Category: Essays (page 1 of 6)

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

Tell Me A (Very Short) Story

Black and white image of a woman with writing in black ink on her back

Skin Writing II by Matou Malin

Welcome to the second installment of my pre-Eroticon, I-Had-More-Material-Than-Will-Fit-In-The-Session series. This one is on flash fiction and plot. Or, more, specifically, does flash fiction need to have a plot?

Opinions vary (sometimes violently), but my answer to this question is yes. And no. Flash is a wily thing.

Before I can dig into my non-response properly, it’s important to look at what, exactly, “plot” means.

Generally speaking, plot is defined as a story’s rising and falling action, or what’s typically called a narrative arc. Implicit in that understanding is the assumption that a traditional narrative arc is one of a story’s baseline requirements. In other words, it needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end. If it doesn’t, it’s something else—a vignette, a scene, a prose poem, but not a “proper story”.

So, given all that, what’s the difference between flash fiction, (which often doesn’t contain a clean narrative arc), and, say, a prose poem?

It’s a thin line, but the difference is in the fact that fiction, unlike poetry, is an inherently temporal form – it’s rooted in a particular time and place. By contrast, a prose poem is, essentially, an observation, which means that, as prescient as the observation might be, it has a universal quality that prevents it from anchoring itself to a specific, temporal space.

Stories, unlike prose poems, are populated by characters with needs and motivations, and those characters need to exist somewhere. That somewhere (even if it’s just an empty room in an unknown year) implies physical existence, the passage of time and changes in circumstance. Stories have characters and characters have needs, which means that something will change, or fail to in a meaningful way. That process is dynamic, and the dynamic movement from point A to point B is what forms a narrative.

This tinkers with the traditional notion of plot, but less so than you’d think. It doesn’t matter if the change happens on the grand scale or unfolds quietly in a single page. What matters is that the change is rooted in a character’s longing. It can be as broad as trying to save the world, or as subtle wanting to get out of bed and not being able to. If there’s need there’s change and that naturally forms plot.

And, in the end, that’s all plot really is—a character pursuing a need. Or, to put it more dramatically, plot is the portrait of a character’s desire—how they pursue it, how it’s  thwarted, and how (or if) it’s resolved. That resolution of a desire usually comes in the form of an epiphany—a realization that signals a pivot in the character’s outlook or circumstance. That pivot is the change that represents movement through a set of temporal circumstances, i.e.: the plot.

The journey from challenge to resolution has acres of room to breathe in novels. It has the opposite in flash fiction. But just because a character’s longing can’t unfold in epic or obvious ways doesn’t mean it’s not there.

While the brevity required in short, short fiction doesn’t often allow for a “fully developed plot”, flash fiction has the luxury of taking a microscope to the thwarted desires and revelations that drive traditional narrative forms. Flash fiction may appear to be inherently “plotless”, but if there is a character at the heart of it, and that character has a need, then that story has the DNA of plot and can, quite comfortably, be considered proper fiction.

Now, I’m going to be wild and crazy and say something that a lot of people would disagree with. I don’t think flash fiction has to have a plot, even in DNA form. That said, it also can’t just shuffle around without a point or purpose.

Monologues, vignettes, scenes and sketches, like prose poetry, are driven (generally speaking) by the universal observations I mentioned earlier. While some would disagree with my taking an inclusive view, I believe that these are also legitimate forms of storytelling because they achieve through observation what plot does through desire and conflict—they reflect an essential human truth or condition.

When you strip it down, that’s what fiction is, regardless of length. It’s a made-up story that reflects an essential human truth. That’s why characters in flash fiction are more important than a beginning, middle and end. The truth can be anything from desperately wanting to fuck your ex, to grieving the loss of a child. Whether it happens through observation, or the temporally specific plot movements, fiction reflects what it is to be a person in the world. Whether it’s a novel or a paragraph, that’s what fiction does.

So, does flash fiction need a plot?

It would be more useful to ask if flash fiction can accommodate a plot, and the answer to that is yes. But flash can also accommodate breathless observation, devastating reflection and humanity in all of it glorious, filthy complexity, and, in the end, they serve the same function as plot.

We are humans, and humans are driven by desire. Whether that desire is for a glass of water or the golden fleece, longing, wanting and needing are fundamental human conditions. As long as a story taps into what it is to be fundamentally human, it’s storytelling and it’s powerful, regardless of length.

Other Eroticon-Inspired Writer Posts

On Implication

What You Owe the Reader

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.

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.

On Submission & Strong Women

Black and white of a woman wearing black boots and ball and chain by Ellen von Unswerth for On Submission, Strong Women and The High Alpha by Malin James

Ellen von Unwerth, from Revenge

I had a brief conversation the other day that got me thinking. I’m going to paraphrase chunks of the exchange rather than quote directly (because consent), but I’ll stick as close to the original as I ethically can.

So, here’s the opener:

Hi Malin. As a high-alpha male, I appreciate strong women. Dominant women are a rare challenge. I love your work – it gives me a lot of insight into how strong women tick. 

Given my initial response, the smart thing to do would’ve been to ignore it and move on. Unfortunately, those three sentences annoyed the fuck out of me so I responded with this:

A rare challenge…interesting. Care to unpack that?

Here’s his response:

Sure! For alpha males there’s nothing as exciting as an alpha female. Alpha females handle themselves, which is great (and rare with women in my experience, IMHO), but even more exciting is the challenge I mentioned. When a strong woman breaks and submits to you, that’s the biggest high you can get as a Dom. All women, alpha or not, want to submit to a strong man and being the only man that an alpha female submits to is a fucking high.

So…setting my visceral response aside, what he’s essentially talking about is a fetish for strong women. That, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. Strong women rock in all kinds of ways because there are all kinds of ways in which women are strong. Where it goes wrong for me is in why he appears to fetishize a particular kind of female strength.

He doesn’t love strong women because he thinks strong women are interesting. He doesn’t love strong women because he wants to submit to a worthy Domme. He doesn’t even love strong women because he thinks an alpha female is the only kind of woman who can match his “high alpha” self. He loves strong women because they’re a challenge.

Let me rephrase that. He loves strong women because making a strong woman “break and submit” to him is a challenge.

The attraction isn’t in the woman. It’s in a narcissistic fetish for a certain kind of power. He wants to be the very special, uber-alpha male who breaks an unbreakable woman and makes her submit. He’s not fetishizing her strength, he’s fetishizing the idea of being the only one who can strip her of it.

Needless to say, I’ve got a few issues with this. The first is that it devalues the actual submission of actual female subs (many of whom are fucking bad-asses). The second is that it makes the “strong woman” in question a challenge (ie: a thing to surmount) rather than a person, and any view that reflexively turns a person into something other than a person is pretty much a no-go for me. The third is that this appreciation for strong women is entirely ego driven. Here’s what I mean….

If you work from the stated assumption that “all women, alpha or not, want to submit to a strong man” (*eye roll*), you get the implication underlying the attraction –  that any guy can make a submissive woman submit because women are, by nature, submissive. It takes a “high alpha male” to break the “rare” dominant woman.

That particular appreciation for female strength has nothing to do with respect or actual, you know, appreciation. It’s a purely reflective thing – the value of her strength is in how brightly it highlights his.

Full disclosure: I have a button here. Though I’m not a Domme, I am naturally dominant with a wide streak of  don’t-tell-me-what-to-fucking-do. I’ve written about how my natural dominance attracted an ex who was, to put it bluntly, a diagnosed sociopath who loved me best when I was needy (“but only for him”) and who wanted to “crush me and break me and make me his”. (Direct quote. Fuck it).

That’s not to say that this gentleman is a sociopath. To be honest, I don’t think he really understood what he was saying. It just rubbed my fur backwards and, once I got over my initial annoyance, I didn’t like how it unpacked.

Essentially, this kind of attraction turns a very specific form of female strength into fetishized commodity while dismissing all the other ways in which women are strong. In other words, it turns female dominance into a kind of drug that makes a certain kind of man feel special. It has nothing to do with the woman or her dynamic with that man. It has to do with the ego boost that comes from fucking her in a particular way.

It also turns the “rare” alpha-female one of two things:

  1. a disposable experience, or
  2. a possession to groom and keep.

Either way, it’s no good. Every woman does not crave submission, and those that do should have autonomy within their submission. Anything else falls back on a cultural mode that normalized a husband’s right to spank his wife for failing to make the perfect pot roast.

In the end, there’s a fundamental difference between spanking Lara Croft and spanking Lara Croft’s alpha female glory to the breaking point. The spanking isn’t the issue – it’s the motives behind it that makes the difference between awesome and toxic. If a dominant woman (or man) trusts you enough to submit to you, even if only for a night, that should speak to the connection and trust between you, not to your prowess as an alpha.

Fetishize power in a partner. Revel in it. Love strong women. Love strong men. Just don’t turn whatever happens into proof of your Domminess. Don’t fetishize the ego boost that comes with “breaking” someone you perceive to be strong. Sex and submission aren’t about how alpha you are. They’re about feeding off each other’s strengths – that’s the real fucking high.

NB: I realized after I posted this that I should clarify some terminology as usage in that conversation got fairly muddy.

“Alpha male” and “alpha female” don’t equate to Dom and Domme (or sadist or top). All alpha means it that someone has what might be called a dominant personality. Some alphas have personalities that are more dominant than others, as do some betas, etc. All dominant people are not alpha, nor are all alphas dominant.

Alpha, dominant and Dom are often equated in casual conversation, which is fine insofar as it goes. It’s just important to acknowledge that a person’s alignment in social hierarchies may differ than their (natural or chosen) position in sexual power dynamics.

As for the term “strong women”, it most definitely does not apply exclusively to dominant women or alpha females. Some of the strongest women I know are subs. Sexual wiring has little, if any, bearing on a woman’s integrity, resilience or strength.

On Validation

Black and white photograph of a woman's back as she looks out of a window, for Validation post by Malin James

Photograph, Malin James

There are things that I’m painfully aware of. One of them is my deep, long-standing need for validation.

It’s gotten worse in the past few years. I’ve always had it but, recently, it’s kept me from taking risks. The need for validation has drawn me away from projects that would further my career because long-term gains haven’t been able to compete with that short-term need.

That impulse has kept me safe in the cocoon of a loving community, which is a comforting alternative after years in the less friendly world of literary fiction, but at something of a cost.

It’s a strange thing. On one level, I give zero fucks what anyone thinks. This is the level I try to live on. But beneath that is the fact that sometimes I give way too many fucks, which is why I can’t say that I don’t need validation for my work. The brutal truth is that I do and the same goes for my worth in relationships.

I grew up having internalized the idea that my primary value was in my face and, even more toxically, that the value of my face was arbitrary because I relied on a choreographer, director or photographer to decide whether or not I was right for a call or a role. It’s a conviction that dogs me even now, and the result is an over-reliance on what other people think.

That need for validation shows up in all kinds of subconscious ways. It’s in how I engage social media and how I blog. It’s in what I write about and when. It’s in whether or not I compromise myself in relationships and for how long. It’s what drives my inner sadist – the one who loves to rake my inner masochist over coals.

The need for validation is natural. We all feel it. But the degree to which I’ve allowed that need to dictate my professional, creative and personal choices disturbs me. The primary reason I stopped acting was because my dependence on external (and arbitrary) validation wore me down. Unfortunately, I’ve created a similar framework for myself by reinforcing a comparable need in my writing and relationships.

I’m ok with wanting a certain amount of validation. Like I said, it’s pretty natural. But I’m not ok with needing it to the point where it compromises my emotional autonomy. Validation is, essentially, a salve – an illusory guarantee that everything is ok. In my case, this is what validation usually looks like:

Yes, your writing matters.

No, you aren’t wasting your time.

Yes, he still wants you.

No, you aren’t a disposable fraud. (This one comes with a nice dose of self-loathing. Self-loathing fucking sucks).

The real problem isn’t wanting validation, it’s misunderstanding what validation does. It’s like ointment on a cut – it’ll soothe the surface, but it doesn’t address the bleeding you can’t see. For me, the internal bleeding is the fact that sometimes I give too many fucks, and that those fucks aren’t even the right fucks to begin with.

What makes validation so addictive is that it acts as a short-term guarantee that everything’s ok. And sure, everything might be okay – for now. But what about the next now? And the next? Pretty soon, validation stops being a relief and becomes part of a feedback loop, one that slowly blows everything out of proportion and gets you stuck on a hook, one where your insecurities take over and drive your behavior.

So, when you put all that together, my need for validation is the subjective measure of worries that are way more existential than concrete:

Is everything okay?

Am I okay in the world? (Or this job, or relationship, etc.)

What the hell does okay even look like? I don’t know but please make it okay….

Those worries aren’t something that should shape your work or relationships because the only thing that can comfort them are guarantees, and the bottom line is that there are no guarantees. There is only the fleeting right now, and no amount of validation can get you off that hook.

It’s a big, ugly, exhausting tangle, but I can’t be a productive writer or a fully present person if I don’t stop chasing false guarantees – guarantees that, for me, define okay as the external validation of my value.

I will always need to feel valued, especially by people I care about and respect. That need is carved into me like grooves on a record. But for all that, the fundamental validation I actually need, the one I’ve been chasing my whole life, is my own.

My need for validation isn’t about the story or the editor or the relationship. It’s about me. And because it’s about me, it places pressure on situations and relationships that shouldn’t have to bear it. That’s why self-possession and emotional sovereignty are so important to me. The weight of that need is, ultimately, my responsibility. It’s up to me to decide (logically, rather than reactively) how many fucks I want to give.

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