Your Mileage May Vary, and Other Sex Ed Lessons from Fandom

(Alternate Title: Everything I Know About Sex I Learned from Fanfiction)

In Dan Savage’s most recent podcast he interviews Cindy Gallop, creator of the (somewhat misleadingly titled IMHO) organization Make Love Not Porn ( www.makelovenotporn.com).  Gallop talks about how she realized that many people, especially younger people, are getting a lot of their sexual education via pornography and, absent any alternative sources of information *cough cough actual, comprehensive sexual education cough*, are coming (hehe) away with a lot of misconceptions that can get in the way of a healthy, fulfilling sex life.  MLNP is an effort to provide a more realistic alternative and in essence to encourage critical porn consumption.  People in general, especially younger ones, are much more media literate than they once were (though they could definitely stand be more so) but for a variety of possible reasons (because watching porn is stigmatized so we don’t like to think about it, it taps into our lizard brains, etc.) not many of us apply those skills to porn.  Gallop thinks, and I agree with her, that that should change.

Listening to her talk about all this on the podcast, what was the first thought that sprang to my mind? Thank G-d for fanfiction!  It sounds strange, but the truth is, a lot of what I learned about sex and sexuality came from reading fanfic as a young teenager, and it has proven a much better textbook than the porn vids many of my peers apparently learned from.  After all, no one in a written story is contorting themselves to get a better camera angle, and since fandom isn’t driven by profit no one is trying to reach the largest possible audience so authors are free to express and indulge in all the diversity of real-world sex and sexuality.  Fanfiction is where I learned about safewords and negotiation, it’s where I first started figuring out what gets me going and what does nothing for me.  It’s also where I learned that some people not only aren’t disgusted by things like female pubic hair and love handles, but actually find them appealing.  Fanfiction told me that not everyone wants the same things in bed or looks for the same things in their partners, a revelation after a lifetime of bombardment with identical, airbrushed bodies and interchangeable sex scenes.

Fanfiction also differs from straight-up porn in that the sex isn’t artificially isolated from the rest of the narrative.  In porn, sex serves one purpose exclusively: to arouse the consumer.  It can serve that purpose in fanfic as well, but it can also facilitate character development, advance the plot, or illuminate the relationship between characters.  All this is a lot closer to how sex functions in the real world; no one leaves their personality, history, and relationship at the bedroom door.  This also opens the door to a different kind of sexual diversity: in quality.  No, it doesn’t happen often, but characters in fanfiction do occasionally have *gasp* bad sex.  As do those of us in the real world.

Being exposed to all this during my sexually formative years has given me what feels like a relatively solid foundation for my own sex life.  It’s made me better at asking for and articulating what I want and what I don’t.  Unlike some peers I’ve talked to and those Dan and Cindy spoke about, I don’t spend all my time self-objectifying and frantically evaluating my performance visually.  That’s not to say I’ve been spared entirely, nor that I would want anyone to get their information about sex and sexuality EXCLUSIVELY from fanfiction (there are an awful lot of straight women out there writing some very painful-sounding gay male sex scenes).  Nor is it to say I’m completely sexually liberated, lacking in self-consciousness, and free of hang-ups and body image problems, or that fanfiction is completely responsible for my relative health, but I am better off than many others, and fanfic deserves some of the credit for that.

One further note: during the interview, Dan Savage says that he’s noticed an undercurrent of anger and resentment threading through a lot of straight porn, but he doesn’t think it’s about misogyny or sexism.  It’s just about men wanting women they can’t have, so the porn is doubling as a revenge fantasy.  Sorry Dan, but I’m not buying it.  If it isn’t about gender, then why don’t you find it in gay porn?  Surely there are gay guys out there being rejected and resenting it too?  Yes, anger is a natural response to rejection for many people in many situations, but I think patriarchy shapes pervasiveness and expression of this particular anger.  If men didn’t feel generally entitled to women’s bodies and sexuality then I don’t think there would be this level and intensity of rage.  Add to that the evident desire to punish women sexually, with rape and humiliation, and any argument that this isn’t misogyny gets pretty shaky.  That’s my take on it anyway.

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Kate Middleton’s Nipples

Okay, I admit it – I couldn’t resist a peak at the Kate Middleton photos. You know the ones I mean. Even though it was out of curiosity more than anything else (really!), I’m definitely not proud and a little embarrassed (not enough not to write this though, apparently).  Anyway, I have to say my reaction was somewhat less than scandalized.  The invasion of privacy and all that, yes, definitely scandalizing, but the pictures themselves? Left me wondering A) what’s the big deal about nipples? Because pretty much everything else is visible in a bikini, so they must be what all the shock-and-awe is about, yet, unlike some body parts, literally all of us have them (for further reference, see “nipplegate”), and B) don’t people ever get tired of looking at identical female bodies? From the neck down, Kate Middleton could be pretty much any white female celebrity or model.  She has a fine body, an attractive one even, but looking at it I couldn’t help but feel like I’d seen it a million times before, even though this was technically the first time.  You’ve seen one uber-thin, long-limbed woman, you’ve seen ‘em all.  Of course, it’s different when it’s an actual person rather than a media construct imposed upon one; affection transforms many things, among them the beloved’s body, which becomes something precious and fascinatingly unique no matter its contours.  Without that though, the constant parade of indistinguishable female flesh becomes just…tiresome.  Looking at those photos really brought that home to me.

I suppose that’s not why the pictures were taken or why the photographer was able to sell them for however much they were though: it was about the shiver of surprise people get from seeing an icon in the flesh and realizing she’s actually human and in the grand scheme of things not all that different from themselves, just as hostage to her physicality.  Or maybe it was about an illicit thrill of seeing someone who’d been so carefully packaged and presented to the world without all the trimmings (debatable as that is: is she really free of them in the images in question? Can she ever be?).  Whatever it was, it was definitely more complicated than a simple hunger for more female nudity.  It’s not like anyone is starved for that in this day and age.  What people are hungry for, what I was hungry for, was something else.  The question I’m still mulling over is what.

No, this isn’t a post-feminist world, why do you ask?

Just looking at this makes me feel sick and kind of violated: the barely-implicit misogynist anger, the complete absence of any awareness of female humanity.  This banner ad showed up alongside a page I was reading.  So much for Google invading my privacy to determine which specific ads will appeal to me the most, get under my skin.  This one’s under my skin alright…Is this really what men want?  A living sex-doll at their mercy? I know most don’t, but frankly this seems like a case where one is one too many.

She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful

Lately when I’ve turned on the radio I keep hearing a song about a woman who doesn’t know she’s beautiful.  It’s hardly the first time, and it’s hardly just pop songs that worship the oblivious beauty.  It’s easy to see the appeal, to both men and women.  Few women, afterall, see themselves as beautiful; the idea that maybe they could be without realizing it is incredibly enticing and basically harmless.

Looking a little deeper however, and the appeal becomes more complex.  Maybe this is just me being cynical, but it seems to me that the appeal of such a woman to a man comes down to power.  In our world, physical attractiveness opens doors and counts for a lot.  People seen as attractive make more money and are more likely to get what they want, be it a job, a spouse, or a restaurant reservation.  Certain physical traits that contribute to a conventionally attractive appearance are seen as indicative of positively valued personality characteristics; for example, slenderness is seen as indicative of self-discipline, generosity, and maturity, and blondness of playfulness, good humor, and spontenaity.  Again and again, research has shown that people who are seen as beautiful are assumed to be smarter, more capable, and just better than those who are not.

This power that comes from being physically attractive is known as erotic capital (physical beauty isn’t the only characteristic that confers erotic capital: everything that contributes to a person’s sex appeal and that allows them to leverage it for gains and advantages in other areas is part of it, but physical appearance is obviously a major factor).  In many ways, erotic capital functions the same way as any other form, but it is unique in one crucial aspect: it’s highly contagious.  When a beautiful woman stands next to a less-than-beautiful man, his metaphoric stock rises.  She is assumed to be in high demand, therefore he is assumed to be rich or famous or perhaps exceptionally talented in some socially-valued arena; in other words, to possess a lot of some other form of capitol with which he has bought access to her erotic capital.  He can take advantage of that assumption, leveraging his supposed-capital toward a purpose of his choosing.  This is the meaning of the phrase “arm candy.”

Whether or not a woman is aware of her beauty has no affect on her value as a status symbol.  Her value in this regard rests on the assumptions of people who know little or nothing about her or her companion.  Where it does make a difference is in a woman’s wielding of her own erotic capital.  A woman who doesn’t know she’s beautiful doesn’t know her own power.  She is likely to undervalue herself, and thus her male companion can have the best of both worlds: he doesn’t have to worry about his “arm candy” demanding equality within the relationship, but he can still enjoy her looks and the benefits of her erotic capital.

In other words, I don’t like that song.

Recently two friends told me about their experiences of childhood sexual abuse.  I was angry and sad but not surprised.  Sometimes I feel as though I am drowning in a river of sexual violence (and by violence I mean the literal, physical kind, but also the emotional kind, the kind done by words and, just as bad, by silences).  It makes me want to scream and rage.  It’s at the point where I feel like I need a word to describe the point in the evolution of a female friendship when stories of sexual assault are exchanged.  It’s that routine.

It reminded me of a piece I once read by Katie Roiphe in which she insisted that she “would know if one in four of (her) friends had been raped.”  It stuck in my mind because of the violence of my reaction: I wanted to sneer at her that no, you wouldn’t.  I wanted to reply, have you asked?  The proportion of my friends is far higher than one in four.  Granted, it’s not exactly a random sample; I tend to gravitate toward the damaged and the scarred, young women who’ve lived hard and thus are more likely to have histories of trauma and violation.  I can’t believe that my friends are all that unique though.  Truly, I wish I could.

Recently…

Shameless in a Bad Way

I like the US adaptation of Shameless.  I really do.  I dare say I like it even more than the original, UK version (except for Steve: Justin Chambers is fine, but James McAvoy was perfect).  I’m happy it’s recently returned for a 2nd season and I have high hopes for its future.  I like capable, long-suffering Fiona with her barely-hidden vulnerability.  I like ‘Lip with his perfect SAT scores, dry sense of humor, and creativity criminality.  I like Ian with his adulterous Muslim boyfriend, sweet face, military aspirations, and hard-on for the neighborhood delinquent.  I love Debbie, who is somehow both depressingly old for her age and achingly young.  I like Kevin and Veronica, especially Kevin, and want them to be my next-door neighbors.  I don’t really like Frank, that’s pretty much impossible to do, but I find him extremely accurate and enjoyable in a laugh-so-you-don’t-cry, did-he-really-just-do-that kind of way.  The plot-lines are generally fun and sometimes clever and almost always heartfelt.

There’s just one thing that bothers me, and unfortunately, it bothers me a lot.  I’d like to know who decided that Sheila, an otherwise sweet lady dressed like a 50’s housewife who’s good with kids and imprisoned by anxiety, should also be a rapist? And that her cynical, sarcastic, over-sexualized adolescent daughter should be one too? I know it was supposed to be funny when the former handcuffed Frank to her bed  and did kinky things to him despite his loud and unmistakable protests. When the later videotaped herself having sex with him while he was drugged nearly to the point of unconsciousness, but not so out of it that he didn’t object repeatedly.  To state the obvious, it wasn’t.  What it was was the epitome of a trend I just don’t understand, in which men being raped is a punchline.

It’s not just that these jokes are in extremely poor taste and irredeemably offensive; I also honestly don’t get where the humor is supposed to come from.  Is it the role reversal?  The perceived-humiliation of a man being sexually overpowered by a woman?  The supposed impossibility of the scenario? The mere concept of a sexually aggressive woman?  The unexpectedness, that shock of the unanticipated, two things that don’t belong together (women as sexual predators? Men as victims? Men who don’t want sex? Women who do?).  In a world where the rape of men and boys is hardly confined to the realms of fiction, this kind of humor is a mystery to me, and not one I can easily set aside while I enjoy the rest of the show.  So Shameless writers, take note:  Frank screaming “stop” and being ignored isn’t just unfunny, though it certainly is that;  it’s also downright nauseating.  Lose it or lose me.

Shame

Disgrace.  Humiliation.  Indignity.  Degradation.  Never has a movie been more aptly named than Shame.  In a sentence, the film documents one man’s compulsive, tormented search for connection.  I’ve been looking forward to it ever since I saw Hunger and fell into complete awe of Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender.  Now I’ve seen it twice in the three days since it came out in theaters three days ago and my awe has only grown.  Both times the force of it left me staggering, not the way Hunger did, but somehow in a manner equally depressing and if possible more disconcerting.  Still, there is no mistaking whose work it is.  The way McQueen uses the sound of words unspoken, a kind of blank, heavy silence only punctuated by explosions of rage and despair; despite the divergent settings, it’s the same in both.  And the settings are vastly different, not just by default either.  Hunger is all concrete walls and industrial gray-greens, dark spaces and bright white hospital sheets, whereas in Shame everything sparkles, towering skyscrapers reach for the heavens and rivers dip down to depthes unknown.  It’s a New York City movie, the kind where the city functions as almost a character in itself, the sort of film that could not be set anywhere else.  There have been several very different promotional posters released, but this one is the best in my opinion:

Image

It speaks to the unvarying presence of glass in the film, windows and screens, invisible barriers that give the illusion of openness but nevertheless are solid and impenetrable.  Their presence is no accident.

It’s the perfect metaphor for Brandon, the main character, who lives his life in such a state of profound isolation that he doesn’t conciously feel the ache of his own loneliness.  He’s like the anorexic whose been hungry for so long that she doesn’t even feel it anymore, her body has given up asking (begging, pleading) for nourishment, except what he’s starved for is connection.  In this 21st century world obsessed with replacing connection with consumption, it’s easy to see and to use addiction as a metaphor, and such comparisons are especially tempting with sex addiction. Aren’t all men sex addicts? someone invariably quips when the topic arises.  Well no, they’re not, and Shame commendably resists the urge to claim otherwise.  Brandon isn’t a stand-in for Every Man, he’s not American society distilled into a single personality, and to reduce him to that would be to do him and us a disservice.  This movie is no morality tale, no grand statement on the state of the human condition.  It’s something more complicated and in some ways difficult: a character study, no more and no less.

Sissy, Brandon’s sister, is his other half, the flipside of his coin, the physical embodiment of all the neediness and desperation for contact, for connection, he is disgusted and revolted by in himself.  She begs to be loved, almost literally at times, by Brandon and anyone else who falls into her orbit.  Brandon alternately cares for her, letting her stay with him, making sure she has money and giving her his own awkward form of advice, and erupts into fury at her.  “I don’t know why you’re so angry with me,” she tells him, but to me it felt clear enough.  When he rages at her, calls her disgusting and pathetically dependent, the projection is hopelessly transparent.

It’s never clear what industry Brandon’s in, but my best guess from the few hints given is marketing.  With that in mind, it’s hard not to compare him to another character, one who, in his own words, “more or less redefined promiscuity.”  But while Brian Kinney of Queer as Folk does his best to fuck, drink and drug the pain away, flirts with suicide, and proclaims to one and all that he “doesn’t believe in love,” his declarations never really ring true.  Even he doesn’t truly seem to buy what he’s selling.  Brandon, on the other hand, believes his own story with heartbreaking intensity and sincerity.  He seems to honestly think that sex is his salvation and that connection is a fairy-tale for suckers, and he feels betrayed and humiliated by his own desire for meaningful human contact.  The slightest crack in his façade sends him reeling into a whirlwind of rage, self-destruction and loathing, played out through a mad scramble for sexual energy in any possible form and mindless encounters with every warm body he can get his hands on, and though his partners are invariably beautiful and he is undeniably gorgeous, there is absolutely nothing sexy about the acts, not even a little.