‘I wore a corset; he wore jeans’ A.K.A. Why do men assume I’m dressed for their entertainment?

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 kind of canape you might expect at an erotic salon

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!

Check in next week for part two on the norms in straight vs. queer spaces, how to create a safer atmosphere and is there such a thing as unspoken consent? 

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!