Archive for September, 2007

plugs and promises
September 27, 2007

I’ve been a busy little sex geek this past little while… and posting sporadically as a result. This is just a quickie to round up a few fun tidbits, but I’ll be back on track soon. I think. (Anyone got cloning technology available? Drop me a line, por favor.)

Monday night, my esteemed colleague Jacqueline St-Urbain and I were interviewed on Dykes on Mikes about Unholy Harvest, the big weekend event we’re organizing for leatherdykes and transfolk. It’s happening over Thanksgiving weekend in Ottawa and it’s gonna be SO DAMN COOL. We’ve got a lineup of 15 workshops, two roundtable lunches, two film screenings, three play parties, a show and an auction. Not to mention all the super sexy queers who’ll be there. Yummmmmeeee! Registration is pushing capacity but if you’re up for it, there’s still a bit of room – get thee to www.unholyarmy.com for details. If you just wanna hear us jabber excitedly about the event, feel free to listen to the podcast here.

And speaking of leatherdyke organizing, guess who’s gonna be speaking on that very topic this coming November at MLT, otherwise known as Mr. Leather Toronto, otherwise known as one of North America’s biggest leather events? Yours truly and her partner in crime, as named above. This is a big deal and we’re pretty excited, except that we’re so busy organizing the event we’re supposed to be speaking about that we’re not really spending too much time thinking about what we’ll say about it later. I’m sure we’ll come up with something intelligent when our poor brains have a little space to breathe. If you want to see how we’ve described our seminar prior to actually coming up with specific content, check out the Workshops tab above and scroll down a bit. I swear we’ll live up to it.

If you’re interested in reading the weirdest news story I’ve ever written for the Mirror, check it out here. The short version: a supposed Ville-Marie borough officer gave two verbal warnings to Mad-Âme, the local lesbian boutique, saying their window displays were indecent and they could be fined. Except that when I was researching the story, the borough couldn’t find any record of such warnings ever being given. Very mysterious indeed… and it still leaves me wondering who the heck is upset about a girl mannequin with its head under another girl mannequin’s skirt. Has nobody seen the state of modern advertising? Implied cunnilingus is hardly cause for controversy. Jeezis.

I think this is about all the coherence I can squeeze out at this time, but expect another Powerful Pleasures essay review in the near future. Plus possible reflections on queer family (I’ve got my first solo date with the alarmingly articulate 2-year-old Spawn in the next couple of days), queer leadership (after I hang out with a bunch of fellow Gay Line past presidents tomorrow) and a review of Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, which I am thoroughly enjoying at the moment and plan to soon discuss with my ever-brilliant sweetie Pepper, aka Freaksexual (see my blogroll), who is always full of interesting critiques. We’re kinda doing our own little private book club thing these days, which just tickles me. All the better to share with you, of course.

Wow, that last paragraph included one helluva run-on sentence. Blame it on 4:22 a.m. and wish me goodnight, okay?

the word and rule, or book 1, film 0
September 24, 2007

Fresh off the bus from Toronto, I welcomed ten women into my home this afternoon to enjoy the film Desert Hearts, based on the 1964 novel by Jane Rule, Desert of the Heart.

It never fails to fascinate me to see the differences between a book and a movie, most particularly when it comes to queer content. I’m relatively sure of myself when I assert that the noticeable discrepancies are more glaring in films produced 20 years ago (Desert Hearts came out in 1985) than they are now, but it still happens today. A few easy examples were mentioned during our discussion today – for instance, the way the lesbian love interest was washed out to the point of nearly complete absence in the films The Colour Purple and Fried Green Tomatoes, each of those based on books in which the sexual and romantic involvement between the female characters was clearly shown.

In the case of Desert Hearts, it’s not so much that the lesbianism was washed out – it’s not. If anything it’s far more explicit in the film than it ever becomes in the book; Jane Rule might be a wonderful writer but she’s not given to detailed descriptions of sex scenes or bodies. No, what struck me personally, and the group at large, wsa that the focus of the film is so extremely different than the focus of the book.

In the book, which is beautifully and cleanly written, there is an enormous amount of ink devoted to meditations on the concept of marriage, both as a cultural imperative and a legal union, and on the related concepts of fidelity, gender, morality, independence and other such thoughtful topics. The book poses wonderful questions, such as, does marriage serve to maintain our ideas of gender? Of women’s role as women and men’s as men? Not only by reinforcing what the culture expects of each, but by reinforcing what men and women expect of themselves and of each other? And questions about fidelity and vows – one character, Ann, brilliantly sums up her point of view: “I don’t really understand how people take the marriage vows. (…) It’s one thing to forsake the past, but how can you forsake the future?” And questions about what makes someone a good person, and the usefulness of guilt, and so forth.

In short, while there’s certainly a plot and dialogue and interesting characters, it’s really a book about values and life and questioning the norm without necessarily being about shit-disturbing and loud politics at all. Pleasantly subtle, really – the feeling is one of sincere intellectual musing infused with real, lived passion rather than of exaggerated philosophical rantings or excessive poetic or political indulgence. Perhaps the tone can be in part explained by Rule’s position as a professor at the University of British Columbia at the time of the novel’s publication. (Yes, she was nearly fired, need you even ask?)

Of course, they are questions that were a big deal in 1963 rather than today; in a sense the book is dated, but beautifully and thoughtfully so, not boringly. Certainly this is not to say that marriage is any less a significant institution these days, but the nature of its significance has radically shifted thanks to feminism, the declining influence of the church, and in more recent years, queer politics and the groundswell of support for same-sex marriage rights. In other words, the questions are still valid, if perhaps based on an older frame of reference; and the answers are still poignant, if perhaps less controversial toay than they were 40-plus years ago.

The movie, on the other hand, is about two women taking an awfully long time to lead up to a very awkward sex scene. And that’s, um, about it.

At least they kept the sex scene in. That was definitely groundbreaking at the time. But nowadays, it just comes off as pretty ridiculous and melodramatic. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure there are still ladies out there who get very uptight indeed about letting other ladies into their dressing-gowns. But really, the idea that the L Word cast would be required to watch the scene as prep for their own on-camera makeout sessions, and that it would be referred to by gay.com as “the standard for lesbian screen sex,” is just… well, pretty laughable.

I don’t know that I have any deeper things to say than this… simply, if you have the chance, read the book. It’s intelligent without being weighty, and fresh without being fluffy. Yum. As for the film? Don’t bother unless you’re really intrigued by the historical aspect of it, or so starved for girl-on-girl action that you’d prefer stiff and uncomfortable on your living-room TV screen to none at all.

pink power
September 19, 2007

I’m in a rush so this will be a very short post indeed… but I just couldn’t resist sharing this link to a story about two high school kids who came up with a really awesome and effective way to combat homophobia in their high school.

On that inspiring note, I wish you a lovely day.

the language of queer: always on the outside
September 17, 2007

It’s very interesting, being in Toronto this week, and having spent a month travelling in the States and on the West Coast. I’m beginning to get a sense of just how different queer culture is in the “outside” compared to what it’s like in Montreal, and the big difference is language. I know, I know, anyone in the rest of the world thinks of Quebec’s language politics as this big huge pain in the ass, but living in Montreal, it just feels like an everyday reality – not some huge cross to bear, but a source of incredible richness and productive conflict and vast and nuanced learning.

That said, the political ramifications of language reach far and wide. I just got an e-mail today from a Montreal group of which I’m a peripheral member, called the Raging Trannies. The group is mainly populated, from what I know, of English-speaking university students, but the e-mail was written first in French (and well written, or perhaps well-translated, not badly translated by some pseudo-bilingual hack) and then in English. It was wonderful – a lot of groups in Montreal are firmly grounded in either English or French, and while hostility is generally quite minimal between those groups, the communication gap is not always easy to bridge and the cultural differences can be gigantic. It’s not just a question of translation; it’s about culture, with all the power inherent therein. And for the language geeks who are familiar the Sapir-Whorf theory, you will know that language creates culture as much as the other way around.

In other words (ha), there is no language in French for “genderqueer,” no concept of “boi” or “gyrl,” a freshly hatched and barely recognized translation of “queer” (“allosexuel”) and virtually no well-translated queer theory available in French. And that’s just the queer side of things. There’s also no word for “bottom” or “top” – only for “dominant” and “submissive.” You can imagine that this language affects perception, which affects how culture develops and moves forward, which affects how people think and behave, which affects how their sexuality develops and gets named and recognized… and so forth.

And the worst part is that the vast majority of anglophones (especially outside Quebec) who read that last paragraph will percieve that language difference as a lack – as something that makes French-speaking culture inferior, somehow less advanced than the English-speaking world, rather than seeing it as a completely different system and community and manner of thinking and way of relating that has its own warmth and love and value and intelligence and logic and cohesiveness.

That’s not to say there’s no room for change. I’ve worked with tons of Francophone queers, and many of them are critical of their own culture, in a positive and productive way. And there are wonderful examples of people bridging the differences and learning from each other, or at the very least extending an active welcome to one another (like the Raging Trannies have done) rather than sitting back and saying “yeah, they can show up if they want to.” Bilingual events abound, especially in university settings; English- and French-speaking groups collaborate and share resources; and so forth. There are differences, but those differences do not necessarily spell divisiveness. In fact they can inspire really creative collaborations and strategizing. It’s downright impressive sometimes.

But I think largely the English-speaking world, particularly outside Quebec, either dismisses or fails to consider the Francophone perspective on queer questions entirely. And being outside Quebec has made it really evident to me the extent to which my own politics are inextricably wrapped up in language. I remember my father telling me that living as a fluently bilingual anglophone in Quebec, I would be affected for the rest of my life – in English-speaking places, I would hiss at people who criticize French-Canadians and French speakers because those people are my community and my home, and in French-speaking places, I would forever be branded the Anglo outsider. And damned if he isn’t right. 

In Vancouver, I found myself bristling with irritation when I saw signs in English only, or worse, with shoddy use of French that’s used as a pretension to European charm or Canadian pseudo-inclusiveness. In Toronto, I’m starting to get tons of event invitations and such from within the queer and kinky community, and I always feel a little twitchy to realize that nobody here even thinks about French when they write them up – understandably in some ways, because if you live in Toronto you must necessarily speak enough English to get along – but it’s nonetheless really weird for me. Where are the politically astute Raging Trannies of Toronto? They just don’t exist. French is not on the menu.

I can’t help but think of it in reverse. Toronto is a super-multicultural city, as is Vancouver. If you live in either place and you’re part of pretty much any progressive community, you pretty much have some awareness of race politics; you kinda can’t avoid it. Even if you’re a lily-white suburbanite, your world will be populated with folks of colour everywhere you turn, and there will be discourse around racism, anti-racism, cultural sensitivity, cultural appropriation and so forth. It’s just part of reality.

So if you can imagine (most particularly if you are a white person) moving from Toronto or Vancouver to a place where everyone is white and nobody’s ever really heard of people of colour except maybe for those people over there in that place across that border where they do things differently and make all sorts of trouble… even if they’re not aiming that ignorance (even if it’s not mean or hostile) and lack of consideration at you per se, you would probably feel bizarre, like somehow the world has become more one-dimensional and you’re the only one who’s seeing the other layers.

Well, that’s how I feel sometimes outside Quebec. Like I walk around “passing” as an anglophone just like everyone else, except that I’m from that place with those people  over there across that border where we do things differently, and I know very well that we’re not making trouble, we’re just trying to live and be respected, and want to learn without being condescended to, and want to be appreciated for what we are and what we have to offer rather than being seen as backwards and ornery. And even though when I’m in Montreal I’m not actually officially part of the “we” – I am not and cannot be considered Francophone – I am nonetheless swimming in French-speaking waters all the time, and surrounded by that culture and language and people and thought. So when I’m outside that territory, I can’t help but be an unwitting and clumsy ambassador, and seeing the ways in which the overwhelming power of the English language and the English-speaking majority of Canadian culture – despite all the gorgeousness of it, and all the amazing political work that gets done within it – does serve to obscure and belittle other ways of thinking and doing things, other richnesses.

There are no easy answers. But at the very least, being ever on the outside keeps me stocked with plenty of food for thought.

the politics of “free”
September 11, 2007

Okay, so this is definitely a bit of a topic-hop from the last post, on 24/7 SM slavery. I never promised ya consistency.

The other day I got a couple of “free hugs” via Facebook… and then my brother called me from Ottawa to say that someone had just given him a free hug on the street and he thought of me. I wasn’t sure what was going on, so I asked my good friend Google and came up with quite the load of information.

Wikipedia gives a bit of history:

“The Free Hugs Campaign is an Internet-spread phenomenon that appears to have begun in June, 2004, and was widely publicized in 2006 by a music video on YouTube. The phenomenon involves individuals who offer hugs to strangers in public settings. The campaign is an example of a random act of kindness, a selfless act performed by a person for the sole reason of making others feel better. The original organizer has stated in interviews that the purpose is not to get names, phone numbers, or dates.”

Check out the full article here if you want the details; or take a look at the official Free Hugs Campaign website. Wiki says that International Free Hug Day was planned specifically via Facebook for September 10, 2007, which would explain the notes I got and my brother’s amused call yesterday.

Montreal has its own free hug dude – a certain Martin Neufeld, who has been haunting the Old Port as “the Hugger Busker” for three or four years now. Seems this hugging thing is all the rage since 2004. I wonder what happened that year? 

Anyway, Martin actually wrote a book on the topic, which I had the pleasure of editing about a year and a half ago. Funny where projects end up… in checking the book’s website just now I have learned that it won an Ippy, or Independent Publishers’ Award – a gold medal in the “inspirational/motivational” category. Neato! So if you want a free hug and can’t find a friendly Facebooker willing to share, you can always head down to the Old Port and find Martin. His website informs me he’ll be around until September 15.

It’s funny, this whole idea of free hugs. I totally get the beauty of offering affection or human contact to strangers; there are a lot of lonely people out there and there are a million studies showing how deeply physical contact can affect (i.e. improve) someone’s psychological and emotional state. And of course you don’t have to be lonely or destitute to enjoy a hug – they’re hardly a “last resort” sort of thing to do. I’m a firm believer in hugging friends, family and lovers as often as possible. It’s just good for the soul.

The piece that has me mildly confused is the idea of offering them for free. I mean, do you normally charge for a hug? Feels like a weird idea for the whole campaign to be based on the “free” aspect of the thing, as though one would usually expect to be billed.

Of course that doesn’t change that I think it’s a cool idea. Simply that I think the “free” part could only ever make sense in a highly consumer-oriented society, which is part of the problem that creates the human disconnect that the Free Hugs Day is trying to counter in the first place. It’s an interesting technique – get people hooked by offering them something “FREE!”, sort of an updated version of the tired old “SEX!! Now that we’ve got your attention…” tag lines.

At the same time, perhaps it does make sense that there are free hugs out there, since some people are hell-bent on making money off affection.

Case in point: ever heard of a cuddle party? You know, the trendy thing that started up a couple of years back and seems particularly popular in the States, where people all get together in someone’s living room in their PJs and snuggle? I first encountered one of those at Burning Man at a camp that had set up a public-use Snuggledome – a huge geodesic dome strewn with mattresses, blankets and pillows. I found myself thoroughly ensconced in a mass cuddle puddle at one point, with two of my lovers at the time and about a dozen strangers. Of course the lovers were lovely, but even the strangers were totally sweet – I have a distinct memory of one guy saying shyly that he really liked tummies and was wondering if it was okay for him to rest his head on mine. But rather than being creepy and weird, it was just really cute and he was very respectful. I love people with good boundaries. 

Anyway, so cuddle parties. There’s apparently a whole Cuddle Party brand going on now – with official Cuddle Parties charging $30 or $40 entrance fees (!) and Cuddle Party Facilitation Training” being offered at $495 a head. What the hell??

Don’t get me wrong – if you’re a person with a great idea and you’re going to spend a lot of time and energy and money travelling the world to promote it, especially if that idea involves getting people to better understand their physical boundaries and help increase the amount of love in the world, well, more power to ya. I don’t necessarily hold this against the Cuddle Party folks. But it kind of appals me that anyone would need a $495 training session to know how to throw some mattresses on the floor, invite a bunch of friends and ask everyone to be respectful of one another’s “no.” Are we really at the point where we’ve had to make friendly gatherings and the communication of personal space limits into a commercial affair?

Off and on for several years now, I’ve attended massage parties held by a friend of mine. The guest list is long but private; guests are asked to contribute a potluck item, bring their favourite massage oil to share, refrain from getting intoxicated and just generally be nice. There are two official rounds of massages, one clothing-on, the next clothing-optional, all of it explicitly nonsexual. The group is randomly split into smaller groups of four or five people; every person gets a turn in the centre, receiving massage from all the other people at the same time (wheee!), for exactly ten minutes, with a five-minute warning in case they want to change positions. Of course lots of people give each other massages before and after the official rounds and during the break, and of course sometimes folks break off from the group and go make out – sexual energy is not prohibited, it’s just expected that it will be engaged in with respect and kept out of the officially sanctioned massaging.

A couple of years back I was inspired at one point to hold my own impromptu massage party for a slightly different set of people, and it was a ton of fun.

And guess what? My friend doesn’t charge for his parties. I didn’t charge for mine. There was no need to turn something friendly and warm into something commercial. Certainly, while I’ve charged a small entrance fee for many a private SM play party at my place, the cost has only ever been enough to cover food and equipment expenses and chip into maintenance costs for the leatherdyke group officially hosting the event… the idea has never been about profit.

It’s funny. When it comes to physical intimacy, the whole idea of exchanging money just bugs me, and I’m trying to figure out how to square that with my politics around another (and much more controversial) form of physical intimacy for cash: sex work. 

For years now I’ve worked with Stella, Montreal’s sex worker rights association, in various capacities – it started with a Concordia internship a few years back, and since then I’ve translated and edited manuals and conference proceedings, helped with their newsletter, and more. I’m right behind those ladies when they fight for the recognition of sex work as a legitimate form of employment that should be considered eligible for all the protections and benefits of other jobs. Let me be crystal clear that I don’t think sex work is immoral.

But no matter how much I support the cause, I do often feel it’s unfortunate that the sex industry is booming. To me that indicates that a lot of people aren’t getting what they want, sexually speaking and in terms of intimacy, within reciprocal emotional relationships.

I recognize that’s not always what’s going on; there are any number of reasons to employ the services of a sex worker. In some cases, people may want a really particular sort of sexual act for which it’s hard to find a willing partner. In other cases they may have special needs due to mobility, disability, or other concerns that prevent or hinder them from engaging in intimate relationships of the more standard variety. In still other cases a person really just really wants to get off, and they’re single or far from home or whatever, so why not pay a lady or gentleman of the night to do what s/he does best?

I think I’m figuring it out… it’s not that I think sex work shouldn’t exist, or that people shouldn’t charge for cuddle parties, or that pro-dommes shouldn’t whip clients for $300 an hour. The bare fact is that human beings want to connect with one another, and we also want to make a living, and sometimes those things team up.

Here’s what bothers me: to me it seems like that SM, sex and cuddling are generally most satisfying and when the exchange is about genuine reciprocal connection and affection and desire. And when a given individual’s surface needs are instead met through commercial channels where those deeper things are not necessarily present, it strikes me as unfortunate.

I don’t doubt that many people find satisfaction in at least some of those commercial exchanges; I would speculate that satisfaction is most likely to occur when the exchange is for something relatively straightforward and “surface” in nature, or when the service provider is really excellent and connects well with his or her clients. But I’m equally certain that others go in wanting depth, intimacy and human connection and come out with nothing but a lighter wallet and a vague sense of disenchantment, and maybe a few less grams of come in the pipelines. And that kinda feels icky to me – sorta like when a kid gives a popular kid his sandwich on the playground in the hopes of making a friend, and the response is “I guess I’ll let you hang out with me for half of recess, but bring me cookies tomorrow and maybe you can hang out with me for the whole recess.”

While I don’t begrudge anyone the opportunity to make a buck, I do recognize that my own satisfaction lies in keeping intimacy and cash quite separate, with neither one motivating or influencing the other. So whether it’s Free Hugs Day or no, and whether I aim them at strangers or at friends, my hugs will always be free and I’ll only give them when I genuinely want to, for no other reason than the joy of hugging itself. And if I invite a bunch of friends over to cuddle, I will only want them to chip in with their charming company, not with a cover charge.

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