Tag: sexuality (page 1 of 3)

The Goblin Market

A pre-raphaelite painting of a woman holding a pomegranate for The Goblin Market by Malin James

“Proserpine” or Jane Morris & the Pomegranate by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1847)

I’ve been sick the past few days, which has given me an unusual amount of time for listless thinking and wool gathering. In and amongst the drift of fairly useless thoughts came the realization that there is a binary in how sex appears in fiction – there are stories that focus on sex for it’s own sake, and stories that achieve a raw, nearly sexual intimacy, despite the absence (or near absence) of sex.

The first sort of reading is generally known as erotica, which makes it pretty easy to find. The other kind of eroticism is harder to qualify.

Instead of being expressed in an overtly sexual way, the intimacy in those stories comes out as a sort of shared ache – a sympathy between characters that is, hopefully, transferred to the reader. That affinity triggers something like an erotic response, one that’s subtly sexual and emotionally intimate. The latent sexuality in that response is what comprises the second sort of eroticism – one that’s emotionally sexual and not obvious in the text, but simmering beneath it.

“Goblin Market”, by Christina Rossetti, drips with limpid, super sensual imagery and includes a final scene that could be a portrait of sexual ecstasy, except it isn’t. The ecstasy isn’t sexual. It’s the culmination of devotion, sacrifice, and love between two sisters whose affinity is so strong it pushes their bond to lover-like levels of intimacy while remaining uncompromisingly platonic.

How Rossetti managed to blend the sensual with the sisterly is a wonder to me, even now. There’s nothing concrete that I can point to in the poem, no line on a map marking the territory between sexuality and emotionality, but it exists all the same, which is why I think of that shared territory as the goblin market. The goblin market in narrative creates a tension that works on the reader without any conscious effect, yet you put the book down feeling lush and keenly aware, like Persephone when she finally gives in and eats the pomegranate’s seeds.

For me, one author achieves the goblin market better than anyone else. If you read anything by Angela Carter you’ll feel it, but it’s especially effective in her collection, The Bloody Chamber, which I’ve pushed mentioned before. The title story is fantastic I’ve already fangirled all over it so I’ll focus on a different story from the same collection – “The Tiger’s Bride”.

“The Tiger’s Bride” is one of the sexiest stories I’ve ever read, yet it contains no sex.  What it does have is massive amounts of emotionally charged intimacy unpinning a story in which masks and identities are stripped away. It isn’t until a tacit understanding is reached between the tiger and his captive that a shared ache develops, but when it does, it makes something that should have been ghastly, (the tiger licks her human skin away, revealing golden fur), unbelievably erotic.

The narrator’s affinity for her captor can’t be expressed in words (he speaks in low growls, translated by a simian valet), which is just as well. It’s the silence of their understanding that transforms what could have been yet another variation on “Beauty and the Beast” into a story steeped in animal sexuality. Its lack of obvious eroticism heightens, pretty fantastically, the latent eroticism of the text.

I’m finding more and more that I need this second, more subtle, emotional component for the erotic aspects of a story to work for me. While I still love straight up filth, it doesn’t tend to stay with me. It’s the stories that weave tapestries of sex and emotional intimacy that I come back to again and again, whether they’re called erotica or something else.

This shift in my reading is something relatively new. While I appreciated the goblin market from an intellectual perspective when I was younger, it never touched me the way that raw sex did. Now it’s quite the opposite. It would be easy to say that this shift is the result of getting older, but I suspect it has less to with age and more to do with me. I’ve always had an emotional intensity that I was never completely comfortable with, especially in conjunction with sex. I suspect that my growing attraction to stories steeped in this kind of emotional sexuality is, more than anything else, a sign that I’m finally comfortable with my own goblin market.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite goblin market stories, along with links to where you can find them (some for free!). And if  you have any books you love for this kind of read, tweet me or leave them in the comments!

POETRY:

“Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti

COLLECTIONS:

Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen – “The Invincible Slave Owners” and “The Heroine”

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – “The Tiger’s Bride” and “The Bloody Chamber” (and most of the others, to be honest).

Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor (The first story is a really subtle, really sexy adaptation of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”).

The Lure of Dangerous Women by Shanna Germain

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

NOVELS:

Atonement & The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (I fangirled the film here. And to be fair, there is fairly explicit sex in this book, but its punch lies in the emotional intensity behind it).

Affinity by Sarah Waters

Angels and Insects & The Game by A.S. Byatt

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

The Griffin & Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock

The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox (courtesy of Tamsin Flowers, who was lovely enough to give me a copy!)

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.

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

On Virginity, or A Case For Not Throwing It Away

Image of a man and woman sitting on a fence. His hand is going up her skirt while she looks away.

A Voyage of Discovery by Jack Vettriano

I would love to say that the loss of my maidenhead* was a magical experience. I’d love to say that it set a healthy tone for the whole of my sexual career. In reality, it went more like this:

I was nineteen and deeply frustrated. I’d had boyfriends but none who would go past second base with me, (I dated a couple of Irish Catholics. Confession was a thing). I was sexually aware to the point of discomfort, but I’d never gotten close to do anything about the live wires beneath my skin. I was massively frustrated and burdened with this thing that I didn’t want anymore. So, one night I decided to get it over with.

I met the guy through an acquaintance. I knew him just enough about him to feel relatively sure that he wasn’t going to kill me and dump my body in a lake. I say “the guy” because I don’t remember his name…Jason maybe? I’m not sure. I was sober, so I assume that I must’ve blocked it out. In fact, I’m fairly certain I did – not because anything terrible happened, but because, even at the time, I knew I was making a subtle but serious mistake. It was the start of a pattern that would do me no favors. But more on that in a second. For now, let’s stay with “the guy”….

In the end, his name doesn’t matter because it wasn’t about him. It was about me and the fact that I was approaching twenty and the only virgin left in the city (not really but it felt like it). So, there we were in the back of his mom’s minivan in a mall parking lot. The foreplay was minimal and consisted mostly of my going down on him briefly while he held my head. After that, we moved to the back seat where I gave it up to the age old rhythm of my head whacking against his baby brother’s car seat.

I lost my virginity with less care than some people give to cutting their hair. At the time, I remember feeling a grim satisfaction, one that I now recognize as a defense mechanism. I knew even before he dropped me off (in the minivan) that I wasn’t going to see him again, even if I wanted to (I didn’t). The fact that I’d been a virgin had thrown him. I literally saw him panic the second his cock hit my hymen.

Holy shit! A virgin! They get hella clingy! Finish this and get out of there!

So, the grim satisfaction was both for a job well done (I was no longer a virgin – Ha! Take that, virginity!) but it was also because I needed to own what I’d just done. I knew that wasn’t how it could have been.  I knew it wasn’t a good start.

Now, looking back with roughly eighteen years of sexual experience to call on, I can see that I set a pattern for myself that night – one in which I disregarded the rounded whole of my needs in favor of satisfying temporary dissatisfactions. That pattern is pretty much broken now, but not without effort and a nice collection of regrets.

Should I have taken more time and given myself a positive, even loving, first time? Ideally speaking, of course. I should’ve. But the truth is that I was wired for sex and self-injury. I can’t pretend that a different decision would’ve saved me from years of mistakes. That said, if I had waited and not pushed, I might have developed a sense of myself sooner, and that would have made a difference. Who can say….

Virginity is not a magical thing, nor is it a marker of moral, spiritual or physical worth. The loss of it is, however, a pivotal event in a person’s life. Your first sexual experiences set a tone, even if only subconsciously. Would my sexual development have been different were it not for the minivan and the parking lot and the goddamn car seat? I don’t know. I honestly don’t. And that’s the thing that stays with me. I will never know.

I have wanted to write that phrase into something for ages.

A Girl’s Guide to Growing Up

Mother and daughter by Pascal Campion

Image by Pascal Campion

Today is my daughter’s 4th birthday. It’s an unabashedly happy day, but for me, deep down, there’s also a little edge of melancholy to it… or, if not melancholy, contemplation.

When I look at her now, I see only a shadow of the moon-faced baby I had four years ago. She’s left that phase and has enthusiastically assumed the role of little girl. Of course, the irrational part of me wants to fill my arms with her while I can, because I know it’s only a matter of time before I look at her and see only a shadow of the little girl she is now. And I’ll tell you right now, I’m indulging that irrational impulse. I’m kissing and swinging her and holding her hand like it’s the most natural thing in the world because, right now, it is.

That irrational part of me wants to keep her a girl forever. But the rest of me knows that, for all that I love and protect her, the best thing I can do is to teach her how to love and protect herself. Right now, I’m reveling in the fact that she’s mine, but that’s temporary. My claim on her will last only as long as it takes her to grow up and claim herself. My most bittersweet job is to her develop the skills and self-possession she’ll need to navigate the world on her own.

That means being open to things that are, quite frankly, frightening and complicated from a parental perspective. The irrational part of me would love to keep her sheltered and unquestioning, but that would do her a massive disservice. I grew up in a family that never talked about sex (or mental health or anything unpleasant or difficult). I know how damaging that can be, even in the most loving household.

So now, while she’s little, I’m making a list of things I want to talk to her about as she grows up. It’s not comprehensive, nor do I think it ever could be. If nothing else, it’s a blueprint, one that I know will get altered by improvisation depending on what’s relevant to her at any given time. In my head, I think of it as a sort of guide to growing up, but one that will grow with her.

Right now, the list is full of things I wish I could have talked through with my mom; things to do with sex, identity, body image and shame; things that I figured out on my own, sometimes at great cost. If I do it right though, the list will stop reflecting my own experiences and become entirely defined by hers. In the end, it is not about me. It’s about her and what she needs at any given time. That said, the list as it exists is massive. It has bullet points covering everything to sex to science – way too much to reproduce here. So instead of trying to get it all in, I’ll leave you with…

A Very Partial List of Things I Want to Tell My Daughter in Completely Random Order

  1.  Masturbation is good, healthy and wonderful. It is nothing to be ashamed of. If and when you want your first vibrator, I’ll be thrilled to take you to buy one. But one word of advice – vibrators are awesome, but it’s easy to get dependent on them. Try to learn your body without one first.
  2. Learn to how to please yourself. Even more importantly, communicate what you like to your partners so they can please you too. Try not to fake your orgasms. Try to voice your needs instead.
  3. Virginity is important, but not in the traditional way. As a symbol of goodness, it’s useless – goodness is better measured by what you do and how you treat people, not by the state of your hymen. That said, your first time (whether it’s oral, penetrative or anything else) is important. It sets a tone. Inexperience isn’t a hindrance to be thrown away.
  4. Sex can be complicated. It can be so complicated that even adults struggle and get tangled up. You don’t need to fear sex. In fact, you shouldn’t. Just choose when to have it and respect the complications it could bring.
  5. Sex isn’t love. It’s sex. While sex is a great way to communicate love, never conflate the two. You can’t barter one for the other.
  6. Porn is not a how-to manual. Neither is erotica or tumblr. They are entertainment and, as entertainment, they’re a great way to explore your fantasies. But if you want to know how to do something, nonfiction is more reliable than fiction.
  7. Take the opinions / advice of your peers with a grain of salt. They’re still figuring it out too.
  8. Sexuality is neither simple nor static. Same with gender identity. Labels are useful but, ultimately, you are you – not a straight person, a bi person, a gay person, a trans person, a slut, a good girl, a feminist or anything else. Labels can define you in ways that miss the whole person. Be the whole of you.
  9. Know your boundaries. They may change over time but always know them. Advocate for yourself. Never, ever be afraid to say no.
  10. I know you’re going to have sex. You’re going to love, hate, be heart-broken and break hearts. Do these things. Live your life. Live it on terms that you choose and do so without shame.
  11. I love you. I love you. I love you. I will always love you. Not matter what happens, no matter who or what you do, I will always, always, always be madly in love with you.
  12. If you get pregnant or get an STI, please tell us. We’ll figure it out. See #11.

NB: This post is far from comprehensive. It’s really more of a meditation than anything else. I am writing several articles that address this subject in a far more directed and detailed way, but for now, this post communicates my general state of mind.

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.

Notes to My Younger Self

Good Time Girls by Jack Vettriano

Good Time Girls by Jack Vettriano

Last week, I wrote a post about a relationship that, even now, I struggle to admit was abusive (I usually just call it “toxic”). A few days later, someone asked me if I would go back in time and avoid the whole thing. Surprisingly, I said no. While there are things I wish I’d known or understood, that experience was a pivotal one. It’s quite possible that, if I did change something, I wouldn’t end up being the person I am today, and I like that person a lot.

That said, I do like the idea of going back in time to have a little chat with myself. In fact, I keep a list of things I’d probably tell myself over drinks, and not just regarding that relationship. Maybe it’s just that I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife but even if younger me ended up doing everything exactly as I already had, it would still be nice to have my future self’s perspective on certain things. Plus, I’d kind of like to hang out with me (pretty narcissistic, but true).

So, here’s my list of 15 Things I Would Tell My Younger Self:

1. Try not to drink quite so much (she says, sipping a G&T). You don’t have to stop, but you’re using alcohol to numb things you need to pay attention to.

2. Don’t smoke. Like ever. Yeah, I know, this one’s a drag. But here’s the thing – we quit ten years ago and I still miss it. And it’s so bad for you. So don’t start. Don’t bum that first cigarette from Theresa Flynn sophomore year, okay? Just don’t do it, because you’re going to love it and it’s going to suck when you have to stop.

3. Write more. Right now. Write more. Worry about getting good later. Right now, you just need to write. Get it all out of your head. Writing will help you think, and honey, you’ve got so many big, messy feelings, you need to make some space to think. Plus, it’ll give us something bittersweet / poignant to read down the line.

4. Sex. You’re going to love it. LOVE IT. You’re going to gobble it up. But, it’s also going to make you vulnerable, and that’s ok. In fact, that’s good. Just try not to confuse sex with love. Sex and love go together like chocolate and peanut butter, but they don’t have to. You’re not a bad person if you just want to fuck. And you’re not unworthy of love if that’s all he (or she, because you’re totally bi) wants too.

5. Don’t cut your hair short. I know it’s shallow but seriously, that Audrey Hepburn pixie thing you want so much? Don’t do it. And if you ignore me (because you probably will) and you hate it (because you’re totally going to), don’t spend two years growing it out just to cut it again because “maybe you’ll like it better this time.” You won’t, okay? I promise.

6. It’s fine that you have small breasts. I know you hate them. I know you’re hung up, but no one, and I mean NO ONE, cares. Meanwhile, you have no idea how good they can feel, and that’s a freaking crime.

7. You will love him but he will never love you. He’ll want you. In fact, he’ll want you so much it makes him sick, but he’ll never love you. (See #4). There is no way to make that not hurt and it’s going to fuck you up. But it’s also going to be ok. You will get yourself out. You always do…just, maybe, try to do it a little sooner this time around.

8. Don’t move to Texas. (No offense, Texas. We’re just not a good match).

9. Eating a jar of almond butter with a spoon* is not a solution. You know that. That said, stop beating yourself up about it. If it bothers you so much, put the fucking spoon down. C’mon, girl. Either own what you’re doing or change it. <3

*Also applies to wine, bourbon and gin. And cigarettes. And casual sex. Fuck, you’re vice ridden…

10.  There is a difference between testing your limits and disregarding them. You can take a fantastic amount of damage. That doesn’t mean you should inflict it on yourself.

11. Museum studies. It’s a thing. Look into it while you’re at NYU. Also, acting will never make you happy the way writing and academia do. I know your ego wants it and I even know you’re good, but try to channel that energy into your real passions and not a glamorous fantasy.

12. Your self-image and your reality very often don’t match. When that happens, one of them has to change. Either adjust the way you see yourself, or work to become what you wish you were.

13. You’re going to do what you do. It’ll be easier and you’ll suffer less if you follow your instincts, worry less about what other people expect and own your choices.

14. When you first start to write, you’re going to obsess about details. You’re going to strive for perfection in tiny, precious works. You need to. I get it. Here’s the thing: you’re going to suck. It takes years not to suck. Just lay off the impulse to grind every story down and keep cranking out the words. They’ll get better and so will you…And maybe try erotica sooner.

15. Stop faking orgasms. I now you’re nervous, but it’s keeping you from feeling real pleasure. Spend some time with a vibe and your hand because you can come, honey. Oh my god, can you come. Your body can do things you can’t even image. Just take your time and learn yourself.

For more Wicked Wednesday, click the button below.

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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.

Femme Fatales & Dames

My daughter was sick for most of last week, so I spent a lot of time on the couch, jotting notes on a legal pad. One of the things I scribbled was something I’ve been mulling for awhile – different portrayals of women in media, and how archetypical images of femininity and sexuality can affect a person’s development. On a whim, I made a list (because I freaking love lists) of women that I’m drawn to in film and history. It’s short so I’ll include it here:

Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944)

Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944)

Boudica (the Celtic queen who led an uprising and killed a lot of Romans after they raped her daughters)

Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer’s. Of course)

The female vampires in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Lauren Bacall

Myrna Loy as Nora Charles

With the exception of Boudica, who is in a class all her own, every woman I listed falls into one of two categories – dames or femme fatales. There are a lot of superficial similarities between the two – dames and femme fatales have a certain energy about them, a sexual assertiveness for lack of a better word, but beneath the superficial gloss they are actually fairly different, as was my attachment to them at different stages in my life.

Femme fatales are the image I was most attracted to as a girl, so their influence wove itself into my sexuality at a pretty young age. Moreover, femme fatales have been around for centuries, while dames are a 20th century phenomenon.  The femme fatale first manifested as a supernatural evil – Lilith, lamias, succubi and vampires. Later they took the form of dangerously sexual and often villainized women, like Mata Hari.

The femme fatale, as  a figure, is problematic. She was, quite literally, created to embody the perceived evils of an assertive (i.e.: predatory) female sexuality, a sexuality that is almost always punished. While I’m aware of that now, I didn’t know that as a girl, so my attraction to this type of woman was fairly simple. Because of that, I’m going to skim the deeper cultural issues attached to the femme fatale (for now – I’ll eventually write a post on it), to focus on her relevance to a younger me.

The Brides, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

The Brides, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

When I a kid, I was, like a disturbing number of people, made aware of how vulnerable I am. My response to this realization was multilayered. On the surface, I became mousy, quiet and reflexively apologetic. I shrank and made myself as small as I could, driven by anxiety and the desperate need to avoid confrontation. Beneath the surface, however, my real, private self was angry – massively angry, all the more so because I wouldn’t allow that anger to show. By the time I was thirteen, I was a seething ball of sweetness. As my sexuality kicked into gear, I bifurcated all the more, becoming the ideal good girl on the surface, while having violent sexual fantasies in the privacy of my head. That was the year I saw two movies that influenced my sexuality to a great degree – Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula and Batman Returns. These movies introduced me to the femme fatale.

I remember watching the scene in Dracula where the three brides ravish Jonathon Harker. It’s a sexualized assault wherein they seduce and then literally consume him while he writhes in horrified ecstasy.  As I watched that scene, something in me clicked. I wanted to be one of those brides. I wanted to wield my sexuality like a weapon, just as those women did. Of course, they were punished (stake through the heart, beheaded, etc) and, of course, they were subject to the control of the man who had made them, but I didn’t care about that then. What I cared about was that they were predatory women, claiming what they wanted without remorse or apology. It was a revelation to me.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, Batman Returns (1992)

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, Batman Returns (1992)

Then I saw Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, a different sort of femme fatale, one that I identified with all the more because I felt like her mousy alter ego, Selena Kyle, who was pushed out a window for being too clever. Rather than die as she should, she resurrects herself and becomes something else, something hard and sexual and overtly predatory (once again, the predatory). She goes from being a victim to owning and asserting herself in a way I could only dream of.

For me, the femme fatale represented overt, rapacious sexual freedom. More to the point, the archetype was a picture of the violent reclamation of sexual agency that I desperately needed. As a result, my early relationships were fraught. I was angry and deeply hurt, and I wanted to make other people, especially men, hurt too. I was a toxic mixture of hollow weakness, rage and simmering sexuality and, as a result, I did a lot of damage, both to others and to myself.

Enter the dame. The definition of the word “dame” varies greatly, so here’s what I mean when I use the word. A dame is a woman in full possession of herself. For me, Lauren Bacall is the ultimate dame – smart and sexy, cool under pressure, holding her own in every situation. Whereas femme fatales seduce on instinct, dames watch. They play power dynamics like hands of poker. They make moves, but only when they’re ready. Femme fatales are about carnal impulse. Dames are about control.

By the time I entered the The Reconstruction (the period in my early twenties that directly followed my inevitable breakdown), the archetype of the femme fatale had welded itself to my sexuality so, rather than uproot it, I tried to explore it in a healthier, less aggressive way. I needed agency, a sense of autonomy and power. I enjoyed the slightly wicked, predatory streaks in in my sexuality and I didn’t want them to go away, I just wanted to be in control, wielding them, rather than letting them wield me.

Bogie and Bacall (1944)

Bogie and Bacall (1944)

Around that time, I went on a Lauren Bacall binge. Even at eighteen, Bacall was something. Paired with a man over twice her age, she held her own so well that when she cocks her head and teaches Bogie how to whistle, you know he’s the one in trouble, not her. Even when he holds her jaw as he kisses her, you get the sense that she is allowing it because it pleases her. She is a fully present partner, owning her half of that kiss. That’s why their chemistry is so insane – she’s right there with him every step of the way. Now, that’s a dame.

So is Myrna Loy, though in a very different way. As Nora Charles, Loy was unfailingly charming. She had such a light, funny social grace that it’s only when you really pay attention that you see her gently maintaining the upper hand in nearly all of her interactions. She’s at the top of the social curve, not for any overt reason but because she’s open and confident, so confident that she literally has nothing to prove.

Myrna Loy (1926)

Myrna Loy (1926)

The difference between the femme fatale and the dame is the difference between what I aspired to at two very different stages in my life. I needed the agency and self-possession represented by both, but beyond that I wanted control after I had so thoroughly lost it. I wanted calm where there had been chaos, perspective where I’d had none. I wanted measured looks and unflinching gazes and dry observations and crooked smiles. I wanted to relax and finally be myself, without apology or aggression. So I embraced the dame and subconsciously rebuilt myself in a different mold.

It would be easy to think of the these figures as constructs – personas that were / are separate or laid over my actual personality, but that would discount the fact that for many people, personalities are fluid. We all have baseline characteristics – compassion, cruelty, extroversion, introversion – but different people bring out different qualities in all of us, just as different events change and shape who we are. The femme fatale and the dame are that for me – responses to events that shaped the woman I became.

Iconic figures are complicated and how we related to them is even more so, but for me, they were a mirror, not only into what I was, but into what I wanted to be. They were something to pattern on while I explored and found myself. I didn’t (and don’t) try to be predatory or sexual or wry or watchful. At various times, in various circumstances, I just am, all while maintaining the priority of trying to be an essentially good person. I will never be fully rid of the anger, but because these two different versions of feminine sexuality resonated so deeply at pivotal times, they allowed me to stop being the apologetic mouse with the target on her back. The femme fatale took me too far to one side, whereas the dame helped me find my natural self.

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