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.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mike Duvall's Family Values

By now on the blogosphere, Mike Duvall is becoming old news. But to re-cap for anyone who missed it, California state assemblyman Duvall is the most recent "family values" man to get caught on tape at a session of the legislature bragging about his kinky affairs with two different women - including at least one energy lobbyist.

It makes a good news story because it's explicitly sexy; it gives media sources like CBS an excuse to print: "She wears little eye-patch underwear, so I can see her eye patches. So, the other day she came here with her underwear, Thursday. And so, we had made love Wednesday, a lot. And so she'll she's all, I am going up and down the stairs and you're dripping out of me." But while the country gets off on voyeurism of one California assemblyman, what's legitimately disgusting about him is his voting record. Even now, after the scandal, you can read on his dispatch to constituents: "As a supporter of Prop 8, I will be among the state legislators committed to defending California voters' definition of marriage." He has 100% approval ratings from the California Republican Assembly - whose website touts on the "What We Believe" page: " We believe that the traditional American family, defined as any persons related by blood, marriage of a man and a woman and/or adoption, is the cornerstone of our American society, and the government is duty bound to protect the integrity of the family unit through legislation and taxation policies," and from the Capitol Resource Institute - which issues official statements like, "All students should be safe at school, but promoting safety and promoting multisexuality are not actually the same thing." (Maybe no one has ever told them about the prevalence of peer violence against gay and transgendered teens. But I doubt it.)

So Duvall's a hypocrite. But the crazy thing is, haven't we seen this before? Like, a lot? The Capitol Resource Institute's website has issued a statement: "Assemblyman Michael Duvall... has been the focus of much media attention in the last 24 hours based on revelations of apparent extramarital affairs. In many of these stories, Capitol Resource Institute was cited as giving Assemblyman Duvall high marks for his pro-family voting record. It is always disappointing when a champion of traditional values does not practice the same in his private life..."

In no particular order, the list of their disappointments would include: Mark Sanford. Larry Craig. Bristol Palin - who won't be marrying Levi Johnston after all. Bob Allen. Ted Haggard. John Ensign. David Vitter. Eliot Spitzer. Chip Pickering. Vito Fossella. Paul Stanley.

Just how many examples do we need before this constitutes a trend? With such an impressive track-record of hypocrisy, and the scandals becoming cliché, why do the people who vote for "family values" trust any of the "family values" politicians? They love to argue that sex should be legally restricted to heterosexual monogamous marriages - but they can't follow it themselves. And logically, if the "family values" movement can't uphold what it calls "family values" (mostly: intolerance and mandated ignorance), how do they expect to criminalize the rest of us for at least being honest? If there were anything "natural" or "traditional" about restricting sex to heterosexual monogamous marriages, wouldn't it be easier for the movement's leaders to actually live that way?

Half the news stories about Mike Duvall specifically quote him as saying, "So, I am getting into spanking her. Yeah, I like it. I like spanking her. She goes, 'I know you like spanking me.' I said, 'Yeah! Because you're such a bad girl!'" And personally, I think, okay, so the line's preetty cheesy. When my lovers and friends spank me, I generally prefer being called a "slut" or a "whore" - because I find it hard to take the phrase "bad girl" seriously. But to each their own, right?

So I'm reminded of a particularly good column from the Savage Love archives, in which a reader responded to the Larry Craig scandal with concern that anyone at all would be arrested for hitting on other men. To which Dan Savage responded: "There were complaints about that particular bathroom at the Minneapolis airport, and the police did what the police are supposed to do when there are complaints—they responded... It wouldn't be a career-destroying event for an out gay man today—like, say, a George Michael. It would, however, be career destroying for gay-bashing, straight-identified hypocrites like, say, Senator Craig."

Won't it be an exciting day when the people who vote for these hypocrites notice this pattern of hypocrisy so egregious that even the Capitol Resource Institute has to acknowledge it?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Personal-Boundary Stories

Something that happened to me a few days ago got me thinking about personal-space boundaries - both in the BDSM community and in everyday life.

I was on a busy train platform, reading a book and waiting for my husband to meet me to get on the train, when a stranger approached me and said, "Hello, I'm new here and looking to make friends." I looked up, mildly annoyed, thinking he might have better luck if he were not interrupting people, perhaps somewhere more conducive to conversation than a busy train station. After an awkward silence, he added, "I'm gay" - I'm guessing to clarify that he wasn't trying to hit on me.

"I'm waiting for someone," I answered.

"Oh," he said, looking disappointed. "Well, if they don't show up, then maybe you and I could go somewhere instead," and he put his arm around my shoulders.

"No!" I said, loudly and clearly, and pushed him off of me.

He looked hurt and repeated, "I'm just looking to make friends" - and reached out to stroke my arm. At which point I panicked and ran out of the train station, and took several long minutes of deep breaths before regaining the courage to go back to see if my husband had gotten there yet.

So less than ten minutes later, the stranger was gone, and I told the story to my husband to explain why I was acting hyper-anxious. And already, even five minutes later, I realized that maybe I had overreacted. I probably hadn't been in any physical danger; the guy was just lonely. But the fact remains: He touched me, I pushed him and said "No," and he tried to touch me again. Non-sexual, non-violent, but it still took a good half hour before my breathing and heart-rate calmed entirely back to normal.

And I thought for a split-second: Maybe it's ironic that I would be so sensitive to this, given how much of the last five years I've spent at BDSM parties being spanked by people I barely know. Except, I realized immediately: No, it isn't at all ironic. Because in the BDSM community, we fetishize consent and communication above all else. Respectful communication and consent are the doctrines that make what we do okay; they are absolutely central to our subculture.

About a year and a half ago, I was at a particular party at a BDSM convention to which tickets had been sold on the Internet, and watching everyone else's scenes was making me horny. But I only had one partner in town, and he was playing with someone else, and I wasn't in the mood to seek out anything casual. So, with some self-empowered inspiration, I went to a corner to tie myself up and masturbate. And as I was doing so, an unattractive man I didn't know pulled up a chair about five or ten feet away to watch me. Which initially repulsed me. But as I thought about what to say to him, I realized that I had of course been aware that I was in a room crowded with other kinky people playing, and if I really wanted to masturbate in private, I could easily do that in my private hotel room. Which I considered leaving for. But honestly, I was at the party because I'm an exhibitionist. My problem with this particular person watching was not that I mind strangers watching, but that this stranger was older, unattractive, and wearing a silly T-shirt. He stayed at a distance well outside arm's length, and stayed silent. So after a while, I closed my eyes, tied a length of rope around my head to keep them closed, and tried to forget about him. It occurred to me that if he did by some chance come any closer, I could yell out a safeword and a dozen trusted friends would come running. ....But he didn't, and I got into my blindfolded masturbation with the sounds of other people's pain and pleasure around me, and I had a fabulous orgasm.

When I opened my eyes again, I was surprised to see the same man still sitting there. But he never made eye contact or approached me. I simply finished untying myself and walked away to see how my partner's scene was going. I didn't want that man to touch me: So I didn't invite him to, so he didn't. And it really was that simple.

The BDSM community has successfully created these spaces where everyone, no matter how outrageously publicly sexual, has the right to not be touched without prior communication and consent. I wish that more people in train stations were so respectful.