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.

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.

Going Wrong in the Mindtank, etc.

Or: Scattered Study-Rambles

The trouble with being Zen is that when I latch onto a topic, I want to learn it from head to toe, only pausing to linger on erogenous zones. I read obsessively, and then I ruminate, and then—usually—I write and write until I feel like I’ve got it figured out. So it is a pity that SlutWalk (and all its associated debates) has taken off around the world right when I’m meant to be studying for English Lit. and Ancient History exams.

As much as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Ancient Greek magical papyri are indeed fascinating (and I say that with no sarcasm), right now I want to be reading and writing about consent, sluttery, and the way our societies define appropriate relationships. I’ve got a whole folder of essays and blogs just waiting to be devoured.

Meanwhile, I’ve also had to take a crash course in water chemistry after setting up a fish tank on a whim without—naughty me—doing any research at all. There are now several matchbox-coffins buried in the garden. Turns out tank-ecosystems are just as complicated as human ecosystems. But there’s one significant difference: you can buy testing kits for water, and they tell you exactly what your fishies need.

Yes, I’m about to use this as the lamest analogy ever. I’m so sorry.

Perhaps one of the biggest issues surrounding consent is the question of how much communication—verbal and nonverbal—is sufficient to equal “yes” or “no” in any relationship: new, old, monogamous, polyamorous, long-term, short-term, one night stand, poly, married, unmarried, straight, queer, vanilla or kinky.

I could write mountains, but why when the wonderful Jaclyn Friedman has done the job for me in her Yes Means Yes article on Enthusiastic Consent and its “(nonexistent) terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” consequences. I thought it was time to repost that link; it’s compulsory reading for anyone who loves others and/or has sex.

There are no Aquarium Testing Kits for human relationships (yep, still sorry for that analogy). Fortunately, all you have to do is ask. Unfortunately, all you have to do is ask. Navigating relationships—of any kind—requires trust, honesty, clarity and all those other pesky things we don’t want to think about when we’re feeling nervous, awkward, embarrassed, guilty, ashamed, or any of the other negative emotions we tend to learn in our earliest years.

I feel like I’m getting better at it, but like cycling my fish tank (honestly, Zen?), it takes time. And often, salt.

SlutWalk’s best effect, globally, has been to raise questions. I hope critics and supporters alike keep on asking. If we open a public dialogue on consent and relationships, so to might dialogues open up in private.

Keep up the momentum. But filter everything you read through that brain of yours, and don’t forget to come up for air now and then.

Back to Ovid…

(P.S. The Scavenger published my SlutWalk blog. Yay!)

Why I Walked the SlutWalk

I’ll admit I was apprehensive when I first read about SlutWalk, a global phenomenon that originated in Toronto less than two months ago. I was unsure of its ultimate aims. Was it about labelling people “sluts” and behaving accordingly? Or was it something else?

Update 12/06/11: Online magazine The Scavenger kindly published this blog post in their latest edition.

My own research led me to conclude that the real aim of SlutWalk was to help change cultural attitudes towards sexual assault and its survivors. Regardless of what we’re calling it, that’s a cause I can get behind—so I gathered up my housemates (male and female) and off we went to SlutWalk.

Still, some commentators (such as Gail Dines, and Melinda Tankard Reist and Tory Shepherd—who makes some better comments here—at The Punch) have questioned the name of the movement; they challenge whether associating themselves with this event is likely to do more damage than good. Many women don’t want to reclaim the word ‘slut’, fearing that to do so would give men even more license to objectify them—to view them as sex toys.

These are certainly fair concerns, but I think they misunderstand SlutWalk’s aims. The trouble, as I see it, is that they are not the only ones for whom this is unclear: I’ve read numerous posts regarding SlutWalk from men who would’ve liked to come along to claim one or two participants at the rally. After all, if they’re all sluts, won’t it be easy pickings?

Well, let’s look at sluttery in more detail.

Woman in crowd holds placard that says, “It’s not my fault–just don’t rape.” Photo by EJ Mina.

What is a slut?

Typically, a slut is a woman who is sexually promiscuous and/or who dresses in a manner that isn’t modest. Oxford English Dictionary gives a number of definitions. Examples of usage of the most common—“a woman of a low or loose character; a bold or impudent girl; a hussy, jade”—date back to 1450. Another definition, dating back to the early 1400s, is “a woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance; a foul slattern.”

These days, most women have been called a slut at some stage—sometimes by their parents, their peers, their boyfriends, bullies, siblings. We are called sluts for dressing “immodestly” or “untidily”—perhaps exposing cleavage or leg, wearing skirts instead of pants, wearing pants instead of skirts (unfeminine), or choosing tailored or figure-hugging clothes. Only a few decades ago, we might have been called sluts for not wearing pantyhose or forgetting our gloves. Furthermore, we are called sluts for being sexual and enjoying it (or, alas, for having sex and not enjoying it), regardless of whether with one person or multiple people, at a young age, later in life, with protection, outside of marriage, with men, with women, or both.

Any excuse can be found to call someone a slut or treat them like one. My housemate proved this on the way to SlutWalk: like me, she wore what she felt comfortable in—a fairly conservative dress, exposing none of the “three Bs” we weren’t allowed to show at school dances: boobs, bum, belly. The flowing skirt came down to the knee. Yet, on the way, one group of men honked their horn and yelled obscenities from their car as she walked along the road in broad daylight. Next, an older man on the bus made advances and followed her off (she called me to come and rescue her). She couldn’t help but ask, “Is it because I’m wearing a dress? Do I look like a slut?”

Thus it seems “slut” is an already-empty word that signifies an excuse to approach, harass or belittle a woman.

Four women hold placards saying, “We’re not asking for it. Our clothes are not our consent.” Photo by Sarah Meggitt.

Why reclaim “slut”?

Given its connotations, I understand the hesitation to reclaim “slut.” In fact, I think hesitation is wise—this is something we need to consider in detail. But I also understand the desire to take the sting out of it; after all, it’s essential that we reframe the qualities and activities associated with sluttery and remove the stigma.

Whatever you want to call it, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wearing low-cut tops, skirts, pants, pantyhose, no pantyhose, and so on (I’ll leave good and bad taste to the fashion experts); it’s up to the looker to decide how to look. And there’s nothing wrong with of-age persons enjoying safe, consensual sex.

Is maintaining “slut” as a “bad word” contributing to slut shaming? Or would it be better to eradicate the word entirely—or strip it of its negative connotations, imbuing it with positive ones? With such a wide definition, all women (and men) might be called sluts. Is it better to say, “No, I’m not a slut—the way I behave is fine?” or “So what if I am a slut? It’s none of your business”?

I don’t have an answer to those questions, and would welcome discussion. If everyone can agree on what the reclamation signifies (that is, not that women may be treated according to the OED definition), reclaiming “slut” is perhaps one way to start breaking down the cultural attitudes that lead to slut shaming.

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

Slut shaming and rape apology

Sexual assault and rape are unlike any other crimes, because we treat them differently. The law holds thieves and murderers accountable for their actions, but when someone is sexually assaulted, often we look to the victim (female or male) to find out why it happened. Friends, family members, partners, counsellors, police officers might (and you can guarantee at least some will) ask:

  • What were you wearing?
  • Did you lead him/her on?
  • What did you think would happen if you went to place X under Y circumstances?
  • Did you fight him/her off properly?

Or say:

  • But you’re not a virgin anyway.
  • But you’ve said yes to sex with that person before.
  • You should have known.
  • Well, men (if it was a man) aren’t to be trusted.
  • If you don’t go to the police, you must be lying.
  • You’re not acting like a real rape victim would; you just regret the sex.

It happens in Australia. Remember footballer Spida Everitt’s comments last year about what a girl should expect when she goes home with a guy? Recall Kerri-Anne Kennerly’s comment around the same time about “stray” women? In court last week, a sex offender (fortunately convicted) argued that he was aroused and provoked by the way Australian women dress. And have a look at this Australian educational video warning against sexting, which places all responsibility—and shame—onto the photographed girl.

But it also happens all around the world. In the news today, female protesters in Egypt have been arrested and subjected to “virginity tests.” The reason given by a senior Egyptian general was as follows: “We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place,” the general said. “None of them were (virgins).” That is to say, because they weren’t virgins (of course, there is no medical way to determine virginity), they can’t have been raped—they were already despoiled.

In short, there are men and women from all cultures and of all ages who believe that rape victims incite, provoke or even invite their own sexual assault. This logic is faulty; it suggests that those who assault and/or rape don’t have control over their own actions. Statistics show that those who rape are overwhelmingly men; are we to accept the sexist assumption that men have no capacity to control their impulses, and violent impulses at that? Are we also to accept that men are more manipulative, less compassionate than women?

We can’t tar all men (just as we can’t all women) with the same brush. I love and respect the men in my life, and it would be doing them an injustice to say tell them they have less impulse control than I do. The men (and women) who do rape, however, must be held accountable for their own actions. Anything less denigrates both men (and their “uncontrollable lusts”) and women (with their “irresistible desirability”). Sexual assault, however and wherever it’s committed, is inexcusable. “But she was just a slut” is definitely not an excuse.

The best way, I feel, to help fight a culture that condones sexual assault is to change the way we think about the victims and survivors of rape. Let’s teach our sons, daughters, students and peers about sexual boundaries and what it means to give informed, enthusiastic consent and graciously accept non-consent. Let’s teach them to be assertive about sexual health and safety—as well as social safety and comfort (put so well by Phaedra Starling in Schrödinger’s Rapist). Let’s teach them to blame the perpetrator, not the victim—and maybe then, with less fear and doubt, more victims will be able to report assault to police. Let’s teach them that there’s no “right” or “normal” way to respond to trauma. And let’s be there for them—without blaming, without slut shaming—if they ever fear or experience sexual assault.

Men holding placards walk alongside a police car. Photo by EJ Mina.

SlutWalk Brisbane

To wrap up this epic blog post (and many thanks if you got this far), I’d like to write about how I felt at SlutWalk. As I said 1000 words ago, I wasn’t sure up until the last minute whether I should attend, but I decided I would make the rally an empowering experience for me. After all, I had the support of my partner, my housemates, old friends and new.

There were about 400 people at SlutWalk Brisbane, and I was really surprised—and delighted—by how many men were in attendance. There were people wearing conservative clothes, costumes, naughty clothes, nearly no clothes, and people cross-dressing. Police were there to clear the way for our march and keep us safe—I for one was grateful for QPS’s support. It felt fantastic—and fantastically safe—to be surrounded by people who feel the same way I do about consent and sex. The vibe was warm and friendly. There were a lot of smiles, and more than a few people with tears in their eyes. How good, after all, to have hundreds of people around you saying, “It is not and was not your fault.”

Whether or not SlutWalk’s moniker is contentious, it achieved its goals for me—and I’m very glad of that. Whether or not it helps to change cultural attitudes toward sexual assault—that rape is inevitable or excusable—is yet to be seen, but I have high hopes. After all, SlutWalk’s controversy has gotten everyone talking. Talking about consent is a great first step towards building a society where one can choose to come home at 3 am, whether for sex, cuddles or a cup of Milo, without anyone else deciding for them or judging their decisions.

Woman holds placard that reads, “We’re here for that cup of MILO.” Photo by EJ Mina.

Check out Ms Naughty’s video of SlutWalk Brisbane here. Thank you to the kind souls who let me use their photos: EJ Mina Photography, Sarah Meggitt Photography, and Matt McKillop. If you’re pictured here and would prefer not to be, just let me know and I’ll remove the photo.

Further Reading:
Feminist critics of SlutWalk have forgotten that language is not a commodity

The (Nonexistent) Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Consequences of Enthusiastic Consent