Archive for May, 2008

geek appeal: queer gals and the beauty of brains
May 30, 2008

(Okay, so I know this post might sound awfully self-serving since it’s written by a self-defined queer sex geek, but I promise this is a cultural criticism essay and not a personal ad.)

In the winter 2007/2008 issue of Bitch magazine, Sarah Seltzer wrote an article entitled “The (Girl) Geek Stands Alone: Hollywood Even Has a Double Standard for Dorks.” It’s a fun critique of the ways in which mainstream entertainment celebrates the potential sexiness of the male geek – for all that beefcakes are still de rigueur sex objects – while remaining loath to tout the sex appeal of the female geek.

The article rightly points out that in most cases, there’s a (tired, old) dichotomy created for women between being smart and being sexy. Sometimes this plays out in the classic makeover scenario, where the gal takes off her glasses and becomes a knockout – because of course she couldn’t be a knockout with glasses. In other cases, such as in the “spate of ’90s teen movies (Ten Things I Hate About You, She’s All That, Never Been Kissed)” that feature girl geeks as protagonists, the girls’ geekiness is paired with a resentful or grouchy attitude, and both geekiness and attitude melt away “when they realize they are romantically desirable. (…) They literally stop being nerds when conventional femininity comes to the forefront.” In addition, “nerd girls in movies like Never Been Kissed and Mean Girls, or TV series like Freaks and Geeks, are invariably asked to make a Faustian bargain wherein they trade in their nerd-girl pal for a shot at a makeover and the ascent to popularity and dates.”

The article also criticizes the way in which the male geek has been celebrated in some areas of pop culture, inevitably being paired with a conventionally hot woman and loved for his mind instead of his body: “Gorgeous women selflessly nurturing awkward-but-brilliant men is a trope that these days is all too common.” The article mentions the films The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad; I also think of the film A Beautiful Mind. Of those films, and of the American reality TV show “Beauty and the Geek,” in which geeky men compete for the attention of a buxom model type, Seltzer writes, “The message is that modelesque babes should look for the inner worth of all the men around them – not just the beefcake – and value them appropriately. The geek guys, however, aren’t encouraged to see the beauty in one of their own.”

The article concludes thusly: “Girl geeks are still waiting for the day when pop culture no longer demands that their nerdiness be redeemed, transformed, or made over – but can, like the dudes’, be what makes them desired.”

All this got me thinking. I totally see the “geeky is bad” message that pervades a lot of pop culture when it comes to women, but my reality doesn’t feel like that at all. Why not? Well, because I’m queer.

This is one of those many instances where I realize in a profound way that queer sexuality isn’t just about the pink bits of the person you’re fucking. There’s really a whole range of small things that make it different from the mainstream, and one of those things is the way we judge what counts as desirable. In my experience, geekiness actually rates pretty darned high on that list.

A recent issue of Curve magazine, for example, drew my eye because the cover features a stunning close-up shot of kd lang with rumply butch hair and a gorgeous pair of über-geeky glasses – and she’s a singer, for crying out loud. She’s not opting for contact lenses to downplay her geekiness and be sexier; she’s opting for glasses because they make her look more geeky and she understands that that is damn sexy… to her target audience at least! Seriously – find me a straight pop star who does that. (And don’t even talk to me about Nana Mouskouri.)

The other reason I bought the mag is because it features a nice meaty article about lesbian professors entitled “20 Powerful Lesbian Academics.” That article begins:

“With several Curve contributors and editors working inside academia by day (the author of this list is, in fact, the coordinator of LGBT studies at Yale), it seemed timely to profile some top lesbian professors as part of our ongoing “10 Powerful Lesbians” series. But as the nominations began to pour in from electronic mailing lists and academic queer peers, it became clear that a scholarly chord had been struck and that we couldn’t just stop at 10.”

Okay, so the article was not about the sex appeal of professors. But it was practically porn to me. Any article that puts Lillian Faderman, Adrienne Rich and Eve Kosofky Sedgwick in the honourable mentions category (!!) and qualifies some up-and-coming academics as “rock stars” has definitely got my juices flowing. I can’t possibly be the only one who finds this stuff interesting, since it did, after all, appear in Curve – hardly a niche academic journal.

Clearly, dyke pop culture has lots of room for geeks. But the valuing of female geekery is also queer in other ways. Take the anthology She’s Such a Geek, edited by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders. It’s not explicitly queer in any way; its subtitle is simply Women Write About Science, Technology and Other Nerdy Stuff. But I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the editors are both unabashed superqueers.

I don’t mean to say that female geeks aren’t considered sexy in the straight world. I’m sure they are, anyplace where people realize that reality TV isn’t reality at all, in the minds of enlightened straight men who value women as whole people rather than as the bearers of boobs and orifices, and in the minds of enlightened straight women who don’t feel they need to strive to squeeze themselves into an impossibly narrow beauty ideal or disavow their intellects. Geekiness is hardly a condemnation to eternal bachelorettehood for straight gals the world over.

The difference is that in the larger culture, there’s the “but” factor to consider, as in, “she’s a geek, but she’s still sexy!” The two concepts, as Seltzer points out and illustrates, are still set up in mainstream consciousness as being a dichotomy, and therefore a situation one must overcome. Some women achieve sexiness despite geekiness. In queer culture, however, there is no “but” factor. If anything it’s the other way around – a queer gal’s geekiness is part and parcel of her sex appeal. It’s sexiness because of geekiness.

I can’t support this with evidence beyond the anecdotal, but the anecdotal is nonetheless significant, in my mind. Anecdotal evidence tells me that queer women are over-represented in academia; that nerdy girls make queer eyes light up; that glasses, the classic (if inaccurate) symbol of smarts, hold great erotic appeal, to the point where I’ve met several dykes who desperately wish they had poor eyesight so they’d have an excuse to purchase a pair; that, as the former International Ms. Leather recently enthused, queer women are “intellectuophiles”; that bookishness is encouraged among queers even in the most unlikely of places (Toronto’s queer-heavy women’s boxing club, the Newsgirls, hosts a book club for its boxers!); and so on, and so forth. We even adopt pop culture’s geeky characters as de facto queers – “Scooby Doo”‘s Velma or the Peanuts’ Marcie, for example (and don’t even start me on the kink factor of Marcie always addressing tomboy Peppermint Patty as “Sir”).

In addition to all this, there’s an existing conceptual connection between geekiness and queerness as a whole. I wrote about this a couple of years ago, back when I was still questioning my legitimacy as a bona fide geek, when my friend J invited me to join Toronto’s Gay Geeks group:

“Ta-daaam! I felt the violins swell. I said, as per my usual, “But I’m not really a geek.” She answered, rather dismissively, “Yes you are.” But, in a dazzling move of geeky gallantry, she then proceeded to prove it by pulling out none other than the People’s Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien (and how geeky is that?), and quoting to me directly from an essay therein entitled “Are We Not Geeks?” (haha!), the following illuminating passage, which she had gone so far as to highlight (and how geeky is that too??):

“My own definition of geeks is this: people who care about a subject or system so much that they’re willing to learn how to master it, whether anyone else cares about it or not.”

Wow.

The essay goes on to say, “The larger group of non-geeks is always going to be nervous of somebody who resists the easiest form of social control, which is shame. In their eyes, you should be able to laugh at somebody and tease them for being different, and that should be sufficient to make them toe the line and make a bit more of an effort to appear similar to everyone else. Geeks resist that, because, well, it’d mean giving up the things that matter more than conformity.”

Gee. Switch “geek” to “queer” in that paragraph, and all of a sudden the connection is astoundingly simple. Perhaps I am beginning to understand why it is that most geeks I know are among the most non-homophobic people on the planet.”

I can’t help but see a connection between feminism, queer women’s identities, queer concepts of beauty, and the role of intellectualism in queer lives. Wrap that all together and sex appeal also becomes part of the package. How could it not?

There’s a certain cultural power in the way queer women opt out of the stigma that normally surrounds any number of items on the checklist of what’s conventionally considered unattractive – diverse body sizes, body hair, short hair, butch gender, athleticism… and big brains. Much like mainstream food culture wants us to enjoy mass-produced food that’s drained of nutritional value (white bread, iceberg lettuce, processed cheese product…), mainstream beauty standards seem to want to drain the value from women. We’re supposed to be skinny and weak rather than strong or curvy, and vapid rather than smart, and dependent on finding the perfect man to complete us rather than fully able to be complete beings on our own. We’re supposed to be quiet, take up less space, occupy supporting roles, make less money, need less support, eat less, want less sex (or want sex only for the purpose of pleasing someone else), be prettier to look at, allow our bodies to be used for others’ purposes (whether pleasure or reproduction), and just generally play second fiddle.

With that drained-out model as a basis for comparison, I think queer women’s culture values the richness of women’s potentials. Sure, the skinny gals have a place among us, but we also value the voluptuous curvy girls and the large, solid-bodied butches and the athletes with strong bodies who take up physical space; we like articulate women and have no need to cover up or downplay our smarts to calm anyone’s insecurities; we fully expect to be independent, or possibly to pair up with other independent people, and we don’t make a life plan that centres on catching a man (even if we end up with one or two along the way). We aren’t quiet, we take up all kinds of space, we eat what we want, we most certainly want sex and aren’t shy to talk about it, and we don’t spend our lives trying to fit someone else’s beauty standard.

Certainly we suffer from the discrimination that keeps our bodies under the potential jurisdiction of the state and that causes us to get stuck in supporting roles, make less money and be assumed to need less support… but that’s a factor of our participation in a world whose politics we did not create, and like most women who have even a smidge of feminist leaning, we fight against those things. In the meantime, though, in the elements of our culture over which we have the most direct control, we evidence a valuing and celebration of geekiness and other forms of misfit-ness that only pops up here and there in the larger culture. While men certainly have a place in queer women’s existence, we are not concerned with impressing the male mainstream, and so have no particular draw towards adopting or internalizing the standards that mainstream aims to impress upon us to that end. And that leaves all kinds of room for coming up with new factors of attraction. No surprise that geekiness is one of them. 

Or maybe it’s just that we know from experience that smart people fuck better.

the lazy kinky tantrika?
May 27, 2008

Warning: this post might end up sounding a little woo-woo. I’m not really the woo-woo type, but I go there occasionally. Bear with me, okay? I’m also including a book review and two workshop reviews to balance woo-woo with geekery.

So, tonight I enjoyed the second of two workshops given by Barbara Carrellas, author of the recently published book Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century. Last night’s was entitled “Urban Tantra” and tonight’s was “Tantric BDSM.”

For those who’ve been reading since last summer, you may remember that in August I read and reviewed the book Radical Ecstasy by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy. In that post, I noted that I was very much interested in pursuing a better understanding of Tantric practices and other sorts of practices that aim to consciously move sexual energy around the body. Not long after that, I came across a book about Tantra for women which seemed really queer-friendly, judging by its subtitle, but its unfortunate effect was to turn me off the idea of Tantra pretty hard-core. I’ll quote from that post to give you the idea:

I did, however, come upon a book that has single-handedly convinced me that I am not meant to be a tantrika after all. Sorry, folks; I’m still just as interested in learning more about chakras and such, and honing my energy play skills, but I just cannot stomach this tantra stuff. The book in question looked so promising, too… it’s entitled Tantric Sex for Women: A Guide for Lesbian, Bi, Hetero and Solo Lovers, by Christa Schulte. I know – how beautifully non-heterocentric! I was thrilled. But please read the following excerpt for an understanding of my instant turn-off.

“Now the rose begins to rub sesame or olive oil on the orchid. If you’re the orchid, you can be seated in the rose’s lap or between her legs, leaning back, or you can assume the yab-yum position to have your back anointed. It is important for the orchid to give in more and more to the hands of the rose, while, at the same time, maintaining your own wave motions.”

I have to be a fucking rose or an orchid in order to have tantric sex with a chick (or a trans boy, assuming the point of the manual is to show non-penis-endowed people how to do this together)? What the fuck? Didn’t we leave the flower descriptions behind with Georgia O’Keefe paintings and awful 1970s lesbian erotic poetry? I can’t stand it. Just can’t do it. No no no. I’m all for the energy play and the intensity and the focus of tantra, but not if I have to cloak my desire for a good raw fuck in appallingly treacly horticultural terms. I’m interested in cocks and cunts and sweat and skin, not petals and pistules and perfume. Crikey.

Now, Barbara’s book has managed to convince me that maybe I am interested in Tantra after all, despite the massive turn-off of last summer. I only bought it in the first place because I read the back cover and saw that it was endorsed by Kate Bornstein. I figured hey, if a confirmed gender outlaw and sex-positive kinky veteran can write a laudatory comment about this book, it must have something going for it, and at the very least it must not rely on headache-inducing gender essentialism to make its points about energy flow. When I read the introduction, I noted that Barbara says Kate is her partner – which, far from making me think Kate’s endorsement is biased, made me believe it all the more. A very good start indeed.

Well, I read the book, and it really is pretty excellent. It provides a lovely combination of clearly described Tantric exercises that are illustrated with nekkid bodies in a pleasant range of genders and races (no fat or disabled folks, but still much better than average), explanations about the essence of Tantra (which Barbara more or less defines as the art of living consciously), and reflections on the ways in which Tantra and BDSM have a lot more in common than most people might think. In a lot of ways, it takes Radical Ecstasy – which I found enjoyable but a little too overview-level – and deepens it several notches, with a ton of concrete how-to stuff as a welcome bonus. Urban Tantra is definitely a welcome addition to my bookshelf, and so far it’s the only book I’ve picked up on the topic that I’ve managed to get through. Other books usually piss me off somewhere between the cover and page five.

Barbara’s workshop last night was great. I felt like it was a bit 101 for my taste, but at the same time I recognize that you have to start somewhere, and when presenting a two-hour Tantra workshop in a new city to a crowd of strangers, you’re not going to leap in at the advanced level. Fair enough. I brought Boi M with me, and we listened during the basic talk portion of the evening, and then got right down to business in the practical exercise portion. Moving sexual energy, for us, comes so easily and so powerfully that the exercises themselves almost felt unnecessary, but it certainly added some wonderful intensity to go through the specific steps we were assigned and take things at a different pace than we’re used to. New techniques are never a bad thing.

I attended tonight’s workshop with my lover J. This one was all talking, no practical stuff – well, no couples-based practical stuff. There were breathing exercises. Again, J and I also have such an easy time moving sexual energy that even on our first date we were doing some wacky orgasmic energy stuff before we even took our clothes off. So although we didn’t get to play with each other directly in the workshop, it was kinda fun to lightly touch during the breathing exercises just to see if we could make them a little more interesting. We managed, barely, to avoid soaking the chairs. Fun times.

I definitely appreciated that Barbara was able to suss out the experience level of the people in the room, most of whom identified as being experienced in BDSM and familiar with Tantra, and speak to that level rather than watering things down. She gave some great ideas about using Tantric breathing to help clarify the intention of a scene during negotiations, to hold the focus of a scene while it’s happening, and to ground the energy once it’s finished.

I asked a question about the difference between intent and scripting. One of the things that bugs me a lot about the way people practice most religions, and a lot of the ways in which people seem to like negotiating and practicing BDSM play, is when we kid ourselves into thinking that we can script and control the energy of what we’re doing because we’ve used our minds to decide what needs to happen. In my mind, this is a perversion – and not the yummy kind – of energy. The universe knows what needs to happen, and when we script that sort of thing, whether through focused forms of prayer or ritual (“Please, Higher Power of my choice, make this exact series of things happen because it would be to my advantage”) or through highly scripted BDSM scene negotiation (“First I want you to use this toy, then this one, then this one, and call me these names, and that will take me to this place, and then I’ll have this many orgasms, and then I need 30 minutes of aftercare including water, chocolate and fruit”) it’s as though we’re presuming to direct the energy of the universe rather than letting it direct us. Whether you conceive of that energy as God, Goddess, higher power, interpersonal energy, fate, karma, whatever… the name is not really the point. The point is that such an approach feels arrogant to me, or hopelessly false, or at the very least, completely devoid of the kind of connection I generally want to feel to the universe and the people I play with.

Anyway, Barbara noted that when she speaks about intention – as in, focusing your intention through Tantric connection while negotiating or playing – she’s not talking about scripting at all. She is, in fact, talking about the exact process I prefer: using these techniques as a way of listening closely to what the energy between two people wants to be doing, and forming an intention for a scene with that in mind. The specifics are then up for negotiation as usual. I was very pleased at the way she made that distinction and explained how Tantric technique can work into it.

Barbara made an offhand comment that impressed me, noting that she feels it’s a form of cultural appropriation to approach Tantra as though we were going to be doing it just like people in India 700 years ago. How lovely to hear a white Western woman point out that exact problem with the wholesale Western adoption of Eastern spiritual practice. She also noted that techniques for moving sexual energy have come up in numerous cultures over the last five millennia, and Tantra as we know it today is only the most recent example of that.

This actually relates pretty directly to the one question I left the workshop with. I chose not to ask it in person because I felt like that might have turned the Q&A portion of things into an individual conversation, and unfortunately there was already one person in the group who hijacked part of the session for exactly that – I didn’t want to be a second. It just ain’t classy. Perhaps I’ll e-mail Barbara and see what she thinks.

My question is this: if my lovers and I are already adept at intentionally working with sexual energy but we don’t have a formal practice of any kind and don’t really invest a lot of time in learning one, are we being a) lazy or arrogant in thinking we can do this sort of thing without the benefit of centuries of accumulated knowledge, or b) perfectly legitimate precisely because many different traditions have sprung up over the centuries to explain and codify an energy that people can feel without formal practice in the first place?

Another way of asking the question would be, are we being irresponsible in playing with some really powerful forces that flow within us and within the universe without the benefit of anything beyond our own instincts and good judgment?

My tendency is to think we’re doing just fine; I feel no major warning bells going off, and if I did, I’d probably reconsider. And yet at the same time I feel like I benefited very much just from reading one other person’s words describing in great detail the sort of energy I already touch and move. If Barbara writes a level-two book on this subject, I’ll be the first in line to buy it.

But do I want to invest in a pursuit of detailed Tantric practice? Nope. I got the good stuff already. It’s wonderful to have extra language with which to talk about it, but I have no interest in putting hours of time into this – I want to enjoy it in all its brilliance and depth when it comes up, and live my fast-paced urban life too. I have no inclination to spend my weekends in an ashram or read endless tomes on energy technique as translated from the Sanskrit. I don’t want to be a flower, I don’t want to bother setting up ritual spaces with flowing cloths and incense (I’d rather be starkers, and that shit makes me cough), and I don’t want to put months of effort into mastering a bunch of tightly defined techniques when I can play with energy already. And while breathing techniques are great, I do want to fuck in deep, raw, juicy ways, and not have to cloak the darkness and brilliant joy of my sexuality in schmaltzy or cutesy pseudo-religious New Age terminology.

I guess my question is, just how far away can we get from the forms of Tantra and still retain its essence? And if I’m concerned with getting high returns for low investment, is that a bad thing, or a fully legitimate one?

I don’t expect any one person to have answers for all this, and I didn’t get answers tonight. But I must say that, answers or no, it was pretty wonderful to be in a room full of people asking questions.

the five-step flirt
May 22, 2008

Not too long ago, I took a workshop with Laura Antoniou in San Francisco entitled “Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want.” Her premise was that in alt-sex communities, we’ve lost the art of seduction; our communication style has become too clean. Instead of seducing each other, we approach with questionnaires, lists of limits and preferred activities, and so forth.

In a lot of ways, I agree with her. This is why, for example, in my now-deleted profile on alt.com and on my current one on FetLife, I chose not to fill out the list of available fetishes or kinks. I’ve always found it puzzling that people are so interested in knowing what each other’s favourite activities are. To me, that’s almost the last thing on the list. If there’s an attraction between us, and things are genuinely humming, and we can’t wait to do something about it, well then we’ll figure out something to do, lists be damned – even if on the surface we have no visible compatibilities. And if that hum of attraction isn’t present, then no matter how compatible our lists may look on paper, we’re not likely to have much fun. So really, what’s the point?

It’s kind of like listing your height, weight, eye colour and profession. What the heck does that tell me about you as a person? All that tells me is that you’re someone who thinks height, weight, eye colour and occupation are the salient features I need to know about if I’m going to hit on you, which means I probably won’t want to hit on you.

Anyway, back to the idea of seduction. I agree that many of us have managed to take the idea of self-knowledge and clear communication to a point where we forget the essence of sexual attraction, which does not reside in the contents of your toy bag or the items you tick on a checklist. (This is not to discourage the negotiation fetishists out there – you know who you are, and you’re a whole separate category.)

Now, Laura went on to describe the ways in which she felt we should go about seducing each other. And while I think she’s downright awesome, extremely sharp and funny, and one of the best erotic fiction writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, I must say I disagree with her approach to seduction.

Her basic idea was that we should learn how to tell sexy stories to each other – to describe our fantasies and relate them to the person we’re talking with.

To some people, that might be the ultimate in flirtation technique. But to me, that actually feels like the exact opposite of the approach I like to take, or the approach that others have successfully taken with me. Which of course meant I started to think about why I disagreed with a storytelling approach to flirtation, and what I’d do instead.

I don’t expect that my approach would work for everyone out there either, but I certainly did enjoy thinking about it in a step-by-step fashion, and figured I should share it. Comments, suggestions, personal success stories, tricks and tips… bring it on! In the meantime, here’s my approach.

1. Notice a person I find attractive, and decide if that’s okay or not. Seriously – sometimes it’s really not. I survived of a couple of abusive relationships in my youth, and I took two years off to be celibate and do some inner work and healing once the last one ended. For years thereafter I found myself feeling attracted to people and instantly sharpening my gaze to make sure that the reasons for my attraction were healthy. Was I being drawn to a person who would turn out to be abusive, just because the pattern fit my past? Sometimes, the answer was yes. So in those cases, I respectfully told myself I was not going to go there, and I didn’t. Even if I really wanted to. Now, not everyone has been abused, but we certainly have all fallen into our own versions of bad patterns to some degree or another. I think it can only be a good thing if we consciously analyze our draw to someone before pursuing it, to make sure we’re not about to perpetuate our own misery. This involves both observing the object of our attraction to see what behaviour they produce and what energy they project, and observing our own reactions and feelings towards that person, what we feel rising in ourselves in their presence.

2. Show the object of my interest a piece of themselves that I have noticed and find attractive, and then ask them a question about it. It’s that whole observation thing, taken a step further.

  • That’s a great pair of boots, and they’ve clearly been well taken care of… did you do that work yourself, or did some lucky thing do it for you?
  • I just wanted to tell you, I noticed your haircut the moment you walked in here, and you carry it off with style. Where do you get it done?
  • Hey, you’re clearly trying to stay in the background at this event, but still waters often run deep so I’m curious about you. Is it your first time? What do you think so far?
  • I’ve seen you at two or three of these lectures. You always seem to show up at the ones about gender theory, which means we’ve probably got a few things in common. Are you studying the subject?

And so on, and so forth. This isn’t about coming up with a good line. It’s about accurately conveying the reason for my attraction. In stating what I’ve noticed, I’m also sending the message that I’m a person who notices things about them – which means those same things are probably of interest to me. So it sets the stage for a common ground.

3. Observe their responses to me. While I’m engaging in this minor interaction, I am also observing. This is not the time to be trying to impress someone. No… this is the time to be observing. How do they react to me? What’s their body language like? Do they seem friendly, interested, bored, overly enthusiastic, falsely “on,” noncommittal, irritated? Do I feel that hum of attraction on their part, or is it one-sided? Before I really start to flirt, I look for these signs to get a sense of whether a flirtation would be welcome. I’m not honestly interested in flirting with people who don’t find me attractive – there’s no turn-on in aiming my charms at the erotic equivalent of a brick wall and trying to convince it that it wants me. Truly, if it ain’t there, I can’t create it and don’t want to try – that just feels obnoxious.

Now let me point out that these first three steps can happen in very short order, if all the stars are properly aligned and we feel the vibe strongly. For example, when I met Boi M, I knew from the second we made eye contact that the attraction between us was overwhelmingly strong. I’m not advocating six weeks of processing before saying hello. I’m just advocating a conscious and sensitive approach to flirting with someone to make sure you actually want what you’re after, and that what you’re after really wants you to be after it.

I also use this step to test whether or not my initial decision about whether or not this attraction is okay bears out now that we’re actually chatting. It’s like the next step in the process of figuring out what I’m after. If the person’s clearly not on the same page as me, but there’s still attraction, perhaps we could have a torrid night but not a relationship. If their answers impress the hell outta me, I’m probably thinking about a dinner date. And with that in mind…

4. Indicate my interest in a straightforward way. Not much more complicated than that… I just say it.

  • I find you really attractive, and I’d love to take you out to dinner.
  • You’re the hottest thing in this room, and I’d love to take you home with me tonight.
  • This conversation is so interesting. I’d love to pick your brain some more… are you free for coffee this week?
  • Hey, it seems we have a few things in common. I have an hour to spare and there’s a St-Andrew’s cross looking terribly empty over there. Whaddaya say?

And then, though it may seem counter-intuitive…

5. Issue a CTA and then leave them alone to think about it. A CTA, in marketing-speak, is a Call to Action – a specific invitation to do a specific thing to get a specific result. A CTA needs to be clear in order to be effective; while people can be creative, I find that especially in situations of flirtation, it helps to give a concrete direction – not an order or a rigid prescription, but an immediate and accessible sort of invitation. In other words, after any of the above indications of interest, I’ll say, “Think about it and let me know, …

  • I’ll be over there for a bit, come find me anytime tonight if you’d like to play.”
  • Here’s my number, I’d love to hear from you if you’re interested in dinner next time you’re in town.”
  • I’m leaving in fifteen minutes, so if you want to come with me, meet me at coat check then.”
  • I think you should come with me to the reading. Here’s my e-mail address, drop me a line by Thursday if you want me to pick up two tickets for us.”

I generally also add something to let them know there will be no hard feelings or weirdness if they’re not interested. And then I literally walk away.

Why? Because I want someone to come with me if they’re genuinely interested, not just because I’ve cranked up the pressure by my presence. And a great way to know if someone’s interested is if they actively come after what I’ve just offered them.

This is what makes seduction a dance. I take a step, and then the next person takes a step. If I’m the only one stepping, then the interest is one-sided and the dance fails. But if we’re working in tandem, then they’ll gladly take their turn once I offer it to them.

This approach also gives me the chance to show that I’m leaving things in their hands, and not investing my energy in pushing for a specific decision on their part. It shows people that their comfort level is at least as important to me as having my desires fulfilled.

So that’s it. My personal five-step flirtation technique. I never broke it all down like this until now, but there it is. Do with it what you will. Criticize, comment, agree, disagree… I’d love to hear your thoughts!

the reasons i didn’t run
May 17, 2008

Not too long ago, I got back from spending a month in San Francisco. While I was there, I spoke at two leather conferences – the Leather Leadership Conference and International Ms. Leather. Both were stellar events, as one might expect of kinky conferences held in the bellybutton of kink itself. I may attempt a conference review of each one at some point, or I may settle for referencing individual workshops when their content becomes relevant to the things I’m writing about. But right now, I’m feeling like I should post about why it is that I decided not to run for the International Ms. Leather title – before the topic gets so out of date I’d feel silly doing so.

A few weeks back, I got an e-mail from a former IMsL titleholder of my acquaintance, who invited me to run. Apparently the contest is interested in drawing folks from Canada to participate, which I think is downright lovely, and certainly in keeping with the letter I in IMsL. So because I’m a geeky sort, I started doing some research. After all, if I’m going to wear someone else’s logo across my chest or back, and work my ass off for the privilege to boot, I’d better damn well be sure I want it there.

My first step was to take a look at the contest details and application form.

The stated mission of the contest is as follows. (I keep trying to link to the document, but it keeps crashing my browser, so if you’re interested you can go find the full text at www.imsl.org.)

Each year, during the International Ms Leather weekend, a contestant is chosen to represent the women’s leather community both locally and internationally on behalf of the International Ms Leather Contest. She will be chosen for her expression, dedication and personality. She will act as a mentor, a role model and a spokesperson during her title year. The titleholder must be intelligent and articulate, capable of communication and outreach both to leather and non-leather communities worldwide.

So far, so good. It sounds a little generic, but nothing offensive.

Next up, the judging criteria. On a total of 100 points, 40 are given for a personal interview with the judging panel. “Questions may include (but are not limited to) community contributions, personal history, leather history and current events.” A two-minute prepared speech on the topic of your choice gets you another 20 points, and your “heart and soul” – i.e. your general demonstration of acceptable social and networking skills over the contest weekend – nails you 10 more. Again, so far, so good.

Then we get to the bits where I start to get uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable in the sense that I think there’s anything morally wrong with the whole concept, but uncomfortable in that I’m not so much down with the idea of actually being evaluated on certain things. I can see myself giving an interview and a speech and being a generally nice and friendly person for the space of a weekend, and if someone wants to watch me do those things and give me points for ‘em, well, okay. These things feel like criteria that are relevant to a person’s leadership, mentorship and spokesperson abilities. 

But I feel like the next two criteria don’t really fit. Those criteria are the following:

Fantasy (20 points)
To be performed at the International Ms Leather 2008 Contest. The fantasy performance must not exceed 4 minutes. The fantasy performance will be rehearsed and heavily coached by our Entertainment Producer to ensure the highest possible production value for the contest overall. Contestants will receive more specific instructions directly from the Entertainment Producer.

Hotwear and Pop Question (10 points)
The contestants will be asked a Pop Question on stage during the International Ms Leather 2008 contest and will have the opportunity to show the audience and judges the outfit that makes them feel sexiest!

Hmm.

I can carry off a decent performance on the rare occasion I’m called upon to do something in front of a crowd other than educate, but I’m not a fantastically talented entertainer. And I can wear a sexy outfit as readily as the next person and feel damn good in it. But I don’t enjoy the idea of being judged for either of those things. How the heck does anyone judge hotness, anyway? Any judge will necessarily be biased in favour of what turns their personal crank, and if they’re not, then how else do they decide? Fashion is notoriously fickle, leatherdykes are notoriously diverse-looking, and I can’t fathom how you’d bring all that together and make any kind of truly fair decision. 

Beyond that, though, the idea that a person’s eligibility for international community leadership and activism would be in any way determined by their ability to perform some sort of hot dance routine or slink around on stage in a buttery leather dress or strut in assless chaps… I dunno. How do those things go together? The world out there that isn’t so friendly to leatherfolk is surely not going to give kinky people better protection under the law because they’ve been entranced by the gleam of a leather-clad thigh. “Wow, that gal looks good in that bar vest. Maybe we should re-think taking Bob and Jane’s kids away because they’ve got a box of floggers in their closet.” Can you picture it? Me either.

I feel like if the contest is aimed at judging who will make a good community spokesperson, those last two criteria aren’t the relevant ones to be looking at. But if they are important to the organizers, then the contest’s mission should probably change to reflect the reasons for that – and there’s really nothing wrong with that. Have a beauty contest! There are tons of hot leatherdykes out there worth parading across a stage, and I’d be the first to hoot and holler and cast a ballot for my favourite. After all, leather bar titles have their roots in the gay equivalent of beauty contests, and a dyke beauty pageant is about as far away from the retchingly gross mainstream Miss America concept as I can imagine, such that it retains very little power to offend me. To borrow a term from my esteemed colleague Jacqueline St-Urbain, there’s nothing wrong with some cheerful lechery. And really, what dyke wouldn’t be doing her catwalk with a healthy dose of irony, wearing leather or no?

I looked at all this, and tried to balance the pros and cons. Sure, I’m not so crazy about the hotness criteria or the performance, but an IMsL title comes with a travel fund that takes the winner to the leather events of their choice for the year of their title – talk about a boost to the speaking career. And I could use the international visibility to move my own activist agenda forward – which of course meant I needed to have an agenda. Yet one more question to consider.

I took my second step, which was to book a phone date with the former titleholder who had solicited my participation in the first place. It was a helpful conversation in that she certainly painted a solid picture of the pros and cons of being on the title circuit. My questions going in were:

  • What community would I be representing if I hold this title?
  • How, exactly, would a Canadian titleholder fit into a massively American title circuit?
  • How would this feed my activist work, and what would my purpose be? Generic doesn’t cut it – what would I actually be signing on to accomplish?

On the pro side, she mentioned a few things:

  • a title vest can be an excellent conversation-starter for grassroots-level activism; 
  • you can use your visibility to raise funds for charities that are important to you; 
  • there’s great freedom in the use of the travel fund, so if you make the ethical choice to attend events only when your presence can make some sort of tangible difference, its use can be very effective;
  • the titleholder herself somewhat defines the mission of the title for a given year and defines the community she represents, so you could bring Canadian concerns to the table; and
  • after a year of titleholding, the network of contacts you can develop is considerable, and can help you move forward with activist goals once you’ve left the spotlight as well.

On the con side, she had a few others:

  • holding a title can really show you the classism that comes with certain elements of the leather community;
  • it’s entirely possible to hold a title and do not a whit of good with it; many titleholders are well-intentioned but simply have no idea what to do with all the attention they get, and by the time the year is done, they’ve probably figured out what to do, but by then it’s over, so it’s not the most effective structure for reaching activist goals;
  • the amount of work and travel you might do during a title year can be really draining; and
  • some women’s communities look at titles with some suspicion because their feminist views about beauty pageants, although there are many places where titleholders are welcome regardless.

All in all, that felt like a pretty balanced picture. The cons were mainly things I thought I could work around – I’m not shy about challenging power inequities; I’m already used to a high pace of travel; if I were to run at all, I would come into a title with an agenda already in place about what to do with my year, and I’d dive right into it; and… hm. That pesky beauty pageant thing. Yeah.

She also told me that a lot of leatherdykes are “intellectuophiles” (what a great word), and told me, “Use the brainy thing! Use your power for good!” At first that felt flattering, but it left a funny taste in my mouth, and it took me a little while to figure out why. It wasn’t anything to do with her – she’s all kinds of great. No, it was the idea, which she accurately if inadvertently conveyed, that some element of my effectiveness as an activist while holding a title would have to do with people’s perception of me as some sort of niche-market sexy. In other words, I’d be hooking people with my leather-clad, bespectacled charms and from there transposing their attention to my cause of choice… and this would be a perfectly valid way of proceeding in the titleholding mentality. 

Now, I don’t have control over whether people percieve me as attractive or not, but I do have control over whether or not I choose to deliberately use that potential as an activist strategy… and I don’t like the idea of choosing that strategy, not one bit. I don’t really want to work my sex appeal, such as it is, as an educational approach. I want to write and speak, and while I don’t want to hide my face or wear burlap sacks, I’d really rather people be drawn primarily to what I’m saying rather than to what I’m wearing or my hip-to-waist ratio or the shape of my nose or what have you.

Not only that, but the idea of bringing Canadian concerns to an American circuit that sees itself as international… that sounds suspiciously like me doing the work for a cause I’m not entirely sure I stand behind, and which, if it were truly to live up to its name, should be doing that work before I get there. I understand that reaching out for Canadian contestants is part of that work, and I totally applaud them for doing so; their organizing team is also actively attempting to cross-promote with leatherwomen’s events outside the US, another excellent endeavour.

But I’m not sure I want to spend a year’s worth of my activist energy on flying the maple leaf loud and proud to show the American circuit that we’re just as leathery as they are. I don’t feel any particular urgency about proving that. I love visiting the States, I have tons of wonderful friends there, and I admire the work they’ve done, their sense of history, their long-established activist groups and more. But I’d rather invest my energy in grassroots community-building within the Canadian scene, such as through An Unholy Harvest – nurturing Canadian presenters, creating opportunities for inter-provincial cross-pollination, and so forth – than in showing the States how cool and kinky Canada is. And I’m not convinced that holding an Americentric title would move me forward on that count.

Percolating, percolating.

So I moved on to my third step, which was to arrange a few meetings – some in person, some by phone – with leatherfolk I thought might give me some valuable perspective. I’ve been fortunate enough to befriend a few veteran voices in the kink community, so I was pretty lucky in having access to some highly informed points of view. I am, however, loath to name-drop, so suffice it to say these folks know whereof they speak. Here are a few of their comments.

First of all, everyone agreed on this first point, and having now attended, I can say that I do too:

“IMsL is an excellent event, with fabulous socializing and wonderful workshops and parties, especially since the takeover by the new owners (Glenda and Levi).”

But they also said a few things that confirmed some of my concerns:

“By not running for a title, you’re always only accountable for your own views.”

“You can do other work that’s high-profile but produces more distinctly tangible results.”

“I haven’t figured out what activist good titleholders do. They originate with bar titles, which were created to promote bars. A title can add legitimacy to your work, but that concept is fairly new.”

“Some titleholders have done great work, but they would have anyway.”

“When you hold a title, you wind up spending all your time preaching to the choir.”

I think the one that really got me from that list of cautions was that last one. It really stopped me in my tracks, and made me start to think about what my personal purpose is as an activist. I realized that while I enjoy talking about my passions with people who are already on board with the basics and want to take things a few levels up, and that certainly feeds my soul and inspires my mind, I’m not entirely convinced that’s truly an activist project. I feel most like an activist when I’m challenging people who aren’t already queer, kinky or poly to think differently about alternative forms of sexual and gender expression, and providing them with tailored information to help them start where they are and move forward towards understanding in places where they used to feel discomfort. That’s the work, and while it’s work I enjoy doing, it’s definitely work. The rest is the fun stuff. And holding a title from a group that would want to spend a year putting me in the spotlight on leather stages would end up giving me more of the fun stuff (potentially) while making it more difficult to do the work. How could I reconcile that with any pretensions to greater heights of activism?

Interestingly, at the IMsL closing keynote brunch, the fabulous Laura Antoniou brought up a number of the same points that the veterans mentioned in our conversations – yep, right there on stage at IMsL, she challenged the entire premise of IMsL itself. What a ballsy chick. But she also had some excellent suggestions. She suggested that perhaps, rather than making the event about electing a new titleholder each year, that it should be focused on recognizing and rewarding the accomplishments of an existing activist annually. Damn, but she’s smart. She also said she takes no issue with the event itself because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting a bunch of hot people together for a weekend to take great workshops and have great sex. (Do I hear a round of applause?)

On a somewhat different note, she exhorted people in the leather community to become better informed about the political issues that directly affect us at a local level – to read the news, to vote in school board elections, to take part in municipal politics, to do community work at home. Really, she was inviting people to become informed, effective grassroots activists rather than focusing their energies on the glamour of an international circuit.

So there it is. Add it all together, balance the scales, and the answer for me was no. The IMsL title is not for me. I remain very flattered that they asked, and that the owners reiterated their encouragement at the end of this year’s contest, saying I should run in 2009. But I just can’t line up the title with the things I want to accomplish, so I think it’s best that I leave the work of titleholding to those who are better suited to it. Perhaps at some point it’ll be a hottie Canadian gal. When she wins, I’ll be the first to pat her on the ass. I mean back.

Now, if the IMsL folks decide to reinvent the title with Laura’s suggested value system in mind, I might end up being a better fit, in which case I’ll probably go through the whole existential questioning process again.

In the meantime, I’ll just show up in San Francisco next March, wear some leather, teach a class, play with a hottie or two, and take in some yummy workshops. Hey, if Laura Antoniou, the IMsL producers (the most excellent Glenda Rider and Levi Halberstadt), the veterans and I can all be in agreement on one thing, it’s that enjoying a weekend among leatherwomen and our appreciators makes for some damn good dirty fun!

polyamory is not an umbrella
May 16, 2008

Recently I joined the Poly Researchers’ list, a yahoogroup based in the US that brings together academics of various stripes who are interested in studying a range of non-monogamous practices. Such brain food they provide… yummy.

At the same time, every once in a while I come across some weird statements that leave me scratching my head. I find myself responding to them, and in the recent past there have been a couple of those responses I felt might be worth sharing (and expanding upon a bit).

From a post not too long ago:

“Every instance of polygamy is also an instance of polyamory, but not every instance of polyamory is also an instance of polygamy.”

In fact not every instance of polygamy is also an instance of polyamory. Polyamory = many loves; polygamy = many marriage partners. There is no guarantee of love in polygamy at all. In fact given the kinds of scandals we’ve been seeing in the news lately about polygamous religious sects, I would argue that it’s very dangerous to equate polygamy wholesale with loving relationships. This is as much a fallacy as the idea that sex in marriage is always desired and consensual; that marriage equals love equals desire equals consent. Clearly this is not the case (marital rape, anyone?). Marriage is simply a social and (sometimes) legal institution, and someone’s participation in it says nothing about the quality of love in their relationship.

I could add a bunch of statements about how the purpose of marriage itself has shifted drastically over the past four or five generations, from being a largely social and economic concept to being a romantic one; E.J. Graff wrote a fantastic book entitled What Is Marriage For? that really breaks down the history of marriage into its component parts, and does so in an accessible and engaging fashion. The work is polemical in that its aim is to convince the straight world that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, but you can just as easily ignore the last five sentences of each chapter and simply drink in the info. It makes for a great read.

And this one:

“Polyamory includes a large number of subsets – among these are polyfidelity, polyandry, polygyny, etc.”

I don’t think it makes sense to use “polyamory” as an umbrella term in this manner. Polygyny is exactly the situation we see in those religious sects, and they’re in no way a subset of polyamory. Properly speaking, polyandry (many husbands) and polygyny (many wives) are theoretical subsets of the concept of polygamy (many marriage partners), though even that might be a bit of a stretch – it works linguistically, but culturally, I don’t think the two gendered dynamics are in any way offshoots of a larger theory of multiple marriage. In fact I think they pop up quite specifically in given cultures and are gendered in specific ways because of mechanisms within those cultures. I’m no anthropologist, but I’m betting that most of the time polygamy shows up, it’s heavily skewed toward either polygyny or polyandry, with the vast majority of examples predictably falling into polygyny. Rarely have I seen them both pop up at once in the same culture, and that to me speaks of a widespread specifically gendered approach to the question of who’s allowed to (or encouraged to) have multiple spouses.

You might argue that polyfidelity is a subset of polyamory, culturally speaking; from what I understand, polyfidelity tends to be practiced by fairly Western, hippie / Tantra / etc. -type folks in the first place, with fairly strong cultural connections to the ideas that also support polyamory in a more fluid sense. I can’t back this up with any research though, just putting it out there as a potentially more likely cultural derivation process.

All of this to say that I think it’s important to understand polyamory as a specific cultural movement that happens to embrace multiple forms of ethical, consensual and loving non-monogamy, but not as an umbrella idea that includes all forms of non-monogamy.

To that, I would add that we already have a term that embraces all forms of non-monogamy – and that term is, well, non-monogamy. A friend of mine recently pointed out that when talking about her poly (etc.) life choices, she prefers the longer term “ethical non-monogamy” for accuracy’s sake, and as an accuracy whore I must agree with her; cheating is definitely non-monogamous, and also definitely not the kind of thing I feel should be included under the broad spectrum of above-board non-monogamous relationships.

I think many people (myself included) use the term “poly” in casual conversation to indicate a wide range of ethical non-monogamous relationship styles, many of which are not polyamory, properly speaking. I mean, tons of polyamorous folks enjoy casual hookups, lightweight romantic relationships, long-distance lovers and so forth – and not every one of those relationships will include True Love. So if we stick with the technical definition of polyamory, as in many loves, then a lot of what poly-identified folks do is not strictly polyamorous at all. Or perhaps, rather than being polyamorous in all instances, those individuals may be polyamorous in some situations and polysexual in others. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Hey-ho, polysexual, here we go.

***

As a quick aside from the terminology discussion, I thought I’d post a link here to my first-ever cover story. I’m featured this week on the cover of Ottawa’s queer newspaper, the Capital Xtra!, in an article that talks about my approach to teaching about non-monogamy and general sexuality stuff. It’s a fun read, and the photo is a cool one – it was quite a last-minute rush to recruit all the owners of the hands that appear in it, but we all had tons of fun contorting ourselves in my living room to show the hands without the people. Good times! I’ll be giving two workshops in Ottawa next week at Venus Envy, one on non-monogamy and one on fisting; check my Workshops tab for more details if you’re interested, and do pass the word!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 731 other followers