Gender & Sexuality

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Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

One of the things I love about my family is that they take an active interest in my career and hobbies. So when I flew into L.A. to see my folks, my dad handed me a big box of newspaper clippings, related to literature, folklore, dance, sex education, and so on.

Among them was an opinion piece from the L.A. Times about a recent piece of California legislation, SB 967. This would mandate, among other things, that all California universities include the following language about sexual contact that occurs on campus:

  • An affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by a complainant.
  • Prohibition on an accused perpetrator using self-intoxication or recklessness as a defense.  It would also not be a defense if the accused failed to take reasonable steps to ascertain consent.
  • An explicit provision that an individual is unable to give consent for sexual activity if the individual is asleep or unconscious; incapacitated due to drugs and/or alcohol; or unable to communicate due to a mental and/or physical condition.
  • A preponderance of the evidence standard in the determination of disciplinary action.

And so on. So far, so good, right?

Well… no. One of the opinion pieces, published in the Sunday June 1 L.A. Times, thinks that an affirmative consent standard is not only unlikely, but also unsexy. He writes: “The legislation’s affirmative consent requirement doesn’t apply just to sex. It covers all physical contact for which consent is required by a college’s sexual assault policy, like intimate touching. In real life, such contact is welcomed after it begins, not affirmatively consented to in advance.”

I hope y’all see that this is really problematic. This statement exemplifies the sex-negativity prevalent in our culture, specifically the idea that having to obtain consent by explicitly asking for it is un-sexy. It’s not hard to see where this idea comes from; in practically every Hollywood flick the characters experience mind-numbing chemistry, kiss, and wind up in bed together, with nary a word spoken.

Is it really all that terrible to have to ask for someone’s consent before touching or kissing them? Would it really be so soberingly un-sexy to say something like, “Hey, I’d like to kiss you. How do you feel about that?” Apparently, yes, there is no greater boner-killer than verbally obtaining consent.

What’s even more  troubling is that this opinion was expressed by Hans Bader, an attorney and former U.S. Department of Education Lawyer. In other words, the people making our laws don’t think obtaining verbal, explicit consent is sexy or feasible.

Another person, Sandra Perez, wrote in to say: “Legislation in Sacramento essentially would mandate that a would-be Romeo obtain an express opt-in before proceeding to bed with his sweetheart, as if any such target of Romeo’s desires doesn’t have ample opportunity to communicate her unequivocal wish to opt out.” This is another WTF comment, since it both assumes that men are always the initiators of sexual contact (which is a harmful construct of performing idealized masculinity) and that there are never coercive situations wherein women – or men – don’t feel safe saying no.

I’m saddened and disturbs that both of the quotes in this opinion piece reinforce negative, harmful, and untrue ideas about consent. Whether or not you’re in California and hence potentially affected by this law, I recommend reading up on consent and figuring out how to make it a more prominent part of your conversations and your practices. So here are some links:

Please read and consider passing on these links. I’m aware that there are more sophisticated (often feminist) conversations happening around consent, specifically problematizing the notion of “enthusiastic consent (and this discussion too), but hey, we have to start somewhere.

P.S. June is  Adult Sex Ed month! Consider this post a contribution!

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My post Claiming the Title of Sex Educator recently went live at MySexProfessor, and in that vein, I’m going to start posting more sex education and sex research content here at my personal blog. I’ll begin with a post about how we talk about deviance and consent, and where these subjects (maybe surprisingly) intersect.

There’s a journalistic account going around about a young man who identifies as a pedophile in that he’s attracted to children, but he has never acted on that attraction. In fact, he’s actively seeking help in order to keep from acting on it. Pedophilia is one the most taboo and reviled sexuality topics in our society, and I like how the interview humanizes the man. It’s worth a listen if you have the time (it’s around 30 minutes long).

The story got me thinking about how we tend to talk about sexual deviancy. The more taboo a topic is, the more likely the discussion of it is to be framed in terms of morality or wrongness. In other words, stigma has an incredibly polarizing effect on discourse.

But you know what? Pretty much any sexual act has the potential to be just as “deviant” as the most stigmatized and taboo acts out there. This is because every sex act that involves more than one person hinges on consent, and even the most innocent-seeming act can become a violation if consent is lacking.

This is where the “would you do it to/with a pet?” question comes in. Think of something you might do to, say, a cat or dog as a friendly gesture:

  • Hug
  • Pet
  • Feed
  • Walk or play with

You don’t have to ask your cat or dog whether you can interact with it in a low-key, friendly way, in a manner that presumes some familiarity but does not transgress the animal’s bodily boundaries or cause it pain. Similarly, you usually don’t have to ask a friend consent before hugging her, or offering him food, or shaking zir hand.

Then think of some other activities, which you would NOT do to your pet. These could involve forcibly penetrating it, or beating it. Why would those actions be wrong? Because your pet cannot consent to sex with a human, nor to receiving pain. Animals think differently than humans and we haven’t figured out how to bridge a lot of those gaps just yet. Humans, on the other hand, are capable of communicating with one another about marvelously complex things, including giving and receiving physical pain in the pursuit of pleasure as with kink/BDSM, or choosing to enter into sex work.

My point here is that if it’s not an act that you would feel okay doing to an alive-and-feeling being that is incapable of communicating consent — it is potentially a “deviant” act. Being kissed without consent can be an invasive, horrible experience. Having sex without consent – that’s called rape.  Whether it’s the most vanilla thing in that world or as taboo as it gets, any partnered sexual activity has the potential to be traumatic if its occurs without consent.

Obviously the pet analogy falls apart at some point. Some people enjoy sloppy wet dog kisses, and the dogs seem to enjoy them right back. The activity of wrestling with one’s pet may cross into rough play, rougher than you’d do with a non-consenting human. I just wanted to come up with a metaphor that would resonate with people, that would make you think about the activities which require explicit consent and the activities that do not.

The flip side is that if any act, no matter how innocent or well-intended, can become monstrous when it occurs without consent, then any deviant/taboo/bizarre act can be seen as okay if consent is granted. Or at least, I’ll see it that way, and encourage others to have an open enough mind to do so.

Once again: if you’re a consenting adult, I support you doing anything. Consent should always be communicated, negotiated, and re-negotiated, so the more we read and talk and write about it, the better!

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The first week of classes has passed, and I find myself excited that my students are excited. And I think I figured out one major reason they’re excited – I spent a lot of time in the first day of both my classes emphasizing the relevance of what we’d be learning this semester.

In my folklore class, I made sure to talk about preconceptions about folklore, which people tend to associate with quaint, old-timey things. Of course I gave my students some updated definitions of folklore (folklore as expressive culture, as artistic communication in small groups, as creativity in everyday life), and in our discussion, they seemed intrigued by the fact that we’d be studying contemporary communities alongside the historical dimensions of folklore in the Midwest (which is the topic of the course).

In my gender studies class, I spoke about how our culture gives people crummy and/or incomplete models for understanding, communicating about, and analyzing relationships. You can blame Hollywood (I do, in part) or other areas of the media, or the patriarchy, or any number of the things, but the fact remains: we don’t learn good relationship communication skills. And part of the reason I’m teaching this class on monogamous and non-monogamous relationships is to fix that. Yes, we’ll study things that seem exotic by some counts (marriage in other cultures, same-sex relationships, polyamory and swinging, sex work, etc.) but the point is to start a dialogue about the diversity of human relationships as scholars … and maybe also get some take-home pointers about communication and consent and all that good stuff.

The other factor here, in my humble opinion, is that I was really excited on the first day of both classes too. I think that came through when I spoke to my students, and asked their opinions, and got them involved in discussions. I care about the topics I’m teaching, which must help in some fashion… but I think relevance is a major factor as well. I think a good teacher can and should make any topic relevant to the lives of her students. Some topics might require a greater stretch than others, sure, but relevance has been on my mind lately, and since I was pleased to find it a positive force in both my classes, I thought I would mention it here while also scrambling to come up with a good topic for my 2nd post of the month before the month trickles away from me.

Relevance. I dig it. More thoughts on this later, perhaps.

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I’ve been turning this post over in my head for a few months, and now seems like a good time to make it.

I am not accused too often of being an “angry feminist,” but it still happens from time to time. As though that is such a terrible thing to be; worse than a greedy capitalist, or a dishonest politician, or an unapologetic rapist. As though it would be better for me to not be angry or not be feminist, but be something else instead, even if that something else is also a negative trait.

This Tiger Beatdown post on angry-feminist-shaming really resonated with me. In it, Flavia writes: I refuse to be boxed in the simplified category of “ranter” because I am angry. Because this anger makes me “difficult”, it makes me “alienating”, it makes me “impossible to deal with” and I should just accept that certain things just are.

Anger drives us to action; anger keeps us from being complacent. Yet it is a really charged thing for women to be angry, since in many cultures, women are not supposed to get angry. There is no safe way for us to unleash our passions. In folklore, literature, and history, we see the dire consequences of women getting angry: Medea, Snow White’s (step)mother, the doomed Amazons, the Maenads. There is little cultural space for women’s anger. We are supposed to swallow it and, I don’t know, transform it into milk chocolate hearts and rainbow bird’s nests. Or better yet, not feel it at all.

This excellent (but potentially triggering) post at Fugitivus talks about the conditioning women undergo to be pleasant and agreeable in every.single.interaction of their lives, and how given that context, it’s unsurprising that “if you accept those social interactions as normal and appropriate in your day to day life, there is absolutely no reason you should be shocked that rape occurs without screaming, without fighting, without bruising, without provocation, and without prosecution. Behavior exists on a continuum.”

One reason I chafe at the negative connotations of the “angry feminist” label is that it’s meant to police women’s behavior. Because if being an angry woman is clearly unacceptable in our society, being an angry feminist must be a billion times worse.

Another reason I dislike the stigma is that I don’t actually see being an angry feminist as a bad thing depending on what you are doing with that anger. I totally do not mean this to turn into a judgment of how those feminists are doing it wrong but these feminists are doing it right; rather, I mean that anger can be an intensely destructive emotion, and that shit will consume you if you let it. Which is not helpful for anyone, really, unless self-destruction does something unique or desirable for you.

But here is the thing: when feminists are angry, we are angry about oppression. We are angry about women’s (and indeed, men’s) options and identities being limited and defined by patriarchy, religion, laws, culture. We are pissed off that being born with a certain set of genitals means you are far more likely to experience sexual assault, to be denied health care coverage, to take a pay cut for the same work.

And our anger is frequently tempered with empathy. Feminism is a collective movement. You gain empathy by realizing that yeah, it also sucks for people who are both like you and unlike you. That opens you up to awareness that oppression happens on many axes, not just gender/sexuality, but also ethnicity, religious identity, immigrant status, nationality, class, and so on.

When you start to think about oppression and you start to realize how much it sucks to be oppressed, you generally don’t want to inflict those same feelings on others. This is where I’m going with the empathy thing. And while bell hooks has said this way more eloquently than I ever will, this is why feminism can and should intersect with multiple anti-oppression stances, and why all forms of oppression are related.

I think this, ultimately, is why the idea of the angry feminist is so threatening in a contemporary mainstream American/Western context: because the oppressors can’t understand a way of being angry that does not involve doing violence to others. Since that is how they work, by keeping others in check through fear and control. It’s power-over rather than power-with, to borrow a term from Starhawk.

But many feminists (and again, it’s such a broad movement that it’s hard to generalize about) understand that being oppressed–for gender or anything else–really blows, so we channel our anger into challenging oppression, not redirecting it onto whoever’s lower on the totem pole than us. We comprehend the destructive effects of displaced abusive anger and instead strive for transformative passionate anger.

Not that we’re perfect and get it right every time; I still feel helpless, and I still fight losing battles on the internet with people who are turned off by my anger so I really should adopt another tactic but I don’t because this shit is so raw, this being told I am less than human and don’t deserve sovereignty over my body. I am trying to do it better, to be more compassionate, to channel my anger into something useful and not wallow in rageful depression or lash out at potential allies.

This is why I don’t back away from the term angry feminist: I think it can teach us many things. It can be used to start conversations, or to end them, if the idea of an angry woman is so alien as to point out irreconciliable differences that it’s not worth bashing your head against. We do need some amount of self-preservation instincts to keep up this fight while life goes on around us, after all.

I hope that someday we won’t even need the term anymore: that women will have socially acceptable access to the same range of emotions as men, and that the idea of feminism will be something taught in history classes since it’ll no longer be necessary once gender-based oppression is banished forever. Yeah, I can keep dreaming. But I like my anger with a dash of optimism.

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I’ve been meaning to post about various things lately; some of my post ideas include why I’m okay with being an angry feminist, some thoughts on education, and things along those lines. I’m working on a few papers for publication, too. One is on sacred and spiritual belly dancing in America, and I’m quite excited about it. My interview material is a few years old but those dancers I’ve been in contact with recently are also really enthusiastic about participating. I hope to have more information about when and where that essay is coming out soon.

However, I’ve been really bogged down with wedding planning among other things. Yep, I’m getting married, though it’s not something I talk about a lot in public webspace for a number of reasons. For one, as I discuss in this MySexProfessor post, women tend to be judged by whether or not they’re single, and that’s something I want to avoid. For another, I feel that navigating wedding planning as a feminist is really complicated. Does it make me a bad feminist to want to get married? I mean, the institution is based on the idea that women are property, and though it’s changed a lot, it’s not perfect. I also don’t want to give the impression that wedding planning (or being married) is detracting from my ability to do research or be a good academic.

However, I do have admit it: wedding planning is tough. It takes a lot of energy, and I’m not even doing the bulk of the logistics (thank goodness for my family being so on board). I find it especially draining since I don’t buy into a lot of gender normative ideas, but that is like ALL there is to wedding advertising and crap these days. It’s really frustrating. So I can spend a few hours each day doing wedding-related stuff, and a few hours each day doing research, and then since I’m visiting my family in L.A. we also have to see relatives and go out and do stuff. And since my family is full of foodies that also means we’re spending a lot of time at farmers markets and gourmet restaurants, and in the kitchen preparing lovely meals. And since I am eating so much I’m also making sure to exercise a lot; I might as well take advantage of the beautiful hills to run in while I’m here.

All of which is to say that I’ve been on a semi-vacation, trying to relax after finishing my PhD, giving myself some space in which to work on various projects and also get my life together.

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Again, normally I save the sex posts for MySexProfessor.com … but this is a little more, hm, shall we say, political than my blogging there tends to be.

What sparked this rant? This Feministe post about an American Christian evangelical group that is sending missionaries over to Thailand to “save” the bar girls there.

I don’t even know where to begin. Go click on the link and watch the video if you have the stomach for patronizing, classist, colonialist, sexist propaganda.

First? It is beyond me how a bunch of American, privileged-enough-to-travel-to-Thailand women can claim to understand where Thai sex workers are coming from. How can they talk about morality and sin when these women are working in the sex economy in order to survive? How dare these privileged American women project their sexual norms onto women from another culture, and women who are most likely disadvantaged at that? What’s their solution – are they going to pay for the Thai women to come to the US, learn English, and learn vocational skills? Because anything less than that is bullshit. Anything less than that is a misinformed (at best) attempt to tell other people to prize morals over food. And anyone who tells you that has probably never been hungry or poor.

Next: these women are saying masturbating is a sin. NO. NO. NO. I cannot believe there are still doctrines that say that. Becoming acquainted with your body can only be a good thing. It will only benefit your future partners (or partner if you’re saving yourself for “the one”) and your children and your community. Your body is not sinful. Your body is just your body. It just is. It’s a part of you. Like, maybe you shouldn’t masturbate so much that you rub yourself raw or miss important commitments. Moderation in everything, my dears. But seriously. People who say that masturbation is wrong should be taken to fucking court as far as I’m concerned BECAUSE THEY ARE WRONG. We have empirically proven that it’s normal and healthy. Even bloody Fox News agrees on this.

(if I believed in hell, I would say that there is a special hell reserved for people who tell teens that masturbation is immoral and sinful, just as I think there should be a special hell for people who instruct schoolchildren that abstinence is the only way to go because condoms don’t work and will give you diseases anyway… but since I don’t believe in hell, I can only hope that these people become enlightened enough to realize that they’re inflicting unnecessary harm on young minds)

Finally, the “When I’m With My Daddy” song playing in the video, along with all the He/Him/Christ stuff? Is downright creepy. It is patronizing and creepy to show these young women subjugating themselves to Him and His stuff and so on as the only way to deal with sexuality. Would they make a video showing young men doing the same? Nope, that would be deemed homoerotic. It’s uncomfortable for me to watch these young women saying how pure they feel because of Him, how cleansed of sexual anything… and yet they’re in a position to “rescue” other women who are quite possibly undergoing trauma these girls have never imagined?

I’m all for the message of acceptance in the video, and that message in Christianity in general. When people fulfill the teachings of Christ, I think that’s awesome. But I find this evangelical brand of Christianity offensive, patronizing, and creepy. Like, how is this not about controlling women’s sexuality? I just… ugh. I need to go cleanse my palate now that I’ve gotten this rant out of my system.

(I’m not trying to imply that all of Christianity is creepy, and I hope I haven’t given that impression… but y’all need to reevaluate what you’re doing if some parts of your religion come off as creepy to non-Christians, especially if you’re an evangelical religion, which I gather Christianity is)

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For over a month now, I have been thinking about the intersections between issues of interest to Digital Humanities (DH) scholars, feminists, and sex educators/researchers. I’m not the only one to consider these connections, but my positioning as a scholar who does DH and gender/feminist studies, while also writing for a Kinsey-affiliated sex blog, might help me see some novel patterns.

On the scholarly side, the DH community has written a lot about gender and our particular area of academia. Kicking off a large debate, Miriam Posner’s Some things to think about before you exhort everyone to code acknowledges the intersectionality of identities in academia, such that yeah, it is often harder for women to get into coding than men. Bethany Nowviskie’s response Don’t Circle the Wagons cautions us not to put up gender barriers where unnecessary, and she also makes the canny move of contextualizing this whole discussion in current US politics, which are, to say the least, not very woman-friendly. Among the many responses (so many of which were really wonderful, and I wish I could go into more detail about them; Miriam links some here), A spot of mansplaining by Hugh Cayless also helps contextualize coding as an exclusionary field, one which has ingrained social dynamics ensuring that women (also the elderly, and other groups not privileged with certain kinds of education or access) will have to fight for the opportunity to learn at all.

And, of course, there’s Tanya Clement’s I am a woman and I am a mother and I do DH that heart-rendingly exposes some of the sexism at the core of our field, as well as in academia and society in general. Her “fear that someone will find out all of the ways in which my identifications as a woman, a friend, a mother, and as a DH academic do not follow the way everyone else who has identified themselves as such might define those same identities” really resonates with me, as a shy/introverted but obstinate woman determined to make my own life and my own choices even if they’re not the norm.

While I don’t intend this to be a post about gender and coding in DH – as plenty of others have already covered that ground – I will say that I view coding like any other tool in my scholarly toolbox. I’ll learn it if it’s going to help me in some concrete way, but otherwise, I’ll leave it until later. I mean, to draw a parallel, given my scholarly interests in north-east India, I should totally get on learning some of those languages ASAP, but as I haven’t narrowed down which ethnic groups I want to work with, I can’t yet make an informed decision about which language to learn. Besides, English will get you pretty far in India. And if you have colleagues who will translate for you on field excursions, leading to a fruitful collaboration… well, you see where I’m going with this. This approach tends to work in DH too.

But back to cultural context (I am a folklorist; we really like talking about context). The DH Twittersphere discussions about open access really intrigued me. As much as the DH community seems to love to debate various minutiae, open access seems to be one of the significant themes connecting our discourse and our activism. I feel very strongly that we should make as much of our research as accessible to the public as possible. I recognize that there are some constraints on how much of that we can feasibly do right now, while still retaining enough value in the eyes of our institutions. Most of us agree, however, that closing down avenues of access is generally a bad idea; it tends to be motivated by power, money, and a desire to control.

In introducing the awesome initiative Open Folklore, my colleague Jason Jackson makes some incisive remarks, situating the project “in the context of the serials crisis, the corporate enclosure of society journal programs, the erosion of the university press system, the development of open source software for scholarly communication, and the rise of the open access movement as a progressive response to these changes.” The scholarly open access movement, in short, is a multifaceted response to a whole slew of social, economic, and political issues.

Further, Jackson (among others) has contextualized the open access issues within the larger cultural framework of the Occupy Movement, which has been drawing attention to the inequalities that riddle our society. While the Occupy Movement casts a broad shadow, one notable topic it includes is health care, specifically for women. Occupy Birth Control argues: “Just like the vast majority of Americans want an economic system that is just and want banks held accountable for predatory lending and other amoral (and sometimes illegal) practices and the government held accountable for enabling these practices, the vast majority of women—and the men who care about them—believe access to birth control is a right.”

The battle for women to have, essentially, open access to their bodies is growing increasingly bitter, with women wanting birth control called sluts or pregnant women told to just carry their non-viable fetuses to term like livestock do (references here). So we’ve got links between the movement for birth control and the Occupy movement, and links between the Occupy movement and the open access movement, which is of interest to DHers… I don’t think I’m mistaken in thinking “if A equals B, and if B equals C, then A equals C.”

Since I’m trained to see larger social patterns (again, yay folklore!), here’s my argument: that the same conservative, power-oriented cultural forces that want to close off our intellectual access are the same forces wanting to close off our sexual access. No, I’m not saying it’s one Mr-Burns-like figure in some global conspiracy to make everything suck for professors and sex-positive folks (I’ve read too much Foucault for that kind of view to be believable). Rather, I’m saying that there are large trends in our culture (mostly America, but the rest of the West to a degree) that are anti-intellectual and anti-feminist and anti-progressive, and a lot of these trends overlap, perhaps sharing funding by large corporations and churches and politicians. In a similar vein, I could ask: do you know who benefits from open-access everything? Everyone does… but who benefits from closed access stuff? Only some people… but they are going to fight to retain their power over access issues.

In short, I think a lot of the same people and ideologies that don’t want our research to be freely available also don’t want us to have knowledge about our bodies and sexualities. Obtaining accurate information about pregnancy and STIs, not to mention affordable birth control, is getting harder and harder in some places. An uninformed population that is constantly occupied (deliberate word choice there) with childcare (perhaps wanted, perhaps not) and student loan bills is an easily ruled population. And this is where I think scholars and sex activists really share common ground, even if we don’t always think of it that way.

I have a friend who is fond of saying: “All forms of oppression are connected.” Perhaps the connections are subtle, or perhaps you need to don your bell hooks goggles to see them better. Either way, I hope this post was at least a little thought-provoking.

Obviously, I’d love to see more DH scholars doing gender-aware work and advocating for access to better sex education (which our country really needs; our teen pregnancy and STI transmission rates blow in comparison to much of Europe). I’d also love to see more sex researchers and educators taking advantage of our cool digital tools and progress in the fight for open access publication. But I know that everyone has time constraints and obligations and we can all only do so much. So mostly, I’m writing this post to help spread awareness.

I also want to put my money where my mouth is, of course. Since I’m now Jeana Jorgensen, Ph.D., but I’m not yet certain which distinguished institution will hire me to do awesome stuff, I don’t know what kind of funding or research time I’ll be looking at for a study that applies DH strategies to understanding (and perhaps solving) a pressing sexuality issue of our day. I’d love to hear from the feminist/sex-ed blogosphere on this and maybe find someone with whom to collaborate.

In the meantime, feel free to go read What can I do for feminism? over at the always-fabulous Feminism 101. And for sex-positive folks that wandered over from the interwebs and want to get a sense of what this DH stuff I’m talking about it, feel free to read my DH lecture notes which contain links to a bunch of other resources that explain what we’re all about. transformdh (here on Twitter) is also a movement I’d like to get more involved with now that I’m more or less done with my dissertation. I think we could all have some really awesome conversations together.

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Normally I’d post about sex and related topics over at MySexProfessor.com but this topic has gotten me all fired up and talkative. I’m also leaving that option open to Miss Maggie Mayhem, who was one of the main sex work activists interviewed in this Salon piece on sexual assault in the BDSM community and who’s also blogged at MySexProfessor.

If you need some background to the Salon piece I’m discussing in this post, I give a brief definition of BDSM here, and explain how it can be viewed as a sexual orientation. Clarisse Thorn, who is a brilliant feminist writer who discusses BDSM among other topics, narrates her messy initial experiences with BDSM here, in case you want to read about how a really smart, independent, feminist woman comes to terms with how she enjoys pain sexually.

What you really need to know, though, is that BDSM is a subculture that values the agency of adults to make their own sexual choices, no matter how strange or counter-intuitive they might sound. Period. No judgments like “that’s too weird” or “ew how could anyone like that” or whatever. If it’s consenting adults, then it’s fine.

So what really bothers me about the Salon article is how it highlights the abuse that happens in the BDSM community and  gets swept under the rug, explained away as a desire to avoid drama. Because this is a subculture that thrives on consent, and yet some of the practitioners trample on the consent of their partners – that’s what baffles me. I think this is just further evidence that the power tensions that plague a society will permeate it at practically every level: every subculture, every genre of expression, will somehow struggle with those roles and stereotypes and inequalities.

The Salon article notes: “In many ways, the kink scene seems light-years ahead of other sexual communities when it comes to issues of consent. They have checklists that tirelessly detail personal limits and safe words meant to bring things to a screeching halt if ever someone’s boundaries are crossed.” This is why I think it’s a shame that we’re not hearing more about the models of communication as well as the assaults that happen in the BDSM scene. Like other alternative sexualities – non-straight folks, non-monogamous folks, and so on – practitioners of BDSM are learning to communicate honestly and fearlessly as they figure out what they want and how to get it… which, when you have no mainstream role models or narratives to follow, can be pretty tough.

However, I think it’s important to recognize that just because a subculture acknowledges that pain can be an interesting sexual or sensual experience does NOT mean that a practitioner invites every kind of pain. The victim-blaming rhetoric mentioned in the article – make sure you get references before “playing” with someone, make sure you have a safe word, and so on – obscure the fact that the assault is never the fault of the victim, and that it’s perfectly okay for a consenting adult to say “I’d like to explore biting, but no blood drawing, please.” Nobody invites their boundaries to be broken. Nobody asks to be violated. Insinuating otherwise is stupid.

Kitty Stryker, interviewed in the article, says of safety techniques: “But then you find out that you can do those three things and not be safe anyway, and that’s terrifying. You realize how vulnerable you are.” This is true not just for BDSM or other sexual subcultures, but for all culture in a patriarchy. This is an incredibly unpleasant truth to face. As long as we live in a hierarchical culture where some people are deemed less human than others, there will be assault. I think it’s sad that assault is occurring in a community that otherwise is really focused on consent… but I also don’t think assault will go away until we fix larger inequalities in our society.

To end on a more positive note, the bloggers at Yes Means Yes are doing a lot of constructive work evaluating rape culture and how to change it. They make the excellent point that so “what if someone is taking different risks than you? We need to get over the idea that there’s some risk-free way to be sexual, or to more generally pursue pleasure, or to do anything else in life.”

Every lifestyle, sexual or social or whatever, carries some risk with it. This is unfortunate but inevitable. I applaud anyone who acknowledges that openly and honestly, and lives their lives in a constructive and brave fashion. In my mind, any sexual community that foregrounds consent and communication does that, and I hope mainstream cultures can learn something from them.

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It warmed my heart to see this Chronicle piece on gay mentors in modern academe. The column is co-written by a student who came out as gay to his professor who is also gay, and it describes their interactions and their supportive mentor-mentee relationship. Professor Faunce writes, “we need to be on the front lines about this…in a compassionate show of hope for pre-teens and young adults who might otherwise be struggling in silence.” And I utterly agree… but how to manage it?

Faunce notes of coming out to one’s students in order to show oneself a possible ally: “Obviously this can be a contested space for a professor. Where is the line, for instance, of self-declaration regarding sexuality, gender, class, or race?” I think it varies according to the kind of class one is teaching, and the rapport one has with one’s students. While I would find it inappropriate to regale my students with sordid tales of my sex life, I would not find it inappropriate to have a conversation with a student who is questioning her or his sexuality and is looking for a sympathetic listener, or for someone to point them toward some resources.

Another point I like from Faunce is that he feels as academics, we are supposed to be “looking for meaning from a great many sources while also imparting our knowledge and acquired wisdom to our students. As a gay academic, I feel it is increasingly my moral obligation to provide students—not just the gay or questioning ones, but also the straight or straight-questioning students—with a role model of a different sort.” I concur that academics have the potential to be role models for their students in a great many ways: not just as inspiring knowledge-seekers or teachers, but also as a figure that the student can identify with on a personal level. For instance, I can say as a woman that it has been amazing to have female mentors in the academy – to see that Someone Like Me can succeed in an intellectually rigorous environment despite barriers such as misogyny.

How I plan to go about inspiring and empathizing with students is tricky, though. Anyone who talks to me for more than 5 minutes or reads my blogging will have a pretty good idea that I don’t subscribe to a lot of heteronormative thinking. As a grad student, I’ve shared a lot of resources on sex education with friends in my cohort simply because I’ve had the good fortune to work with sex educators and sex researchers at MySexProfessor.com. But will that easy, free-flowing exchange of information have to cease once I put some more letters behind my name? Will the conversations containing sexual advice (based on personal experience or gleaned from books – does it matter?) have to stop?

Some scholars don’t think so. Joanna Frueh writes in her chapter “The Amorous Stepmother” in Monster/Beauty: “The stepmother, the female professorial bad body, points out a gap in pedagogical theory, a gap that we must expand by understanding ways in which she contradicts and confuses parent-child and other teacher-student models” (216) whereas “The parent-teacher is disembodied. Representing the university in loco parentis, she or he must be the good body, aesthetically/erotically unobtrusive, for the parent-teacher not only intellectually but also morally guides the student, the latter in conventionally appropriate ways” (225). But any kind of sexually charged academic interaction or identity can be dangerous for the scholar.

I wish I had better ideas and answers. Or, you know, tenure. But hopefully someday I’ll be in a situation where I can let students know that if they ever have any questions about how to navigate sexual identity and other issues of sex and society, my office door is open, and I’ll help in any way I can.

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Yes, you read that right. Last night in conversation with some of my international colleagues, I used the word “douchebag” to describe an unsavory person, and then I had to explain what it meant. I have always been annoyed at the implication that a douche (or douchebag, or my favorite, douche-nozzle) is a bad name to call someone because of its proximity to women’s health, and worse yet, to vaginas.

However, I am heartened to know that the practice of douching is actually quite bad for vaginal chemistry, so calling someone a douche is, from this perspective, actually a comment on what a terrible idea it is to artificially introduce substances to one’s vagina in the misguided search for cleanliness (when in actuality most vaginas have self-regulating ecosystems, and are thus quite healthy and clean even if there are some secretions and  the like). So when I apply the word douche, or any of its variations, to someone, I am critiquing the misogynist assumption that women’s vaginas are unclean.

For an explanation of some of the science behind douching, see Kate Clancy’s blog post about douching practices among sex workers in Nigeria. There’s some really interesting stuff about racism and colonialism, too.

By far, however, my favorite part is this:

“it’s hard to not place lime juice douching within the spectrum of cultural practices enforced to control women, from female genital cutting, to diets, to cosmetics, to scores of other ways women alter their bodies to fit a culturally-sanctioned norm. And just as we can demonstrate the ways in which women may choose these practices, or find empowerment in some of them, I don’t know that it is really possible to parse out a woman’s agency from the institutional inequities that increase her chances of making certain choices. That is, a woman may choose any of these actions and be well aware of the benefits and consequences, but she is still aware of, and sometimes constrained by, a culture that dictates both.”

Yes, yes, and yes. Feminism has always maintained an active dialogue about agency – where does it come from? How do we obtain and exercise it? And while it’s lovely to think that all human beings are automatically granted agency simply by virtue of our subjectivity (another tricky concept), our choices are always made within the context of the groups we inhabit, both institutional/official and folk/vernacular (not to imply an exclusive dichotomy). Our cultures constrain us even as they permit some sorts of agency and choice within their confines. We don’t even know what an individual looks like outside culture; for while individuals may consciously reject some aspects of a culture, that same individual was irrevocably shaped by her culture, to the point where it may be impossible to disentangle the threads of identity formation.

I think this is a deeply uncomfortable concept for feminists and other activists to sit with and think about, especially for those of us who are Westerners and have been brought up with the “you are a unique snowflake” brand of individuality. I think the best we can hope for, right now at least, is to point out cultural norms and constructions when we see them, in order to expose the ideologies that hide as “natural.” Perhaps, when faced with the realization of how much of culture is constructed and naturalized, people can expose a little more wiggle room in order to explore and make choices?

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