explicitly heterosexist and monogamist bias, and the fact that so many people are in bad marriages. But as we seek to liberalize the institution, I'm not convinced that we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Once again, I recommend lesbian E.J. Graff's book What Is Marriage For? for charting how Western marriage laws have already changed significantly over the past century - with a trend toward liberalization. (And for all the conservative politicians' and pundits' shrieking about the Death of the Family, the similarly apocolyptic cries of their 19th-century counterparts against letting married women own bank accounts or vote have yet to be substantiated.)

So I will limit my ranting about government bureaucracy, fill out my paperwork, and continue to argue that the marriage laws should be re-written to apply to any two or more people that want to get married. Pragmatically, legal marriage is an amalgamation of a large number of civil and financial rights, and it's well worth fighting for. But let's be honest about the role the government plays in heterosexual marriage now: which is to manufacture and maintain copies of bureaucratic paperwork.

Any time now that I hear a politician or pundit confer holy, religious sanctimony onto the government's recognition of marriage, I wonder what part of waiting in the lobby of the county clerk's office was supposed to offer spiritual revelation.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Report from the Folsom Street Fair

After my last few posts on homophobia, the Family Research Council, and the U.S. Republican Party - It's a lot more fun to write about the Folsom Street Fair, which I attended last weekend with my husband, my boyfriend, and a couple friends. I'd been hearing about it for years: the third largest street fair in the state of California, with about 300,000 - 400,000 people celebrating the BDSM subculture in the open air. It's an opportunity for a dazzling mass of kinky people to get together in public without any of the usual constraints of subtlety or discretion. And when I say that it isn't subtle or discrete, I mean that they have someone in leather dancing in a cage suspended from a crane in front of a church.

I didn't come away from the fair with any new revelations, but it's a heck of a great party. I'm also glad that we showed up early, before it was too crowded. Shortly after the fair opened, we paid the suggested donation supporting local charities and started exploring. (People who don't donate are still allowed in, but don't get the sticker good for $1 off some of the food and drink items.) There were booths promoting various BDSM social organizations, and awareness of various health issues, and gay men's sports teams, and a gay-friendly, woman-pastored Evangelical church, and the the Sex Workers Outreach Project. There were booths selling metal jewelry, and the standard street-festival food and overpriced beer, and mostly there were booths selling all kinds of BDSM toys and fetish-wear. There were people in leather and latex, and people in drag, and people in jeans, and naked people. There were a few organized spectacles, including live music and the cage-dancer. elaborately tied up some porn stars; the Society of Janus ran a charity spanking and flogging booth; a local bathhouse ran a Nearly Naked Twister game to benefit a clinic that provides health care and social services to sex workers. And with another eye toward environmentalism, next to almost every trash can was a recycling bin and a compost bin, with volunteers making sure refuse went to the right bin.

...And for all that excitement, my one complaint is that by one o'clock it was too crowded to see much. I was also wearing latex, which always makes me feel deliciously sexy - except that it's also hot temperature-wise, and in San Francisco September is still summer. When I couldn't stand my own sweat anymore, I took my top off entirely. I'd never before gone entirely topless in a public crowd - not because I'm shy, but because it's usually illegal. In the context of the Folsom Street Fair, the usually male privilege of going shirtless when the weather is just too hot for a shirt was mine.

No one has to join a public spectacle in order to enjoy kinky sex. But it is a welcoming and celebratory culture, and an awful lot of fun.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Gay Marriage and Pickles

I was at a party recently and stumbled into a conversation where someone was stating their opposition to gay marriage rights. I have to admit, this doesn't happen to me often; I live in a big city, and the overwhelming majority of people with whom I personally associate take the desirability of gay rights for granted. So I pulled out all the arguments that I usually save for the proverbial choir, and asked this fellow why he opposes gay marriage. To be fair, neither of us were sober for this debate, but he didn't claim to have any rational arguments, and he didn't cite religion.

All of his arguments came down to re-wording, "Being gay is wrong because anal sex is gross. Ewww."

Which he said with taken-for-granted conviction, like he assumed that just because I'm a straight woman I've never fucked a man's ass before. Actually, I highly recommend it. I've also watched every episode of Queer as Folk, which I mostly find melodramatic, except that its man-on-man sex scenes are some of the hottest soft-core porn scenes ever to air on television. And I'm not the first straight woman to say so. So I can answer that particular homophobia with enthusiastic conviction: "You don't know what you're missing." To which he gaped incredulously and repeated, "Ewww." Which is hard to debate, really, because what makes people horny is always individualistic and irrational. And then I realized: This fellow's opinions on anal sex may be a lot like my opinions on eating pickles.

I don't mean to take the metaphor very far, because I realize that it's a flippant one, and I don't mean to make light of the struggle for gay equality. Of course I understand that a taste for pickles is not vital to a person's identity the way that sexual orientation is. But personally, I can't stand pickles, and I never have. Every once in a while, I bite one by mistake, not realizing that they've been snuck onto a sandwich, and I immediately spit it out and start gagging. They just taste rancid to me. It's a bizarre and unfortunate thing to do to a perfectly good cucumber. Whenever I get a pickle spear on a plate with a sandwich, I offer it to anyone sitting near me, and often they'll take it happily and say something like, "Awesome! I love pickles!" and tell me all about their favorite variety of pickle. Pickles still repulse me. They probably always will.

However, it would be pretty absurd and reprehensible of me to sign petitions or vote on referendums to block other people from eating pickles. And it's socially unacceptable in most circumstances for me to even tell anyone just how much I hate pickles, not because the First Amendment doesn't protect my right to disparage pickles, but because it would be obnoxious and negative and pointless. My visceral nausea does not make eating pickles wrong. I accept that people will occasionally eat pickles right in front of me. I can still walk through Jewish delis and grocery stores with whole shelves of pickles in glass jars. I still periodically get free pickles on my plate with sandwiches. I ignore all of this and go on with my life. What I do about my disgust is: I don't eat the pickles. I promise, it really is that easy.

And even then, it saddens me that I will never feel the joy that someone who likes pickles feels when they bite into a good pickle. Other people genuinely enjoy pickles, and my own loathing for them is ultimately my own loss.

So I pulled out that argument too, and I still don't think that I got anywhere with that particular drunk homophobe. You can't really argue with a reaction as irrational and visceral as, "Eww." What still infuriates and baffles me is how anyone makes the illogical leap from "Eww" to a grandiose political posture.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Demystifying Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder

I have premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD for short. It's what doctors call the more popular "premenstrual syndrome" when the psychiatric symptoms are so severe that they prevent you from basically functioning.

From a feminist political standpoint, it's a deeply troubling diagnosis. Women have had to fight hard over the last century to combat the sexist stereotype that we're somehow inherently more emotional and less rational than men are; and that stereotype has kept women out of leadership positions for centuries. In Victorian times, the medical concept of "hysteria" made femaleness virtually synonymous with insanity. So I definitely understand why, as John F. Kihlstrom writes: "Some feminist professionals, including the APA’s Committee on Women and the National Coalition for Women’s Mental Health, objected to the inclusion of such a syndrome under any label. From their point of view, menstruation is a normal bodily function, and any psychological changes associated with this function should be seen as normal as well. Classifying PMS or PMDD as a mental disorder stigmatizes women..."

But for all my rage against disempowering stereotypes, my actual experience of PMDD resembles bipolar disorder a lot more closely than it resembles vaginal bleeding. I've been keeping a paper diary since I turned twelve, and I keep it mostly in narrative format. Then, throughout the diaries of my early teen years, there are sporadic entries of suicidal rants with no "story" whatsoever, just repeating over and over that I hated myself and wanted to die. Generally, the entry before or after would be something cheerful and mundane, like "I did well on today's English test," or "Today I went with my friends to the mall" - offering no clue toward why I might have felt suicidal the day adjacent. Only years later do I recognize: That's the record of my early menstrual cycle. One of the more impressively oblivious rants from age thirteen claimed, "My mom says I only feel this way because of my hormones. Which proves that my mom doesn't understand anything. I hate her!"

Luckily for me, my mother knew what she was talking about. She put me on birth control pills when I was sixteen, despite the fact that I really was a virgin. The birth control pills suddenly gave me a predictable 28-day cycle. There's no way of knowing how much the relative alleviation of my breakdowns can be attributed to hormone regulation and how much was just getting older and thus further from the universal hellhole of puberty. But once I had a 28-day cycle, it was much easier to notice the correlation between my worst mood swings and the reminder to stash pads in my backpack. By the time I got to college, I had built enough self-awareness to mark my calendar, not plan anything strenuous or important on premenstrual days, and warn my roommate and boyfriend, "Next Wednesday I'll probably be crazy, so don't worry about me then. I'll feel better on Thursday." Given the quantity of sporadic suicidal thoughts I had between ages twelve and fifteen, the medical intervention of birth control pills may have saved my life.

Each month, the PMDD usually starts with an overreaction to some minor catalyst, and then it takes me at least a minute to connect that I am overreacting. In this state I have cried at TV life insurance commercials (the ones with people ruminating on what would happen to their loved ones if they died), and I have literally shaken with rage at simple requests from my boss. And every time I catch myself is surreal: What I'm feeling strongly is not my feelings. That's just dysphoria. But the faster I catch it, the better I can usually calm myself down. Heightened self-awareness doesn't make it go away exactly, but it does allow me to assure myself: You don't actually believe that. You're stronger than this. You'll definitely feel better tomorrow. At which point it's easier to laugh at my own absurdity. If I was unhappy a few days earlier, too, I find myself dwelling more energetically on my problems, but I still know better than to confront anyone the day before my period. And when everything else in my life is going well, then I find myself dwelling on the frustration of PMDD itself and the burden of my "defective brain."

And then, not every month but sometimes, then there is no catalyst, and there are no thoughts in my head but pain. I just curl up in the fetal position and writhe and sob. (This is when it's especially important to have warned the people I live with in advance.)

I did get a prescription for anti-depressants at one point, but they came with a severe side effect of insomnia. So I had the choice of being crazy from PMDD or crazy from not sleeping for a week at a time, so I quit taking the pills. The one great miracle cure is marijuana. Pot's "side effects" still prevent me from any kind of productivity, but if I know that I'm going to spend several hours useless on my couch, spending them high is a lot more pleasant than spending them crying.

I am infuriated by the stigma, but not because doctors recognize PMDD as a medical disorder. Claiming a medical disorder is how I rationalize myself through it, and treat the symptoms with marijuana while I wait to feel better. What degrades me are the general taboos against discussing menstruation, or "craziness." I've gotten more comfortable discussing PMDD over time with my friends, which is a godsend when it starts to come on and I'm free to be honest about why I suddenly start acting strange and need to go home. But there's little worse than needing a good cry while I'm at my day job or a large family event, and feeling that it's "not okay" to talk about my menstrual cycle or my mental illness - let alone both at once. But if PMDD must be kept private, then what am I supposed to do when I can't stop myself from crying and it's that awkward to tell anyone why? Usually I hide in bathrooms, or comb my hair over my eyes and try to be very still and very quiet and hope nobody tries to talk to me. But boy would it be easier to just choke out between sobs, "I have PMDD and I'm going to go be alone for a while," without the rational fear of losing respect. In my ideal society, PMDD would have the same social implications as migraines: an unpleasant medical issue that makes people need to lay down quietly for a while, but also goes away, and doesn't imply an inherent character flaw.

From a feminist ideological standpoint, it's still frustrating to admit that my female hormones do sometimes make me uselessly hyper-emotional. But feminism has to reflect the actual experience of living women if anyone can be expected to live by it. I have PMDD, but PMDD doesn't describe what I am any more than a migraine would. When my vagina starts bleeding and my emotions level out, there's a great joy in re-disovering my intellect, my humor, and my "real" self again.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sometimes Any Publicity Is Good Publicity

Thank you to Pendard at the Geeky Sex blog for alerting me: Pat Fagan of the Family Research Council just gave a speech to his right-wing base all about polyamory. Of course, very predictably, Christian Evangelical Pat Fagan does not like polyamory; one of his claims is: "In a polemical vein, one could say they 'snatch' children away from their parents and from the culture of monogamy in ways analogous to the Ottoman Turks of the 14th century who raided boys from Christian nations to train them as their own elite warriors, the Janissaries."

I think the youngest person to whom I'm even out as poly is twenty-one, and I don't remember having kidnapped any children lately, but whatever. What thrills me about this speech is: The Family Research Council is helping us with visibility. Because most people have never even imagined the concept that anyone could carry on multiple sexual relationships at the same time honestly.

As I've written here before, more people can wrap their heads around the phrase "open relationship" - but then they make false assumptions about how seriously committed we can be in "open relationships." A massive, massive quantity of Western literature and film has been devoted to the "tragedy" of falling in love with two people and having to decide between them. A massive, massive quantity of Western literature and film depicts people cheating dishonestly, and the "confession" is always a moment of great trauma.

Some popular TV characters like Sex in the City's Samantha went a long way toward popularizing the concept that a woman could have lots of sex partners without yearning to "settle down" - but even then, after Samantha falls in love, the writers dramatically force her to choose either (a) the man she loves, or (b) freedom to have sex with whomever she wants. Points for making "b" a valid option, but did it never occur to the writers of Sex in the City that the two choices aren't inherently mutually exclusive?

It's hard to fight for acceptance and understanding if you have to spend most of the conversation explaining that your lifestyle does, in fact, exist at all. And we have been getting more publicity lately, and thank you to Alan of the Poly in the Media blog for tracking it. We even got an impressively fair article in Newsweek But the Newsweek article still claims, "It's enough to make any monogamist's head spin."

So back to Pat Fagan's speech. I don't know where he picked up the word "polyamory" - because it's pretty clear that he's never researched as far as the Amazon summary of The Ethical Slut to find out what people who identify as polyamorous actually believe. I could pick through his bullet points and refute every one of them, but they're all such absurd oversimplications that it's hardly worth bothering past the first two examples:

"The culture of monogamy is infused from top to bottom with the sacred, in personal, family, community and national life. Worship of God is frequent and assumed. The culture of polyamory tends much more to hide religion, even to suppress it in all things public. It worships God less and demands religion be private."
Some counter-examples include every monogamous couple in which at least one person identifies as atheist, agnostic, or non-observant. Counter-examples on the other side include everyone who has ever agreed with the book Radical Ecstasy, and all the poly Unitarian Universalists and Pagans out there, of which I promise there are many. Also poly Christians, poly Jews, and poly Buddhists.

"The culture of monogamy views freedom as the freedom to be good while for the culture of polyamory freedom views freedom as having no constraints imposed on you."

Actually I think both monogamous and polyamorous people make up their own minds what freedom means to them. But polyamory has lots of constraints: Our bibles like The Ethical Slut and Opening Up have substantial sections on figuring out what kinds of constraints make your relationship feel more secure. Instead of the undiscussed assumption that our partner just won't touch another person, we have to specifically discuss what acts are okay with what people, in what circumstances, and with what safer-sex practices - and whether we need to be consulted first, or if we need our partner to come home to us afterward, or if a particular toy is not to be used with anyone else, or whatever makes people feel safer. I have constrained my husband not to call anyone else by my term-of-endearment. We're not totally anti-constraint; we just like them customized.

Fagan also somehow reached the conclusion that, "State controlled programs today in developed countries, almost universally, are polyamorous-friendly and monogamy-hostile." Which particularly baffles me, because all Western marriage laws are written for couples. Even same-sex legal marriages, civil unions, and domestic partnerships are limited to two people. What government programs are hostile to monogamy?! And if there are any protecting polyamory, I'd love to hear about them. It was only 2003 that the Supreme Court decided by a 6-3 split that police are no longer allowed to break into people's homes and arrest them for consensual, adult anal sex.

So Pat Fagan doesn't know what he's talking about when he mentions polyamory or monogamy, and maybe he's never used Google. He has separated the entire world into exactly two amazingly narrow lifestyles, tossed out everyone who doesn't conform exactly to one or the other, and fantasized some arbitrary delusions to round it out. But! However vague and absurd his understanding of loving multiple people may be, he is spreading the message that such a thing is possible. And for that, I thank him.