Curiouser and Curiouser

Please accept my apologies for my recent absence. Shortly after my last post I fell down a rabbit hole into a strange and magical other-world. At least, that’s what it felt like. In reality, I was at Secret Garden Party, a weird and wonderful weekend unlike any I had previously experienced. A festival, a carnival, a playground, a wonderland: Secret Garden Party seemed above all to be an invitation for exploration.

There are many stories that I could relate (nudity, fireworks and a tarantula all featured in my weekend – though, thankfully, not at the same time), but for this blog I’m going to focus on “Sensual Domination”. That’s the name of a session that I attended in a tent entitled The Goddess Temple. The workshop was led by a professional dominatrix who defied all the stereotypes I held: petite, softly spoke and little shy, she had a warm, gentle energy and wore a shortish white dress that was part dishevelled-virgin and part balletic-wood-nymph. I didn’t catch her name, so I’ll call her Jane – purely because it’s the least dominatrixy name I can think of.

Jane showed us various tools of her trade – restraints, spankers, strap-ons and so on. Her concern about shocking people was endearing, but Jane’s toys differed from those available on the high street mainly in quality (“I’m actually a vegetarian…” she acknowledged apologetically, modelling a genuine rabbit-fur mitt). What, for me, was infinitely more striking than her array of props was her tone and the meaning of domination that she conveyed.

Worship: that was the word she used. For her, dominating someone who wants to be dominated is a way of worshipping them. It is reciprocal, she explained: one person manifests their worship of another by entirely surrendering control to them; the other’s worship lies in cherishing the gift of power they have been given, and using it to fulfill their (play) partner’s desire to be dominated. It feels cheesy to say it, but I have to acknowledge that I was moved by this description. It felt genuinely new to me and yet so obvious. If giving oral sex, or fucking, or attending to your partner’s/partners’ desires in any other normative way can feel like worship – which I know it can – why wouldn’t, for example, collaring and spanking them feel that way, if to be collared and spanked is what they most wish for?

Perhaps Jane’s description of domination-as-worship wouldn’t have resonated with me so deeply had we not seen it played out. One of the women running the Goddess Temple – let’s call her Lucy – volunteered to participate in a demonstration. Around 20 women sat quietly in a circle while Jane guided Lucy through a short meditation, in order for them both to become relaxed and centred. She then began to tie her up, using the art of Japanese bondage. There was an undeniably devotional quality to the careful attention that Jane gave to Lucy as she wound the rope around her: the process seemed measured, mindful, and precise, like a ritual.

Once Lucy was bound with her arms behind her back, Jane placed a blindfold over her eyes and proceeded to touch her arms and chest with various differently-textured toys. Sitting behind Lucy, she then drew her back towards her chest and, after checking that Lucy was comfortable, continued the workshop while holding her in an embrace. When she later removed the blindfold and rope, she checked in with Lucy about her experience. Throughout, Jane was firm, purposeful and undeniably in control, without a hint of violence. Indeed, I felt I witnessed an interaction of tenderness, trust and real intimacy.

Before Secret Garden Party, I would have described myself in relation to BDSM as pretty vanilla in experience and quietly curious in inclination. I aspire to a “whatever floats your consenting adult boat” open-mindedness about paths to pleasure. I was aware of some common misconceptions about BDSM – confusing consensual power-play or pain-exchange with abuse or violence, for example – and have on occasion challenged those views. All of that said, my reactions to the workshop demonstrate that I was holding preconceptions about domination. My awe of the tenderness displayed shows I didn’t imagine tenderness in BDSM scenarios; my surprise at the lack of (real or performed) aggression proves that I expected aggression.

I value being confronted with my unexamined prejudices: it gets my intellectual cogs turning, makes me humble, and helps me to empathise with people who hold prejudices against groups I belong to. This workshop, though, stretched me further. Listening to Jane speak, watching her interact with Lucy, I acknowledged that on some level I find the idea of being submissive very appealing. I think that that has been difficult to identify previously for a variety of reasons, and it feels like a tricky thing to begin to explore.

It doesn’t help that if you google “BDSM” you quickly find yourself encountering porn sites with slogans such as “outnumbered and overwhelmed: bound and gangbanged.” Try “Japanese bondage” and second only to trusty Wikipedia you get “Most innocent girls you’ve ever seen, tied up, hung and spread eagled for the satisfaction of sex maniacs”. The glaringly misogynistic and often explicitly violent nature of most hetero pornography (not to mention the more subtly misogynistic and implicitly violent aspects of mainstream culture) seem to me significant obstacles to getting to grips with one’s own fantasies and desires about domination. It’s hard not to feel that the whole area is contaminated somehow.

Can a feminist enjoy being dominated sexually? “Of course!” I cry. I don’t believe that someone is “colluding with her oppression” if she enjoys submission or masochism. My feminism is not about telling women how they should or should not experience or enact their sexuality. However, it’s relatively easy to defend the rights of another woman, whom I trust to have a clear understanding of her own desires. It’s a lot murkier when it comes to myself. I’m also pretty sure that, regardless of what my brain might have to say about it, my body would have reacted differently had the workshop leader dominating Lucy been a man.

On a personal level, I was remarkably uninhibited when I first became sexually active and enthusiastically explored some level of “kinkiness” at quite a young age, but later negative experiences made the whole area confusing. For a long time any kind of domination scared me because, no matter how hard I tried to hold on to my own desires and my own consent, it seemed to echo with experiences of having power used over me in an unsettling or abusive way.

Another hurdle is that the terms covered by BDSM (that’s bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism and masochism) are easily conflated, so that nuances between different kinds of play become lost. It’s possible, for example, to want to be submissive and bound, but not want to be “disciplined.” That seems obvious, now, but I don’t think I really understood it until I watched Jane tie Lucy up and then – in a very dominant, very loving, way – caress and hold her.

The Sensual Domination workshop opened lots of doors, and, like Alice in Wonderand, I’m curious to see where they lead. Learning and sex are two of my very favourite things, so I’m excited, but also daunted, and I feel that I have a lot more questions than answers right now. Modifying my search to “BDSM + feminism” brought up more promising leads (feminism really is the magic word), and I got some food for thought on feministsforchoice, Jezebel, The F Word and AlterNet.

I would absolutely love to hear from others on this topic, especially if you have read anything that you’ve found useful, have thoughts on the articles I just linked to, or are just generally an enlightening human – get in touch! I’ll be pondering until then…

A Tale of Two TV Shows

For someone who doesn’t watch much television, this was a busy week for me. My commitment to watch everything with lesbian content is usually perfectly compatible with an empty viewing diary. This week, however, I watched not one but TWO programmes (via online catch-up facilities, of course – I’m not that organised).

On Tuesday evening BBC2 broadcast The Night Watch, a feature-length adaptation of Sarah Waters‘ Booker-shortlisted 2006 novel. Following Waters’ original structure, the drama opens in 1947 and unravels backwards, tracing the stories of four main characters first to 1944 and eventually revealing their “beginnings” in 1941. At the centre, Kay, Helen and Julia form a love-triangle in which everyone ends up as everyone else’s ex-girlfriend, suggesting that lesbian circles in wartime London were as incestuous as The L-Word portrays them to be in twenty-first century LA.

The love stories felt as authentic as the period detail, and the erotic potential of living in constant peril was explored without ever diminishing the tragic reality of the historical moment. I loved the way the viewer was invited to recognise both the sudden freedoms that women experienced as a result of the war and the sometimes devastating limits of that freedom. There wasn’t space in an hour and a half for the characters to be highly developed, but the strength of the performances safeguarded against the drama ever feeling shallow; instead, I was left intrigued by each of the protagonists’ unexplored depths.

I haven’t read any of Sarah Waters’ work (I know, I know – slap my lesbian wrists), but I was really impressed by this glimpse into her storytelling, and will add the book to my “to read” list. In an interview with Lesbilicious, the novelist comments that Paula Milne‘s screenplay doesn’t use much of the original dialogue. This may explain the occasional in-jokes (such as the straight character Robert telling Viv “I know it’s queer me turning up like this”) which, though they made me smile, felt a little out of place amid the melodrama. Waters also highlights that she wrote Kay as a butch character, while the “dainty” (though undeniably excellent) Anna Maxwell Martin’s depiction was more androgynous. The moment when Reggie mistakes Kay for a man is not quite as absurd as Shane having to clarify “I’m a girl” to a lascivious gay man in Season 1 of The L Word, but underscores, nonetheless, Waters’ observation that “television isn’t great at showing butch characters”. While lesbian sexuality has made it to prime-time BBC – that bastion of acceptability – non-normative gender expression still seems to be a televisual taboo.

From a BBC2 adaptation of a critically-acclaimed novel, then, to the polar opposite end of the cultural spectrum. Yes, I’m addicted to Candy Bar Girls, Channel Five’s new “reality” show based around the eponymous Soho bar for gay girls. My expectations were not high. The trailer punning on “PUSSY LOVING LADIES” (you guessed it – she’s just stroking a cat down there) made me roll my eyes. The promotional campaign’s promise of “No Clichés” rang a little hollow coming from Channel Five, whose scheduling highlights (BridezillasCowboy Builders! The Cannibal That Walked Free!) could easily be mistaken for a selection of headlines from the Daily Mail.

I have been pleasantly surprised. Don’t get me wrong: it’s basically rubbish. But not in the way I thought it would be. Yes, the first episode shows us just an average day in the life of your average lesbian pole-dancer. Yes, the one close-up they got of a pastied nipple is shown three times. Yes, all the women it follows are pretty slim, pretty conventionally attractive, pretty femme, almost universally white. This is certainly not a cross-section of lesbians and probably not even a cross-section of Candy Bar clientele. Even so, the programme is a long way from the salacious, reductive, even exploitative fare I was fearing. On the whole it seems to be treating its “stars” as humans and depicting them as honestly and fairly as these things ever do. There are even occasional moments of touching sincerity, such as when Rox and Rachel talk to camera about their families’ responses to their relationship. On the whole, Candy Bar Girls is just trashy in the way that reality TV in general is trashy. Therein lies much of the entertainment.

Because daily life actually isn’t that interesting, programme-makers collude with fame-hungry participants to frame mundane events as catastrophes. Pink-phobic Candy Bar owner Gary is a goldmine of these unintentionally hilarious moments: “These bar stools need rescuing! We need to get the upholstery ordered ASAP!” he cries; a lightbulb breaks and he complains of “the fucking rollercoaster that is life in the fucking fast lane”. For all the mountain-out-of-molehill drama, Candy Bar Girls is super slow at times: I wouldn’t have thought it possible to make a surprise romantic trip to Paris seem pedestrian. In terms of the “characters,” wannabe model Danni quickly cast herself in the essential reality TV role of The One You Want to Hit in the Face, leaving poor Shabby  – who I’m led to believe occupied that prestigious position in the final series of Big Brother last year – to merely be The One You Want to Stop Talking (“I’ve got my fingers in lots of pies… I’m a pie-fingerer.” Oh Shabby: to think that I wanted to sleep with you after that Diva cover photo. Why did I have to have the misfortune of hearing you open your mouth?). Supposedly spontaneous conversations feel like pieces of improv by A-level drama students, with acting so bad that Frankie from Lip Service would blend right in.

The music is cheesy. The editing is poor. The weird neon rainbows flying around London like Death-Eaters in Harry Potter really freak me out. Will I keep watching it? You bet. My girlfriend summed it up when, having given the first episode a relatively warm review, she sighed and concluded “I mean, if it was about straight people, it would be the worst programme of time.”  I live in hope that one day lesbian representation will be so frequent, varied and accurate that I won’t feel compelled to watch every single thing that depicts queer women. For now, whether I’m feeling moved by the strength of Sapphic love during the Blitz, or merely admiring Danni’s undercut, the pure thrill of seeing lesbians on TV at all will continue to take me from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Applicants must not be aging or lactating

If Sandra Rawline and Sashay Brown were to play a game of Workplace Sexism Top Trumps (my personal favourite Top Trumps pack)*, who would win?

Rawline scoops the points in the category of Sexism and Ageism overlap: she hit the headlines on both sides of the pond this week as the woman who was sacked because she wouldn’t dye her grey hair. After working for Capital Title, a real estate company, for 6 years, twice winning their annual outstanding employee award, she was abruptly sacked a week after refusing her boss’s request that she start wearing “younger, fancy suits” and dying over her grey hair. Rawline notes that she was replaced with a woman ten years younger than her and is now suing on the grounds of age discrimination. Yet she seems to have been dismissed not so much for being old as for looking old, an infinitely more heinous crime for a woman than a man, indicating the peculiarly gendered nature of ageism.

Brown, meanwhile, lost her job because of lactation. Actually. The American police officer returned to work in May after having her second baby. She was allowed to briefly spend time at a desk job, but was rushed back to patrolling the streets which, in Washington D.C., means wearing a bullet-proof-vest. This caused intense pain in her breasts and also threatened to damage the milk supply. Brown’s request to return to a desk-based post, backed by a department doctor, was turned down, forcing her to take unpaid leave in order to keep breastfeeding her child. Her employer made her post-maternity-leave return to work physically incompatible with the demands of motherhood: Brown clearly takes the Oldest Trick in the Book round.

Next up: Objectification. Rawline is an outright winner here. The request that she change her appearance came as Capital Title was due to move from the outskirts of Houston to an area closer to downtown, and she explains that the idea was for her to “upscale” her look to match the company’s new image. The proposed makeover  – for which, bizarrely, her boss even offered to do the dye job himself – places an experienced professional in the same category as a piece of outdated office furniture. Perhaps she should have asked what the colour scheme would be for the new premises and tinted her hair accordingly.

No-one could deny handing points to Brown in the Top Trumps category I like to call the Medicalisation of the Female Body. When Brown was denied access to appropriate work, she was told that should could take sick leave. Having no sick days left, she is now on unpaid leave and applying for disability benefit in the hope that she will be deemed to have a medical condition. The reality for the officer is that she has to try to find a way to support her family in the absence of her salary. What is exasperating is that she is, in fact, neither sick nor disabled (in this respect: clearly we don’t know if she has other disabilities). She is a healthy, breastfeeding mother, who has been forced through economic need to participate in the framework that pathologises pregnancy and motherhood. And that’s just icky.

Rawline takes the win in the Blatant Double Standards round. Her boss, Capital Title CEO Bill Shaddock, describes her discrimination claim as “preposterous”. That’s him, there, on the left: the one with the grey hair.

In the final, prestigious category of Misogynistic Bile in Comments Sections, the glory is all Brown’s. Wowza: there are some serious haters out there. From the recommendation that if a woman wants to have a baby, she do it “in her own time” to the person advising Brown to “stop complaining” and use formula, kindly assuring her “the kid won’t die either way”, I was taken aback by the level of disregard for hardworking women and their vulnerable children on show. There was also the one who equated breastfeeding in public to defecating in public : not even relevant to the story, but so bizarre that I thought it worth a mention.

A well-fought match, ladies: I think we have a draw.

* NB: not real Top Trumps. I know y’all were dying to go and purchase a pack.

In the Name of Love

I have a confession to make: I love gay pride.

It’s a big problem that many of the more established prides have become commercialised and depoliticised. When Coca Cola hire a drag queen, adorn her in red-and-white finery and place her atop a float,* it doesn’t mean that they give a damn about queer people – except insofar as we represent a bunch of vodka drinkers in search of a mixer.

I understand – and share – the concerns about pride being reduced to a street party, a spectator sport, or an extended ad break aimed at the pink pound.

But you know what? Despite all that, I just love being in a crowd of queers.

I was at London Pride this weekend, and I had a blast. I found it exhilarating to be in the midst of tens of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and questioning people, and their allies. And there where times when I felt genuinely proud.

I felt proud on the tube at the beginning of the day, when there were moments of mutual recognition between me and others making their way to the parade (who weren’t all easy to spot as the guy sporting a kilt, false eyelashes, and very little else).

I felt proud when I saw the parents of a young family wearing tops that read “Mum no.1” and “Mum no. 2,” and when the South London Lesbian Mums’ group marched by with their children.

I felt proud of the guy in the bright purple “Christian and Proud” T-shirt, calmly reading his bible next to the aggressive street preacher attempting to use that religion as an excuse for his homophobia (I’m not a theologian, but I get the impression that Jesus was quite a nice bloke, and pretty into people treating one another fairly… just sayin’).

I felt proud of the spirit of camaraderie in the ridiculously long queues for bars, and bathrooms in bars, inSoho.

I felt proud when my friend pointed out that he’d seen more people with visible disabilities in one afternoon than he had seen in gay venues his whole life.

I felt proud every time I saw public displays of affection, which was often, and proud to kiss my beautiful girlfriend.

I felt proud of the diversity of semi-naked bodies being proudly displayed on the streets of London.

I felt proud to be cheering the queer muslims and queer jews who had joined together to do the parade in double-decker bus.

I felt so proud of the teenagers determinedly making out in front of the meager showing of objecting (and objectionable) homophobes.

These moments touched me, and each one, in its way, felt political.

*as witnessed at Toronto Pride 2008