“Mother” is a gender identity; it’s not my gender identity

Now I have an actual baby (and seem to be writing about it more than I expected), I have to observe that it has not changed my feelings about the whole “motherhood” business. If anything, it has made me even less keen to own the label. I wrote a bit about it before birth but the inevitable post-birth stuff has only made me more strongly aware that it doesn’t suit me at all. I’m really enjoying being a parent, but not for a minute have I felt like a “mother”, whatever that feels like. Yes, I have a uterus & I grew a baby in it, but contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that automatically makes me a mother & I simply refuse to accept the label. It’s just not me.

I didn’t always want children. Shock, huh? When I was a teenager, I had miserable abdominal pains & hyperemesis and was very keen on having a hysterectomy as soon as I could legally make the decision. In hindsight, I have to wonder how much of my lack of desire to parent was down to a combination of my mother’s stories of what an appalling child I was (thanks for that fairy curse, Mother) and a deep discomfort with everything about being A Mother, and most feminine stuff in general. As I got older, I used to say, only slightly sarcastically, that I’d like to be a father if someone else wanted to be the mother. While I realised even in my teens that these roles are not biological necessities and are as socially constructed as everything else, the implications of that hadn’t sunk in to the point where I realised that I simply don’t have to accept other people’s definitions of me. I know myself best, after all.

Equally unsurprisingly, I don’t really identify with “woman” much either, and identify with it as a political/class terminology if anything. I sort of am one, I suppose, in the sense of not identifying more strongly with anything else (bar possibly “femme”, onto which I shan’t diverge), but the idea of feeling “like a woman” baffles me; being “a mother” is, after all, meant to make you feel like one if nothing else does. I know that’s dangerous nonsense which hurts all kinds of women, and just plain doesn’t work even for many who are both, but I’m not even sure I had a horse in this race to begin with. I suppose I’d rather be something else if there was an option which suited me better, but there isn’t a common one. I wonder how many people’s seemingly conventional gender identity is less “man” or “woman” and more “not the other one”? Yes, I suppose I will refer to myself as cis because I don’t feel trans to be a realistic description of my life. I don’t think I experience much of what most trans people I know experience, and to imply that I do seems wrong to me. I don’t experience significant dysmorphia about my body, only discomfort with social roles. OK, so I’d swap my crappy squishy human body for that of a giant robot in a New York minute, but where on the DSM does that fall? I mean, wouldn’t everyone?? I have in the past identified as genderqueer, but even that seemed a bit appropriative, as if i was demanding attention for an identity I hadn’t earned. Now, while there’s a whole other debate about whether genderqueer should privilege androgynous presentations (one quite well laid-out here) , I still feel that even if I go with genderqueer, I can continue to recognise that I’m closer to the cis end of the spectrum, hence my tolerance for “woman”. (All of which makes me particularly enraged by the “don’t call me cis!” whiner feminists; if you’re going to bitch about being given a description you didnt choose, why arent you starting by complaining about “woman”? I mean, most of you seem in agreement that patriarchy is A Thing, and that women-as-a-class are oppressed by it, so why are you so willing to buy into a category patriarchy likes and get upset about one it doesn’t? I genuinely don’t get it.) At any rate, while I was grudgingly willing to put up with “woman” if I had to, in the absence of an alternative, “mother” was something I had a bit more choice in, I hoped. It’s only in later years that I realised just how much it was the identity of “mother” putting me off from parenting, and it’s only quite recently that I realised that the identity isn’t just highly gendered, it’s its own particular kind of gender. And it can fuck right off.

Yet I can’t help feeling that even if I were more inclined toward womanness, I wouldn’t find the culturally lauded concepts of motherhood much more appealing. You don’t have to be gender-nonconforming to spot that almost everything about it is staggeringly twee, deeply reductive and so faux-laudatory as to stick in the craw. If society so loves mothers, why doesn’t it also love things like affordable childcare, pay equality, child-friendly spaces & oh, not blaming mothers for every social ill imaginable? Maybe when women had fewer choices, mothering was genuinely more respected as a separate sphere, but I doubt it; it was always a fake tribute, crumbs from the table of power. The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that’s expected to do lots of other work for free as well. Yet I do think that recognition of the hard work of parenting has diminished (there is a general assumption that modern life has made this substantially easier, a fine theory which fails to note that our brave new world has not yet given us the 3 day week or the jet pack), while the number of potential ways for parents to fail has increased. And the burden for this falls disproportionately on mothers. I get angry about all of this, I really do, and opting out of it in my head doesn’t mean it it doesn’t affect me, but conversely, I see no reason to pretend to be part of a group just because others perceive me to be. That’s not an original observation by any means, but it happens to apply. Interestingly, Bronwyn Clune wrote about not being a ‘good mother’ for CiF only yesterday – fabulous timing!

This is not biological, it is cultural. Women are not naturally better at parenting, they just tend to end up doing the lion’s share of it and thus get “better” (ie more adapted to it) through experience. I am not a better parent than my partner (often the opposite, I feel!). I am not naturally more in tune with my child’s needs. I do not have some kind of special intuition which makes me better able to determine what they’re thinking. I think my child is great and I love being around them, but I’m actually a bit less keen to do that full-time than my partner is, and it pisses me off that people assume I should be. Recently, I was having a similar conversation with a sex worker parent that I met at the London Justice For Jasmine protest; they expressed their own frustration with “mother” and talked about “the motherhood” as a sort of dull ghetto where women and small children are isolated from everyone else. Spot on, in my opinion. It’s not that people aren’t attacking the stereotypes – take, as just one example, My Mother Wears Combat Boots (on this theme, see also: Rad Dad. And many thanks to the lovely @notahappyhooker for pointing me at Donald Winnicott and his theories of ‘the good enough mother’. But for me personally, I don’t think that better concepts of ‘mother’ are good enough. The word actually bothers me, on a physical level: when someone uses “mother” or “mum” about me, my stomach feels downright uncomfortable.

I’m not really advocating anything here, nor do I wish to take anything away from people who are and love being “mother” – many are also pushing at and stretching the boundaries of the term, and more power to them. Even if you’re happy in a very conventional maternal role, I’m glad for you if that’s what works in your life. The world can handle a hell of a lot more diversity of opinion and practice than some seem to think. I suppose if I was going to ask my friends to do anything, it would be just to avoid using the M word to or about me as much as they can; I use my actual name to my baby and I expect them to call me that, not “Mum” or any variation thereof. It’s not a really big deal, I just feel weird as hell when I hear it. So thanks in advance, my dears.

Derisions Of Gender

So far, baby-having has been pretty damn awesome with only a few minor niggles, the main one so far (other than breast-feeding) being our gender-neutral approach. We knew that not telling people M’s sex would be a bit contentious, but hadn’t realised that our biggest opponent would be… my mother. Having gleefully ignored my statements during pregnancy (as she ignores so much of what I say), she shouted at us both in the hospital the day after birth, accusing me of being dishonest for not telling her what we were going to do, and has continued to be unpleasant ever since by deliberately acting against our requests and outing M to everyone she can.

As of this past weekend, she has kicked it up to another level. She is now refusing to see the baby at all until we stop using pronouns such as “they” and “it” to refer to M. She has also accused us of child abuse & repeatedly insists (despite me telling her that she’s clearly misunderstood) that she knows what we’re doing and it’s “disgusting”. She’s pretty obstinate at the best of times, so I can’t really see her apologising any time ever.

So, I don’t think we’re going to be seeing much of her for a while.

My father, meanwhile, has simply refused to take an interest in my “nonsense” by just arbitrarily assigning M a sex & a pronoun of his choosing. I refrain from correcting him & we continue on our merry way.

I have no hope of getting either of my parents to change their minds, but we’ve decided to write a short statement for other relatives & interested friends to try & explain the situation to people who haven’t really thought about gender. It was surprisingly hard! We’d appreciate thoughts & suggestions to make it even more comprehensible. I decided against using references as I didn’t want to make it an academic exercise, but thought the included image might be helpful, unless anyone can suggest a better visual aid. We’ve been rather tired so do please tell us if any of this doesn’t make sense!

“Dear all,

You may wonder why we’re talking to you about our baby’s gender and indeed, in an ideal world this is a conversation which shouldn’t need to happen. That would certainly be our preference. But clearly that is not the case. We have therefore decided to clarify our views & intentions on this subject.

As you may already know, our baby, M, was born on 8th Feb 2013. Long before M’s birth, we had decided that it was very important to us for the sake of their healthy development that M’s gender identity should be as much as possible a product of their personality, not something imposed on them externally. We therefore decided to take what we call a gender-flexible approach to parenting. Gender identity is not the same as sex or orientation – please see the diagram below for a brief overview of the differences.

It probably doesn’t really matter whether gender identity (by which we mean behaviour & expressions, not biological features) is innate, socially constructed or a mix of both; what matters is that it is personal and cannot be determined simply by examining physical characteristics such as chromosomes or genitals. We wish M to be able to be true to their own gender expression, not to feel compelled to present what they think others wish to see. To this end, we are trying to use gender-neutral pronouns for them and to ensure they are given as wide a range of choices in everything as we can manage. The matter of pronouns may seem unnecessarily inflexible but we think it is a good discipline to get into as a matter of habit, because all of us have unconscious biases around sex & gender. Language is a very strong influence on our behaviour. We appreciate that this is not easy, especially if you’re not used to gender-neutral language, so many thanks in advance for your efforts, they are greatly appreciated.

What this means in practice: We would greatly appreciate it if you could avoid treating M as a specifically ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ baby for now, but just treat them as a baby. Please therefore refrain from referring to M’s assigned sex as much as possible if you know it, and please absolutely avoid doing so in front of others who may not know it. M will, no doubt, make their preferences clear as they develop. Behaviours to avoid include, but are not limited to: expecting that M will wear clothing in specific colours or designs – eg pink princesses, blue footballers, fairies, military-style camouflage; expecting M to play with specific toys or games exclusively (although a balance is most welcome – dinosaurs as well as dolls, teddy bears as well as toy trains); building M up with ideas that particular subjects, activities, sports or careers are not for them to enjoy; giving M the impression that they should only express certain kinds of emotion.

What this doesn’t mean: preventing M from behaving in particular (gendered) ways that they enjoy, or limiting their choices except when we consider something potentially harmful (like any other parent) ; raising M without any gender identity at all (we’re just not rushing it – children commonly start expressing their particular gender identities before the age of 4); forcing M to confirm to our own ideas of gender; punishing M for expressing “traditional” gendered behaviour.

We realise this is an unusual approach to take, but it is not unique and we do not believe it will be harmful; quite the opposite, we wish to reduce the demonstrable harm that rigid gender roles create. Like any parents, we aim to support & protect M in life and hope we can count on your future support with all of this. We are happy to discuss this further if you have any further questions.

Thank you.”

C-Section Blues

One week ago today, I had a baby! This was a pretty big deal so I’d like to get down my impressions before they’re overwhelmed by other Big Feels. Or, y’know, distractions generally. I also thought they could be interesting/useful to others faced with a hospital birth.

So, I was both lucky & unlucky. Unlucky because it became increasingly apparent during pregnancy that my birth would have to be what’s often described as “medicalised” ie in a hospital, with interventions, so no home birth for me. I’m extremely keen on pain relief so I was fine with that part, but who likes hospitals? Especially, once it became clear that the baby was breech and a Caesarian section was recommended, because who likes abdominal surgery?? Can’t be popular. On the other hand, in a number of ways this made me very lucky indeed as a parent: I knew in advance when & in what way I’d be giving birth, so I could be physically & psychologically prepared for it, although I still didn’t achieve most of my to-do list!; I also had my baby relatively early (38 weeks 6 days officially), which while not great from a getting-work-done point of view did at least mean I wasn’t in the miserable stage of pregnancy for too long, and just as well since the nightly cervical discomfort was getting moderately unbearable; ok, so I had horrid abdominal injuries & a catheter, but I avoided vaginal trauma so swings & roundabouts there. Hopefully I’ll also have an awesome new scar to enjoy!

I was scheduled for the morning C-section list, which starts at 7am. This meant no food after 2am and no water after 6am. I decided to stay up & eat very late instead of getting extra sleep, which seemed like a sensible trade-off really and in hindsight wasn’t a bad choice, although extra sleep would certainly not have hurt and is looking pretty sweet about now.

I was installed in my room very swiftly after arrival, but sadly I ended up last on the surgery list, so I didn’t get taken into theatre til after 12. Due to some miscommunication between the hospital & them, my mum & brother were given the impression I’d already been seen, so they arrived mid-morning hoping to greet Babby, only to find no Babby and me complaining of hunger & thirst. I think it’s like being served last in restaurants: whenever I’m nil by mouth for anything, It either runs late or I’m last on the list.

I saw a bunch of professionals including midwives, surgeon & anaesthetist, who discussed the procedure with me. This wasn’t too worrying, although only being allowed 1 person in theatre meant I had to send my mother home. The chats signalled the start of the pincushion phase, because obv a fair few needles are involved in the procedure. I also had to endure the horror that is bikini line shaving. Bleurgh. I chose assistance cos tired dyspraxic wielding of a razor blade under a hugely pregnant belly seemed like a recipe for disaster. And did I mention I hate shaving? Fortunately I like opiates, which make up the bulk of the drugs involved in C-section procedures & recovery, AFAICT.

So, I finally got taken in for the surgery about midday, after being tucked into nasty support stockings (to prevent DVT), hospital gown & cap. They insisted I put a 2nd gown on in reverse so I didn’t flash my bum at people for the 30 yard walk – I was pretty unconcerned about this as I just wanted to get the hell on with it at that point! Surely they’ve seen it all before? But no.

Theatre is, unsurprisingly, very bright & busy. I’m not actually sure how many people were involved in my procedure, I think about 7 but I can’t be sure. The anaesthetist & midwife had been called elsewhere so only one of these people was someone I’d already met. This wasn’t great. Further to that, the theatre policy about birth partners being present seems to be barely a token gesture. One person is permitted but they will not be fetched until the operation is ready to begin. For myself, I wanted the support during the preparations, when I was getting 2 cannula insertions (one of them screamingly painful, swiftly removed and the source of a cheerful professional disagreement between surgeon & nurse about the best vein – THANKS GUYS), discomforting spine prodding, several local injections, the spinal, losing sensation in my legs, being manoeuvred on the shifting table, catheter insertion, swabbing…all of that awesome and totally not anxiety-inducing stuff. After several requests of increasing panic, A. was finally allowed in only once the surgery screen had gone up, because…why? There was very little to see yet. My uncovered groin? Er, hate to break it to you, but that’s rarely a novelty for birth partners. I’d been told beforehand he could hold my phone for me during surgery but by then we were so close to starting that he wasn’t allowed to fetch it from my bag or really even get very settled himself. Hence no live tweeting despite it being seemingly feasible in theory. These surgeons & their medical priorities. They also won’t let you see behind the screen. Spoilsports.

The first part of the operation was pretty swift, maybe 15 mins or so. After some fun fairground-style table-tilting, there are some interesting & not wholly unenjoyable sensations of pulling for about 10 mins while being opened up. Then you hear the crying! This bit is somewhat sad & conflicting, because you hear the baby quite some time before seeing it, as it’s being checked for doneness first. This seemed to take around 10 mins but it was hard to tell. It was handed to A already wrapped & stocking-capped (well, tubular-bandage-capped!), having (unfortunately) had most of its vernix wiped off first, despite my saying I wanted to massage it into the baby’s own skin. Wish I’d reiterated that with SURGEON, not just midwives. Baby was given a Vitamin K shot and then ready for skin-to-skin contact, which is now generally encouraged. This was lovely, although I was sorely restricted in my ability to interact with it by being on my back with some big plastic tubes on my already-annoyed & bloodied left hand, so I was mainly having to settle for baby-face-stroking while A held it carefully up to mine. I can see why some people might feel rather isolated from their babies after such a procedure. Fortunately, baby M seemed alert & keen to interact while I was being stitched up & the placenta recovered (retained upon my request), then whisked out to recovery.

In further pointless isolation, partners are also not allowed to accompany to the recovery suite. I have no idea why, since it just involved me having the usual battery of tests for oxygen, BP, temperature, etc., plus more for recovery specifics. I could see why extra people might be a problem in a busy theatre, but this just seemed like A Rule. Baby was present of course, but being on my back I was still pretty limited in my parental interactions.

I was finally released back to my own hospital room once some tingly feeling started to return to my legs. At this point, I could have some partner support again and we could spend a bit more time on the actual baby bonding, and start the multiple day recuperative stay. Which is another story entirely.

As a postscript, birth did not cause sudden tummy deflation as is often assumed. My midriff 7 days later is probably about as it was at 6 months pregnant. Apparently this can be particularly pronounced (or not, as it were) with C-sections but it may be worth noting for future. I did have *quite* a fat tummy to begin with, though!

I’m not a mummy, I’m just slummy

It’s barely begun yet but already the gender conditioning of parenthood is unfurling its tentacles, partly towards Babby but initially towards me. Of course the first question EVERYBODY asks (even, surprisingly, very gender-aware and feminist friends) is “Do you know what you’re having yet?”, to which the correct answer is not, apparently, “good news, the tests seem to show it’s human” but the baby’s sex, apparently accompanied by monologue about How This Makes Me Feel. If you chose not to find out, the assumption is that you’re saving is for a “surprise” at birth. Considering almost nobody I’ve ever met seems to consider the possibility of a visibly intersex baby, I do wonder what the “surprise” would be? Horns? A tail? Or, as another parent mentioned to me, the impact of hormones on baby boys giving them unexpectedly gigantic testicles!? I suppose that may surprise a few people. Now, I don’t blame people for asking this question, it’s a pure social nicety like “how was your holiday?” or “doing anything at the weekend?”. We ask these questions to block out embarrassing telepathic thoughts! (RIP Douglas Adams) But the fact that this is the first and superlative social nicety question about every new human should, I think, afford a moment’s pause. What is between a person’s legs tells you incredibly little about them, but in the case of babies it seems sometimes to be all people need or want to know. To me, that is very sad.

While I’ve been relieved that, as yet, nobody’s made any truly crass remarks about my woman-ness, I can sense the potential energy of cissexism waiting to thrust its way into my psyche like a particularly annoying penis. I don’t hate penises or anything, they’re perfectly fine features (one in particular was quite useful in helping form Babby, after all), but since all thrusting metaphors are inevitably phallic, one might as well be blunt, no?

Penises aside – and many excellent pregnancies indeed arise in exactly that kind of scenario – my possession of a womb might deem me a woman in the world’s eyes, but it’s not that which bothers me so much as the world’s puzzling obsession with telling me that I am one every second of the day. I have glumly predicted that clear visible evidence of womb-ownership will make this many times worse. This has very little to do with my personal identity, since I have very little personal investment in Being A Woman. I’m kind of there by default, because there isn’t an option which suits me better. I did identify as genderqueer for some time but it felt like a poor fit, and oddly appropriative, an identity I didn’t do enough to earn. So while I don’t much mind that I count as a cis woman for general social & political purposes, or as female for purely biological ones, I really don’t like the constant feeling of being measured up for a box I never wanted to be in in the first place.

Oh well, you may say, isn’t this just more of the same micro-aggression that every woman or female-presenting person gets? And to that I have to say no, because I have, oddly and with extreme good fortune, never really had to put up with much of this. I know very well that street harassment and snide remarks happen all the time, because I see them happening to other women (friends or strangers) right in front of my eyes! But I can count on the fingers of one slightly polydactylous hand the number of times in my life that I’ve ever had any such aggression directed towards me that I was aware of. Now, I’m quite aware that I could just not be noticing it, because I am fairly obtuse as a rule, but I do think I’m relatively good at people-watching in public and I do notice things my companions often don’t, which suggests it isn’t just that. If I were less brazenly arrogant, I might take it as a universal comment on my attractiveness (because we know for a fact that women deemed ugly are never harassed, hassled, groped, flirted with or anything like that, right? Right?), but I don’t believe it’s anything of the sort, not least because I think I’m of perfectly average attractiveness by most measures (I would totally do my clone/parallel universe self, although that may be more to do with my personal combo of laziness & sluttiness than any sort of objective hotness. But I digress). Others have suggested that I radiate a fierceness which scares people, and I freely admit that’s a very appealing idea, but I must sadly conclude that that’s probably not it either, as people often tend to be pretty aggressive with those they find intimidating, especially if they don’t know why. If anything, my assumption about my situation is that I am usually in the company of others when out & about in public spaces, most often with a man, so I make a poor target, yet even this is an incomplete answer as I often go out on my own for work. But however I’ve managed to create this invisibility cloak for myself, I like living inside it, dammit! I don’t want to be more noticeable, not least because being clocked as a pregnant woman strikes me as a different sort of attention from bog-standard woman-issue attention. I’m not too worried about swearing loudly at arsehole strangers (that’s the most appealing bit!), but it might be difficult not to grab & twist the wrists of intrusively bump-fondling work colleagues, and I don’t want to be mean to the well-meaning people who won’t let me politely refuse to sit in their seats.

This might be a worry over nothing of course, and I might turn out to have been a moderately invisible pregnant person as well, but I’m a great believer in expecting the worst so anything else is a pleasant surprise.

And in one sense, it is already happening: every time I see or hear something directed towards me-as-a-pregnant-person generally, it is so often “as a mother”, “being a mother”, or, most vomit-inducing, “a mummy”. I firmly believe that addressing any pregnant person as “Mummy” is – like addressing a waiter as “garçon” – an offence which should be punishable by death. If you do this, then no matter how kind your intentions, you are a cunt and I hate you with the burning rage of 1000 suns. So yeah, I’m a little to the left on that one. And not just because I don’t want to turn into Manny’s parents (“Moo-ma” & “Moo-pa”) from ‘Black Books’, although that seems like a fine reason to me. Even the pukey-pink & deterministic NHS breastfeeding posters are getting a little unbearable, and I’m sure worse is to come on that score. So that’s why “nature gave [me] boobs”, is it? Really? I HADN’T NOTICED. If it were a claim that “God” had been handing out boobs for child-feeding, people would complain and rightly so, but “Nature” (as much of a quasi-religious concept as any, since it’s an appeal to a higher power here) is just fine because it’s not faith-specific? As a religious (FSVO) person, my primary response to this is to want it all to fuck right off with the post-Catholic natural law arguments1. If you’re going to co-opt my body into your speculative deterministic philosophy, at least be honest about it. Sex & gender determinism is a striking example of the naturalistic fallacy, yet I remain surprised by the number of people who oppose naturalistic fallacies, yet appear to let those ones pass without remark.

So I don’t really know where to start with resisting this stuff. There’s so much of it all and I don’t even hate all of it. For example, it’s really nice when people spot my ‘Baby On Board’ badge & offer me a seat on the bus and I am certainly grateful for the consideration. But as a point in a hierarchy of needs, pregnancy is complicated. I’d like to know how often men carrying or otherwise minding small children get offered seats on transport, compared to women doing the same. I don’t know how much of this is gendered and how much is medicalised. And then I realise that in a world where both are so intrinsically linked, trying to tease them apart is probably a fool’s errand.

In short, being the Vessel Parent is an interesting social experiment, but I don’t actually want to be treated like a vessel. I understand that’s enough of a problem for many women already.

1: The appeal to Nature goes back at least to Thomas Aquinas’ teleological approach to the world; but more recent philosophers including David Hume and Steven Pinker have argued strongly that the sort of naturalistic deductions favoured by Aquinas are invalid.

Pinker talks about the naturalistic fallacy here: http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/books/tbs/media_articles/2002_10_30_upi.html

Why ‘No More Page 3′ is a bad idea in almost every way

So: recently, a young woman, Lucy-Anne Holmes, started a petition on Change.org aimed at getting The Sun to stop featuring topless Page 3 girls*. The Internet seems to have done its work well, because it’s been all over Twitter for days, with endorsement from such stalwarts as Caitlin Moran** & Graham Linehan, and is now claiming over 27,000 signatures. Many of the proponents of #nomorepage3 have made reference to feminism and the general well-being of women as justifications for the quasi-campaign. Even more baffling was when I saw sex educators, sex radicals and other generally sex-positive (by which I include sex-critical) folks endorsing it.

Therefore, I think there is an even greater need for countervailing opinions from the perspectives of feminists. Which, in this case, is me. Nobody ever said life was fair. But there are 2 things I’m not going to touch on: whether or not P3 is porn – I think it is and I think the discussion about whether it isn’t is a waste of time; and whether or not sex related work is, to use a tired word, “empowering”. It’s a fucking job. Sometimes I find my (utterly non-sexy) job “empowering”, especially when I think of the unemployment stats and how miserable I felt when out of work, but mostly I do it to pay my bills & afford me the odd treat. I suspect workers in every industry are pretty much the same, with a possible exception for those fortunate few who dedicate their lives to doing what they love. Funnily enough, some of those people might even have sex-related jobs! So, if you care to read more about sex work as empowerment, check out Hayley Stevens’ Heresy Club piece*** instead. She even provides – gasp – evidence!

Right: #nomorepage3. I’m not going to beat about the bush here. I think this is a fucking terrible idea, and I think the ideas driving this idea should give us pause, because they’re actually rather scary.

Starting with the original petition itself, there’s something of a lack of clarity about its long-term aims. It mentions “asking Dominic Mohan nicely” (by his first name! Not terribly polite) to stop featuring Page 3 girls, and that’s about it. It also  indicts misogyny as a driver of rape & sexual assault, but does so by making a strongly implied reference to the old and never-proven belief that porn causes or at least encourages rape. Certainly, the wording of the actual letter talks about “conditioning readers to see women as sex objects”. Frankly, this is a claim I’d like to see analysed in Bad Science or on Factcheck, but I’m not sure that wouldn’t simply be co-opting the  work of the many writers & researchers (often women) who’ve been challenging this notion for years. It’s on a par with claims that video games cause violence, or LGBT people make bad parents; any time rigorous research is conducted, the purported connections cannot be found. I’m not saying its completely beyond the realms of possibility for these theories to be true, but when proposing social changes, particularly if they might involve legal restrictions, I want better evidence than this. That said, here is a neat little article by Stuart Ritchie**** (via Stevens) which gives some starting points. As you’ll note, he does not find that the evidence supports these assertions.

In fairness, I’m not wholly sure that #nomorepage3 is advocating legal restrictions, although I’ll come onto that later. Assuming for a moment that its sole aim is “asking nicely” and no more, then it can be seen as little more than a publicity stunt running along very old political & class lines. Now, there is always the possibility that The Sun will take the view that times have changed and P3 should go; I regard that as stunningly unlikely, but on the off-chance that they did, I think it would almost certainly be down to a combination of cost-cutting in an era of austerity & image rehabilitation in a post-Leveson world where their former editor has been changed with phone-hacking, rather than a sudden burst of respect for women. Oh well, we might say, it’s an ill wind and the result is what we wanted, so what? Well, the obvious “what”, to me, would be “what will they replace it with?”. I doubt it’d be especially feminist-friendly, but perhaps that’s also unfair of me. While I am not a Sun fan, they’ve done some occasional good work on social justice issues in the past (eg their anti-domestic violence campaign, or running a reasonably decent report on Slutwalk*****), and for all that we regard tabloids as a very blokey environment, they’ve typically employed a greater-than-average number of women journalists. And, lest we forget, they actually had a woman, Rebekah Brooks, as the senior editor for 6 years, which is almost unheard of elsewhere, including at more ‘respectable’ papers.

But getting back to the topic in hand, to reiterate Hayley Stevens’ point, how many of the #nomorepage3 signatories would actually buy the Sun if P3 was gone? I don’t have any figures on this, but my impression is that most of them neither buy The Sun now nor would buy it if it wasn’t riddled with tits. So why the hell, in the midst of print media’s continual freefall, should a commercial enterprise risk alienating a single existing customer to please a group they get nothing from already and probably never will? Yes, perhaps this should be treated as a moral issue rather than economic one, but in light of hacking & Hillsborough, who the hell is naive enough to think this is important to the Murdoch empire?

So I can’t see Mohan doing anything about this petition, which is probably the best outcome. A worse outcome is that he acknowledges it and uses it as a perfect excuse to solidify brand loyalty and further brand feminists as man-hating killjoys, as happened with Clare Short’s famous campaign against P3 in 1986+*. Deborah Orr has already foolishly set this issue up as being about a struggle between right-thinking feminists and unenlightened, presumably male-identified, idiots who would like to be glamour models. Women she disgustingly describes as being visible “in any city on a Friday night, hobbled by their Lycra dresses & towering heels, so keen to be ‘empowered’ they can barely walk”+** (as if feminists never wear towering heels!) and in doing so, handed the right-wing end of the media the same big stick to bash women’s rights with. Even more stupidly, she implicitly tells us all that women fitting this description aren’t welcome in feminism. It’s no good complaining that feminism isn’t “really” like that, if this is someone’s first exposure to it. First impressions count. Sometimes they’re all you get.

We (feminists) don’t command a lot of media power generally, so we need to be careful about how we engage with it at all, and continuing to play into the stereotype of frumpy middle-class Guardianistas obsessed with minutiae in the face of shocking austerity is a bad, bad move, one which only serves to turn away the very people who arguably need feminism the most. So thanks for the classist own goal there, Deborah. But then, I’ve staggered merrily home from city centre nightclubs in thigh boots, corsets & underwear-as-outerwear in my youth too, so I suppose that must mean I can’t be a feminist either.

Ah yes, you might say, but what about the sexism? Isn’t that dangerous & damaging to women? Well, of course it is, but, to paraphrase Susie Bright+***, picking on porn, or even on one specific kind of porn, and making that your focus for tackling sexism, is like drinking from  several glasses of salt water & declaring only one of them salty. There’s plenty of sexism in porn, and I don’t deny that P3 is an example of it (I personally think the text is far more problematic that the images, but that’s by the by), but why start with the overtly sexual images? I don’t have to look very far to find revealing pictures of women in the mainstream media. Leaving aside the choice not to include other papers like the Daily Star in the “polite request”, I can look at degrading, body-hating pictures of women any day just by turning to the Daily Mail or ‘Heat’ magazine. At least P3 girls choose to be photographed and get paid for doing it; the unfortunate celebrities who have their privacy invaded so we can ogle them stumbling drunkenly out of nightclubs or laugh at their cellulite and “baby flab” because they’ve dared to wear a bikini on a beach never asked for the attention. Orr’s article even opens by talking about the topless Kate Middleton photos & goes on to make this somehow about P3, instead of drawing the obvious conclusion that the way women’s bodies are used for public consumption is a general problem. I can only conclude that it is the sexual focus of P3 which makes it seem more objectionable, as if wanting to fuck someone is more degrading to them than talking about how ugly they are for daring to be imperfect in public. And of course, the Mail has a sizeable female readership & often puts these kinds of features in ‘Femail’. ‘Heat’ is largely written by & for women. But if we included these examples, then we’d have to talk about how women enforce institutional sexism by policing each other, and that it isn’t just heterosexual male desire which is the conveniently simple problem to be fixed. This is a particularly pertinent conversation right now, since in the last week, both Kira Cochrane% and Tanya Gold%% have written articles about the specifically misogynist ways in which paparazzi culture attacks women, and the ways that our culture uses revealing images, published without permission, to shame women for their sexuality. Frustratingly, Gold also seems to think that P3 is somehow part of this problem despite the clear differences I have already outlined above; nevertheless, she does also go on to detail how the problem isn’t solely sexual in tone, so credit where it’s due. If #nomorepage3 were fit for purpose, it would also include a letter to Paul Dacre, asking him to stop printing stories about, say, Lady Gaga’s weight. But it doesn’t, and to me that is highly significant.

Anti-sex agendas being cloaked in paternalistic language about “protecting” women are nothing new, and they are often entrenched in deeply essentialist & misogynist ideas about women themselves, no less so when it’s women promoting them. Those who’ve been on the receiving end – ask a woman who’s worked worked in a sex industry or ‘glamour’ role in some capacity – often cynically note that the desire to “help” & “protect” women doesn’t extend to the desire to do so economically; as long as they keep their legs shut & their clothes on, they can starve on minimum wage as far as their protectors are concerned. Is it any wonder women doing these jobs are unimpressed? To steal a line from Neil Gaiman, glamour modelling probably does beat working shifts in a Bradford biscuit factory! But their poorer sisters are expected to accept that instead, to make middle-class feminists feel more secure in their nice homes? Please. Of course, as Mark Steel observed about the abolition of slavery+****, pretty much every appalling practice in history has been justified at some point by the claim that it provides work, and that doesn’t make any of them OK, but a commitment to harm reduction really ought to merit a close look at the specifics of the practice you want to see ended. If the people you think you’re trying to help want you to fuck off, that probably ought to tell you something.

As I said, I don’t know if #nomorepage3 wants to see more formal restriction on its target, because it’s been quite coy about what Stage 2 will be, once the polite request fails. But if Holmes or her signatories actually would like to see some sort of ban or age limit or sales restriction or anything of this sort, then they’re even bigger fools than I thought. If they haven’t thought long & hard about the implications, they need to shut up until they do. If they have but still want such an outcome, they and their agendas need to be rejected with the force of an imploding star. Because such approaches cause genuine, demonstrable harm, usually to groups who were already marginalised. Forgetting for a moment the liberal arguments about free choice and the right for the state not to interfere in our private lives, there are much more specific threats, many of which have been realised in the recent past.

In ‘Among Us, Against Us: Right-Wing Feminism’+*****, his article focusing mostly on  the impact of Canada’s 1992 anti-porn laws under the so-called Butler decision (which drew its inspiration from the legal theories of Catherine MacKinnon), Patrick Califia observes that:

“so-called ‘feminist’ porn laws will not be enforced by feminists. They will be enforced for the most part by straight white men who think lesbianism is more degrading and more threatening to women than date rape or sexual harassment”

12 years on, those words seem as relevant as ever. He details how the scattergun approach of Canadian customs ended with the seizure of everything from ‘Hothead Paisan’ to (somewhat amusingly) Andrea Dworkin’s own works and a chili cookbook titled ‘Hot, Hotter, Hottest’, but the common theme was that it was queer, kinky, small-time producers & distributers who got hammered, both financially and legally, and that Butler had “almost no visible impact on the straight porn industry”. What a coincidence. Who could possibly have guessed that those generally  doing the most to undermine the kyriarchy would be the ones attacked by its agents as a means of implementing a law purportedly existing for the purpose of furthering social justice? Well, I’d like to think anyone capable of critical thinking could have seen how this would work out, but apparently not. Make no mistake about it, when you advocate restricting naughty images & dirty words, you will hurt real people, and you will disproportionately hurt women, LGBT folk and others who are already further from political power (see debates about the “inherently exploitative” nature of porn featuring disabled performers for more on that). See the treatment of Simon Walsh and the travesty of the recent #porntrial++*, if you’re in any doubt about how it works. Yet the anti-porn feminists never seem to learn, or they don’t care.

No doubt at least some of #nomorepage3’s supporters would insist that they’re not trying to stop people enjoying ‘On Our Backs’, Indie Porn Revolution or dyke-run fisting workshops, only bad, tacky, misogynist, completely irredeemable porn like P3, or whatever else they deem as such, and indeed I’ve seen loads of comments claiming to be fine with x other aspect of porn or sex-related work, but just not Page 3. Again, Califia’s view was “You can’t write a law that will remove a porn book from the shelves but leaves ‘Our Bodies Ourselves’ unscathed”. Now, I disagree here: I think you probably can, but it’ll just be a bad law, and frankly not that different from existing case law in the UK which has seen “obscene” works permitted based on their redeeming artistic merit. Which brings us back to the old saw that pleasure for its own sake is wrong, and reinforces the class hatred which underpins the false distinction between ‘erotica’ and ‘porn’. Or, as Richey James Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers observed in a 1994 ‘Select’ article, the difference is that “erotica has a Man Ray cover”++**. Maybe some of you want to live in a world where we’re stuck with either Man Ray or OBO when we want to get off, but I don’t. Legislating aesthetics is a dangerous business.

And make no mistake about it, what we’re talking about is aesthetic. I don’t disagree that Page 3 is sexist, and I also don’t disagree with Deborah Orr about the element of nastiness in the Sun’s editorial policies. But our entire culture is riddled with misogyny: telling me Page 3 is the problem is like telling me that hanging is too cruel a death penalty & I’m going to get a lethal injection instead. Gee, thanks guys. Again, I’m sure Orr & Holmes want to see the culture as a whole tackled too, not just P3, but their choice of priorities is telling. To learn more about Holmes’ view of what ‘proper’ sex involves, see her blog under How To Start A Sexual Revolution++*** and be disappointed by the narrowness of her vision and her snarking about how a porn actor “should have brushed her tongue” . She describes sex as “an amazing, loving union between two people where you pleasure each other, it ends in waves of bliss”. Well, that sounds utterly radical and not at all like the limited & essentialist view of sex anyone else has been selling all these years. If what gives you waves of bliss is having anonymous sex with strangers, or sex with more than 2 people, or hell, sex with ZERO other people, then you, my friend, are doing it wrong. If you’re a woman who enjoys having her head held when she gives a blowjob, or a chubby teen who gets off on masturbating for a webcam, then you’re a traitor, sister, and you’d better start training your cuntini to tingle at the loving caresses of a respectful man instead of school uniforms or ageplay. Fine for Holmes to seek out sexual fulfilment as she desires it; not fine to try & tell the rest of us that’s how it should be. Why Holmes thinks she’s an authority on how sex should be performed when her research consists of poking Google and she freely admits to finding buttplugs hilarious (this is kind of sweet but still) is beyond me, but I’ve been told blogging can give you an inflated sense of your own importance. I’m fortunate it hasn’t happened to me but then, what I say is right, obviously. ++****

While I’ve always thought “why aren’t you concentrating on a more important issue!?” to be a deeply unhelpful criticism of activism, I’m aware I may appear to be saying exactly that. Well, I do think the P3 obsession is an example of fixating on a small and specific, totemic concern while failing to consider the wider setting, but I hope it’s clear that I don’t think it’s too small to matter. On the contrary, I think the way the campaign has recreated divisions between women along class and political lines, reified the virgin/whore dualism and allowed personal objections of taste to be treated as unassailable ideological positions is indeed a big deal and something to be taken seriously. The idea that all women must either oppose P3 or be dupes and pimp-mongers is both essentialist thinking par excellence and is also one of the types of sex worker silencing detailed in a recent post on the Feminist Ire blog%%%, which I highly recommend. As ever, identifying a problem which needs action (in this case, sexism) doesn’t mean that the action proposed is going to solve the problem. Let’s stop leaping on these bullshit bandwagons which exclude whole groups and do nothing to advance women’s rights in general, except to allow some more educated white women in the Global West to pat themselves on the back yet again for their brilliant achievements. Maybe next time we can come up with something useful instead.


NOTES

* http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/dominic-mohan-take-the-bare-boobs-out-of-the-sun-nomorepage3

** In ‘How To Be A Woman’, Moran talked about having watched lots of porn & been disappointed by how little genuine fun was being had, saying she would happily pay to see such a thing. Now, I’d say she just needs to be introduced to better porn, but why should Caitlin Moran be happy to watch cheerful fucking but not happy for others to peer at tits over breakfast? That gets harder to justify. Mind you, she also, shamefully, referred to strippers as “Vichy France with tits”, so she may just not have thought this out very clearly. For the record, I have liked Moran since I saw her on ‘Naked City’ in 1992 (I think) & generally enjoyed her book, but nobody gets a free pass from me.

*** http://heresyclub.com/2012/09/page-3-objectifcation/

**** http://timeoutofmindblog.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/evidence-based-masturbation-or-the-science-of-porn/

***** http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4546694/Underwear-protest-at-10-Downing-Street.html – yes, I’m sure the presence of scantily-clad young women helped, but the article was not, in fact, full of cheesy references to this, which was a pleasant surprise. Of course, since then Slutwalk London have embarrassed themselves on Twitter with Assange apologism, but that just goes to underline the old saying about a week being a long time in politics. Sarah Ditum wrote about this here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/28/slutwalk-london-julian-assange?newsfeed=true

+* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clare_Short#Member_of_Parliament

+** http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/14/sun-page-3-visible-tip-misogynys-iceberg

+*** in her article about Catherine MacKinnon from the collection ‘Sexwise’ (Cleis Press 1995). You can read an excerpt here: http://harelbarzilai.org/heros/sb.mackinnon.html

Or you could buy ‘Sexwise’, which is great and now available as an e-book.

% http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/sep/22/creepshots-revenge-porn-paparazzi-women

%% http://www.stylist.co.uk/life/tanya-gold-we-need-to-boycott-misogynistic-paparazzi

+**** from ‘Vive La Revolution!’ (Scribner 2004), his comedic history of the French Revolution. It is lovely.

+***** see ‘Public Sex’, a Cleis Press collection of his non-fiction political articles about sex from c.1978-2000. I personally think people should read everything Patrick Califia has written, but this in particular is a must-buy. Own your own copy & send Califia some love in the form of cold hard cash!

++* http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/09/extreme-porn-trial-anatomical-lesson

++** http://homepage.eircom.net/~manics/Articles/SelSep94.htm

++*** http://howtostartasexualrevolution.com/about/

++**** I know this is true because some like-minded people on the Internet told me so.

%%% http://feministire.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/just-dont-call-it-slut-shaming-a-feminist-guide-to-silencing-sex-workers/

If you’ve made it this far – congratulations! Here is an excellent article about poverty & class from a former stripper & sex worker. It’s very good, please read it even if you think sex work should be banned. Especially then:

http://therumpus.net/2012/07/the-other-one-percent/

Credit In The Straight World: or, There’s nothing so overrated as heterosexuality.

Preamble: this is written from the perspective of a white, cis, (somewhat queer-identified) bisexual British woman in her mid-30s, with an ethically non-monogamous & kinky primary relationship of several years standing. My primary partner is a cis man with otherwise similar credentials. While it should be utterly bleeding obvious, I shall nevertheless point out that that these are my opinions only and have minimal wider significance, just so we know we’re all on the same page. K? Moving on…

**********

So, we (the Royal We) have started “trying for a baby”, to use the cliche. It’s typically assumed that when straight people say that, it just means they’re fucking a lot, and when gay peeps say it, there’s something complicated going on with turkey basters, 29 minute sperm dashes and a whole lot of ticklish diarising. But what does it mean when 2 cis bisexual people of opposite sexes do it? My experience thus far is that it’s more than a little surreal.
For starters, there are no role models, nor even cautionary tales. Just none. If there’s an assumption at all, it’s of default heterosexuality, because when it comes down to it, a differently-sexed bi couple is basically a straight couple for babby-forming purposes, right? Hell, I even made that assumption myself. But either it’s something else entirely or we are.
Unexpected realisation #1? I’m not actually enjoying it that much so far. Yes, sex is nice, but simply increasing a good thing doesn’t always make it better. Ask someone who’s ever had a hangover.
Like most women who fuck men, a significant aspect of my sex life up to now has been my avoidance of pregnancy, which is now bafflingly reversed. And frankly, I actively enjoy safer sex. I like condoms and their mess-reducing, insta-lubing qualities. I like other barriers too (mmm gloves) but they don’t get a look-in here. What I positively don’t like is the post-sex sensation of semen running down my legs, and that is now happening every damn time. Screw you, bodily fluids.
Then there’s the actual PIV sex itself. I’m not against it in any way, but it is so NOT an essential part of the repertoire. Hey, I like it, but honestly, my libido is a moderate one. I’m not secretly greysexual, there are just plenty of things I like to do at least as much as any sexual activity. But now it’s all about ejaculation, so we both have to break the habit of a lifetime to fuck when we’re really not in the mood. This doesn’t just make our sex life more boring and annoying, it’s starting to make it scarily unfeminist as well. I hear phrases like, “It’s ok! Don’t worry if I’m into it or not, just do it!” and “I give you full permission to pounce on me as soon as you’re ready!” coming out of my mouth and it scares me. I’m reassured by having a feminist partner, but we don’t exist in a vacuum. I had never even contemplated that having a male partner who just can’t do something if I’m not totally into it could be anything but good! And this is hardly one-sided; we’ve never really had to deal much with performance pressure before, so it’s a bit of a nasty novelty. Being reduced to a single body part is no fun for anyone.
Don’t even think about jazzing it up with kink. There’s no time or energy left for anything non-reproductive, and after all that stress it’s really cuddling we crave most. Unless we’re tense & ticklish from over-stimulation. Which happens. Obviously, this is not so great for other relationships either, and the ovulation-related diarising certainly gets in the way of external dating. Which we fully expected would happen at some point, but maybe not quite so soon. Sorry, metamours.
We briefly contemplated boosting our queer credentials – and giving ourselves a break – by inseminating turkey baster-style, but sadly our ice box wasn’t cold enough. And frankly, I think demanding some procreative wanking as well might have led to a full-on mutiny. The compromise was investing in ClearBlue’s ovulation detector tests. They’re not cheap – up to £40 per 28 days! – but it’s a small price to pay for restricting the stress to 3 or 4 days a month.
Oh well. At least it makes pregnancy look even more desirable. Hurry the fuck up, babby!

Bad Ad, Vice

So, I’d decided not to do a PolyDay write-up cos, y’know, it’d just be a lot of “yeah, it was nice”, which is maybe a bit too boring. Then I got home yesterday to discover a bundle of outrage on Twitter: Vice Magazine had featured a write-up of London Polyday 2012 (NB links to article) by one Monica Heisey, and it wasn’t very kind, being full of nerd snark, dick jokes and the like. So far, so predictable. What was most angering to many readers, though, were Monica’s apparent ethical transgressions: she had, some claimed, used photographs and names without people’s consent and had revealed very personal information. Unsurprisingly, she’s not terribly popular right now. This has led to a certain amount of unhappiness with Polyday’s organisers for not having a more robust media policy and that, I think, is a discussion which will outlast this particular kerfuffle.
As to whether a different press policy might mitigate this kind of thing, I’m really not sure. I’ve been to enough poly events where the written rules are that journalists are welcome as long as they identify as such and don’t publish personal information without permission, which seems reasonable enough providing everyone plays by those rules. The problem with this kind of honour system is that its main sanction is being kicked out of the event, and that won’t do much to limit further articles. Fundamentally, the only real sanction against press intrusion is legal action (usually prohibitively expensive); the PCC is generally acknowledged to be an extremely withered fig-leaf. Anyone doubting the extent of the problem clearly hasn’t been following the Leveson inquiry lately.
In the instant case, Ms Heisey no doubt thinks she played fair, as she stated publicly in the Media workshop that she wanted to write about some non-monogamous stuff for “her blog”; what she omitted to mention was the involvement of Vice magazine, possibly as she could predict the feminist ire this would stoke. Whether this counts as a lie is a matter of debate, but in a practical sense it will be read as dishonesty on some level, especially in any community whose ethos includes a core commitment to radical honesty. But while Monica may have burnt her bridges with Londoners, there’ll always be someone else ready to jump into her shoes, and that’s something everybody who’s in some sort of closet should bear in mind. It’s never fun to have to learn to be less trusting, but life sucks like that. To reiterate Amanda Jones’ sage advice, don’t gamble with what you can’t afford to lose.
As to the article itself, it’s sarcastic and somewhat spiteful, but not a hatchet job the likes of which I really have seen (yes, I’m looking at you, Daily Mail – TRIGGER WARNING: DM LINK FILLED WITH FAIL), so perhaps small mercies apply here. A thorough re-reading gives the impression that a certain amount of effort was expended on finding sufficient snark-worthy subjects – come on, cross-stitch? Really? – and the conclusion is an honest admission that the horny nerds are at least onto something. If I’m being scrupulously fair, I’ll acknowledge right off the bat that plenty of Ms Heisey’s targets are well-enough aimed: about half the people I spoke to, and I fully include myself, were quietly mocking the written description for ‘Postromantic Dance’. We’ve all sat next to That Guy sometimes, and we really wish That Guy would fuck off. The complexity of ‘Chrononauts’ is always its own long conversation. And I HATE the fatherfuckin’ Wet Spots with the burning passion of a thousand suns. The main differences are 1) most of us don’t make fun of our friends *in public* (much) and 2) we sort of feel we’re allowed to laugh at ourselves because we’ve paid our group membership dues over the years. In other words, context is all, and the context which is most chapping people’s hides here is that of a nakedly commercial entity almost deliberately not “getting it” for profit. The question of whether Ms Heisey was  herself paid is largely irrelevant here; Vice is doing what any magazine would do and promoting its brand. Its brand just happens to be in its turn promoting the cruder end of reactionary kyriarchal heterosexism with a thin veneer of “daring” and “controversial” topics. I don’t necessarily think that’s Monica Heisey’s agenda, but again, that doesn’t matter. What Ms Heisey thinks here is far less interesting than Vice Magazine’s desire to publish it, and anyone who hoped Vice might be “open-minded” enough to take a less condemnatory position hasn’t yet grasped that this is exactly how capitalism commodifies your sexuality so a poor copy of it can be sold back to you for a profit. You’re a smart cookie, capitalism; you’ve always got a snappy comeback for everything. A few minutes’ thought will tell you exactly why Polyday’s model does nothing for Vice: it’s a community-run, non-profit-making event whose purpose is to educate and entertain a bunch of, yes, nerds. Gluten-free cakes & gender-neutral toilets are about giving attendees what THEY express a desire for, which is a bad model if you’re trying to tell your audience what they should want to be, rather than helping them decide who they are. Polyday isn’t really about pulling, it doesn’t have branding or sponsors, and it isn’t selling you a book which promises you’ll be fucked senseless by 19-year-old underwear models for the rest of your life if you just follow its rigid 99-point plan to change your job/wardrobe/car/body/face/aspirations. So it’s no wonder there’s little in it for the likes of Vice to promote. We could talk some more about the commodification of the carnal under capital, but I’d rather think back on Susie Bright‘s autobiography, ‘Big Sex, Little Death’, wherein she makes clear that in publishing ‘On Our Backs’, the first ever magazine of lesbian-feminist porn, their staunchest opponents were often feminists and pornographers. They weren’t interested in the joy, only in the obvious threat to their own interests of a competitor who offers something more truly representative, without the guilt. It is barely a coincidence that the tone of Heisey’s review is close to what Isabel Tang, in ‘Pornography: The Secret History Of Civilisation’ (a book accompanying the 1999 documentary series) called “the liberal yawn”, a technique which silences not with outrage but with boredom and ridicule. Sexual revolutions are sooooo 1970s, you guys!
In one sense, Heisey isn’t wrong: small, tight-knit communities are often inherently ridiculous to outsiders, who can’t get the in-jokes, read every statement as both deadly serious & representative, and don’t see why it has to be so wilfully unfashionable. I was a music-press-devouring goth living in the Home Counties in the early ’90s, so trust me when I say it was always at least this bad, and usually worse. The lyrics might change, but the song unfortunately remains the same.
Those smarting at the mockery would probably not prefer to acknowledge the grain of truth in all worthwhile piss-takes, but it has its own silver lining as it applies to Vice and its peers. When it comes to truly vicious satire, Chris Morris & Charlie Brooker’s bleak 2005 comedy series ‘Nathan Barley’, a blistering rage-rant at post-millennial new media Hoxton wankstains, is almost unparalleled in its loathing for the subjects, as Brooker’s original ‘TV Go Home’ column “Cunt” makes painfully clear. While the breadth of Brick Lane arseholes on parade was impressive, the demonstrable bottom-feeders of this 10 denier-thin veil of fiction were to be found at culture & lifestyle mag “Sugar Ape” (I’m sorry. I’m so sorry). A more wretched hive of scum, villainy and misogynist thick-as-pigshit public schoolboys has perhaps never been depicted on screen, and it’s no coincidence that possibly the most grotesquely pathetic antic is when the magazine decides to court controversy with a fashion shoot inspired by the sexual abuse of underage girls – with, of course, a very tiny age disclaimer beneath their hebephilic sleaze-porn to make sure they aren’t prosecuted. Ring any bells? Now, I have no doubt that any resemblance to persons living or dead in Brooker& Morris’ disgusted gut-heave is purely coincidental, and I’m sure they weren’t picking on any single purveyor of overpriced goods & misanthropy to feckless young princelings. Nevertheless, when you combine that with such studiedly neutral depictions of journalism as “His Girl Friday” or “The Sweet Smell Of Success”, if you don’t feel even a little mollified, at least recognise that there’s no profession, hobby or activity which looks spotless under a spotlight. Just stop to ask yourself who’s holding the damn light.
I do feel slightly sorry for the other ‘out’ journalist at Polyday, who embarrassed herself a little by mispronouncing “polyamory” (the confidence of the room dropped by 80% at that point), but was at least reasonably clear & direct about what she wanted to do. This affair has probably screwed up her chances at least as much as her own mistake.
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