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I’m fond of saying I learn something new from my students each quarter. It’s happened again, though I half wish I were still ignorant.

For the second day of class, I asked my intro to WGS students to check out Jeff Fecke’s post on that appalling “political cartoon” depicting Obama as having raped Lady Liberty. (Go check out Jeff’s post and then come back; I will not have that “cartoon” befouling this blog.) I’ve taken to starting the term with a blog post or two along with a few canonical articles on gender and oppression. My hope is always that a few very current examples will upend the assumption that we’re all post-feminist and colorblind now. I was afraid this post could upset students badly because it was so vile. It did rile them up – but for all the wrong reasons.

For one thing, several students thought that calling the cartoon racist was “pulling the race card.” Lady Liberty was green, after all, not a white woman. And we do have a Black president, after all, so what color should they cartoonist paint him? One bright young woman brought up the myth of the black rapist. Yep, I said; what do you know about its history? After a few minutes of circling around Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights movements, my students gave up. Lynchings, I said. Lynchings! They had no bloody idea that the history of lynching is largely history of black men being murdered on the pretext of allegedly raping white women. I guess this hasn’t trickled into the high-school curriculum. Maybe it’s not taught in Texas and thus not in the books? Or maybe teachers just don’t go there because sex and race are taboo enough on their own, god forbid they’d have to mix them? Or am I just encountering the same unflappable colorblindness that I saw last fall, too?

But while I was prepared for some resistance on the cartoon’s racism, I was sure someone would take umbrage at the rape metaphor. I asked if it didn’t trivialize actual victims of sexual assault. Forty faces looked at me blankly. Then one of the talkative men, who’s struck me as no dummy, said: “Well, it’s kinda like ‘fag.’ People use it all the time and don’t mean anything by it. It’s just slang.”

One of the women said, “Yeah. Like: ‘Wow, their soccer team totally raped us.’”

I picked my jaw up from the floor just long enough to ask if this was common. Forty heads nodded.

I wondered if this inflationary use of “rape” stems from the right wing’s frequent use of rape metaphors to protest Democratic policies and ideas. I tend to think not; Rushbo and his colleagues want their audience to be deeply outraged, which presumes that “rape” still holds some power to shock.

But my students are only rarely ideologues. Few of them listen to Rush or Glenn Beck; those guys are just too old. The young folks aren’t using rape as the ultimate metaphor for violation. They’re using it like my mom might say, “Oh, heck!”

So have any of you heard “rape” used as casual slang? “Fag” is problematic enough; as C.J. Pascoe shows in Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, it’s used to harshly police both boys and girls’ expression of their gender and sexuality.

But “rape”? As slang? I mean, I remember it from The Who’s Tommy (We’re not gonna take it!) but that’s about it.

An hour after class, one of the young women showed up at my office hours. “I just heard someone say ‘That test raped me.’ I wouldn’t have even noticed it before.”

What have you noticed? Is this a generational thing? Do I just live in a bubble? I’d be grateful for any clarifications and insights.

Update 4/13/10: Yesterday I spoke about all this with my neighbor, who’s a historian of 19th-century America. He said that he actually works with high-school teachers regularly and when he discusses lynching with them, they are very nervous about creating a local scandal if they were to include it in their curriculum. The intersection of racism, sex, and violence is just too explosive for many parents and school boards. I thought this helps clarify my students’ experiences (and confirms that they are not clued out – in fact, they’re a pretty sharp lot. And as Shinobi notes in comments, hearing about how rape allegations were employed in lynching later in life can lead to an potent “aha” moment.

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There’s a newish blog at my university that’s gotten attention in the local press – all negative – and even got a mention from Courtney Martin at Feministing, though for all the wrong reasons. Courtney didn’t link to it, no doubt due to its nasty content, but I’m local, so I will, because I’m not likely to give it the national exposure it so dearly hasn’t earned. It’s called what’d yOU expect? and it’s run by a couple of local students. (One of the bloggers, “Pooch,” is clearly identifiable through the blog’s Facebook fan page as a female senior; I won’t print her name, but just want to note that this is not the work of douchey dudes. Whether women can be douche-tastic is a subject for another day. Or maybe for comments.)

The premise of the site is to expose the side of the university that’s at odds with the carefully groomed “Bobcat” identity that our leadership is promoting. Of course, anyone who walks uptown on a weekend night (which might come as early as Wednesday) will see that this school remains more about partying than about intercollegiate athletics, even if it was fun to see the team upset Georgetown in the first round of March Madness. What really needs to be exposed here are the many thoughtful, intelligent students who take their studies seriously (whatever their attitude toward drinking). We don’t need more discussion of Beer Pong, unless perhaps through an anthropological lens.

So I actually don’t mind the site’s mission of disrupting Ohio University’s spin machine. The attempt to craft an identity out of a trip to the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl was always doomed, anyway.

What I do mind is the rampant misogyny of the site. Take this post about the perils of hooking up:

This is a true story that has not ever before been told in its entirety. I was a freshman here at OU and wanted to take advantage of what every freshman boy wants to take advantage of their first semester of college… party sluts. I have this theory that freshmen girls are ready to fuck anything that walks their first semester of college because they are new to the environment and have the idea that it is okay to sleep around because everyone does it(not actually the case but it worked out well for me my first year). New to the college environment myself, I raised hell my first couple of weeks on campus. Getting shitfaced every night, fucking all kinds of girls, basically doing everything you are supposed to do during your college years. I was loving life for a good amount of time until one particular night when I met this grizzly bear of a girl.

I’m sure that all of this dude’s former partners would love to know he saw them as “party sluts.” I personally am delighted – just charmed! – to hear that “fucking all kinds of girls” appears to be a graduation requirement. Women’s and gender studies – I’m doin it rong! We should be facilitating hookups, so these dudes can graduate on time!

Oh, and yeah, we’ve never, ever heard a story like this one before. ‘Specially not one that’s true!

Our hero continues:

My good friend got shutout at the last minute by this tease of a girl he was with. (What a bitch right?) So just as I am ready to head home with my depressed and sexually frustrated friend, the fore mentioned grizzly bear grabbed me and pulled me into the dorm. Alright, I know if I had any kind of decency I would have left immediately and walked home with my friend, but fuck it right? I was drunk and gonna get laid, how can anyone be expected to turn that down? So I went in. I went into this “grizzly bear’s” quad and fucked her in front of all three of her either sleeping or pretending to be sleeping roommates. For reasons you can imagine the rest of the night is forgettable. It probably ended with me passed out, sweaty, and naked. Same for the grizzly bear. I woke up, still naked, being smothered by the bear. I think she was dreaming that I was the last cupcake on earth and she was guarding me from a pack of starving Africans.

Oooh, now we’re adding racism to the mix, along with fat-shaming and slut-shaming. Let’s throw in some public humiliation and double down on it – first have sex with a girl in front of the roommates, just like in one of those public-humiliation pornos, and then tell the tale on the intertubes. I guess we can be glad no one took any pictures, but geez! Is that all that’s stopping this encounter from appearing on Youporn? Oh, and the girl was ugly and fat (in case you missed that), but at least she wasn’t a cock-tease like his buddy’s intended target!

This would be a good time for us all to go wash our hands, gargle, and take a long hot shower, preferably with a loofah to scrub away the nastiness of this creep.

So can we extract any meaning from the existence of this blog? I agree with Courtney that there’s a need to talk about what’s going on with casual sex:

We are so hungry to talk out loud about hook up culture–both the sexually empowering parts and the totally sexist parts. We need a space where feminists can really delve into the complexity of this issue, without being labeled, writ large, traitors or female chauvinist pigs. The blog world serves some of that, but it seems like we’re still searching for a more nuanced conversation.

I doubt these juicy campus type blogs are the place to do it, but is there a way to structure such a space that would lead to a real conversation about hook-up culture?

Well, my classrooms often allow for that kind of space. Those conversations are a heck of a lot more nuanced than what I typically see on blogs, but I realize it’s a luxury to have ten weeks with forty people who are willing to explore new ideas in a sheltered space. Obviously there’s a need for more public discussions, too. Online? Hmm. I think feminist blogs can do this, but we only reach a small fraction of young women and an even smaller group of men.

Campus gossip blogs and websites are completely unsuited for this. I don’t think they even support Courtney’s contention that there’s a need for serious conversation on hookups, casual sex, and students’ desires. While I think such a need exists, this and similar blogs deny that need. They make absolutely no attempt to analyze or criticize people’s actions. They make no attempt at basic human decency. They’re all about letting one group of students feel superior to others. They use classic junior-high aggression tactics, being mean to someone who was unlucky enough to trust the post’s author. I enjoy a good snark or rant as much as any blogger, but where mockery and cruelty rule supreme, there’s no space for civil discourse.

In other words, blogs like this one are a symptom of the problems in hookup culture. It encapsulates the misogyny and disrespect for basic humanity that bothers most of my serious students. What’d yOU expect might serve as a cautionary tale, or as a place to start analyzing what’s fucked up about this scene. It’s certainly not going to be part of the solution. We can start conversations about this on feminist blogs, but real change will ultimately have to come through discussions and interactions in the meatworld (so to speak).

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Y’know, I wasn’t going to write about vajazzling, because I figured it was too silly for words. I like sparkly things as much as any gal. Yet I’m just bemused that anyone would desire a crystal encrusted “vajayjay.” (How does one achieve this? Let Sociological Images enlighten you!) I don’t think this will take off as a real trend. A recession is on, and most of us can find better ways to spend $50. But even if it mercifully remains a mini-trend, its symbolism deserves to be sliced and diced.

It really comes down to denaturing women’s genitalia. By that, I don’t just mean that we’re rendering them unnatural. In itself, that would hardly be worth noticing. All of us engage in body modification, whether it’s something as simple as a haircut or as complicated as plastic surgery. Sometimes there’s a clear patriarchal background, such as the billions of dollars women spend on makeup and men don’t. Yet I’m not down on lipstick. I like it. What’s the difference? Well, lipstick isn’t meant to change lips into something they’re not. I dislike black lipstick because it makes living lips look dead, but in general, lips clearly remain lips.

Whereas the pubic area, once vajazzled, looks like something else altogether. It is indeed denatured in the sense of being far removed from its natural state. More significantly, it’s denatured by rendering it less suitable for actual sexual activity. The literal definition of “denaturing” alcohol is adding a substance that makes it unfit for human consumption. Obviously, I don’t mean that a woman’s partner should be literally consuming her, or that cunnilingus – like wood alcohol – could make him go blind, but crystals aren’t exactly conducive to loving nibbles, either. As usual, Sady Doyle totally nails it:

Probably what your vagina needs is to look MORE LIKE THE RUMP OF A SPECIAL-EDITION MY LITTLE PONY THAN USUAL. …

Like, I mean: I hate to be a jerk here, but if you need my vagina to dress up for this party, my suspicion is that it is not going to be much of a party. Not to be all second-wave, but the continuing impulse to make ladyparts look less like themselves and more like gifts you would get from your dingier variety of novelty shop, next to the lava lamps, bespeaks some ill to me.

(More spot-on snark at Tiger Beatdown. It’s worth reading the whole thing.)

I don’t really think male partners are going to start insisting women bejewel their nether regions, but fussy decor is bound to dampen the party regardless, and by “dampen” I don’t mean it in the good way. The crystals are supposed to last five days. They can pop off. That implies won’t stand up well to serious bumping and grinding. I’m reminded of women of my mother’s generation, those genteel young ladies of the 1950s and 1960s, who admonished their partners not to muss their hairdos or lipstick. “Oh no, darling, don’t touch my vajayjay! I don’t want to pop a crystal!”

Really, is there anything less sexy than “don’t touch”?

Nor may vajazzles be every guy’s cup of tea. I love how figleaf describes the sparkly things:

That should read shiny, sharp cut-glass crystal objects! Which at the very, very least would tend to limit one’s partner’s interest in face-to-face intercourse. And assuming men are being honest who say they don’t want pubic hair in their mouths ought to be just even more balky about chipping their molars on Swarovski crystals.

If I understand correctly, the stones are pretty tiny, so it’s unlikely anyone will suffer a gash requiring stitches. But yeah, they’re not exactly pettable. In his post, figleaf notes that he’s carefully not judging others’ choices or preferences. Me, I think we can gleefully criticize anything that makes us less touchable.

Isn’t any practice that emphasizes appearance at the expense of sensual pleasure actually, ultimately sex-negative? Aren’t practices like this – including rigid standards for public grooming, which are widespread – fundamentally alien to a sexual culture where ideas about beauty and appearance would actually amplify sexual pleasure, rather than interfering with it? Sure, you can avoid rubbing up against the crystals with a rear-entry position – and nothing wrong with that, not at all! But then who’s going to admire the vajazzles?

And shouldn’t we be suspicious when said practice is only marketed toward women? In comments at figleaf’s, Chingona said:

The nice, succinct way of putting this is escaping me at the moment, but the whole notion that women’s bodies are both their greatest asset and yet fundamentally unacceptable in a state of nature comes straight out of patriarchy, and I don’t think you get to vajazzling without that foundation.

Actually, I think she put it nicely and succinctly. It turns out that if you regender vajazzling, its intelligibility disintegrates. It makes no sense unless you factor in patriarchy, even in its current rump, zombie form.

So here’s the regendering test: Would vanilla heterosexual men do the same? Are those men waxing their balls and encrusting the family jewels in, well, jewels? And could any dude do the My Little Pony look without casting serious doubt on his masculinity?

Clue: The answer to those questions tells you that at the very least, oppositional sexism is in play – Julia Serano’s term for the conviction that men and women must think in act in polar opposite ways. Honestly, the odds of men embracing their inner sparkle are about as high as my six-year-old sincerely wanting a Pretty Sparkly Princess scooter – he jokes about it, but actual desire is somewhere less than zero. (Anyway, I think the Hello Kitty Band-aids have sated his need to mock the pink.)

Plain old garden variety sexism is at work, too, insofar as women’s genitals are reviled in ways that men’s typically aren’t. Take, for instance, all the jokes about women smelling like fish, and all the products that have been sold to sanitize us, from Lysol (yes, really) to flavored douche. A vajazzled mons is so closely tended, it’s practically guaranteed to smell like a rose.

And if all this sanitizing didn’t already stink, vajazzling takes us back to weird anatomy, where the “vagina” has migrated suspiciously far north. This anatomy might work fine in Cubism, or if Escher had produced female nudes (I don’t think he did). On real women? Personally, I hope to keep my vagina as an innie and at a safe remove from my belly-button.

“Vajayjay” is even worse, über-cutesy and little-girlish. It too is anatomically challenged. And about that oppositional sexism: When was the last time you heard a guy talk about his “cockadoodle-doo”? Of course I just made that up, because there is no parallel term that an adult man would use to frame his genitals as childish and coy. Weenie? Junk? They’re just not the same.

We have perfectly good terms to name the petals of the labia, the soft hillock of the mons, the eager clitoris. Let’s use them. And it they sometimes feel too clinical, let’s adopt or create words that convey power and pleasure, not a Bratz doll aesthetic.

And yet, the folks who are getting vajazzled talk relentlessly about decorating their vaginas and vajayjays. Here’s one anonymous first-person report (via Tiger Beatdown):

After my Brazilian bikini wax, Alicia affixed the flair right above my vagina. It came in temporary tattoo form, which Alicia placed on me after first rinsing the area with rubbing alcohol. (This didn’t hurt although Alicia told me some women found it painful.) She used a tongue depressor to push down on the crystals (that hurt) and then I was all set.

Note, in passing, that the wax itself also hurt, and that the crystals were initially set upon a field of angry pink skin. So, so sexy! But the author can be so, so happy that Alicia didn’t actually apply the crystals “right above [her] vagina,” because her clitoris would’ve been mighty displeased. Also, I do wonder about the potential for a sweet little sparkle to migrate into the urethra, but I’d just rather not go there.

All of this – the anatomical obfuscation, the juvenile terms for ladyparts, the urge to embellish one’s crotch to match a five-year-old’s Barbie T-shirt – all of this contributes the mystification of women’s genitals. It neutralizes and denatures them, even as the “natural” pussy is rendered disgusting. It colludes with old, old ideas about “unmentionables” even in an era when Jennifer Love Hewitt gabs about her pubic grooming habits on national TV. It makes at least some young women reluctant to have sex that they want, only because their pussy isn’t “perfectly” groomed.

You know what would be a truly awesome trend? If people could be minimalist in their personal grooming, or creative and expressive, or whatever – as long as grooming and body modification didn’t get in the way of actual sex and pleasure. And as long as it didn’t reinforce the zombie, rump idea that women should get their jollies entirely through their partners’ pleasure, rather than pursuing desires and pleasures of their own.

Let’s leave the fussy, fusty grooming of pussies to the real experts – the felines – and just have some fun. Temporary tattoos, anyone? I have a mondo stash from Oriental Trading Company. Some of them are even shiny – with nary a sharp edge.

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In a previous post I made a glib reference to fraternities as likely sites for rape to occur. While I agree with brinkmanship’s criticism that I tarred all fraternities with a single brush, I will also say that the stereotype of them as places conducive to acquaintance rape isn’t unfounded. It has a pretty firm basis in reality.

That’s not to say all frats are the same. They’re not. Some are vastly safer than others. And even in the higher-risk houses, there are lots of great young men, most of who wouldn’t dream of violating a partner’s consent. I’ve had many wonderful students – both men and women – who were involved in the Greek system. My brother and sister each had good experiences with it, too.

That said, certain cultural and social practices in fraternities make it easier for rape to occur. Way back in the late 1980s, Patricia Yancey Martin and Robert A. Hummer outlined some of the reasons for this in their much-anthologized article, “Fraternities and Rape on Campus.” They noted that norms of masculinity, expressed in a desire for members who could drink heavily and withstand hazing, tended to exclude men might hold more critical views. They observed that practices of brotherhood, including loyalty and secrecy, sometimes trumped allegiance to ethics and the law. The commodification of women, seen too often as sexual prey, can lay the groundwork for trying to extract sex from women instead of viewing sex as a mutual pursuit of pleasure.

Martin and Hummer got the big picture right, and I don’t think all that much has changed in the past two decades. But I also know that when I was in college, I felt a different vibe coming from some houses and some guys. The Alpha Delts, for instance, were more into getting stoned than drinking heavily. I don’t remember ever hearing of anything untoward happening there. My students, too, know very well that some frats are dicier than others.

So how can you assess the risk in a given house? Well, I’m gonna go all academic again and cite another widely anthologized study, this time from A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Z. Spade, “Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture: Why Are Some Fraternities More Dangerous Places for Women?” (pdf) They list a host of factors that distinguish higher-risk from lower-risk atmospheres. Their study goes for bars, too, so it’s very broadly useful, though generally speaking most bars fall into the lower risk-category. In high-risk settings, you’ll find:

  • Highly skewed gender ratios at parties
  • Less respectful behavior toward women (rating them, dropping trou)
  • Conversations based on flirtation, with meaningful one-on-one talks a rarity
  • Open hostility on the part of men, and also more aggressive behavior from women such as pushing and name-calling
  • Heavier drinking and less dancing
  • Higher noise levels
  • Bragging about sexual exploits the next morning
  • Distinctions between girlfriends, who are respected, and faceless conquests, who are seen as objectified
  • Cleaner women’s bathrooms!

The high-risk houses tended to have larger membership, more varsity athletes, more disciplinary incidents (including property damage and harm to persons), and lower participation in rape awareness programs.

Obviously, one ought to trust one’s own observations and instincts more than a list of characteristics. Still, I think Boswell and Spade provide a useful starting point for assessing risk.

Saying that fraternities are often sites of elevated risk isn’t equivalent to calling all fraternity members rapists. Far from it. Recent research shows that most acquaintance rape is committed by a very small number of repeat offenders. While this research doesn’t look at Greek life (as far as I know), it seems highly likely that those few extremely rotten apples seek out environments that provide some cover for them. Fraternities do this, however unwittingly. At the same time, getting rid of the Greek system wouldn’t solve much, either, because – as Boswell and Spade note – the high-risk party environment would likely move into private houses. I don’t have a pat answer, but I know that any solution has to involve education and changing attitudes, not just in frats but in the dorms, too. Education probably won’t deter the most predatory rapists, but it sure could make it harder for them to find cover.

Note: Both of the articles I cite can be read in pieces through Google Books, but I couldn’t find the full text for Martin and Hummer.

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I used to date a guy in grad school for whom shaving was pure misery. He got razor burn nearly every time. He’d let it go for a few days, and then I’d get whisker burn. (If I was lucky. Other times, we were so deep into poststructuralist theory that we were always already studying.)

I’ve been thoroughly shaved (serious TMI alert!) only for pelvic surgery and childbirth. No, shaving is no longer standard for giving birth. But if they think you’re possibly gonna need a c-section, out comes the blade. My midwife apologized about it, profusely.

The re-growth was miserable. Itchy, bumpy, red, stubbly. You want the antithesis of sexy? Ooooh, honey, I had it!

In the porn world, those itchy bumps can be photoshopped smooth or covered with makeup. The rest of us can’t photoshop as we go. Nor is adjusting positions to camouflage bumps the hottest way to approach your partner in bed. Expect a chirpy article on that from Cosmo, one of those days: “Nine Sizzling Ways to Hide Your Razor Burn in Bed!”

And so, when I read even fairly civilized discussions of removing pubic hair like this thread at Em & Lo’s, I react allergically to the men who expect women to depilate their ladybits. Women’s decision to do so for their own pleasure is another matter, though one that’s now highly, highly constrained and hopelessly entangled with porn images and men’s expectations. But the guys! The clueless, it burns! Worse even than razor rash!

As you’ll see from the Em & Lo thread, a common complaint among men is that they get hair in their mouths and – just when their partner is about to see stars – they have to stop and cough up a hairball. Giving their gals oral sex turns into a tragic reprise of Bill the Cat. Fellas, I have one word for you: plunger. That’s the effect you’ve got that gals don’t. Removing a hair from your bottom teeth is an entirely different operation than us untangling one from our uvula. By these dudes’ reasoning, men ought to be hairless from their kneecaps to their belly-button, if they ever hope for us women to go down on them.

Then there’s the obdurate cluelessness about the maintenance required. If you wax, you can’t repeat the operation until you’ve got about 1/4 inch of regrowth. That’s days upon days of furriness. Which makes waxing superior to trimming … exactly how, pray tell? As for shaving, see above: itch, bumps, redness, stubble.

But what about the equity argument? Increasingly, guys are shaving, too. Hey, if they enjoy the sensation, I say go for it. But even in a perfectly balanced world, where both men and women removed their pubes, the burden would still be grossly imbalanced. Swiping a razor blade anywhere near the vulva is visually and technically tricky. You’re navigating crevasses and valleys, not just a smooth hillock. Any slip will draw copious blood. Not to mention that you’re within mere centimeters of the pleasure dome at all times.

So when guys start scraping, waxing, and depilating their cocks, let me know. That would entail something close to equal risk. Until then, a lot of folks might be more relaxed – and thus have much better sex – with an occasional trim and regular doses of Laxatone.

Bill the Cat image found here, quite possibly in violation of copyright. I claim fair use, but if Berkeley Breathed objects, I’ll gladly take it down.

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At Feministe, a guest post by Rachel Hills (originally published at her own blog) ignited an acrimonious discussion on rape, gender, and the stereotype that women can’t rape men. Rachel’s post drew on a story that Pluralist recounted on Feministing’s community blog:

Since November by best friend has been having relationship problems. She is cis and het as is her boyfriend and they’ve been a committed and monogamous relationship for about 4 years now. The whole story is too long to recount, but as of a week ago they began a “break they need in order to stay together”.

Suffice it to say the first two days were hellish as I talked to one of the loves my life breaking down over the phone. But during one of the more lucid moments, she told me that – among a lot of alleged grievances – she had (unknowingly) forced her boyfriend into sex.

Apparently he had said things along the lines of “I’m too tired right now, let’s just go to sleep” and she had continued to proposition him thinking “welll, this will help you sleep better!” My immediate reaction was that there was no way she had coerced or pressured him into sex. After all, he should’ve just said “No really, I don’t want to do this right now” if she kept at it. It was his fault for not stopping the encounter.

And then I realised that had this been a woman in his place – not to mention my best friend – I would never have given this consideration. I was victim-blaming, basing my assumptions in tropes of male hypersexuality and female passivity. She didn’t handcuff him to a heater and force-feed him viagra . She’s a nice girl, she couldn’t have done that !

(More here.)

The main point of Rachel’s commentary was that yes, women can rape men, and yes, they can commit many other lesser forms of sexual violation. However, she wasn’t willing to say that Pluralist’s friend was guilty of rape:

Now, I know at least one woman who has physically forced sex upon a man who had repeatedly told her he didn’t want to have sex with her and was pretty pissed off with her afterwards – rape in no uncertain terms, if the genders were reversed. But the situation Pluralist talks about is a little less obvious than that. It’s unethical, certainly, and inconsiderate, and you shouldn’t do it, but I’d argue it’s technically not classified as sexual assault (if you disagree, please debate it in the comments).

(Lots more here, plus the aforementioned acrimonious comment thread.)

The comments degenerated into a lot of name-calling, along with lots of valid and important arguments. Among the polarized comments (which made up the bulk of the thread), some folks were arguing that of course it’s rape and if you didn’t agree, well you must be a RAPE APOLOGIST! (Yelling with caps, the quickest way to get my old eyes to tune out!) People at the other pole said well, in an long-term, ongoing relationship, wheedling can be coercive, but it’s often a normal part of negotiating about sex. The thread at Feministing was similarly polarized.

Stepping back from the shouting for a moment, I think it’s helpful to clarify some terms. Each state defines rape and sexual assault, so for purposes of discussion I’ll draw on my own state’s laws, since I don’t know where Pluralist’s friend lives, and Ohio tends to a pretty good barometer of middle-of-the-road America.

In Ohio, “rape” is defined as follows (in the absence of statutory rape, intoxication, or other mental factors that could impair consent):

No person shall engage in sexual conduct with another when the offender purposely compels the other person to submit by force or threat of force.

(Ohio Revised Code 2907.02, Rape)

Note that this definition doesn’t define rape narrowly as penetration. So yes, under this definition, a woman can definitely rape a man. (I’m going to set aside trans issues just because I don’t know enough about how the law would be applied. However, note that the law doesn’t specify gender, so it evidently ought to apply to woman-on-woman assaults, cis-woman-on-trans-man assault, and any other imaginable combination.)

Now, back to Pluralist’s friend. At no point does Pluralist describe anything that can be described as “force or threat of force.”

But doesn’t “no mean no”? Well, Ohio law doesn’t recognize a simple “no” as adequate unless the other person uses at least “threat of force” to override it. So in Ohio, at least, the law does not categorize an act as “rape” every time there’s a lack of consent, nor even when the lack of consent has been clearly and explicitly communicated. (Other states are liable to vary on this point.) Perhaps we’d like to reform the law to include any instance where one person persists in ignoring the other’s “no!” but current law doesn’t go that far.

Instead, Ohio law defines additional crimes that fall under the rubric of “sex offenses.” Among these are sexual battery, gross sexual imposition, and sexual imposition. All of these crimes make provisions for underage victims, intoxication, mental incapacitation, and abuse of power by such authority figures as therapists, clergy, etc. I’ll set those aside here because they don’t apply to the case Pluralist raised.

Sexual battery must include an element of coercion:

(1) The offender knowingly coerces the other person to submit by any means that would prevent resistance by a person of ordinary resolution.

(2) The offender knows that the other person’s ability to appraise the nature of or control the other person’s own conduct is substantially impaired.

(ORC 2907.03, Sexual Battery)

Part (2) might well apply to some of the experiences people described in the Feministe thread of feeling unable to say no to their partners due to prior trauma or abuse. However, it only would apply if the partner knew about the problem. The law doesn’t expect people to be mind-readers. Based on Pluralist’s account, “sexual battery” wouldn’t apply to her friend’s actions, as there’s no indication that her boyfriend wasn’t “a person of ordinary resolution.”

Gross sexual imposition (ORC 2907.05), like rape, again requires “force or threat of force,” so it too fails to match Pluralist’s friend’s actions. But what about simple sexual imposition? Now we’re getting warmer:

(A) No person shall have sexual contact with another, not the spouse of the offender; cause another, not the spouse of the offender, to have sexual contact with the offender; or cause two or more other persons to have sexual contact when any of the following applies:

(1) The offender knows that the sexual contact is offensive to the other person, or one of the other persons, or is reckless in that regard.

(2) The offender knows that the other person’s, or one of the other person’s, ability to appraise the nature of or control the offender’s or touching person’s conduct is substantially impaired.

(3) The offender knows that the other person, or one of the other persons, submits because of being unaware of the sexual contact.

(4) The other person, or one of the other persons, is thirteen years of age or older but less than sixteen years of age, whether or not the offender knows the age of such person, and the offender is at least eighteen years of age and four or more years older than such other person.

(5) The offender is a mental health professional, the other person or one of the other persons is a mental health client or patient of the offender, and the offender induces the other person who is the client or patient to submit by falsely representing to the other person who is the client or patient that the sexual contact is necessary for mental health treatment purposes.

(B) No person shall be convicted of a violation of this section solely upon the victim’s testimony unsupported by other evidence.

(C) Whoever violates this section is guilty of sexual imposition, a misdemeanor of the third degree. If the offender previously has been convicted of a violation of this section or of section 2907.02, 2907.03, 2907.04, 2907.05, or 2907.12 of the Revised Code, a violation of this section is a misdemeanor of the first degree.

(ORC 2907.06, Sexual Imposition – unabridged so you can judge for yourself)

It looks like Pluralist’s friend might well have violated (1), by engaging in conduct she knew to be “offfensive to the other person.” She might well have been “reckless in that regard.”

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that she was indeed reckless. I’m skeptical of definitive judgments, because we haven’t heard directly from Pluralist’s friend or her boyfriend, but let’s just take the story at face value. We now have a name for the act – sexual imposition. We have a penalty that can theoretically be imposed. In this particular case, though, it likely would be impossible to prosecute on account of (B), which requires other evidence – most likely, a third party – to substantiate the charge.

So it’s possible that a form of sexual assault occurred, but it certainly wasn’t rape. (And while state laws vary, I’d be surprised if any state in the U.S. would consider this incident rape. If you know of exceptions, please post about them in comments, and please include citations.)

Is this just legal hair-splitting? Well, no. It clarifies a basis for Rachel Hills’ position and the common-sense reaction that lots of commenters articulated at Feministe: Pluralist’s friend wronged her boyfriend and maybe that wrong rises to the level of sexual assault, but we don’t know enough to say for sure. However, it’s definitely overblown to brand Pluralist’s friend a rapist. The law draws these distinctions because very few of us – including most feminists, I’d wager – really want to imprison someone for twenty-to-life for the behavior she exhibited. In addition, calling her behavior “rape” trivializes the experiences of those who’ve actually been pressed into unwanted sexual activities by force or the threat thereof. (For the record, this is not a blanket endorsement of the law in its current form. I’m merely affirming that it’s legally and ethically appropriate to distinguish different forms of sex crimes of varying severity.)

I’d say the same, by the way, if the offender were a man and his partner a woman. This is not a gendered argument, in legal terms. I do think that sexual assault is gendered culturally, in at least two ways: 1) Women as a class suffer from a kind of “sexual terrorism” – an ongoing fear of rape – that doesn’t affect most men as a class. 2) We’ve been socialized to think that men are unrapeable because they’re supposedly always up for it. As a result, we’ve got a new rape myth: no never means no, coming from a man. However, the legal standard needs to be consistent for men and women alike, as well as for cis and trans people.

But even if Pluralist’s friend didn’t commit sexual assault, that doesn’t mean that we should condone her actions, either. At a minimum she appears to have acted manipulatively. At a minimum she behaved like an asshole. Just because there’s no legal term for “assholery” doesn’t make it okay.

Instead, stories like this show that the law is a necessary but not sufficient instrument for transforming sexual relations. We need a feminist sexual ethics as well. To that end, I teach my students about the importance of enthusiastic consent. If they take it to heart, their chances of committing a crime ought to be nil.

And yet, as the discussion at Feministe shows, there’s an area between sexual assault and enthusiastic consent. I don’t want to call it a gray area, because I don’t want to endorse the notion of “gray rape” (which is just a euphemism for defining acquaintance rape out of existence). Still, people are going to continue having sex under conditions of consent that’s defective or problematic or just lukewarm. We need to find ways to discuss this problem without either trivializing it or calling it “rape” or “assault.” In other words, we need a feminist sexual ethics that recognizes the complexity of social and sexual relations, affirms pleasure and autonomy, and emphasizes compassion and communication. “Yes means yes” is a good start, but it’s only a start.

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So I’m assuming most of you saw the Dodge Superbowl commercial, in all its vile misogyny? If not, watch this steaming pile of stereotypes first …

and then proceed to see it cleverly deconstructed. These women clearly have way more humor in their pinkie toes than the men who made the Dodge ad have in their whole brains! (Mmmm, same goes for brains … more of that in the gals’ pinkie toes, too.)

(I saw this a bunch of places but first at sexgenderbody. Here’s hoping it’s new to a few of you!)

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Shortly after Mary Daly died, I speculated that the notion of “idolatry” might be useful for secular feminists, but I didn’t develop the idea much further. In Beyond God the Father,  Daly suggests that in the past, feminists positioned suffrage as a kind of secular idol, and she warns against the “new wave” of feminism (e.g., the second wave) doing the same. For Daly, idolatry isn’t the worship of a false deity. It’s not making sacrifices to a golden calf. It’s setting up an idea or goal as “ultimate” when it’s actually transitory, like the achievement of suffrage. I’d argue that “choice” has had a similar status in second-wave feminism.

Unfortunately, she fell into precisely this trap by setting up “women” as a kind of idol in her later work, beginning with Gyn/Ecology, with the result being an “ethics” that demonized both transsexuals and men.

The shift in Daly’s thinking between Beyond God the Father (1973) and Gyn/Ecology (1978) is massive. She moves from examining social constructions and stereotypes to making universal pronouncements about the essence of men and women. Consider this passage from Beyond God the Father:

The roles and structures of patriarchy have been developed and sustained in accordance with an artificial polarization of human qualities into the traditional sexual stereotypes. The image of the person in authority and the accepted rationale of “his” role has corresponded to the eternal masculine stereotype, which implies hyper-rationality (in reality, frequently reducible to pseudo-rationality), “objectivity,” aggressivity, the possession of dominating and manipulative attitudes toward persons and the environment, and the tendency to construct boundaries between the self (and those identified with the self) and “the Other.” The caricature of human being which is represented by this stereotype depends for its existence upon the opposite caricature – the eternal feminine. This implies hyper-emotionalism, passivity, self-abnegation, etc.

(From Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, 15)

Daly goes on to say that both women and men have begun (as of the early 1970s) to free themselves from these stereotypes. I’d quibble with the idea that those stereotypes have been eternal. Historians have shown them to be just a couple of hundred years old and limited to white women and men in the West. However, in light of her later work, it’s remarkable how much distance Daly places here between these “caricature[s] of human being” and actual men and women.

Compare this to how she view men, women, and stereotypes five years later:

Thus women continue to be intimidated by the label anti-male. Some feel a false need to draw distinctions, for example: “I am anti-patriarchal but not anti-male.” The courage to be logical – the courage to name – would require that we admit to ourselves that males and males only are the originators, planners, controllers, and legitimators of patriarchy. Patriarchy is the homeland of males; it is Father Land; and men are its agents. …

Despite all the evidence that women are attacked as projections of The Enemy, the accusers ask sardonically: “Do you really think that men are the enemy?” This deception/reversal is so deep that women – even feminists – are intimidated into Self-deception, becoming the only Self-described oppressed who are unable to name their oppressor, referring instead to vague “forces,” “roles,” “stereotypes,” “constraints,” “attitudes,” “influences.” This list could go on. The point is that no agent is named – only abstractions. …

As a creative crystallization of the movement beyond the State of Patriarchal Paralysis, this book is an act of Dis-possession; and hence, in a sense beyond the limitations of the label anti-male, it is absolutely Anti-androcrat, A-mazingly Anti-male, Furiously and Finally Female.

(Gyn/Ecology, 28-9)

No longer does Daly see a chance for men to liberate themselves. Instead, humanity is divided into two opposing camps, men and women, and all men are tainted by their sex. In her concluding chapter, Daly describes an exorcism through which Hags and Crones purge their gathering of the male (or male-identified) Demons that have “infiltrated” them. She literally “Demon-izes” men.

Daly’s idolization of women forms the basis for a friend/enemy distinction that suggests women need to destroy their enemies as a matter of self-defense. As I’ve already discussed here, Daly accused MTF transsexuals of being the necrophilic pawns of patriarchy who sought the destruction of women. She postulated that they were the agents of a “Final Solution” that would violate women’s boundaries and render them “‘living’ dead women.” By appropriating the language of genocide, Daly implies (though never says explicitly) that MTF transsexuals have no right to live. She never says bluntly that they should be “exterminated.” Instead, she says they should be “eliminated.” However, I don’t think one can read “elimination” in a post-Holocaust world without understanding it as a potential euphemism for “extermination.”

Daly’s friend/enemy distinction is similarly virulent when it comes to men. In a 1999 interview with What Is Enlightenment? magazine, Daly made concrete the fantasy of purging men that she outlined in the closing chapter of Gyn/Ecology.

WIE: In Quintessence, your idyllic continent is inhabited by women only, but the rest of the world is inhabited by women and men.

MD: I didn’t say how many men were there.

WIE: Which brings us to another question I wanted to ask you. Sally Miller Gearhart, in her article “The Future—If There Is One—Is Female” writes: “At least three further requirements supplement the strategies of environmentalists if we were to create and preserve a less violent world. 1) Every culture must begin to affirm the female future. 2) Species responsibility must be returned to women in every culture. 3) The proportion of men must be reduced to and maintained at approximately ten percent of the human race.” What do you think about this statement?

MD: I think it’s not a bad idea at all. If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the Earth. I think this will be accompanied by an evolutionary process that will result in a drastic reduction of the population of males. People are afraid to say that kind of stuff anymore.

WIE: Yes. I find myself now thinking that’s a bit shocking.

MD: Well, it’s shocking that it would be shocking.

A bit shocking? The language of “decontamination,” too, harks back to the Holocaust. She reduces men to un-persons, mere objects to be destroyed due to their toxicity, a contaminant that threatens womankind. This is the sort of objectification that any feminist – indeed, any decent person – should denounce as hateful and dangerous.

How, exactly, is the population of men to be “reduced and maintained”? Note the euphemism, again – it’s not Daly’s, but she accepts it enthusiastically. What would be done with the present generations of men? Would they be allowed to die a natural death, or would she want to hasten the process along? As for future generations, would she favor prenatal selection, which would require universal usage of IVF – surely a “technophallic” solution, in her own terms? Selective abortion? Male infanticide? Who would decide which men were allowed to live? Daly sidesteps these questions by suggesting an “evolutionary process” will do the trick, but that’s scientifically untenable and patently absurd.

Reverse all the genders in the above, and you’ve got a dystopia to rival Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And we shouldn’t be shocked, just because the vision entails the elimination of men instead of women?

Of course, Daly’s us/them thinking went even further. As Daisy Deadhead points out, Daly excluded many women from the category of “women”! – or at least the women who count:

As a Catholic, I believe she did irreparable harm to Catholic women who sought to reform the Church; she advised radical women to withdraw from it, leaving the liberal women who preferred to stay, twisting slowly, slowly in the wind. (I notice she didn’t advise them to withdraw from other patriarchal structures such as, um, academia.) In her later books like Pure Lust, she was positively hateful to any feminists who did not follow her out of the Church, but instead chose to stay and fight. Her way or the highway.

Daisy also mentions a point that my previous posts didn’t address (on the assumption that most feminists already knew about this): Daly never gave an adequate public response to Audre Lorde’s contention that Gyn/Ecology was racist and colonialist. If this is news to you after all, you can read Lorde’s “An Open Letter to Mary Daly” here.

This is the problem with idolizing one category of people. The resultant us/them thinking draws the circle ever more tightly around “us.”

None of this would matter if Daly’s most venomous ideas had died with her, but they didn’t. At Questioning Transphobia, Queen Emily has laid out the legacy of excluding trans people from feminism, which has been deadly in some instances. The consequences for men have been less dire simply because they’re not a marginalized group like transgender people.

However, Daly’s idolatry lives on among a subset of self-identified feminists who embrace her defense of male-hating. (See also here, and don’t miss the comment thread.) They are relatively few in number, but it’s incumbent on the rest of us feminists who love men, who love humans, to categorically reject a feminism that leaves any space for eliminationist thinking. It’s up to us to reject what Daly originally called “a caricature of human being.” In fact, that’s the best way I can imagine to honor Daly’s better legacy.

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A couple of weeks back, Ann Bartow of Feminist Law Professors ran a post on the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Writing awards, in which she observed that misogyny breeds “bad sex writing, as well as bad sex generally.” I had no idea just how bad – and how misogynistic! – until the Daily Dish posted the winning scene, penned by Jonathan Littell, author of The Kindly Ones:

Her vulva was opposite my face. The small lips protruded slightly from the pale, domed flesh. This sex was watching at me, spying on me, like a Gorgon’s head, like a motionless Cyclops whose single eye never blinks. Little by little this silent gaze penetrated me to the marrow. My breath sped up and I stretched out my hand to hide it: I no longer saw it, but it still saw me and stripped me bare (whereas I was already naked). If only I could still get hard, I thought, I could use my prick like a stake hardened in the fire, and blind this Polyphemus who made me Nobody. But my cock remained inert, I seemed turned to stone. I stretched out my arm and buried my middle finger into this boundless eye. The hips moved slightly, but that was all. Far from piercing it, I had on the contrary opened it wide, freeing the gaze of the eye still hiding behind it. Then I had an idea: I took out my finger and, dragging myself forward on my forearms, I pushed my forehead against this vulva, pressing my scar against the hole. Now I was the one looking inside, searching the depths of this body with my radiant third eye, as her own single eye irradiated me and we blinded each other mutually: without moving, I came in an immense splash of white light, as she cried out: ‘What are you doing, what are you doing?’ and I laughed out loud, sperm still gushing in huge spurts from my penis, jubilant, I bit deep into her vulva to swallow it whole, and my eyes finally opened, cleared, and saw everything.

Yep, folks, that’s the winning passage, or should I say the victorious wet tunnel, spasming around the author’s fingers?

I would love to hear what French feminist Helene Cixous would have to say about the mythological figures. Her famous piece, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” builds up to this, um, climax:

You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she is not deadly. She is beautiful and she is laughing.

The Medusa represents female sexuality. Perhaps she turned Littell’s protagonist to stone, but how then did his cock remain inert? Shouldn’t it be rock-hard, too? Ah, the incoherence of phallogocentrism! (I promise not to use that word too often, but it seems just perfect here.)

And if the vagina is the Cyclops’ eye, then how is it also Polyphemus?

And if our hero swallowed the vulva whole, wouldn’t he get awful indigestion? Or did I misread it, and he swallowed his own sperm?

And if his eyes then open, does that mean he’s now got a couple of vulvas just below his forehead?

And if the eye is immersed in the vagina but vaguely connected to the hip, can I imagine the body as anything other than a monstrous molar pregnancy? Yes, I realize this is supposed to be symbolic. (Cixous and other Lacanians might say this passage is immersed in the Symbolic order, the realm of life ruled by the Law of the Father.) But anatomically, it’s a train wreck.

At any rate, looking directly at the Medusa seems to destroy all logic, so maybe Cixous was on to something there. Littell’s imagination definitely made me LOL (a term unfortunately missing from Cixous’ oeuvre), so perhaps that renders me a mini-Medusa.

Some of the runners-up were equally impressive – if by “impressive” you mean strainingly pathetic in their apparently threatened masculinity. Here’s part of Philip Roth’s entry (yes, these appear to all be big-name writers, and yes, Roth should’ve stayed with the angst-y masturbation scenes of his youth):

The green cock plunged in and out of the abundant naked body sprawled beneath it, slow at first, then faster and harder, then harder still, and all of Tracy’s curves and hollows moved in unison with it. This was not soft porn. This was no longer two unclothed women caressing and kissing on a bed. There was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence, as though, in the room filled with shadows, Pegeen were a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal. It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be. She could as well have been a crow or a coyote, while simultaneously Pegeen Mike. There was something dangerous about it. His heart thumped with excitement – the god Pan looking on from a distance with his spying, lascivious gaze.

It was English that Pegeen spoke when she looked over from where she was, now resting on her back beside Tracy, combing the little black cat-o’-nine-tails through Tracy’s long hair, and, with that kid-like smile that showed her two front teeth, said to him softly, ‘Your turn. Defile her.’

Ew. This language of humiliation – sex makes her dirty! – makes me crazy. I am okay with green cocks; better that than a “realistic” dilso. It’s the idea of humiliation and defilement that squicks me.

From John Banville:

When he kisses her hot, soft mouth, which is bruised a little at one corner, he knows at once that she has been with another man, and recently – faint as it is there is no mistaking that tang of fish-slime and sawdust – for he has no doubt that this is the mouth of a busy working girl. He does not mind.

I assume this Banville is hetero, and thus inexperienced with that particular taste. Fish-slime? Sawdust? I’d be concerned about what she’d used to wash out her mouth between customers. Seriously, sawdust??!?

From Amos Oz, following upon a description of a woman (or girl?) with “the breasts of a twelve-year-old girl”:

And she, like a baby, suddenly thrusts her thumb into her mouth and begins sucking on it loudly, until her back suddenly arches like a stretched bow, and a moment later, when she has sunk back onto the mattress, a long, soft cry bursts as though from the bottom of the sea, expressing not only pleasure but astonishment, as though it were the first time in her life she had reached that landing stage, as if even in her wildest dreams she never imagined what was waiting for her here.

Seriously pedophilic, dude. Give that man a rattle and a sippy cup.

And this offering from Nick Cave:

Bunny lifts his head and looks at her and sees that River’s visage has changed somehow – there is a pout of hubris with self-admiration as she picks up the rhythm of what she would consider to be, come morning’s sober light, basically a sympathy fuck.

‘Oh,’ she says, as she pounds her bullet-proof pussy down.

I’m willing to cut Cave some slack because a commenter at Feminist Law Professors says his book is actually a dark comedy that’s intended to take the piss out of misogynists. But even so, that “bullet-proof pussy” must come from somewhere. (Maybe it’s a phrase from James Bond and not a product of Cave’s own imagination?)

From Anthony Quinn:

Then he dipped his head lower until his mouth grazed the tip of the inverted white triangle that ended between her legs; he brought a hand around and, parting her legs slightly wider, allowed his finger to draw back the pouched silk. It felt to him as if he were tending a delicate weeping wound, and as he probed it with his tongue he heard her moan quietly. Excited by the oysterish intricacy of her he sucked and licked the salty folds until they became sweet, and slowly she arched her back to heighten the angle of provocation.

Wow, maybe it wasn’t a woman at all but an injured oyster? Seriously, I cut my leg shaving this week, and it was a bad scrape that kept weeping for five days. I can guarantee you it wasn’t erotic in the least, though maybe I overlooked the third eye on my ankle or possibly a stray green strap-on affixed to my pinkie toe?

From Simon Van Booy:

Our bodies moved of their own accord. Hannah’s body was swallowing, digesting all that was mine to give.

Again, the anatomy boggles! Either Hannah has incredible deep-throating skills and the world’s shortest esophagus, or some extraordinary enzymes in her genitals.

Richard Milward starts off with yet another foray into freaky anatomy …

Bobby sucks all the freckles and moles off her chest …

but then does a quick skidoo into the land of talking genitals and condoms:

… Georgie has to roll Mr Condom down Mr Penis for him and she has to help insert him into Mrs Vagina. They shag at double-speed : Inthekitchenthrydospoonsonthebreakfast baramongstallthecutlerytheninthebathroomtheyshowereachotherwithhotkissesandGeorgiekneels onthepisserwhileBobbydoesheruptheshitterthenintheloungtheybounceupanddownonthesofathenin thebedroomtheysqueakthespringsofthemattress. Meanwhile, down in Vaginaland, Mr Condom’s beginning to feel a bit iffy. He’s overheating. For some reason, the shagging seems to be twice as fast this evening, and he grimaces as he gets flung willy-nilly in and out of the pink tunnel. He starts getting friction burns, hanging onto Bobby’s stiff penis for dear life, headbutting Georgie’s cervix at 180 beats per minute. ‘Help me!’ he yells in the darkness, feeling himself melting. The sex only seems to be getting faster though, and Mr Condom squeezes his eyes shut as Bobby groans and the friction starts getting unbearable and Mr Condom thinks he’s going to be sick and the searing pain the searing pain and Bobby groans again and suddenly squirts a gallon of white molten lava from his Jap’s eye, exploding through Mr Condom’s heavy reservoir end and Mr Condom screams and screams and vomits ice cream into Georgie’s vagina.

Quite apart from the racism, that’s enough to put a gal off sex and ice cream alike for a lifetime.

(This and all other quotations came from the Literary Review’s runners-up page, which has more awesome horribleness. If you’re insatiable, previous years’ winners are here. The John Updike and Norman Mailer scenes are a must-read.)

Ann Bartow was wrong about one thing, though. The short list wasn’t all men. It did include one woman, Dr. Sanjida O’Connell. I know she considers herself a woman because I googled her and found that her webpage features flowers (gorgeous, not cutesy) and lots of feminine pronouns. Like some of the other contenders, she goes a bit heavy on water imagery, but I actually rather liked this:

He felt they were lacking some vital ingredient; she was only partly engaged, the building explosion of sensation that had made her unfurl like a flower, a morning glory greeting the sun, was missing. He stopped.

What is it? she asked.

You, he said. I’ve lost you, he whispered.

She smiled, wide-eyed, lithe as a cat, she twisted her body, took his hand and showed him what to do; he felt her breath hot against his throat, her pulse quicken, limbs grow taut.

Then it’s back to waves and currents and tides. But still. I love that the partners are in tune with each other – that she describes the inevitable asynchronies of sex as normal instead of threatening – and that the woman is confident to show the man how to make her lust blossom. Like a morning glory, if you will. I could actually imagine giving O’Connell’s book a whirl. I like her title, The Naked Name of Love. At the very least, she seems to have a solid grip on basic anatomy.

I’ve read too many Harlequins to argue that women are going to write better sex scenes than men. Most sex writing is hackneyed. It’s engorged with cliches (if you will). Writing well about sex is very, very hard. (Or maybe not so much hard as moist, apparently.) The short-listed authors at least tried to be creative, and if the list tilts heavily toward men, I suspect it’s because the roster of Serious Novelist is still heavily male. But it’s remarkable how badly these celebrated authors’ skills collapse in the authorial bedroom – and just possibly in the literal bedroom too. I gotta agree with Ann Bartow on that. These guys may be Serious Writers, but mostly they appear to be seriously anatomically challenged.

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The feminist blogetariat is abuzz at the revelation that freelancer and professional blogger James Chartrand is actually a lady, and that ze could only make a real living after swapping genders. Sure, hir story definitely demonstrates that sexism is alive and well. The fascinating thing about this story, though, is how many layers it has, even after you peel away the obvious message about sexism. There’s hypermasculinity and gender fluidity; imperiled working mothers and supposedly ball-busting mommy bloggers; feminist outrage and faux feminism masquerading as a commitment to a liberal ideal of “choice.”

For starters, Chartrand’s success shows that masculinity can be purely a social construct. No, that doesn’t mean there’s no biological elements to masculinity, but it does indicate that it’s possible for it to be entirely performative, at least online. At the Sexist, Amanda Hess dissects the many ways in which Chartrand’s constructed masculinity goes beyond hir name: a hypermasculine logo, descriptions of hir female co-blogger as “perky” and “adorable,” bashing of mommy-bloggers, and the occasional gratuitous naked woman.

Once you know that Chartrand is actually a woman, hir web persona starts to look almost like a caricature of exaggerated masculinity, as if ze was trying to overcompensate for hir gender-switching. It’s possible Chartrand was indulging in an extended in-joke, but that seems improbable, given that hir livelihood was at stake. It seems more likely that the naked ladies and just-one-of-the-guys banter was part of an elaborate defense system against hir cover being blown.

At any rate, the fact that Chartrand’s charade was entirely successful suggests that masculinity can be pure artifice. Despite the occasional slip (like a recent post in which the otherwise assertively heteronormative James mentioned dating men, and then hurriedly changed the byline to hir female co-blogger’s), no one seems to have challenged hir online persona, and indeed hir regular readers appear to have been flabbergasted when ze came out. Ze only came out because someone threaten to “out” hir, not because hir facade of masculinity had cracked.

About that language of “outing” – it’s pretty weird, isn’t it? Why does a virtual man ‘fessing up to being a woman borrow a term linked to more clearly stigmatized identities? Obviously, there should be no shame attached to being homosexual or trans, either. Yet it’s telling that the vocabulary of “outing” appears in all of these contexts, providing more evidence that homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny form a kind of unholy trinity.

Chartrand’s virtual gender swapping further demonstrates what Sherry Turkle (in Life on the Screen) began arguing in the mid-1990s: since a person can swap identities online, gender can dissolve into an arbitrarily chosen posture – at least for a while.

I wonder if this very instability of gender online fosters a sexist backlash. That is, do people work harder to shore up gender boundaries online precisely because anonymity makes it possible to play with one’s identity? Are we collectively so insecure about gender that we have to police it intensively on the Internet? We know that women get harassed online in ways that men don’t.

Are web-based professional writers also especially vulnerable to being pigeonholed as unserious if they’re female? Chartrand writes of hir experience writing under hir real name:

I was treated like crap, too. Bossed around, degraded, condescended to, with jibes made about my having to work from home. I quickly learned not to mention I had kids. I quickly learned not to mention I worked from my kitchen table.

This snippet of hir story suggests it’s not just the name change that revolutionized Chartrand’s fortunes, although I’m sure figleaf is right when he says that publishing is still thoroughly sexist. Nor was it only aggressively masculine posturing that won Chartrand clients. Chartrand started making more money as soon as ze stopped portraying hirself as a work-from-home mom. It wasn’t just hir gender that held hir back; ze was hampered by the image of kitchen table chaos and presumed children tugging on hir imagined apron strings. It’s ironic that in order to support hir kids and keep them from falling out of the middle-class, ze had to pretend they didn’t exist.

Ironic, but not surprising. Sociologist Shelly Correll has demonstrated that women with kids face a “motherhood penalty.” They’re less likely to be offered jobs and less likely to be paid well. When Correll gave potential employers fake resumes that varied only in subtle references to parenting activities, she found that supposedly childless women were twice as likely as mothers to be called for an interview.

The motherhood penalty suggests it’s not just plain vanilla sexism that accounts for Chartrand’s advantage as a “man.” Nor is the glass ceiling going the way of the dinosaurs, as Chartrand’s female co-blogger Taylor implies:

I thought I couldn’t do anything I wanted to for other reasons. I actually thought I was never going to be as successful as my mother, powerful woman that she is. But the very idea that I couldn’t accomplish great things because I was a woman would have been laughable to me.

After all, the person I thought I couldn’t live up to WAS a woman.

That’s how my generation thinks. We’re much, much closer to the glass ceiling than our mothers. A study done in 2005 showed that women under 25 working full time earned 93 cents to every dollar a man earned.

Women over 25? They were still stuck with 79 cents to the dollar.

That means that if I take a salaried job today, I might be earning $32,550 while the guy next to me earns $35,000. And that’s not fair, and I would complain about it.

But it’s nothing compared to the $27,650 that James would be earning right next to me, under his female name.

James is 38 years old. I am 25.

The pay gap is dying out due to mere generational change? That’s just wishful thinking. Let’s see where Taylor and all those other 25-year-olds are in twenty years, if they’ve chosen to have kids. This chart (from U.S. News and World Report, via Sociological Images) shows that near-equity has been achieved only for young (and mostly childless) women. The pay gap opens up during women’s prime childbearing and mothering years and persists until retirement age.

 Maybe the stigmatization of mothers in the labor market accounts for James Chartrand’s disparagement of mommy bloggers (via Amanda Hess):

I’ll give you an example of a stereotype: Work-at-home mothers are frazzled women with six kids at their feet. They wear baby spitup, the washing machine runs all day, the dishes are piling up, and they have a million things on the go at once. No one appreciates them, they bitch and whine, and they feel they aren’t taken seriously in the business world.

Before I have my comment section filled up with nasty remarks about how I hate women and my email bombarded with insulted letters telling me that I have no idea what I’m talking about, let me reassure you that I fully understand the hardships of both being a mother and working from home. I respect work-at-home mothers.

I cannot say, in all honesty, that I know what it’s like to be a work-at-home mother, though. But I’m a dad, and that’s close.

Many blogs run by women, managed by women and read by women seem to have an unspoken “all men beware” mantra. They’re full of posts and comments that leave me the distinct impression that these women wield their feminism like a spiked mace sword.

It’s scary.

Woe to the man that steps foot in those online communities of female bloggers with children.

On the few occasions that I’ve risked my balls to post a comment on a mommy blog, I noticed my comments were skipped over as if they (I?) didn’t even exist. Sometimes my comments get a sharp, snappy, “piss off” kind of remark in reply. Sometimes I’m absolutely bashed, and I have a hard time figuring out why. …

I don’t understand that. Yes, I understand catering to a female/mother audience and forming a blog community. I understand forming an online personality. I understand discussing the difficulties of working while raising children and maintaining a household.

I don’t understand making male readers and participants feel unwelcome. I know plenty of mothers who blog and who come off as… well, bloggers who are mothers. They don’t perpetuate the stereotype of a frazzle Mom trying to work in a household of chaos. They don’t try to shave the balls of all males who dare to visit the blog. They don’t discount opinions from men. Everyone is equal. They blog, they work, and they raise their children.

Projection, much?

Note the conflation of mommy bloggers with feminists with man bashers. Note also the anxiety about hir wholly virtual balls. Chartrand appears to have a bad case of pen(is) envy.

I think it’s perfectly fine to assume a pen name. I even have some limited sympathy with Chartrand’s decision not to admit that she was working under a pseudonym. It’s dishonest, and that’s not entirely cool. Yet it’s understandable, given the long tradition of women writers who’ve posed as men to get published, that a woman toiling in obscurity would “pull a Bronte” (as Kate Harding puts it in a great analysis at Salon). If we really believe that one’s gender is as important to the quality of one’s work as one’s eye color – which I do – then there’s no reason to think Chartrand’s gender should matter, at all, to her potential employers. Unlike Jessica Wakeman at The Frisky, I don’t think there’s something “Uncle Tom-y” about Chartrand’s choice. Unlike Fran Langum at Blue Gal, I don’t worry that Chartrand’s example will contribute to ghettoizing women who write, because Chartrand’s case is – as far as we know – singular. (You should read Fran’s post anyway, if only for the awesome pink penis pen illustration.)

However, it’s deeply disingenuous to claim to be a feminist (via your co-blogger) once you’ve made sweeping generalizations about “many” (weasel-word alert!) women bloggers being ball-busters. I don’t care if those balls are real or virtual. It’s all well and good for Chartrand’s co-blogger, Taylor, to write, “No one, but no one, gets to tell us how women should behave.” Sure, I’m not the boss of you. But I do get to point out that Chartrand’s story isn’t just a fable about the persistence of sexism, or the fluidity of gender, or the precariousness of working motherhood. It’s also a precautionary tale about the perils of liberal feminism of the sort that elevates “choice” above all else, including basic respect for fellow women. If your choice is not just to pose as a man but prop up the old boys’ club by dissing other women en masse, then that’s a choice I can’t respect. It’s a choice I can’t call feminist.

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I’m going to back off my promise not to comment on the Tiger Woods story, because there’s one facet of it that’s got me ruminating on what we mean when we talk about “domestic violence,” “battering,” and “abuse.” We will probably never know what transpired between Tiger, his wife Elin Nordegren, and a golf club. The media are assuming or alleging that she whalloped him with a club in a fit of rage. Now Amanda Marcotte has weighed in against the trivialization of assault when it’s alleged to have been committed by a Swedish supermodel. I absolutely agree with her that women shouldn’t get a free pass on assault. A woman who commits violence within the family should be subject to prosecution, just as a man would be.

But not all intimate-partner violence is the same, and that’s where things get sticky, because the law generally doesn’t differentiate very finely in this area. A one-time assault is not equivalent – morally, practically, psychologically, or politically – to systematic battering. Legally, however, this distinction has been erased.

Current laws on domestic violence were formulated to redress the historical problem of it being swept under the rug by family members, communities, police officers, and courts. As Hanna Roisin writes at Slate,

Because of Florida’s domestic-violence laws, [Tiger Woods] admitting to the police that Nordegren in any way harmed him would virtually guarantee that the glamorous Elin would be led out of their mansion in handcuffs, even if he protested it.

In 1991, Florida became one of many states to set up a pro-arrest policy in domestic-violence cases. For years, feminist advocates had complained that police treated domestic-violence cases as private family matters and assumed the abused spouse would never follow through and press charges. Beginning in the 1990s, laws began virtually to force the police to take action. The new statutes direct police to figure out who was the “primary aggressor” in a domestic dispute. They make a call based on a checklist (bruises, disparity of physical size), and then they make an arrest. Howls of protest from the abused spouse are to be ignored: “The decision to arrest and charge shall not require the consent of the victim or consideration of the relationship of the parties,” the Florida law reads.

The consequences for Nordegren could be grim, as Mary Elizabeth Williams adds at Salon:

If he says his wife went ballistic, she would be arrested — whether the golf superstar presses the matter or not. But there’s still more — Nordegren is married to a U.S. citizen, but she is Swedish born. I spoke Monday to a friend who works in Florida EMS who mused, “Is she an American citizen? If she’s convicted of a felony she could be deported.”

That’s pretty much my understanding of the law in Ohio, too. (I’m still not a lawyer but I’ve absorbed a smattering of knowledge of the DV laws through contact with a couple of lawyers this year.) In Ohio, according to a defense lawyer I know, once the police have been called out to a suspected domestic assault, the need to file only one form in order to make an arrest but three if they don’t.

I understand and support the “better safe than sorry” philosophy behind this. Under the old regime, a lot of women suffered in silence at the hands of their partners. Yet we also need to recognize that the laws have gone from being too lax to quite rigid – with sometimes disproportionate consequences. On the one hand, the current law isn’t enough to keep an offender from repeating. Protection orders are often a worthless scrap of paper. I know one survivor who’s been repeatedly harassed by the guy who hurt her, but the courts seem to be hamstrung when it comes to enforcing the protection order. At the other extreme, the laws include some cookie-cutter features such as the requirement to prosecute against the spouse’s wishes no matter what, and mandatory prison terms (as here in Ohio) that remind me of those used against drug offenders.

Now, I also get why those provision were written into law. A spouse might be intimidated into dropping charges. Courts have a long, long history of treating domestic violence as a peccadillo.

But let’s go back to the Tiger Woods case. Here, we have no reason to believe his wife could intimidate him, and yet it appears very likely (as Roisin argues) that he’s kept mum to protect Nordegren from possible prosecution. Despite all the nattering about this case, no one in the media is alleging that Nordegren abused him regularly.

While violence is never okay, I don’t think it makes sense to conflate a single act of rage with the sort of systematic abuse that batterers dish out. Such abuse occurs over months and years. It’s certainly more common for a man to abuse a woman in this systematic way, but the reverse also occurs, as does battering between same-sex partners.

The crucial variable that defines battering and abuse is not, to my mind, gender; it’s the systematic, pervasive, long-term character of abuse. It’s the desire to control one’s victim.

This distinction isn’t as clear as I’d like it to be in Amanda’s analysis, and it largely disappeared in the subsequent comment thread, apart from a couple of folks who insisted not all violence = battering. Amanda does draw a lot of other useful distinctions:

Is Elin Nordegren a batterer?  I’m not really sure it’s exactly the same kind of domestic violence, if she did attack Tiger Woods in response to his infidelities.  I would argue that assaulting a cheater is motivated by the belief that you own them sexually. …

But I’m highly skeptical of the idea that Nordegren is a classic batterer, like I suspect Chris Brown was.  I doubt she isolates Tiger Woods from friends and family and controls his movements.  I doubt she’s invested in her image of herself as a masculine dominator or thinks that Woods is her inferior that should cower and obey.  I doubt she worked up to this beating by softening him up with a constant barrage of put-downs interlaced with chivalric displays of charm in order to cause him to question his own sanity and ruin his self esteem.  I’m not excusing her behavior in any way.  If she beat him, she should face the criminal justice system and an end to her marriage, like any other abuser.  But it’s important to see the distinction between incidents like this and the epidemic of battering that so many women face.

Why?  Because if we refuse to see these distinctions, we won’t know how to fight violence, because you can only fight violence if you understand root causes.  Violence like Nordegren’s alleged behavior can’t be addressed in the same way as more typical batterer-style violence.  Freaking out over infidelity can be slowed by fighting the idea that monogamy gives you ownership rights to your spouse.  But battering needs to be fought by putting rest to the idea that women exist to serve men’s desires and needs and that men are better than women. Battering can only be fought culturally by rewriting our scripts for masculinity so that dominance and power over others don’t define the man.  Different causes require different approaches.

I agree with a lot of what Amanda says. Most batterers are indeed men, and we could expect their abusive behavior to diminish if misogyny goes into decline. However, the problems of abuse and battering isn’t only gendered. Some women control men, too, through their physical violence. Their numbers are small, but not vanishingly so. Women who beat men can often count on them not to fight back, thanks to being socialized not to hit a girl. (Back in 2002, Salon published a moving essay by a man who had tolerated years of violence from his alcoholic wife out of a mix of decency, fear, and shame.) Emotional abuse, though not usually lethal, can be quite devastating, and it doesn’t require physical strength.

In the end, Elin Nordegren’s gender has no bearing on why I believe it would be wrong to convict her on domestic violence charges and deport her back to Sweden. I’m troubled because I think jail and deportation would be utterly disproportionate to the alleged crime. If she had hit another woman in a bar fight, the potential consequences would have been substantially milder. (I have a few former students who’ve been in bar fights, and I don’t recall any of them doing hard  time. Community service, yes; prison, no. Also, the bonus punishment of having to tell their prof that they had to miss class for a court date.)

Problem is, we can’t always distinguish one-time meltdowns from the first arrest of a serious, systematic batterer. So I’m not sure how we should try to improve on the legal status quo. I don’t know how we can introduce reasonable flexibility into the law without putting some victims of battering at greater risk. At the very least, though, I think we are responsible for acknowledging that the current law is unduly harsh toward some offenders – and for saying that this is a real problem.

As for Tiger? I suspect he sees it similarly, and that’s why he’s protecting his wife. But I do give him credit for decency and generosity in shielding her from the full force of the law. That is neither to endorse her alleged attack on him, nor to give him a free pass on his rampant cheating. It’s only to see that both of them are real, 3-D, flawed human beings capable of occasional noble acts. Just like the rest of us.

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Cornel West has come out with a memoir. While I loved the talk he gave at my university last winter – it was dramatic and stirring and compassionate – his new book is just self-dramatizing, according to  Scott McLemee, reviewing West’s memoir at Inside Higher Ed. (Via Aunt B at Tiny Cat Pants.)

I don’t know if the memoir as a whole makes West out to be as full of himself as McLemee’s review suggests. I’m not even sure where to draw the line between healthy self-regard, useful self-promotion, and outright “self-infatuation,” to use McLemee’s term. Those lines are extra-slippery for members of historically disadvantaged groups. They’re plain treacherous for African-Americans, who are still quickly suspected of being “uppity.” And I absolutely do see a legitimate role in academia for people capable of not just philosophizing but also inspiring and performing. As my colleague Mara Holt observes in her comment on McLemee’s piece, West does all of these things well, with the result that he’s drawn not just poor black kids but also white kids from Appalachia into advanced studies. So even if I’d read West’s memoir (which I haven’t) I’d hesitate to endorse McLemee’s review wholesale.

However, McLemee quotes a passage that really raised my feminist hackles. Here’s West on his romantic life:

“The basic problem with my love relationships with women is that my standards are so high — and they apply equally to both of us. I seek full-blast mutual intensity, fully fledged mutual acceptance, full-blown mutual flourishing, and fully felt peace and joy with each other. This requires a level of physical attraction, personal adoration, and moral admiration that is hard to find. And it shares a depth of trust and openness for a genuine soul-sharing with a mutual respect for a calling to each other and to others. Does such a woman exist for me? Only God knows and I eagerly await this divine unfolding. Like Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship in Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel Wuthering Heights or Franz Schubert’s tempestuous piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat (D.960) I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!”

Nothing wrong with high standards. But the desire here is for something more: sheer perfection. West duly notes that he expects as much of himself as of his partner, but let’s get real. In any hetero relationship, who’s more likely to be responsible for nurturing acceptance, flourishing, and peace? Who’s got the job of CEO (Chief Emotions Manager)? Sure, some dudes have evolved to true mutuality in tending their relationships. They are not the rule, especially in my generation and above (Prof. West is in his mid-50s). Even men who aren’t shy about sharing their feelings are still less likely that their partner to monitor the pulse of the relationship and to check in on their partners’ feelings.

The problem isn’t wholly reducible to gender, though. West seems almost wilfully ignorant of the fate of grand passions in the world. There’s a good reason to cite Heathcliff and Catherine: They’re fictional. They’re not real. Unions that burn so intensely tend to flame out, which is why so many stories of tempestuous love end at the wedding instead of following the volatile lovers into the doldrums of middle age or the skirmishes of divorce court. I’m more inclined to agree with Robert Hass in “Against Botticelli”:

The myth they chose was the constant lovers.
The theme was richness over time.
It is a difficult story and the wise never choose it
because it requires a long performance
and because there is nothing, by definition, between the acts.

Note that I’m not arguing for the impossibility of lasting love, only for the unsustainability of grand passion on the scale West demands. I’m especially skeptical that any person could be wholly devoted to romantic love while encumbered by other major commitments. Who can handle all that full-blast mutual intensity, and a named professorship, too? Not to mention a minor acting career, a full speaking schedule, and dabbling in hip-hop? His own memoir provides unwitting evidence that the quest for romantic perfection is quixotic: he’s been divorced four times.

I suspect the reference to Schubert’s piano sonatas reveals a lot: why pick a solo piece as your metaphor? Wouldn’t real love be a duet?

And then there’s this: “Does such a woman exist for me?” (my emphasis) The question could sound plaintive, coming from a guy who’d had only lousy luck in love. It could sound humble, coming from a shy or insecure man. But Professor West is none of that. He’s a very talented intellectual with no shortage of admirers and confidence. It’s hard not to read his question as insufferably self-serving.

It’s too bad, because the most memorable line from West’s speech last winter was, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Flip that phrase around and you get: “Love is what justice looks like in private.” That’s a phrase West never uttered, and to be fair, his speech didn’t address romantic love. Yet I don’t see how real love can exist without justice, fairness, and equity between partners. I can’t imagine how the  incandescent, ultimately unstable love he demands will nurture a just partnership. More likely, that “sublime and funky love” will have real and gendered costs for the woman in the great man’s shadow.

Or I could just quote McLemee’s wife, who said: “Any woman who reads this needs to run in the opposite direction when she sees him coming.”

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Since I’ve been home for the holidays, I’ve availed myself of my mom’s People magazine collection. Actually, she doesn’t buy People very often. She mostly likes the year-end roundups – and, as I noticed this week, the “World’s Hottest Men” issue.

I guess I’m my mother’s daughter, because I like hot men, too. But darn it – of People’s 110 picks, there were just two men older than me who rated individual features: George Clooney (48) and Alec Baldwin (51). Then there were two pages of miniscule pictures devoted to the theme of “hot at any age,” which included one man for every age, up through Gabriel Byrne at 59. So that added another 10 “older”men who were in their fifties. They were quite evidently only included to make the politically correct point that men over 50 can be handsome, provided you only look at tiny headshots that don’t cross the dangerous threshold of 59, after which all hotness apparently plunges off a cliff. It’s a pity, because the aged-59 slot was occupied by Gabriel Byrne, whom I rather like and would prefer not to see fall off a precipice.

Now, I’m not actively averse to People’s number 1 hottie,  Johnny Depp, who’s just my age (46). I positively adore Robert Downey, Jr. (44 but perpetually endangered), and I plan to enjoy him for as long as he can stay alive and out of rehab. Harry Connick (42) is charming and a pretty decent musician. George Clooney (48) is sexy, smart, and classy. Any list that includes him can’t be all wrong.

Otherwise, though, I wasn’t taken by the list so much as taken aback. Suddenly, it seems as though men, too, have to be young to be hot. Or maybe it wasn’t so sudden, and I just wasn’t paying attention? And what’s with all the hair product, fer goodness’ sake? Since when did plastic become sexy? Dudes who wear more hair gloop than I should just go ahead and get themselves laminated.

I’m still all in favor of women enjoying men’s visual charms, but if boy toys now must be actual boys, we’re all going to miss out on a lot of fun and beauty. And yet, that appears to be the trend. A few months ago, I groused about how the young blokes featured in Filament magazine were, well, very young. I’m now starting to grasp where they fit in the overall pantheon of contemporary male beauty. They rock more of an alt-aesthetic, but their general youthfulness is actually perfectly mainstream. (Suraya of Filament pointed out in comments to a later post that they plan to include more older models in future issues. I think that’s a wonderful plan, and I also admire the thoughtfulness Suraya’s investing in Filament’s development.)

Of course the tyranny of youth is nothing new for women. But while turnaround may be fair play, it’s not fun play. It’s limiting for heterosexual women and men, alike. In my mid-forties, I really dig men a few years older (as well as a few years younger). But with the fifty-plus men already mostly disqualified from hotness, what will I do when I’m a randy old gal in my seventies? My mother (who’s north of 70, herself) agrees with me that George Clooney is the bee’s knees. It’d be lovely if he could inspire a new appreciation not only for older men’s charms – as, in fact, I thought Paul Newman had already done – and for older women’s sexiness, too. And yes, at least some men appreciate women over forty and fifty. Just to pick one data point, my husband digs Sandra Bullock and Madonna as much as ever.

So what would it take to turn the trend around, and celebrate our potential for sexiness at every age, for every gender? Short of a revolution in which we seize control of the media, that is?

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Ever heard of “family voting”? I hadn’t, either, until I came across the term in a translation project on Eastern Europe. It might sound warm and fuzzy at first blush. It’s anything but.

Here’s what the UN has to say about family voting:

A particular issue that often affects women and merits attention in voter education efforts is the confidentiality of the vote. According to United Nations standards and international human rights law, each ballot must be secret and independent. Most national laws also have provisions to this effect, though such provisions are not always enforced. Men and women must both understand that “family voting”—a practice in which one family member casts ballots on behalf of the entire family, or in which a husband and wife enter the voting booth together—is not an acceptable practice in democratic elections. Family voting is particularly likely to detract from women’s ability to cast individual and secret ballots. In its worst form, family voting constitutes a type of fraud in which women are deliberately deprived of their right to vote. If perpetrated deliberately and on a large scale, family voting can bring into question whether an election outcome reflects the will of the people.

[emphasis mine]

You may be thinking: Okay, we know things are screwed up in Afghanistan. But wait! This is happening in Europe.

I ran across the issue of family voting while researching elections in Macedonia, where it appears to be a particular problem, but it’s not confined to one country. It happens elsewhere in Eastern Europe, too. In Macedonia, though, it seems to occur on such a large scale that it could tilt the outcome of elections.

The various NGOs working to eliminate family voting advocate better voter education, more professionalized training of poll workers, and enforcement of sanctions. Penalties could range from annulling a family’s votes to invalidating the votes from an entire polling station. Experts on the Macedonian situation observe, however, that such drastic measures would likely just be gamed by politicians, further skewing election results and creating new opportunities for fraud.

You won’t hear me say this often, but it seems to me that the root problem here is patriarchy. In Macedonia, the male “heads of households” are evidently powerful enough to dictate their wives’ behavior – and possibly that of other relatives, too). That doesn’t render the problem completely intractable, but it does make me wonder if it might be as deeply rooted as some of the ethnic hatreds in the region.

Update, 10/25/09, 11 a.m.: MM – who posted with a Macedonian IP number – remarks that “It only happens amongst the Muslims in Macedonia (especially the Albanians), not amongst the ethnic Macedonians.” None of the Internet sources have found address ethnic and religious differences. However, I’ve learned that family voting is also a significant problem in Kosovo (according to the UNHCR), so MM’s comment makes sense. Family voting is a rural phenomenon, which further makes sense because urbanization tends to undermine full-scale patriarchy.

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The charity Rethink Breast Cancer, which just produced a moronic video to “raise awareness” of breast cancer? Or LA Times reporter Dan Neil, who thinks this ad, entitled “Save the Boobs,” is a swell idea? (I think something may be rising and swelling, but I highly doubt it’s awareness.)

Jeff Fecke of Alas has already laid out the main reason why this ad is objectionable: However compelling breasts may be, and however much pleasure he may take in them, they don’t trump the well-being of the whole woman.

I can think of a few more gripes. The ad implies that the breasts are worth our sympathy are big, bold, and bodacious. Those of us who have A and B cups, or who don’t choose to wear skimpy bikinis, or whose sexuality is just more private – well, our breasts just don’t command that sort of “awareness.”

The breasts that deserve care are obviously young. They haven’t nourished babies. They haven’t drooped due to the changes of pregnancy, nursing, or just plain old gravity and time.

I’m trying to imagine how I’d feel if I’d undergone a mastectomy or lumpectomy and then seen this ad. I had a breast cancer scare that went on for about a year. I had lots of time to wonder if a lumpectomy would leave my left breast completely misshapen; indeed, if anything whatsoever would be left of it. Peggy Orenstein has written of the scars left by just lumpectomy and radiation, and her experience sounds to be fairly common among us small-breasted women. Maybe I’d be self-confident enough not to care. More likely, I’d already feel insecure about my scars, and an ad flaunting “perfect” breasts in the context of breast cancer would feel like another blow.

Does raising awareness really require an ad that might lower breast cancer survivors’ self-esteem?

For that matter, is there any sentient adult in American who’s not already “aware” of breast cancer? Even my young sons know about it. They comment on the pink Yoplait lids and worry about the Bear’s teacher, who’s undergoing treatment.

I’m not sure we need more “awareness.” What we need is research targeting more effective, less harsh treatments that go beyond the “slash, burn, and poison” paradigm that we’ve had for the past half-century. We need a better understanding of breast cancer’s pathogenesis, including the role of toxins and other environmental factors. We need to hear the stories of women undergoing treatment. We need to unveil the brutality of treatment, not just so patients know what to expect, but also to light a fire under the asses of the legislators and other government officials who can choose to fund research, or not. And we need this not just for breast cancer, but for cancer in each of its ugly guises.

Instead, we get this drivel from Dan Neil in the LA Times:

If this were a Budweiser commercial, the bluestockings, psalm singers and family focusers would be going completely mental, but in this case the morals police have no grounds to object unless they want to come off as somehow pro-breast cancer.

In recent years, the increasing frankness of breast cancer PSAs has been a bright spot of adult sensibility in what is Americans’ generally neurotic relationship to the female anatomy. Bear in mind that our national dialogue was brought to an inane standstill when Janet Jackson’s breast was briefly exposed during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Compared to the “Save the Boobs” spot, Jackson might as well have been wearing a burqa.

Also, this ad — and a couple more like it — represent one of the few occasions when the male tendency to objectify the female body is put to good use, as opposed to selling beer and premium football cable packages. They seem to answer a question that must have nagged breast-cancer-awareness advocates: How to get men to care? With rare exceptions, men don’t suffer from breast cancer. The earnest, sad-violins spots invoking moms and grand-moms of the past probably haven’t gained much traction among men.

Feminist film theory has a name for the camera’s eye here: The “male gaze,” which is to say, the camera’s view is that of the male spectator and unseen protagonist regarding the female as an object (cf. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”). This is the camera’s-eye of pornography and it’s inherently misogynistic. The “Save the Boobs” spot spoofs the male gaze and turns it into something positive.

This isn’t awareness; this is objectification. Dan Neil has some nerve, using feminist film theory as cover! Did anyone see the male gaze being “spoofed” in this ad? Nope, me neither. I’m confident Laura Mulvey wouldn’t, either; she’d just see scopophilia: erotic pleasure derived from a controlling, objectifying gaze, which is male or at least male-identified. And by the way, Janet Jackson got flak because she exposed a nipple, which this ad never does. Women have been showing this much flesh ever since Baywatch, at the latest; it’s the nipple that remains taboo. A niggling point, maybe, but also further evidence that Neil’s critical faculties shut down while watching that ad. Oh, and objecting to this ad on feminist grounds has nothing to do with moralism or neurosis. For me, part of being “sex positive” is insisting that women can be agents of their own desire and not mere objects of men’s lust.

Making breast cancer sexy won’t solve a damn thing. Any of us who’ve lived with cancer, first-hand or in our immediate family, knows that it’s the diametric opposite of sexy. Cancer does its best to replace life with death, vigor with fatigue, comfort with nausea and pain. The pleasures of the body are undermined by alienation from one’s own flesh, which is now treacherous and unreliable.

Indeed, the sexualization of breasts has never helped Americans deal more intelligently with breast cancer. In the bad old days before the late 1970s, the stigma of breast cancer wasn’t just a consequence of cancer generally being hush-hush. It also stemmed from the fact that breasts meant sex, and sex wasn’t often openly discussed before the 1970s.

Titillation won’t bring back the old taboos, but it still trivializes the problem. I don’t think such ads need to be tearjerkers. When cancer takes up residence in your family, black humor can be a saving grace. But this ad isn’t particularly funny, nor is a joke between people who’ve been there. It’s using a deadly disease to justify objectifying women one more time – and if that seems too simpleminded, well, it worked with Dan Neil.

If you’re still inclined to give Neil the benefit of the doubt, here’s one last bon mot from him:

The only people who could object to such ads are advocates for other kinds of cancer awareness. Women don’t gossip behind their hands about the largeness of a man’s prostate as if it’s a good thing. These breast cancer ads are tapping into a built-in constituency that doesn’t exist for other organs. Unfair but true.

Um, no, women don’t chat about prostate size, but most of us know that our male partners’ sexual health depends on a healthy prostate. Damage or remove the prostate, and erectile function will almost always suffer. And dude, if you think there’s not a bipartisan and pan-gender constituency for erections, I’ve got news for you!

But I doubt we’ll see an equivalent ad for prostate cancer awareness in my lifetime. A tanned, muscular young man striding shirtless around a pool … the camera zooms in on his Speedo … women gape at him as his man-parts jiggle … and begin to bulge and rise … the screen fades to white with stark black lettering: “Save the Boners.”

That’s not an ad I’d especially want to see, either. But Neil’s implication that women don’t care about their partners’ sexual health – including erectile function – isn’t just stupid, it’s sexist. It’s also heterosexist, because some of the women who appreciate “boobs” are other women – duh! And apart from sexual politics, it’s plain heartless to focus so much on individual organs, because as much as we might appreciate our partners’ parts, we love them as whole people. When cancer strikes, we want them to survive as whole people. That might be a little hard to capture in a 60-second ad, but ads could at least refrain from sabotaging it. Or am I asking too much?

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So you may have already heard about Tom Coburn’s chief of staff, Mike Schwartz, declaring that all porn is actually gay porn; I heard it first from Sir Charles at Cogitamus:

all pornography is homosexual pornography because all pornography turns your sexual drive inwards. Now think about that. And if you, if you tell an 11-year-old boy about that, do you think he’s going to want to go out and get a copy of Playboy? I’m pretty sure he’ll lose interest. That’s the last thing he wants.” You know, that’s a, that’s a good comment. It’s a good point and it’s a good thing to teach young people.

(More from Sir Charles here; Amanda at Pandagon and Tracy Clark-Flory at Broadsheet also give it the drubbing it deserves.)

Sir Charles suggests that the generational decrease in homophobia is great enough that many if not most young teens won’t be so easily deterred by calling porn gay. I agree. I’ve noticed a very significant shift in men’s attitudes toward homosexuality among the students I teach. They’re increasingly live-and-let-live about other people’s orientation, and this lets them feel more secure about their own desires. Just today, my intro class discussed this in connection with the rise of the bromance movie. Compared to guys I taught five years ago, my current male students are comfortable getting closer and more physical with their guy friends – although, as one male student hastened to add, “Not too close!” Okay, so they’re not yet perfectly secure, but hey, change takes time.

Schwartz’s argument is also ludicrous because really, he’s implying that all solo sex is homosexual. That objection probably wouldn’t faze him, because I’m willing to bet that Schwartz is also officially anti-masturbation. (What he does in private is a whole ‘nother question, and given the family values crowd’s track record on sexual hypocrisy, we can’t rule out his harboring a secret kink or two.)

Of course Schwartz’s argument is silly. But for a while I’ve thought that any porn that shows M/F couples has potentially homoerotic elements. (Note: my argument below is directed only toward visual material showing both a man and a woman; I’m not addressing fake lesbian scenes or actual gay porn.) Where else but in porn do straight men routinely watch other naked, aroused men? I understand that the viewer is intended to identify with the male porn star or imagine that the female lead might prefer the viewer over the actor; hence the prevalence of money shots and the transcendent ugliness of Ron Jeremy. I don’t doubt that such identification occurs.

Even so, imagining oneself taking the place of the male actor doesn’t nullify porn’s homoerotic elements. First, there’s its visual language. The simple fact that men have an outie and women have an innie makes the man’s genitals easier to photograph than the woman’s. And so they’re apt to loom large, even if they’re of average size (which Ron Jeremy is not, and boy, that’s a sight I’d have rather left unseen). Close-ups of blowjobs showcase an aroused cock and … a part of a woman’s anatomy that’s visible every day, an entirely public feature: her mouth. Of course, you also see her expressions of faked ecstasy, which only serve to underscore that only one participant is definitely aroused. Even in footage of intercourse, the cameramen have to work hard to find angles that show the ladyparts as clearly as the manparts.

Then there’s the structure porn creates: a lone male viewer symbolically occupies the third position in a threesome. It’s not, however, the threesome with two women that quite a few men readily admit to fantasizing about. It’s a threesome involving two guys. Now, my life is dull enough that I’ve never experienced either of those scenarios personally, so I’m relying on second-hand knowledge, but from what I’ve read,  straight men are typically less enthusiastic about a threesome involving another man – if they’re not entirely put off by it – and of those who try it, many try to avoid contact with the other man’s genitals. I know that some men do consider an MMF threesome a hot scenario, and bisexual men wouldn’t be so squeamish about other men’s genitals, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Finally, there’s the social setting in which men watch porn. Most often, they’re alone, and some watch with a female partner. Sometimes, though, they watch it together with other men. I understand this is supposed to be an exercise in male bonding, but again, what does it mean to watch material meant to arouse you while in strictly homosocial company?

Luce Irigaray’s essay, “Commodities among Themselves,” suggests one answer. She theorizes that the exchange of women as commodities – be they as wives, mothers, or prostitutes – serves to cement bonds among men, and those bonds harbor a homoerotic element that must be repressed:

The use of and traffic in women subtend and uphold the reign of masculine hom(m)o-sexuality, even while they maintain that hom(m)o-sexuality in speculations, mirror games, identifications, and more or less rivalrous appropriations, which defers its real practice. Reigning everywhere, although prohibited in practice, hom(m)o-sexuality is played out through the bodies of women, matter, or sign, and heterosexuality has been up to now just an alibi for the smooth workings of man’s relations with himself, of relations among men.

(Luce Irigarary, “Commodities among Themselves,” in This Sex Which Is Not One, p. 172. The creative spelling of “hom(m)o-sexuality” is a play on words in the French, where “homme” means “man” or “husband.”)

Certainly, industrial pornography commodifies women. It commodifies men, too, though the fact that female porn actors vastly out-earn the men suggests that the main wares are in fact female – if that’s not already evident from the fact that straight-identified men are its main consumers. Applying Irigaray’s framework, pornography is one more area where repressed homosexuality and homosociality are at once enacted and denied through the commodification of women.

So no, I’m not at all suggesting, along with Mike Schwartz, that pornography turns boys and men gay. What intrigues me is a more subtle idea: that heterosexual porn featuring M/F couples allows male viewers to indulge possible homoerotic impulses even as it confirms their orientation as unimpeachably straight. I’m not saying, either, that all purportedly straight men are actually gay or strongly bisexual. I’m just speculating that porn offers a culturally safe place for any repressed homoerotic impulses to take flight, perhaps on an unconscious (and thus unverifiable) level. In order to feel “safe,” though, any such impulses have to be instantly repressed again; and so, instead of dismantling homophobia, the homoeroticism in straight MF porn ultimately reinforces it.

I could be wrong – there’s a good chance of that whenever I drag Luce Irigaray into a discussion! Plus I obviously can’t inhabit a man’s body and feel what he feels when he views porn. So I’m keen to know  what other folks make of this.

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Sean Lennon and his girlfriend, Kemp Muhl, have “recreated” the Lennon/Ono shot that’s seared in the memories of baby-boomers (of which I’m one of the youngest). The pic will appear in Purple magazine, which I’d never heard of ’til now. Naturally, since naked girl skin was involved, the HuffPo was all over it (h/t aagblog’s twitter):

SeanLennon

But wait! That’s not quite how my befuddled middle-aged mind remembers the original Rolling Stone cover. Ah, yes, this is more like it:

JohnLennonYokoOno

Funny how John’s boy-nipples weren’t even exposed. His pose is more fetal than erotic. Remarkably Yoko Ono is shown as a sexual creature without being reduced to a sexualized male fantasy. The reversal of convention is so much more powerful than the capitulation to cliche in the newer photo. John and Yoko’s photo is both more intimate and more innocent. Sean Lennon and Kemp Muhl come across as more detached, cool, and posed. The colors and lighting in their photo underscore that impression. Also, Sean totally needs to get a shave! Dude, you look scruffy, not sexy.

Or am I totally off base? Dissenting interpretations welcome!

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Remember Filament magazine, which I mentioned here a few weeks ago? They were searching for a printer who’d accept pictures of erections in their second issue, and as Laura Woodhouse reports at the F-Word, they found one. Good for them.

And because it’s much more intriguing than working on my syllabi, I checked out the promotional material for the second issue. I’m pleased to say that Filament has modestly (or immodestly?) pushed the boundaries of “the female gaze.” This issue features men of different ethnic backgrounds. One has hair that reminds me of the artist formerly and again known as Prince. Their diversity is a welcome step toward making the female gaze plural. We have many gazes, after all, as evidenced by the comments to my previous post on Filament.

The guys are still relentlessly young and hairless, though, so there’s a whole panoply of gazes that still haven’t come into focus. Mine included.

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Why is it that the only two presidents to undergo public speculation about the shape of their genitalia have both been Democrats? Sure, there was a short flurry of attention to the bulge in Dubya’s flight suit after his “mission accomplished” landing, but as far as I could tell, the question was mainly: codpiece, yes or no?

Bill Clinton’s penis was never actually deposed by Ken Starr, but I suspect that’s only because Starr couldn’t figure out how declare it a legal person. I’m sure the Clinton-haters would say he brought the attention on himself because he couldn’t keep it zipped. They’re right, insofar as we would have all been spared some unsavory mental images if Clinton had kept his distance from Paula Jones.

But Barack Obama has led a virtuous life, by all accounts. He seems to be a faithful husband to Michelle. And now the Freepers and birthers are talking about the presidential penis as if it were 1994 all over again. It’s partly that the birthers are desperate for some real evidence. Mostly, though, he’s a black man (never mind his biracial heritage) and the hardcore racists among us have x-ray vision. They know that beneath that urbane, erudite surface lurks a hypersexual jungle man – a foreigner with an uncivilized, uncircumcised penis.

All day I’ve been thinking about the partisan angle on this and believing – without evidence – that this must reflect some serious insecurities among parts of the Republican base. And now I see that Dana Goldstein has turned up corroboration for my theory:

Sadly, I’m going to have to interrupt our Very Serious coverage of torture and Ted Kennedy‘s death to point out that Rush Limbaugh, referencing the CDC’s consideration of circumcision as an HIV prevention method, has said:

“If we need to save our penises from anybody it’s from Obama.”

(She said it at TAPPED. Via Feministing.)

Sadly, too, the similarities to Clinton’s first term are coming into focus. He too saw health care reform thwarted by lies, rumors, and powerful lobbyists. By the time Paula Jones came forward in 1994, his presidency had hit the skids and government was gridlocked, thanks to Newt Gingrich and his cronies.

I just hope that playing politics with the presidential penis will fail, this time around. The Freepers are just ludicrous, and it’s hard to take them seriously. Then again, two months ago it was equally ludicrous to imagine that health care reform would be derailed by screaming protesters toting guns at town hall meetings.

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Last fall, the topic of girls kissing girls for boys’ jollies came up in one of my Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies sections. I’m still perplexed at how we landed there on the very first day of class, but hey, there we were. So I asked the group, which was about 90% freshmen, how many of them had seen girls kiss girls at parties just to titillate the guys.

Each and every one of my 40 students raised their hands. For me, it was one of those moments where the students school the teacher. Srsly.

I think I had the presence of mind to ask how many had seen two guys kiss for the same reason. (Zero hands? It’s a blur, I was a bit shellshocked.) In the moment I really could have used this video:

via Sociological Images, posted with vodpod

I was struck most by the scene from Grey’s Anatomy, where the odious and (in my view) perfectly unsexy Dr. McSteamy personifies the male gaze. Very soon thereafter, Callie traded in her oh-so-slightly-butch lover, Dr. Erica Hahn, for a frilly, chirpy gal in pediatrics.

I’d like to rewrite all these scenes with Homer Simpson as the spectator. Then we might be able to talk seriously about the level of dipshittery required for women to use other women to snag a man, who is in turn manipulated by a total cliche. It’s a whole universe of userdom for both genders, where women’s real desires are subordinated to the purely transactional, and the man is believed to be about as bright as … well, Homer Simpson.

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