Monday, July 30, 2012

Fifty Shades of Gestalt

I see Fifty Shades of Grey as a gestalt of American society's relationship to sexuality and the swelling interest in sm (or BDSM, depending on where you lay your head).  I can think of several major flaws with the book (aside from the repetitive and banal writing), not the least of which are sexism, heteronormativity, classism, and racism masquerading as race blindness.  But the book does a major disservice to what I know as sm.

Despite living in a society obsessed with sex, people (especially women, in my experience) shy away from frank discussions of sex.  It is as if this book, with its explicit (well, sort of explicit, if you refer to lady bits as down there in a moment of passion) sex scenes gave women a chance to talk about sex without crossing the madonna/whore divide that is used to police femininity.  This is, however, a very specific kind of sex.  Monogamous, romantic, procreative (sorry to ruin the end of the book), and safe.  Sure, the main male character gets off on spanking and anal sex.  But it doesn't risk anything.

Some media outlets are discussing FSoG like it is the epitome of the sexual revolution - now that women can talk about the techniques of sex, it means we have arrived at some liberated sphere.  And I think it is good for people to think deeply about desire.  But to get worked up over the mechanics pulls sex out of is social location, like it is divorced from larger structures.  I've been reading Margot Weiss's Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality and I agree that sexuality is always social.  (I love this book, but it is pretty theory heavy.)  In popular society, the trappings of sm add a bit of sex to that which is at its heart the definition of vanilla.

In my experience, not every (or even most) sm scenes are transformative or challenging.  Most of the time, parties were a group of folks interested in socializing and having a good time.  Sex might or might not be part of the equation.  People talked about the weather, the local football team, their kids, and how they liked to be hit.  It was, at some points uncannily so, normal.  But these folks were up for having their boundaries tested.  In FSoG, I read the male protagonist's list of "hard limits" (lines that cannot be crossed) and laughed.  I had seen all but one of these done by the time I had gone to two parties.  The form a particular kink takes matters less than one might think.  People are engaged with desire and are willing to explore different avenues.  Electricity play is not nearly as terrifying as questioning the very nature of one's romantic attachments.  What does it mean to have a play partner that is not a romantic partner?  What is the nature of sexual fidelity?  How do power imbalances structure what turns us on?  When it comes down to it, sm (for me) was about what I was willing to risk in the name of desire.  Really good scenes cut through the quotidian and forced players to be truly present.

One could argue that FSoG makes the same argument - the female lead questions everything in her life through mind blowing sex.  At the end of the day, an inarguable force reveals to the main character the rightness of heteronormativity.  It sweeps away all of her over-educated, liberal upbringing to reveal her overwhelming desire to be married to a rich man and make him happy.  There is not a lot of risk there.

In my experience, a lot of women want to feel edgy, walking the line between sexy and respectable.  The slope is slippery, with the threat of slut or prude looming large on either side.  It's difficult to have an honest discussion of desire.  In the end, the difference between FSoG and the sm scene is how desire is constructed.  In the book, sexuality reveals something that looks like the ideal 1950s household which is held so dear to those with privilege.  In the sm scene, sexuality is viewed as a means of testing hegemonic ideals.  In some cases, for some people, these hold up.  For the most part, however, people use sm to question at a corporeal level the "naturalness" of the status quo.

Adding a couple of floggers to heteronormativity does not queer it.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Possible lives

PhD freshly in hand, I have been applying for jobs. I have not limited myself geographically, applying for positions in South Korea, rural North Carolina, and Cleveland, Ohio as an anthropologist, a sociologist, and an interdisciplinary specialist. Although my initial focus was on academic jobs, I have recently begun looking at the private sector as well. I have applied to be a user experience designer in New York City and a marketing consultant in Denver. It is exciting to stand on the precipice of such change. It is also exhausting. With so many variables at play, I imagine the details of all these possible lives. Will I remain a vegetarian if fresh produce is only available for part of the year? Do I want to drive in snow again? How hard will be to adapt to a new dialect (or in some cases, a new language entirely)? After the purism preached in grad school about the singularity of anthropology, could I be happy as a sociologist? Even more world-altering, how would I adjust to leaving academia entirely? What are the pros and cons of small town life compared to a sprawling metropolis?

In a society where much of a person's identity is derived from work, it is disconcerting to open oneself up to this type of change. I could be anyone, living anywhere. Not in the neoliberal, bootstraps kind of way in which all possibilities are equally available to me, but that I know I will be shaped by wherever I end up. In Texas, I am a very different person than I was in Washington State or New Orleans.

It has also been eye-opening to realize that as much as I really want to work more directly in my field, there are some jobs I am not willing to even consider. I am in the enviable position of having a job with a supportive boss that pays the bills (including the mountain of student debt I have accumulated). The work has very little to do with my real passion for ethnography and cross-cultural comparison, but it is sufficient for now. The fact that I work on sexuality has closed some doors for me, but upon examination, I am happy with that decision. I will not work for an institution that discriminates against people based on gender expression or partner choice. I do not have to be working on queer theory, but if my participation in the Society for Queer Anthropology nixes my application, it is not a place I want to be.

At the same time, I am applying to positions in many parts of the country where women's reproductive rights are under siege and marriage equality is being actively campaigned against. Ambivalence. As an individual, I want to be somewhere where I do not have to fight for my rights. As a responsible citizen, I want to be somewhere I can make a difference and if that means organizing for safe spaces for all people, so be it. I was turned down for a position in Oxford, Mississippi. I had to think long and hard before I applied there in the first place, knowing that being in a rural town the Deep South could prove to be challenging.

Up until this point, I feel like I just happened to end up where I ended up by chance. This time, I am putting deep thought into the process. It's exhausting and I feel like it will be a leap of faith in the end, but I imagine my infinite selves treading on all of these different paths. Now that I've finished school, I feel like I am finally questioning what it is I really want to be doing. I loved being a student and anthropology is a calling for me. I no longer have the shelter of grad school and I need to figure out what to do with this passion. Every application is an exercise in imagination, trying to locate my future self in those circumstances. I take comfort in the fact that many other people are engaged in the same process, that I am not alone in refiguring my life. In my more petty moments, I rue the fact that I am competing against my cohort for the same few positions. At the same time, I feel proud and hopeful every time one of them finds a position. I wish us all luck in this process.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

BDSM and Geekdom?

John Scalzi just wrote "Who Gets to Be a Geek? Anyone Who Wants To" in which he outlines the tenets of geekdom as a live and let live society.  This was in reply to an earlier piece where Joe Peacock calls into question the authenticity of the geekiness of some attractive women who attend cons but aren't "real" geeks.  There are larger issues of identity, policing, and gender at play here.  But what I am really interested is in this construction of geekdom as a come-as-you-are-experience.  Scalzi writes,

"Geekdom is personal. Geekdom varies from person to person. There are as many ways to be a geek as there are people who love a thing and love sharing that thing with others. You don’t get to define their geekdom. They don’t get to define yours. What you can do is share your expression of geekdom with others. Maybe they will get you, and maybe they won’t. If they do, great. If they don’t, that’s their problem and not yours."

What strikes me is the similarity to the credo "your kink is ok by me" found in BDSM groups. There is a lot of crossover between the groups, at least where I work in Texas, so this won't be a huge revelation for members of either group but I believe it bears examination. People in both subcultures may feel excluded from parts of society based on their interests, demeaned or devalued for what some believe to be an inherent characteristic. They join the community because they feel welcomed. Many people enjoy being geeky or kinky in private, but there are reasons that community forms around these practices that have to do with a sense of belonging.

The first BDSM event I went to shocked me.  It was at a local restaurant in a private room on a Saturday afternoon.  Everyone was older and rounder than I expected.  People wore jeans and t-shirts in the Texas heat.  The welcoming committee, comprised mostly of women, introduced themselves to me.  There were some unsolicited hugs.  There was a lot of laughing and small talk.  The purpose for the munch was to give people a chance to meet newcomers and socialize with old friends.  It was the furthest thing from threatening I could imagine.  Toward the end of the social, several people from various other groups announced upcoming parties, demonstrations, support groups, and socials.

In my experience with cons (admittedly many years out), I remember the same sharing of kindred spirits.  Even if you are totally ok with the more esoteric proclivities of your sexuality or nerdom, it is exciting to find someone who is into the same thing.  Ideally, the community is there to foster those connections and create a safe space for otherwise disparaged behaviors.

There is always a difference between ideology and practice.  Inclusivity is sometimes more of a rhetorical device than a way of approaching the world.  I find it interesting how quickly people denounce those who do not toe the party line.  It is a reality that not all people are in reality welcomed into these spaces.  Gender, ethnicity, and class play a large role in who has access to these communities.  In future posts, I'll expound on this at length.

In the meantime, I think it is noble to strive toward acceptance of diversity and empowering others to pursue their passions, however specific they may be.  Your geek is ok by me.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Written Word: Day Job Version

I remember the first time I said, "I am an anthropologist" rather than "I study anthropology." Despite a summer of fieldwork in Belize, I didn't make the linguistic shift until after I moved to Texas to start my PhD work. It just sort of fell out of my mouth one day. I am sure I looked more startled than the inquiry into my line of work demanded. Around the same time, I stopped referring to my reading and writing as "homework" and settled on just plain "work." This occasionally creates confusion for acquaintances, as I also hold down a non-academic job. The thing about "being" an anthropologist is that it never turns off.

During the daylight hours, I work as an entry-level bureaucrat for the City. It is my job to check that candidates have filed Schedule Zs and to help citizens find the section of the code that applies to fence heights and barking dogs. Thrilling. In some future post, I'll brag about how, despite the mundaneity, my workplace is very supportive of my academic pursuits. Today, however, I was validating a petition. In fact, just about everyone in my office has been working on this petition for the last week.

For those not versed in the intricacies of local government, in order to have an issue placed on a ballot, a petition has to be circulated and so many people must sign saying, "Yes, we want to vote on this." The petition must be validated before the process can move forward. On a practical level, someone has to check. Luckily, we use a random sample rather than going through name by name. For a petition with 30,000 signatures, 7,500 voters have to be run through a database verifying that they are registered voters. This takes days and is deadly dull. On the bright side, I can now unequivocally say I have been involved in large-scale data collection and analysis on a quantitative level I never imagined possible.

Interestingly, there are only two things that automatically disqualify an entry - lack of signature and a date more than 180 days before the petition was turned in. I have been thinking a lot about literacy and its role in our society. The signature becomes a testament, the written word standing in for someone's civic identity. It is my job to test the veracity of that symbol. It is not that someone agrees with the proposition, but rather than the fact that they endorsed it; they touched that very paper. Despite the fancy electronic data storage we have, it is *that* piece of paper which stands up in court. Talk about a fetish.

I imagine the relationships of the people who have signed, whether they knew the others signing around the same time, what location they may have been at. I read into the neatness of their addresses or the sprawl of their signatures their beliefs about identity and location. I can see patterns in names based on birth dates. People tend to write their first names more clearly than their last, perhaps because that is how they are primarily called?

I was just resoundingly reminded that my academic obsession with writing things down did not spring like Athena from the head of Zeus but is rather situated in this particular time and place. In a litigious society, doubt is cast upon whether someone's word is their bond, but the talisman of the signature still holds sway. It is a mark, saying, "I was here."

Then I think of all the petitions I've signed in haste, just to appease the earnest volunteers. I usually go with the whole "it's always better to vote on something than not" approach. Is the scribble across the signature line a display of conviction or people just going about their lives with two minutes to spare at the grocery store? The written word is polysemic and not uncomplicated, although the urge to reduce it to some objective truth is there. It was written down, so it must be somehow more real or more true.

Never able to turn off being an anthropologist. Now I look forward to checking thousands of more signatures.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Writing to Make Sense

The written word. It is as if writing something down makes it more true or more real. This first became apparent to me when a professor told me, "If you don't write about it, it's like it never happened." In this case, she was referring to getting published, the spectre that haunts all academics. At the university level, writing becomes a fetish, both a thing (a paper or book) that stands in for other things (lived experience) and a magical talisman to ward off the evils of unemployment and irrelevance. 
While doing my PhD fieldwork on sadomasochism, the power of writing was made explicit. Some people chose to define their relationships through contracts, written documents outlining responsibilities and desired outcomes. These can be more or less explicit, but can include small ritual behaviors (such as a submissive not being allowed to sit on the furniture) and larger relationship structures (whether or not either partner may have outside romantic relationships). They also include practical aspects, such as when and what safer sex precautions will be used under specific circumstances. For some people, it is important that all of this is written down. Contracts can go on for pages. It is as if writing structures and binds a relationship. In some cases, contracts are literally signed in blood; the flesh made word.

For other people, contracts were anathema. They believed writing served as a stricture on the dynamic nature of the relationship. Metaphors of nature abounded in this argument, including growth, evolution, and the quality of being organic. Perhaps postmodernism as postliterate?

For me, social media falls somewhere in the middle. While I pursue my own more structured writing, in the form of academic articles and papers, I still need a place to suss out the finickier points of applying anthropology. Without some strictures, my thoughts run riot and unchecked growth and evolution lead to intellectual chaos. At the same time, I am suspicious of the colonizing power of the written word. I know, for example, that my dissertation will be the touchstone for some people who have no experience with the kinky community. It's a weighty responsibility. Despite my reflexivity and concern with representing my work as only my experience, I know some people will find themselves distorted in my words.

At the end of the day, I write for myself. I think more clearly when I've had the chance to spend some time with my keyboard. It is, however, a self-involved process. By posting a blog, I hope to get some feedback. Although it is pleasurable to talk to myself, as I seldom disagree with me, grad school has trained me to desire feedback. I hope you, dear reader, take this blog as not the Truth with a capital T but rather my interpretations of things. Please feel free to offer your own written truth and perhaps between us we can uncover a bit of reality.