Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Flexing the binary

I will be presenting a paper at the European Association of Social Anthropologists at the beginning of August on gender. I'm excited for several reasons - returning to Europe, meeting up with colleagues from Portugal, international exposure - but mostly because it is an opportunity to return to the gender conundrum that remains part of my dissertation work. Here's my abstract: 

Erotic Practices: Using BDSM Ritual to (re)Inscribe Gender
The traits of "dominance" and "submissiveness" are glossed as masculine and feminine, respectively, in the mainstream culture of the United States. Taking to heart Judith Butler's notion of gender as performance, practitioners of BDSM (Bondage/Discipline Dominance/Submission Sadomasochism) in the southern United States engage with gender identity as plastic and attempt to unmoor these attributes from physical bodies. Using erotic ritual practices that often draw implicitly from anthropological theories, such as Victor Turner's concepts of liminality and communitas, group members have created a space to contest the lockstep association of dominance with masculinity and submissiveness with femininity.
Although the emic understanding is that these traits are entirely separate from one's gender, which in turn is separate from one's body, in practice the embodiment of these characteristics affects one's perceived gender over time in predictable ways in the larger heterosexual/pansexual group. The existence of a smaller group composed entirely of self-identified "women who play with women" serves as a foil against which to test the hypothesis that dominance and submission may be unlinked from the physical anatomy of a particular person but still strongly associated with a gendered identity.
By relying on erotic rituals to reinforce novel constellations of dominant/submissive-masculine/feminine, BDSM practitioners tap into anthropological theories developed in cross-cultural settings which have permeated mainstream American consciousness about the malleability of gender, the utility of ritual, and the role of sex in creating and maintaining social identities.
I am excited to start work on this paper. My ideas on being gendered/gendering/etc. have been percolating (more or less quietly) in the background as I've gone about my paid work. Now, I'm finally ready to return to them.

Gender was one of the things that first drew me to the kinky community. There were so many flavors and permutations and possibilities. Only after reflection did I perceive that everything was not as fluid or liberatory as I first felt. Still, it remains amazing to me that there is a space for people to stretch and flex what it means to masculine and feminine in the heart of Texas.

The systems I am trying to understand still rely on binary thinking - masculine/feminine or dominance/submissiveness. There is no third leg to the triad to really go beyond dualistic thinking. Sometimes I feel like studying gender in the United States is some sort of Levi-Straussian ouroboros - is binary opposition innate or a product of socialization?

Just when I feel everything will devolve into blue versus pink, I take heart in remembering the "switch." A switch is a person who can claim any particular gender combination at any given time. One of my favorite people described this as, "It's not an actual switch, not either/or but both/and." It's situational and relational and hella complicated but for me it's a possibility outside of 1 or 0.

Until Estonia, I'll be threshing out the finer points of what I mean by dominance and submission, feminine and masculine. You'll probably be reading about it here as I try out different schema. The switch will be my muse but probably not my subject, at least in this paper. I'm happy for feedback, especially from the kinky community, so if my ponderings on gender have squicked you or ring true, let me know.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"Stating Desire" now available in print

Last year, I wrote a chapter for an anthology that grew out of a panel I sat on with Staci Newmahr at the Eastern Sociological Society in New York. It was published yesterday!

Selves, Symbols, and Sexualities: An Interactionist Anthology is available now from SAGE. On the whole, the book looks interesting in its varied takes on sexuality and research with broad cross-discipline application.

My chapter, "Stating Desire: Sexuality, the State, and Social Control" is available as one of the sample chapters, so you can read it for free!

I'd like to thank all the people in the Cactus kinky community, who I cannot acknowledge by name for obvious reasons. Even though the article looks at the community critically, I hope it conveys the compassion and creativity that is so central to the community.

So, if you read it, let me know what you think.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

How did I become always only a woman?

It was just after 9 pm on a Tuesday. I sat on a mostly deserted train heading west. In front of me was an older white man speaking to a slightly tipsy older black woman. I could tell she was tipsy from her slurred speech and can of Old English. He kept egging her on about her relationship with god, asking her if she really thought she was a good person. She was earnest, replying to his questions with seriousness. I wasn't sure if he was being so condescending because she was black or if it was because she was a woman. In all likelihood, it was a little of both. Yay intersectionality.

Occasionally during his needling, he would turn around and stare directly at me. For various reasons, I didn't feel like entertaining him. I would stare off into the distance. The older woman seemed to be engaged with him, as she'd continue speaking long after he stopped encouraging her, so I didn't feel the need "help," however that would have happened. 

She got off at the main terminal after he admonished her about leaving her beer can on the bus in the most patronizing tone you can imagine. I knew I was in for it. He turned around and faced me fully and insisted, "Hi."

"I don't feel like having a conversation."


"I don't feel like having a conversation tonight."

"Did your nose ring hurt? I bet it did hurt."

Nod. It's the reply I give to any stranger who wants to ask about my septum ring.

At this point, my reluctance to talk to him edged from distaste to outright rage. Under different circumstances, maybe I would have felt like chatting. But the reality was we were now alone in a train car, at night, in a town with no real good side of the tracks. He obviously felt entitled to refuse my desire to be left alone in order to keep himself occupied while on the train. I am 99% sure it was because I was a woman.

"Where are you going tonight?"

"I still don't feel like talking."

"Jesus! Fine."

Then I began wondering about what to do if he got off at my stop. Or what if I got up and he followed me? I could probably take him in a fight... 

Fortunately, he got off at the next stop. Before he left, he turned around again and glared at. 

"Have a good night. I hope you don't try to talk to anyone because they might be *mean* to you!"

I'm sorry - I hurt his feelings?!? Because I didn't feel like talking to him, he made it all about my unstated bitchiness. He didn't know what the rest of my day had been like. I had subverted the "natural" course of interactions between the genders by refusing to accommodate him in the first place. I might have played along if he hadn't so obviously been taunting the tipsy woman, acting like he was superior while assuming that she wouldn't pick up on the fact that he was being an ass.

I am proud of myself for just saying no. I wouldn't have had the courage to do that even five years ago. But then I returned to the script women and girls are socialized into, that there are consequences for not going along with a man's wishes. I started worrying about assault and rape. Aside from being an overbearing ass, I had no indication that this man had nefarious intentions. I was pissed, however, that he had no sense that the situation was making me uncomfortable. I also hated that the situation made me uncomfortable. In many ways, I am forced to pay attention to my gender in Cleveland in ways I have not had to in years, and not in a celebratory I-am-woman-hear-me-roar kind of way. In professional settings with men, I have to prove that I am competent enough to be there in ways that they do not. It is frustrating, to say the least.

I had thought my experiences with sexism was a process I grew through and beyond. By the time I moved to Texas, I was under the impression that the perceived slights I experienced in New Orleans were due to my zealousness for feminism which is experienced by new converts. For years I was angry about everything. Time mellowed me. I was able to discern flirting from harassment. I gained the type of confidence that automatically demanded respect (I thought). I knew that other women and girls faced discrimination but I had broken the mold.

The truth was that it was more circumstantial than that. The Texas town I lived in was progressive, by most standards. For four years, my gender mattered less than it might have other places. In addition to that, my white and cis privileges allowed me to ignore (to some extent), the other forms of sexism that were taking place around me. In fact, it was absurd, since gender informed a large part of my analysis of the kinky community. I thought about my dissertation all the time and was oblivious to the reality around me. I also worked in a municipal department where, from the department head down, almost all of the supervisors were women. Most of my coworkers were women. It was easy to feel un-oppressed.

Then I moved to Cleveland. For reasons discussed elsewhere on my blog, race has become foregrounded in my consciousness. I am paying more attention to intersectionality. At the same time, I am being treated in the same ways that forced me to feminism's door, kicking and screaming, in the first place. I always have to work a little harder if I'm outside of my institution, which is lead by a strong woman who herself is a force of nature. I have become friends with a group of incredible womyn who brook no nonsense yet most events are for womyn only, cutting down the chances for male influence. I have to be aware of my surroundings because my new neighborhood isn't the safest. I know I move through it differently from my partner after years of socialization that my gender puts me at greater risk. I have to put up with men talking to me constantly at the train stop. Sometimes, I'm up for it. I don't mind passing the time, although I usually have to eventually deflect the inevitable come-on. It isn't even that I feel harassed, it's just the incessant-ness of it. It would be nice every once in a while to strike up a conversation with a man that didn't end with me stressing that I am sexually unavailable.

There are a lot of things I love about my new hometown. Constantly being reminded that I am a woman first in the minds of every man I meet, with all the assumptions that entails, is not one of them. The work is not done and I am not exempt from the struggle because I'm somehow more educated, more evolved, or more oblivious. It's a bit disappointing.