Is this feminine enough for you? … and thank you

Hey reader! Thanks for getting to know me in 2011. My first blogging year has been phenomenal and I’ve really enjoyed the discussions we’ve been having. I mean, really enjoying. Did I tell you I was obsessed with gender and sexuality? Oh, really? You’d noticed? Oh, OK then. I can’t wait to see what 2012 will bring! In true festive style I am going away on holiday for a week, so the first installment of Lipstick Terrorist ranting in 2012 will be in the second week of January. See you on the other side…

I place my elbow on the table and flip my middle finger at the person sitting opposite me. She had just told me off for eating some dropped food off my lap. ‘That’s not very feminine, is it?’, she teased (she knows I’m a femme and a feminist). I grin back cheekily, over my finger. ‘Is this feminine enough for you?’ This is my sense of humour; teasing my friend in return.

I had spent the whole afternoon leading workshops on zines and sexism in the queer community and I was exhausted. The visiting artists (including me) and the festival organisers had decamped to a yummy falafel place in order to get some well-earned nourishment.

It had been an intense day. My afternoon had been organised into three slots. A guest facilitator from Finland would present her collective and zine on sexism in the punk scene, I would then present my zine on sexism against femininity in the queer scene, and finally we would  run a workshop on sexism in left-wing activist scenes in general. It was a plan. Except I messed it up by deciding that my presentation would be much better as a workshop. I didn’t want to speak non-stop for an hour and a half; I wanted us to have a discussion.

I had run a similar workshop on sexism against femininity in the queer scene at the Copenhagen Queer Festival back in July. I had decided to make that workshop a space for feminine-identified queers only. Whoever felt they fit that bill could come along. I did this because so often we feminine queers are afraid to speak out, afraid that voicing our experiences of sexism will be taken as our own prejudice against queer masculinities. Specifically, I think, against trans guys. I personally don’t believe this to be true. Talking about one group’s experience of oppression does not automatically mean you are dissing another. But I guess this reaction, or at least, the fear of this reaction comes from the fact that, no matter how much gender theory we have read, we still see masculinity and femininity as a binary system; co-dependent and mutually defining. I blame the patriarchy. (And maybe, just maybe, these genders are inherently binary. It’s how they’ve been created, at least. Anyways, that’s totally a whole ‘nother theory book.) So, fear of being seen as transphobic (against trans men) is very real and it makes people afraid to speak out. Therefore this workshop was ‘separatist’. Participants said that they appreciated this space and felt safer because of it.  (It is worth noting that, although the workshop was open to all feminine queers, no men were present.)

In the workshop, we agreed that we feminine folks are not taken seriously as ‘real’ queers. As feminine people, especially feminine women, both cis and trans, we are not fashionable. Definitely not cool. We are seen as inhabiting an inherently conservative, unexamined gender. (For more on this type of sexism, check Emma’s piece in the awesome zine I edited. It’s for sale at Other Nature in Berlin.) We are not sexy, probably because we’re not seen as radical. And we are invisible. An old trope, but still very true. Femininity in cis and trans women is not seen as queer, and therefore we, ourselves, are not seen by queers.

So, fast forward to Hamburg and the Zine Action Day organised by Bildwechsel. This was a weekend dedicated to examining, perhaps obviously, the politics of zines and how they can be used to political ends. Most of the attendees at the festival came from left-wing scenes, such as punk and queer. Most were female-assigned at birth – women, genderqueers, trans guys, as well as a couple of cis guys. When I announced that I wanted my presentation to become a workshop on sexism against femininity in the queer scene, the group became very stressed. I think my description of the feminine-only space at Copenhagen made this mixed group panic. Were the masculine folks meant to be there? Did they have anything to say on this subject? Should they leave to give space over to other people? One cis-looking guy got up and left, probably because he felt that this wasn’t the place for him. I, too, then questioned my decision to make this a workshop. I certainly didn’t want to force anyone to do anything that made them feel uncomfortable. To speak, if they didn’t want to. What I wanted was to share thoughts and experiences around this subject; to hear what people had to say. I had imagined that the group would prefer to have a discussion, rather than listening to me talk about my projects for an hour and a half. But maybe I really am that interesting!

In the end, after I had emphasised that I wanted to share opinions, that I didn’t want to force anyone to speak, the group felt a lot more relaxed. Some people spoke, some people listened, and that was OK. Similar thoughts were expressed to those that came up in Copenhagen. Queer femininities are ignored, dismissed as unqueer, sidelined in the focus on queer masculinities.

I am doing what I can as an activist and artist to redress this balance (that is, to re-dress it in something tight and sparkly and long earrings! I couldn’t help myself).

Looking back at the title of this post, ‘is this feminine enough for you?’ becomes a challenge in the context of the queer community as a whole. In the spaces I move in, the ‘correct’ queer question to ask yourself is, ‘is this genderqueer enough?’ or ‘is this masculine enough?’ My response is, ‘enough for whom?’ Who are we trying to please? If we tailor our behaviour to suit ourselves, then that’s just great. But if I don’t wear my classy dress on New Year’s Eve because I am trying to fit other people’s ideas of what I should look like, then that’s not right. In case you are new to this blog, you might not already know that I am pretty fed up of going along with other people’s ideas of what I should be doing. Maybe it’s time to ask the wrong question. The uncool question. Let’s start 2012 by being totally unfashionable. Hello, world. Is this feminine enough for you?

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dating, sexy consent and a question…

I have been so happy with readers’ responses to posts on this blog. When I don’t want to have sex went off the wall, with, like, a million hits in one day (ok, that’s an exaggeration) it became clear to me that lots of other people feel pressured to be sexual or be sexual in a certain way, in order to try and fit into the queer community. Thank you so much for all your comments. You have given me much food for feminist thought. Now I would like to broaden the topic and think about pressures around sexuality which exist in every aspect of society, even if they play out in slightly different ways. And one thing that has really been getting my goat recently (great expression), is other people’s expectations of me in the context of dating.

My slight feminist obsession with gender, sex and sexuality has led me to do a lot of outreach work on these subjects with young people. In Montreal I worked with both a sexual assault centre and an LGBT organisation along the lines of Berlin’s ABqueer to talk to first-year university students about sexual consent and intimacy. I used the same workshops to adapt the government’s qualification on sexual health in the UK. Discussing sex and dating with young people in London and Canada has given me a lot of insight into the expectations we are taught to have when we go on a date or bring someone back to our place. I believe that both men and women feel an excessive pressure to have sex, to follow a dating ‘script,’ which leads them to act out of peer pressure rather than to listen to and follow their own desires.

“Kisses in the movies will lead to beautifully choreographed missionary position sex without so much as an ‘is this OK for you?'”

In the workshops I lead with teenagers, we discuss an imaginary encounter between two people in order to think about what sexual expectations we have of others. The scenario goes something like this: two people meet at a party. They are either opposite or same-sex depending on the group, and of course the gender of the two people often leads the group to interpret their behaviour accordingly. These two imaginary teenagers like each other and they go back to one of their, say the guy’s, apartment. After a little while, the other person, say the woman, says that she doesn’t want to stay the night and wants to go home. She gives the guy a goodnight kiss, which he interprets as a sign that she has changed her mind and starts to remove her clothing. One thing leads to another and they end up having sex. The next day she feels really uncomfortable. What went wrong?

The groups’ response to this scenario can vary surprisingly, but generally the following ideas come up. The group will often jump to the defense of the man, saying it’s not his fault that this happened, that she should have said ‘no.’ Or that she is ‘leading him on’ by kissing him. This immediate defensive reaction is interesting, because it implies that we, the facilitators, are trying to blame someone for what happened. In fact, the purpose of this exercise is to find out how this scenario could have been avoided. How could these two people have negotiated the situation in order to make sure this misunderstanding didn’t happen?

“What if the guy thought he should have sex because his friends would call him gay?”

I have run similar workshops with LGBT youth groups, Muslim boy groups and Jewish girl groups, from private schools to council estates in East London. With a pretty varied bunch of people, really. And the same ideas always come up. This idea that a woman should be the defender of her sexuality falls in with the stereotype of the man as the sexual actor and the woman as the sexual receiver. A man’s role is to try and get as much sex as possible, and a woman’s role is to try and defend her virginity, ‘purity,’ not be a slut, whatever. There is the assumption that the man will, naturally, want to have as much sex as possible. Even in LGBT groups, there is the assumption that we all, men, women or queers, want to have as much sex as possible and if you don’t, then it is your responsibility to say no. It’s not very often that someone in the group will bring up the possibility that maybe neither of these people wanted to have sex at all. That maybe the guy, or girl, proceeded to remove the other person’s clothing because s/he thought s/he should. Because that’s just what you do in these situations. Flirting leads to kissing and kissing leads to sex. Naturally.

I love it when some wonderful person says, but what if the guy didn’t want to have sex? What if he thought he should have sex because otherwise his friends would call him a loser, a pussy, gay? A classic example of how sexism hurts men too. Depending on the level of the group, we try to discuss why people feel a pressure to have sex, where this pressure comes from, and what we can do to make communication between lovers more clear. Because our sexual interactions rely on a lot of assumptions. There’s a script. Literally. Look at lovers on the silver screen and their kisses will lead to beautifully choreographed missionary position sex without so much as an ‘is this OK for you?’. And when we get our ideas about romance from movies is it such a surprise that our sexual communication is so fucked up? Looking at Hollywood couples you would assume that they can communicate telepathically, their kisses and moves are so in tune. And do you know why this is? It’s because they are choreographed by a team of film makers whose job is to maintain this illusion of romantic perfection.

No matter how feminist, or ‘liberated’ we think we are, we still try to follow this ideal. This Hollywood dream. No wonder our sex lives are so hard, so full of miscommunications, because we, actually, don’t really communicate. If only we did have psychic insight into our lovers’ desires. I’ll stare into your eyes and I will magically know that now you want me to kiss your neck, suck your toes, whatever… It would make this whole sex thing a lot easier!

It’s not only teenagers who feel the pressure to follow a sexual script. This idea that ‘one thing leads to another’ came up in my life quite recently, much to my surprise. It turns out even super awesome feminist youth workers like myself aren’t immune to breakdowns in sexual communication! A few months ago, I was flirting at a party with a cute person and I kissed her, in a spirit of spontaneity. I didn’t want to go home with her, I didn’t want to see her again, I just wanted to kiss her. So I did (And I asked first). I was criticised the next day by someone else for leading the other person on. Sending mixed signals. Being a bitch, because I had told this cute person that I didn’t want to see her again. And this really hurt me. It turned out that, apparently, I wasn’t allowed to be in control of my sexuality. I wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted. I had to follow someone else’s idea of what a kiss means, and ignore my own desires. I had deviated from the sexual script, and boy was I punished for it.

“Would you like to step into my boudoir…?”

Worried whether my behaviour really had been all that bad, I asked the girl I kissed if that had been OK for her. And she said, yeah, it was totally fine. No problem. So, neither of the two people involved in ‘the kiss’ had any problem with it all just stopping there. It was actually an observer who had nothing to do with it at all who found the whole sexual interaction offensive.

So, it’s not just the teenagers in the scenario who feel peer pressure to have sex, it’s queers like myself too. It’s pretty much everyone, actually.

These days I am exploring how I can communicate with my lovers to reduce the number of miscommunications that happen. The workshops I run always finish with a discussion about consent. How you have to talk with a lover in order to express what you want, ask what the other person wants, and to negotiate something that you are both happy with. That relying on telepathic Hollywood brainwaves really doesn’t work. Now this might all be a bit Sexual Consent 101 to some of you readers out there, but as my own experiences have shown me, consent is necessary in every actively sexual person’s lives (unless you’re having sex with yourself, in which case you can communicate telepathically what you want!).

And now, in the interest of improving all our sex lives, I have a question. Who can think of some sexy consent questions? I am always trying to think of cute new ways to ask for a kiss, a fuck etc. and sometimes my attempts are called sweet or endearing, but rarely hot. It would be awesome if you could leave your ideas in the comments below. Maybe together we’ll be able to think of some awesome new phrases… Can I jiggle your schizzle (I have no idea what this means)? Would you like to step into my boudoir and check out my awesome new selection of ticklers? See, I’m not very good at this… Help me!

happy xxxmas: i’ve been a very bad girl…

So Santa please won’t you get me something naughty? Erm, I blame catching the xxx-mas bug on being on Oxford Street in London right now. BIG NEWS guys! Copies of the Dressed Like That zine are now up for sale in Berlin at my friends’ awesome sex shop Other Nature. So now you can go buy eco, vegan sex toys and pick up some fine literature along the way. What more could you want? Zines cost €5, which isn’t bad for 44 pages of fem(me)inism. Christmas presents anyone?

more fun than xmas dinner

Don’t forget, a fully translated (German/English) edition of Dressed Like That will be out next year, just in time for the release party. To find out more, sign up for email updates using the button on the right!

i’ll show you mine…

I am a burlesque artist. I like going up on stage and peeling off my clothes until all I am wearing are novelty pants and tit tassles. Call me an exhibitionist? I call it affirmation.

In my first post on burlesque, I suggested that, in a world which devalues femininity and women, using the stage to present your own image of femininity can educate your audience. You can choose what type of femininity you would like to present, and construct a particular dynamic between you and your viewers. By hiding and revealing parts of your body, you can tell your viewers where they are allowed to look, for how long, and in what spirit. I perform a slow, serious piece which makes my audience feel ‘awkward and sexy at the same time.’ It teases by inviting them to look (I mean, I am on a stage) while Lesley Gore sings ‘You Don’t Own Me’ and I undress shyly. My shyness contrasts with my black lingerie, nakedness and the lyrics of the song. I also perform a light-hearted piece called ‘Pop’ in which I cover myself in blown-up condoms (yes, condoms!) and pop them by rubbing them with oil. This conveys the safer sex message that you should always use water-based lube with latex condoms. Both combine traditional elements of burlesque (including retro music, vintage style and undressing) with more serious messages.

The past couple of days I have been reading Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman. It’s one of the many feminist books my friend Robin gave me when she moved back to the US. My mission, as I accepted it, is to read them and then donate them to this queer feminist library. Yesterday I read a piece written by MTF drag queen Esme Rodriguez who said that the stage allows her to find the ‘freedom’ to explore ‘gender expression, gender identities and social justice.’ And I thought, yes, it’s like that for me too. For me the stage is a space to explore and to express my gender. And this is darn feminist.

I don’t think I have complete control over what my audience sees. For me ‘You Don’t Own Me’ is, when performed for a queer audience, me saying that yes I get to be a girly girl and strip and still be a fierce feminist, thank you very much, while other people see it as a celebration of polyamory. But I do think that Rodriguez is right when she says that drag allows her to explore both gender and social justice.

French femme performer Wendy Delorme

I recently performed at a small town in Germany (about 150 000 inhabitants),  to a mixed reception. Some folks loved the show and others seemed a bit shocked by it. And I was shocked that they were shocked. I mean, I was just taking off my clothes. How would they react if they saw my burlesque colleague Rosebutt pull a golden chain out of her cunt?!

Someone I know, a butch and feminist, said that she didn’t like my show because she felt uncomfortable about seeing all that skin. She said the way she had been brought up made nudity a little taboo. Now, she is totally entitled to her opinion and maybe burlesque just isn’t for her, but I did think, really, is a semi-naked (still wearing pants, nipple pasties, oh, and glitter) woman really that shocking?

Sometimes I forget what a laissez-faire attitude to nudity I have. My parents are doctors and very factual about bodies. They wander around naked upstairs while getting changed or bathing. I talk to my Mum while she’s in the bath, and even though after a certain age it felt it a bit awkward to do the same with my Dad, he still leaves the door open. I always strip in communal changing rooms, because I can’t be bothered to be modest and I’m pretty happy wandering around naked in a German spa.

“watching burlesque you are no longer allowed to be a passive consumer. you are part of the process”

Now, I recognise that as a cisgendered white woman, it’s not very risky for me to take my clothes off in public. At least not in those spaces where it’s ‘allowed,’ such as at a burlesque show, in  changing rooms, or at a sauna. I’m a bit fat, and stand out because of that, and I have a large tattoo, but both of these things are pretty ordinary, really. The risk for me to be naked is, in these contexts, fairly low.

So I’m gonna hazard a guess here and propose that this audience was uncomfortable with my nudity because they were made to confront something new. New? I hear you say. Erm, cisgendered pretty white woman taking off clothes, not exactly revolutionary, is it? I mean, Laura, we see images of semi-clad white chicks everyday! In adverts on the U-Bahn, TV, magazines, shops. It’s not exactly something you can escape. My reply is, yes, there are tonnes of images half-dressed girls around who may to a certain extent look like me (although at UK size 16 and age 28 I am way fatter and older), but these images are pretty flat. In lots of senses. These images don’t interact with you, with their audience. The intention behind them is to sell (objects, ideals, insecurities, you name it) and the girls in the pics aren’t the creators of the image. They may choose to pose for a particular ad, or as actresses they may love their work. But even Cate Blanchett, who is pretty kick-ass, is caught up in a world of Hollywood beauty standards and censored film scripts. Now, I’m not suggesting that the stages I perform on are in a queer bubble outside of this sexist world. To the contrary, I think the patriarchy (insert flash of lightning and evil laughter here) permeates everything. But I do think that my choices and my agency make a crucial difference.

“I set up a framework, tweak it a little and present it to an audience to see what happens”

When I performed in this town, the audience sat about 7 metres away from the stage. OK, I am terrible at judging distances, but if I had taken a running jump and hurled myself into the crowd, I still would have failed to land at the feet of the closest admirer. Sweet, shy, German audiences. During both of my performances I jumped down from the stage because, goddammit, I wasn’t going to let them get away with it. I’m was gonna force them to interact with me even if I had to sit on their laps! As it turned out, I didn’t need to sit on them, and getting some people to remove my stockings or help pop the condom-balloons got me much closer to the audience. Not only physically, but also in terms of the dynamic we were creating. The dynamic I wanted us to create.

Miss Bourbon from Club Burlesque Brutal

So what was different about my performance? Every time we look at a semi-naked woman on a billboard we do so as consumers. Our look is elicited and drawn in in order to sell something else. Feminine sexuality is directed at a male gaze (idea they will desire girl = desire product) or female gaze (idea they will want to be girl = want product). Here the audience were undressing a girl who was right there and, apparently, enjoying herself! I made them pop my balloons and take off my stockings, get close to me and participate in the stripping performance. And that’s got to make you think. Watching this type of burlesque you are no longer allowed to be a passive consumer. You have to participate in the sexualisation of the woman. You are part of the process. And maybe this participation makes you think a little about looking. When and how we look and why. Yes, it is uncomfortable. It’s sexy and funny and awkward. It walks the line between a personal sexual encounter and the public consumption and commercialisation of femininity which as feminists we rightly find suspect. It’s ‘oh my god this girl is so hot and she’s right there and she’s flirting with me, but no it’s just an act is she getting paid for this I don’t even know her!’

“it’s a bit like therapy, really”

Coming back to my personal reasons for wanting to do this, I want to emphasise that, for me, performing burlesque as a feminine woman and as a queer is an act of affirmation. It’s yeah I’m hot and yeah you’re allowed to look at me, but don’t go thinking that I belong to you or that this is for you. You know we’re never going to see each other again, baby.

In Gender Outlaws the theme of exploration keeps recurring. What strikes me most is that each and every author is looking for or has found a space to express, explore and play with their gender. It can be through writing,  negotiating the gendered language of the office, sex, role play or performance. They interact with another person or people in order to gain new perspectives on gender, new experiences, to create new things. It’s a bit like therapy, really. In my burlesque I do the same. I set up a particular framework (conventions of burlesque), tweak it a little and present it to an audience to see what happens. To see what we can make of it. I get to see a little more of myself through other people’s eyes.

It’s ‘hello’ and its ‘you don’t own me.’

polyamorous is not a noun

A couple of years ago I had a polyamorous relationship with someone who is just about as geeky as me. We would have long conversations about cocks and sex and polyamory. This was my first poly experience and I had a bit of trouble with it. I continually struggled with the question of whether or not I was jealous of their existing relationship and how I felt about having sex with someone who had just been with their other lover. It was an experiment. After we broke up, I thought that it hadn’t worked because I was a monogamous person.

When I said to a friend that I wanted to talk to her about my relationship because she is a polyamorous person, she said, well, I’m not polyamorous, I prefer to be in polyamorous relationships. Which made me realise that I had been using polyamorous and monogamous as nouns. As though to be polyamorous or monogamous are faits accomplis; something inherent to who you are.

“I find the assumption that someone else knows more about my sexuality than I do offensive”

This idea of polyamorous as something definite and fixed scared me away from exploring poly relationships after our break-up. I assumed that polyamory was just something that some people were, a fixed identity. And how can I challenge that?  This concept of poly as something inherent made me feel like I wasn’t allowed to explore relationships on an individual basis. It made it sound like people have a singular sexuality, relationships have fixed dynamics and this is just how it is. Another opposition for me to deal with. Male/female, straight/queer, polyamorous/monogamous.

I have a bit of a problem with binaries.

As I said in the comments on last week’s post, I have got the very strong impression from fellow queers that my desire to be monogamous means there there is something wrong with me. That I haven’t worked out my issues. Some of the zines and books I have read on poly suggest the same thing; jealousy comes from insecurities and our natural sexual state as humans is to be polyamorous. If you just worked your shit out then you would be happy being poly. And while I acknowledge that some people are happiest being poly, I find the assumption that someone else knows more about my sexuality than I do a little bit offensive. A friend of mine recently said to me, ‘I really want to be in a monogamous relationship but I know that’s because I’ve been brainwashed. I know it’s my problem.’ Actually, no, wanting to be monogamous is not a problem. It doesn’t make you, her or me any less feminist, sane or intelligent. It is a legitimate desire.

“Why would I want to change myself in order to live up to someone else’s sexual standard?”

I have begun to notice that when I meet people they assume things about me. A lot of people think that I will be into BDSM, even though I’ve never had a conversation with them about this. ‘Did I see you at the Easter Conference? Were you at that sex party? Want to come to my bondage class?’ Even as a kinky person who is into BDSM, this assumption jars with me. Because it seems to come from this idea that kinky is the cool thing to be. It equates being queer with being kinky in the same way as some people call poly ‘natural.’ Queers are kinky, queers are poly. In fact, I wonder if my recent exploration of my attraction to hetero cis men comes from an assumption that as straight dudes they will not want to be poly!

I have this problem where I try to please other people, even at the cost of putting my own needs second. I want to fit in with the crowd and I want people to like me. People assume I will want to go to sex parties, that I will be into BDSM and polyamorous. I think that I am most comfortable in monogamous relationships. These are the kinds of relationships that I have always wanted. Why would I want to change myself in order to live up to someone else’s sexual standard? Surely the right to own our sexuality has to include the right to not have sex, the right to be vanilla and the right to be in monogamous relationships. As a group that consciously explores questions around gender, sex and relationships, we queers think a lot about the implications of our sexual behaviour and the relationships we form. And as a feminist and someone who is a little bit obsessed with gender, I find this exciting and important. However, we can’t dictate what is right for other people. My understanding of queer has always been that it is an ‘umbrella’ term that includes various genders and sexualities. Maybe it’s human nature to form group norms, to decide what is and isn’t cool and judge people accordingly. But I would like us to go back to this old school meaning: queer is whatever you want it to be. I don’t want to be cool anymore.

Coming soon: ‘tits and tassles part 2: i’ll show you mine’

come say hi tomorrow!

A little reminder for those of you on this side of the Channel that I will be conducting a workshop/panel discussion hybrid on sexism in the queer community at Bildwechsel’s Zine Action Day in Hamburg. This is actually happening tomorrow, not today as previously advertised. I will also be selling copies of the zine. Check out the deets here (yes I did just say deets).

And, just for kicks, more vaginas courtesy of Ismael.