Winter presents

There has been an absence of cute kittens on this blog. Christmas is over, Chanukah was over a few weeks ago, and England is cold and grey and miserable at the moment. I have decided to solve these two issues at once, with my new favourite website, http://hotguyswithkittens.tumblr.com

It does what it says in the title, really. Cute guys cuddling even cuter kittens. I would go out with any one of these men (as long as they let me play with their kittens, that is – no, that’s not a euphemism).

This is my personal favourite:

See you all after New Year!

I always thought purple was the colour of kink

I don’t believe in condemning something I know nothing about. When I see shocking headlines, I usually do my best to read the entire article, to follow up on links, and to read around the subject. If I don’t have the time to do that (which often I don’t), I tend not to comment. The world is full of bias and prejudice, and I know I am by no means immune to it, but I usually try. In the same way, I don’t criticise films I haven’t seen or books I haven’t read. Twilight, for example. I don’t think I’d like the writing very much, and I’ve heard the films are fairly awful, so I don’t have any particular urge to watch them. But that’s all I’ll say about it, since I don’t have first-hand experience, and I think it would be hypocritical to just blindly put forward others’ opinions without having any first-hand experience of my own.

It is due to this random streak of morality, or ethics, or whatever you want to call it, that I finally caved in and read Fifty Shades Of Grey. I’ve been reading about it for a year now, and trying to avoid it as much as possible, because everything I’d read told me I would hate it – terrible writing, misleading portrayal of BDSM, trashy teenaged fanfic (which is what it originally was) not worth my time. The thing is though, if you’re into BDSM and writing and talking openly about it, it’s kind of hard to ignore the biggest source of (mis)information out there in mainstream culture. I don’t have to read Twilight, because Twilight has absolutely no impact on my life, but unfortunately, Fifty Shades does. And when I found out that my little sister was reading it, despite my plaintive attempts to get her to read Kushiel’s Dart instead, I caved in.

There are hundreds of reviews and analyses of it out there, especially in the feminist and S&M corners of the internet. I haven’t read all of them, and I highly doubt I’ll be saying anything new, but the nice thing about writing a blog rather than an academic paper is that you don’t always have to be saying something utterly radical and original. At least, I hope so, anyway.

The first thing I want to say is that, as I was warned, the writing is fairly terrible. By which I mean the dialogue is generally awful (I have sympathy with this, since I always found writing dialogue incredibly difficult, back in my own fanfic days). Any parts of the book that aren’t about sex are also pretty dire: tedious descriptions, barely-sketched minor characters, repetitive sentence structures. But that’s okay, because those bits just aren’t important – they’re just filler until the next big sex scene. And the thing is, the sex scenes are actually okay. Sometimes there’ll be a word or phrase that I’ll find particularly jarring and that will just break the mood entirely (does anyone use ‘my sex’ as euphemism these days? For goodness sake just use the word ‘cunt’!), but in general, it’s pretty hot. Hot like the Harry Potter slash fanfic I used to read when I was fourteen, all dizziness and liquid heat and mind-blowing, utterly unrealistic orgasms from barely a touch, but still hot.

Because the thing is, this is a book for teenaged girls to masturbate to. And that is a good thing. Teenaged girls need fantasy-material as much as anyone else, but up until now there’s been a gap in the market. Adult women get real erotica, once they know what to look for, and men get porn, which most teenaged boys seem to discover pretty rapidly. But teenaged girls aren’t meant to be sexual – they’re meant to be shy innocent virgins who want to fall in love, not get spanked and fucked. So the erotica market doesn’t really cater for them, or hasn’t, up til now. When I was that age, I had fanfic. The fanfic explosion seems to be ebbing, and has been for a few years now, but there’re still thousands of stories out there for the curious horny girl. I needed that. I was a geeky sci-fi fangirl who discovered the magical world of fanfic by accident, through a Lord of the Rings messageboard. I was lucky. If I’d been more popular and had actual friends in real life when I was twelve, I might never have discovered it. Popular girls need to masturbate too!

So yes, Fifty Shades reads like a teenaged girl’s wet dream, because that’s what it is. The heroine is an ‘ordinary girl’, just like you or me, while the love interest is literally Perfect, a millionaire who is gorgeous and sexy and can make her come just by sucking her nipples. It’s Twilight fanfic with the names changed, so yeah, the plot is non-existent, but that’s not what’s important. And if it’s encouraging teenagers to realise that female sexuality isn’t a bad thing, and to explore their own preferences and boundaries, then I don’t care how terrible the writing is.

The problem, however, is that it doesn’t stop there. This isn’t just erotica, this is kinky S&M erotica, dontcha know. And that is where Fifty Shades disappoints. As countless other bloggers have noted, it gets so many things wrong. The contract, for example – what’s that about? I mean, yes, some people do use contracts, but it’s not the norm, and they’re rarely as extensive with that. He has this phenomenal dungeon in his luxury apartment, that they don’t use for anything more extreme than spanking. The negotiation process is sort of there – they do communicate, and talk about boundaries, but she’s coming into it from a position of such utter ignorance and inexperience that it’s basically meaningless. And, of course, he was abused as a child, and is therefore a Damaged Individual, which is why he needs BDSM in his life. Not because it’s a valid and healthy lifestyle that can be extremely pleasurable for some people. No, because he’s damaged, and can’t handle ‘normal’ relationships. Got it. (I haven’t read the second two, but I do know how the series ends, and it is predictably not with acceptance of the BDSM lifestyle.)

In an ordinary fanfic, I wouldn’t care about any of that. I’d read it for the sex scenes, get off on it, and forget about it. But this isn’t just fanfic anymore, it’s a book that’s gone viral, and for the majority of people who read it, this is their only insight into what BDSM might be like. And that is what I have an issue with. I find it irresponsible. I guess that isn’t E. L. James’s fault, since she never intended it to explode the way it did, but now that it has, the damage is out there. Those teenaged girls discovering sexuality for the first time? They’re going to be left with just one paradigm for BDSM, and it will be a destructive and inaccurate one.

Maybe that’s better than having no paradigm at all, and just assuming it’s something disgusting and weird that occasionally gets referenced on CSI. Maybe it will make them curious and encourage them to go out and read more, ask questions and do research. I hope so. The S&M community has sought societal acceptance for years now. Now they – we – have it, sort of, but it’s not in our words or on our terms and it gets so much wrong that I wonder if that’s really any better than being hidden away.

I don’t know, is the answer. But at least now I’ve read it, I don’t have to feel guilty for having an opinion.

That rare and exotic creature: the feminist man

Aaaaand it’s the holidays, everyone breathe. I am becoming reacquainted with a long-lost friend, sleep, and with a host of terrible TV shows offered on iplayer. It is wonderful. Happy holidays to everyone, and I hope that you all get the rest that you deserve. Short days (dark at 4pm – what is this madness?!) and weather that freezes my ears make me hate this time of year, so it’s good to remember that there are some benefits.

I never did find out what happened with Icarus and Mystery-Girl, but sadly I think he probably didn’t take my advice to just ask her what was going on. People seldom do. Maybe sex-positive communicative feminism is just too extreme and hardcore for the world to handle. Or maybe my friends are afraid of becoming sexually frustrated bloggers who chronicle their lives on the internet in order to avoid the harsh truths of reality. Which would be fair enough. I sympathise either way.

Anyway. Some of you might remember Leander, an absolutely awesome guy I was seeing last year, and who remains one of my closest friends. Leander has had a wonderful girlfriend since February, and they have the sort of healthy, communicative relationship I keep going on about. He is also still a passionate feminist and addicted to the progressive blogosphere, which is one reason why I love him. This can sometimes surprise people, since Leander is a straight white male (or ostensibly straight, at any rate), who went to a posh school and has professional upper-middle-class parents. In other words, he’s basically the poser child for privilege.

This has a couple of interesting outcomes. For one thing, people tend to listen to him a lot more than they ever do to me, because while I am either a crazy man-hating feminist or an irrational and hysterical woman, Leander is a calm, reasonable man who talks sense. Even when we are making the exact same arguments about the exact same topics. This is often frustrating for me, but it’s not his fault he’s more persuasive, and really, I should be happy that he’s out there making an impact. Any way to win battles, and all that.

But I don’t think I ever realised the flip-side of this until about a week ago, when Leander posted a general acknowledgment on facebook that he is proud to call himself a feminist, because he believes that men and women are equals, and doesn’t see why other people who believe this wouldn’t want to be called feminists. It was, in my opinion, a nice gesture, but nothing particularly loaded or provocative. I post about abortion and rape apologia and sexism all the time, usually in response to news stories, so this didn’t seem that shocking in comparison.

The responses he got astounded me. One was a genuine concern from a black female friend that the term ‘feminism’ has a problematic history for non-white women, which is why she prefers not to use it, and I can appreciate that. But the rest? It was like someone had unleashed the Men’s Rights Brigade. Immediately there were comments about Bad Feminists, the kind who actively discriminate against men and think all men are rapists and want to castrate them all. When Leander pointed out that these are a tiny minority (if they even exist) and that every group has its fringe extremists but that these don’t speak for the entire group, he was called out for being a hypocrite. Sexism is widespread and mainstream in our society (check any article on rape or on the appointment of a woman in a position of power for some instant evidence), but apparently it’s more important to criticise radical straw-feminists than to fix any of that. Until the movement is perfect, no one should identify with it at all. Or… something like that.

Now, these aren’t new arguments, much as their proponents might think we’re all hearing them for the first time. I’ve lost count of the number of times ‘well-meaning’ guys have approached me with horror stories about Things Feminists Have Said, expecting me to either justify extreme anti-male prejudice or admit that I’m not a real feminist because I disagree. But usually it comes out of some previous discussion, not out of the blue. These were people – men, I should add – reacting to a simple statement of support for women with shock and horror, as if Leander had said he believed passionately in killing kittens.

It’s not that I don’t get negative replies to what I say and write – I do – but somehow this felt different. Leander didn’t get dismissed as irrational, or have anyone patronise him by trying to explain ‘logically’ why he was incorrect, which is the most common response to me. His gender and his privilege protected him from that, but also added to the shock these commenters clearly felt. It was as if they’d latched onto the fact that one of their own was turning against them, and come out in force to bring him back in line. People who argue against me, however much they disagree, can usually understand where I’m coming from, even if that understanding only goes as far as ‘she’s a woman and she just doesn’t know what she’s talking about’. Not so with Leander. When I reread those comments, I can sense the confusion. Why on earth is a straight white guy like Leander supporting all this womanly nonsense?

And if the feminist-equals-woman link wasn’t clear enough, someone even commented with: ‘Don’t listen to haters Leander. You’re a strong independent woman!’. Because supporting equality for women, supporting an ideology that takes privilege away from those who have historically always had it, means you must be a woman, or at least gay and effeminate. That’s why Real Men don’t listen to feminism.

Leander is one of the most amazing guys I know, because he has such privilege, and instead of trying to cling on to it and refusing to see that he has it, he recognises it, and actively tries to make a difference. I hate everything about the assertion that men who do this aren’t masculine enough, from the gender-binary element of that idea to the way it automatically implies that being feminine or womanly is undesirable. But if we have to have it, then I want it on record that Leander is the realist Real Man I know, and I wish I knew more guys like him.