Sunday, May 2, 2010

On having been the "man" everyone warned me about

It's been a couple months since Teen Vogue columnist Jessica Simmons wrote her much-linked post "Is Hooking Up Good for Girls?" about how casual sex apparently disempowers women, because apparently it leaves us pining in agony for men to commit to us.  And Kate Harding has already written the great rebuttal:
...[I]f we teach all kids that there's a wide range of potentially healthy sexual and emotional relationships, and the only real trick (granted, it's a doozy) is finding partners who are enthusiastic about the same things you want, then there's room for a lot more people to pursue something personally satisfying at no one else's expense...
To which Rabbit White wisely added that the first step is (surprise!) honest communication.  But as I'm reading these feminist defenses of casual sex, I'm also wondering: Where in this discussion are all the men who have romantically pined for the women who mostly wanted to get laid?  They do, in fact, exist, and I can't possibly be the only straight cis woman who has struggled with the guilt of having dated them.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Privilege of Not Defending Oneself

I've lately felt an unfortunate pressure to defend polyamory again (with apologies to etymologists).  I usually ignore the judgments of the uninformed, but then there's the friend of a friend who may or may not have been joking when she scoffed that she'd never let me near her boyfriend.  And the polyamory-focused indie film that's actually all about how it's kooky and doomed.  And the absolutist, all-caps-laced rant on the usually sex-positive The Stranger blog with profound metaphors like "such idiotic bullshit" and questions like, "Ever wonder why they all will fuck any damn thing that will hold still long enough?"  So I could use my blog to paraphrase all the same points of The Ethical Slut, Opening Up, and Polyamory Weekly.  But they're already making the crafted argument/explanation pretty well.  My personal version is mostly sentimental: I love two people.

And I remember one poly-book-club meeting where someone suggested we all go around the table and tell everyone "why" we're poly.  It irritated me, because it had nothing to do with the book we'd read, and do monogamous people ever go around a table explaining why they're monogamous?  I politely listened to the chain of people paraphrasing The Ethical Slut, and I didn't disagree with any of it, except that I had to wonder about the poly community's talking-about-our-feelings fetish.  When it got to me, I simply stated, "I'm in love with two people.  I don't want to lie to either of them.  ...That's it, really."

Monday, March 22, 2010

In Defense of Anonymity

Betty Dodson has long been one of my sex-positive-feminist heroines.  But then, because I do highly regard her opinions, her blog post yesterday entitled Going Public with Our Sexual Activity stung me.  The post begins:
I'd like to get rid of all the "anon" sign-offs and cyber avatars. What is everyone afraid of? Why can't we all celebrate who we are sexually? What are the concerns people have about claiming their sex-lives under their own name? As long as we continue to hide who we are sexually, we will continue to be manipulated by our repressed conservative society that really hates, or I should say "fears" sex.

The moralists proudly shout their opinions from the roof tops while far too many in the sexual community sneak around under aliases...
And she has an excellent point.  But then, my real name isn't Annabelle, and I won't be publishing it here, even if Betty Dodson does judge me for it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

When Sex Negativity Is Kinda Hot

I recently finished reading The Edge of the Bed: How Dirty Pictures Changed My Life by Lisa Palac, which I highly recommend, because I agree with almost everything she writes.  The part especially sticking with me has been Chapter 6, in which she analyzes her kinky desires that don't just deny, but appropriate her anti-sex Catholic upbringing:

At its core, my Daddy fantasy isn't about my father but about Our Father Who Art in Heaven.  I'd taken the dynamic of love and punishment, which terrorized me as a child and made me feel helpless -- kneeling down and sticking out my tongue to receive his body, whispering my most sinful transgressions in a dark confessional, doing penance to show my love -- and turned it into a powerful source of erotic pleasure.  It wasn't a conscious decision, but then, sexual fantasies rarely are.

...Despite my fear that all of my intellectual processing would ruin by best sexual fantasy, it didn't.  It's still a turn-on because I'm still struggling with the after-effects of Catholicism and I always will be.

Personally, unlike Palac, I was never raised with the idea of God as an old man who would send me to hell for sexual adventurousness.  Instead, the messages that my sexual desires were wrong came from pop-psychology and a specific strain of feminism.  Without God or hell, wanting men to dominate me sexually was a sin against Women's Liberation and a transgression against my Mental Health.  My sex-negative clergy got most of its ideas from Andrea Dworkin.  And I consciously rejected it years ago.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

An Open Letter to Marie Claire

Dear Marie Claire Magazine,

Thank you for publishing Pamela Druckerman's, "How I Planned a Menage à Trois."  For all the shock-value usually attributed to sexual exploration, Druckerman's focus on negotiating with potential partners over coffee is greatly refreshing.  She resists the sensationalist cliché that threesomes are invariably traumatizing and the opposite sensationalist cliché that threesomes are as glamorous as they look in porn, and instead reports her honest experience.  More of this, please.

However, I'm frustrated how Druckerman glosses over, "In practice, I was shaken up," in the last couple sentences.  Up until that point, planning and having her threesome feels either fun or banal, and then she's "struck by how emphatically [she] want[s] [her] husband."  Why then suddenly shaken up?  Is she feeling jealous?  Or does she feel that N or her husband have violated any of her boundaries?  Or is she shaken up by others' judgments that she's "supposed" to feel shaken up?  Druckerman shows so much introspection up until that point, but as soon as she decides that actually her desires are "conservative" (and therefore "normal"?), she quits analyzing.  That strikes me as lazy journalism.

And since Druckerman has decided against having any more threesomes in her life, why doesn't Marie Claire feature any of the many women who have more - and more positive - experiences to share about their threesomes?  Or any of the many women who have initiated them, as opposed to acquiescing to a man's fantasy?  I respect Druckerman's choices, but there's also a huge community of polyamorists and swingers who could provide better insight into why some women really, really like group sex.

Yours sincerely,
Annabelle River 

PS If you too would like to write the editor of Marie Claire, the email address on their website is joannacoles at hearst dot com.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Graphic Sexual Horror and the Ambiguity of Consent

Last Friday I too had the chance to see the documentary Graphic Sexual Horror at the Leather Archives and Museum.  The film explores the story behind the now-defunct hardcore BDSM pornography website, with an impressive lack (or mix) of glorification or condemnation.  I'd like to thank Arvan for the detailed review he's already posted - as well as of course Barbara Bell and Anna Lorentzon for making the film, and Clarisse Thorn and the Leather Archives' Jennifer Tyburczy for hosting.

While Arvan's post touches on many fascinating aspects of InSex and of Graphic Sexual Horror, the one that I left the museum discussing was the ambiguity of consent.  InSex's trademark was hyper-realistically torturing women to the very edge of their limits.  The documentary asked whether these women had given fully-informed, empowered consent, and left the audience with the answer, "Some of them, some of the time."  Which is almost more unsettling than "No," because it calls into question our sacred differentiations between sadomasochism and exploitation.  But then, any strong differentiation has to withstand occasional questioning.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance

The first time I heard the name Elna Baker was on the "Matchmakers" episode of This American Life radio show.  Her segment on working for FAO Schwartz is well worth listening to: The beginning makes me laugh hard, and then it packs a sucker-punch of commentary on American racism and classism.  Touched by Elna Baker's humor and poignancy, I went looking for her personal website, which has clips of her telling stories.  Watching her first video clip, then, I was surprised to learn that Elna Baker is also a practicing Mormon committed to virginity-until-marriage.  As she says of her  dating experience for the laugh-line, "As a Mormon, I don't believe in having sex, and eventually, as a guy, he didn't believe in that.  So atheists do have beliefs."

And I have to confess my gut-level reaction to Mormon abstinence.  Because most of my prior awareness of Mormons comes from their financial and vocal support for Proposition 8, which stripped Californian gays and lesbians of civil rights, and their practice of security-detention for gay men who kiss on the cheek.  My awareness of abstinence-only propaganda is that it's objectively ineffective, in addition to intentionally spreading misinformation, sexism, fear, shame, and homophobia.  There are "purity balls" that promote fathers' ownership of their daughters' sexuality, and "virginity pledgers" with comparable STD and pregnancy rates to their more honest peers.  I highly recommend Feministing's Jessica Valenti's eloquent writing on female disempowerment by "the virginity fetish" and defense of pre-marital sex.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Plea for Truth in Advertising

In my last post, I mentioned my ongoing admiration of The Daily Show for its consistent insight.  But there is one part of late-evening Comedy Central that frustrates me to no end, and that is the parade of commercials featuring straight men lying to women.  The men selling Twix candy bars gets women to sleep with them by denouncing books they enjoy or lying about having been burglarized; the men selling Jim Beam whiskey get women's interest with rented puppies.  The straight men in the Captain Morgan rum ad and The Hangover trailers lie to their significant others about drinking and parties, because apparently women Never Let Them Have Any Fun.

And with so many better-organized feminists campaigning against "objectification" and "exploitation," I have to explain that I'm generally not bothered by advertising that links products to sexy, scantily-clad women.  It's not clever advertising, but I like looking at sexy, scantily-clad women too.  When I go to dance clubs or the dungeon, I often intentionally dress scantily and hope that people think I look sexy.  I don't believe that finding someone physically attractive must be mutually exclusive to respecting their humanity.

What infuriates me is the repeated message that men have to trick women into sex with them.  In addition to the ethical problem, it paints an awfully bleak picture of male heterosexuality: doomed to want sex with anti-sex, no-fun people like women. 

The message is even clearer on Twix's main website, which has "interactive" versions of the commercials.  The boy in the commercial invites the girl back to his apartment, she reacts, "What kind of girl do you think I am?!" and the viewer has a choice between "Be shallow" or "Be deep."  The "shallow" option turns out to be telling the girl that he thinks she's sexy - the truth - to which she slaps him and stomps away.  Then the video rewinds and gives the viewer another chance to make the "right" choice, which is to "be deep" and lie to her.  Further on, clicking "Be honest" ("I just said all that stuff so I could get to know you a little better") will actually get you tased before the girl stomps away again.  (How this translates to "Buy our candy bars" eludes me.)

So with my credentials of actually being a straight woman, I want to explain to the ad execs that such trickery is both insulting and really not necessary.  Most of my sexual relationships started with telling each other something "shallow" or "honest" like, "I think you're sexy," or "I would like to get to know you better."  Directness is refreshing.  The gullible woman who pulls a taser on honesty does not speak for my gender.

I have a similar reaction to the woman in The Hangover spitting through the trailer: "Boys and their bachelor parties: It's gross."  For the record, my husband and I had a joint bachelor/bachelorette party, and it wasn't our wildest party because we were both exhausted from wedding planning.  But almost six months into marriage, we both still enjoy our whiskey and kinky play with other people.  I don't binge-drink or party as hard or as often as I did, say, in college, but I did have a wonderful drunken Halloween grinding with a guy whose name I never got.  Women can be hedonists, too.

So I haven't seen the movie, but I think the hero of The Hangover should get out of his lie-necessitating imminent marriage as soon as possible and find himself a woman who will go on the wacky hedonistic adventures with him, as an equal.  We're out there.

And we're a lot more likely to sleep with you if you're honest with us.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Re-Defining Marriage, or Love for The Daily Show

I realize that I'm a couple days late by blogging standards, but I still want to join Anita Wagner, Alan, and Loving More in cheering for the polyamorous threesome on The Daily Show last Monday:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
No Gay Out
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

The poly folks come in at 3:10, but the whole clip is a good analysis of the marriage debates.

As the comments on Poly in the News agree (including one from George and Joy Reagan, the couple featured), The Daily Show did an impressive job of showing the poly interviewees as articulate, well-adjusted, sexy people, and getting its laughs at the expense of professional-comedian Jason Jones and his mock-sensationalism instead.

The segment also speaks well to trying to define my own heterosexual, polyamorous marriage, especially in its context of a fight for gay equality.  The double standard is obvious and absurd: Heterosexuals already enjoy all kinds of "non-traditional" marriages, and yet the "traditional-marriage" lobby hasn't mounted any serious political campaigns against us.

In order to get my husband's and my marriage recognized by our families and by religious institutions, we did swallow a certain amount of pretense of "traditional" monogamy.  Our vows promised, "I will be honest to you and trusting of you," and not fidelity; but we still smiled politely and silently when our parents' friends commented about us being "off the market."  I stifled my laugh when our Catholic officiant asked me, "Do you believe that he will be as faithful to you as you are to him?" and simply answered, "Yes!"

But for all our half-lies to family and clergy, the U.S. government does not care.  The county clerk who wrote our marriage license asked for our birthdays, our social security numbers, our birthplaces, and our professions.  They did not ask our stance on adultery.

For that matter, we weren't legally required to hide the truth from our families or religious institutions either.  We made the decision to avoid unnecessary drama, and we believe that full honesty with our lovers and closer friends is sufficient for our own consciences.  But if we wanted to live more openly, we certainly could have told everyone we know, uninvited any disapprovers, gotten a civil judge or a Unitarian or a temporarily-ordained friend to officiate, and still had our legal wedding.  The county clerks processing our name/address/social-security-number records still would never have known. 

People may judge the Reagans for having a threesome on cable TV, but no one will "un-marry" them.  And while non-monogamy is one of my especially personal issues, it is only one of the almost infinite ways to expose the myth of "traditional marriage" in the status quo.

Some anti-gay activists call gay marriage the "slippery slope" that will also legalize polygamy.  And yes, re-defining marriage may convince some people that it's possible to re-define marriage.  But pragmatically, legal recognition of gay marriage doesn't change the laws much.  The parts of marriage that the American government regulates now - i.e. inheritance, taxes, child custody - have already evolved through feminism to look past which spouse has a pee-pee and which spouse has a vajayjay.

Pragmatically, being legally married to more than one person at a time would create a lot more unprecedented legal situations.  If one person divorces out of a triad, is the remaining couple entitled to twice as much property because there are two of them?  If someone with two spouses dies, which spouse inherits what?  If someone with two spouses and no living will is in a vegetative state, and the spouses disagree on whether to keep them artificially alive, what then?

Also pragmatically, I'm okay with having only one of my relationships on government records, because my boyfriend and I don't have joint property or a joint residence.  Part of the beauty of polyamory is that not all romantic relationships have to lead to marriage anyway.

So it makes perfect sense that America is opening up to legally recognizing gay marriage before it opens up to legally recognizing polygamy and polyandry.  But from the perspective of my straight but "non-traditional" marriage, I too am watching the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case on pins and needles, praying for Judge Walker and the Supreme Court to show as much sense and humanity as The Daily Show writers.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Your Friendly Television Sex-Toy Vendors

Last night during a quiet evening in, my husband and I re-discovered what I find to be one of the more amusing things on late-night basic cable: the "Shop Erotic!" infomercial.  If you haven't seen it, "Shop Erotic!" features two natural-looking, casually-dressed attractive women selling sex toys to their viewers at home.  Their sales-pitch includes many paraphrases of, "A lot of people find this embarrassing or intimidating, but it's really not.  Exploring new kinds of sex is fun both alone and with a partner."  And I love the lack of sensationalism of these girl-next-door-types spreading the joy of exploratory sex on TV.  Unfortunately for such an otherwise appreciated public service, they're selling sex toys that are ridiculously overpriced and impossible to clean.  Which makes me assume that the business executives are counting on their audience's ignorance.

Yes, I love my sex toys, and can no longer imagine my sexuality without them.  But then, I'm extremely grateful to my former university's feminist group, to my local lesbian-owned-feminist sex shop, and to my local kink scene for disseminating information on sex-toy-safety and proper cleaning.  I strongly recommend Violet Blue's article on the subject, which explains:
Most sex toys (and products) that you’ll find in garden-variety retail sex toys stores are created, marketed and sold “for novelty use only”, meaning that while the toy companies explicitly know that people are using their toys for sexual use, they sell them categorized as “novelties."   ...Novelties often feature the latest innovations in design and use — but also tend to break easily, some are made with noxious materials, and they can ship defective with user-unfriendly return policies...

...There are two basic hygienic differences you’ll need to know when choosing a toy: porous versus non-porous materials.  Non-porous toys are made of materials (like silicone, hard plastic, glass, metal and stone) that are easy to clean and do not retain bacteria in the tiny pockets or pores in the surface. What this means is that when you clean one of these toys, they’re completely clean and don’t have the potential to carry STDs or bacteria that can infect (or re-infect) the user...
So I say thank you to the folks at "Shop Erotica!" for teaching that sex toys are fun, "non-intimidating," and can be associated with "nice, normal" women.  But when spokeswoman Miyoko says of their Dual Penetrator 250, "Now ladies, you might be a little concerned about this because of the double penetration," I'd say double penetration isn't really the "concerning" part.  I'm concerned that it has no materials disclosure, and that she doesn't advise anyone to cover it with a condom.  This toy needs a condom, because I'm willing to bet that the surface is porous, which means that after you're done playing, you can't really clean it.  Besides not knowing whether it leaches noxious chemicals.

I'm also seriously concerned that they're charging $111.49 for the 7th Heaven Blue Beaver, which looks like it's made of a similar cheap jelly and contains no materials disclosure.  For comparison, I got my similarly-shaped Mary Mermaid from my local lesbian-owned-feminist sex shop for only about $80, and it's made of non-porous silicone, which can be bleached sterile.  Similarly, there's no reason to spend $129.95 on "Shop Erotic!"'s glass Helix Dichio when you can get a same-size glass Las Vegas dildo from Tulip for $45.

So how do they stay in business?  I suspect the general TV audience's unawareness of other sex-toy options or how much sex toys are supposed to cost, which is likely perpetuated by the general TV audience's embarrassment from doing their research.  Perhaps they're charging an embarrassment tax.

And I remember being that embarrassed about buying sex toys, and needing someone to specifically tell me it was okay.  I'm exceptionally lucky that when I turned eighteen, I had a close friend two months my senior who dragged me to our local sex shop and insisted that she wouldn't let me leave until I bought something.  At the time, I too was intimidated by the wall of unknown possibilities.  Then, for lack of better knowledge, I too bought a vibrator covered in a cheap jelly.  And it probably gathered bacteria and leached chemicals for a couple years, until my university's feminist group hosted a presentation that convinced me to upgrade.

For everyone without a friend like mine, Miyoko at "Shop Erotic!" may serve the same influence.  But then, here's a list of websites selling cheaper, higher-quality sex toys:

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Beyond The Green-Eyed-Monster

Last weekend I went to a panel question-and-answer session geared toward newbies in the kink Scene. And the only question to specifically address non-monogamy was, "How do you deal with jealousy?" Which is the same first question I've gotten from most of my monogamous friends, and the same question that dominates a healthy percentage of polyamory discussion groups. It's an obvious question and an extremely legitimate one. But I don't understand how jealousy merits such be-all-end-all importance.

I don't pretend to be somehow immune to jealousy; of course I've been jealous of lover's other lovers before, and it's a miserable feeling. But then I have two options, which are: (1) Deal with it; or (2) Tell my husband and boyfriend that I want to be monogamous, in which case I would have to break up with at least one of them. And in the last three and a half years, there has never been a split-second that I honestly thought Option #2 could be less heartbreaking or melodramatic for me than dealing with jealousy.

How do I deal with jealousy? Well, how do I deal with sadness, or with anger, or frustration, or insecurity, or any other unpleasant emotion? My best jealousy-coping strategies suspiciously resemble the generalized coping strategies I've been using since I was fourteen and single: I rant in a private handwritten diary where it won't hurt anyone; I eat ice cream; I watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sometimes I go for walks or sing karaoke. The Ethical Slut and Opening Up and non-monogamy message boards are full of great advice specifically addressing jealousy. But it's just an emotion like sadness or anger, and I don't feel a need to treat it that specially. It also fades over time, as I develop more experience with my lovers being with other people and then coming back to me.

In my experience, jealousy isn't the worst and certainly isn't the most interesting hurdle to polyamorous relationships. Society's prejudice stings too, as I learned from my poly friends fighting for custody of their children, and learned first-hand when my mother told me that my husband deserves a woman who can be faithful to him. My lovers' romantic difficulties and break-ups with other people also sting, because they make my lovers sad. Overall, most of the time, all the love and sex in my life make me pretty happy.

The discussion of how to deal with jealousy will go on, and of course it should. But there's really more to non-monogamy than this obsession with jealousy.