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.