Category Archives: Essays

My essays on a variety of topics involving erotica, sex and culture.

A Few Thoughts on Bellies

Shot of woman's bare torso with glimpse of red heart panties for Sinful Sunday: Girly Thing by Malin James

Photograph by Malin James

This post isn’t really about naval fetishism, but it is the written, real time version of my realization that my relationship to my belly is far less ambivalent than I previously thought. 

I don’t really have a thing with bellies…actually, that’s a lie. I didn’t think I had a thing for bellies until I wrote this post. Hands? Yes. Nape of the neck? Obviously. Collarbones and shoulder? Fizzy, little sigh.

But tummies are different. Unlike napes and collarbones, I don’t sexualize them…at least, not beyond the fact that they’re a lovely expanse of sexy, touchy potential. Round, flat, muscled, soft – if my partner has a tummy, I’m going to want to touch it because it’s part of that person’s body. Odds are that if I’m having sex with someone I want to touch their body, belly included.

My apparently long-standing but newly discovered thing with bellies has less to do with other people’s and more to do with my own. When I was young, I trained at the SF Ballet. Even as a little person, emphasis was placed on how fit and strong and flexible our bodies were, and I was taught that my stomach muscles had a great deal to do with that. When I was dancing, I developed an intuitive awareness of my core muscles and how they engaged. They were my tools and I took care of them. They made me feel strong and capable, but that had nothing to do with sex.

When I got older and more aware and, as a result, more consciously guarded, I became protective of my belly in a largely symbolic way. Traditionally speaking, it’s a vulnerable place and “showing your belly” has never come naturally to me (massive understatement). The fact that getting people to “show their bellies” was one of my ex’s favorite pastimes probably didn’t help. In fact, my hyperawareness of it as an emotionally vulnerable place (and the protectiveness that came with it) may be why I’ve never thought of my belly as an especially sexual part of my body until I actually sat down to think about it.

Much to my surprise, it is.

After years of habitual maintenance, my core muscles are literally and figuratively the center of my strength. I engage those muscles when I run, when I pick up my daughter, and oh, damn do I engage them during sex. A really good kiss is enough to make them tighten up for go-time. I bend and flex and stretch from my belly. I use it for leverage. I sit and stay grounded from there too. Without getting too sentimental or spiritual about it, my belly has become my seat of strength in both body and mind.

While I might be naturally attracted to certain body types, a person’s belly doesn’t register when you compare it to any number of other things, but my relationship to my own belly is surprisingly less generic. My belly is strong, and that makes me feel strong, and yeah, that actually is sexy.

Stretching out long, like a cat, in bed; curling up beneath someone, anchoring myself on top of them, bending this way and that. My belly lets me do all of those things. Even better, it helps me feel present with my partner when I do them. I had no conscious awareness of that before now. It’s kind of lovely that writing this helped me figure that out.

For more thoughts on bellies and naval fetishism, check out Kink of the Week or click the lips. 

Pleasantville: The Promise of Trump’s America

Photograph by Malin James

Photograph by Malin James

I wrote the original draft of this post a few months ago. Suffice it to say, a lot’s changed since then. One of the ugliest presidential elections in history is finally over and, after months of contention, the results were pretty hard to swallow.

It’s not that Hillary Clinton lost—she’s a complicated figure and the reasons for her defeat are equally complicated. What disturbs me is that Donald Trump, an openly racist misogynist who never held public office, handed people a fantasy wrapped in violence, and enough people swallowed it to win him the election.

Many of the people who voted for Trump would not consider themselves to be racist, xenophobic or misogynistic – a lot of them voted for Trump “despite” certain issues, but that “despite” is still a problem. What happened last Tuesday can best be described as a reaction to a package deal. Sure, Trump’s (freaking chaotic) platform included a ton of racist and misogynistic rhetoric aimed at women, Muslims, Latinos, queers, trans people and pretty much everyone who isn’t cis, white and male, but he tied all that hate up in a promise to Make America Great Again, and that promise resonated with a lot of people.

Make America Great Again. It’s standard political rhetoric – a phrase that sells a vague ideal, one a candidate can define flexibly so supporters attach based on their own personal contexts. In this case, Make America Great Again harkens back to the conservative golden age of post-WWII America. This period in U.S. history has taken on a nostalgic sheen, one in which the economy thrived, people had jobs and everything was safe. And white. And run by men. In essence, Trump promised his constituents Pleasantville, and that promise was enough to outweigh the racism and hate he wrapped it up in.

For those of you born in the 21st century, Pleasantville is a Toby Maguire movie from 1998. The citizens of a fictional town called Pleasantville live in squeaky clean, 1950’s black and white world until social and sexual revelations turn everything technicolor. It’s a clever send up of the nostalgia we have for a past that was, under the glossy surface, repressive, judgmental and deeply homogenized.

Trump evoked this nostalgia with his bonkers, often illegal promises to Make America Great Again. The wall he’s going to build along the Mexican border? That’s a promise to keep foreigners out of Pleasantville. Threats of deportation? Same. His plans for a “Muslim registry”? Yeah. That too. Every bit of xenophobic bile is a brick in the foundation of that promise, and that’s not even counting his treatment of women.

Here’s what disturbs me. People wanted the Pleasantville he was selling enough to overlook the violence, misogyny and human rights violations that would inevitably come with it. Whether or not his voters liked the whole packaged is irrelevant at this point. They didn’t mind the ugly enough not to vote for that nostalgic, deeply traditional throwback to a “safer” time, despite how literally un-safe it makes half the population.

That’s the thing about Pleasantville. It’s a lovely, seemingly safe place – seemingly safe because the safety it promises is contextual at best and a lie at worst. It’s a place full of social masks and people passing for “normal” in a traditionally straight, sexually conservative, patriarchal society. It’s a safe place to be if you’re vanilla, straight and white, and it’s the promise Trump ran on. It’s the promise he won on. Which means, it’s the thing we have to be careful of in the next four years.

Sex, race, gender and sexuality. These issues have always been political and, as exhausting as it is, this is normal. This is good. This is the opposite of homogeneity. As long as our bodies remain deeply contested political entities, it means they remain deeply contested political ground rather than territory conquered in the name of an imaginary past.

Trump and his rhetoric—both the hate speech that appealed to the Klan and other marginalized whites, as well as that promise of a newly “great” America—would normalize the homogeneity that we, as women, immigrants, minorities, queers, trans people, liberals, allies and anyone else who fails to toe the line, defy by existing out in the open and without apology. Now, more than ever, we are the body politic, and that means we need to engage, and stay engaged, long past when the disgust, disillusionment and anger wear off. The socially safe America Trump promised doesn’t exist. It never has, and the promise of it shouldn’t be normalized as an unfortunate side effect of a disappointing election.

Human beings can only live with stress for so long before we grow numb to the stressor. It’s seen most often in cases of domestic abuse, a comparison I do not make lightly. Trump’s own lawyers testified that he gaslights them so routinely they have to meet with him in pairs. With Trump’s newly vetted influence, people will eventually get used to the idea of his presidency. It will normalize as an exhausted populace digs in to wait him out. And that’s the real danger now. What he proposes is not normal and, while I know his supporters feel otherwise, the values he’s espouses in conjunction with his vision of a “great” new America cannot be normalized, not without a lot of people paying a very high price.

I’m not saying this to scare people. People are scared enough. I’m saying it because there are still things we can do to keep moving forward, rather than sinking openly and gleefully into black and white.

  1. Donate to charities and institutions aimed at helping people under direct threat. Whether it’s time or money, they’re going to need all the support they can get. The ACLU, the Trevor Project, Planned Parenthood and the NAACP are good places to start, but there are lots  of others too.
  1. Subscribe to reliable news outlets – the New York Times, the Washington Post and Bloomberg News are about as reliable as it gets, but there are a bunch of others too. And if you like your news in audio form, check out NPR. Wherever you get it, vet your news so you know what’s actually going on. Read things you disagree with. It’s the only way you can reliably decide what to believe.
  1. Most importantly, support each other. Have useful discussions. Advocate for equal treatment under the law. If you see someone struggling, help them. Community is one way to set a foundation for changing things between now and 2020.

Some of us will slip under the radar because we’re white or middle class -because we can “pass”. A lot of people don’t have that luxury. If nothing else, it’s become obvious that there is a deep longing for the illusion of safety in the promise of Pleasantville, an illusion that people voted for, regardless of the cost to others. Whether you wave your freak flag loud and proud, or quietly support a charity while protecting your job or family, please try to stay engaged as much as you can. Educate yourself. It’s going to take a lot of of well-informed fuck off‘s to the lure of Pleasantville to get though the next four years.

On Mining Yourself

Black and white pen and ink drawing of a young woman old woman optical illusion for Mining Yourself post by Malin James

Young Woman, Old Woman Optical Illusion by W.E. Hill (1915)

I’ve always loved this image. Is it a picture of a young woman or a crone? Even when I was little, I saw them fluctuate, like a portrait under water, equally young and old. It’s a powerful visual metaphor, one my brain seized on well before I could understand why.

I’ve always split my writing time between fiction and essays. Recently, though, the balance has tipped and I’m  leaning into fiction as I focus on a collection I care a great deal about. That said, project-love isn’t the only reason for the shift in focus.

While there is, inescapably, a lot of me in those stories, there’s a distance in the writing that I need right now. Fiction is, and always will be, fiction, no matter how much of the writer informs the narrative.

The nonfiction I tend to write, especially for this blog, doesn’t have that natural buffer. Everything I write here takes on an inherently personal bent, whether I’m ranting about sexual history calculators or exploring different aspects of non-monogamy. Even when I don’t draw directly from my own experiences, my opinions and history inform those posts to a massive degree. While I usually lean into that level of transparency, my boundaries are higher right now, which makes that transparency hard.

I’m going through an odd time. Things that are fundamental to who I am as a person are shifting and changing, like the young woman and the crone. I grew up affected by a trauma I couldn’t process, and the effects of that trauma unknowingly molded my childhood, my relationships and even my sense of self. Over the course of the past 10 months, I’ve begun to unpack the issues I’ve avoided for 35 years. As a result, my internal landscape is shifting, sometimes quite suddenly. It’s terrifically destabilizing – on some days. On other days it feels great. But the swing between the two is both constant and erratic, so I’m extremely hesitant to write about it. Yet.

In order for me to write well, I need distance and perspective. Venting feels good (oh, so very good), but if I don’t broaden my understanding I run the risk of ranting aimlessly or navel-gazing or, even worse, both. No one likes a ranty navel-gazer so I try not to mine myself until I’ve gained some insight. That’s why I didn’t write about this or this for more than a decade, even though I did (and still do) have plenty to say.

That’s the key, for me, to writing personal essays. While nonfiction takes a thousand different forms, my natural approach is to mine myself for material and (hopefully) create something that connects with a reader in some kind of meaningful way. This often means that the most immediate, difficult or overwhelming situations (the ones I tend to want to vent about) are best left alone until I understand the lay of the land.

At the moment, my emotional landscape is the sort of primordial jungle that guys in pith helmets get lost in. Except for scrawling in my journal, writing about any of it would, in the end, make me feel worse. The young woman and the crone might use the same hand, but they write from different perspectives. Anything I say now will very likely shift given time and emotional clarity. Writing is a way to pin my thoughts down. That’s a hard thing to do when they will very likely change.

Eventually, I’ll put enough distance between myself and this mine of material but, for now, there’s little I could say that would be of use to anyone but myself. I admire writers who produce beautiful, cogent essays in the middle of great stress. It’s a magnificent talent, one I quite notably lack. My strengths lie in hindsight, and hindsight takes time, so I’m leaning on fiction and quiet…at least, I am for now.

On Mining Yourself was inspired in large part by this post by Honey at Happy Come Lucky. If you’re looking for perspective and clarity, there are few bloggers as gifted as she is. I wholeheartedly recommend you check it out. 

Who I Am With You Isn’t Who I Am With Him

M.C. Escher

M.C. Escher

I wrote a story a few months ago called “Looking Glass”, in which a woman looks forwards to having sex with the guy she’s seeing, not just because she wants to fuck him (though she does), but because

“sex is her looking glass. It lets her see who a person is, (or rather who they are with her). It lets her see who she is with them. She wants that view more than she wants to get off. She wants to see if they fit.”

At the time I wrote the story, I made a mental note to circle back to the idea that sex can be a mirror, not just for you or your partner, but for who you are together. Identity and personality are pet topics on this blog, so I’m not going to waste time saying that personalities are fluid. Anyone with a secret Twitter account can tell you that Secret Twitter You is just as authentically “you” as Dinner with Gran You. It’s just not the “you” your gran is used to seeing…probably.

Instead, I want to look at how that fluidity plays out in sexual dynamics. Most of us slide up and down a sexual scale. Even people who identify very strongly as one thing (submissive, dominant, vanilla, etc.) tend to play that thing out differently with different lovers. Part of what makes for sexual chemistry between any two people is how well you intuit each other, and that’s different case by case.

That’s why I’ve always been curious about what sex would be like with different people. Like the protagonist in “Looking Glass”, my anticipation in the build up to my first time with someone new is rooted in curiosity—who will I be with them, who will they be with me, and what will be together? In other words, what will we bring out in each other?

Ages ago, I was seeing two very different men. Let’s call them A and B. My dynamic with A was emotionally and sexually intense. We went dancing and did a great deal of staring intensely into each other’s eyes. The sex was fucking hot.

My dynamic with B was different. Mostly, he and I laughed. We went to diners and dive bars and told rambling stories. The sex was also amazing, but in a super playful, peaches and cream kind of way.

One day, B and I went to an event and met up with A and his date. Everything was great, so much so that I didn’t give the meeting a second thought until the next time I saw A when he commented that he’d had no idea I was such a goofball.

Here’s how that conversation played out in semi-fictional dialogue.

A: Hey, M?

Me: What’s up?

A: So….

Me: ….yes?

A: Do I keep you from being you?

Me: (blank stare)  No. Why?

A: Because you seemed so relaxed with B the other day. I mean, I’ve never seen you so relaxed and goofy and I was kind of wondering if I was keeping you from that because, you know, I’m not relaxed. Or goofy.

Me: Aw, babe…. (sits on his lap and gently bites his neck) Who I am with you isn’t who I am with him. I’m goofy and relaxed with B because B and I are goofy and relaxed together. I’m pouncier with you because that’s how we are. One isn’t more me than the other. It’s all me. You’re just seeing what naturally comes out with you.

A: (melts because he loves having his neck bit) Okay, so…what you’re saying is…it’s all good.

Me: (straddles him) It’s all good.

The conversation ended there and all was (extremely) good – because that’s how it worked naturally for A and I. Had that conversation happened with B instead of A, I probably wouldn’t have nibbled on him and gone straight to sex because that’s not how it was with us. We’d have had a good conversation, probably gotten philosophical, and then had slow, lazy sex before watching The Matrix and eating take-out.

In either case, the set of impulses I had with A were just as authentic as the ones I’d have had with B, they were just very different. That’s why the first time with a new partner is exciting, even if it isn’t magical right off the bat. It’s not just about chemistry. It’s about curiosity and mutual potential; how we connect, and how defined that connection is.  Do we share one wavelength, or do we slide over the scale together?

All of those questions hum along, fueling attraction, chemistry, and sex. And the answers, as variable and context dependent as they are, form a hell of a good mirror for anyone, so long as they are authentically engaged. It’s why relationships fascinate me in all of their brilliant, curious, mind-blowing, toxic, soul-deep, casual variations.  It’s one of the biggest reasons I love sex…aside from the obvious.

 

Unrelated PSA:

For months now, I’ve been working on a collection that I’m very excited about. I’m lucky enough to be working with an amazing editor, but life is getting busier and I need to clear more time for it, so, for the next little bit, the blog will be moving to a slightly less regular posting schedule. It’s definitely not going anywhere. There will just be a slightly longer gap between posts.

In the meantime, feel free to dig into the archives and cringe at what a catastrophe of a baby blogger I was. It’s the blogging equivalent of refrigerator art –  precious, precious stuff. 😀

On Secret Identities

Black and white image of Malin James with one half of her face in sharp relief and the other in shadow

Photo by Malin James

A few weeks ago, I introduced myself as Malin. This isn’t unusual – people often call me Malin, even if they know my real name. The only reason it caught me up was that the person I’d introduced myself to was my daughter’s teacher, someone with no overlap into the Malin portions of my life. It made me realize how deeply my relationship to that name, and the identity it signifies, has changed.

Malin began as a construct – a second identity engineered to be a firewall between my real life and what I wrote. What I didn’t realize was that creating the firewall formalized a boundary that pre-existed Malin by decades. I’d always felt a certain split, but the pseudonym freed me to fully engage both halves of what I perceived to be two conflicting identities – the hungry, sexual, wolf-grin parts of me that wore black leather pants and always carried cab fare, and the introverted nerd who liked to stay home and read.

Clearly, these (and many other) facets of my personality can and do co-exist. But right after my daughter was born, when I switched genres and started writing erotica, formalizing the difference and attaching an “identity”  to the latter was a huge relief. It gave my sexual intensity somewhere to go while I sorted through the insanity of suddenly being someone’s mom.

Five years later, I’ve grown out of that formalized boundary between Malin and the rest of me. The name no longer signifies a secret or hidden identity because there is, quite literally, no difference between Malin and the rest of me. By pure coincidence, both facets have fully integrated. There’s nothing secret or hidden left to hide (except access to my home address).

Unlike a lot of people who use pseudonyms, mine is, at this point, more of a convenience than a necessity – Malin James is the author of all of my work and it’s easier to let it stay that way. It also acts as a sort of marker – if you know my real name, we very likely have a friendship / relationship that extends into real life. Plus, I’m protective of my family so the firewall is still nice to have.

My slip a few weeks ago made me aware of how, for the longest time, I thought of Malin as a separate person, and how that separation ended up being a really healthy thing. Without the pseudonym formalizing the division in my identity, I probably wouldn’t have integrated them as naturally as I did.

Naming that half of myself gave me permission to be everything I no longer felt comfortable being. (It wasn’t just motherhood. There was a lot of shakubuku involved). Rather than repress it, I gave the problematic parts a formal context, ie: Malin does sex and engages the world, while the rest of me works in a library and mashes peaches for my kid.

I’m hardly unique in this – people create secret identities all the time. In fact, the duality of characters like Catwoman and Batman is a large part of their appeal (at least, it is to me). Despite their duality, they are fundamentally whole – both halves get face time, both halves have a purpose. It’s a neat solution to a common problem of how to reconcile seemingly disparate parts of yourself.

The fact that I needed that division makes me sad, but that need was a product of no longer feeling right in my own skin. Having two identities running parallel to each other was a way to inhabit all of myself without sacrificing either half – the light or the dark. What I realized the other day is that fully inhabiting both identities brought them closer and closer together until they overlapped. And that’s where I am now.

Integrating Malin into the rest of me was never my intention. I could have happily continued jumping back and forth over that formalized divide, but I’m even happier now that I don’t have to. I like being fully represented in all aspects of my life. I like that, if you read my blog or follow my Twitter feed, you get a sense of who I actually am, not just the parts that jive with an image.

Everyone has a different relationship to their secret identity. For some people, it is a non-negotiable necessity. For others, it’s the freedom to be their real, honest self. For me, it became a way to grapple with conflicting identities. In the end, the divide made both halves stronger until the line between them blurred.

I’ll always have practical reasons for maintaining my pseudonym, but knowing that what started as a pen name became a temporary home makes me love the name, and that’s one of the biggest reasons I keep it. I’m grateful for Malin and giving it up would be, at this point, almost as strange as giving up my legal name.

Technicolor Sex

Marilyn Monroe in a read dress against a green floral background for Technicolor Sex by Malin James

Marilyn Monroe, circa 1952. Image courtesy Getty Images.

You know how sometimes, every now and then, sex can light you up? It’s the kind of sex that squeezes your heart and gobbles it whole. Sublime, intense, shattering sex that leaves you wrecked and soaked and scratched and bruised and so happy you could cry?

Yeah. I love sex like that.

I used to associate catastrophically good, mind-altering sex with kink because, when I was younger, the only time I experienced it was in kinky situations. The impact it made on me drove me to experiment with all sorts of sexual deviance, which was great and profound in its own way, but it also kept me from understanding my natural sexual wiring until much later.

Recently, I’ve come around to realizing that, while I am definitely a kinky person, kink isn’t actually what drives my sexuality. Intensity does, and kink is one possible way for me to get a hit of that drug.

Note: When I say “kink”, I’m referring to all of the kinks I enjoy, plus the million other kinks that fall under the term’s umbrella. Unless I specify a particular kink by name, just figure I mean it as a placeholder for anything that falls outside the sexual mainstream, whatever that is….

Some people have a central kink around which other kinks play out, like the sub who loves spanking but isn’t into service. I don’t have a central, identifying kink. I have a spectrum of equally weighted, kinky options. That’s because, for me, the turn-on isn’t the kink itself, but the intensity that comes from engaging it.

I’ve written before about how I don’t identify as a Domme because it comes with a set of expectations that don’t consistently apply. While I enjoy playing that role, I slide in and out of sexual dominance depending on what I’m doing and who I’m with. For me, sexual dominance is an impulse—awesome when it’s instinctive with a partner, but not necessarily something I pursue for its own sake.

Unlike someone whose sexual identity is fairly set, my sexuality is fundamentally intuitive. I’m kind of like a tuning fork—I ring at different frequencies with different lovers because different people tap different aspects of my sexuality. This isn’t to say that I don’t have my own preferences and boundaries. It’s no secret that submission isn’t my thing. Masochism, however, is. I like pain – both dishing it out and taking it – but only if it’s part of my natural dynamic with a partner.

And that’s really the thing for me—my dynamic with my partner. It doesn’t matter if it’s a one-time thing or a long-term relationship, more than anything, I respond to connection – that humming recognition that you both want to fuck. While I really enjoy a lot of different kinks, the intensity I crave has more to do with a feedback loop than with the kink itself, and what creates that delicious feedback loop changes from partner to partner and moment to moment.

So, when I say that my sexuality is intuitive rather than definitive, I really mean that my sexual response cues off a feedback loop. Kink can, and often does, form the basis of that connection, but sometimes it just happens out of the blue. It’s a lot like dancing – you move with each other’s impulses and improvise, so dancing with one partner is nothing like dancing with someone else. I’m hyperaware of my partners’ impulses, and that awareness shapes my response. It creates a sort of bespoke sexual experience, but what fits one partner in one moment, won’t necessarily fit another.

That’s why, while I love rough sex, I’m only going to want it with certain people because it’s not about rough sex, per se. It’s about rough sex with someone I want to have rough sex with. So, as much as I enjoy restraint and watching and being watched and group sex and fucking in places you shouldn’t be fucking, I love vanilla too. For me, it’s not about what we’re doing; it’s about how it feels while we’re doing it.

If I get that intensity through missionary with unbroken eye contact, fine. If I get it through edge play, voyeurism, or trusting a partner enough to push my own boundaries, fine. In the end, it’s all just a gateway to the kind of intensity that makes for the kind of sex that dismantles your brain and turns you into a cock or a cunt and the basic need to fuck.

That isn’t to say that I can’t enjoy kink or have amazing sex without that brain-dismantling intensity because I can and have and will. In the end, I love sex—kinky sex, or sex that’s as vanilla as it gets. The kind of sex that I’m talking about here is just one variation in a million. I just happen to love it because it’s as context dependent as I am.

For me, at its best, sex is a function of impulses and variables and kink is just one of those variables. While I genuinely enjoy kinky, filthy filth, the intensity I want is a product of dynamic and connection, informed by, but not dependent on kink. It’s just as likely to happen with eye contact as it is with anything else.

I like it when sex is the unpredictable product of impulse and instinct. I like it when sex surprises me. Within the boundary of certain hard limits, my sexuality is fluid enough that it doesn’t hold a definitive shape, which means that sex is always something of an adventure. Even if I’ve been with someone for years, something – an emotional quirk, a request, whatever – can hit me in a way I didn’t expect. That sudden change in frequency is the shot of sexual adrenaline that starts the rest of the feedback loop.

It’s like alchemy and it’s different with everyone. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it reminds me what having a body is all about. That’s when you get sex that’s shattering and cathartic; sex that’s so intense and so fucking good you have to check for a heartbeat after. That’s sex in blazing Technicolor. Kink or no kink, I love Technicolor sex.

On Self-Objectification

Woman on a red bed taking a selfie for Selfies and Self-Objectification by Malin James

Selfie by Malin James

I’m a contrary person. If there’s a popular take on something, I tend to play devil’s advocate, if only for the sake of discussion. The idea that selfies are a form of female “self-objectification” is one of those issues. The only difference is that, in this case, my objection is rooted in actual disagreement, not just the spirit of debate.

A great deal of ink has been spilled on selfies and their social impact. A lot of articles voice a concern that selfies foster poor self-esteem in young women and a reliance on external validation. Others protest that selfies as narcissistic, vain and shallow—also as regards women. Still others point out that posting selfies can make a woman vulnerable to bullying, predation, anxiety and stress.

All of these concerns are valid – in some cases. In others, selfies are a source of healthy self-expression, positive reinforcement, memories and the basic human drive to exclaim Hey! I was here! It all depends on the person and their motive for taking the selfie, and that’s far too contextual a thing to usefully question or protest.

What I take issue with is the assertion that selfies are a form of self-objectification, ie: that women who take selfies have unknowingly drunk the patriarchal Kool-Aid.

So, what ‘self-objectification’ and why I have an issue with it?

Before we can deal with self-objectification, we need to start with objectification as a concept. Objectification is a theory that refers to the treatment of a person, usually a woman, as an object, stripped of autonomy and subjectivity. (For a detailed definition, click here). Objectification is usually assumed to be sexual at its core.

According to feminist theory, sexual objectification is a symptom of the male gaze, a way of seeing everything, including women, through a male, often sexualized, lens. According to critics, the male gaze has led to internalized misogyny – that’s the drinking of the patriarchal Kool-Aid I mentioned earlier. It’s the idea that women have been subjected to the male gaze for so long that we’ve internalized an objectifying view of ourselves and other women.

While I do believe that internalized misogyny can manifest in all kinds of subtle ways, it isn’t, and can’t be, inherent in selfie-taking. Here’s why.

Objectification is something that is done to you. It’s the lens through which you are viewed. Even if you wear nothing by fuck me pumps and a smile, you are not objectifying yourself. You might be inviting objectification, but odds are you aren’t viewing yourself an object devoid of autonomy and reason. You’ve simply presented yourself in a sexualized way. Objectification is the step other people take when they see you.

So, is it possible for women to self-objectify? Can a woman see herself as a thing stripped of personhood and subjectivity? Can a woman view herself as an object? Well…while it’s possible, especially in cases of abuse, but casually speaking it isn’t likely.

When a woman takes a selfie, she’s acknowledging that she has a body. She isn’t stripping herself of intelligence, resilience, bad-assness or anything else. Those qualities still exist in the way she sees herself, regardless of how she angles her body. She is simply asserting her physical presence for reasons of her own and that is what subjectivity is all about.

Whether you like it or not, inviting objectification is a legitimate, autonomous choice. Whether or not it’s a symptom of internalized misogyny is as unique to the individual woman as is any other motive for selfie-taking, which brings me full circle.

People take selfies for all kinds of reasons. Judging those reasons as shallow, vain, dangerous or anti-feminist is as useful as judging someone’s motives for eating an ice cream cone. Sure, you could eat ice cream for unhealthy reasons. You could eat ice cream to excess. Or you could just eat ice cream because it tastes good and you want ice cream. There are too many possible motives to warrant casting it in a reflexively cautionary light.

The same thing goes for selfies – protesting on the grounds of internalized misogyny discounts the many reasons she might have for taking the picture. It denies her the ability to make an autonomous choice and strips her of sovereignty over her image and how she uses it. That’s anti-feminism dressed up as real feminism, and it’s much more dangerous than the hottie in your timeline.

Selfies are a curious thing. As a species, we are preoccupied with our presence in the world. It’s why we have cave paintings, graffiti, art, and most other forms of human accomplishment. They are an assertion of presence – a huge I WAS HERE shouted into the void of existence. Selfies are just another way to shout into the void. It’s an assertion of presence, regardless of the reason, and that makes selfies important. The fact that women use them to assert their presence in the world for reasons of their own is a devil worth advocating for.

The Body Politic

Black and white image of a woman wearing a black corset for Luck and the Body Politic post by Malin James

Photograph by Jeanloup Sieff

It’s been a rough week…a rough month, to be honest. I don’t normally share this sort of thing, but it ties into something important, so I’m going to.

My body is strong – a bit busted up, but strong and faithful and generally trustworthy. That’s why I was taken by surprise when I got a “concerning” (ie: abnormally abnormal) result on a cervical biopsy last month.

I took it for granted that the biopsy would come back clear. I had no basis for that assumption – there’s a history of cervical cancer in my family, so abnormal results shouldn’t have surprised me, but there you go. Nothing blinds like optimism.

Unfortunately, I was also in the tiny minority of women who get a cervical infection after a biopsy (not fun, in case you were wondering), which is why they waited  a month to do the procedure that eradicates suspicious cells – the very same cells that took advantage of the delay to grow like the ambitious little bastards they were. As a result, this fairly simple procedure ended up being a lot more involved (and painful) than it usually is, which is why I’ve spent the week laid up. Lots of time to think.

Aside from really wishing I’d had (even) more drugs during the procedure because wow, A LOT  just wasn’t enough, I’m trying to take it in stride. It’s a common procedure and they caught the cells before they had a chance to become a problem. So, why am I feeling so fragile and emotional? You’d think my head fell off….

It’s to do with a few things I suspect. The first is that a woman’s cervix is freaking sensitive and having it messed with, even by a doctor for the very best of reasons, is unsettling. I’ve also experienced sexual trauma so I’m extra protective of that area, which made it upsetting in that way too. And then there’s the last thing, which is what I want to focus on – the feeling of having dodged a bullet through sheer, dumb, circumstantial luck.

This isn’t about mortality – that’s a whole other thing. It’s about **resources and who gets access to them. I had a relatively straightforward procedure that, even with complications, worked out to my benefit – no cervical cancer for me, thanks! The price I had to pay was worth it, and I would gladly pay it again. But some people aren’t so lucky. Some people don’t have a choice.

The procedure I had is routinely available in 2016. So is the Pap smear that led to the biopsy that led to me sitting in stirrups while a surgeon did surgical things to me. And because I have medical insurance, I was given the choice of having those things done. A lot of women would happily make the same choices, but without access to comprehensive medical care, they can’t. And that’s a horrible thought.

I’m thinking about all of the women who try (and have tried) to end pregnancies in ways that are as dangerous to them as they are to the fetus. I’m thinking about breast cancers that metastasize and the daughters who lose mothers because something is wrong but no one knows what  – not until it’s too late. I’m thinking about all of the people who die from preventable diseases because services aren’t available when they’re needed.

I am not equating what my cervical experience with an abortion. Not even close. What I am doing is pointing out that, while reproductive health is something that we advocate for, fund and defend, there are a lot of people who don’t enjoy the benefit of those resources because they can’t afford them. That makes it frustrating and all the more tragic in a different way when people who do have access don’t use them.

Everyone is physically vulnerable. Our mortality guarantees that. But if you have access to resources and education, use them—get STI screenings, get Pap smears, do breast exams. They are crazy-amazing interventions. While nothing in medicine will prevent you from eventually kicking off, access to care buys you choices, and that’s something I wish everyone had more of. Unfortunately, in practical terms (at least, in the U.S.) health coverage is still not universal, despite the political progress made in this area, and that’s nothing compared to the lack of basic medical care in Third World and developing nations.

Our bodies, whether we like it or not, are political objects, and medicine is a political issue. I’m not saying you have to rally for universal health coverage, abortion rights or fundraise for breast cancer awareness. All I’m saying is that a great deal of the world’s population does not have access to good medicine. In fact, for the bulk of human history, no one did.

So, if you do have access to health care, don’t take it for granted and definitely don’t  waste it. Use the educational and medical resources available to you. It’s one very basic way to advocate for more. And when you vote on issues pertaining to medical assistance, try to let empathy guide you as much, or more than, economics or political allegiance. There are so many resources regarding reproductive health, from birth control to cures for abnormal cell growth. It breaks my heart that, whether due to insufficient sexual education or insufficient funding, so many people have to do without.

That’s why I feel lucky (and ridiculously emotional) – I got to have a procedure that hurt like hell, thoroughly rattled my cage and may have saved my life somewhere down the line, and I got it because I have a lovely little card that means I’m part of an HMO with a co-pay I can afford. That’s an incredibly privileged position to be in, especially in a world where people still die from curable diseases. Given all that, I don’t mind being reminded how lucky I am.

** While this post is generally about women and reproductive health, the same applies to all areas of medical concern, from vaccinations to urology (fun! sorry…not fun…). If you have access to health care, use it, even if the resource you need makes your five-year-old cry. Even if it makes you cry. It’s better than not having the choice. 

4 a.m.

4 a.m.

4 a.m. (Photograph by Malin James)

I have a pretty serious relationship with 4 a.m.

It was 4 a.m. when I realized that God didn’t exist and that my parents were just people. It was too much, too fast for a six-year-old. I felt like an island, floating in the sky.

I was 4 a.m. when I woke up in my dorm room sure that something was wrong. My mom called a few hours later – my dad was sick. I had to come home.

It was 4am when I realized that the only way I could get out of a toxic relationship was to leave the city I loved.

It was 4am when I decided to come back, get out of acting, go to grad school. Maybe try to write for real.

My daughter woke up at 4 a.m. every night and it was 4am when I cried because she was smiling, and I was sick from needing sleep.

It’s 4am when I run to steady my pulse.

It’s 4am when I write nonsense like this.

It’s 4am when the quiet falls like rain, and I imagine slipping through the drops.

This is about as un-sinful as a Sinful Sunday can get. While it was taken from above and not below (as per August’s prompt), for me, my face mid-insomnia is pretty damn revealing so I went with it anyway. If you’d like to see some fantastically sexy Sinful Sunday’s, click the pretty lips.

Sinful Sunday

A Case for Good Men

Propaganda style poster of Captain America for The First Avenger Film, for A Case for Good Men by Malin James

Design by Eric Tan

A few weeks ago, after a little Avengers marathon, a friend asked me why I have such a thing for Steve Rogers. Aside from the fact that Chris Evans is hot, the real reason I crush on Captain America is because Steve Rogers is a Good Man ™ ie: the kind of guy who’ll jump on a grenade (pre-superhero makeover) when everyone else runs away.

My friend didn’t get it. Aside from agreeing that Chris Evans is hot, (because holy hell, c’mon), she thinks Cap is pretty boring and would take Loki over him in a heartbeat. And coming from where she’s coming from, that’s understandable. She’s in the somewhat rare position of never having been hurt, either in love in or life. Her career, marriage, and status are as stable Mt. Rushmore, so when she see’s an iconically good man like Captain America, she sees what she’s always known, which is not what fantasies are about. That’s why she’s all over fictional bad boys like Loki. For her, danger is a novelty. For me, trust is.

And why wouldn’t danger be a novelty? If you’re lucky, real danger is rare. That’s why you get kryptonite when you dress a sexy guy up in reluctance and black leather. Not that I don’t get that sexy, edgy, bad boy thing. I’ve dated a lot of bad boys and a few bad men (there’s a difference, but I’ll get to that) so I get the attraction in spades. I doubt I could’ve written this post if I didn’t.

In the end, my appreciation for good men is due entirely to contrast – good men have qualities that dating bad men have made me value, like integrity and trustworthiness. My natural attraction has always been to the black leather end of the spectrum, but I’ve developed an aversion after glutting myself through my twenties and early thirties. In fact, if my history were full of men I could trust, I probably wouldn’t fetishize it now. My attraction to good men is purely adaptive but no less real for it.

Now, before I go on, I need to undermine my own argument.

The good man / bad boy dichotomy I’ve set up is bullshit. No one is entirely good, or entirely bad. At least, most people aren’t. The exceptions tend to live in supermax prisons or Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood. Most people live on a scale that slides from good to bad depending on context. A generally awful person can still help an old lady cross the street, and a generally good person can still be a troll.

This makes defining the Good Man ™ tricky, which is why I’m using the dichotomy. While it’s a ridiculous reduction of complex human behavior, simplicity can be useful. So, for the sake of this post, a good man is a man whose behavior is mostly guided by principles rooted in the well-being of others, while a bad boy’s behavior is mostly guided by impulse and desire, regardless of consequence.

A Few Brief Words About Bad Men:

A few paragraphs ago, I said that bad men and bad boys weren’t the same thing. A bad boy might be careless or act primarily in his own self-interest but, generally speaking, he will dig deep and act on others’ behalves when the context or person is right. Think Spike from Buffy, Loki, Han Solo, James Bond – the bad guy with the heart of gold.

A real life bad man doesn’t have the heart of gold simmering under the smirk. A real life bad man has a passport full of places you’d never, ever want to go. He has a name he wasn’t born with. He gives you a knife for Christmas and then holds it to your throat (not in a sexy way). He has no problem with gaslighting, undermining or turning you into something he owns. It’s not that a bad man can’t do a good thing. It’s that he’s only likely to do it if it serves his bottom line, and the bottom line is always him.

We fetishize antiheroes and bad boys because they combine a good man’s virtues with a bad man’s danger and sex appeal, so much so that a standard bad boy story arc is his journey to finally doing the right thing. (Think Han Solo’s saving the day during Luke’s Death Star run).

Looked at from that angle, the appeal of the bad boy trope is, in fact, that bad boys are really good men buried under a pile of scoundrelly sexiness. The only difference is that a good man’s integrity (and trustworthiness, etc, etc.) isn’t playing hard to get. It’s not waiting for that one special woman or situation to activate it, nor is it conditional. It’s just there, guiding his behavior, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

That’s why I love Cap but kind of loathe Superman. Steve Rogers never stops doing the hard thing, even after he becomes, for all intents and purposes, invincible. His integrity puts him at odds with the world, whereas Superman, to my knowledge, just does his thing. He got the super for free. Good men aren’t good because being good is easy. They’re good because it’s hard and they do it anyway. That is bad ass and fucking hot.

While I absolutely get the bad boy appeal, the bad man experience has made me wary of it. If a man is good, I want to see it. If I can trust him, I want to know it. If I can relax my guard with him, that’s better than gold and (for me) just as rare. It’s not an issue of safety – at this point, I’m good at keeping myself safe. It’s not having to think about it that makes a good man sexy as hell.

NB: 

The wonderful and incredibly perceptive Honey over at Happy Come Lucky made an excellent point in the comments and on Twitter that warrants a note here. Built into all that is good in good men is the question of how good they are for you. You could date Captain America and he could treat you like a queen, but if duty is his first priority, he will leave you to do the right thing. Just ask Agent Carter.

A man’s goodness won’t save you from getting your heart broken. It won’t guarantee that he never leaves you, nor will it guarantee that he’ll put you first. All it does is tell you that his integrity, principles, and priorities are generally aimed at what he considers to be right. This is where the dichotomy fails and the gray area comes in. What’s good for everyone else may not be good for you as his partner. The best man in the world can still hurt you. The only difference is that he probably won’t mean to when he does.