Loving the Straight Girl

I found the relationship between Frances and Sophie heartbreaking

I found the relationship between Frances and Sophie heartbreaking

I recently watched two movies – Frances Ha and Mean Girls (re-watched that is)  – which seemed to me tales of unrequited or unrealised queer love. Admittedly I often have this problem, upon finishing a book or movie I’ll talk to my friends about “how gay all the characters were” or the “gay storyline” and appear quite mad (often because these stories end in heterosexual marriage). When I first meet people I also tend to implicitly assume that they are gay – which people pick up on and then “come out” to me as straight at some point. I enjoy this queer imagining of the world. This is perhaps an unfairly comfortable universe for me, from my privileged position as someone who “passes” as straight and therefore doesn’t have to face the daily reality of harassment based on sexuality (though I do definitely face street harassment  based on my gender presentation…that’s another story).

But there’s another downside to this queer outlook: when the story line is your life and not just a movie, it can be sad if not downright heartbreaking when you find yourself pining for the straight girl. For me, this love of the unattainable woman has come in two major forms: the popular girl and the best friend.

Veronica: to die for

Veronica: to die for

The popular girl
There are popular leaders and then there are the popular sidekicks – in high school I found myself loving the latter. The ones who I thought why are you in that group, you’re so much better than that. The Veronicas of the world. Sure, sometimes these popular sidekick girls would be just as mean to me as their powerful counterparts, but I could forgive them with my imagining that they would one day break the shackles of their hetero crew. Because often these girls would be way more spunky than those they followed – tough enough to put up with the sh*t of their girl clan and generally sidelined because they weren’t as generic looking or acting as the top dogs. And you’d see them in PE class, with their awesome athletic skills (while you sat on the bench, pretending to feel sick with a note from your mum) and think damn girl, you don’t even know I exist… Years later you friend them on Facebook and find that they are just as hetero as ever, still lusting after the football-types and barely remembering who you are. *Sigh*.

Why Calamity Jane and Katie Brown were not in a relationship is something  I'LL NEVER UNDERSTAND

Why Calamity Jane and Katie Brown were not in a relationship is something I’LL NEVER UNDERSTAND

The best friend
This one is the kicker. It’s a horrible cliche that queer people must be in love with their best friend of the same sex, but at least in my case I’ve often found it to be true. When you get so close to someone that you can practically finish their sentences and they’re the only person you want to spend all your time with, it seems strange that you don’t just shack up and live in a little cottage growing flowers and raising beautiful babies. Even when you constantly propose such ventures (e.g. text message “I want to have your babies”), if your best friend identifies as straight I’ve found there’s not much hope – just slow heartbreak.

It’s perfectly reasonable that perhaps for the popular girls and best friends I just wasn’t the right person for them. Nevertheless, you’ll still find me crying into my pillow about why Frances and Sophie never got together and why all Cady ever cared about was Aaron Samuels.

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Foucault Explained with Hipsters

A comic I made for a second year gender studies course I tutored for in 2012, to help students understand some of the themes from Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Vol.1:f1

f2All page references from Foucault, M. (1976 [2008; trans 1978]), The History of Sexuality: Volume 1., R. Hurley, [trans], Victoria: Penguin Group

Stay tuned for Judith Butler explained with cats!

 

Masturbation: More Like Masturgaytion?

So I was reading some philosophy the other day – by one of those crazy French guys who’s writing is so dense you need a chisel to get through – and it got me thinking about touch. The piece was The Intertwining–the Chiasm by Merleau-Ponty, which focuses in part on the concept of one’s own hand touching the other. Merleau-Ponty uses this example to explore sensation and perception as a two-way process. Just as your hand feels, it is also being felt. It’s fascinating and poetic stuff and since Merleau-Ponty died before finishing this remarkable essay we are only left wondering where he was actually going (however my sense is that even if he’d finished it, I’d still be pretty lost). Thinking about all this touching and being felt this question popped into my mind: is masturbation inherently gay?

I’m not the only one who’s been asking this. Last year, Pastor Mark Driscoll from Seattle made some strong remarks against men engaging in solo fun unless a lady friend was also in very close vicinity. Driscoll also made the claim that masturbation is “monosexual” and particularly sinful if a man is, “watching himself in a mirror and being turned on by his own male body”.

Incurring the wrath of God aside, what else can we say about this touching-oneself experience when it comes to desire? I’m guessing that not everyone sits in front of the mirror checking themselves out, but in fact fantasizes or watches porn, etc. So are we just touching ourselves but imagining that the “toucher” is actually someone else? One might draw the conclusion that this explains why so many men watch porn, i.e. MUST-SEE-WOMAN-ON-SCREEN-SO-NOT-GAY. However, since women are also avid porn-watchers, perhaps that’s an unfair conclusion. Plus, as previously discussed, I’m not a big fan of drawing gendered lines in the sand when it comes to talking about what men or women “normally” do. And who is to say that our porn watching habits actually reveal anything about our sexual orientation? Perhaps gay men masturbate to female porn?

Well, I don’t know about gay men, but there has been a fair bit written on lesbians that watch gay male porn. Apparently (according to writer Ariel Levy) “It’s definitely a thing”. As this piece from The Daily Beast explores, a lot of women report that watching gay porn is about enjoying masculine role-play and themes of domination and power more than gender per se. The article quotes comedian Kate Clinton, explaining her proclivity for man-on-man visuals: “We’re so used to watching men in our lives wield power. Gay porn is an opportunity to watch them get f—–.” Clearly the porn that people enjoy has an elaborate relationship to the desires that people have. 

Considering all of these points, what are we left with when it comes to beating the bishop/ cranking the shank/ jerking the gherkin/ insert euphemism here? Well, at the end of the day I don’t think that masturbation is inherently gay because it involves the mind and not just sensation. Considering this particular experience of touching and being touched reminds us that desire is not so black and white, in fact, it is extremely complex.

What a Bust: Sexy Dressing Revisited

Something funny happened to me this week. Bettina Arndt contacted a mailing list I am part of, asking for research related to an article she wanted to write on the way women dress. Arndt said she was interested in writing about the paradox that when women dress sexily they don’t necessarily appreciate men paying them attention. I didn’t think much of it. Being a PhD student, I hardly felt qualified to be giving advice. But later I came across what seemed a very relevant text – Duncan Kennedy’s Sexy Dressing – so I emailed it to Arndt, to which she replied with thanks.

One of Arndt's controversial books

I then had a dawning realisation that Arndt isn’t just another academic, she’s that infamous and controversial sex therapist and columnist. I remembered where I had heard the name before – Arndt came to the Australian National University last June to promote her book What Men Want (spoiler: “more sex”), which was met with much protest from students. My inner feminista gave a little squirm.

But then, I thought about the content of Kennedy’s Sexy Dressing that I had emailed to Arndt (see also Kennedy’s Sexy Dressing, Etc). Written from a legal perspective, Kennedy asserts that there is power in women dressing provocatively, but promotes a sex-positive approach with an aim to reduce the sexual abuse experienced by some women that do dress sexily. Kennedy’s work has not gone down well with a number of feminist writers, given his endorsement of women’s eroticism for male heterosexual pleasure (see Janet Halley’s discussion of some reactions to Kennedy in Split Decisions). Basically Kennedy asserts that men have a stake in reducing sexual violence, abuse and crime, “so we can get on with playing within while evolving the [sexual fantasy] repertoire”. All in all I felt fine about sending this controversial sex- and desire-positive piece over, given that it so strongly asserts the need to differentiate between sexy dress/play and sexual abuse.

This morning I turned on the television to find Weekend Sunrise’s presenters discussing Arndt’s article “Busted: the politics of cleavage and a glance” appearing in today’s Sun-Herald (I wouldn’t normally watch this show, but I was waiting for PopAsia to come on, naturally). Arndt’s article basically frames women’s sexy dressing as a power often wielded unwittingly, that keeps men in “a state of sexual deprivation, dealing with constant rejection”.

Arndt's formula: women put it out there, men ogle

Unlike Kennedy, who frames his entire discussion around concerns of violence, Arndt only briefly touches on the issue, stating that “of course” men shouldn’t be sexually violent towards women because of the way they dress. The article paints women (especially the “young” women she refers to) as the naive commanders of sexuality, with sexual weaponry at their disposal (read: boobs). Men don’t fare any better, with Arndt stating that men are “lousy” at picking up on non-verbal cues in courtship (apparently all they see is boobs).

Aside from the binary-stereotype-reinforcements going on, there are so many problems that I have with this article that I can barely express them. Here’s a few: 1. It reinforces the idea that women are the only ones that put sex on display and that men are the only receptors of this (ignoring that men might also be negatively sexually objectified or that women might  be more than just “givers” of sexuality). 2. It doesn’t seem sex positive– rather than making some suggestions about how we might healthily negotiate the sexual power that Arndt accuses us of, she effectively condemns it, “with so many women now feeling absolutely entitled to dress as they like”. 3. It overlooks the many other directions sexuality might go in, not just orientation-wise (women can find women sexy too), but issues of domination and how these might figure in conversations about sexual power are not discussed.

An image from Chicago's SlutWalk

4. Last but not least, it only vaguely considers sexual violence and really does seem to suggest that women “invite” attention through the way they dress- yet I get wolf whistled at by men even when I’m dressed in tracky dacks and a baggy old t-shirt, it’s disgusting and I hate it!

I am deeply disheartened by this article, and can only hope that it invites greater discussion about sexy dressing in a way that moves beyond the simple and sensationalist stereotypes that Arndt presents.

Flicking the switch – is flexibility at the top (and bottom) of the postmodern agenda?

A filmic representation of the dominant/passive binary

Today at an end of year lunch gathering I briefly mentioned my word discovery of the day – “switch”. The term is part of BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Sadism/Masochism) lingo and refers to the idea of alternating between a top/active/dominant position and a bottom/obedient/passive position. My description was: switch is to top and bottom as bisexual is to lesbian and gay. My point was not to perpetuate a view of switch and bisexuality as more indecisive or indeterminate positions (as is often levelled at bisexuality), but rather to see these identifiers as caught up in a possible in-between space that language has been trying to catch up with (see also, pansexuality).

My description of switch got me questioning its connection with the concept of flexibility. I wondered if switch, bisexuality and other supposed in-betweens could be considered to be more flexible positions- not in the derogatory sense of being easy or undecided, but rather, as potentially more open or adaptive? I realised almost instantly that this would be a problematic assumption to make. This line of argument would seem to necessarily privilege switch and bisexuality over other orientations, inclinations or preferences, and I would therefore be making (what I would like to call) a flexibility fallacy.

I realised that the problematic I had encountered relates to a book I read earlier this week, by queer theorist Judith “Jack” Halberstam called In a Queer Time and Place- which focuses on the tension between transgression and conformity that exists around accounts of queer. Halberstam argues that there is a “postmodern fantasy of flexibility” being promoted, that serves to exclude some ways of identifying from a postmodern agenda- given postmodernism’s apparent obsession with all things indeterminate. Halberstam’s point makes me wonder whether my initial suturing of switch onto a “flexible” dynamic was a bi-product of my subconscious postmodern assumptions.

On that note (of the danger of possible postmodern misreadings), I’ll leave you with this (potentially) BDSM-esque song: