Posts Tagged ‘Sex’

Trigger warning: some talk of rape, abuse and pedophilia.

Here’s the thing about context: it matters.

Earlier in the year, there was widespread outrage over the actions of one Daniel Tosh, a comedian who thought that the best way to deal with a female audience member decrying his use of rape jokes was to start riffing about how hilarious it would be if she were to be gang raped right there and then. In the backlash that followed, one article in particular by Lindy West stuck with me – specifically, this paragraph (my emphasis):

 This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an “equal-opportunity offender,” is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did “not censoring yourself” become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks. Your girlfriend is censoring herself when she says she’s okay with you playing Xbox all day. In a way, comedy is censoring yourself—comedy is picking the right words to say to make people laugh. A comic who doesn’t censor himself is just a dude yelling. And being an “equal opportunity offender”—as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah”—falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry—I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer. It’s really easy to believe that “nothing is sacred” when the sanctity of your body and your freedom are never legitimately threatened.

Ignoring the off-key point about the Xbox, this argument perfectly encapsulates why, in so many cases, the context of an action matters more than the action itself. To run with West’s metaphor, the difference between angrily king-hitting a weak, vulnerable stranger and bestowing a gentle, congratulatory arm-punch on a sturdy friend is so monumental that trying to boil both incidents down to their single common denominator – punching – is categorically meaningless, because the contextual factors which distinguish them are more relevant than the single action which unites them. By sidelining context, you not only miss the extremity of the comparison, you forget to make a comparison at all. Such similarity as exists allows the contrast, but doesn’t automatically supersede it.

Thus: defending the actions of Michael Brutsch, aka Violentacrez, (or at least, denouncing his comeuppance) in the name of free speech without reference to any sort of context is equivalent to arguing that because king-hitting a stranger and shoulder-bumping a friend both involve punching, people who engage in the former should be protected and tolerated so that the rest of us are free to do the latter, because otherwise you’d have to outlaw both. By this way of thinking, it’s somehow innately hypocritical to condone an action in one context while condemning it in another, as though (to take just one of a bajillion potential examples) there’s no meaningful difference between having sex with a willing partner instead of an unwilling one. If the people currently defending Brutsch viewed sexual consent the same way they do freedom of speech, they’d end up arguing that condemning rape, pedophilia  sexual abuse, sexual harassment and other non-consensual activities is somehow fundamentally incompatible with accepting consensual sex and desire,  because unless you protect every single type of sexual encounter, you’re not really protecting any.

Oh, wait.

When it comes to summing up exactly how toxic, wrongheaded and fundamentally flawed this logic is – not just with regard to freedom of speech, but the impact of Reddit’s creepshot forums on women – I can’t do better than quote from this amazing piece by Aaron Bady (again, my emphasis):

…“Free Speech” is not and cannot be a blanket protection of all speech… If your speech is assault, it will be prosecuted as such; if your speech is conspiracy to commit murder (or god help you, terrorism), it will be prosecuted as such. If your speech is criminal, it is not protected…

…on those occasions,we understand that speech to be a vehicle for some other kind of act or violation. In those cases, it isn’t the speech that’s being criminalized, but the act of violence it’s being used to commit…

What I want to observe, then, is simply this: when people invoke “free speech” to defend a person’s right to take pictures of unwilling women and circulate those pictures on the internet, they are saying that it is okay to do so. They are saying that society has no legitimate interest in protecting a woman’s right not to have pictures of her body circulated without her consent…Freedom of speech only protects the kinds of speech that some version of the social “we” has determined not to be violent. And by saying that what he [Brutsch] did was protected, we are determining that those forms of violence against women are not, in fact, violent.

The idea that Brutsch’s actions were somehow “necessary” to the preservation of freedom of speech is therefore a fundamental – one might even say willful – misunderstanding of the restrictions already imposed on speech and other associate actions. Of necessity, these restrictions exist both legally and socially, because (to borrow West’s bluntly effective phrase) the human race does not consist entirely of entitled, sociopathic fucks. If you send someone death threats, your speech is not protected; if you racially abuse a coworker, your speech is not protected; if you stalk or harass a stranger, your actions are not protected. Freedom of speech is not synonymous with freedom from consequences, because freedom of speech does not constitute an inalienable right to do anything and everything we feel entitled to do, like violate the consent and bodies of others. This ridiculous “all or nothing” approach to free speech is predicated on a contextually useless binary – freedom vs censorship – which in turn stems from a false belief in the universality of freedom to begin with. Unless you’re a hardcore anarchist, denying the necessity of placing any legal, social or cultural limits on freedom is utterly unfeasible; and if you are a hardcore anarchist, then why you think Brutsch’s privacy should be respected due to the tenuous, technical non-illegality of some of his actions is beyond me.

And yet, conveniently enough, Brutsch and his supporters are willing to place at least one limit on freedom of speech: Thou Shalt Not Dox. How this is meant to fit with their established claim that all types of speech – no matter how offensive – should be protected for the Greater Good is beyond me, though in most cases, I suspect it’s less a matter of outright hypocrisy than a case of subcultural blindness:  doxing is so deeply ingrained as taboo in some circles that many adherents have simply failed to consider the argument that it could reasonably constitute an exercise in freedom of speech, at least in some circumstances. (To say nothing of the fact that, as discussed above, the whole idea of utterly uncensored speech is bunk anyway; even Brutsch drew the line at letting hardcore child pornography onto Reddit, though whether he did so because he thought it was immoral, as opposed to merely inappropriate content for his subreddit, is another matter entirely; as is the far more significant question of whether he actually reported such images and their posters to the police.)

But for those of us who do see the value in placing some legal/social limits on free speech, it’s important to note that doxing, or outing, or whatever you wish to call it, is justified or unwarranted depending on the context in which it occurs, rather than being inherently objectionable. To contrast two compelling extremes, for instance, whistleblowers frequently require anonymity and protection in order to speak out against wrongdoers without compromising their safety, the treatment of Bradley Manning after he passed information to Wikileaks being a case in point; online pedophiles, on the other hand, use anonymity in order to perpetrate abuse, making any defense of their privacy indefensible. As both Racialicious and blackamazon point out, doxing poses a significant threat to POC and members of other marginalised groups who rely on the comparative anonymity of the internet in order to speak freely about their oppression; likewise, countless others from abuse victims to minors to key witnesses to closeted QUILTBAG persons all benefit from anonymity in order to preserve their personal safety and wellbeing from those who take their continued, happy existence as a personal affront. But to say that everyone on the internet either deserves or requires this same level of protection is ludicrous: abusers do not, criminals do not, stalkers do not, and if for no other reason than the blatant hypocrisy of stripping consent and privacy from thousands of women through his subreddits while still trying to claim it for himself, Michael Brutsch certainly does not. The question to ask here isn’t, as Cicero once famously did, cui bono, but cui perfero magis – who suffers more? And whichever way you cut it, whatever consequences Brutsch is currently experiencing pale into insignificance beside the widespread damage caused by his trollish endorsement of domestic violence, misogyny, racism and yes, pedophilia. The bed he currently occupies is entirely of his own making, and though he’s beginning to feel the repercussions, one man categorically cannot suffer more than thousands, and especially not when they’re his own victims.

Note also, please, the staggeringly sexist discrepancy inherent in the fact that, while Brutsch has lost his job for posting creepshots of unconsenting women and minors (among other despicable things), the subjects of such photos often lose theirs, too – and more besides. One of the more disgusting modern chauvinisms is the pressure put on young girls to engage in sexting with men and boys who, having promised to keep the photos private, promptly share them online, where they enter circulation among exactly the sort of communities that Brutsch created. Countless teenage girls have committed or contemplated suicide as a result of the subsequent bullying and slutshaming they experience; others endure the harassment, only to live in fear of the day those old pictures resurface to ruin their adult lives, too. Neither is the problem restricted to teenagers: as the final screenshot on this chilling entry on the Predditors tumblr makes clear, some members were (and, presumably, still are) posting compromising photos of their unsuspecting, unconsenting partners online as masturabtory fodder for strangers, thus ensuring that women who’ve done nothing worse than engage in intimacy with boyfriends, fiances and spouses are at risk of suffering real life repercussions.

Fifteen-year-old Amanda Todd recently committed suicide due to sustained sexual cyberbullying by a man who sent topless photos of her to students at every school she attended – and in response, the vigilante group Anonymous has now posted his details online. Are we going to lament that sort of doxing, too? Or are we honestly going to assert that there’s some sort of fundamental moral difference between a man who drove one teen to suicide with his non-consensual sharing of sexualised photos and a man who created multiple massive subreddits devoted to the exact same principle?

Brutsch has lost his job for violating the privacy of thousands of strangers using the same skillset for which he was employed, and for unapologetically peddling racism, misogyny, pedophilia and images of dead children – all of which would be well outside of any workplace code of conduct – for laughs.  But thanks to the same sort of sexism his culture of trolling and creepshotting relies upon to perpetuate itself, the same women whose photos were distributed through his forums run a similar risk of real-world backlash, too: not because they’ve done anything offensive or immoral, but because evidence of their sexuality, whether distributed with their consent or without it, is construed as immorality. And meanwhile, the likelihood of any serious repercussions being felt by the majority of contributors to Brutsch’s subreddits is slim: happily, at least one teacher caught taking upskirt photos of his underage students has been fired, but as for the rest of the Predditors? Who knows?

As Aaron Bady made clear, Brutsch’s actions are fundamentally violent – against women, against minors, against POC – because they’re contextualised by their place in a culture of violence against women, of the aggressive, non-consensual objectification of women, and of the consequences of widespread and institutional anti-black racism. Defending him denies the reality of that violence, and in so doing helps it to go unchecked. Quite literally, freedom of speech is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Everything is contextual, and if you make a habit of exploiting, demeaning and sexually objectifying others, violating their privacy and consent through the misguided belief that you’re entitled to do so without let or hindrance? Then be prepared to deal with the consequences.

Or, better yet: just don’t. The world will thank you for it.

Trigger warning: some mention of rape

TMI warning: masturbatory themes

In Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi (which is problematic to say the least), there’s a scene where Zam, a preadolescent boy, watches with horror as his female caregiver and sole companion, Dodola, is raped. As Zam and Dodola live alone in the desert – and as, through a strange twist of circumstances, Dodola is less than ten years Zam’s senior – his sexual awakening has thus far consisted of a burgeoning, awkward attraction to Dodola, who is quite literally the only woman he knows. But after he witnesses her rape, he starts to loathe his own sexuality. Because that single, awful, abusive image is Zam’s sole frame of reference for adult sex, it’s what he pictures whenever he tries to imagine himself with Dodola; instinctively, he recoils from it, but without any knowledge of what consensual sex might look like, he draws the conclusion that male desire – his desire – is inherently evil, not only because that’s his sole experience of it, but because that image has invaded his fantasies, turning them into something repugnant. He doesn’t know how to be aroused without linking that arousal to something vile, with the result that he ultimately comes to despise his own sexual identity.

This is both a fictitious and decidedly extreme example of negative sexual reinforcement, but one which nonetheless makes me think about a vastly different, non-fictional account of sexual awakening: that of writer Caitlin Moran in her hilarious, feminist biography, How To Be a Woman. To quote:

Coupled with the pan-sexual, freak-show silliness of Eurotrash – Lolo Ferrari, the woman with the biggest breasts in the world, bouncing on a trampoline; drag queens with dildos and butt plugs; gimps in harnesses; hoovering bored Dutch housewives’ flats – this is the sum total of all the sex I see until I’m 18. Perhaps ten minutes in total – a series of arty, freaky, sometimes brutal vignettes, which I lash together, and use as the basis for my sexual imagination.

Thinking back, my own initial exposure to sex scenes came from a similarly weird melange of sources. Like most Australian teenagers of my generation, I’d memorised the page-number for the bit in John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When The War Began where Ellie and Lee had sex, while my copy of Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer ended up with several similarly well-thumbed sections. Combined with a 1972 edition of The Joy of Sex I discovered lurking in a forgotten corner of my parents’ bookshelves and the bit in Money Train where Jennifer Lopez sleeps with Wesley Snipes, this constituted the sex-positive end of my masturbatory spectrum. Somewhere in the middle was a volume of archaic erotic bookplates (shut up) that was similarly liberated from obscurity, the sex scenes from Shakespeare in Love and the sometimes-positive-but-usually-problematic-and-occasionally-outright-rapey sex in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books and Sara Douglass’s Axis and Wayfarer Redemption trilogies. At the far end were the disturbing and numerous glimpses of aggressive sexuality, coercion and rape that constituted the bread and butter of my favourite crime shows, plus the aforementioned rape scenes from writers like Douglass and, much later, Terry Goodkind.

In other words, it was a mess, and one which left me with a mental sexual landscape dominated by male  aggression. It took me years to to understand that the dissonance between my private sexual fantasies and what I actually like in real life was, in large part, attributable to the fact that the overwhelming majority of sex scenes I’d encountered in my formative tweens and early teens explicitly situated male dominance as sexy, or at least as the default form of sexual instigation: I hadn’t realised I could fantasise without it. This bugs me less now that I’m an adult and can, up to a point, sort through it all rationally, but as Moran goes on to say in How To Be a Woman, most teenagers now don’t have to rely on strange, half-glimpsed sex scenes in adult books and TV shows: instead, they can just look up porn on the internet – and that’s a bit worrying, because as weird as all those pre-internet sex sources were, at least they involved some mystery and variety, to say nothing of everyday bodies, whereas the online porn industry is rife with institutionalised misogyny, fake boobs, vaginoplasty, airbrushing and contextless, unemotional grunting scripted solely for the male gaze.  And that’s bad for everyone: boys because they assume that’s what girls both want and should look like as a default, and girls because they’re taught to try and emulate sex-scripts and bodies that are anything but natural. (That’s for hetero boys and girls, of course; I can’t speak to the experience of LGBTQ teens browsing porn online, but by and large, and particularly given the wealth of lesbian porn that is in fact produced for straight men, I’m going to assume it’s not much better.)

And nor, by and large, are TV and movies. The fact that there’s more visible sex and nudity in a single episode of just about anything produced by HBO (Deadwood, A Game of Thrones, True Blood) than I managed to glimpse in my whole adolescence cannot help but bring this comic to mind; but more importantly, the current abundance of televised sex is not the same as an abundance of sex-positivity. Almost exclusively white women being grabbed forcefully, raped and abused, or else being coyly and passively coaxed into sex by active hetero menfolk? That, we have aplenty. Women initiating sex, lesbian sex that isn’t written with heterosexual voyeurs in mind, actual gay sex, loving LGBTQ encounters, men being passive in sex, sexiness being tied to something other than male dominance, and interracial or non-white couples having sex? That, we have not so much of, and in some cases none at all. Cinema is infinitely worse than TV in this respect, because television, for all its faults, is much less bounded by that peculiarly hypersexualised-yet-1950’s sense of  what sex sells, or ought to, that so toxically pervades Hollywood. But even so, it’s far from the full and well-rounded spectrum of tastes it ought to be.

Which leaves books: both adult works that teenagers find themselves reading and, more specifically, YA novels. And even though this is a post about the importance of sex-positive sex scenes for people of all orientations and genders, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that literary sex scenes are particularly important for girls, not only because of the staggering number of teenage ladies looking to YA for romance and sexiness in the post-Twilight period, but because when it comes to the representations of sex in other media – porn, TV and movies, to say nothing of magazine ads and sex advice columns – girls are almost universally the ones being grabbed and raped, the ones depicted as passive sex-objects, posed like dolls or lusted after as unattainable conquests. As things stand right now, YA novels are pretty much the only place a teenage old girl can go to find the image of someone like her receiving cunnilingus from a caring, considerate lover, and when you look at it that way, the power of sex scenes in YA novels should instantly become apparent. In a sexual climate where women’s wants and needs are so often painted as secondary to male desire, and where male dominance, instigation and aggression are seen as sexual defaults, any medium where girls can lash together their sexual landscapes from scenes of female desire, mutual respect and non-aggression is made fundamentally radical.

Not, of course, that this always happens: while Twilight, for all its many troubling failures, at least produced a heroine with sexual agency, one who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to ask for it, some other prominent novels haven’t managed even that much. Others, though, have, and that’s the point – that sex in YA novels can and does do what sex in other media doesn’t, namely: focus on female pleasure, needs and desires. Which is, I suspect, why the merest prospect of it freaks so many people out: because if there’s one set of bodies that puritanical conservatism has always yearned to shame, contain and control, it’s young female bodies. It’s not even a question of how graphic (or not) the sex/sexiness might be, though as with all matters of personal taste, YMMV – it’s a question of who the audience is. And absolutely every time I’ve seen journalists, concerned parents or censorship groups get up in arms about ‘inappropriate’ sexual content in YA novels, it hasn’t seemed irrelevant that the books in question have overwhelmingly been aimed at teenage girls. (Not that gender is ever mentioned as justification for the complaint – heaven forbid!)

And maybe it’s just a consequence of the fact that YA is a genre currently dominated by women writers, women who perhaps grew up with few or no books to read whose heroes were in fact heroines like them – a problem they likely also encountered in TV and movies – and who subsequently have set out to rectify the disparity; and maybe it’s because society carries a tacit but biased expectation that teenage boys are inevitably going to buy magazines like Zoo and FHM and look at boobies on the internet, and are in any case less interested in romance than they are in pure, abstract sex, with the result that there’s less of a perceived market for sexy books for boys, and hence fewer books of that type and minimal objections to the ones that do exist. Or maybe there’s as many sexy books for boys as for girls, and it’s just that people are more freaked out by the latter than the former, perhaps because the raging, overtly romantic teen-girl fandoms outstrip in their sudden visibility the quieter teen-boy fandoms, because caring about stories and fictional couples and queuing for hours to see your favourite literary idols are all acceptable things for girls to do, but which for exactly that reason boys are likely to be stigmatised for doing, even though that sort of sexist double standard is, well, a sexist double standard. But the point, the point, is that whenever I hear someone talking about how it’s wrong to have sex and sexiness in YA novels, what I actually hear is this:

I’m terrified that the first fictional sex a teenage girl encounters might leave her feeling good about herself. I’m terrified that fictional sex might actually make teenage girls think sex can be fun and good, that reading about girls who say no and boys who listen when they say it might give them the confidence to say no, too – or worse still, to realise that boys who don’t listen to ‘no’ aren’t worth it. I’m terrified that YA novels might teach teenage girls the distinction between assault and consensual sex, and give them the courage to speak out about the former while actively seeking the latter. I’m terrified that teenage girls might think seriously about the circumstances under which they might say yes to sex; that they might think about contraception before they need it, and touch themselves in bed at night while fantasising about generous, interesting, beautiful lovers who treat them with consideration and respect. I’m terrified of a generation of teenage girls who aren’t shy or squeamish about asking for cunnilingus when they want it, or about loving more than one person at once, and who don’t feel shame about their arousal. I’m terrified that teenage girls might take control of their sexuality and, in so doing, take that control of them and their bodies away from me.

Which is also why I get so angry whenever I come across negative sexuality in YA novels: books where the brooding hero treats the heroine badly, ignores her when she says no, abuses her trust and feelings and slams her bodily against walls, and where she’s made to feel uncomfortable about and disquieted by her feelings, because not only do such romances fail at sex-positivity, but if that’s your bag, then every other form of pop culture is ready and willing to oblige you.

Sex/y scenes in YA matter because YA novels aren’t contraband. It’s not like sneaking a glance at the late night movie, then frantically switching channels when your parents inevitably walk in during the naked bits, or covertly trying to hide a Mills and Boon under your bed, or having to clear your browser history and check that the door’s locked if you want to look at porn or read slashfic on the internet. You can read YA novels openly – on the bus, at school, at home – and never have to worry that someone’s going to find your behaviour suspicious. Sex/y scenes in YA matter because, by the very nature of belonging to a permitted form of media, they help to disassociate sex from surreptitious secrecy: they make it something open rather than furtive, something that rightfully belongs to you, the reader, because the book was meant for you to read and remember. It doesn’t matter if the scene is detailed or not, if it’s only fiery kisses or much, much more: the point is that you’re allowed to have it, allowed to enjoy it, and that perhaps for the first time in your life, you’re viewing something arousing that doesn’t make you out to be a sex object in heels, but an active, interesting heroine who also happens to have a love life.

To quote one of my favourite ever YA novels, Laini Taylor’s utterly brilliant Daughter of Smoke and Bone:

‘I don’t know many rules to live by,’ he’d said. ‘But here’s one. It’s simple. Don’t put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles–drug or tattoo–and… no inessential penises either.’

‘Inessential penises?’ Karou had repeated, delighted with the phrase in spite of her grief. ‘Is there any such thing as an essential one?’

‘When an essential one comes along, you’ll know,’ he’d replied.

No wonder the conservatives are terrified.

Everyone’s heard of friendzoning – even if they don’t know the word, they sure as hell know the concept. It’s what happens time and again to unfortunate Nice Guys who, despite being nothing but sugar and spice to the girls they love, are nonetheless denied the sexual relationships they so obviously deserve and are instead treated like platonic equals – a terrible, unfair fate spawned by the dark side of feminism.

And if you thought even part of that statement was correct, Imma stop you right there.

To borrow the succinct, nail-head-hitting phraseology of one hexjackal*:

Friendzoning is bullshit because girls are not machines that you put Kindness Coins into until sex falls out.

Dear Hypothetical Interlocutor whose hackles just bristled with the unfairness of that statement; who thinks that girls can be in the Friend Zone, too, and that therefore this point is both invalid and reverse-sexist into the bargain. For your edification, I would like to submit the following definitions of the term Friend Zone as supplied by Urban Dictionary:

1. “The ‘friend zone’ is like the penalty box of dating, only you can never get out. Once a girl decides you’re her ‘friend’, it’s game over. You’ve become a complete non-sexual entity in her eyes, like her brother, or a lamp.” – Ryan Reynolds in Just Friends.

‘I’ve been locked in the friend zone with her since high school!’

2. A state of being where a male inadvertently becomes a ‘platonic friend’ of an attractive female who he was trying to intiate a romantic relationship. Females have been rumored to arrive in the Friend Zone, but reports are unsubstantiated.

Girl: “I love you (Insert the poor bastard’s name here,) but I dont want to ruin a great friendship by dating you.” 
Guy: “Well why the fuck did I waste two months on you?”

and Wikipedia:

There are differing explanations about what causes the friend zone. One report suggests that some women don’t see their male friends as potential love interests because they fear that deepening their relationship might cause a loss of the romance and mystery or lead to rejection later…

Dating adviser Ali Binazir described the friend zone as Justfriendistan, and wrote that it’s a “territory only to be rivaled in inhospitability by the western Sahara, the Atacama desert, and Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell.”

I therefore submit to you, Hypothetical Interlocutor, that the Friend Zone is not an equal opportunities habitat. It is where men go – or more accurately, where men perceive themselves to go – when women fail to reward their friendship with sex. Or, to quote the immortal wisdom of the internet:

Slut is how we vilify a woman for exercising her right to say yes.

Friendzone is how we vilify a woman for exercising her right to say no.

Here’s the thing, Hypothetical Interlocutor: if you truly are a self-professed Nice Guy (and I strongly suspect that you are), then you probably espouse the belief that women and men are equal. More than espouse – you believe! You know! Except that, somewhere along the line, you’ve got it into your head that if you’re romantically interested in a girl who sees you only as a friend, her failure to reciprocate your feelings is just that: a failing. That because you’re nice and treat her well, she therefore owes you at least one opportunity to present yourself as a viable sexual candidate, even if she’s already made it clear that this isn’t what she wants. That because she legitimately enjoys a friendship that you find painful (and which you’re under no obligation to continue), she is using you. That if a man wants more than friendship with a woman, then the friendship itself doesn’t even attain the status of a consolation prize, but is instead viewed as hell: a punishment to be endured because, so long as he thinks she owes him that golden opportunity, he is bound to persist in an association that hurts him – not because he cares about the friendship, but because he feels he’s invested too much kindness not to stick around for the (surely inevitable, albeit delayed) payoff.

And if she never sleeps with him? Then she’s a bitch.

I cannot state this clearly enough: if you really believe in equality, then you have to acknowledge the fact that women have a right to say no. That no matter how pure and true your feelings, your ladylove is under no obligation whatever to reciprocate them, because friendship is not a business transaction, and women are allowed to want male friends. Yes, it is difficult and sad and heartbreaking to love someone who doesn’t love you back, and doubly so when that person is a friend. Believe me; I speak from experience. This is not a fun thing to endure! But discounting the woman as a bitch, a user, a timewaster, a whore with no taste who only wants to sleep with arseholes instead of Nice Guys like you is not on. It is pure, unadulterated sexism: the attitude that friendship with a woman is only ever a stepping-stone to getting into her pants, such that if the pants-getting is off the table, then so too is the friendship.

Which, frankly, is bullshit. If you don’t care enough about someone to enjoy their company and respect their decisions when sex is off the table, then that person is right not to sleep with you, because enjoying someone’s company and respecting their decisions is pretty much how sex gets on the table to start with.

To quote the single best point in an otherwise deeply problematic Cracked piece:

What we learned as kids is that we males are each owed, and will eventually be awarded, a beautiful woman. We were told this by every movie, TV show, novel, comic book, video game and song we encountered…

In each case, the woman has no say in this — compatibility doesn’t matter, prior relationships don’t matter, nothing else factors in. If the hero accomplishes his goals, he is awarded his favorite female. Yes, there will be dialogue that maybe makes it sound like the woman is having doubts, and she will make noises like she is making the decision on her own. But we, as the audience, know that in the end the hero will “get the girl,” just as we know that at the end of the month we’re going to “get our paycheck.” Failure to award either is breaking a societal contract. The girl can say what she wants, but we all know that at the end, she will wind up with the hero, whether she knows it or not.

And now you see the problem. From birth we’re taught that we’re owed a beautiful girl. We all think of ourselves as the hero of our own story, and we all (whether we admit it or not) think we’re heroes for just getting through our day.

So it’s very frustrating, and I mean frustrating to the point of violence, when we don’t get what we’re owed. A contract has been broken. These women, by exercising their own choices, are denying it to us. It’s why every Nice Guy is shocked to find that buying gifts for a girl and doing her favors won’t win him sex. It’s why we go to “slut” and “whore” as our default insults — we’re not mad that women enjoy sex. We’re mad that women are distributing to other people the sex that they owed us.

In pop culture, girls who crush hopelessly on guys they can’t have are painted as just that – hopeless. Over and over again, we’re taught that girls who openly express sexual or romantic interest in guys who don’t want them are pitiable, stalkerish, desperate, crazy bitches. More often than not, they’re also portrayed as ugly –  whether physically, emotionally or both –  in order to further establish their undesirability as an objective fact. Both narratively and, as a consequence, in real life, men are given free reign to snub, abuse, mislead and talk down to such women: we’re raised to believe that female desire is unseemly, so that any consequent shaming is therefore deserved. There is no female-equivalent Friend Zone terminology because, in the language of our culture, a man’s romantic choices are considered sacrosanct and inviolable. If a girl has been told no, then she has only herself to blame for anything that happens next – but if a woman says no, then she must not really mean it. Or, if she does, she shouldn’t: the rejected man is a universally sympathetic figure, and everyone from moviegoers to platonic onlookers will scream at her to just give him a chance, as though her rejection must always be unfounded rather than based on the fact that he had a chance, and blew it. And even then, give him another one! The pathos of Single Nice Guys can only be eased by pity-sex with unwilling women that blossoms into romance!

Well, screw that. The Friend Zone is a fundamentally sexist construction based solely on the idea that women should be penalised for putting their own romantic happiness above that of an interested man. If a lady doesn’t want you, then either respect her decision and keep away to salve your heart, or respect her decision and stay because you still think she’s cool enough to be worth the effort of friendship. But if you don’t respect her decision, then you don’t respect her – and if you don’t respect her, then stay the fuck out of her life.

*Amendment, 11 April 2012: Originally, the first quote in this piece was attributed to Aeryn Walker. However, she has since informed me that the kindness/coins line originated with @hexjackal, and though I don’t have the exact reference for that first attribution, I’ve nonetheless changed it in the text.

Responding to my post on default narrative sexism, commenter Kevin Veale reported the following incident:

It also reminds me, sadly, of a thread yesterday where an RPG author posted a question about how to shift cultural dynamics about gender in an RPG setting. The thread then proceeded to implode with a bunch of bullshit where people were citing other examples where authors had tried that as “bullshit” because “They’re doing unrealistic stuff purely to create a bizarro world where it’d be cool if women were cavalry,” rather than the listed intent of said author to create a different gender dynamic.

Being both a geek and a ladyperson, this phenomenon is one I’ve encountered many times before, and always felt frustrated by – so much so that I’ve decided to upgrade my response from comment to post.

The sort of incident mentioned above is sadly common in geek culture – a blind and subtle species of sexism-as-normative wherein any attempt to reverse established gender dynamics is written off as a nothing more than cheap attempt at novelty by virtue of the fact that the audience either didn’t expect it or doesn’t see the utility of it. Back when I first started playing D&D in highschool, I remember the pleasant feeling of shock and surprise when, on opening the handbook, I found that all the pronouns used to describe the hypothetical players and characters were female ones. When, seconds later, I remarked on this fact out loud, my then-boyfriend instantly expressed his irritation at it, saying something along the lines of, ‘They’re only doing it to seem cool and politically correct.’ And being sixteen, I instantly found myself agreeing with him: partly because he was my boyfriend (alas!) but mostly because it genuinely did look weird – by which I mean, of course, that I’d never seen it done before. And because I had no grounding in feminism at that point, and even though it had made me feel validated and welcomed as a girl geek just moments earlier, I took up his stance both then and for quite a while afterwards: that switching up the gender pronouns was just an arbitrary, pointless thing people sometimes did to look hip. Whereas, of course, the point was right there in my initial reaction: to make girls like me feel happier playing D&D, and – though it failed with my group of friends – perhaps to make male players more thoughtful and less judgmental when it came to women in general.

As far as I can tell, straight male geeks in particular tend to adopt this position – that is, Random Girls = Bad – for any of three main reasons:

1. Geek culture is so overwhelmingly dominated by images of hyper-sexualised women (anime, maquettes, comics, video games) that even though female characters are frequently shown to excel in traditionally masculine roles across all such media – as mechanics, hackers, warriors, engineers, gunsmiths, leaders and pilots, for instance – their visual, physical sexiness (and, frequently, costuming) is designed to signal that these attributes, rather than being markers of competence and equality, are instead intended as, essentially, masturbatory aids on par with their physical assets: the fantasy of hot women made even hotter by their (to the audience) unrealistic-yet-droolworthy possession of masculine skills. This is why fanservice, unrealistic bodies, ridiculous costuming and wildly impossible poses are so very, very frustrating to female geeks and feminists: because ninety-nine times out of a hundred, their sole utility and relevance is on the level of sexual exploitation. And though most straight male fans are self-aware enough to realise such bodies are meant as unrealistic fantasies, many still have a disturbing tendency to take the logic further, concluding that if women with ridiculous bodies and costumes are unrealistic – and if, given this fact, it’s similarly improbable that women who look, dress and act like that would actually go about their jobs that way in the real world – then logically, real women must not belong in those professions, because the idea that they might do is itself part of the fantasy.

2. Having realised that the depiction of women in games, comics, collectibles and anime is meant as part of a tailor-made fantasy, many straight male geeks, somewhat unsurprisingly, have become aware of something else: that as said fantasy has been explicitly created for and subsequently targeted, marketed and sold to them, there must be someone out there whose goal is to exploit – and subsequently profit from – their sexual desires. Rather than undertake an intellectual exploration of the relationship between sex, gender and advertising in a capitalist system, however, a disappointing number of these geeks make a different and altogether more prejudicial leap: that the presence of women in an otherwise male-dominated environment can be directly correlated with the efforts of corporations to take their money. Their willingness to pay for the product in this equation, whether pre-existing or not, is immaterial: women, and particularly sexy women, have become a red-flag event. Any attempt to insert women into a setting previously devoid of them must therefore come under immediate suspicion. Women are a cash-gathering exercise, the go-to weapon in some cynical marketeer’s arsenal to help Company A more readily collect the hard-earned monies of geeks everywhere; booth babes being a case in point. After all, straight male geeks are very aware of their own negative sexual stereotyping: the fact that they may conform to it at times doesn’t make it any less offensive when it’s being used to exploit them – and the fact that it is used exploitatively is why the sexy female character problem exists to begin with.

But that doesn’t excuse their knee-jerk reaction to and blaming of women themselves: sexism and the system are at fault, not women as entities. And yet, the niggling suspicion of straight male geeks that girls are just there to take their money ends up tarnishing not only legitimate, unsexualised instances of female characterisation, but the efforts of actual geek girls to be taken seriously. All girl gamer group? Yeah, they’re just a novelty act – we’re only meant to like them ‘coz they’re pretty. Girls reading comics or playing video games? Hot, but they’re probably just doing it so boys will like them. Girl geeks in costumes? Total attention whores – they just want men to throw money at them. The same thing happens in music circles, too, among other places. All girl rock band? Fuckable pop-moppet posers – they only got signed ‘coz they look good on a poster. And on, and on, and on.

3. Genuine incomprehension. This is the kindest blindness – a benevolent sexism found in straight male geeks who have nothing against women, per se; it’s just that, all unaware of their own privilege, they’ve never had to think about sexism or exploitation or anything like that, so if the issue comes up offhand, they’re unlikely to see the utility in trying to make women more visible, or to change the way they’re depicted – and if there’s no utility, why do it? After all, women have the vote now, right? And equal opportunities and laws and stuff? And it’s not like anyone’s forcing them to play video games or read comics or watch anime or whatever, so why is it our problem if they don’t like how it works?

Depending on the personality of the geek in question, any conversation after this point can go one of several ways. The most positive, assuming both that you have the time and inclination to explain sexism in geek culture from first principles and that your interlocutor is willing to listen, is that they realise the problem exists and see the utility of female inclusion. The most negative will devolve into angry defenses of the status quo along the lines of the points raised above, with (if you’re very unlucky) a side-order of genuine misogyny thrown in. I mention this because, while the first two points follow fairly specific trains of thought, the reasons for ignorance are wide-ranging; as are potential reactions to the prospect of enlightenment.  Nobody likes to be told they’ve been complicit in something they might otherwise hold in contempt, and particularly not when you tie that complicity to the things they love most, no matter how significant the connection is.

And this, really, is the crux of the problem. Thanks to several decades’ worth of abuse and mockery from the mainstream, geeks as a culture are used to seeing themselves – ourselves – as underdogs. This creates a false sense of certainty that, being outcasts together, we can’t possibly be discounting, belittling or abusing anyone, let alone other outcasts, in the way that we ourselves have been discounted, belittled, abused. Which premise rests squarely on the demonstrably false assurance that people never become what is done to them; that no victims ever become perpetrators. And as I have said again and again, intentionality only takes you so far, and it isn’t very. Intend all you want to be a responsible driver – but if you run someone over by accident, they’ll still be just as dead.

One week ago, I blogged a piece about the necessity of feminism, a reasonable percentage of which was given over to a selection of pertinent links I’ve been filing away since April. Since then, it’s struck me that I’d like to make such posts a weekly endeavour, so that instead of just dropping pieces into a folder and potentially forgetting about them, I can actually group them together. As the vast majority of my bookmarks get dropped into either of two main folders – Feminism, Motherhood, Sexism and Sexuality and SFF, YA and Literary Culture – it only seems fitting to present those links here in two comparable categories: General and SFF, though doubtless there’ll be multiple points of crossover.

Here, then, is the first installment of Weekly Feminist Linkspam.

General

SFF

You guys, that is literally how many links I’ve spotted since the start of September. ONE WEEK. Admittedly, a few of the SFF ones were written a while ago, but all of those are tied in to more recent pieces. Thats *counts* THIRTY-FIVE LINKS. In a WEEK.

Maybe it’s just been a really exceptional seven days for lady-matters, but somehow? I don’t think so.

*headdesk*

Elsewhere on the internets, authors N.K. Jemisin and Kate Elliott (among others) have been speculating on the question of whether women write epic fantasy differently to men, and if so, to what extent that difference might be off-putting to male readers. A key aspect of this discussion hinges on sexuality – specifically, the question of the male gaze versus the female gaze. It is not unreasonable to assume that straight male writers are more likely to describe their heroines in sexual terms than they are their heroes, and vice versa in the case of their straight female counterparts: after all, most authors borrow from their own experience. This isn’t to say that straight writers never sexualise their own gender, but either consciously or unconsciously, some readers might well be gauging new books on the basis of the author’s chromosomes – and perhaps they’re not entirely wrong to do so.

Looking back on my own early introduction to epic fantasy, it’s easy to detect a pattern of preference for female writers. Beginning with Sara Douglass and Anne McCaffrey, I soon discovered the works of Robin Hobb, Katharine Kerr and Elliott herself, all of whom remain favourites to this day. Tolkien, by contrast, took me much longer: though I enjoyed The Hobbit as a pre-teen, it took me several abortive attempts before I finally finished the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though (male) friends urged me to try David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan, the results were mixed: I never got into Eddings, was frustrated by the extent to which Feist had cribbed his worldbuilding from The Silmarillion, hated Goodkind’s obsession with sexual violence and couldn’t push myself past the first book of Jordan’s mammoth series. Not that I eschewed all male-authored epics – George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet are both absolutely incredible. But though I’ve certainly disliked and/or abandoned epic series written by women, it seems my conceptions of the genre have been primarily formed by works which are either written in the female gaze, or which feature female POV protagonists who share equally in that role with men.

Possibly this makes me unusual, but I suspect not. There must be other women readers who discovered epic fantasy at a time when there were at least as many female-authored series on offer as male, and who gravitated towards those books, not because they were making a conscious decision to read within their gender, but because they were offered a choice, and simply found that those were the books they tended to prefer. But even given that bias, I still enjoy books written in the male gaze, Joe Abercrombie’s breathtaking First Law series and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss being two recent cases in point. Despite how the previous paragraph might serve to characterise my tastes, I have no objection whatever to reading in the male gaze, provided the story itself has caught my attention (as, of course, all stories must, regardless of who writes them). But were I to conduct a thorough, honest assessment of my favourite novels and authors, though both genders would be represented, books featuring the female gaze would dominate. As I am not a robot, my predilections are not conveniently fifty-fifty, but because I don’t disqualify books from my reading list on the basis of probable gaze alone, I don’t think that’s a problem.

What is problematic, and what prompted Jemisin to write her own piece on the topic, is the number of male readers who find themselves so disquieted by the presence of the female gaze in epic fantasy as to question whether those stories qualify as epic fantasy at all, or who, at the very least, are hesitant to read them. After all, the genre was begun by a man, and many of its seminal works are written predominantly in the male gaze: surely this implies a certain heritage, a certain focus, which is less to do with gender than it is the definition of genre? Why, if I can admit my own gender bias, am I so concerned with the idea that some male readers might have a different one?

Regarding the first of those questions, I’m sympathetic to the idea that a certain percentage of the epic fantasy readership was drawn to the genre by what were, at least originally, a fairly specific set of narrative parameters, and who now see those strictures being undermined or ignored by later writers. In terms of how epic fantasy has been changing over the past few decades, gender is far from being the only relevant factor. Traditional high fantasy, sword-and-sorcery epics are, if not on the wane, then in increasing competition with grittier, darker, unromantic works on the one hand, and more complex, multicultural, morally ambiguous tales on the other. That’s not a perfect binary division by any means, nor is it a sliding scale,  but by virtue of being a comparatively subconscious consideration in all of this, it’s arguable that the gender question has become emblematic of the more obvious changes in epic fantasy. With extraordinary works like Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy contributing to the move away from eurocentric mythologies, heterosexuality as standard and all-white casts, I can see how, for some readers, modern epic fantasy is not their epic fantasy – and as their epic fantasy came first, it must therefore be the true epic fantasy, an undisputed benchmark these other books simply don’t meet. Rubbing salt in the wound is the fact that they never attempted to do so.

I understand that. I do. But that doesn’t make it right. Because there is simply no such thing as a static culture – or rather, there is, and it is synonymous with dead culture. There is no law forcing these readers to like Jemisin’s work, or Elliott’s, any more than I’m required to like Terry Goodkind. But my dislike of Goodkind doesn’t allow me to claim his books aren’t epic fantasy, even though the themes and plot devices which characterise his work don’t line up with what I love about the genre, and which for me define it. And in fact, to return to the topic of the female/male gaze as specific to depictions of sexuality, Goodkind’s work provides a different kind of test case: whether or not a book which features descriptions of sex can still be described as epic fantasy. Having read the first four volumes of his Sword of Truth series, I can confidently vouch not only for their sexual content, but for the fact that those scenes are written firmly in the male gaze. Despite this, nobody has ever suggested that Terry Goodkind is anything other than a writer of epic fantasy. So the idea that the sexual content of Jemisin’s work (for instance) is enough to disqualify it from the genre seems ludicrous. The objection isn’t to the presence of sex at all – it’s to the idea of sex written from the female gaze, and while that might be a legitimate hurdle for some male readers, or to readers of any gender who object to reading about sex, it is firmly a question of individual taste, not genre.

Which leads us on to a meatier, more complex question: why, if this debate is really based on personal gender preferences, do I care about the intransigence of a particular set of male readers? After all, not only have I acknowledged my own biases, but I’ve stated a belief that having a perfect fifty-fifty split is neither automatic nor necessarily desirable. Well, yes – but to me, there’s something significant in the fact that, while women might prefer books written from the female gaze, we are also happy to read about the male gaze, too. In point of fact, we are allowed to do so, because it is, to a certain extent, expected. I don’t just mean that in the sense of early epic writers being mostly male, either. It’s that socially, a consequence of feminism has been the acceptance of feminine enjoyment of what used to be solely masculine pursuits. As a child, I was able to dress in blue, wear pants, play with trucks and aspire to be an astronaut if I wanted. I did experience a certain level of censure for my tomboyishness at various points, but by and large, society was on my side. Today’s girls can act like yesterday’s boys. But today’s boys cannot act like yesterday’s girls without encountering a much more extreme reaction. Any little boy who wants to dress in pink, wear skirts, play with dolls and grow up to be a ballerina will instantly find the world a more hostile place than I ever did. From the outset, his sexual orientation will be suspect. Because his behaviour runs counter to the social norm, he will be ostracised and declared unmasculine.

What does all this mean for male readers of books written from the female gaze? Simply this: that some may feel they lack the social permission to enjoy them. Arguably, the traditions and origins of epic fantasy make the male gaze an expected default, no matter the author’s gender – Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, for instance, is written from the first person perspective of a straight male protagonist. It must therefore come as a shock to some male readers to encounter a book whose sexual moments describe, not the woman’s mouth or breasts, but the man’s arms and stomach. Suddenly, a scene which would otherwise be sexy or tame has turned radical, threatening. It is pornography in which the position of the camera is reversed, and when the intent is obviously to evoke emotion or create arousal, how are they to feel? Are they being feminised against their will – or worse, made to feel a glimmering of homosexual attraction? Are they allowed to submit to the author’s intentions and accept the scene’s sexuality, or must they try to resist it? Either way, and even if the reader doesn’t consciously pin down the source of his disquiet, he is jerked out of the story, and perhaps made to feel an intruder in his genre of choice.

If so, this isn’t something that can be overcome in an instant. It is part of a larger argument: the struggle, not just for female equality in traditionally male fields, but for male equality in traditionally female fields. Part of that inevitably involves male acceptance of the female gaze; but another component is also a change in the reigning definition of masculinity, not just in the minds of men, but women, too. Particularly in epic fantasy, I’m hard-pressed to think of many heroes who espouse traditionally feminine attitudes, are trained in traditionally feminine duties, or whose overt sexuality, at least in part, doesn’t derive from a traditionally masculine appeal. Two who do spring to mind are !Xabbu, a protagonist in Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet, and the Fool, also known as Amber and the Tawny Man, who appears in three of Robin Hobb’s trilogies. While the former is a romantic interest for the lead female character, the latter is inferred to be gay. Be aware, the Fool is a favourite character of mine, but in this instance, he might serve to illustrate a wider problem: that male characters ascribed traditionally feminine values within epic fantasy are either gay or viewed as effete and sexually unappealing to the women with whom they interact. They are, in a word, fops.

This is a shame, as foppishness is our primary case study within epic fantasy for feminised but still heterosexual male characters. The stigma of fops and dandies comes from the idea that a worst thing a man can do is act like a woman, and the only fops whom literature – particularly romance literature – likes to redeem are those who, as per the Scarlet Pimpernel, turn out not to be fops at all. Perhaps more tellingly, the idea of the dandy comes from an exaggerated, stereotypical and negative perception of femininity to begin with: women who share a fop’s traits are equally one-dimensional characters, but they, at least, have the excuse of their gender. If that is their behaviour, then it cannot be helped, whereas a straight male fop must cultivate his persona, and is damned for it accordingly. This isn’t to say that fops – or rather, superficial, self-obsessed, world-weary, easily bored elites with more money than sense – are entirely unrepresentative of the human species; nor am I contending that we ought to find them attractive. Rather, it seems as though they are the only consistent example of straight male characters in epic fantasy to be portrayed with feminine characteristics, and as those characteristics are negative, it doesn’t do a lot for the idea that traditionally female attitudes are something that men (or male characters) either should or would want to adopt.

Thus, the female gaze in epic fantasy does not disqualify a work from being epic fantasy. If it undermines, it does so through no more radical an action than showing one half the populace what the other finds attractive; but perhaps it might also be used to posit what we could find attractive, if only society were a little bit different, and to suggest to the current readership that they need not go in fear of their own sexuality. Books no more turn straight men gay than being allowed to wear pants turned women into lesbians. What changes is culture – and what is culture, but the way we view ourselves? No matter how intent we are on standing still, the world will always turn around us. And with that in mind, the question for those of us who take pride in our enjoyment of stories set in different times and places must then become: do we seek to set a limit on that difference? Or can we find room in our infinite selves for something more?

Those are the worlds I dream about. So, yes. I think we can.

Imagine this image: a human brain in a vat. The brain has been removed from a real, live person and painstakingly wired into a machine which keeps it alive, utterly duplicating the necessary processes of organic flesh. Sight, sound and smell are simulated by clever contraptions, emotional surges provoke the correct chemical and hormonal reactions. To all intents and purposes, the being – the brain – is real, their sense of self intact: they are simply no longer housed in a body.

Which begs the question: do they still have a gender?

It’s an interesting problem. Socially, gender is assumed through assessment of a person’s physical body, their voice, mannerisms, clothes and so on: but strip away all these things – remove even their possibility – and what is left? Is the brain (we’ll call it Sam, a neatly androgynous handle) gendered depending on the sex of its original body? Is it possible for a ‘female’ brain to wind up ensconced in male flesh, or vice versa? If one accepts that homosexuality is more often an innate predeliction than a conscious choice (certainly, I believe, it can be both or either), what role does the physical wiring of our brain play? Is it the only factor? Does nurture always prevail over nature in matters of sexuality, or vice versa? Is it a mixture? If so, does the ratio vary from person to person? Why? And so on.

Let’s lay some cards on the table. When it comes to sexual orientation, my two rules of thumb are: 

(a) mutual, intelligent consent; and

(b) the prevention of harm to others.

In a nutshell: all parties have to agree to what’s happening, and no bystanders can be hurt or unwillingly drawn in. While this doesn’t rule out BDSM (provided, of course, it keeps within the bounds of said rules), it definitively excludes rape and paedophilia, which, really, is common sense. Anything relating to homosexuality and transexuality, however, is fair game.

A few more points, in no particular order:

1. Life is often unfair.

2. Life is often weird.

3. Insofar as evidence is concerned, human beings are still shaky on the definitive origins of personhood (souls v. genes, or possibly a blend of both), but most people will agree that brains and gender play a more important role in this than, say, knees and elbows.

4. Original notions of gender roles developed in the context of reproduction and childrearing, but provided both these things still occur in sufficient numbers to ensure the survival of the species, there is little harm in broadening or questioning their parameters.

5. People have, or should have, a basic right to assert their identity. Reasonably, there must be some limits of credulity – there was only ever one Napoleon,  mankind are distinct from dolphins – but within the recognised sphere of human gender and sexual orientation, it seems counter-intuitive that appearance should dictate black and white rules for what is, quite evidently, an internal and subtle determination.

Witness, then, the idea of transgender couples, in which one partner may undergo a sex change without ending the relationship. Witness, then, the case of Aurora Lipscomb, born Zachary, who identified as a girl from the age of two and was removed from her parents when they refused to forcibly contradict her. These are just two examples that buck the trend of traditional gender ideas, and rather than making us squirm, they should make us think. When and why did certain socio-cultural ideas of gender develop, and how do they change? Consider, for instance, the well-documented and widespread instances of winkte, berdache and two-spirit people in Native American culture, compared to the deep-seated fear of these concepts in western traditions. Look at the long-standing tradition of male homosexuality in Japan, particularly among samurais, and the role of Sappho in ancient Greek lesbianism. Think of hermaphrodites.

Point being, there’s a wealth of diverse and fascinating history surrounding the ideas of gender, sexuality and male/female roles, to the extent that many legal restrictions now placed on non-heterosexual couples and individuals are faintly ridiculous. Throw in the question of child-rearing, and there’s a tendency to reach for the nearest pitchfork. Personally, I find debating my views in this matter difficult, if only because debate is meaningless without a modicum of mutually accepted middleground, and where my opponents object to homosexuality and transsexuality as an opening gambit, it’s well-nigh impossible to discuss the matter of non-heteros breeding, adopting and/or applying for surrogacy without both sides resorting to instant moral veto of the contrary position.

Still, it’s always worth trying, and the whole issue fascinates me. Socially, I marvel at where the next hundred years could take us, and cringe at how far we might also fall. But in the interim, I return to the question of brains in vats, and how, within the parameters of such a hypothetical, gender is determined. Is it innate, biological, genetic, spiritual, chosen consciously, chosen unconsciously, socially conditioned, random, nurtured, culturally selected; or can the glorious gamut of human existence countenance the possibility that these options simultaneouly coexist as true, contributing on an individual basis, in individual ratios? Or is that too confronting a thought?

Honest to goodness? I just don’t get the Republican party.

Let’s ignore, momentarily, the fact that I’m an atheist Australian left-winger opposed to gun ownership and creationism, and focus on the issue of contraception. John McCain, that cuddly ol’ cadaver, has recently expressed confusion as to whether condomns can stop the spread of HIV. His exact words on the subject, in fact, were: “You’ve stumped me.”

From this, it’s easy to see why McCain is opposed to sex education – he has none himself. The man is, after all, a conservative in his seventies. Back when he was in school, the liberated sixties were but a twinkle in their daddy’s eye, and there were certain things about which one simply did not speak in schools, let alone anywhere else. When AIDS became a big issue in the eighties, McCain was already in his fifties. Nowadays (in Australia, anyway) every child is, sooner or later, sat down and taught about the value of contraception: not just as a means of preventing pregnancy, but as the only reliable method of preventing STDs. I’ve known this since I was eleven. It didn’t make me want to have sex, and it sure as hell didn’t glamourise the concept, but it did ensure my everlasting belief in condoms.

Which leads us to McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, whose seventeen-year-old daughter, Bristol, is pregnant to a self-professed redneck with a poor disposition towards fatherhood. Now: I’m not attacking Bristol. If she chose her current circumstance, well, that’s her prerogative; and if she didn’t, she deserves sympathy. If her mother lived a more anonymous life, she wouldn’t have to endure being scrutinised, judged, shamed, defended, picked-over and used as an example by millions of strangers at a time when, more than anything, she probably wants privacy.  But even if she were Miss Jenny Everyteen from Hicksville, Iowa, she would still exemplify the problem of sex education – or rather, the lack thereof – in American schools.

The only cure for ignorance is knowledge. Not so long ago, respected European doctors believed that menstruation had nothing to do with pregnancy, but was, rather, an aberrant condition that would soon die out. Not long before that, most of the world believed that royalty were innately special, and that being born rich was a sign of God’s approval, while peasanthood implied that you’d done something to deserve it. Go back further still, and humankind poured libations of blood even for the Judeo-Christian God, while menstruating women (again) were isolated from the world at large, believed to be unclean.

Put simply: biological knowledge is not obvious. It has taken our species thousands of years to understand how our bodies work, how women conceive and how disease is transmitted, which understanding has culminated in surgeons, medicine, hospitals, obstetricians and contraception. Once, such information was kept hiden among an elite few, or else spoken of only in whispers. Now, we are able to talk frankly. Western representatives travel to stricken nations in Africa, teaching local communities how to guard against HIV/AIDS, while at home, women and men know to check themselves for stray lumps, the genesis of cancer. All such knowledge is derived from identical scientific principles, and from this data, we deduce ways of solving health problems before they become serious.

John McCain and Sarah Palin are against this.

We are not discussing abortion, which is a rightfully complex issue. Nor are we discussing morality, which touches on when to have sex, or with whom. Rather, we are entertaining the wacky notion of hygiene and disease prevention: the idea of intelligent measures, comparable to a flu shot, which enable men and women not to contract illness, and sensible learned behaviours, which allow couples to decide the circumstances under which they conceive a child. How such an idea might be construed as subversive or wrong remains a mystery to me, and yet, this is what the Republicans are arguing vociferously against: the idea that telling teenagers how to use condoms is good.

Time and again, statistics have shown that abstinence-only education has a much higher fail-rate than its sexual counterpart, elicting greater rates of teen pregnancy than any other approach (as Sarah Palin’s daughter can attest). It almost makes one wonder whether the decision is deliberate: that, like Anne Coulter, the whole party supports a return to traditional young marriage and pregnant housewifery, viewing sexual education as anathema to this agenda. The irony of women politicians advocating such a position is not lost, but neither is it unpredented; nor, oddly, does it gell with the Republican stance that young mothers stay in school or lose their welfare benefits. The only logical conclusion is that John McCain and his ilk believe sexual and biologcal consequences – disease and/or pregnancy – to be self-evident; and yet, as McCain himself is clearly ignorant when it comes to HIV, and as Sarah Palin’s methods of education have failed to serve her daughter, their party leaders epitomise the falsehood of this belief.

In short: the Republicans, in my estimation, are deeply, profoundly confused. Their policy is rooted in an era of sexual silence, the days of John McCain’s childhood and source of Sarah Palin’s morality, when there was no need to know why or how women fall pregnant, because this was all women were for: they married, they bred, they nurtured, and all else was the will of God. That sentiment no longer holds politically, and yet, its consequence lingers, breeding unforgiveable ignorance in a time when all other aspects of culture represent – if not vaunt – sexuality, without stopping to explain it. Whether the media should be curbed in this respect is a different debate entirely: in the interim, however, I cannot conscience such willful ignorance in adults, nor their desire for learned ignorance in the next generation. The fact that McCain and Palin desire to lead a whole entire country only makes their stance more shameful.

As much as I traditionally loathe the Australian Liberal Party, they’re at least a far cry from the Republicans. The closest we have is Family First, a minority party incapable of gaining federal governance in an effective two-party system, and except when Steven Fielding has to get his tie-break on in the Senate or says something spectacularly unsettling, very few people pay them any heed.

And as much as I’d love to be a U.S. citizen-for-the-day in order to vote for Obama, McCain and Palin make me glad I live in the planetary south, and not the deep.

Back in Ye Olde Shakespearean times, there was a fantastic word for what happened when one man shagged another man’s wife: cuckolding. Contrary to how it might sound, a ‘cuckold’ was the injured party, while the wife-snatcher was said to have ‘put horns on another man’s head’. Although I can’t vouch for the origins of this latter colloquialism, cuckold was aptly inspired by the French word for cuckoo – that is to say, a bird which lays its eggs in other birds’ nests.

So on that note, let’s talk about Pete Doherty – or, more specifically, his none-too-subtle appearance in this article on bad boys. More specifically still: the fact that, in keeping with popular mythology, they apparently do get all the girls.

Short term, anyway. According to new extensive research, males who exhibit dark characteristics such as narcissism, deceitfulness and thrill-seeking do better in the mating stakes; or, to quote researcher David Schmitt, “They are more likely to try and poach other people’s partners for a brief affair.”

The success of cuckoo bird species is, biologically speaking, ingenious: have all the fun of mating with another cuckoo, find some poor devoted wren or smaller bird, replace their eggs with your own and fly off into the sunset. In times past, one suspects this tactic might have worked well for cuckolds of the human type, too, thus ensuring these traits were passed on – but that was before contraception.

Which raises the question: if treacherous, deadbeat cuckolds remain a genetic mainstay despite our ability to block their genes from the pool, is it because we’re stupid? Or are they all just sneakier than we thought?

Of late, both politicians and the media are confusing three related – but distinct – concepts, viz: sex education, sexuality, and child sexualisation. The Bill Henson controversy is a case in point: but before that, some definitions.

Let’s be clear. Sex education is, funnily enough, educational: explaining the whats, whys and huhs of the downstairs plumbing for no smuttier purpose than the stoppage of misinformation. Sexuality is where things get naughtier – although more nebulously defined, it connotes a willingness to engage in, or a curiosity about, what one might actually do with a partner. Child sexualisation is essentially age-inappropriate, marketing overtly sexual products or ideas to a too-young demographic, to a detrimental (or at least, morally reprehensible) effect. It is also tied to exploitation: portraying pubescent or pre-pubescent youth in an inappropriately adult, sexual fashion.

If looked at on a scale, we might consider sexual education the least innocuous of the three, and child sexualisation the most damaging. Sexuality dwells in the expansive middleground of context, sometimes clear-cut, sometimes grey. And now, three topical issues: Bill Henson’s photographs, Parliamentry debate over sexual content in Dolly magazine, and the primary school teacher fired for posing nude in a women’s magazine.

Ready? Then let’s dive in.

We in Australia are highly confused about sex, particularly as relates to young people. While John Howard has left the building, the Religious Right has not, and despite our being citizens of a 21st century Western nation, moral unhappiness about public sexuality remains a contentious issue. Parliamentarians debating the content of Dolly magazine are concerned with the prospect of stray seven-or-eight-year-olds reading material almost universally intended for those in their early and mid teens – but why? It seems logical to acknowledge that if we live in a sexually enlightened society, younger children might end up hearing about sex before the official deadline. But if we, as adults, are mature and sensible enough to reassure them, this seems a small price to pay for producing, in turn, teenagers who are mature and sensible about sex. Let’s go further: it is a fact that whenever age-sensitive material is produced, someone outside the intended audience will see it. But should that alone stop us producing it? More than anything else, political posturing about hypothetical small children reading grown-up columns betrays a different fear: that the intended audience of such information is under eighteen and more legitimately curious than pundits find comfortable. Put another way: adults don’t like that teenagers think about sex.

The grey area here is, unsurprisingly, the fault of sexuality. Although the legal age of consent in Australia is 16, many adults struggle with the idea of fourteen-or-fifteen-year-olds wondering – perhaps innocently, perhaps not – about what lies ahead. Ultimately, it seems wiser to educate intelligently about sexuality and sexual practice (a la the disputed Dolly columns) as well as biology where interest is shown: the alternative is a potentially harmful ignorance, or learning from unsuitable sources. Not all young teens are interested in sex, but then, this is not the percentage of the population most likely to be reading Dolly Doctor.

We are just as confused about adult sexuality in the context of younger folk. When Lynne Tziolas was fired, it wasn’t for bringing sexually explicit material into her primary school class, publicising her nude photos to students or inappropriately referencing her employers: it was simply because, as a primary teacher, the school found the idea of her public sexuality offensive. That the intended audience was adult changed nothing; nor did they seem moved by the fact that, until they fired Lynne and the issue hit the media, her students were entirely unaware of what had happened. Having a healthy sex life didn’t impact on her ability to teach well (her students petitioned to have her back), but the school’s reaction was all too familiar to anyone who keeps an eye on the headlines. Whenever a figure in public life has an affair, swaps lovers, gets divorced or generally appears to be more sexual than a crotchless doll, society gets in a tizzy. We like our celebrities to lead nice, compartmentalized lives: the bits we want to see, and the bits we don’t. Poor old Miley Cyrus learned this lesson recently after posing in mildly explicit photos. Had the media not had a field day about a teenaged children’s entertainer getting some of her kit off, it seems doubtful that any of her tiny fans would have noticed. The impact of moralists worldwide publicly shaming a 15-year-old for daring to feel comfortable in her own skin seems a more genuine cause for concern than the idea that a 15-year-old might want to take such photos in the first place. Similarly, even assuming Tania Zaetta did sleep with troops in Afghanistan, she should be guilty of nothing more sensational than breaking the military conditional against hanky-panky. Instead, society is up in arms that she might’ve had s-e-x, which makes our collective media covering of the issue look like a bunch of ten-year-olds giggling behind the bike sheds.

Which, with depressing inevitability, leads us to Bill Henson’s oh-so-controversial photos of young, nude girls. Now, I’ll happily admit to voting for Kevin Rudd, and I still maintain it was a fantastic idea, but I do wish he’d keep his moralising mouth shut on the subject of art. Depending on who you’ve been reading, the ‘problem’ arising from Henson’s work might be described as: the inability of twelve-or-thirteen-year-olds to give intelligent consent to being photographed nude; the idea of child pornography; why the photos constitute art; whether banning the display is an act of undue censorship; or all of the above. For me, it boils down to the following question: does nudity alone make an image pornographic? To which I answer: no, nor should it ever. Henson has a history of taking disquieting, melancholy snaps; the purpose of art is to provoke thought and emotion; and he has certainly fulfilled both criteria. Better than anything else, both the photos themselves and the public’s reaction has put a finger on what I’ve spent the last umpteen paragraphs trying to elucidate: that we are uncertain about our sexuality, the sexuality of our youth, and what it means in the context of our society. 

Yes, the images are unsettling: they’re meant to be. Are they explotative? Regardless of what the law says, it seems intellectually condescending to say that teenagers don’t have the intelligence to speak on their own behalf, and hypocritical that advocates of children’s rights have here declared themselves uninterested in children’s voices. Similarly, it would be naive of me to claim that all Henson’s models will feel as happy as they do now for the rest of their lives: everyone changes. From person to person, the photos have probed a tender spot, because rather than child sexualisation, they touch on sexuality in youth. The models and their families are content with the results; the unease is in the viewers, and if so many people are incapable of looking at naked girls and seeing nothing but Hustler, then the problem is bigger than we think.

How, then, do I define child sexualisation? How about: kids’ pole-dancing kits and sexy clothing, child beauty pageants, children’s make-up kits, and post-pubescent models selling clothes to women decades their senior. How is this last different from Henson’s photos, I hear you cry? Call me new-fashioned, but there is a world of difference between pretending twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds are 25 for the purpose of marketing, and showing that twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds can possess a disquieting sexuality of their own. Rather than being superficial, it is the distinction of context – why we create an image, and for what purpose – which determines how it should be labelled. Photos become pornographic when they are made with pornography in mind; Bill Henson’s photos became thought-provoking when they were made with povoking thought in mind. And whether or not people are happy to admit it, this is the context in which they have been overwhelmingly viewed: they have made us think, debate, argue and consider our idea of sexuality in a way we otherwise mightn’t, and that cannot be to anything but the good.

Ultimately, then, the same is true of all societal sexual discourse. The thoughts or arguments might not always be comforting; but that’s why they’re important.

 

Addendum: For those interested, I agree entirely with Larissa Dubecki.