Why are you still in that shitty relationship?

OK, so maybe the title’s a cheap gimmick. But I got you to look, didn’t I? This one’s about the pressure to be in a relationship and how it affects our self-esteem and happiness.

As a teenager and woman in her early 20s I felt like I had a lot to prove. Specifically, a lot to prove sexually. Upon meeting new people, I felt like a failure because I wasn’t in a relationship. My short and, most often, disastrous mini dating spurts made me question if there was something wrong with me. Why couldn’t I get a girl? (I was more gay back then. And no, homophobes, if you have mysteriously managed to stumble upon this post, it wasn’t ‘a phase.’)

I found that every time I found someone I did like I ‘fucked it up’ by being overly keen. I was desperate to be with them no matter how much I actually liked this person or how awesome they were or were not. I had such low self-confidence, and I wanted to prove that I was loveable (to myself and, I imagined, to the people around me), so would take any offer I could get. This trend started with a disgusting first kiss and continued throughout my twenties with a series of failed mini-relationships with, for the most part, people I wasn’t really that into in the first place.

Nowadays, I find that my self-esteem has improved a lot but I still often feel unloved. I question whether my friends really like me and I find it hard to accept the love that is freely given to me. I also don’t think I’m the only one who feels like this. I have seen many of my loved ones stick with violent relationships, or relationships with people they are just not that into.

We feel a more valued member of society when we are in a relationship, no matter our relative level of happiness or how dys/functional the relationship is. We feel more presentable to the world, more socially acceptable. I wonder what it is about our society that makes people desperate to be in a relationship, any relationship, at whatever cost?Maybe it’s because the forces that be would prefer us to be preoccupied with the heteronormative structure of exclusive pairing, children and paying the mortgage, than single and dangerously free to think outside and, perhaps, smash the system.  Neil Patrick Harris knows best

Despite all its lip service to individual freedom, society wants us to be in a relationship, no matter how bad that relationship is and no matter how unhappy we are. I am more approved of when I’m in a relationship. I’m seen as more successful and I am taken more seriously. Perhaps this is one reason why groups of friends often get married orpregnant around the same time. It’s a culmination of the pressure to do what is socially acceptable plus female competition – to prove you are just as, or more, successful than your friends.

I am certain that this social pressure falls more heavily on women. We are judged so much more harshly than men. It is far more important to keep us in our subservient place by making us neurotic about the importance of being in a relationship and if, when and how we have children.

When I started dating my partner, I was both touched and slightly irritated by just how happy everyone was about it. Everyone wanted to tell me just how happy there were; even my best friend’s mother declared “I’m so happy she’s found someone.” I appreciate the well-meaning behind such declarations, but I also want to shout, “I was quite happy being single, you know!” I did my best to rail against the feeling that the most important thing in my life was getting a man, and the Disney narrative of being saved by your lover.

Being in a relationship is great, in so many ways, but it also hasn’t saved me. My problems haven’t gone away, I just have more consistent support to deal with them. I’m happier, but I’ve also had to compromise in some areas, for example with the use of my time. A bit like having a baby, relationships aren’t to be entered into lightly. They’re a huge waste of your time if they’re not right.

My partner is great, but there is a lot more to both of us than our relationship.

I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that I’m sick of being valued in comparison to others. I’m sick of female competition to get the guy, marry the guy, be impregnated by the guy. And this competition definitely carries over to affect queer folks, as the sex-obsessed queer ‘community’ proves.

I would love to know whether you have felt this pressure to date, or to stay in a relationship because, gasp, what if you are truly unloveable and can’t get someone else? Have you felt this pressure as a guy, and why do think it’s so hard to think outside the relationship box?

I am more than my relationship. I am more than a single, dating or married person. And I know you are too.

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Shamelessly Single

Howdy folks! Long time no everything! I’m back, and this time with a guest post I wrote for the Shameless blog. This mag for women and queer youth does awesome work here in Toronto and I’m proud to be on their site.

Part one of two on living single lives. Shameless reader Laura Brightwell examines what happens when you choose to be celibate in a community that defines itself by its sexuality

Sometimes people cannot or do not want to have sex. When I started to tell people, 3 years ago, that I didn’t want to date anyone, I was always afraid. I anticipated people’s judgment, much like I had anticipated their homophobia when I came out as a lesbian as a teenager. And yet, I still said it, because in my gut I thought it was important. I’ve always been stubborn.

Choosing to be single for the past three years has been one of the most empowering, self-loving choices I have ever made.

Three years ago in the Summer of 2010, I decided to go on anti-depressants. I also decided, at the same time, to be single for as long as it took to get my head back on straight. I arrived at this decision at a difficult time in my life. I needed to break out of negative relationship patterns and I couldn’t see any alternative route. This was my way out.

Growing up, my development steered by teen mags, TV and movies, I focused a lot of my energy on getting a boyfriend. My teenage years presented themselves as a list of milestones to accomplish 1) Kiss a boy (girls don’t count). 2) Have sex. My own enjoyment had nothing to do with accomplishing any of these sexual acts. Any bo(d)y would do. When I finally did kiss a boy, aged 16, I only did it for the social kudos. So that I could be one of the gang. When I had sex for the first time, it wasn’t special, or particularly enjoyable. But I felt a huge sense of relief. Finally, I’d done it. Now I could be an adult. Now I could fit in.

It’s sad to realize that nothing ever changes. Just as I felt the pressure to lose my virginity aged 16, in my twenties I still feel the pressure to be in a relationship. Never mind that the gender of the targeted sexual group has changed, or that my peers are mostly queers. Never mind being surrounded by a politics that is supposed to empower our individual sexualities and orientations. I am still told when to have sex (all the time), how to have it (in a kinky fashion) and with whom (masculine queers). My own desires still don’t count.

There is an enormous amount of social pressure around sex. I remember one conversation I had with a friend about this pressure. I told her I felt like an outsider because I wasn’t in a relationship. After chewing this over for a moment, she observed, “it’s as though being single is the worse thing you can be.”

It has been my experience that being single or celibate makes you an outcast in the queer community in a way that being in a relationship doesn’t. We live in a society structured around the couple and the nuclear family. So being in a relationship, even a same-sex relationship, heck, even a polyamorous relationship, is more tolerated than being single. If you are single, there must be something wrong with you. If you are single, you must be “looking.”

There is a huge stigma around celibacy. From a very young age we are told that being sexual is our raison d’etre; from the princess who needs a prince to rescue her to the action man who has a new girl in every city. No matter how successful you are, no matter your level of happiness, you will always be considered a failure if you don’t have a partner. I am sure that those of us who are socialized as women feel this pressure the most. Yes, you have a degree, yes, you’re a rocket scientist, but do you have a man?

The perverse effect of this pressure to date is that being single can make you unhappy even if it’s what you want.

My choice to be celibate in 2010 threw me into a state of confusion. As a person who hangs out in mostly DIY queer community-type spaces, I suddenly felt excluded from the main language of communication. If my connection with fellow queers wasn’t about sex, then what was it about?

When I published my personal essay “I Don’t Want to Have Sex” on my almost totally unknown blog in 2011, I didn’t really expect much to come of it. I thought that, like my other angry feminist rants, it would past the world by, smaller than a drowned gnat in the big pond that is the internet. I didn’t expect it to get 1000 hits in one day and spark a discussion about sex, sexuality and hypersexualization in the community around me.

My decision to not have sex or a relationship for a while struck a nerve in my queer community. In a community that has historically defined itself by its alternative sexual and gender expressions, what is the place of the person who chooses not to engage in sexual relationships with others? Is the queer community only a place for sexually active queers, or can a space be carved for others too?

I am disappointed at the lack of sexual choice we are presented with as adults. Sex seems to be the way in which we orient ourselves in the queer community. Our desires and our differing genders define us against the “mainstream” world. They offer us legitimacy, but, increasingly, I am finding they offer me a very small box indeed.

Sex positivity is a buzz word in the queer community. Its intention is to remove the stigma from sex and queer sex in a homophobic, sexist and transphobic world. It wants to empower us to live full sexual lives. Yet, sex positivity also has to include being able to say no to sex. It has to include being able to express that, actually, I don’t want to have sex now, for whatever reason. I don’t want to be in a relationship, and that’s OK. As one of the commenters on my blog wrote, “Just no sex is OK too.”

I’ve learned a lot during these past years about judgment and happiness and self-care. There is one thing about human sexuality I now truly believe. We can never find our way to sexual empowerment until we accept our single selves. As long as being single is seen as something undesirable or abnormal, we’ll never be truly sexually empowered, feminist or queer.

I’ve got an award!

wordpress-family-award2

Despite my erratic blogging and difficulty finding the time and self-belief to write, of late. a lovely reader has given me the honour of nominating me for a WordPress Family Award. As I understand it, this award celebrates the WordPress community and is a way of showing appreciation for each other’s work and words. Thank you so much Jenness Johnston for nominating me! I am so lucky.

Although I have always been a bit of a blogger-in-denial (that is, I love blogging but tend to throw my words out there while trying not to think where they will fall – something to do with writer’s block) and therefore have so much more blog reading to do, as part of my acceptance of this award I will nominate 10 inspirational bloggers who deserve to have their work read and appreciated:

1) Lipstick and Teeth. My close friend and political ally. The person who used lipstick in the title of her blog before I did and I was, like, ‘damn’! A person whose posts, although not frequent, are of such great quality that they always impress and inspire me. I highly recommend subscribing to her feed. Katherine, it’s you.

2) Another Visual Diary. A truly inspirational, never-relenting artist who keeps blogging and producing zines and charging around Leipzig and London on her long board. A fierce feminist and a beautiful person who has made me feel supported in my writing and inspired me to continue. Do check her photo diary out.

3) The Flannel Files is my favourite blog title yet. This butch lesbian approaches writing and life in a way that I really identify with.

4) Pankhearst is an independent writer’s collective with a dark sense of humour. I find it hard to summarise what it’s about and – you know what? – I don’t care. Each post speaks to interests I didn’t even know I had.

5) This one-woman SexEd blog is inspiring both because I admire its creator and because it has some truly fascinating and helpful information about sex on it. I love geeking out about these things!

6) A blog that addresses questions of being trans and/or queer, I like CN Lester most when they posts controversial material that sparks discussion between the gays. Like all these blogs, CN deserves this award for consistent, high quality, content.

7) OMG those feminists are funny! Your Monthly Periodical is a collective magazine-style blog that writes witty commentary on pretty much everything.

8) One of the first blogs I started following, I held Discipline and Anarchy up as a model of flawless writing and thought-provoking content. It doesn’t shy away from the controversial and I try to emulate that in Diary.

9) Sheesh! So much talent, such a big internet. Stop! Talking is another angry feminist blog that I just L.U.R.V.E.

10) Never afraid to shine a critical eye on the queer community, A Radical TransFeminist has some great info. I dare you to read it.

‘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?