Tag Archives: culture

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. 

On Complicity

Abstract painting of Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp for On Complicity by Malin James

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp

TW: Rape, Assault, Public Shaming

A Quick Note: It’s important to say that my sympathy for Chrissie Hynde extends only so far as the statements she made regarding her own sexual assault. She lost me when she started making comments about women “enticing rapists” by “wearing something that says, ‘Come and fuck me.’”

Last October, Chrissie Hynde published an autobiography detailing her life as the lead singer of The Pretenders. What set Reckless apart from other rock memoirs was that it included Hynde’s account of her rape and assault by a gang of bikers at the age of twenty-one. Although her tone is matter-of-fact to the point of detachment, it’s clear that this was a violent act. And yet, in a number of follow-up interviews, Hynde repeatedly claims “full responsibility” for her assault. That’s when things got interesting.

The outcry against what was seen as Hynde’s self-imposed victim blaming was immediate and intense. Unfortunately, rather than clarify her stance by explaining that claiming complicity in her own assault did not extend to a victim’s complicity in general, Hynde doubled down. That’s where all hope of discourse got lost.

Complicity is a complicated issue. In fact, it shares its Latin root with complicated. (Isn’t that cool? <End geekery>) The problem with Hynde was that her media presence blurred the line between taking responsibility for yourself and asking for it, which is dangerous, especially when a celebrity is doing the blurring. It was a great opportunity for discussion but, unfortunately, the many, many, many ways in which people cope with trauma were lost in the coverage. That’s important because Hynde’s claim of “full responsibility” is one of them.

Coping mechanisms exist for a reason. While they’re rarely healthy in the long-term, in the short-term, they can make the difference between surviving or giving up. Acknowledging one’s complicity can be empowering, but it can also be seriously damaging. What’s even worse is that it can do both simultaneously. Because of that, it’s easy to misinterpret complicity and, even worse, to misapply it. So, let’s talk about complicity. How does it function, for good and for ill?

At it’s most basic, complicity is a way of making something that isn’t okay, okay.

Remember when you were a kid, and you wanted pie but your mom said no? You might have said something like Fine. I don’t want pie anyway. That “fine” is a form of complicity. In this case, you abdicated your desire for pie because you weren’t getting any. BUT I’ll bet your desire for pie didn’t disappear just because you denied it. That cross-section between what you say and how you feel is where complicity gets tricky. At what point does complicity override the reality of the narrative? Put another way, when do you actually stop wanting the pie, just because you said “fine”?

That’s complicity in a nutshell—everything from the moment you say “fine” to when you honestly stop wanting pie. In my experience, it can happen either in real time or in hindsight. For fun and fairness, I’ll use me as an example. Here is what complicity might look like in real time:

When I was 24, I met this man. I wanted him so much I couldn’t see straight. That’s important—I couldn’t see straight. My perception was totally warped by how much I wanted him, so every time a red flag popped up, I ignored it and told myself that it was okay (ie: Fine. I don’t want pie.).

As his demands became more demanding, I worked harder and harder to justify his behavior because I wanted his approval and I loved him (and because the sex was amazing). That’s where my complicity lies—in all the little ways that I chose to stay, even though I knew the relationship was hurting me.

Am I responsible for the fact that he was a sociopathic fuck? No. I’m not. Am I responsible for having justified myself into staying multiple times? Yes. I am responsible for that—just as I’m responsible for having finally chosen to leave.

My complicity in that relationship is linked to my conscious understanding and the choices that I made based on that understanding. Yes, he manipulated me. But I also manipulated myself, which means that, objectively speaking, I was complicit in his manipulation, albeit to a very limited degree.

It’s the opposite of how I feel about the sexual abuse I experienced when I was four. Unlike what happened when I was an adult, I am in NO WAY responsible for my abuse as a child. No understanding. No choice. No complicity. You can’t have complicity without agency—even if it’s the agency you claim after the fact. Which brings me to complicity in hindsight.

Let’s go back to the situation with my ex.

After I left the relationship, I felt horrible—guilty, weak, powerless, vulnerable–every single emotion that had triggered me for years. Needless to say, it was a very difficult time. In fact, it was so difficult that I couldn’t bear to be in my own skin. That’s when complicity in hindsight set in.

I couldn’t stand the thought of my own helplessness, so I internalized a perverse sense of control by twisting my limited, real-time complicity into a massive sense of self-recrimination. As a result, my internal rhetoric hardened. It shifted from I’m powerless to I’m an idiot; I was dumb enough to stay; I’d played with fire, what did I expect?

This kind of thinking is toxic, but it calmed the panic and cut the feedback loop. And it gave me the sense of power that I desperately needed, even if it was false; even if I was hurting myself with it. What I needed was control over the narrative and, for good or for ill, claiming total complicity did that.

It’s important to underscore something here. Accepting my limited complicity for the choices I made isn’t the same thing as flaying myself with the lie of total complicity (something I did for years). That’s important because it’s the difference between taking responsibility for your choices and abusing yourself. If the devil is in the details, that’s the devil that got missed in the discussion of Chrissie Hynde.

Complicity, like coping, is determined by the individual. If evaluated honestly, it can deepen your understanding and (possibly) help you prevent a similar trauma from happening again. If claimed without perspective, it can do a lot of harm. Complicity is, in every respect, a gray area, one in which self-blame and delusion are horribly destructive, but where clarity is an equally valuable gift. It’s a hard balance to find, and even harder to keep.

At a time when victimization and victim blaming have entered our cultural discourse, it would be good to see less emphasis on the black and white, and more focus on the gray. While it goes against the nature of sound bites and click bait, the anatomy of trauma, and of how people cope with it, require more than a quick flash of outrage before the next headline hits.

Guys & the Girls Who Want to Watch: On Homoeroticism

A black and white photograph of two men embracing for Two Guys and the Girl Who Wants to Watch: On Homoeroticism by Malin James

Erotic postcard by Jim French

Roughly two years ago, I wrote a post asking this question:

What is it about two men having sex that turns so many women on?

That post got a lot of generous responses from men and women all over the sexual spectrum, including Exhibit A (though I had no idea at the time it would begin much more than a correspondence). His response, in particular, stood out because it underscored something I’d been suspecting – that the appeal of homoeroticism is, perhaps, even more common (and complicated) than I’d originally assumed. So I set the question aside to think about it.

Two years later….

I’m finally writing the follow-up thanks, once again, to Exhibit A, who retweeted the original post last month. While I’m usually a bit sheepish about letting a topic drop, I’m glad of it in this case. After two years, my thoughts on this issue have matured in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated when I first posed the question.

The biggest adjustment in my thinking was my realization that, while m/m sex clearly appeals to a lot of women, it also appeals to a lot of men who identify as flexibly straight (as opposed to bi). This realization made me curious about how it appeals across gender divides and sexual identities. But first, I want to address the question I originally posted two years ago. Why do women think m/m sex is hot?

As with so many things, the appeal of homoeroticism is intensely subjective, so there is no one answer, but I was able to slot the responses I got into three general categories:

  • Homoeroticism appeals because I like good looking men, so the more the better. 
    • Pretty self-explanatory.
  • Homoeroticism appeals because it gives me access to something I otherwise don’t have access to.
    • Not surprising given our cultural attraction to voyeurism, taboo or potentially transgressive sex; and our obsession with the mutual incomprehensibility of the opposite sex.
  • Homoeroticism appeals because it subverts a dominant paradigm.
    • Also pretty self-explanatory, but worth breaking down a bit.

That third category refers to the fact that, in mainstream porn and media, the traditional understanding is that there’s a power imbalance between men and women when it comes to sex. While this paradigm is shifting thanks to shows like Jessica Jones, Masters if Sex and American Horror Story: Coven, it’s been a standard for so long that this power imbalance is a cultural assumption for a lot of people. This leads to the common perception that men are sexually dominant (ie: guarded or inaccessible) while women are open, emotional and vulnerable.

The m/m fantasy subverts this expectation thanks to a different cultural assumption—one that presumes that two guys will avoid this paradigm more naturally than a straight pairing. Of course, this is ridiculous because sexual dominance and submission are about interpersonal dynamics and not about gender, (which is why M/m pairings are so hot). Regardless, a lot of women admit to being turned on by m/m sex because they assume the men involved to be enjoying a level playing field – both actors are sexually assertive while remaining emotional vulnerability.

This idealization of male sexual agency tends to lead to romanticized readings of m/m dynamics. I’ve read more than one study in which women thought m/m sex was because the guys were “equal” “open” “real” and “vulnerable” in a way that they hadn’t witnessed before.

Of course, we’re talking about fiction in most of these cases—specifically porn. The popularity of m/m pairings in slash, porn and erotica reflects a certain kind of female fantasy—one that subverts dominant paradigms and gives the illusion of emotional access to men in sexual contexts. And it does all this by appropriating a somewhat romanticized version of what people imagine happening when two guys fuck.

Sidebar

This form of appropriation is important but it’s also complicated enough that it requires its own post, so I’m going to leave it there for now and come back to it later. (Hopefully in less than two years).

End Sidebar

While the fictional portrayal of m/m sexual dynamics appeals on one level, the reality of gay sex appeals on another. So, while some women (and men) fantasize about general aspects m/m sex, others engage it more specifically. In otherwords, some women want to watch their man fuck and / or get fucked by another guy; and some guys want the same thing.

I can only speak for myself when I say this, but my desire to watch my partner with another man has nothing to do with the romanticization of m/m sexual dynamics, and everything to do with our relationship and all of the complicated, nuanced reasons that make it something we both think is super hot.

Which brings me to the selective appeal of homoeroticism across genders.

Awhile ago, I wrote a story called “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” about a woman who gives her boyfriend an m/m encounter for Christmas. It plays to a lot of my own kinks—voyeurism, dominance and, yes, homoeroticism—so I was really happy when women and men seemed to like it though they seemed to like it for different reasons.

Women liked it because the idea of watching their man with another guy is goddamn hot (because it is). Men seemed to like the wish-fulfillment aspect or it. The male protagonist wants to suck cock and get fucked, and his girlfriend makes it happen. It’s a portrait of the gray area between gay and straight, set against the backdrop of a loving, if unconventional, relationship.

That gray area is where homoeroticism appeals to me.

Don’t get me wrong – homoeroticism is hot for a lot of reasons, and it can subvert dominant paradigms. But that’s not why I love it. I love it because it breaks a barrier—one that often sits between a man and a woman, as well as between two men.

Unless you bury the needle at either 0 (exclusively straight) or 6 (exclusively gay) on the Kinsey scale, sexuality is more fluid than we tend to realize. The sexual behaviors sanctioned by mainstream society don’t always allow for safe experimentation within the gray areas. Homoeroticism, whether engaged as fantasy or more directly, is one way of experiencing a fuller range of sexual possibilities than might otherwise be available to strictly heterosexual pairings. What’s more, it makes those possibilities available in a relatively unthreatening way.

Homoeroticism is a way of romancing “the other”, whether “the other” is a partner of the same (or opposite) sex, or some unexplored facet of yourself. Ultimately, humans crave understanding and connection. We’re curious. We want to know and touch. A fascination with homoeroticism is one way we can taste things we don’t normally find on our plates.

The Joy of Sucking Cock

Black and white picture of a kitten with a bowl of milk staring into the camera. Tongue in cheek illustration for The Joy of Sucking Cock.Last November, Girl on the Net posted this in response to an article by a guy who felt that, while going down on a woman is tricky,  “the penis is a simple thing – it’s hard to get things completely wrong.”

Girl on the Net did a brilliant take-down of that bit of silliness, which I totally recommend reading. So, why am I bothering to write a post about this when GotN already did it so well?

I’m not actually. Her article got me thinking. One of the things I love best about oral is that anyone can do it in a way that is authentic to them. Here’s what I mean….

Sucking cock is often thought of as a form of submission, but it can also be a spectacular way to top someone (“I don’t care how badly you want to come down my throat. Don’t.”). It can be a sweet, Sunday morning blow job or a filthy face fucking in a bathroom stall. It can be a homecoming or a good-bye. It can be reverent or carnal. It can be anything you and your partner need it to be. In fact, some of the most memorable sexual moments of my life have been blowjobs because they were authentically perfect for the finite moment we were in.

I’ve written before about how my first time giving head wasn’t fantastic and that it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I gained a real understanding of what I call The Joy of Sucking Cock ™. Up to that point, my experiences with giving head were tinged with insecurity. I approached each one feeling as if I didn’t know what I was doing, but that I’d better figure it out, which is why those early years were more about experimentation than enjoyment.

It wasn’t until I made a sloppy, chaotic mess of it that I really understood how wonderful sucking cock can be, because my sloppy, chaotic mess turned him into a writhing, desperate shadow of his control-freak self. That’s when it finally clicked and a feedback loop formed – his pleasure gave me pleasure, which gave him pleasure and so on…. It’s that feedback loop that I crave now when I give head (or have any kind of sex) – the mutual enjoyment that turns us both into animals until someone comes.

That’s why I rarely think about what I’m doing. Sort of like how you’re not supposed to ask the caterpillar how it walks, I try not to pay attention to anything but my partner and what feels good at the time. If you ask me to do that thing with the roof of my mouth again, I probably won’t know what you’re talking about but the odds are that I’ll accidentally do it again because it feels good. That’s The Joy of Sucking Cock.

Screen Shot Google Search "blow jobs" 1/19/16

Screen Shot Google Search “blow jobs” 1/19/16

So, let’s drill down into why this is important. We live in a culture where, for better or for worse, the emphasis in mainstream media has been placed on prowess rather than enjoyment, which is why newsstands are full of women’s magazines selling the arcane wisdom you’ll need if you want to “blow his mind”.

Even if we set aside the subtly toxic, hetero-normative fact that these articles place the emphasis on the woman’s ability to perform [insert sex act here] like a pro, the paradigm is still problematic because these articles aren’t nearly as empowering as they initially appear to be. They are, in fact, disempowering because underlying the conveyance of the must-have information is the implication that if you’re not doing it “like this”, you’re doing it wrong.

“Like this” can be anything from using vise-like suction, (thanks, Cosmo), to looking at him while you suck his cock because “he’ll think it’s hot”.

What’s wrong with using (non-injurious levels of) suction or looking up at him while you give him head? Absolutely nothing. Those are legitimately awesome (and super hot) things. What I object to is the emphasis on her performance rather than their mutual enjoyment.

That’s really at the heart of this for me – the mentality that sex is, in the end, something you perform, rather than enjoy. It’s as if we’re all supposed to be mainstream porn stars rather than regular people engaging in a super pleasurable, shared activity. This emphasis on performance is the biggest reason for my ambivalence about oral when I was younger. Without even realizing it, I’d absorbed the assumption that there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to do it, which fed my insecurity, which got in the way of our mutual enjoyment, which blocked the feedback loop, and so on.

I mean, let’s face it, outside of keeping your teeth off his cock (unless that’s been negotiated beforehand), there is no one perfect, blow-his-mind technique. There are only the things you try and he loves, and that changes with every partner and, quite possibly, every blowjob. Knowing and discovering those individual ticks is a massive pleasure that has nothing to do with performance. It has to do with pleasure – yours and his. That’s where The Joy of Sucking Cock is.

Sinful Sunday: Cunt

“An ancient title of respect for women, the word “cunt” long ago veered off this noble path.”

– From Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, by Inga Muscio

Apparent 3/4 nude of author holding the book Cunt over her cunt.

I read this book a lifetime ago when I barely knew my own anatomy. Re-reading it now, I’m struck by how deeply it affected my thinking on feminism, semantics and the female body politic.

I love the word cunt. It’s strong and forthright. It stands straight with its shoulders back. It takes your measure and meets your eye. It’s the opposite of an apology. It’s the kind of word that owns itself, and asks you to do the same.

To see more Sinful Sunday, click the pretty lips….

Sinful Sunday

The Myth of One True Self

Portrait, Anais Nin

Portrait, Anais Nin

This post contains a nude image so I have the pleasure of telling you it’s  NSFW.

A few months ago, Ella Dawson wrote a post about sexual harassment. It’s an excellent piece and she makes a lot of good points, but the quote that stayed with me is this:

“It is easy to find me on Facebook, and my Twitter feed is lively and seems unpolished, even though it is heavily curated. It is easy to feel like you know me.”

I thought of that quote earlier this week as I followed a discussion on a Facebook page about masks and writing erotica. I was going to comment on the thread, but my response got longer as it went farther afield so, rather than hijack the thread, I’m writing this.

Masks are a useful metaphor, one we often use to simplify complicated things – like personalities. But there’s a trap in the metaphor. Take Batman for example. Which is Bruce Wayne’s true self? The billionaire or the masked avenger? Every modern franchise touches on that question in some way, but there is no definitive answer, because Bruce Wayne doesn’t have one true self. He has two, and he performs both with equal “trueness” depending on the situation.

The mask metaphor is seductive in its simplicity, but whether you use a mask (like a pseudonym / alternate identity) to explore your life / art more freely, or whether you feel that you find yourself in the wearing of a mask , the metaphor implies that we have one fundamentally true “self” over which less true “masks” can be laid.

It’s a really attractive idea, but it discounts two things:

1. Identities aren’t static, nor are they mutually exclusive. I became a mother when my daughter was born, but that didn’t erase my other identities (writer, wife, lover, friend, etc.), nor did it make those selves any less true. I can write frankly and graphically about sex and still be a engaged, stable parent. I perform all of my selves with equal truth (sometimes simultaneously) depending on which context I’m in. No one truth is truer than the others.

2. Identity is behavioral. It’s something we perform for ourselves and for others. We engage our identities in a lot of different ways, but they all boil down to our behavior in different contexts. As our context changes, so does our behavior. Different facets of our personalties (i.e.: different selves) engage. It’s why a lover can “bring out the best in you”, or so called “nice people” can be jerks to waiters.

We give people access to different facets, or selves, through the actions and reactions we perform. But access to one facet doesn’t equal access all, nor does it mean that the facets we’re privy to are “truer” than those we aren’t. It also doesn’t mean that the hidden facets are any more authentic than those we see.

Part of what makes masks (and the implication one true self) seductive, is that the removing of a mask creates intimacy. While a private revelation is legitimately intimate, it’s important to remember that “unmasking” is a performance too. Despite the seductive intimacy, removing a mask simply means revealing something that was previously hidden. It doesn’t mean that the revealed thing is any “truer” than the things you consciously expose.

Which takes me back to Ella’s quote and the idea of curated truths.

Every time I dissect myself in an essay, I reveal something of who I am. That’s a choice I make because the intimacy it creates is important to me. I want to connect with the reader, and the only way to do that is to open myself up. But this doesn’t mean that the truths I expose in an essay, even the raw, difficult ones, aren’t fully curated. Every single facet I reveal gets exposed to support the narrative I need to communicate.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Malin Daguerretype

This is a picture of me. I was going to use it for Sinful Sunday’s vintage prompt, but I didn’t end up posting it (I just wasn’t ready). That said, the experience of choosing and editing the image was interesting. As a writer, I wrestle with the impulse to control how I’m read, and I had the same impulse with the photo – the impulse to pin down the selves (i.e.: facets, identities, narratives, masks) it reveals.

So, to make my point about unmasking, here are some of the true selves that I considered revealing in the abandoned post.

1. Emotionally Unguarded Me: This is a test shot. I didn’t realize it was being taken, so what you’re seeing is what I often look like when I’m not paying attention – distracted, preoccupied and a little bit sad. This is me at rest. Me at rest is a little intense.

2. Overly Concerned, Serious Me: I’ve never participated in Sinful Sunday (though I want to) and I rarely post photographs of my face online. There’s a good reason for that, but it makes me sound like an asshole. When I was younger, I was dismissed in academic or professional contexts because of the way I look. I learned to downplay my appearance so people would take me seriously. Posting a nude of myself, especially in the context of my work, is uncomfortable because it goes against that grain.

3. Me With Hang-Ups: As I worked with this image, I kept trying to crop out my face or my breasts, but no matter what I did, it always looked wrong. For some reason, the fact that this picture reveals how small my breasts are bothered me more when my face was in the shot. Likewise, the relative vulnerability on my face bothered me less when my breasts weren’t visible. Apparently, one at a time was okay, but face + breasts revealed too much…. Heh, heh. Looks like the joke’s on me.

Which brings me to the self I’m revealing (in addition to the others) in this post….

4. The Me Who Says Fuck It: Because what the hell, why not. I’ve just “unmasked” myself by using the un-cropped nude and revealing my mixed feelings about this image. In doing so, I’ve revealed more than my tits and my face. I’ve given you a glimpse of my inner life. It’s an honest glimpse but, like all the other glimpses cataloged in this blog, it’s a curated one. I selected the details and framed them to illustrate the myth of the one true self and support the post’s narrative.

The unmasking I just performed revealed true things, but it did not reveal everything. There is no single, definitive me to reveal, which means that there is nothing to shield me from misinterpretation. You could take what you’ve read and say that I’m full of shit. Or pretentious as fuck. Or a small breasted basket case. Or an ego driven slut. Or, or, or… Because I can’t hand you my one true self, there will always be a gap between what the world sees, and the whole of who I am.

It’s that gap that we try to fill, through communication and curation. We all try to control our narratives, whether we’re writing a post or chatting with a friend (“I’m great! Prison isn’t so bad after all!”). We curate ourselves to reveal the facets that will help us connect, while downplaying those that may compromise us within a given context.

In the end, we all wear masks – multiple masks – that serve or reveal our various true selves. For some of us, the lines that mark our identities are thick and bold. For others, the lines are blurred. But for all off us, the truth lies deep in the aggregate, not in the threads we pull.

Kinky People Sex

Art by Franz von Bayros

Art by Franz von Bayros

I’ve been thinking about labels recently. It started with the resurgence of the erotica vs. porn debate (which Tabitha Rayne addressed beautifully in this post) but quickly spun out to include people, sexuality, kink and the labels we use to describe ourselves.

I’ve written about my own system of genre classification and many others have addressed the question from different angles since. But when the issue was brought up again, I was struck by just how subjective labels like “erotica” and “porn” are. Yes, there are standards most people agree on – erotica has a narrative focus while porn is primarily concerned with sex – but beyond that there’s a lot of grey area defined mostly by an individual’s impression of a work.

I’m not saying that literature and genre defy definition (I may be a lot of things, but I’m not a post-modernist). What I am saying is that regardless of what label we place on a thing, that thing’s identity (or classification) will likely retain some level of fluidity. Anais Nin called a great chunk of her work pornography, while today we consider her catalog one of the foundations of modern literary erotica. A group of Christian moms considered this fondant teddy bear’s seam to be an overly sexual image. I can’t say I agree. The point is that a thing can shift labels depending on who is viewing it.

Which brings me to my actual topic. Labels and people. People use labels as a short-hand for larger, more nuanced identities – are you one of us, or are you “other”? In this way, labels can be incredibly useful. But if you become unquestioningly wedded to your label it can box you in, because labels can’t always keep up with the fluidity of a person’s experiences.

If you’re primarily straight but have slept with someone of the same sex, does that make you bi? If you’re primarily dominant but sometimes like to sub, are you a switch? If your experiences or beliefs are non-binary, then labels may fit accurately, but if you inhabit an ideological or sexual grey area, it often becomes a curiosity when you deviate from the behaviors your label dictates.

Kink is a great example of this. Kinky people are generally thought to be those whose interests fall outside the sexual norm (whatever the “norm” is). I’ve identified as kinky since my early twenties when I realized that threesomes (and foursomes) were a thing. Adopting that label was liberating at the time. As a result, for much of my twenties, I allowed the “kinky” label to direct my sexual interests. I played in ways that I might not have otherwise done and, for the most part, I loved it. I also enjoyed a ton of sex that I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed if I hadn’t also adopted the label of slut. But I also remember feeling that my occasional desire for straightforward, vanilla sex didn’t adhere to my label(s), so I often went without the no-frills missionary I also craved.

At that point in my life, I thought that kinky people were supposed to have kinky sex all the time, which isn’t necessarily true. For many people, kink defines their sexualities in a very whole and satisfying way. But for others, like me, identifying as any one thing excludes five other labels that I could just as easily adopt. It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I made up my own label – sexually omnivorous. I want a helping of everything and always have. Or, to put it another way, I have a very fluid relationship to my sexuality and kinks.

Now, just so you know where I’m coming from, I’ll toss out a few of the labels that I do feel comfortable claiming:

Bisexual

Non-monogamous

Voyeuristic (with an exhibitionist streak)

Dominant (though not a Domme. I’m more of an alpha who likes D/s. Domme implies things I don’t want to claim.)

I also like rough sex and boundary pushing. I like feeling vaguely uncomfortable and I like it when my partner feels vaguely uncomfortable too (within the bounds of consent). More than anything, I love intensity. If a sexual experience serves up intensity, odds are I’ll be interested. It doesn’t matter if the intensity is emotional or physical. Even better if it’s both.

That said, I also love vanilla sex (which can also be emotionally and physically intense). I love missionary. I love waking up, having slow, drowsy sex and then going back to sleep. I love catching a quickie before running out for drinks. I love oral – both giving and getting. I love Sunday mornings in bed. I love entire week-ends spent doing nothing but straight up fucking – no games, no trappings, just hungry-for-more fucking. I even love making love with the right person.

So, do my more conventional tastes cancel out the kinks? I don’t feel they do – I think my sexuality covers a lot of ground and that exercising all aspects of it gives me pleasure. I’m hardly going to lock down the snuggly-missionary-loving part of me in the name of kink, any more than I’d give up D/s play because it doesn’t fit conventional sexual tastes. What I want has everything to do with who I’m with and what we need at the time. Sometimes, it’s rough. Sometimes it’s sweet. Unlike my young self, I’m not interested in missing out on either.

So, to bring it back around. If a person dedicates themselves to writing “porn” that’s great. If they claim the label of “erotica” (or “erotic romance” or “smut”) for their work, that’s great too. The danger is in becoming overly committed to a label – whether it’s porn, romance, kinky, straight, feminist, Christian, atheist or anything else. My concern is that, when a label becomes an ideology, it can curtail the intellectual, creative and sexual fluidity that makes you an individual, rather than a component of a larger, homogenous group (kinky people sex aside); or, in the case of erotic fiction, it can needlessly limit your work in a falsely simplified genre.

On Slate’s Sexual History Calculator

From Slate’s article, “Is Your Sexual History as Impressive as You Think” by Andrew Kahn and Andrew Weissmann:

You, dear reader, are a human being. And as a human being, you are naturally curious, a little bit self-conscious, and maybe even competitive about sex. At some point you’ve almost certainly thought about the number of people you’ve slept with and wondered: Is that normal?

Wonder no more. Enter your stats into our new calculator, and, based on your age and gender, it will tell you exactly which percentile you fall into when it comes to how many partners you’ve hopped in the sack with.

I came across this article today and I’ve been chewing on a mouthful of fucking annoyance ever since I read it. Needless to say, I don’t think Slate’s calculator is nearly as impressive as the article’s authors do. Fantastically unprofessional, soul-driven rant ahead.

So why did this article crawl under my skin like a disgusting dermatological disease?

In part because this was published in Slate, a (usually) grounded current events / politics site. If I’d stumbled over this in Cosmo, I’d have rolled my eyes and moved on because a sexual history calculator is exactly the sort of thing one expects to find in Cosmo. What I didn’t expect was for Slate to push the same sort of competitive, sexual shame / insecurity inducing bullshit that Cosmo does. The fact that Slate filed this article in Moneybox, their financial section, seems both nonsensical and ironically appropriate to me. Why?

Because this is click bait, plain and simple. The motive behind it has nothing to do with sexuality, curiosity or culture – it has to do with hits. So, in the spirit of not taking that bait, here’s a link I ran through DoNotLink so you can see it (if you really want to) without improving Slate’s hits on this piece.

...says the sexual history calculator.

…says the sexual history calculator.

But let’s get back to the article itself. As it says, we, the dear reader, are human. Surely we want to know if we’re “normal”, so let’s break this down to it’s unvoiced yet obvious implication:

Am I less than average? Fuck. I’m a frigid, undersexed loser.

Am I above the average? Fuck. I’m an slutty, oversexed slut.

Am I in the average? Whew. I’m normal. Thank god.

The calculator feeds into the popular notion that numbers matter when it comes to sexual partners, and it does so in a way that is almost gleefully disingenuous. Weissmann and Kahn site a study published this month in The Archive of Sexual Behavior as the inspiration behind the calculator. This study, done on a weighty 13,000 participants, found that millennials are on pace to sleep with fewer partners over their lifetimes than previous generations. This finding has some legitimate sociological interest, and it’s on that legitimate interest that the authors flimsily hung the relevance of their handy-dandy little service.

Using the same data used by the study that inspired it, the calculator compares your age and number of partners against the average defined by the study’s participants. But the study is self-reported (and I do give Weissmann and Kahn credit for stating this in the article), which means that the study’s participants could very easily have lied, adjusting their numbers up and down in whatever way suited their self images. There is no statistical rigor behind this average, which means that it’s entirely subject to the truthfulness of the people involved. As far as statistical averages go, it’s inherently flawed.

So why bother with the calculator at all, especially when the average it’s using is, very likely, less than accurate and taken from a relatively small sample size?

Because the article isn’t interested in sociological or generational trends despite what the authors claim their inspiration to be. The article, from it’s hook-laden title to its friendly, 1950’s era ad-man tone, are aimed at subversively feeding into the reader’s potential insecurities. Why? To get you to stop and click.

But beneath all that lies a legitimate question, one the authors choose to ignore. Does the number of partners you’ve slept with really matter?

My answer to this question (for all that it’s worth) is no. Sexual histories cannot be averaged. Not really. A person’s relationship to his / her sexual past is complicated, individual and defined by the particular circumstances of her / his life. Whether you’ve had one partner or one hundred doesn’t say anything about you as a sexually mature human being. But this calculator feeds into our insecurities about our partnered sexual pasts. Am I prude? Am I a slut? Fuck if I care. I’m offended by the idea of a click-bait calculator telling me where I fall on an imaginary average, and I’m offended that it’s been published as a way to capitalize on people’s insecurities (“c’mon – you’re human”) to get hits for Slate.

For all that though, the calculator does one thing of legitimate sociological interest. It underscores how wide-spread the reflex to measure our sexual histories against each other is. It wouldn’t be click-bait if the authors weren’t confident of it’s ability to reel people in. But is that impulse healthy or necessary?

I’d say probably not. Regardless of where you fall on the calculator’s spectrum, you’ll either feel bad about yourself or falsely vindicated if you give the results any weight. Either way, the false notion that the number of people in your history means anything will, once again, be reinforced.

This calculator isn’t the precious little service the authors are making it out to be. It’s a disingenuous manipulation wrapped up in cultural interest and that’s why it pisses me off. It’s selling you the notion that there is an average sexual history and that that the subjective average is “normal”. Are you “normal?” Don’t you want to know? Not to sound like John Oliver on a rant, but Fuck You Sexual History Calculator! Sell your “normal” somewhere else!

And yes, I know, maybe I need to lighten up. Maybe some people find this kind of thing fun. Maybe people don’t care. Maybe…but the calculator is a sensationalistic marketing tool and because it serves no larger point (despite the terms it’s couched in) it can fuck right off. As a culture, we’re already too focused on the number of people in our sexual histories. The last thing we need is an app to capitalize on the obsession.

In Praise of Feminine Things (A Rant)

Photograph by JeanLoup Sieff

Photograph by JeanLoup Sieff

Things have been a bit serious around here lately, so I wanted to do something light and simple. Sadly, bunnies have been well and truly covered (thank you, Easter) and the killer risotto I made last week won’t fill a whole post. So. Setting aside the adorable and delicious, how about we talk about lipstick and lingerie and that dress that makes you look like you belong in a Hollywood film. You know – feminine, pretty, girly things, and our somewhat conflicted relationship with them.

Warning – this may turn into a bit of a rant. I just had a maddening conversation with a woman who claims that “girly-girls are weak, lame tools of the patriarchy”. I’m a femme in every sense of the word, but I am anything but weak. Loving the fact that my panties (I actually hate that word – alternatives anyone?) are shell-pink lace, doesn’t make me any less of an intelligent, autonomous, ass-kicker of a woman.

Here’s the thing. Despite what many would say, the relationship between women and beauty is not simple, nor is vacuous, silly or something to be dismissed. It’s a cultural reality, one that is complicated and intensely specific to every woman who engages it. Given that I’ve already written about my passion for corsets, let’s take, for example, red lipstick.

I love red lipstick. I always have. I love the ritualistic process of putting it on and the subtleties in the shades. I love the unapologetic artifice of it and the fact that, when I wear it, my partner is very likely going to end up wearing it too. Same goes for anything that touches my lips – every glass I take a sip from will have my mark on it, like a pretty, blooming kiss.

Do I do it to attract men? Nope, though I don’t mind if I do. Ironically, I’ve been with more than one man who wished I wouldn’t wear it. Apparently, it’s hard to get out of collars. I also don’t wear it to impress or intimidate other women. I don’t want to intimidate anyone, though I also won’t stop wearing something I love because it might.

My go-to red, Black Tie by Lipstick Queen

My go-to red, Black Tie by Lipstick Queen

So, why do I have six different shades of red lipstick even though most days I wear peppermint chapstick (it’s delicious, okay?). Because it makes me feel sexy and feeling sexy pleases me, just like wearing garters under a plain black skirt pleases me, or slipping on a ridiculously expensive silk something under jeans or wearing my favorite perfume. These things, as frivolous as they seem, are an expression of my femininity, and I find great power in that.

Dismissing or marginalizing a woman’s attraction to feminine things is not only judgmental, it’s counterproductive. It suggests that a woman can’t be more than one thing at once – smart or pretty, kind or sexy, feminine or powerful – and it’s indicative of a trap we’ve fallen into as a culture. Yes, women need to aspire to more than just beauty – that goes without saying and, as the mother of a daughter, you can bet I put way more emphasis on how well she prints her name than on the hair clips she wants to wear. I want her to kick the ball and build the tower and make the puzzle, but that doesn’t mean she can’t have pretty hair clips too.

Our standards of beauty are maddeningly exclusive and women shouldn’t be made to feel that there is one objective ideal to which we must all aspire. My emphasis here is on FEELING beautiful and the fact that it’s okay to want that. It doesn’t make you weak or vacuous. It just makes you someone who loves a gorgeous bit of lace or the perfect pair of heels.

Wanting to feel beautiful doesn’t make you a tool either. It doesn’t mean you’ve drunk the patriarchal Kool-Aid and chosen girliness over ambition, influence or power. That’s like saying a woman can’t have a PhD. and rock her FMP’s. The desire to enjoy feminine things does not negate intelligence, ambition or strength. In fact, I would say that there is a very real power to be had for women in the things that are often dismissed as “girly”.

There is power in femininity, just like there is power in masculinity. The interesting, and often overlooked thing, is that they are complementary powers. Women don’t need to give up certain signifiers to hold their own with men. In other words, you can skip the pantsuit and still be a bad-ass. Yes, that means you might be sexualized, but a pantsuit isn’t necessarily going to protect you from that. If the sleek, black skirt makes you feel powerful, wear it and use your intelligence, wit, skill and ambition to assert your presence in that room.

It’s all about the effect these feminine things have on you. If you wear the sexy lingerie to impress someone else, you may or may not be satisfied with the results. Wear it to please yourself and baby, you’re gold. You’re a goddess and nothing can get in your way.

Some women don’t want or need “the trappings of femininity” (as my absolutely fabulous grandmother called them) and that’s fine. It doesn’t make them any less of a woman, nor does it nullify their physical or sexual beauty. But it also does not make them superior, more confident or more powerful than women who enjoy some or all of the trappings.

There is power and confidence to be had everywhere, from the perfect white tee-shirt to the prettiest, most expensive silk stockings. Do what makes you feel like a gorgeous, fucking Amazon of a person. Do it and do it a lot. Walk into a room so happy with your perfectly straight seams or your glossy hair that your confidence make you 10 times your physical size. Do it regardless of your weight, height or ethnicity. Do it whether you’re flat-chested or apple-thighed. If it pleases you, do it. Rock those feminine things.