Friday, August 31, 2007

Porn Problem

On Feministe, the perennial porn v. feminism debate is being revisited. I haven't chimed in, because I honestly don't know where I stand. Porn is one of those issues I constantly flip-flop on. I have no theoretical objection to the portrayal of sex or sexuality, but the reality of porn has some very troubling undertones I have a hard time reconciling myself to.

First, my personal story. Growing up, I had almost no experience with porn. I thought Playboy was about as graphic as it got, and had only seen tiny bits and pieces of porn here and there. It honestly wasn't something I even thought much about. I was always very comfortable with the idea of having sex, I just never really thought much about media portrayals of it. When I went off to college, I very quickly and happily became sexually active, and at the same time had my first real exposure to porn. My boyfriend/husband-to-be/now ex-husband had a little stash of magazines, and they really blew my mind. I never even knew there was "hard core" versus "soft core" porn. The novelty factor was high, and though I didn't find the porn particularly titillating, I did find it a bit humorous. The totally unrealistic portrayals of women and sex rang untrue even to a novice like me. He soon "got rid" of his porn, and I never saw it again, and took him at his word that it was gone. It had made me feel vaguely uneasy, but I had never asked him to get rid of it. Years passed, and he nor I ever really brought up porn. Then, at the end of our marriage, I stumbled across some magazines hidden in the basement. They were of the "Barely Legal" variety, and due to the fact that the problems we were having in our marriage stemmed from his inappropriate relationship with a minor, they really freaked me out. The depictions of the young women were creepy, and the whole idea of fantasizing about young girls was upsetting. Of course, the hidden nature of his porn consumption was also quite distressing.

I am now with another man who was pretty heavy into internet porn and video porn when we first met. Again, I was intrigued by the images, and the levels on which they were trying appeal to their demographic, but this time around I was carrying a lot more baggage related to porn. Older, more feminist, and less trusting of men, I began looking at porn much more critically. Frankly, I didn't like most of what I was seeing. It still wasn't titillating, and the violent, objectifying, and oppressive themes were hard to ignore.

I also didn't like what the porn seemed to be doing to my partner. It seemed like a borderline addiction, and it put strain on our relationship. I began to realize that every experience I had with porn and a significant other seemed to have strong undertones of deception woven into the consumption of the porn. I had always assumed porn was something used in lieu of actual partnered sex, but it really seemed to function on a very different level. Though I had always tried to be open and tolerant about porn, my partners who used it always seemed very reticent about openly sharing it, using it, or sharing details of its use. The enjoyment seemed to come from the covert, exclusionary nature of its viewing. I came to see porn, and internet porn especially (the ease of its use, the potential for interactivity, and the extreme nature of much of it was particularly unnerving), as a threat to the trust in our relationship, and asked my partner to significantly decrease his consumption of all porn, and eliminate his use of internet porn all together.

My experiences with porn make me believe it is more about control than sexual stimulation per se. The ability to control the women depicted, and use them for any sexual purpose desired without their consent seems to be a primary draw. I also think some of the pleasure from its use (in the cases I witnessed) came from the porn user actively excluding his real-life partner from that aspect of his sexuality. Instead of the porn use being an additional enhancement to partner sex, or something thrown in occasionally for variety, or in lieu of partner sex when it was unavailable, it seemed to function as an entirely discrete, separate form of sexuality.

So, that is my personal take on porn. I have a hard time reconciling that with my steadfast belief in freedom of speech, my disdain for legislating morality, and my sincere desire to see sex work decriminalized so that sex workers may be treated as full citizens with full protection. I also have a real appreciation for sex and sexuality, and genuinely would like to find depictions of sex that are titillating for me, without upsetting my feminist sensibilities. I also respect each person's full right to express themselves sexually in any way they choose, so long as they don't hurt others in the process.

So haw do I deal with the disconnect? I'm not sure. In some ways, I feel like I am a microcosm for what is going on in the feminist community at the moment. On one hand, it is very much my inclination to be sex positive, and embrace sexuality as a valuable part of the human experience in all of its forms, and on the other hand, I fully understand how people can be upset by the demeaning images in porn, and the very negative impact it can have on real people. I want people to be free to express themselves, I want to be free to express myself, but at the same time, I am tired of always getting the short end of the porn stick.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

What's Love Got To Do With It?

I watched a documentary mentioned on the blog Tokyomango called "The Great Happiness Space" about "hosts" from "host clubs" in Japan. These "hosts" are young men who get paid by the hour to create the illusion of a relationship for women who come to the club. They talk, and sing, and drink mass quantities of uber-expensive champagne, all the while acting like the women who are paying them are the loves of their lives.

These attractive, well-dressed young men make staggering amounts of money being good-time boys- up to the equivalent of $50,000 a month.

The movie gives a very intimate view of the goings-on at the clubs, as well as some candid questioning of the hosts and their clients. You slowly start to understand that most of the women who are the big spenders in these clubs are themselves the female equivalent to hosts or prostitutes. The business of "love" is sapping the female sex workers, who come to the host clubs looking for release, and the hosts are made miserable by the grueling demands placed on them while at the club. Both sets of people are miserable, yet they continue to engage in this dance of deceit and simulation, chasing happiness they never quite find.

Obviously, this was a powerful look at a subculture in Japanese society, with larger implications for that society as a whole. Upon further reflection, however, I feel "The Great Happiness Space" has a lot to say about relationship dynamics in this country, too.

After reading bell hooks' All About Love: New Visions earlier this summer, I have been thinking about the difference between cathecting and loving. (Cathexis is emotional investment in someone/something.) hooks would have us see love as a more active thing than cathexis, a willful lifting up, an active caring for and about the object of our love. I have struggled with the separation of the emotional from the active, as a conceptual construct, but "Happiness" gave me some unexpected clarity in this area.

The thing that was being sold in the host bars was an illusion of love that emphasized the actions that we interpret as signs of cathexis- the thing we most often call being "in love". The romance, the play, the deep and exclusive interest in a love object-- these are the material "things" of love, the signposts we look for as confirmation of the loving state. In Japan, there is apparently great interest in creating elaborate romance rituals and an almost gamesmanship ethic of love. Perfect form is held up as the ideal. In theory, this makes a great deal of cultural sense in Japan-- a blending of Eastern emphasis on form, aesthetics, and ritual with voluptuous, decadent Western ideals of romance. Form, however aesthetically pleasing, is ultimately only an empty shell if actual cathexis, and the caring work of love are absent. The profound sense of loneliness, sadness, and despair communicated in the movie seem to stem from the disconnect between societally created pictures of "perfect love" and the emptiness of the reality of the emphasis on form. Whether you are a host caught in the cycle of illusion with your client, or a woman or man caught in the cycle of illusion with your significant other, in the end, you find yourself doubting the sincerity of the other, even as you feign sincerity yourself.

Far from being an exclusively Japanese phenomenon, I believe the same sort of disconnect is functioning in the US today, with much the same result. Without the same culturally embedded emphasis on form, American expectations for love have settled on the myth of marriage instead as the sought-after ideal. In our country, while we do place value on the giddy romanticism of newly minted relationships, the ultimate expression of love is seen as the joining of two people in lifelong, monogamous partnership. The final, logical goal of all romantic love for all people is marriage. Even love that has been traditionally seen as taboo, such as same-sex pairings, seeks the cultural sanction of marriage in this society that holds marriage to be the ultimate end-game of romantic love.

The problem with that idea is that marriage is NOT the traditional standard-bearer of fully realized love. As a matter of fact, prior to the nineteenth century, love was often seen as an ancillary product of marriage, not the main goal or concern, and was by no means seen as a sure thing. It was understood, even expected that many marriages would never develop into love. Love was often posed as a stumbling block for fools rather than a cultural good, and was certainly never seen as a goal in and of itself. Marriage was a social contract, designed to enhance the productivity of individuals, and create a home economy. It required work and investment from both parties, and was never designed to be a vehicle for creating or enhancing emotional connections. Marriage was fueled by production, not cathexis. That cathexis sometimes occured was largely incidental.

The problem with us, like the Japanese, is that we believe love is the answer, instead of the question.

We want to fix love as an ideal (romance! marriage!) and strive with all of our might to get there. If we do, we feel a sense of disappointment, because the reality doesn't match the hype. If we don't meet the goal, we feel bad and defective. And either way, we feel so very alone. The Japanese do all of the hard work, with the expectation that it will create emotional payoff, and the Americans expect the emotions to make the relationship work.

Neither group, it would seem, ends up very happy. Does love make a person happy? Is there a formula for love? Does love even really exist? Watch "The Great Happiness Space" online.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

An Open Letter To The Christian Right

Greetings. I am a member of the Liberal Left in the United States, and I think the time has come for me to say a few things to you.

First, I think it is important to let you know who I am. I am young, well-educated, and female. I am a mother, a wife, and a professional. I am a member of my neighborhood association. I vote in local, state and national elections. I am well informed, and follow both the mainstream and alternative media. I attend church regularly (Unitarian Universalist) because I value the community and the values of social justice it supports. I am a home owner, a taxpayer, and an engaged citizen.

Secondly, I do not hate you, nor do I want to be your enemy. I believe you have a right to believe whatever you wish, and practice your religion free from governmental interference, so long as that practice does not cause harm to others. If I saw you stopped on the side of the road, I would stop to help change your tire, regardless of the bumper stickers you displayed on your vehicle. If I saw your child being bullied or mocked, I would rush to her defense. I would offer to share my umbrella with you if we were caught in the rain. You are my neighbor, and I am yours. Our children play together, we are coworkers, and sometimes, we are friends. I value your contributions to our community.

I am concerned, because I hear a lot of rhetoric being used by your leadership that marginalizes and demeans me. I hear disturbing talk about raising an "Army of God" to fight against "Godless liberals and secularists". I hear your leaders talking about packing the Supreme Court with justices who will impose your beliefs and morality on all Americans. I hear you calling this a "Christian Nation", even though you know many of your neighbors are not Christian. I hear your leaders urging you to oppose me at every turn, though I offer no specific threat to you or your beliefs.

I believe that all Americans deserve equal rights and equal opportunity. I support a woman's right to abortion because I support the bodily integrity of all citizens. If you do not believe in abortion, it is your right to say so, and to not have an abortion, but it is not your right to keep others from having or providing abortions. I support the right to gay marriage, because I believe all people should be free to love whom they wish, and should enjoy the same legal protections under law. If you are against homosexuality on principal, you have the right to say that, and to reject homosexuality as your lifestyle, but you do not have the right to dictate that others should, too. I believe that all people, regardless of race, sex, or orientation deserve to have an equal right to education and jobs. I believe that people have a right to health insurance that is not predicated on their employment, and I believe that everyone deserves a helping hand when times get tough. I believe that we must deal compassionately and fairly with people who seek a new life in our country, addressing the root causes of their exodus if possible. I believe the government plays a role in facilitating these things. You may disagree with me, or propose other solutions to these problems, but you do not have the right to malign the names of certain people or groups as a tactic to switch blame for or attention from problems. I support a strong division between church and state as a bulwark against tyrannical and theocratic rule. You may disagree with me on which, if any religion is "right" or "wrong", but you do not have the right to impose your religion on me.

I reject the war on terror, both because of the way it is being conducted, and the indiscriminate nature of its targets. I believe the right of this country to protect itself must be balanced against the rights of individuals. Guantanamo Bay, rendition, the Patriot Act, recent amendments to FISA, the disregarding of the Geneva Convention, and the attack and subsequent occupation of Iraq are inappropriate means to fight terror that place all of our freedoms in jeopardy. The demonization and the singling out of Muslims is an inappropriate and short-sighted solution to terror. I support strategies of engagement with other countries and the world community, because the current policies of hegemonic domination support the subjugation of other peoples, which is an ethical bad in itself, and an engine for ill will towards America.

As I said before, I don't want to be your enemy. I don't want to keep you from believing what you believe, or living how you wish to live. If you force me to, however, I will stand in unwavering defense of what I believe is right. I will point out the inconsistencies of your arguments. I will oppose your chosen politicians. I will move to counter your actions at all levels of government. If you choose to use your religion as justification for your actions, I will attack it mercilessly, too. In short, I will not let you take away my rights or co-opt the integrity of this country in the name of your God.

I believe we can live in peace and harmony. I hope that we can sit down and discuss our differences rationally. I hope we can continue to be good neighbors to one another. This is a big country, with a proud tradition of coexistence of diverse groups. There is room enough for all of us, if we stop trying to push the other out.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Are You Dateable? That's Debatable

There is a man who calls himself Justin Lookadoo. He is a Christian book author and speaker, who does youth ministry. He writes relationship advice books for teens. He is quite possibly the scariest man I have ever seen.

I have a real interest in crappy relationship advice. Call it a hobby of mine. So, after reading a post on Pandagon about a crazy fundie youth group, I followed some links to Lookadoo land, and found Dateable- the book he co-authored about teen relationship advice. It claimed to be a bestseller, so I looked it up.

I did the Amazon Look Inside thing, and I wish I hadn't. Yikes! From what I can tell, the main thrust of the advice is: 1. Teen relationships aren't real and are bound for failure; 2. girls need to pretend to think guys are funny, "keep their mouths shut" and not dominate discussion with lots of squicky personal stuff, and stay mysterious, so the guy will "want" them; 3. under NO circumstances should a girl have sex, because she will feel "dirty and used" when the guy leaves her (which is inevitable) and starts bopping someone else.

It basically tells girls they should live their lives like a montage from an 80's teen movie (Splash in the ocean with your friends! Try new food, even if you don't think you'll like it! Go on a roller coaster riding marathon! Write poetry on the front of your notebook!). Really- do fun, spontaneous, original things-- but only so guyz will think you are a real keen free spirit cool gal! I mean, screw it if you don't LIKE roller coasters, or poetry-- that's NOT the point. You are just trying to be catnip for boys.

Oh, and girls have just GOT to stop daydreaming about that perfect, romantic, caring, sweet "Mr.Right". Why? Well, to a girl, every guy becomes Mr. Right when she falls for him, but he's really a gnarly crudball, and holding him to those high expectations isn't really fair, and the relationship will just go nowhere... because of HER unrealistic expectations. You got that? So instead, a girl should just have three criteria a boy HAS to meet- 1. He MUST be Christian; 2. he MUST NOT smoke; 3. He can't EVER try to have sex. Yep, those are the big three, according to Mr. Lookyloo and Co.

The sex is really the prime point. They REALLY want to drive home the idea that sex outside of marriage is bad. Why? It uses you up. Once you've had sex, you're damaged goods. Totally. See:

Would you buy a beat up old used car at a new car price? Think about it. Would you look at this car that is all scratched up with dents and high miles on it, pay the full sticker price and think, “Wow, what a great deal!” No way. But that’s exactly what happens when you get into sex without being married. When you keep having sex and pushing further and further what you are actually doing is turning yourself into a used car. Then you are expecting someone to come along and make a full price commitment for a ragged out, used car.
Every new sexual experience, when you are not married, puts another ding, another scratch, another scar on who you are. You keep running your car into other people, and then you wonder why no one treats you special. You can’t understand why no one wants to make a major commitment.
You are in control of this. You control what kind of condition you are in. If you treat you body like an old clunker, don’t be surprised when everyone wants to take you for a spin, and then go get a new car. You are valuable. Keep yourself new. Keep yourself unused. Then you will be the one everyone wants and they will be willing to make the long-term commitment to have you. You will be desirable and Dateable.

Now, none of the above states whether it is for girls, or boys, or both. But as you'll see, I think we can guess who gets used up by sex according to the authors. Surprise! Its the girls!:

The biggest test of a man is passed when he can say he’s not ready yet. You will show strength and wisdom in saying “I’m not ready for sex. I’m not ready for all that comes with it so I’m not ready for it.” The most powerful men in the world are the men who have control of themselves and their sex drive. If it has control of you, you lose. But take control and your power and passion for life will multiply. Sex will be great when you are ready for one woman for life.
And girls your biggest test is passed when you can control your emotions and see beyond your imagination. You show amazing grace and beauty when you won’t sell out your body for love. You become a woman of mystery when you don’t allow your emotions to lie to you about something you don’t have. The power of a woman is in her ability to manage her emotions and not let her emotions control her.
Your challenge is this, man must control his physical body and a woman you must control your emotional body, do this and you will be totally Dateable.

Well, we finally DO see some boy advice. Keep it in your pants! Sex is baddd. It will control you. Until you are married. Then its all OK.

So really, this is that rarest of things- a book about how NOT to have a relationship. Because, what all of this stuff really boils down to is to strive for as little intimacy as possible. Glancing blows, that's all. A few noncommittal sort of dates to go riding roller coasters or eat new foods, but NO physical contact, and none of that blab blab lovey-dovey emotional diarrhea girls always go in for- mysterious and cool- that's the way (Not telling the boy your name is really preferable). And probably no second date. But hey, some day you'll get married, and then ALL OF YOUR WILDEST DREAMS WILL COME TRUE! WOO HOO!

Yeah. That's so real world. That's why according to the Barna study in 99, Born-Again Christians had a slightly higher than average divorce rate, and in 2001, they were in a statistical dead-heat with non-Christians. Sure. Because marriage is this God-sanctified happyland, where the livin' is easy, and the sex is good. All you have to do is believe, I mean really BELIEVE that, and you'll... end up divorced, just like everybody else.

If you take Dateable's advice, you're just as likely to get divorced as those crummy non-Christians you were WARNED to stay away from, but you'll also not have had much fun with dating, so you'll be a REALLY sad and miserable person.

But hey, you can hold your head up high, and tell the world you aren't a used car! (Well, technically, after you divorce, you WILL be, but... um... that can be one of those little "mysterious" details you never tell about yourself.)

PS- Justin? You might want to loose the bleached spikes and the "totally rad" threads. You look like a 40 year old trying to look 20. And some folks might get the impression you need to go through the Exodus program again. That's a real cred killer in your line of work.

Think Ted Haggard.

'Nuf said.

Friday, August 3, 2007

A Word On Breastfeeding Nazis and Feminism

I am really tired of all of the Breastfeeding Nazis and their propaganda. Really.

Yes, I know "breast is best". I've only heard that about 75,000 times or so. I internalized those words, and made a real go of it, when the opportunity presented itself. Breastfeeding ain't for everyone, as I soon found out.

I wish the Breastfeeding Nazis would get the memo, too.

I am also aware that mothers who wish to breastfeed often face hurdles as far as being ridiculed for doing it in public, and a lack of accommodations made for breastfeeding by employers and society at large (remember, I've been in this boat before). Yes, that's wrong. And bad. And should end.

But honestly, if you are a self-identifying feminist, do you REALLY think you are helping the plight of women anywhere by pinning them between the devil and the deep blue sea? Because honestly, that's what the militant pro-breast feeders are doing.

Here is the comment-- form a totally non-breastfeeding related post on feministe, by the way-- that started it all.

Breastfeeding not any better than formula? *GUFFAW* That was satire, right?

It’s a good thing I steadfastly refuse to call myself anything but a feminist in the context of, “believes in equal rights for women and men, requiring society to give women greater rights than we currently have in order to level the playing field of rights,” because stuff like this really makes me wonder about the movement sometimes. I mean, when we have to pretend a can full of powder cooked up in a lab is as good for a mammalian baby as the stuff it ought to be obtaining naturally from its mother just so some random woman somewhere won’t have to feel guilty because she didn’t even try, what exactly is this movement trying to accomplish again?

I’m sorry, I know this is off-topic (mostly) and I know a lot is expected of mothers that shouldn’t be and it’s pretty sick. But I see feminists denying that they want women to be like men ALL THE TIME and yet… An argument like this seems to infer that only when women, like men, don’t have to breastfeed children will we be truly equal to men. My response is, since when should women have to be like men in order to be equal, and why are you having a kid anyway if you’re just going to let chemicals and machines raise it for you?

Yes, starting breastfeeding is harder than starting a bottle. Assuming proper training and no physical defects in mom or baby, however, in the final tally breastfeeding is EASIER than bottlefeeding: cheaper, no prep needed, no washing bottles, and hardly any spitup. You don’t even have to hardly wake up to feed your baby at night if you’ve got them sleeping next to you. I’ve done both methods of feeding and it was such a contrast when I BFed my second child that it was just breathtaking. I will never touch formula again if I have another child.

I feel sorry for women who have to struggle more with BFing logistics because it’s work or be in abject poverty. But again, pretending that formula grows on the Boob Tree and is just as good as human milk does no one any favors. We should be expending that energy instead to ensure that nursing mothers can feed their children with as little inconvenience as possible. It’s THAT kind of thing that will ultimately make women equal.

Now, all due respect to RE, or
Radical Earthling- she has a good blog, and says lots of interesting stuff. She does use qualifiers, like she knows mothers have a lot expectations placed on them, and she feels sorry for those who struggle with logistics... but then she goes off and proceeds to tear women who choose formula a new orifice, because obviously, they are just deluding themselves about the appropriateness of bottle feeding.

Sheesh. I mean, this day in age, I can't imagine there are many women out there who choose formula because they think it is the ideal food. They often choose formula because of those nasty "logistics" RE talks about. My story is a fairly common one. I got all of the haranguing about "breast is best", and resolved to breastfeed. I never had problems with insufficient milk. On the contrary, I had an overabundance, which caused me to leak constantly, so that I was perpetually soaked, stinky, and uncomfortable. I pressed forward, but unable to afford an expensive breastpump, I found myself unable to keep up with all of my daily responsibilities AND feed. I was a grad student with an assistantship, so "maternity leave" was out of the question. My son actually slept through the night fairly regularly after the first three weeks, which I thought was a blessing, but I soon realized it was a curse when those night feedings shifted to day feedings that I could not accommodate with my meager pumpings from my cheap breastpump. After about two months of sopping, stinky, candle burning-at-both-ends misery, I went to the bottle. It really saved my sanity.

It's really the same thing as the mom who buys her kids frozen dinners because she doesn't have time to cook. Sure, in HappyLand, everyone would have time to do everything, and no one would have to eat less than perfect food. But this is Reality World, and it isn't so pretty. Feminists who really care about the plight of other women should not denigrate them for having to make hard choices that involve compromise.

I get what RE is saying about helping women better accommodating feeding, but I live in Reality World, so I really have to ask what those accommodations might be? If a woman has a job at a company with no on-site daycare (which is most of us), what can you really do? There is pumping, but even assuming you can afford the decent pump, feeding breastmilk out of a bottle usually means you have to go completely over to the bottle at some point because of "nipple confusion". That's a WHOLE lot of pumping. Pumping isn't something you can do in a 3-hour marathon in the evening while you work on the computer or read-- it has to be done in shorter, regular sessions to approximate feeding in order to ensure the milk supply. How, exactly, does that work for women on the job, again? What about women who have jobs that just don't accommodate pumping at all(think outdoor jobs, etc.)? And longer maternity leave is great, but since I don't see that as a centerpiece of ANYONE'S political agenda, that'll be a long time in coming, and meanwhile, there are hungry babies to feed...

No, the BEST way to help women in the short term is to support their choices--whatever they might be. Long-term reform is great, but it is no substitute for dealing compassionately with the problem on the ground right now. Know a woman who is struggling with breastfeeding v. bottle? Offer her encouragement and advice. And offer sympathy for whatever route she decides to follow.

Oh, one more thing. No woman should ever feel compelled to breastfeed. It's a very personal decision. I think logistics are probably the #1 reason women decide against it, but if a woman decides she just doesn't want to breastfeed, that's fine too. Bottle feeding, while not ideal, has empirically been proven safe through decades of use. A woman who decides not to breastfeed is not abusing or neglecting her child in any way. I can honestly say that even absent the logistical problems, I probably wouldn't have made it to the recommended one year mark with breastfeeding because the sticky, leaky, stinky stuff was driving me pretty batty. That doesn't make me an abuser. Or a bad mom. It makes me a person, a person with a right to bodily integrity.

Shame on the breastfeeding Nazis for forgetting that.