Category Archives: sexuality

Yelping about babies and bathwater

Every now and again I back myself into a conceptual corner and sit there yelping in confusion and distress.

I realised very clearly the other day just how subversive feminism actually is. I’m not sure that women can live financially and professionally independent lives without un-weaving society around us. I don’t think we can have our cake and eat it. It’s an unsettling thought – particularly from a position of feminine freedom and privilege.

But feminism is good – right? I mean it’s freedom and self-actualisation isn’t it? How can that be wrong?

But communities are good – right? They’re caring and supportive networks of people reaching out to help each other. When communities fall apart we end up with underclasses and gang warfare and drugs and knives and guns.

Shit! I’m turning into a Daily Mail reader before my very eyes.

I’ve always known communities aren’t necesarily either caring or supportive. There are too many places in the world where you can’t be gay or trans or bi, where you can’t be a woman and educated, where you can’t be poor and ill, where you can’t be an atheist and hold office for me to think for a second that communities are safe places to be. But on the other hand, we are social animals and we do need some glue to hold us together: if you are a round peg, then those round holes and cosy and snug.

What I hadn’t realised is that if you are a woman and you don’t suit the community you are born and raised in, then you will either damage yourself or undermine that community.

I realised this when I had lunch with a friend the other day. The friend is Asian, 30ish, educated, professional and has a strong stream of self-determination in her temperament. So far so westernised. She is also a sincere believer in her religion and a committed member of what she refers to as “my community”. Her religion, her family and her roles as a daughter and aunt are part of her identity. But she doesn’t want to become another one of the submissive women she sees around her, tucked in to an arranged marriage and made bitchy and manipulative by boredom. She wants to be herself within her family, her friends and her religion, and respected for it. It’s like looking back in time to the 50s or the period before the first World War. My friend’s position is very much the same as that of my grandmother’s sister a century or so ago who left home to become an actress: to do that she left her family, any hopes she had of marriage, her friends and the places she knew. These things are more common than not in the West now, and we forget how hard they were.

My friend wants to have her cake and eat it, and I don’t think she can. Communities function best when men work and women don’t (oh, goddess, the Daily Mail) because men bond when they are active and women bond when they talk. This isn’t how it should be, not in a society of human beings where the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are more or less taken care of. But darwiniansim sucks and it’s an observable fact that communities start to fracture when more than a few of the women work, and communities where the men don’t work fall apart. Social cohesion happens when women share conversation, motherhood and domesticity and men win bread or hunt mightily.

You can see why this thought has left me yelping. Unfortunately we can’t wrap ourselves up in warm value judgements about social justice, ethics and how things should be: this is a matter of wiring.

So women like me, my grandmother’s sister and my Asian friend, who aren’t mothers, who work in predominantly male environments, who have friends of both sexes, who network rather than gossip, we pick away at the glue that holds communities together.

And women like my friend and my grandmother’s sister have to choose between cutting off one part of their identity of suppressing another. Individual western women are luckier: we don’t have such strong and cohesive communities and families to constrain us. But collectively are we worse off?  They are not there to support us either, because we’ve torn them down pay-cheque by pay-cheque and latch-key by latch-key.

Which means that the mad feminists of the 70s who said that the patriarchy were inherently opposed to wimmin’s freedom were right.

The mad feminists AND the Daily Mail?


The starting gun

One summer’s evening ten years ago I sat on the sofa while my guts moved nine foot to the left.  This placed them about a yard outside the house I was sitting in, which is a tricky sensation if you are trying to have a rational conversation.  But when your partner of 15 years says he wants a divorce, it does that sort of thing to you.

It was, not surprisingly, the start of an entirely new phase of my life.  It took us a long time to shift from where we were then to where each of us is now; it took us a good two or three years just to sort out the legals.  It would have been much quicker if we’d divorced in bitterness and acrimony. (Doesn’t acrimony sound like a wind-swept purple wild flower or a homoeopathic remedy for – well – acrimony perhaps).  But we were remarkably leisurely about the whole thing.  It’s irrelevant now if that was because of laziness or denial.

Suddenly I realise that something which has always felt very recent was in fact a long time ago.  For ages the late 1990s has been just before now, and suddenly it’s a decade behind me.

1999 – I am with a group of colleagues in the centre of Glasgow – a place I had run to out of dire economic necessity and where I was finding my feet in my brand new single life – and someone hands out a card advertising a nightclub.  I realise that the only words on the card I have any cultural references for are ‘the’, ‘of’, ‘to’ and ‘and’ and the dates.  I guess I’m not in my 20s any more.

2000 – I cross a road in Hamburg from a business hotel to the offices of the multinational company where I have a shiny new contract.   What happens if it all goes horribly wrong?  What makes me think I have anything to offer this giant company in this foreign country who are paying top dollar for my unexpectedly rare skills?

2001 – I walk back to the friend’s house where I’m staying in Sweden through sunlit suburban woods and find myself thinking fondly of the way my lover talks almost entirely about himself when we go out for a meal.  In a moment of self-awareness I realise that I’m falling in love.  I stop myself almost physically, by reminding myself that – no – his self-obsession isn’t endearing; it’s actually rather discourteous.  And a good thing too, since our affair has run its course and he leaves a few days later.

2002 – I unpack my suitcase one Sunday night in the business hotel where I have been staying for three months; I’ve been to Sweden for a wedding.  As I unpack, I find myself thinking “It’s nice to be home”.  Then I realise that, no, the Holiday Inn in Leopoldstraße in Munich is not my home.

2003 – I pick up a car from the airport just outside Stockholm, and drive it carefully north through Uppsala. “How’s the driving?” – “Fine; I could go right the way up to the Circle” – “You mean that, don’t you!” I think about it for a moment and realise that yes I do.  So we drive through hundreds of miles of austere Swedish woodlands right the way up to the Arctic circle, and photograph each other wearing sunglasses at midnight when we get there.

2004 – My life becomes briefly like a French art-house movie as I spend afternoons in a hotel with a married man whose name I never know and I become a way for middle-aged men to experiment with infidelity in the same way that they’d experimented with drugs in the 1970s, and I spend one unexpected night in bed with a bisexual woman and a transsexual man.

2005 – I accept a job with a Great Big Company in the spring and in the autumn I buy a small and awkward house on the edge of nowhere with a fabulous view.

2006 – I sit among fellow-members of the WI while a moan of appreciation emerges unanimously from 20 different female throats as we watch a cookery demonstrator fold melted chocolate into whipped cream.  It is exactly like the scene in Catch 22 when the Colonel’s secretary crosses her legs and the entire gathering of enlisted men groan.

2007 – I rage, endlessly, futilely, week after week as the government destroys an entire generation of junior doctors.  My energies are almost entirely taken up with this.

2008 – I take stock, and realise I’m surprised to that find ten years have got behind me, that I’m older and – as Pink Floyd remind me – shorter of breath and closer to death.  But I sure as hell heard that starting gun.  And I sure as hell have had an interesting time since.


Shagging the Tudors and Stuarts

While I’m having a go at the Scots, I am going to settle down and have a thoroughly good bitch about Mary Queen of.

Mary StuartI have finally pinned down what annoys me about Mary Stuart-Darnley-Bothwell or whatever her surname was. Some people are ruled by their heads, some are ruled by their hearts and some do all their thinking with organs that are slightly lower down, and I suspect Mary Stuart was one of these. There are lots of good things about having a powerful libido, however far too many women whose cognitive abilities have been washed away by their hormones deny that they have a strong sex drive and present themselves as being sensitive, emotional or romantic, because it’s nicer than being a hot babe. Their admirers describe them as ‘passionate’ though that’s often no more than a polite euphemism. In fact many of them are drama queens, and the rest of them are just plain needy because all they want to do is buck like rabbits but they can’t face the implications, so they wrap their lust up in pink bows and say that they are longing for a relationship. As I said, Mary Stuart’s series of overly-emotional and frequently disastrous marriages suggest to me that she came into this category of self-indulgent and rather precious women.

Eliabeth TudorIf we look at Elizabeth we find a much cooler customer. Whether or not Elizabeth bedded her various favourites is a matter of speculation but whatever her sexual history she didn’t for a moment get off on the emotion of it all. She sometimes comes across as ruthless and cold-hearted, but in fact I think it is simply that she had a very strong survival instinct, honed by the extreme precariousness of her upbringing as the sometime illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. Elizabeth could never afford to put a hair wrong; her mother had been executed while Elizabeth was still an infant and she had veered from heir to bastard and back again depending on the political and religious inclinations of her father and siblings. Whatever other speculations you make about Elizabeth’s sexuality and gender, it is quite clear that personal survival was a primary goal.

Mary by contrast was raised as the golden little darling of the French court, feted, spoiled and flattered, and never developed any of the survival instincts which Elizabeth learned as a toddler. Maybe Mary didn’t need them, maybe she was just incapable of developing them. Mary comes across as emotionally self-indulgent and short term: Liz Taylor to Elizabeth’s Katherine Hepburn.

It is probably unfair of me to admire Elizabeth’s self-control and dislike to what I see as Mary’s self-indulgence, but women who wail about love and betrayal when all they want is a good shag scrape on my nerves like chalk on a blackboard. If you want a good shag, go out and shag someone.

Right. That’s the Scots insulted. Again. I’m off to read up about Owain Glyndwr now.

Not so decayed

Sketch for Ursula Andress’s make-up for the ageing sequence in ‘She’At what point does “immaturity” become “youthfulness”?

“You’re so im-mat-chure” was the deepest insult my teenage peers could sling at anyone and we were desperate to grow up, so when did the tables get reversed?

I confused a colleague yesterday about something, and she checked my age with elegant delicacy. It turns out she thought I was a good decade younger than in fact I am. I cannot pretend I didn’t feel a little smug. Mind you, it probably has more to do with her own inexperience than anything else and of course the one advantage of superfluous avoirdupois is that excess oestrogen’s good for the skin. (I am sure the medics who read this will put me right if I’ve got that wrong).

But on the other hand, what about that extra decade of experience? Where did that go? I have learned so much, done so much, felt so much, grown so much in the last ten years. What about that?

Perhaps the reason she thinks I am so much younger than I am (and the reason I’ve pulled the one I’ve pulled) is that I can behave – well – rather immaturely. I flirt. I giggle. I swear like a trooper. (Make that a fucking trooper). I kick back. I tease my colleagues. I make jokes in meetings. I laugh. I don’t flick ink-pellets across the office though; there are limits, you understand.

Surely at some point all this becomes inappropriate, mutton behaving like lamb?

When does immaturity become a good thing? At what point is growing up bad?

I have an irritating ex-boss who runs marathons which more than proves we are members of entirely different species. She told me today about a mutual colleague who’d told his wife she was “becoming a very beautiful middle aged women”. Now, I like that as a compliment. I like it when people think I’m beautiful, I prefer the maturity of men who can appreciate a woman over 30 and maybe our mutual colleague just likes MILFs and is glad he’s married to one.

I was bemused by Marathon Woman’s horror and couldn’t get her to consider that “middle aged” might be a statement not a judgement. I find being middle aged rather useful, not to mention subversively powerful.

So how come being immature was the worst thing we could be when we were teenagers, and now it’s a compliment?

Category Errors #2 – Ann Widdecombe

Ok, not a category error as such, but a mental derailment all the same.

There I was, chatting away at the WI Christmas party with another member. It turns out that she’d had a pub about 20 miles from where I used to live. It further turns out she used to work for the local MP running his constituency office. It further further turns out she is a raving, raging, spittle-frothing tory.

We had a slightly one-sided conversation about Wonderful Tories She Had Met. “Michael Hestletine, he’s a very interesting man”. “That Boris Johnson, everyone under-estimates him”. Even, “Jeffrey Archer did a lot of good” and “Margaret Thatcher, what a lovely lady”.

I made suitably non-committal replies. I was brought up nicely. I have good manners.

Then she said

Ann Widdecombe, I’m a big fan. She talks such sense in the Daily Express every Wednesday”.

(The Daily Express thinks that Prince Philip took out a contract on the Princess of Wales, so we are not talking about evidence-based news-reporting, really).

Now it may be that there is much that is great and good about Ann Widdecombe, but unfortunately friends of mine used her name as a safe word during what the Daily Express would probably call “kinky sex sessions” and this struck me as being a rather good idea. You see, unless you are Paul Merton (who is a twisty so-and-so if ever there was one) you cannot think about Ann Widdecombe and sex at the same time. Or not in a good way, anyway.

Try it.

It cannot be done.

Not without feeling enormous physical and mental discomfort.

On the other hand if you have summoned the spirit of la Widdecombe to rescue you from pleasure past bearing, then she is inextricably bound up in your mind with kinky sex. Not a pleasant image I grant you, but that is rather the point.

So there you are. Not actually a category error. But while “rabid Tories I have known” might be a suitable subject for a chat at the WI, “choosing and using a good safeword for bondage games” isn’t really.

Or not at the one I go to, anyway.

Sisterhood is for bitches

I tumbled across a this on FtM Doctor’s blog today, and have been choking on my reaction ever since.

The story is about a feminist music festival in Michigan which is explicitly for “womyn-born womyn” and explicitly excludes trans women. Presumably they also explicitly excludes trans men. In fact, it is not actually a story, it is a press release, explaining the organisers’ point of view.

The language is interesting, veering between the hate-filled and the overly emotive. At one point the organiser of the “womyn-born womyn” sends the following email to the leader of “camp trans”.

I deeply desire healing in our communities, and I can see and feel that you want that too. I would love for you and the other organizers of Camp Trans to find the place in your hearts and politics to support and honor space for womyn who have had the experience of being born and living their life as womyn. I ask that you respect that womon born womon is a valid and honorable gender identity. I also ask that you respect that womyn born womyn deeply need our space — as do all communities who create space to gather, whether that be womyn of color, trans womyn or trans men . . . I wish you well, I want healing, and I believe this is possible between our communities, but not at the expense of deeply needed space for womyn born womyn.

The self-righteous emotional manipulation of this is nauseating, with its talk of “deeply desire[ing] healing”, “respect” and “deeply needed space”s.

We strongly assert there is nothing transphobic with choosing to spend one week with womyn who were born as, and have lived their lives as, womyn. It is a powerful, uncommon experience that womyn enjoy during this one week of living in the company of other womyn-born womyn. There are many opportunities in the world to share space with the entire queer community, and other spaces that welcome all who define themselves as female.

Is it unkind of me to consider the spaces and places that I have spent with “womyn-born womyn” this past week, which include a women-only gym and the WI? It is not hard to find women-only groups, if that’s what you need for a while. I’ve been on women-only holidays and women-only retreats. I was educated in part at an all girls’ school.

Of course the gym, and the WI aren’t full of radical feminists or …

womyn who could be considered gender outlaws, either because of their sexual orientation (lesbian, bisexual, polyamorous, etc.) or their gender presentation (butch, bearded, androgynous, femme – and everything in between). … gender variant womyn …. ” or women who ” … consider themselves differently gendered

… so far as I know.

I find myself wondering why the organisers exclude trans women if the spread of women at the festival is so broad, (yes, I know, the “deeply-needed space” thing) and also whether or not there are any straight married mothers there, or whether monogamous heterosexuals are not welcome either.

Rather than rant on and on about this, I will conclude with three final comments.

Firstly, it would be acceptable for the “womyn” of Michigan to create an activity exclusivly for “womyn-born women” if, on other occasions, they created events which were exclusively for other sub-sets of women, for example women who have been abused, or widowed, or who are lesbians, or indeed trans. But to exclude trans women and only trans women smacks of the “all men are rapists” school of separatist radical feminism which de-personalises half of the human race in a way which is as unjust and unacceptable as the de-personalising of women by men which went on for centuries before.

Secondly, I wonder if this is actually personal. If it isn’t about all trans women, but about one particular trans woman, if the organisers lacked the balls to exclude her and if they therefore decided to exclude them all. I find this theory rather compelling, given how petty, emotional and factional groups of women can become. See quotes above.

Finally, I put the press release through Gender Genie, and it scored 30% female and 70% male. Which made me snigger. Bitch that I am.

Abortions, sex changes, genetic defects

I offer you two thoughts from two different sites.

First – 21st century data in the UK: “A patient will not be entitled to refuse to make their personal data available to the [NHS] Spine [data systems]. Data about all patient events may be routinely communicated to the Spine without the consent of the patient. … The citizen has no legal right to stipulate what will and will not be recorded … nor where those records will be held.”

And secondly – 20th century data in Germany: “Only after Jews were identified — a massive and complex task that Hitler wanted done immediately — could they be targeted for efficient asset confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, enslaved labor, and, ultimately, annihilation. It was a cross-tabulation and organizational challenge so monumental, it called for a computer. Of course, in the 1930s no computer existed. But … punch card technology did exist. … [and] Hitler was able to automate his persecution of the Jews … from the identification of the Jews in censuses, registrations, and ancestral tracing programs to the running of railroads and organizing of concentration camp slave labor.”

The problem of course is not with data, per se. NHS staff are a pretty benign bunch. The problem comes when people with strong convictions have relatively friction-free access to data, and it is compounded when data becomes more enduring.

In this world of increasing fundamentalism, I am not comfortable that the health service can record abortions, gender re-assignments, genetic abnormalities, and other politically, socially or financially sensitive information, that they can record it in ways that mean that the data is pervasive and enduring, and that they can record it against our will.

More juxtapositioning

I was looking on the web to see if there is a book-group locally, and was deeply amused to find a coherent and sensible conversation about reading books on….

…. a forum called “Swinging Heaven”.

It really IS a site for Swingers.

It really is a conversation about books.

I’ve never been ill-disposed towards swingers, and now I rather fancy the idea of being felt up while discussing Ian McEwan, or chatting about Illywhacker between mouthfuls.

Well, its a way to meet people and to have something to talk about.

I’m no prude, but Debbie… pastels?

It fascinates me how most of the times that someone starts a sentence with the phrase “I’m no prude, but….” they then go on to demonstrate that yes, indeed, they are a prude. (My two favourite responses in a party-game were “I’m no prude, but unfortunately my sheep is” and “I’m no prude, but I think that’s illegal in Texas” – make of those what you will).

Anyway. I am no prude. Obviously. No-one ever is. However, three things recently worried me.

The first was an advertisement for a lap-dancing and pole-dancing club which I saw on the back of a mini-bus contracted as a school bus. The juxtaposition made me uneasy, though the fact I only saw it once suggests that I was not the only one to raise a disturbed eyebrow.

The second was a joke and party shop which sold “naughty” maids outfits, pink fluffy handcuffs, “naughty” uniforms and other joke bondage gear and next to them there were little-girl fairy wings and children’s Halloween costumes. I found using infantile words like “naughty” disturbing when combined with blurred boundaries between fetish gear for adults and fancy dress for children.Playboy Stationery

The one that worries me most recently, however, is playboy stationery marketed at little girls. I’m obviously not the only person who finds this disturbing: Brand Republic reported protestors as saying:

Jennifer Drew, chair of Object, said: “We are challenging the normalisation of porn into mainstream media. We feel that … WH Smith … is giving out the message that it is acceptable to have girls as sex objects. Object is not against sexuality, but it is against exploitation.”

They also report WH Smith’s breathtakingly disingenuous reply:

WH Smith is claiming that the stationery is being sold as a popular fashion range and that the image is not inappropriate in any way. The group also argues that many youngsters do not know what the image stands for.

I don’t even know where to start with those remarks.

I’m trailing way behind the zeitgeist here, since all of the stories I found are so-o-o-o-o last year darling, but the fact that I came across the stuff about 10 days ago in WH Smith troubles me, as does their spokesperson’s comment, reported in the Guardian last year.

“Playboy is probably one of the most popular ranges we’ve ever sold,” says head of media relations for WH Smith, Louise Evans. “It outsells all the other big brands in stationery … by a staggering amount … We offer customers choice. We’re not here to act as a moral censor.”

playboy_punch.jpgWhat? I mean WHAT? “Not here to act as a moral censor”. Is Ms Evans disengaged and morally unimaginative? Is she naively innocent? Is she just stupid? There is a category error so large you can drive a horse and cart through the middle of it. The issue is not about censorship, it is about what is appropriate. It’s about what has become a very old fashioned word: it is about propriety. In an age where the Internet and mobile phones enable adults to obtain unsupervised access to young children in a way which they have never had before, is it wise to normalise erotica in the presence of children, or to infantalise sexuality in the presence of adults?

Mohair Fetish Gear
Perhaps it takes a deviant and dirty mind to think these deviant and dirty thoughts. Although we live in a very knowing age, it can still be a surprisingly innocent one. Certainly, I was astonished by the naivete of the conversation about this particular piece of what is obviously fetish-gear. (If the link from that image does not work, then try the knitter’s main page instead). It seems that the darker aspects of human sexuality are being re-wrapped in ways which are cute, fluffy and frequently pink. I am reminded of Anjelica Huston’s line in Addams Family Values:

“You have gone too far. You have married Fester, you have destroyed his spirit, you have taken him from us. All that I could forgive. But Debbie… pastels?”

I don’t think that the pastelisation of what used to be called perversion is a bad thing: it’s just a thing. BDSM gear spent a long time being black rubber, black leather and studs. A lot of it still is, though recent goth imagery is bringing purple and red into play too. Previously, in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was all mahogany furniture, and crimson satin and velvet-wrapped ropes and, from von Sasher-Masoch to Elinor Glyn, 19th and early 20th century kinkiness was frequently surrounded by fur. Fashions change. Now BDSM is made safe with fluffy handcuffs and angora home-knits. So what?

However, I do find myself asking what sort of society is it which will happily market pornographic brand icons to little girls, and appears to have no qualms about placing strongly sexual imagery and products in the same space as products marketed to young children?

What sort of society makes sex a pink and sparkly thing for little girls to appreciate?

“… but transsexuality is NOT a sexual orientation…!”

OK. It was dumb of me to yelp that out at 60% volume into a silent and almost empty office, but I really was astonished and outraged. I was user-acceptance testing some on-line diversity training software and found the question:

“What is your sexual orientation:

(a) bisexual
(b) gay
(c) heterosexual
(d) lesbian
(e) transsexual?”

(Note the careful alphabetization of the options to avoid prejudgement and offence. *sigh*)

I don’t know where to start with this, to be honest.

The woman sitting opposite me was startled by my outburst as well she might be. We discussed transsexuality for a while (or I talked about it, while she listened and made the odd comment). She did ask if I was being overly politically correct, but she was shocked by the only discrimination story I told her. Like most people she thinks she can always tell when she sees a transsexual. I said “well, my transdar’s pretty good – and I went to Alton Towers with four transguys, and I would only have known with one of them”.

I wrote a fairly clear explanation of why transsexuality is not a sexual orientation in the feedback form, and pointed out that asexuality is, and suggested that they include it for the sake of inclusiveness. I also gave them the web-page and email address of one of the UK’s most respected legal specialists on gender issues and suggested they contact him to ask what the best way to word a question about transsexuality and transgender would be. I even offered to ask the question informally if they liked.

It remains to be seen what happens next. I am aware that I can get a little shrill on this subject, and it is quite clear that the training providers had no idea what they’d be unleashing on themselves when they asked me to test the software. I want to ring them tomorrow to put my point of view across, but I think it is probably better if I wait and see how they reply.

But honestly…..