Monday, March 25, 2013

My Marxist feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard

I am the proud owner of a t-shirt emblazoned with "My Marxist feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard" but I usually only bust it out for good feminist giggles, not that I object to the sentiment. I've only recently begun a job where it is once more appropriate office-wear.

When I first realized I was a feminist, I was angry about everything, all the time. I didn't feel like I fit into the feminist movement by virtue of my work but at the same time, I was realizing that I had been sold a load of bullshit and taught that that was what being a woman was about. Learning about Marxism only fueled the flames. It took a couple of years for me to be able to watch TV in the company of anyone, as my tirades often prevented friends and family from enjoying their shows. I have since calmed down (somewhat) and am able to separate my raging feminist tendencies from impeding on my enjoyment of life's small pleasures.


I am reviewing a book for a journal for which I've reviewed previously. When the editor sent out the solicitation, I thought I might try something new, something outside of anthropology. The program I work on now has a large social justice component, so I thought, "Hey, I should check out that book on social justice policy." I'll spare you the review (which I don't think I could publish for ethical reasons since it will be in the journal, nor do I have it written yet) but I was trying to be responsible and get through the rest of the rather dry stuff before my deadline. I had been discomfited on behalf of black people and immigrants and non-native English speakers (who the author treats oddly) and disturbed by his almost full endorsement of capitalism.

But then.

The civil rights movement combined with the women's movement in efforts to eliminate discrimination against women, and to give them more opportunities for employment and social participation. All societies have made distinctions in sex roles that have become a major part of their cultural tradition [no citation]. Mostly women have been restricted to the domestic role of raising children and household chores [no citation], while men have been given the main role of working outside the home to provide the family with needed resources [no citation]. They have also been assigned the more physically demanding tasks, including protecting women and children in the event of war and from crime and other hostile forces [no citation]. The result is that, in most societies, males have been treated as dominant and women as subservient. Rapidly changing technology has brought about major changes in sex roles. Birth control and other factors have led to a declining birth rate, and an increased number of women participate [sic] in the workforce (Cohn & Livingston, 2010; Sullivan, 2009) [popular articles linking the declining birth rate to the recession, one of which is a friggin' Time article].
And he goes on to say:
The use of machinery that requires less physical strength made the employment of more women possible. An example was the development of the automatic starter, which enable women to drive without using the physically demanding crank. Most significant was giving women the right to vote and full citizenship, which has increased their political power. That factor, combined with the changing roles of women, has led to successful efforts to include women in most jobs. Also more women have been selected and elected for leadership positions in business and government [no citation].
What a bunch of ethnocentric crap. The role of women in different societies is complicated and nuanced and gender is often a site of oppression and social control. However, making it sound like it happens everywhere naturalizes it and there are dramatic instances where women are not considered subservient, many in indigenous cultures and foraging populations, although contact with colonizing forces often changes that. The public/private sphere divide is an artifact of patriarchy (perhaps the point he was trying to make) but fails to take into account all of the women who have been forced to work outside of the home due to class, race, or nationality. Where do they fit into this scheme where women didn't have any agency and now all of a sudden they do?

I am often confronted with the rhetoric that women need to be protected from crime in a special way that men do not. I don't think anyone should suffer violence. Being shot at or sexually assaulted is always bad, no matter your gender. This rhetorical device, however, often limits the freedom of movement of women. Rather than making sure people don't rape women in the first place, women are required to have escorts.

I am a firm believer that reliable, effective, safe birth control has done much to relieve the oppression of women. His academic sleight of hand, however, doesn't make me think he thinks so. By citing articles linking declining birth rates to the recession, he is either arguing that more women in the workforce are part of the reason for the recession, or that women base their reproductive choices on economics. The later would make sense, but I don't see how that argument has anything to do with what he actually wrote. You upcoming scholars beware: just throwing in some mildly appropriate citations at the end doesn't cut it. And try to pretend that you didn't get your information from popular media if you are making academic arguments.

Thank god for the automatic starter! I am sure all those women working in military factories during World War II just would not have been able to handle a crank. Just like I'm sure the legions of male office workers today would be able to start up one of those relics in a jiffy. I feel privileged to live in a world where men are sensitive to the special needs women have for technology to compensate for their inferior abilities (see Bic for Her and read the comments, if you haven't already). And thank god someone had the balls to *give* us full citizenship and the right to vote, as if it wasn't earned at the expense of our foremothers' labor.

I'm glad women are included in "most" jobs now, even though the preponderance of women earn less than their male colleagues. Of all the universities I applied to, only one had women earning 99% of what men earned. For my over-educated, privileged status, I can still expect to earn 77% of what my male colleagues earn.

Now we have more women executives and advice to Lean In, as if the only thing keeping us from taking over the world was our inability to balance our work/life responsibilities or act more like men. I'm sure it has absolutely nothing to do with the capitalist patriarchy's need for a disposable, adaptable labor force. Exceptionalism isn't equality. It also assumes that women are in jobs where they get to make career decisions, instead of just getting by.

This is the Leftist propaganda that we're supposed to buy into to work toward social justice through policy change. The revolution is over - the women have been recognized - we can all put our panties on straight and go home. Just a few more tweaks and we'll be done.

I don't accept it. I'm ready for a real revolution.

And in case you are interested, the book is Putting Human Universal Rights to Work: Policy Actions in the Struggle for Social Justice by Archibald Stuart, PhD [sic]

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Pathways of Desire

Years ago, I heard the term "pathways of desire" on a program on NPR. These are the paths that are worn into the landscape by people or animals getting from one point to another, usually in a more direct manner than urban planners had accounted for. Sweet Juniper has a piece on the appearance of these paths after a snow:
This past winter, the snow stayed so long we almost forgot what the ground looked like. In Detroit, there is little money for plowing; after a big storm, the streets and sidewalks disappear for days. Soon new pathways emerge, side streets get dug out one car-width wide. Bootprints through parks veer far from the buried sidewalks. Without the city to tell him where to walk, the pilgrim who first sets out in fresh snowfall creates his own path. Others will likely follow, or forge their own paths as needed.
Desire is manifest in space. The more I hike, the more I appreciate these unplanned paths. In Texas, they often led to stunning vistas in the Greenbelt. I am not so sure about Ohio yet, as the snow has mostly prevented a comparison between the planned and the desired. The phrase, "pathways of desire," haunts me.

There has been a lot of debate about whether BDSM is acceptable (see the Slate / Dan Savage / Slate exchange). This appears to me as a normal backlash to the 50 Shades phenomenon. In another post, I went on at length why I think the book itself is deplorable. However, I was fascinated by the brief flash of women, in particular middle-aged mothers from conservative backgrounds, speaking publicly about desire. All too quickly, the focus shifted from the hot sex to the romance of the story, at least in the circle of women I interacted with. The media attention given to women's consumption of porn (no matter how poorly written) was bound to create a backlash, in some outlets more quickly than others. BDSM just happens to be the crystallization of a bunch of different cultural motions at this point in time.

In all the uproar about how BDSM is socially unacceptable or what it means for the state of feminism or even in the defense of kinksters' rights to get it on however they like, people do not speak about desire. It has been my experience that people in the vanilla world think that BDSM is about sex. Period. There must be some perverts out there that get off on dirty, taboo things for sexual pleasure. This misses out on a large part of the appeal of kinky behaviors (the kinky community is a subject for a different post). It is occasionally difficult to tease out other motivations from an outsider's perspective, as much of kink is framed by eroticism.  However, kink, when done well, offers access to a wellspring of deep emotive experiences - terror, ecstasy, humiliation, power, and yes, sometimes sexual pleasure.

When I began to work in the kinky community, I realized that scenes can actually serve as shortcuts to altered states, pathways of desire, if you will. Most of us will never experience the god-complex that comes with being a heart surgeon or a four star general, with lives literally and figuratively in one's hands. But to have a way to taste that power is a powerful lure for many. Ecstasy, however one gets there - drugs, religion, sex, dancing - is difficult for society to manage. I think that part of the mass movement to organize and standardize kink through a proliferation of how-to manuals and national conferences is akin to an urban planner paving a path that countless feet had already eroded.

At the end of the day, a paved path may be easier to trod, but does it get you to where you desire to go?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

You, too, can stop trafficking by pestering strippers in the Midwest

Recently, the students at my institution sponsored "Social Justice Week." Being all for social justice, I thought this was probably a good thing. Looking at the tagline on Facebook, I began to get a little unsettled. Apparently, this "social justice week" was about a single topic - sex trafficking, the current cause celebre (I know there are accents there. Anyone want to offer formatting help with Blogger?). On Facebook:
Monday 2/25
Kit-Building #1
Are you looking to help fight human trafficking in a practical way? Come and help build kits with us on Monday or Thursday evening. If you cannot attend either session, consider donating money to be used to purchase items for the kits. The kits will go to the Renee Jones Empowerment Center to be distributed to local strip clubs, where sex trafficking can easily hide.
Laura Agustin, an anthropologist after my own heart, blogs extensively about the "rescue industry," her term for the movement where predominantly white, rich people from the US and the UK rescue young girls from sexual slavery, particularly in countries far away. She dissects the ways that the rhetoric and practice of rescue conflate voluntary sex work with rape, slavery, and kidnapping, divorcing sex work from its social, cultural, and economic circumstances. I particularly like her take on Nicholas Kristof, of Half the Sky fame. Charging in as the white knight to rescue damsels (and always damsels, take note) in distress without regards to why people are in their current situation in the first place, how they make sense of it, or what happens to them once the rescuer departs is pure ethnocentric imperialism.

The problem with the rescue industry is that it doesn't do more than promote a feel-good moment for those morally and financially superior to step in and help people "get their lives right." Celebrities, both popular and academic, can do this by visiting Cambodia and live-tweeting brothel raids. In the Midwest, apparently you can do it by making spa-kits.

There are a few takes on what, exactly, the term trafficking means. In this case, the Facebook author is referring to "sexual trafficking," which is somehow *even worse* than regular trafficking - you know, the one where someone is forced by coercion or violence to perform labor against their will in abhorrent conditions, usually isolated from family or social networks. A lot like slavery. And who wouldn't be against slavery? However, it is a big jump from slavery to voluntary sex work, and this is where I find this event problematic.

The "practical way to fight trafficking" offered to students and the public is to make "care kits" for women at strip clubs and "on the street." Note, only women. These care kits include coffee mugs, tea, lotion, and other nice things for the strippers. For women "on the street" (and I keep quoting this, because no one actually used the term prostitute, whore, hooker, escort, or any of the other possible monikers, when I talked to them), the kits contained baby wipes, chap stick, and other practical items.

First, I'd really like to know how this stops trafficking. The "larger goal" is to form relationships with women so they have someone to turn to if they get in trouble and to let them know they are valuable and loved, even if they are degraded every night. That's how it was explained to me. People will magically not be trafficked anymore if they have the right moisturizer! Somehow, purchasing and repackaging consumer goods that aren't even necessary for survival (like, how about a condom or two?) and handing them out to women (!) in a Midwestern town is going to practically fight trafficking. In other news, you can also go to a sock-hop to help trafficking victims or you can skydive to fight the modern scourge. Congratulations, you're an activist. Bet you feel better already about imposing your morals on people you have never met by couching it in terms of rescuing them from sexual slavery.

What particularly set me off about this ad on Facebook, however, was the last line: "The kits will ... be distributed to local strip clubs, where trafficking can easily hide." WTF? I was a stripper for six years. In a big city. I *never* met anyone who was trafficked. I didn't know anyone who was forced into the profession, at least not in the ways that anti-traffickers mean. If they were protesting a capitalist patriarchy that impedes all people (not the exceptions) from earning a living to decently support a family and therefore feel pressured to work in ways that leave them feeling exploited, like stripping, or Walmart, or McDonald's, I would be down with that. But barring that, we live in a capitalist patriarchy and preaching that women (or men or trans people, but mostly women) who work in *legal* forms of employment (my thoughts on the decriminalization of prostitution will have to wait for another post) are all practically sexual slaves is nothing but a ploy to police women's sexuality under the guise of saving them.

And just in case you thought this "saving" only applies to whores and strippers, take note that carrying a condom in New York City can be used as evidence that you were loitering with the intent to engage in prostitution. Transgender individuals are particularly vulnerable to this tactic, as they are often singled out by the police.

Yet this doesn't outrage the students at my institution who want to stop trafficking. If you want to help a sex worker, ask what they need in the first place. Access to healthcare and childcare, a minimum wage as employees and not independent contractors, a way to financially plan an exit strategy from sex work, stable housing, all of these things would have been useful for at least some of the people I worked with. Coloring them all as trafficking victims, playing out a small-scale version of Half the Sky in your backyard, pawning off worthless trinkets as symbols of love and respect which these women (!) obviously cannot get in other parts of their lives, it only serves to make you feel better about yourself and your privilege. Congratulations. You want a cookie?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

We definitely, probably, maybe had sex. I think.

When was the last time you had sex?

According to

sex (sɛks)
— n

3. short for sexual intercourse
4. feelings or behaviour resulting from the urge to gratify the sexual instinct
5. sexual matters in general

sexual intercourse
genital contact, especially the insertion of the penis into the vagina followed by orgasm; coitus; copulation.

Over the course of my research, I've asked people to define sex for me. It started with the kinky community, but it's such an interesting question, I usually bring it up at dinner, over drinks, while playing mini-golf, at academic conferences. I feel it is a measure of self-restraint that I wait until I've met someone a few times before I ask (usually).

Where you stand depends a lot on who you lay down with. Most vanilla heterosexuals jump straight to the sexual intercourse definition. I cozened onto the fact that this was not the case for kinky people pretty early in my experience with the community when I heard a bunch of submissives discussing "p/v sex." Since I felt like I spent the first month with my mouth agape as I learned new and exciting scenarios for eroticism, I felt let down when someone told me it was penis/vagina sex. Then I realized the linguistic significance of such a category. One type of sex, among many.

Growing up on a steady diet of heteronormativity, for me sex had always been linked with reproduction. All that other stuff that didn't threaten pregnancy was just not-sex. This concept presented difficulty when I began taking female lovers. I felt safe from the ever-looming disaster pregnancy could bring, but I also felt those experiences were somehow less authentic than the ones I had with men.

Personally, I began to base my concept of sex on orgasm some time in my late teens. If someone came, then it was definitely sex. If not, well, that wasn't a guarantee one way or the other. But it satisfied my undefined queerness. It wasn't anything I discussed much with people who I wasn't intimate with.

Ethnocentrically, I thought this definition would hold water for people with alternative sexual practices who were not focused on reproduction. Many of the women I asked to define sex put forth similarly nebulous definition that took account of female pleasure, at least as the ideal. Abigail (never real names) told me
My favorite thing is sex with no foreplay, just thrown on the bed and fucked. I love that. You should try anal sex, that’s nice. There are some people who don’t consider it sex unless it’s vaginal. I don’t know what they call the other stuff but it’s not having sex. It’s playing around or messing around. If I have an orgasm, it’s sex. When they talk about no sex at parties, they are talking about no penetration.

This focus on penetration came up repeatedly. Charlotte, who told me she rarely has sex in public, explained
Sex is whatever you consider sex with the person that you are with. In this case, with my owner, I am talking about penetration. With other people it really depends the person I’m with and how they are talking afterwards, and if we feel we had sex, then we had sex .
So, I'm going along with this as an anthropologist, learning the emic definition of sex, which doesn't necessarily contradict the classic definition of sexual intercourse, but instead expands to include p/v sex as one type of many. Penetration is still present. What amazed me was that female orgasm (usually without penetration) was prominently on display at all of the parties I attended, including the ones that were sex-free. Only in queer settings was this sometimes considered sex (and not always then). The defining difference between pro-sex parties and sex-free ones was usually the occurrence of male orgasm.

Part of me felt like women were pulling the wool over heteronormativity's eyes, taking pleasure that was forbidden to men. Then I realized that female pleasure is not a sufficient indicator of sex. I was returned to my adolescent struggle with whether or not my female lovers counted as "real" sexual partners. Expanding one's repertoire in ways to get off does not necessarily queer the assumptions we are raised on about what counts as real sex. In the kinky community, procreation is usually off the table as a means of defining sex. Male orgasm is a definite indication that sex has taken place. Barring that, penetration becomes the measure of sex. But as Charlotte notes, sex isn't necessarily the same for everyone. This leads to situations where people, in all seriousness, say things like, "I am pretty sure we had sex."

I like that sex is one of those things we think we have a grasp on, like sleep. We have our own experiences that form the basis of our knowledge, sometimes supplemented with porn. Very rarely do we have the chance to compare ideals with practice, which is part of why I love my research. I think sex is contingent and constructed, like everything cultural. For myself, I'll stick with the pleasure principle.