Sunday, June 30, 2013

Why break?

When people learn about my work with the sm community, there are a few different reactions. First is usually incredulity, that it could be studied, that it deserves to be studied, that I would study it. This is often followed by some version of, "What's the strangest thing you've ever seen?" Then, eventually, we come to the crux - "Do you think it is ok/normal/right?" This usually implies that, somehow, it is not. I experienced the cognitive dissonance so often experienced by anthropologists in the field. I was around it so much, thinking about it, experiencing it, it seemed perfectly normal. To answer the question, yes, I think it is often ok/normal/right, even given my distance from the field.

There is an important concept in anthropology which is called "cultural relativism." It has spawned countless debates which usually start sometime around a person's first anthropology class. For those beginning the process, just know that the question is never full resolved. Simply put, cultural relativism asks the anthropologist to understand a culture on its own terms, setting aside her own biases and cultural training to understand the culture as a native does. This is, of course, well neigh impossible. Chasing objectivity is a subject for another post. I think, however, that the general American public could benefit from the concept. It does not require us to approve of Nazi Germany (the extremist example used against the concept), but rather asks us to imagine that social world and how it makes sense to the actors involved. What to do with that knowledge afterwards is also up for debate, see the hotly contested Human Terrain System or Paul Farmer's brand of activist anthropology (which is much easier to get a room of anthropologists behind). The goal of cultural relativism sets anthropology apart from other social sciences, especially as it demands recognition that different cultural systems are worthy of respect. 

The BDSM community in Texas is still firmly embedded in the larger structures of Cactus, Texas, the United States, the Global North, but taken as a small group of people making meaning together, the subculture is still coherent. Given my anthropological training and previous experiences in the sex industry, I was able, I thought, to be open to it being "ok." I will say that I am proud of the fact that I was able to recognize when I was out of my comfort zone (which was frequently at the beginning). All those classroom debates about relativism came rushing back as I confronted scenes which looked like torture and rape. My process was made easier, however, because the kink community is incredibly reflexive and expects neophytes to react viscerally to their first experiences. And people were carrying on "normal" conversations, snacking, laughing, and hugging while this unfolded. So I had space to pause and think, "There is dissonance here. I am going to sit with this for a little while before I start screaming bloody murder and call the police." I don't know how it is for others in the field. I think of friends who study agricultural practices or social clubs or climate change and wonder if they have had those moments, where everything just seems wrong in the moment. I felt like a real anthropologist when I was able to fit the pieces together and understand the deeper text of what was occurring. It was also a relief.

But it always seems odd to me that people don't usually ask, "Why BDSM?" Take a moment and ask yourself if you think you already know.

It usually comes down to sex. People assume that it is something sexual, even if they don't understand it. And the conversation ends there. Who understands the mysteries of sex and desire? Pop psychology inclines people to pathologize it but even when people are tolerant, it is often of the variety of, "Well, I certainly wouldn't want my penis nailed to a board, but whatever gets you off, eh?" And sometimes, it is about sex. I would be doing a disservice to the community if I downplayed that aspect of it. But why that type of sex?

I have several theories, one of which I will discuss here, especially as it regards the experience of physical pain. It may come as a surprise to some that there are many types of masochists. Some people truly enjoy intense sensation and their minds interpret it as something other than pain in a type of transcendence. Other people are invested in the idea of being hurt. Some people chase the endorphin high - being set alight, as scary as it sounds, releases a chemical cocktail similar to a runner's high without the bad knees and dozens of miles required.

Setting aside the physical rewards of pleasure, sexual or otherwise, and endorphins, pain can sometimes be about endurance. It is a test. More importantly, however, it is designed to have a high failure rate. Sometimes, it is enough to withstand the pain, to take it all and not break. Often, however, the catharsis brought about by intense experience only happens once one's defenses have buckled. Gut-wrenching sobs or maniacal laughter can signal this collapse, although different people experience it differently. One woman described to me,
"I used to get into this state, especially with the roleplaying scenes, the being captured and forced to submit and lots of impact, where eventually it’s like being mentally broken, where I couldn’t stand anymore and I couldn’t refuse anymore and whatever he wanted to do to me was going to happen... the idea that you can’t fight anymore, that nothing you can do matters, that you’ve completely lost and you have to give in, which I like."  

Looking in from the outside, one might wonder why. What is it about being helpless that is so appealing? As a feminist, this was particularly difficult for me to grapple with, as it was generally women being put in this position in the groups I worked with. After a while, however, it began to dawn on me that this was a way to embody survival, to say, "I have endured a trial and come out the other side whole." This is NOT to say that BDSM is a simple reenactment of trauma, as so many people seem to assume. Yes, for some people, past trauma plays a role in the types of play they engage in, but for scenes that are mostly about physical pain, the concept of endurance works well.

Other things we endure, the grind of grad school, the stress of showing up for work every day, raising a child, rarely do these end (although, thankfully, school has to stop sometime). It is only over the span of years do we have the chance to say, "I did this. I withstood it." And should we fail, there is no joy in it. Our society does not take kindly to surrender. Most people make peace with failure, one way or the other, but our culture forces that accommodation to come at a price, often the loss of esteem or self-respect. However, our society sets people up to fail in ways that have nothing to do with their worth as individuals. Barring an incredible amount of support, women cannot be supermoms and CEOs at the same time. People's employment situation is very often precarious. Black and Brown people face structural violence all the time and then are castigated for not being able to achieve the American dream. I could go on, but all the -isms are implicated.

Is it so strange that people might crave the feeling of having withstood a trial, endured, survived, and coming out whole, maybe even stronger, on the other side? Physical pain (when administered in a safe, sane, consensual way) can embody these lessons for us. I broke and yet the world didn't end. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The March Hair

Every woman I know has a complicated relationship with her hair. From Delilah to Rapunzel, there is something about femininity in the US that is bound up in locks. I am not limiting this relationship strictly to the US, it's just where I have the most experience. In fact, I had one professor who worked in Samoa who posited that the shift in women's hairstyles with the arrival with the missionaries was a symbol of sexual repression. Of course, she was a psychological anthropologist, so most things were about sex for her.

I shaved my head when I quit dancing. Prior to that, I generally kept my hair long, to the middle of my back. Much like makeup, however, I only wore it loose when I was at work. It was part of my stage presence. Working in the sex industry is complicated, neither the tale of the happy hooker or damsel in distress (for an interesting ethnographic examination, take a look at Stripped by Bernadette Barton). So when I was finally ready to leave (although I had left and gone back several times), I shaved my head. There was no turning back.

I was also just learning about gender through anthropology and I was pretty angry that I had bought into conventional standards of feminine beauty. Shaving my head was a giant "eff you" to patriarchy. As liberating as it was for me personally, it did not have the shocking effect I had hoped, since I was living in New Orleans and one had to be really odd to be truly outrĂ©.

Then I moved to Washington State for grad school. I routinely got the comment "she intimidates me" on my student evaluations. Ok, I had a shaved head and a nose ring, but if you knew me, I am hardly intimidating. Students in a small-town, conservative, state school were unsettled by what, for me, had become normal.

I let my hair grow in some before I did my MA fieldwork in Belize, not knowing how it would be taken abroad. It was a lucky choice for me, as I spent a good deal of time "gaining rapport" with the women I worked with by getting my hair done. Rollie-pollies, corn rows, extensions, and more braids than I could catalogue. I looked ridiculous most of the time owing to the fact that my pale scalp burned every time I got a new style. If it wasn't fire red, it was peeling. It was an education for me. Women bonded over hair. It was the intersection of the natural and the cultural, between self and other. And it was something that women did together. It did not translate for me back to the United States. I returned to the solitary ritual of dying my hair at home and occasionally making a salon date with a friend.

Once I moved to Texas, I had settled into a more traditional hair style, although the color scheme varied. Then my mother died. I shaved my head as an act of mourning. It was a relief to have an external symbol of my grief. People would ask and I could explain - otherwise, there's no easy way to start off a conversation with, "Well, my mom just died and it has me all messed up..." A shaved head and, bam, it's out there. Luckily, I worked for a city department where I didn't have to deal with the public and my co-workers were generous granola folks. It was definitely more of a show stopper than in New Orleans but not in a bad way. I was a little put off by how often people wanted to rub my head.

By the time I moved up here, my hair was decently long. Given the ravages of winter and no referrals for a good hairdresser, I just let it grow. By spring time, it reached my shoulders. I felt like it was weighing me down. I went to a conference on community organizing and a queer woman there told me I "read as normal" so it was important that I come out. I don't know that I've ever felt normal, so when I picture myself as a middle-aged woman with frizzy red hair, it just didn't sit well.

At a fundraiser for an abortion provider, I won a haircut for a swanky salon. I decided if I was going to get a haircut that was valued at $70, I wanted to do something extreme. Note to self, Cleveland is not the place to experiment with hipster haircuts. At least not the salon I went to. I ended up with a faux-hawk/undercut that was patchy and uneven. My partner, ever GGG, helped me shave the sides to even things out. What surprised me was the reactions I got and how different they were. Most white people looked a bit shocked, although younger people seemed pretty unfazed. The reaction from black people was entirely different. Women and men would smile at me and kind of nod. I started thinking deeply about the ways that black women style their hair. My half-and-half 'do had more in common with many of the black hairstyles than the white ones in the area.

Although I sing the praises of liminality, I couldn't handle the inbetween state of my hair, both practically and psychologically. I also realized if I shaved my head, it would not raise as many eyebrows in the black community where I primarily work as it might if I worked with elderly white people. So I did it - not as sign of inner turmoil but as way to start over. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Additionally, many of my new friends identify as queer in some way or another, and a woman with a shaved head is not a novelty. They have helped me celebrate my shorn state. All the times I've shaved my head, I have had many women confess that they wish they were brave enough to do it. Bravery has seldom entered into the equation for me. It is nice, however, to walk down the street and see people smile.

I'll be back on the job market, eventually. I'll probably only keep it shaved this summer before I begin the awkward process of growing it back in so I can look professional. But for now, I am enjoying this corporeal social experiment.