Archive for the ‘gender’ Category

loving the body: a theoretical triptych
May 13, 2015

Having a body can be hard at times. If you look in any way non-normative, or identify as non-normative in some way even if you don’t look it, or if you experience your body in ways that are non-normative, the dominant narratives about how to have a body might not fit and might actively harm you. For that matter, even if you look and feel completely normative, heteropatriarchal capitalism still wants you to feel shitty about your body. It is not possible to live in a Western or Western-influenced context without absorbing the message that no matter how hard you try, it is fucking impossible to have a normative enough body. You must always be in the process of becoming a better version of yourself, or you’re doing it wrong. Whether it’s body hair management, keeping up with fashion trends and the “right” brands, making sure your face is perfect and your hair is perfect and you don’t have bad breath or body odour or thighs that touch or boobs that sag or muscles that aren’t sculpted or gawd forbid anything that makes you, y’know, FUCKING HUMAN – there’s always some entity trying to shame you into tasty, seductive, profitable self-hatred.

But let’s get back to the non-normative folks. Different sub-sets of people have different languages and frameworks for discussing the body. Communities and theories about people who are disabled, trans or genderqueer, queer, intersex, fat, Indigenous and/or racialized (and any number of other experiences that aren’t white, cis, able-bodied, slim and hetero) go into great detail on the particularities of what it’s like to live in those bodies. Progressive narratives generally arrive at the conclusion that loving our own and each other’s bodies, in all their differences, is a radical act.

How, exactly, to accomplish this body-loving project, though – that advice is harder to come by. It’s not that nobody’s talking about it. Far from it. It’s just that once you get that loving your body is a good plan, a lot of the instructions on the next steps get kinda prescriptive. Or proscriptive. Or both. As in, you MUST or maybe MUST NEVER cover up / reveal yourself / lose weight / gain weight / wear make-up / go bare-faced / have long hair / have short hair / use product / go product-free / have surgery / go without surgery, and so forth. Failing which, you’re a tool of the heterocapitalist white supremacist patriarchy. Thing is, progressive folks are often just as invested in controlling other people’s bodies and making them fit in as mainstream folks, we just have different ideas about how that control and belonging should happen. This shit is really, really hard to escape.

I don’t pretend to have a perfect solution to any of this. But as a lifelong sex-loving, gender-fluid queer poly sadomasochist, I’ve spent the last decade-plus living inside a body that’s been crippled (literally and metaphorically) by chronic pain and cancer, and gained and lost and gained 60 pounds. It used to be easy to love my body but that hasn’t been true in a long time. And yet, my body-loving politics never changed. It’s just that the easy routes to bodily self-love (have great sex! do yoga four days a week! look hawt in skinny jeans!) got really clogged up. Over time, I developed this theory I thought you might like to hear. I’m still white and I’ve never experienced a medical gender transition or any number of other body-related things, so I understand this might have holes in it that I can’t see from my perspective, but here goes.

I think the project of loving our bodies can be accomplished along three axes. I call them the three Fs: feeling, function and form.

Feeling is about sensation. We can love the way our bodies feel. That might include taste, smell, auditory stimulation like music, the joy of movement or exercise, pleasurable interpersonal touch such as massage or cuddling or SM play, non-personal touch such as the feeling of fabrics or other materials against the skin, temperature such as bracing cold snow or a hot shower or a sunbeam, sexual pleasure, and all manner of other physical sensations. Even if nothing else good is happening, body-wise, we can love the way our bodies feel and we can do things to deliberately enhance or increase that kind of positive experience. We can choose to eat foods that taste amazing and make us feel good, exchange touch with friends or partners, masturbate, take a bath – basically anything that’s about the pleasures of the senses.

Function is about what we can physically accomplish. We can appreciate the way our bodies get us places and let us do things. Maybe it’s your hands and their ability to create beautiful art or play music. Maybe it’s your muscles that let you lift heavy things, perform feats of athleticism, or dance with grace. Maybe it’s your eyes and their ability to catch tiny grammar mistakes or diagnose a mechanical problem.

In some cases, function is about competition against others, striving for a kind of externally recognized excellence in sports or performance or skill. But it doesn’t have to be. Function-love can also be about self-improvement and besting our own past accomplishments. That might look like trying to best our own score at a skill game, tackling a 5.9 climb when we’ve gone up to 5.8 so far, or managing a walk around the block when last week we had a hard time walking down the driveway. Competitive self-love might mean setting ourselves a task and succeeding at it, or perhaps challenging ourselves to try doing a new thing and learning over time to do that thing better. Learning to knit or bake, to fix our bikes or paint a wall, to touch-type, to unlock the next level of a video game, to meditate. As long as we’re doing it to build ourselves up and not cut ourselves down, let’s do what works best for us. This is about taking pride and pleasure in what we can do.

This isn’t about buying into ableist nonsense about what we should be able to do or what “normal” people do – it’s about appreciating what each of us uniquely can do. People who are “disabled” are still very able to do lots of things, just as people who are “able-bodied” can still be unable to do some things. There’s no room here for unreasonable or non-applicable standards.

Function can also be about appreciating what we can do without requiring it to be held up against what others can do or even what we ourselves have done in the past. That can be a pure thing – as in, self-appreciation independent of all comparison. For instance, I’m in awe of the way my hands work. They’re such incredible precision tools. It’s not about having better hands than anyone else, it’s just the wow factor of watching ten fingers at work, doing a zillion things a day.

Form is about the way we look. This can include things like learning to love the body we have, right now, even if it’s not the perfect body we wanted. But it’s not just an inner thing. Loving ourselves via form can also mean deciding that our bodies are worthy of care and adornment. Haircuts, grooming, fashion – these things are not (necessarily) tools of heteropatriarchal white supremacist capitalism, though like everything else in life we must both resist and navigate that system to gain access to the things we need to achieve the beauty we want to appreciate in ourselves. It can be dangerous to focus on form to the exclusion of all else. And of course it can be dangerous to buy into the beauty ideals foisted upon us by systems that don’t have our best interests at heart. But that doesn’t mean beauty is a bad thing. It’s deeply human to want to create and appreciate beauty. You get to define what that means to you, and then go make it happen. Express your gender, enjoy your own unique brand of gorgeousness, connect with your historic cultural symbolism and/or your subculture(s) of choice via your looks, do the things that make your physical self shine.

Of course these three axes can overlap or combine. Learning to distinguish wine varietals solely by taste is a function thing – but enjoying the wine is a feeling thing. If you enjoy a clothing or footwear fetish, or enjoy both the process and the result of getting tattooed or pierced, you’re engaging in form and feeling at the same time. Some kinds of exercise lead to visible changes in the body while also boosting things like flexibility and strength, so maybe your physical practice is about both function and form.

And surely other people out there would have brilliant ideas to add to this list, or brilliant challenges to it that arise from their own experiences of having a body that I might simply not be aware of or able to speak to authentically here. I welcome your comments, critiques and ideas.

All I can say is that, for me, it’s been really useful to realize that I don’t have to stop loving my body because it’s not behaving the way I want it to. I can shift the way I approach loving my body so that even if some aspects are working less well at a given moment, others can be called upon. If I’m hurting too much to exercise (function), I can still enjoy scouring the Internet for that perfect pair of second-hand shoes (form). If I’m unhappy that I can’t fit into a dress I used to love (form), I can still enjoy tasting chocolate (feeling). And so forth.

In a world that tries to shame and regulate the body in general, and in a specific physical body that sometimes makes daily life difficult, this little theoretical triptych has given me an extra tool or two to bring some gentleness and joy into my physical existence. Perhaps it’ll do the same for you.

book review twofer: sexual inspiration! also cunnilingus!
February 3, 2015

Sex: An Erotic Journal for Sexual Inspiration and Exploration by Margaret Hurst and Jordan LaRousse

This little book presents scraps of writing intended to inspire thought, reflection and inspiration, along with plenty of blank space to write and draw things. In lieu of a full review, I will simply quote here the first full paragraph of the book. It is very representative of the book as a whole.

“KISSING. What makes a good kisser? The cliché phrase ‘It takes two to tango’ really applies here because a good kiss literally depends on the chemistry between two people. In fact when a woman kisses a man, part of the reason that she becomes aroused is because she is absorbing his testosterone through her mucus membranes. The more testosterone your man has to share, the hornier you’ll feel!”

Well. Um. I guess I better forget about all the hot homo action I have at home, because clearly there’s not enough testosterone coming through my mucus membranes and all that turn-on must be a figment of my imagination. Also, I… oh, never mind. I can’t be bothered. Just don’t buy this.

 

Oral Sex That’ll Blow Her Mind: An Illustrated Guide to Giving Her Amazing Orgasms by Shanna Katz

Sometimes when I read a sex guide, I try to discern what kind of process led to its production. Who pitched the idea to whom? Who decided on the layout, the illustrations, who edited the language and picked the title? Of course there are always many people involved in the making of a book from tip to tail – I’m just talking about the major influencers. In Shanna Katz’s book, I think I can see up to five or six significant sources of input. And my hunch is that they did not at all get along.

For starters, despite the title, it’s not an illustrated guide, exactly. It’s a text-based guide with a whole lot of photographs, all of the same pair of models. But none of the pictures serve to help the reader figure out anything about oral sex, other than false eyelashes look lovely if you’re going to be mostly looking down while someone takes a lot of soft-core pictures of you. There are no vulvas to be seen, save one very simplified and stylized diagram on page 12, which is both the only vulva and the only diagram in the book. Again I shall repeat my sex-guide review refrain: Where are the diagrams. Just where are they.

Here’s my guess about the production story. Katz is a smart, savvy queer perv who wrote a killer good cunnilingus guide. She used gender-neutral pronouns throughout, making it clear that not all people with vulvas are women, and not all women have vulvas. She gave sharp, sex-positive advice about communication, consent, safer sex and more. She wanted it to be paired with great visuals, lush and rich illustrations that demystified every angle of the relevant anatomy for the thirsty reader (for knowledge I mean), so she sought out a publisher, who said yes. But the marketing department decided it would only sell if it looked like mainstream porn. Therefore slim white people were photographed in alluring poses. The editor realized that the guide needed to be expanded to make the photographs more relevant; it is easier to photograph poses than it is to photograph authentic pleasure or technical information, so Katz was asked to write a whole bunch of extra material about “positions,” that ever-so-persistent space-filling and ideology-pushing tradition in heterosexual sex guides, as though sex were kind of like catalogue modeling, or trying to impress each other, instead of being kind of like wrestling, or dance, or just not bloody caring where each limb is placed because holyshitfuckthatfeelsgood. Then the editor noticed the pronouns, and a battle ensued. The result is an odd mess of “her/she/woman” and “their/they/person” which, while not confusing, exactly, nevertheless betrays the clash that produced it.

The end product? Better than many, frankly. But this might be one of those instances where self-publishing (potentially with the hiring of a freelance editor and illustrator) would have made a good thing excellent, whereas mainstream publishing took that good thing and made it ho-hum.

 

if trans women aren’t welcome, neither am I
September 20, 2013

The question of whether or not to include trans women in women’s sexuality-based events is old and tiresome, but it still comes up with some regularity. I recently responded to a discussion on this topic and I realized that it might be useful to post my thoughts here, as I don’t know that I’ve ever done so in full.

I see a few main underlying assumptions come up in these discussions, and I’d like to counter them. Some of these arguments are stated outright, while others seem implicit in the language people tend to use. Most counter-arguments I’ve seen focus on the stated arguments, but I’d like to incorporate the underlying ones too, which makes the discussion a bit broader.

Comments are welcome, as always. That said, I realize that comments on posts like this often veer into the territory of flame-war pretty quickly. As a result I’m going to keep a tight rein on the comments here, and I may shut down comments fairly early in the game if only because so much of what might come up has already been said and I don’t think it’s worth rehashing lots of it here. This post is a position statement, not an invitation to a grand debate.

***

Assumption 1. There exists such thing as a “safe space.”

I feel strongly that the idea of safe space is a really dangerous one, no matter who’s claiming it for what space. It seems like there’s an underlying assumption in some comments that safe space does indeed exist or that it’s something worth striving for. For me, as soon as the concept comes up, whether this precise term is used or it just seems to be implied, I immediately become super uncomfortable and feel very concerned about how people will behave in whatever space is being discussed. I’ve seen this idea used as a battering ram, essentially, in way too many contexts, usually as a way to police behaviour in a mean-spirited manner or to exclude people or create an “in-crowd” of people who “get it.” Doesn’t really matter whether it’s an activist space, a party, a conference, whatever. Almost universally, it’s about people buying into a fantasy of safety that simply does not match reality—and making a lot of people quite unsafe by using policing-style behaviour.

In reality, you are only “safe” from things that might make you uncomfortable or triggered if you stay at home where you have absolute control over everything that happens (and even then, not always). Each person’s idea of “safe” is different, and therefore a group space cannot possibly be “safe.” “Safe” isn’t real, and as such I believe it’s not worth investing energy in. It’s much better, in my opinion, to create spaces where there are a few clear rules for acceptable behaviour (which does *not* depend on identity or status of any kind, gender or otherwise), a stated expectation of kindness and goodwill, and one or several people who are in charge of smoothing things out if they go wrong.

Assumption 2. We all have the right to expect to be comfortable in sexual space.

Speaking as someone who’s spent well over a decade attending group sexual events large and small in dozens of cities all over the world, I can say that no matter what the gender rules are for a given space, it is best for me to go into them not expecting to feel comfortable, *ever*. I’ve felt horribly uncomfortable at “women-only” events, and super comfortable in totally gender-mixed spaces. And vice versa too. The factors in that comfort level include people’s attitudes in general, the vibe and layout of the space, the level of alcohol consumption, temperature, the level of privacy, the loudness or nature/content of a scene or sex happening nearby, the organizers’ style, whether or not there’s pressure to play or fuck, the music, how high or stoned people are, what kind of porn is screening, the racial or age or body size or gender mix of the crowd, the presence or absence of one or two specific people… all of these things come into play in terms of my own comfort level, and they are not things I can know or expect going in.

I think we need to stop expecting sexual spaces to be comfortable in the first place, and understand that a thing that makes one of us feel right at home might make someone else feel sick to their stomach. (An intense blood play scene in the middle of the room… the presence of lots of butches… the opportunity to get high… Can you guess which one of those make me feel comfortable and which I find hard to handle? There is at least one of each. Do you think I would accurately guess your response to the same criteria?)

Most crucially, we need to remember that the exclusion of trans women is not the primary standard of comfort for everyone, or even for most people, or even for most cisgender dykes. When we expect a given space to make us feel comfortable in the first place, and then we reduce this question of comfort to a question of whether or not trans women are there, we are functioning from a very skewed picture of what actually makes a space comfortable for anyone outside our own selves, and making a lot of really unfounded assumptions about what works for everyone else around us too.

Assumption 3. One person having a trigger is a legitimate reason to exclude someone else from an event.

Here’s a list of some of the triggers and squicks I’ve encountered among the people I’ve met in the last few years as a travelling sex educator and event organizer: seeing someone taking off their belt; being touched on the belly; seeing porn; hearing the terms “fat,” “ugly,” and “stupid”; seeing blood; hearing a deep voice; seeing a masculine-presenting person fucking a feminine-presenting person doggy-style; seeing testicles (though a penis would be fine); military uniforms; finding out someone is bisexual or not a “gold-star” lesbian or gay man; watching age play or being in the presence of “littles”…  I could go on. The thing about a trigger is that it’s deeply personal, by its very nature. Sometimes it’s about past trauma, sometimes not. I know that for me, if I saw someone do a food play scene, I’d have to either leave the room or vomit, and I couldn’t tell you why—that’s just how it is.

Regardless of what it is, it’s super important that we take responsibility for managing our own triggers and squicks rather than expecting spaces to be set up to accommodate us, and all the more so when our trigger is about someone else’s looks, presence or behaviour. Outside basic rules of good behaviour, or specific event attendance rules for specific purposes—for instance, this event is only for people in full-time M/s relationships, or this is an event where everyone is expected to dress head-to-toe in red—it’s really not fair to ask others to curtail their behaviour or hide pieces of themselves in order to be welcome. I would never think of asking someone not to do food play in front of me. My squick, my responsibility to manage.

Assumption 4. Trans women have penises, and I will see those penises if they’re at a sex party.

***Added 2013/09/23: I want to preface this bit by stating in no uncertain terms that the configuration of a person’s genitals is none of my/your/anyone’s business unless you are about to engage in some kind of sexual touching that would require that knowledge. It’s also not a legitimate factor in whether or not someone should be considered to “really be” the gender they say they are. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health takes a strong stand against requiring any kind of surgical modification for someone to “qualify” as their stated gender, and everyone from governments to party organizers should take a cue from them. As well, I want to make it clear that many (most?) trans women don’t refer to their pre- or non-op genitals as “penises.” Some say clit, some say girl-dick, some say strapless – there’s a long list. Women’s individual choices about what they call their bits take precedence over any externally imposed words. Mostly, though, as with the question of what someone’s genitals look like, what they’re called is also none of anyone’s business unless you’re getting sexual together. The following paragraphs cover some basic information about genitals that you can find in a range of trans-101 resources, as well as in the zine I link to in point 9. I’m putting it here purely to counter the misinformation that this particular assumption is based on – not to imply that it’s anyone’s actual business to know what’s going on with any individual trans women’s genitals. ***

I think that a lot of people who are triggered by the idea of penises are *very* unlikely to be upset by most of what they’d see at an event that includes trans women. For starters, a lot of trans women get bottom surgery—I’d say at least three-quarters of the ones I’ve met in dyke contexts, though that’s anecdotal of course. It is much more common for trans women to opt for, and prioritize, bottom surgery than for trans men to do so (which is surely at least in good part due to cost, but also due to expected results).

The women who don’t have bottom surgery yet, but who are planning to, rarely want to show off or use their genitals in public space the way some cisgender men might. For them, the whole point of surgery is that they don’t want to have a penis at all, let alone wave it around in public, even less so among people who may be uncomfortable with that.

Among the trans gals who haven’t had bottom surgery and don’t plan to, the vast majority don’t have genitals that look like what most people would understand or immediately recognize as being a penis—the use of hormones makes the genitals much smaller and softer, and it’s usually not easy to get an erection or ejaculate. If you’re basing your idea of trans women as “chicks with dicks” you may have been watching too much shemale porn—and understand, please, that even in that kind of porn the trans women in question often have to use Viagra to get it up at all, and still often can’t come or ejaculate, and are in many cases keeping their penises for the moment only because porn is a way to earn enough money for bottom surgery. So it’s a bad place to judge from, even though it’s the easiest and quickest place to go if you want to see images of trans women’s non-surgically-altered bits.

Last but not least, there is the rare trans woman who has a dick and who understands it as such and is both capable of and interested in using it in typically “male” ways. All I have to say about that is that if I had one—a dick, that is—so would I! I think a lot of women feel the same if the popularity of strap-ons is any indication, to say nothing of the well-known dyke fascination with gay male porn. I’ve never actually seen this happen at a sex party, in all my travels, and as such I might be a bit surprised if I did. But if I can handle watching countless cis-dykes pound away at each other with dicks they’ve purchased at a store, surely I can handle watching a dyke use one she happens to have grown. We “allow” trans men the freedom to use the parts they were born with to achieve pleasure—surely we can extend that same acceptance to the very rare trans woman who wants to do the same. It seems a very strange thing to start judging, especially when we’re a community of people who gets off on a rather stunning variety of sexual practices to begin with.

And for people who equate “penis” with “ability to rape or assault” and are therefore triggered by the possibility or the reality of seeing one… first, see point 3. Beyond that, maybe your parents were a lot more specific about this, but my mom always told me to watch out for men, not for penises, if I wanted to avoid rape. But this same logic meant that nobody really told me to watch out for women who assault and rape. I know it’s a shitty thing to have to face, and I know a lot of dykes don’t like to talk about it because it damages their sense of safety in community… but I have met plenty of women who have had experiences of sexual assault or domestic violence with other women (cisgender and otherwise). At play parties and sex parties and bars, at home alone with a partner, with someone they’ve dated for a little while, with someone they’ve married… it happens, and way more than we’d like to think. Pretending that assault and rape are only perpetrated by men, or only done by people with penises, allows women and people with vaginas to get away with it that much more easily.

Rape and assault are not about penises. They are about someone’s sense of entitlement to touch another person’s body without consent. We need to stop projecting our fears onto a body part (regardless of who’s sporting it) and start looking at how people actually behave. It will make us *feel* less safe to acknowledge this, but I think it will make us actually *be* safer if we can talk about it openly.

Assumption 5. Trans women are aggressive in a way that makes people uncomfortable.

To me this sounds a whole lot like “black people are all so angry!” or “women are so over-emotional and hysterical!” or even “gay men are so effeminate!” It’s a stereotype, pure and simple. It’s especially similar to those other examples because it’s a stereotype that focuses on the way someone expresses themselves. We expect these behaviours or expression styles because we fear them – oppressive white people are scared of angry black people, men who are taught not to feel or deal with emotions are scared of women expressing emotions, people who are taught that masculinity is precious and fragile and absolutely necessary to their survival are terrified to see how easily someone can “lose” their masculinity, and so forth. From there, if we see these things happen in real life once or twice, we believe them to be true of everyone in a given group all the time. Then it becomes really easy to *only* see those things, and to miss or simply ignore—or, in this case, *deprive ourselves of the opportunity to see*—people in that same category behaving in other ways too. Which they/we do, because we are human. We need to get past this, plain and simple.

Assumption 6. Trans women are all the same.

We need to make sure, when we’re talking about trans women just as with any other group, that we aren’t speaking as though they were all the same. Trans women are as different from one another as any other people are. Some are aggressive, some soft and sweet. Some big, some small; some butch, others femme, others genderqueer, and so forth. Some lesbians, some straight, some bi, some queer. Every imaginable racial and ethnic background. Every imaginable profession and economic status (though statistically more likely to be poor and underemployed, regardless of their education level, due to rampant systemic transphobia). Some pre-op, some post-op, some non-op (bottom surgery). Some on hormones, some not. Some who “pass” easily, some who don’t and won’t ever. Some who have breast implants, some who don’t. So anytime you start a sentence with “trans women are…”, think carefully about what you’re going to say next and whether it’s true all the time or not.

Assumption 7. The term “woman” or “women” is by definition about cisgendered women.

In my world, when we talk about women, that includes trans women, because trans women are women. If we’re trying to say something specific about women who were assigned female at birth and are still happy to be referred to that way today, we call them cis or cisgendered women. If we’re trying to say something specific about women who were assigned male at birth but later transitioned, we call them trans women, or possibly women with a history of transition. But “women” on its own doesn’t imply anything about how someone was born. There’s nothing offensive about any of these terms unless they’re applied to someone inaccurately or with intent to shame or hurt.

For me personally, I don’t love being called a cis woman, not because there’s anything wrong with the term or because I think it’s pejorative, but because I am actually not always comfortable living in a female body and I feel like I float in a middle space between several genders. “Woman” I’ll accept, though only barely, and I wish I had another option than either that or “man.” But when someone calls me “cis,” to me that makes me feel they are making some very mistaken assumptions about me, and *that*—not the term itself—can be offensive. (Same as being assumed straight, or femme, or able-bodied… nothing wrong with those terms, they’re just inaccurate when applied to me.) But even then, I can still recognize that most of the world, most of the time, sees me as a woman, and that I get certain privileges because of that. So being *perceived* as a cis woman still gives me advantages, even if I don’t apply the term to myself. As such it’s still a useful term.

Assumption 8. Trans women aren’t really women, because they weren’t socialized as women.

This one falls apart on several levels.

First, it assumes that all women were socialized the same way. This makes no room for the vastly diverse types of socializing we each go through. A past butch partner of mine, for instance, refers to her childhood as being a “boyhood”—she played sports, spent time with her dad learning about woodworking and was never forced to look or dress girly. I, on the other hand, was very much socialized to be a girl, with all the expectations and prohibitions that come along with that. This is a pretty stark difference in childhood gender-socialization experiences despite how we were both raised in white, Ontario-based, heterosexually-parented, middle-class families with religious mothers and multiple siblings. As soon as we start adding on other differences—race, economic status, geographic location, age, number and configuration of parents, sexual orientations within the family, religion, schooling and so forth—we multiply the ways in which our gender socialization might change.

Second, it assumes that the way we are socialized “sticks” the same way on everyone. I would argue, for instance, that probably none of us who are queer were socialized as children to be queer. Most of us who are gender-independent weren’t taught to be that way by our parents. And I’ve only rarely met people who are what I’d call second-generation poly—as in, they had openly non-monogamous parents and are themselves non-monogamous. Possibly even more rarely than that have I encountered people whose parents were openly kinky such that they were socialized from childhood to be perverts. (And certainly, I was never taught, as a girl, to be a dominant or a top!) I could say similar things about feminism—I don’t think, for instance, that I’m any less “real” or “legit” a feminist because my mother and father most certainly aren’t feminists. And I can assure you that I was never socialized to work primarily at night, or have a freelance career, or to do a PhD—I’m the only one in my entire family doing any of those things, and they are huge pieces of how I understand myself as an agent in the world and of how I live my everyday life. And so on, and so forth. So it’s very odd to see people who’ve made life decisions that for the most part radically depart from what they were taught to do as children try to argue that on this singular point—the question of gender—socialization trumps choice, trumps our innate sense of who we are and trumps all the efforts we make to do about that. It just doesn’t work that way. Of all people, we should know.

Third, the socialization argument dismisses and disrespects the enormous challenges that trans women have to go through to understand themselves as women, and to assert themselves as such in the face of huge social forces that tell them they are not and cannot be what they are. There are plenty of trans women who never felt like men in the first place, for whom existing in an assigned-male body was a horrific experience of dysphoria and disconnection, for whom being raised and socialized as male was deeply damaging to the point of leading them to depression and suicidality, or for whom the presence of a penis and the lack of a vagina (for those who haven’t had bottom surgery) is an ongoing source of trauma, not a free pass into male privilege. If we can understand our own struggles to self-define, to make sense of our desires and identities and bodies, surely we have it in us to understand others’ when they are arguably even more complex and more strongly discouraged by the world around them.

Last but not least, this argument also assumes that trans women are not treated as women by the world at large. It is true that some trans women are not read as women by the world around them. In those cases, they are often shunned, assaulted and disrespected—as “failed” women, as “failed” men, or as freaks in general. In this sense, trans women who don’t “pass” are punished in much the same way as cis women are punished when they fail to do “woman” right. For being too fat, or too hairy, or not passive enough, or too smart, or too capable, or not straight enough, or too slutty, or too frigid, or not curvy enough, or whatever else.

Trans women know exactly what it’s like to be told they’re not doing it right, and cis women know exactly how much that hurts because it’s done to many of us too. Trans women who do “pass,” on the other hand, are subjected to the same kinds of bullshit that many cis women are just for being women, even when we are doing “woman” right—essentially, lots of misplaced entitlement. People, especially but not exclusively men, feel entitled to comment on or touch or fuck our bodies, to expect our sexual interest, to measure their masculinity by how different it is from our femininity, to get paid more than we do, to be aggressive and active to our receptivity and passivity, to be physically strong to our weakness, and so forth. And beyond all this… trans women who sometimes “pass” and sometimes don’t get the unenviable privilege of being on the receiving end of *both* these kinds of bullshit, both of which are clearly linked to being a woman, if from different angles.

So I call bullshit on this socialization question. It just doesn’t hold water.

 

Assumption 9. The “cotton ceiling” is a way for trans women to bully cis women into having sex with them.

The idea of the “cotton ceiling” is intended to draw attention to how even in spaces that are politically and socially welcoming of trans women, transphobia often retains its influence on how we understand who is sexually desirable and who isn’t. It’s no different from other politicized criteria for desirability—people who are, for instance, fat or disabled are also often welcomed into queer women’s space but not seen as desirable compared to those hot slim, muscular, able-bodied sorts. This isn’t our fault—our entire culture tells us what’s sexy and what’s not, 24 hours a day, and that definition is terribly narrow. But it is really easy to forget how much influence advertising propaganda and social pressure can exert on what gets us wet and hard, and to let the mainstream’s terms dictate our desires.

It is possible to read the idea of the cotton ceiling as being about pressuring people to change who and what they desire. And that pressure can feel unwelcome. With that in mind, I would challenge those who feel it that way to look very carefully at the message that’s being delivered. Is it actually about you being told you need to go out and fuck people you’re not attracted to? Or is it about someone asking you to think about how much of your attractions are based on an underlying assumption of cissexism? Or perhaps, might it be about challenging women-centred sexual spaces to talk openly about trans women’s bodies and how to safely and enjoyably have sex with trans women—a topic about which it is ridiculously difficult to find solid information? (Try Mira Bellwether’s awesome zine, Fucking Trans Women, if you are in search!) Or perhaps it could be about challenging the producers of dyke sexual representation to include trans women as objects of desire—in porn, in art, in erotica—which is only barely beginning to happen?

This is a difficult line to walk in terms of messaging—there is a subtlety to the argument that can easily be misunderstood. And to be fair, some people delivering the message about the cotton ceiling may not be doing it in a skilful way. But I think mostly the misunderstanding here comes from people who are very attached to a body- or genitals-based understanding of gender and very threatened by anything that comes along and challenges that.

Fundamentally, it doesn’t do anyone any favours for a person to fuck someone for political reasons without genuine attraction. I really hope nobody goes out and fucks anyone just to prove a political point or make a statement about how wonderful and open-minded they are. I certainly wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of such false desire, and I would feel pretty disappointed in myself if I noticed I’d started to collect a list of sexual partners who conveniently belonged to stigmatized minority groups so that I could brag about it.

Fundamentally, it also doesn’t do anyone any favours for a person to pressure anyone else to have sex, for political reasons or otherwise. So if a trans woman cruises you with a line like, “Hey, you should have sex with me to prove you’re not transphobic,” you have every right to say, “Uh, no thanks.” Failing that highly unlikely situation, though, I think a lot of cis and otherwise non-trans gals need to ratchet down the defensive reaction and take the opportunity to really examine how much of our desire rests on cissexism, and how much of the sexual culture we create and consume excludes trans women, even if we’re not doing it on purpose. That thought process may never change our physical attractions, and it doesn’t have to. But on the other hand, it might, and we shouldn’t be afraid of that. For a bunch of politicized people who are committed to resisting the patriarchy, fighting racism and advocating for accepting our bodies at any size, and then going ahead and representing those various bodies in all their delicious glory, this one really shouldn’t be a big stretch. And at the bare minimum, whether it changes our sexual practice or not, it could possibly help us to change a culture of exclusion such that the people next to us at that sex party—cis, trans and otherwise—can more easily access the kind of sex they’d like to be having.

 

Assumption 10. Trans men are a lot like women.

This one comes up as a counterpart to the “socialization” argument, specifically when people argue for the inclusion of trans men in women’s spaces as a counterpart to arguing against the inclusion of trans women in those same spaces. This is especially unhelpful to trans men.

A significant percentage of trans men are, well, men. They look like men, smell like men, identify and move through the world as men. If they’re told they’re allowed to attend a women’s event because they’re not really men, that’s pretty insulting.

Of course, *some* trans men are gender-fluid, or strongly attached to their history as dykes or as women, or see their transition as an extension of their former or current butch-ness and still prefer to date queer women, or what have you. So as such, some of them feel at home in queer women’s spaces, and it would be very sad and hurtful to exclude them. I totally get this. But let’s be clear that we are not talking about all trans men here. It’s a very specific range of trans men, and there’s a whole other range of trans men out there for whom such inclusion would be unwelcome at best and outright damaging at worst.

There are lots of trans men who never felt like women in the first place, for whom existing in a female-assigned body was a horrific experience of dysphoria and disconnection, for whom being raised and socialized as female was deeply damaging to the point of leading them to depression and suicidality, or for whom the lack of a penis (for those who don’t get bottom surgery) is an ongoing source of trauma, not a free pass into women’s space. Please let’s not disrespect these guys by assuming they’re “one of us” because they have vaginas. That’s what the rest of the world has been doing to them forever and sometimes it quite literally kills them.

***

This post is mostly about analyzing a set of arguments, sometimes in ways I’ve seen done by others, some less so. But in addition to the argumentation piece, I’m writing this to publicly say, in no uncertain terms, that as a woman who’s not trans, I fully support events that include trans women and tend to feel personally way more comfortable when trans women are welcome than when they’re not. For me, events that include trans women create a baseline of respect for people’s chosen gender identities—my own included—where I can breathe at least somewhat easier, instead of worrying about people making misguided assumptions and applying them to me and others. It’s a statement that clearly says “who you are is important, not who the world tells you to be.” This isn’t just symbolic. It makes a real difference in the vibe of a space, in my experience, and makes a lot more room for me too.

***

P.S. Adding this a day after first posting: I want to acknowledge an additional assumption that underpins everything I’ve tried to challenge here. This is the assumption that there is an “us” made up entirely of cis and otherwise non-trans women who are in charge of all women’s sexuality-based events and who get to make the decisions about including “them,” the trans women who’d like to attend. In fact my experience has been quite different from that. Trans women have been around for decades – “they” aren’t a sort of perpetually new part of “our” community, but rather a part of the fabric of it, of its history and its present and absolutely of its future. Several generations of trans women, and their contributions, long predate my own organizing efforts, for instance – so it’s a testament to the persistence of transphobia that somehow I, when I started organizing events in my early twenties, still understood that it was my job to “let” the trans women in (or bar them access). To me this feels like the height of disrespect – that some parts of the dyke world are still stuck on whether or not to include people who’ve been around since, y’know, the middle of last century. Many of the trans women in my community are older, wiser and more experienced than I am. I am fortunate to have many smart, powerful trans women as my elders – as scholars, as SM players, as dykes, as organizers, as role models, as writers and artists and activists. I’m grateful for their presence, their persistence in the face of discrimination, and for *their* willingness to let *me* in, to whatever extent they have.

some dos and don’ts for white perverts in our efforts to not be racist
February 6, 2013

Five don’ts:

1. Don’t hire anyone to perform at your local leather bar or event who dresses up as a person of a racial or ethnic background that they are not. Take a cue from the debacle over at the Portland Eagle, which recently booked a blackface drag performer in a prime example of excellent taste in entertainment, particularly appropriate for Black History Month. The short story: people got upset; the Eagle management defended their decision in terribly offensive terms; someone realized this was a bad idea; staff were let go, the incriminating posts were deleted (never a good idea, people—the internets always remember and then you look like even more of a douchebag), the performance was cancelled, and now leatherfolk are having a big online discussion about it (at that link and elsewhere). Which, on some level, is good. The discussion part I mean. But it also seems that a lot of the dialogue is centring on the idea of free speech (really, people? do your homework), on comedy being a place where nothing is sacred (which is a terribly lazy response to a question of racist harm), and on how the Portland Eagle isn’t really a leather bar because it only hosts leather nights twice a week, and therefore… what? That makes it okay? Well, I guess maybe it makes some people feel better about themselves, which… well, doesn’t solve the problem.

Listen. When black leatherfolk are saying loud and clear that a blackface act is racist and not okay, this is not the time to be saying “yeah, but…” At all. Like, just stop. Arguing with that kinda makes you automatically the bad guy. No matter how brilliant your argument, you are simply not going to make a person of colour feel all freshly enlightened by your perspective and no longer offended at racist jokes told at their expense, anymore than you’re going to make me feel like if I just lightened up some I’d think rape jokes were the height of good comedy. At best, be silent and sit with your discomfort and defensiveness and think about why this practice might upset someone, about the history and present-day realities of black people in North America and the world, about how racism affects everyone all the time, about how we are many generations away from being “post-race,” about why, possibly, jokes by white guys at the expense of black women might upset black women and anyone who cares about black women, or people of colour more generally, or living in a kind and just world. Put all the defensiveness on hold, and just think about it as long and deep as you can, until you get past the wall of discomfort and find a glimmer of empathy. Focus on the empathy and cultivate it. If you can do better than that, great, but silent introspection and empathy are a much better place to start than defense.

2. If you are personally accused of racism, don’t half-assedly apologize for your racism by saying how much everyone else is also racist, as if that somehow makes it all right. Yes, even if it’s true that everyone else is also racist. This is what porn star Danny Wylde recently did after being called out for doing yellowface in a porn flick. Don’t get me wrong—if everyone around you is racist, that shit needs to be talked about, and on that count, Danny Wylde has done a great job. It’d be great to see this inspire a broader discussion about racism in pornography, and he really lays out the terrain pretty clearly. But he kinda just seems resigned to being the fall guy this time around, rather than thinking things through at a deeper level or taking real responsibility. This is a missed opportunity. Apologizing is an excellent start, and explaining is (sometimes) helpful, especially when the explanation helps educate, but when an explanation starts to sound like an excuse, not so much. I think he can do better.

3. Don’t dress up as a person of a racial or ethnic background that you are not. Don’t do it for Halloween, don’t do it because you thought it’d be a cool costume for the next fetish night, don’t do it to celebrate your birthday, and especially don’t do it because you think (insert people of a given racial background here) are super sexy and you want to be more like them. If you’re a designer, don’t design kinky clothing lines based on a fetishized idea of a culture not your own, whether that’s African or Asian or any other mysterious, sexy, exciting non-white culture. While we’re at it, don’t design lingerie with this in mind, or bed sheets, or anything else. If you’re not a designer? Cuz, y’know, most of us aren’t, I realize? Well, then, your job is even easier: don’t buy or wear these clothes or lingerie or bed sheets. If you really want to do some work, not only can you not buy them, but you can write to the companies that make them and tell them that their race-fetish product makes you really uncomfortable, and as a result they’re losing the money you might have spent with them.

I know that the next question on some people’s minds is going to be, “but what if it’s my kink?” Well, if your personal kink involves race play, read up on the ways that people of colour are asking you to think about doing that kind of play (such as Mollena Williams, who kindly provides a list of resources, or Midori), and really do the work to think about it. Then, make some really careful decisions about when and where to do it, and whom it might affect if you are doing it in public, and how to keep the boundaries of your scene as clear as humanly possible. Simply saying “it’s my kink so therefore it’s okay” isn’t good enough. It doesn’t have to be fair that women getting consensually beat on by men is “normal” in the BDSM scene and race play is still “edgy” and so requires a little more care in setting up. Fair is not the right measuring stick here. Harm is.

4. In keeping with that last point, don’t hold a BDSM or leather or kink event that fetishizes non-white cultures. Over my decade-plus in kink communities, I’ve seen far too many events go by with racial themes – geisha night, “Mysteries of the Orient,” ancient Greece, whatever. And I’ve seen way too many kink rituals in which white people straight-up appropriate customs from non-white cultures and turn them kinky. It’s not cool. It’s racist. Just don’t do it. You can be way more creative than that. (Read the post I link to at the top of point 3 for more thoughts on this.)

5. Don’t complain that as a white person, you’re being super constrained by all this stuff. This not dressing up, this not going to see a particular kind of comedy show, this thinking and looking and maybe apologizing, this not buying of clothes and fancy underwear and bed sheets. Anytime you are tempted to complain, go watch Roots, or read Edward Said’s Orientalism, or check out the latest post on Racialicious, or read any current information about who gets most thrown in jail, who is most economically disadvantaged, who has their land stolen, and so forth. In a post-racial society, we’ll all get to say and do anything we want without fear of hurting anyone, but in the meantime, suck it up. Also? POCs get to tell us when we’ve made it to the post-racial society. Anyone who’s not a POC doesn’t get to pronounce that verdict. The end.

Five dos:

1. When racist shit hits the fan, listen to the people of colour around you who have been hurt, and step up in whatever way they say they need you to. In this case, I’m writing this post in direct response to a public request by Lady !Kona, a long-time Vancouver-based leatherdyke organizer, calling on community leaders to step up and make some noise. (Read these excellent posts by Elaine Miller, Radical Accessible Communities and Queer, White & Masculine in response to the same request.) Not every POC pervert agrees with Lady !Kona, as the Leatherati article I linked to above will attest. But I think it’s a good general default to listen hardest and respond most assiduously to the people who are most hurt by something rather than to take comfort in the fact that some people aren’t offended and so that means it’s all okay and you can rest easy. I’d rather not rest easy if it means that some folks are still hurting and now I’m part of the problem.

2. Engage in the conversation about race. Read things, think about things, say things, ask questions, listen listen listen. Note that it’s gonna be uncomfortable and that you will fuck up. No, I don’t have the magic formula for getting it right. I’m sure I’ve fucked up in the past and will fuck up in the future, because gee, guess what, I’m a white person who doesn’t actually directly experience racism and probably has some wrongheaded ideas about race embedded deep in my psyche by virtue of living in a racist culture in a racist world even if my conscious mind is doing a lot of work to challenge all that stuff. I sure do hope that when someone calls me on my inevitable mistakes, I’ll have it in me to respond with grace, genuine listening, and appropriate reparation. It is scary and vulnerable to know that you will probably fuck up, especially in public. Terrifying, really. And it’s important to move ahead anyway.

3. Try this practice. Every time you go to a leather or kink event, look around to see who’s missing. Do you see a sea of white faces? Only able-bodied people? Mostly slim, conventionally attractive folks? Mostly people who make a living well above the poverty line? Mostly people aged thirty-plus? Mostly men? Is everyone cisgendered? Once you’ve assessed this, take a look at the structural elements that might have produced this situation. Could the advertising perchance have given the impression that this event was only for people who look like fetish models? Did the price exclude people who work for minimum wage? Do the thirty steps and no elevator mean that anyone with mobility issues quite simply can’t get in the door? Next, think about what you could do to change this situation. Perhaps it might mean approaching an organizer and noting that there’s a situation going on they might not have considered. There’s no need to be mean about it—in fact, the best kind of calling-out is the kind where the caller then offers some support in fixing the problem. But yeah, talking about change and making change can be uncomfortable, so expect some of that along the way. If you’re an organizer, this could mean organizing an event in a way that’s really pretty different from what you’ve known so far. Yep. Sometimes leadership means exactly that.

4. Do invite people of colour to present at your events, or, if you’re not an event organizer, ask the organizers of the events you like to attend to do this. Consider that in order for your presenter list to be less lily-white, you may have to cough up some money to pay your presenters, because the economic privilege that results in the availability to volunteer one’s services as a presenter is often far more common among white people, particularly white men, than among anyone else. This privilege means white men continue to be constructed as authorities on kink. Go read Mollena’s post on this topic, it’s excellent.

5. Think about your privilege, and about what you can do with it to make things better. In 2009, I wrote a two-part post, here and here, about being a white anti-racist and a pervert at the same time. It was a start, for me, and I’ve done plenty more thinking since and surely have much more to come. How about you?

the problem with polynormativity
January 24, 2013

Polyamory is getting a lot of airtime in the media these days. It’s quite remarkable, really, and it represents a major shift over the last five to ten years.

The problem—and it’s hardly surprising—is that the form of poly that’s getting by far the most airtime is the one that’s as similar to traditional monogamy as possible, because that’s the least threatening to the dominant social order.

Ten years ago, I think my position was a lot more live-and-let-live. You know, different strokes for different folks. I do poly my way, you do it your way, and we’re all doing something non-monogamous so we can consider ourselves to have something in common that’s different from the norm. We share a certain kind of oppression, in that the world doesn’t appreciate or value non-monogamy. We share relationship concerns, like logistics challenges and time management and jealousy. So we’re all in this together, right?

Today, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have much stronger Feelings about this. I mean Feelings of serious squick, not just of YKINMKBYKIOK*. Feelings of genuine offense, not of comradeship. Fundamentally, I think we’re doing radically different things. The poly movement—if it can even be called that, which is debatable for a number of reasons—is beginning to fracture along precisely the same lines as the gay/lesbian/queer one has. (You could argue it has been fractured along this fault line forever, but it hasn’t always seemed quite as crystal-clear to me as it does right now.)

(*Stands for “your kink is not my kink but your kink is okay,” a common phrase used among perverts to basically say we don’t all have to like doing a thing in order for that thing to be acceptable.)

At its most basic, I’d say some people’s poly looks good to the mainstream, and some people’s doesn’t. The mainstream loves to think of itself as edgy, sexy and cool. The mainstream likes to co-opt whatever fresh trendy thing it can in order to convince itself that it’s doing something new and exciting, because that sells magazines, event tickets, whatever. The mainstream likes to do all this while erecting as many barriers as it can against real, fundamental value shifts that might topple the structure of How the World Works. In this case, that structure is the primacy of the couple.

The media presents a clear set of poly norms, and overwhelmingly showcases people who speak about and practice polyamory within those norms. I’ll refer to this as polynormativity. (I don’t think I’m quite coining a term here, but not far off, as most of the paltry seven hundred-ish Google hits I can find for the term are about obscure legalese I don’t understand. I kinda wish it was already a thing, frankly. So, uh, my gift to you.)

Here are the four norms that make up polynormativity as I see it.

1. Polyamory starts with a couple. The first time I came across the term “poly couple” I laughed out loud. It seemed to me the most evident of oxymorons—jumbo shrimp, friendly fire, firm estimate, poly couple. But lo and behold, it’s really taken root, and nobody seems to be blinking. Polyamory is presented as a thing that a couple does, as opposed to a relationship philosophy and approach that individual people ascribe to, as a result of which they may end up as part of a couple but—because poly!—may just as well be partnered with six people, or part of a triad, or single, or what have you. With this norm, the whole premise of multiple relationships is narrowed down to what sounds, essentially, like a hobby that a traditionally committed pair of people decide to do together, like taking up ballroom dancing or learning to ski. So much for a radical re-thinking of human relationships. So much for anyone who doesn’t come pre-paired.

2. Polyamory is hierarchical. Following from the norm that poly begins (and presumably ends) with two, we must of course impose a hierarchy on whatever else happens. Else, how would we know who the actual real couple is in all this? If you add more people, it might get blurry and confusing! Thus, the idea of primary relationships and secondary relationships emerges. This is what I call hierarchical poly.

“Primary” implies top-level importance. “Secondary” implies less importance. Within this model, it’s completely normal to put one person’s feelings ahead of another’s as a matter of course. Let me say this again. It’s completely normal, even expected, that one person’s feelings, desires and opinions will matter more than another’s. It is normal for one person to be flown in first class and the other in economy as a matter of course, based on their respective status alone. And we think this is progressive?

Of course this plays out differently in different situations. This model is more likely to work out relatively well if the people involved are super kind, considerate, consistent, emotionally secure and generous, and less likely to work out happily if the people involved are mean, inconsiderate, inconsistent, insecure or selfish. It’s sort of like how you’re more likely to keep your job in a recession if your boss is a really nice person than if they really are mostly interested in the bottom line. Either way, this structure ensures that secondaries are dependent on the goodwill of primaries, and that they don’t have much say.

This is precisely what gives rise to things like Franklin Veaux’s controversial (?!) proposed secondary bill of rights or a recent post that went viral outlining how to treat non-primary partners well (note how these are not mainstream media articles). These posts make me sick to my stomach. Not because there’s anything wrong with what they’re saying, but because—according to secondaries, who are exactly the people we should be listening to here—it means that a lot of polynormative people actually need to be told how not to treat other people like complete garbage. These posts are a crash course in basic human decency. That they are even remotely necessary, to say nothing of extremely popular, is really fucking disturbing.

I’m going to digress into a note about terminology for a moment here. I take serious issue with definitions of “primary” that go something like “the primary relationship is when you live together, have kids, share finances, etc.” No. Wrong. Disagree. This is a deeply flawed definition. Any of the elements that go into this type of definition of “primary” can just as easily be had in a relationship that isn’t “primary,” or, for that matter, that isn’t even romantic or sexual. People can live with a roommate, share finances with a platonic life partner, have kids with an ex they never speak to; and on the flip side, a person can consider another person to be a “primary” partner even without living together, sharing finances or reproducing. “Primary” and “secondary” are about a hierarchy-based relationship model, not about specific life circumstances.

“Primary” and “secondary” are not especially ambiguous as far as terms go. With that in mind, I will add a plea here directed at poly people: if you don’t mean to create or imply a hierarchy, don’t use “primary” and “secondary” as shorthand. Many of you are geeks, so accuracy must be important to you, right? Think of this as sort of like not mixing up Star Trek and Star Wars or Mac and PC. Instead of “primary,” talk about your domestic partner, your long-term partner, the person you spend most of your time with, your husband or wife—whatever applies. Instead of “secondary,” talk about your occasional date, your casual lover, your boyfriend or girlfriend or secret agent lover man, your annual long-distance affair, your new squeeze with whom you’re just figuring things out, or whatever other terms explain what you’re up to. None of these are about hierarchy. They’re just relationship descriptors. (I’ll postpone my rant about how some people think “husband” and “wife” are more real than “partner” or “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.”) On the flip side, don’t just drop using the words “primary” and “secondary” in order to look less hierarchical while still making relationship decisions in a very firmly hierarchy-based manner. No false advertising in either direction, okay?

Let me clarify my position here just in case. There is nothing wrong with serious, long-term, committed domestic partnership. There is also nothing wrong with dating casually, and feeling just fine about hanging out with a sweetie way less often than that sweetie hangs out with their spouse, say. Sometimes, a relationship is just not destined to be long-term, or domestic, or local, or involve meeting each other’s parents. This is not a bad thing. It’s just a thing. It’s also not the same thing as being “secondary.” I am not playing with semantics here. I’m talking about frameworks for viewing relationships, making decisions, coming up with rules—more on that in the next point—and treating real, live human beings.

3. Polyamory requires a lot of rules. If we start out with a couple, and we want to keep that couple firmly in its place as “primary” with all others as “secondary,” well, of course we need to come up with a bunch of rules to make sure it all goes according to plan, right? Right. (And there is most certainly a plan.)

This is a control-based approach to polyamory that, while not exclusive to couple-based primary-secondary models, is almost inevitable within them. Rules are implicitly set by the “primaries,” the “poly couple”—at least that’s how most discussions of rules are presented. Some books and websites will tell you (“you” presumably being someone who’s part of a currently-monogamous, about-to-be-poly couple) that it’s really super important not only to have rules, but also to set them out before you go out and do this polyamory thing. If ever you wanted confirmation of the very clearly secondary status of “secondary” partners, this is it: the rules get set before they even show up, and they have no say in ‘em. Again… we think this is progressive?

Here’s the thing. Rules have an inverse relationship to trust. They are intended to bind someone to someone else’s preferences. They are aimed at constraint. I will limit you, and you will limit me, and then we’ll both be safe.

When two people are well matched in their values, and have strong mutual trust, they don’t need a rule to know how they’ll each behave. I mean, how many times do you hear “I’ll agree not to kill anyone if you agree not to kill anyone, okay? That’ll be our rule. No killing.” Of course not. Psychopaths aside, this kind of thing need not be said; we can assume that everyone shares the value of “killing people is bad and I will not do it.”

But it’s not the least bit uncommon for “poly couples” to create elaborate sets of rules to keep each other strictly bound to only behave in ways that are not scary, not dangerous, and not threatening to the primary bond. We won’t kiss anyone without asking each other first. No overnight dates. If you want to see her more than three times, I have to meet her. If you want to see her more than three times, don’t tell me about it, it’s too much for me to handle. No falling in love (this one cracks me up in its sheer absurdity). Love is okay, but only if you love him less than me. Anal sex only with me. Anal sex only with others. You have to date exactly the same number of people as I date. No going to our favourite restaurant together. No sleeping in our bed. You have to text me by eleven. I have to call you when I’m leaving her place. And the crowning glory, the holy grail of poly rules: we have veto power! (I’ve got a whole other post about this one, called Against the Veto, in which I lay out exactly why veto rights are a rotten idea.) The crux: secondaries are secondary, so very secondary that a person they’re not even partnered with can decide if and when they’ll get dumped.

You know, when true danger is involved, I’m all for rules. Rules like, say, you must be at least five feet tall to board this ride… you cannot perform neurosurgery without a medical license… no unprotected anal sex with strangers (note that this kind of rule isn’t about a couple, it’s about protecting your own precious health!)… no fire play at this event as the ceilings are low and hung with paper streamers. But extensive rules around polyamory are essentially the equivalent of saying that love (or sex, or dating) is dangerous and must be severely regulated so as not to harm anyone. To my mind this is a very strange way of approaching the possibility of great joy and human connection—as though it were a bomb that might detonate if not handled by strict protocol. The more rules you put into place, the more you are indicating that you don’t trust the person subject to those rules to operate in a considerate fashion with your shared values at heart. Or, on the reverse, you are indicating that you need to be under strict supervision, failing which you will shit all over your partner’s well-being. If you have to legislate something, it’s because you don’t expect it to happen sans legislation. This is a sad state of affairs in what are ostensibly supposed to be loving, possibly long-term relationships.

Are rules never a good thing? I wouldn’t go that far. They can be a necessary evil, a temporary measure to get you through a rough time during which you are presumably working on a better solution. Which you are. Like, right now. Right? From a completely different angle, rules can be pleasurable, or erotically (etc.) charged, like in a D/s or M/s relationship—although those too, when imposed from a place of fear or agreed to as a way to avoid penalty, can be a form of unethical binding designed to shore up one person’s insecurities at another person’s expense. But aside from these very specific and circumscribed instances, rules are best when they are used quite sparingly, and even then, only when other solutions are unavailable.

What other solutions am I talking about? Trust. Plain and simple. Trust is the soil in which polyamory should grow, much like any other kind of love. Say what you mean, always, and all of it. Follow through on your commitments. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Assume positive intent. Ask questions. Listen, listen, listen. Ask more questions and listen some more. Soothe fears. Work on your own insecurities at the location from which they spring—inside yourself. Be kind. Be consistent. Be generous. Ask explicitly for what you want. State clearly what you need. Apologize when you fuck up, and try to fix it. Find strategies to compensate for your shortcomings, such as forgetfulness or anxiety or lack of emotional vocabulary or whatever else gets in the way of you being able to do all this stuff skilfully. Yes, this is going to be a lot of work. Do it anyway. Better yet, do it because the work itself brings you joy and makes you feel like you are moving through the world in a way that is profoundly right. If you’ve messed up on one of these counts, or any other, and it has hurt your partner(s), heal it. Do the work together. Get couples therapy. Practice new communication skills together. Invest your time, energy and effort to make the soil healthy and nourishing rather than in building fences around the garden.

From there, you can request all kinds of behaviours without needing them to be rules. You know, like “I’m really keen to meet your new lover! Can we have tea next week?” or “Hey, will you text when you’re on your way home so I know what time to get dinner ready for?” or “It would make me feel cherished and special if we had a brand of wine we drink only with each other” or even “I’m terrified I’m going to lose you and I need some reassurance.” Again, this isn’t just semantics. These other ways of relating aren’t “just like rules.” They are about generosity and joy and care, not control and limits and fear. Intent counts here.

4. Polyamory is heterosexual(-ish). Also, cute and young and white. Also new and exciting and sexy! This element of polynormativity doesn’t relate directly to the other three, but since we are talking about media representation here, it’s well worth mentioning. Polyamory is resolutely presented in the media as a thing heterosexuals do, except sometimes for bisexual women who have a primary male partner and secondary female partners. It is exceedingly rare for lesbian, gay or queer poly configurations to be included in mainstream representations of polyamory, even though LGBQ circles are absolute hotbeds of polyamorous activity, and LGBQ people have a long and illustrious history of non-monogamy, recent enthusiasm about marriage notwithstanding. Go to just about any LGBQ gathering—even the most mainstream—and you can’t swing a cat without hitting at least half a dozen people who are doing some sort of non-monogamy, from regular “monogamish” bathhouse adventures to full-on poly families. It’s so common that it feels (gasp!) normal.

But if the mainstream media were to give too many column inches to LGBQ polyamory, then people might think poly is a gay thing, and that wouldn’t sell nearly as many magazines. So the typical polynormative hype article goes something like, “Meet Bob and Sue. They’re a poly couple. They’re primary partners and they date women together.” Or “they each date women on the side” or “they have sex parties in their basement” or sometimes, though more rarely, “Bob dates women and Sue dates men.” Mainstream representations rarely break the “one penis per party” rule, which is exactly as offensive as it sounds. You don’t get Bob dating Dave, or Sue dating Tim and Jim and John while Bob stays home with a movie. Because whoa! That’s just going too far. I mean, playing around with women is one thing, but if you bring a second man into the picture, don’t the two guys need to, like, duke it out? Prove who’s manlier? Because evolutionary psychology! Because nature! Because when there is a penis (and only one penis) involved it is real sex and that means a real relationship and we must have a real relationship to have a primary-secondary structure and we must have a primary-secondary structure to be a poly couple! (Hmm. So maybe this part does relate to my other three points after all.)

All of this creates a situation where polyamory is presented as a hip new trend that edgy straight folks are trying out, and boy, are they ever proud of it. Needless to say this whole framing varies from clueless about queers to downright offensive.

Add the mainstream media’s desire to show images of poly people who are cute, young and white and we are getting a very narrow picture indeed. The magazines want to showcase people who are as conventionally attractive as possible, aged between 20 and 40, and almost never anything other than Caucasian (unless they’re people of colour who are really, y’know, exotic and sexy, like smoldering black men or gorgeous Asian women). It’s a crying shame, because the stories of poly people who are in their sixties and seventies would be amazing to hear. And no, not all poly people are white, but when white is the only image people see of poly, it sure does create a barrier discouraging people of colour from understanding themselves as potentially poly.

The media is also mostly interested in the sexy factor. The deep impact that a given person’s camera-friendliness has on the media’s willingness to showcase them cannot be underestimated. And with that comes the push to sexualize as much as possible. I will never forget, for instance, what happened when I was featured in Châtelaine magazine with a partner about ten years ago. The photographer pushed hard for me to take my top off for the shoot, assuring me it would be tasteful. When I asked him why he wanted to take the showing-skin angle, he said “because you’re not ugly. It’s really hard to photograph people who are ugly.” Um, thanks? My blouse stayed on, but apparently young, white and cute were still the order of the day, because they still had my picture take up way more space than the other people who were featured in the article. You know, the “ugly” ones. Yechh.

Don’t get me wrong. Sex and attraction are significant forces in poly relationships. This isn’t a bad thing, and I feel no need to get all “it’s not about the sex” on you. It is about the sex, at least for most of us. But it’s not only about the sex. If it were only about the sex, it wouldn’t be polyamory—it would be sleeping around, which is awesome, but not usually committed and romantic. If it were never about the sex, it also wouldn’t be polyamory—we’d just be a bunch of friends, which is also awesome, but also not usually romantic, though possibly committed. But the media is really bad at striking that balance. The mainstream is really interested in orgies, and who sleeps with who, and how often, and wow threesomes! And did I mention young, cute and white?

These articles are looking to present a fantasy of conventionally good-looking people having delightful transgressive (but not scary transgressive) sex while remaining as firmly within the boundaries of conventional couple-based relationship-building as humanly possible under the circumstances. That fantasy sells things. It does the rest of us no favours.

— I’m adding this section now (a week after the original post) because a few people have now raised the question of why I am using the acronym LGBQ without including the T for transgender/transsexual. In trying to keep a tight focus on the topic of polynormativity as being about media representation of a certain relationship model, and the problems with both the representation and the model – with “tight” already being a bit of a stretch given the length of this post – I didn’t go into the broader list of ways in which polynormativity supports other kinds of omissions and normativities. In making that editorial choice, I may have perpetuated several of those omissions myself. So, clarification is of course warranted. (Some of the following appears in the comments section, so you will see it repeated if you read through that too.)

So here it is: I am increasingly uncomfortable with the acronym LGBTQ, as the inclusion of a T for “transgender” (a gender identity) at the end of a list of letters standing for sexual orientations (not genders) bears some implicit inaccuracy. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer people may be trans or non-trans; and transgender people may of course be gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer or straight (and beyond) in orientation. Not all trans people feel an affiliation with gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer politics or communities, and not all people with a history of transition feel a need to overtly identify as transgendered, even if they do identify as gay, lesbian, bi or queer. I don’t take any issue with using LGBTQ to describe, for instance, a magazine or a group or a committee or what have you, provided the entity actually serves the people represented by that entire acronym and isn’t just trying to look extra-progressive. In this post, I’m talking about orientation, not gender identity, so it felt (and still feels) inaccurate to throw the T into that specific list.

But that doesn’t mean trans people have no place in this discussion. Quite the opposite. The polynormative model also perpetuates cisnormativity, in two ways. (Cisnormativity is the idea that all people who are assigned a given sex at birth still identify with that sex and express an “appropriate” gender identity as a result, and that anything else is weird or bad.) One is the media representation element – trans people rarely show up in mainstream media representations of polyamory. So this is cisnormativity by omission. The other, more complex piece becomes evident when we dig a little deeper into the “one penis per party” rule, and into how we understand sexual orientation. “One penis per party” relies on the idea that “penis” can be used as shorthand for “man,” because men always have penises, and only men have penises. This, of course, erases the experiences of a lot of trans folks for whom genitals and gender don’t match up, whether because they are men who weren’t born with penises or because they’re women who were (regardless of what a person’s genitals look like at this point in their life, or what words they use for them).

“One penis per party,” more broadly, also relies on the idea that men and women are naturally different in some sort of essentialist, fundamental, biology-based way, such that having a (in this case secondary) relationship with a man is going to be substantively different because man than it would be with a woman because woman. This idea ends up pre-determining how people think a relationship is going to go – how “real” the sex is going to be, how intense the emotions are likely to get, and therefore how “safe” it is to “allow” one’s primary partner to engage in that relationship. This doesn’t account for the possible presence of trans people in the equation. But even if that’s a non-existent possibility in a given situation for whatever reason, it speaks to a viewpoint in which women and men are naturally like this or like that because of their anatomy. This, as a conceptual model, keeps trans people – even if you don’t know any (to your knowledge!) and don’t have any occasion to meet any – in the boxes they were assigned to at birth. It implies that the gender they have moved into is somehow less real or valid. It also keeps the vast spectrum of people who are not trans – whether cisgendered, or, like myself, gender-fluid or somewhere else in the non-binary range – tethered to the boxes they were assigned at birth, insisting that those boxes determine who we are, who we can be, how we can fuck, and what it’s like to be romantically involved with us. Ultimately, cisnormativity hurts everyone. The people most egregiously damaged end up being the people who are the most visibly different, which often means trans women. But cisnormativity isn’t “just” a trans issue. This is about creating space for all of us to exist as we wish.

Like with any normative model, polynormativity works in concert with a range of other normative models to create a full, if rarely explicit, picture in people’s minds about How the World Works, about who counts and who doesn’t, about what’s real and what’s not worth considering. As such, in addition to questions of race and age and orientation, as I mentioned earlier, and of gender, as I’ve fleshed out here, it holds hands with other problematic ideas. Ideas of what family is or should be, and of how kids can or should work into the equation; questions of illness/health and ability/disability, including STI status; questions of class and economic position; and a range of others. But, as a commenter pointed out, this is a blog post, it isn’t a book. Yet…

End of new section! —

***

In sum, I have three key problems with polynormativity.

First problem: the polynormative model is kinda sucky. Perhaps it might work well, maayyybe, for some people—I won’t go so far as to say it never does. But it comes with a host of problems for everyone involved, most notably for those who are in the least empowered place within the relationship structure, but also in more subtle and insidious ways for those who are in the more privileged place within the structure. Gee, whaddaya know, that’s a lot like pretty much every other privilege/oppression system, ever! I’m going to stop short of saying to polynormative folks, “hey, you’re doing it wrong,” but, well, honestly? Not far off. Maybe closer to “you’re missing the point.”

Because of this stance I suspect I may get irate or defensive comments here from a lot of polynormative folks who feel just great about their model. To them, I will say the following. If you are a member of a “primary” pair in a polynormative model, and your “secondary” partner(s) can provide just as spirited a defense of your model as you do, or even more so—not a defense of you as individuals, nor of your relationship, but of the polynormative model itself—without leaving anything out or fibbing even a little bit so they don’t risk creating conflict or possibly losing you as a partner, then you fall within the minority of polynormative folks for whom the model works really, super well for all concerned. (And I do mean all. If it’s only working really great for the primary couple, the model isn’t working.) If you’re one such bunch, there’s no need to get defensive—I’m not really criticizing you anyway. If, however, that’s not the case for you, please hold off on your defensiveness and think really seriously about the critiques I’m raising instead.

When I start seeing a plethora of mainstream media testimonials from happy, fulfilled secondary partners about how awesome the primary-secondary model is… when these secondaries start writing the latest hit poly books, giving the advice, having the lead roles in the reality TV shows, and doing all this as secondaries (not as people who happen to be secondary to someone but it’s all okay and balanced and fair because they’re also primary to someone else)… when they show their faces in photos, use their full and real names in articles, and just generally feel not the least bit weird about their position in these poly structures right alongside the primary partners who are showcased this way… when this is not an occasional exception, but the main kind of representation I see by and of secondary partners… then maybe I will amend my stance here. I’m not holding my breath.

Second problem: The media presents these poly norms as, well, norms. As The Way to Do Poly. At best, there’s a brief mention that some people do some other sorts of poly, over there, and we don’t really understand them, or maybe those forms are way too complicated for us to summarize in a 1,000-word article. (Triads! Quads! Families! Ws and Xs and Greek alphabets and constellations and ecosystems! It’s all so scary. Also, math is hard.)

But most of the time, “other” (ooh, look at that construction!) kinds of poly aren’t mentioned at all. There is this one way, and here it is! Isn’t it grand? So brave! So unusual! Really quite cutting-edge, don’t you think? … Well, whether intentionally or otherwise, this approach ends up flattening the picture of poly, depicting it in its simplest, most dumbed-down terms. It’s no coincidence that this version of poly is the one that most closely resembles the one-man, one-woman, marriage-based, nuclear-family kind of relationship we’re all told we’re supposed to aspire to. All we’ve done is relax the rules around sex a bit, and unlike (but not that unlike) swingers’ ethics, we’re also “allowing” the emotional end of things to actually exist, in the sense that we have relationships and are not “just” schtupping. But not the kind of relationships that actually “threaten” (?!) the “primary” couple. Not with people who, God forbid, make demands on one or both of us, or challenge us, or want to have a say in how things go. Then, well, they get the boot, because primary comes first! We can all agree on that, can’t we? Of course. That’s the essence of primary relationships. It’s pretty clear in the terminology. One person comes first, the others do not. This is why the mainstream can wrap its head around poly at all: because understood this way, it’s really not that fundamentally different from monogamy.

Third problem: This whole state of affairs screws over the newbies. Because of this overwhelming slant in media representation, a lot of folks who are new to poly are operating at a great disadvantage.

I’m not really much one to idealize the past, but boy, was it different ten or fifteen years ago. Back in my day (ha!), if you wanted to learn about poly, there was one source: The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt (as Janet Hardy was known at the time). It was all right. Not perfect. Heavily slanted toward sex-party-attending Bay Area granola types, and written at such a basic language level that it wouldn’t go over anyone’s head, but overall pretty solid, and nicely thought-provoking. Deborah Anapol’s Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits was never nearly as popular or sexy, but it did become a quiet classic, and provided another angle. And, well, that was it. Beyond that, there were a few online discussion forums and potentially, if you lived in a big city, real-life local poly groups. This meant that if you wanted to learn about how to “do” polyamory, you pretty much had to make it up by yourself (which can be a good thing, though extra-challenging); talk to people in your local community, which was probably relatively small but also probably pretty warm and supportive; or attend a conference somewhere far away that brought together a bunch of people. And those people might be doing poly in any number of ways, primary-secondary being just one. (Even then, it was a pretty darned common one, so I’m not saying that polynormativity is entirely a new problem—it’s just worse now than ever.)

Right now, though, you can google “polyamory” and get a whole lot of nearly-identical polynormative hype articles, and you can meet up with locals who’ve read the same articles you just did, and you can all get together and do polynormative poly exactly the way the media told you to. And if that’s all you ever bother to do then essentially you are selling yourself short. You are trading in the monogamous norm for polynormativity, which relatively speaking isn’t all that much of a stretch, and stopping there because you may very well think that’s all there is (and you already racked up a whole bunch of cool points anyway). You aren’t encouraged to really think about this stuff without any imposed models at all, which means you never get to figure out what actually might work best for you. As such, the most fundamental element of polyamory—that of rejecting the monogamous standard, and radically rethinking how you understand, make meaning of and practice love, sex, relationships, commitment, communication, and so forth—is lost in favour of a cookie-cutter model that’s as easy as one, two, three. The deepest and most significant benefit of polyamory has become increasingly obscured by media representation, and as a result, is getting farther and farther out of reach for anyone who’s just starting out.

***

I feel the need to reiterate, one last time, that my problem here is with the polynormative model and the mainstream media’s insistence on it—not with a specific relationship structure or with any people who happen to practice it. Yes, the polynormative model and the primary-secondary relationship structure do happen to overlap often, but I can’t tell by looking at you what process, values or circumstances brought you to your current structure, or why you chose your terminology, so I can’t and won’t criticize or judge individual people or poly groupings on the sole basis of having a primary-secondary structure. If this post provokes a sense of defensiveness in you, I invite you to sit with that and think about why.

The key distinction here is between philosophy and current situation or practice. This is similar to how sexual orientation and current sexual practice are not one and the same. You can, for instance, be gay and currently celibate; or bisexual, but these days having sex with only women; or fundamentally straight, but involved with someone of the same sex (though I know some folks would debate that last one). When it comes to polyamory, sometimes, regardless of your philosophy, you may end up being in one big significant live-together kind of relationship and have one or more less-serious or less-committed or less-intense relationships as well. It’s the polynormative mindset I have a problem with, and its prevalence—not the form a given poly relationship constellation may actually take.

***

If you’d like to expand outside the polynormative model, I have some recommended reading for you. First, read Wendy-O-Matik’s Redefining Our Relationships. Then, check out Deborah Anapol’s new Polyamory in the 21st Century: Love and Intimacy with Multiple Partners. (I haven’t read it in full yet myself, but the excerpts I’ve seen lead me to believe Dr. Anapol has a lot of really wise shit to say about non-polynormative models, though I don’t think she uses that term specifically.) Spend some time reading Franklin Veaux. Read my 10 Rules for Happy Non-Monogamy. If you’re doing D/s or M/s relationships, read Raven Kaldera’s Power Circuits: Polyamory in a Power Dynamic (full disclosure: I contributed an essay to it). Look for information, ideas, works that challenge you to think hard, build your skills and stretch your heart. It’s out there. Your move.

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