Sex, Choice and my mother's voice

The question was asked over at Let the Eat Pro-SM Feminist Safe spaces: "How we can use theory to understand kinky sexuality in 2010 as something other than a threat to women?" and Trinity's response resonated with me quite a lot and I started to comment over there but my comment quickly turned into a mini-essay hence the bringing it over here. I'm going to try this in two parts, in the first part I'm going to be writing about my personal relationship with theory and in the second part I'm actually going to try and answer the question.

So this post is well basically a personal history of me and sex and feminist theory, so its probably going to be completely boring to anyone who isn't me... and I have to agree with Trinity that using theory, any theory, to understand sexuality (of any kind, not just the kinky type) is wrong-headed and damaging. I have to agree with Trinity because for many years I did try to understand my sexuality through the prism of feminist theory (especially radical theory)... and well... it didn't quite completely mess with my head... but it did give me a great deal of guilt and angst about who I was sexually.

The irony is that I should not have had an guilt or angst about my sexuality... my mother is a classic choice feminist- "Do what you wanna do, be who you wanna be- yeah" and when it came to sex she was determined that her children, and especially her daughters would not be filled with the catholic guilt that she had been. When it came to sex my mother was way cooler than all the other parents, she made sure information resources (books) were left in plain sight where we could access them without asking her, she actively pushed a line that sex was normal, fun and she never pushed the 'virginity is a gift" line that some people *cough Abbott cough cough* still spout... in fact my mother told me "Don't wait until you get married to have sex, because what happens if he's a dud root? You're stuck with him."

She also very much of the "Do it when you're ready and not before." school of thought and was very open with her experience of being pressured into sex the first time she did it- the guy turned around and did the charmingly stereotypical thing of saying she was a gigantic slut to all the boys at school after wards. She kneed him in the balls and got suspended from school for three days... My mother had an obsession with birth control... not surprising really considering that she got pregnant with me at 19, and she cried when I told her I'd gone to Family Planning (as it was still called 16 years ago) by myself to get on the pill... she'd wanted to make it a whole mother/ daughter bonding experience.

Further, I'm 90% certain that from the TMI (Too Much Information) hints that she dropped over the years that my mother is at least a little kinky... that and I found her porn stash when I was 13...she hid it behind all her books about feminism... and I always have to take a moment to laugh to myself about that... I only found the porn because I read Greer, Dworkin, De Beauvoir, Summers and all those other feminists first. I would like to make it clear though that I'm pretty darn sure that I was kinky before I found my mother's porn stash... my favourite games as a kid were ones where I got tied up... when I was five I nearly managed to strangle myself on the clothesline... and my god I am still embarrassed about this but I had tied myself up and was masturbating by sitting on and rubbing against one of the arms of the Hills Hoist and I fell off... no one was around and I didn't tell anyone about it... well except now anyone reading this....

Another thing my mother did well was talk about the value of sexual fantasy- I think the first time she raised the topic must have been when she realised that I had discovered where she hid her porn. Although I found such conversations embarrassing, my mother took great pains to express that there is a distinct difference between sexual fantasy and the things we are ever prepared, or may one day be ready, to do sexually. I got really embarrassed when she started to talk about roleplaying and started to get too TMI...She also got into how talking about these things with a partner was part of sex itself, that it was part of fore, during and after sex. Shit when I think about it now- my mother was head and shoulders above so many other parents in this area...

Teenage Lissy was not exactly all appreciative of her mother (and there are some very good reasons for this which continue to this day and are the reason why our communication consists only of christmas and birthday cards)... and well in thinking of my relationship with my mother I think the best characterisation of it is the Edina/ Saffy dynamic from Ab-Fab only transpose that into a Kath and Kim Aussie suburban setting... As teenage lissy saw it, being married to cheating drunks and living a life of domestic drudgery was what feminism was supposed to rescue us from... not something any woman who called herself a feminist chose.

Like most teenagers I desired to establish my own identity separate to my parents... so I didn't smoke, do drugs, or have sex, I was a nerd who got good grades and played dungeons and dragons... any other parent might be proud, but my mother was quite frankly puzzled... My rebellion such as it was, was radical feminism (I tried religion for a while but that didn't stick)... and I say such as it was because it was half rebellion against my mother and half desire to emulate my aunt. I love my radical feminist lesbian- seperatist activist Aunt, and often opine that I am a misplaced zygote and that she is actually my real mother. She is one of my feminist idols. A woman who has had an amazing life fighting for social justice... in comparison my mother was a suburban housewife who in my scathing teenage opinion was not doing much at all to further the feminist cause with all her "do what you wanna do, be who you wanna be" choice crap as I saw it at the time.

So off I went to university looking forward to if nothing else the chance to not be the only feminist in the playground so to speak... and... well... got told by the other feminists that I couldn't be a real radical feminist because I was straight... seriously when I joined the women's group that was on my campus in my first year that was what one of the big-wigs of the group said... it kind of crushed me for a while and I did take it to heart... but it also kind of freed me to think about what kind of feminist I could be, if I couldn't be a 'real' radical... and I was loving feminist theory of all kinds, socialist, liberal radical, eco, etc etc etc...

Influenced by my aunt and her example of action, I became obsessed with the notion of feminist praxis: that is the practical application of feminist theory, particularly in relation to the achievement of social justice. I wrote a thesis wherein I concluded that in order to be successful feminist praxis needs to draw from all strands of feminist thought, a position I still maintain. I didn't avoid sex and sexuality topics but it wasn't what I was really interested in at that time, and when such topics did appear... well.... in terms of the feminist academic sex wars, radical theory ruled at my institution. Rubin was ridiculed and Califa sneered at, their works were never offered as readings and the only reason I learnt of them was to hear their work criticised... between that and the way Sadomasochism was discussed in Abornormal Psych... I got a feeling that not only were my sexual fantasies un-feminist in the extreme but that to act upon them would be pathological.

So I didn't act on them, but... my only sexual partner from 18 -32 was my son's father... and we talked about sex a lot because were poor students and aside from Dungeons and Dragons, sex was our main form of entertainment... and dirty talk got my ex going... there was nothing he liked better than cowgirl position with me whispering all kinds of dirty things while he just swooned... and for a while my fantasies about bondage and spanking and handcuffs and riding crops were just whispers in the dark... after all he was the editor of all my essays, as well as my sounding board, and as such acquired an understanding of feminist theory that most straight feminists only wish their partners had. N.B. This knowledge doesn't mean he won't be an asshole, it just means he'll have another reason to feel guilty if he does...

I started Law as a post grad... and didn't have so much time to think about feminist theory anymore but of course I did because Nerd Girl!... and... well in Crim Law we of course studied what is known as The Spanner Case... I think the lecturer was a bit of a sadist himself because he went to great pains to describe in detail some of the CBT... but anyway... my ex and I's discussion of the Spanner Case lead us into a discussion about consent... and how consent is constructed in different situations. Starting with legal constructions, moving into feminist criticisms of those constructions and then well we got talking about what sex and consent meant to us in our relationship...

It sounds so freaking nerdy but I cannot find the words for just how sexy the actual conversation was... of course that conversation was over ten years ago so you'll forgive me if I'm fuzzy on the details now... but the upshot of that conversation was him grabbing a pair of my stockings and tying just one of my arms to the bed while I was yelling "Hell yes! I consent! Jeffreys be damned!"

My ex and I developed a framework for our infrequent kinky sexual interactions... we weren't like those freaky leather people... we were just sexually adventurous... so bondage was stockings (which is actually really unsafe I later learned but I'll get to that), spanking was light even when I asked for harder... and the riding crop I bought only got used on me once because the marks freaked him out and so it just became a prop... the handcuffs I bought were fuzzy ( I bought them at a rave- and I was actually propositioned for a threesome with two bi guys the night I bought them but I politely declined the invitation) and feminist discourse and analysis were parts of fore and after play... but even this did not erase the feeling that I was a bad feminist.

We leave my sex life for a brief time now: I quit my law degree because 1) I was sick to the back teeth of studying at that time and 2) the world has enough freaking lawyers... and started working client service... and despite my love of feminist praxis found, like Trinity that:

The intellectual questions that were my bread-and-butter matter very little now that I am in direct services provision. It doesn't really matter why things are the way they are when what I'm trying to do is help one person get one set of results. I don't find theory particularly useful for that, even the sort of theory about social justice that would apparently be relevant.

I eventually came to work in a feminist environment, and while feminist theory is not useful for getting my clients results, it does inform the way in which I interact with my clients and provides a sense of purpose to my work. What I've also learnt is that all women are not the same, they have different strengths and weaknesses, different hopes and dream. I cannot respond to my clients like they are just a member of the class of people known as 'women', they are all individuals with a need to have their individual experiences validated.

There is at times a disturbing repetition in the patterns of abuse, violence, harrassment and obstacles my clients face, but the ways in which they process and understand those events is different for each client. I might be somewhat expert as far as feminist theory but my clients are the experts in their own lives... and well... sometimes my clients do not always make decisions that I consider wise, or practical, in fact sometimes my clients make really stupid decisions in my opinion, but I learnt that I was not going to empower my clients and help them to trust in their own decision making ability if I did not respect their capacity to make their own choices.

When my ex left me for the woman I now call 'the botox wife', I was thrust into a situation where I was for the first time in my adult life having to make decisions about my future completely on my own, without the benefit of the person who had been my sounding board... I was fucked up there for many months, unable to trust myself to do anything right when I was feeling like I must have done something wrong to have gotten in the circumstances I found myself in...
Then I realised that I had done the best I could at the time, and that in order to move forward in my life I had to trust that even if I made a decision that proved later to be a poor one, that I will learn from that experience. I have to trust in my own capacity to make choices in order to live the life I want to live.

To my mind if feminists cannot respect other women's capacity to make choices about their lives then feminist action of any kind is doomed to failure. This is not to say that there are not patterns that constrain women's choices but the answer to that is not to deny that the capacity to choose exists, the answer to this lies IMO in strengthening women's capability to decide for themselves. And from a social justice perspective these days I'm grooving on capability theory, ethics and critical systems thinking.

But it also occurs to me that capability theory does offer a theory where kinky sexuality can be framed as something other than a threat to women and as this post is just way too long I'm going to leave those thoughts for now... that and something really freaking confusing has just happened...

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