Dream: a blog

It’s several weeks ago now, but Vena Cava’s Dream: A House (Anywhere Festival) is still resonating – in a very dreamlike way. This installation took over the whole of House Conspiracy in West End, a sharehouse-turned-shared-arts space.

Transforming an entire building into an immersive experience is an enduring fantasy of mine. On top of that, exploring uncanny Queenslanders is the theme at the heart of my Master’s thesis. I bought tickets so fast I was just a blur with a credit card.

I haven’t written reviews in a couple of years, so this isn’t really criticism. Technically I could’ve squeezed Dream: A House into my recent lit review but never mind that. :| I’m just glad this show had its moment in Brisbane, and wanted to make a few notes that might help me respond to it more creatively in the near future.

Dream: A House was directed by Sarah Winter, who created A Library for the End of the World a few years ago: an uncanny walking tour of West End (guided by audio on headphones), which led to a tiny library of memories. The show ended by inviting you to record a memory of your own to add to the collection. I remember wanting to stay in that library room forever.

library-end-world

A Library for the End of the World, 2014

This new work operates on the conceit that the show is your night’s sleep, and the rooms of House Conspiracy are a series of dreams. Like A Library for the End of the World, it’s a solo experience, and the Dream team take pains to create a sense of safety and ritual before showing you to the front door. Going into a show alone – especially a walking show – is a wonderful experience: without a fellow audience, you can be vulnerable and react without moderating your feelings and facial expressions.

Sarah Winter, Siobhan Martin (production manager), and Rebekkah Law and Samuel Seagrott (stage management team) have put a great deal of time and love into creating a labyrinth of detailed dreams within House Conspiracy. (That house has a surprising number of rooms! I’ve been trying to map out the space – I’ll have to revisit when it’s functioning normally.)

ANYWHERE-DREAM-A-HOUSE-MAIN-IMAGERY

The show is most successful at its most intimate and sensory. I couldn’t bring myself to miss sniffing a single memory in the smell library (legit a dream I would have, too). In the sand room, I felt safe in the mystic’s intimate, attentive gaze. When I slow-danced with the woman in the flower room, I felt we’d known each other a long time – but only just fallen in love. I probably spent too long on the phone in the kitchen shit-talking the Northern Lights. The spaces and characters invite you to engage deeply – and I only wish I’d had more time to do so (and to scribble my secret missive in the bathtub full of books).

The rooms where the illusion was broken were where the dreamy themes were overwritten or overacted – minor issues easily tweaked. I loved the attention to detail throughout – from taking off my shoes at the beginning to finding them waiting for me in front of a chair under the house, swathed in cloud-like clean sheets on lines, which you unpeg your way through to leave. In hindsight I’d have gladly booked out two spots so I could explore the house for longer.

Two’s company — three’s a working relationship

Originally published in The Lifted Brow #21, February 2014 (with thanks to TLB deputy ed. Stephanie Van Schilt) 

Every now and then, I manage to pause The X-Files, leave the house and make a friend. Why? Because I’m low on Vitamin D, sunshine loves company, and sometimes so do I. But I hit a dilemma in every ice-breaking chat: I have to decide, in a flash, whether to mention my multi-partner status.

It’s inevitable. New friends ask each other about work, passions, partners, cats (mostly cats). When I answer, do I mention only one partner (erasing any others)? Do I merge them, transformer-style, into one, very talented mega-boyfriend? I could be up front – but honesty comes with complications.

I’m used to being quizzed about relationships and sexuality. For a fairly vanilla slice, I’ve dated across spectra of gender and age. I’ve had lovers live in my pocket and live overseas. I even once went out with a reverend. Mum has ceased to express surprise. Yet, of all the questions I’ve been asked, this one remains the most challenging: “How did you talk two men into this?”

The answer depends on the audience. There’s the cop-out quickie: a sly, flirty eyebrow-raise (see below). The quip: “The harem is very comfortable.” And then there’s the real answer: my partners are intelligent adults who give their informed consent. When I started out with Poly 101, back in 2011, it took a year’s worth of reading, thinking and conversation to graduate. The truth is that the only thing I trained my boyfriends in is how I like my morning cup of tea.

The long answer might be the one I prefer to give — I don’t want to end up listed in anyone’s phone as “Hugh Hefner” — but it’s a gateway to stickier topics: ethical nonmonogamy and consent. Critical discussion surrounding these concepts remains relatively new. Consent, on its own, has been waiting since the dinosaurs to become a hot topic; it was Jaclyn Friedman’s 2011 essay “The (Nonexistent) Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Consequences of Enthusiastic Consent” that got the ball rolling for me.

***

Consent is easy to pigeonhole as “getting permission to fuck someone”, but as a concept, consent is much broader than that. It’s a key part of any good communication: continuously observing verbal and body language to ensure that your partner (in bed, in crime, in the boardroom, in the classroom, on the phone) is enthusiastically participating in whatever you’re up to together, from business to conversation to intimate touch. This shouldn’t be an inconvenience; it should be an ingrained behaviour as part of Not Being a Dickhead.

Even though the discourse surrounding consent (or nonconsent) now extends beyond feminist literature and the blogosphere, what it means to consent within nonmonogamy is still a niche discussion. When it comes to open relationships, stereotypes of begrudging compliance persist: the downtrodden wife tolerating her husband’s affairs; the impressionable young woman drawn in by a charismatic Casanova; the gutless boyfriend whose wild gal refuses to settle down; and the perennial favourite, the tragicomic love triangle. In polyamorous networks, informed and enthusiastic consent means ensuring that everyone involved is on board with safer sex strategies as well as the network’s structure, rules or boundaries. (These can be as diverse as the people involved, but here are some examples: check in with existing partners before hooking up with a new lover; introduce existing partners to new ones within a certain timeframe; change the sheets after a sleepover. For me, I like booking in time to reconnect with my live-in partner after one of us has spent time with another lover. Usually poly boundaries help manage time, space and the needs of each partner.)

Thus, my long answer might not sound like a high romance; our narratives of romance, after all, foreground spontaneity. But the implied alternative — that I keep two malleable men (and sometimes other people) bound around my little fingers, attending to my every whim — is far less attractive. I can’t imagine anything more gross than coercing someone I love into a putting up with an Other Lover without their enthusiastic consent and participation in nonmonogamy.

***

For a quick brush-up: ethical or consensual nonmonogamy is a nifty blanket term that includes polyamory, polyfidelity, open relationships and swinging — basically, it’s the antonym of cheating. Some of these terms are slippery, with meanings and usages not yet fixed. There are infinite ways to structure nonmonogamous relationships, and therein lies the challenge of writing about them.

Polyamory can be broadly described as the practice of maintaining (or being open to) multiple intimate relationships, whether romantic, sexual and/or loving. We described my first polyamorous network — or polycule — as an open ∨. This refers to the shape: in this scenario, two people, who do not date one another, date me — think of the shared lover as the ∨’s pivot — though each is free to extend that network to include other people. In that ∨, my two relationships did not cross over; there were occasional social hang-outs as a trio, but beyond that, our love and sex lives never intersected.

If I had a dollar for every time a friend or stranger has asked if poly means tapping into a fountain of fuck-fests, I’d have enough money to visit a long-distance sweetie. Here’s your chance: the answer is … sometimes, but not always. In that particular ∨, nope, never, no-how — and that’s fine. If we’d instead been trio in bed and in life, we’d have been called a triad: less of a ∨ and more of a Δ. In a different scenario, “polyfidelitous quad” would be a fitting term for four people who all date one another, but aren’t open to dating anyone else. Some structure their relationships hierarchically: they might have one primary partner — a main squeeze — with one or more satellite partners. Many poly folks (the author included) prefer to let their networks grow without predefined structure. These aren’t fixed labels; instead, they serve to illustrate the potential diversity of nonmonogamous relationships, which might encompass romantic relationships, sexy friendships, lifelong partnerships, one-night stands, romantic friendships, asexual partnerships, long-distance relationships and everything in between.

“We need to talk; I think there can only be one cat.”

My current network looks more like a spider-web or family tree. I have two partners — who have partners, who have partners. We all communicate and socialise as friends (sex toy reviews and cats are popular discussion topics for us collectively), and occasionally our love or sex lives might intersect. It’s a configuration that’s grown a great sense of community and a lot of support, and it’s enabled me to challenge ingrained societal narratives of other-women-as-competition; my partner’s partners — metamours — are super awesome. But there’s no one right way to be nonmonogamous, so long as everyone involved gives informed consent.

But how does consent actually function in ethically nonmonogamous relationships? It’s easy, a comfy few years down the line, to say, “Oh, my partners consented!” but how was that consent negotiated in the first place? And we’re not just talking about consenting to sexual boundaries; there are relationship boundaries, sexual health boundaries, and privacy boundaries to negotiate. My first step in planning for this article was to ask for my partners’ (and their partners’) consent to publish such a thing — and I confirmed that consent before sending this to print.

Poly isn’t a better relationship model than monogamy; they’re both perfectly reasonable choices, each with their own challenges. Like monogamy, every poly arrangement is different, with its own set of individuals involved. For me, polyamory is a particularly interesting queered space in which to build relationships. A friend recently commented to me that he’d realised the only really explicit consent society would expect him to negotiate in his monogamous, heterosexual relationship was an “I do” to the question of marriage. I know him well enough to know he’d seek consent above and beyond puttin’ a ring on it, but still, his experience got me thinking about my own: because polyamorous relationships don’t have a socially-sanctioned template as an option, each successful polyamorous group starts from scratch to negotiate, define and consent to its own terms. To clarify, not every monogamous relationship fits or needs to fit the template, but it’s there as an option.

***

My poly adventure began with nonconsensual nonmonogamy. Yep, I cheated. At the start of 2011, I’d been living with my partner (he’s decided to call himself “Alex” here) for a year and, concurrently, maintaining a close friendship — hanging out, snuggling, flirting — with “Boston” (a name also chosen for privacy’s sake here). That fateful Australia Day, Boston and I had a boozy picnic in the backyard and wound up kissing. It wasn’t just the alcohol at fault; our friendship had been hotting up for a while. Tensions were, if you will, rising. I went home and told my partner, and apologised. It didn’t take long to realise that to be ethically monogamous, I’d need to choose: I had to cut one or the other off. Bugger.

So I asked Alex whether he’d consider exploring nonmonogamy. I’m sure you can imagine the potential shock that comes with being asked that question. We grow up believing that “being in love” is an area in which humans cannot multitask (unlike platonic or familial love). We still go “aww” at Plato’s story of the matching blobs, spliced apart by cranky gods, finding one another and, in that, fulfilment. There’s a quote attributed to Johnny Depp that does the rounds pasted over vintage-filtered vistas on Tumblr: “If you love two people at the same time, choose the second. Because if you really loved the first one, you wouldn’t have fallen for the second.”

I felt the weight of all that guilt as I explained to Alex, my live-in love, that I also loved Boston.

It’s one thing to hear that your partner wants to sleep with other people. Sexually open relationships with clear boundaries are increasingly less taboo. But for Alex to hear that not only was I in love with someone else, but I didn’t want to leave him either — well, it’s an idea that continues to spin heads. We associate this kind of love triangle with melodramatic teen indecision more than with reality.

This wasn’t one of those matters we resolved in a cute montage of chats. We had no poly friends at the time (that we knew of). We were yet to read Tristan Taormino’s excellent guide to open relationships, Opening Up, or the poly classic The Ethical Slut (Dossie Easton and Janet M. Hardy). More Than Two (essential reading, published late 2014) was only a twinkle in Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert’s authorial eyes. Neither of us was prepared, yet, to give informed consent. We had nothing but questions, confusion, fear, and guilt. After all, our culture doesn’t view romantic love in terms of abundance. We live in a world where some high-school sex educators use a “stickytape metaphor” to illustrate the (entirely erroneous) idea that each new sexual partner reduces your ability to produce oxytocin, the bonding hormone, thereby making each new relationship less likely to stick than the last. (Yes, that crap actually gets trotted out in Australia.) Love is viewed in terms of fulfilment and lack: a lover completes us (especially if we’re female), while being passed over for love indicates our inability to fulfil. Among Alex’s fears of abandonment, he wondered what Boston had that he didn’t? (Nothing. And ditto vice versa.) Among my fears, I worried I was being the greedy, needy bisexual slut I’d been told I was in the past. I even checked in with my psychologist who asked what made me feel like I needed two partners?

My psych’s question was useful in that it revealed the error in my guilty thinking — and my answer challenged everything I’d learnt growing up. I didn’t need two partners; I didn’t have a compulsion to collect their heads and put them on the mantelpiece. That would be weird. No, I was already a complete, whole person before I met Alex or Boston, or anyone before them, or my partners now. I love each of my partners because I love their brains, their company, their bodies, and their fortuitous shared appreciation of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse — and in each of their very different companies, I feel comfortable being the complete Zenobia package: happy-grumpy, critical, touchy-feely, anxious, stubborn, sleepy, and excessively fond of the Whedonverse. Also: sometimes naked. And, in my company, each seems comfortable to be the complete them (again, sometimes naked).

We don’t question this shit when it comes to friends. The only thing that legitimately limits the number of friends you’re allowed is Facebook (5,000 before it cuts you off), but even ol’ FB doesn’t trouble itself with how much or in what manner you adore your besties, pals and acquaintances.

Poly author Franklin Veaux (More Than Two) describes the “Magic Genital Effect”: “the notion that sex changes the game in such a way that the person we’re having sex with is somehow less human, less deserving of autonomy, less able to negotiate around complexities, or otherwise less worthy of being treated as an individual human being than someone whose genitals we aren’t rubbing.” We strip away a lover’s autonomy and humanity by assuming that, for our sake, their brain has put the blinkers on: the ways in which they love and lust are suddenly limited or, better, nullified. The marker of love becoming “official” is exclusivity; we assume that, in entering a relationship, our sweetie only has eyes for one. This is not to say that it’s not perfectly okay to be monogamous. But monogamy, like polyamory, is healthiest when critically discussed and actively consented to — not assumed. (Remember folks, only yes! means yes.)

Alex’s initial reaction was not enthusiastic consent. And fair enough — I remember his discomfort when, early on in our relationship, I’d half-jokingly said I wouldn’t deny him the opportunity if Zooey Deschanel came knocking. While our “celebrity free-pass” joke was a throwaway, Alex reports that it was looking back on this conversation that got him thinking seriously about nonmonogamy.

***

So now I had them both. Was I satisfied? Veaux argues that we use the Magic Genital Effect to turn our lovers into “fulfilment machines”, obligated to meet our every need. Herein we return to my psychologist’s question — a good one because of a common problem within polyamorous relationships: the fallacy that taking multiple lovers enables us to fulfil all our needs, where one lover couldn’t possibly be expected to. Veaux links this attitude to the “friendzoning” phenomenon, wherein guys complain that spending “niceness points” ought to earn them sex from their lady-friends; when relationships are viewed as exchanges of needs-fulfilment, they start to seem less like spaces for mutual trust and support, and more like vending machines. Monogamous relationships can fall into the trap of expecting one another to be Everything. (How many of us have seen our friends vanish into a new relationship, only to emerge post-honeymoon period, often sheepishly hungry to reconnect?) Poly networks can fall into the trap of collecting lovers to fulfil an ever-expanding set of needs.

One can see this at work in poly folks who go looking for a particular type of relationship. For example, my partners and I acknowledge that nonmonogamy is a way for queer-as-fuck me to remain open to relationships with people other than my cis-boyfriends — to the point where Boston worried that, in dating him, I was stalling my opportunities to meet ladies. It took a while to realise that polyamory is a potential space, not a gaping vortex; rather than needing to hunt down exactly the right human right now, embracing poly means allowing myself to explore potential relationships as they arise (if they arise), and allowing them to grow without trying to squash them into a readymade template. It’s common to see couples looking for a “unicorn”: the rare bisexual lover instantly attracted to both parties. Sure, loving triads happen, but only when the right people stumble, enthusiastically and consensually, into alignment (hopefully in winter, when three to a bed sounds pretty great).

***

By now, I hope my overarching theme has revealed itself: to actively seek consent is to grant full subjectivity to those you interact with. To neglect to do so — to act against someone’s consent or to neglect to seek it — is to treat that someone as an object designed only to fulfil one’s needs. To use a person is to disempower and violate them. If we emphasise compliance over enthusiastic consent, results over experience, presumption over negotiation, is it any wonder that our young men and women grow up wondering what on earth “yes” and “no” actually mean? That we invent infinite reasons to excuse or euphemise rape? That we endlessly debate the codes that sexual assault victims use (and don’t use) to signal their nonconsent?

worldofnogif_buffy

Therein lies the thrill that ethical nonmonogamy holds for me: within my networks, poly is a space in which consent is recognised as “the foundational element of all relationships” (to quote Taormino). Ultimately, no amount of trawling through books, blogs and advice columns could be a substitute for sitting down and talking about our feelings — and not in a wafty, Kumbaya-round-the-fire way, but constructively, critically and respectfully. There’s an old-standard joke that the difference between swingers and polyamorists is that swingers have sex, while poly folk talk about having sex. It’s not entirely off the mark. Poly relationships are forged in a space that rejects arbitrary relationship-escalator models that assume courtship naturally progresses up a series of sexual and domestic steps (think “first comes love…” or even sexual “bases”). As such, poly partners (and metamours) must continually voice and address their desires, enthusiasms, concerns, curiosities and fears. You can have all this rad communication in monogamy too, of course; poly just turned out to be my ideal learning environment.

It takes practice to ensure that this kind of open communication comes naturally. There’s a commonly held view that pausing to check in (especially leading up to or during sex) interrupts spontaneity — yet I’m pretty sure that reaffirming your red-hot desire for your partner has never killed the mood for anyone. You’d even be surprised how well lovers adapt to your taking a few minutes out to check in with another significant other. (It’s a relief to know that your metamour consents to your date/sexytimes, too!)

Another cool feature of my adventures in poly was discovering that, in building new structures for each new relationship, the lines between “friend” and “lover” started to look a bit arbitrary. When you actively seek enthusiastic verbal and nonverbal consent in any relationship, you can better empathise with friends and build more intimate and trusting relationships, no matter whether you rub genitals or not. Setting consent as the baseline need of any interaction helps you view people not as “fulfilment machines”, but as actual people. Here, there’s space to be sex-positive about casual relationships by reframing them as caring friendships — however fleeting — in which the level of intimacy is negotiated, agreed upon, and renegotiated as necessary.

If this sounds like hard work, that’s because it is. But so too is making a really tasty, complex dessert. Or learning an instrument. Or setting up a new business. Or watching all nine seasons of The X-Files without becoming a bitter shut-in. There’s an art to relationships, and that art lies in negotiating enthusiastic consent — enthusiastically.

While Alex’s family isn’t conservative, his small-town upbringing brought with it an unchallenged momentum towards a suburban house, picket fence, dog and 2.3 kids. For him, polyamory became an opportunity to make conscious choices about his independence within and alongside his relationships — for instance, he and I maintain our own spaces in a shared home. For Boston, poly became an opportunity to explore self-reliance within relationships, challenge unhealthy habits, and communicate more effectively.

Alex and I recently left the beautiful world of share-housing and shacked up in an apartment, just in time for our fifth anniversary. We’re not the marrying types, but getting this close to the concept — the intimacy of peeing with the door open, etc. — made us nervous: what would happen now that our revolting coupleness had room to roam and finish each other’s every sentence. Would this closeness close us off to other relationships? Or make us, instead, retreat towards them? Neither worst-case scenario occurred (hurrah!); rather, we find that poly encourages us to make the most of the time we spend together and to enjoy the breathing space of time apart.

sable-morethantwocute

The cat, however, still gets veto rights.

For me, polyamory has led to uncanny and wonderful experiences, sensations and relationships — and the more I embrace them, the more I reinforce that I’m complete regardless. Poly is a space in which to challenge my insecurities, head on.

So no, I didn’t talk two grown men into anything, back in 2011, but we did talk. A lot. We talked through feelings of guilt, fear of being replaced and fear of imposing on one another’s relationships — and we talked through new relationship energy, deepening love, empathy and compersion (the opposite of jealousy — i.e. taking joy in your partners’ other relationships). By now, my network feels gloriously mundane. I used to think it was weird to ask if it’s okay to bring two +1s to a party; now I’ve been a welcome half of a +2 at a partner’s family wedding. And, frankly, it all feels less weird than that time I ate cupcakes with a reverend in an arid Carindale park. And each time a new love interest comes onto the scene, the process begins over again: we meet, talk, experiment, make mistakes, laugh, hit the books, check in, and probably watch Buffy. And sometimes, yes, get naked.

YOOF ARTS NEWS

I nearly called this YOOF ARTZ NYOOZ and I’m sorry. Maybe it should have been “They Have It Coming”. Anyway. It’s been a fortnight of arts-work by the young and the restless. This is definitely more of a discussion than a series of reviews. I especially welcome input from others who’ve seen or are involved in these shows.

BRISBANE (A DOING WORD)

Brisbane (a doing word)

Vena Cava has outgrown QUT’s Woodward Theatre; the student theatre company launches its new season in the Judith Wright Centre’s intimate Shopfront space. Here, we meet Matty (Patrick Hayes) and his share-housing frenemies, negotiating their place and purpose as 20-somethings in Brisbane. This coming-of-age story unfolds in pieces, benefiting from writer David Burton’s structural experimentation.

Burton’s characters are painfully relatable but never sterotypes. Claire Christian directs a strong cast; we’ve all lived or studied with these eager, energetic, argumentative people. We’ve probably been them. Overall, a little more polish and restraint will allow Brisbane (a doing word) to deftly handle the sensitive topics it tackles without losing its sense of absurd humour.

BRISBANE (A DOING WORD) ran at the Judith Wright Centre from 20 to 22 March 2014.

PERSPECTIVE/WOOLF PACK

Khalid Warsame at Brisbane's VOICEWORKS Launch

Express Media (or its Queensland representative … me) launched Voiceworks #96, the Perspective issue, at Avid Reader. Voiceworks Mag publishes and offers professional development of the work of Australian writers under 25. This was such a great night with superb readers (pictured: Khalid Warsame). Avid put on the ritz for us — what a wonderful venue. Wine all round! We also launched Woolf Pack, a new feminist zine edited by super-cool Brisbane ladies. Good times.

VOICEWORKS and WOOLF PACK launched at Avid Reader on 28 March 2014.

HOMOS IN KIMONOS

Homos in Kimonos

James Halloran and Will Hannagan’s double-bill cabaret (Melbourne Festival Comedy) has come under fire this week regarding its title, which some feel appropriates Japanese culture in a way that is racist. I’m hesitant to weigh in personally — as a white person I realise my privilege means I have blind spots — but I felt the creative team gave a measured, respectful public response in which they apologised and clarified their intentions. It was disappointing to see uncritical responses on both sides of the fence (personal attacks on the young performers and, on the flipside, tiresome attacks on “the PC brigade”).

I rarely feel qualified to comment, but I think there’s space right now in Australia for lots of context-based, critical discussion on cultural intersection in art. I hope that the show’s run stimulates more thoughtful, respectful discussion and fewer facebook shitstorms.

HOMOS IN KIMONOS runs at Melbourne Comedy Festival until 13 April 2014.

BOY&GIRL

Boy&Girl by Oscar Theatre Company

Oscar Theatre Company presents “a steamy cabaret of musical theatre, contemporary and pop where gender is bent and rules are broken” at Brisbane Powerhouse, after a season at Lightspace. Boy&Girl features 25 talented and diverse cast members with a Broadway/contemporary jazz vibe. Jason Glenwright’s moody lighting sets the right tone for a trip down the Weimar rabbit hole.

Now, I can’t call these thoughts a review, as I did not stay for the full show. For me, the highlight of the first half was a 40s wartime swing rendition of “Call Me Maybe” by three charismatic male performers, followed by an emotive solo covering Rizzo’s “That’s the Worst Thing I Could Do” from Grease. Overall, though, Boy&Girl only flirted with the idea of gender-bending: pronouns were swapped, sure, and the boys (but, curiously, not really the girls) dabbled in drag. The jokes were about as cheap as the lingerie. All up, a pretty conservative affair, with the cast unable to nail the sense of sexy-grotesque integral, in my opinion, to queered cabaret.

But none of this would be a fair reason to walk out. Generally, I think it’s pretty poor form to leave a show’s opening night midway. However, just before the interval, 10 men (plus the male host and four men in the onstage band) performed Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango”. This is a song that deliberately subverts language used against female victims of intimate and sexual violence; its power, humour and sense of the uncanny succeeds because, in the context of the song, women have what is normally masculine power. In Boy&Girl, “Cell Block Tango” becomes a deeply unsettling song about domestic violence. In Australia, where one woman a week is murdered by an intimate partner, loosely “gender-bending” the song puts the power back in the hands of those who already have it. I left because I couldn’t sit with an audience that found that funny.

BOY&GIRL runs at the Visy Theatre at Brisbane Powerhouse until 19 April 2014.

VW Flashback: Write of Passage

A few issues ago, I wrote an ed-comm-itorial for Voiceworks #93 “Cell”. Voiceworks publishes the work of writers under 25; in a couple of months, I’ll be forced to make my own way in the big world, elderly and alone. Not really — but I have had my last ever things published by VW. Gonna miss ’em. Stumbled across my recentish editorial today, so here’s a flashback. Sorry-not-sorry about the title pun.

 

Write of Passage 

In writing, as in life, the first cut is the deepest. Baby, I know. My first time was online. On a poetry critique forum. Some punk who didn’t even understand my poem thought they could tell me, the author, how to improve it. Hot damn! That first dose of red ink can sting.

I was sixteen and top of English. I was used to my poetry taking pride of place on my parents’ fridge. Yet someone out there thought my writing could be better. Much better. I’d like to say that was the day I left the comfort of LiveJournal and became a Writer-with-a-capital-W, but in reality I was too busy making my school-friends troll this anonymous butcher who had applied his untrained scalpel to my perfect poem.

First Critique can be a significant and habit-shaping event; it can separate the diarists from the crafters. It’s an experience many of us share—perhaps even an essential writers’ rite: to undergo the painful epiphany that accompanies extreme butthurt in the face of criticism. It didn’t sink in that exact day, but it was a step towards realising that first-drafting is only a small part of writing.

That poem was titled ‘Narcissism and Existential Lust Backstage at the Con’. Seriously. I wrote it while skulking around with my trumpet in the eerie blue lights backstage at the Brisbane Conservatorium, waiting for school band dress rehearsals. Dressed in yellow crepe, I mostly gawked at a hot sound guy who looked enough like an Anne Rice vampire for me.

So I wrote a poem for our sound tech Armand, employing ultra-subtle addiction metaphors because, at sixteen, I was pretty worldly (read: drank Absinthe once):

I can’t shoot up sense
I can’t see my veins
I’m floating in opium blue
there’s no substance abuse
there is only you.

I think I may even have tried to hand-deliver a copy. Bad habits start early.

That First Critique, perhaps, sets writers apart from musicians and sports players. While other kids take piano lessons and go to soccer training, few young-’uns are sent to poetry class or writing lessons. (Start more Dead Poets Societies in schools!) In ice-skating class, the first thing you learn is how to safely fall down—but most young poets, untutored, forge their own ways in cossetted, private notebooks.

Looking back, that critic’s advice was firm, but kind—and asked me questions, rather than directed me or rewrote my work. I had to realise I’d willingly entered a workshop forum where the aim was not so much to showcase as to practise. And one of the best ways to get better as a writer is inform your editing with readers’ feedback.

Of course, the critiqued poem doesn’t exist in a vacuum and neither does the poet’s response. I empathise with each new writer struck with the revelation that Plath and Neruda didn’t just pop those poems out fully formed. The nature of First Crit can bubble-wrap, buoy up, encourage or scar a new writer.

If you, dear reader, are one whose formative First Crit is far in the past, I urge you to think back on that experience and be considerate. But the real trouble is something much more insidious: beyond the boldfaced anonymity of online critique groups, serious peer feedback can be hard to find. Be considerate, but do still be critical. The only feedback worse than ‘You suck’ is ‘Don’t change a thing!’

The poems and stories you’re about to read in this issue have all been edited in collaboration with their authors. Works that didn’t make it in this round will receive feedback, too. Voiceworks is the only publication I know of that does this. Last issue, Chloe Brien discussed the monikers writers instinctually take. I’m a poet, but I think I’m an editor first.

I submitted ‘Narcissism and Existential Lust Backstage at the Con’ to Voiceworks in 2006. It was my first national publication—but more than seeing my name in print, I remember the thrill of working with an editor who knew my poem could be better. If only we’d taken the scalpel to that title.

Voiceworks #93, 2013.

Linkfest 3000: Victim Blaming Edition

Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault, victim blaming and rape culture.

Well, technically this is the opposite of a “victim-blaming edition” — here’s a (growing) list of links with something sensible to say in response to Mia Freedman’s “tell your daughters not to drink” article of October 23.

There’ve been dozens of articles and probably thousands of tweets debating victim blaming, rape prevention, rape culture and survivor support in the last couple of weeks. It’s exhausting. If you’re interested in the discussion, you’ve probably experienced diatribe worthy of screencapping and sending to STFU Sexists. Hopefully you’ve had some productive discourse too. Here are some useful links you can use to support and encourage productive discussion surrounding rape prevention. Want to learn how to support survivors better? These are good for that too.

See also: Friedman, J and Valenti, J. 2008. Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power in a World without Rape. Berkeley: Seal Press.

Got another article or link worth adding? Let me know in the comments!

Empathy and Victim Shaming at Cracked

Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault and rape jokes

From “Four ‘Victims’ We Have to Stop Feeling Sorry For”, by Adam Tod Brown, editor and columnist at Cracked.com:

At some point, the talk on stage turned to what subjects can and cannot be considered funny.

“That’s where the details get hazy, but it’s alleged that a woman in the audience yelled out “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” or something to that effect, to which Tosh replied, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that chick got raped by like five guys?”

“Of course, they’re both wrong, but we can’t just collectively settle on that conclusion and power on as a team, so instead, the incident turned into a gigantic controversy that resulted in halfhearted apologies and everything.”

Using your stage time to encourage a crowd, “jokingly” or not, to rape — violently assault — a person isn’t a joke or part of any comedy routine. It’s harassment and bullying, and the women belittled by Tosh had every right to speak out.

So many — so many — women have been harassed, assaulted and/or raped. That includes your friends, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, sisters, mother, colleagues, peers — and audience. (And let’s not forget that men are raped and assaulted too.) We can be 100% sure that Tosh made that comment to a room in which some — or even more than some — had suffered assault. That’s like joking about cookin’ with gas to Holocaust survivors who lost loved ones to horrific abuse.

A friend of mine put it really well today: we don’t take offence — we are hurt by the way rape jokes make light of horrific experiences and we are frightened by intimidation and threats. No one goes to a comedy show to be frightened. Tosh might have thought his “just joking” threat was hilarious — but fear of assault (and the onus to a. prevent it and b. prove it was genuine) is something women face daily. We’re always looking over our shoulders.

It’s surely time to stop talking about Daniel Tosh. But Cracked, and other commentators, have shared his flaw: a lack of empathy for their audience. We choose not to make rape jokes not to avoid causing offence, but to avoid triggering upsetting emotional responses and terrifying memories.

I really feel like Cracked is losing the plot, lately (and their female audience).

(Reposted from my tumblr. I’m comforted to see that others, in the tumblr world at least, were also angered by Brown’s insensitivity.)

Fudging Sex with Cherry

I’m a sucker for torture. As a teenager, I repeatedly rented the so-bad-it’s-just-bad Queen of the Damned movie just so I could watch it with the commentary on and scream at the director. (They totally ruined Marius. Seriously.) I’m old now, so instead I watch “documentary” gumpf on ABC iView for a pleasurable feather-ruffling.

So it was that I sat down with a bowl of soup to watch Cherry Healey: Like a Virgin. I’ve never encountered Healey before but Google tells me she’s a regular presenter of BBC Three lifestyle documentaries. The goal of Like a Virgin is to hear the stories of young people’s first times and determine whether these events are momentous or meaningless, and whether virginity is different for men and women.

Cherry Healey

Let’s face it — I don’t expect academic rigour from Healey, whose other docos include Britain’s Favourite Supermarket Foods. But it is surprisingly how narrow a lens Like a Virgin takes. To start with, the “virginity” Healey deals in here is pretty outmoded: a singular event, exclusively heterosexual, wherein a penis enters a vagina, causing pain for the female partner. (She does interview a queer man and a kinky lady — but mostly she gawps at them.) But the real reason I’m ranting here is that Healey never discusses consent and safer sex with the vulnerable young people she interviews (nor her viewers).

I should state my biases. I prefer the idea Hanne Blank proposes in an essay in Yes Means Yes: Visions of Sexual Power in a World Without Rape (Ed. Friedman and Valenti), “The Process-Oriented Virgin”: virginity as a series of first times and learnings, from youth to old age, with and without partners. Blank’s concept puts the emphasis on personal agency, and that sits well with me. Healey, on the other hand, perpetuates the idea that “virgin” and “non-virgin” are binary states, and that one might carry more worth than another, or at least that “defloration” might change a person irrevocably.

Like a Virgin follows Healey as she squeamishly interviews a number of young ‘uns about their first times and sexual habits. She hesitates over the word “sex” and giggles through euphemisms (“willy” and “vu-vu”). Not only is it patronising to the young people talking frankly with her, it reveals her deep discomfort with the subject.

Worse, Healey is extremely judgemental. She ridicules the first interviewee, a young man, for owning a whip — and then makes fun of the state of his bedroom. She interviews 17-year-old “Beth” about not yet being sexually active; later, after a raunchy seaside holiday, they meet again and Healey addresses the camera: she is “shocked” that Beth has been “such a busy girl.” She correlates a burlesque dancer’s career with her sexual experience, and later persistently asks a happily kinky woman if BDSM is “scary” and “unnerving”.

Early in the piece, Healey takes some young men down to the pub to discuss sex and bravado. Then, in contrast, she takes Beth to a beauty salon to “prepare her physically” for sex with male partners. Healey and the beauty practitioner explain to the spread-legged teenager that she should endure this pain for men. Afterwards, Healey high-fives Beth, because now, “without hair” she looks “neat”.

They don’t talk about being relaxed; they don’t talk about her comfort; they don’t talk about condoms or birth control; they don’t talk about consent — they discuss how much hair she has on her vulva.

In a very sad sequence, Healey interviews a 15-year-old boy who first had sex — unprotected, initiated without foreplay or forethought — at age 12. He admits he didn’t know what ejaculate was, let alone a condom. What a perfect opportunity to address the abominable lack of comprehensive safer sex education in schools! But no, Healey makes a squeamish face and moves on.

Healey wonders whether “first-time sex is ever a romantic, painless experience, or just something you have to get done — and then move on from.” (Yes, Cherry, for many women it is the former — and, for balance’s sake, don’t forget that sex is sometimes painful or forgettable for men too.) She applies her experiences of one-night stands to all casual sex experiences: “At the time it’s great, but then the minute it’s finished you just don’t feel very good.”

…And then there’s a glimmer of hope! Healey interviews a gay man who considers that he has “lost his virginity three times” — with a woman (as a teenager — he gets a “wow!” not a “what?!”), with a man (physical/casual), and with a man (emotional). The question “What is losing your virginity?” is revelatory for Healey.

She avoids her revelation entirely by cutting to the final scene: Healey performs a burlesque routine in a London cabaret theatre in the hopes it will boost her confidence in the bedroom. It serves to illustrate the wastefulness of the whole exercise. Healey gets an hour’s worth of BBC film time, talking to young people about waxing and amateur burlesque. Because, girls, sex isn’t about communication, safe practice and consent, it’s about looking hot for your man. And guys, sex isn’t about communication, safe practice and consent, it’s about bravado.

This week has brought us another media storm: two Ohio teenagers have been found guilty of raping an intoxicated teenage girl. Cue the usual cringe-worthy commentary: she was drunk and just regretted it; this has ruined the lives of these young men, etc. Paul Callan, a legal expert consulted by CNN, says, “What’s the lasting effect, though, on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of rape, essentially?” Who asks: what is the lasting effect on the victim? Cue tumbleweed.

I don’t expect a BBC Three entertainumentary to be revolutionary or even terribly influential — but what a sad missed opportunity to talk with young people about safer sex and enthusiastic consent.

If you too are a glutton for punishment, you can watch Like a Virgin on YouTube.

SlutWalk Brisbane — May 19, 2012

The second annual SlutWalk, a march against rape and against slut shaming, will take place in Brisbane on May 19. That’s in a week.

With its contentious name, SlutWalk caused quite a stir when it first became a thing last year. Lots of people were — quite reasonably — confused about its aims. At that time, I wrote about what SlutWalk meant to me; it’s probably a good time to revisit that article: Why I Walked the SlutWalk.

I’ll be back there this year with my loved ones alongside me. Even if you don’t march, it’s a good time to think about the issues at hand: victim blaming and slut shaming. Let’s replace those with enthusiastic consent and sex positivity.

Placard in the crowd says, “Consent is sexy.” Photo by Matt McKillop.

Window Shopping

In a Lush store window in London yesterday, a very brave woman — Jacqueline Traide — consensually underwent torture in protest against animal testing in the cosmetics industry.

An article in the UK’s Daily Mail published photos of the event here. (Whether you call it a stunt or endurance art is up to you.) I post that link with a trigger warning; the photo series is (for me, at least) extremely upsetting. But that’s the point. It’s easy for us to distance ourselves from the pain of animals. We can call them dirty vermin or test subjects. They can’t speak up, and their deaths happen quietly, out of sight.

We wouldn’t let the same torture occur to our friends or our pets. There would be outrage. Charges would be laid. Yet industries that practise animal testing or factory farming continue to torture conscious, feeling creatures — and we continue to rationalise it.

Take a look at that link. Be horrified, disgusted, upset, anxious, nauseous, sad — whatever you feel. Then, in future, think about the products you buy, how they are made, and what you condone when you purchase them.

Traide’s 10-hour ordeal challenged London window shoppers. Who, of course, are the real animals, when we make these kind of nightmares commonplace?

Lush, as one example,  proves that the testing of cosmetics on animals is unnecessary. It is a thriving global business that acts ethically and works to minimise impact on the environment. (They also fixed my face.) This is my chance — as a recent convert — to sing their praises without being dull and telling you Things About Soap.

There are lots of horrifying things going on in the world, and often it feels overwhelming. But every little thing you do to help counts, so do even the little things when you can.