reflections on Jane Sexes it Up and definitions of feminism

Reading Jane Sexes it Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire, a series of essays edited by Merri Lisa Johnson about third wave feminists negotiating their feminism with their sexual desires, I thought a lot about where I am now in this debate or “problem” that many of us feminists seem to grapple so wildly with: How to be both true to one’s desire, changing desires, explorations, and also be feminist, also be supportive to other women, also create positive spaces for each other.

I think because feminists and political queers write and intellectualize so much about these topics—perhaps because it has been for us such a source of pain and contention on our bodies that we feel naturally the need to process—we also hold ourselves to impossibly high standards of what we should and shouldn’t be (thus such phenomena as queer and feminist “policing.”) I’m happy to say that reading many of these essays I realized that I think I’ve shed a lot of my self-critical habits (learned early on and later bolstered at university). I’m enjoying sex and love more than ever. I’m just not as worried anymore about what I’m wearing. I’m not as worried anymore about which gendered person I’m sleeping with and how much and if that makes me part of this or that club. I’m not worried whether I use a dildo during sex and whether my dildo is shaped like a “real cock” or an animated character as long as it gets me and my partner off. I’m not that worried anymore about any of that and it feels good.

It’s probably a process of aging, as it is a process of simply practice. It’s clear to me that there is nothing like practice to help with issues that arise in sex, sexuality, polyamorous relationships and situations of jealousy. And there is nothing like practice to help a person become increasingly comfortable with sex and to find new ways of enjoying sex, to becoming increasingly happy with oneself and one’s own body. I feel like with every lover I have ever had I’ve learned something new. Even one-night stands, which I rarely have, have taught me about different bodies, different desires. The sex that I get to have with long(er) term lovers, even if we meet just a few times, has always been informative—even when the relationship has startlingly broken off, or even if I’ve been left—or they’ve been left—a little saddened by the loss of our sexual relationship in the end. Any and all of these experiences—including, at this point of my personal process, even the more negative ones that I had as a younger person—have contributed to my sexual knowledge and maturity. By no means have I “arrived” at maturity, but I am in process and grateful for what I’ve learned and the partners that have allowed me to learn with them.

I realize that in 8 years of polyamorous relationship I have had more partners outside of my relationship with my “primary” that I ever had before him. And, again, not because I’m always going out getting one night stands or even fucking anonymously in clubs. The fantasy arouses me but anyone who knows me well knows I just don’t have the time. What a nerd I am. I would have to say, for someone partnered I am a slut, but for someone who is single I am pretty serially monogamous, outside of my so-called “primary relationship.”

It’s actually only recently that the balance has radically shifted—where I’ve started having sex with a lover more than I have with my “primary” and I am beginning to radically consider how to have a more “poly” relationship rather than a “primary” and “other” set-up. Though I’ve been intellectualizing this arrangement for years ever since I met this incredible group of Swedish queer girls in Malmo, I haven’t actually tried putting it into practice. This is one of the things I feel really grateful to my partner for – he’s been with me through a long eight years of process, a long series of adjusting and reconfiguring and re-actualizing our goals in terms of sexual nonmonogamy and polyamory. I don’t think this process with ever end, even if our togetherness does radically shift. I guess that in the end, that’s what our commitment ceremony was about, even if the family and friends present didn’t entirely realize every detail of that when they led us around in the maze my installation artist-environmentalist girlfriend Tara built for us in the park in San Francisco.

Our friends and family led us through the rough terrain of this maze. They understood it on their own terms. I understood it on my own terms, my partner understood it on his own terms. For me, it was a queer, polyamorous, constantly changing, constantly re-negotiating way of encountering the world. My ex-lover “committed us.” I couldn’t really have asked for anything more.

The essays I read in Jane Sexes it up reinforced the idea that I have carved a life for myself that feels “feminist” in the ways that I aim it to be, ever acknowledging the need for progress, for better understanding, for self growth. I continue to grow and feel happy for it. The idea of feminism (to claim or not claim the “f word”?) has never put me off because I just figure—I am creating my own feminism. I don’t need to worry all that much about whether it fits someone else’s idea of feminism. I acknowledge the way that sexism still operates in the world. I am a thinking, female gendered queer person who believes in equality of genders and a radical look at power dynamics that ensures space for each of us to pursue our life’s questions (ie, a space for the empowerment process). Does this not make me eligible to define my own feminism? I believe in your ability to define your own feminism. Feminism is ground that is changing every day. I’m just not feeling as conflicted anymore about these things.

My feminism includes having sex with multiple partners and learning to negotiate honesty and respect with a committed life partner. It includes learning for myself how to carve out time for my own work and my own goals, how to respect myself as a creative person in “partnership” with my creative self. It includes negotiating time and space with friends and lovers so that we respect when and how much each of us want to see each other and be seen. I am learning and still learning and failing and improving with aging and experience. This is the kind of life I wanted to set for myself and together my partner and I did that. I can’t see that as un-feminist, though some people might, especially as it intersects with sex-positive feminism.

If I am defining my own feminism, what exactly do I see as feminist or unfeminist? I suppose I can think of a few things I believe to be un-feminist, none of which have to do with what kind of sex we have or with whom or what we look like: To purposely give respect and power to someone based on their gender (lookism) … to make a person feel badly about their body … to refuse to see the shifting nature of feminism, to refuse to see multiple positioning within the term. In that sense to be “unfeminist” would be to resist its own dynamic definition.

I believe we have to think about feminist as necessarily being tied to a queer politic while simultaneously acknowledging that some feminist politics must and have to operate in very “unqueer” (as seen from the outside) situations. We have to acknowledge context. Not every feminist tract exists for queer women with access to sex toys living in major centers of intellectual thought and liberalism. We have to acknowledge how some feminisms can exist in places where even to fight for the right to drive a car FOR A WOMAN is important, even when QUEER people are being murdered just for existing. These struggles have to exist simultaneously. I can’t think about how we can seriously sit around and talk about how great various dildos are without acknowledging the way that class operates in what we’re doing, or that fact that half of us can’t afford to buy this expensive equipment. I’ve never been able to afford half that stuff. I only have a dildo because I once got paid for doing a show by some guy that tried to give me a dildo instead of cash.

We have to remain conscious of the work we’re doing and in what avenues it helps and supports women and accept that we cannot all do the same work. We have to keep some critical analysis of our work at distance to understand that we make a choice about how we contribute and how our choices operate in the wider context of what is important and necessary in a struggle for women’s rights, or, better said, human rights as it relates to our genders. Perhaps this is a necessary turn in phrase and language as we understand feminism today.

I think we must get beyond this idea of feminism being empirically defined and move to a place where we realize that feminism is far beyond what it looks like. (Incidentally this would be and could be a more radical way of imagining just about everything we encounter: the old adage—there is more than meets the eye) Feminism at least for me certainly can’t be about WHAT we do in bed. It can’t be about what we look like. It must be self-defined.

And that is precisely where it becomes an increasingly slippery topic to speak on at all. How to define feminism? Is it possible to define feminism in any generalizing way at all, especially as we are queering, or should be queering, our understanding of feminism? On what exactly can our feminism rest in a unifying way, if that’s possible at all?

It seems that the essence of feminism is found more in INTENTION rather than defined by ACTION. It is found rather in how a person approaches an action or relation rather than how specifically they are acted out. Current campaigns like “slut walk” are perfect examples of how we are opening these terms and letting us define ourselves, challenging notions of assumed definitions. A woman walking down the street in a very short skirt can’t possibly be assumed to stand for anything at all in particular—feminist or not. In fact we know nothing about “her” (or assumed gender) until we speak to her. A rape crisis center or a program providing free birth control can’t possibly be assumed to be a positive (“feminist”) experience for the women who are assisted there until we speak to them. A woman and man fucking on the screen, her cries seemingly about pain and submission, can’t possibly be interpreted until we understand the context of the scene that they’re making. What defines a queer production versus a “mainstream” production? Intention and process—not the actual mechanics that are represented by the superficiality of various genitalia on the screen.

Here I get back again to porn, which is one of the most contested grounds of feminism and the one that many of the writers in Jane Sexes it Up grapple with. On the one hand, many women feel that porn and sex-work have been vehicles of empowerment. But others, even those who acknowledge the possibility of empowerment through sex-radical feminism, have nevertheless felt alienated by sex positive women who seem to so effortlessly flaunt their sex positive skill set. I empathize with the women who claim this position—and wish that it were easier to say that sex-positive women who do seem to flaunt their bodies have no intention of making other women or people of any gender feel badly, despite my feelings that this is so. Easier said than done.

And this is precisely where the crux of the issue lies. My basic life philosophy says that every person’s intention is essentially a good one, acting out of a desire to do good. In this way I honestly believe that sex positive women are not intentionally attempting to make anyone feel badly about themselves, even within their own private circles which can grow into environments that look quite competitive (ie, can you ejaculate, how much, how far?). Thinking about it in real terms—everyone has a right to PRIDE. That’s what gay pride is initially about. Finally being able to say—I did xyz in private and it was revolutionary—is a classic personal is political statement. Moreover, to say so in public, to bring those private actions to really public spaces and not just tell a best friend is revolutionary. We have to be allowed to talk about why we love the sex we’re having. Sharing what we do in private is feminist. Making other people feel badly about what they do or don’t do in private (even if unintentional) is not feminist. But how to negotiate this?

We can attempt to be conscious of ways of speaking that don’t make others feel incompetent or less developed. An example: “I have a poly relationship and I love it. I don’t mean it’s better than monogamy and I don’t want to suggest that it’s the way anyone else has to be.” Another example: “I get fisted and I love it, here do you want me to show you?” I personally have only once or twice been fisted. I certainly wouldn’t call myself an “expert.” I have female ejaculated only on occasion and I would love to again but I haven’t gained the kind of knowledge about what triggers my body to ejaculate in order to control when I can make it happen again. If I share my vulnerabilities while reveling in what makes me proud, perhaps we can find more common ground.

It’s good for me as a self identified sex radical or sex positive feminist to have a sense of why people DON’T indentify as I do and with my standpoint. However equally, I cannot travel back to a place that I was before or be asked to apologize. I cannot feel shame for something I no longer feel shame for. We have to acknowledge that as we assert our sexual drive and have sexual experiences we change. I am always changing. As a personal example: What about my “dick” in someone’s’ mouth? It took me years to change my stance on this particular image and realize that it had become a turn-on. In and of itself it doesn’t have meaning, it has meaning in the way that I interpret it and it is only my personal journey that changed how I feel about it. Once I feel okay and my partner feels okay about it everything has changed. Even though some women may feel that is unfeminist of me—I cannot look back on the experiences that have changed who I am as a sexual being.

I would still like to be accepted and supported by other feminists—sex positive or not. Equally I would like to support and accept and love other feminists who may view some of my personal sexual practices (or public ones) as unfeminist … even though it is precisely their judgmental perspective that I view as unfeminist.

The only thing left to do? Talk about it.

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