“For a generation of brilliant, driven, angry, wonderful women who get up, and look in the mirror, and demand so much less of themselves.”
Trigger warning for descriptions of ED in the article.
Trigger warnings: While this post is written firmly from a fat acceptance point of view, it discusses obesity research and fat hate, so I’d encourage you to take care of yourself and decide whether you’re comfortable reading about it or not, if these are areas you find triggering. I also use the term ‘obesity’ in this article a lot, though I know it’s controversial – this is because obesity research is an existing scientific field that I want to talk about, rather than because I think that BMI is a good measure of anything.
I’ve been practicing fat acceptance and HAES for a number of years now, and they’re ideas that in general I have found tremendously helpful. They’re also ideas that continue to be relevant to my day-to-day life, and therefore ones that I continue to think about. It also happens that I work in a science field that, while not being within obesity research, at least periodically brings me in touch with it (sometimes whether I like it or not). This is a post that attempts to link some thoughts on obesity research and my own practice of HAES and fat acceptance.
A recent concept that a friend introduced me to, and that I’ve found extremely helpful, is that there are two different questions at stake. One is the medical question of lifestyle, what is and isn’t a disease, and what does and doesn’t prevent it. The other one is the social justice question, of whether it’s ok to discriminate against someone on the basis of their weight (here’s a short answer for you: NO.). I’m convinced that the fat hate does feed into the science, but actually, science has ways of correcting itself – lots of interesting things have already been found about metabolism, and even some of the more staunch HAES supporters sometimes set out to ‘cure’ obesity, and came out the other end with a radically different point of view, based on the evidence. I think that fat hate is accelerating the science, because people believe that obesity is a serious problem that needs solving (and certainly, more than one lecture I’ve been to starts with a picture of a Headless Fatty), but actually, I don’t think that ultimately science is our enemy. Some of the strongest support for HAES and our understanding of fat and health has already emerged out of it, and no doubt there’s more to come. It’s not all great, it’s not all unbiased, but I’m actually broadly positive about what I believe the eventual outcome of the science will be (and that’s after a lot of thinking, and a high degree of suspicion of the field).
Fat hate, on the other hand, is definitely a problem. And what’s more, I’ve come to believe that it’s a problem entirely separate from the science. The massive amount of vitriol that’s flung towards fat people is to me very clearly classic discrimination in its purest form. It involves picking out a population that’s visibly different, then abusing and ridiculing them, and discriminating against them in a range of fields. Like all oppression, it keeps a small group as an elite in power, at the expense of the oppressed. The fact that people use a medical justification for this is, in my opinion, arbitrary. Something I’ve heard pointed out when it came to slut-shaming women was “Look, they call you a slut, and you reclaim it, and then they call you ugly, or a bitch, or a prude. At the end of the day, it’s not the slut shaming that’s the problem – the problem is that *they just hate women*.” I feel something similar is happening with fat hate. As has been pointed out, marathon runners who damage their knees don’t get anything like the shaming, judgment, discrimination and even threats of violence, that fat people experience. This isn’t about health. They just hate fat people.
I think it’s valuable for fat people, that the fat acceptance community is keeping up with the literature, and working hard to dispel the myths surrounding fat and health. In fact, I think it’s valuable for everyone – I think this toxic culture of body hate is damaging across the board, no matter what your size, much as fat people experience the consequences of it disproportionately more severely. However, I’ve also personally found it helpful to let go of the idea that ‘setting the record straight’ in terms of scientific evidence will in itself solve the problem of fat hate. Whether obesity is harmful or not, whether it’s a genetic hand you’ve been dealt or a choice, whether you’re at risk of different diseases or not – they just hate fat people. All of those questions can (and some already have, and others hopefully will) be answered by science, and it probably still won’t make the fat hate go away.
That might sound really negative, but I’ve personally been finding it a bizarrely positive and helpful idea. For me, it removes a lot of the sting of fat hate – it stops me from regularly second-guessing myself about whether people are right, and I really am doing harm to my body. It means that there are two things happening:
1. There are some facts, about research and nutrition and medicine, which to the best of my ability I keep up to date with and apply, because I want to stay healthy and take care of myself.
2. Some people are bigots.
When people from 2. open their mouths, things often come out that seem to bear some connection to 1., but that’s because they’re throwing rocks, and that happens to be a particularly aerodynamic shape of rock they have available. Hypothetically, even if the entire world agrees that fat is genetic and fine and harmless, it is likely that these people will just find a different shape of rock. In my head, the answer is to engage with the science and the medicine, but to stop listening to bigots.
I feel that separating the two also helped me advance my practice of HAES a little bit further. I do care about health, and I do care about nutrition, and I feel like this puts me in a stronger position to apply those things. I *can* choose to make bits of lifestyle modification because they make me feel better, or because I think they’re a good idea in the long run, but those things are not about fat hate. I also find that my ability to engage with friends and family members about the topic of fat acceptance has improved. It’s like having a sorting hat that helps me pick out genuine concern from concern trolling. The former can be addressed with information and educating people, and the latter cannot. Also, more subtly, it enables me to tell whether someone who genuinely does care about me is nonetheless being a bigot. There are some telltale signs, like the refusal to absorb any new information that doesn’t fit into their worldview, and the refusal to accept my views and boundaries (because they’re just right, and I’m just wrong). I’m lucky to not have experienced this very much, and that for the most part I have really very wonderful friends and family, but these are the tools I use for the exceptions.
For anyone else undertaking a similar journey – I wish you all the very best. And just in case the thought helps, remember – haters are gonna hate, but it has *nothing to do with you*.
I’m a proper full-on geek at heart. Whenever I care about anything, one of my first responses is to start accumulating and absorbing the relevant literature. Given this, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that among others, I’ve also acquired a large number of sex books over the years. I don’t mean erotica particularly – more like a range of memoirs and “how-to” guides of various flavours. This is a post about my new and shifting attitude to sex, and, in connection, about the day I threw away my sex books.
Given the choice of the virgin/slut dichotomy, back in the day, I thought I had a pretty good idea what side I wanted to land on. I relished any chance to be knowledgeable about and ‘good at’ sex, and I did my reading and my research. I suppose that’s why I took to sex positive feminism so naturally as soon as I came across it. Liberation through agency, through conscious sexual desire – yes, that was me. I mean, it’s a very ‘cool’ way to be liberated. Some assurances that I wouldn’t have to give up high heels and femininity, and off I went, to a range of things from pole dancing classes to one night stands and rather sexually liberal communities. I don’t want to slag it off too much – I think that it was fun and a learning experience, and also that it was exactly the right path for me to be following at the time (much as that reflects a whole set of privileges that I had access to and was unaware of – but that’s really a separate topic). However, it’s also one that I diverged from significantly since, and it’s really that progression of change that I wanted to write about.
I kind of think that my past self did the best she could – I feel like I got offered a set of choices, and that I went for what felt like the more radical one at the time. I don’t think there was an option of skipping ahead, at least with the information, attitudes and messages that I had been exposed to up to that point in my life, combined with the way I react to things. I don’t think there’s a skip ahead option available to many people, if anyone really. I think the paths to feminist desire are winding and secret, and those of us who end up following them all find different routes to get there. And at the time, I really thought about it a lot, and thought I had things pretty sorted in my head. And then, as has happened before, and I very much hope will continue to happen again, cracks in my basic beliefs about the way the world works started to form.
The first crack was innocuous. Almost not worth mentioning, except I think it disturbed the foundations just enough to eventually lead to a full collapse. And that first crack came in the unlikely shape of a woollen rainbow hat. I had borrowed it from a friend, and it was cute, and I was wearing it walking down the street. And that all sounds normal enough, except that it wasn’t my style at all – there was nothing alluring, or attractive, or sexy about it. I ended up wearing it actively despite that, and noticing my own reaction, asked the question for the first time: “Why is it that I feel the need to look attractive *all the time*?” It wasn’t a date, or a special occasion, or even a situation where I had to interact with anyone at all. It was just me, in the middle of the day, walking down the street.
You leave that question to brew slowly for a certain number of years, and you find it leads to all sorts of other questions. Questions like “Why is the worth of women in general linked to their attractiveness?” and “Is there no other choice? What if there’s more to me than that? What if there’s more to us than that?”. But also other questions that come later, like “How does this continual need to feel attractive and wanted affect the sex I have?” and eventually the killer one: “How much of my sexuality is borne out of my own desire, and how much of it is performed?”
So I started paying attention, really paying attention to what I wanted. Not an easy project under the circumstances, since what I wanted didn’t seem to particularly feature in the choices I’d been previously presented with. I mean, I don’t think “wanting to be sexy dream girl” is really about my desires at all, but you need to get out of that particular bubble to really grasp that. But anyway, I bumbled around a lot (and still do) not quite knowing what I want most of the time, and doing my best to listen to my own reactions and communicate them. And I don’t know, I still wouldn’t say it’s easy, but little by little, it got less impossible.
One of the things I noticed was that some situations made it easier than others to listen to that quiet voice in my head that expresses my desire. If you imagine it as a compass – on its own and without outside influence, it would maybe spin around for a little while, but would eventually point in the right direction. However, as soon as a big societal magnet came anywhere near it, it would be drawn to it with such force that telling the original direction was close to impossible. I find heteronormative sexuality to be one such gigantic magnet. Sometimes it’s not that I specifically want or don’t want intercourse – it’s just that I just *don’t know*. I can’t tell if I want it, or I just want to want it, and I get into a whole confusing tangle. Because such a huge amount of pressure is focused around our proving our sexuality and sexual worth and desirability etc etc, and such massive stakes hang on the occurrence and ‘success’ of intercourse, I find that the ideas of sexual validity or approval can really throw off my internal compass. In contrast, for example – I’m rarely in any doubt as to whether I want to play with a vibrator. Either I do or I don’t, and it’s simple, because it’s sufficiently far away from socially prescribed norms that it doesn’t have lots of added hooks in it. I sincerely hope that vibrators stay widespread enough to be available, but never become considered a necessary component of performed female sexuality – I feel it would be a sad loss for genuine feminist desire.
I find that intercourse is pretty much the most powerful magnet, but by no means the only situation with magnets and hooks in. I have a phrase, “situationally appropriate sex”, that I use to describe the phenomenon of my own mind dragging me into a sexual situation because it’s occasion x or we’re in location y, therefore we ‘ought’ to be having sex. Also, because it’s what couples do, because it’s what other couples do, because we haven’t had sex for a while, because unless we do, we’re not normal, and because it’s required as proof that we love each other. How the hell are you supposed to react anyway, when those are the stakes? It’s not that my desire is even necessarily unaligned, but it’s sometimes unsurprisingly hard to tell, when your mind is stuck in a knot of “It’s occasion x/it’s been y days/weeks, and I want to want sex, because I love my partner, and I’ve been told that people who love each other have sex on occasions such as x/as often as y, while people who don’t have sex on occasion x/have sex less frequently than y are stuck in loveless relationships and should be pitied and condescended to”. Notice that the only personally relevant thing in that sentence is “I love my partner”. Everything else is a knot that’s built up of ridiculous one-size-fits-all social expectations. And as a rule, situationally appropriate sex tends to be rubbish and goes wrong more easily (something about intrinsic desire vs extrinsic pressure). The performed element removes the very core of what makes sexuality intimate – the genuine connection with my partner.
I threw away my sex books, because I don’t think any amount of sex tips, suggested positions and anatomical diagrams will give me that connection either. I think they were useful for me in terms of building up some essential basic knowledge, and normalising different sexual acts to the point of making me comfortable enough to talk about them directly. That having been done – right now, I feel the urge to figure it out on my own. I think any amount of sexperts and ‘oughts’ and suggestions from anywhere and anyone is at the moment just being noise that’s throwing off my internal compass some more. Same with any pressure to do anything, or situationally appropriate desires. I’ve been trying to train myself to at least spot them early, and whenever possible to just discard them altogether. Noise noise noise.
In excellent news though – when my internal compass is left to its own devices, it works just fine. I know what I want. I know what feels good, and what feels right. I know when my partner’s touch feels just perfect, and when my mind and soul are in sync with my body. I know when I have the sort of sex that makes me loved up, and emotional, and connected, and loved. I know what moments and touches take my breath away, what memories make me write love songs.
I might be a geek at heart, but I threw my books away when I concluded: when it comes to my own desire, the solution is in my body and my mind. And for once, not in a book.
This is a post that’s been in my head for a while, and what with the release of Lisa Millbank Part VI of Prudes’ Progress, which deals explicitly with “falling out of love with dominance”, it seemed like a good time to finally put them down on a page.
There have been some positive things that I believed I picked up specifically from the reading and practice of BDSM. I put them here in vaguely chronological order, in an attempt to track a progress in context. I believe that once you’ve picked them up and internalised them, some of these are entirely independent of BDSM per se, but for me, BDSM has been the key factor in exposing me to them/them to me, and I also believe this is not an experience specific to me alone. I also think that not everything about BDSM is good, but that the way the good and the bad are intermingled is complicated, and warrants further discussion. As such, I this post is about some of the good things, but in a later post, I will try and go into some of the bad as well.
With all that in mind – things I learned from BDSM:
1. Practicing radical self-acceptance, in sexuality as much as in other areas of life.
I already talked about this in my last post a bit – about how shame lands in the wrong places / on the wrong people, in a way that I think is quite systematic. It’s a little bit tricky to talk about this, because I feel like a call for radical self acceptance can be mistaken as a call for unchecked privilege. The two are very different things, which can unfortunately be made to sound very similar, in a way that I believe is as systematic as the way in which the shame lands – where those with little privilege find radical self acceptance hard to embrace, while those with a lot of privilege find it all too easy to not only accept, but quickly translate into a sort of radical privileged entitlement. But with all that being said, I still think it’s important to discuss.
I found radical self-acceptance extremely helpful in all contexts I’ve ever tried to apply it in. In the specific context of kink, well – I found that there were some desires that I’ve had all my life. And I found that the years (and it really was years) I spent hating myself for these were dark in the sense of self-shaming/self-loathing, but also thoroughly unproductive ones in terms of personal growth in this area. The lack of growth stemming from a continual circle of “These desires are bad” -> “I shouldn’t have these desires” -> “Oh, I appear to still have these desires, despite thinking they’re bad and trying to ban myself from them” ad infinitum. Maybe ‘sexual diet’ is a perfectly apt term, since the closest parallel I can think of is the cyclical nature of yo-yo dieting.
The thing I found was, once I gave myself permission to have these desires, I was out of the loop. And by permission, I absolutely DO NOT mean “ooh, it’s all good, I can go and do xyz to people now”. What I mean instead is “It’s ok. Having these desires is ok. It doesn’t make me morally depraved, and it doesn’t make me broken. I’m ok as I am.” And once I was out of the loop, well, me as a person, and my desires (kinky or otherwise), suddenly had the space to grow, and change, and evolve. They’re not the same desires I started with, and I expect they’ll keep changing as I change too. But I feel that progress out of infinite loops is impossible, and radical self acceptance is the tool for getting out of these. To use Lisa’s metaphor – you kind of have to back up and go around, to get to a new place.
2. Recognising power and talking about it.
To say that power imbalances are the norm in relationships in modern society, is so understated as to entirely miss the point. Power imbalances are so normal, so everyday, so expected, that WE DON’T SEE THEM. Whatever actions we take to try and make our relationships more equal, often stand out starkly, and are perceived with suspicion, by a society which is so overflowing with worship of dominance and demands of submission that NOBODY NOTICES IT’S HAPPENING.
And certainly, you can say that BDSM worships dominance. And it does. But what it also does, is that it distills it. It makes it visible. It makes people aware of power, and their desires surrounding power, in a manner which, well, I guess it might be bad if “Domination is sexy” is where you stop off. But speaking of progress – I have found that this starting point, and the awareness of power that it gave me, sort of went full circle, and as a result, I started noticing power everywhere. I’d KNOW if someone was topping me during an everyday interaction (for example, the manner in which someone ordered food for both of us in a restaurant), and whether I was getting off on it and why. I’d notice whether I liked it or not. Once I noticed it, I could disrupt it too. Or consciously choose it occasionally. On the other hand, you can’t object to things that have been so normalised that you don’t notice them.
I mentioned that a lot of the lessons themselves are BDSM independent. And in fact, once you learn them, they may end up overthrowing some BDSM practices in the process. And, honestly, I wish there *were* places other than BDSM, where people could learn these things. I wish it had been feminism that did that for me. As it was, however, it was my BDSM practice that fed into my feminism, rather than the other way around. It was BDSM that taught me how to recognise power, that I can refuse to partake in it, and it was BDSM that taught me how to verbally negotiate, and the importance of consent. I don’t think it makes a great end in itself, but I can’t help but notice that kink has been a *major* stepping stone in this particular feminist’s progress.
3. Presenting sexuality alternatives / accepting alternative sexualities.
This one is kind of a mixture of the effects of sex-positive feminism and talking to kink-positive people. In general in society, a lot of pressure exists to a) have sex, and b) have sex in a very specific hetero-normative way. One of the things about kink is that it’s very broad, and encompasses all sorts of desires, which can be diverse, colourful, and often, contrary to the very restrictive mainstream model of sexuality, have nothing to do with genitals. I think being exposed to this sea of different desires, and people cheerfully accepting that this diversity exists, is broadly speaking a positive thing. I think it opens up a space for more playfulness and creativity, and for people to explore their desires in directions that are different from the extremely narrow and prescriptive mainstream sexuality model. This has certainly been very helpful to me in terms of breaking out of a purely heteronormative, prescribed sexuality.
4. The habit of verbalising desire.
This is another thing that has gone full circle, to be included in all of my sexuality rather than just the kinky parts. I used to be very shy and quiet when talking about sex. Talking about sex outside a ‘sexy’ situation felt difficult and awkward, while during a sexual encounter, I felt extremely self-conscious expressing desire, and indeed using anything other than a sort of ‘sexy’ whisper to express much of anything at all. I think this changed over time, and not entirely because of BDSM, but I think that kink definitely made it a habit for me. The thing is, once you don’t have a standard narrative to enact, and with the general field of BDSM being as broad and varied as it is, the only way to reach any sort of agreement on what to do is to learn to say it. And even once you’ve said it, and agreed, you have to keep checking in constantly, because you’re on sensitive ground, and you are not a mind reader. I feel like both the process of verbalising desire, and the continuous checking in, are absolutely essential sexuality life skills, and I’m grateful to have obtained them.
In conclusion… Kink may seem like an unlikely place for valuable life lessons, but I found that for me, it was a contributing factor to a number of important lessons and progressions. Sources of insight into communication, consent, sexual diversity and power are few and far between, so I’m grateful that there were places and people that enabled me to learn about these things. However, I don’t want to idealise it too much – I don’t think kink is all good either. So next post coming up is about what in my opinion are some of the bad sides of kink.
** Trigger warning for discussion of consent and lack of it. Content warnings for sexism, patriarchy, slut-shaming. **
A few days ago in a discussion with a friend, despite years of self-identifying as a sex-positive feminist, I scathingly commented how sex-positive feminism has done nothing for me, and that what we need is more radical feminism. I’ve thought about it since, and honestly, I think the first part of that statement is not true. However, I still think that the relationship between sex-positive feminism and feminist desire is actually a rather complicated one. So, provoked by my own comment, I tried to think back to my own attitudes about sex, how they’ve changed over time, and how they’ve been shaped by sex-positive feminism. This post talks about the positives – valuable things I feel I gained from sex-positive feminism. The next post in the series will talk about negatives – the areas where I feel sex-positive feminism is compromising for me.
There are two main things I found that I gained from sex-positive feminism, and they are both things that are really important to me. They can be briefly summarised as follows:
1. Enthusiastic consent is the minimum baseline of consent.
2. My desires are ok.
And here are the detailed versions too:
1. I don’t think the sex-positive model of consent is ideal. I don’t think any model of consent is ideal, unless it takes into account that given a sufficient imbalance of power, it’s not really possible for yes to meaningfully mean yes, and that power structures are all around us. However… Enthusiastic consent as the minimum baseline was a new idea to me when I first came across it. And it was a helpful one.
The belief I absorbed about sex when I was growing up was that it was something men pestered women for, until the women gave in, and enjoyment or enthusiasm didn’t feature that highly. At the same time, the other attached belief was that ‘sexiness’ was necessary and gave women ‘value’, and that sex, in the middle of that contradiction, was something that I was never expected to enjoy as such, yet that was somehow essential to my worth as a human being, whether as a validation or as a bargaining chip. So I did some logical things, like losing weight, regularly wearing sexy clothes and faking orgasms. Also, believing things like, that if I try harder, dress up more, and be more sexy regularly, my boyfriends will care more about me. Since suffice to say that my beliefs have changed somewhat, it’s sometimes difficult to believe that sex-positive feminism has done anything at all for me, since I’m all too keen to forget what my beliefs started from.
As things were though – sex was a concept that was both far-reaching, and at the same time in many ways had nothing to do with me. ‘Sexiness’ was a thing that was performed for the benefit of the male gaze, and had very little in the way of agency. I believe that this transactional, male-centric, performance model of sex is a powerful weapon, used against women to keep us in our place and separate us from our sisters. After all, if ‘sexiness’ is a value and what our value comes from, and if men are the judges, then all women are in competition. I still find this feeling difficult to shake off occasionally.
Within this context, internalising “yes means yes” is like the first ray of light breaking through, as cracks in old assumptions start to appear. You start to ask questions like “well, am I enthusiastic? Do I want this?”, and suddenly, this concept of ‘sexiness’, of a thing I perform that is largely separated from my feelings (other than the ones of wanting to belong, and to feel worthwhile), becomes a thing that’s about me and my desires. It’s a long and winding road from there, but I think this concept of sexual agency is an essential one, as is the ability to say “yes” and “no”, based not on external narratives of worth (keep saying “no” because it increases your sexual value in the long term), but on personal narratives of desire.
So, one of the epic things that sex-positive feminism taught me was that I have sexual agency. I don’t think it’s *enough*, and I think that the same long and winding road continues for me, away from there. But at the same time, I think it was essential to me. And the truth is that lots of us start off within mainstream society, with all its messed up beliefs, and that sex-positive feminism can be a useful tool within that. I feel like I had to travel very long and far down the road, to start questioning some of the more fundamental assumptions of society, and to find friends who support me in this. But before that happened, I feel that sex-positive feminism definitely started me on a good path, and let me discover some power that I didn’t know I had.
2. When it comes to desires and guilt, something that strikes me is that not only is there a lot of guilt floating around – that guilt seems to often land in the wrong places. I don’t believe that all desires are ok in an absolute sense. I think society is twisted, and we end up with some twisted desires, from being exposed to patriarchy all our lives. However, I also think that a dark pit of guilt and shame is not the best place to be addressing that from. But back to the question of who it is that ends up with the guilt.
The thing is, I found that guilt stuck to me at strange times. There was a boy, the first boy I ever kissed, who went a bit further than I wanted him to, then made up some lies on top, and told my whole school about it. He was the one that was boasting, and I was the one that was in a dark pit of guilt. I kept it a secret, loudly denying anything ever happened. I got lucky, in that people chose to believe me. But out of the two of us, I don’t understand why it was that the guilt and weirdness landed on me.
I remember another time, which was different. I was older, and it was a happy one night stand. Cheerfully mutually desired. Sadly, it was no longer that cheerful when people heard about it and the teasing started. Yet I remember really clearly, people teasing both of us, with him beaming with pride, and me burning with shame at the time. Guilt is gendered, people! We’re raised with guilt being gendered.
Given that’s how my more mainstream desires were treated, maybe it’s not that surprising that the kinkier ones were a dark secret that I kept to myself for a very long time. The sort of thing I only hypothetically, casually alluded to, to see how people would react. The answer to that, for a long time was, they didn’t react well at all. So that other dark pit of guilt was a secret one, that would occasionally find me, in a movie scene, or late at night in my mind, and make me feel for days that I was a freak – in some way fundamentally flawed as a human being.
I should also not forget, that the fact I was clearly attracted to women was hidden for years. Oddly, hidden even from myself. I was vehement that I was heterosexual. Really. Really really. And the existence of desires that were different… Well, they were somehow explained away in my mind. I just admired them. I was just curious. And there’s a heavy link with point 1. about sexual agency too – if you don’t particularly believe in your own sexual agency, it’s honestly kind of difficult to spot these things. You’re just not looking out for things like your own desire. Anyway, after years of twisting my brain in a knot trying to fit my star-shaped sexuality into a square space, I finally came out as bi. I’m happy to report that the world didn’t end in the spectacular way I imagined it would.
In this context, finding sex-positive feminism, and more sex-positive attitudes in general, was like a sweet healing balm that took away that darkness, and placed the guilt back in more appropriate directions. Slut-shaming is a real thing, and kinky people exist, and some of us are women, and making us hide and feel like monsters is not ok. There are lots of elements of my desire that I have been re-examining and reframing over the years, and what I want has changed, and I expect and hope will continue to change. However, I believe that the reason I found a position where I could accept myself and grow from was because at the right point in time, I felt sex-positive feminism give me the equivalent of a nice, friendly hug, with a reassurance that “You’re not broken. It’s ok. It’s all ok.”
I think that benefits of different types of feminism are context-specific. I believe that most people living within society are in positions where they are forced to make a range of compromises, and I think that sex-positive feminism is in the right place to build bridges that help some women. I don’t think that’s the place I’m in at the moment, but it’s definitely a place I’ve been in the past, and I’m very happy that sex-positive feminism was there for me at the time.
Living under patriarchy affects most major aspects of our lives. I take this as a basic feminist premise. I’m not interested in justifying it – in doing so, I’d be replicating the work of many. What I’m interested in doing instead, is moving onto the question that follows from it – how can I, as a woman, live my life? How do I challenge the influence of patriarchy in my life, in my relationships, and in my own mind? How do I redress the power balances that seep in so insiduously? What does a life aligned with feminist principles look like anyway? This particular series of articles focuses on how the patriarchy affects sexual relationships, and what it means, from my personal point of view, to progress towards feminist desire.
Lisa Millbank recently posted the Prude’s Progress, the first in a series of articles focusing on a feminist critique of instrumental sexuality, and the journey towards feminist desire, which I’d definitely recommend you check out. This series is definitely inspired by her writing. You might see some similarities, and also some differences. I feel that the differences are less to do with a deep difference in ideology, and more to do with the perspectives that the articles are coming from. There is a whole bunch of ideas there that I approve of in principle, but find that the practice of applying them is a long, winding and imperfect road. So if you think of Lisa’s post as solid theoretical foundations, and mine as a hand-written travel diary, that probably gives you about the right idea of where my posts are coming from.
Also, so that you know a little bit of background to these – I’m a white bisexual woman, in a relationship with a male partner. While I’m convinced the difficulties in reaching a state of feminist desire are caused by systemic oppression, I also think that the ways in which these difficulties express themselves almost certainly vary between different people
(given partly the intersection of oppression they find themselves at, and partly also different people reacting to the pressures differently). So I don’t wish to speak for anyone other than myself, or project difficulties into generalisations easily. This isn’t because I think that other people don’t experience them (I believe they do), merely that the only thing I can speak about with any degree of reliability is my own personal experience of these things.
However, I still think it’s important to share my experiences, generalisable or otherwise. When it comes to sexuality, I feel like I’ve been tracing out a path in the dark through trial and error for years. Maybe other people have come across similar things in their travels, and together we can shine some lights and draw some maps.
(sequels to follow)
Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time geeking over and playing a favourite sport – one involving a ball, a reasonable level of aggression, and a moderate amount of physical contact. And in between the scrapes, bruises and tasty, tasty adrenaline, I’ve been thinking about the connection between sports and feminism.
I have friends who are into awesome things like feminist burlesque, and I’ve come across dance classes that were in some way, explicitly or implicitly, queer and/or feminist. And of course, there’s roller derby. But what I haven’t come across all that much in feminist circles (though, honestly, this might just be my ignorance – I’m sure there’s lots of stuff out there I’m unaware of), is a reclamation of more general mainstream sports – the sort of thing you get taught at school. What I’ve come across instead, is a whole bunch of awesome women (and indeed, people of all genders) who may or may not call themselves feminist, but who have been carrying the torch, by becoming captains of the local women’s sports teams, or training teenage girls to play football, or doing sports in public, or any of another bunch of ways of leading, teaching and supporting.
There are a number of reasons why I think this is interesting, and subversive, and awesome. There’s a massive amount of control that patriarchy deploys by variously focusing on women’s bodies. Our shape and size judged, our strength denied, our bodies public property, compulsory sexuality lingering around our bodies at every turn, whether in our own minds, or in the eyes of the patriarchy. Our own hair and sweat and blood and skin and smell, a source of shame, a ‘concern’ to be addressed, a ‘problem area’. Our sexuality is imposed and scored and valued, and without it we are ‘other’. Without it we are valueless.
Consider, then, why the patriarchy hates women’s sports. At its most ultra-conservative extreme, women are banned from sports – for ‘dignity’, for ‘protection’. Women, moving their bodies, where they like, as and when they like, even this alone is a threat to patriarchy. But where it isn’t banned, it’s devalued and sexualised and co-opted. Our value is yet again judged, and we are fed myths of our own weakness, our own lack of worth. You know what I think though? I think that every path reviled by the patriarchy, where we become unattractive, valueless, crones, dour, aggressive, unhinged, is a path that makes the patriarchy quiver with fear. What happens, if we discover our own power, if we stop apologising and trying to please? The powers that reach out to control us, to keep us in our place, do so because unless they do, cracks in their power start to form.
And so it is, when we start on something that is fast, sweaty, aggressive, powerful and skilled. And not even a little bit sexy. I love the power of sports to re-contextualise our bodies. I am not a porcelain doll, and my body is not a work of art. But my body can run, and throw, and jump, and block, and get up again when I fall. My body’s kick-ass.
There’s a funny thing that happens, very early on, where we’re persuaded that sports are only for the ‘good’, the ‘sporty’. And pretty early on, we get excluded, convinced that particular world is in no way for us or about us. The truth is, that sports (much like writing) are for those who turn up. For example, I was surprised to find that, just by being out and running in a park, people referred to me as a “runner”. But, but, I wasn’t very fast, and I’d never run a race before in my life (and still haven’t), and I hadn’t been doing it for very long. I wasn’t like those ‘proper’ runners, those ‘good’ runners. I couldn’t possibly be a runner myself. Except the truth is, there are no boundaries.
If sports just aren’t your cup of tea, and you prefer to spend your time doing any of the other myriad interesting and meaningful things in this endlessly fascinating world – I salute you, and power to you. But if you do choose to do sports – I salute you just the same. Under the patriarchy, whenever the oppressed exercise their autonomy, and find their own way of liberating their bodies and their minds, it’s a victory – whatever context it comes in.
This is a post about personal thoughts on choosing battles. I expect that we all have our own lines in the sand, and that where we draw them varies enormously between people. I hugely admire my uncompromising sisters, who draw the lines far out on the battlefield, making the space for the rest of us. I admire your courage, and all the work you do to create a world in which all our voices can be heard. However, my work is different. My lines are further back.
I don’t feel I’m out on the edges, but that doesn’t mean I don’t fight. Sometimes I fight because a thing hurts me, or more often, because I know that a thing hurts people I love. Sometimes I fight on principle, knowing that there are people out in the world being hurt by a thing, and that even if I don’t know them, I want to support them. Sometimes I fight myself, reminding myself that all my privilege is but a luck-of-the-draw – not inalienable, not deserved. Sometimes I fight by reflex – I find words come out of my mouth, an impulsive parry free of doubt. I treasure memories of that last type – a testament to my sisters and their work of moving the battlefield, and a reminder of my own shifting mind.
Sometimes I choose not to fight. For many reasons you’ve heard. Because the provocation is low, or the price is steep. Because at the time, I don’t have much fight left in me. Or because I know in advance, that the fight will be futile. Because always, on the horizon, there are other fights. So I choose.
But other times I choose to ignore or forgive – I retreat from the battle lines. Maybe it’s fear, but honestly – most often it’s because drawing a line would leave someone behind. That a rejection of all that I hate, ungiving, unwavering, would leave me stranded on an island. Cut off from so many people who might not be perfect, but who in so many ways have loved and supported me, and I’ve loved and supported them. I can’t cut off my whole world without losing myself too. And I can’t help but wonder whether this fight, *this* fight, *this* fight over all the other fights that we’ve fought together, is worth that line in the sand. So I ignore, or I forgive, and I retreat from the battle lines.
From there, I cheer for my sisters who continue to fight. And I talk quietly, offer hands, build bridges, and hope that someday we all meet. In a world with no borders. With no need for the lines.
I went to a big pharmacy/cosmetics type shop today, and a salesperson attempted to sell me facial cream on the way out, with a sales pitch that I found a little odd…
She asked me what my concerns were about my skin (not *whether* I had any, *what* they were). There I laughed and said I didn’t have any. Then she offered to find some for me. Then she said my skin was a bit dry. Then she offered to sell me a cream that “addresses my concerns”. There didn’t seem to be a ticky box for “I’m still not that concerned”…
Then she told me that they have a whole range of different creams, to make different parts of me feel lovely all over. I laughed again. There didn’t seem to be an option for “I already feel lovely all over”.
The world is weird.
I feel like there’s been a definite personal progression recently, from being more tolerant and trying to get on with everyone, to turning into more of an angry, prickly feminist lady. It’s been wonderful, and I hope the progression continues. And as this has been happening, I’ve been observing things that didn’t use to be unusual, but… Things like who speaks and who listens. Who ends up in a “supportive” role, and who’s drawing on that support. Whose unreasonable behaviour I’m excusing or tolerating in my head, because “it’s not that big a deal”, and “he’s just a bit clueless really”, and “he doesn’t really know any better”. The very gendered nature of who ends up listening and tolerating, and who blithely pushes on without thinking twice about it. How the power structures are shaped, and whether the people at the top of the power structures are aware of it and making themselves accountable, or whether they just use that power without thinking about the situations they’re putting the people around them into.
Every step of this has been remarkably difficult, and roughly it breaks down into 3 steps:
1. Noticing the behaviour in the first place
2. Resisting it
3. If possible, punishing it
In terms of noticing it – honestly, I’m getting a bit better, but I’m still working on it. I’ve been paying attention to, e.g., how much conversational space people occupy, whether they let me speak or interrupt me, whether having spoken I feel heard. And also things like, whether I feel weirdly uncomfortable about a situation without quite knowing why, and looking into why that might be.
As far as resisting it goes – this is where the real mind fu kicks in. What I’ve noticed is that even having noticed a behaviour, and having decided it’s absolutely unacceptable, there is then a string of “but what if”s stopping me from doing anything about it. These tend to do with fear of repercussions, real or imagined – what if there are social consequences, what if my employer fires me for standing up to him, what if I mess up a particular set of relations, what if I get excluded from this space I want to be in for being too “touchy”/”over-sensitive”, etc. The mental trick I’ve been using, and it’s really been working a treat, is to put these fears into perspective, in a way that gives me back power. Sometimes it’s included worst case scenario research – say I get excluded from this space, what are my alternatives? What if I *do* lose my job – what situation does that put me into? But also, importantly, remembering my own worth in each of the scenarios. That relations are a two way thing – that my work is excellent, my support is valued, my presence in certain spaces is a good (rather than just a neutral) thing. I do these things in a circle, until it’s very firm in my head that I have worth, and also that I have alternatives. And at that point I’m truly ready to resist.
It’s not a universal panacea – there are all sorts of situations that really have no alternatives, and well and truly suck. However, for every one of those situations, I think there’s another dozen where we self-police, and the boundaries are internalised in our heads, rather than being as immovable as we perceive them to be. And what I think of as ‘mind fu’ is the process of hacking into my own head to override the social programming that stops me from resisting.
As for punishing the behaviour… Do consider it. Someone’s actions have been unacceptable – it’s only fair that they feel it in some way. This can be a telling off, a withdrawal of support, an exclusion (temporary or otherwise) from social spaces. Or simply stop pouring your energy into helping/assisting them. Consider the ways in which you are valuable to the person in question, and what power that gives you. And whether punishing the behaviour would feel good – I’ve found there are times when it definitely does.
I’d love to hear other people’s experiences and tips on this – if you have some to share, do leave me a comment :)