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.