Friday, August 24, 2012

What if yes meant yes?

I am tired about hearing about Todd Akin.  He made some ridiculous, revealing comments that shouldn't really surprise anyone.  I, like many other, found it incredulous at first blush but then was worn down to accept that this is the level of rhetoric.  I found myself more shocked by his hillbilly science than his qualification of rape as "legitimate."  Not that the former is any more abhorrent than the latter, but discussions about what rape "really" means are not new.  For the last week, pundits and politicians have been bandying about the term rape like we all know what we are talking about.  Even Obama has stated, "Rape is rape."  Like it's self-evident.  I applaud the sentiment and am proud that we have a president who will unequivocally side with the powerless, yet we have this one concept that is definitely across the line, that we can all point to and say, "This we will not accept."  It's easiest to agree on the circumstances if it is a female victim, assaulted by a stranger, and she struggled and there was violence.  Definitely wrong.  When things deviate from this norm, the responses to rape get more complicated.  As I understand some extremist views, it is as if rape were some magic trump card that women keep in their back pockets to be played for their own amusement.  When I hear reporters discussing rape, like it is some digital on/off switch, I am frustrated for a couple of reasons.

First, I was in a sexually exploitative relationship at 15 with a 41-year-old friend of the family.  It messed me up for years.  Worse than what actually happened (I'll spare you the gory details, although doubters usually want salacious specifics to judge for themselves), was the fact that I never said no.  I threw up after I'd leave his house.  I'd cry myself to sleep.  I started sleeping with anyone with a pulse.  But I knew, deep down, that it was my fault.  I hadn't said "stop."  Since then, I've been through enough therapists to hold a poker tournament.  I went to Take Back the Night rallies. I tried on the term rape.  Was he a rapist?  Was I raped?  I still don't know.  It was wrong.  It shouldn't happen to anyone.  But the "rape is rape" slogans do not capture my experiences.  If I had gotten pregnant, could I have been an exception to pro-lifers' hard line?  Probably.  I was young and white and pretty.  When my parents found out, my father threatened to kill his friend.  In the end, though, my parents decided it was better not to press charges.  They didn't want to make a spectacle out of me, especially given my otherwise unchecked sexuality with people more my age at that point.  Looking back, I am not sure my parents really believed that it was that serious.  I don't have children so I will never be confronted with that choice.  I struggled for years to make sense of what happened.  I don't know that a statutory rape charge would have made that process any easier.  Sometimes, I thought it would be less complicated if I had been forced rather than coerced.  And despite all of the repercussions, I didn't play the rape card.  I didn't drag him through the courts.  I know there were other girls after me.  I did my best to warn them for the couple of years I was in the same circles.  But then, in order to save myself, I let it drop.  What does that make me?  His accomplice?  It still haunts me.

Second, in our mad rush to stamp out rape (please do not mistake me, I agree with the stance that rape is wrong and shouldn't be permitted), we forget that the "no means no" chant relies on negation.  How can we expect people in powerless positions to say no and have it respected?  Wouldn't it be better if we relied on "yes means yes?"  If a person has enough power to say "yes," "no" becomes an option.  Affirmative consent is not a silver bullet.  They are still people willing to exploit and manipulate and force, but how different would things be if we believed that silence isn't consent?

Working in the kinky community has taught me about consent.  People I worked with thought about consent deeply, discussing it, picking it apart, questioning their own and others' assumptions.  In another post, I'll probably hold forth on what that looked like from an ethnographic point of view.  In addition to requiring a "yes," people were of critical of their partner's ability to consent, judging how much alcohol or how many endorphins disqualified someone from consenting.  The default position is until someone says "yes," the answer is "no."  Perhaps it assuages some of my guilt over my own situation, but I find it a more empowering position.  In one of my interviews, a person said, "I think consent matters.  I think rape is bad and consensual sex is good but there is a lot of gray areas and there are times when consent is not enough."  Sex is complicated and messy.  At the poles we can point to acceptable and unacceptable but the vast gray area in the middle is not served by the simple rhetoric "rape is rape."  We should all take a stand against victimization, but I worry by eliding different experiences, we do little but pat ourselves on the back for being righteous without addressing the underlying problems of power.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


I just finished Deus Ex Machina: Human Revolution, a video game set in a dystopian future where some people are augmented with cybernetic devices.  One of the highlights of the game (which I loved) was the tension between "augs" and "pure" humans.  At the lowest level of society are people who cannot afford augs, while slightly above them are people who can afford rather second-rate augmentation by paying installments (pay day lenders, anyone?).  These augs are very obvious, prostheses made of medal and wire.  Soldiers fall somewhere in the middle with access to the most cutting edge technology yet being the most easily marked as augmented.  Some affluent people choose augs to enhance social skills while maintaining a pure human look.  The richest people (for the most part) remain unaugmented, unless they were involved in some trauma and lost a limb or an eye.  All of this takes the pulse of our current societies uneasy relationship with technology as impacted by a number of factors, including class.  Who has access to the latest technologies?

In a twist of confluence, I began re-watching Battlestar Galactica before picking up Deus Ex.  In this television show from the mid 2000s, cylons, a hybrid of human and machine, engage in a war of mutual destruction with their creators, human kind.  The tricky thing about some cylons is that they look human.  They even bleed.  One of the central questions about the show (and the game, for that matter) is "what does it mean to be human?"  At what point does technology obscure or even obliterate humanity?

Given all of these pop references, cyborgs have been weighing heavily on my mind.  In 1985, Donna Haraway wrote The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century.  In this piece, she embraces the metaphor of the cyborg, its hybrid nature allowing it to exist in the interstitial spaces between seemingly mutually exclusive theoretical camps.  She writes, "By the late 20th century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized, and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs" (118).  The ambiguous cyborg is the result of the dialectical process, synthesis of thesis and antithesis.  Is it possible that technology could amplify humanity?

Feminist theory and fantastic sci-fi promise a future where we will have to answer these questions.  Pondering, I came across a photo essay on the Brooke Army Medical Center.  What they are doing there for wounded veterans is nothing short of amazing.  It was difficult for me to discern the difference between the prostheses of soldiers and the imagined augmentations of Deus Ex.  We're out of time; we have to start answering these questions now.  Ambiguity, technology, hybridity, humanity - where do we go from here?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Body Language

As a child, I would spend hours in the bathtub resting my hands against the surface of the water.  The resistance of the water pushing against my flesh but at the same time forming itself against me fascinated me.  Once I got older, I learned terms like "surface tension" and "meniscus" to describe my liquid daydreams, the behavior at the edges.  When the concepts were explained to me, it was a relief.  All of a sudden I had a vocabulary for my experiences.  I am never entirely certain that my experience of the world matches other people's.  That is a good portion of why anthropology attracts me.  It was only much later that I realized when I say trancing, other people nod and agree but sometimes have vastly different experiences.  Other corporeal states lend themselves to the same assumptions.

Everyone sleeps.  But I had horrible insomnia for the first twenty-five years of my life.  The first time I took an effective sleeping pill, it was as if I'd landed in technicolor drenched Oz the next morning when I woke up.  It was amazing.  I had absolutely no idea what good sleep was and no frame of reference.  Yet we have no easy vocabulary for sleep.  When I say I have trouble sleeping, what does that mean to you?  My dreams sometimes compensate for poor sleep.  I dream incredibly vividly, although in times of stress this often works against me.  My nightmares can be intense.  Words fail me when I try to describe the convoluted logic and skewed perspective that shade my dreams.  I only know I have vivid dreams because there was a point in time when I didn't have them.  I didn't even miss them until my practice changed and they returned.  I thought I had just outgrown them.  I would like to crawl inside someone else's head for a night to see if it is like this for everyone.

In the kinky community, there is a state known as "subspace."  It can be experienced during play as an altered state brought on by physical or mental stress in the form of pain or intense sensation.  It is easy to elide the differences in experience by relying on physiology, writing it off as the product of endorphins or adrenaline. I thought, gee, this is a lot like trancing in some shamanistic practices, possession states in Voudou, religious ecstasy among penitents, the zen of a long tattoo session .  I thought, this must be a human universal.  Even kids enjoy spinning in circles until they fall down dizzy.  People have the drive to feel altered.  Now, however, those comparisons seem too easy.  The significance of the act varies drastically.  Much like sleep (and other bodily experiences, like orgasm and eating and defecating), one only has oneself as a frame of reference.  We can compare notes, mitigated through language.  In some cases, we get to see other people doing it.  I guess it boils down to "How do you know?"  It was very difficult for me not to project my experiences onto others.  I wanted to say, "I know *exactly* what you are talking about."  Working in the kinky community expanded my vocabulary, allowing me to communicate finer distinctions about bodily experiences.  I am more confident that my experiences are at least similar to other people's, if we agree on terminology and forego naturalizing assumptions.

Sometimes, I think corporeality is numinous.  There is a mystery in trusting one's own experience.  There are epistemologies of the body, knowing things that cannot be nailed down with words, no matter how erudite the language.  And while I can't know we mean the same thing by subspace or sleep or that the significance is the same, it is part of being human that allows us to share that space.  Sweet dreams, all.

Saturday, August 11, 2012


I have had the privilege of visiting a doctor's office, a dentist, and a hospital all in the last week.  Only the dentist was for me; the others were in support roles.  It never ceases to amaze me the stark contrast in levels of power.  Two of the doctors were male and acted like good old boys, throwing around slang names for body parts, or in the case of my dentist, doing the flirty old man thing.  Normally I don't sit still for being referred to as "a pretty young thing."  This is not a prince song.  But this man had the power to *hurt* me.  Pain doesn't bother me too much since I have learned from kinky people how to reframe it as intense sensation.  However, I have panic attacks in dentist's chairs.  For years, I had a dentist that did not recognize Novocaine takes longer to work on me than normal.  I didn't know it wasn't supposed to hurt.  And now, despite knowing better and having a different relationship to pain, I hear that drill and feel pressure on my teeth and my heart starts racing, I flush, sweat, start breathing funny.  Every time I go to the dentist, I have to warn them that I am like this, debasing myself further than my already-low patient status.  I always leave feeling chastised for my poor mental fortitude, not to mention my terrible teeth.  Despite a current strict dental regimen, my lackadaisical training in basic dental hygiene as a child has not served me well.  I feel morally judged and have been found lacking.

At the hospital, my friend had her gallbladder removed.  I was there for her recovery period.  The nurse was very serious and patronizing.  I get that my friend just woke up from anesthesia and was on heavy drugs, but the nurse had no time to smile at our joking.  Apparently laughter has no place in the hospital.  Chastened once again, we made it out of there.

There is something about paying people to hurt you.  Pain is a funny thing.  In some settings, it is considered a symptom of violence.  In other cases, it indicates growth or healing.  But I don't treat my tattoo artist (who I love!) nearly the same way I treat my doctor.  The current for-profit model of health care doesn't help.  I feel rushed in and out.  I have to write everything down before hand, otherwise I may miss something in my five minutes with the doctor.  One handy trick I've learned is to never sit on the exam table if you can help it. Doctors treat you more like a person when you are sitting in a chair.

I have only had insurance for about a year and a half now.  Some things I am super impressed with, like being able to afford my medicine.  Other things creep me out, like when my doctor expected me to know that a certain test wasn't appropriate for me.  Not only do I have to pay money for his services, but now I am supposed to know what I need before I get there?  Talk about socializing the cost.

This week, none of the visits to various places of medical practice were horrible.  Mostly they were uncomfortable and unsettling.  Their are very few places I feel I lack agency, and the doctor's office is one of them.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


In my line of work, people talk about their fetishes all the time.  I used to find it shocking.  I enjoyed learning about so many new ways to confront desire.  And people get pretty specific.  My current fascination is human barbequeing.  I have yet to see this particular fetish enacted but the existence of it piques my curiosity.

As an anthropologist, I am interested in the utility of the term fetish.  Many people are familiar with the psychological definition of the word - an object which a person derives sexual pleasure from which is not typically considered sexual.  This generally has negative connotations, bleeding into the realms of perversion and pathology.  The kinky community has reclaimed this word and stripped it of these overtones among themselves, instead using it to mean a type of sexual desire, even if non-traditional.  It is still, however, grounded in sexuality.

Then there's the Marxist fetish, usually used in the term "commodity fetishism."  This is economic rather than sexual (depending on how you read your Marx) and refers to the idea that objects are valued in terms of other objects rather than their relationship to people.  Money, in this case, is the ultimate fetish.  Goods become valuable not for what they do or how they are made but rather as status symbols.  Marx critiqued capitalism with this term, but the classic example of the yam practices of some groups in Papua New Guinea comes to mind as well.  In this case, yams are grown not to eat, but rather to be displayed as signs of status. It is important to have big yams.  When I first learned of this practice, I thought it alien.  Shortly thereafter, I saw a special on giant pumpkin growing in the United States and made the connection that this happens right here, although the growing of large gourds is still outside of my logic.  Regardless, the relationships to these over-sized vegetables is not mediated through other objects, meaning that capitalism has a special case of commodity fetishism.  But why the term fetish?

I like to think these other social scientists usurped the term from anthropology in the true bastard nature of all social sciences.  Borrowing concepts and words is practically scripture.  We would never get anywhere without some judicious cross-discipline fertilization.  But it is the anthropological definition that interests me - an object imbued with special powers due to spiritual intervention.  Historically, the term has been othering, separating enlightened Euro-American traditions from the more "primitive" cultures being studied.  Pretty quickly, however, Christian relics were subjected to the same analysis, perhaps in a further intellectual distancing from religious superstition, relying on the (sarcastically) superior logic of cold science.  I am neither anti-science or anti-religion, valuing and being skeptical of both.  But I find the notion intriguing.  Recently, the spiritual aspects have fallen away somewhat, instead focusing on the extra-material powers of an object in itself, rather than because it is an incarnation of a spirit.  It is easy to see how objects accumulate power.  Heirlooms act as both touchstones for memory and as carriers of some residue of their former owners.  Wedding rings, photographs, diplomas - any of these can hold the essence of some power beyond their role in signification.  It is easy to see this in the way wedding rings are treated after an acrimonious breakup.  There is some bad mojo attached to them that cannot truly be cleansed.

Except.  I am interested in the confluence of Marxist fetishism with anthropological fetishism.  It seems as if money wipes the slate clean, divesting an object of its power.  In a consumer culture, we are encouraged to feel attached to material goods (at least for a brief period), to view them as receptacles for our personal energy and identity.  But an object's history begins when it enters our personal sphere.  Despite the fact it is a common belief that material items hold energy, as demonstrated by the hesitance of some to buy a secondhand wedding ring, it is as if the item magically appeared without any history prior to the point of purchase.  In some circles, this is changing.  People are focusing on how goods are made, who makes them, under what conditions.  This is most noticeable to me in terms of food, but that may just be the circles I run in.

This brings me back to the sexual fetish.  For those who have never shopped for sex toys, I encourage you to try it.  The variety is overwhelming.  It seems as if every taste is catered to and, in some cases, created.  How do you know you don't need a vibrator than spins *and* flicks *and* lights up?  Toys become fetish objects.  Rather than being (or sometimes, in conjunction with being) invested with spiritual energy, toys gain an erotic energy which carry over through usage and time.

The term fetish has several specific meanings but the three are blended together in sex toys.  I like the term fetish, although context definitely matters.  I enjoy holding the concepts together, examining the role of spirituality, sexuality, and consumerism in power dynamics.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Sexy Academics

I have always been fascinated by sexuality and ritual.  All of my work seems to return to those two motifs.  I try to include social justice issues like domestic violence or access to health care, but after the dust has settled from the field, it comes back to that.  My initial proposal for my PhD work was to study the ways sex workers in Texas constructed community and relied on social networks (of the people variety, not blogs) to meet everyday needs, like childcare, medical care, or self care.  For a variety of reasons, it didn't work out.

Trying an alternate strategy, I began canvassing local "adult" bookstores, trying out the practicality of examining consumption patterns of sexual materials.  I stumbled onto the local BDSM scene.  In the end, it worked out for me, as it does for most anthropologists.  Given enough years in grad school, a budding anthropologist is bound to find something to write home about, even if it isn't what she set out to study.

I find my research deeply satisfying.  I love talking about it, thinking about, and on some days, even writing about it.  I am also very conscious of it being "sexy."  I would be obscuring the truth if I didn't say that this was part of the allure when I first started.  I felt I was being subversive just by studying sexuality.  I think that this is still mostly true.  What I didn't count on was how distracting being sexy is.  Some days I feel like saying, "Yes, it's about sex, but that's only the nuts and bolts.  The really interesting stuff is so much more about identity, community, resistance, and acquiescence."  All the scalpels and single-tailed whips aside, it boils down to human experience.

Every person I have told about my research seems interested.  Most of the initial questions involve some permutation of "What's the craziest thing you have seen?" followed closely by "But do you think it is normal/ okay/ right?"  Sometimes I pretend I would get the same response if I had worked with pastoralists in Central Asia.  I imagine people questioning the fundamental goodness of their subsistence patterns in reaction to my witty insights.  The interesting thing, to me, is that people then go on to confess their own experiences or desires.

I occasionally worry that the sexiness of my topic obscures my theoretical underpinnings.  I also worry about alienating people.  I have very little filter and often presume that everyone is as comfortable discussing Foucault as discussing the finer points of orgasm.  I usually make people uncomfortable one way or the other.  A little discomfort is good for the soul but I don't want to shut down dialogue.  I don't want to be dismissed because I "only" study sexuality.  Birth, death, spirituality, gender, power, sexuality all have very different meanings depending on one's culture and social location.  That is the crux of anthropology.

I brashly chose to work on an explicitly sexual topic, idealistically thinking that it wouldn't matter.  I know now it does matter, and I think it makes it all the more important.  Trivializing or obsessing over sex takes it out of context when it is deeply contextual.  It is sometimes disheartening when people get fixated on the mechanics but I think every little bit of openness about sexuality and desire creates a space for a discussion of their significance.

It remains to be seen how this will play out in the larger scheme of my professional life.  Even blogging  about it makes me a little nervous.  But I figure my dissertation will be published soon and there is no pretending that it is not about sexuality.  I wouldn't change it, sexy academics and all.  Hopefully once I've grabbed your attention with my risque topic, I can keep it by offering challenging interpretations of the human condition.