Queers are Slutty, Lesbians are Boring

Why queer feminism is sexist, queer snobbery and, somehow, the Grand Prix.

Well, that was a bit ugly wasn’t it? All that fighting about the Berlin Femme Show. Meow, meow. I admit, swearing publicly on my blog wasn’t the best move, but it was the accumulation of years of femme hatred and misunderstanding and I was just sick of it and lost my temper. However, just like Nina Simone, I am a fluffy little kitten on the inside and I don’t want to be misunderstood. Oh well, on to the next topic.

Earlier this week I wrote a review of queer porno Mommy is Coming. It’s a pretty straightforward film with lots of sex and solid, quite funny, storyline. If you feel so inclined, I think you should go see it. However, something about it irked me a bit, and I’d like to talk about it more here.

The popularity of my post on hypersexualisation within the queer community obviously touched a raw nerve for many of you. A lot of you agreed that you felt pressure to want to and to have a lot of sex in order to fit in the queer scene. It seems, that in order to be a hip queer in the 21st century, you need to be very sexual and sexual in a certain way. I know that I’ve talked about the hypersexualisation of queer and the privileging of polyamory a fair bit already, but what can I say? I’m still not over it.

“Queer is an ideal that none of us feel we can reach”

Last year I attended a zine workshop run by a friend. Each participant was asked to make a page for a collaborative zine for Lad.i.y.fest Berlin. We weren’t asked to focus on a particular topic, but given that this was a group of mostly queers at a feminist festival, nearly all of us wrote about our queer identities, which, of course, we probably all see as feminist. It was really fascinating to see a group of people, with hardly any prior guidance, all create pieces about their struggle to fit in the queer community and coming out as queer. One person wrote about feeling outcast as a bisexual, another a celebration of polyamory. I, of course, went on an angry femme rant. Diverse as they were, it took my friend’s perspective to see what all of these pieces had in common. She summarised – lifting her hand above her head – it seems that queer is an idea we think of as up here, and we – she moved her hand down to her waist – feel that we can’t get at it and are stuck down here. Queer is an ideal that none of us feel we can reach.

This idea has stuck with me over the past year and come up again and again as I keep hitting wall upon wall within the queer community: femmephobia, the privileging of polyamory over monogamy, queer masculinities over queer femininities and BDSM over so-called ‘vanilla’ sex. Although we queers congratulate ourselves on living by radical ideas that eliminate sexist and patriarchal hierarchies, we too create hierarchies that cause us to push away individuals who don’t conform to our standards.

Can any of us, as queers, say that we feel 100% comfortable in the queer community? I certainly don’t.

Of course, I know that many of you lovely readers are super intelligent. I know that many queers understand that the queer community can never be a happy patriarchy-free bubble, because this is the world we live in. And the trouble with the patriarchy is that it gets everywhere. But I do think we rest on our laurels too much. We are a bit too self-congratulatory and too quick to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit the queer bill.

Over the past few months I have come to distrust the phrase ‘queer feminism.’ In fact, when I hear an event described as queer feminist, I am most likely to grumble and not want to go. This is because the values I see queer feminism representing here in Berlin are actually ones that I find sexist. Queer feminism, has, for me, come to mean a party where I will be the only femme and I will be ignored. No one will hit on me and I will struggle to find anyone who looks like me. I’ll smile if I see anyone wearing a bit of make-up, a hint of colour. The only trans represented at these parties will be transmasculinities.

 “I started to notice that calling myself a lesbian was distinctly uncool”

When I came out for the second time as bisexual (I had come out as a lesbian before, and then promptly fallen in love with a guy), I did so not because I really felt bisexual (I thought of the guy moment as a freak accident rather than a possibly recurring event) but because it was the cool thing to say. As a girl, it was OK for me to come out as bisexual because that wasn’t seen as threatening to the heterosexist status quo. As a bisexual woman, I still had one foot in the hetero pond, and everyone knows that girls can’t really fuck each other anyway. It took a lot of courage, and it was a very slow process, for me to later come out as lesbian, an identity that I found fitted me better.

Later, moving to Montreal and getting my first taste of living within a queer community, I started to notice that calling myself a lesbian was distinctly uncool here too. Real queers have fluid sexualities and don’t focus on such unimportant things as gender. Real queers love the person, not the gender. It became very fashionable to say, “Man, I experience my sexuality as fluid” (except without the ‘Man’, because actually if you were cool you wouldn’t sound like someone trying to imitate a rap star from the 90s, like I do). I get the whole sexuality is fluid idea. My own sexuality has changed faster than a tyre in the Grand Prix and I don’t think it’s my job to dictate someone else’s desires for them. However, I don’t like snobbery and such statements, with their implied I’m-a-better-queer-than-you, really piss me off.

So, how does all this relate to Mommy is Coming and queer porn? In my review of the film, I noted that although it showed some fine butch-femme and butch-butch sex, its view of what ‘queer sex’ is still felt pretty limited to me.

As queers and/or lesbians, what you will, we are starved for representation in film. There are still very few films out there about us, and even fewer that don’t pathologise us completely in order to ease heterosexist angst about queers taking over the world. Mainstream films about us portray us as fucked-up power lesbians who have non-penetrative sex on flowery beds next to our teddy bears. So it’s not surprising that our community-made queer films tend to go in the opposite direction. BDSM, dildos, public sex and leather. However, just like being a lesbian is uncool, it feels to me like the prevalence of these types of sex and relationships in queer films show a one-sided view of queer life. They seem to be saying that this is the epitome of what it means to fuck and love as a queer. If you’re a cool queer, this is what you’ll be doing in your bed/dungeon/swing tonight.

As a reader commented on my latest article:

“In the same way rad fem lesbian separatism did a fine job of ostracising certain women based on an essentialist reading of bodies, I find that far too much ‘queer’ culture and porn is doing exactly this again under a different banner”

Thanks, supernaut, for summarising so well. It seems that, instead of living in a happy-go-lucky world free of sexism and social norms, we queers are enforcing social norms in exactly the same way as the big evil Patriarchy Dude does ‘out there.’ Queer films promote polyamorous relationships, public sex and BDSM as a privileged viewpoint.

Contrast this with the fluffy-bunny-rabbit version of lesbianism we see in mainstream L-films, and you get a kind of kinky devil versus innocent angel version of gay life. Queers are leather-touting bois, lesbians are asexual little girls. It’s pretty interesting that these two images mirror the virgin/whore dichotomy, (not to mention masculinities vs. femininities) right?

My point here isn’t to slate Mommy is Coming, or to write a harsh critique of the few queer and mainstream lesbian films we have. I just want to point out that, yes, we do put too much pressure on each film to represent how we live our lives, and, yes, there aren’t enough films about us. So, budding queer filmmakers, who’s ready to take up the challenge?

Did you like this article? Then stay tuned for: Radical vs. Queer feminism; the showdown, next week.

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’

i don’t want to have sex

This is the first part of 2 posts on hypersexualisation within the queer scene. This part outlines a general feeling that in order to be queer, you have to be sexual and the second explores specifically attitudes around polyamory. Look out for part 2 next week!

At the moment I am reading this wonderful zine I picked up at the Zinefest Berlin this weekend. It’s called ‘Wer ‘A’ sagt, muss nicht ‘B’ sagen‘ (‘B doesn’t automatically follow from A’) and it’s about asexuality. Asexuality. A word that I have been aware of for a while – it was always included in the breakdown of queer I used to do at high school workshops on homophobia (LGBTTSIQQA, phew!) – but, to be honest, we never really addressed it. Reading about asexuality, and asexual folks touched me because it reminded me of similar thoughts I have been having about socialising in the queer community.

I don’t want to have sex. I don’t want to have a lover. I am not an asexual person, but at the moment this is how it is.

“Deciding to be single for a while has been one of the most self-loving things I have done for myself this year”

A few weeks ago a friend asked me whether I have had a lover since moving to Berlin. When I said no, she said ‘oh, that’s tragic.’ And I thought, why would you assume that it’s tragic? It’s not. Deciding to be single for a while has actually been one of the most self-loving things I have done for myself this past year. She assumed that as a ‘normal healthy queer’ I will want to have a lover and I will want to have sex.

I have spent years trying to fit in. When I was at school I spent a lot of energy trying to become part of the crowd. To have the normal style and normal opinions. Then, when I was 14, fully a teenager, I realised I didn’t want to fit in anymore. I wanted to be one of the freaks. Where I belonged. And I worried, is it too late? Have I lost my own individuality? I think I am coming to the same place in the queer community.

At a queer festival I attended this summer I was excluded from ‘the most exciting party of the week’ because it was a sex party and I don’t want to go to sex parties. I had fun decorating the sex spaces with UV reflective string, but I ended up spending the evening by myself in my bedroom. There should have been another option.

“I would like us to examine the difference between sexpositivity and feeling obliged to have sex because it’s cool”

In a community which defines itself by alternative gender and sex expressions, not wanting to have sex makes me feel like an outcast.

There is a huge pressure to have, and to want, sex all the time. This pressure is not exclusive to the queer community. I have felt it ever since I was a kid; when am I going to get my first boyfriend, when am I going to lose my virginity, when am I going to fall in love? It is a truism that we live in a hyper-sexualised society and I would like us to examine the difference between sexpositivity and feeling obliged to want/have sex because it’s cool. The question of where sex belongs in the queer community is a really interesting one. The queer community as I see it has emerged from lesbian and gay communities which historically defined themselves by the sexual desires of their members. Although our queer community is now based on alternative gender as well as sexual expressions, I imagine, non-history-major that I am, that this sexual root is where our scene today comes from.

Living in a queer community whose members are mostly girls and guys who were assigned female at birth (cis guys are in the minority at the spaces I frequent), I totally get the feminism of asserting our right to own our sexuality. We have been told that as ‘women’ we are naturally frigid, naturally monogamous. All we want to do is settle down and have babies. Erm, actually, not everyone, no.

So we have asserted our right to fuck who we want, when we want, however we want. I get where the sex positive movement has come from and I love the fact that BDSM is out of the closet, as it were. However, poly and kink and sex have become undeniably cool. And that’s where the problems start. Because it creates a hierarchy. Many queers assume that poly and kink are inherent to being queer. If you’re not into them, then you’re not queer. Not cool.

Working against such stark cultural assumptions – women are naturally frigid and monogamous – leads us to take the opposite position – we are slutty and naturally polyamorous. However, I don’t think the answer to sexist assumptions is to just flip the coin. Things are always more grey, more nuanced than that.

Now, as someone who is working some shit out, I need to not have sex or a relationship for a while. This doesn’t mean that I have lost my sexuality, rather that I am prioritising finding out other stuff about myself. I am sure that my experience is not unique. People go through less sexual times in their lives and I think it’s important that we recognise this too. Sometimes sex is not okay.

An old colleague of mine from Canada has recently been involved in an art exhibition in London called ‘The Flipside: When Sex Is Not Okay.’ They define not okay experiences as

“times when someone has felt unsafe, unable to say no, threatened, misled, or pressured into something, as well as experiences of sexual abuse or assault.  It also includes times when people have had distressing emotions or states of mind during sex – which might mean feeling dirty, guilty or ashamed; having flashbacks; or disassociating.”

Although this group is more focused on survivors of sexual assault, it does highlight that sometimes people cannot or do not want to have sex.  That sex isn’t always a positive experience. I, still, feel pressured to have sex in the same way that I felt pressured to lose my virginity when I was a teenager. I still have a hard time saying no.

The friends and acquaintances I know in the queer community seem to be fairly aware of the fact that sexual assault exists and of the need for safer spaces. Although I do not want to appropriate other people’s experiences, maybe we can extend this understanding to an awareness that some people don’t want to have sex at times for whatever reason. I am not sure how to do this but let’s put our thinking caps on. Maybe just keeping this in mind next time you ask me which sex party I am going to on Friday (where you assume that I will of course want to go to a sex party) would help.

I would really like to live in a community which recognises that my decision to be single for the next while is actually a really positive thing. That celebrates the fact that I am able to do this for myself. It takes a lot of guts to sit down here and write my personal story. But I hope that in outing myself, other people will also feel able to say, actually, I don’t want to have sex today, this year, whatever. Not everything revolves around sex.

Don’t forget to check out part 2 on polyamory next week!

tits and tassles

When I told people I had started doing burlesque performances, one of my closest friends told me she was worried about me. She told me that self-confidence had to come from within, and not from the approval of other people. Her objection made me think long and hard about the dynamic that happens when, as a feminine woman, I take my clothes off on stage.

My friend, let’s call her Emily, suggested that if you are a woman and take your clothes off on stage in a seductive way, you are somehow buying into sexism. You are encouraging other people to view you as a ‘sexual object’ and not a ‘real person.’ Of course I think many men’s sexist harrassment of me comes from this very same assumption. That when they look at me all they see is a blonde feminine white woman, and they perceive this as a weakness that they can attack.

“You could call it feminism with tassles on”

So, this is where things get tricky. Because even though we have all these negative associations with femininity, and female bodies, I refuse to accept them. I refuse to believe that men own my body. That when I undress I am always doing so for a male audience, a male gaze. I do own my body. And the assumption that many men make, that for some reason my dressing up, beauty, or even undressing, is for them, always makes me really really angry.

Going up on stage and performing for a mostly queer audience is an act of self-love for me. When I perform my beauty and sexuality onstage I am inviting people to participate in a specific vision of myself. And this is a vision that I control. I decide what I will do, which parts of my body I will or will not reveal and how long the performance will last. I choreograph this presentation from the song choice to the dance steps to the rose that I hand to the lady in the first row. And in this sense, I am asserting my agency, my ownership of my own body. I choose how it is presented and how it is viewed.

I think burlesque can be feminist because as a performer you are in control of that sexual gaze. You decide to which parts of the body it is directed, for how long and how nude these body parts are. I think the best burlesque conveys a message while teasing at the same time. The climax of much burlesque is the ‘tit moment.’ The topless performer turns around and you see (giggle) breasts! But these breasts are still partially covered; the nipples hidden behind decorated pasties. The naughtiness of the boobies is emphasised by the fact that the nipples are never shown. You are allowed to look, but you don’t get to see everything. The titillation (awesome word) comes from this, ultimate, refusal to show all. I, the performer, am in control. Maybe this control over the audience’s gaze teaches us something about the way we look at women.

“I am inviting people to participate in a specific vision of myself”

I don’t think that I can say that all burlesque is feminist. I am sure there are acts out there and dynamics between the performer and audience that I would find sleazy and uncomfortable. Not all performers find power in their own performance, and maybe they have been coerced into performing for economic reasons, rather than their own interest.

But for me, burlesque has given me more space for self-expression. It has allowed me to explore and show-off my sexual femininity in a queer community which often devalues feminine women (more in another post). In showing or not my tits and other parts of my body, I feel that I am showing and teaching the audience about the complexities of looking at women. There is something very powerful about pasties. You could call it feminism with tassles on. Give ’em the old razzle dazzle, and they might just start to see your point of view.

So, here you go, Emily:

Ta Daa!