The Myth of Normal Sex (or, an open letter to the NHS)

Dear NHS,

While doing research for a safer sex workshop that I’m giving, I spent some time exploring the sexual health section of your Live Well website. For the most part*, I think these pages are an excellent resource, full of important information delivered in clear, accessible language. I like your masturbation FAQs. It’s because I respect these pages as a whole that I wanted to point out a little thing that struck me in the course of my reading.

In the STI pages, there is a list that defines different sex acts before describing their associated risks. One of these things is not like the others… let’s play Spot the Difference.

Vaginal penetrative sex

This is when a man’s penis enters a woman’s vagina.”

Oral sex

Oral sex involves sucking or licking the vagina, penis or anus. Some men and women (gay and straight) choose to do this as part of their sex life, and others don’t.”

Anal penetrative sex

This is when a man’s penis enters (penetrates) his partner’s anus. Some people choose to do this as part of their sex life, and others don’t.”

Wow, I really like that reassuring sentence about how some people choose to do things and others don’t. It’s great to know that I have options, that desire is personal, and that I’m not weird if I don’t want to do things that some other people do.

Only, wait a sec, what was that about “vaginal penetrative sex” again?

Vaginal penetrative sex

This is when a man’s penis enters a woman’s vagina.


And… “some people choose to do this as part of their sex life, and others don’t”? Right..? No, I guess not. I guess that’s just sex. Normal sex; full sex; real sex.

I’m sure this omission is just a little slip, and not intended to reinforce the almighty myth that sex between a person with a penis and a person with a vagina will obviously involve the former going into the latter – that sex, in fact, is penis-penetrates-vagina.

This myth implies that when there’s no penis present, or no vagina, the sex happening is lesser, ambiguous, always qualified in some way (“lesbian sex”, “gay sex”… what exactly is that, anyway?), which in turn diminishes the very sexuality of folks whose sexual partners have genitals similar to their own. Equally, messages about “safer sex” can fly over the heads of (especially, but not exclusively, young) people, who have been so inculcated to understand sex as vaginal penetrative sex, that everything else seems safe by default.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with vaginal penetrative sex (except, perhaps, the cumbersome number of syllables). But it’s not all there is to sex. And, to be clear, lots of people aren’t into it. People with vaginas and people with penises and people whose genitals don’t fit neatly into one of those two categories. Some people are into it sometimes, but don’t want or need it to be the “main event”, or to happen every time they have sex. For some it is pleasurable, but not orgasmic. For some people it is boring. For others it is painful. For some it is not physically possible.

Some people choose to do it and others don’t.

And some people choose to do it, for years, for decades, without wanting to or enjoying it, because the idea that that’s what sex is is so ingrained as to make opting out seem impossible. Which seems like an awful shame.

I realise I may be accused of being a nitpicker (and it wouldn’t be the first time), but because I respect the tone that your writers are clearly trying to create, I think it’s worth asking for some consistency. Your website helpfully tells me that the page in question is “due for review” in November 2015. I’ll be checking in.

Yours faithfully,

Kitty May

*I’ll write another letter soon about the inconsistencies I noticed between your obvious efforts to provide support and information for trans people, and the consistent equation of penis with “man” and vagina with “women” throughout most of the sexual health pages. Bet you can’t wait!

Please note: I think the NHS is amazing, and believe it deserves and needs the support of everyone in the UK.

No Sex, Please, We’re British

As you’ve probably heard by now, MPs in the House of Commons voted this Tuesday, by 400 to 175, in favour of the bill that will, once it passes through the House of Lords and becomes enshrined in law, allow same-sex couples to marry. I’m pretty ambivalent about gay marriage, particularly about how it has been fought for and used politically, but these thoughts could easily take up a post in their own right, which isn’t what I’m here to write today. Broadly speaking, the news makes me happy. So: hurrah, for equal marriage! We’re all the same in the eyes of the law!

Well, kind of. The conversation about making marriage available to all in the UK has been dominated by the vocal opposition of the Church of England, and it’s been well documented that the bill’s “safeguards” to protect that (powerful, wealthy…) institution deny same-sex couples some options as to where and how their ceremony takes place. Some other “elements of legal asymmetry” are getting less press coverage and are, to me, rather more intriguing. Individuals married to someone of the same sex will not be able have the marriage annulled due to non-consummation, nor divorce their partner on the grounds of adultery with another person of the same sex. Why? Because “Government legal experts failed to agree what constitutes “sex” between same-sex couples.” Seriously.

Perhaps this is where the Church of England could have provided a useful intervention. Its position, set out in 2005  and reaffirmed last month is that members of the clergy can be gay, and can be in Civil Unions (the UK’s different-but-equal alternative to marriage, created exclusively for same-sex couples), on the condition that they refrain from having sex. As the Church is so concerned with its gay ministers not doing it, it must have a pretty clear idea what “it” is. Call me facetious, but I love the image of these legal advisors,(in my head, a bunch of squares in grey suits), given the task of defining “gay sex”: they sit around a boardroom table, staring blankly at one another and scratching their heads, until a troupe of bishops storm in to save the day, armed with flip-charts, diagrams and porn, ready to describe in great detail exactly what sinful “homosexual genital acts” their clergy are dutifully not engaging in.

The exclusion of homosexual acts from the category of adultery pre-dates the same-sex marriage bill. Currently, a woman wishing to divorce her husband because of his affair with another man must cite “unreasonable behaviour”, as adultery is defined as sexual intercourse between members of the opposite sex. I’m pretty sure that the neutral-sounding “between a man and a woman” stands for man-penetrating-woman, so that a woman fisting her male extra-marital lover anally, for example, would be not be termed an adulterer, but merely “unreasonable.” The change in law will mean that two women can marry, but they will only be deemed to commit adultery if one of them sleeps with a man.

Consummation is also pretty specific as it stands, with case law dating back to 1967 stating that until “erection and penetration by the man of the woman with ‘emission of seed’” has occurred, a marriage can be annulled. This could, on paper, include oral and anal sex, though I’m inclined to deduce that “the woman” here is a proxy for “the woman’s vagina”. Even going with the broader interpretation, there are plenty of straight people whose sex lives wouldn’t constitute consummation of their marriage: anyone whose (dis)abilities preclude penetrative sex with a penis, guys with erectile disfunction, couples who – gasp – just don’t get off on that kind of sex, perhaps even men who’ve had vasectomies, and no longer “emit seed”.

These understandings of (hetero) sex, with their onus on the phallus and potentially procreative sex, remind us of how intimately connected the institution of marriage (and the construction of marriage as intrinsically monogamous) is to patriarchy, notions of women as property, and the desire of those with wealth and power to produce “legitimate” heirs. The idea that potentially procreative sex is the be-all-and-end-all of straight sex actually seems more enduring to me than the idea that straight sex is the be-all-and-end-all of sex. In my experience facilitating sex education with youth, for example, kids who happily accept that two men or two women can have sex resist with all their might the idea that “sex” between a man and a woman could describe anything other than his penis penetrating her vagina.

The idea that “sex” between a man and a woman is a clear and uncontentious act is flawed and limiting (and perhaps something I’ll blog about in more detail another time), and I’m not saying that the gays should be up in arms fighting for our very own limited, flawed definition of “sex” (though I imagine that is what we will eventually get through case law, as and when same-sex couples seek annulments or divorce on the grounds of adultery). But I have to admit that there is something about the current legal void where the sex part of same-sex marriage should be that makes me a bit uncomfortable. Maybe because it reminds me of The Archbishop of York’s statement that the Church “supported civil partnerships because [they] believe that friendships are good for everybody.”  Um, I hate to break it to you, but I’m pretty sure most people in Civil Unions aren’t just good friends.

That a hetero-exclusive definition of sex in marriage law will out-live a hetero-exclusive definition of marriage itself may be nothing more than a bizarre, rather amusing, anomaly. It may indicate a persistent, deep-seated anxiety about homoSEXuality: “we’re okay with you gay people because really you’re just like us (pleasedon’tmentionthewaysyou’renotlikeuslikealltheickystuffyoudoinbedeeeew)”. It may be an invitation to everybody, regardless of gender, body parts and orientation, to open up our understanding of sex, to allow more freedom, individuality, choice, inclusivity, imagination and creativity. And less talk of “emitting seed”.

A lot of people have been quoting Liz Feldman’s excellent take on gay marriage this week, so in her honour I’ll conclude by saying:

It’s very dear to me, the issue of gay sex, or, as I like to call it, “sex”.

Just a Little Girl, Big Imagination

Scary, Sporty, Baby and Posh
Sold themselves as feminists and raked in the dosh
The world stood up and listened when our mothers burned their bras
Now Girl Power’s just a slogan for the latest superstars
Everybody knows and everybody cares
About their famous idols and the attitudes they share
But if you want my advice, don’t believe the hype
Each “Spice” is just a gender stereotype.

I wrote these words in 1997 and performed them as a rap (yes, actually), in my drama group’s end-of-term piece, Don’t Want “Wannabe” – critiquing pop culture through sketch comedy and showing off my command of GCSE Sociology terminology was how I spent weekends when I was 14. I recall my thankfully brief dabble in the rap genre because the Spice Girls were in the news again recently, and a piece in which Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett describes the group as her “gateway drug to feminism” got me thinking about how we relate to cultural objects we have left behind, and to the younger versions of ourselves that held them dear.

Though I never became a Spice Girls fan, I accept that they played a significant role in many girls’ early ideas about gender. Cosslett’s assertion that “Girl Power” is “the only discourse surrounding female empowerment [...] accessible to a seven-year-old” is demonstrably untrue, but if she got something out of it, I won’t hold that against her. Others do, with comments rehashing a familiar argument: “You came to feminism through something I think is crap, therefore your feminism is crap.” This strikes me as poor form and flawed logic. When I was 6, feminism was imagining Barbie as the CEO of Bloomingdales: a jet-setting, high-powered, business woman who could buy all the shoes. At 17, I was emulating the shock tactics of Madonna, performing a provocative dance to “Human Nature” in hot-pants, fishnets and heels, on stage in my (catholic) school. These things don’t define me, but they don’t embarrass me either: they’re in the past.

Cosslett somewhat sets her up for this kind of criticism: if you suggest that the Spice Girls “made” you into a feminist, people may conclude that they made you into a particular kind of feminist – one you will be forevermore. Emphasising a single entry-point to feminism seems to me to obscure the subtlety of personal development. Maybe some people do have epiphanies – perhaps being visited by the ghost of Simone de Beauvoir, who, waving a fairy-Godmother wand, bestows the gift of feminism. Personally, I feel my feminism has been shaped and informed by a huge number of factors (personal experiences, influential people, engagement with pop culture)* and, like everything else about me, continues to change. Narratives of “awakening” draw a line between the benighted and the enlightened; the latter are fully-formed, beyond influence or critique, while the former are pitied and patronised.

Perhaps you’re familiar with “I used to love Sex and the City/ Cosmo magazine/Charlie’s Angels/My Little Pony but then I had my FEMINIST AWAKENING and I realised those things were BAD and that I was a DELUDED IDIOT for liking them.” I’ve participated in this kind of talk in the past. Now it makes me cringe, like when I found a diary I’d written at the age of 11, that my 14-year-old self had later scrawled over, describing my earlier words as “immature” and “pathetic”. It’s easy to roll our eyes at the things we did “before we knew better” (like rapping, for example). Yet I wonder what we imply about children and young people, and the value of their perspectives, when we vehemently dismiss the ideas and feelings of our younger selves, or shame others for their fledgling feminisms?

For all the great analysis of Twilight out there (amid fantasies of Buffy kicking Bella’s butt in an empowered-heroine death-match), I haven’t seen anyone really engage with fans, to learn what they get out of the story. This omission risks alienating those young people from feminism, as well as leaving a gaping hole in the analysis. I’m not suggesting we refrain from critiquing pop culture for fear of hurting someone’s feelings, but that a curious and empathic approach to fans’ experiences, rather than a judgmental one, facilitates a deeper understanding, and a better critique. As well as being, you know, nicer.

I don’t want scathing self-censure to be among the ways I relate to my younger self, both because I find it mentally unhealthy, and because I believe that treating myself with compassion is the necessary foundation for approaching others in the same way. This is a big and long-term project, but my interactions with pop culture are certainly part of the challenge (my Brian Harvey crush? Pretty hard to empathise with nowadays). Conversely, I’m wary of rose-tinted glasses. Critical capacities are easily impaired by nostalgia and by the proprietary feelings so carefully crafted by marketing execs (Cosslett writes, of the Spice Girls, “they were mine”), and another danger of the awakening narrative is that that which “awoke” us becomes sacrosanct.

I recently discussed with a friend our ambivalence about The Vagina Monologues, a play to which countless women attribute their feminist awakenings. I got a lot out of seeing and staging the play at uni, but have later come to share many of the criticisms of Ensler’s work – for example, around its essentialism, ethnocentricity, cissexism and anatomical incorrectness (The Vulva Monologues, surely?). That I, at the age of 19, found The Vagina Monologues unequivocally wonderful and totally empowering is no counterargument to these critiques – in fact, they illuminate how my white, middle-class, Western, able-bodied, cisgender privileges situate me as the implied audience of a play that purports to speak to all women. Yet I recognise in myself a troubling desire to defend or redeem the VMs, born out of a sense of loyalty and fond memories.

I want to be able to look at former treasures with an analytical gaze – neither clouded by sentimentality nor predisposed to scorn. I don’t want to dismiss the ideas, opinions and feelings of my 6, 14 or 19 year old self, and implicitly devalue the perspectives of my juniors in doing so. I want to acknowledge the impact that things have had on me at different times in my life, but look at them afresh from where I stand now. I guess what I’m trying to cultivate is a kind of compassionate critique – which will hopefully stand me in good stead in years to come, when I will no doubt have moved on from some of the opinions expressed on Lipstick and Teeth!

* Cosslett actually acknowledges that she came to feminism because of a range of factors, (“my mum, the existence of the Child Support Agency [...] the Tories, an incident that I cannot discuss for legal reasons”) but presumably “the Spice Girls were my Gateway Drug” makes a snappier and more topical for a comment piece.

Hi and Bye

Greetings all.

I’m off on some travels and wanted to flag up that I’ll be disappearing from the internet for a couple of months.

I realise it’s a little bizarre to announce that you’re not going to post for a few months when you, you know, haven’t posted for a few months… But this time, unlike previously, I can predict that that’s what’s going to happen. Maybe I’m evolving.

Thanks for the ongoing support.  I anticipate returning in full force (and with some kind of regularity!) in October. Have a great few months.

Old Enough to Know Better

Part 2 of 2 on the theme of aging.

In my first post on aging, I wrote about coming to a place of comfort, in the run-up to my birthday, with the fact of my growing older. Everything I said is true, but there’s another side to that story, which I would also like to share. At my birthday party, a new friend asked how old I was turning. She was surprised and told me that I don’t look 29 – that she had thought I might be in my early 20s. My immediate, and un-thought-through reaction was to hug her and exclaim “you’re my favourite person at the party!” Even before I’d pulled back from the hug, my response gave me the heebie-jeebies. If I’m feeling great about being 29, why don’t I want to look 29?

At the end of April I went to Afrika Burn, a five-day gathering in South Africa’s Karoo desert, and participated in Critical Tits, a topless parade that’s a regular feature at the event’s older American cousin, Burning Man. Much discussion of body-baring ensued, and one friend concluded that if she could plant her (implicitly confident) 33-year-old mind into her (implicitly perkier) 23-year-old body, she would happily have stripped off. The comment was light-hearted, but it resonated with what I had written the previous week, and my formative thoughts for this post. The question of what my 39-year-old mind will be like has become an exciting one: I’m curious and optimistic about how I will change intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. It would be awesome to say that I’m equally enthusiastic about how the next decade will alter my body; unfortunately, it would be a big fat lie.

It’s not that I lie awake at night worrying about it, but being almost-30 means almost-30 years of exposure to advertising for “anti-aging” face creams and hair-dyes boasting their “grey coverage”. I may shout at the television about patriarchy and capitalism (and, believe me, I do), but I’m not impervious, and the idea that younger = more beautiful increasingly bubbles up from within. A few weeks ago, I’m ashamed to admit, I looked at every tagged photograph of myself on Facebook. Ostensibly, this was in order to decide, pre birthday haircut, what kind of fringe best suits me (asymmetrical, as it turns out), but as I travelled back in time through various albums I found myself preoccupied by thoughts like “God, my skin was so much better when I was 23!” and “look how young I looked! Shame I didn’t appreciate it at the time…”.

Neurotic though I may feel for such behaviour, it seems I’m not alone. “Facebook is making it easier for people to spend more time and energy criticizing their own bodies”: not the conclusion, as Jezebel suggests, of The Department of Things Most People Already Suspected, but Dr Harry Brandt of the Centre for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. Their recent survey suggests a correlation between time spent on Facebook and “toxic [...] body comparisons and self-criticism”, noting in particular how the site makes it easy to track changes in one’s appearance over time. Perhaps, then, it’s not uncommon to pass an idle hour perusing photos of yourself and thinking about how much younger you looked when you were, you know, younger.

This pursuit is, of course, equally possible with photograph albums. Remember photograph albums, with prints and hand-written notes and peeling selophane? With the influence of nostaliga, hindsight, and my tendency towards Ludditism all duly acknowledged, I think of photograph albums as personal (or familial) archives, deeply connected with memory: as in remembering years, or at least months, gone by – not as in waking up hungover, and trawling through the previous night’s photos, already online, in an attempt to recall precisely how much you disgraced yourself. While the relative privacy and pause-for-thought afforded by analogue allowed my mum to put photos of herself she disliked at the back of a drawer, where they could be discovered and reconsidered years later, the twenty-first century’s incessant snap, post and tag routine has injected photography with immediacy and publicity, fuelling for many an awareness and anxiety about appearance that the Sheppard Pratt study labels a “’camera-ready’ mentality”.

Over the last decade, as digital photography became ubiquitous and social networking came of age, I’ve wondered whether the documentation of an event has come to hold equal or greater meaning than the experience of it, and I’m curious about how these phenomena affect one’s relationship with one’s own image as one grows older. A friend who works as a wedding photographer recently received a call from the mother-of-the-bride from a shoot she’d just done. The woman called because, having seen some friends’ shots from the wedding, she was very unhappy with how old she looked. Would it be possible, she asked, before the professional pictures were published, to Photoshop out her wrinkles? I found this request not only strikingly indicative of the de-valuing of older women, but also extraordinarily sad. It saddens me that signs of aging are something to be feared, ashamed of; to be, if possible, erased. It also strikes me as sadly pointless. Wedding photographs are, let’s face it, mostly interesting to the people who were at the wedding. And those people have seen your actual face.

This pursuit of post-production also suggests that increased savvy about media alteration of celebrity images doesn’t necessarily lead to greater self-acceptance among us plebs. If the average 45 year old is no longer naive enough to wonder why she doesn’t look as young as Julia Roberts,  she may nonetheless ask “why can’t I be airbrushed so that, in photos, I look as young as an airbrushed Julia Roberts?”. The answer is, no reason at all, for the requisite tricks are no longer the preserve of the trade: professional wedding photographers aside, I’ve known friends to Photoshop out lines around their eyes before adding images to Facebook.

We may know a lot about how the media works, but that doesn’t mean its veneration of young women, or relentless cattiness about aging, has no impact. The Ashley Judd “puffy face” debacle back in March was a spectacular illustration of what Hadley Freeman calls “the ridiculous double bind that female celebrities are in once they dare to live beyond their 30th birthday: either being accused of looking like hags or accused of having had plastic surgery because they are suspiciously un-hag-like”. For those who missed the shitstorm, the actress appeared on television with an allegedly “puffy face” and an insane amount of airtime, column inches and space in the blogosphere was taken up by people speculating as to whether she’d had “work done”. Judd’s response in the Daily Beast , well worth reading in its entirety, unapologetically calls the media out for this “blatantly gendered, ageist, and mean-spirited” content.

Explaining, almost as an aside, that her puffy face was caused by steroids, Judd also points out the absurdity of comparing 2012 images of her with those from her 1998 movie Double Jeopardy, and citing any difference as evidence that she has (as many tweets eloquently put it) “fucked up her face”. Extra! Extra! Woman’s face changes over course of 14 years! How is this even close to newsworthy? It is a source of comment only because of the profoundly ageist society we live in, and the deeply entrenched, irrefutable ways in which that ageism is gendered.

Judd asks how we can forge “strong female-to-female alliances to confront and change” the ways in which our bodies are subject to “brutal criticism [...] a source of speculation, ridicule, and invalidation”. All of these things – becoming increasingly aware of my own aging, wanting to cultivate harmony between my emotional and physical maturity, musing on Facebook-fuelled “camera readiness” – have caused me to realise that I have, up until now, been much alive to the ways in which sexism intersects with, and manifests itself through, for example, racism, fatphobia, classism and transphobia, than how it intersects with ageism. I’ve actively trained myself not to say “thank you” when people note that I’m slim, because I don’t want to speak the lexicon that subjects fat bodies to “speculation, ridicule and invalidation”. Equally, I’m determined to un-learn that aging means losing attractiveness, sexiness, and value. I don’t want to feel pleased if someone says I look younger than I am, or insulted if someone says I look older, and I’m making a commitment right now to call myself out on this bullshit thinking. If you ask me today how old I’d like to look, I’ll answer 29 years and 28 days.

Not Getting Any Younger

Part 1 of 2 on the theme of aging.

Last weekend, I turned 29. I know I’m not alone in finding birthdays a horribly tempting opportunity to measure oneself against peers, societal expectations, and one’s own goals, and I’ve had my fair share of aging-related freakouts in the last few years. In 2010, I noticed, in the mirror of a public toilet, my very first grey hair. After alarming my partner with a pale-faced and sombre “something terrible just happened in the bathroom”, I proceeded to hyperventilate, pointing out that I’d reached 27 without producing a baby or a phd, and inferring that I pretty much failed at life.

I like to think I’ve become less ridiculous since then (lord knows, I could hardly have grown more so). There have been periods when the ticking of my “biological clock” has been deafening, which caused some internal conflict. When you spend a lot of your professional and personal time deconstructing gender, it’s galling to realise that your womb actually isn’t a social construct. But by acknowledging the fact that my baby-growing parts have a physiologically-determined, un-deconstructable [yep, I'm making that a word] use-by date, and that this is going to inform a lot of my decision-making over the next 5-10 years, I seem to have put my biological clock onto snooze for the time being. Just don’t show me tiny shoes.

Having found my equilibrium with my late twenties, I have, nonetheless, had a persistent and vaguely unsettling thought since we entered 2012: I’m Going To Be Thirty Next Year. What does that mean? What are women in their thirties like?

In the beautiful, serendipitous way in which the universe sometimes provides precisely what we need, I have, over the past 2 months, met a series of exceptionally cool and inspiring thirty-something women. Smart, warm, self-aware, and authentic, these are women who seem to have their shit together: not in the “Career? Tick! Mortgage? Tick! Baby? Tick!” sense, but in the sense of being secure and grounded, yet welcoming of and energised by change. Meeting these dynamic women, who are fully engaging with their unique journeys, highlighted that I’ve been conceptualising the next decade of my life as a destination. Where I thought that 30 was a place I was supposed arrive at in 12 months’ time, I now feel like it’s part of a process: a process, if these women are anything to go by, by which I will get more awesome. I’m looking forward to it.

Sex, Consent & Video Tape

If you’ve never heard of Tulisa Contostavlos, you’re right where I was 7 days ago. The 23-year-old, I’ve since learned, was a member of N-Dubz and a judge on the last series of The X Factor. I’ve also learned that, a few years ago, she and her then-boyfriend Justin Edwards made a video of her giving him a blowjob. This last detail became, according to the British press, newsworthy when said video was released online last Monday. Things actually got interesting on Thursday, when Contostavlos posted her response on YouTube. Describing herself as “deeply betrayed”, the star names and shames, accusing Edwards of releasing the footage, and categorically denies that she has done anything wrong.

While I’m generally not too concerned with celebrity sex scandals, I’d like to make some observations on the discourse around this episode. Firstly, I want to note my great respect for Tulisa’s reaction. I won’t go into this in-depth as Eva Wiseman’s done a great job of explaining its significance (and awesomeness):

“Sex tapes are not uncommon, but what is rare is for their female star to be unapologetic on their release. To discuss ideas of shame, intimacy, consent and privacy, instead of agreeing to a sad-faced interview in the Sun, pictured in polo-neck and natural makeup to denote modesty – that’s unusual. There’s no shame in happy sex, Tulisa asserts. The shame should lie with the person who uses it as currency against his partner’s wishes, who uses a record of it as a weapon. She’s not in the wrong for having sex, for enjoying sex, or for being filmed – her (until now anonymous) ex should be ashamed for betraying her, embarrassing her and attempting to damage her career.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself – so I won’t try. What I want to do is hone in on the issue of consent, and draw out some connections between the way this debacle has been discussed, and common rhetoric around sexual violence.

When the video was circulating, many tweets and comments condemned Tulisa as a “slut,” a “chav slut”, a “Dreadful girl [...] and common as muck!” (analysis of the intersection of sexism and classism surrounding this story here). Some men felt entitled to critique the video as though it were porn made for their personal consumption (YouTube comments include: “5 out of 10 for your head game,try spitting on it more”; “boring … it was a waste of a wank”; “I’m surprised she wasn’t better. Surely she’s downed enough dinkle to get where she is now”). The world is full of haters. The internet is their playground. No surprises so far.

I was interested, though, in the supportive messages, comments and tweets of this nature: “I respect tulisa for posting that video and confronting the issue but I’ll never get why you’d let someone film that in the first place.” Online and in conversation, I’ve noticed this time and again: disgust that the video was leaked, sympathy for her embarrassment, and respect for her response – all underpinned by an implicit agreement that in making the video to begin with Tulisa was, if not in the wrong, then at the very least, foolish.

If I’m honest, I don’t understand why she made the film, but I also don’t understand foot fetishes. Sexual desire is profoundly subjective, and whether you get off on the same things as someone should not be a determinant for respecting their rights. We can only assume that Tulisa and Justin got off on making this film. They were two consenting adults, hurting no-one. In her video, Tulisa describes feeling “violated” by what has happened, and makes clear that she did not consent to the video being distributed.

The understanding that it was “stupid” of her to make a video that she didn’t want distributed implies that, when it comes to sex and violation, it is stupid for women to trust men. Men will violate women eventually, given half a chance; women should know better than to put themselves at risk. This premise is what connects the discourse around the Tulisa saga to deeply entrenched ideas about gender, sexuality and violation: ideas that shift blame from (male) perpetrator to (female) survivor.*

Why would you make a video like this if you don’t want it going viral?

Why would you work as a stripper if you don’t want to sexually harassed?

Why would you consent to have sex using a condom, but not without?

Why would you get drunk and lapdance if you don’t want to be a sex object for 9 guys?

Why would you fantasise about consensual group sex if you don’t want to be gang-raped?

Sometimes it seems that each time a woman consents to sexual activity, she is chipping away at the sympathy and credibility that will be offered to her should she one day be violated. I’m not saying that what happened to Tulisa is “the same” or “as bad” as what happened to these women. I’m saying, in this context, it’s hardly surprising that a woman who consented to make a sex video is subtly held accountable when it is non-consensually shared with millions of people.

Using the consent of all parties as the sole barometer for the acceptability of any given sexual act is a radical move, because it requires us to dispense of other moral frameworks. Carla Buzasi, of the Huffington Post, champions Tulisa as a “new feminist icon”, but writes:

“why should she apologise for making the tape? This wasn’t some seedy one-night stand in the alley behind a night-club, she was in a relationship with the man she thought she might marry, and who’s to comment what’s right and what’s wrong behind bedroom doors in that case.”

Hmm… In that case. Is it just me, or is Buzasi implying that if it’s outside of a socially normative (loving, committed, long-term) relationship, commenting on the right and wrong of someone’s sex life is fair game? And, furthermore, that Tulisa would have something to apologize for had this video been made in the context of a one-night stand? Personally, I don’t think someone needs to apologize for being sexually violated, whether it’s by a boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, someone they’ve hooked up with in what Carla Buzasi deems “seedy” circumstances, or any other person.

The issue is not whether or not we approve of the relationship, or whether we would make that kind of video ourselves: the issue is that it was shared without her consent. By highlighting this in her video, Tulisa creates a position from which to name her experience of betrayal and violation while refusing the victim-blaming and slut-shaming discourses encircling her. I hope others can follow her example.




*Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that all survivors of sexual violence/violation are female, nor all perpetrators male. I’m focusing here on specific ways in which female survivors are held accountable for male perpetrators’ actions – which don’t always map onto sexual assaults with different gender dynamics.


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