Wrestling with words

I am running into a significant linguistic issue around sex and gender in the rewrite of my honours thesis (which is being turned into a book chapter). My supervisor/coauthor and I have different perspectives on where the focus of the paper should be, and we need to bridge them. This writing is my first attempt to grapple with the language, to figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it, and to try to understand how to bridge between our perspectives to make the paper as strong as possible.

***

In writing about feminist queer pornography, it is necessary to bridge what can be an ideological divide between feminist politics (centring on an understanding and analysis sexed and gendered oppression) and queer politics (centring on a rejection of biological essentialism and the gender binary). These two focuses are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to recognize the binaristic lens of hegemonic culture, and the way that deviation from a norm of “male, cisgender, masculine, heterosexual, white, able-bodied” is othered and marginalized, while still rejecting the gender binary and the hegemonic norm.

It seems necessary, in a feminist analysis, to talk about “women” and about power differentials related to the Euroamerican binary understanding of gender and the way that this understanding impacts even non-binary individuals. For example, although Jiz Lee is not a “woman,” their genital morphology means that viewers tend to read them as “female” and “woman.” It is necessary to address this fact, to expose the lens that binaristic hegemony views pornography through, without erasing the reality of non-binary sex and gender.

It seems, to me, that Courtney Trouble bridges this (potential) gap in Nostalgia by casting the film with individuals who are all designated-female-at-birth, but who are not all women. Or rather, perhaps, that she opens a door for scholars to bridge this gap in their analysis of her film. Through her casting, she is able to create a film that explicitly and materially displaces the biological cock as the centre or focus or active member[i] of the pornographic scene. It is only through this displacement of the phallus that Trouble is able to go into a nuanced examination of the potential to displace climax and orgasm itself within the pornographic scene.

Removing the biological cock entirely from the pornographic scene leaves some clear and relevant gaps, such as the question of where trans women fit within feminist queer pornographies and whether there is space for cisgender men in queer feminist pornographies. (It is relevant that Trouble has answered these questions and filled these gaps in other films, such as “trans grrrls” and her work with Ned Mayhem and other cisgender men.)

Removing the biological cock also presents the viewer with a film that can be inaccurately read as being about “women’s sexual pleasure.” The fact that only one form of genital morphology is presented leaves the film vulnerable to readings that fall into the trap of the sex-gender-orientation continuum that Shiri Eisner articulates (whereby sex is assumed to determine gender, and gender is assumed to determine orientation – from Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution). However, the film rejects this essentialist reading by using technology in the form of strap-ons to complicate gender performance, and by including multiple genderqueer performers, most notably Jiz Lee.

Finding language with which to discuss the film presents a challenge. Discussing the film in terms of “women’s sexual pleasure” erases the genderqueer identities of those performers who are designated-female-at-birth but who are not women. Discussing the film as being about “trans* sexual pleasure” similarly erases the identities of the cisgender women performers. The term “gynocentric” is transmisogynist and enforces gendered language around genitalia that Jiz Lee has explicitly rejected (referring to their genitals as their “hole” and not a “vagina”). Gynocentric also has a historical connotation that excludes trans women, non-binary individuals, and cisgender men.

We are left, therefore, in a challenging linguistic space.

So my question is, how do we talk about sex and gender in a way that recognizes the structure within which hegemony forces bodies into rigid roles, while also recognizing the inaccuracy of this structure and the harm it causes to people who do not fit within these roles.

Whether we recognize the identity of the person on screen, their identity remains a real part of the performance. When Jiz Lee is read as a “woman,” they do not become a woman.

Similarly, when they are read as white, they do not become white. In a parallel linguistic minefield, my co-author and I are attempting to address racial issues in Nostalgia, where the film is open to a reading that is “white” if viewers are not aware of the racial identities of some of the performers.

The fact that we read bodies through these hegemonic lenses, assuming that we know gender based on secondary sex characteristics or genital morphology, assuming that we know race based on skin tone – this is not a problem that the individual whose identity is being overwritten needs to correct. It is not incumbent on Jiz Lee to visibly perform genderqueerness in order to be genderqueer. To demand this of people who deviate from the norm would be to further marginalize them. Rather, part of the feminist queer project undertaken in Nostalgia is to highlight the assumptions being made and then to subvert them.

Nostalgia may be read as a film about “women’s pleasure” but it is not.

It may be read as a “white” film but it is not.

I need language that recognizes these facts, but also acknowledges and addresses the fact (and I do believe it to be a fact) that hegemonic lenses are the norm, that viewers will read this film as both a “women’s” film and a “white” film. I need this language to challenge this norm, so that the chapter cannot be easily read with these lenses on. It seems like a nearly impossible task, and I am not sure that I’m up to it.


[i] I’m so punny.

Speakers Corner Calgary: Abortion Debate

I participated in the Speakers Corner Calgary “Abortion: Whose Human Right?” debate yesterday. This is the text of the speech that I gave.

***

I am pro-choice. By this, I mean that I strongly believe in free, legal, safe and easily-accessible abortions. I believe they should be available on demand to anyone who makes the choice to have one.

Not only cisgender women, whose gender expression is in alignment with the sex they were assigned at birth, but also anyone with a uterus, including trans men, non-binary individuals such as myself, and some intersex people are impacted by reproductive politics. We have an obligation to trust individuals to make the best decisions for their own bodies. And we have an obligation to treat individuals with uteruses with at least as much respect for bodily-autonomy as we would a corpse – meaning that we cannot demand that having a uterus obligates a person to donate their body to sustain another’s life. We do not make these demands even of our own dead – how cruel, hypocritical and unjust would we be to demand this of our living?

I am also a pleasure-positive feminist activist. Consent is at the foundation of my politics – I believe that consent must be given for anything that happens to our bodies, and I believe that consent can be withdrawn at any time. Consenting to kiss is not the same as consenting to sex, consenting to sex is not the same as consenting to be pregnant, and consenting to be pregnant is not the same as consenting to remain pregnant.

I believe our right to bodily autonomy includes the right to engage in whatever brings pleasure to the consenting adults involved. I believe that sex – the right to engage in it and the right to choose not to engage in it – is a fundamental right.

In order to create a consent-focused culture, we need to reduce the stigma attached to sex and sexuality.

We need to reduce the shame surrounding frank conversations about sexuality, and the violence and harm that results from that shame.

There are points on which I will never be able to find common ground with anti-choice rhetoric.

I believe that personhood begins at birth, and I recognize that the two sides of this debate will likely never see eye-to-eye on that question.

I also believe that individuals should not be shamed for seeking an abortion, no matter what their reasons for wanting an abortion are. Abortion as birth control is often held up as the inevitable result of free access to abortions, and some people would use it that way. I have no problem with that. People have elective surgeries all the time, and what they do with their bodies is up to them. Consent. Bodily-autonomy.

However, because I think that there are many more points on which common ground can be found, I want to focus on the potential bridges between seemingly insurmountable differences.

First, people on both sides of the abortion debate claim to want fewer unwanted pregnancies. For me, this is because as much as I believe an individual has the right to choose not to carry a child to term, I also believe that for many people it would be preferable to just not have to deal with it in the first place.

There are ways for us to work together to make that happen.

Comprehensive sexual education that is both queer and trans*-inclusive, free and easy access to a variety of effective contraception options, a concerted effort to stop rape and intimate partner violence – these are issues that we can work on together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and the need for abortions in those instances.[i]

A study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology in October 2012 found that free, reliable birth control could prevent between 41 and 71 percent of abortions in the United States.[ii] The scientists found that access plus education was even more effective in reducing abortion rates than they had anticipated.

Current access to birth control, including more effective options such as IUDs and hormonal birth control, is often inaccessible to individuals who do not have medical coverage or financial privilege. Even less effective barrier methods are not always accessible, especially not for individuals who don’t know about organizations like the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, or some of the Alberta Health Services initiatives.

Further, our sexual education is woefully lacking. Not only do we not teach about consent and creating a culture of consent, many educational programs are cissexist and heteronormative, presenting a single definition of sex and gender that leaves many individuals unaware of their potential for pleasure AND for risk.

We need to recognize that trans* folks, binary and non-binary, have sex! We need to recognize that queer folks have sex, sometimes with people of multiple genders. We need to recognize that asexuality is real, and that our discussions of pleasure-positive politics must include asexual individuals, both those who do not have sex, and those on the asexual spectrum who engage in consensual sex with their partners. All of these things are real, all of them happen, all of them have the potential to result in unwanted pregnancies and a lack of awareness and education for these groups is incredibly harmful.

This is the most important way that our two sides can work together to reach a common goal of fewer unwanted pregnancies. By increasing education, increasing access to effective contraception, and reducing rape, we can put our efforts into work that will be effective for meeting both of our goals.

Second, people on both sides of the abortion debate claim to care for children. Though we disagree about when a fetus becomes a person, people on both sides claim to care for children.

When abortions become inaccessible, children suffer. Evidence of this is painfully obvious. In Romania, both abortion and contraception were banned in 1967, by the 70s and 80s the number of children in state-run care facilities was over 100 thousand. In one such institution, the mortality rate of the children was over 50%.[iii]

People who seek abortions either do not want, or cannot keep or care for the child they are carrying (many people who seek abortions already have children, and do just fine with them). There are a thousand thousand reasons a person might want or need an abortion, and the only one who can judge that reason is the individual themselves. However, regardless of the reason for wanting an abortion, the result of being forced to give birth with adequate access to resources is not good for either the parent or the child.

We can work together by working to reduce poverty, to increase access to education, health-care and social services, and making sure that the children who are currently in the world are given a real life.

Third, people on both sides of the abortion debate claim to care for the individuals who might seek abortions. My colleagues on the other side of this debate talk about the harm caused to an individual who has an abortion – primarily the emotional harm.

I want to talk about the harm the results from illegal abortions.

First, a simple fact – abortions will happen.

Abortions have been happening since pre-history, and they continue to happen even in countries where there are severe legal repurcussions.

So the question is not WILL abortions happen – the question is, HOW will abortions happen?

Legal abortions are among the safest medical procedures available. Complications from having a first trimester abortion are significantly less frequent and less serious than those associated with giving birth.[iv]

On the other hand, illegal abortions are extremely unsafe.

In countries where abortions are illegal, abortion is a leading cause of maternal death. And according to a 2005 World Health Organization report, over 68,000 women die each year, worldwide, from unsafe abortions.[v]

In El Salvador, for example, abortion is illegal and the laws are strictly enforced. A report by the Centre for Reproductive Rights found that “clothes hangers, iron bars, high doses of contraceptives, fertilizers, gastritis remedies, soapy water and caustic agents such as car battery acid” were used in clandestine abortions.[vi] There are individuals serving up to 30 years in jail for having an abortion, and these are the tools that they are using. So when I say that abortions will happen, I mean that abortions WILL happen.

And this is an issue that disproportionately impacts poor individuals. In El Salvador, wealthy individuals retain the “right to choose” because they can fly to locations where abortion is legal and accessible. But among the poor, this is not an option.

It’s easy to look at this and entertain the racist thought that we do better here in Canada. Yet it was not that long ago that Canadian women faced the same class and wealth-stratified access to abortions. And in Texas, where abortion clinics are being forced to close, there is increased risk for individuals who have to seek out illegal and unsafe street drugs sold as abortificants.[vii]

When we simply and uncritically vilify individuals who seek abortions, we do harm on multiple levels. We over-simplify an issue that is incredibly complex. The people who seek abortions are many and varied. They include parents who know they do not have the resources to care for another child, teenagers who know they are not ready for parenthood, victims of rape and intimate partner violence, individuals for whom a pregnancy would cause health risks, including mental, emotional, physical or financial well-being – some of the stories of abortion are heart-wrenching and emotional.

One of the people I admire most in the world had an abortion, and the story of how they came to their choice makes me so proud to know them – the amount of thought and care that went into the choice, the deliberation, the intention with which they chose to abort their pregnancy – these stories deserve to be told.

Other stories also deserve to be told. People who do not need to deliberate because it’s not a big deal for them – their abortions are just as valid and their stories just as real. People who use abortion as birth control, people who have five or fifteen abortions. Regardless of how a person chooses what happens inside their own body, that choice is theirs. It is their right to consent to whether they share their body with a fetus, or whether they choose not to.

This, then, seems like a point on which we cannot find common ground and yet I think that is unnecessarily gloomy. Because there are things we can do to increase the health and well-being of individuals who have uteruses. We can increase their access to social services and reduce poverty and class divisions so that more individuals who want to carry their pregnancy to term have the resources to do so. We can increase access to social services after birth, such as child support, so that pregnancies are less likely to drastically reduce an individual’s success in their job and their ability to support themselves. We can increase education and access to safe, effective contraception so that, again, there fewer unwanted pregnancies.

Even here, where it seems like an unbridgeable gap exists, there are ways that we can work together towards a common goal.

Finally, I want to talk about the language that we use when we talk about abortion.

Often we talk about abortion as a “woman’s” issue. It is not. As I mentioned earlier, trans men, some non-binary individuals and some intersex individuals also have uteruses and also require control over their reproductive lives. But also, and importantly – not all women have uteruses, or are reproductive. Trans women do not have uteruses and are women. Cisgender women who have had hysterectomies or gone through menopause or are infertile are still women.

The way that we talk about abortion is important. Often the discussion reduces women to their ability to bear children, and excludes from the conversation any women for whom that is not an issue.

How we define sex, and who we see as relevant has impact beyond the people who need abortions. Our discussions of abortion impact our perception of the full humanity and bodily autonomy and integrity of people who have uteruses. These discussions impact how we talk about sex, and whether we view it as a human right or something shameful. This debate impacts our thinking about rape and rape culture, and consent. Especially consent. If we begin to argue that consent is not relevant for people who have uteruses, that consent is not on-going, that we cannot change our minds and stop giving consent – think about the repercussions of that line of thought. Reproductive freedom, consent and bodily autonomy, comprehensive sexual education, the full humanity and bodily integrity of people on all points of the sex and gender spectrum – these things are not trivial and they are not, in my opinion, up for debate.

World Mental Health Day

Content warning for discussion of depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidality.

I’m sitting in Vendome, one of my favourite cafès in Calgary. I just sent out the writing prompt to my Patchwork writers, posted it on the Facebook page, shared it on my personal Facebook, tweeted it, posted it on the Writing in the Margins blog. Most of the time I respond to writing prompts privately, in a longhand journal. If I share the writing later (which I rarely do, outside of workshops where I read my just-written work with the group), I type it up and polish it a bit.

But the prompt today is to write about mental health.

And I am a mental health advocate. So I am typing this response directly into my “add new post” screen, and I am going to hit “publish” when I’m finished, and then I’m going to share it on my other blogs so that it will be up on Writing in the Margins, and Fibro Files, and Sex Texts. And then I’ll post a link to it on Facebook and on all of my Twitter accounts, and here’s why –

At 13, I went through my first serious depression. I did not know what was happening to me. (If you suspect that you may be going through a depression or other mental health concern, here is a free screening tool. It’s not perfect, and symptoms are not so cut-and-dried for many people – it is a place to start, but not a final word.)

Suddenly everything was awful. There was a pain in my body/brain/heart/soul. I cried a lot. I self-harmed. I scratched my neck and shoulders and hips and belly until I was cross-hatched, red and scabbing. I smashed my head into walls, sometimes until I was dizzy. I didn’t know who to talk to. The only person who knew I was self-harming, the only person I confided in, was my 9 year old sister. It was terrible for both of us, a weight far too heavy for her small shoulders (or my own).

Writing about this time, I feel my chest tighten and my breath shorten, the muscles in my neck knot up – these are the first physical manifestations of anxiety in my body and I am aware enough now, at 32, to recognize them for what they are. I take a deep breath, roll my shoulders, take a sip of water, continue.

In high school, at around 16 or 17, I went through a second (or perhaps just a worsening of my ongoing) depression. This was complicated by the arrival of Sadisty – a very angry, very vicious voice in my head. I do not seem to have a split or multiple personality disorder – Sadisty was just (“just”) my mind’s way of externalizing the intense self-loathing that I was experiencing. Though I feel a deep shame about what feels, to me, like one of the lowest points in my mental health journey, I am also amazed and grateful for whatever it was in me that did choose to externalize rather than internalize those feelings. Sadisty wanted me to die, and I had many moments of suicidality, but I didn’t want me to die. I put all of that negativity into Sadisty, to get it out of my own head, to make those nasty comments come in a voice that wasn’t my own.

I am lucky to have survived high school, to have survived Sadisty and that second/ongoing depression.

(Breathe again, breathe again.)

At 18, I started volunteering at the Calgary Humane Society. I adopted a dog, my soul mate. Tasha. She had separation anxiety and dog-dog aggression. She was anxious, fearful, aggressive. Helping her helped me. Things got better. Sadisty was gone, and she has never come back.

I got married, I got divorced.

My mental health stayed at a consistently low-grade level of self-loathing. Low self-esteem. An at-that-time undiagnosed anxiety disorder. The impact of early trauma, unacknowledged anxiety and low self-esteem on my sex drive led me to believe I was “sexually dysfunctional” (a whole other thing, related but tangential to this post).

(Breathe, breathe. Roll shoulders, stretch wrists, refill water. In my body right now – tightness, tension. Shame, anxiety, fear.)

After my divorce, I went through a third severe depression. Again, I was self-harming. Again, I was suicidal.

I was 28.

I was ashamed.

I felt foolish – this was supposed to be done, part of the horror of adolescence. How could it follow me into adulthood? How could it threaten to destroy the new life I was trying to build for myself? How could I?! Shame, anxiety, self-loathing – there was a toxic mix of emotions and beliefs at play. Fortunately, I was seeing a counsellor and had her support, and the support of my anchor partner. I had started seeing a counsellor when I was trying to get past the sexual dysfunction, and continued seeing her through my divorce and into the depression that followed it. I still see her, and will continue to do so. I recognize now that my neurodivergence is not something I will ever “overcome” – it is part of who I am. It has taught me invaluable lessons, and has helped me become the advocate that I am. At 32, I recognize the value that this neurodivergence has brought to my life.

But at 28, I climbed halfway over my 28th floor balcony, intending to make strawberry jam on the pavement below.

After that, my counsellor helped me come up with an emergency plan.

I made the painful call to my sister, my mom, my dad.

I said, “I am currently depressed. Sometimes I feel suicidal. I am calling to ask if you would be willing to be part of my emergency plan. What that would mean is that if I call and tell you that I am feeling suicidal, you will be available to come and be with me, or take me to the hospital if necessary.”

I had to euthanize Tasha.

My mom was hit by a truck, she almost died.

I experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. The depression got worse. The self-harming escalated.

My best friend stopped taking my calls. Months later, she told me that it had just gotten to be too much – there was something wrong every time we spoke.

Depression, anxiety, other mental health concerns… they can be like bombs, decimating at the point of impact, shrapnel flying everywhere. Relationships can be crippled or destroyed. Partnerships suffer. The ripple effects of a mental health issue can make the isolation and loneliness, the shame and fear and pain so much worse. Among the conversations that we do not have regarding mental health, this conversation about self-care for caregivers, and balancing the various and sometimes conflicting needs for support is both absent and necessary. It is possible to remain friends with a depressed person, but because we do not ever have this conversation, many people don’t know how. (Sabrina Morgan wrote an excellent post about how to help a depressed person, and it’s a good place to start.)

I came out of that depression.

I became an activist.

I developed an amazing, diverse, wide-ranging social circle.

I learned new coping skills. I breathe more intentionally now. I pay attention to tension in my body. I rarely allow an anxiety attack to escalate to the point where I feel the urge to self-harm. I use lip balm and apply it when I start to feel anxious – I pay attention to the feel, the smell, the taste. I take supplements and get exercise. I see my counsellor every other week, more frequently when things get bad.

I am 32 now.

I am currently depressed.

I wake up in the morning and I feel sad. I feel hopeless. I feel discouraged.

I haven’t reconciled with the addition of fibromyalgia to my life. I miss my dad. I miss my dogs. I am financially unstable, and frustrated by my ongoing mental health concerns. I am crippled by anxiety on a regular basis.

But I have help. And I have a purpose. I believe that my weakness is one of my superpowers, that my willingness to speak openly about my struggles is part of my activism.

So I am depressed.

I am waiting for it to be over (for now).

I use all my new coping skills. I lean on my friends, as much as I can allow myself, and I breathe. I stretch. I take my supplements and drink my water and have epsom salt baths to help with the physical pain.

It is World Mental Health Day.

And this is my mental health story.

Transphobia in trans* language

I’ve been thinking a lot about language, and the ways in which our word choices reveal how deeply embedded in kyriarchy we are.

Parts of the DFAB (designated female at birth) genderqueer community uses “female-bodied” to describe themselves. I have used this language myself. Natalie Reed articulates why this is so problematic, and how transphobic this language actually is.

I storified her twitter essay here.