Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sexual Orientation

For a long time, I've felt uncomfortable with the idea of having a sexual orientation. Here's a shot at explaining why.

Sexual orientation is, I suppose, a label for a taste or a capacity. Most labels for tastes and capacities, give information about what a person likes, or is capable of. Sexual orientation labels are a little different: they also give information about what the person doesn't like and isn't capable of.

When people ask, I usually say I'm straight. I've never slept with a woman, and I probably won't in the near future--I'm in a long-term, monogamous relationship with a man. But straight women supposedly aren't attracted to other. They don't stare at other women (but politely! always politely), or get sooky crushes on their female friends.

I suppose I could embrace the label even though it doesn't fit. I'm already a lousy straight girl for being too pushy in bed, for not wanting to feel pretty, for not minding if my partner sleeps with people, and for thinking that romantic wuv, as it's commonly sold, is a load of crap. That I can get my head around, but a straight woman who might be interested in women? That I can't quite get my head around.

"Bisexual" is bad too, because how do I know whether I'd like something that I haven't tried? Sex with women might be like novelty freeze-dried ice cream they sell in museum shops. As a kid I begged my mom to buy me some (ice cream, not sex), but was disappointed when I actually tasted the stuff. It might be like custard apples, which are sometimes delicious and sometimes do nothing for me.

"Queer" is terrible. I don't feel entitled to that, because I'm much too gender-conforming. Okay, I dress a little bit butcy-granola, but as soon as people realize I'm not a lesbian, I get reclassified as a big straight girl scout. People like my relatives, who aren't big on the "lesbian" concept in the first place, bypass that and immediately assume that I'm a big straight girl scout. Calling myself "queer" feels like a great way of marginalizing people who take actual abuse for their gender nonconformity. I slide under the radar.

Don't even start with "bi-curious". Ugh. I might as well start wearing a sign that says "I'm a huge, sleazy poseur".

I'm not so sure about "dominant" and "top" either. They don't describe my non-sexual behavior, and just because I tend toward those activities with partners, doesn't mean I never want anything else. "Switch" is better. Nobody can accuse a switch of false advertising just because she feels like being on the other end of a good whipping every once in a while. (Is there such a thing as a dominant masochist? I hope so. That sounds like a nice thing to be.) Oh, yes, and I'm one of those odd sadomasochists who likes vanilla sex. Or vanilla people who likes sadomasochistic sex? Best to call the whole thing off.

At least "woman" seems to work. My body is female, and gets read as female--or gets a "sir" followed by a quick apology when they notice the prominent boobs. I'm pretty used to the body, it's one I can deal with, and my figure does not respond well to ace bandages. Female it is, then.

If only there were some sort of physical marker for sexual orientation too. (The navel? I've been staring at it enough this afternoon. Phew.)

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

In lieu of a real post,

here's scene from the movie The Magic Christian that contains several of my favorite things. It's got Yul Brynner, gender bending, and an excellent cabaret song. And it's from a movie that stars Peter Sellars and Ringo Starr as father and son.

Yeah, I just don't want my wonky gaydar to be at the top of my blog forever.

Saturday, June 30, 2007


I have great gaydar, but the signaling mechanism is a tad idiosyncratic. Most people's gaydar says, "Gee, I wonder if he's gay?" Mine says, "hot hot hot want want want". Given the rather curvy female body the fates have stuck me with, this is unproductive and faintly ridiculous.

I had ample opportunity this past week to wonder about the causes of my wonky gaydar. (Overintellectualizing. Because it's better than freaking out your gay friends.) I wonder if I just get my signals crossed. The gay men of my acquaintance tend to be very comfortable with direct eye contact, possibly because they're not afraid of coming off as sexually interested. (The irony!) Something about those interactions feels particularly intimate, and while I know in my head that the intimacy is not sexual, knowing in my body is another thing entirely.

Maybe gay men are more likely to be femmey, and the thing I'm detecting is a rough proxy for sexual orientation. Or relatedly, maybe I'm imposing filters for straight boy anxiety, which only catch straight boys.

Maybe gaydar is a myth and I've just got a wicked case of the confirmation bias.

Luckily, my boyfriend is finally back from his trip, and poised to distract me. He totally sets off my gaydar. Yum.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Men are pretty.

Occasionally, I hear people making the insane claim that the male body (in contrast to the female) is quotidian and ugly. Just for fun, here are 10 things I find beautiful about male bodies.

1. Hair. Long, shiny hair is beautiful on men. I like it even better on men with more "masculine" features than my usual type; if anyone has a theory as to why this might be, I'd be intrigued to hear it.

2. Hair. In addition to head hair, armpit hair, and pubic hair, men grow in more surprising places. They grow woolly hair on their chests. They grow scratchy hair on their faces. This makes them interesting to touch. Texturally, men's bodies are like good hikes: they contain many different landscapes that can be gazed on and explored in the course of an afternoon, a day, or a weekend. And they bear coming back to.

3. Shoulders. Men's shoulders are broad compared to their waists. They draw the eye, hand, and mouth.

4. Arms. Whoever says that men don't have curves hasn't been looking very hard. I love the curve of biceps, brachialis, triceps, and carpi under skin. One of my earliest sexual memories is of watching a boy I knew play guitar, and being fascinated by the way his muscles flowed.

5. Voices. I cannot decide which I like better: poems recited in a deep, textured baritone, love songs sung in a sweet, clear tenor, or ghost stories read in a bass that shakes me to my bones.

6. Legs. I love the way men in different sports have different-shaped legs. Runners have the most beautiful calves, I think, but bicyclists have the most beautiful thighs.

7. Cocks. Who says the cock is an ugly body part? It's perfect and sui generis. Unlike any other body part, it starts soft and hardens quickly to the touch, or stirs suddenly for no reason at all. It would make a good metaphor for poetic inspiration. Besides, it smells nice.

8. Tongues. My partner sticks out his tongue when he's concentrating. It makes me think of all the things he could be doing with it. Kant says it's not beauty if it excites the passions, but Kant is surely wrong.

9. Stomachs. I used to think I loved men's stomachs because they were harder and more muscular than my own. Now that my partner has a bit of a paunch, I realize I was wrong. I still like his stomach: now it's round and soft and rubs nicely against my thighs. Maybe beauty is a sort of family resemblance concept for stomachs, as it is for everything else: each beautiful stomach resembles some other beautiful stomach in some respect, but there's nothing they all have in common.

10. Nipples. On men, nipples have no function but to generate pleasure. Deus sive natura is cruel in many ways (most of us could complain about the betrayals of our bodies for longer than any of us would care to listen) but at least it's given us a few organs devoted solely to pleasure.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


I followed Renegade Evolution over to Feminist Critics Blog, which I'm finding alternately fascinating and disturbing. (If you don't want to be disturbed, stay far away from the comment threads.) There are valuable insights there, often intermixed with moments of shocking cluelessness and/or misogyny. One of the most bizarre things I've discovered so far that there exists a thing called the Seduction Community, usually abbreviated SC. The SC is a collection of men who devote time, effort, and thought to the art of picking up women.

I'm intrigued and ambivalent. Because I enjoy breaking things down into lists, I've decided to schematize my feelings. (Is that stereotypically masculine or stereotypically feminine, I wonder? Who cares, I wonder?)

On the one hand

I see how this could be beneficial. We live in a society that tells men that their worth is measured by how much sex they have (on some highly problematic definition of "sex"). Men with no sexual experience often suffer from low self-esteem, and are clueless about how to interact with women (hint guys: women are human beings, and all of us are different). This situation is neither good nor justified, and we need to change the way sex figures in the mainstream definition of manhood. But while we're changing the definition of manhood, what do we do with all the clueless, unhappy men? One attractive possibility is that we let them train themselves to be more confident and successful with women, thereby saving ourselves work and making them easier for everybody to live with. HughRistik claims that the SC gave him the ability to be friends with women he's attracted to, instead of moping after them in a creepy and self-pitying way. If the SC can turn men into grown-up human beings with spines, rather than entitled whiners who place women on pedestals, then more power to them! I want more men who can deal with me as free and equal human beings, and I'm sure men want to be happy and well adjusted. When people are confident and happy, both they and everyone around them benefit.

Still on the same hand

The SC deals explicitly with nonverbal communication. I wish somebody had taught me about nonverbal communication when I was younger and dumber. Being able to tell when somebody is attracted to you, or when they want you to go away, or when they're trying to bully you, or when they're frightened of something, is a crucial life skill. There should be widely available classes in sending and reading nonverbal messages. The nerds of the world would benefit.

On the other hand

The SC definitely has elements that encourage misogyny. I'm just going to make a sub-list of all the misogynistic things:

Negs: Apparently you're supposed to give women backhanded compliments called 'negs' in order to intrigue them. I don't know if they serve their supposed function, but they definitely serve the function weeding out women who don't take shit from guys. Yuck.

Refusal to take no for an answer: No means no. Why do still I have to complain about this in 2007? Why don't people get it yet?

Alpha males: Apparently, it is a truism that 'women prefer alpha males', where the concept of 'alpha males' is ambiguous enough to perform almost job the user sees fit. Sometimes, it stands for traits that women really do prefer, like good looks and confidence. I dare you to show me the man or woman who doesn't like good looks and confidence. Sometimes, it stands for things that many women tend to prefer, but possibly for problematic and artificial reasons, such as dominance, 'masculinity', and height. (I say 'meh' to all three. Short, femme, subby guys are woefully underappreciated. I've often had more than I knew what to do with, and I have a lot of ideas about what to do with them.) Sometimes 'alpha' is meant to connote success and popularity. It's true that some men and women worship status, but worrying obsessively about this stuff just seems profoundly unhealthy. Finally, sometimes 'alpha' stands in for qualities that women don't normally like, like being an arrogant jerk who disrespects women (I think psychologists use the word 'disagreeable' for this property; how polite of them). The world would be a better place if everyone got rid of the misleading concept of an alpha male and talked about separate traits separately. The topic of alpha males may get a post of its own sometime in the future, because it bugs me that much.

Women as prey: Another common theme, at least in the comments of the Feminist Critics blog, is that women really want companionship, not sex. Men who persuade us to have sex are getting away with something.** This is part and parcel of living in a sexist culture, but really, it needs to go. If the SC is going to be about helping men become attractive to women, rather than helping men bully women, then it has to stop encouraging the idea that sex is only good for men, or worse, only supposed to be good for men.

The upshot

The SC is a good idea, but the execution is sometimes effed up. This is not surprising, given the sexist world we live in. (Misogny ruins everything.) Still, I expect better from men. In the glorious Utopia of the future, there will be seduction communities for both sexes that teach body language and charm while emphasizing the importance of mutual respect. Also, I should read Neil Strauss's book. (I wonder whether it will sustain much damage from being hurled across the room in annoyance? We shall see. He is rather adorable on The View. Notice how much sexier men are when they're not being all pushy and disagreeable!)

* There are a few guys at Feminist Critics who complain that women don't face the same amount of rejection men do. They clearly don't know any women who are interested in creative writing. I am given to believe that some men are actually able to keep count of how many times they've been rejected. Lucky bastards.

** See the admirable discussion of this topic by figleaf and Kochanie at Real Adult Sex. "The no-sex class" is figleaf's idea, but both of them have said smart things about it.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The P. Burke program for not being a bitch

Cassandra has an intriguing post about jealousy, sexual attraction, and the possible relationship between them. Most of Cassandra's readers have never felt bonecrushing jealousy toward other women. I have. As an adolescent, I discovered that many boys found looks more important than personality, and decided that to blame this on any woman with too high of a looks-to-personality ratio, as calculated by my pretty biased mind. Eventually, I grew up, got sick of being such a mocking, green-eyed monster, and decided to knock it off. So I retrained myself.

It's hard to retrain yourself on your own, but I had help from two people. One of them was Connie, a gorgeous, femme math major who lived in my dorm, and who, for some reason I couldn't fathom, liked me. Connie looked like the ideal of white beauty: long blonde hair, blue eyes, thin, delicate symmetrical features, short skirts, seamed stockings, fashionable boots. Hardly any amount of personality could have made up for that. But she was immediately friendly to me, and she was funny, and I discovered that she shared my interests in poetry and distance running. I found myself liking her so much that the usual resentment couldn't kick in. In fact, I found myself--my ostensibly heterosexual self--thinking about her frequently, gazing longingly into her eyes, and wondering what it would be like to kiss her. It's hard for that attitude to coexist with seething hatred. Connie, who is completely heterosexual, handled my crush beautifully; she told me she was happy being my friend, but was really only interested in romantic relationships with boys. I took the point and started looking elsewhere, but my friendship with Connie was great practice for not being a bitch.

I looked elsewhere and found Sam, who was wholesome, Catholic, and perfect for taking home to my parents. (Being a Catholic, he was also pleasantly quirky in bed, but that's a story for another day.) There was just one problem with Sam. Like all other heterosexual men, he failed to believe I was the only attractive woman on earth, and I did not react well to other actual or suspected objects of his attraction. He pointed out that his was kind of dumb, and I agreed.

My solution to this, which was bizarre but effective, was that we should check out girls together. I could either point out things that made them physically attractive to me, or I could say "not my type", but I wasn't allowed to make critical comments. This worked. When he wasn't around, I practiced it inside my head. Somehow the attraction and/or aesthetic sense and the jealousy had a hard time co-existing. I have no idea whether it would work for anyone else, but Cassandra's commentors are decent people for other reasons. In my case, it probably helped that I was simultaneously growing up and learning to be less insecure and needy.

Because I'm recalling it, here's the first stanza of a poem I wrote about Connie (I carried it around inside my head for a long time, but can't remember the rest anymore):

Plucking strings, her lovely guitar hands kiss a
fret or two, her larynx hums 'Sweet Melissa'.
Fingers, strong, impose on the half-note's border
musical order.

I didn't mention it to her, which was probably just as well, as it might have made for awkwardness.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Friday poem

It's Friday (in Oz), and it's a poem, so I suppose it's a Friday poem. I opened my Norton Anthology of Poetry for a piece of serendipity, and found this bit of verse by Thomas Hardy, about the ill effects of depravity on women. Dedicated to Renegade Evolution, who's been having an unduly rough time of it these past few days.

The Ruined Maid
"O'Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in town?
And whencesuch fair garments, such prosperi-ty?"
"O didn't you know I'd been ruined?" said she.

"You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you've gay bracelets and bright feathers three!"
"Yes: that's how we dress when we're ruined," said she.

"At home in the barton, you said 'thee' and 'thou,'
And 'thik oon,' and 'theas oon,' and 't'other,' but now
Your talking quite fits 'ee for high company!"
"Some polish is gained with one's ruin!" said she.

"Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I'm bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!"
"We never do work when we're ruined," said she.

"You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you'd sigh, and you'd sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melanchol-y!"
"True. One's pretty lively when ruined," said she.

"I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!"
"My dear--a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain't ruined," said she.

From 1902, so not quite Victorian.

A bit late...

I just discovered this. No pretense of meeting the deadline, but it's worth your attention, especially if you're from New York state.

Not sure I have a lot to add, so I'll keep it brief. If nobody cooked, cleaned, or took care of children, the world would grind to a screeching halt. The people (mostly women) who do these jobs deserve basic respect, enough money to live on, and decent working conditions.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Blogging for sex ed

June 4th is blogging for sex education day! (It's still June 4th in the U.S., so I'll figure this is close enough to on time.)

blogging for sex ed

When I was a young teenager, I worked for an organization that advocated (among other things) an abstinence-only message. I'm not proud of that part of my life, but it gave me a better understanding of the mentality behind that stuff. I don't really feel comfortable revealing the name of the organization, but it's a not-for-profit corporation, has no religious affiliation, and has existed slightly longer than I have. It's small and regional enough that you have probably not heard of it.

When I asked my boss why we couldn't mention condoms or birth control in our material, I got the canned answer: that would be giving the teenagers mixed messages. You can't tell them both "don't have sex" and "if you have (penetrative) sex, use a condom". They'll hear the second message as a license to go out and have sex. I expressed skepticism, but was met with the same answer repeated in a different way (the usual mode of arguing practically everywhere, I guess).

The thing that strikes me about the canned answer is that teenagers would have to be awfully stupid for it to be right. "Don't... but if you do..." isn't that hard of a concept, and it's one that people need to make good decisions. You shouldn't get drunk, but if you do, don't drive. You should avoid keg parties, but if you decide to attend one, bring a friend and look out for each other. Teenagers become adults, who as adults, are entitled to get drunk, have sex, and go to keg parties (maybe even at the same time!) Those adults will need to know how to keep themselves safe.

But someone of my age wasn't even supposed to talk about sex too much, as this was a prelude to doing it. If we didn't do it, talk about it, or even think about it, then why would we have any questions about it? I guess this is known in common parlance as "letting the best be the enemy of the good". It's an unanswerable position, especially if you're one of the people who's not supposed to be asking questions. But being unanswerable doesn't make you right.

The other weird thing about the abstinence-only message was that I was never quite sure what we were telling people to abstain from, or until when. The occasional vague mention of condoms (and their lack of complete effectiveness) didn't do anything to correct the heteronormative assumptions I had. Since my organization didn't mention marriage (probably atypical), it was also unclear when we were supposed to abstain until. The idea was probably to scare us off sex completely until we had quit being teenagers, but one of my friends wound up doing the guilt-ridden rationalizing thing instead, got an STD, and was pretty traumatized by the whole event. She probably wasn't the only one, but she was the only one who told me.

Sex wound up being a mystery whose rightful owners were the superior people who could handle it (adults), and had to be hidden from the people who were too dumb to think for themselves (teenagers). This also played out in the work situation, where I was told that I should leave the thinking to people who knew what they were doing, and stick to my secretarial-type tasks. Eventually, I got fed up with the whole thing and quit (go me!), having probably made the world a worse place during my stay (ugh; don't go me!).

Last year I had a good experience teaching math to teenagers, and probably making the world a slightly better place (just hoping to keep the balance above zero here). If there was one piece of information that I think was crucial to the experience, it was this: Teenagers might need guidance sometimes, but they are not dumb. Be honest with them.

Friday, June 1, 2007

On a more positive note

This is how to combine feminism and science. (H/T Mad Melancholic Feminista.) Congratulations to Elizabeth Hyde and Janet Spelke for showing us how it's done.

If I'm touchy about science this week, blame my reading group: they've all decided they want to read Luce Irigaray's Ethics of Sexual Difference. Twisty, in the post I linked to, made a common and understandable mistake. Irigaray just doesn't understand science at all. Even though Irigaray calls herself a feminist, and I call myself a feminist, we seem to have nothing in common. I agree with Bricmont and Sokal's take on her work. (Don't let anybody tell you they're crude verificationists if you hadn't read the book. They support the philosophy and sociology of science, as long as it's done in an intellectually responsible way.)

Oh, and if you're looking for something else to read, don't bother with Irigaray. Go learn about stereotype threat instead.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A very small pet peeve

I've seen/heard this argument a whole lot lately, and it's beginning to bug me. The argument goes: There is no necessary and sufficient condition for being (biologically) a woman. Some women have a Y chromosome, some women lack a vagina, some women lack a uterus, some women lack breasts, some women begin life with male genitals, and some women go on to acquire male secondary sex characteristics and/or genitals. Furthermore, we typically classify people into sexes based on secondary sex characteristics and social characteristics, not based on chromosomal structure or reproductive organs. Therefore, (and here's where I get off the boat) there is no legitimate biological category 'woman'.

I can certainly see why someone would find this persuasive. (I can also see why someone would be motivated to find it persuasive, which is a bit different.) Still, I think it's based on a misguided view of concepts in general, and a misunderstanding scientific concepts in particular. The premises are all right, but they don't entail the conclusion. Even in science, few categories have neat edges, and especially in science, many categories are invisible to the naked eye.

'Species' is a good example of a category that's both unobservable and fuzzy. People don't realize it, but there's no simple and easy criterion that two things must fulfill in order to belong to the same species. Here are some possible ways of cashing out the idea of 'species':

1. Two creatures are members of the same species just in case they are cross-fertile.
2. Two creatures are members of the same species just in case they have the same phenotype.
3. Two creatures are members of the same species just in case they have similar DNA.

These are all important to the idea of species, but none of them captures it exactly. 1 is too broad, since there are inter-species hybrids, many of which are fertile (e.g., dog-wolf and dog-coyote hybrids, or the famous wholphin that recently had a baby). There's another problem with 1.: some creatures are cross-fertile only under extraordinary circumstances. If two creatures have different breeding seasons in the wild, but produce fertile offspring under special laboratory conditions, are they cross-fertile or not? There's an even bigger problem when we consider organisms that reproduce (only) asexually. How can two amoebas be cross-fertile?* So 1 seems like an inadequate definition of species.

Like 1, 2 is too broad: there are creatures that share a phenotype but seem to be different species. For instance, there are several species of mosquitos that look extremely similar, and until recently were classified as the same species based on phenotype. Some of these species breed only in salt water. Others breed in fresh water and and can reproduce without a blood meal; still others breed in fresh water and require a blood meal to reproduce. In addition to being too broad (because of the mosquito example), 2 is too narrow: a chihuahua and a great Dane don't share a phenotype, but they're of the same species. And how broadly are we supposed to define 'same phenotype' anyway? It seems hard to define it in a way that will lump different breeds of dog together, but keep different species of mosquito apart. Finally, what about creatures that exhibit dramatic sexual dimorphism, like many kinds of spiders, or even drastic sexual polymorphism**, like ants and bees?

As for 3, how similar is 'similar'? Can haploid, diploid, and polyploid organisms all belong to the same species? Do mules constitute a different species from horses and donkeys? What about bacteria, which go around absorbing chunks of each other's genetic code? Do they change species over time?

So I don't think there's any neat way of defining 'species'. Nor are species observable: two of the concepts three concepts that I've associated with species--cross fertility and DNA--are invisible to the naked eye. Although the differences between species are kind of messy, however, I don't think you should throw out your field guide just yet. In general, cross-fertility, phenotype, and DNA tend to go (roughly) together. And vague and unobservable 'species' is, it's still a good guide to many important things. It tells you which plants are edible and which will poison you, what role organisms play in their ecosystems, and when putting two organisms together is likely to get you babies. Just because it's not a perfect classificatory system doesn't mean it's useless. Otherwise, we'd have to throw out classificatory systems altogether.***

One last word on species: even if most organisms belong to a species, not everything has to. Maybe mules, tigons, and wholphins don't. People should recognize the limitations of their categories.

To bring the analogy home, chromosomal makeup, reproductive equipment, secondary sexual characteristics, and perceived gender come apart to some degree. But more often than not, they tend to go together, and that fact is useful for anyone who wants to understand and manipulate their environment and/or themselves.

Still, not everyone necessarily belongs to a sex. There are people who fit sex categories only imperfectly, if at all. People need to be mindful of that, and not force others into categories that don't necessarily fit.

Please note that although I believe in biological sex, I think gender stereotypes are generally bullshit. The reality or close-enough-to-reality of sex doesn't give anyone a license to be sexist. My take-home message here is that feminism and biology are not at odds. Feminists can't afford to reject a nuanced view of biology or other sciences, any more than scientists can afford to reject a nuanced view of feminism.

*I bet some smartass is going to come and tell me about sexual reproduction in amoebas now. If so, very cool.

**I'm sure it's not really called that. But can anyone explain to me why worker bees are supposed to be female, rather than just a third sex? This does look like a place where stupid presuppositions get in the way of accuracy.

***Other concepts that we'd have to throw out awfully fast are 'gene', 'color' (as in 'visual color'), 'race', 'and 'class'. This would make it really hard to navigate the world.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Age and Sex, Part I

Hugo Schwyzer has an interesting series of posts on relationships between older men and younger women, although I can't say I completely agree with his conclusions. I do have some relevant personal experience. When I was 18, I began an affair with a man 13 years my senior, which lasted for about about a year. The relationship could have been better in some ways, but seven years later, I don't feel as though he exploited me because I was young and naive. I did a most of the pursuing, most of the wanting, and all of the having my heart broken.

It was my first overtly sexual relationship. (Jesus, I find that hard to type without thinking how bad it all looks.) I'd spent my high school years in celibacy, partly for political reasons involving adult authority figures, and partly because I didn't like or respect most of the boys in my high school. So when I met this clever, clever graduate student with his hot, hot swimmer's body at a friend's party, the experience of white-hot seething lust was all rather new and surprising. I convinced him to share a bottle of wine with me and take me back to his apartment. Somehow, I managed to call my parents, with whom I was still living, and make up a story about where I was staying. I made out with him frenetically until dawn, but kept all my clothes on, suspended halfway between my lust and my guilt. Then I took the bus home and hid in my room. He probably thought he had seduced me.

I couldn't stay away from the man, and I felt like I couldn't stop myself from touching him. Ordinarily, I feel myself exerting effort when I move my body. With this man, I felt as though some strange compulsion had taken hold of me. My lips and hands seemed to seek him out of their own accord, without effort, and it was only with attention that I could hold myself still. He would put his head between my legs and made me feel like I melting. I wanted to turn into a puddle of molten wax and run down his chest, his back, his gorgeous, muscular legs.

The compulsion was all internal. He never pressured or nagged me into sex. When I wanted to stop, we stopped, and when I wanted to go home, he'd call me a cab. He also never lied to me about his intentions either: he was looking for sex, not for a relationship. I, on the other hand, lied profusely to myself. Nice girls weren't supposed to have sex, but the rules could be bent for cases of True Love, so I convinced myself I was in True Love. This involved a lot of looking out for the guy's well-being, which, since he was not a very self-preserving person, was a fairly substantial job. He had a big mouth and liked to piss off guys who were bigger than he was. He'd also get drunk and do physically dangerous things, though I repeat, he was never cruel or violent toward me. I worked myself into a furor of jealousy over the other women he slept with. (He was never forthcoming with details, but I'm sure there were several. He once came home with a hickey on his inner thigh, for which I demanded explanation, and which he steadfastly refused to explain. I fumed, but I was back the next week.)

It wasn't True Love, but I don't think it was just sex, either. I enjoyed the little intimacies: post-coital cuddling, making goofy shampoo hats in the shower (yeah, I'm secretly six years old), cooking together, the sarcastic barbs that he'd toss at me, and that I'd return. He'd eat as many hot peppers as he could, just to show off; it was sweet. I didn't Love the guy, and I probably shouldn't have lost much sleep over him, but I did genuinely like him.

Was I looking for some sort of father figure? I don't think so. His status as a clever grad student made him more attractive in my eyes, and I did enjoy the approval of someone I thought was smart. But he wasn't fatherly, really. He was more like a high-status, slightly unstable, bad boy type. I'm close to my father; I love my father; I'm probably his favorite kid; but I tend not to sleep with men who truly resemble my father. That would be... weird.

After a year, my first lover finished his Ph.D. and got a job on another continent. We parted ways amicably. I missed him terribly when he left, but I don't know whether he missed me. He sent me some mittens the following Christmas, and a note that said to keep myself warm. I didn't write back, and eventually I lost track of where he was. I hope that he's happy, and that he hasn't killed himself in some fit of drunken stupidity.

Well, that's been an awful lot of personal narrative and no discussion of Hugo. But I think it's important to add to the story, if only to say that yes, I had an affair with an older man, and yes, I was naive, and no, I wasn't filled with foresight, but I still own that part of my past. Nobody coerced me.

I'll close this ode to my lover with the last stanza of Theodore Rothke's poem "I Knew a Woman", a poem which always reminded me of him. Since he was a man and not a woman, I've taken the liberty of changing a few pronouns.

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay,
I'm martyr to a motion not my own.
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear, he cast a shadow white as bone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn his wanton ways.
I measure time by how a body sways.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Chasing up that idea about swear words

I have an ambivalent relationship with profanity. On one hand, many Anglo-Saxon swear words are obviously sexist. (As far as I'm aware, this is true of swear words in most other languages too.) On the other hand, they're useful for several purposes, none of which seems sexist in itself, but which seem sexist when taken as a group. For instance:

Expressing strong emotion: If everyone just stipulated that swear words were for expressing strong emotion, would their literal meanings really matter? I hear "damn", "hell", and "Jesus Christ" as mildly profane, despite the fact that I haven't believed in God since I was 14. If people could just leave off using "fuck" to indicate rape and sex interchangeably, it could be a perfectly nice hook to hang an emotion off of. For a native English speaker like me, nothing (including swear words in other languages) has quite the zing of a good Anglo-Saxon obscenity. It would be hard to give this one up: I would have no words left forcases of excruciating physical pain. (Since destroying my knees, I'm not really confident that I'll be able to avoid excruciating physical pain in the future.)

Sex: This might be a sub-category of "expressing strong emotion". Some words which have sexist connotations also strike me viscerally as sexy. (Actually, "fuck" comes to mind.) Whether I use these words or permit/ask my partner use them, depends on my mood and the situation. But it's odd that I get off on words that are attach to such deeply sexist concepts. Most of the things that I get off on aren't about sexism or female submission (Twisty Faster's views aside), but this one has me sort of worried.

Reclaiming: Some swear words have useful meanings, but terrible connotations. "Slut", "bitch", and possibly even "flaming faggot" come to mind. I have friends who use the word "slut" as a term of approval for both men and women, probably thanks to Easton and Liszt's delightful book, The Ethical Slut. Sometimes I have to tell myself that it's OK to be a bitch, i.e., to stop people-pleasing and get stuff done. "Flaming faggot" is a tough one, since I'm not a gay man and it wouldn't be an appropriate word for me to use in most public contexts, but I sometimes use it with my partner to express approval and affection for a certain aesthetic orientation. (My partner is a fairly swishy bisexual man, so I think he's allowed.)

Telling people off: This becomes difficult if try to use a word that I say I'm reclaiming. A few weeks ago, I heard some boys at the bus stop talking about how Miskatonic girls are sluts. I gave them an impassioned speech to the effect that they were sluts for sleeping with Miskatonic girls, which seemed to shut them up at least for a little while. I'm not really sure that was the right thing to say. How can I call them sluts, and rely on the negative connotations of the word, when I also call my friends sluts, and claim that I don't mean anything negative by it? Am I really allowed to capitalize on other people's sexist attitudes like that?

Indirect discourse: Sometimes people have sexist concepts, and I have to appeal to sexist concepts in order to explain their thoughts; e.g. "He called me a bitch." Sometimes, it's possible to paraphrase this one away; e.g., instead of saying "He thinks Miskatonic girls are sluts", saying, "He thinks Miskatonic girls are promiscuous, and he thinks that's a bad thing". But the paraphrase doesn't always make sense.

Each of these uses on its own seems like a fine way of reconciling swear words with an anti-sexist outlook. But when I use all of them together, I get words that switch between positive and negative in an unpredictable way ("bitch", "slut"), that indicate things I like, but sometimes have really bad connotations, or are ambiguous between sex and rape ("fuck", various body part words), and that retain aspects their original, problematic meanings (anything used in indirect discourse). Since I'm not willing to give up my expressive capabilities for the sake of ideological purity, it seems like the best I can do is to be sensitive to context, and try not to say inappropriate things by mistake.

I wonder what profanity would look like in a Utopian world. The best attempt I've seen is Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, where most of the swear words relate to aspects of capitalism. "Profiteer" and "propertarian" are really obscene. But even LeGuin messes up at one point: about 100 pages after explaining why her Utopian society doesn't use the word "fuck" she has a character from that society use "fuckless" to mean "sexless".

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Twistical goodness

This sounds like a completely sensible plan to me. One unmentioned perk is that it would result in a more equitable heterosexual dating scene (not that Twisty gives a shit, of course, but I do). Women would feel more free to approach men for sex, since this would no longer be read as "I am a worthless slut".* Men would feel less entitled (and probably less pressured) to approach women for sex. Happy rainbow kittens would ensue.

*This is not meant as a slur on all the worthy and ethical sluts out there. I'm never sure whether to give up on words like "slut" or not. The question probably deserves a post of its own.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A Slashfic

It's about time for a fun post. So, taking my inspiration from the delightful regyt, I bring you... philosophy slash. (Warning to the easily squicked: proceed at your own risk!)

Bored by my paper on the philosophy of mathematics, I summon up a mental image of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He comes to me sporting a schoolboy uniform and a large erection. "I have some rules for him to follow," I declare in my strictest headmistress voice. He nods and wordlessly hands me a metal ruler.

"Recite the six-times table," I command, rapping him lightly on the knuckles.

He complies, standing in the middle of my office as I circle him, brandishing the ruler. "... Six times three is eighteen. Six times four is thirty-six." At this point, our common practice dictates that I smack him on the rump. "Six times five is thirty-eight." Another smack, slightly harder than before. He goes on in the same way. (I must say, from the way his cock jumps each time I hit him, I suspect he is breaking the rules deliberately.)

When I've had enough of our little language-game, I decide it's time for him to remove his uniform. I express this thought perceptibly through the senses: unraveling his tie; unbuttoning his shirt and trousers; then pulling everything off hastily and tossing it to the floor. I look with pleasure on his general form. "Chair!" I command, and he sits down in the wooden seat I've reserved for guests. I plop down next to him in my considerably comfier wheelie chair, and proceed to remove my skirt.

"Here is a hand", I say, grabbing his right hand. He seems unsure as whether I've expressed a verifiable proposition, so I demonstrate the use of the hand by placing it between my legs. He catches my meaning now, and sets to work without asking for further explanations. I grab hhis cock, so that the elements of my body correspond to the elements of his.

He is flushed and panting; his blood pressure has doubtless increased. I, too, am breathing heavily. But do we experience the same sensations? Does he feel the same tightness in the stomach, the same explosive lightness in the chest? When I recall that it felt just like this last time, am I remembering correctly? To distract myself from these questions, I rake my fingernails across his thigh. He moans.

"Did that hurt?" I ask. He nods in reply. "How do you know it hurt?" Silence. "Would you like me to do it again?"


"Then tell me how it felt."

"Like pain." This frustrates me, but I have to admit, it's a reasonable answer to the question I asked. I scratch him again, harder. He tries to describe his pain, but I realize it's no good; there's no such thing as a shared private language. I cover his mouth with my free hand. What else can I do? Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.


Yeah, I realize this is some prime blackmail material to be placing on the Internet. In theory, I could be outed as a huge dork.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


I've been doing an informal reading group on Dworkin's Intercourse lately. The women (including me) seem to get a lot out of it. The men seem to be slowly trickling away. Although I love being able to have discussions with the women, and I think it's important for us to get a lot out of the reading group, I'm a bit sad that we can't keep everybody. It's mostly sad for the men, since they don't enjoy benefit from the discussions.

I had a chat with one of the men yesterday, and he mentioned that the Dworkin makes him extremely uncomfortable. He says that the rhetoric reminds him of hate speech. In some ways, this is right: what I like about Dworkin is that her writing makes me angry at what I believe are grave injustices against women. It's supposed to make you angry. And anger is fun--a hell of a lot more fun than despair, which is arguably the #1 most popular response to injustice. But in another way, Dworkin does not function as hate speech for me, and seems not to work that way for the other women. I don't get mad at men in general and decide they should be exterminated. I get mad at strangers who catcall me and make unsolicited remarks about my breasts. (This doesn't happen nearly as much as I used to when I was living in... oh, I'll be completely apt and call that city R'lyeh.) I get mad at the boys I over hear on the bus, who talk about which college campuses are full of 'dirty whores' when they're clearly slutting it up their own selves. I get mad at the ex-boyfriend who wanted me to jump through a bunch of sexual hoops, even though he wouldn't do squat to satisfy my desires. This isn't the stuff of violent uprising. It's the stuff of perfectly reasonable expectations.

The really strange thing is that may of these same men had no problem with the S.C.U.M. manifesto, which I think is batshit insane. People say it's supposed to be funny, but I see no indications that Solanas is joking. But they get hung up on Dworkin, who never once advocates violence against men? I think the difference is that Solanas is too insane to really engage with, but Dworkin is on target enough to make them feel guilt. I'm not happy about the guilt: the guys who are feminist enough to be my friends are usually not the same guys who deserve to feel guilty about widespread rape and abuse. Those guys don't care. Then my friends read radfem literature, think it's attacking them, and have these massive unproductive attacks of guilt. They worry about whether their sexual desires are evil and in some way tantamount to rape fantasies. I usually feel the need to baby them, since the guilt is so unnecessary and unhelpful, and that's a pain for me. It's really frustrating.

One of the other sad things is that before the guys stopped participating, I got to hear (indirectly) about how limited their sex lives are. I had to explain to them why intercourse is not the only thing that deserves to be called 'sex', why a lot of mainstream het porn might not be so interesting for most women, and why the upshot of Intercourse is not that women dislike sex. Maybe Intercourse is just the wrong book for them. Maybe they all need copies of The Ethical Slut. Horses for courses.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

I'm a tool of the patriarchy

Via this thread, I find that many (but not all) patriarchy-blamers believe it's immoral to have sexual fantasies about someone without their consent. Since it's usually creepy and inappropriate to ask a person's permission to fantasize about them ("Hi there, Mr. Barista. I was just wondering..."), this is effectively a rule against sexual fantasies about people you're not already intimate with. Most blamers think it's OK to fantasize about fictional characters, although I find the line to be rather blurry. Is Captain Jack Sparrow, as played by Johnny Depp, a real person or a fictional one? What about the fictional Alcibaides in The Symposium, who's based on a real political figure? Does the answer change if the person fantasizing has just watched a theatrical adaptation of The Symposium where the guy who played Alcibaides was totally hot?

I don't think that it's inherently wrong or immoral to fantasize about a real person. Rape fantasies are problematic on a whole bunch of levels, but I don't think that most men fantasize about rape. Certainly not most of the men I'm willing to interact with on a human level. I don't want to defend male entitlement either, and I realize that male entitlement can be played out in sexual fantasy. But there, the problem isn't that the guy is thinking about sex. The problem is that he's failing to think about women as human beings. Plenty of men are happy to treat women badly whether or not they're thinking about sex, so I'm just not convinced that sex is the special element here.

A lot of people seem to have a problem with situations where X fantasizes about Y doing things that Y would hate in real life. I don't think that's inherently bad (although it can be bad for other reasons, if X's fantasies are violent or sexist). Fag hag that I am, I've got a vested interest in approving of fantasies that the fantasizee wouldn't enjoy in real life. But I'm equitable; if one of my male friends likes to fantasize about, say, me enjoying missionary position intercourse, he's more than welcome. He'd better not ask me repeatedly to help him fulfill his desires (duh!), but he's welcome to fill the inside of his head in whatever way he sees fit. His lack of creativity may be unfortunate, but it's his problem, not mine. We can both be glad we're not telepathic.

Apropos of some of the later comments, I'm one of those weird people who fantasizes about food. I often daydream about what I'd like to cook, and how it would taste to combine ingredient X with ingredient Y. I'd feel really bad for somebody who could only fantasize about pre-made cheeseburgers, but I wouldn't condemn them morally.

Well, let's see if anybody from IBTP thinks I'm worth ripping to shreds. (That is NOT an invitation.)

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Twelve times.

Figleaf's latest post about precious bodily fluids reminded me of an encounter that I had a few years ago, and have never quite managed to figure out.

I was living in the city that I'm going to call Nio Essia for blog purposes, just to mix up my science fictional names. The apartment building next to mine was under construction, and being the talkative animal that I am, I struck up a friendly acquaintanceship with the builders. They told me how once, while knocking out a wall, they discovered some sort of document from the late 1800s hidden inside, bearing the names of a woman who had lived there and her twelve (yes, twelve!) children. Their main comment on this discovery was "that woman spent too much time on her back".

I was so gobsmacked at this assertion that all I could muster was a blank stare and a feeble change of topic. Of course, it's both sexist and inappropriate to critique the sexual habits of a woman you've never met, but that was not the surprising thing. What dumbfounded me was the sheer illogic. Having sex twelve times in your life with your spouse is too much? Had they, these 40-ish construction workers, really had sex fewer then twelve times in their respective lives? One of them was married: did he not have sex with his wife? Or was the negative judgment only meant to apply to women who have sex more than twelve times in their lives? These seemed like excessively personal questions, so I didn't ask them (or maybe I'm just making excuses for being too slow on my feet).

I still have no idea what they could have been thinking.

Obligatory intro post

I'm Philadelphia Burke. It seems like as good an alias as any for someone (a) who is more confident in the power of her mind than in the beauty of her body and (b) who is plugged in.

I hope that this blog will be a good place for me to work out my thoughts about sex, books, popular culture, and relationships. I'm not looking to become famous or widely read; I just want a place to hash out ideas, and possibly start a few online conversations with people who are worth my time. If this blog attracts too much bullying, inspires too many people to hit on me, or makes me too worried about how I appear to some abstract audience, it's going to be summarily deleted. Until then, I expect it to be fun, so if you're reading, enjoy the ride.

Don't expect too many personal details from me, and don't expect the details I provide to be accurate. I'd like to keep this blog separate from, say, my worklife. If the author of this blog is Philadelphia Burke, then the person appearing in this blog is her alter-ego Delphi. (Well, hopefully not quite as idealized and plastic as Delphi.)

In summary, hello.