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.

“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.


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.

Welcoming Non-Binary Gender in the Learning Environment

What does it mean to include non-binary gender in the learning environment? It’s a question without easy answers, because of the constant presence of the gender binary in social spaces. Gender segregated bathrooms (with no non-binary option!) are one of the most obvious binary-enforcers, but statements like the ubiquitous “men and women” also contribute. There is a constant undercurrent of binarization, made more visible in moments like this, when we see the public clamouring to know the gender of the new royal baby (we know the baby’s assigned sex, and we know how the baby will be socialized and conditioned as a result of that assigned sex, but I would argue that we don’t actually know the baby’s gender yet and we won’t for a while!).

I recently presented a talk on non-binary gender in digital humanities at the Digital Humanities 2013 conference. Part of my presentation, co-created with Milena Radzikowska and Stan Ruecker, focused on welcoming non-binary gender into the digital humanities learning environment.

The gender binary, and the call for the inclusion of non-binary gender, is a significant concern in the digital humanities, where scholars are working to digitize and encode data sets and collections of humanities information, including literary collections in projects such as Orlando. This question of tagging, encoding, sorting and designing databases is a complex and challenging one. The question of welcoming non-binary gender into the learning environment – in front of the screen rather than in the code behind it – is a little bit easier.

Here are six steps towards gender inclusivity in the learning environment, a space that encompasses the physical classroom, the extra-curricular physical space of office hours and chance meetings, the digital spaces where students and professors interact – Blackboard, Zotero, Twitter, etc. – as well as transactional spaces such as assignments and tests.

This list is not comprehensive, and I would love to engage all parts of the academic body in this ongoing discussion. Join the twitter conversation with hashtag #NonBinaryDH or comment here. This post will be cross-posted over at SexTexts, my own academic blog.

1 – Challenge assumptions of gender in your learning environment by disclosing your preferred gender pronouns in classroom introductions and online bios.

Not only does this challenge the assumption of binary gender, it sets an example and opens the door for discussions of both gender identity and the validity of preferred gender pronouns. This applies to cisgender individuals as much (or more!) than to trans* or non-binary individuals because it makes it clear that even if a person is cisgender, they have a preferred gender pronoun – it’s just invisible that this is a preference because it is assumed to be the “natural” order of things. Cisgender identity is often invisible because it is the default. This invisibility means that every other gender performance is othered, and making cisgender identity visible contributes to an inclusive environment where every individual has a legitimate gender identity and preferred pronouns, and nobody is othered. By stating your preferred gender pronouns up front, you set the stage in the learning environment for gender to be questioned and critiqued.

2 – Ask your colleagues their preferred gender pronouns.

Not only will this create a safe space for trans* and non-binary individuals to be visible and acknowledged, it also gives cisgender individuals an opportunity to reflect on their gender identity and also to be visible and acknowledged.

3 – Use gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language in the learning environment.

Gender-neutral language, such as speaking about “people” rather than “men and women” allows non-binary listeners to see ourselves reflected. Gender-inclusive language, such as “men, women and everyone else” allows everyone to see us. Gender-inclusive language is bulkier and can be jarring, but that slight discomfort has the potential to open up space for conversation and reflection on the fact that gender is a spectrum, and does not fit into the binary model.

4 – Discuss gendered material in terms of being “masculine” or “feminine” rather than being “men’s” or “women’s.”

It is sometimes easier to grasp the concept of masculinity and femininity existing on a spectrum, a stepping stone towards understanding that gender itself exists on a spectrum (men, women, and others). Images of butch women and femme men are a common staple in our media culture. These images often conflate sexual orientation with gender, problematically representing all butch women as lesbians, and all femme men as gay. (While we’re busy breaking binaries, let’s remember that bisexuality is a real thing!) However, this spectrum of gender performance does provide an opening for us to begin speaking about gender identity as also being on a spectrum. Simple linguistic changes that challenge the binary in bite-size pieces can provide space for non-binary individuals in learning environments that otherwise would rarely discuss the topic of gender. (This point came up in a discussion about design classes, for example.)

5 – Recognize, and talk about, the differences between sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The conflation of sex and gender is pervasive and reinforces the gender binary. In many areas it is impossible to change your ID as a trans* person unless you can prove that you’ve had SRS (sex reassignment surgery). In this situation, non-binary gender is erased and although trans* identities are validated, it is only binary trans* identities that are acceptable or even visible. Gender identity is distinct from biological sex, which is also not a clear-cut binary. The male/female binary is complicated by chromosomal variances and the reality of intersex, which is much more common than we often believe. According to Mira Hird in Gender’s nature: Intersexuality, transsexualism and the ‘sex’/’gender’ binary, “one in every 100 births shows some morphological ‘anomaly’, which is observable enough in one in every 1000 births to initiate questions about a child’s sex” (Hird 350).

Further, gender identity is separate from sexual orientation, which again exists on a spectrum rather than sitting comfortably as a gay/straight binary. Recognizing these differences and challenging our own habitual mashing up of unrelated identity categories goes a long way to normalizing non-binary gender and allowing non-binary individuals (as well as binary cis and trans* individuals!) to see the wide range of possibilities open to them.

When sex is conflated with gender, non-binary individuals have few options, because there is no culturally acknowledged template for non-binary sex despite the frequency of intersex – our bodies become policed into sex categories that are then assumed to dictate our gender and our gender becomes difficult to perform because our bodies don’t conform. When sexual orientation is conflated with gender, non-binary individuals again see few options for themselves (especially when bisexuality or other non-monosexual orientations remain invisible). Sex, sexual orientation and gender – three separate, distinct, interrelated but not interdependent categories!

6 – Include non-binary authors in curriculums and reading lists.

This is a challenging prospect because non-binary gender is so often invisible. However, anthologies such as Mattilda (a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore)’s Nobody Passes (2006, Seal Press), and Nestle, Howell and Wilchin’s GenderQueer (2002, Alyson Books), as well as Kate Bornstein’s books, Jiz Lee’s blog (NSFW) and their contributions to various anthologies (including The Feminist Porn Book), and dozens of chapters scattered throughout anthologies dealing with gender, sexuality, and various other feminist issues. It takes a bit of digging, but there is a wealth of material being produced by the non-binary community. Canadian singer-songwriter Rae Spoon is non-binary, and has put out multiple albums and a book. There are also a wide range of blogs and twitter accounts run by non-binary individuals, offering insight into the community and our identities and struggles. Including non-binary authors provides an opportunity to normalize gender-neutral pronouns such as Jiz Lee’s use of “they,” and also demonstrates that being non-binary does not mean being excluded from cultural production. The work that we do has value.

Hird, Mira J. “Gender’s nature: Intersexuality, transsexualism and the ‘sex’/’gender’ binary.”Feminist Theory 1.3 (2000): 347-364. Tandfonline.com. Web.

(This was originally posted at Uni(di)versity on July 23, 2013)

DH 2013: Multimedia Design for Research Creation, Community Engagement and Knowledge Mobilization

Earlier this month I attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria for the first time. I am hoping to be back next year, and probably for many years after that. I have a secret dream of eventually teaching a course there on the topic of creating inclusive online spaces, and using anti-oppressive language and community-building skills to create safer and more welcoming spaces for marginalized groups. And I’m thrilled because DHSI seems like the kind of place where the intersection of social justice and academics would be more than welcome.

I wrote a bit about my DHSI experience over at Uni(di)versity (where you can catch me blogging much more regularly, since I have deadlines and an editor!).

DHSI offers a wide variety of courses over the week, and I attended Multimedia Design for Research Creation, Community Engagement and Knowledge Mobilization. You can read about the course in this Storify link.

Over the course of five days, I developed an extensive (and expanding) idea for ‘multimedia design’ in multiple areas of my life. Read about my activism, academics, and some kind of wacky alt-academic career plans after the cut (in that order, because if I’m honest that’s the way I prioritize my life).

DHSI2013 mindmap

Continue reading

April 13 work

I’m disappointed with the work I’m producing. I feel like the information is in my head, but I can’t shake it loose. I made myself a list of goals to accomplish in yesterday’s work but then I totally failed to accomplish a single one of them. I’m also considering whether a chronological approach to the lit review is actually the best way to go. I’m leaning away from that, and am thinking about reorganizing it to be more thematic. (So, rather than anti-porn -> anti-censorship -> pro-porn, which is basically chronological (though there are two waves of anti-porn), I’m leaning towards grouping it thematically and looking at writing about ejaculation and about queer interpretations of pornography. So it would be two sections rather than three/four, and when I’m writing about ejaculation, I’d be talking about the gendered power dynamics of the act, etc. And that leads in to a discussion of the queer issues.

In more positive news, I emailed Courtney Trouble yesterday and got a fantastic reply back from her with some insight into why she chose the scenes she did. So, that’s awesome.

I’m feeling really discouraged about this process, and worried that I’m just kidding myself if I think I’ve got what it takes to be an academic. It’s disappointing and frustrating.

My goal for today is to get 2000 words written, since I was 450 words shy of my goal for yesterday.

Anyway, yesterday’s work: Continue reading

April 10 work

I did a lot of work! It might even be actually usable work! I am starting to feel less terrified. (I also wrote almost 1400 words today. If I can keep that up, I will be finished my thesis in 10 days and will have 4 days to edit it. Woo!)

Okay, today’s work, for those who are reading it. Oh, and a note – I’m pasting in my Works Cited as it grows, so not all of the works are cited in each day’s work. But I am happy with how it is growing each day. And I came up with a structure for my lit review today. Continue reading


Writing this honours project is like PULLING TEETH. So I’m going to post my pages as I write them, unedited. I will also post as I edit. This may be horrifically tedious but I want to document the process and I want to have a place to put my writing where people can see that it is (or isn’t) actually happening. Here are the three pages I wrote at my Friday writing session. (I didn’t do any writing over the weekend. It was a tumultuous weekend in non-academic ways. My mental health is… teetering.)

* indicates where I gave up on a thought and moved on. This is an attempt at just getting words onto the page, which is not how I normally work. But words need to happen. So. Read the mess after this –  Continue reading

Performance and Performativity first paper

My first paper for Performance and Performativity was due Friday, and I submitted it! I meant to post my drafts here, but just kept working over them. So, you just get the final draft.

Word count: 1549

The Performativity and Precarity of Porn Stardom:

Danny Wylde’s ‘Summoning of the Porn Star’ Ritual in Madison Young’s Thin Line Between Art and Sex

            “I was invited to participate in a porn film and much to my surprise I arrived on set and found that everyone involved was an actual person, not a porn star,” says Danny Wylde (Thin Line). This sums up the binary that Wylde explores in his art piece/ritual, the tension and incompatibility of porn stardom and personhood. This ritual, which is the first scene in Madison Young’s Thin Line Between Art and Sex, is a satirical “art piece” in the form of a pagan/Satanic ritual to “conjure forth the porn stars from the past” (Thin Line). This ‘summoning’ inverts and then reinforces Peggy Phelan’s “axis of purity/perversity” (44) by positioning the “real people pretending to be porn stars” (Thin Line) as “disgusting” or perverse, and the porn star, who is an inhuman ideal, as pure but also not virtuous, and therefore perverse. This art piece highlights the performativity of porn stardom, and the precarity that the “real people” (Thin Line) performing porn stardom operate under.

Peggy Phelan claims that the “categories of ‘pornography’ and ‘perversity’ depend on the curious fascination of the spectator’s voyeuristic pleasure, a pleasure that pivots on the axis of purity/perversity” (44). Wylde invokes the “voyeuristic pleasure” (Phelan 44) of the spectator when he discusses his early interactions with idealized porn stars who, Wylde says “have sex all day, they do nothing else, that’s why they call them stars – because you look up to them” (Thin Line). Wylde’s spectatorial pleasure is predicated on the idea that porn stars are porn stars. They are not ‘real’ people. Wylde’s response to the idealized porn star reinforces Phelan’s assertion that the viewer can “’possess’ the image which remains immobile within the frame… of the spectator’s gaze” (46), and his response to realizing that the porn set is full of actual people rather than porn stars shatters this immobility. The porn star cannot be a real person, because their personhood directly conflicts with Wylde’s ability as a spectator to possess them.

Wylde’s performance, however, inverts Phelan’s axis of purity and perversity (Phelan 44). The porn star’s very porn stardom means that they are pure in Wylde’s mind, and it is the physical bodies of the “real people pretending to be porn stars” (Thin Line) that are “disgusting.” The impossibility of the porn star body, which never requires a douche, an enema, or even food beyond coffee, is what makes her a porn star. She is an idealized and inhuman body, existing in a state of perpetual sexual readiness and physical purity. The sex that she has “all day” (Thin Line) does not pervert or damage her purity, and it is this fantasy of the dehumanized sexual vessel that Wylde’s fantasies are based on. It is therefore Wylde as the masturbating teenager generating this fantasy of the idealized porn star that is perverse. The spectator becomes the site of perversity, and the porn star is held up as pure in comparison.

If, however, we read Phelan’s definition of purity as virtuousness, rather than physical purity, then Wylde’s idealized porn star is perverse. Writing on the topic of whore stigma, Jill Nagle notes that “[t]his division [between whore and not-whore] translates into a mandate to not only be virtuous, but also to appear virtuous” (5, emphasis hers). Wylde’s porn star is not virtuous, because she is “having sex all day” (Thin Line) and she does not even appear to be virtuous, because she is perpetually sexually ready and if it were not for the “outfit… that is imposed on her… she would be naked all the time, ready to fuck at a moment’s notice” (Thin Line).

The outfit is imposed on the porn star because it is unacceptable that she be visibly “ready to fuck at a moment’s notice” (Thin Line); her readiness would render her unintelligible within a culture that does not accept freely available sex. Nagle says that “good girls, then, stay out of the fray by eschewing any display of sexual intent or autonomy, lest it be used to relabel them bad” (5). Wylde seems to be demanding that a real porn star voluntarily and publicly place herself in a position of heightened precarity. The naked and ready porn star is unacceptable, unintelligible, in public space, and as Butler notes, “those who do not live their genders in intelligible ways are at heightened risk for harassment and violence” (ii). Wylde is therefore asking that the porn star place herself at this “heightened risk” (Butler ii). The porn star’s sexual readiness is a performance of gender, and Jill Dolan notes that “while it is crucial not to conflate sexuality with gender, expressions of sexuality further illustrate the operation of gender codes and constructs in the representation of the female body” (63), and Butler herself links sexual labour to gender-based precarity (ii).

The sexual availability of Wylde’s idealized porn star is just one aspect of this art piece that brings Judith Butler’s concept of precarity to the fore. Butler situates sex workers, a category that includes porn performers, as an identity category facing exceptional precarity (ii). Porn stars blur the distinction between public and private by performing the private act of sex in the public space of a studio, and challenging the gender norms that Butler says determine “how and in what way the public and private are distinguished, and how that distinction is instrumentalized in the service of sexual politics” (ii). It is the element of sexual politics that Wylde’s satire highlights most clearly. The porn star cannot inhabit the same space as the porn performer, because the porn performer is a person. A person defecates, eats, and has talents, desires and aspirations beyond their sexual labour. By asserting that these real people are “disgusting” (Thin Line) and that they are only “pretending to be porn stars” (Thin Line), Wylde points a finger at the social construction of the “good girl/bad girl binary” (Nagle 5) and even at Phelan’s construction of “the axis of purity/perversity” (44). By emphasizing with such extreme intensity the binary between porn star and actual person, Wylde’s performance undermines the binary that it claims to enforce. This art piece can be seen as a “subversive resignification [that] serves the purpose of exposing the illusion that gendered acts… are stable components in a coherent and necessary order of identity” (Loxley 122).

Wylde claims that a ‘real’ porn star is sexually ready at all times, that her vagina “smells great all the time, she doesn’t menstruate, it’s impossible for her to get bacterial vaginosis” (Thin Line), and that she doesn’t need food or ever require an enema. That Wylde can articulate this inhuman ideal of porn stardom highlights the ways in which the performance of porn stardom is taken up as “a sign of its internal or inherent truth” (Butler i). The porn performer performs porn stardom, and this is a performative act in that it calls into being the idealized porn star body that the performer temporarily inhabits. The construction of the porn star, who cannot have bodily processes or functions, means that the porn star is one-dimensional construction incapable of an artistic (or even human) life beyond their porn stardom. The porn star is non-compliant in the sense that they cannot be recognized as a person, because they do not have any of the indicators of human bodily existence. As Butler notes, “non-compliance calls into question the viability of one’s life, the ontological conditions of one’s persistence” (iv). By performing a non-compliant identity, the porn performer puts their own viability into question. They are eclipsed by their performance of porn stardom, a performance that pushes them into precarity.

By explicitly linking performativity with precarity, Wylde’s piece articulates clearly and with humour the point that Butler makes when she says “[t]he performativity of gender has everything to do with who counts as a life, who can be read or understood as a living being, and who lives, or tries to live, on the far side of established modes of intelligibility” (iv). The porn star cannot be counted as a life, cannot be “read or understood as a living being” (Butler iv). But the porn performer, the person who uses the “hundreds” (Thin Line) of enemas in the bathroom, who menstruates and is capable of bacterial vaginosis, this person lives “on the far side of established modes of intelligibility” (Butler iv). This person exists under conditions of precarity, imposed in part by what Carol Queen describes as a prevalent conception that women in the sex industry “have no boundaries and sometimes no choices” (128). Wylde’s assertion that the porn star is always “ready to fuck” (Thin Line) highlights the lack of boundaries that are assumed for porn stars. Since the only options presented by Wylde within his piece are to be a “disgusting” real person or a porn star with no boundaries, porn performers are in an impossible position, caught between being sexually idealized or stigmatized by our sex-negative culture.

Wylde highlights both the performativity and the precarity of the porn star and of the porn performer who exists behind and within this impossible, illegible identity. His satirical art piece subverts the binaries that it proposes to reinforce, and sets up the rest of the film as an exploration of the space between porn performance and porn stardom.



Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics.” AIBR. Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana 4.3 (2009): i-xiii. AIBR. 13 Feb 2013. Web.

Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. Print.

Loxley, James. Performativity. London: Routledge, 2007. Google Play Book.

Nagle, Jill. Introduction. Whores and Other Feminists. Ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 2010. 1-15. Print.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London: Routledge, 1996. Google Play Book.

Queen, Carol. “Sex Radical Politics, Sex-Positive Feminist Thought, and Whore Stigma.” Whores and Other Feminists. Ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 2010. 125-135. Print.

Thin Line Between Art and Sex. Dir. Madison Young. Perf. Danny Wylde, Madison Young, Justin. HeartCore Films/Good Releasing, 2010. Film.