Posts Tagged ‘feminism’
I—like, I suspect, many of you—was first introduced to Jack Halberstam’s work in college, where I read Female Masculinity in a gender studies class. Jack’s work has been largely influential on the gender binary critiques and to many people that I have studied and read since, and of course influential on my own ideas about gender and performance and masculinities too.
And, he’s got a new book out! The book is called Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal and it’s published by Beacon Press, officially released yesterday, September 18th. It’s an incredibly readable book—like Jack said in my interview with him for Lambda Literary Foundation earlier this year, it’s on an unacademic press and intended for a wider audience. So even if you’re not a theory buff—and I’m not, though I do love theory—it’s a very good read.
A Few Quick Questions for Jack Halberstam
(It’s intimidating to interview one of your mentors! Thanks Jack!)
1. When you discuss the concept of “gaga feminism,” which you say is a feminism “that recognizes multiple genders, that contributes to the collapse of our current sex-gender systems, [and is] a feminism less concerned with the equality of men and women and more interested in the abolition of these terms as such,” (p25), I find myself identifying deeply. I run in many communities which are more invested in that than in the analyzation of the male-female binary, and often feel disillusioned with the mainstream feminism movements which have less concepts of breaking down the system and more that seem to maintain it. How can gaga feminism help queers and genderqueers and other marginalized communities get our message farther into the mainstream, to continue to influence the larger culture? What barriers keep our gaga feminist perceptions of gender from reaching the mainstream, and do you have any suggestions for how to continue the activism of working to break down those barriers?
Great questions Sinclair! As you say, it is frustrating to see so many people acting as if male and female are totally stable categories and as if all the changes in technology, in social formations, in sexual identities and in the visibility of queer bodies have made no difference whatsoever! I hoped and still hope that GAGA FEMINISM would have some appeal as a more mainstream and readable book and that it would be able to circulate complex ideas about sex, gender and fast-changing technologies of gender in an accessible and fun way. That said, there have been a few books out recently like How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, The End of Men by Hanna Rosin and Marry Him by Lori Gottlieb that purport to be feminist analyses of men, women, marriage, work, love and family but actually they mostly shuffle around the same old cliches about hetero reproduction and hope for the best. GAGA FEMINISM begins with the premise of taking a longer tradition of anti-marriage, anti-capitalist feminism seriously and joining it to new queer theory and queer forms of life.
2. I loved your writings about The Kids Are All Right (which start on p54). I enjoyed that film quite a lot and have had many elaborate conversations about its construction, but you articulated some new things I hadn’t heard. I am especially curious about what you said about depictions of relatively sexless long term (lesbian) relationships, as I have been theorizing a lot lately about keeping the spark going in a long term commitment. You’ve been with your partner for many years now—do you have any tips or suggestions about staying sexually connected and satisfied while building something long term?
Well, my point there was that straight culture likes the idea that lesbian long-term relationships are more prone to “fizzle out” that others because women are the kindling rather than the spark when it comes to romance…pardon the metaphor but you get my point. Heterosexual mainstream conversations about desire love to depict women as the ones who create an environment for love and romance and men as the ones who set the whole thing on fire. For this reason, when you have two women, the old narrative goes, you have a lot of love and cuddling but no real…spark! So, The Kids Are All Right feeds into that narrative and assigns all the sexual energy to the sperm donor dad. But that was just one of many reasons I found the film disappointing. As for tips on staying sexually connected etc…sorry dude, I am a terrible advice columnist!!
3. You talk quite a bit about butches and butchness in this book (p86). I do a lot of organizing around butch identity and community, including some work for the BUTCH Voices conferences (and of course your book Female Masculinity has been a huge influence on my understandings of genders). You mention the concept of stone and melting the stone in particular, which is something that I discuss and think about often. I tend to define stone as “having control over how one’s body is touched,” which is not quite the same as impenetrable or not ever receiving sexual pleasure or stimulation. Have you noticed that the caricature of stone butches as “rigid or immobile or frozen” (p86) has changed as we are entering an age of gaga feminism, with more depth of understanding and multiplicity in our definitions of gender roles in general? How can we continue to break down those frozen stereotypes and build something unique and open, with more room for people to be expressing themselves authentically and not feeling stuck in limitations of labels?
Yeah, definitely. I was just using the example of the stone butch in GAGA FEMINISM in order to say that we assign pathological narratives to masculine behavior when it appears in the butch (inflexibility or impenetrability becomes neurotic) but not when it appears in a man. If the man does not want to be penetrated, then he is, well, normal! And in fact, if he does want to be penetrated, then he is suspect. I think GAGA FEMINISM is about recognizing the rapidly generated new forms of desire, embodiment, orientation that proliferate all around us and developing new systems for naming them, owning them and inhabiting them.
J. JACK HALBERSTAM is the author of four books, including Female Masculinity and The Queer Art of Failure. Currently a professor of American studies and of ethnicity and gender studies at the University of Southern California, Halberstam regularly speaks and writes on queer culture and gender issues and blogs at BullyBloggers.
Giveaway! I have one copy for one lucky commenter …
Thanks to Beacon Press, I’ve got an extra copy of Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal to give away. I’ll pick a number at random on Monday, the 24th of September, and the corresponding commenter will get the copy.
In order to enter, simply leave a comment on this post and tell me one influential book you’ve read about feminism, or one book about gender, or something you love about Jack Halberstam, or something else entirely. Make sure you leave a valid email address; anyone can enter. I prefer to mail the book to someone in the US, because I’ll be paying for postage—so if you are outside the US, I might ask you to kick me a few bucks to cover the cost of mailing you the book.
Tomorrow’s Gaga Feminism Blog Tour post will be at The Qu—check it out.
Gaga Feminism was sent to me from Beacon Press to review. Thanks Beacon! Pick up your own copy at your local feminist queer bookstore, or, if you must, from Amazon.
Queer Memoir: Butch/Stud Through the Years was fucking EPIC on Friday night, and I’m so honored and thrilled to have been there and to be a part of it. There was the story of the kid’s game “hide and go get it” in Kentucky! There was the revelation of belonging somewhere and that “here take a sticker” moment—”because even though you’re in New York City, you might still be isolated.” There were discussions about feminist topping! There was deep appreciation for butch friends and community and support! There was a fucking marriage proposal!
This is the piece I read, slightly updated from the December 2009 version, about reconciling the identities of feminist and butch top, and what it means to be a masculine person who is also dominant. It is relevant as ever and I still struggle with the intersection of these identities. I have a lot more to say about it, and reading this piece again made me think about what I’d add and what more there is to say, so I’m working on it. Meanwhile, here’s the text of what I read.
A few years ago, a girl I dated wanted me to slap her. To hit her face. She asked for it specifically, I still remember the conversation on the subway and the precise way that she looked over at me and said, I want you to hit me. Something big swelled in me and I wanted to, I wanted to feel the sting of impact on my palm and see her recoil, to do it again before she was ready, to push something so sensational onto her experience that she was jolted to the edges of her skin and had to feel, to feel herself, to feel me, to be fully present.
This girl and I had already done some other light percussion play, using my hand, or even a paddle, me hitting her ass and thighs, the fleshy parts that I couldn’t possibly do damage to beyond some light bruising. She liked it, we both did. It made sense to escalate, at the time, to something new; we were deepening both our romantic relationship – our trust in each other – and our power dynamic, and it was time to push a little, to see where we could go.
I was terrified. After she asked, after we talked about it extensively, I even tried, a few times, when we were in bed and she said, hit me, now, please, and I couldn’t, I’d bring my hand up and chicken out.
I was terrified of what it would mean for me, as a masculine person, as a butch, to be more dominating in bed. To like it. To like to cause someone pain. To like to cause a woman pain. To hit someone in the face. To hit a woman in the face, to sexualize that act and that power dynamic specifically.
I was paralyzed by that terror – I wanted to do it, the idea, the very thought of it, the discussions with her, turned me on, the girl I was dating wanted me to do it, but I couldn’t.
Beyond wanting to do it, this was the kind of sex act that was in the sex life I was dreaming of having. This was what haunted my fantasies and what I looked for in porn that I watched and erotica that I read. And I was on a very serious quest to figure out how to have the sex that I wanted. I’d just gotten out of a bed-death relationship. I was committed to studying sex hard, to figuring out: what I wanted, how to get what I wanted, how to build a relationship with that as an element, how to maintain something sane and hot over a long period of time. That’s precisely why I started Sugarbutch.
I now know that I’m a sadist, and a top. That means I like to dominate. And already there are conclusions being drawn by some of you out there who think well of course you like to dominate, you’re masculine, and that’s prescribed for you or in other words you misogynistic asshole, I already knew you were one of “those” butches who needs to make up for your inadequacies by dominating women. Because that’s what we think, isn’t it? Maybe not consciously, but a little bit, somewhere in our brains, we associate these particular identity alignments – butch equals masculine equals top equals dominating equals men’s prescribed gender role. We’re relieved when they line up how we think they will, or maybe we are challenged and uncomfortable – though perhaps in a stimulated way – when they misalign.
There’s something supposedly anti-feminist about wanting to dominate. There’s something in the feminist rhetoric which says we are all equal especially in bed, so that means I-do-you-you-do-me, or that means we have sex neither above nor below each other, and with no reproduced heteronormative misogynistic patriarchal power dynamic.
But I didn’t want that. I’d had that, with other girlfriends, but it didn’t keep things hot enough to sustain a relationship. And secretly, I wanted to top and control and hit and demean and humiliate and restrain and force and take.
Power dynamic theory—stick with me for just a paragraph here—has many similarities to gender theory. Like the gender identities of butch and femme are not reproductions but pastiche copies at best of prescribed societal gender roles, putting on and taking off power roles in power sex play is a pastiche reproduction of power in our lives, of which there are thousands of examples of interaction on a daily basis. And when we can put on and take off these roles intentionally, the act of adopting becomes further proof that the power positioning in our lives is not inherent, or “real,” or immobile, or prescribed, or “normal,” but part of a hierarchical society of social power that can be deconstructed. In that, we can more easily have more power and control in the beneficial ways, and less power and control in destructive ways, as we play with it and engage with it.
As in my experience with coming to a butch gender identity, when I finally came to a power identity that really deeply aligned with something inside me that just clicked and make sense, I felt like I was coming home to myself in a way I hadn’t experienced previously. Through my personality and tendencies and psychology I have my own set of quirks and workings and functions, and for whatever reason, it makes a lot of sense to me to let out some of my power and control issues in the bedroom by being dominating. It is deeply satisfying the way a glorious meal or a delicious book is satisfying, one of my life’s greatest pleasures. I’m not sure I understand why I like what I like, but what I like does not harm others, and is consensual, and I know myself well enough to accept what I like as what I like – and to let that be a simple truth.
How did this change for me? What happened between the time when I was terrified to slap a girl in the face and today, now, where I am fairly comfortable in my identity as a top, and even as a sadist, as someone who enjoys causing extreme sensation (aka hurting) someone else?
Little by little, I had lovers who pushed me, lovers who were more experienced as bottoms than I was as a top, lovers who wanted more from me and who could take more than I was able to give who made enough space for me to walk into a bigger version of myself and occupy it, try it on.
I did come to a reconciliation with my feminist self and my top self. Phrases like men should not hurt women or rather masculine people should not hurt feminine people, or even more broadly that people should not hit each other and violence is bad bad bad … I had accepted those phrases as Ultimate Truths, and I started to understand deeper the ways that sensation was not violence, and hitting was a way to be sparked into the present moment, to release whatever our musculature was holding onto, and to deepen trust between people and in a relationship.
I didn’t realize how little trust I had in others until I started playing deeper with BDSM. Because I would tell myself, it’s okay, she wants to do it, but then I would think, does she really? Maybe she wants to because I want to. Maybe she wants to because society tells her she should want to. Maybe she wants to for fucked-up reasons, like she thinks it’s okay for her to feel humiliated and less than me because of her own internalized misogyny … but that was me not trusting that what she said was true. That she wanted me to hit her face. And that was me, further controlling both myself, her, and our relationship, in unhealthy ways, because I didn’t trust her.
This was an issue of agency, in feminist terms – my not trusting my lover to communicate with me what she wanted, to explain to me how far I could go, and my not trusting that she would let me know if I was going too far or too hard, either with her physical communication or her words or both, was me not trusting in the agency of my lover. I have to trust that she will tell me, she will let me know, if I am going too far. And I have to listen, apologize, understand what I did, and trust that she will accept that it was an accident, a mistake, and that I’ll do whatever she needs to feel safe again.
When I started playing out my control issues in BDSM, in the bedroom, in sex play, the control issues I had in my relationships began to heal.
In learning my way into being a top, I had many, many conversations about consent and intention and communication, I talked to my lovers when things broke down or didn’t seem to work and I learned more about my own tendencies when things went well. I figured out that sometimes, it was really hard for me to be with someone who bottomed so well, and who I trusted so deeply, that I did harder, scarier, bigger things with them that took me even deeper into my topping and dominance and sadism and power, and sometimes that meant I needed to be comforted afterward, to be told I liked that, and that wasn’t too much, and you didn’t hurt me, and that was what I wanted and thank you. Hearing those things is always a relief.
(I give good aftercare too, of course. But top aftercare is less common in the BDSM world – we don’t frequently talk about the toll it takes for the dominant to dominate.)
I practiced, a lot, to be bold and trusting through my topping. I tried scary things and it turned out they weren’t so scary, they were in fact incredibly hot. I got to know myself, and I learned more about the things I wanted to play with, and I talked to smart people whose experiences were similar to what I was going through and who assured me it was possible to come out the other side of it a masculine, queer, butch, sadistic, feminist top.
I’m pretty excited about this album. I caught the preview when it was up at whichside.net and it came out yesterday, now it’s $3.99 on Amazon for the mp3 download if you’re into that kind of thing. And considering I’m trying to figure out what to do with my massive CD collection that is doing barely anything more than collecting dust, I’m not buying any new CDs anytime soon. Even Ani CDs.
I keep seeing write-ups that say—essentially or literally—”I think it’s safe to say at this point that the Ani many of us grew up on and love dearly (the self-titled/Out of Range/Dilate Ani) is dead and buried.” I find this kind of insulting, like saying that Tori Amos’s newest album isn’t Little Earthquakes, or my mom saying, “my little girl is gone” (hypothetically—my mom would never say that). I guess growth is important to me. These aren’t the only comments being made: in this Bitch Magazine interview says, “As I grew up and went on to college, Ani’s music came with me. ” But I hear the other kind of commentary more frequently.
I think there is a larger point attempting to be made with comments like that above, which is if you let go of your old expectations and really listen to the music she’s creating, there are some amazing things here, too, but I guess we as queer communities are holding too closely to the idealized Ani from the 90s. Personally I loved her dissonant sounding string of Evolve, Educated Guess, and Knuckle Down, I loved Reprieve, though I didn’t listen to Red Letter Year much. Not because it was happy, but because the lyrics and music seemed so thin.
But this one … more dense, more things to sink my teeth into. I’m glad to hear her use the word “feminism” in a song, though I question a little bit the nuance of her conversation in “Which Side.”I guess I like seeing the grey in-between things, and less worried about which side of the black or white.
Maybe I’ll get a more nuanced understanding of it after I spend more time with the album. I just downloaded it last night and look forward to having it on repeat today. Curious what your thoughts are—do you love the old Ani? Do you, like Jesse James, think her edge ended when she sang “I’m not angry anymore”? Are you looking forward to this album, do you like what you’ve heard?
The second issue of Salacious, a queer feminist sex magazine that sports “radically sex-positive thought-provoking super-hot porn,” is just as delicious as the first issue—and then some.
The format is just a slight bit smaller, but—that’s not true, it’s just the same size, though for some reason as soon as it came I thought it was smaller. I guess the first one was just so bountiful I thought it was bigger than it really is— the beautiful color images don’t lose their luster. I love that they have incorporated illustrations and stories into their content, and I’m sure that’s at least in part because KD Diamond, one of the folks at the helm, is a visual artist, and her illustrations are some of my favorites in the whole magazine.
Issue #3 is due out soon, but you can still get #2, which focuses on the theme of Voyeurism, online or in stores.
Salacious issue #2, Voyeurism, was sent to me from Salacious to review. Thanks!
Butch says it as no other label can. Butches, for the most part, present tough and perform tender. I love the word Butch as it well characterizes the stuff of Butch.Read More
2010 was the first year I was pretty diligent about using GoodReads to record what I’ve been reading, and it tells me I read about 50 books in 2010—I think that’s not quite right, but I’m going to try to be even better about it this year. In fact, I’ve made it a “goal” on GoodReads to read 100 books—given that I’m reviewing lesbian erotica for Lambda Literary Foundation, editing two books, am a judge for a literary contest, and my monthly book group, and just that is more than 50 books, I think I can make it.
Looking over the books I have listed on GoodReads as read in 2010, these are the ones that stand out. Not all of these are queer explicitly, though queer novels remain my favorite thing to read. And not all of them were published in 2010.
All are linked to Amazon for research purposes, but please do order and buy them from your local independent bookstore—Support booksellers! Support local culture!
In alphabetical order, because it’s hard to compare:
Aud Torvingen trilogy: The Blue Place, Always, & Stay by Nicola Griffith. I remember when Stay came out while I was working at the bookstore in Seattle (where I worked for almost 5 years as a bookseller), many people recommended it to me, saying I would like it. I think they assumed I would like it because I’m queer and it has a queer protagonist, but whatever. I (mistakingly) thought it was science fiction, and wasn’t so inclined to pick it up, but I finally picked up The Blue Place a few years ago (GoodReads says I read it in June 2009) and I was impressed. Well, first I kind of hated Aud Torvingen, the know-it-all, independently wealthy, accomplished-at-everything ex-cop turned private investigator who was trying to get her life together. But the end of the first book is so heartbreaking and good, I couldn’t just leave the characters suffering, so I had to read the other two in the series. I got hooked. And they just kept getting better. Easy, deep reading that I got lost in. I would read all of these again from the beginning.
Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser. I’ve been a little obsessed with books about healing and trauma the past few years, and I ran into this in a bookstore and picked it up from the library right after. Frequently my favorite books in about this kind of thing take a very Buddhist perspective (like When Things Fall Apart, Radical Acceptance, and When the Past Is Present), and while I love that, I also know that until I had a pretty strong base in Buddhist philosophy, I didn’t quite understand what they were talking about, and I found them difficult to read. Not this one, though. Broken Open talks about trauma, loss, grief, and healing from lots of different perspectives, weaving in stories and techniques from her workshops over the years. Very readable and very inspiring.
Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done by Susan J. Douglas. It’s not out in paperback yet, so I’ve still got the hardback copy from the library and have renewed it about 25 times now. I keep thinking I’ll get to a full review of it on Sugarbutch, and so I should go back and look through my notes and dog-ears to figure out exactly what I want to say. So here’s the paragraph version: I have thought about this book often since I read it. The descriptions of the 1990s especially made me realize I grew up in a unique time, full of the closest we’ve gotten to the manifestation of the feminist and gender equality movements, and the 2000s have brought plenty of backlash—but in a more subtle, twisted way than the backlash of the 1980s and early ’90s. Now, the backlash makes feminism look like it is outdated. Feminism? Pshaw, who needs that, women are equal now! But through various examinations of entertainment, celebrity, films, TV, and other pop cultural artifacts, Douglas argues that it’s far from over. It changed the way I am looking at feminism, and gave me some new ways to talk about what’s going on now. Now excuse me, I want to go re-read it.
Lynnee Breedlove’s One Freak Show by Lynn Breedlove (Manic D Press, 2009). Just, awesome. I’m a fan, but I had no idea Breedlove is so funny! And readable, and smart, and clever. I identified with many of the struggles within the queer communities about gender, and loved the bits about cocks and sexuality. It was more than I expected, and made me feel like Lynnee is my buddy. I was able to be there when Lynn won the Lammy for in the Transgender category last year, and it was a thrill to hear a few of the best lines in the book delivered in person. My full review is up on LambdaLiterary.org.
Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation edited by S. Bear Bergman & Kate Bornstein (Seal Press, 2010). Things have changed since Kate Bornstein’s book Gender Outlaw, and this is the updated proof of the celebration and liberation that’s happening within the trans landscape right now, and the proof of how much further we have to go, and what else we need to work on. I would put this on my “required reading” list, and I bet a lot of other people out there would too. It’s a beautiful anthology. I especially love Bear and Kate’s introduction, which is a conversation via internet chat. My review on Sugarbutch and my companion piece, Ten Ways I am a Gender Outlaw.
Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon. A personal account of gender and masculinity insights throughout life, with illustrations of various relationships—friendships, marriage, kids, parents. I really love his writing, he has such a beautiful way of constructing a sentence, and I was really moved by his descriptions of feminism. Though maybe I shouldn’t be, I was surprised to find a straight white cis man writing so eloquently about gender dynamics and providing insight into so many of the difficulties that are imposed upon us in gender roles, and I think his accessibility brought these concerns to a lot of people since this book was published. It’s a great starting place for examining masculinity in more depth (which is one of the things I hope to do this year, and I have about five books waiting for me).
Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther Perel. I didn’t expect to like this one as much as I did—I thought it would be pretty elementary, but it had some great insight into American culture and relationships. Perel is not American, and that outsider perspective was at times really interesting and useful. Of course, it is 99% heterosexual, and when she tries to include queer couples it doesn’t really account for any sort of difference in culture, but glosses over the difference and goes right to “all relationships have their difficulties, doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight,” which I get, but I think there’s a little more to it than that and it’s a little bit of a privileged position to be able to dismiss the queerness as just a personality trait akin to liking sports or being into cooking. Nevertheless, the tips and consciousness around building a long term relationship that remains sexual are important, and I’m glad I read it. My full review on Sugarbutch.
Missed Her by Ivan Coyote (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010). It wasn’t until I was telling a friend about the book that I realized that “Missed Her” is often mistaken as “Mister” in speech. What can I say about Ivan? She’s a masterful storyteller. She and I grew up in a similar region, and her tales about her childhood and her extended family feel so familiar and nostalgic and articulate in such a beautiful way. I love the descriptions of her new relationship love. I will continue picking up every book she puts out, and I’ve never been disappointed.
Mr. Benson by John Preston (Cleis Press, 2004). How is it possible that I did not read this book until last year?? I can’t believe I missed it. And now that I’ve read it, any time I mention it to queer folks—especially ones older than me—they all know about it, and know it well. So: It is a gay men SM novel first published as a serial in 1979, and then in full in the early 1980s. It’s from a time before the AIDS crisis. More good stuff on John Preston over at GLBTQ encyclopedia, if you want to know more context. The book is dirty and full of power and strength and dominance. The actual storyline is a little boring (I just wasn’t as invested in the human trafficking/exploitation part as I was in the beautiful D/s scenes), but the book does need something to keep it going. Apparently the book was so popular that there were both “Looking for Mr. Benson” and “Looking for Mr. Benson?” tee shirts all over in the ’80s, though of course they are not around now, at least not that I could find. I handed the book to Kristen as soon as I was done and she zoomed through it, then had a “Looking for Mr. Benson?” tee shirt made for me for winter solstice. It prompted me to think a lot about how I play with dominance, especially in my domestic life with Kristen, and we have talked about it frequently while trying to iron out difficulties between us in that play. And who knew piss play could be so awesome?
Origami Striptease by Peggy Munson (Suspect Thoughts Press, 2006). I’ve had this one on my shelf for a few years, not sure where I picked it up but I didn’t know much about it. I started reading it and was hooked: It is so ethereal, so surreal, at times it reads like poetry. The intention and clarity behind the word choices are so specific. It reminds me of Rebecca Brown or Jeanette Winterson, two of my favorite authors. I love getting lost in words and images like I did while reading this. Looks like it’s a little bit out of print now, which is too bad. Maybe the publisher still has it directly.
The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue. Historical fiction that recounts a divorce trial in the 1860s. I’m not so in to historical fiction, though on occasion I find it fascinating—particularly when I find it relevant, which, for the most part, I don’t find the genre, but I have found some of the recent books, like Sarah Waters’s novels, with lesbian content. I read this one for my book group, and I was skeptical—it took a while to really get into it. The first half of the book is elaborate descriptions of the two women’s friendship, and the details that lead up to the divorce, then the divorce trial happens for another 1/3 of the book (which I found terribly dull, though my lawyer friend thought was fascinating)—but the very end made it worth it. Though I was a bit triggered by all the psychological manipulation one of the characters continues to exhibit, I have still been recommending this quite a bit. It’s pretty fascinating to hear about the politics of marriage, family, cheating, and legality from 150 years ago—really not that long ago, but it exposes some of the ways we have directly evolved from those cultural standards.
Sometimes She Lets Me: Best Butch Femme Erotica edited by Tristan Taormino (Cleis Press, 2010). Call me biased if you like, because I have a story in this book, but this is my favorite erotica collection to come out for a long time. Not only because it’s butch/femme, but also because the stories are just good. Editor Taormino had a decade worth of Best Lesbian Erotica collections to pull from, and she picked the best of the best of the best, in my opinion. Plus, there aren’t very many explicitly butch and femme erotica anthologies, so I’m glad we’ve got one more. This one is still on my nightstand. My review on Sugarbutch.
Toybag Guide to the Taboo by Mollena Williams (Greenery Press, 2010). I’m a fan of Mollena‘s work in general, and when I saw her at the Lesbian Sex Mafia for her workshop Taboo Play and Working Through Extremes in early 2010 I admired her even more. This book is kind of the written version of her workshop, with many of the same stories and philosophies about what it’s like to be exploring the “taboo” sides of sexuality, like incest play, bestiality, force, and race play, and it is thoroughly thoughtful. Obviously Mollena has been thinking about these things for a long time, and it shows with her respect, care, and detail.
Follow my author profile over at GoodReads if you’d like to see more of the books I’m reading.
So let’s hear it: What were YOUR favorite books of 2010? What are you reading right now? What else do you recommend that I read?
A few weeks ago, when one of my oldest and dearest and favorite-est friends, BB, was in town visiting, Kristen and BB and I had a night at home and sat down to watch a film. Having recently discovered the joys of both Paperback Swap and Swap A DVD, I have some DVDs that I haven’t seen in quite a long time, if ever.
Black Snake Moan was one of them, and we decided to put it on.
I saw it once before, as had Kristen, and I remembered liking it. But putting it on, I was nervous. What if it wasn’t feminist enough? What if they thought it was exploitive and weird? What if I thought it was exploitive and weird?
It sure doesn’t seem like a feminist, conscious film on the surface—it seems fucked up, about gender, race, and sexuality. Why would I want to see that? Why would I like that? But it’s more complex than it seems.
Here’s the basic premise: Rae (Christina Ricci) has an extreme sexual appetite. Rae’s boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) is off to the army and while they usually keep each other sane and balanced, she is losing her control and getting in dangerous situations, such as getting completely intoxicated, half-naked, and then beat up by a guy she occasionally sleeps with. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), whose wife just left him for his younger brother, finds Rae unconscious on the road near his house and brings her inside, attempting to nurse her back to health. She, though, has all sorts of night terrors, which cause her to run around and scream—while pretty much still unconscious—so he chains her to the radiator. But when she comes to, two days later, he doesn’t unchain her, but decides she’s not healed yet.
I know, I know: I want to start yelling, NON CONSENSUAL! You can’t do that! But the thing is … she’s out of her mind, a little bit. I know it sounds like shaming a woman because she likes sex, but frankly I don’t think that’s what’s behind this. It isn’t that she likes sex too much, it’s that she is destroying herself through her pursuit of sex, which is clearly depicted as compulsive, and absolutely not something she is choosing from an empowered place.
Ricci is bone-thin in a very unattractive way, she looks so strange sometimes, so unlike her for this role. I wanted her to come over so Kristen could feed her baked goods and get a little bit of that glow back. But she plays the role amazingly—I even read a critique that said it was the highlight of her acting career. And Jackson is genius! I love the scenes where he’s playing the guitar and singing, the blues just dripping off of him. Healing music, no doubt.
All through the re-watch I kept thinking, why is this okay? Why is this not totally fucked up? Because it seems like it should be, on the surface—but it’s not, and I love this film. Maybe it’s because it’s so well written? Or well acted? Or well crafted, in general? I could go on and on about the layers of this film and the dozens of ways you could interpret the character’s actions (the Christian angle; the sex is bad angle; the men as savior angle), but really what I want to do is encourage you to see it for yourself, if you like to think critically about consent, feminism, character, and kink.
And oh yes, it is kinky. All the stuff with the chains, well …
I love the way she becomes attached to that chain. There is a part, after she regains consciousness but before she’s healed, where she consents to stay. Where she kind of doesn’t want him to take the chains off. And another part (in that photo, above) where she comforts herself with the weight and restriction of the chains, in part to get through her own triggers, and to break the automatic reactions in which she’s been stuck.
I would argue that hits on exactly what she needs: containment. Not in a repression kind of way, no, but in the tantric sense, that she is all energy and river and no riverbank. (Interesting, though, how she is able to be that container for Ronnie, as stated from the very beginning of the film when he says she saved him, onto the last scene.)
Plenty more happens in the plot after that: Lazarus teaches her things about life and living, she confronts some demons (including her mother), we get some abstract insight into the things that have been haunting her, and she seems to come to a stronger, more capable place. Personal growth, healing from trauma, and breaking through her own samskara: makings of a good film, if you ask me.
And, the chains …
Well, Kristen liked the chains. She has a thing for metal, more than I do I think (I’m more of a leather guy myself—not that I’m opposed to chains). I had, I remembered, received Metal Wrist and Ankle Cuffs from Sextoy.com that I’d never reviewed, nor had we, in fact, ever even used them.
I thought it might be time to break those out.
Yeah, so that was a good idea.
That image is from Griffin Leather & Metal, not the actual cuffs that came in my set. Mine are not nearly as gorgeous as these, but that’s basically how they’re set up. And the photo on the box that mine came in is pretty awful, it is something that would have steered me clear of buying it.
But in fact, it’s very much worth having around.
They’re relatively cheap, but they’re sturdy, and they don’t feel like they’re going to break (unlike some of the other bondage toys I’ve occasionally reviewed). The chains could be a little shorter, especially the chain connecting the wrist cuffs to the ankle cuffs, but that also might be because Kristen is kind of short, so perhaps with someone a bit taller they would be the perfect size.
The product description reports:
Nickel plated heavy duty locking wrist and ankle cuffs. Includes 4 keys. Wrist size up to 7 inches and ankle size up to 10 inches. The chain connecting wrists is 3.5 inches and the chain connecting ankles is 17 inches. The chain connecting ankles and wrists is 16 inches.
Those dimensions don’t seem quite right (longer connection between the feet than from the feet to the hands?), but that’s what the website claims.
And I’d like to tell you all about what we did when we played with them, but the truth is, I can’t remember the details. I don’t know how it started exactly, I don’t know how it ended. I don’t remember how I put them on her, but I do remember holding on to the chain, choking up on it so she couldn’t move. I remember telling her to get up and walk to the other side of the bed so she could look in the mirror. I remember watching her touch herself for a while, while I watched. And I may have snapped a few photos.
You know, maybe.
The Metal Wrist and Ankle Cuffs were sent to me for review from Sextoy.com. Pick up the Metal Wrist and Ankle Cuffs or other bondage toys from sextoy.com, or your local queer feminist sex-positive independent shop.
I’m still thinking about this film sometimes, even now, two or three weeks later, and looking forward to watching it again.
I’m not going to write a blow-by-blow account of the film and all the complex, phenomenal moments (like, “You’ll have to ask the chef.” “Paprika.” And everything about the characters of Miss Angie and Ronnie both), or an elaborate argument on why it might border on offending my feminist sensibilities, but doesn’t actually. I’ve enjoyed the extensive conversations I’ve been having with Kristen about the film since we saw it, and I’m looking forward to seeing it again.
Have you seen it? What did you think?
If you haven’t, perhaps you’d like to watch the trailer for the film, and see if it’s something you’d try out. I was skeptical, but it is much more than what it seems. Read More
How do you reconcile your feminism with your sadism and desire to (gulp) hurt women? (In a completely consensual manner, of course.)—Cold Comfort
The closest thing I’ve come so far to explaining this was in that essay from December 2009 called Reconciling the Identities of Feminist and Butch Top, but this question, about sadism, is slightly different, and I have the impression I haven’t quite answered it all the way.
“Butch top” is very much related to “sadist” for me, but that’s just because that’s my particular version of butch topping, into which my sadism is built. In fact, it’s only been recently that I’ve been unpacking sadism from topping, being with someone who is much more submissive than she is a masochist. Point being, much of that essay is exactly about reconciling those identities.
Yet still, I don’t feel like that is an adequate explanation on this topic. Besides, the culmination of that essay is basically, “How did I reconcile these identities? I don’t know, I just thought about it a lot and then it was better.” There must be something more articulate to say about that.
I hit on it a little more in the essay Yes, No, and Consent too, about agency, in feminist terms. It has to do with the very simple distinctions between BDSM and abuse, even if they are equated by many anti-porn feminists. And it has to do with the Platinum Rule—not the Golden Rule, the “do to others what you would like to be done to you,” but the “do to others as they would like to be treated,” and the acknowledgement that how you want to be treated and how another wants to be treated may not be the same thing, especially when you add in the complexities of relationship through sex, BDSM, sadism, and masochism.
But, if someone wants me to treat them a certain way and something about it feels funny to me, I trust that, and I take a break and pause and ask questions (hopefully without over-processing or projecting), until I feel like we have resolved whatever was coming up or until I decide there’s too much there to open up without adequate containment or backup.
To go back to the Platinum Rule: for a pop-culture simplistic example, consider the Love Languages! Which, cheesy as they are superficially, I think are a very useful system to think about the ways that myself and my partner may be seeking the same things (like love, comfort, security, passion) but may be in different ways (through words of aspiration, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and receiving gifts). I think we all have some relationship to all five of those ways (and possibly more), but many of us are more focused on some of those ways than others.
All of us are seeking similar things, like love and sex and companionship, but we may be seeking to play with those things in different ways. And figuring out what my own preferences are in playing with those things, and in being in a relationship, figuring out how I best communicate, who I’m attracted to and what qualities I most prefer in someone else, and how to reconcile differences or misunderstandings between us, has been a huge journey, and has been a huge piece of being able to articulate that I want to play with deeper, heavier BDSM, like pain or humiliation, and to trust someone enough to believe that when they say they want to play with that on the receiving end, they mean it, they know themselves well enough to know what they want, they are experienced enough to understand what they’re asking for, they are in touch with themselves enough to tell when they have reached a limit, and they are strong enough to be able to communicate with me around whatever is going wrong (or right).
I’ve worked a hell of a lot on my own issues, particularly on being able to say what I’m thinking, to stand up for myself, and to not get swept up in someone else’s psychology and psyche. I’ve been in therapy for about four years now, and that has helped me greatly with my communication. I’ve also done all sorts of “alternative” methods of healing, such as massage therapy, physical therapy, acupuncture, tinctures, supplements, nutritional counseling, bodywork … I’ve done a lot of work on myself and my own issues, and I am continuing to work hard to improve the ways I communicate and relate.
So, this is how I would reconcile feminism & sadism:
- Acknowledge that people want different things. For example, your desire to hit someone is bad when the person you are hitting doesn’t want to be hit, but when the person you are with wants to be hit, in a playful, controlled, conscious way, that’s called consent and it’s (probably) great. Consider the distinctions between BDSM and abuse, and trust yourself when you know you are on one side or the other. Listen to your lovers when they give you feedback about how your behavior affects them.
- Play with people whose consent you trust, and don’t take responsibility for other people’s consent. And, if they consent, then later uncover that it was actually bad for them, they didn’t like it, or blame something on you, you can certainly apologize and take responsibility for whatever your part of it may have been, but it was not your fault that they consented to an act that you then did. Be willing to process a scene after playing, and listen carefully, but know that trying to retroactively revoke consent is a dangerous move.
- Seek out and understand the background and history and texts on BDSM. Find mentors (if you’re in a city big enough to have a BDSM scene) and take classes, or join online BDSM groups and learn. There is a rich history of writings and teachers who discuss what it’s like to go into these deep, dark realms of physical sensation and psychology, and many of them hold important explanations for how this play works. Studying these arts makes us more aware, which can make us more conscious, and more intentional, and better able to be present in our play.
I’ve always, for as long as I can remember, had a deep connection to feminism. And I believe in it the way I believe in psychology or democracy—that even though there are plenty of people out there fucking it up, there is a kernel, a spark, a rawness at its core that I believe is important, necessary, and is deeply aligned with me and my sense of purpose in this world. I don’t believe that because some people are taking these things and claiming them to mean some things that I disagree with that I need to then step out of the ring and let them take it over. I’m glad that there can be multiple perspectives coming from one singular idea, it strengthens the idea to have multiple angles, I think (even if sometimes I believe they are so very wrong).
I know there are plenty of people who say they are not a feminist, especially those who work in various aspects of sex, and that there are plenty of feminists who would probably say that I am “not a feminist” because of my BDSM play or my masculinity or whatever. But I have enough sovereignty around my feminist identity that I know that their version of feminism is simply different from mine, and that mine is no more wrong than theirs is.
So that’s my last prescription for reconciling feminism and sadism: Ask yourself what your definition of feminism is. If you start digging to discover that you think feminists never, ever hit someone, or humiliate someone, or call someone a bitch, or shove a cock down a girl’s throat, well then, you are going to have some trouble reconciling those two identities. This is where the #3 Research on BDSM will come in handy, because BDSM circles know the difference between play and real life. We know that rape is absolutely not the same thing as playing with consent, as someone yelling out “no no no” during a scene. We know that the things that we play with during scenes, like pain, like giving or receiving pain, are not fun to experience in real life. I would never want someone to spank me or beat me or slap me in the face for real! I would never want someone to do that to my girlfriend! But under the umbrella of play, it takes on other qualities. It might look the same, a slap across the face vs a slap across the face, but the motivation, intention, control, and outcome are completely different.
Growing involves seeing more than the black or white definitions that labels, identities, and systems of thought often prescribe. Lots of feminists have written about how oppressive the sexual culture surrounding the subordination of women is; and that’s important to learn. However, equating ALL acts of some kind of sex, happening between consenting adults, that you or “feminists” deem inappropriate with oppression or non-consent is denying a key part of sex play: agency. Hurting someone, especially sexually, is something (some) feminists shun, but when you add consent into that mix, you’ve entered into something that is not black or white. And perhaps not even gray, since consent puts any act in a whole new category.
Did that adequately answer your brief but loaded question? Are there other follow-up questions from what I’ve posted here?