It would be an understatement to say I was pretty bothered by some of the views expressed in The New York Times Magazine’s article “When Women Become Men at Wellesley”. Despite the sensationalist title, the article was a well-rounded read, discussing diverse attitudes towards the inclusion of trans men at women-only college Wellesley in the US. I’m not going to descontruct some of the opinions expressed by the trans men in the article, because that has been done so brilliantlyelsewhere. However, I do want to examine why we, as women and/or queers, welcome trans men into women-only spaces. And why don’t we welcome trans women?
My knee jerk reaction to the article’s implied question ‘Should trans men be allowed to attend women’s only colleges’ is ‘no.’ I don’t think a women-only space should be coopted by men, no matter whether trans or cis. I have always found the common inclusion of trans men in women-only spaces highly problematic. In the left-wing dyke queer scene, this inclusion usually simultaneously excludes trans women, whether explicitly or by sheer numbers. I feel this dynamic is offensive to both trans men and trans women.
When we say trans men are welcome in women-only/dyke-only spaces, aren’t we effectively saying that we don’t see them as men? That their female-assigned-at-birth status trumps their identification as men? When trans men participate in this inclusion, I also wonder why. Maybe they don’t want to give up a space they were formerly a member of. Maybe they simply haven’t examined the problematic dynamic of men taking up women’s space.
Although it may be bittersweet, transitioning means you do have to give up some things. For a trans man, he may have to give up the openness of women around those they perceive as other women. He may have to give up access to a dyke club, to a sisterhood. But, this is part of being a man. Sad as it is, the sexism inherent in our world means that women are mistrustful of men. Whether or not it is sad, women-only spaces are necessary and demanding to inhabit that space, as a man, is ignorant at best and misogynist at worse. It is clear that having been female assigned at birth does not give trans men ‘special insight woman powers,’ otherwise trans men might realize how women are routinely pushed out of physical, financial, institutional space. They then might realize how they are participating in that exclusion and cede the space to women.
It is also tragic that the inclusion of trans men in many women-only spaces often goes hand-in-hand with the exclusion of trans women. It’s weird to me that trans men would want to participate in this dynamic because it so obviously stems from seeing trans men and women as the gender they were assigned at birth, rather than the gender they actually are. Trans men are allowed in women’s spaces because they are perceived to not really be men, and trans women aren’t allowed in because they are perceived to be men. That feminist spaces perpetuate this transphobic dynamic saddens me.
However, the exclusion of trans men from women’s colleges isn’t as clear cut as we might like to think. Although trans men shouldn’t attend a women’s college, what about students who as FAB (female-assigned-at-birth) and gender queer? If gender is a spectrum, where should the cut off line be drawn? Although a butch woman should undeniably be allowed to attend a women’s college, what about a FAB trans gender queer person who takes testosterone but doesn’t identify as a trans man? As the New York Times article posits, you could say that, by challenging gender norms, gender queer folk and masculine women are being true to the spirit of women-only colleges.
I don’t have the answer to this last question, so I would appreciate any of your insights. What do you think about this debate? Should any lines be drawn?
Here’s some food for thought by the great thinker, Julia Serano:
It’s my 30th birthday today! To celebrate the occasion I have decided to reproduce on my most controversial, and heartfelt, pieces from the year. My question to you, is: Have the assumptions of masculinity, hypersexualisation and polyamory in queer circles created a false hierarchy between the ideal queer and the everyday realities of lived queer lives?
I had never thought much about asexuality until a couple of years ago when, for the first time in my adult life, I lost my sex drive. I mean, I didn’t actually lose it. It wasn’t hiding under the bed or anything, gathering dust with old shoes and mouldy peanuts. It just went on a holiday, to give me the time and space to sort some stuff out. Thank you, sex drive. That was very considerate of you.
Up until that point I had what I considered a very active libido. You know that old myth that men think about sex every seven seconds? Well, as a teenager I thought about sex so much that I didn’t doubt this myth was true. I just assumed it must extend to women, because I thought about sex all the time. This pretty rampant sex drive has followed me throughout most of my adult life, until, as I said, 2 years ago when I became depressed.
As well as being horny, I am a pretty radical person. I am what Caitlin Moran calls a ‘stringent feminist.’ The kind of woman who will make any dinner party awkward by calling out the conservative dude in the tie on his ha-ha, light-hearted jokes about women or race or the working classes. Oh, so funny! I am the stuff nightmare dinner parties are made of.
I am also queer, femme, into BDSM, curious about dating cis men, and all sorts of other interesting things. I consider myself sex positive and pretty non-judgmental when it comes to other people’s sexual adventures. I do my best to live by my feminist code of ethics. My feminism means that I believe we are all a little transphobic, sexist, homophobic, classist and racist because we live in a patriarchal society that is founded on these hierarchies.
We give men the upper hand by putting down women; we use racist theories to justify white supremacy, classism to explain a world-order in which most people starve while a few thrive, etc etc etc. My feminism means that I recognise I have all of these prejudices inside me and that I think it is my job to diminish them. This doesn’t mean that I am constantly beating myself up about what a horrible person I am, it’s more that I recognise my own flawed position. This is a pretty difficult attitude to take. Seeing some people behave in the most horrible ways and understanding the fucked-up logic behind their actions is exhausting. Dismissal is easy. Empathy is complicated.
Queer feminism has allowed me to embrace my kinky side and learn much about non-cis gender identities and LGBT history. But I also find massive flaws in the dynamics of the queer communities I know. There are three assumptions commonly made in queer circles, each of which creates a false hierarchy between an ideal of queer and the reality of many lived queer lives. These three assumptions are: hypersexualisation, the idea that everyone wants to have sex all of the time (and if you don’t you’re repressed); that polyamory is a natural desire and wanting to form monogamous relationships means you have jealousy issues; that masculinity is the hottest thing ever and being feminine, especially as a woman, means you are brainwashed. So, as someone who currently doesn’t want to have sex; prefers monogamous relationships and – shock horror – loves wearing dresses, I’m not being a very good queer at all, am I?
I didn’t come to this realisation out of virtue – I had never thought much about asexuality or people who choose not to or don’t want to have sex before – I came to it following a profound personal crisis. Having always had a pretty raging sex drive, the queer assumption that we all want to have sex all the time made sense to me. But losing my sex drive cut me out of the queer community. It meant that I saw no more reason to socialise in it. How’s that saying go? Oh yeah: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
Sex positive feminism has done a lot of good. In a world which tells anyone assigned female at birth that all we want to do is find a heterosexual male partner and have babies, sex positivity has allowed us to carve the space in which to express our own sexual desires.
The celebration of polyamory, too, isn’t in itself a bad thing. The problem comes when polyamory is glorified as the ‘natural’ state of relationships, and if you’re monogamous you have jealousy issues and have been brainwashed. Erm, hasn’t gender theory taught us feminists anything? Since when did we start embracing words like ‘natural’ to describe our identities? Surely we have learnt to be hesitant about the monolithic meanings of such a word. As deconstructionists don’t we find claims that things are this way for everyone a little bit sketchy? No? Oh, OK. Moving on.
Now comes the moment for the trump card in this loving critique of queer feminism. Now it’s time to get the big skeleton out of the queer community’s closet. And that skeleton is -, sexism! What? Sexism? I hear you cry? How can queer feminism possibly be sexist? I mean, we queers have deconstructed the male/female binary and concluded that gender behaviours don’t go hand in hand with vague ideas about biology and evolution. How dare you accuse us of such a thing?
‘I can’t be sexist because I’m queer’. We hear this quite often. Don’t we?
Well, my friends, sad as it may be, it’s time to face up to the facts. Walk into a queer space and what do you see? A uniform of plain black hoodies, asymmetrical hair and caps. There’s not a dress to be seen. Not a hint of colour, lipstick, of long hair.
Despite all our lip service to multifarious gender identities, there is only one gender that we really celebrate in this queer community, and that is masculinity.
The boyish woman, the gender queer and the trans man are the epitomes of hotness in queer scenes. If you’re a feminine woman, cis or trans, then you are just not cool. Transmasculinities are at the top of the queer pile, pushing transfemininities down to the bottom.
Personally, I think this prejudice is unintentional. Talk to any good-meaning queer and they’ll be shocked when you mention things like sexism and femmephobia. But despite individual professions of innocence, we are all guilty. Any time I ignore a feminine woman in a queer bar because I assume she is straight, I am being just as sexist as the people who exclude me.
As Flavia Dzodan suggests in her recent article on sex positivism and race, the assumption that our desires are innate and not learnt, is worth questioning. How asocial and apolitical can our desires be? If no one professes to fancy femininity doesn’t that reflect our internalised misogyny? If we truly were free lovers, if we did express our natural desire and identities, then surely there would be a proliferation of varying desires and genders in our queer spaces. There wouldn’t be a uniform of jeans and t-shirts and strictly boi-on-boi action.
It’s true that not wanting to have sex or a lover has led me to feel alienated from the queer scene. Combine this feeling with my realisation that I prefer to date monogamously and have a very strong femme identity and I no longer feel included or appreciated in the community I have made my worldwide home for the past 6 years. And I am not the only one who feels this way. As responses to my first article on hypersexualisation prove, many people feel alienated from the queer community because their sexual desires don’t fit the queer bill. I’m not poly enough, not kinky enough, not thin enough, and not boyish enough. Not queer enough. As a friend said upon reading zines about being queer, it seems that we think of queer as something up here – she raised her palm above her head – and of ourselves as being down here – she pushed her palm towards the floor.
This notion of queer as an unattainable ideal is really messed up. What happened to queer as an umbrella term? What happened to the ever-expanding joyful list of people we love: LGBTTSIQQA (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Transsexual / Two-Spirited Intersex Queer Questioning Asexual)? Unlike slightly mad UK feminist Julie Bindel, I love the idyllic aspirations of queer. The way it wants to join all us freaks together. So it made me really sad, upon moving to Berlin, to realise just how much queer doesn’t want me.
What I want to see from queer communities worldwide, what I think would be truly queer, is a celebration of difference that leads to diversity in our relationships, our beds and on our dance floors. Maybe it is human nature to form group norms (safety in numbers) but I am a political optimist. I think we can do better. Let’s start to really celebrate differences, the freaks and the outcasts. It takes a lot of courage, but I think we can do it. Surely individuality is what is queer.
(You have to say the above in the gravelly voice of a movie trailer voiceover man.)
Yesterday I got a very long comment on my ‘Too Fat for Fashion” post from last week. It pretty much showcases the kind of fat-hating ideas that are accepted by most and I wondered whether to publish it or not. Does a calm but very sexist and very wrong comment have a place on my blog? Although I would usually say ‘NO!’ and instantly delete personal or aggressive comments, I didn’t delete this one. I disagree with its content but I didn’t want to give any ammunition to people who might accuse me of silencing different viewpoints. Some of my lovely friends suggested that this is an opportunity for me to bash some of the myths that women, fat and thin, face, every day. So this is what I decided to do. I approved the comment so it now shows below that post and, I have taken what I see as the main myths about fat from this comment and write my own response to them. Please be aware that this post really needs to be a book, and I’ll let you know when that’s done. In about a decade.
Fat Myth #1: “Fat people are not sexy”
This is silly. In fact, it’s the easiest for me to refute. Fat people are sexy. I think fat people are sexy and I know lots of people, both men and women, who are both fat and sexy. I am hot and other people find me hot. I considered posting gratuitous pictures of me and friends on this blog, but decided you have already seen enough of me in the buff. And stealing pics of my hot friends off Facebook and posting them here probably wouldn’t be consensual (darn that consent!). I therefore kindly link you tothis post, drawn to my attention by my friend Pearl. Although Kate could only be considered ‘fat’ in the crazy fashion industry, the rest of the women are fat (and hot, duh!).
Fat Myth #2: “Fat is unhealthy”
This is a hard one to refute. After all, all health authorities tell us that fat is unhealthy and we will die earlier if we are obese. So, I am just going to go with my gut on this one.
It is possible to be fat and healthy. I was very unhealthy when I was skinny – I was depressed and mad and hungry all the time. Even though I looked conventionally beautiful I was miserable. Barely sleeping, barely eating, my intellectual capacities greatly dimmed, I know I was unhealthy.
Physical and mental health are connected. I think exercise is a good thing – I love endorphins – and I feel good in my body and mind when I exercise. I also know that exercise doesn’t make me lose much weight. In fact, I enjoy food more when I exercise and tend to eat more. I feel sexier because my body feels more fluid. I am more healthy.
My experiences with health authorities have led me to greatly distrust them. I have been lauded my doctors for being healthy when I felt really unfit. I have been told I was too fat by nurses who asked me nothing about my diet or exercise habits, at a time when I was cycling up to 14 miles a day and felt healthier than before. I have been given wrong information about both my sexual and general health owing to assumptions about my queerness and fatness and I know the health system is flawed. Of course there are great health professionals out there, but who gives them their information? How can they better assess my health in a 10-minute session when I live in my body every day? I trust some doctors to help me when I need them, and I grant that they know more about a lot of health issues than me. But I also use my own judgement when listening to their information and take some of it with a pinch of salt. I have already linked it, but in case you missed it, here is a great video about fatness and health from a health professional.
Lastly and, perhaps, most importantly, I don’t believe that society’s aversion to fat people is really about our health. If society really cared about fat people, it wouldn’t laugh at us and characterize us as lazy, stupid and greedy. It’s very easy to laugh and point a finger. I think our collective hatred of fat people reflects our own insecurities. Most people are so miserable, we put other people down to make ourselves feel better. Maybe we’re just all so hungry from those superfood salads that we are secretly jealous of the food that fat people get to eat?!?!
Fat Myth #3: “Fat people are greedy”
From a feminist perspective, the idea of wanting too much fascinates me. For women, it totally makes sense to me that we want more than society tells us we are allowed. We want to be successful, to love and be loved, to have babies, a career, to travel, to be artists… In short, to fulfil our individual potential. We are constantly sidetracked from embracing our desires, of all kinds, by the pressure to fit sexist beauty ideals. We spend so much energy, time and money trying to fit this ideal, we forget our own paths. Unhappy and tired because we are undernourished, we try to achieve an ideal of thinness that by definition slips further and further away.
Some fat activists see the desire to eat and take up space with our fat as fat women’s refusal to be shrunk into the tiny box that society allows us. Told that we should disappear, we do the opposite. We want and so we take.
In terms of overeating as a disorder, which it is, it can also be seen as an expression of thwarted desire. I know I eat sugar when I get the anxiety in my stomach that means I actually want to write. Sugar come downs and the sleepiness of being too full combine with TV to dull my senses, lead me away from my creativity. I eat to dull my desires and in this way deliberately obscure my talents. I want to I hide from the world and live in my dreams rather than my reality. The big bad world is scary. Being miserable is seductive; it seems easier than being happy.
It would be easy for me to say being fat is a wholly positive thing. That I have a great relationship with food and that my fat is 100% good. But it’s not. I know that my fat is both a natural body shape and a symptom of my thwarted creativity. Nothing less than starving myself would make me thin, but there is a level of fatness at which I feel too fat. I know this might seem to undermine some of my fat-positive beliefs, but, like all realities, fat is complicated. Only you can know when you have a positive relationship with food, fat and your body. Only you know when you feel good in your body; when you are healthy. Everyone is different, and it is this individuality that both the cult of thinness and, in some cases, overeating, strives to obliterate.
My most personal response to the characterization of fat people as greedy, as wanting too much, as “incapable of restraint” is why should we restrain ourselves? Why should we downsize our dreams to fit into the tiny, awful mould that society allows us? If overeating is the desire for more, more than we are allowed as women and as human beings, then it is a truly rational response to the life of emotional and artistic subsistence that our capitalist and consumerist society allows.
All my childhood and early adult life I was told I was wrong: too fat, too clever, too different. I wanted too much. Now, I am trying to stop railing against myself. I think the world is a better place if I am who I am meant to be. I receive and give more love the happier I am, I put stuff out there into the world that is a force for good. Who is going to say the unsayable if not me? Who is going to be the crazy artist, if not me? We need our different and crazy people. The truth is, taking up space and acting out our desires, our personal truths, makes us happier and better people.
There you go! All done! Feel free to comment with your own responses to these common fat myths so we can build a fattie army of resistance. Hurrah!
Rant warning! My experiences of clothes shopping in Montreal. A city for thin fashionistas.
Here’s the thing. I love dressing up. I love make-up, skirts and skimpy clothes. I love looking sophisticated, punky and kinky. I love red shoes and lipstick. Short skirts and black lace tops. Beautiful French knickers, framed by a thick 1950s garter belt. But today stepping into a clothing store I was made to feel all wrong.
I am seriously depressed right now. Having gone into a four-storey shop with a good plus size section and tried on about 20 items of clothing all I managed to get was this shitty t-shirt. It’s ridiculous. I mean, what’s it going to take?! All I want are some pretty clothes goddammit so I look sexy and feel good in myself. Argh! As one friend said, I’m not even that big! But this seductive hierarchy of fat versus fatter is not even the point. No one – no matter their body shape – deserves to feel too big to be sexy.
This is what the clothes industry does. It tells fat people, sorry, you’re not meant to be in this store. You don’t have the right to wear these clothes. You’re not allowed to feel good about yourself. Please go to the one store in the city that has plus-size items and buy an overpriced flowery dress. For God’s sake, don’t come in here! You make us look bad.
I feel I have said this, like, a million times before, but the choices the fashion industry makes are not benign. They are carefully calculated to promote an ideal female body that is virtually impossible for the majority of women to emulate. Did you know that in the UK the average size of women is 16? This is my size, and today, in Canada (which is meant to be a fatter country forgodssake), I couldn’t find any skirts that fit me. On a good day I think that this collective exclusion of clothes for fat people is mostly unconscious. On a bad day, like today, I know it is deliberate. I know my thin friends find it hard to find clothes that fit them, often spending hours of their time and a lot of money to find outfits that they feel good in. But there is a difference between the shopping experience of fat and thin women. If a shop for doesn’t even stock your size, this absence suggests that young and fat women don’t exist. That you don’t exist. Thin people have a right to complain about the fashion industry too, but their experiences are just not comparable to ours. The fact that most high street (that’s main street for you North Americans) stores don’t even stock my size makes me one seriously pissed off shopper with damaged self-esteem.
The fashion industry has given me this problem and now I have to deal with it. I have two options. One, I say fuck it and carry on my happy fat way, somehow dragging the dregs of my self-esteem with me into a far more expensive online shop. Or I capitulate to the system and lose some weight. I know that if I drop one size that I will just about fit into many stores’ ‘large’ and I will finally be able to find affordable and chic clothing. I’ll be happier because I’ll look prettier. Or will I?
I have always thought this: Just one size smaller, and I’ll be prettier, happier, more productive. I’ve always thought that the answer to my love-life, success and happiness lies in the elusive ‘one size smaller.’ Maybe to some extent it does. It takes a self-confident person to date a fattie andfat people are less likely to be chosen for the job than their thin colleagues. But, having been both a size 12 and a size 18, I know that my inner state of mind has always been the same. I have been a miserable size 12, a suicidal size 14 and happy somewhere else. Does the clue to my happiness lie in the size of my stomach? Despite all my logical arguments to the contrary I believe, that yes, it does. I know this is brainwashing. My acceptance of a self-hating lie. But faced with being fat and broke in bad clothes, or thinner and looking good in more affordable clothes, what am I going to choose? Do I even really have a choice?
It’s all very well for Forbes-listed Lady Gaga to proclaim she loves all her ‘Little Monsters’ fat, anorexic and gay, but how can I, as a fat person, keep my self-esteem intact in the face of a world that routinely makes me pay for it? Did you know that if you Google ‘fat people’ the first suggested search terms are ‘fat people jokes’ and ‘fat people falling’?
I am incapable of thinking I am pretty now. Looking at old photos I used to hate, I can see how beautiful I was. But looking at a photo taken recently, I can only think ‘fat, fat, fat.’
Luckily, I can change this self-hatred into anger into art through my writing here. This makes it useful, but it is pretty hard, and I can always use some help. How do you guys fight self-hatred? How do you teach yourself to be more comfortable in your body? I’ve found a coupleof awesome articles about loving your body. But I’d love to hear your ideas.
I long for the day, when I can say ‘I’m hungry’ and it doesn’t mean ‘I’m fat’ or ‘I’m ugly’ or ‘I’m a failure.’ I write about my personal relationship with food, mean girls, and how food is never just nutrition for any woman.
Wahoo! First post from the U of K, on my way to Canadia. I said I be back… Eat your heart out Arnold Schwarzenneger… Let me know what you think 🙂
A friend of mine said to me this Summer that women are constantly in competition with each another. This was a real penny drop moment for me. I was, like, wow that is so true! That’s the reason so many of my female friendships have hiccups! Because we are constantly trying to be better than each other!
I think this competition is especially noticeable around body image. I know, like, a million other people have said it before, but women are taught by the media and our culture that we are only valued in terms of our looks. It makes sense to me then that we try to gain power by being the prettiest girl out there.
I find it difficult to relate to other women because I am taught that my worth lies in my body. I am always trying to be prettier, thinner, hotter than the next girl. I find it deeply hurtful when someone I like fancies my thin friend and not me. I know intellectually that if someone fancies a thin person, it doesn’t mean they won’t like fat me. But, emotionally, it just doesn’t compute.
Women often put the next girl down in order to make ourselves feels better. ‘Oh my God, she’s so fat, she shouldn’t be wearing that mini skirt/vest/bikini!’ Of course, this really doesn’t work. This is mean, and being a mean girl doesn’t make you happy. But, more importantly, it also makes you feel bad about yourself. When I think Ew, that girl is so fat! I am also hating the fat parts of myself. And self-hating just isn’t fun.
Today I saw a girl I used to go on the school bus with, like, a million years ago. Like me, she has always been fat – most would say ‘chubby’ – but, unlike me, she was always very chatty and seemed more at home in herself. As a child I always wondered, how can she fat and happy? For me, it always felt that being fat was stopping me from being happy. Now, of course, I realise it’s not fat per se that makes me unhappy; it’s all the energy I devote to self-hating. I believe that if I am thin I will be more attractive, successful and loved. I have been spending a lot of my energy recently trying to deconstruct the idea that I am only worth something in so far as I am conventionally pretty. I am trying to embrace my fat.
Seeing this girl again today after so many years, I was struck by how thin she was. Her face seemed deflated, flat, pulled tight, and all the freckles had been pushed together into one solid colour. Normally jolly, she seemed kind of bitchy. Is that because she’s starving? I wondered. I know she’s getting married soon. Maybe it’s for the wedding.
I know so many women of my age (late twenties/early thirties) and class (middle) who starve themselves. Dieting seems to be the thing to do. I often say to friends when we talk about eating, or fat, that I don’t know one woman who doesn’t have a disordered relationship with eating. Sadly, I think this is true.
The unhealthiness of my own obsession with really hit home when another friend, bored in her last year of university, told me she was thinking about eating all the time. What was normal for me was new for her. The revelation that not everyone is as obsessed about food as I am cast some light on my own habits. I’ve recently realised that I use food as a block, either to stop myself from writing or to make myself feel better when I find writing emotionally hard. I have all these great ideas, but I can’t write now, I’m too full. Too jumped up on sugar to sit down and write.
Sometimes I think that I am trying to fill a hole with the wrong substance.Sometimes I think that if I write enough, I will forget to eat and then I will be thinner. I long to be thinner. Sometimes I think that my relationship with food is so fucked up, I despair of ever being healthy.
Food is never just food for me, or for any woman. Food is moral, food is ‘naughty.’ Food is fat and thin. Food is beauty, happiness and being loved. Food is everything.
Every time I eat I think about my body. Even when I am satisfied and it is delicious I think, great, now I won’t want to eat anything else today and I’ll lose weight. It’s compulsive. It’s really fucking sad. And you know what? Being obsessed with food is boring. It’s boring for me and it’s boring for the people who know me. As writer Laurie Penny’s sister said to her about Penny’s anorexia:
Laurie Penny, ‘Life Tastes Better Than Skinny Feels’
You are grumpy and boring when you starve yourself. Julia Robert’s character in romcom Notting Hill says, ‘I’ve been on a diet every day since I was 19, which basically means I’ve been hungry for a decade.’ Sometimes I wonder if most women feel like this. When I was 18 and at my thinnest, all I thought about, every day was food. I would plan my food meticulously, down to the timing, the amount. A bowl of muesli for breakfast, an apple for a snack when I got really hungry. A bowl of pasta for dinner and – my daily tasteless treat – a mug of Cadbury’s Highlights before bed.
The association of eating with sin and not eating with virtue is such a well known truism that’s it feels trite to even write. But when are we women going to stop measuring our own worth in calories? I long for the day when I can just eat and not translate it into how much fat is going onto my body. I long for the day, when I can say ‘I’m hungry’ and it doesn’t mean ‘I’m fat’ or ‘I’m ugly’ or ‘I’m a failure’ but it just means I want something to eat.
Part 2 of 2 on parties: norms in straight vs. queer spaces, how to create a safer atmosphere and is there such a thing as unspoken consent?
Last week, I was really enraged at the sexist dynamics of a party, which had advertised itself as a respectful, erotic place for people of all persuasions. I felt like the lack door policy, and the permission of cameras, led to a sexist dynamic of straight men in casual clothes ogling women dressed-up in erotic wear. I was frustrated that the organisers hadn’t reinforced their door policy and allowed people in who were not on the guest list. I thought they needed to take responsibility for the atmosphere of the parties they create and acknowledge where they go wrong.
The vibe of this party got me thinking about the difference between this, a mixed party for straight and queer people, and queer parties for queers. My experience of mixed parties is, sadly, that I often feel the ‘freaky queers’ are being objectified by the ‘normal’ straight people. I get angrily defensive of my people when I feel we are put on display for the titillation of straight people. When we are just expressing our freaky selves in an atmosphere that we assumed would be safe.
Although I have many criticisms of the dynamics of queer communities, I do think there are some things we do well. Although our attempts to talk about hierarchies and prejudices are flawed, at least we are trying to talk about them. I don’t like imposing a blanket ban on straight men from spaces, because there are some straight men I would like to flirt with. But last week reminded me of how blessed I am that I can sometimes go to a party where I can dress like a pretty slut, and feel safe doing that.
Last week I promised I would answer the tricky question, ‘is there such a thing as unspoken consent?’ Hmm. I really do set myself up for challenges, don’t I? I don’t really want to discuss sexual consent here, but I do want to discuss the norms of queer parties. I appreciate queer scene attempts to cultivate a respectful atmosphere where people feel safe. I have seen this a lot in Berlin around the treatment of trans folks at FLT (Women, Lesbian, Trans) parties. In our invitations to events, such as on Facebook, we use the space to lay out rules; how we imagine the space is going to be. We suggest what kind of atmosphere we are trying to cultivate. There is a leaflet that sometimes circulates on Berlin toilet doors that is a guide to the respectful treatment of trans folk. For the alternative pride march in Berlin, a group of femmes also made a guide to respecting femmes for the Berlin community, which has a history of not being so hot in femme respect.
When organising The Berlin Femme Show 2012 I got annoyed at how fussy people were about photographers and wouldn’t let people photograph them, but now I understand it a bit more. I hate to feel put on a stage, my freaky femininity, eroticism or queerness there for the entertainment of ‘normal’ others. I feel this especially when I am not performing. I expect and want attention when I do burlesque. I also want sexual attention from other queers at parties. But I see now that things like a ban on cameras helps to create a respectful atmosphere where no-one feels like they are being the freak and non-consensually performing for others.
Two days ago, a pretty shitty incident happened outside a mixed queer/straight club in Berlin. The party offered free entry to Queens and Kings, and because I couldn’t afford the entry fee, I decided to get changed into my Queen outfit on the street. This involved taking off my jeans to reveal stockings, putting on high-heeled boots and taking off my top so that all I was wearing were sparkly tit tassles and a net cardigan. A Queen indeed. Unfortunately, some drunk teenage boys took my near nudity as an excuse to come right up to me and stare at me, make some rude remarks and try to grab hold of me. My reaction to this was violent. I told them to fuck off and went to kick them. They left me alone after this threat, but I entered the party feeling angry with them, and guilty at my own violent reaction. Luckily, a friend was with me and escorted me to the door; otherwise I would have been afraid I would be attacked outright.
Perhaps I was naïve. Getting changed on the street and not expecting any unwanted attention. I had just come from being on a drag and burlesque stage, where I performed topless and was treated with nothing but respect by the audience. I think sometimes I forget that Berlin isn’t this big happy queer play space and that some men, when faced with a half-naked woman, think it’s their lucky day. A perfect opportunity to … what? I have no fucking idea what goes on in their heads at that moment. I pride myself on my empathy – my ability to understand others’ points of view, especially when I don’t agree with them – but I can’t imagine those teenage boys’ thought processes at that moment. I think it’s something to do with being macho, being in a group and wanting to show off to their friends. I don’t think they are thinking clearly. I think they are being drunk, and hyper and talking about girls and then they see a sexy girl and they do something really fucking stupid. I hope they feel bad about what happened. I bet, on some level, they do.
These two recent experiences have left me feeling exhausted by the fight for my bodily autonomy in straight spaces, and grateful that queer spaces do exist where sometimes, just sometimes, I can be who I am and not expect to be attacked for it.
I would also like to talk about violence as a response to sexual harassment. My instinctive reaction when attacked is to yell, swear and hit back. I have beat myself up about this but found it affirming to hear two feminine, queer lady friends of mine talk about their own violent reactions to being queer bashed or sexually assaulted. One told me she will kick and fight back until she sees understanding in their eyes that they have done wrong.
I would be interested to hear about your own reactions to sexist, homophobic or transphobic violence. How do you react and are these reactions deliberate or instinctive? How do you feel about the way you react?
Hey guys! So, some of you may know this already, but I have a one year working visa for Canadia! Woop, woop! This means that I will sadly be leaving Berlin in 10 days, forever and ever and ever. Until I come to visit at least. It’s truly been a blast being here. Truly. I think I will blog about all the things I have learnt over my past 2 years here and post it soon. However, first things first. If you haven’t seen me perform and you want to, next Saturday is your last chance! I will be doing a solo at Berlin’s Trash-Deluxe. Sneaky sneak preview: I will be doing something involving oil and condoms. Oh, yeah.
Now, back to business. In this, the first of two posts on sexual norms at parties, I describe my adventures at an erotic salon. I ask, what dynamics do we agree to when we go to erotic spaces? Who is doing the looking at these events and how do we negotiate consent?
Last night I went to an erotic performance party. All in all, I am really glad I went. I got to see beautiful women doing bondage play and hang out in a small studio, where they showed silent porn films from the twenties in the cellar downstairs (so tempting to make silly voiceovers). I drank absinthe with flaming sugar dropped into the glass and chilled with an ice cube, and ate poached wild peaches with whipped cream. All of these things were great. However, as the night progressed, increasingly more men came into the private party. I was irritating by the increasing inequality of the gender ratio and couldn’t quite put my finger on why this bothered me, until my friend observed that none of these men were dressed up. This despite the fact that the event was promoted with a specific dress code, and the majority of the early party comers were dressed in extravagant, salon wear.
The erotic salon dress code had inspired all the early comers to wear clothes that suggested fantasies of 1920s Paris: flapper dresses, braces and white shirts, large kohled eyes and sculpted hair. Yet, nearly all the men that arrived after midnight were dressed in normal, casual Berlin wear: jeans, t-shirts, business suits and black shirts. One man even wore a beanie (not sexy!). Increasingly, the earlier participants were pushed to the walls while drunken men laughed and gestured raucously in the middle. The atmosphere of erotic tension and decadence that the organisers had been so careful to cultivate was destroyed as I gradually felt less comfortable and more angry at the shift in the dynamic.
My friend’s observation made me realise that I wasn’t just angry because a mixed queer-straight party had turned into an average Friday night heterosexual party, but also because the gender shift reinforced a really sexist dynamic of observer and observed.
As a promoter of themed parties, I know the importance of dress codes. Encouraging people to consider their outfits and dress especially for the occasion is an invitation to participate in the event. The sophisticated and sexy dress code for this party suggested that attendees would help to create the atmosphere of decadence, and were expected to participate in a respectful way, much in the same way as attendees of a sex party. Dress codes at sex and play parties are specifically necessary: tailoring your outfit to fit the event is a declaration that I am one of you, I am participating in this event; I am not merely an observer.
“the gender shift reinforced a really sexist dynamic of observer and observed”
Now, to be clear, this was not a sex party. This was a salon for erotic performers to network amongst ourselves, while enjoying an atmosphere of decadence and some subtle titillation from the performances. Making out was OK, however any bondage or more intense sexual encounters that weren’t part of a performance would have to wait for a less public space. It was a guest-list only event, and the dress code suggested sophisticated and sexy with a hint of smuttiness. Corsets and feathers and top hats were great; complete nudity would have been inappropriate.
Although it is normal to pay to get into erotic parties, this one was free and was promoted as a networking event for erotic performers. To me, this reinforced the idea that it was a participatory event. It was not as if we were paying money to watch performers on a stage. The canapés were free, and the drinks were cheap. The performers weren’t paid, and we therefore owed them respect. Of course, you should respect any sex performer that you see. But I kept thinking about London and how expensive a salon like this would be there and I realised that when you pay a lot of money for an event, you do expect the performers to perform for you. The cigarette girls walking around selling something, and the burlesque women and MCs in their expensive outfits are, then, there to be looked at (but not touched). You are paying for that experience of titillation; an erotic service. But as an attendee at a private party I had not bargained for performing for a group of drunken heterosexual men. I would have liked to flirt gently with a respectful man in a top hat, but I was not up for being the exotic treat on a straight lads’ night out.
The theme of the night was ‘don’t take a fucking picture of me, you jerk.’ I had to put my hand in front of the lens three times to stop a guy from photographing me eating. Another man sitting right next to us stared unblinkingly at my friend, as though she wasn’t really there, as if she were on a screen and he had paid to watch her. When he angled his camera at her face (he was close enough to touch her), I leaned forward and suggested, ‘maybe you should ask her before you take a photograph of her.’ It was only when I repeated myself that his eyes focused on me and realised that he was talking to a real-live human being and wasn’t going to get away with pure observation. He guiltily mumbled that he would delete the photo and soon afterwards disappeared into the crowd. The fact that he didn’t respond with a respectful, ‘I’m sorry, can I take a photo of you?’ but reacted as though I had shut him down, caught him in the act of doing something illicit, showed that he knew he had done something wrong.
“I would have liked to flirt gently, but I was not up for being the exotic treat on a straight lads’ night out”
At queer parties, or mixed parties where queers feel safe, I often don’t mind women taking photo of me. But every time a man tries to photograph me, especially when he doesn’t ask and assumes that it will be fine by me – that I have agreed to be there for his sexual entertainment – I, understandably, get really pissed off.
My friends and I concluded that what we was needed, as well as a stricter door policy, was an awesome detector. Like a metal detector, but which could detect awesomeness in straight men and admit them accordingly. I, personally, hope that one of you guys can invent this for me. At least, at the next party I organise, I am going to make damn sure that I enforce the dress code!