April 28, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I never learned to ride a bicycle as a kid. I used act like it was no big deal. But I was in denial.
I had tried only once as an adult to teach myself to ride. Several people in my house had bikes and encouraged me to ride. The friend with the most ideal bike to learn on said I could ride it anytime. So I waited until one day when I was feeling especially bold. I took the blue bike from the garage to the driveway and got on. It was ludicrous. My pedaling the short distance of the driveway was belabored and felt impossible. I literally imagined myself as a bear on a bicycle. As things progressed, I concluded that I lacked an essential inner gyroscope of some sort and was almost making peace with it. When the friend whose bike I was supposed to be riding came up the driveway on her bike. “Whose bike is that?” she asked nicely, and I have to admit it, I panicked and lied and said, uh, our other housemate’s boyfriend’s. “Oh,” she said and went away. I asked another housemate later whose the other blue bike was, and she said it was in fact our roommate’s boyfriends’. And it had two flat tires and needed a tune up. When I admitted what had happened to both roommates, they laughed until they cried. And biking dropped off my radar for a while.
A few winters ago, I got some variant of the H1N1 and was the sickest I have ever been in my life. It was the kind of sick where I wanted to get up and make toast, but I couldn’t and had to wait for a good spell. While I was weak and lonely at my house, I watched a remarkable documentary called The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. One detail they describe in Cuba’s transition from an import/oil dependent culture to a self-sufficient one after the embargo is that people learned practically overnight to ride bikes. One Cuban commenter states that they had no previous culture of bike riding, that it was sheer political will.
I realized I really wanted to learn to ride a bike and tried to tap my political will. I began to unload all this baggage I had about bike riding. My brother had learned early, and I was supposed to learn to ride. But no one ever bothered teaching me, even though they went through all the motions to act like it was going to happen. Once when my parents were separated and I had a lot more room to be unnoticed, I tried teaching myself on a bike that was too big. I crashed, and I was shamed by my mom when I admitted what had happened.
The next year, I read Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd. In it she tells a brief story about watching a family by a river bank. The son is taken down to touch the water, and the slightly older daughter desperately wants to go. But she is told no, that it is too dangerous and has to sit and watch. That story set off a personal will of resistance towards messages I had imbibed as a child. I had this sense that my body was not my own, that it was not appropriate for me to apply my own judgments in determining when and how I was to take risks. It was a deeply entrenched message, and I am forcing it out still, but I try to keep the frontline moving.
I looked up adult bike riding classes, and I also looked up information on bicycling and feminism. I discovered what a strong role bicycling played in the history of women’s liberation and empowerment. I felt like I was getting my own tiny dose of what must have been their personal experiences of transformation, reaching out and taking self-sufficiency and what they knew was appropriate to them despite ridicule and threat from external culture. I tried to channel some of that fiery spirit.
I found a bike riding course in Somerville, Mass., near where I live. My teacher had a garage full of bikes and helmets and knee pads and pieces of war protest art. She was wearing an orange jumpsuit protesting Guantanamo at the time. All the other students in my class happened to be women ranging in age. We were all self-conscious and awkward as we pushed our bikes and followed our teacher, a row like over-padded ducklings on the sidewalks, as she led us with her own bike to the empty parking lot where we would start . Little by little, we were taught to balance, then to pedal, then to turn, then to do tricks like standing on one foot and looking back. Some of us picked up the pivotal balance the first day. Another woman did not find it until the end of the third class. When it finally happened for her, all the students stopped and watched. When she stopped her bike, she was winded with excitement and cried.
I’m still a relatively new rider, and this year I will probably advance to riding in traffic and thinking about distance riding. Every time I get on a bike, it still changes my mood. I feel like my old image of myself is challenged and a new one takes its place, one where I can make changes and have the life I want for myself. Something as simple as learning to ride a bike, but I can’t tell you how complicated it was in my inner world.
The journey of becoming feminist, as I experienced it, pits you against forces of coercion in your life. For myself and everyone I’ve been close with during this process, it includes confronting internalized voices of coercion that dominate your life and cause you to restrict your own freedom. They are often echoes of the messages of coercive parents and authority figures from the past, which often mirror messages from broader society those people never learned to rebel against for themselves. Figuring out what you want that you believe is not suitable to you, where your creative blocks are, is part of the journey to me.
A lot of my work began with dismantling and rebuilding my views on sex and my own sexuality. Another was working to overcome my creative blocks. And among and surrounding both journeys was the challenge of reclaiming my body. I imagine the same themes come up in many people’s lives as they try to defy whatever forces coerce and inhibit them.
March 7, 2012 § 1 Comment
Is anyone else deeply disappointed by the sexual content in art? Sarah Waters, aside, I wonder if I would still think myself potentially asexual based on how excited I get about sex in film, and even books. There’s a lot to complain about, but today I am going to focus on one, tiny point of contention that’s driving me crazy.
I am deeply bored of men in movies who have sex while looking like they’re modeling for a bowflex ad. It doesn’t have to be this boring to watch the scenario male-top-facilitates-short-round-of-passionate-kissing-then-unprotected-PIV-with-female-bottom over and over again. Not this boring.
Seriously, why can I rent any of a choice of films where a man kills dozens of other people in new and “exciting” ways but can’t rent a film where a man makes noise or an affected face while having sex? Every since Jonathan Rhys-Meyers went HBO, I can’t get excited about representations of male sexuality in mainstream media. I just don’t believe them. The only representation of male sexuality I’ve seen in ages that felt real is the character Tommy in Never Let Me Go, and if there is any flaw in that film (which there isn’t) it would be low sexual content.
You know why the sex in BBC’s adaptation of Fingersmith is so hot? Not because it involves two women. Because both people look like they’re having an experience of equal passion, equal pleasure, equal response to one another. Even though one is on top and one is on bottom, they are both responding to what is happening. I’m going to send Hollywood a letter that says, “Dear Hollywood, Topping is having sex too. Love, Claire.”
Haven’t any filmmakers had sex with expressive men, including themselves? Am I so lucky and unique? Come on, folks, entertain me, at least. Or better yet, move me with your depictions of sex. Please!
June 22, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I recently decided to begin openly describing myself as polyamorous.
I’m not a big fan of the attitude of “your sexuality labels are public property and should come from a fixed set, so stand and deliver!” that seems to be the status quo. I’ll often resist self-defining except with people who seem to be really listening. How someone labels their sexuality just doesn’t seem to me to be that strong of an indicator of who they are or how they are in their relationships. And, well, people are liars – consider the abundance of “monogamous” cheaters. And there is an assumed norm that doesn’t have to do the work of self-defining.
However, I do see value in the willingness to claim a countercultural identity publically as an act of defiance. And even more so, I believe that talking about countercultural views and practices regarding gender, sex, and relationships with people who are generally respectful and open can make huge strides in forming allies and can be freeing since witnessing someone else think or live in a new way can give you permission. So I’ve been trying to be more open with engaged people in talking about my personal beliefs and ethics, especially around sex and relationships, which are taboo starting out.
In thinking about posting on this subject, I didn’t want it to be polyvangelism. I recently heard the term polyvangelist used to describe those of us who are poly who think it’s a good idea for everyone. I laughed and blanched, since I recognize the impulse. But I have to remember that when I’m inclined to throw the poly card, I don’t just mean that someone should have sex with multiple people. Sleeping with more people is certainly not a fix for all relational issues. As Valerie said once, “When I hear about someone whose a chronic cheater, I always think ‘polyamory,’ but then… the skill set required for cheating and the skill set require for polyamory are really not compatible.” If I think a bit harder, I usually realize that it is actually some element of the relational dynamic that seems to be causing issues and making people unhappy. It’s not the monogamy, but the romantic myth at fault.
People think of polyamory in contrast to monogamy. By plain definitions, monogamy would mean having a sexual relationship with only one person in a span of time, and polyamory would mean having sex with any number of partners. I’m all for monogamy, plain and simple. I don’t think it hurts anyone. I’ve known a lot of people who are monogamous whom I believe really know themselves and are making conscious, self-derived choices. But usually monogamy is assumed to mean not only sex with one partner, but to include vast elements of behavior and a worldview mandated by the romantic myth. The romantic myth I think destroys a lot of beautiful bonds and causes a lot of suffering in the world.
One leg of the romantic myth that chills me is the concept of “emotional monogamy.” You’re supposed to dethrone all your meaningful bonds from the past and avoid making new ones or else stand accused. Communicating, “You are doing something wrong. You are immoral,” when what we really mean is, “I am scared,” or, “I am jealous,” or, “I am realizing that I do not trust you to tell the truth,” or, “I want greater connection with you and this contrast just made me realize it,” won’t help anyone create a stronger relationship. I think it’s a way projecting feelings of possessiveness onto another person rather than taking responsibility for them and sorting them out into some deeper meaning.
If we expand polyamory to simply mean having a life of many loves, not strictly sexual, then I think it is undoubtedly a good idea for everyone. People who only have sex with one person (or one person at a time) will more likely find their relationships taxed and strained by trying to get all their needs met from that one person. If you always drink from the same well, you’ll dry it up eventually. I think these kinds of relationships are often lost simply because when conflicts arise, the only person to go to in order to process those conflicts is the person involved. I think you need a friend who feels more objective and advocates for your bond to process things with in order to bring a more enlightened and balanced mentality back to the conversation and not just have incendiary rounds of fighting every time an issue is brought up, or worse, avoid talking about it until it blows up.
I talk a lot about sexual consent on this blog, so I end up talking a lot about friends I’ve had sexual relationships with, but those are not my only or deepest bonds. I just don’t see any truth in my bonds existing in a hierarchy where “romantic” bonds are above “platonic” bonds. Nor do I see that as a particularly relevant distinction, honestly. Sex does not an entirely new beast of a relationship make, at least, not in my experience. Yet no one finds a relationship self-help books that says, “Have lots of close and lasting friendships, and you will learn a ton.” The support and skills I have needed to maintain a bond with my best friend, Emily, I imagine are exactly the same as those needed to support a loving monogamous sexual relationship, since it is a long-term bond I prioritize. Even if I only slept with one person, I would still be polyamorous, since I already have a primary partner I’m not willing to give up in Emily. I’m just willing to have more than one.
Does that mean I just don’t love people I sleep with as much? No. Looking at love bonds as a hierarchy where participants rival for affection, or simply at yourself as a limited vessel holding a finite amount of love you must pour out judiciously is a mindset simply too small for love. In “The Ethical Slut”, they call this mentality starvation economy thinking. I don’t love my best friend less because I begin to love my new lover or my other best friends more. In my experience, the opposite is actually true, that both the capacity to love and the skills involved expand as you use them.
I’m polyamorous because my priority and I believe my rightful purpose in life is to seek as much genuine love as possible, and I assume it is the right of everyone else to do the same. C.S. Lewis, who really shaped my thinking as a young person, says that God does not find our desires too big, but too small. A love ethic does not require that we want less, that we tie ourselves to a small set of people and beliefs and restrict our desires and growth outside those boundaries. It requires that we grow, that we enlarge our hearts to carry more empathy and find greater connection, that we suffer the depression of letting go of the old to replace it with the new, always seeking greater truth and connection with the divine. I find it most in other people, so I’m not willing to whittle myself down to one.