More than Two Chapter Four

Why do I have romantic relationships? What do I get out of them?

I have romantic relationships because I am a big schmoopy romantic. But, more seriously, I have romantic relationships because I fall in love easily and romance has always been something that I’ve been drawn do. I am drawn to both romantic gestures (big and small – gifts are a big part of how I express my love) and also the closeness and connection of a sustained romantic relationship. I get a sense of joy and stability and mutual support out of good romantic relationships. However, in the last few years I have really expanded my view of what counts as an enduring relationship, and now I would say that I have loving and enduring relationships that are romantic, sexual and platonic (and relationships that combine multiple types), and I value them distinctly but equally.

For me, sex and romance are often (though not always) linked. Sex is important to me (very important), and when I feel a romantic connection with someone I often want it to also be sexual. The reverse is also true most of the time, although I do have some sexual friendships that do not include romance, and some folks that I would happily hook up with at a party without forming any kind of deep relationship (romantic or otherwise). Those are the exception, though. And I think it’s important to acknowledge this, because although I am normative in this, the fact that romance=sex is the default ends up being harmful to a lot of asexual folks – it shouldn’t be assumed that being interested in romance reflects an interest in sex, and I appreciate that the book differentiates between sex and romance. I also don’t think that it’s beyond the realm of imagination to think that I could have a romantic relationship with an asexual individual, and that it could include closeness and mutual support and connection, without including sex. That’s why poly is awesome!

What do I consider essential, indispensable elements of a relationship?

Transparency, honesty, trust, support, fun, consent, autonomy, agency, compassion, connection. When any of these are missing, the relationship starts to feel really wobbly and unsafe for me.

Are there specific kinds of relationships that I know I am looking for? Kinds that I know I don’t want?

Yes. (This is a hard question to answer because the answer is “yes” and there are some specific answers that I want to acknowledge but not publicly. But there are situations where I would really like a specific kind of relationship with a specific person but… vulnerability! Plus broadcasting that on the interwebs seems like, perhaps, not the most subtle, wise, or respectful choice.)

Mostly I want relationships that fit. I want to feel like I am seen and accepted and I am trusted with my partners’ truths. I am willing to do a lot of work for a relationship, but I need that work to feel mutual and somewhat equal (not the same, but an equitable investment of time and energy into the relationship – and I prefer “equitable” to include an awareness of different levels of available resources. Young children, chronic illness, work schedules, health, family situations – lots of things can impact the availability of resources and I think a good relationship accommodates that. But even when resources are scarce, knowing that my partner is still willing to invest time and energy as available is really important to me).

I know that I do not want relationships where I feel like I am chasing after my partner for information relevant to my ability to make informed choices about my risks (sexual, emotional, etc.). I do not want to feel like I am a burden in my relationships (and this is tricky because sometimes my insecurity makes me feel like a burden, so a lot of the heavy lifting on this one has to come from me). I do not want relationships that feel codependent (where we feel like we couldn’t survive without each other) or relationships that feel coercive. I also don’t want hidden relationships, which is sometimes unfair because it means that being with someone who is fully in the closet would be a big challenge for me. I want partners and metamours who are willing to acknowledge me as a partner or metamour in at least some circumstances.

What do I bring to the table for others?

I bring a LOT of enthusiasm to the table. I think I also bring a lot of compassion, empathy, and respect to my relationships, and a sincere desire to see everyone in my pod (paramours, metamours, maybe-mores, loving friendships, family) safe and fulfilled. I am good at making space for difficult conversations, and at accepting the parts of people that are sometimes difficult to share. I am good at self-care, and I’m pretty self-aware. Also, pie. Chocolate. Tea. Cards. Emails. And often more texts than anybody wants.

What makes me feel cherished, loved and secure?

Physical contact makes me feel loved, especially good hugs. Physical contact that doesn’t assume sex makes me feel safe, because I often struggle with my sexuality and there is so often a lot of shame and fear attached to this. Holding hands, hugging, snuggling, kissing, back rubs, etc. All super important to me. Also, in sexual relationships, make outs and sex make me feel loved, cherished, AND secure. They are really hugely important to me, even though they’re not easy or smooth. (But I’m doing a Year of Sexual Recovery and working on that. High fives, me!)

Hearing that I’m loved also makes me feel really good. My heart pumps words more readily than blood, and when someone tells me (in a text, card, email, facebook message, or in person) how they feel about me, it feels great. When I moved into my current space, my housewarming party included being kicked out of the house so that all the guests could write and hide little notes throughout my space. I still find stray notes every so often, and they make me feel so loved.

Little gifts or personal gifts also make me feel loved, even though I sometimes feel weird and greedy because of this. Knowing that someone put thought into a gift for me makes me feel like I’m present in my people’s lives even when we aren’t physically together. (Scott keeps a collection of nerdy t-shirts hidden in the house and gives me one when I’ve had a bad day or accomplished something big. Jon’s birthday gift to me this year was a series of gifts that each tied to a significant event in our relationship – both of those things fill my love tank pretty amazingly. One of my most beloved people regularly gets me any smut related comic books they see. Another gave me a gift related to my creativity, even though they aren’t really “gifty”, and for my birthday people wrote me amazing cards. This last birthday was pretty amazing, actually. I am very lucky. Aww, man. Now I feel like my heart might explode. Also, one of my best friends once sent me a whole package of various dark chocolates and an encouraging letter and it was just… straight to my heart.)

Openly volunteering information makes me feel secure. Talking about what’s going on, and feeling like if something comes up I will hear about it before it explodes makes me feel secure.

What makes me afraid in relationships? Why?

Not knowing where I stand. Feeling like I’m an overly enthusiastic freakshow who is about to be told to shut up. Uncertainty. Change. Dishonesty. Sudden lack of contact. My depression and anxiety also makes me feel afraid in relationships, because I always worry that I’m just one panic attack or depressive episode away from wearing out the good will of the people I’m in relationship with.

In what ways do I protect myself from being hurt? Do these strategies help or hinder my search for connection?

I am not always good at protecting myself. However, in the past I have tended to get *really* controlling if I feel like things are spinning out of control. I want to lock everything down. This is extremely counterproductive and I’m way better than I used to be about not doing this. Now I tend to disengage rather than trying to control everything. This is also not good for connection, especially ongoing connection.

My preferred method (though not the one I succeed at all the time) is to just communicate when I start to feel afraid and give my partner the ability to respond, rather than keeping it to myself until I blow up. This is hard, though.

More than Two Chapter Three

Chapter Three was exciting and also challenging because the idea of ethical behaviour is really important to me, and tied up in how I perceive myself to be acting in the world, which means that sometimes it’s hard to critically examine because what if I’m acting unethically? Maybe it’s better not to know. (I don’t actually believe this is ever the case, but the temptation is *always* there.)

Chapter Three introduces three Bills of Rights – one for anyone in an intimate relationship, one for anyone in a poly relationship, and one for anyone in a poly network. I really loved these suggested rights, and their focus on consent, agency and honesty. I also appreciated how they were structured in a way that challenges couple privilege without demanding that pre-existing or enduring partnerships be deprioritized (which is sometimes the too-far pendulum swing, I think).

Okay! Onward to the questions and the self-reflection. Same caveat as usual – I’m sharing my inner thoughts and they impact the people I’m in relationship with. If you’re in my pod and you want to talk about any of this, please let me know. None of this is directed at a particular person – I tried to keep my answers personal rather than relational. Because some of these questions relate to a specific decision, I answered them more generally.

Have I disclosed all relevant information to everyone affected by my decision?

This is a hard one, because the question of when to disclose and how much to disclose is difficult. I tend to disclose EVERYTHING IMMEDIATELY ALL THE TIME, but that can be very overwhelming for my partners. And I also don’t always disclose everything – if I am worried that disclosing information will hurt someone’s feelings, I struggle with that. I try to always choose disclosure (honesty, allowing them to consent, giving them agency), but it’s hard. Disclosure plus compassion plus working hard not to outsource my emotional management to my people. I fail, but that’s what I aim for.

Have I sought input from everyone affected? Have I obtained their consent where my decision overlaps their personal boundaries?

I am really good at seeking input from everyone, because I am indecisive as all fuck. I am also good at knowing where my decision overlaps someone else’s personal boundaries, but I am not always so good at obtaining consent, for all the reasons listed above. I think the thing this chapter really highlighted for me is how incredibly vulnerable I feel when I have to seriously consider sharing all of the relevant information with all of the impacted people. It feels like this takes away my own agency and autonomy. This is a lie, of course, because my decision remains my own regardless of the reactions of other people. But when I give them the opportunity to consent (or not) I run the risk that my decision will be one they can’t live with, and that by giving them the opportunity to consent (or not) I will have to make a difficult choice between giving up what I want or need, or giving up the relationship in its current form. That’s terrifying! But it’s necessary. It is absolutely necessary. Fear cannot, cannot, be an excuse for unethical behaviour. (In this, my outside-of-poly life skills intersect with poly. Because I have an anxiety disorder and a huge amount of intense fear on an almost daily basis, I have had to cultivate the ability to act on my principles rather than my fears, while still holding compassionate space for my fear and anxiety. This helps in poly, because acting on my principles rather than my fears is the only thing that allows me to move past my fear of rejection, abandonment, and “fucking it up” in order to be honest with the people who need, and deserve, my honesty.) But it’s hard. I don’t want to pretend it’s easy – it’s not. It’s damn hard. The fear is real, and the fear can be paralyzing. But the fear is a feeling, and our feelings do not dictate our actions. We have a choice.

Does my decision impose obligations or expectations on others without their input or consent?

Again, I try not to let this happen but it does happen and it’s really damn hard to avoid. Sometimes I don’t realize how my decision will impact those around me until after I start seeing the ripples, and then there needs to be honest acknowledgment of the way my behaviour has affected those around me. That’s hard too. It’s way easier to just pretend it’s their fault, or they’re too sensitive, or something like that. Taking responsibility – another place where I have to become vulnerable in order to act according to my values. Bah! This chapter was hard because of how much work all of this is. But it’s also not work that’s specific to poly. This is ethical behaviour in any relationship, and it’s necessary to learn and to practice and to fuck up and to make amends for and to keep practicing.

Am I seeking to have my needs met at the expense of the well-being of others?

Okay, I’m going to talk about a specific situation now. One of my partners is incredibly easy-going. They are supportive of all my relationships, they are the one who picks up the pieces when I fall apart most of the time, they are my anchor. And I worry sometimes that when I am bouncing around on my emotional rollercoaster, the effort of keeping me grounded means that they are not able to do their own bouncing. I worry about this a lot. But they tell me this isn’t the case, and part of consent and agency means trusting that people are being honest about their needs.

Am I imposing consequences that will make others feel unsafe saying no to me?

I worry a lot about this, and work hard to make sure that I’m not unintentionally imposing consequences on others if they need to say no. However, just like everything else, I fuck this up. Sometimes I respond with huge emotional energy to what feels like rejection, and I know that some of my partners have felt like this was stifling for them. Sometimes I can’t stop myself from spiralling into anxiety when things appear to be going sideways, and again this can feel like coercion to my partners. The only way I’ve currently found to manage this is by being up front with my partners about the fact that my emotions are often fairly intense, but it doesn’t mean they dictate my actions. I might turn into a wreck, but that doesn’t mean I actually want you to do something different. It’s not perfect. It’s one reason I am more comfortable with text-based communication for difficult issues, because I can take more space to keep my head on straight (or appear to, anyway). I also try hard to do a fair bit of metacommunication – talking about what we’re going to talk about before we talk about it. The reason for this is because letting someone know what my interests are, and hearing what their interests are, before we go into the conversation means that we can set it up to be safe for us both. But, again. I fuck this up. A lot. I’m trying, though.

Am I offering others the same consideration that I expect from them?

This one I feel like I can honestly say yes to. 90% of the time, in 90% of instances, I do this. High fives, me! And the rest of the time, when I fail at this, well… that happens to. Listen, learn, do better next time.

Phew.

I’m really enjoying this book, but it’s some emotional heavy lifting, for sure!

More than Two Chapter Two

First, I want to acknowledge that these questions were heavy, and challenging. I feel somewhat anxious about sharing them. Not only because of the past relationships that they recalled to mind, but also because of some current poly situations I’m in. So, for any of my poly pod – my paramours, metamours, maybe-mores – if you see yourself here and you find it uncomfortable, I’m open to talking about it. It’s really hard to talk about these issues without also talking about the people who are impacted by them. Obviously I left identifying characteristics and names out, but I recognize that my poly feelings and views and histories are not only my own. They also belong to the people with whom I have shared heartspace, headspace, bedspace.

What are my needs in relationships? Are they attached to specific people? That is, do I need these things generally, or do I need them just from certain people?

“What are my needs in relationships?” is a massive question. I actually run a whole writing workshop on developing a personal user’s manual to help people answer that question in ways that they can share with their partners (the next one will be a private session for a group of assault survivors – I love my work). So, the short version of my needs:

  • I need to be seen. I need the people I am in relationships with to be willing to acknowledge my whole self – my anxious self, my depressed self, my awkward self, my self-hating self, my enthusiastic self, my invisibly disabled self, all of it. I do not need every person I’m in relationship to engage with every part of me (one of my best friends just stops answering my calls or texts when I’m going through a depression – they can’t deal with it, and that’s okay), but I do need my people to see me and acknowledge me. And in my deeper relationships, I need them to be willing to at least sit in the dark with me some of the time. I need to feel like I am not making their lives worse by being who I am.
  • I am also realizing, after a difficult stretch of time with a couple people in my life, that I need to feel like I am able to see the people I’m in relationships with. This is much harder to admit, because I have this gut-level sense that it is unfair to demand someone else’s visibility. And I don’t feel this way about everyone. I respect anyone’s right to keep their stories to themselves. But those people that I want to share a deeper connection with, I need to feel like I’m seeing them. I’m afraid of the dark, I guess. So I don’t need this with all of my friends, and I don’t know if I need it with all of my lovers, and I know that I don’t need it with all of my metamours, but the sense that I am able to see my people (that I am trusted with their darkness, especially), is way more important to me than I had realized. I’m still working through this, though.
  • I need to be touched. Hugs, cuddles, sex, massage, kissing… I don’t need this from everyone, but it is hugely important to my well-being, and I need it from multiple people in multiple ways.
  • I need regular contact. “Regular” varies depending on the relationship, but I like a lot of contact. More than most people, I think. And I need a variety of contact. Hand-written letters feed my heart in a really specific way, and so do stories written for me, texting, sexting (which I fucking LOVE and haven’t had much opportunity for because it is not a universally loved form of contact), FaceTime if I’m distant from my people, sitting and chatting, spending time together writing, even watching tv together. Lots of contact, and lots of types of contact. I don’t like phone calls, though.
  • I need honesty, and I need my own really intense desire to be honest to be valued, even though it’s means I’m hella awkward and share more than is strictly recommended. I need that in all of my relationships – lacking this, everything else becomes secondary.
  • I need my pod to be acknowledged. I don’t need all my poly people to be out, and I know that the fact that I am out about poly is a huge privilege, but I do need to know that if my people meet my other people, they will see each other as being valued in my life. I wouldn’t be okay with a partner ignoring or dismissing another partner (though I don’t expect everyone to be friends).

Phew, this list could go on a long time. Moving on.

What configurations am I open to? Am I looking for a particular configuration because I’m afraid that other might be more scary or more threatening?

I am much more comfortable in a networked poly configuration – one where everyone knows everyone and where we spend time together both as pairs and in our various pods. I really love pod time. This is partly because I just have awesome people and I really love smooshing awesome people together with other awesome people, but there is also an element of fear to it. I like networked poly because I feel less threatened by people I am friends with. So I like networked poly for myself because it makes me feel surrounded by love, but I like my partners to also practice networked poly because it makes me feel more secure. Not all of my partners are comfortable with networked poly, though, so I have had to learn how to sit with the discomfort of “spoke and wheel” poly (where my partner is a hub, and myself and their other partners are spokes that don’t necessarily interact). It’s not comfortable for me, but it’s a totally valid way to do poly and I try to respect it.

Am I flexible in what I’m looking for?

I think so. Especially if I feel like I have a solid foundation to fall back on if everything goes kaboom.

If my relationship changes, is that okay? Can I accommodate change, even unexpected change or change I don’t like?

I fucking hate change. It’s terrifying!

But it’s necessary. And it’s good. And relationships need to be able to change as the people within them and the contexts around them change. You bend or you break, right? This knowledge moved from intellectual to experiential when my relationship with one of my core partners transitioned from cohabiting to living apart. It wasn’t a change either of us ever anticipated, and it was fucking brutal emotionally, but in the end the relationship we have now is stronger and more supportive than what we had before. The change was terrifying and it was not part of “the plan” but it was absolutely necessary and for the best. I think after that experience, I am much more open to relationships changing even if I haven’t anticipated it and don’t like the change. (Though still not comfortable. I like to know where I stand, and I like to know that I’ll have a place there in the future! But that’s not how life works. The best we can ever offer is “I hope that you will be in my life for a very long time,” which is something I can honestly say about a lot of people.)

When I visualize the kind of relationship I want, how much space does it leave for new partners to shape the relationship to their needs?

I try to make space for new partners to voice their needs, be seen as whole people with valid needs, and for their needs to be met. It’s hard, though. Some people need things that are incompatible with my needs, and that always hurts and feels like a rejection. I try to remember that it isn’t a rejection, though, and it isn’t a judgment. It’s just an incompatible need! And the beauty of poly is that (some) incompatible needs do not have to be dealbreakers, because those needs can often be met in other ways and with different people. (Though sometimes incompatible needs are dealbreakers. My need to feel like I can “see” my partners is incompatible with some folks need to keep things private until they’ve processed it all. That doesn’t make a relationship impossible, but it does put a built-in limit on the depth of intimacy that I can feel with that person.)

Am I focusing on an idealized fantasy more than on making organic connections with real people?

I hope not. But I don’t know. Especially in a few instances, I feel like I have attached a lot of weight to the fantasy I want to make a reality, and I worry that I am not leaving space for the relationship to develop organically in whatever direction it wants to. I am trying to be conscious of this, and intentionally leave multiple paths open for the relationship. It’s hard, though, when you want a specific thing so badly and when you think about it so often.

What happens if I connect with someone in a way that differs from how I want my poly relationship to look? What message does that send to someone who doesn’t fit neatly into my dreams?

I think/hope that I am flexible enough to allow relationships to develop however they develop but there are some limits that are non-negotiable. I can’t imagine myself transitioning to monogamy with any partner, no matter how deep our connection might be. I also can’t imagine engaging in non-consensual non-monogamy (where one or more non-involved partners are unaware of the interaction) because of the potential harm that it could cause. I struggle with this last one because I do think there are multiple valid reasons for cheating and that sometimes cheating is the choice of least harm*, but because of my commitment to being honest with everyone in my life and my ideal of networked poly, a cheating relationship would be unbelievably difficult for me to maintain, and would seriously fuck with my sense of self.

Phew! Those were difficult questions to answer.

 

* Because cheating is so vilified in our culture, I want to expand on this. I think that sometimes people have needs that are not being met within relationships, particularly around certain kinds of emotional or sexual intimacy. And sometimes those relationships are not open to a transition to poly, and are fully functional in every way other than the missing element. In those cases, cheating can be a way to maintain a relationship while still meeting needs. I also think that sometimes cheating is the only thing that gives a person the strength to get out of a relationship (this was my situation). So I am uncomfortable with contributing to the universal vilification of cheating and cheaters, even though it is not a relationship choice that I can see myself being comfortable making again.

More than Two Chapter One

My book club is starting up with More than Two, and I’m excited about it. I’m going to answer the questions in each chapter here, and do some reviews of the chapters as well (but I mostly want a place to put the answers to the questions).

Have I ever felt romantic love for more than one person at the same time?

– Yes. Definitely. Currently. And, if I’m honest, I’ve felt romantic love for multiple people concurrently many times in my life, even years before I knew what poly was.

Do I feel there can be only one “true” love or one “real” soulmate?

– I used to. But then I found that one true love a whole bunch of times and every time it was really intense, so I figured there were multiple but you’d only love one at a time, and then I gave up on that to. So, no.

How important is my desire for multiple romantic relationships?

– At this point, super fucking important. Because there are multiple romantic relationships in my life that I am not planning on ever giving up.

What do I want from my romantic life? Am I open to multiple sexual relationships, romantic relationships, or both? If I want more than one lover, what degree of closeness and intimacy do I expect, and what do I offer?

– I really want romance. Dates, time together, snuggles, sharing media, sharing music, sharing moments. And sex. And support in my Year of Sexual Recovery. I really appreciate frequent contact with my romantic partners. I’m often afraid that I’m way too intense, and partners who accept/appreciate that about me are really valuable. (And having multiple partners helps with that – nobody has to deal with ALL of my issues.) And I really want the kind of community that I’m finding in my current poly, where I love my partners but I also love their partners and my metamours and the relationships, whether they are romantic, or sexual, or platonic, or any combination, are loving and beautiful and awesome. I think I offer some value, in terms of being empathetic and emotionally supportive and loving and also I tend to buy my people lots of little gifts. I’m romantic and passionate and committed to acting on my principles, even when poly makes me anxious or when my desires conflict with my principles.

How important is transparency to me? If I have more than one lover, am I happy with them knowing about each other? If they have other lovers, am I happy knowing them?

– Transparency is extremely important to me. I want to know what’s going on in my relationships. And I love networked poly, meaning that all my people know all my people, but it’s not a dealbreaker for me. If I had a metamour who didn’t want to know me, or two paramours who didn’t want to know each other, I would be a little uncomfortable with that but I could respect it as long as there was transparency in communication and everyone in the relationships was being respected and treated as a full person. I like to know my metamours, and I like my metamour relationships to be mutually supportive. I like being on my partners’ team, when it comes to their other relationships.

How do I define commitment? Is it possible for me to commit to more than one person at a time, and if so, what would those commitments look like?

– I define commitment, in poly relationships (or I guess anywhere) as a willingness to invest time and energy into the relationship and to sustain that investment over time. I am committed to multiple people, and those commitments look different in each relationship. I like the flexibility to allow commitments to change – where the stable element is the investment of time and energy without a strict set of rules about what that investment looks like (because some of my partners are parents, or are chronically ill, or are just super fucking busy and because I am chronically ill and super busy!)

If I am already in a relationship, does my desire for others come from dissatisfaction or unhappiness with my current relationship? If I were in a relationship that met my needs, would I still want multiple partners?

– My needs are currently being met, but my heart still cliffdives after people who are not currently in my poly pod. It’s not so much about finding other people to meet my unmet needs (although that is part of it – one of my relationships includes zero power exchange or thuddy-spanky kink, and that’s a need that I absolutely need to have met in some way in my life, and some of my relationships don’t include romantic dates or much texting, and both of those things are also really important to me).

“Don’t Be A Dick”: Applying Wheaton’s Law to Academics and Race

I am working on a major revision of a paper, with an eye to submitting it to the Porn Studies Journal and crossing my fingers that it passes peer review. This is exciting. One of my professors is supervising the revision and helping me figure out how to write a paper for a journal (a different creature than a paper written for a class).

The paper is about the performance of cisgender masculinity in heterosexual scenes in feminist pornography. My hypothesis is that this is a gender/sex performance that is (at least in my existing case study – Ned Mayhem’s performance of masculinity in Fuckstyles of the Queer and Famous) non-normative and one that challenges assumptions of what it means to perform cisgender masculinity. One case study, however, is not enough, and this is where I run into a thorny academic/activist issue.

Ned Mayhem is white. I am also white. Porn studies, along with many academic disciplines, have historically been pretty pale and I am concerned about contributing to an academic exploration of pornography that does not address the many people of colour working within and around pornography. I am also aware that what it means to “perform cisgender masculinity” is different depending on class, race and ability (among other factors). It seems shortsighted and lacking intersectionality to confine my paper to a discussion of only white cisgender masculinity in pornography.

However, what authority do I, as a white academic, have to speak about the performance of masculinity by a racialized porn performer? Not only to speak about, but also to examine through the lenses provided by academics and scholars of colour, and by activist and feminist pornographers of colour.

White academics have committed significant violence against our racialized colleagues, appropriating the intellectual contributions of people of colour without making space for people of colour in the academy. This is evident in the frequency with which Black feminists such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde are cited by white feminists who do not engage with race politics beyond appropriating a brilliant turn of phrase for a facebook status or to hang an academic argument on. (And credit must go to the Black women on Twitter, particularly in the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag, for bringing this issue up – I had never realized how problematic it could be to take Black women’s words and not engage any further.)

I struggled with this idea in my honours thesis, where bell hooks’ concept of the confrontational gaze formed a critical piece of my analysis. In my thesis, the idea of the confrontational gaze was necessary for understanding how Courtney Trouble re-appropriated the money shot from the patriarchal, misogynist pornography that it originated within. hooks’ insight was invaluable for me. And yet, I was not writing about race and race did not feature with any significance in my thesis. Choosing not to use hooks’ insight would have made my thesis weaker, and avoiding the work of academics of colour is clearly not the answer. This is a tangle I have yet to work myself out of, and one that becomes more and more relevant as I work on this revision.

It is clearly not okay to avoid the intellectual contributions of people of colour in my work as a white academic – doing so would perpetuate an oppressive academic system that consistently devalues the work of anyone outside the select, privileged group. However, I am becoming more and more convinced that it is also problematic to simply take up the lens provided by an intellectual from a marginalized community and use it with impunity.

And this is where I run into a wall.

Jane Doe, MD tweeted earlier in the summer:

 
I think this is sometimes the case with white academics as well. What is meant to be inclusive and intersectional may actually be (mis)appropriative. Where I (from my position of privilege) see the potential for solidarity, and want to say “yes, me too!” to the writing of academics of colour, there is the potential for me to be (mis)appropriative, to claim their words for my own when I actually have no right to them, to pull them out of their own context and into mine, leaving their work behind.

Reading Ariane Cruz’s essay “Pornography: A Black Feminist Woman Scholar’s Reconciliation” as research on this topic, I became aware of a visceral response in myself, a “yes, me too!” when Cruz articulates the complexities of the relationship between pornography and feminism. And yet, Cruz is not articulating the complexities of “the relationship between pornography and feminism.”

She is speaking specifically and directly about pornography and Black feminism. My “yes, me too!” echoes the problematic and on-going process of queer activism and queer theory using Black activism and Black theory as a stepping stone, using the backs of our Black colleagues as a bridge for our activism.[1] I am cognizant of the risk in my “me too!” – the potential for this response to step on and muffle the voice and meaning of Cruz’ work.

I want to find solidarity in the essay, because so much of what she writes speaks to me and to my experience as a feminist and as a scholar studying pornography. Cruz articulates the conflict and complexity of studying pornographies in a way that speaks directly to my own experience of pornography. As I become more and more immersed in both the viewing and analysis of pornography and the scholarship surrounding it, I relate more strongly to her statement that “[s]truggles with how to place pornography in the personal space of my home and in the professional space of my office speak to the broader, yet equally nebulous question of pornography’s place in modern society” (217).

She writes, “I have become less assured of the intrinsic virtues of mainstream pornography – its expression of alternative sexualities, its possibilities of and for sexual pleasure outside of a white heteropatriarchal imagination or fantasy, and its capability for an admittedly utopian construction that I might call “sustainable arousal,” arousal that is not an ephemeral feeling but rather one that endures” (222).

Similarly, as I realize that even queer pornography can reinscribe and reinforce dominant ideals of beauty, dominant ideals of gender performance, dominant ideals of acceptable sexual behaviour, I become less and less dogmatic in my belief that pornography (even feminist pornography) is a universal good. We have some views in common, we have some experiences in common. But there are significant differences between my experience of pornography, and Cruz’s. She writes about the specific experience of Black women’s hypersexualization, something that I, socialized as a white woman (though not a woman), have never and will never experience. Is it okay for me to take the parts that fit with my experience out of Cruz’s essay, and leave the rest behind? Is it okay to use her insight, but to only use the bits of it that work for my argument, for my own ends?

In my effort to draw on Black scholarship, to learn from Black scholars and engage with Black thought, there is the potential for me to do harm, to contribute to the ongoing colonization and appropriation of Black culture and thought.

That there is multidirectional flow of knowledge (that Linda Williams is a key reference in Cruz’s essay, for example) does not justify the constant appropriation of Black thought by white academics. Black writers have been actively plagiarized by white writers (most recently Gawker lifted tweets by Black author @wayoftheid word-for-word without attribution). There is a difference between learning from each other and stepping on each other, and because white academics have greater privilege, it is much easier for us to step on rather than learn from.

My “yes, me too!” response is because there is significant value in Cruz’s work. Her essay evoked a wide range of feelings and thoughts – multiple times I had to stop and sit, digest what she had just said. And there are similarities in our struggles. (Not universality, not homogeneity, but similarity.) There are important insights in her work that can illuminate and further both my academic projects and my queer activism.

And yet, this must be done in a respectful and appropriate (rather than appropriative) way.

So here are the two rocks I find myself between, the two rocks I have been wedged between all summer as I struggle with this concept of lateral appropriation, racism, and appropriative intersectionality:

On the one hand, ignoring the presence of race, and the contributions of colored scholars, contributes to the whitewashing of academia that I am so vehemently against. It is not an option.

Yet, on the other hand, appropriating the scholarship and work of scholars of colour has the potential to also be harmful, to speak for or to claim understanding of their experiences and their work, or to simply erase their experiences and claim their voice as my own.

So I can’t write only from and about my own experience because my experience is as a white scholar and that would contribute to the whitewashing of academics.[2] But I also must be careful in how I use the work of scholars of colour in my own academics. This leaves me feeling anxious and uncertain as I move forward with my academic projects, but I think that feeling of anxiety is necessary. It should not be easy to navigate issues of privilege and oppression as the person with privilege. If it is easy, I think perhaps that means you’re missing some critical bits of information. Being in this particular “rock/hard place” is infinitely easier than being in the position of facing systemic racism on a daily basis. I can walk away from this, write whatever I want and continue to appropriate, or just ignore that race is an issue, and at worst I will be a lesser scholar. Academics of colour (people of colour) don’t have the option to walk away from it.

In Jacob Anderson-Minshall’s essay “The Enemy Within: On Becoming a Straight White Guy,” he writes that “The Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement” could have been written about transgender people rather than black women” (29), and goes on to use the language of the text to discuss the oppression of transgender people. It is this type of sentiment and statement that I am wary of expressing, because it decenters Black women as the subject of their own writing. Although I do think that parallels can be drawn, and that these parallels and efforts at coalition are important, claiming Black women’s writing for a different or broader audience risks further marginalizing and erasing the experiences that are unique to Black women, particularly when there is not an acknowledgement of the ongoing, unique issues faced by Black women and other racialized individuals.

Later, Anderson-Minshall writes that “[t]here are a lot of awful problems in the world today, and to solve them we need to make allies and build bridges to other movements seeking change. We need to accept the problems of others as our own” (32). I think there is a danger in claiming the problems of others as our own. Although I agree that we do need to “make allies and build bridges,” I disagree that the way to do this is to claim a universality of experience, a homogeneity of problems. Yes, the kyriarchy impacts all of us, and each point of oppression has ripple effects throughout the rest of society. Misogyny negatively impacts men by cutting masculinity off from any traits that could be considered feminine. Racism negatively impacts white individuals by creating adversarial interactions where collaboration would be not only possible but beneficial. But misogyny does not threaten men – it benefits men. Racism does not threaten white individuals – it benefits white individuals (like myself). These are problems that are unique to the identity category being oppressed, being threatened, and although they do negatively impact all of society, they are not equally available to claim.

Ned Mayhem, later in the same anthology, writes that “[i]t’s easy to talk about how the hierarchy of privilege is bullshit when you’re perched at the top of it, and it’s easy to talk about destigmatizing marginalized groups while belonging to none of them” (81). This insight seems critical, especially when paired with Shiri Eisner’s statement that “[c]onnecting between different struggles is one of the cornerstones to radical political thinking. To acknowledge that all forms of oppression are interrelated is so acknowledge that we all have a stake in each other’s liberation, that none of us is free until everyone is free” (36).

There is a difference, I think, between acknowledging the interrelatedness of problems, and claiming them as our own. It is a small difference, but seems, to me, to be critical.

Ned Mayhem writes about the challenges that he faces in the porn industry, particularly around expectations of masculinity. However, these challenges are not the same challenges that someone with a different body would face. He writes, “[b]eing Caucasian in porn means that I don’t have to look for work exclusively on sites that fetishize my ethnic background. Being cisgendered and having a normative body type means that I am offered more work, and I am not publicly mocked or insulted by the same companies that hire me” (81). It is this acknowledgement of privilege, coupled with an awareness of other groups’ problems and their interrelatedness to his own struggles, that makes his essay feel more inclusive to me.

In the case of my paper, I still think that it’s important to include a case study that looks at a racialized cisgender male performer in a heterosexual scene, in addition to the case study of Ned Mayhem in Fuckstyles of the Queer and Famous. I haven’t picked the scene yet, but I have started reading everything I can get my hands on about racialized masculinities. I’m also reading about race in pornography, and trying to get a handle on not only how race is represented in pornography, but also on how academics and activists of colour are responding to those representations.

This process has been daunting, but incredibly valuable. In reading about Black scholar’s responses to Black bodies in pornography, my own thoughts about genderqueer bodies in pornography have been deepened and become more nuanced. There are interconnected elements in the various relationships between pornography and marginalized and oppressed identities. I think that learning from each other is important – beyond important! I think it is critical.

But our learning cannot come at each other’s expense. And too often, it is too easy for white academics like myself to wiggle off that hook and thoughtlessly trample on the work and writing of our colleagues. We must apply Wheaton’s Law to our academic life as much as to the rest of our lives.

 


[2] Longest footnote ever: It occurs to me that it is not actually true that writing about white experience necessarily contributes to whitewashing. Writing about white experience as though it were universal is whitewashing. If I wrote about white experience as white experience, that could be valuable and legitimate.

Hmm.

And yet, I don’t want to write about whiteness. Whiteness is not the identity category that I struggle with (a factor of my privilege as a white person). I want to study and write about my genderqueer identity, my bisexual identity, my polyamory, my kink, my neurodivergence, my invisible disability.

I read somewhere that ‘straight white men are the only group that actively seeks marginalization.’ I think perhaps I am experiencing/performing a little bit of this problematic “seeking marginalization” – I don’t want to write about my whiteness because I don’t want to write about my experience as a person with privilege. It is more interesting and more rewarding to write about my experiences of marginalization and oppression. Because my whiteness is invisible to me, because I feel my oppression but I do not feel my privilege, those points of oppression are infinitely more “real” and more “writeable.”

This is a difficult realization.

I wonder if it is possible to critically engage with my whiteness, to write about my privilege from within my privilege, while still maintaining my focus on the areas that interest me more – my orienatation, my neurodivergence, my kink, my poly, my gender identity. To incorporate an engagement with (or at least an active and aware acknowledgement of) my whiteness and how it impacts my scholarship and life into my practice of academic writing. To not let it be invisible.

Works Cited:

Anderson-Minshall, Jacob. “The Enemy Within: On Becoming a Straight White Guy.” Men Speak Out. Ed. Shira Tarrant. New York: Routledge, 2013. 28-33.

Cruz, Ariane. “Pornography: A Black Feminist Woman Scholar’s Reconciliation.” The Feminist Porn Book. Ed. Tristan Taormino et al. New York: The Feminist Press, 2013. 215-227.

Doe, Jane. Tweet from @DrJaneChi. Twitter.com. 28 July 2013.

Eisner, Shiri. Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2013.

Mayhem, Ned. “Male and Queer in the Porn Industry.” Men Speak Out. Ed. Shira Tarrant. New York: Routledge, 2013. 80-86.

Greta Christina and porn

I’ve been a fan of Greta Christina for a long time. This morning someone shared a link to an older post of her – Which Side Are You On? I think this post, and the message within it, is critically important to my honours thesis.

I, like Greta Christina, am pro-porn. She wrote a post – Why Porn Matters – that references the role porn has played in her own sexuality. For me, too, porn was a critical part of my… sexual awakening (for lack of a less gag-worthy phrase). Without porn, I would never have believed I was capable of a “normal” sex life. Porn allowed me to explore fantasies in the safety of my office, with no pressure to perform them. Porn opened my eyes to the wide variety of sexual practices that are out there, and helped me find and articulate my own sexual preferences. I have a deep personal attachment to porn, I believe that it matters.

But, as she points out in the first linked post,

We need to recognize that the overwhelming majority of porn — or rather, the overwhelming majority of video porn, which is the overwhelming majority of porn — issexist, is patriarchal, does perpetuate body fascism, does create unrealistic sexual expectations for both women and men, does depict sex in ways that are not only overwhelmingly focused on male pleasure, but are rigid and formulaic and mind-numbingly tedious to boot.

That is the challenge she presents to pro-porn advocates. Recognize that much porn is just as bad as the anti-porn camp says it is. (That’s one reason I am including comparisons to mainstream porn in my analysis, rather than my original plan to just focus on feminist porn – I think the comparison is important because otherwise my thesis runs the risk of painting a too-rosy picture of the contemporary state of porn.)

She also points out that,

They [anti-porn writers] fail to recognize that, yes, 90% of porn is crap… but 90% of everything is crap. And in a sexist society, 90% of everything is sexist crap. I’ve seen some very good arguments on how most porn is sexist and patriarchal with rigid and misleading images of women… but I’ve never seen a good argument for why, in a world of sexist TV and movies and pop music and video games, porn should be singled out for special condemnation — to the point of trying to eliminate the genre altogether.

I think that’s important, too. There needs to be balance on both sides of this issue, so that it can stop being an argument and can start being a collaborative approach to finding a solution. In my mind, that solution needs to leave space for sexual expression and agency, space for sex workers and for porn and for masturbation and for fantasies of non-consent and for all those messy truths about what sex can be like. But it also does need to recognize where the current representation of gender and sexuality and agency and consent and diversity in porn is just totally lacking much of the time. The solution has to make space for porn, but it has to be good porn that fills that space.

We (as academics, activists, informed consumers) need to be able to see and honestly represent and understand both sides of the argument. Porn isn’t going away, and I think it will be better work if we can find ways to make feminist (or otherwise ethical, I don’t want to exclude the Furry Girls of the world!) porn more accessible, more appealing, and help it find more space in the marketplace. /soapbox

It was a good post to read this morning – it highlighted for me the importance of doing my best to find a balance, and to recognize the value in anti-porn feminist rhetoric and critiques, without losing sight of the fact that porn does matter and it can be positive and valuable.

Getting back to work

I took the holidays off, but now it’s back to work! And I am excited about the work. I’ve started the research for the term papers that I had to defer last semester, and I’ve cut my course load down for this semester. I’ll be taking three courses – the honours seminar (of course), Theoretical and Cultural Studies: Performance/Performativity, and a directed reading course in feminist film theory (we haven’t nailed down the syllabus yet, but I’ll keep the blog posted). The directed reading should be easier to manage than a third regular class, and it will help with the honours project.

Today I did two exciting academic things.

First, I responded to the comments that we received on the DH 2013 proposal. The comments were, according to my co-author, “excellent.” Our scores ranged from 93% to 53% over four reviewers, which made me queasy with nerves when I first read them, but the comments themselves seemed very reasonable. They asked some clarifying questions and wanted more specifics, which I think (fingers crossed) I was able to provide in the brief 250-word response.

Second, I sent in a proposal to the Feminist Porn Conference. My proposal after the cut later. This is the first proposal I’ve put together entirely on my own (and even this was not entirely on my own, as I had help in editing it). The paper, if it’s accepted, will be a section of my honours thesis. I proposed four films to be compared in this paper, which is hopefully not too much. I don’t know how long conference papers are supposed to be. I had originally planned to submit a proposal that was not related to my honours project, but multiple friends pointed out that by April I will be just coming out of that massive project and probably would do best to keep this proposal realistic, just in case it is accepted.

I also did a third academic thing, which is not exciting. I read another two chapters of Downriver for my London course term paper. This is not at all porn related, but I think it qualifies as a sex text, given that almost all the women Sinclair mentions are prostitutes, and his use of “like a stitched up vulva” to describe a location (this got an immediate WTF?! note next to it). I have many things to say about Downriver, and hopefully they’ll be more articulate than their current state, which is a constant stream of “ARGH! Why is this book so awful?!” I am optimistic that the things I hate about it will make it interesting to write about. The paper is due at the end of January, and I’m hoping to be through the book (in all its pretentious unreadability) by mid-week.

And now, my proposal!  Continue reading

Talking about feminist porn when I might mean ethical porn

The poster’s done, so we can move on.

I have appreciated Furry Girl‘s work for many years. She does amazing sex worker advocacy, and I think she’s brilliant. She’s also an “ex-feminist” and her arguments are among the reasons that I struggle with maintaining a feminist label for myself. (Collapsing much internal debate to a single paragraph: I still identify as a feminist, specifically a sex-positive, queer, intersectional feminist, because I think that systemic gender-based oppression and the devaluing of anything deemed feminine is still a real, significant issue, and calling myself a feminist is one quick, short-hand way of saying “I think that’s fucked up and I will be vocal about my feelings on that topic.” HOWEVER, the argument that feminism means too many conflicting things to be meaningful really resonates with me, and I do really worry that when I say I’m a feminist someone will think that means I agree with Gail Dines. And that makes me sad. And Furry Girl is also a vocal and effective advocate for gender equality and anti-sexism, so a feminist label isn’t actually necessary for the work I want to do.)

Furry Girl wrote a post about “the red herring of feminist porn.” It’s a good post. It raises some relevant points. She says that we should be talking about ethical porn, because talking about feminist porn ignores all the ethical porn being made under anything but a feminist label, and implies that only feminist porn can be ethical porn. I do not believe that porn must be feminist in order to be ethical. I also have some concerns about my own research project because I worry that some porn producers that would not be happy with a feminist label (like Furry Girl herself) are being appropriated under the feminist porn label because my project is feminist porn so the porn I’m looking at must be feminist. I hope that I am not being so arrogant, but I worry that I am.

I also worry about this because Courtney Trouble has gone on the record (I think in Herizons, but I’d have to look it up) as saying that her porn is not feminist porn, it’s queer porn made by a feminist. But she won a Feminist Porn Award for Fuckstyles so I’m writing about her porn in my project on feminist porn. Is that an inappropriate appropriation? Does the fact that she won (and accepted) an FPA mean that I can legitimately write about her porn as feminist?

In my poster, I talk about the fact that my research is not looking at production practices (the treatment of performers that Furry Girl rightly says is critically important). I am limited by what my supervisor has asked me to do in this project, and although I had originally hoped to look at production practices, I can’t. I am doing a film studies-style analysis of what is being performed on screen. Specifically, I’m looking at tropes (things like consent/coercion, agency/passivity, diversity/homogeneity and intimacy/objectification – Furry Girl disagrees that objectification is a thing, and I’m still processing that). I’m looking at how feminist principles are being performed on screen in pornography, both “feminist” pornography and mainstream pornography.

I phrased it as “how feminisms are performed” in my poster because there isn’t a single universal feminism. I was trying to address that issue that Furry Girl brings up so often, about feminism’s fragmentation into too many divergent camps.

I don’t have an answer to this question. I am concerned about generating an ethical research project, which does not just appropriate material under a feminist label because I think that a feminist label is the only way to legitimize it. I would like to find a way to work with my material in a respectful manner, using language that the producer would be comfortable with but still coming up with something coherent.

As is always the case with labeling, whatever I use as a label will, unless I’m very careful and possibly even if I am, end up excluding or devaluing things that are labeled in other ways. I don’t want to pretend (and it would be pretending, because I do not believe it) that feminist porn is the only ethical porn. Just like I don’t believe polyamory is the only ethical non-monogamy.

I appreciate Furry Girl and the discomfort her writing generates for me. I do still use a feminist label, I do still think that my research has value and validity, I do still think that it is reasonable to talk about how porn performs feminisms on screen, but I am aware that there are flaws in my logic and holes in my plan. I think that would be true no matter how I approached it, and I think that’s somewhat inevitable, but I don’t think that absolves me of my responsibility to make sure I face these tough questions rather than avoiding them because they are uncomfortable.

I think feminism is still important.

But I think Furry Girl, and others like her, have some really valid and valuable critiques, and I think that we can’t talk about “feminism” without telling a lie. We are talking about feminisms. Very different, very contradictory feminisms. Some of them are important, I think. Others are incredibly damaging. How do I navigate that? Carefully. And with a lot of transparency about my own positioning, so that there can be no misunderstanding that I am not speaking about feminism in general or feminist porn in general, and so that it is clear that although I’m writing about feminisms in porn, I don’t think that feminist porn is the only ethical porn.

Revisiting the “Real”

Warning: This entry is ridiculously long and rambly! It was an exercise that was very productive for me, but I’m not sure it works for public consumption. I think I would need to rewrite it, perhaps into a series of blog posts, in order for it to be fully readable. However, one goal of this blog is to reflect the (often messy) process of my academic work and to clutter it up with my actual experience, and not to pretend that my ideas arrived fully formed in my mind and papers. So, here it is!

Earlier in this blog, I talked about The 5 Hallmarks of Feminist Porn, with the first “hallmark” being “Real Pleasure, Real Orgams.” I’m going to revisit my initial response to that  idea here, with some new information under my belt. I found this article (safe for work) by pornstar Zahra Stardust (less safe for work) both interesting, insightful, and challenging to my own biases. The differentiation between “real” and “fake” bodies is one that comes up at almost all the porn viewing parties, in my women’s studies classes, and in discussions about what I and my friends find attractive. I have felt that it is a problematic way to approach bodies for quite a while, and Zahra Stardust articulates clearly and succinctly why that is so.

So where is that challenge I claim I experienced? That paragraph makes it sound like I read the article and just nodded my head in contentment at having my suspicion confirmed. But the challenge is this – I have had this suspicion, but I have also had (and still have) this strong visceral reaction to the six-inch heels, fake tan, thick make-up, cosmetically altered breasts, etc. I find them inherently problematic, emblematic of patriarchal ideals, and outside of my comfort zone. So, I suspect that those feelings are problematic and need to be unpacked but I still have them. And before Stardust’s articulate and “femme-inist” article, I could go about the dainty-stepping around my awareness that my views were problematic without ever actually facing them up front. My inner monologue was something like this – “Wow, that is unattractive and strikes me as problematic. Wow, that is, itself, really problematic! Lalalalalalalalalala moving on.”

So!

Let’s have at ‘er.

On August 5, I said –

The first hallmark of feminist porn: “Real Pleasure, Real Orgasms”

The first porn I ever watched was “Velvet Thrust” and it was a film marketed primarily towards straight women (which is how I identified at the time). The male actors, especially the male lead, were conventionally attractive and were clearly meant to be seen as sexually arousing visual elements (unlike many male performers in porn marketed at straight men – this is a whole other thing to discuss later on). It was pretty decent porn, in terms of representing consent. And although the gender representations were pretty conventional, there was none of the blatantly sexist representations of gender that I’ve seen in other mainstream porn. It was recommended by Violet Blue in her book, “The Smart Girl’s Guide To Porn” (which I read before deciding on which porn to watch for my first time out) and it was alright. It had the desired effect. But there was one scene, which I will never forget, and which makes me giggle to this day, where the female performer was in a ridiculously contorted-for-the-camera position, moaning dramatically, and every time her costar would pull too far back and pop out (which was apparently super easy to do in that position), she sounded completely surprised. “Oooooh, OOoooooh, Oooh, huh? Oooh, ooooooooh Oooh, huh?” It was hilarious. And it made it very clear that the whole scene was pretty fake. There were no “real” orgasms happening for that performer, and the performance was just that – performance.

The article points out that feminist porn has shifted the focus onto “authentic” sexual pleasure. I find the idea of the “real” somewhat problematic. Like Julie Levin Russo, I believe that, “[t]he idea that porn has a special capacity to transparently reflect the real… is necessarily problematic in its erasure of mediation” (Russo, 240).

However, despite my significant side-eye at the idea of “authenticity,” I do think that there’s something here. I think this emphasis on “real” pleasure can be seen cinematically in the use of the camera and the way that some feminist porn gives seemingly equal weight to the pleasure of the performers as it does to the pleasure of the viewer – scenes that are less exposed because less exposure means more pleasure (no contorted-for-the-camera angles that make pleasure virtually impossible) balance the necessarily over-exposed scenes that allow the viewer to see and understand the physical acts being portrayed.

“Real” orgasms are another element, separate (in my opinion) from “real” pleasure. As a person who does not orgasm reliably with a partner and never on my own, I appreciate the few available pornographic representations of sex that do not focus on orgasm. I appreciate porn that represents the range of orgasm styles and allows room for women who have single orgasms, men who have orgasms and continue pleasuring their partners afterwards, etc. Here, rather than “real” orgasms (though I absolutely agree with the author that watching an actual orgasm happen is infinitely more hot than watching clearly faked orgasms), I think what may differentiate feminist porn from mainstream porn is the variety of orgasms represented. Including, but not limited to, the authenticity of the orgasm seen on film.

We’re going to go bit by bit through that, using Zahra Stardust’s article to provide new context.

The first porn I ever watched was “Velvet Thrust” and it was a film marketed primarily towards straight women (which is how I identified at the time). The male actors, especially the male lead, were conventionally attractive and were clearly meant to be seen as sexually arousing visual elements (unlike many male performers in porn marketed at straight men – this is a whole other thing to discuss later on).

Okay. I will admit, I find this difficult to revisit because in coming back to these couple sentences, I wonder about how much I choose to share about my own sexual journey in what is an academic blog, which will be read by both classmates and professors. On the one hand, I feel that contextualizing my current views in light of my history is important. I think that we often hide our personal stories because it makes us “more academic” or more acceptably academic. My history of exposure to porn does influence my current experience of porn, so I feel it’s relevant. Do you need to know that I used to identify as a straight female and now identify as a queer genderqueer? I don’t know. Do you?

Using Zahra Stardust’s article as a lens, it seems like maybe this personal information is sometimes important in that it tells the reader what the writer considers important about themselves. In her bio blurb after the article, Stardust reveals that “Zahra Stardust is a Penthouse Pet, award-winning stripper, pole dance champion and queer femme-inist porn star. She abandoned a legal career in favour of pole dancing, and has run for Parliament three times as a Candidate for the Australian Sex Party (she is currently campaigning for Lord Mayor of Sydney).” – This is relevant because it positions her as intelligent (she had a legal career), ambitious (she has run for government multiple times), and it also concisely locates her feminism. She isn’t a “feminist” – she’s a “femme-inist.” This places her in opposition to femme-phobic iterations of feminism (as her article does) but reclaims her space within feminist dialogue.

So my own personal revelations – what do they say? Not as much, and not as well. But my orientation is a big deal to me, and the fact that I am no longer the person I used to be. Also, I immediately position myself as someone who watches porn voluntarily, and who appreciates some of the aesthetics of porn (I found the male actors attractive, for example). Also, my use of words like “clearly” and “conventionally attractive” say more about my own views than they do about what may or may not be clear or conventional. These word choices indicate that I have an idea about what “conventionally attractive” looks like, and I think everyone else does, too.

Moving on.

It was pretty decent porn, in terms of representing consent. And although the gender representations were pretty conventional, there was none of the blatantly sexist representations of gender that I’ve seen in other mainstream porn. It was recommended by Violet Blue in her book, “The Smart Girl’s Guide To Porn” (which I read before deciding on which porn to watch for my first time out) and it was alright. It had the desired effect.

Again with the “conventional”! Here, I’m trying to articulate, without actually examining what I mean by it, “conventional gender representations” and that’s a huge problem. As Stardust points out in her article:

At the same time, websites that purport to depict ‘real’ or ‘redefined beauty’, often seem to be just as conventionalised as the mainstream genres they criticise. ‘Alternative’ nude modelling site Suicide Girls gives calculated instructions on their website about the kinds of photos, make-up and aesthetic sets they accept: ‘tasteful’, ‘picture perfect’ shoots with ‘a little bit of face powder and mascara and freshly dyed hair’, but specifically not ‘cheap wig[s]’, ‘top hats’, ‘stripper shoes’, ‘food’ or things that look ‘cheesy’, ‘gross’ or ‘creepy’.

Similarly, the ‘girl next door’ look of the Australian all-female explicit adult site Abby Winters represents an alternative to glamour photography, featuring make-up-less, ‘amateur’ adult models – but models are still required to cover up hair re-growth, remove piercings, and not have any scratches, marks or mosquito bites for the shoot in order to appear ‘healthy’.

So “conventional” is entirely contextual. Is it the alt porn conventional idea of gender that I’m articulating? Mainstream porn’s conventions of gender? Stardust is talking about conventions of acceptable femininity, of gender, and how they differ from context to context. When I say something like “the gender representations were pretty conventional,” that’s a statement that requires much more unpacking and contextualizing. In this case, I don’t even actually know what I meant. I meant “mainstream-ish porn marketed to straight women” but that is a fairly specific context and I am not familiar enough with it to be able to have a clear idea about its conventions. I moved on pretty quickly to queer porn, and my idea that Velvet Thrust represented gender in “conventional” ways comes from my defining “conventional” as “different from what I see in my queer porn.”

On that topic, Stardust says, “these [alt porn] sites produce bodies of a particular class, size and appropriate femininity, which are marketed as ‘real’, but which are equally constructed, conventionalised and cultivated. This fear of replicating ‘cheesy’, ‘predictable’ mainstream porn means that depictions of ‘real’ sexuality are often similarly clichéd, albeit with a different set of aesthetics.”

This “different set of aesthetics” is marketed as “more real” and that marketing has been successful, at least with this viewer! But it is still marketing. It is still a convention, still a mediated body conforming to established standards. Declaring something “conventional” without providing context implies that there are things which are not conventional (there may be, but we haven’t got to them in this post), and that “conventional” is a bad thing. It requires further context before those arguments can actually be made, if they ever can be.

Similarly, my statement that “it was pretty decent, in terms of representing consent” needs context. What does “pretty decent” mean? There was no forced sex, and although not all of the consent was explicit verbal consent, it was all clearly indicated through body language and sometimes words. Why did I say “pretty decent” instead of something less wishy-washy? I would like to say that I’m not sure, but I believe, on reflection, that the reason is because this porn is straight and somewhat mainstream and I want consent to be somehow better in queer porn. This is a recurring theme in my academic process – I keep running into this prejudice that I have against straight, vanilla mainstream pornography. It’s a problem. Hopefully if I can continue to be honest about when I run into it, I can start to shift it. But this kind of thing is sneaky. The problems with using the phrase “pretty decent” are easy to miss in my initial self-critique. What this process is teaching me is that the writing of my honours thesis on such a controversial and complex topic will require revision and revision and revision and a fuck of a lot of self-reflection.

But there was one scene, which I will never forget, and which makes me giggle to this day, where the female performer was in a ridiculously contorted-for-the-camera position, moaning dramatically, and every time her costar would pull too far back and pop out (which was apparently super easy to do in that position), she sounded completely surprised. “Oooooh, OOoooooh, Oooh, huh? Oooh, ooooooooh Oooh, huh?” It was hilarious. And it made it very clear that the whole scene was pretty fake. There were no “real” orgasms happening for that performer, and the performance was just that – performance.

Okay! Here my original post and Stardust’s article really collide.

My language is incredibly judgemental. The performer is “ridiculously” contorted, it’s “hilarious” and it’s “pretty fake.” But, okay. Have you hear Stoya in some of her scenes with James Deen? I’ll let you google that because I’m sitting in Starbucks. But trust me when I tell you that she has one of the squeakiest orgasms I’ve heard in porn. And because I adore Stoya, and I think she’s brilliant, and I read her blog and just generally have a massive crush on her, I do not interpret this as “fake” or “hilarious.” I do feel that the scene I’m describing was more staged and less engaging than many others I’ve watched, but my language is pretty harsh and I’m using words that have specific, hurtful meanings. Especially, in context of Stardust’s article, the word “fake.”

She says, “As someone who works in the sex industry – in spaces that purport to be ‘real’ as well as spaces that are accused of as being ‘fake’ – it seems like there is no distinct line between the two. As someone who works with a body that is sometimes perceived as ‘real’ and other times read as ‘fake’ – it seems that the bodies which move across these spaces are equally fluid.” I have no idea who the performer I’ve judged as fake is. I don’t remember her name and I don’t recall seeing her in anything else. For all I know, she could, like Stardust, inhabit a body that moves across spaces, a body that is sometimes read as “real” and sometimes read as “fake.” It was the performance that I wrote about reading as fake rather than the body, but if I am honest part of the reason I read the performance as fake was because I read the body as fake. I don’t know, and it would be disingenuous to guess, if I would have had the same reaction to a performer who was not bleached blonde, large-busted, and wearing the thick make-up and 6-inch glittery heels. Stoya does not look like that, and I do not read her as fake. Is it because I know more about her as a performer? Or is it because I am more inclined to read her body as “natural” and therefore her performances also?

Stardust says, “Sure, we may play with, embody and embrace hyper-femininity, but we are no less ‘authentic’, or political, or real, because our lip gloss is hot pink instead of ‘nude’. We don’t need to ‘tone-it-down’ to be any more queer, radical or ‘real’. Our bodies may look ‘unrealistic’ to you, but the labour of preparing for work gives erotic performers a sentient, working knowledge of gender performativity.”

This point is critical to unpacking my problematic reading of bodies that Stardust describes as “hyper-feminine.” By reading these bodies as “fake,” as I admit that I do later in this post, I am denying the “sentient, working knowledge of gender performativity” that these women have earned. I am denying that their work has value, and saying that there is acceptable femininity and unacceptable femininity, only when I say that I think it’s okay because I mean the opposite of what society has meant for so long. But that’s bullshit, right? Because there is no “acceptable” femininity. This isn’t any kind of radical revelation within feminism, we’ve been saying this for years. But I’m realizing, as I watch more porn and uncover these ugly truths about my reactions to various bodies, that I’ve only been paying lipservice to the idea that there is no “acceptable” femininity and that women can choose their gender performance regardless of what that choice ends up being. Stardust makes a relevant and insightful point – the work that goes into hyper-femininity can provide a deep, personal knowledge of the performativity of gender.

Then I said:

The article points out that feminist porn has shifted the focus onto “authentic” sexual pleasure. I find the idea of the “real” somewhat problematic. Like Julie Levin Russo, I believe that, “[t]he idea that porn has a special capacity to transparently reflect the real… is necessarily problematic in its erasure of mediation” (Russo, 240).

This is important in my revision process, because here is where I am starting to grasp at concepts that I hope will become clearer and clearer as I move forward in this endeavour. I have the beginnings of a grounding in the theory that supports writing by performers and sex workers like Zahra Stardust. I know that these ideas are out there, and I know that they are valid. There is no unmediated “real” in pornography, but I need to take the extra step of recognizing that the flipside is also true – “fake” also becomes a slipperier category.

Continuing:

However, despite my significant side-eye at the idea of “authenticity,” I do think that there’s something here. I think this emphasis on “real” pleasure can be seen cinematically in the use of the camera and the way that some feminist porn gives seemingly equal weight to the pleasure of the performers as it does to the pleasure of the viewer – scenes that are less exposed because less exposure means more pleasure (no contorted-for-the-camera angles that make pleasure virtually impossible) balance the necessarily over-exposed scenes that allow the viewer to see and understand the physical acts being portrayed.

I still feel this, or at least an iteration of this. I recognize the problematic nature of the idea of the “real” but the concept of performer pleasure is an important one for me. However, Stardust problematizes it when she says, “I experience pleasure at work in the mainstream sex industry that I certainly perceive as ‘real’. This pleasure comes from physical sensations (lactic acid, endorphins, sweat, carpet burn, whipping hair, a double ended dildo angled against my g spot, real orgasms) but also from the thrill of voyeurism (exhibitionism, cameras, being naked in front of thousands of people).” When I define the only acceptable pleasure as the physical pleasure, that’s problematic. So although I still believe that performer pleasure is important, I can recognize now that when I narrowly define what types of pleasure are acceptable and what types are not, I dismiss an entire category of enjoyment.

Then:

“Real” orgasms are another element, separate (in my opinion) from “real” pleasure. As a person who does not orgasm reliably with a partner and never on my own, I appreciate the few available pornographic representations of sex that do not focus on orgasm. I appreciate porn that represents the range of orgasm styles and allows room for women who have single orgasms, men who have orgasms and continue pleasuring their partners afterwards, etc. Here, rather than “real” orgasms (though I absolutely agree with the author that watching an actual orgasm happen is infinitely more hot than watching clearly faked orgasms), I think what may differentiate feminist porn from mainstream porn is the variety of orgasms represented. Including, but not limited to, the authenticity of the orgasm seen on film.

If I take Stardust’s article seriously, and I think that I should, then the representation of sex, gender, orgasm that is seen in mainstream porn (recognizing again that my wording is problematic and this needs to be contextualized to have any real meaning) is a valid representation. It doesn’t really work for me, but that doesn’t make it “fake.” And the things that do work for me aren’t necessarily “real.” They are just difference. So I ask for diversity, and I say that perhaps diversity is more the hallmark of feminist porn than reality, and I think perhaps that’s true (though I need to give it more thought). But the idea in this last paragraph needs to be more fully examined and articulated. Earlier in the original post I absolutely DID make the mistake of calling “fake” the performances and by extension the bodies of mainstream porn actors.

Stardust says, “It is an important goal to make sexually explicit material that does not prescribe unrealistic standards, perpetuate hegemonic gender stereotypes or marginalise diverse sexualities. But many of us in the sex industry will tell you that those stereotypes and marginalisation come – not from audiences or clients – but from public reductive readings of our work and stringent legal frameworks.”

I agree.

And I would add that perhaps the academic framework, even when someone as well-meaning as I would like to believe I am, also contributes to this. Creating a binary between mainstream porn and feminist porn (like creating any binary, whoddathunkit?!) is problematic and it falls apart under close scrutiny. And close scrutiny is exactly what we, as academics, should be applying. Even when it’s embarrassing to admit our failings. Even when we have to pick our words and our stereotypes apart (especially then).

The 5 Hallmarks of Feminist Porn

This article (link is NSFW – NOTE WordPress removed this link because it pointed to Edenfantasys.com. I have appealed the removal, but until it is resolved please look for the original article in the Edenfantasys SexIs magazine. Many apologies to author Girly Juice – non-attribution was definitely not my intent!) outlines five “hallmarks of feminist porn.” Since that’s basically what I’m hoping to do in my honours thesis (figure out the hallmarks of feminist porn and whether two of the Feminist Porn Award winners meet them), it’s worth unpacking this list a bit.

The first hallmark of feminist porn: “Real Pleasure, Real Orgasms”

The first porn I ever watched was “Velvet Thrust” and it was a film marketed primarily towards straight women (which is how I identified at the time). The male actors, especially the male lead, were conventionally attractive and were clearly meant to be seen as sexually arousing visual elements (unlike many male performers in porn marketed at straight men – this is a whole other thing to discuss later on). It was pretty decent porn, in terms of representing consent. And although the gender representations were pretty conventional, there was none of the blatantly sexist representations of gender that I’ve seen in other mainstream porn. It was recommended by Violet Blue in her book, “The Smart Girl’s Guide To Porn” (which I read before deciding on which porn to watch for my first time out) and it was alright. It had the desired effect. But there was one scene, which I will never forget, and which makes me giggle to this day, where the female performer was in a ridiculously contorted-for-the-camera position, moaning dramatically, and every time her costar would pull too far back and pop out (which was apparently super easy to do in that position), she sounded completely surprised. “Oooooh, OOoooooh, Oooh, huh? Oooh, ooooooooh Oooh, huh?” It was hilarious. And it made it very clear that the whole scene was pretty fake. There were no “real” orgasms happening for that performer, and the performance was just that – performance.

The article points out that feminist porn has shifted the focus onto “authentic” sexual pleasure. I find the idea of the “real” somewhat problematic. Like Julie Levin Russo, I believe that, “[t]he idea that porn has a special capacity to transparently reflect the real… is necessarily problematic in its erasure of mediation” (Russo, 240).

However, despite my significant side-eye at the idea of “authenticity,” I do think that there’s something here. I think this emphasis on “real” pleasure can be seen cinematically in the use of the camera and the way that some feminist porn gives seemingly equal weight to the pleasure of the performers as it does to the pleasure of the viewer – scenes that are less exposed because less exposure means more pleasure (no contorted-for-the-camera angles that make pleasure virtually impossible) balance the necessarily over-exposed scenes that allow the viewer to see and understand the physical acts being portrayed.

“Real” orgasms are another element, separate (in my opinion) from “real” pleasure. As a person who does not orgasm reliably with a partner and never on my own, I appreciate the few available pornographic representations of sex that do not focus on orgasm. I appreciate porn that represents the range of orgasm styles and allows room for women who have single orgasms, men who have orgasms and continue pleasuring their partners afterwards, etc. Here, rather than “real” orgasms (though I absolutely agree with the author that watching an actual orgasm happen is infinitely more hot than watching clearly faked orgasms), I think what may differentiate feminist porn from mainstream porn is the variety of orgasms represented. Including, but not limited to, the authenticity of the orgasm seen on film.

The second hallmark: Consensual Objectification

This second point blew me away. This is what I was trying to get at in my post about wanting to be wanted – the idea that being objectified, consensually, is legitimately hot and that wanting to be objectified in that way doesn’t mean your feminist card is revoked. I would like to see a further articulation of how a feminist can want to be consensually oppressed and how that can be a feminist act. I struggle with that wording – objectified, yes. Absolutely, I can understand (and relate to!) the desire to be consensually objectified. Dominated, yes. I am a switch, but with very strong subby tendencies and I think that my kink is part of my feminist identity, rather than being in opposition to my feminist identity. But I do not understand, myself, how oppression fits in that same category. This will require further thought.

Where this point really hits the mark, in my opinion, is in the discussion of explicitly representing negotiation and consent within the context of objectifying or kinky porn. Not only does this normalize submissiveness as an act that can be empowered and fully consensual, it also models consent and negotiation for viewers who, without the explicit depiction of the process, would otherwise not have a template for bringing these sex acts into their own lives in a fully consensual way. This is one way that porn can be educational and positive, in my opinion. I want to know that the performer has explicitly stated their desire for this scene before I feel confident in my ability to ethically participate in it (I think that we, as viewers, do participate in the porn).

The third hallmark: Equal-Opportunity Submission

This is related to the first point, and my interpretation of it as having to do with variety. There is nothing un-feminist or anti-feminist about female submission. But there is something fucked up about female submission being represented as the only form of submission, and the only form of kink available to women. This point is critical (but complex). I’ve written before about my own problematic expectation that feminist porn would represent All The Things – queer sex, particularly. So, while “equal-opportunity submission” seems like a very important part of feminist porn as a movement, I think it is problematic to demand that it be represented equally in each production. I also appreciate that this point recognizes not only the fact that multiple genders want to be dominant and submissive, but also that there is a wide range of behaviour within that broad category. It’s not all whips and chains, in either direction. And I think that’s healthy, positive, and again, potentially educational.

The fourth hallmark: Diverse Identities and Bodies

This. So much this.

“Feminist porn doesn’t have to, but often does, include diversely queer elements like genderqueer people, trans* people, butches and femmes, strap-on sex, androgyny, sex toys used interchangeably with body parts, a disregard for traditional gender roles, and a total subversion of those same roles.”

Yes.

I can’t even really add to this, because this is my personal #1 favourite reason for watching feminist porn. Because, I don’t find all the bodies attractive. I have a few specific types, and those types make my heart beat faster (and, you know, less tame reactions happen also). But I don’t want my “types” to dominate the industry. I want to see a variety of bodies and identities. I want to know that if I can watch a gorgeous androgynous genderqueer fuck an adorable femme with a strap-on, someone else can watch what they want – they can watch what they want to be, or what they are. For me, that’s critical. I want all the bodies, not just the “acceptable” ones! And feminist porn tries to provide that. (Fails much of the time, I would say. Especially when it comes to race and ability. But it tries! And it is getting better. The same diversity that we see in gender performance and body size, we will hopefully soon see in other areas.)

The fifth point: Enthusiasm and Fun

Okay. Let’s take a moment to admire the Mayhems, pictured under this point. I’m just going to go to my happy place for a minute and look at that picture of them being adorable. Or maybe I’ll look at other things (link is mostly safe for work – male upper body nudity, but nothing else). Isn’t Ned Mayhem adorable? And smart? And interested in feminist issues like gender diversity? And ADORABLE?!?!?! And he is wearing multiple “Nerds Fuck” stickers. And trust me (or don’t, you can google her yourself!) when I tell you that Maggie Mayhem is just as fantastic. Guys… guys. I need a minute to swoon over here.

Anyway.

This point is directly related to the first point but I think the language is less problematic and more clear. Enthusiasm! And fun! This is often missing from mainstream porn (very clearly so) and it is a hallmark of feminist porn that is near and dear to my heart. Sex, especially if we are sex-positive!, should be fun. It should be awkward and silly and sweaty and sometimes giggly and it should be enthusiastic. Feminist porn, some feminist porn, represents that. And that’s awesome. And it’s something that I find missing from a lot of mainstream discussions of sex, whether it’s in porn or sex ed classes or novels or television – sex is represented as Serious Business. And it is – go get tested, talk about safer sex practices, negotiate your boundaries, discuss consent, practice enthusiastic consent and ask for explicit verbal consent with your partners – but it should also be fun. It can also be fun. And we need to see that somewhere. Feminist porn is one place where that happens (and I think that’s rad).

Okay, I’m way less able to be critical at this point in the blog post than I was at first because… the Mayhems! I heart them.

Works cited:

Juice, Girly. “Five Hallmarks of Feminist Porn.” SexIsSocial. Edensfantasys.com. 2 Aug. 2012.

Russo, Julie Levin. “‘The Real Thing’: Reframing Queer Pornography For Virtual Spaces.” C’Lick Me: A Netporn Studies Reader. Ed. Katrien Jacobs, Marije Janssen and Matteo Pasquinelli. Institute of Network Cultures, 2007. 239-252. PDF. www.networkcultures.org/mediaarchive