Malls, Machismo and Mobile Phones

A momentous thing has happened: I bought a smart phone. It was a challenging shopping experience for several reasons: I’m the least tech-savvy person you can imagine (no, really. Think of your grandparents. Less tech savvy than that), so generally behind-the-times that one friend claims to hear the quotation marks when I (infrequently) use the word “app” (see, there they are). I was trying to understand already-oblique “specs” vocabulary auf deutsch, and I would get infinitely more pleasure out of spending 109 of my hard-earned Euros on 1 really nice pair of shoes, a couple of vintage frocks, or a Primark binge, than a small black rectangle of plastic and… stuff (I literally don’t know how to describe the other stuff. Plastic and technology).

All of that self-disclosure aside, one aspect of my shopping experience felt less idiosyncratic and more… gendered.

The truth is, I am super daunted by electronics stores not only because of my ignorance about the products, but because they feel like macho spaces (I also know very little about plants, but don’t feel anxious walking around garden centres). I bought my new phone in a huge, busy store with a lot of staff. About 85% of those were men, and every female staff member I did see was sitting at a till – literally every sales assistant on the shop floor was male. This needn’t necessarily be a problem, but I’ve had one too many experiences of being belittled and railroaded by name-badged guys in blue polyester shirts.

As a customer, you’re in the majority, and yet I feel about as much safety in numbers as a herd of gazelle might feel about the couple of circulating lions. They spot the weak and swoop in for the kill! Precisely that feeling – of being prey – is why these stores remind me of hetero night clubs: I walk in with my guard up, aware that I’m being sized up and will shortly be pounced on by some guy who’s convinced that he knows better than I do what I really want.

When I was a student, I was so intimidated by the prospect of buying a laptop that I had a computer-science-major friend coach me on what to say so I wouldn’t be talked down to. I guess I didn’t use the practised vocabulary with enough confidence (or maybe my vagina was showing), because I got the charming-aggressive sales pitch anyway. Steered persistently toward a (more expensive) product, I let my nerves get the better of me and resorted to “but my friend knows a lot about computers and he told me…”; the sales assistant’s retort was along the lines of “well, his advice is a little misguided, because…”, but it definitely came out sounding more like “well, my dick is bigger than his, so…”

Last night, having miraculously having figured out how to use the new phone to listen to podcasts, I was catching up on some old episodes of Popaganda when something I heard resonated with my day. In an interview about the “women-centric” comic-book smut anthology Smut Peddler, comic artist Spike explains that women have traditionally been alienated from comic-book culture, in part because comic-book stores are notoriously misogynistic spaces. Not being a comic reader, I’m unfamiliar with the apparently widespread phenomena of female customers’ opinions, choices and even bodies being explicitly judged by condescending (male) store clerks.

I usually leave electronics shops feeling patronised but otherwise unscathed – smartphone or laptop in hand without caving to pressure and going wildly over-budget – but inevitably feeling angry with myself for being so ignorant: that I didn’t arm myself with more knowledge before walking in.

Imagine, though, a comic-book super-geek having her encyclopedic super-hero knowledge undermined by Comic Book Guy before being told “you’ve got the smallest breasts of any woman in here” (actual example. NICE). It makes me wonder if certain shopping environments feel like a kind of battlefield for all women, regardless of their expertise in the arena.

Given that capitalism and patriarchy are BFF, it shouldn’t take me by surprise that shopping is yet another space in which not being a cisman seems to make life, at best, just that little bit more tiring. As a feminist sex educator, I’ve long been aware of the necessity and value of women-oriented sex shops, which provide an alternative (indeed, antithetical) environment to what one can find in mainstream, male-oriented “erotic boutiques”, in which women often feel not only uncomfortable but fundamentally unsafe. My vision of Utopia does not include gender-segregated shopping malls, but a women-oriented electronics store? If one existed, I’d buy my next phone there for sure.

(Disclaimer: I do love to shop but there aren’t actually any malls in my Utopia. Honest)

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.