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Category Archives: Sex and Sexytimes

Bisexuals: Doing It Wrong Since Ages Ago

Dear Julie Bindel. Where would we be without you? Oh, yeah: vastly better off.

Yes, in case anyone was getting too complacent, and thinking we were all on board with letting people get on with whatever floats their boat, Bindel is there, still being published, still making sure we realise that our sexuality is

a)      a choice, and

b)      the wrong choice.

Those of us who grew up in a time and context where there was a political analysis of sexuality were able to make a positive choice to be a lesbian. I believed then, and I believe now, that if bisexual women had an ounce of sexual politics, they would stop sleeping with men.

Now, I’m a bisexual woman who sleeps with men. Ergo, I must have no sexual politics. According to Bindel, that makes me a hedonist, “where the only thing that matters is sexual pleasure and desire”. To which I can only reply, “That’s beside the point. There is no amount of cock I can rub up against that will stop my brain from functioning*.”

There are some things that make this column actually worth reading. Firstly, it makes things like this, and its comments, make more sense. This is the context, of some lesbians being deeply uncomfortable with bisexual women, and making them feel unwelcome.

Secondly, there’s the deep, ironic pleasure of watching Bindel criticise Camile Paglia for doing less than Bindel is doing herself. Paglia says, “You know I’m not telling lesbians to stop sleeping only with women,” but Bindel IS telling bi women to stop sleeping with men. On a related note, that link to the research she quotes? Isn’t a link to the research she quotes.

Mostly, though, there are the comments. No, seriously. Read the comments. Four pages. Not one in support of Bindel’s argument, which is that for me to have any feminist credibility whatsoever, I must have sex in the manner Bindel dictates. To which I can only say, seriously, get fucked. In whatever manner you please.

Desire is not a choice. It’s there or it’s not, it doesn’t confine itself to the politically appropriate. Yes, I could choose to only have sex with women, but why would I? Bindel’s demands make just as little sense as homophobes saying I should only ever have sex with men. I’m not a lesbian, and I can’t see a single reason why I should pretend to be one.

And if the price of admission to Proper Feminism is to never give head again? I’m quite happy outside the tent, thanks.

*Permanently. Obviously I’m not actively thinking about sexual politics during the sexing, but even I’m not having sex all the time.

My Saturday Night

I’ve been thinking a lot about Constance’s post, and how it actually relates directly to my last Saturday night. And I’ve mulled whether or not I should talk about this, because it’s personal. Repeatedly, though, I’ve found that I’ve managed to get through to people from different backgrounds and mindsets by relating personal experience. It bridges the gap in a way detached theory can’t. I’m going to take the risk. You don’t have to take it with me.

See, I want to go further than Constance.

But when we default to yelling “sexism!” at images of women in submissive sexual positions, I would argue that we are actually being oppressive ourselves.

I agree with this, completely. But I’ll go further. It’s not just oppressive, and erasive, it’s dangerous. Reading BDSM as abuse is dangerous. And to explain why I think that, I’m going to tell you something about my experience of being a female sub in public. And to do that, I’m going to have to reveal what might be the worst-kept secret on the internet.

For the last while, I have been in a Male/female (M/f) Dominant/submissive (D/s) relationship. The scope might be referred to as “in the bedroom”, but that would be misleading. It extends beyond the infliction of pain and the use of restraint in conventionally “sexual” situations, and into psychological submission. When we are together, I am always his sub, and he is always my Dom.

In this relationship, it’s actually never occurred to me to wonder if I am respected or valued or seen as an equal. I know I am. In the past I’ve been sexually and physically abused, and I’ve been in relationships that were psychologically abusive. I know when I’m being abused, and when I’m not. Anyone who wants to suggest I don’t, go right ahead. I have no problem with other people coming across as patronising ignorant fuckwits.

What fascinates me is how other people react to me when they realise I’m a sub. Oddly, there’s significant cross-over with how people react to my bisexuality.

I’m talking about fairly liberal, open-minded, licentious people who are (for the most part) not kinky. People who have spoken to me for the couple of minutes it takes to realise that I know my own mind and speak it. (I don’t really understand why so many vanilla people think subs are weak, and are surprised when they turn out to be strong. You don’t think this takes strength?) On Saturday night, I openly subbed for my Dom at a party. I wore my collar. There was enough “behaviour” for people to realise what I was. Overall, this was an enormous amount of fun for everyone, and something I was massively glad to be allowed to do. And I know some people would be disturbed by the sight of a woman being undressed by a circle of her lover’s friends, but that unease fails to take into account how I felt about it, which should be the most important thing.

There were a couple of times during the night, though, when the reactions were interesting.

Sometimes, just like when I tell people I’m bi, there’s the Jaded Disbelief. My sexuality isn’t real, it’s a put-on, a desperate attention-getting device. (My Dom gets this too, the whole “Oh yeah right” thing.) I’m acting, and if pushed far enough, I will crack, and react like a Normal Person. And that? The urge to make me Prove It? Is dangerous. If people in general both knew and accepted more about BDSM, for a start I wouldn’t have this pain where someone hit me in the small of the back. You know, over my kidney, right next to my spine. Something my Dom would never, ever do because it’s stupid and dangerous. A good Dom knows how to inflict pain without causing damage. He has no desire to cause serious injury, because BDSM is not abuse.

And then, just like when I tell people I’m bi, there’s the Salacious Fetishisation. This guy (it’s almost always a guy) simply can’t believe his eyes. He’s come into this believing it’s not real, and when it turns out to be genuine? He thinks it’s Christmas. The woman is doing what she’s told. She’s enjoying being beaten. He can, therefore, do anything he wants to her. Because he can’t tell BDSM from abuse. And he’s dangerous. If you read BDSM as abuse, you can’t read a boundary between the two, so you’re going to cross it.

Those are the more obvious and serious dangers. But let’s not forget about the quiet sneering, the concern-trolling, the fake pity. The theoretical discussions that erase my experience to my face. The things that ensure I won’t be coming to them for help.

I’m proud of my Dom, who kept me safe in difficult circumstances, who read little shifts in facial expression or small touches to realise when I was uncomfortable and needed rescuing. The nature of our relationship means he shows more active care for me than a vanilla lover would have to, not less.

I’m proud of what I am. It brings me peace and surety: the opposite of the effect of abuse. The nature of our relationship means I need to be stronger than a conventional lover, not weaker.

There are photos of me that perhaps resemble some of those White Ribbon ones. The idea of anyone seeing those as sexist, as abusive, makes me feel sick.

Someone else’s inability to tell the difference between a M/f D/s relationship and a sexist abusive one should be their problem, not mine. Yet that’s not how it works in practise. My life would be easier if more people were at least aware of the possibility that what they’re seeing might be consensual. In the meantime, if you’re really worried, can I suggest quietly coming to me and saying, “Are you all right?” In BDSM circles, we call this a check-in. We do it all the time. And when I say yes? Believe me.

Guest Post: Your sexism was my Saturday Night

A guest post from the brilliant Constance. (Link NSFW)

This is a post I’ve wanted to write for a long time, but have kept putting off because I haven’t been sure exactly what I want to say (or how to say it). I’m still not sure, but I’m realising that this might be one of those topics I will never be sure about, and my feelings and thoughts will always be a fluid jumble, absorbing and evolving the more I learn and talk about it.

I am a feminist who is committed to sex positivity. I am constantly thinking about, analysing and ultimately hoping to help dismantle the saturation of misogyny that hurts women, men and folk who don’t identify with either of those genders. I think the media is a huge perpetrator of misogyny by (both overtly and subtly) reinforcing gender norms, gender roles, aesthetic desirability etc. I am also really interested in sex (academically and, uh, in practice) to the point that I like to try my hand at things people may consider left of centre. Namely BDSM.

Every now and again the media churns out something so overtly sexist that people are forced to (briefly, for most) acknowledge that we haven’t really come as far as we think we have in terms of “women’s liberation”. Today the White Ribbon Campaign’s Facebook page showcased some shockers from the past and present. Like this one.

Obviously talking about oppressive images of women is central and relevant to a campaign which works to stop violence against women across the world. However, a few of the pictures that they showcased have multiple layers, especially for those aware of, or engaging in, BDSM.

Now, this is possibly going to get me in big trouble, but I can’t say I’m offended by these photos. I can even see how people would find them sexy. I’m obviously conscious that people who have no idea about BDSM (and the heavy emphasis the community places on consent and negotiation) will see these photos as oppressive and violent, and not as a portrayal of alternative sexual preferences. But the thing is – how do we know that they aren’t?

There’s no context around either of these images to suggest that this isn’t a portrayal of consensual sexual play. There’s also no context to suggest that it’s not problematic sexual violence either. But when we default to yelling “sexism!” at images of women in submissive sexual positions, I would argue that we are actually being oppressive ourselves.

I’m not saying that we should assume all images of sexual male dominance are harmless. I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t be discussing what exposure to these images without any dialogue about consent may mean. What I am saying is that we need to have that discussion, and we need to drop our assumptions.

At times (and depending on your internal head noise) it can be pretty shitty to be a female feminist who’s also a submissive to male dominant/s. I know dozens of women who are committed to ending violence against women and subverting oppressive gender roles, but who enjoy being a submissive, begging plaything to their male partners in the bedroom. And although all of these women are conscious that the second consent is negotiated these acts are not in any way violent, it can still be really confusing to want to dismantle the power men have over women everywhere…except the bedroom.

When our discourse around the portrayal of potentially consensual kink screams “oppression!”, it furthers the messages that female submissives get constantly. These messages range from “woah that’s a bit twisted” to “your sexual preferences are contributing to the rapes of millions of women and children across the world” (an actual sentence I’ve had thrown at me).

I am conscious that queer submissives are not in any way immune to sex shaming and internal conflict, but given that queer dominant/submissive relationships would be seen by many as subverting traditional gender roles and norms, and images of queer sexualities are sadly omitted from mainstream advertising, I am going to talk solely about women engaging in dominance and submission with men. I am deliberately not specifying cis women, as trans women are women and are not immune to feeling conflicted about acting out the very things they may be working to end in other spheres of their lives.

I would also like to state that by lamenting an issue some women have, I am not implying in any way that we don’t have privilege in many other interlinked and pervasive ways.

Sex positive feminists are of course aware that any sex involving consenting, informed and considerate parties is fine. And if the goal is to dismantle oppression and gender norms then these acts of submission to men are ultimately not reinforcing anything problematic because they are not manifestations of some deeper desire for the patriarchy to rule us all. The fantasies exist as play. And a lot of other BDSM is super subversive of gender roles.

But the thing is, when your kind of BDSM is actually a play on things that you see as problematic in other contexts, the sex positive mantra is not super effective or reassuring at times. Even if you know it’s right. And people taking images of things some people enjoy and labeling them as “sexist” is going to elicit a very exhausted sigh from pretty much every sex positive feminist sub everywhere.

I am not in any way arguing that images of male dominance should have a blanket classification as “fine” because they might be part of someone’s sexual preference. What I am arguing is that we can’t just assume that they’re not. Perhaps in a perfect world there would be a disclaimer in the fine print of the ad that says ‘this image is meant to represent consensual adult fantasy’. I think that would be great.

If advertising is adhering to normal censorship and age-appropriate regulations then why can’t alternative sexual preferences be portrayed? The only arguments against using kink in the same way we use vanilla sex to sell stuff are incredibly sex negative ones: “because it’s violent” (not if you establish consent either in the image or with a disclaimer as mentioned above. And while we’re fucking at it, why don’t we establish consent in vanilla images?), “because it’s vulgar” (define vulgar, and don’t tell me non kinky sex in advertisements doesn’t fit that bill at least half the time), “because it’s not everyone’s taste” (yeah well bikini clad ‘scientists’ selling me Tui beer isn’t my taste but I’m saturated with it), “because people might think that sort of stuff is okay to do without asking” (if you follow that line, then no sex should ever be portrayed anywhere in case someone tries it without asking).

Many things that fit on the BDSM continuum are fairly common. I was going to say “nowadays” but actually, none of it is new or more prevalent than it was 2000 years ago. And I bet you that even then, women who wanted their male partners to have power over them in the bedroom but not in any other way were just as fraught about it then as they are now.

I suppose what I’m saying here is that we get it. Any issue you have with female sexual submission to men has been thought about over and over by the submissive themselves. Why do I want this? What if there’s something wrong with me? Why does he want that? Does he respect me? What if this goes too far?

Chances are, if you’re into this sort of stuff and even vaguely aware of feminism, it’s been thought to death. And hopefully, fears and anxieties have been quashed by the knowledge that we can’t always explain why people are into things, and ultimately we wouldn’t be into them if it didn’t make them feel fucking amazing and strong and sexy and liberated. And that, as both sex positive feminists and members of the BDSM community, we think about consent and negotiation probably about a zillion more times a day than you do.

But no matter how staunch people are in owning and advocating their preferences, having messages that tell you something you may very well have done the other night is misogynistic, sexist and oppressive, just kind of makes people feel like shit. And really, people who are into BDSM get enough of that.

If a sexual image of two or more adults is ambiguous in its message and makes you feel uncomfortable, remember that anything conveying sexuality is going to have a multitude of layers.

Don’t assume that there’s no consent. Don’t assume that there’s not a bunch of people who do that for fun in your life that you may never ever know about. Don’t decide that you’re an expert on whether someone’s fantasy is harmful or not – they can decide for themselves.

Instead, have a discussion about it. I even have a mind blowing suggestion for you – you could do some research about something that you’re not personally into. That way, you can extricate yourself from the masses of uneducated sex-shaming voices that can get the fuck out of my bedroom.


Here, I’ve even got some further reading suggestions:

SlutWalk, Part Deux

Trigger warning for sexual violence.

Last night, I went to the wonderful show A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and a Prayer, put on in support of Wellington Rape Crisis. It was moving and tearful, but in a supportive and empathetic space. I cried, darlings. A lot.

One of the monologues, written by Eve Ensler, talked about being angry. So angry you could spit. So angry you scream and rant and lose all sense of propriety and ruin a party. So angry at the violence and mutilation and shame and distress that you can’t understand why everyone isn’t so angry.

That was me last year. Angry, raging frustrated. Furious. Willing to temper my anger with humour, because that’s who I am. But angry nonetheless.

This year, I am not.  I’d like to be angry. I miss the fury. I miss my high atop the Mountain Of Righteous Anger attitude, that got me through the first SlutWalk. Not the March itself, but the comments and posts telling is why what we were doing was pointless, unnecessary, dangerous. Why we were wrong, and our shorts skirts are an invitation to rape.

This year, I am not angry. I am scared. I’ve been scared all my life. This is what I thought about when Jan Logie, playing Eve Ensler asked “How can you not be angry?”

I’m scared of the violence done to our bodies. Of all the little ways we are beaten down, diminished, destroyed. The ways we are taught out bodies are public property. Not wholly our own. That our chastity is our most important virtue.

I’m scared of the half-formed memory. The one that tells me not to think about it, because I don’t want to know, to remember. That knowing, remembering might be something I can’t bear.

What I do remember is being scared of strangers. The first time my mother taught me not to talk to strangers, and illustrated it with the story of a girl from out neighbourhood who had been brutally raped and then murdered. My mother isn’t crazy, she didn’t put it like that, but it was my first taste of that amorphous fear that all women live with. I was so scared, when my uncle tried to pick me up from school one day, I wouldn’t get in the car with him. So scared, I cried when the priest at my family’s church shook my hand.

I’m scared for the girl I was at 17, at my first taste of actual violence. For the man who broke my ribs. I didn’t tell that story for a decade, so scared I was that I’d be blamed. I provoked him, I asked for it, I deserved it. Scared to tell the story because after so long, I wouldn’t be believed. That people who knew me then wouldn’t believe me, that I’d hidden it too well. And that they’d tell other people they didn’t believe me. (They did, and I was angry. But it taught me an important lesson. Don’t tell.)

I’m scared of the street harassment and the casual violence of being yelled at from a parked car. Of being reminded that being a woman in public is dangerous. That I don’t have the right to walk down the street free from fear. Free from being accosted, from being thrown against a wall and attacked. I’m scared for the women I know for whom the statistics aren’t one in three, they’re eight in ten, because they have the misfortune to have been born brown and in another country.

I’m scared of all the times I had sex I didn’t want to have. Of being coerced into fucking someone, cajoled. Not wanting to be a prude, or having a reputation as a Good Time Girl to maintain. Of being too drunk to say no, too stoned to move, too high to know better.

I’m scared of the man who is harassing me now. Who thinks that because he was allowed to touch my body once, that’s an open invitation. That because I opened my legs for him, I’ll do it again and again. And that my desire not to makes me a whore, a worthless nonentity who he can treat how he likes. That he can hurt, scare, torment. I’m scared of his anger, and of my own. I’m scared of walking home, being in my house, sleeping. And I’m scared, again, of talking to people about it.

I’m scared for those one in three women, for those one in five men, for those one in two transgender people. I’m scared, until I remember I’m one of them. I’m scared, but I will march, again. Because it’s important. I hope you will too.

You can follow SlutWalk on the Twitters, or join the Facebook events for Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. We’ll have more details as they’re known, and a number more posts before May 20.

Towards a Sex-Positive Utopia

Cross-posted from Public Address.

Back when I first started reading feminist bloggage, there was a question I used to see pretty often: the Feminist Utopia Question. Would there be pornography in your feminist utopia? Prostitution?

As a dirty filthy incrementalist, it always kind of annoyed me. What use was it, without considering the steps along the way? Didn’t the very question prioritise ideology over the effects on real people? Wasn’t it just, basically, a big pile of intellectual wank?

Now, though, having been in the game for a while, I’m tempted to give intellectual wankery a try. What would an ideal sex-positive society look like? What would be different, that perhaps is not so obvious? What would have changed along the way?

Before we begin, a word about what sex positivity is, and ridiculously more to the point, what it isn’t. This is my personal interpretation: everyone’s will be slightly different. See herehere, and of course the Chocolate Manifesto.

Sex positivity is not the belief that all people everywhere should have as much dirty dirty sex as possible. The essence of sex positivity is embracing the diversity of human sexuality and gender identity. It’s about actively seeking to remove both shame and privilege from particular kinds of sexual activity – or a lack of sexual activity. It’s about everyone being able to make the sexual choices that are right for them, free of stigma: having the knowledge and the social freedom to do so. It’s about being positive about all sexual choices and the biological bases we make those choices from. And, of course, celebrating the joy of dirty dirty sex.

For a start, in a Sex-Positive Utopia, the Period Planner app on my phone wouldn’t say “love connection”. It would say “sex”. With no stigma around sex, there’d be no need for euphemism. We wouldn’t have to pretend sex was love, or sleep. That wouldn’t mean the loss of magnificent figurative language around sex: rather the opposite. We’d have so many more sexual ideas to explore and discuss.

With the loss of its taboo, sex would actually become less important on a social level. You’d no more use sex to sell a car than you would golf. There’d be no point in policing people’s clothing choices, because no-one would care if you were trying to get laid or not. Worried about losing the specialness? Individuals would still be able to create circumstances that made their sexual experiences sacred, or sordid.

We’d talk openly about sex a lot more, but with less significance. Sexual mores in other times and places would be a simple, matter-of-fact part of History and Social Studies, just like customs of dress and diet. If you were studying Roman History, you’d actually know about this. (Link mildly NSFW – an acronym I wouldn’t need in this future.) Sex education would be about sex, not puberty, and focus on the reason most people have most of their sex: pleasure.

Speaking of school, you know what you wouldn’t find there? Gender-based toilets. Having done away with the assumption that absolutely everyone is either male or female and everyone is straight, there is no fucking point in having Girls’ Toilets and Boys’ Toilets. Ditto changing rooms. And good riddance too, to our earliest introduction to the idea that males and females are mutually-incomprehensible aliens.

Depending on the survey, somewhere between 5 and 15% of people report having experienced same-sex attraction now. Removing the stigma from non-heterosexual sex is hardly going to push that number down. Segregation by gender simply makes no sense at all.

We are never going to stop passing judgement on each other’s relationships. But after the Sexy Revolution, the gender and number of participants and the nature of their sexual practices will be irrelevant. We’ll have to stick to judging relationships by the content of their members’ character.

And yes, there would still be prostitution. Good sex is awesome, and not everyone can get as much as they would like, for many reasons. Some people are good at sex and want to make a living from it. In Sex-Pos Wonderland, we could treat those people with the respect they deserve.

There would still be sexually-explicit imagery. There always has been and there always should be. I just don’t know if you still call it “pornography” when it’s not stigmatised.

We would also have a completely different idea of ‘masculinity’. Our concept of what it means to be male would bear some resemblance to the men we actually know. We’d finally be free of the Masculinity Box. That doesn’t mean automatically rejecting traditionally masculine values. It means including the behaviour and values of all men, until the concept basically becomes meaningless. Having a cock would no longer require or excuse being a cock.

As a result of all of this, of living in a world free of sexual shame and repression, perhaps the two most significant benefits. One: teenage girls would be allowed to direct their sexual energy into sex, rather than One Direction concerts. There goes the screaming and fainting and incoherent babbling. Two: more people would be having more and better sex. Possibly with screaming and fainting and incoherent babbling.



As I have been saying to pretty much everyone I know in every format I can (yes, oral transmission of links is somewhat tricky) please go and read this. I’ll wait here til you get back.

Okay. I’m working on a column on the bisexual-specific aspects of that for Public Address, but there was too much to unpack for just one piece. What I want to talk about here is the tension between theory and personal experience.

Ironically, to explain my attitude to theory, I have to talk a little about my personal experience. I grew up in a poor working-class family in a state-housing neighbourhood and went to what was then a working-class school. Yet my family’s values were very middle-class.

I was the first person in my family to go to university. Others had done tertiary vocational training (teachers’ or technical colleges), but I was the first to get an expensive education without specific purpose. Now, I was already pretty used to being a social chameleon, but boy was uni a squishy comfy couch of unconscious middle-class privilege.

At high school, I’d automatically considered myself a feminist. Who wouldn’t, it was just common sense. At uni, I stopped. And it was because, at base, the theory I saw there didn’t accommodate my experience. Now I’ll admit that I made assumptions. That, for instance, if you were yelling at men for holding doors open for you, you were probably one of those comfortable white straight middle-class girls I was flatting with whose life experience had left them short of actual significant things to complain about. Nevertheless, when I listened to these women talk, there was no sign that socially, romantically or especially sexually, I existed. And there was an awful lot of “women don’t” that quite specifically erased me. So I shut up about my experience, and I walked away.

Now, over the intervening couple of decades, my “experience trumps theory” attitude has somewhat softened. I will still immediately shut down if someone uses the phrase “false consciousness”. I still believe that if your theory is in conflict with the experiences of a bunch of people, then your theory needs amending to have validity and you need to listen and acknowledge that. Theory that is entirely removed from the real world seems to me to be utterly pointless.

But. One of the things I really like about that Huffpo column is the way Emily Dievendorf marries her experience with broader theory, with stats that unite the experiences of large numbers of bisexuals. Detail and big picture. Lots of people have told me how shocked they are by this:

Bisexuals have higher incidences of depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, alcohol and drug abuse, and poor physical health in general than their heterosexual, gay and lesbian counterparts…  Bisexual women with monosexual partners have an increased rate of domestic violence compared to every other female demographic. Compared to lesbians, bisexual women are twice as likely to live in poverty… While lesbians earn 2.7% less than straight men, bisexual women earn nearly 11% less.

Yes, because they’re surprised, but also because they’re responding to an abstract ‘big picture’. For me, what resonates is this:

I’m currently dating a man. I refuse to hide him because being in a relationship with him is part of who I am. If asked about my sexuality I would expect him to answer without pause that I identify as bi. Still…  I feel like a traitor, I feel like I took the easy way out, I feel like I’m not relating and might, therefore, not be able to represent the queer community.

A couple of years ago I was at my book launch in Auckland, and a woman came up to me. She explained that she was related to a friend of mine, and then she said, “I hear you’re Family.”

After the minute I spent working out that she didn’t mean biological family, I said, remembering experiences with ‘LGBT’ community at uni, “Well, I’m bisexual.”

She made a sort of dismissive snorting noise and said, “You’re Family.” I nearly bloody cried. (Yes, of course I had been drinking.)

The thing with the abstract, the stats, is that they can seem so big and so overwhelming they make us feel helpless. Yes, I can make people more aware that actually, the mental picture people have of happy extroverted sexually-voracious bisexuals isn’t accurate, I can do Awareness. But each and every one of us can change the balance of a person’s individual experience. Listening, genuinely listening, to people whose experience contradicts our theory is a great place to start.

Pearl clutching

Apparently The Lady Garden is just too full of naughty words for some people, so there are places where we are blocked. McDonald’s doesn’t like us, and neither does the CentralCiti FreeWiFi in Palmerston North. Out of idle Friday afternoon interest, where else have people found that they are not allowed to access our lovely mix of feminism and sex positivism?

Consent, and Shades of Gray

A really interesting post from rtmiss on issues of consent, centred on the social background we both share.

No means no is a concept that should be very simple. Except that it isn’t. Human beings make an awful lot of decisions based on individual perceptions, and we all perceive other people’s reactions differently.

Note that this is a very personal post based on lived experience, and please treat it accordingly.

I’m a big proponent of enthusiastic consent, but also I’m very aware that we simply don’t live in that world yet, where everything is black and white, and lack of a ‘yes’ always actually means no. People simply do use non-verbal signals to indicate consent all the time, and I think – no, I’m sure – that a person can consent enthusiastically to something without using any words. It’s fraught, yes, and open to misinterpretation, but it happens.

People also actually say ‘yes’, and indeed ‘no’, when that’s not really what they want.

Being increasingly open about my sub-ness means that I’ve had some… interesting discussions about consent. I’ve been told that women (subs always being female and all BDSM-identified females being subs) cannot consent to things I’ve actively asked for. The follow-up “oh, but not you” doesn’t actually make that view any less demeaning. And within BDSM, ideally everything that happens would be pre-negotiated and agreed, but that doesn’t always happen either. For me, a lot of the communication that goes on is post facto. (That sounds a bit wanky. I’m just trying to avoid using the term “debriefing”, because it makes me giggle. I’m twelve, we’ve established this.)

What particularly concerns me, I guess, are the stereotypes and social assumptions we have that get in the way of us reading each other properly. I think the worst is “men always want sex, women never do.” If you believe all men are Animalistic Penis Brains, how would you be able to read a man involved in a sexual situation he wasn’t all that keen on but, as rtmiss says, reluctant to be ‘rude’ and make a big deal out of refusing? Or that a woman is genuinely uncomfortable and not just playing “hard to get”

It’s also a pretty sexist stereotype that says that women don’t really want particular kinds of sexual interaction (let’s be honest, kink), so any woman involved in that kind of thing is being emotionally or intellectually coerced. And another that can’t recognise a woman being overly sexually-aggressive.

And then there are all the times that this discussion becomes solely “men as instigators, women as consentors”. As if, again, women are the ones who make the decisions, but their role is to allow things or not allow them, rather than instigate or pursue them.

There are a whole bunch of tiny gradated lines between “you can’t touch me”, and “I will have sex with you in this particular fashion in these exact circumstances”. If I’ll snog a bunch of people at a party, that doesn’t make me a slut who’s up for anything.

There are no real conclusions here, of course, just an acknowledgement that in the real world, consent can be really complicated.

Guest Post: Dear Rosemary

Many people linked us this week, to this delightful piece of commentary from Rosemary McLeod about sex work.

My own response was, oh, shut up. Oh, and Don’t Read The Comments. But I thought someone with more knowledge and experience than me might have a somewhat more eloquent response. So I asked the wonderful Dorothy Dentata if she would consider guest posting for us. She’s amazing, and here it is.


Hi Rosemary! I got told yesterday that you have some words in your recent article dedicated to little ol’ me, so I thought I’d sit down and type you this reply.

Now, as articles are prone to do, Michelle Cooke in her recent article on sex work conditions combined aspects of two seperate stories into the information about me. You mention in your diatribe against us dirty-footed dupes that you wondered how my mother reacted. Let me tell you!

When I told my mother I was a sex worker, she told me she thought I was about to tell her something bad. She then hugged me and told me how she loved me, how she trusted me to make my own decisions about my employment, that I owed her nothing in terms of divulging this and that she felt honoured beyond belief that I would be vulnerable and share such information with her.

When I told my dad the same information, weeks before my 21st, his response was to tell me he loved me and that he had never paid for sex but didn’t see an ethical problem with anyone doing so now that it was decriminalised. He also said he was happy I was working somewhere safe and supportive, and then he hugged me. That sort of emotional openness from my father about how he personally saw paying for sexual services was really meaningful to me. I thought it was amazing that my dad would even discuss the possibility of being a punter with me.

Of course, you probably don’t think so. You probably think that my parents are ignorant of the fact that “nothing could be quite as soul-destroying as performing fellatio for a living” and you probably include my dad in your stereotype of men as weird, lazy, and driven by their dick.

Well. Let’s talk about my side of the story, huh?

I started sex work at 19 years of age. I have worked in several different brothels and agencies, both here and in Melbourne. I have worked privately. I have had experiences with clients I didn’t enjoy, I have had mostly experiences with respectful and generally considerate clients. I have made some of the greatest friendships in my life with both punters and other working girls. I’ve had a year off. I’ve had a mixture of clients, both in terms of background, age, and genders. Whilst the majority of clients have been male, white, and wealthy, there has also been more diversity in my experiences than I think you could fathom.

The clients who come to see me, including the men, sometimes ask me questions about my opinions, they listen to my stories, they often share with me their innermost vulnerabilities (whether they mean to or not). Sometimes these vulnerabilities are unsettling or confusing or unattractive to me. Sometimes those thoughts are sweet and endearing and make me feel great about my job for weeks at a time.

Sometimes the clients who come to see me truly don’t care that much about knowing what’s going on in my brain. And you know what? That’s okay! Because with boundaries negotiated and a safe premises, I am totally happy to fuck and be fucked for a booking without any pretense of conversation or deeper connection. Sometimes, Rosemary, people just want sex without fuss. Sometimes people want sex that is good, easy, and completely without a relationship. That’s pretty normal.

Yes, as you snidely added ‘brains are a selling point’. Journalists aren’t often in the habit of interviewing inarticulate workers to quote about a specific industry. Brains are a selling point in more ways, though, for example my ad. The fact that ads highlighting a workers intelligence, personality, and strengths work much better than ads simply highlighting physical assets might disprove your little theory that clients don’t care about what’s going on behind my eyes.

So that’s how I see my job. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I’m frustrated or aggravated or anxious about it, and sometimes it’s just a job. As a colleague of mine said in response to your article “I fully stand behind my right to hate my job and do it anyway” and I feel that cuts to the point I actually want to make today.

Sex work is WORK. Your title, declaring “prostitution not just selling your body” is misleading in itself. For me, you see, prostitution ISN’T selling my body. The same learned colleague of mine states “when you pay someone to give you physiotherapy for an hour, you do not buy the physiotherapist. When you pay someone to cut your hair for an hour, you do not buy the person who cuts you hair”. The same rings true here. When you decide to come to Funhouse and fuck me senseless (or brush my hair or wrestle me or eat my pussy) you do not buy me. You negotiate such services and I either agree or decline, based on my own boundaries and personal preferences. At any stage, any stage of the booking, I have the right to declare a certain activity is not on offer anymore. It may mean a partial refund, but more usually it means we just do something else. You know, like I talk to my sexual partners who aren’t paying me.

Moreover, capitalism is an economic system that requires people to work in order to make money. Many people have jobs that require using their bodies in ways they wouldn’t normally, extra labour or occassional unpleasant aspects or things that sometimes just suck. People are generally required to work due to economic need. The same is generally true of sex workers (who, by the way, are not just ‘women’). As through all of society, you see negative aspects of sex work. As with doctors and lawyers, there are sex workers who are addicted to drugs. As with nannies and couriers and plumbers, there are sex workers with mental health problems. As with pilots and retail assistants and journalists, there are sex workers who are exposed to sexual abuse. As with politicians and teachers and CEOs there are sex workers who are unhappy in their job.

I was even going to put in a touching and endearing ramble about how clean my feet were, to disprove the evident assumptions that sex workers are dirty and degraded, but I decided not to. You know why? Because people from all walks of life sometimes have dirty feet and split toenails. I don’t need to try and convince you how ‘nice’ and ‘safe’ parts of the sex industry are, because that is true for me but it’s not true for everyone. Being poor, or sad, or drug-addicted, does not make anyone nor their life deserving of vitriolic attacks by ill-informed journalists. Having dirty feet is not a reason to write off somebody’s entire lived experience, Rosemary, coz here’s the thing about lived experience: you cannot know what it’s like until you’ve lived it. You are not allowed to tell hookers what we should be doing with our lives without actually knowing our lives.

When sex workers are finally able to stop having to defend our industry and our work from bigoted hooker-haters like you, maybe we’ll be able to start directing our energies towards discussions on how the industry can be improved. When it’s no longer a matter of ‘positive’ vs ‘negative’ accounts of the sex industry, and we can realise every experience is more nuanced and more conflicting and that what should be happening is work towards improving working conditions for ALL sex workers.

I realise this has been an INCREDIBLY long ramble and I hope I haven’t bored you. I also hope I haven’t antagonised you so much that my invitation to you to come and have coffee (off the record) with me and some sex worker friends and learn a little about our lives will be ignored.

Come again?

I am a big believer in reform. I think given the right impetus, opportunity, and support, people can change. They can get better, improve, and come to regret things they’ve done. Naive and idealistic, maybe, but sometimes I am, darlings. I also think you can really dislike a person, but agree with something they say.

Which is why I was willing to give Hugo Schwyzer the benefit of the doubt when he wrote this piece. Because this is all very true.

It’s a key anti-feminist strategy, even if that isn’t the actual intent of the men doing it — it forces women to become conscious caretakers of their male peers by subduing their own frustration and anger.   It reminds young women that they should strive to avoid being one of those “angry feminists” who (literally) scares men off and drives them away….

This doesn’t mean that a “good man” is always in the wrong when he’s arguing with a woman.  It does mean that when men and women argue about gender justice, women are more likely to have insights that men have missed.  Here’s the basic axiom: power conceals itself from those who possess it. And the corollary is that privilege is revealed more clearly to those who don’t have it.  When a man and a woman are arguing about feminism – and the women involved happen to be feminists and the man happens to be an affluent white dude – the chances that he’s the one from whom the truth is more obscured is very high indeed.   That’s as true for me as it is for Tom Matlack.

So, when the furor at Feministe (one of my favourite feminist places) happened, I was a little nonplussed. Here was this guy, who seemed to get it. Sure, problematic relationships with his students – but who hasn’t done things they regret? We grow up, we move on. Oh. He tried to kill himself and his girlfriend? Huh. Well…he was an addict, we all do things…and…. I am increasingly on thin ice here. I can’t justify that, especially in the terms he describes it – he was trying to take care of her, she was broken, only he was strong enough to do what needed to be done. And you know what? Part of reform is admitting what you’ve done, and paying the consequences. He freely admits he hasn’t done that.

Oh. And then Clarisse shut down the comments? Well, while calling someone a sociopath – if you’re not a psychiatrist, and don’t actually know him – is dangerous, but yeah, that seems extreme.

But Feministe apologised, and all was well. Sort of. However, enter Jezebel, who will do whatever they can to increase pageviews, even if it’s posting a column basically suggesting we women are too wrapped up in the idea of consent.  At Jezebel, Mr Schwyzer has suggested this:

For a young man raised with the sense that his body – and especially his penis – is “disgusting”, a woman’s willingness to accept a facial is an intensely powerful source of affirmation. In my conversations with Glickman and Andelloux, I shared this anecdote. Both agreed that rather than seeing the facial as rooted in the impulse to denigrate, it might indeed be better to view it as longing for approval. Andelloux pointed out that in her experience, many women (often with good reason) have a difficult time believing that degradation isn’t at the root of straight men’s fascination with facials. In any case, humiliation and affirmation aren’t incompatible reactions to the same act; a feeling of indignity when your partner ejaculates on your face isn’t contingent on his intending to demean you.

And, yeah, OK, this is where I draw the line. Flavia has said it all better than me, but Hugo? remember back up there when you said that men should sometimes shut up and listen? It’s time for you to Shut Up. We’re not going to give you cookies for being an ally, not especially when you argue bullshit like this.

I should preface the rest of this paragraph with the disclaimer that some women don’t mind, or even enjoy, facials. For me, it’s entirely contextual on the person I am with, and the situation I am in. But the way they are usually (insert standard disclaimer here) portrayed in porn is inherently degrading. But don’t worry about that! According to the estimable Mr Schwyzer, that doesn’t matter! We women should suffer through a humiliating act because it might make a dude feel better about his cock? Look, I’m all for consenting adults being allowed to do whatever they want, but that? Is bullshit. And in fact, consent is barely mentioned in the piece. It’s much more about we women should “let” men do it, to save their precious egos. There’s lip service paid to the idea that “No one should be obligated to endure humiliation for the sake of someone else’s longing for validation.” Except that the entire rest of the piece makes that statement a lie.

And of course, “At the same time (as perhaps with anal sex), many people struggle to believe that receiving a facial is something a woman could enjoy.” This is something anyone involved with BDSM is familiar with – you can’t consent to being submissive, that’s unfeminist, and also, you like being hurt? What? Weird. To which, you know, shut up, I can’t be bothered with that conversation today.

But, seriously, feminist sites need to stop giving this guy airtime. He’s not a feminist. He wants to believe he is, maybe, as redemption, or just cos it’s a really good way to get chicks. Let him write what he writes at his own place, and people who care can have that conversation there. I’m not someone who believes men can’t be feminists – the kyriarchy hurts everyone, and men should  be a part of the conversation. But when a man consistently fails to take responsibility for his actions and his words, and actively promotes disrespecting women – then, yeah, nah, it’s time to STFU.

[Update: Garland Grey also has a great piece, with my favourite sentence this week: “But still, the memory of his sexism is reason enough for you to reevaluate your flimsy personal objections to this sex act, because if there is anything I know about Feminism, it’s that not nearly enough people are getting jizzed on and this is a crisis.”]