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Posts Tagged ‘sexuality’

As you may have noticed, last Monday I went and got myself a wife. And things are all pretty nice. The wedding and ensuing consecutive mini-honeymoons are all worth gossiping about, and now that I’m back home with a computer and all the free time that comes with not having a wedding to plan, I’m getting myself back into writer mode. So, gossip ahoy-hoy.

Taking events in reverse chronological order, then, this post’s starting off with the London Nine Worlds convention, from which we returned yesterday. Two and a half days of geeks and sci-fi and fantasy and pop culture and room service. We’ve just bought tickets for 2014 and my wife is already making plans for how to dress me up next time, so I guess it must’ve gone kinda okay. A selection of things I took away from the weekend:

1. I’m a nerd.

(Or a geek, or whatever.)

My wife and I spent the last several days sitting in conference rooms and lecture halls, listening to learned and erudite discourse on such topics as: chaos theory and infinite monkeys; the legal challenges and implications resulting from the increased proliferation of robotics in everyday life; Hermione Granger’s credibility or lack thereof as a feminist icon; what conclusions can be drawn about plausible alien ecologies from our own planet’s evolutionary biology; and the restrictively binary mainstream perceptions of gender, sex, and sexuality, along with aspects of culture which tend to reinforce or subvert the dominant paradigms.

And we spent a non-trivial amount of money for the privilege and it was totally worth it.

I also bought a couple hundred Magic cards, a few urban fantasy novels, and a pixel-art necklace for my beloved – and this only after several very restrained tours of the vendor hall, gawping at all the shiny and reining in our impulses to fill our home with all the things.

These are not ways the majority of folk would be thrilled to spend their time, I think. I mean, I hang out almost exclusively with other nerds of one sort or another, in the parts of the world where I get to choose my own socialising schedule, so it might start to seem like swooning over Cory Doctorow is the kind of thing that everyone will immediately get. But really, it all puts me in something of a niche. I’m already thinking about how much of this detail I’ll end up skimming over when I go back to work next week and am quizzed on what I’ve been up to by my work colleagues. They’re not nerds.

2. I’m not that much of a nerd.

(Or maybe just not the same kind of nerd as some other nerds, maybe it’s not a matter of scale, or whatever.)

There’s a particular kind of geek/nerd behaviour I’ve witnessed a lot. The stereotypical nerd is a social misfit in everyday life, who doesn’t have much to say to all the normal people they’re surrounded by, and is largely inept at saying it. They’re an introvert, a loner, with little capacity for interaction with other humans and a tendency to shy away from situations where they might have to do so.

But what you actually see among a lot of nerds is a tendency to congregate eagerly with their own kind, and ample capacity to become extremely extroverted, expressive, and engaged with others, under the right circumstances. It’s really not that these people don’t like socialising, or are all painfully shy; they just don’t give a shit about football or whatever the hell the rest of you guys are talking about. Get them going on something actually interesting, though, and you’ll often have trouble shutting them up. (And you’ll encounter a similar proportion of obnoxious, aggressive dicks as can be found among the species as a whole.)

I really don’t do that one myself. I don’t simply have to join a crowd of the right people, my people, to suddenly find myself opening up and becoming a whole different, chatty, person, just because I finally have something in common with them. It’s not just the fact that muggles want to talk about football that I find off-putting and alienating. Even in subjects where I feel both interested and knowledgeable, I’m not always easy to draw into a conversation, depending on the circumstances (crowds and/or strangers being among the key factors).

Which I guess kinda sucks. I don’t have that sense of “coming home”, or suddenly being among friends, the way some people do at such geekfests. I can’t really imagine that a different sort of crowd ever would give me that feeling, either, because it’s not a matter of being among the “right people” that’s lacking here.

Having said that, there’s one related thing which strongly comes through from all the feedback that Nine Worlds has been receiving:

3. If you wanted a “safe space” for just about any minority interest or quirk, this was it.

For whatever reason (and I’m sure there are fascinating sociology papers discussing this somewhere), there seems to be a significant overlap between, say, reading comics/watching Doctor Who/playing board games/exploring steampunk/enjoying Tolkien/critically analysing Harry Potter, and possessing a not-completely-straightforward gender or sexual identity.

That’s a clunky way of phrasing my point. But there were a lot of people at this con dressing in ways not traditionally associated with their apparent gender in the mainstream world. And, if someone’s a stranger to you, but you happen to know that they’re way into My Little Pony, your estimate of how likely they are to shout transphobic abuse at you should go way down.

There was a whole track devoted to “Queer Fandom”, whose purpose was described as “celebrating and exploring LGBT themes, characters and creators throughout SFF media”. And even though my experience of the con had little overlap with any of their stuff, the general atmosphere of acceptance, welcoming, and camaraderie pervaded the convention as a whole. The idea of making it a friendly and safe space for people who wanted to dress, or wear their hair, or in any other way present themselves, in a fashion that might be controversial elsewhere, was built into the running of the con and its ethos.

Even refreshing the #nineworlds hashtag results now, I’m seeing more mentions of the phrase “safe space”. And it means a lot more coming from most of these Twitterfolk than it does from me. Because, y’know, I’m a straight white male. My odds of being “safe” in just about any environment amenable to human life are about as good as you could ask for.

For me, dressing myself comfortably – in a way that I feel truly reflects the person I consider myself to be – involves throwing on the nearest reasonably clean check shirt and cords that are lying around. It takes seconds, and the end result renders me entirely unremarkable. For some people, that’s not the case. They might want to use make-up, and hair dye, and creative outfits, and costumes, and personal accoutrements and ornamentation of all kinds, often in ways that don’t align with any conventional social demographic.

In its simplest form, this means that, if you were at Nine Worlds, you will likely have seen at least one bloke in a dress milling around. And that’s at the least inventive end of the scale.

And my general impression, based on the reports of actual blokes in dresses, among other people who lie outside of various social norms, is that they mostly felt safe and comfortable being themselves at this convention, in a way that starkly contrasts with their experiences in the world in general. Which is groovy.

Actually listening to other people’s personal accounts of such things is important. I mean, I know that to me everyone seemed nice and friendly, but then, someone massively racist or homophobic may have no reason not to be nice and friendly around me. But a brief wander outside my bubble serves as a reminder that, for some folk, it’s a genuine lifeline to have some space where you can just be yourself, without always wondering how long it’ll be before the next mocking catcall or physical abuse, and whether it wouldn’t be simpler to just keep lying to the world about who you are, for the sake of a peaceful life.

So, yeah. I support all of This Sort Of Thing, with very few reservations and a great deal of optimism for the future.

Also we had three nights in a hotel where you can just pick up the phone and ask them to bring you all the food on a trolley and they totally will and you don’t even have to get properly dressed or go outside or anything. How long have I failed to appreciate that that’s a thing?

More to follow, after a much shorter wait this time. I’m feeling back on the wagon now.

Edit: The aforementioned wife has also composed her own report of the weekend, which has a lot more description of the stuff that actually happened there. Also, pictures!

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A propos of nothing much:

We (as in, people with similar social and political views to myself) don’t tend to think too highly of people who are opposed to abortion in all instances.

It seems both uncaring, to insist that a woman forefeit her right to make decisions about her own body, and scientifically illiterate, to assert that a barely fertilised zygote is not significantly distinct from any other “human”.

When someone of this disposition is willing to make some allowances, though – for cases of rape, say – that tends to mollify us a little bit. They’re not wholly dogmatic about their ideas. They’re willing to give a little bit of ground.

But surely what we’re doing, when we encourage anti-abortionists to make this exception, is congratulating them for betraying their principles. Or, rather, we’re giving tacit support to an implied set of principles that’s even more obnoxious and inhumane.

Start with the basic concept that terminating a pregnancy is always, unequivocally immoral. This is a frankly uninformed and irrational idea when taken to the extreme positions that some people hold, given the nature of a barely fertilised embryo in the earliest stages of gestation. If a tiny cluster of cells carries the same moral weight to you as a fully developed infant, then what you value can’t be called “human life” in any way I would recognise the phrase. I am strongly against this position.

But there’s some consistency there. People with this view are opposed to what they see as murder of defenseless innocents. That part I can follow, even if the logic behind their classification of “defenseless innocents” is ideologically inane.

If you’re willing to allow for the possibility of abortion in cases of rape, though… what is the guiding principle behind your moral judgments?

A fetus is no more or less deserving of protection based on whether its mother was being physically assaulted against her will prior to its conception. So if abortion would be “murder” in normal circumstances, why should it be different here?

One obvious answer that might present itself involves compassion for the mother. Some anti-abortionists just can’t bring themselves to insist that a rape victim bear her rapist’s child against her will. It seems unconscionable to them, so they allow for an exception. On the face of it, this seems like human kindness breaking through an ideological wall.

But it’s not really. Here are some other circumstances which have no significance to the condition of an unborn child, but in which we’re told abortion is an unacceptable abomination:

  1. A woman has consensual sex without using contraception, and becomes pregnant.
  2. A woman has consensual sex, uses contraception, it doesn’t work, and she becomes pregnant.
  3. A woman gets drunk, has sex, regrets it soon after, and becomes pregnant.
  4. A girl hears from her friends at school that you can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex, doesn’t have this misconception corrected in any kind of sex education class, has consensual sex with her boyfriend, and becomes pregnant.
  5. A woman has consensual sex with her husband who has had a vasectomy, but she becomes pregnant.

Of the many possible contexts to a woman becoming pregnant, rape is the only one in which some anti-abortionists are willing to make an exception… and also the only one in which it’s entirely out of the woman’s control.

People who are against abortion with no exceptions are at least consistent in their concern for the innocent human life they perceive to be at risk.

People in the “except for cases of rape” camp aren’t as concerned about the welfare of the child as they are about whether it’s the woman’s fault.

The implicit message is that, unless a woman was sexually assaulted against her wishes, the responsibility for the pregnancy lies squarely with her… and that’s what makes abortion immoral. If you were raped, then okay, you’re off the hook – but if you just weren’t careful, or you were stupid, or you’re the kind of slut who actually has sex willingly and enjoys it, then you deserve to be stuck with this.

The fetus’s welfare doesn’t come into it. The one determining factor is whether the woman deserves to be “punished” (which is effectively what it amounts to) for being insufficiently sexually puritan and abstinent.

If you asked them, they probably wouldn’t agree that they think this way. They probably don’t even think they do. But underlying, deeply engrained hang-ups and presumptions about sex are pernicious and ubiquitous, and are one of many things harmfully exacerbated by a religiously based sense of morality.

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Once you get past the sweeping generalisation that anyone who’d do anything so horrid to our poor kiddies is an inhuman monster, and grow up beyond an automatic guttural lurch of disgust and vengeance at the mere mention of childhood and sexuality in the same breath, you can start to imagine why paedophiles might deserve your compassion.

You’re not supposed to draw a parallel between homosexuality and a predilection for pre-teens, because it’s usually only homophobic idiots who make them. But consider one similarity that can exist.

Many gay people go through much of their life being told by the world, and believing profoundly, that their innate and unavoidable sexual drives are sinful, dirty, wrong, and evil. Some are driven to denial, or celibacy, or suicide. Some try to resist engaging in the sexual practices in question, and fail, and fall further into deep self-loathing. Some come to accept that this is just the way they are.

I daresay a lot of child abusers feel the same. Many try to repress their feelings; many can’t; many convince themselves that there are no ethical issues worth worrying themselves about in what they do, or are driven so strongly that their moral concerns get pushed aside and ignored, at least some of the time.

In neither case is demonisation of individuals a satisfactory solution. Telling people that something inside them corrupts their very being and renders them irredeemably evil is best left to Christianity. So how best to address these sexual drives?

For homosexuality, the answer’s simple (at least in theory; the execution is taking some time). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with same-sex attraction. It can be embraced as fully as any other expression of positive feelings between consenting adults, and all guilt about it can be abandoned entirely. Take the same care as anyone else would for safety and respect for personal autonomy, and you’re grand.

Those who are sexually attracted to children don’t get quite such an easy answer. The actions to which their urges drive them are simply unacceptable. Children cannot knowingly consent to sexual acts. If we tell people who experience such drives that, while we can’t condone them acting on their natural urges, we feel no less respect or love for them as human beings, they’re probably not going to be wholly content to leave it there.

Which is where chemical castration comes in.

There’s a pilot study being conducted at the moment in Nottingham, on around 100 male sex offenders. They’re being treated with a drug which inhibits testosterone production, and early evidence from Europe provides hope about its effects on decreasing recidivism.

(Incidentally, I think the label “chemical castration” is an unfortunate one. I’m not aware of the details of either procedure, but there seems to be about as much connection between this drug treatment and surgical orchidectomy, as there is between male and female “circumcision”.)

I know that not all sex offenders are very like the tortured souls I’ve described. Maybe of them engage in morally reprehensible behaviours without compunction, and concerns have been raised that this procedure won’t kerb underlying violent attitudes. There’s no doubt this is a partial solution at best, but you don’t have to look far among any gay community to find members who fervently wish they could just take a pill to make their “sin” disappear, and be “normal”. It’s hard not to extrapolate and wonder how many child abusers want the same thing, and would jump at the chance to quash the desires that they know only cause anguish, to themselves and others.

The offenders all currently being treated have volunteered, and I suspect this will remain a crucial aspect. Forcing such a biological change on people for society’s benefit is a very touch one to justify, and not a conversation I’m going to attempt here. But there’s a long and noble history behind temporarily hobbling yourself in some small way to stop yourself getting distracted, helping yourself reach your goals when temptation looms by simply taking will-power out of the picture.

Unplug the internet when you’ve got writing to do, so you can’t keep checking Twitter. Give your car keys to a friend, so you can’t drive home no matter how sober you know you are. Take some hormone-suppressing medication so that you don’t even think of luring a child away to do anything inappropriate.

For some people, it might be just what they need.

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Here’s a quick thought, while I’m still not putting too much pressure on myself to be interesting regularly on here. I may have had a brainwave about this whole gay marriage debate.

Okay, so on one side, you’ve got religious folk and other traditionalists. They’re hung up on the institution of marriage being some hallowed thing, which has remained unchanged through the ages and shouldn’t be fiddled with now. Many of them are fairly supportive of gay rights, and even equality, at least nominally – but only in the form of civil partnerships, which should allow same-sex couples many of the same rights under the law as any opposite-sex married couple, without changing the definition of marriage.

On the other hand, many same-sex couples think they should be entitled to more than just a separate-but-equal arrangement, which still somehow categorises them as second-class citizens, and excludes them from being an equal part of everyone else’s society.

I think there’s a middle ground we’ve all been missing.

Let’s say we make a new thing, kinda like civil partnerships, but unrelated to traditional marriage.

And let’s say we call it “marrij”.

Don’t worry, we’re not changing the definition of marriage. That’s still going to work the same as it was. But we can introduce a new way of recognising the relationships of people who can’t get married, such as same-sex couples, and giving them some of the… well, let’s say all of the legal rights that married people get.

Any two people, regardless of sexual or gender identity, can get “marrijed” (pronounced MAH-REED). It’s much like getting a civil partnership, and they’ll receive all the associated legal and publicly recognised benefits, in a system distinct from the sacred traditions that need to be preserved, but which is closer to equality than anything available now.

The state can marry, or marrij, any such couple who want to participate in either arrangement. Churches can recognise one or the other, or both, and won’t be forced to get more involved in marriages or marrijes any more than they’re comfortable with.

Did I just fix gay rights?

If this has a successful trial run, polygamous marrij is the next step.

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So it was National Gay-Straight Alliance Day recently, and as has started to feel like an increasingly regular occurrence lately, I had to go and find some way to oppose this perfectly sensible effort to foster acceptance and compassion.

I haven’t followed the campaign and its associated activities much, so I don’t really know how people spent the day who were noting it. It’s not like there isn’t work for LGBT equality that needs to be done, and I’ve no doubt that a lot of people in “gay-straight alliances” are doing it well.

But the way it’s framed seems misjudged to me. It makes it sound like Gay and Straight are the only two camps available, and that they’re momentarily putting aside their grievances and forming a truce, despite the unavoidable distinction that will always exist between them.

Which I’m sure isn’t what they’re really trying to imply; the actual details on the site do talk about other groups beyond “Gay”, and suggest that their principles should apply “regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity”. It just doesn’t seem like reinforcing the illusion of a strictly binary system of sexuality is something you’d want to do right in the name of your organisation, if all sexualities deserve equality.

Am I being too picky? Obviously I applaud the fundamental intent behind what I suspect most people involved in a GSA are trying to do – promulgate love and compassion, put an end to bigotry based on superficial differences – just like I support the basic sentiment behind liberal drives for higher taxes on the rich – greater rewards and social support for the less well-off labourers and the disadvantaged. But I find myself being rubbed the wrong way by the particular method of marketing tolerance in these “alliances”.

And I can’t stand it when gay people rub me the wrong way.

(I’m so sorry.)

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– What version of atheism are we on now? Cuttlefish estimates it’s 6.2. Maybe in a future upgrade we’ll believe in God again.

At this moment the UK Economy is listing. Hehe. (Context, if you need it.)

The futility of prayer, demonstrated in one simple chart.

Asexual and aromantic. Just another way to be.

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If you weren’t following the big Obscenity Trial at the start of the year, it’s worth catching up on, either through the defense lawyer‘s own account or that of David Allen Green for the New Statesman.

It concerns the sale of some particular styles of hardcore pornography (described more explicitly at the above links than I’ll go into here), which the Crown Prosecution Service apparently deemed obscene under a 1959 law.

The acts depicted in the DVDs being sold were not illegal. More to the point, they weren’t anything the law has any place passing such judgment on. What concerned the CPS was the potential of the content “to deprave and corrupt” the people who viewed it – referring, presumably, to those unsullied innocents who approached a former sex-worker and specifically requested “extreme BDSM and fisting material”.

The defendant was acquitted on all charges, but it’s dismaying that this law under which he was prosecuted is still in place, and that prosecutors still consider smut-peddlars useful and important targets of their time and resources.

I want to do more, though, than just the usual lip service to the standard liberal argument – that what consenting adults get up to in their own lives is no concern of mine. So much of the discourse around this case, discussing these strange people and their bizarre sexual fetishes, who it’s agreed (perhaps reluctantly) should be tolerated because it’s really none of our business, seems reminiscent of how gay people were talked about until quite recently (and probably still are, in some parts of the world): Whatever unconventional things they want to get up to, it’s their own private business, and it’s not for us to pry into what goes on behind closed doors.

There’s often something about the way this argument is made which continues to pathologise any sexual interests that go beyond the hetero and vanilla. We’re past the point where any decent, right-minded human being has any business thinking homosexuality is an inherent evil, but a common expression of the competing idea – that it’s something different but still basically fine – isn’t exactly the culmination of successful humanist thinking.

Perhaps I should be surprised that, despite my increasing recent interest in cases such as this one, I’ve still never encountered the word “heteronormativity” as regularly as I did when living with several humanities students at University. It doesn’t seem to get so much play in the discussions about sexuality I follow online, and yet the implicit dichotomy between “standard” and “deviant” sexual behaviour is one of the more persistent out-dated ideas around.

I wonder whether the distinction that makes more of a difference isn’t between “my healthy sex life” and “other people’s weird kinky shit”, but between sexual and non-sexual parts of our lives.

A lot of what was on the DVDs that got Michael Peacock in trouble would probably be actively unappealing to me. As a (to within a margin of error) straight male, gay male sex also doesn’t generally match my own interests, and isn’t something I want to spend much time thinking about over breakfast.

But – with apologies to any parents or in-laws of mine who might be reading this – there are sexual things I am into which would still put me off my Corn Flakes if a graphic image poked my brain at the wrong time, and which would provide an undesirable mental image even to other people who don’t find them particularly unusual or surprising.

The important point is less about people being turned on by things that I’m not, and more about people’s capacity to keep their sexuality separate from the non-sexual aspects of their lives.

The old-fashioned fear of homosexuals depended on the perception that their sexuality was something central to their identity, which affected everything else they did, and infused them with an untrustworthy gayness which meant they might start unexpectedly gaying at you, at any moment. Similarly, it might take a special effort of will to divorce the knowledge that someone sells hardcore DVDs from the rest of their personality.

People with uncommonly expressed sexual kinks or fetishes aren’t often credited with being in command of a sexuality that doesn’t intrude on everything else that defines who they are. But given how rarely I hear about what they get up to, compared with the more mundane sex scandals that are rarely out of the news, I’d say straight people are in no place to criticise.

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