Tuesday, 24 March 2009

This is BBC Radio 4, and here is a total 'WTF?' comment.

The other day, I caught an item on the radio that caused me to boggle with astonishment.

It was on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, and Delia Smith was being interviewed.

Passing lightly over the fact that she has donated 11 million pounds to Norwich City Football Club (raising two questions, 1. Is there that much money in cookery? 2. Is there really nothing better she could have done with it?), the bit that caused my jaw to drop was when Jane Garvey asked her if she called herself a feminist.

Now, I have no issue with people who do not call themselves feminists. I know a huge number of strong women who are going places, and a lot of men who believe absolutely in equality, who have their own word for their views. This is fair, because the word 'feminist' has a bad image these days, and is not a label everyone is happy with. I'm also aware not everyone is comfortable with labelling themselves, and that is also a position to be respected. What I have less respect for is people who miss the whole point, that it's not just calling yourself a feminist, or a womanist, or a believer in equality; it's about how you think and how you act and what makes you angry and what you ask questions about. I have less respect for people who can't see that there's a problem.

Hence my rising hackles when I heard this.

Jane Garvey: Would you call yourself a feminist?
Delia Smith: No
JG: Why not?
DS: Well because - I don't know whether I- I'm, sort of, outside it, but I've never really felt, kind of, any problem. I've never felt inferior, I've never felt - I suppose there are little irritating things like - if I want something men did, I ask my husband to ring up because they'll take more notice of the man's voice than the woman's voice. I also really like men a lot - I like the company of men.

(I typed this verbatim from the Listen Again recording. The link is here if you want to catch the whole item).

I'm amazed by the sheer lack of connection in her point of view. She says there's no problem, and immediately articulates an aspect of the problem. And yet she hasn't made the connections.

She's said it herself - men do not yet respect women as equals. And this in the UK, where we are still getting a good deal - we can vote and work and own property and decide if and when and whom to marry, and if and when and how to have a family. We're doing well, and that's fantastic. There's still lots to be done, but I'm happy we've got far enough that some people can relax and say, 'yes, this is good. We're doing well.'

But there are places in this increasingly small world, where women can't do any of the above.

I can't see, any way I look at it, that there isn't a problem. I try to respect everyone's political views (which is not to say I won't debate til I'm tired if I think they've missed something important) but I find it hard to deal with a total lack of engagement.

So, I'd suggest a new school of thought for the relaxed, the satisfied, in this lucky country. I'd call it 'international feminism', but it goes by many names, and it's practised by egalitarians and teachers and diplomats and aid workers and Amnesty International and the people who are still trying to gain the benefits that we have for more women, for more people, worldwide.

We could maybe start by phoning Norwich City and telling them we might just have a better use for that 11 million quid.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Mono/Poly (2 of 2)

Further to my previous post, here is the upside.

There are lots of ways to be together that are not monogamy. You can be polyamorous, non-monogamous, in-an-open-relationship, swingers, Ethical Sluts, or [insert your own word here]. Each has as many different meanings as there are people who practise it, so for the sake of simplicity I will use 'poly' and try to cover as many aspects of all forms of non-monogamy as possible

Polyamory is not polygamy.
Polygamy sounds like it's closely related to monogamy, and linguistically it is. Within religious denominations such as the Mormons, to quote an American example, it's also an unequal system, in which men get to have multiple wives while women are expected to stay faithful to their shared husband. It's another male-focussed social system with sightly different ratios of male:female. (I'm aware this is not true of every polygamous society worldwide, but once again I'm focussing on traditions descended from the Abrahamic laws). Polyamory is about both women and men having freedom to have sex with more than one person. It also holds none of the expectations on women of sexual availability, child-bearing and economic dependency that are frequently found within polygamous Mormonism.

Polyamory is not a way of cheating without saying you're cheating.
Poly is, like good kink, safe, consensual, and well-negotiated. Poly doesn't just happen to a relationship without mutual consent. It needs to be talked about, common ground is sought and found, and boundaries are made clear. Poly couples have ground rules, and partners need to stick to those. Some people insist on only same-sex partners, on only playing when out of the family home, on only playing as a couple, on meeting a partner's potential partners first.
Which brings me to...

Poly is safe if you make it safe.
A major ground rule for most poly couples is safer sex. While monogamy pretty much removes the opportunity to be frank about the use on contraception and barrier methods with other partners, poly negotiations pretty much require an agreement on safer sex.
That is where fidelity to your primary/ies happens - you don't just trust them with your heart, but quite literally with your life. And they trust you with theirs - and if that isn't a big damn incentive not to take risks that you might take if it was just you, I don't know what is.

Poly does not make you a bad parent
I'll be brief on this one, not having tried it myself. But it's still asumed that poly parents, like gay parents, means children automatically suffer from growing up in an atypical household. There are always going to be some parents who don't put their child first, but why should anyone assume they're always the non-monogamous, non-straight, non-Normal ones? This is not the case. Having extra adults involved in their care is a good thing for children, they get more attention and affection and time. The nuclear family, that recent invention, can stand to grow and stretch and include more people in more bonds. Extended families of multiple adults were caring for children long before economic forces created the two-parent, one-earner-one-carer model - which, by the way, is going out the window anyway, now that women can work and one wage won't feed a growing family. Extended familys of parents and partners who are happily together in whatever combination are a bonus for a child.

Poly is not just for bisexuals...
...although the two do go together like Baileys and coffee. But poly can work for every orientation, and the notion that it's just us bisexuals, having all the cake and eating it as usual, is an unfounded stereotype. You can be straight and be poly, and you can be gay and poly. People of any orientation can have a great time with partner-swaps, swinging, V-shaped relationships, cruising together and getting involved in group sex for any number of players. But, speaking personally, being bi and poly is a particular delight. Being bi makes it tough to be monogamous, because not only do all the girls look hotter once you're paired up, but all the boys do too. It's good to be in a relationship which doesn't preclude you from taking an active interest in the other end of your attraction spectrum.
I'd argue the same is true for people of all sexual orientations - one person, however much they make you swoon, however well they know you, is unlikely to be the only person in the world you're turned on to. It happens, certainly, but there is much more extra-curricular attraction going on than we think, and it's not always guilty. You can be twenty years happily married and still nourish a yen for James Taylor, or spinning with first love but also watching every Kiera Knightly film you can get your hands on. And that's OK. Poly makes it negotiatedly all right, not just to have those attractions, but to act on them.

Poly keeps you talking.
Lovers have to talk. It's the difference between foundering and salvation. Having an atypical relationship means you take nothing for granted and discuss everything - you have to renogiate everything with your partner because the rules aren't the same. This is also true of kinky relationships, queer relationships of every sort, and any sort of relationship that swims against the tide of normality. You have stuff you have to talk about, because you're in unmapped terrain, and all the practise comes in handy when the trivial little deal-breakers like the dishes and the dusting rear their ugly heads.

Poly is frubbly.
There's a word I want to see written into the OED, not because it sounds nice, but because we need it. It's the diametric opposite of jealousy. The nearest antonym of jealousy I can find is 'trusting', which is defining jealousy as irrational posessiveness. It's more than that. It's biting insecurity and silent fear and frustration and stress. Frubble is the opposite to all those things. Frubble is when you send your Significant Other off to be with zir Other Significant Other, knowing they'll both be glad to see you when you all meet tomorrow. It's when you phone your primary to talk about the amazing weekend you had with someone else, and ze's genuinely pleased for you. It's when you are glad that your lover is finding something ze needs with another lover, something that you didn't necesarily have - be it a shared interest in cooking, complementary kinks, or an eostrogen-based body.

Poly is fun
Poly is tricky. In one way, it's monogamy squared, cubed, endlessly expanded to include new people. It's harder to make time, to balance commitments, to keep things even and open and negotiated. But it can also let you out to have fun and give you a place to come back to. It can allow friends to bond sexually and erotic interest to stay above-board and safe. It lets men, women and everyone else do things they've been told, for no good reason but Normality, that they can't.

I'm not saying it's not tough. It's hard work, it can go horrendously wrong, it can be painful and difficult and break your heart. It can also be fantastic, uplifting, comforting, sexy and so uniquely good it makes you cry.

Bit like love, really.

Mono/Poly (1 of 2)

There's a T-shirt my primary partner, who is a maths geek, wants me to make for him.

It will say


That would look much cooler if I could find the correct symbol for [does not equal], or, indeed, remember it. But there, in a nutshell, you have the reason why he's my Primary and not my Only.

I'll start with monogamy and what it isn't, and (in Part 2) move on to polyamory and what it can be.

What follows is ranty and possibly biased. I am by no means dissing monogamy for couples who find that it works best for them. But I suspect there are many paired-off people who are trying to work out why they are turned on to other people, and whether they are the only one drawn to extramarital play? And monogamy isn't good if you do it not as a voluntary choice, but because you didn't know there was a choice.

So, a few things to consider:

Monogamy is not love.
Monogamy is a cultural construct designed to make people, and particularly women, have sex only with their socially-sanctioned partner. It's enforced by social pressure, by law, by coercion, or (recently) by sheer mass-media hype. In the West, women have sufficient independence that they do not have to be monogamous (sadly, in other parts of the world, this still gets you stoned to death in very much the way Moses wrote into the Pentateuch). But, having gained decent brith control and economic independence, we've all bought into the Cinderella/Pride-and-Prejudice/Bridget-Jones idea that once you meet The One, you'll never ever want anyone else again, and you'll just skip off into the sunset hand in hand.

Monogamy sells.
Monogamy, now that it is frowned upon for a father to sell his daughter on to a husband, is often based around the insecurity we're all nourishing inside, the bit that says 'what does ze have that I don't? Is ze prettier, wittier, better in bed?' There's a vast market in breath-freshener and diet pills and makeup and muscle-building shakes and vaginal douches and fancy underwear and books on how to give better oral sex, and they sell partly because we want to keep a partner faithful.

Monogamy is not equality.
Monogamy started out as a neat way for men to be sure the child they are raising is their own, once we as a species figured out that straight sex led to pregnancy. Before that, maternity was the important element of parenthood. Once it became apparent that men might be contributing to the care of someone else's child, social rules shifted to make it more difficult for the child's mother to have more than one partner. Patriarchal control kicked in, ensuring women were passed from father to husband in a virgin state, because illicit sex got between men and their property. Monogamy originated as a way to ensure paternity, and developed as a method of controlling women.

And monogamy is not working.
Humans are not built for monogamy. It's a social construct, not a biological drive. Our biological drive demand that we fuck a lot of people, and we tend to kick against our social training and do just that. Something between 25% and 50% of people have had extramarital sex, and that's the people who admitted to it. One in five fathers is bringing up a child who is not biologically his. Clearly, this social construct is failing. If four thousand years of moral opprobrium hasn't stopped us shagging around, surely we should embrace the opportunity to do so without guilt and dishonesty?

So what, if any, alternatives are there?

Part 2 follows soon. Watch this space.

Edited to add a couple of corrections.

I am informed by people who know their maths that the symbol I was after in fact means [Can Never Equal], rather than [Does Not Necesarily Equal]. This is linguistically true in the case of Love =/= Monogamy, but means the basis of my first argument is open to misunderstanding. What I was getting at is that, in our culture, romantic love is generally held to include and require monogamy in order to be valid, and I'd like to seriously question that assumption - especially in the media, and in the way we police each other's relationships, and submit them to the bitter testing of The Norm.

Second, I'm aware that some of my arguments have been ethnocentric, focussing largely on cultures descending from the Abrahamic traditions central to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. My apologies for skipping over other cultures and traditions so regardlessly. I'm aware that I find it easier as a writer to skip things I know less about. In future, I'll indicate where I am missing out important bits due to lack of
knowledge and research time.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Writer's block strikes again

Today I scribbled down fourteen great ideas for new posts. Tonight I failed to write any of them.

I have been writing for four hours and come up with nothing worth reading. Tomorrow, with any luck, I will be able to make a coherent post about monogamy, why I don't do it, and why I think it's a harmful creation of the patriarchy and hurts women.

Please watch this space while I get my thoughts in order. Sensible amounts of posting, as per my New Year's resolution, will be resumed shortly.

K x