Category Archives: hooray for sex

In which I review a book that I read: Playing The Whore

Since I heard that Melissa Gira Grant wrote a book about sex work, I’ve been desperate to get my grubby mitts on it. Having now read Playing The Whore: The Work Of Sex Work, I want to recommend that every single one of you reads this fucking book.

Weighing in at just 132 pages, I’m astounded Gira Grant managed to pack in so much vital–and radical–analysis in such an accessible format. Central to her thesis is the concept of a “prostitute imaginary”, a cobbled-together bundle of myths which occupies our minds. These myths are systematically examined and dismantled through a feminist lens. Everything you thought you knew about sex work is a lie, it seems. Did you know, for example, that among a sample of over 21, 000 women who do sex work in West Bengal, there were 48, 000 reports of violence perpetrated by police, but only 4000 perpetrated by customers?

Gira Grant has a theory as to why this may be the case. The forces of public imagination surrounding sex work run strong. Misogynists, law enforcement and feminists alike view a sex worker as always working, as nothing but a sex worker. She (as Gira Grant points out, this stereotype is always of a cis woman) is somehow deviant and subjected to stigma for her deviance. Simultaneously, focus is on representations of sex, rather than the concrete. We only see sex workers being arrested, or peek through a peephole to see what we want to see. With all of this going on, the voices of sex workers can easily be ignored, creating this situation:

These demands on their speech [in testimony in court and the media], to both convey their guilt and prove their innocence, are why, at the same time that sex work has made strides toward recognition and popular representations that defy stereotypes, prostitutes, both real and imaginary, still remain the object of social control. This is how sex workers are still understood: as curiosities, maybe, but as the legitimate target of law enforcement crackdowns and charitable concerns–at times simultaneously. And so this is where the prostitute is still most likely to be found today, where those who seek to “rescue” her locate her: at the moment of her arrest.

The book travels in a spiral, revisiting the same points over and over again to the joint problems of violence and coercion from law enforcement, and how other women, especially feminists, aren’t helping–and in fact, attempts to rescue can often make things worse, such as demonstrated in a case study in Cambodia, where attempts to “rescue” sex workers have led to many women being dragged away to “rehabilitation camps”, repurposed prisons where women have died or set to work long shifts behind a sewing machine.

A lot of what we as feminists have been doing wrong is related to “whore stigma”, which Gira Grant explains goes beyond simple misogyny:

The fear of the whore, or of being the whore, is the engine that drives the whole thing [a culture which is dangerous for sex workers]. That engine could be called “misogyny”, but even that word misses something: the cheapness of the whore, how easily she might be discarded not only due to her gender, but to her race, her class. Whore is maybe the original intersectional insult.

It is a desire to reverse away from “whore stigma”, which predominantly affects sex workers, but can also hit women who are not sex workers, which links with a lot of problems within mainstream feminism: Gira Grant theorises that it is no coincidence that feminists who are anti-sex work are also often transphobic. And, likewise, anti-sex work laws are often used against trans women and women of colour, from unfair targeting for stop and search, to disproportionate incarceration.

It makes for uncomfortable reading at times, this litany of our own mistakes as feminists, and perhaps nowhere is it clearer than in an analysis of objectification, and the feminist line that sex workers increase objectification of women. The evidence upon which these assumptions rest is dealt with in short order, and Gira Grant highlights the dehumanisation and objectification of sex workers at the hands of women, as silent props, and, often depicted in a frighteningly demeaning fashion.

In dismantling the myths, Playing The Whore offers glimpses of the reality of sex work, the diversity of all that this umbrella covers. The book explains neatly how sex work fits in among other forms of work, of how once upon a time, sex workers and housewives were sisters in arms. At times, I wish the book were far longer, as I feel as though there are tantalising hints of analysis to come which never quite develops but is merely teased. Although this book is neither explicitly anti-capitalist nor explicitly ACAB, conclusions of this nature bubble under the surface, never spelled out, for this is not quite within its scope in its current form.

This book is a must-read feminist book. I would go so far as to place it as a crucial Feminism 101 text. The first feminist book I ever read way Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, whose ideas I am still struggling to unlearn, as it gave me a shameful attitude towards sex workers and femmes for years I will never get back. Playing The Whore casts a critical eye on patriarchy while actively dismantling the stigma many women face, and teaches the central feminist values of listening, and solidarity. For readers more versed in feminist theory and praxis, it allows us to evaluate our past mistakes and encourages us to rebuild on more solid ground. By rights, this book could and should shake up feminism for the better.

But sadly, I fear it will not, for I fear the forces Gira Grant outlines are too powerful to be brought down by this smart little book. We have had centuries of clinging to a prostitute imaginary while coming up with numerous excuses to silence the voices of sex workers. I believe that this book will largely be ignored by the mainstream with their stake in speaking for and over sex workers. A recent review of Playing The Whore by a liberal cis white feminist took umbrage to Gira Grant’s centring of sex workers in a book about sex work, and decided that she would rather read about “demand”. Mainstream feminism wants sex workers decentred from discussions directly pertinent to their livelihood, it wants to keep sex workers on the margins. It will not listen.

Gira Grant knows this, which is why she concludes with a rousing cry for decriminalisation, in the hope that the rest will follow. This conclusion, and the solidarity Gira Grant asks for are concrete things which we as feminists who do not do sex work can support.


Biological essentialism: can we not?

Last week, I wrote about why I’m pro trans and pro choice. Given the sheer quantity of comments, I’m not sure I made myself clear enough.

I think that broad judgments based on perceived biology have historically had some bearing on the oppression of women. I also think that biological essentialism is meaningless and can only be deployed oppressively in the present day, as scientific and sociological understanding of gender and sex has progressed. Some time ago, I wrote about evolutionary psychology, and very charitably decided to pretend that perhaps all of the just-so stories explaining differences in behaviour of the sexes were true. And I concluded that even then, that does not mean it is in any way relevant now:

Wisdom teeth, though, were highly useful to humans when we first evolved. Humans were still a long way off inventing dental hygiene, and, so, tended to die once all of their teeth had rotted away and they could no longer eat. Wisdom teeth, emerging in the mid-twenties, gave an extra few years of life: four more teeth meant more time being able to eat. With the advent of dental hygiene, we no longer lose all of our teeth to decay, and wisdom teeth have become an annoyance. When a wisdom tooth grows into a mouth full of healthy teeth, there is often not enough room, and the new tooth impacts. I had a wisdom tooth that solved the lack-of-space problem by growing horizonally. Each time I bit down, it would take a chunk out of the inside of my cheek. I had it removed.

Wisdom teeth, then, are a solution to a problem that no longer exists, and when the tooth becomes a problem we have it yanked out.

If one were to assume that claims regarding gender made by evolutionary psychology were true, these gender roles are as irrelevant to modern life as wisdom teeth. They are a solution to a problem that no longer exists: we shop in supermarkets now; we have modern health care; our children are sent off to school; we have DNA testing for identification of fathers; we can have sex for pleasure with a very low risk of reproduction. The adaptations we developed to childrearing and mating problems no longer exist.

Why, then, would we cling on to the notion that it’s perfectly natural to rape, to cheat, to subscribe to the idea that male and female minds are inherently different, and so such things are inevitable?

We can overcome wisdom teeth, and, if any of the shaky claims of evolutionary psychology regarding gender turn out to be true, we can yank that out of our society, too.

The same is true for biological essentialist arguments. Maybe once upon a time, “woman” was defined only by capacity for childbirth, or only by presence of a vagina, or only by whether she had periods or not–although, you can see by the quantities of “ors” in that sentence that even if we try to trace back through history, what defines a woman is pretty complicated if we’re going on biology alone. And yes, this nonsense has persisted through time, from the bizarre belief that uteruses could roam throughout the body causing all sorts of negative effects to the belief that everything a menstruating woman touched became unclean. It becomes a chicken and egg scenario: society was built upon misogyny, along with its science. Science, after all, is not objective: the questions it asks and answers are rooted in the society asking those questions.

It’s only relatively recently that we have even begun to ask the right questions, and noticed that actually the whole thing is a house of cards, and should rightly come crashing down. We realised that biological sex is far more complicated than the somewhat-complicated way it had originally seemed. Hormones and chromosomes, internal and external biological characteristics–none of it necessarily matched up. Some still cling to essentialism, despite its utter meaninglessness, to produce bad science to suggest that rape is inevitable, or that men and women have different brains and only men can do the logical stuff. But the science is not on their side, and there is an increasing level of criticism levelled at such work because, at its heart, it is terrible science and tells us very little beyond what misogynists believe to be true.

Most feminists are rightly deeply critical of biological essentialism, knowing, as we do, how it keeps us down. And many of us embrace the advances that have brought us closer and closer to liberating ourselves from it. It is fucking lovely not having to be defined by our reproductive status, freeing ourselves from the idea that this is what our bodies are for. Many of us use synthetic hormones to regulate our bodies, and sometimes to eradicate menstruation. Surgery has advanced so that women without cunts can have cunts if they want. Science is looking into the possibility of uterus transplants, so women who cannot bear children will be able to. We are making a hell of a lot of progress, and the hold of biologically essentialist misogyny is slipping.

Unfortunately, some feminists are holding us back. Some feminists have embraced biological essentialism. The motive for this is an attempt to somehow “prove” that trans women are not women, cloaking their transmisogyny in pseudoscientific language by pretending that “female” and “woman” are two different things, and that “female” is somehow a scientifically valid category. Often, this is presented in a way that is even more dehumanising than the way MRAs talk about women, like this gem from Gia Milinovich where she bangs on about “female mammalians” and claims that our understanding of biology is in no way related to culture.

Taking this argument to its logical conclusion leads to some deeply unpleasant thought, like this:

twitter-boodleoops-glosswitch-vaginas-are-for

Twitter   Glosswitch  @boodleoops Bleeding is okay ...

Here, we see an attempt to define purpose of vaginas, deeply rooted in biologically essentialist misogyny*. Now, I have made the choice to not give birth, and I don’t need to go into why, because it’s my body and my choice, and the world has progressed to a position where I am able to make that choice. My vagina, if I get my way, will never be used for a role in babymaking. As for the bleeding, I find it quite fun**, but I don’t really feel like it’s an essential characteristic of my womanhood, nor would I feel that if my period ever stopped, my vagina would become purposeless. But my vagina is hardly a useless hole: far from it. It’s for shuddering orgasms. This part of my body is a delight to me. A finger or a dildo in there feels like heaven as I feel it brush my G-spot, and I feel my clit grow hard around it. And yes, I tend to prefer dildos, and I am aware of just how horrifying homophobic patriarchy finds that. I don’t use it for reproduction, and I don’t have to because we have moved on enough to no longer be defined and confined by our reproductive organs.***

I am a woman. I am still a woman, despite not even knowing what hormones my body produces due to years of taking synthetic hormones. I am still a woman, despite the fact that I have never given birth and do not plan to. I will still be a woman if, like my mother, severe fibroids necessitate a radical hysterectomy and bilateral oophorectomy at some point in my future.

Once upon a time, biological essentialism was all there was. We grew up. And we are slowly slinging off this burden, leading to the liberation of all women. We must fight biological essentialism wherever we see it, and liberate ourselves fully from these archaic constraints.

Further reading:

Un-gendering sex: a feminist project? (I am because you are)

Writing the Body: Stories of sex and gender (Alice Nuttall)

“The day an extremely popular white feminist advocated eugenics and mass abortion of trans people”  (Red Light Politics)

How Cissexist Partiarchy Works (Alien She)

Duplicitous or £9 notes…? (UnCommon Sense)

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*I am 95% certain that the “ten pound note” reference refers to wanknotegate, which suggests that this Twitter conversation is basically barbs targeted at me, which has been expanded into misogyny.

**It is worth noting at this point that a common trope among transmisogynists is to claim that trans women will not let cis women talk about menstruation. I think it is abundantly clear here that such policing of discussion of menstruation can come just as much from cis women.

***DISCLAIMER: This, of course, refers only to my own relationship with my own cunt.

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Note on comments: I’m not approving TERfy/MRAish comments (I find it impossible to distinguish which is which, because they all just use the word “female” a lot and cast women as walking wombs), as this blog is a safe space for marginalised women. Go and whine about me on your own blogs.


Dear BT

Dear BT,

As you may know, I’m kind of against internet filtering anyway. Like many others, I share concerns about blocking important resources about sexuality and sex, and think it’s vital that children are able to access information about what options are available to them, and what is and isn’t OK. It’s vital that this information is available.

We’ve all heard horror stories about sex education sites being inadvertently blocked as porn, due to false positives on filtering. This is, of course, terrible. What’s worse, though, is that you’ve actively set up Sex Education as a category in your parental controls. That’s pretty iffy in and of itself, and gets much grosser when we look at exactly what you’ve explicitly decided to give parents the option to block:

Sex Education will block sites where the main purpose is to provide information on subjects such as respect for a partner, abortion, gay and lesbian lifestyle, contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

I’ve got some news for you, BT. This is really, really important information that young people need to access. This is information that keeps them safe from abuse–information about what is and isn’t OK. Respect for a partner is something vital that young people need to know about.

About the only way what you’re doing is OK is if you’re using your filters as a red flag list for spotting potentially abusive families. Are you trying to find out what sort of parent would block their children from knowing about respect, so you can help get their kids out of that situation?

Nope?

I thought not.

Basically, BT, I didn’t think much of you to begin with, and I certainly don’t think much of you now. Your priorities in what information you want to help block are really, really fucking skewed.

No love,

Stavvers

P.S. Terms like “gay and lesbian lifestyle” are homophobic dogwhistles, you pile of skidmarked Y-fronts.

Edit 22/12/13: I note you’ve now reworded, BT. But are you still blocking all of this vital information? If so, all of this still stands.


Smugsexual and the closet: two faces of feminist biphobia

Over the last few days, I have found myself experiencing a shuddering anxiety which had been at bay for years. I’ve been made to feel ashamed for my queer, poly sexuality. I have been made to feel like maybe I should just shut the hell up and stop being so open about this part of my identity, because it’s bad and wrong and whatever the hell else. I know, in my head, that this is just how heterosexist patriarchy wants me to feel so I will stay in my allocated place. That doesn’t stop it getting to me.

It all started with a complicated situation wherein a feminist blogger started attacking a feminist woman of colour, seemingly inexplicably. The aggressor then wrote a blog to defend her stance, in which she decided to air her grievances with a number of other women. It has been critiqued here, by Sam Ambreen. In it was the following line, which rang a few alarm bells for dogwhistle biphobia:

I will not go along with the lie that any white, cis, middle-class blogger who announces she is [made-up word] sexual is therefore just as oppressed as those she claims to represent.

When challenged, it became all the more obvious what she was driving at. I should note from later tweets, one of the people she means here is me:

Glosswitch  Glosswitch  on Twitter

All together, this “smugsexuals” rant displays a number of tropes which occupy the intersections of biphobia and misogyny, and I’m not even going to go into how blatantly little she doesn’t understand how intersectionality and privilege work, as this is fairly self-evident. First is the assertion that queer sexualities are “made up”, that any language we use to describe our experiences is somehow not real. I’d have thought we’d moved to a position where we could at least acknowledge that some people don’t fall neatly into little filing drawers marked “gay” or “straight”, but between this and the nonsense surrounding Tom Daley’s coming out, it is abundantly clear that we still haven’t even gained this little bit of ground.

Second is the implication that queer folk are attention-seeking, embodied in this mention of smugness. This notion of “attention-seeking” is levelled at bi and queer women far too much, and it’s tangled in all sorts of hideous assumptions about queer sex and what a woman should do. Heterosexist patriarchy wants us to be quiet, keep our pretty little heads down and if we stray outside the norms we must be doing it for the attention of men.

I am open about my identity because it’s a part of me that I spent a long time coming to terms with. And I also talk about it a lot because I know that when I was coming to terms with it, seeing people being out and unabashed really helped me understand, and gave me the courage and strength to be out myself.

My friend Charlie wrote this beautiful and heartfelt post a while back about how straight people often ask why her sexuality is so important to her. There is such an assumption amongst straight people that we’re just going on about it and obsessing over one aspect of ourselves, while nobody ever pays any attention to straight people talking about marriage and dating and so forth. It’s the same thing, our lives are just… well… queerer. Our love is important to us. This is a given.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what Glosswitch intended when she developed this brand new slur to smack down queer women with. What she has said takes place against the backdrop of policing of women’s sexuality, of a societal disgust levelled at queer people. This “smugsexual” slur is just a shorter word for what is usually yelled at us.

And it’s facing this, and seeing it go relatively unchallenged, hits me. It took me a long time to overcome all the horrible stuff I had internalised, and having it repeated and spat back into my face really fucking hurts. It’s enough to make me want to go back into the closet.

…except, according to the other face of biphobia considered acceptable in feminism, I’m already there.

Julie Bindel  bindelj  on Twitter (1)

This position is rooted in a feminism which likes to police women’s behaviour and coerce them into lesbianism, and it’s not like Julie Bindel doesn’t have a track record with this. It was because of the dominance of this feminism–in conjunction with general societal monosexual supremacy–that I still sometimes find myself saying I am a lesbian rather than being truthful about who and how I love. The expectation of this kind of feminism is that we should pack away a part of ourselves, stick it into a locked box and bury it under six feet of concrete, rather than living and loving to the fullest extent possible.

This kind of rigid feminism is, thankfully, in decline, and I expect to see less of this kind of rhetoric in the future. What we’ll see more of, though, is this new biphobia. As @nanayasleeps puts it, we’ve gone from “the love that dare not speak its name” to “the love that will not shut up”. Where once we were silent and we hid in the shadows of the closet, we are now too loud, too unreasonable, asking for too much and waving our sexuality in the face of others.

Bisexual people are more likely to suffer from mental health problems than lesbian, gay or straight people, and it’s unlikely that our sexual orientation is a product of our madness. Rather, it is because we end up facing an ugly pincer manoeuvre of prejudice, from all corners. We are told we do not exist, and when we point out that we do, we are told to fuck off because we’re being smug about it. It is a grinding daily stressor, with little support offered to us, as most deny that biphobia even exists.

There is nothing more scary to heterosexist patriarchy than a queer woman who is not afraid to speak out, who cuts through the silence like a hot knife through butter.

I love people of all genders. I am satisfied with my sex life. I am at peace with the fact that I am not like the others. I am secure in the knowledge that I know who I am, and I kind of like it. If that makes me smug, so be it. I wish nothing but smugness on the rest of my queer sisters.

Edit 10/12/13: For the record, Glosswitch replied. Here are her tweets: 1 2 3 4. Here is how I responded: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7.


Some worrisome nonsense about condoms in the news

Wafting across my monitor like the diffusion of a singularly sulphurous fart comes this article, which the Guardian saw fit to run on their front page today. 

An article about safer sex ought to, by rights, display a fairly grown-up attitude towards safer sex. Unfortunately, this doesn’t. It opens with a lot about how “hilarious” condoms are. There’s little explanation as to why, just repeated exclamations that they’re funny. Further compounding this rather worrisome attitude is a reference to the “clap clinic”, which I can only presume is a rather stigmatising way of describing getting oneself checked for STIs regularly. On top of all of this, it spreads misinformation, referring to the practice of “double-bagging”–wearing one condom over the other is a terrible idea, unless you like condoms to break on you.  Of course, it’s hardly surprising her attitude is so bad: in the last paragraph, the author expresses surprise that adults ever use condoms. 

While there are some decent points made, like the impact of condoms on pleasure, on the whole the piece is rather lacking. The author concludes that better condoms are needed rather than a better attitude to them. 

Unfortunately, a magic super-condom that’s thinner probably won’t make much difference. I remember about a decade ago when Durex launched a condom which was supposedly far better and made from a different material. It didn’t wow me, and, crucially, it was way more expensive than the bog-standard model. For students and working class people (who dance and drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do), this is not going to help matters at all. 

Ultimately, this article represents one of those well-intentioned things which contributes to a poor societal attitude towards condoms. It just adds shit to the pile of excuses that people use not to wrap up and play safe. The fact is, barriers like condoms are the best thing out there if you don’t want STIs. They don’t protect against everything–such as HPV (although the author seems to think they do, mentioning something about genital warts)–but the protection they offer is pretty good. They’re also pretty cheap and readily-available, and fairly portable because they’re small.

So basically, I’d love to see less misinformation in the mainstream media. It’s not a big ask, surely; it’s no like there isn’t a massive host of sex educators doing good stuff. Fuck controversy, and fuck ironic hipster bollocks. Let’s celebrate condoms, the unsung heroes of sex. 


Poly Means Many: Consent, negotiation, and group dynamics

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts can be found at polymeansmany.com

This month’s PMM topic is “negotiation”, which is so broad I’ll admit to having had trouble with where to start, what with having the material for approximately nineteen sextillion blogposts and a million bajillion conversations swimming round my head. And even though a lot of the PMM bloggers are taking this month off due to IRL things, I really don’t feel like I ought to subject you to every little thought rattling around my brainspace, because you will probably die of boredom before finishing, and my fingers will have worn down to little stubs from all the typing. So, I’m focusing on a small area, one which people have asked me about before, and of which I’ve had both positive and negative experiences.

There has been a hell of a lot of discussion and modelling of consent and negotiation within relationships–however fleeting–between two people, but we don’t talk so much about what happens when there are more than two present. Decades of social psychological research have shown us that weird shit tends to happen in groups of people, and the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts.

So how does negotiation of sex and relationships with several people together work? It’s easiest to look at potential pitfalls here to elucidate what makes things work.

In my experience, one of the biggest problems is that group dynamics can create an environment wherein it is very difficult to say no. When several people are up for sex, and your options are participate or go and wait in the kitchen until they’re finished, one often finds oneself taking the path of least resistance. This has actually happened to me once; I went and sat in the kitchen, that time, and smoked a lot of fags and felt like shit, but there have been other times when I have ended up involved in sex I didn’t want–and, indeed, I cannot say for certain that everyone was as up for a shag as I was, in certain situations before I figured out how to make shit work.

This sort of thing, the nagging concern that someone is just going along with stuff goes way beyond the bedroom.

So how do we solve this sort of problem? First and foremost is, of course, communication which goes beyond saying “I’m not OK”, and into actually checking in with people. This is all useless, though, without striving to make your relationships–of any sort–a safe space. It is not enough to say the words, it is necessary to foster a feeling of trust and security, an idea that it is OK to not be OK with something.

Without this ability to make yourself a safe space, negotiation is never going to work particularly well in any situation. It makes it hard to be honest, and it makes it hard to express non-consent. It stings to hear that no, and sometimes it does feel easier to send someone down to the kitchen, but it is absolutely vital that we make this happen.

From here, it is possible to build an inventory of how the dynamics work, an identification of what makes everyone involved happy, and what doesn’t.

The interesting thing here is that while I was focusing on group dynamics, I realised how much all of this applies when there are just two people present, too. So, I suppose, let’s all buck the hell up and make sure we’re safe.


Do women not want to be friends with sluts? A review of a study.

Is there a word for studies which confirm existing prejudices so are trumpeted everywhere as there now being scientific backing for such prejudices? If not, there should be.

The latest that has come to my attention is a study which is being reported as showing that women don’t want to be friends with women who have had a lot of sexual partners, while men don’t mind as much if their male friends are getting a lot of sex. Entitled “Birds of a Feather? Not When it Comes to Sexual Permissiveness“, the study claims to provide some support for a sexual double standard and suggests these findings might have an evolutionary basis. Male and female participants were provided with a profile of a fictional person, and asked questions pertaining to friendship with them. The only difference between the profiles was how many sexual partners the fictional person had had: two, or twenty.

As with most of these prejudice-confirming studies, though, there are a few problems with how the authors reached their conclusions. As with so many studies of this ilk, there is a huge issue with sampling, and the generalisability of this study. Participants were US college students, the overwhelming majority of whom were economically privileged–only 11% rated themselves as working class or lower middle class. But most importantly of all, gay and bisexual participants were excluded from the study to ensure that none of the results reflected any sort of sexual attraction (because, apparently, queer folk are unable to just be friends with heterosexuals). The findings, therefore, can only ever be generalised to heterosexuals and be applied to heterosexual culture. This is something which has not been reported in any media discussions of the study, probably due to a combination of the fact that journalists tend to regurgitate press releases rather than read studies, and a hefty dose of good old-fashioned heterosexism.

There is also a major problem with the stats used in this study. When conducting statistical tests, we use a probability that the finding was down to chance. The conventionally-accepted figure for a statistically significant finding is that there is only a 5% possibility that this finding is due to chance, and it’s important to report the values of this probability as a p-value, where we convert the percentage into a decimal. For example, p=.04 is statistically significant, meaning the result is unlikely to be due to chance. Meanwhile, p=.09 is not significant as it’s more likely that the findings were just chance. In this study, several findings were reported as being “marginally significant”. The threshold for this was p<.08. “Marginal significance” is a phrase which pisses me the fuck off, as it means it actually isn’t significant by any conventions which are used, it’s just kind of close and the authors wanted something else to talk about.

Then we run into another problem. When multiple tests are run, the possibility of a false positive increases. At a significance threshold of p=.05, if a researcher were to run 100 statistical tests, five would come up as significant just by chance. So it’s important, when you’re doing a lot of statistical tests, to adjust for this. The authors of this paper didn’t. The good news is, there’s enough data there for me to undertake a quick and dirty* adjustment called a Bonferroni Correction. As I said above, the generally-accepted significance threshold if p<.05. A Bonferroni Correction takes this significance threshold and divides it by the number tests run. Charitably discounting the 64 descriptive stats tests run, I count 160 tests undertaken (though I may have missed a few). p<.05 divided by 160 gives us the significance threshold of p<.0003, and from the data tables, it looks like there isn’t much that’s significant by this measure. Some findings are reported as p=<.001, although we cannot conclude from the information available whether they manage to reach the revised threshold.

For those of you whose eyes glazed over during that dry statistical excursion, take the findings of this study with a hefty pinch of salt.

If you did read the stats paragraph, you’ll notice I’m feeling charitable today, so now it’s time to talk about something I found really interesting in this paper, and I’m a little sad the authors didn’t examine more. Along with filling in questionnaires which largely formed the basis of the analysis, participants were also invited to write down things they liked and disliked about the fictional person. Almost everyone, men and women, had something negative to say about sexuality, even when it was the fictional person who had only had two sexual partners. These negative things included negative statements about extramarital sex and stigmatising phrases like “whore-like tendencies”.

Conclusions

We cannot draw the conclusions the authors and overexcited journalists have drawn–that women don’t want to be friends with slutty women. What we can see, though, is that among heterosexual US college students, there is still a pretty dodgy attitude towards sexuality, with people holding views which are generally quite negative even when a fictional person has had relatively few sexual partners. This is something we need to work on as a society: sex is a thing a lot of people do, and it’s much nicer to do it without judgment from peers. We need to support others in having safe sex rather than think unpleasant things about them, accepting people. We’ve all internalised a lot of shit, living as we do in a society with a decidedly wack view of sexuality. And that needs to change.

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*Why do I find Bonferroni Corrections quick and dirty? Because I’m a Monte Carlo Simulation gal. Far more fun, you just get to leave a computer running while you go out for lunch and it feels like you’re working. Also, it’s more robust, or something, but mostly it’s the fact you get to pop out for lunch.


Please, media, separate kink (and its problems) from 50 Shades of Grey

I wrote a while back about how the media have got all excited over 50 Shades Of Grey because it portrays a view of sexuality which is not too far removed from the patriarchal norm, yet is a little bit titillatingly different. With the book having sold approximately 19 billion copies, and it having been read by everyone who has ever lived or died, from the smallest amoebae to sentient gas nebulae, this media dribbling is showing no sign of abating.

This week, I have seen two stories about legal cases, where the words 50 SHADES OF GREY have been breathily splashed in a headline-grabbing bonanza.

First, there is the case of Steven Lock, who was cleared in court of actual bodily harm for whipping a sex partner. From what information is available about his defence, it seems that he and his partner read the book, and decided to play in a Master/slave relationship. In the incident brought to court, he beat the woman with a rope, and she did not safeword, saying:

“I knew there would be pain involved and I knew I wasn’t going to like it but I’d agreed to it and had to follow it through.”

Two problems spring to mind here, neither of which is being discussed at all by the mainstream press as they’re a little too excited by throwing in pop cultural references wherever they can. First and foremost is a possible issue surrounding safewords: sometimes people don’t feel able to use them. Of course, sometimes people don’t want to use them, and playing without a safeword can be very fun with a trusted partner. However, it’s also very important to build an environment where the bottom can choose to end the encounter if they want to, when they want to. That consent can be withdrawn whenever a person wants to withdraw consent. Anything other than this is abusive.

The second issue here is that it has not been reported who brought the complaint. Unfortunately, apart from that one quote, it’s not been possible to discern the woman’s side, with much of the information being provided coming from Lock and his legal team. As I understand it, the charges don’t have to be brought by the survivor of actual bodily harm, but by someone else. The implications of whether the woman or someone else brought the charges are stark: were it the woman, it’s a fucking travesty that this guy got off. Were it someone else, it’s entirely possible that this is a problem faced by the kink community: criminalisation of consensual sexual behaviour. Even consensual bruises can be criminal if someone chooses to police it. [EDIT: comment from jemima101 provides more information, which suggests that this is a plain old abuse case, and not the latter. So it's a fucking travesty of justice that the state thing someone asked for due to not understanding the issues at hand.]

It would be far easier to formulate an opinion on this case were the media bothering to ask these questions and address these issues rather than focus on a popular book.

Still, at least that case was actually tangentially related to 50 Shades of Grey, unlike this horrible thing which happened in Sweden, where a woman died during an SM session. From her diary, it appears that the play that she and the man accused participated in was not consensual on her part. At no point in the story is that popular book mentioned, yet this is inexplicably the headline, the first line and the picture of the report on the story in the Independent.

Abuse in kink is an issue which needs to be addressed, just as abuse in any community needs to be addressed. By the looks of it, this woman’s death was an instance of abuse which had nothing to do with 50 Shades of Grey and everything to do with plain old abuse that doesn’t sell newspapers.

Unfortunately, to the media, kink and that fucking book are inextricably linked which means that an opportunity for honest discussion of issues within a community in the mainstream is sacrificed at the expense of a desperate attempt to be relevant. They ignore the diversity of sexual experiences–both positive and negative–at the expense of something which they know will grab attention.

It’s only on the fringes that the discussion of experience, unclouded by sensationalism can take place. This is hardly just true of kink, it’s an entrenched problem as the traditional media becomes increasingly irrelevant to many. To save itself, the media must catch up and try to listen to the voices of those who have greater knowledge of the issues at hand.


Nice guys, the friendzone and sexual entitlement

In the wake of the NiceGuysOfOKC tumblr (currently down), the discussion about Nice Guys has flared up again. The Nice Guy is a category of human which can be–and often is–entirely mutually exclusive from “guy who is nice”: Nice Guys are men who consider their lack of dating success to be down to the fact that they’re “too nice”, often bemoaning the fact that they end up in the dreaded “friendzone”, wherein women want to be their friend but nothing more.

Every so often, the world will get together and argue about Nice Guys, with one side seeing Nice Guys as figures of pity, victims of shyness, while the other finds Nice Guys creepy as hell. The lovely @RopesToInfinity–an actual guy who is nice–wrote an excellent piece on the matter, addressing Nice Guys, and there’s a few points of his I’d like to expand upon some more, though you should really read the whole thing:

5) The Friendzone Is Not Really An Actual Thing
If a woman is just your friend and not someone you’re having sex with, that is what we in certain circles call a ‘friend’. Yes, what you have there is a friendship, one between you, a man, and a second person, a woman. This can sometimes happen. The chances are she’s not ‘put’ you there because women get off on torturing men, but because she simply wants to just be friends with you, like you might be with a dude. Sex is not the default interaction between men and women. Sex is a thing that happens between two (or more!) people that express a sexual interest in one another and then gratify it by mutual consent. It’s not something you’re supposed to expect, but which women then cruelly decide to deny you from their lofty position as the gatekeepers of the sexual realm. Friendships with women that feature no sex can be rewarding. Try viewing said woman as a person rather than a target for your dick, and see what happens.

6) You May Not Actually Be That Nice After All
Look, are you REALLY that nice? You’re complaining about women refusing to sleep with you, but you haven’t told them how you feel. Is that nice? You’re friends with a woman, but whenever you do something for her you note it down mentally as yet another thing you’ve done which inexplicably went unrewarded with blowjobs, as if it should have been. Is that nice? Think long and hard about your expectations of women, and whether they’re reasonable. And consider whether you’re maybe acting with an unearned sense of entitlement. Be aware that what you think of as ‘nice’ (reluctantly listening to a woman’s problems while wishing she’d shut the fuck up already and touch your penis), may not be what she defines ‘nice’ to mean. Perhaps she thinks of a ‘nice guy’ as someone who likes her with no ulterior motive and who isn’t concealing his true feelings for whatever reason.

These two points get to the crux of precisely what is creepy about the Nice Guy: male sexual entitlement. The complaints, bitterness, resentment about the friendzone all boil down to the fact that the Nice Guy believes that, having completed all of the appropriate rituals, he is owed sex and didn’t get it.

We’ve got to the point now where most of us have no sympathy for the man who believes he is entitled to sex because a woman wore a short skirt, yet seem to be lagging behind on men who believe they are entitled to sex because they’ve been really, really fucking nice. There might be a difference in consequences on the latter: rather than raping, he’s more likely to just write long screeds about how females want douchebags and he’s sick of those bitches wasting his time. However, there is the same root cause here, and it’s not something we should be tolerating or indulging.

Being nice isn’t the cheat code to a woman’s knickers, and it’s not OK to be resentful about this fact. Nobody is entitled to sex. Absolutely nobody. If you are a genuinely decent human being, you need to be prepared to hear the word “no”. And you need to be prepared to deal with that “no”, and accept that. If hearing a “no” is soul-crushing, or enraging, or likely to cause resentment, then you really need to work on your own issues before attempting to connect with other human beings in a non-coercive capacity. Rejections happen, and they’re a product of the other person expressing their autonomy. It’s nice not to resent another human’s articulation of non-consent.

However, there is more than just individual responsibility to these Nice Guys: society shares its fair bit of blame. The straight dating scene is mired in icky gender politics and is so patriarchal it hurts. With these patriarchal expectations in place, male sexual entitlement is ever-present, and so of course the Nice Guys have internalised this, too.

Furthermore, the straight dating scene denigrates the importance of friendship, demoting it to “just friends”. In fact, friendship is awesome: you get to hang out with cool people who you like and do interesting and amazing things even if you’re not having sex. Friendship is a deep, emotional connection, and it is a beautiful thing in and of itself.

Once upon a time, when I was a dorky 17-year-old with all sorts of queer thoughts which I didn’t yet understand, I developed a galloping crush on my BFF. She was hetero. I went all Nice Guy on her arse, having been socialised among straights and believing queer sexuality worked pretty much the same way as it does for straights. I was creepy as hell at the time, and I’m kind of ashamed at how I behaved at that time.

Now I’m a dorky 27-year-old, and I got over it. I am still very good friends with the lady in question, which I’m relieved about due to the aforementioned being creepy as hell. And you know what? Being friends is really, really awesome, because I get to hang out with that cool person and do interesting and amazing things, even though we’re not having sex.

Someone wanting to be your friend is not an insult, unless you feel entitled to sex. It should be a fucking honour.

How do we solve a problem like the Nice Guy? We must acknowledge context, but also that this behaviour is not OK. And if you are a Nice Guy, why not do the nice thing, and try to be better?


What conclusions can we draw from the “porn performers feel good about themselves” study?

It’s been a while since I’ve got my teeth into a close reading of a paper, and this week has gifted me with a doozy: Pornography actresses: An assessment of the damaged goods hypothesis. The study was authored by psychology academics and former porn performer turned founder of a healthcare programme for porn performers.

The paper aimed to test the veracity of a set of beliefs surrounding women in porn. These attitudes were gleaned from a studies into attitudes towards porngraphy, finding that those with a negative attitude towards porn tended to believe that porn performers had low self-esteem, were drug addicts and had experienced sexual abuse in childhood. These attitudes, the authors point out, are also apparent in anti-porn feminist writing, which is backed up with little evidence. The authors also point out the distinct lack of quantitative research into the women in porn themselves, drawing attention to the fact that while there’s a couple of qualitative studies about why women get into acting in porn, there’s nothing quantitative.

So they decided to examine quality of life, self-esteem, attitudes towards sex, sexual behaviour and drug use in a sample of porn actresses. The headline findings were rather interesting: it turns out that the stereotypes aren’t true. Comparing porn actresses to a sample of women matched by age, marital status and ethnicity, they found that the porn actresses actually had higher self-esteem than comparable women, were more likely to feel positive, felt they had better social support and were more spiritual. There was no difference in current drug use, apart from marijuana (porn actresses were more likely to get high), although the porn actresses reported more drug use in the past. There was also no difference in incidence of sexual abuse in childhood. And finally, the porn actresses reported greater levels of sexual satisfaction, were more likely to identify as bisexual, enjoyed sex more, were having more sex than the women who weren’t in porn (sex as part of their work was not counted: this was entirely extracurricular sex), were more likely to be concerned about catching an STI, and had started having sex a little earlier.

Does this mean that the stereotypes about women in porn coming from some feminists and the general population can finally be put to bed? I’ll get back to that after we’ve had a little look through a few criticisms of the paper.

The sample

The study used a clever sampling method for accessing porn actresses–a task which is usually rather difficult and goes some way to explaining why there is little, if any, quantitative examination of porn performers’ lives. The porn industry requires that performers have regular STI tests, particularly for HIV, so participants were recruited from a clinic where they were tested. The comparison group were recruited from a college and an airport (annoyingly, it’s not specified whether this airport and university were also in California). While it is not ideal that the porn actresses were all recruited from Los Angeles, which might not be representative and generalisable to the entire population of porn performers, it is not as bad as one might think: the authors were testing whether stereotypes about women in porn were true. The majority of porn distributed in the west comes from southern California, which shapes discussion and thought about porn by western people as about this group of porn actresses. They’re not entirely representative of everyone in porn, but they’re certainly the people about whom the stereotypes are formed, and therefore this is a reasonable sample to draw from.

Since the authors were also concerned about stereotypes about women in porn, it’s also not a problem that men were not included in the study. The “damaged goods” stereotype that was being examined exists only about women!

One commenter on Jezebel (yes, I looked at a Jez discussion thread. Yes, I’m traumatised. No, I don’t ever want to go back to Jez ever again) points out that the sample of porn actresses may differ from average in being slightly older and having worked in the industry for longer. However, this isn’t actually backed up by a link to where she got this information from, and her comment is preceded by “I believe”. This might be true, but I haven’t been able to find this information anywhere, so can’t comment on whether this is a problem for sampling. However, it is important to note that the women included in this study were those who were participating in above-board porn which was compliant with the regulations, and there might be differences in women who are working in grey or black market porn. Unfortunately, these women are even harder to access and study.

Ultimately, this was an impressively large sample for such a difficult-to-access group: data from 177 porn actresses were collected (and, of course, 177 women in the comparison group). Of course, in any quantitative study, no sample is going to be completely representative, but as far as things go, this was reasonably strong.

The design

This study used a matched pair design: data collected from each porn actress was matched with data collected from a woman the same age, ethnicity and marital status. This is a fairly robust design when comparing groups, and means that differences cannot be attributed to these variables. I am even more impressed at the sample size with the researchers using this type of design, as it’s notoriously difficult to collect data for these designs, being massively time- and resource-intensive.

I have beef with the matching criteria, though. While the authors were right in selecting these, particularly as their sample of porn actresses were far more likely to be single than the general population, there’s an important thing missing that wasn’t measured at all and probably should have been controlled for. Socioeconomic status–class–was never measured, so we don’t know at all whether the porn actresses were better-off or worse-off than the comparison group, and if so, whether it was this that was the cause of their general feeling a bit better about life. Perhaps a way of establishing a better comparison group would be to compare porn actresses with TV or film actresses of the same age, ethnicity and marital status. This would likely control for a lot of the noise, although it would be an absolute arse to research.

Rather irritatingly, the authors never mentioned if they asked the women in the comparison group if they had ever worked in porn (or, indeed, if they were currently porn actresses who happened to be at college or at an airport that day). Since the likelihood of them being porn actresses is fairly low, this probably doesn’t pose much of a problem, I’m just a pedant.

The statistics 

Feel free to skip this bit, as it will get a little technical, and is mostly minor statistical nitpicking. The biggest statistical elephant in the room is that this study ran a lot of statistical tests. A metric fuckton, to use the accepted statistical term. The researchers conducted an awful lot of T-tests, which is a statistical test used to check if one thing significantly differs from another: in this case, whether porn actresses differed significantly from women who weren’t porn actresses on number of sexual partners, or alcohol use, or any of the other eleventy bazillion variables which were being measured.

When one conducts a metric fuckton of statistical tests, one increases the likelihood of encountering a Type I error: a “false positive”. Purely by chance, one of the tests came up as significant, when in fact there isn’t really a difference there. This can be controlled for, although the authors didn’t. Luckily, there was enough data present for me to do this task for them. I did a Bonferroni correction, where the threshold for significance is revised based on how many tests are being performed. It’s pretty easy to do. You take the generally-accepted significance threshold, which is p=0.05 (or, a 5% probability that the results are entirely down to chance and you’re seeing an effect that isn’t really there), and divide it by the number of tests performed (in this study, 19 t-tests were performed). So, the significance threshold for the tests should actually be p=0.0026.

All of the p-values reported came up as less than 0.001, which means they’re still significant even with the Bonferroni correction, with the exception of sexual satisfaction, positive feelings and social support. However, enjoyment of sex was still significant, so it looks like our porn actress sample were enjoying sex significantly more than the non-porn actress sample anyway.

What wasn’t examined (and I wish it had been)

I’ve already mentioned how I wished the authors had controlled for class, but there’s a few more things I’d love to have seen addressed in this paper. Firstly, how the variables related to each other. Given that the porn actresses had had a lot more sex than those who weren’t in porn, could this be the reason they seem generally happier and with higher self-esteem? I have no idea, because the authors didn’t check this, and it would certainly be interesting to find out if this was the driving factor, or even just mediated the relationship.

The other thing missing, I feel, was the type of porn the women were performing in, and how that related to the variables. Were the participants who identified as bisexual more likely to be appearing in lesbian or bisexual porn? Do certain types of porn affect the self-esteem of the performers? Again, no fucking idea, I wish it had been measured, and I seriously hope future research addresses such questions.

Feel free to add more interesting questions you’d like to see addressed in the comments!

So what does it all mean?

Ultimately, from a single study, we can never conclude anything concrete, but it is a good thing to see these questions being addressed systematically, and I hope that it leads to future research. Too often, the experiences of those involved in porn or sex work are ignored, and it is genuinely refreshing to see research attempting to examine their experiences and feelings.  This study provides a foundation for further examination and to build upon its flaws so we can better understand what it’s like for women in porn and replace the stereotypes with solid evidence.


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