Archive for August, 2013

OK.

SO.

There’s a lot of erasure surrounding bisexuality in our culture, and that’s a bad thing. People equate bisexuality with indecision and fence-sitting, a sort of sexual dilettantism that’s more a phase than a genuine orientation; yet at the same time, it’s promoted in unhelpful ways, predominantly in contexts where conventionally attractive bi women are presented as male sexual fantasies (such as Olivia Wilde’s character in House, Remy ‘Thirteen’ Hadley), or where bisexuality is fetishised and exoticised as a quirky-but-desirable attribute for the viewer to unpack, rather than as a complex character attribute in its own right. It’s also often used as a sort of, for lack of a better phrase, queerness lite – as though a bi person’s capacity for hetero attraction somehow softens or normalises the otherness of their same-sex feelings, and thereby makes them a more relatable character than someone who is ‘only’ gay, because both gay AND straight people can identify with them.

Which may well be true; and that’s not to say that such characters are necessarily bad or badly written – it’s just that, very often, bisexuality is treated as some sort of sexual midpoint on a set sliding scale between STRAIGHT and GAY, which leads some creators to view it less as an actual orientation and more as a narrative compromise, as though they’re ordering medium chilli sauce to go with their group serving of literary nachos rather than mild or spicy, because that what you do when people prefer extremes: you pick the middle. The idea that bisexuality isn’t the middle, but is a separate thing in and of itself – the third point of a triangle rather than the midpoint of a straight line (assuming you still think there’s only three types of orientation, that is; which, yeah, no) – seems rarely to be considered; and as such, the idea that bi people constitute a separate audience in their own right, rather than being a compromise between two different audiences, is often overlooked.

Thus: as much as I love reading SFFnal stories where bisexuality is the cultural norm because orientation isn’t a big deal in a particular fictional society, I also feel kind of weird at the idea that everyone would suddenly be bisexual just because QUILTBAG persons are no longer stigmatised. Like, yes, OK: in a sexually fluid society, more people would definitely experiment, while those who might otherwise be moved to repress their sexuality would have no reason to do so – and in that sense, there’s obviously going to be more non-straight sex and relationships going on than if you took the same group of people and put them in a straightwashed setting. But the idea that, in the absence of straightness as a default, the extremes of gay and straight would just slide towards the middle and lead to a net increase in bisexuality? Is itself a perpetuation of the idea that bisexuality is a midpoint rather than a distinct orientation, and therefore a culturally conditioned form of sexual compromise rather than an innate preference.

And that bugs the hell out of me. Because, look: in my teens and early twenties, I openly identified as bisexual. I stopped, not because I magically stopped finding women attractive, but because I’m now happily and monogamously married to a man, and I’m yet to find a way to mention those two facts in tandem that doesn’t leave either me or the other people in the conversation feeling super-awkward – like, it’s not an irrelevant part of who I am, but it often feels irrelevant, because there’s a little voice in my head whispering that, well, you married a guy, and so therefore you CHOSE STRAIGHT FOREVER (and anyway, it’s not like you ever really dated any girls the way you dated guys, so clearly it doesn’t count). And if you want to get all Kinsey about it, yes: I have a history of being more attracted to men – or rather, of being more attracted more often to men – than to women. But sexuality is complex, and if you’re measuring the so-called validity of someone’s orientation by how often they’ve either felt or acted on their attractions, then you’re doing life wrong, not least of all because it’s not your place to decide the realness of another person’s feelings.

Nonetheless: I mostly tick ‘straight’ on forms about my orientation, and I describe myself as having straight privilege, because to all intents and purposes, I do. I’ve also described myself as straight online, for much the same reasons listed above. Being bi means that any disclosure of your orientation is pretty much guaranteed to be viewed through the lens of your relationship status; as though being single somehow makes you more bi – because you could potentially hook up with anyone! – whereas being in a monogamous relationship, or married, or whatever, makes people think you’re either just saying it for dramatic effect (because CLEARLY, you’ve already made your choice, rendering the question of your former preferences moot), or – more worryingly – as a backhanded profession that you’re open to being unfaithful to your partner, because why else would you bother mentioning being attracted to someone other than them, even hypothetically?

Which means that, on a daily basis, in casual conversation, it feels disingenuous to refer to myself as bi, even though I’m still the same person inside. And there’s also a professional element, too: precisely because I appear to be straight, whatever that means – hell, because I so often self-describe as straight, as per the above – there’s a very real sense in which I’d feel like I was mocking or diminishing the struggles of openly QUILTBAG persons, but especially QUILTBAG authors,  not to be judged by or rejected because of their orientation, were I to put my hand up and say, hey, I’m not straight, either. And yet I stopped calling myself bi, partly for the sake of convenience, but mostly because I feel awkward about how the term applies to me, with everything that connotes. I don’t know how to say it, even – and when I started writing this post, I didn’t even realise it was something I wanted to say.

But now I’ve reached the end, and I’ve realised that yes, it is – because the very fact that this is a thing that I think about, that it actively bothers and upsets me and sits at the back of my mind, telling me I can’t possibly be what I think I am, is proof of how difficult, how pervasive, the eliding of bisexuality can be. Problematic depictions of bisexuality bother me, not in the abstract, as yet another thing that our culture so often gets wrong, but because they bother me, personally: because those selfsame problematic depictions, and the culture they both reflect and create, are a good 90% of the reason why I find it so damn hard to say something comparatively simple – I am bi – without feeling like an imposter; like I should also, simultaneously, be citing my personal history as evidence, or apologising, or otherwise contextualising who I am for the comfort and convenience of the listener, because it’s a loaded thing, and I just… I’m sick of it.

So, yeah. I didn’t mean for this to end up a confessional, but I guess it has. I’m Foz Meadows, and I’m bisexual: I might not always say so in conversation, or when asked to fill out a form, but I am – and now there’s a record of that. I don’t know what that’ll mean to you, if you’re reading this, but right now, I feel a lot better for having said it; not because I’ve never said it before, but because I’d stopped saying it for reasons that have nothing to do with who I am and everything to do with what I’ve felt culturally pressured to be. Which doesn’t mean those pressures have magically vanished, or that I’ll never succumb to them again. But it feels both important and necessary to acknowledge that they’re there, and that I’ve been influenced by them; and to say that, if you’re feeling similarly frustrated or confused, then that’s OK – and you’re not the only one.

Dear men who like to randomly proposition women on the street, and who get increasingly frustrated when those women ignore, reject or yell at them for their efforts, because you’re only being friendly and can’t understand why they’re all so uptight about it:

Imagine you’re a painter. It doesn’t matter what kind – you could be a visual artist or someone who paints houses, a professional or an amateur: what matters is that you’re walking around in paint-spackled clothes and smelling of turps, so that anyone who sees you will probably think, ‘Hey. That dude’s a painter.’

Imagine you’re on your way home from a hard day at work, when some random guy approaches you.

‘Hey man, hey! You wanna come paint my house? Man, I’ve got a great house, I’ve got awesome paints – you wanna come paint it for me?’

Now: on the surface of things, the request is friendly enough. This person isn’t abusing you, and as far as he knows, he’s not asking you to do anything you don’t do already – assuming you’re the kind of painter who does paint houses, that is, and not a watercolourist. The problem isn’t their tone of voice: it’s how and why they’ve made the request at all. On no greater basis than their ability to identify you as a painter, they’re asking you to stop what you’re doing and come with them, because somehow, they feel, their need entitles them to your time.

You’re tired. It’s been a long day. But you figure you’ll be polite, because the guy’s just being friendly, right?

‘No thanks,’ you say. ‘I’m sure your house is awesome, but I’m not interested.’

And you try to keep walking. But for some reason, the stranger decides to take personal offence at your refusal. He keeps following you, but now, he’s not so friendly. In fact, he’s becoming increasingly hostile.

‘Hey man, don’t be like that! You haven’t even seen my house – you think you’re too good to paint for me? What’s the matter with you? Man, I bet you’re a shit painter – I only asked you ‘coz you looked like you needed the work. You’re a lazy fucking bastard, aren’t you? Fucking layabout painters, man – you’re all the same. You’re all snobs. Why won’t you paint my house?’

How do you react to that? The stranger is bigger than you, stronger, and visibly more aggressive. Worse still, even though you’re in a public place, with lots of other people walking around, nobody is stopping to help you: every single passerby is just looking away, as though the stranger’s demands are perfectly reasonable. You’re pretty angry now, but you don’t want to argue – you just want to get home. But how do you shake the stranger? Your first response was perfectly polite, and all it’s produced in him is rage. How aggressively will he respond to an actual confrontation?

As if to prove this point, he takes this moment to get in your personal space. Maybe he jumps in front of you, physically forcing you to step around him. Maybe he puts an arm around your shoulders. Maybe he grabs your wrist. Maybe all he does is match your pace and walk really, really close to you, as though you’re not strangers at all. But whatever he does, it’s threatening, and the end result is clear: if you stop and talk to this man, if you let him detain you, nothing good will come of it.

So you do the only thing you can: you keep walking. You don’t respond. But the man doesn’t go away. He follows you for a whole block, and all the time, he’s alternately cajoling you (‘Come paint my house! I’ll pay you, I’ll pay you fifty bucks to come paint my house right now!’) and abusing you (‘Someone oughta teach you some manners. Don’t you know it’s rude to ignore people? Someone oughta shove a paintbrush right down your fucking throat, you selfish dick!’).

Understandably, you’re rattled, but mercifully, when you reach the ticket barrier at the station, the man is forced to turn back. He calls a final couple of insults to you, and then he’s gone, swallowed by the crowd.

And you’re furious. You’re physically shaking. How fucking dare he! Should you call the police? Should you have just confronted him? Now that he’s gone, you know just what you wanted to say to him, and derive a deep, momentary satisfaction from imagining his cowed, apologetic reaction when you told him, calmly and firmly, that he was a harassing, abusive jerk who needed to back the hell off, but even as you indulge this fantasy, you know things wouldn’t have have gone that way; that if you’d stayed, he’d likely have attacked you, grabbed you, or otherwise done something violent, because absolutely nothing in his behaviour suggested a willingness to listen or an ability to learn.

So you get on your train. The carriage is largely empty, which is a relief. You sit down, pull out a book, remind yourself that the stranger is gone, and try to calm yourself down.

Two stops later, another guy gets on the train with you. From the corner of your eye, you see him look around your almost empty carriage, full of free seats, and zero in on you. Surely not, you think, but no: the guy makes a beeline for you. Maybe he sits in the spare seat next to you, so that your bodies are physically touching. Maybe he sits in the spare seat behind you, so that when he speaks – and you already know he will – you’ll be forced to contort your body to talk to him. But whatever his choice, it’s already clear that he’s ignoring both your book and your body language, which, after your encounter with the stranger on the street, is practically screaming leave me in peace.

‘Hey, what’re you reading?’ he asks. ‘I really love painters. They always have the best taste.’

This second guy is much calmer than the first one. His tone isn’t exuberant with false friendliness: it’s conversational, casual. But all the same, he has you cornered: it’s another five minutes before the next stop, and you’re not getting off until after that. Depending on where this guy is headed, you could be stuck with him for up to thirty minutes. But maybe he’s more reasonable than street-guy. Maybe he’ll follow your social cues, and let you go back to reading if you’re polite to him.

‘It’s a mystery novel,’ you say. ‘And if it’s OK with you, I’d really like to keep reading it. I’m right at a good bit, and I’ve been looking forward to it all day.’

‘Cool, cool,’ says the guy – and for one brief moment, it looks like he’s going to leave you alone.

But he doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t.

‘What’s your favourite colour to paint with? I bet it’s blue. Is it blue? I can always tell when people like blue. Hey, who do you paint for? I bet you’re really talented. What’s your name? I’d love to look up your work some time.’

That last inquiry gives you chills. In a professional setting – or at the very least, in a conversation you’d actively consented to have – it would be complimentary, positive. But this guy, just like the other stranger before him, has just clearly demonstrated the fact that he doesn’t give a shit about you – if he had, he’d have left you to read your book in peace. This conversation isn’t about you, or your skills as a painter, at all: it’s about his need to make you acknowledge him. But once again, what can you do? You’re trapped with the guy, and even though getting up and moving carriages is technically an option, you were here first; and anyway, he might follow you. So you grit your teeth and deal with it.

‘Listen. I’ve had a hard day, and I really just want to read my book. Can you leave me alone, please?’

The guy’s face changes. You can’t tell if he’s angry or baffled or what, but either way, it’s certainly not the face of someone who’s about to apologise for inconveniencing you and leave. Instead, he starts talking again.

‘Yeah, but I’m talking to you. It’s rude to keep reading when someone wants to talk, you know? I just want to have a conversation. What, did you accidentally drink your turps or something, and now you’re all pissy?’ He laughs, as though this is hilarious, and keeps going. ‘Come on. Tell me about yourself. Tell me what kind of stuff you like to paint. Why are you being so uptight? I’m just being friendly.’

This second guy harasses you, non-stop, for twenty minutes. You don’t get to read your book, and the one time you raise your voice to him, the two other people in the carriage – who aren’t paying enough attention to realise you don’t know this man and didn’t want to talk to him in the first place – give you the stink-eye, because your loudness is inappropriate and upsetting to them. The harassment is interspersed with ignorant, stereotypical assessments about painters couched as benign compliments (‘I hate painters who use pastels; they’re all so flighty and high-maintenance. I bet you use oils, don’t you? You look like you use oils.’), and every time you fall silent or try to pull away – because you’ve long since given up on winning – the stranger chides you for being rude, reminding you, over and over, about how polite and friendly he is, until he finally gets off the train.

When you get home, you call the police about the first guy. At best, they tell you there’s nothing they can do, because technically, he didn’t break the law, and even if they found him, it’s just your word against his. At worst, they tell you to get over it; that he was probably just being friendly, and you were imagining any hostility – after all, you went out dressed like a painter, so clearly you were inviting someone to comment on it.

Now imagine being a painter isn’t something you chose to be, or can ever stop being. It’s who you are. These encounters happen more or less regularly. They are exhausting. When you complain to non-painters about it, they frequently tell you it’s all in your head, and that you just need to deal with it politely.

Does that sound shitty?

You bet it does.

Men who behave this way – who accost women in public places, demand their time and attention, violate their personal space, make abusive or threatening comments in response to perceived slights (that is, rejection or silence), and who ignore not only verbal requests to go away, but every accompanying scrap of body language saying the same thing – aren’t being polite. They’re not being friendly, either.

Politeness is all about social niceties and empathetic consideration: it is the exact polar opposite of making someone uncomfortable, or ignoring their discomfort, just because you feel entitled to their time and attention. Similarly, a friendly person cares about others, not just themselves: if someone asks you to leave them alone and you don’t, persisting isn’t friendly.

If this is how you treat women on the street, it doesn’t matter what you say, and it doesn’t matter what tone of voice you use: you’re not being friendly, and you’re not being polite. At absolute best, you’re being selfish and demanding, insisting that random women stop what they’re doing and talk to you in obviously antisocial contexts (when they’re walking, when they’re reading, when there’s no earthly reason why they should have to indulge your whims), then sulking if they don’t. This is what toddlers do before they’re old enough to know better, and even then, they mostly make such demands of family members and friends, not total strangers.

At absolute worst, you’re being manipulative, domineering and aggressive, deliberately targeting women at vulnerable moments (when they’re alone, when they can’t escape, when they’re preoccupied, when they’re in a rush) – and, indeed, are orchestrating those moments through a calculated abuse of social niceties (sans context, her shouting will look worse to a random observer than your quiet importuning of a stranger; so long as you keep your voice calm and refuse to desist, you ensure that your victim will be viewed as the aggressor if she protests your blatant disregard of her wishes, thereby deploying a second, subtler type of coercion to make her compliant while being harassed).

Precisely why you feel entitled to the adoring attention of strangers, I don’t know. Perhaps you’re really just that big of an egotist; perhaps you’re a sociopathic misogynist who takes pleasure in the discomfiture of women; or perhaps you’re a potential or practised rapist, which state isn’t mutually exclusive with either of those two others. Either way, I don’t know, and I don’t care. What I do know, though, is that you don’t care about her, whoever she is; you only care about getting what you want from the exchange. The women are interchangeable, and however much you might want to deny it, everything in your behaviour says otherwise.

If you cared about her, you’d respect her personal space.

If you cared about her, you’d respect that she might be busy, and let her go.

If you cared about her, you wouldn’t pressure her to stay.

If you cared about her, you wouldn’t threaten her for not being docile.

If you cared about her, you wouldn’t call her rude, uptight, a bitch, a whore, a user, a timewaster, frigid, a slut, a cunt, a shrew, hysterical, pissy, a harpy, fat (which shouldn’t be an insult, but invariably is), retarded (which shouldn’t be an insult, but invariably is), or any one of a dozen other heavily gendered slurs and insults just because she wouldn’t stop and talk to you.

Because if you cared about her, you’d afford her the exact same rights which, given your behaviour, you demonstrably afford yourself: the right to be assertive around strangers, the right to feel safe around strangers, the right to be left alone, the right to walk away, the right to express yourself freely, the right to have better things to do – the right, in other words, to behave like a fucking human being, and not just a nameless body whose rights are forfeit the instant she hurts your ego.

You men, who behave like this to women? You’re not friendly, polite and misunderstood. You aren’t nice guys in any literal sense of the term.

You’re abusers in training – or worse, abusers in actuality.

Get the fuck over yourselves.