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!

 

Great Expectations: Holding Hands and Heterosexual Privilege

Privilege FlowerAs someone who has for the most part been involved in “straight” relationships (despite identifying as bisexual/pansexual), the question of heterosexual privilege is something that troubles me often. When I’ve been in relationships with women, I have without a doubt felt more “legitimate” in identifying as queer, even though I realise the problem inherent in this thought process. The pressing political need for recognition has also been more salient during these times. Turns out walking through the mall holding hands with your girlfriend garners a lot of gawking. I never experienced any danger of any kind but I have many friends who recount feeling unsafe because of their queerness in public spaces.

polyamorous quintet or just friends?

polyamorous quintet or just friends?

“Straight” hand-holding gleans no such double takes. In fact, people assume that you are coupled up even if you’re not holding hands. This is opposed to the girl-on-girl scenario wherein if you escape blatant discrimination it’s probably just because people think “hmmnn…maybe they’re just really close friends?”

The list of privileges for the straight hand-holders seems obvious (see this post from Queers United for the full gamut of heterosexual privileges to mull over). For one thing, there’s recognition of the relationship, but there’s also no real danger of encountering social-norm policing about said relationship manifesting as violence of any kind, physical or psychic.

However, the problem of the notion of heterosexual privilege is that it ascribes heterosexuality to heterosexual-seeming couples, thereby risking erasure of the queer complexities unknown about the relationship being judged. Unless you wear your kink, polyamory, bi-proclivities or otherwise on your sleeve, the man-and-woman-holding-hands scenario is going to be lumped into the category of normative heterosexuality. This point isn’t to deny that material and social privileges exist for the heterosexual-seemers, but it undoubtedly contributes to a problematic social notion that sexuality can easily be defined by the categories of straight and gay (with in-betweeners oscillating between the two poles).

The sea-monkey family: heteronormative, or queer as f***?

The sea-monkey family: heteronormative, or queer as f***?

Part of this problem is the assumed erasure of past experiences and desires in relation to the person you are currently holding hands with. How often do we hear the story of someone coming “out of the closet” after years of a “fake” heterosexual marriage? These kind of narratives reinforce the notion that desires should conform to one spectrum of the hetero-homo pole, in such a way that all temporality is reconfigured in light of one’s current sexual trajectory. That is not to say that the labels and identities that people align themselves with don’t matter – they should be respected. But next time I catch myself in some hetero-hand holding, I’ll try and remember who I was, am and might be… and in doing so resist the tempting oversimplification that happens when I see other possible dyads, triads, partners and complex kinship relations hanging out in public spaces.

Why being “born this way” shouldn’t matter

“If you don’t have any shadows, you’re not in the light” – LG

In 2011 Lady Gaga wrote a song that has become a bit on an anthem for the LGBT movement. Though Madonna would like to point out that she helped with the tune, Born This Way is a pretty amazing song for using and normalising terms like bisexual and transgender within a popular realm (plus just generally encouraging the listener to feel empowered). It seems that in this song Gaga is promoting the political line that people should be respected because their attributes are predetermined.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that this is a valuable sentiment and has certainly been a central argument for LGBT activists for some time now. There are already a number of people out there writing about how we aren’t “born” but rather “made” (i.e. socialised into being) and I’m not here to make that contention. My problem isn’t so much with the idea itself, but why we need to make it in the first place.

I just don’t think we should have to argue that someone was genetically pre-determined to be XYZ, in order to accept them as the human being that they are. It just seems silly. Plus this line of reasoning inevitably leads to lynch-mobbing as soon as one LGBT activist says, “well, actually I personally don’t feel I was born this way” (see the Cynthia Nixon debacle). Admittedly the biggest factor beind the born-this-way line of reasoning is probably that it is a reaction to the crazy bucketloads of homophobia and hatred based on the notion that being gay is “immoral” or “unnatural”. And who wouldn’t react to such violent exclusion with an argument that says, I can’t help it, it’s science.

But if we keep trying to win all of our arguments on the basis that it’s science, what happens if one day (some how) they “prove” that sexuality isn’t pre-determined? What then? Do we just chuck out all of our politics? If this ever happened, one way to turn it around would be to say… “so I guess being born ‘straight’ isn’t a thing either…?” And the whole question of the natural versus the unnatural would be turned on its head.

At the end of the day, people should be respected as the human beings that they are. Full stop.

Because life ends at marriage?

Everyone loves a good wedding (BBC’s Pride and Prejudice)

I went to the movies this evening and saw what was a funny but pretty middle of the road comedy. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but let’s just say it was your normal Hollywood light entertainment piece (*talking bear cough*). The film was actually quite enjoyable, but had the most predictable and un-funny ending ever. You guessed it, a wedding.

I left the theatre wondering why it is that we don’t seem to be able to get past this neat little plot device. Maybe it’s just the easiest way to spell out “all’s well that ends well”. After all, Shakespeare’s comedies always finished with giant group weddings and frivolity. But you’d think that in this era of increasing divorce rates, surely we’d be imagining some alternate models for spelling out happiness? Much like the beloved Bechdel test, I feel like we need a rating system for romantic comedies that don’t equate true love with a wedding fest.

But then, when I tried to think of romantic comedies that did (or didn’t) end in weddings, I could only think of the most obvious ones – The Wedding Singer, Four Weddings and a Funeral, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Bridesmaids

From Miranda July’s ‘The Future’

Then I came across this excellent list of romcoms that are not your typical Hollywood fare but have done well nonetheless, and there’s not that much weddingery in sight. Films listed include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindVicki Cristina BarcelonaBefore Sunset… But what’s interesting about many of the pics on this list is that the “happy factor” at the end is debatable. Most of them have a sense of hope mixed with bittersweet realism and often just plain old sadness and loss.

In the end I say give me emotional realism over fantasy wedding bonanzas any day. I’d rather leave the cinema feeling a little heartbroken, than walk away and forget the film in much the same way that one passes apple juice- quickly and with little to digest.

Femme Flagging II: The Glitter Strikes Back

So a little while ago, I did a post on the difficulties of being recognised as a femme. One of the difficulties with identifying with femme is that you have to come out over and over again because people assume that you are doing the heteronormative thang. As blogger Megan Evans points out, “we mainly slip under the radars of both gay and straight people”. Visibility matters. Though I have to say, Evans’ online campaign for femme visibility is kind of dispiriting since it is only for “those who define solely as lesbian” (where’d I put that pack of gold stars…). But homo-normative femme campaigns aside, how do you let the world know that you’re a [queer/gay/pansexual/lesbian/straight/kinky/bisexual/insert-identifier-here] femme?

Having a go at some femme flagging of my own

Nail polish. I feel naked without it. So you can imagine my JOY when I read this post about femme flagging using the stuff, on the Queer Fat Femme blog. The whole “flagging” thing is meant to be a sexual code that lets your prospective partners know what you are into, and was traditionally practiced with strategically coloured hankies in your back pocket (e.g. fuchsia worn on the left means you’re more of a spanker than a spankee). There’s a pretty elaborate guide to the whole hanky code available here.

But aside from pronouncing your sexual proclivities, it seems that the new femme code of painting one fingernail differently to the rest is more about signaling general femme-ness than anything else. Apparently it all started in March this year, when someone on Tumblr suggested the idea after posting this picture and suggesting that fingernails were the perfect femme version of the hanky code (it’s like Starbucks invented femme flagging…is this just an elaborate marketing campaign?). I have to admit that I got pretty carried away when I first heard about it, as did several femme groups I’m part of online. There was a sense of finally, we can recognise each other! in the air. Though of course we can assume that not all femmes like wearing nail polish, it seemed like a pretty fabulous idea.

SDB sporting some femme fingernails and looking overall pretty femme fabulous. SDB if you’re listening, I think you’re an accidental femme icon

But then, things got tricky. Someone in our local femme group noticed that a contestant Sarah De Bono on the Australian reality singing show The Voice, had been sporting the look. I immediately got on to Twitter to try and contact her, to see if she had done this intentionally. I said I would “vote” for her if I got an answer. An obsessed fan wrote back – nup, SDB is not a flagging femme, she’s just being trendy. This was a double-blow. Not only had SDB appropriated this newly found queer indicator, but I also had to stick to my word and vote for her.

Springsteen: Fist receiver?

Back to the drawing board I thought  *sigh*… BUT THEN I remembered that good old Bruce Springsteen album, the one where he accidentally flagged the hanky code for fisting! I also reflected on the fact that a lot of the time mainstream culture absorbs awesome stuff from the queer community, because it is awesome (e.g. who doesn’t like rainbows?!). And despite Born in The USA, flagging persisted. So why not finger nails too? I’ve decided: I’m going to persist with the nail polish thing. Though I’ll be aware that not all femmes are going to paint their sexuality on their hands and not every person I see with trendy nails is a femmster. Hanky code or no hanky code, I am going to keep hoisting the femme flag, loud, and glittery proud.

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.

Mmmm alphabet soup…tastes like rainbows

So last week I was asked to give a speech at my university’s local Mardi Gras celebration. Here it is:

“So what can I say about today’s Mardi Gras event? Well, I spend a lot of my days thinking about questions of gender, sex and sexuality, and the way in which we take up those specific identifiers that say, “Yes! This is who I am in the world”. I think that Mardi Gras is both about the personal and the political- celebrating who you are out loud, and demanding to be seen and heard. Mardi Gras is about opening up a space to talk about identity and belonging, and to have a discussion about things that might otherwise go unsaid and unheard.

As some of you may know, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras changed its name to just “Mardi Gras” for this year’s festival. The organisers of the event said that they wished to promote greater inclusivity by dropping the “gay and lesbian”. And, as we celebrate our university Mardi Gras event today, we stand under a similar banner, designed to promote respect and equality for all people, no matter their sexual orientation.

While a central aspect of Mardi Gras might be inclusion, how do we make sure we don’t lose the alphabet soup along the way? I’m talking here about the ever growing acronym- LGBTIQAP, Lesbian Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Asexual, Pansexual… I could add more. How do we maintain our pride for who we are, without getting lost in the milieu of inclusion? While I agree that we are all equal despite questions of gender or sexuality, issues of visibility are ever-present. Being recognised, acknowledged, and respected for the person that you are, is a big deal.

Well, my thoughts on this are: say it out loud. For example, I am proud to say that I am a bisexual, queer, femme.

But this isn’t about labelling or having to “fit” into specific categories- it’s about naming our diversity and opening up new areas of discussion about identity. 

So let’s take this opportunity today to remember the alphabet soup, and in doing so, welcome everyone and anyone, under the ever expanding rainbow.

Happy Mardi Gras!”

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.

The world through rainbow-tinted glasses

Queer specs

Okay, I’ll admit it. I think everyone is gay. It’s this affliction I have- like that thing where people usually assume you’re straight, but the opposite. Literally. It’s not my gaydar that’s broken, it’s just that my straight one is missing.

This is actually quite annoying when it comes to finding potential lady dates- especially given the extra line blurring that hipster fashions, roller derby, and burlesque seem to have brought to the mix (queerifying straightness in a not-necessarily-gay way). In fact, it’s not so much that I think everyone is gay, but I tend to err on the side of everyone as potentially bi/pansexual.

Let me explain. 

I really respect that people have different sexual orientations that they identify with, I do. I just accidentally assume it’s a bit more fluid than that. This conversation I recently had with a friend (at Tilleys Devine Cafe) demonstrates my thought pattern:

Lady friend: So, what you’re saying is, you think everyone’s gay? Me: Basically. Lady Friend: What about me, do you think I’m gay? Me: Pretty much. Lady friend: But I have a boyfriend. Me: For now…

I am basically Friend Zone Fiona (if she were gay. Which she clearly is)

While I understand that this is probably really offensive to some, and just stems from my narcissistic and un-empathetic queer perspective, I also hope that some people find this refreshing. After all, why assume that everyone’s on the straight and narrow path (or the gay/lesbian yellow brick road and staying there) if you know that things are rarely that simple? Why assume that every happily married couple you meet also doesn’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend, or some other arrangement of a rainbow flavour? No reason (well, unless they explicitly tell you. Maybe).

So basically, if you’re straight, I’m afraid you’re going to have to come out of that gay glittering rainbow closet when you’re ready. That’s all.

Being seen: a few thoughts on flagging femme

Following up from my previous post on girlfags, I thought I should write a few words on my ever persistent question: how do you do femme identity? When I’ve asked this question to online femme groups in the past, I’ve been met with some fierce responses along the lines of, “I know I’m femme, and I don’t need to conform to anything!” This kind of self confidence is refreshing, but just deepens my curiosity as to what makes someone stick to this particular naming. Moreso, I wonder how these individuals communicate this chosen term to others given that femininity is stereotypically not-so-queer when it comes to outward appearance.

From my own experience, when I first heard the term, I was over the moon that I could finally align with a grouping where my existing penchant for femininity could be understood in a queer context. I felt relieved and ceased my futile attempts at trying to butch myself up (the extent of which involved purchasing a studded bracelet, so I wasn’t doing very well). I had heard of the butch/femme role dynamic before, an idea prominent in the underground lesbian bars of the 1950s where lesbians “coupled up” along these lines, but I was enthused to hear that the term was evolving into a standalone concept – no longer did the femme need her butch to be validated. Or so I thought…

The trouble with femme is that unless you do hyper-femininity (a tactic I like to metaphorise as strongly brewed tea), it’s just not that obvious. While I like the fact that one friend recently said to me, “if you get any girlier you’re just going to explode in a shower of kittens and sunshine”, being bisexual in an ostensibly heterosexual relationship means that feminine looks like thoughtless embrace of an old-fashioned hetero paradigm. For me, femme is not about rejecting feminism or buying into a pre-packaged notion of who I should be- it’s about enjoying the fact that I can be who I want, and if that involves love hearts, frilly dresses, glitter, or whatever might be labelled “feminine” then so be it (though I don’t think femme has to be weak or passive). This is where the radical feminists really grate my soul- they reject femininity as an invalid construct and then present a “right” way of doing gender (i.e. not feminine). Plus, femme identity is definitely not limited to people assigned “female” at birth (and see Femme FTM for more femme wonderousness).

Read my lips: FEMME

And why is this presumably “privileged” feminine identity a problem? Well, because you always find yourself asking, where are all the femme queer girls?! Are they off at roller derby, or a burlesque performance, where dammnit?!. Plus there is the problem of assumed straightness- always (sometimes even if you are on a date with a woman!). Of course there are some unique solutions to the femme dilemma. Flagging – the gay art of putting a bandana in your back pocket to “signal” what you’re into sexually – has crossed over into femme land, with these exciting flower creations. Others might opt for something more permanent, but this article on Autostraddle also suggests you look to the tactics of some out and proud hot femmy people (without having to be someone you’re not).

So, I may not have the solution to femme invisibility- but I’ll just keep being my pink sparkly self, and see how that goes.