Friday 11 November 2011

I'm not coming for you in your sleep

SebastiennePosted by Sebastienne

[Trigger warning - this post contains discussions of sexual violence.]

So here I am, late to the party again - I want to talk about something that happened several weeks ago. And, as usual, I want to go off on a random tangent. So let's start with a few quick background paragraphs, then move onto my actual point.

Julie Bindel is a journalist, who I first became aware of when she was nominated for S(t)onewall's Journalist of the Year award. There was rightly a lot of protest because - although she does some very good work on (some) women's and (some) lesbians' issues - she also subscribes to some of the hateful, hierarchy-supporting views of early Radical Feminists. (Note: I am NOT saying that these kinds of views are synonymous with radical feminism. I proudly identify as a radfem, and try to avoid hating people as far as possible). Bindel's hate frequently spews out in misinformed comment pieces, particularly with regard to trans people, BDSM, and sex work.

Vincent Tabak is a convicted murderer, who killed Joanna Yeates in Bristol at Christmas last year. A large media fuss was made over the fact that the jury were not told about his sexual history - specifically, that the style of the murder closely mirrored Tabak's preferred type of pornography.

Julie Bindel's article about Vincent Tabak blamed Joanna Yeates' murder on his preference for strangulation in a sexual context. I'm not going to link to the article, because she doesn't need the hits, but if you really want to you can find it on the Guardian website.

A few preliminary rebuttals:

Of course sexual history should not be admissible in criminal trials. Surely anyone involved in feminist activism has read enough coverage of heinous injustices in rape trials (she'd slept with him before; she was promiscuous; she once talked about group sex online, so she must have consented) to know that this is a hideous suggestion.

There is a difference between fantasy and reality. We do not worry about possible confusions between the two when reviewing the latest superhero blockbuster, so why should we worry about it with porn? Most people, most of the time, are capable of recognising make-believe for what it is. I find the Daily-Mail argument that representations of bad things should be outlawed to be hypocritical in the extreme, when looked at in concert with the rise of "Richard-and-Judy book-club" Tragic Lives titles, (supposedly) real-life stories of hardship and abuse packaged in an easy-to-read light novel format.

There is no established causal link between violent pornography and sexual offenses. I'm not denying that it's likely that people who are non-consensually sexually violent might enjoy watching violent porn; but assuming that the latter causes the former seems misguided in the extreme. This whole argument seems to me to be a rehash of the unsubstantiated hand-wringing around violent video-games. In fact, I think there's just as much evidence for turning the argument on its head, and saying that violent porn means that potential sexual criminals stay at home wanking instead of going out and hurting someone. Which is to say, there's not much evidence either way.

Violence in sex and non-consent in sex are not the same thing. Maybe if we as a society were more open about BDSM, more people would be able to play out their kinks with willing partners. I'm not suggesting that this is the key to destroying rape culture; but it'll help some people, and that's good enough for me.

The point I've actually been trying to get to:

People who enjoy BDSM are not sick, or broken, or dangerous, or less-than. We are not going to come for you in the night, because we know what consent is. It's built into the conventions of kink culture.  Sure, the BDSM scene has its fair share of utter Gervaises but, on average, I've seen more healthy relationships between kinksters than I have between readers of Cosmo and Zoo.

Before the moral majority come for us because of our dangerous, dubious-consent ways, I think they should take a long, hard look at themselves.

As we feminists know, our society is built on rules for how relationships work. And I'm not talking about the 1950s nuclear family, although that's all part of the same heteropatriarchal clusterfuck; I'm talking about the assumed or unwritten rules around sex and dating that people of "opposite" genders can take for granted. These rules come in from all around us, but most of all they're reflected in the media - Heterosexual. Monogamous. Vanilla. HMV.

People who've grown up believing that "relationship" is a synonym for "HMV relationship" don't need to discuss monogamy - that can be assumed. And as for what constitutes "cheating" or "acceptable behaviour in bed" or "when to meet the parents" - I've lost count of the number of times I've been included in "girly chats" on these topics. My response to this is always the same - "just bloody talk to him!". Our toxic Mars/Venus culture means that women in relationships with men are taught to read Cosmo's "101 ways to please your lover" in preference to actually asking their partners what they enjoy. It's entirely possible to spend an HMV life in a perpetual state of sexual and emotional adolesence, knowing with unwavering certainty that third base always comes right after second. And that's fine, if it makes you happy. The problem comes when this is presented as the default choice - when you don't get to opt in to it because you never knew there was any other way.

Now, these tropes don't make me happy at all; and even so I find myself making all sorts of assumptions in my relationships with men that I would never make in my relationships with women. It's just so easy to go along with that narrative - "he's a more logical thinker", "he likes it when I wear skirts", "if he kisses me unexpectedly, he wants sex" - without ever speaking to him.

I fight these urges in myself, because I believe it's wrong to make assumptions about my partners, but also because I rarely see this kind of relationship working out for people. I see women saying "how can I ask him to talk dirty to me?" or "he doesn't like me to cut my hair short" or "I'd really like to kiss other people". I see how easy it is to take the conventions from romantic comedy films and turn them into a prison. And I see that doing far more damage to women than joyful, consensual, negotiated kinky sex.

I'm not saying that everyone needs to have queer/kinky/poly relationships. I know plenty of people in fulfilling HMV relationships. I am saying that queer/kinky/poly relationships have a lot to teach us in terms of how we can construct relationships that work for us. How we can get what we want instead of what we think we are supposed to have.

How this plays out:
  • Heteronormative relationships assume monogamy, and they assume (eventual) sexual involvement (after marriage in some cases). 
  • Non-heteronormativity separates out concepts which seem like synonyms under heteronormativity.
    • Fidelity becomes distinct from exclusivity - it is possible to be faithful to a partner while forming relationships with other people, depending on the criteria for 'faithfulness' that suit each participant in the relationship.
    • Heterosexuality becomes distinct from heteroromanticism - it is possible to become romantically attached to someone without ever wishing to have sex with them.
  • Heteronormativity has a set of sexual acts (manual stimulation, oral stimulation, missionary PIV, other PIV positions, maybe uncomfortable anal on his birthday) which are accepted as normal, and as a progressive sequence. The question is not "do you want to do them" but "when is the right time".
  • Good kink requires that each individual act be negotiated. No progression can be assumed from one act to another without explicit consent.
I'm not saying that my way is better than your way. I'm just saying that I am fucking sick of being painted as a predatory folk devil by Daily Mail types when chances are my relationships are more consensually negotiated than theirs.


  1. Thank you for such a wonderfully lucid explanation of why we can't fall into overly simplified cause and effect mistakes when attempting to pin blame on "deviant" lifestyles. As someone that's going to be published soon on the same thing, it's always reassuring seeing someone with similar views. :)

  2. Perfect. Just perfect. And something I've been trying to articulate myself for a while now. Thank you :D

  3. Although, predatory folk devil would be a pretty cool band name. Just sayin'