emily nagoski

Apr 102014
 

Hat tip to Susie Bright on Facebook for posting this New Republic article on trigger warnings. The short version of the article: “Issuing caution on the basis of potential harm or insult doesn’t help us negotiate our reactions; it makes our dealings with others more fraught.”

Which shows us that the article misses the point of what trigger warnings are for.

What trigger warnings are, when they’re used well, is part of a trauma-informed, survivor centered approach to talking about difficult topics. They’re a way of saying, “This thing here? This is difficult. If it feels difficult, that’s because it’s difficult. You’re not broken or sick or ‘weak’ if it makes you feel uncomfortable.”

Trigger warnings are not “Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities.” They are a component in creating an environment in which everyone has an opportunity to feel safe, and where the world recognizes that sometimes people have good reason to feel unsafe.

Is it a perfect paradigm? Heck no. I have experienced people asking for trigger warning on anything that might make them feel uncomfortable – and feeling uncomfortable is not the same as feeling unsafe. That’s one difficulty with the trigger warning paradigm – sometimes people use it to enact their sense of entitlement to a world that is always comfortable for them.

There’s another difficulty with it too: often missing from the trigger warning paradigm is education about how to take care of yourself when you’re triggered. TW’s say, “This might activate your stuff,” but it does nothing to provide support for what to do when your stuff gets activated.

But there’s a third, more complicated difficulty, and that’s that trigger warnings are just not going to help those who need them the most. And this is specifically because of the very nature of trauma survivorship. Sexual assault survivors have had control of their bodies stolen from them, often with deliberate intent, and the process of recovery is about (among other things) learning that you can take that control back. When you’re still in the process of recovery, there will be times when you feel hijacked. Yup.

In short, a trigger warning can’t persuade a person that they have control over their body, when their body is sure that they don’t have control.

But still I use them. In my class, in my talks, on my blog, in my book, and in life. Because what a trigger warning CAN do is

(1) create an environment that reminds survivors that control is POSSIBLE; and
(2) create an environment that reminds us that there are survivors in the room.

Life is difficult and uncomfortable. For survivors of violence, their central nervous systems are extra sensitive to that difficulty and that discomfort, and so they require extra skill in managing those feelings. And sometimes it’s too much and you just need to go somewhere else.

I use trigger warnings as a form of scaffolding for the central nervous systems of survivors – a little boost in support for them to recognize that this is a moment when they can practice choice and control over their bodies.

It doesn’t always work. But I will always provide as much explicit choice as I can.

Apr 022014
 

This is the last one. I’m finished with it. And I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about plot structure.

In the process of writing my own book, I learned how novels are constructed – or really, I learned how stories are told. There is a typical structure to a well-told story, which the best storytellers can mess with but which, overall, good stories will tend to follow, whether on purpose or not.

And 50 Shades is TEXTBOOK.

The journey-lauching first plot point happens right at the 20% mark (she signs the “nondisclosure” thingummy, without which nothing else that happens could follow). The context-changing midpoint happens right at the 50% mark (the Tess note – “don’t make it more than I can bear”). And the booster-rockets second plot point came a little early by page count – it would have been expected, in my trade paperback edition, between pages 380-390 – but right on the mark by chapter count, the end of Chapter 20.

(If you’re like, “What the hell are you talking about, Emily?” just read any book on screenwriting.)

It’s the elevator thing again. We know where we’re going, and the standard plot structure is how we expect to get there. 50 Shades meets those expectations.

It delivers the story – even if the story is awful. And that is not nothing.

But the plot fucks up because in the end Ana defies the biology of attachment in order to do what the plot demands she does: a woman who has spent 450 pages worried that she made a guy mad is not going to FIGHT after being spanked at her consent. When she’s in pain, she’ll turn TOWARD her attachment object, not away. That’s what mammals – especially insecurely attached mammals – do.

But the plot structure required that she turn away, and so that’s what she does, despite its biological implausibility.

And THAT’s why this book is bullshit.

Or rather, it’s the final piece of bullshit in The Worst Book I Have Ever Finished. Grey is Ragey McRagington, Ana is the most dishwater heroine I’ve ever read (which is, I suppose, a kind of distinction really), and their relationship is abusive, which makes all the sex gross.

While I’m at it, I MUST say this:

Regular readers of the blog are familiar with the concept of arousal nonconcordance: there a 10% overlap between what a woman’s genitals respond to sexually and what she actually ENJOYS sexually. This is not a system error, the two processes reflect different aspects of the sexual response mechanism. Genital response is about sexual RELEVANCE, while “feeling turned on” or “liking something” is about sexual APPETITIVENESS.

Genital response = sexually relevant, with no information about whether it’s good or bad.
“Arousal” = liking and maybe even wanting.

Which means I threw the book across the room and screamed when, after the first spanking – which Ana has only just barely tolerated – Christian Grey puts his fingers in Ana’s lubricating vagina and says:

“Feel this. See how much your body likes this, Anastasia.” [emphasis mine]

BLEURGH!!!!!! NO!!!! It means her body found physical contact with her genitals and buttocks sexually relevant, which is what it’s supposed to do! That has nothing to do with whether or not she LIKED IT, YOU FUCKBALL RAGEAHOLIC!! GAAAAAAAHHHHH!

But wait.

It gets worse – less angry-making and more despair-making:

ANA BELIEVES HIM, instead of believing her own internal experience, which she describes as, “demeaned, debased, and abused.”

Look, for sure there are women who are turned on by the experience of being consensually debased, but the whole plot pivots on the fact that ANA ISN’T ONE OF THEM.

100,000,000 copies, people.

This is the kind of thing that brings out Hulk Emily.

Here’s what I’m going to do about it:

I am – I really am, I have already started, despite having my book’s Looming Deadline – going to write a feminist, sex positive, evidence-driven version of 50 Shades. I am going to do this because:

(1) I am too pissed about this book to do nothing;
(2) I understand how it used tension and anticipation to keep readers turning pages;
(3) I saw how the plot structure worked; and
(4) I have to get this taste out of mouth. The best way to do that is to spend 65,000 words choosing whatever taste I want.

In short, I see what worked in this book as clearly as I see what was NAUSEATINGLY AWFUL. Which means I can replicate the things that worked and replace the NAUSEATINGLY AWFUL with the FUN AND AWESOME.

Stay tuned.

Mar 312014
 

In today’s edition of my decreasingly neutral report of my read of 50 Shades – hereafter bearing the title “Worst Book I’ve Ever Finished”: Attachment.

It’s the biological motivation system that bonds us emotionally with each other. Us and the other mammals, but us especially. The person you’re attached to is your SAFE HAVEN, your EMOTIONAL HOME, the place you go when you are stressed out.

Attachment is what jealousy is about – attachment threat – and it’s what the desire to be “possessed” is ultimately about. So when Ana gets all eager about “belonging” to” the hero, that’s attachment.

Attachment is powerful and it can be pleasurable. And fun to play with. Lots of women (lot of everybody, actually) like to feel claimed and possessed because it feels safe, it feels like having an emotional home.

But when attachment and stress get together, complicated things happen.

Many of you may be familiar with the important though troubling work of Harry Harlow. (That video I just linked to? Not easy to watch for everyone. Click with caution.) The crucial piece of his work I want to talk about is the Monster Mothers.

The Monster Mothers were mechanical cylinders covered in cloth and with pingpong ball faces. The baby monkeys attached to them very much as they would attach to biological mothers. But these mechanisms would jet cold air or blunted spikes or otherwise FORCIBLY JETTISON the baby monkey off of them.

What did the baby monkeys do when they had been shaken, hit, or shoved by their “mothers”?

They RAN BACK TO THEIR MOTHERS.

Of course they did. Your attachment object is your safe haven, the place you go when you’re stressed. Even when your attachment object IS ALSO THE SOURCE OF THAT STRESS.

Which brings me to…

Five Signs that Ana and Christian’s Relationship is Definitely Abusive and Not Sexy and Not Loving:

1. When she says, “Nice knowing you,” he believes she means she doesn’t want to see him again, and so he goes to her apartment with a bottle of champagne. The lady said no. What should happen next is you ask for permission to talk about it.

2. He’s not “like a stalker,” HE ACTUALLY DOES STALK HER. He tracks her phone, he knows her mother’s name and address, he finds out what flight she’s on… Having had a stalker myself, let me tell you: that kind of thing is fucking terrifying in real life. I get that in the book it’s just supposed to be like, “He KNOWS me, I’m IMPORTANT to him,” but it’s violence. It’s not cute or sexy or fun. It’s abuse.

3. Ana is constantly worried that Christian is “mad at her.” If your partner’s anger makes you fearful, so that you avoid doing or saying things just so they don’t get mad, that’s a sign that your relationship is dysfunctional at best and possibly abusive. Let me say that again: if you are afraid of your partner’s anger, that’s a sign of abuse. If you have to say, “Please don’t hit me,” that’s a sign of abuse. Okay.

4. “I have issues with food, therefore you are required to change your eating behavior for me.” Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. In reality, “I have issues with food, therefore seeing you engage in that particular behavior makes me feel uncomfortable, but I know it’s your body to deal with according to your own desires. You do you.”

5. Ana’s friend Kate is seriously worried about Ana, and hates Christian despite the fact that she’s boning C’s brother. She’s worried because suddenly Ana’s crying all the time – in fact, every time she sees Christian, she cries. THAT’S A GOOD REASON TO BE WORRIED WHEN IT’S LITERALLY ONE WEEK INTO THE RELATIONSHIP. CLEARLY IT’S NOT A “ROUGH PATCH.”

So it’s an abusive relationship.

Okay. That’s all for now.

Mar 302014
 

In today’s edition of Emily Reads 50 Shades, I want to discuss two important phenomena in social science: the ironic process, and social influence.

1. IRONIC PROCESS:

Don’t think about a bear.

Right?

Okay, now don’t find that bear sexy. Whatever you do, don’t imagine the warm soft fur brushing against your nipples. Don’t do it.

Are you getting turned on by the thought of bear fur on your nipples?

Pervert.

No. Not a pervert. Just another victim of the ironic process effect. The harder you try to do something, the more you fail, and the harder you try NOT to do something, the more you can’t help doing it.

And in the context of 50 Shades, it takes us back to the ambivalence = tension principle. We, as readers, have ambivalence about experiencing genital response when we read the book, and that very ambivalence actually makes us more likely to pick the fucker back up, so that we can resolve the ambiguity. Our discrepancy reducing feedback loops can’t rest.

To be honest, I’ve read sexually explicit stories to which I’ve responded with greater ambivalence. I’ve read Sade, for example. I’ve read Victorian incest porn. It’s genuinely part of my responsibility as a sex educator to be able to navigate my way through stuff that activates all kinds of avoidance responses in me, and process all of that to become more accepting of whatever my students bring into the classroom. And I’ll be honest, I experience genital response when I read the gross creepy shit. Of course I do. It’s “sexually relevant,” and my genitals know what they’re supposed to do whenever anything sexually relevant comes along.

But at the same time, gross and creepy. It’s RELEVANT but it’s not appealing – or in the case of an actual bear, completely terrifying. And that’s a puzzle we’re not often confronted with in our day to day lives, and so our discrepancy reducing feedback loops want to sort out. (But of course the THOUGHT of a bear is not at all the same thing as AN ACTUAL BEAR; in the same way, a fantasy that turns us on may or may not be something that in real life would turn us on.)

Moreover it’s NOVEL, as in previously unexperienced, which further increases activation in the mesolimbic cortex.

It keeps us reading.

Or anyway, skimming.

Or anyway, it gets a BIG FEEL out of us, whether positive or negative, and we talk to people about things that give us BIG FEELS, even if we don’t actually read the whole thing.

2. SOCIAL INFLUENCE

In a seriously, seriously brilliant study titled Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market (PDF), researchers created an online marketplace of songs. In one condition, they had several thousand college students rate 48 songs, and then they could download whatever songs they wanted. This gave them a sense of the average rating college students gave these 48 songs when the only information they had about the song was the song itself.

Then they created the same market, with the same songs, but this time they allowed participants to SEE OTHER PEOPLE’S RANKINGS.

Result: as they summarize in the abstract, “The best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst rarely did well, but any other result was possible.”

ANY OTHER RESULT WAS POSSIBLE

An example from the NPR story about this research:

“For example, we had this song ‘Lock Down’ by the band 52 Metro,” Salganik says. “In one world this song came in first; in another world it came in 40th out of 48th. And this was exactly the same song. It’s just in these different worlds, history evolved slightly different. There were differences in the beginnings, and then the process of social influence and cumulative advantage sort of magnified those small, random initial differences.”

Remember, the goal of my analysis of the book is not to figure out what’s wrong with it – lots of people have already done that – but to figure out why it was so successful. What Sagalnick’s research suggests is that slight differences in initial conditions can utterly change the outcome of a product in the market.

A few factors that are controllable: It’s got a good title. I think the cover design is clever and appealing. I think the author’s name is easy to remember and pronounce. All these things are the elements you expect will help a book’s sales. But a very large proportion of what influences a book’s success are these uncontrollable things related to the initial conditions into which the book is released.

I made it through the first 10 chapters pretty well, but I admit that I’ve begun skimming. It has officially gotten wackadoo. The sex is somehow both pretty stupid and pretty troubling. IRL, Grey would be an unambiguous abuser – really, it’s obvious even to a vanilla gal like me that’s he’s not a sexual dom, he’s just an ASSHOLE.

I’m still trying though, right?

And finding sciencey ideas that might explain why people bought the thing.

I paid $3 for it from Better World Books, so at least I have the consolation that it was cheap, I got it used (which saved paper), and it resulted in the donation of book somewhere.

Mar 292014
 

“There’s something about you.”

That’s why Christian Grey wants to fuck Anastasia Steele hard. There’s something about her.

Part of that something ends up being the fact that she is a virgin. Of which much has been made in critiques of the book, right? It’s genuinely true that not a large percentage of American women get to college graduation never having had sex.

So why is Ana a virgin? Two reasons, I think:

1. the history of the genre; and
2. drama goes to extremes.

The history of the genre, right back to Pamela (tellingly subtitled “Virtue Rewarded”), is virgins being seduced by and then, with their purity and goodness, reforming the wicked hero/villain. That’s the genre. Of course it is. Women weren’t allowed to be sexual agents in their own right; on the contrary, their sexual purity was their single most valuable asset, and in fiction this purity was so powerful it could make a bad man good.

Of course the culture has changed and women need not be virgins to be good people now, which brings us to the second reason. Stories are most compelling when there is something substantial at stake and the action is extreme. The duke and the quaker. The king and the commoner. The rich, dominant, experienced dude and the shy nervous virgin student. Of course. That’s just how it works, especially when you’re not trying too hard to be creative within the genre.

In fact, she’s a virgin at, like, EVERYTHING. She’s never been kissed, never been drunk, and apparently she’s never seen a commercial for British Airways or Ghirardelli chocolates, since she’s never heard the Flower Duet.

In short, I think we need not read too much into it. It’s just the “higher stakes” within the formula of the genre. Her virginity per se is not why the book sold 100,000,000 copies – it’s the overall going-to-extremes that does the trick.

And hey, Christian Grey loses a series of virginities in these chapters too: first time sleeping-literally-sleeping with a woman, first time flying a woman in his (eyeroll) helicopter, first time having vanilla sex.

So okay, but here’s what that last one turns into in my head:

A million years ago during a clinical internship, there was this het couple, these clients, and the guy had a fetish. In fact, he had never had sex WITHOUT involving the fetish. The woman had been going along with the fetish but she was getting a bit fed up with it and so now they were in therapy. They did standard Sensate Focus, and IN A FLASH this guy let go of the fetish and just loved, ya know, touching his naked body against his partner’s naked body.

Based on that, I’m going to predict that what happens is that gradually Our Hero gets more and more into vanilla sex while she gets more and more into kinky sex and they find a middle place.

Which brings us right back to standard romance genre trope: heroine magically heals the wounded hero with her sparkly pure vagina.

EL James wrote a fantasy that set the old stories in a new context. It’s a dumb story, in my opinion, badly written, objectively, but it does the tension/discrepancy reduction/info gap thing successfully, and it’s familiar enough yet new enough to be comfortably compelling.

Which brings me to another standard mechanism of romance novels and of sexual stimulation: brakes and gas at the same time.

Ambivalence is powerful in your emotional brain. Yes-but-also-no. “I want him and at the same time I’m totally wigged out by the fact that he’s saying he wants to whip me,” etc.

Ambivalence = tension. Tension = readers.

That’s really the end of this post, but I have to at least MENTION that there were some really, REALLY problematic things about these chapters. I’ll just say one of them, very briefly, because again, describing all the problematic things is not what I’m trying to do with these posts. But you may remember that I mentioned Tess of the d’Urbervilles in my first post. I wrote a paper on it in 1998, and I got an A. I like that book. But let’s be perfectly clear here about something that would have seriously risked Ana’s grade on her paper: Alec doesn’t “debase” Tess, as Christian puts it. Alec rapes Tess. Either Ana or Christian or EL James or all of the above have SERIOUSLY MISSED THE POINT of that book.

Mar 242014
 

Shortly after pursuing the “representing other ethnicities than my own” post, I started reading 50 Shades of Grey.

The combination made me think about cultural appropriation, since, apart from the criticism of 50 Shades’ literary merits, one of the most common argument I hear against it is, “This isn’t representative of the kink community.” (No it is not.) And while I don’t think there’s any useful comparison I can make between the kink community and racial groups in America, there is the superficial similarity of being, in some ways, outside the mainstream and yet “represented,” with varying degrees of respect and authenticity, in the mainstream.

So I’ve been thinking about it and reading about it, and here’s what I’ve figured out:

It’s like kids on a playground.

There are lots of games happening all at once on a playground. A kid who wants to join a game will do best when they ASK FIRST, “Can I play?”, rather than joining in without anyone saying they can play. Once you’re in, great, you can follow the rules about sharing within the group. But first you need that permission.

There are two ways that it gets complicated, depending on whether the kid is trying to join the Mainstream Game or trying to join a Subculture Game:

(1) TRYING TO JOIN THE MAINSTREAM CULTURE GAME: In the mainstream game, the rule is: You can’t say you can’t play. Everybody is allowed to join in, like the largest game of Red Rover EVER. You just hold hands with the person nearest you and you’re in.

Technically that mainstream game is the one I was born into, though there are times when I look around and feel like I have no idea what the rules are. There was this concealed rules game we used to play in middle school where you’d go around the circle and say or do things, trying to infer rules that only the game leader and experienced players knew. I was not very good at it, but I clearly remember the feeling of finally clicking in, figuring out the rule, and being able to understand why everyone was saying and doing what they were saying and doing. I get that in real life sometimes too. Fortunately, you don’t have to know the rules to play. Everyone is allowed to play. Some people have advantages, some people have more skill at it than others, but we’re all allowed to play.

Obviously there are some jerks, some bullies who want to say others can’t play, but they’ll be out-competed by the folks who play fair.

(2) TRYING TO JOIN A SUBCULTURE GAME: Cultural appropriation happens when someone from the mainstream game tries to join a subculture game without asking permission first. They join in, they take stuff, and they take it back to the mainstream game, where they use it to play that game. And the folks in the subculture game are like, “HEY! THAT’S OURS!!”

But that’s not the only way it happens. Suppose one kid says you can play, and then somebody else in the group says you can’t. You say, “But this person said I could,” and then then there’s an argument between those two kids, and then we might end up with two games – one where you can play and one where you can’t.

Or suppose no one in the game says you can play, and you get mad because, “That’s not fair!”

But it is fair. The only game where it’s not fair to say, “You can’t play,” is the mainstream, dominant game. Different game, different rules. That’s fair.

How does this play out in real life? Take me, for example. Because I have a pretty powerful social identity (white, cis, middle class, able-bodied, etc etc etc), I pretty much ALWAYS have to ask if I can play before I join a subculture game. And if people say, “No you can’t play,” I need to suck it up and go find a different game, or wait patiently until I earn the right to be invited into the game.

And that is what I have learned about cultural appropriation, thanks to 50 Shades of Grey. Let it never be said that even the lightest of fiction can’t have beneficial consequences.

Mar 242014
 

Plenty has been said about what’s wrong with 50 Shades of Grey – in fact, y’all pointed me to several examples of bloggers blogging their reads, like Pervocracy’s, a chapter-by-chapter account that is by turns hilarious and profound, and sometimes it’s both at once. Cliff points out, among other things, the seriously, seriously big problems with consent and communication in the book.

It also has some pretty major problems with, um, sentence structure and vocabulary.

But those things aren’t what I want to comment on here. What I’m interested in is why such a bad book – and as a regular reader of romance novels, I say “bad” advisedly, knowing just what the standards are, in general, for romance – about such a bad relationship – and it really is a bad, bad relationships – sold 100,000,000 copies according to the full-page color ad in the New York times. That’s a hundred million.

A HUNDRED MILLION.

Why?

THAT is what I want to comment on here. That’s what I want to figure out.

Ready? Okay. Here we go. The first 5 chapters.

In the first 5 chapters of 50 Shades of Grey, we learn that Anastasia – Ana to her friends – is an insecure, self-critical pushover who is desperately concerned with other people’s opinions of her.

In fact, we learn this in the first four pages. And I’ll be honest: if I were just reading this for the hell of it, I would have stopped here. I don’t find Ana compelling as a character. That’s a personal taste thing, some people really enjoy the story of an anxious, pushover main character who grows over the course of the story, but it’s just not for me.

But let’s read on.

We then learn that Christian Grey has unruly copper-colored hair and he’s an arrogant control freak. We know this because Ana tell us us so over and over again. And again.

And again.

We’re 11 pages in now.

And I’m beginning to see what the deal is.

Wanna see?

Little known fact: I, like Ana, wrote an essay on Tess of the d’Urbervilles in my last semester in college. I got an A on my paper. I do not yet know what Ana will get on hers, but THE TENSION IS MOUNTING! WILL ANA GET AN A?!

Publicly available fact: Princeton doesn’t offer a degree in Business Administration. I checked. So here’s a puzzle: is Ana’s friend Paul (who, we are told, is studying Business Administration at Princeton) a total fucking liar or… did EL James maybe not do a lot of research? (And by “a lot” I mean “any.”) DON’T YOU LONG TO KNOW THE ANSWER??? STAY TUNED.

What I’m saying here is: tension. The story so far is one long anxious ramble through the life and thoughts of an insecure, hapless, directionless, perpetually worried young woman. She’s nervous all the time, and she’s especially nervous when the hero is around. And she takes her nervousness around him to mean that she “likes him” – welcome to the wonderful world of misattribution of arousal.

But what matters about the tension has to do with us, the readers, and our discrepancy reducing feedback loops and information gap theory. The short version of what that means: our brains have an innate “What’s that?” mechanism that causes us to want get to the end of a thing, scratch the itch, find a solution, solve a puzzle, explore novelty to see where it fits in our prior experience. We like it when a chord of music resolves, when we know how a story ends.

In this case, all the (much-ridiculed) minutiae of Ana’s jacket and her tea and her blushes and her gasps and all her tedious thoughts are setting up tension, setting up expectations, heavily – HEAVILY – foreshadowing the relationship to come. (CABLE TIES?!?! That’s fucking hilarious!) We know what’s coming, and we keep reading until at last, with satisfaction, it comes.

Okay but here’s the magic trick part: This innate mechanism in our brains is so powerful that we don’t have to care about the characters in order to want to get to the resolution of all that tension. We don’t even have to enjoy a story in order to want to get to the resolution. (“Wanting” is a separate mechanism from “liking” – as I explain here.)

At the end of Chapter 5 – which is the end of my reading for this post – the hero kisses the heroine for the first time. In an elevator. This was foreshadowed by a prior elevator ride, in which they interrupted a couple making out. At the end of both elevator rides, Christian says, “What is it about elevators?” or something to that effect.

We may, I suppose, learn about some specific fetish of his, and I feel pretty certain there will be elevator-fucking in the future, but metaphorically, what is it about elevators?

Well as Cliff at Pervocracy points out, it’s a place where you can’t run away. That’s for sure the creepiest part – but that’s the hero’s perspective, and the book is written in the first person, from the heroine’s point of view, and she has no interest in running away. On the contrary.

So from the heroine’s POV, what is it, metaphorically, about elevators?

You get on an elevator, knowing that you’re going somewhere. You’re going somewhere. You’re getting closer. You’re almost there. There!

You don’t have to like where you’re going. You don’t have to enjoy the ride. But darn it all, you’re GOING to get where you’re going.

Information gap. Discrepancy reducing feedback loop.

So uh-huh. I get why people read this book – indeed, the prose is so ham-fisted, the storytelling so plodding, you can SEE the mechanism at work. And I know that people LIKE that feeling of being tugged along toward the inevitable. Elevators. We all know where we’re going, let’s just get on and go for a ride. Wheeee.

I’ve read worse romance novels. This probably somewhere in the C-/D+ range so far. I don’t yet know why it sold 100 million copies, but I know why it was published. It’s a rule-abiding fantasy that successfully builds tension and expectation so that our brains just want to get to the part where our expectations are fulfilled. Fair enough.

In a way, it’s pleasing to me that straightforward erotic fantasy for women, thinly veiled as romance, has made such an impact on the mainstream. That’s not nothing.

Something tells me, though, that things are about to get a little less pleasing a little more wackadoo.

Mar 192014
 

It’s a long story, but in the end what matters is:

I am obliged to read 50 Shades of Grey.

I got 4 pages in and started shopping for shoes online, which is when I realized I’m going to have to do something pretty drastic to make it through.

So I asked Twitter for advice, and based on everyone’s ideas (“Read this instead,” “Only read even numbered pages, you won’t miss anything,” and “try to analyze the text to see where it was adapted away from vampirism,” among them) I’ve decided I’m going to blog about it as I go, like I did with Sex at Dawn, another book that I had to read no matter how much I wanted to throw it against a wall, set it on fire, and stomp on the ashes.

There are 26 chapters. I’ll post 5ish chapters at a time – 5 posts altogether, and I’ll try to write a post per week. Surely I can read 5 chapters a week.

Here’s what I want to accomplish:

1. I want to see if I can explain why it sold so well, despite it being a book that few people are willing to say they enjoyed.
2. I want to see if I can provide a scientific framework for understanding the relationship and the sex.

Or anyway those are the goals.

Stay tuned.

Mar 052014
 

So you may have seen this article in The Atlantic, Why Is It So Hard for Women to Write About Sex?

When people ask questions like this, I feel compelled to answer.

There are two reasons:

1. Because women are deeply, essentially, fundamentally misinformed about the basics of how sex works, both inside their bodies and inside their relationships; and

2. They’re also only very rarely and exceptionally taught how to pay attention to their own internal experience.

In short, women have a hard time writing about sex because they neither understand, factually, nor trust, emotionally, their experience.

Let’s start with the first thing. I’ll just correct some basic actual factual mistakes in the article itself, to illustrate.

A. “Men are all evidence”, meaning that when a man has an erection, it’s an undeniable truth about what turns them on. There are days when I can’t believe we’re still reenacting this narrative. I’ve written about this a lot, so I’ll just say here that: Genital response is NOT desire.

B. “Women have long since learned all about how our tucked-away stuff works”. Good god do I wish this were true. But the above correction is just one example of how not true this is. My book is 100,000 words worth of all the stuff people don’t know about how their stuff works – including directly addressing this idea that their stuff is “tucked away.” It’s “tucked away” only in a metaphorical sense, not an anatomical sense. And while I suppose there are those who would argue that bodies are metaphors… I wouldn’t. I would argue that I live in a literal body.

C. “Meanwhile, female lust has been thoroughly documented (or at any rate, endlessly and theatrically depicted) by the adult-film industry.” Um, no. A male fantasy of female lust has been documented and theatrically depicted in porn – with feminist porn the rare exception. Let us never mistake media representations of female sexuality for ACTUAL female sexuality. Women routinely come to me with expectations about their sexual functioning established by what they’ve seen in porn, and the porn is all wrong. If we had a functional sex education system, that would help inoculate us against the worst of the fallacies in porn, but without it…

And then 2 – not knowing how to pay attention to internal experience. This shows up as this experience of sexual desire:

[My lust] comes with an endless internal monologue—or maybe dialogue, or maybe babel. My desire is always guessing, often second-guessing. Female lust is a powerful force, but it surges in the form of an interrogation, rather than a statement. Not I want this but Do I want this? What exactly do I want? How about now? And now?

[D]id I want it enough? How good did it truly feel? Was I doing it only because the other person wanted to? My desire was real, I could feel it there at the core of the experience, but if I let myself, I could also feel doubt braided tightly with the desire. [...] Second thoughts come right on the heels of first thoughts, and am I really supposed to be having thoughts during sex anyway?

What right now feels daring but also timely, I’m discovering, is this: to forget about trying to prove some sort of risqué bona fides, and to focus instead on all that interior whirring.

Here’s the reality: you are a flock. You contain multitudes, as the man said. You have a bunch of simultaneous and competing motivations functioning all at once, all the time: hunger, thirst, fatigue, pleasure, social acceptance, stress, different roles and identities in life… and it often happens that those parts pull in opposite directions.

This is normal and healthy.

But women have been taught to notice ambivalence with anxiety – “whirring” and “Am I really supposed to be…” and “doubt” about whether or not your own internal experience is trustworthy.

(Your internal experience is trustworthy, even – especially – when it is ambivalent.)

So that’s why it’s hard. It’s hard because women in America are only rarely taught the truth about our bodies – and yet often believe that we HAVE been taught the truth about our bodies. And it’s hard because we are even more rarely taught to notice our own internal complexity with compassion and nonjudgment.

And if you’re looking for a solution of how to make it easier for women to write about (and have) sex, the answer is: the judicious application of feminist science and nonjudgment.

Mar 032014
 

In the midst of my final revision, my intern sent me this article from The Nation about feminists being mean to each other on the internet, especially with regard to the intersection between gender and race.

And so I need to ask for your advice, since I have seen here the most civil disagreements among feminists that I’ve seen anywhere.

Here’s the thing:

One of the features of my book is that it follows the narratives of four women – composites constructed from the hundreds of women I’ve taught or otherwise known in my nearly 20 years as a sex educator. Two of those composite women are identified as women of color – one is a first generation Korean American and one is African American. A woman’s heritage and her culture are part of how she experiences sex, and race is one element of that, and so I’ve included it in the stories.

But I’m worried about it.

I feel like I’ve got two choices:

(1) Write these stories as well as I can, integrating a variety of stories women have told me about their experience living in bodies that are meaningfully different from my own, recognizing that there’s a risk that this will be interpreted as appropriating the stories of women of color for my own gain; or

(2) Don’t include any women of color.

I can’t, I can’t, I can’t do the latter. One of my goals with the book is to be as inclusive as I can, and to recognize where I’m not being inclusive. I want to integrate different life experiences and identities into the idea of sexual pleasure, to normalize the idea that EVERYONE has a unique experience of sex and everyone has a right to autonomy over their own body. And the stories told to me by women of color are more SIMILAR to those from White women than they are different; so much of women’s sexuality is either utterly universal or else utterly individual, without reference to cultural groups.

But still, I am a white chick, so I’m not writing about these narratives from firsthand experience, but from stories other women have told me.

I mean, I guess what I’m asking here is: how can I write these stories in a way that feels respectful and honoring, INCLUSIVE, as I intend it to be, rather than appropriating?

And, given that I can’t do it perfectly, how can I prepare myself for the inevitable attack on all the ways I’ve fallen short?

Help?