Archive for the ‘Sex’ Category

THIS IS WHY HASSLE ON THE STREET UPSETS ME. I want to be seen, and recognised, for what i really am, and the rest of the bollocks just highlights the ways in which i’m not.

from Courtney E Martin, Perfect Girls & Starving Daughters:

We become unsure of our own sight so early on, convinced that the only accurate view of ourselves is outside ourselves. We search for signs that we resemble the mold…we feel, in these brief, fruitless encouters, like we are being seen, when really we’re just being noticed. The difference is significant.

Being noticed is ordinary, fleeting and impersonal. Being seen is extraordinary, lasting and intimate. Being noticed is common and only skin-deep. Being seen is rare and profound. It is what happens when you stay up all night talking in a stranger’s car because the conversatin is so good you forget to reach for the door handle. Suddely it is light and your stomach is growling and your future feels as if it is laid out in front of you like a highway in the desert…Being seen is when your gitrlfriend asks ‘Why do you seem so sad?’ before you realise that you are, in fact, sad. Being seen is rarely about physical beauty [although i think for me it is sometimes about seeing the beauty in the physical]. Being seen is never about being buff or thin.

Being noticed, by contrast, is easy. It is par for the course for most women, especially young, to be noticed, a deeply ingrained ritual of our culture. Men watch. Women are watched. In our reality-tv culture ordinary girls, as well as models and actresses, become accustomed to being objectified….It seems we are all after the same goal, getting women naked and on display…

I’ve been seen, and now i have that middle paragraph tattooed on my soul.

Ah well. C’est la vie. Maybe, one day, being glimpsed sometimes, fleetingly, will be enough?


In response to this article, by a columnist I habitually agree with and for whom I have a great deal of respect, i became so angry in that fierce Somebody Is Wrong on the Internet (or worse, in the paper) way that you do, I was forced – at 1am! – to actually join the trollfest that is the comments. Ms Penny may be right about the film in question, I haven’t seen it, but given the extent to which it’s been condemned by contemporary burlesque performers, she’s not the only one hating it for precisely those reasons. Given her impressive journalistic integrity, her failure to engage with this surely fundamental point is surprising.

I’ve become very interested in the world of burlesque recently (as well as, y’know, my girly-pole-dancing past), and may possibly have in a moment of temporary and ill-advised abandon (as it happens, at the glorious Bar Wotever cabaret) agreed to contribute to the fabulous Lashings of Ginger Beer Time. Largely because of the joy which burlesque performers frequently take in challenging, deconstructing and undermining contemporary gender and sexual stereotype. Ruby Blues removes an 18th-century corset and gown, and then two enormous red feather fans, to reveal an eight-inch dildo, and spray champagne over herself and the room in parodic and paradoxial orgasm; a lady whose name i blush to confess I’ve forgotten retells the immaculate conception as lesbian erotic encounter;Ophelia Bitz bends gender and expectation as easily as she does her glorious voice; Dusty Limits turns ‘I will follow him’ from Sister Act into a sinister stalker’s anthem, neatly inverting gender role and orthodoxy as he does so. Lashings’ first London performance was picketed by feminists who thought just as Ms Penny seems to, and went away entirely converted. To suggest such artists are simply ‘a glib titillation parade, lapdancing with a retro aesthetic’ is both patronising and just plain wrong.

Ms Penny is undoubtedly right about the values of the industry that produced Burlesque the movie. But about the subversive, perverted, challenging, playful subculture it claims to represent? Hardly. As Ms Bitz pointed out on Women’s Hour only last week, there is so much more to burlesque than that film. Ms Penny makes the same mistake as Hollywood there. To conflate a Hollywood interpretation – the product of an industry often manifesting precisely the values she erroeously ascribes to burlesque – with burlesque itself, particularly in this country, is anathema to many current burlesque performers.

Most disturbing of all, to me, anyway, was the article’s concluding sentence: ‘If you want to feel sexy, have sex – and if you want to be empowered, join a political movement.’

With respect, that’s bollocks, to use a technical term. It’s possible to be manipulated into sex in all sorts of circumstances that are the opposite of empowerment – and if recent events are anything to go by, joining a political movement (eg, the anti-cuts movement) has left a lot of people (me included) feeling disillusioned, disappointed, disenfranchised and depressed. Not to mention, in some cases, with serious injuries inflicted by the much greater power of the state. To assert the simple act of having sex – willed or otherwise, respected or otherwise, with lover or partner or stranger or friend – with ‘feeling sexy’, or the possession of political impulse or thought with an ’empowered’ ability to act on or change the world accordingly, is oversimplifying in the worst way. To assume any mode of outward behaviour – be it sexualised performance or political protest -of necessity reflects or creates any kind of universal psycho-emotional reaction in any given individual is nonsense. And to deny any woman – in a world that’s still to a greater or lesser extent a patriarchy – any possible opportunity for authentic self-expression or any arena in which to challenge monolithic misogynist assumption seems shortsighted at best.

If you want to feel empowered, think about kinds of power you want to have and how they might best be achieved. Write, speak, find allies, discuss how desired changes could happen, or existing spaces of power be celebrated. If you want to feel sexy, consider what you as an individual find sexy and act accordingly. If that includes donning a corset and strap-on and giving an intensely erotic gender-, mind- and body-bending musical performance, so be it. I’ll certainly be in the audience, as analytical as i am aroused. And I’m far from being alone.

For anyone interested, here’s the talk I wrote for the porn & feminism discussion in Oxford last night. If the  other speaker hadn’t got on a train to Bath, it might have been more sensical; the first bit is just headings to riff off in refutation if necessary…:

Practical problems with eliminating it

Fantasy isn’t reality

Perfectly plausible men sit at home wanking rather than going out raping women

Binarises and essentialises the genders – big strong threatening men and poor cowering women

Industry, regulation, etc – if you bring things into the mainstream they are taxable and shit.

Writes women into the passive role

You’re assuming all porn is het.

How dare you impose your own (patriarchal) constraints on other genders’ sexual expression?

Chicken/egg argument – while bad porn may open up space for dysfunctional relations to women, whose to say cause/effect are that way round?

‘Generation gap’ arguments probably have more to do with difference in experience levels between late teens/late 20s: if ppl are focused on conquest rather than connection, they probably wd’ve been anyway, regardless of watching porn

Talk proper – or one version of it – begins here:

I had no idea what Matt was going to say, and so when I was writing this I scooted over to the Anti-Porn Men website to have a look. A lot of the stuff seemed to hinge on a) heterosexuality and b) assuming ‘porn’ equalled ‘bad porn’. [For example: because I am a good little journalist, I followed a link to Wendy Maltz in Therapy Today, writing about her experiences with porn as a sex therapist.  Admittedly, she and her husband wrote The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography (HarperCollins, 2008), so I wasn’t expecting a completely neutral viewpoint, but still, I was underwhelmed.] (on the anti-porn men network), Maltz, therapist as she is, assumes that *all* porn ‘portrays sex as a commodity, people as objects, and violence, humiliation, and recklessness as exciting’; all porn is ‘self-centred, sensually blunted, loveless sex’. Which is frankly bollocks. She throws away her porn novels, for example that notoriously unsensual, impersonal and objectifying travesty Lady Chatterley’s Lover, whose perceptibly sex-positive narrative is précised on Wikipedia as: ‘Lady Chatterley moves from the heartless, bloodless world of the intelligentsia and aristocracy into a vital and profound connection rooted in sensuality and sexual fulfillment.’ Not everything that depicts sex is objectifying and damaging. Nor does it depend in the type of sex: hardcore BDSM pornographer Pat Califia is as romantic as they come […] showing love and sexuality as healing and redemptive, sometimes all the more so for including bullwhips.

A lot of the problems Maltz, and others, choose to blame on pornography – young people growing up unsure how to negotiate the fantasy and reality divide, or to manage the emotional side of sex – strike me as not so much problems caused by the porn (because, once again, teenagers pre-interwebs arrived at puberty fully emotionally mature, secure in their own varied sexualities and with absolutely no issues around negotiating society’s expectations of sexuality whatsoever) as issues about communication, intimacy and social expectations. Strikes me that giving teenagers access to trusted adults and a social reality who don’t have hang-ups or taboos or expectations about others’ sexuality – and respectful representations that validated and endorsed their various sexualities – is a much more important goal for us as a society than handwringing about access to porn. (And also, while I’m at it, ‘radical feminist is neither an insult not a synonym for anti-porn, Wendy.)  

PORN AND COMMUNICATION AREN’T ANTHESES. Some of my most communicative relationships have been with men who were regular porn users. If one of the problems supposdedly ‘resulting from increased access to porn is that (het) men are secretive about porn and it’s supposedly damaging their relationships, then by all means let’s open up the relationships, make discussing porn and sexuality normal and acceptable rather than a guilty secret. Because, y’know, sixty years ago when porn was supposedly less violent, there was so much more gender equality. Men were tender, communicative and saw their partners as equals. (That was sarcastic, anybody who doesn’t know me well.) With the best will in the world, as per my favourite t-shirt, I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

If you want to wipe out the mainstream het porn industry, then go ahead. Not quite sure how you plan to do it, or how you’d prevent the obvious resurgence of unregulated and probably even more exploitative pornography, but that’s fine by me. But equating all representation of sex ever with objectification and damage is frankly ridiculous. A lot of mainstream, heteronormative internet porn is shit, I’m not arguing. It’s dull, exploitative, prescriptive, formulaic and sometimes inexplicably and non-consensually violent. But the answer isn’t a blanket ban on pornography. It’s to make better porn. If it’s a problem that porn functions as sex education for a whole generation now – which it does – give proper sex education in schools about the emotional aspects of sex as well as the biological, facilitate open and honest communication, and *make better porn*. Make porn that shows people of all genders (cos there aren’t just two) as desiring equals. Make porn that’s consensual, and consensually violent if you want. Make porn with safe sex and rough sex and tender sex and weird sex and just about everything else. Make porn where people communicate. Because if heterosex isn’t intrinsically misogynist and evil – I’m not even sure how you could construe queer sex as misogynist and evil, and queer sex exists, you know – then representing it isn’t, either. Maybe the way it’s currently represented is often constructed that way, so change it, don’t ban it. There are other ways.

All of this equating ‘porn’ with ‘bad and exploitative porn’ is immensely damaging on lots of levels. It completely ignores the immense potential for sex-positivity and education that good porn could offer. And to demonstate that actually, ‘representing sex’ doesn’t have to equal ‘objectifying damaging and evil’, here’s a list of contexts in which porn really isn’t objectifying and damaging and evil, but joyous, intimate, liberating, sex and body positive, and a load of other things too. For the record, I’m not convinced that ‘heteroporn’ necessarily equals ‘bad porn’, either: there are some sites out there, often run and produced by women, who use volunteer models who choose their own activities and shoot scenes freestyle, including friendly interaction with producers and other models before and after the shoot: would be one example, although its quality is quite variable. But there are several contexts which I felt deliberately resisted or problematised the notion of all porn ever as meaningless, unemotional, and objectifying, and here they are…

1)      Historical porn. I’ve written about this at much greater length on the Lashings of Ginger Beer blog, which you shd all check out if you don’t know it, cos it rocks. Basically, there’s a night in London called Artwank which shows porn from 1895 to roughly 1960, and it’s brilliant. I wanted to get some clips, but Ophelia Bitz, the curator, is doing Erotica, so it’s the trailer or nothing. (I do have it, but it’s tiny clips, so you don’t get much of a feel for it – how pushed for time are we? Do people want to see it?) So, erm, yeah. Sex here looks loadsa fun, nobody’s coerced or violated (not that I have any problem with clearly consensual coercion, ftr), everyone has real noticeably realistic bodies, not conforming to any particular cultural stereotype, people laugh and smile and eat (and also, btw, reverse gender dynamics). There are fewer close-ups than standard het porn today, you can see a lot more than just anonymised body parts, people are people.  It’s refreshingly unformulaic: blowjobs don’t necessarily mean deep throat, and so on. Of course, there are no guarantees that the actors were not secretly being exploited, or in fact living in a society I’d argue could be vastly more sexually oppressive than ours, but they certainly seem to be enjoying themselves. And frankly, given that sex is represented in these vids as something fun and mutual, I’ll forgive the participants for not having thrown off the shackles of patriarchy yet. Most of the stuff I’ve seen is Artwank’s tbh, but there’s a site called RetroRamming that’s dedicated to vintage porn. Unfortunately, it’s subscription only except for 7-second sample clips and no way can I afford to pay for my porn, so I certainly can’t vouch for its content, but if you’re interested there’re another couple of Artwanks in January and February at the RVT, I shall be going with as many fellow reprobates as I can, and you’re more than welcome to join us. Facebook me or something. I don’t bite without pre-negotiation.

2)      Anyway. Next up in the list of non-[evil] pornography, my personal favourite, queer porn. Queer as encompassing the whole LGBTQ spectrum. Writing this talk on Friday night, I commented on everyone’s favourite social networking site that although my sexual experience has predominantly (although by no means exclusively) involved cis men, the majority of porn that I actually found arousing was queer, and the response was universal, including that from cisgendered heterosexual men. The majority of straight porn is soulless, formulaic and awful. Queer porn has people genuinely doing stuff they’re enjoying and making is up as they go along, and it’s really fucking hot. This seems positive for everyone, but I think the independence and variety of queer porn is particularly important when it comes to porn as educative.  Strikes me as really important that young people – or in fact anyone whose sexuality is fluid and evolving regardless of age or anything else – are able to see representations of bodies and sexualities like theirs. One huge advantage of rule 34 is that representations of pretty much everything *exist*, and so anybody concerned about their attraction to a particular gender or a particular sexual proclivity can go out there and find it. If you’re worried because you fancy girls or boys or genderqueer people or you or your partner is trans or you’re one of the debated percentage of people born to some degree intersex or you feel in any other way differentiated from the heteronormative mainstream, there are people like you on the internet, having sex. And in my experience, sites focusing on a specifically queer audience tend to do so a lot more respectfully and joyously than a lot of mainstream het sites.

( I’m focusing rather on women and those of genders other than cis male here, because the impression I got from the anti-porn men’s website was that it was concerned primarily with heteroporn and its representation of women, but I’m pretty sure that queer masculinities and porn is a whole other lecture, partly because in my head I’ve written it.)

There’s an awful lot in this category, so I’m just going to pull out a few sites which I think are doing awesome and very feminist-friendly work. First up is Nofauxxx, which probably a lot of you will’ve heard of – it was set up by Courtney Trouble, who seems pretty much the fairy godmother [..] of all things queer and netly, in 2002 as ‘a space to explore sex beyond straight, gay, lesbian and gender binaries’.  It mixes alt, gay, lesbian, straight, trans, kink, and BBW stuff in pretty glorious harmony, and has featured some of my favourite genderqueer and trans porn stars, people like Jiz Lee and Buck Angel. A lot of it is also quite consent-focused, which is pretty awesome. Pretty much the whole Trouble network is awesome, actually. It also includes next recommendation, Queer Porn Tube (which has brilliant free stuff! Google it…), which does pretty much the same exciting combination of stuff as NoFauxxx, but amateur and for free. In fact, I think if I could get people to go to just one site, that would be it, because the sex is hot, but it also has things like 20-minute fisting instruction videos and a 26-min butch/butch scene called Yes Please which really eroticises consent. It’s the visual equivalent of someone like my beloved Patrick Califia, who writes queer, usually kinky porn a lot of which involves non-normative and transgendered bodies. All these – particularly when they’re free and thus accessible – seems to me to be doing something incredibly important. They portray alternative sexualities as joyous and loving and fulfilling, as well as acting as a kind of how-to manual for everything from sexual acts to consent negotiation. The world, and queer sexuality, would be a poorer place without them. Next site is something slightly different, but something else I think is really important – it’s, which uses – I quote – girl next door types, women with various, non-enhanced bodies that don’t conform to any particular type or shape or size. Some are shaven, some aren’t. It’s mostly solo or girl-girl stuff, although there seem to be a commendable variety of presentations within that – not everyone’s femme, for example. And what they do is leave the cameras rolling, so you get the sex, but you also get the intimacy and the conversation as well. Its schtick is ‘natural’, and it does it ever so well. Again, it’s big on full-body shots, and short on invasive close-ups, and the girls in couples or groups seem genuinely to know and be comfortable with each other. There’s lots of laughing, silly jokes, and occasionally getting covered in clay. Whilst some of it’s downright bizarre, and I’m sure it’s possible to argue that the girls’ willingness to share their sexuality with the world is in some sense a dysfunctional reaction to the problem of patriarchy, or that associating sex with other people’s genuine emotional intimacy rather than one’s own is problematic, in terms of representation of sex, it’s fun, comfortable and human.

Lastly, because I am running out of time, is another personal favourite, Shine Louise Houston’s Crash Pad Series. Which won several Feminist Porn Awards, by the way. To quote Houston, ‘there is power in creating images, and [I think it’s necessary] for a woman of colour and a queer to take that power.’ She uses it to showcase – another quote – ‘real dykes, femme on femme, boi, stud, genderqueer and trans-masculine performers, transwomen, transmen, queer men and women engaging in authentic queer sexuality, whether it is with safer sex, strap-on sex, cocksucking, kink and bdsm, gender play and fluidity’, and the site does exactly what it says on the tin. All the performers choose their co-stars, and the site is a joyous and affirmative space for those of alternative sexualities as well as, well, pretty damn hot. Some, although by no means all, of Crash Pad Series’ content is kinky, which leads me neatly onto my third category of ‘not exploitative, actually’ porn, kink.


3)      It may seem a bit incongruous to say that BDSM porn – an acronym usually held to stand for bondage, dominance and submission, and sado-masochism – is actually notably less exploitative, when it focuses so explicitly on the manipulation of sociocultural power dynamics for erotic effect, and frequently physical violence. If you want me to talk about practising it and feminism and empowerment, I’m more than happy to, but it’s a bit of a diversion, so I’ll leave it for now. In the context of porn and representation,  I wanted to, uh, bring it up because kink is a culture that (ideally, and when it’s working) runs on and is powered by consent, and this comes through in its pornographic representation. Of course, a lot of the amateur stuff is unregulated, and BDSM dynamics often hinge on the appearance of coercion, so it’s hard to see consent negotiation, so I’m going to focus specifically on the those sites that come under the umbrella of, undoubtedly the dominant –[…] pun intended – professional kink site on the web. Based in San Francisco, it does pretty much everything, gay, straight, fetish, various bdsm specialisms. Most of its output is too much for me, frankly. But hearteningly, it also has admirable ethics, an extensive list of models’ rights and rules for directors, and specifically highlights all models’ consent to various acts and experiences during the shoot. [Note, eg, the extensive and nuanced rules regarding crying, no.17]. A number of acts that come up repeatedly and with (at best) questionable consent in a lot of ‘normal’ mainstream het porn are explicitly banned here. Models have a safeword [we know what that is, right?], and an alternative for if their mouths are otherwise engaged, and a number of acts are specifically banned. Crying from pain, or during forced blowjobs, for example, immediately halt the shoot. Likewise any activity resulting in bleeding, choking or coughing. Any person on a shoot is encouraged to halt scenes to check on a model’s welfare if they feel it necessary, and downtime including reassuring the model that they can safeword is compulsory, while taunting is banned. The importance of aftercare is highlighted, and each clip includes a pre-scene interview that establishes age, consent, limits and preferences, and a later post-scene interview where the models discuss their experiences. Of course, I cannot personally guarantee that no model has lied. But every site under the umbrella emphasises the importance of consent in sexuality and the authenticity of its models’ desires, whatever their gender, and given that I’m fundamentally opposed to assuming the right to pass judgement on anyone else’s sexuality, I think that’s the very opposite of exploitative.

So, yes. There’s also het amateur porn – I hesitate to pronounce on anything both so widespread and so unregulated, but I’d like to think that at least some of it features people who genuinely want to fuck each other doing things they genuinely want to do because they genuinely enjoy them, and not simply going through the motions […] with a complete stranger. Above all, though, if you want to see porn being done right, with willing and sex-positive participants, watch some queer porn. Some of it models communication and consent to an extent that warms my heart. And other bits.


Just because I can, here are some of my favourite sex-, porn- and/or feminism-related blogs