Tuesday, October 9, 2012

booknotes: exposing phallacy

Recently, I was sent an advance review copy of the book Exposing Phallacy: Flashing in Contemporary Culture (Zero Books, 2012) by Kate Gould. At seventy-four pages, Gould's examination of the culture of flashing is brief and necessarily incomplete, but thought-provoking nevertheless. Flashing (the practice of exposing one's sexybits without the prior consent of the viewer(s)) is frankly something I've never spent a lot of time thinking about. I've had the (rare, it seems) luck of never encountering someone who displayed their breasts, labia, or penis either directly to me or in a public area I happened to be. In a vague sort of way, I thought of such activities as existing in the area between public nudity performed to disrupt (streakers) and sexual harassment like wolf-whistles.

Like streaking, flashing seems to trade on the indecency of exposing parts of one's naked body in public under certain conditions (could one be a flasher on a nude beach? would anyone care?). Like verbal sexual harassment on the street, if it takes place in a populated area with no other threat of physical harm, flashing is (to the viewer) weird and unexpected and probably unwanted, but not particularly effective either as a show of force or as a come-on. I mean, unless you happen to expose your bits to just the right person, most casual viewers are not going to read surprise genital exposure as a positive first move toward mutual sexual pleasure ("Look! I have bits!" "Indeed, you do, as do I. Care to start with a more personalized introduction?").

I frankly hadn't thought of flashing as a particularly sexual activity, as something a person would get off on in a dedicated way -- though why I would fail to see the potential when voyeurism is such a strong element within eroticism now seems baffling. Gould argues exactly this, in fact: that flashers experience the act of flashing as a sexual activity, one in which their imagined encounter with the observer(s) of their act is the reward, rather than any specific response (disgust, anger, fear, indifference) on the part of those who have been flashed. The flashees, it would seem, are necessary yet strangely superfluous.

From an explicitly feminist perspective, Gould explores the gendered differences in flashing: women exposing themselves as part of a larger culture that objectifies female sexuality, men exposing themselves as a bid for power and/or control over their own sexuality (and the imagined sexual responses of observers). She also talks briefly about the legal and medical frames around flashing, particularly for male flashers, and argues that both of these approaches to the problem of non-consensual flashing are inadequate. While those who've experienced flashing as sexual harassment certainly have a right to redress, treating flashing as a sexual disorder risks criminalizing and pathologizing a sexual activity simply because as a society we've deemed it "abnormal." As with so many other sexual behaviors, consent here seems to be the key issue and I wish Gould had explored this more fully: is the unwilling participation of observers (the surprise element) a key part of a flasher's experience? Or would someone who enjoys the activity of flashing be able to channel that sexual activity into a consensual context?

In the end, I found myself wondering what would happen if as a culture we just treated bodily exposure as ... unremarkable? It seems like part of what makes flashing an attractive activity to those who engage in it is the illicitness, the taboo element. So if as a society we've decided it's not so awesome for people to expose their sexybits in public what if we just responded with a collective yawn when it happened? What if, instead of criminalizing the activity and subjecting flashers to therapeutic "fixes," we just said, "Gosh, that's boring!" It seems like if as a culture we had a less disordered relationship with sexuality and the human body, we might have a more constructive response to flashing behavior -- emphasizing the need for consent and otherwise treating the human body as an unremarkable fact of daily life.

Exposing Phallacy is a book that will be of interest to those who explore the intersections of human sexuality, social policing, and the law.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

booknotes: god believes in love

Gene Robinson's God Believes in Love: Straight Talk on Gay Marriage (Knopf, 2012) is not really for the already-converted. Unless, like me, you enjoy reading thoughtful meditations on why marriage equality matters -- and why Christians, particularly, should support the ability of same-sex couples to seek out and enjoy the (social, religious, legal) benefits of marriage. Instead, God Believes in Love is a gentle question-by-question response to common arguments against legalizing same-sex unions and giving them marital status.

Drawing on examples from his own life and the lives of other individuals in committed same-sex partnerships, Robinson pushes his presumed straight, religious (predominantly Christian?) audience to think about how support for same-sex couples is, in fact, a theologically sound proposition. I am, as always, humbled by Robinson's apparently boundless capacity to understand the worldview of those who oppose same-sex marriage in a compassionate way while also speaking in the strongest possible terms for equal rights. In one of my favorite passages he writes:
When you're trying to understand the plight of someone else, when you're trying to understand someone's experience that has never been your experience, you begin by truly listening to him and his stories, really listening. And then -- and this is key, I believe -- you believe his truth. It may not be your truth, and it may not have been anything you have experienced. But you believe that this is the truth of the other person's experience. And you show infinite respect for him by believing him (p. 45).
The format -- each chapter title is a "frequently asked question" with the chapter standing as Robinson's answer -- would make this a particularly easy read for a Sunday School class or book group (I imagine this was part of Robinson's intent).

While his emphasis on the conservatism of marriage equality for same-sex couples is no doubt going to frustrate those of us who worry about championing "straight acting" couples at the expense of more unorthodox (yet still consensual, loving, and mutually-supportive) relationship structures, I do hope that this accessible volume will jump-start some fruitful conversations. Conversations that, in the end, will lead to my marriage being legally recognized (and, eventually, culturally celebrated) in not just the state of Massachusetts but in the United States as a whole.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

booknotes: our arcadia

In the weeks leading up to our wedding and subsequent honeymoon on Cape Cod (my first visit to that part of Massachusetts, after having lived in Boston for five years!) I re-read one of my all-time favorite novels, Robin Lippincott's Our Arcadia: (An American Watercolor) (Penguin, 2002).

I first encountered Our Arcadia on a road trip I took during the summer of 2002 through the Pacific Northwest. I picked up the novel at a tiny bookshop in Port Townsend, Washington, while staying at the hostel in Fort Worden State Park on the Olympic Peninsula (along with a summer institute for pipers; it was surreal to spend several days in a national park with the constant sound of bagpipes on the wind!). The novel begins in Boston -- a city I had yet to visit -- and takes place primarily on Cape Cod, near Truro. In a series of impressionistic chapters told in varying narrative voices, Our Arcadia tells the story of a group of bohemian friends who buy a house the name True House and live together communally from the mid-1920s through the Second World War.

It was very strange re-reading the novel from start to finish for the first time since moving to Boston. When I first encountered the characters, their landscape was a foreign one to me; now it is intimately familiar -- whether they are visiting the Museum of Fine Arts, walking up Newbury Street, or staying in the Parker House hotel.

The reason I re-read the novel as a prelude to getting married is that Our Arcadia was a work of fiction that spoke to my twenty-one-year-old self about what it means to live intentionally, and in community. The characters in Lippincott's novel are imperfect beings, and their lives are far from idyllic. There are failed relationships, parent-child tensions, accidents and illness and even a suicide. There is self-hatred alongside sexual ecstasy, artistic vision comingling with the necessity of financial survival. It was a novel that presented an interpersonal landscape where people of varying sexual desires and temperaments, race, class, and occupational pursuits, somehow found one another and pulled through life together. Who created a home.

I won't claim that my reading of Our Arcadia is anything but deeply personal. To others its prose likely feels pretentious, its characters typed and historically unsound. Still others might object to the short-hand use of the Cape as a retreat for bohemian artists, with little mention of the tensions between those who can afford to live there while making their living elsewhere and locals who live and die off more circumscribed economies. Yet for me, the book continues to suggest the truth of True House exists for those of us who work intentionally to foster it. And represents some approximation of the type of life I hope to build with my family and friends moving forward -- in spirit if not in material detail.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Morrison: Misguided? Misinformed? or Malicious? [a mst-ing, pt. 1]

We're voting for all three!

KarraCrow and annajcook here taking a break from our stay-cation during the month of August to bring you a full-scale MST-ing of today's piece of shoddy journalism barely-researched commentary by author Ewan Morrison on the phenomena known as "fan fiction (fanfic)" - a brave new world of well ... we'll let him tell you.

And then we'll snark about it.

In detail, and in serial form -- 'cause there's just too much to say about the wrong of this piece (both in the casual sense and in the more egregious "you just let your nasty prejudice show there" sense) to let it go.

Here's part-the-first (Morrison in block quotes, and us not ... just, you know, so we're clear about authorship and everything here):
If you were to lock a group of pop culture junkies and TV addicts in a bunker, tell them that the end of the world had arrived and that they had to preserve culture for posterity by writing books, what they would produce would be fan fiction (fanfic). 
A: So ... fan fiction is ... the modern-day equivalent of the final scene in Fahrenheit 451? I'm confused.
KC: Poser panic.
This is actually the plot of a piece of fanfic from the 1950s, in which sci-fi fans survive Armageddon and rebuild civilisation in their own image. 
KC: Fanfic or fic about fans?
A: He's clearly confusing the two. I mean, by that definition? Don DeLillo and Nick Hornby have been writing fan fiction for decades, a revelation which might come as a hell of a shock to them both!
KC: Well, I don't know if it would come as much of a shock to Nick Hornby. He's pretty chill. DeLillo on the other hand might well blow up!
It may seem like a joke, but for many the rise of fanfic is "the end of the world".
KC: Like you! Judging by how you go on.....
AJC: I like how "the end of the world" is in scare quotes ... so he can disown it? Or is he quoting this nebulous "many" directly?
Fanfic is seen as the lowest point we've reached in the history of culture – it's crass, sycophantic, celebrity-obsessed, naive, badly written, derivative, consumerist, unoriginal – anti-original. 
KC: Because we currently live with such a glut of original cultural objects. I'd also like to point out that the "is seen as" construction is usually used to lead to something like "but you'd be wrong because..." but here I have the horrible feeling it's going to lead to "...and you'd be absolutely right!" With all due apologies to Tom Stoppard.
A: And with all due respect to Umberto Eco, I feel like this guy's been reading and re-reading "Travels in Hyperreality" a few too many times?
KC: And not getting the joke.
A: SO not getting the joke.
From this perspective it's a disaster when a work of fanfic becomes the world's number one bestseller and kickstarts a global trend. 
A: Note how we've neatly bracketed harsh judgments off in a way that lets them stand and yet leaves room to disclaim them as his own later on...
KC: Well, it's the best thing to do, really. You don't want to have to justify any of this rubbish, do you?
As we all know, Fifty Shades of Grey, originated as a piece of fanfic based on the Twilight series. Since it hit 31 million sales in 37 countries worried voices are asking: is this the beginning of an era in which fanfic overthrows original creation? 
A: If I had a quarter for every time someone used Fifty Shades as shorthand for "all that's gone wrong with the world" I'd be able to pay off my student loans from all four years of grad school!
KC: Amen.
A: And can we also pause for a minute to contemplate the (supposedly) neat and tidy division between "fanfic" and "original creation"? As if transformative works lack in originality or creativity?
It's tempting to get caught up in paradigm-shift apocalypticism, but a closer inspection reveals that fanfic is not new at all. There have been phases, fads, peaks and controversies throughout its history and it displays and incredibly diverse range of sub-genres. There's crossover, AU, Hentai, OoC, Uber, Mary Sue, slash fic, hate fic, anti fic and even wing fic (in which familiar characters sprout wings and discover their new beauty through acts of mid-air coitus). So where did this terrifying range of forms begin? And is Fifty Shades really a threat to culture? 
A: I'm fascinated by the way Fifty Shades and all it stands for is situated as a "threat to culture" like it's something that stands outside the culture? Isn't that, like, materially impossible unless you change the laws of physics?
KC: Plus he's conflated genres and descriptive tags in a way that makes the whole thing a nonsense. OOC is a description of something in a story, not of an entire story itself (usually). A "Mary Sue" can be a type of story or character. Plus, not to quibble or anything, but some of the characters have wings to start with.
It's time to learn some of the jargon that fans use to describe their fic. 
A: Except it helps if you actually know what the jargon means instead of making shit up, which is what you do in more than one place below ...
KC: See above! Perhaps if he'd gone to the right sites...? Maybe...dare I say it... asked a few fanfic writers? But, no: clearly, he knows whereof he speaks. After all, fanfic is only another form of fandom and, as we all know, any idiot can talk about that.
A: He could also have read a few back issues of Transformative Works and Cultures, the peer-reviewed journal published by the Organization of Transformative Works. It's like he doesn't know how to do a basic literature review or environmental scan.
Folklore fanfic 
If one sees fanfic as "the work of amateurs retelling existing stories", then one would have to conclude that the number one book in the middle ages – the Bible – was a work of fanfic, as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were non-professionals retelling the same story about the same character.
KC: It's an interesting thought, but not original. I feel someone is owed a footnote.
However, such a definition of fanfic is skewed historically. There were no fans in the middle ages, and there were also no authors.
KC: Oh dear. I hear a thousand medievalists screaming... And is his habit of setting up straw men and then kicking them over starting to irritate anyone but me? I mean, it's a valid rhetorical technique but annoying when repeated this frequently.
A: *raises hand* Also, while it's valid to make the argument that the "middle ages" had no "fans" and no "authors" in the modern sense, is this really the time or place to open the door to that sort of discussion? It could go on for years! It's the stuff upon which whole damn academic careers are built!

(In an aside to our cat: "Oh, this is very boring, kitten, when you could be reading about fisting!")
If we see fanfic as "the reworking of another author's characters" then this form really only appears for the first time in history with the invention of legal authorship in the 18th century through copyright and intellectual property laws, after the invention of the printing press. 
KC: So...wait a minute. You need to have legal authority in order to author something? If you don't have that you're just...what? wanking? Damn. I can think of lots of folks who'd be surprised to hear that. Marlowe, Webster... And if you think of 'fanfic' in broader, more flexible terms as more of an homage to someone else's work, then lots and lots and lots of things are fanfic prior to the creation of the legal status of "author." Or does he want to argue that everything prior to the creation of copyright just sort of oozed out of a gestalt hivemind?
After all, you can't have derivative works or copies if there are no regulations over what constitutes original works, or separates ownership from theft. Predating this change, with the exception of educated men of letters and Christian scholars, the populace experienced stories only through the aural folklore tradition.
KC: Okay, now you can hear me screaming. Because not only does this leave out Middle Eastern scholars (unlikely to be Christians) and Asian scholars (ditto), thus creating an argument only Niall Ferguson could love ...
A: *pooh*pooh* Niall Ferguson *pooh*pooh*
KC: ... it also seems to suggest that the printing press was invented sometime in the 18th century. While the majority of the population might well have experienced story-telling largely in the form of oral or aural entertainment, the storytellers (who might be listeners in another context, by the way) got stories from all over the place, including broadsheets, chapbooks, pamphlets, stolen versions of plays, etc., etc. It is impossible to calculate how many "readers" a given early publication had because of the odds it was read aloud to a much larger audience than ever actually sat down and read it over to themselves. He's making a very complex relationship ridiculously simple.
A: *headdesk*
Such tales were re-tellings and re-makings of the same stories over generations – this was a manuscript culture in which texts were open to intervention and were not fixed. 
A: Gosh, let's take a wander around this history of storytelling and print culture ... as an historian I kinda approve, but ... I'm sorry, haven't you already said this doesn't apply?
Nobody owned them and they were based on stock characters – The rake, the temptress, the Stephron and the Phyllis (Shepherd & Shepherdess), the priest, the devil, the good Samaritan.
KC: And now we're showing off... And does this little fun parade go all the way up to the 18th century, too? Stock characters are, well, stock in lots of places and lots of stories but they sure as hell aren't all there is. Plus there are plenty of authors who introduce a stock character only to fuck with it: Dogberry comes right to mind. As does Falstaff. Enter Comic Drunken Soldier Number 75 -- except not. We could also get deeply sidetracked by what happened with this kind of thing -- in the UK alone -- with non-English authors...Irish, for example! The Irish Paddy was a stock character basically up to Playboy of the Western World and you can still see shadows of him -- and her -- right into the 21st century. But there are all kinds of authors -- Sheridan springs to mind -- who fuck with the paradigm.
In England The Romance of the Rose was the paradigmatic example of the medieval form: one writer would begin the story and another would complete it.
KC: Isn't that a translation? Although the story took lots of forms -- like a fanfic. Oh, wait...
Even Shakespeare, did not own the stories in his plays. A patron would commission him to retell a story and he was paid in royalties. All stories within the medieval period were re-workings of stories about the same characters, but we could not call them fanfic as copyright law and the printing press had not yet sectioned off the professional, paid, copyright owner of original texts, from the rest of the populace, creating a subclass of fans.
A: I'm concerned about the choice of the term "subclass" here. I sense a foreboding sort of feeling come upon me ...
KC: I'm concerned about the 'all stories.' All? Are you sure? Have you read 'em all? Know where they come from? Traced provenance? Also, he's using commas like Laura Ingalls Wilder: every sentence gets a sprinkling whether or not it needs 'em!

And on that note -- stay tuned, folks. You know there's more.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

booknotes: just-before-august round-up

As we reach the end of July it's time for another catch-all post of mini-reviews for books I've read but haven't had time to substantively review. CrowGirl and I are busy with life in the upcoming months of August and September (among other things getting married and going on our honeymoon) so anticipate light posting around here until October.

Virgins: A Novel | Caryl Rivers (St. Martin's 1984; 2012). Rivers' novel about Catholic High School seniors coming-of-age in the 1970s is being re-issued this fall as an e-book; I received an advance review copy and read it on a sweltering afternoon earlier this month. It was a quick and satisfying beach (or in this case bathtub) read, and reminded me of nothing so much as the film Saved! -- though obviously with a different set of historio-cultural references. The characters are Catholic, not Protestant Evangelical, and no one gets knocked up by their gay friend while trying to turn him straight. Instead we have the earnest Catholic-college-bound Peggy, her boyfriend Sean (bound for the priesthood), and Peggy's looking-for-trouble Constance Marie ("Con"). Since I've started writing smut I'm more intentionally interested in how sex scenes play out in novels -- and I will say (mild spoilers!) I was pleasantly surprised by the positive and tender nature of what we're calling these days "sexual debut"; both Sean and Peggy are enthusiastic participants and neither appear to regret their decision -- nor attempt to bookend it with marriage. It's always heartening to see teen sex (or, you know, any sex really) portrayed in positive yet realistic ways.

The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousnesses and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice | M.G. Lord (Walker & Co., 2012). I picked up a $1 advance review copy of Lord's brief biography of Taylor at Brattle Book Shop after hearing an author interview on the RhRealityCheck podcast. I was particularly intrigued, listening to the interview, by Lord's description of the Production Code Administration and how Taylor's films were often a process of push-and-pull with the authorities over themes of gender non-conformity, defiance of religion, homosexuality, abortion, etc. Unfortunately, The Accidental Feminist spends less time on the evidence of censorship, revision, and defiance that can be mined in the archives and the films themselves -- and more trying to convince us, on precious little evidence, that Taylor herself was a driving force in ensuring "feminist" readings of the characters she portrayed on screen. While a fresh examination of Taylor's career may be in order, I felt throughout that Lord was over-egging the cake and that her case could have been strengthened -- or at least clarified -- by more attention to the historical context. Particularly surrounding feminism, in which Taylor came of age and rose to stardom. For example, in Lord's reading of  Giant (1956) she argues that Taylor's character -- the East Coast bride of a Texas rancher -- is somehow more feminist than the rancher's gender-nonconforming spinster sister, in part because Taylor's Leslie is more feminine. Troubling on multiple levels, this analysis ignores the way in which butch single women in cinema during this period were often coded dangerously lesbian, sociopathic, and feminist. To champion Taylor's character in part because of her gender conformity seems distinctly ahistoric as well as not very feminist, at least to my way of thinking! All in all, not recommended if you're looking for a cultural history analysis of the role Taylor and her filmography played in gender debates of the 20th century.

The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996 | Charles Kaiser (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). For some reason, this past month, I found myself reading two of the standard histories of queer life and activism in America -- the first being Kaiser's history of gay New York from WWII through the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Like Marcus' Making Gay History (see below), Gay Metropolis draws heavily on personal reminiscences. I particularly enjoyed the stories told by interviewees who had come of age before gay liberation or organized activism -- men and a few women who recalled falling in love and having same-sex relationships in times and places were those experiences had little political resonance. Though obviously political ramifications if the individuals were caught, arrested, fired, blacklisted, or otherwise discriminated against. Despite the subtitle's claim that this is a history of "gay life in America," it focuses heavily on urban areas and largely on a gay male population that moves through various metropolitan areas on the east coast -- most notably New York City. Taken for what it is, however, this is a highly readable narrative with a number of valuable first person accounts of the social, cultural, and political experiences of gay and lesbian folks in 20th century urban America.

Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights | Eric Marcus (2nd ed.; Perennial, 2002). Originally published in 1992 under the title Making History, this ambitious oral history of gay and lesbian activism since the 1950s draws on over sixty interviews with prominent figures in the movement to tell an on-the-ground narrative of the fight for equal rights from the Mattachine Society to Lambda Legal and ACT UP. These oral histories are heavily edited into gobbets of personal reminiscence interspersed with contextual notes by Marcus. As with any "pure" oral historical narrative, I found myself wishing at times for more analysis. However, these oral histories will be invaluable sources for historians in years to come -- and I devoutly hope that Marcus has taken steps to ensure the unedited versions are secured in a repository somewhere to be accessed and utilized by researchers in perpetuity. His interviewees are both well-known names (Larry Kramer, Randy Shilts, Ann Northrup, Barbara Gittings) and lesser-known individuals whose actions have nonetheless had a profound effect on our understanding of the queer experience and often had a major influence in the political arena. For example Steven Cozza, a teenage Boy Scout who campaigned for the Boy Scouts of America to rescind their policy of excluding non-straight members, or Megan Smith, one of the techies behind PlanetOut -- an early Internet space for queer socializing and activism. I'm glad to have added this volume to my reference library.

(As a side-note, this book is responsible for the only literature-based pick-up I've ever experienced, when a waitress at the restaurant where I was waiting for Hanna saw me reading it and suggested I might enjoy Provincetown's "Girl Splash 2012"; after all the porn I've read on the subway THIS is what inspires the overtures? And they say history isn't sexy.)

Breeders: Real-Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers | Ariel Gore and Bee Lavender, eds. (Seal Press, 2001). I was pleasantly surprised by this anthology of essays by mothers about their journey to and through pregnancy and parenting. It contains a diverse mix of voices --a range of ethnicity and class, geographic locations, family shapes, and parenting styles. We get Allison Crews' meditation on teenage motherhood and her decision not to surrender her son for adoption ("When I Was Garbage"), Sarah Manns essay on the path she and her wife took toward adoption ("Real Moms"), and Ayun Halliday's heartbreaking "NeoNatal SweetPotato," scenes from the stay she and her daughter faced postpartum in neonatal intensive care. Stories of parenting in violence-ridden urban slums and yuppie enclaves, stories of parenting on the road and in the backwoods with no plumbing and (gasp!) no email. Stories of upper-middle-class striving and stories of precarious food-stamp subsistence. Every reader will find a few pieces irritation inducing, a few pieces deeply moving. Parenting -- and family life more generally -- is particular: We all make decisions based on resources and circumstance and what we believe is best for both ourselves and families. Because family formation is in the cultural spotlight right now thanks to wrangles over marriage equality, divorce, abortion, evolving gender roles, assisted reproductive technology regulation, etc., our personal decisions are interrogated and judged -- and usually found wanting by someone, somewhere. And in turn, we find ourselves judging the decisions of others. I'd say the strength of Breeders is that it gives us a series of windows into the myriad ways in which pregnancy, birth, and parenting intersected with the lives of women at the turn of the millennium.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

booknotes: america and the pill

Footnote-mining Bodies of Knowledge and The Morning After brought me to Elaine Tyler May's America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation (Basic Books, 2010).  May is an historian of mid-twentieth century America family life whose previous work includes a history of childlessness in "the promised land" and the family in Cold War America. Her parents were also, incidentally, involved in the development and early clinical trials of the birth control pill, so her personal history is also intertwined with the story she seeks to tell about Americans and the introduction of hormonal contraceptive pills from the 1950s to the present.

America and the Pill is a highly readable, solidly-researched history of the development, distribution, and use of the birth control pill in America since the fifties. In seven brief chapters (I read the book in an afternoon) May describes the development and testing of the pill, its promotion by politicians and thought leaders interested in population-control, its use by married couples, the pill's role in the sexual revolution, the search for hormonal contraceptives for men, "questioning authority," and public use and perception of the pill today.

Clearly written as an introductory overview, this history begs for further elaboration on a number of points -- for example, the complicated relationship between individual use of birth control and national and international attempts to limit population growth. I would also be interested in a further exploration of how perceptions and use of the pill as a method of birth control relates to concerns about the spread of sexually-transmitted infections. For example, can we see a significant shift in what populations use the pill vs. the condom before and after the advent of AIDS/HIV?

I would also like to see further elaboration on the discourse concerning libido and hormonal birth control, since concerns over low libido remain a primary barrier to developing a male birth control pill, while women's persistent reporting of side-effects of the pill, including lowering of libido, have been glossed over as psychosomatic or unimportant when compared to the goal of limiting population growth. May offers an interesting historical perspective on this issue:
Although today's pill may not suppress libido more than the original oral contraceptive did, women today may well experience the effect of the pill differently. For many in the first generation of pill users, the intense fear of pregnancy diminished women's libido to such an extent that when they went on the pill and that fear disappeared, their sexual pleasure was increased considerably. Today there is no longer the terror of facing an illegal abortion, a ruined reputation, banishment to a home for unwed mothers, or a hasty marriage. ... With so many contraceptive options available to women today, some are unwilling to compromise their sexual pleasure of the convenience of the pill (149). 
While women's sexual pleasure is here understood in tension with their desire to manage their fertility, men's sexual pleasure (even their gender identity) is situated in their ability to procreate -- with no corresponding desire to limit family size. May quotes one medical doctor who in 1970 wrote in the Boston Globe that "generally speaking, a man equates his ability to impregnate a woman with masculinity. And all too often the loss of such ability really deflates his ego" (99). Presumably, many individual men in the 60s and 70s desired to take measures to ensure their partners did not get pregnant -- but while medical personnel and the public at large understood the fear of pregnancy and/or the desire to limit or space pregnancies as a legitimate concern for women, it appears they did not assume the same for men.

I felt at points that May was deliberately writing for a lay audience (that is, an audience of non-historians, or those unfamiliar with the history of twentieth-century medicine). For example, when she describes the clinical trials of the birth control pills which were undertaken without informed consent on populations such as mental patients and prisoners, she is at pains to point out that such trials were standard operating procedure until well into the 1980s when such violations of bodily autonomy and ethical mismanagement became the subject of public debate and regulation. At times, May's efforts to contextualize the clinical trials spills over into what feels like a bit too much post-facto justification. For example, when writing about the trials conducted in rural Puerto Rico in the mid-50s she writes,
The developers of the pill were particularly concerned about its safety. They put in place elaborate precautions to monitor the health of the women who took part in the trials, such as frequent medical exams and lab tests. Study participants in impoverished areas received medical attention vastly superior to what was normally available to them. ... By the standards of the day, the studies were scrupulously conducted (31).
While all of these statements may be factually accurate (and I have no reason to suspect they are not), these passages feel a little too much as if May is trying to forestall protests about how these trials were conducted, protests which -- while not undermining the data collected -- would certainly be legitimate. What sort of pressure were poverty-stricken Puerto Rican women under to participate in the trials, for example, if the healthcare they received as a result was "vastly superior to what was normally available"? Obviously, it's important to understand these medical protocols in the historical context in which they happened, but it feels a little like May is trying to preempt discussion of ethical implications.

These passing editorial moments aside, May has written a great introduction to the historical context of the birth control pill that will be an enjoyable -- and historically robust -- read for anyone interested in the topic of women's and sexual/reproductive health, history of medicine, history of the family, and related fields.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

booknotes: i do, i don't

A few months ago, Hanna found me a copy of I Do, I Don't: Queers on Marriage edited by Greg Wharton and Ian Philips (Suspect Thoughts Press, 2004) on one of the $1 used book carts of which there are so many in Boston.* For obvious reasons, I picked it up a few weeks ago and finally started reading it. Here are a few thoughts.

The usual proviso for anthologies applies here. Some pieces I found illuminating, though-provoking, well-written "keepers." Others I read a paragraph or two of and skimmed to the end, not feeling obligated to spend my time on a piece that was not altogether coherent, or just didn't offer anything I found to be original on the subject to hand. Which is, as the title implies, marriage of the non-heteronormative variety.

Published in 2004, this anthology feels dated. It's weird to say that about a book less than a decade old, but in the landscape of political debate over marriage equality and queer identities, eight years is practically a geologic age. In 2004, Massachusetts was just on the verge of making same-sex marriage legal and Prop 8 was still in the distant future. Don't Ask, Don't Tell was still in effect, and with George W. Bush' in the White House the DOJ was still enforcing DOMA and the idea of a president coming out in support of my right to marry my ladylove was laughable (or would have been, if I'd had a ladylove to contemplate marry yet!). Suffice to say, readers will find some of the language and pressing debates herein slightly stale on the tongue.

At the same time, personal narratives of courtship, partnership, love and hate, household dissolution, and the process of decision-making when one's personal choices have been highly politicized don't entirely lose their timeliness. In I Do, I Don't contributors argue for their own marriages, and for the right of their friends to marry (despite the fact the author eschews the act themselves), or make passionate pleas for queers everywhere to "just say no" to marriage as an institution, to turn their attentions (our attentions) elsewhere. Marriage, in this volume is an object of desire, of derision, a practical decision, a romantic undertaking, a bid for the mainstream, a leap into the radical unknown. Don't come to reading this book expecting an agenda in the singular: queer folk, like any other class of people, are a heterogeneous lot and herding us is like herding proverbial cats. If we ever did get our act together to have an agenda, I doubt we'd ever agree how to act on it!

Definitely a volume worth checking out if you find it cheap and/or at your local library. I'm particularly interested in comparing its contents to that of Here Come the Brides! (2012) which I currently have on hold at the public library.After I read it, I'll let you know how the conversation has shifted since 2004.

UPDATE: My review of Here Come the Brides! can be found here.
*I'll say it before and I'll say it again: $1 books are 90% responsible for the overflowing state of our bookshelves because, seriously, so many books can be justified with, "pfft! for a dollar ...!"

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

booknotes: transitions of the heart

Last week I picked up a copy of Rachel Pepper'sTransitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children (Cleis Press, 2012). The anthology collects personal essays by mothers whose children identify somewhere within the trans/genderqueer spectrum. I was pleased to see the volume at our local library (Brookline Public), and after posting about it at Twitter a colleague of my father's back in West Michigan actually went and looked for it at the public library in my hometown -- and found it! (Yet another reason that Herrick District Library continues to be awesome.) It's heartening to see how trans issues resources are making their way into mainstream spaces.

Transitions is a moving collection of very personal stories, and I hesitate to reduce the nuances of each to general themes. One of the strengths of the anthology is, in fact, the diversity of stories. Mothers from across the United States (and a few from Britain) describe the fears and joys of parenting a trans child, whether that child is transitioning on the eve of retirement or just entering kindergarten. Families are Euro-American, African-American, Latin-American and Asian-American. Families are queer, single parent- or blended-family homes, as well as your husband-wife-kids prototype. There are urban professionals and rural hippies, Bible-thumping Baptists and Jewish-Italians. Generational themes emerge that are in line with what the authors of The Lives of Transgender People observe: that the experience of trans folks who came of age in the 70s or 80s, and even the 90s, is markedly different and often more agonizingly isolated than for youth of later generations. Parents or earlier generations also look back wishing they had had more support through their child's transition, more resources to help them navigate. Understanding therapists and parental support networks (both on and offline) emerge as much-needed lifelines throughout these contributions.

I was struck by the number of mothers who articulated a sense of grief and loss for the child they thought they knew (the daughter they "lost" in order to gain a son, or the son who "died" in order to give birth to a daughter). Grief is often a component of change, and all of us (trans or not) "lose" our earlier selves in some measure as we grow older. My own mother has articulated the sense of loss for certain stages of our development as we aged -- though that loss was always accompanied by the joy of new discovery and expressions of selfhood. Tracie Stratton articulates well the bewilderment of grief that accompanies many mothers' reactions to a child's assertion of transness: "I did have moments of really missing my daughter Isabelle, who in reality was never there ... How could I miss a little girl who was never a little girl?" (115).

I keep writing "parents" as I type this review, and then having to go back and replace the word with the more precise "mothers" -- because fathers are a strikingly absent voice in this anthology. While the anthology is framed as one for mothers' stories, I couldn't help but wonder about that choice. It seems to reinforce the assumption that mothers are the primary managers of their children's well-being and the ones with the primary emotional investment in their growth. The fathers who emerge in these narratives are most often anxious and angry (though a few very supportive spouses can be glimpsed between the lines). It is often the fathers who resist cross-dressing or cross-gender play, particularly in their sons, and a few mothers even wrote about fear of losing custody of their child due to an ex who was unsympathetic to gender variance and accused the mother of child maltreatment.

One final theme I noticed in Transitions was the persistence with which mothers located knowledge of transness in gender atypical behavior and play. For example, the desire of a child assigned male at birth to dress in pink sparkly clothes, or a child assigned female at birth who was inconsolable at her first period. Some mothers tried hard to separate gendered behavior from innate sense of self, reassuring sons that they could like the color pink or play with dolls without having to be a girl, and reassuring daughters that they didn't have to wear dresses or play princess -- that girls could like sports and Spider Man too. But children, particularly preschool-aged kids, were insistent that this behavior actually signified a deeper sense of themselves as a different sex. The feminist in me feels for mothers who want their children not to feel bound to certain behaviors due to their gender identity, and I imagine when transness is layered on top of the highly gendered world in which we raise our children the result is a maze of choices exhausting (and often threatening) to navigate.

Finally, what Transitions makes clear is how crucial it is for all of us to work toward a world in which trans folks of all ages are welcomed as part of the human community, free of gender policing and the threat of emotional and physical violence. As Anna Randolph writes, in the closing selection in this book:
Even if it is true, it is not helpful to me when you say to me 'your child is transgender' without knowing anything about us. It has been implied that I am harming, even abusing, my child by not letting her transition at age nine or ten. You do not know or bother to ask about our circumstances, or attempt to understand why I make the choices I do. You do not see the many ways I convey my love and acceptance to my child while keeping her safe. You are not responsible for every aspect of this child's well-being, I am ...

... Before I could let my child transition, I needed to know she was in a relatively safe school and neighborhood. I had to assemble a strong team of providers, including a supportive pediatrician, psychiatrist, therapist, and endocrinologist. It was essential that we had a supportive community around us, including a welcoming church, family, and friends. More than anything, I needed my child to be sure she was ready. I believe she has always felt this way, but was unable to claim her identity until she felt support from her other parent, and felt safe enough and strong enough to handle the hard stuff (194).
So there's the laundry-list of work to do, folks! Let's get cracking, so that fewer and fewer parents have to fight so hard and long to advocate for their child's ability to be themselves in the world. Transitions was a worthwhile read, and I really hope they follow it up with a volume in which fathers of trans kids share their own stories of "love, struggle and acceptance."

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

booknotes: thirteen books to read instead of "religious right"

A few weeks ago, I got an advance review copy of A. F. Alexander's Religious Right: The Greatest Threat to Democracy (Blazing Sword Publishing, 2012) through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer giveaway program. Alexander, a refugee from fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity, is on a mission to expose the agenda and tactics of the politicized Christian right and convince her readers that the movement is "ominous, and requires immediate attention."

I agree with Alexander that the religious right is not a force to be underestimated, and also agree with her that their vision of America as a nation does not jibe with mine, most of the time (frankly, I enjoy going about my homosexual ways without fear of arrest, like my bodily autonomy, and wouldn't give a shit if our president were Muslim and foreign-born). However, if you're interested in reading about the rise of conservative Christian political clout since the 1960s, there are other books I would recommend you read instead of this one -- if for no other reason than that they are well-written and copy-edited. Alexander is clearly passionate about her subject, but I can't help feeling that her energy might have been better spent on a memoir (a la Deborah Feldman's Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots), a work of fiction (e.g. Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness) or perhaps curating a website or blog that might serve as a gathering space for ex-fundies (see, for example, No Longer Quivering) or contributing pieces to a news blog that covers religion and politics (see Religion Dispatches). While her research might come from an authentic and personal space, it's unclear what her polemic does that other texts have not done before, and better.

I definitely wish Alexander well in her life and in her growth away from the fundamentalist Christianity she found personally (and politically) toxic. Prospective readers interested in religious fundamentalism of the modern era, however, would do better to check out one of the following baker's dozen worth of titles that tell the story of modern American evangelical Christianity in much more readable prose, along with substantive evidence and analysis:

Thirteen Books to Read Instead of Religious Right:

Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000). Ex-nun, historian or religion, and public intellectual Karen Armstrong offers a sweeping historical and theological analysis of the rise of fundamentalism in the modern era in the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Part history, part psychology, part political theory, this is a tour de force.

Balmer, Randall. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America (4th ed. Oxford U.P., 2006). Originally published in 1993 and turned into a PBS series by the same name, this memoir-cum-ethnographic study explores various sites of evangelical Christianity in the U.S. circa the mid-1980s. Full disclosure: Randy is an Oregon Extension alum and participated in my oral history project.

Erzen, Tanya. Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement (University of California Press, 2006). Sociologist Erzen delves deep into the culture of the ex-gay movement, conducting ethnographic research on-site at New Hope, the oldest ex-gay ministry in the United States. Her empathetic analysis humanizes her subjects, persistently allowing them to make meaning of their own lives, even as she raises concerns about the ex-gay movement's notions of gender and sexuality.

Fallon, D'Arcy. So Late, So Soon (Hawthorne Books, 2004). Fallon's memoir is a beautiful meditation on her reasons for joining a Christian commune in Northern California as a footloose adolescent, her love affair with fundamentalist Christianity, and her later escape from the community's demanding clutches. Fallon doesn't gloss over the controlling, abusive aspects of her experience she helps us into an understanding of what it was her younger self found compelling about Lighthouse Ranch.

Frank, Doug. A Gentler God (Albatross Books, 2011). Part memoir, part theological exegesis, part history of twentieth-century evangelical culture, historian of ideas Doug Frank explores the abusive nature of fundamentalist, evangelical Christian theology and suggests a more loving way forward. Full disclosure: Doug is a former professor of mine, and participated in my Oregon Extension oral history project.

Frykholm, Amy. Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford U. P., 2007). Herself a child of evangelical culture, Frykholm uses social science research methods to explore the popular culture of the Left Behind novels, interviewing readers about how this fictional depiction of the end times informs their faith and everyday lives.

Frykholm, Amy. See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity (Beacon Press, 2011). Frykholm's second work is a series of essay-length case studies built from length interviews she conducted with Christians who struggle (or have struggled) with embodiment and sexuality in relation to their religious faith.

Goldberg, Michelle. Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (W. W. Norton, 2006). Journalist Goldberg explores the thinkers and activists behind Christian nationalism, or Dominionism -- the segment of the religious right that believes that America was founded as, and should be returned to,

Jordan, Mark D. Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk About Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press, 2011). Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, with a joint appointment Women, Gender, and Sexuality, Jordan offers a series of case studies in Christian rhetoric about homosexuality across the twentieth century.

Lamott, Anne. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (Pantheon Books, 1999). If you're interested in why a dreadlock-sporting, pro-choice leftist would be drawn to evangelical Christianity, this is the book for you.

Ostling, Richard and Joan. Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (Harper, 1999). A thoroughly-researched, historically- and theologically- informed account of the Latter-Day Saints and their place in American culture. Following the involvement of the LDS church in the anti-marriage equality activism, and Romney's bid for the U.S. Presidency, Mormons are in the spotlight more than ever, and it's useful to have some historical perspective on this peculiarly American institution.

Rosin, Hanna. God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America (Harcourt, 2007). Recently-founded Patrick Henry College sent more interns to the Bush White House than any other institution of higher education. Journalist Rosin sets out to discover why, delivering a troubling, though not entirely unsympathetic, portrait of Patrick Henry's mission and student body. See also: Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League.

Radosh, Daniel. Rapture Ready: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture (Scribner, 2008). This rolicking tour of Christian rock, Silver Ring Thing purity events, Christian publishing, and more also offers on-the-ground insight into how political and theological worldviews are marketed via kitsch and community in American consumer culture.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

booknotes: big sex, little death

About a year after its debut, I finally got around to obtaining a copy of Susie Bright's Big Sex, Little Death: A Memoir (Seal Press, 2011) from our local library network.  Bright, for those of you unfamiliar with the name, is a sexuality educator, poet, and activist. She is perhaps most famous (or infamous) in feminist circles as one of the founding editors of On Our Backs, a magazine for lesbian erotica that first appeared in 1984 and became a major player in the lesbian/feminist "sex wars" of the 80s. Bright, along with Carol Queen, Gayle Rubin, Pat Califia, and a handful of other queer folks of varying stripes, were instrumental in articulating a vision of human sexuality and erotic imagination that ran counter to the anti-pornography stance of feminist activists such as Gail Dines, Katherine Mackinnon, and Andrea Dworkin.* As proponents of what eventually became identified as "sex-positive feminism," Bright and company were banned from college campuses, received death threats, and -- in a classic example of Godwin's Law -- were accused of being sexist Nazis, promoting female genocide. Toward the end of Big Sex, Bright writes about visiting the University of Minnesota to speak about "lesbian eroticism in cinema," only to find herself rushed by a young woman in the restroom "carrying something sharp in her hand." The would-be attacker stuttered to a halt when she took in Bright's advanced state of pregnancy, which somehow hadn't registered during the lecture. "In my protestors' minds, I was killing women with my wicked ways, not creating new life" (221).

Unlike Carol Queen's Real Live Nude Girl or Gayle Rubin's recently-released anthologyBig Sex, Little Death actually has relatively little to say about sex.  Or, at least, its primary purpose is not to articulate a politics of sex, or even focus on Bright's personal experience with sexuality. When sex enters the narrative it does so episodically, with Bright talking about her adolescent sexual fumblings (and, many would argue, the sexual abuse -- or at least exploitation -- she suffered at the hands of older male leftist organizers), or her on-the-ground frustration with the sexual policing within lesbian feminist circles of the Seventies and Eighties.

These are glances only, rather than a narrative through-line, and at times I found myself frustrated by the lack of reflection from now-Susie on then-Susie's sexual experiences and what meaning she has made out of them. She describes for example, how at age fifteen she and her friend-cum-lover Danielle (also fifteen) "seduced" older men, sometimes for fun, sometimes for cash. She describes the sexual availability she was expected to sustain within the socialist groups she was active in as a teenager and into her early twenties, and in contrast to Jeanne Cordova (in When We Were Outlaws) doesn't spend much ink considering how those sexual dynamics contributed to the way she was used and abused as a youthful activist. While I appreciate the philosophy of being gentle with one's younger self, at times it feels like Susie-Bright-the-adult has abdicated the role of narrator to such an extent that injuries done to her are overlooked in the memoir as they were unacknowledged at the time.

The most difficult to read -- and also most deftly-handled -- passages of Big Sex are those dealing with Bright's relationship with her parents, and to a lesser extent the way in which those deeply troubled interactions shaped her own choices as a parent. Her mother struggled with an undiagnosed mental illness that, together with her own neglected, poverty-ridden childhood, seems to have left her with very little in the way of emotional and material resources. She repeatedly tried to commit suicide and once attempted murder-suicide with adolescent Susie in the car, only to crash the car before they reach the river, and abandon injured Susie to make her own way home. Explanations for the behavior (e.g. untreated mental illness and lack of social support) don't lessen the reality that Susie grew up with incredibly shitty, near-fatal, parenting from her mother and more benign neglect from her father. And despite my own lack of personal triggers regarding family abuse, there were a couple of times when I almost had to put the book down out of anger and sadness that anyone has to live through that sort of experience -- particularly as a child dependent on their abuser.

When, at thirty-two, Bright faces an unplanned pregnancy, she's surprised by the depth of her desire to carry to term:
The real reason I couldn't imagine having a baby was that I was afraid of my temper, afraid of doing those things for which you can't ever fully apologize. I knew that my mom had been "sorry" that she had hit me (after all, it wasn't as badly as she'd been hit). She didn't remember threatening me (after all, we did survive). Maybe it was my fault sometimes; isn't that what kids think? Mommy, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. It changed nothing for her. But then, her actions had very little to do with me (287-288).
The desire to give birth, coupled with the fear she would replicate her own mother's abusive behavior, leads Bright on a very intentional path toward parenting differently from the way her mother parented. While obviously we only have her perspective on her daughter's childhood, it sounds from Big Sex like Bright created a family realm that helped her manage her temper in a way that would not spread the damage to yet another generation. And that's always a beautiful, courageous thing to see happen.

Overall, I highly recommend this memoir for anyone interested in another eyewitness account of the turbulent era of imploding social change activism during 70s and 80s, when internal dissent combined with a resurgent conservatism and mainstream hostility to turn leftists against each other in unhelpful ways. Yet in the midst of this strife, creative things happened and people came of age to become a new generation of movers and shakers in ways that, hopefully -- as in Susie Bright's own familial life -- will not spread the damage of generations before. One of the things that gives me heart, as a thirtysomething feminist, is the way in which forty- and fiftysomething activists are refusing to eat their young, working hard to break the pattern of generational strife and ideological antagonism of their own coming-of-age.

*When Andrea Dworkin passed away in 2005, Susie Bright wrote a beautiful remembrance of her that both paid homage to the important theoretical and political work Dworkin had done, and acknowledged the lingering scars of that period.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

booknotes: fair game

Welcome to June, and the season of leisure reading! Actually, I try to enjoy leisure reading all year 'round. But publishers often time their releases for "beach reading" season -- so here we are. Last week, I happily secured a copy of Patricia Briggs' fourth installment in her Alpha and Omega series, Fair Game (Ace, 2012).

I've written before about my reservations regarding this series and particular how Briggs handles the central character, Anna, and her history of victimization. Now that we're into the third novel (all building on a novella originally published in the anthology On the Prowl), Anna's history as an abuse survivor has mercifully fallen away into the background and with her marriage on fairly stable footing we're free to focus on a plot that isn't romantic relationship development -- at least not exclusively so. She and Charles are still working through the particular dynamics of their partnership as humans and as wolves, but it is clearly a partnership in which both people are stubborn as hell. So mostly I'm willing to roll. (As an aside, I'm waiting for the day when Briggs decides to write a back-story about Charles' father Bran, who I think is intriguing as hell and kinda adorable to boot).

Like Hunting Ground, Fair Game takes up the question of human-nonhuman political relations. A serial killer has surfaced in Boston and taken several werewolves as victims. The FBI requests preternatural assistance and Anna is deputized by Bran, her father-in-law and head werewolf of North America, to fly across the country, with Charles as her "bodyguard"/shadow, to lend a hand. When the daughter of a local fae leader is abducted and the disappearance fits the serial killer pattern, Charles and Anna end up in a more direct role tracking down the killer. Like a lot of Briggs' novels, Fair Game is one part urban fantasy and one part mystery; it's no surprise that at the end the killer is brought to justice and the good guys prevail -- though perhaps not as tidily as they might have hoped.

I'm growing to like this spin-off series, and am looking forward to the day when Mercy and Anna meet in person. I think they might work (and play) well together!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

booknotes: joining the resistance

Psychologist Carol Gilligan is something of a controversial figure in feminist circles. Her work on young women's psychological health (In a Different Voice) is widely read and widely criticized for dramatizing adolescent girls' experience in unhelpful, alarmist ways; I once had a Women's Studies professor, herself a psychologist, react to the news I was reading Gilligan's The Birth of Pleasure (Knopf, 2002) with caution, pointing out gently that her theories often seemed to rely on assumptions about gender essentialism that sat uncomfortably with many.

As an instinctive anti-essentialist (at least when it comes to gender) I remember being a bit surprised that Gilligan's arguments would be taken that way -- since that wasn't the sort of psychological landscape I saw her outlining in Pleasure. Weaving together reflections on canonical female truth-tellers (drawing on her background in English literature) and her psychological research, Gilligan is primarily interested in how individuals -- of any gender -- speak or stay silent about what they know. Drawing on theories of developmental psychology, psychoanalysis, a feminist analysis of the kyriarchy, Gilligan argues that human beings are born into the world with a full range of psychological resources which are then curtailed by gender policing which in turn causes psychic trauma.

Drawing parallels between preschool age boys and middle school age girls, Gilligan suggests that at points when growing beings are initiated into new levels of patriarchal control, we see increased instances of acting-out and destructive behavior (toward the self and others). Because girls experience this trauma at a later developmental stage than boys, she argues, women as a population are more likely to be able to articulate what they have lost in the initiation process, and to have the resilience to push back successfully. Men, she theorizes, can often identify the trauma of being forced into male-stereotyped behavior, but because it happened so early in childhood have a very difficult time accessing memories of their humanity before certain ways of being were rendered off-limits due to gendered expectations.*

Which brings us to Gilligan's latest work, a slim volume titled Joining the Resistance (Polity Press, 2011). Half reflection on her body of work, half call to action, Resistance shares some of the highlights of Gilligan's research in an accessible way and makes a passionate appeal for re-connecting with the parts of our humanity that the oppositional gender-binary has robbed from us. "Our ability to love and to live with a sense of psychic wholeness hinges on our ability to resist wedding ourselves to the gender binaries of patriarchy," she argues, in language that should make any feminist worth her salt jump for joy (109). This recalls the research Phyllis Burke cites in Gender Shock which suggests that the individuals least invested in maintaining oppositional gender roles are those most adaptive and resilient in the face of hardship and trauma.

Gilligan, following such humanist psychologists and philosophers as Eric Fromm, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers, pushes us to reconsider our assumptions concerning the fundamental nature of humanity. While resisting any simplistic arguments that human nature is "good" (vs. "bad"), she suggests that we might reconsider widespread assumptions about human self-interest and cruelty. We might do well, she suggests, to listen to those who resist inflicting violence and trauma -- and rather than frame them as exceptions to the rule, think of them as survivors of an indoctrination process:
I am haunted by these women, their refusal of exceptionality. When asked how they did what they did, they say they were human, no more no less. What if we take them at their word? Then, rather than asking how do we gain the capacity to care, how do we develop a capacity for mutual understanding, how do we learn to take the point of view of the other or overcome the pursuit of self-interest, they prompt us to ask instead: how do we lose the capacity to care, what inhibits our ability to empathize with others, and most painfully, how do we lose the capacity to love? (165).
With this as her guiding question, Gilligan challenges us to think about how we might re-formulate education (and society more broadly) to support -- rather than destroy -- "the capacity to love." This brings together notions of education, citizenship, social justice, and peace activism, in a combination that will be familiar to many progressive, counter-cultural educators who have been arguing for holistic education since at least the mid-1960s. One of my disappointments with Resistance was that Gilligan didn't acknowledge or engage with that counter-cultural community (of which there is a fairly active virtual and real-life network here in the northeast United States which she calls home!) within the text. I would have appreciated some evidence that she is at least aware of the dissident educators of the past sixty years (or more) who have insisted that this "feminist ethic of care," this more holistic vision of humanity, be central to our pedagogy as we nurture into adulthood the next generation(s). But one can't have everything!

I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages from the book, which I posted on Tumblr last week with the comment that, while "secure relationships" are obviously not limited to parent-child connections, this is a strong argument that if we want to strengthen marriage and families, we ought to be legalizing (and advocating for!) poly relationships:
The ideal environment for raising children turns out to be not that of the nuclear family but on in which there are at least three secure relationships (gender nonspecific), meaning three relationships that convey the clear message: 'You will be cared for no matter what.' (53)
I also want to point out that this is a really strong argument for those of us who plan on not parenting to get involved with people who are parents. Because by being a "secure relationship" person in the life of a child, or children, even (especially?) when they aren't our direct dependents, means we're creating a world in which more adults will be psychologically whole, secure persons. And that's a better world for us all.

*At the very end of Resistance, Gilligan brings in recent research on adolescent boys, which suggests that they, like the adolescent girls whom Gilligan has spent her professional life studying, experience the dissonance and limitations of patriarchy. I'd love to see her (and others) develop this further.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

booknotes: the morning after

After reading Bodies of Knowledge by Wendy Kline back in March, I decided to follow up one history of women and medicine with another: Heather Munro Prescott's The Morning After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States (Rutgers University Press, 2011). Part of the Critical Issues in Health and Medicine series, edited by Rima D. Apple (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Janet Golden (Rutgers), The Morning After focuses on the development of pharmacological postcoital contraception beginning in the mid-twentieth-century, the ad hoc off-label distribution of contraceptives in emergency situations, and finally the process by which a dedicated emergency contraceptive pill was approved by the FDA for production and marketing. Her narrative ends in the recent past, when emergency contraception was approved for over-the-counter sale to those over the age of seventeen.

Prescott's history is a fairly straightforward narrative which, while valuable in its own way, could have benefited from more analysis and a stronger historical argument. One of the interesting changes Prescott observes over time is in the attitude of feminist/women's health advocates. During the 1970s and 80s were incredibly skeptical (due to a number of high-profile drug failures) about the FDA's interest in, and ability to, ensure the safety of contraceptives and other women's health-related pharmaceuticals. By the 1990s, feminist rhetoric had shifted from safety to one of women's agency: access to emergency contraception became something women had the right to access, once they had been fully and meaningfully informed about their options. This shift from the authority of medical professionals to the authority of women to control their own reproductive capacity is something that I would have liked to see developed further, with particular focus on how it re-formed the politics around emergency contraception.

The other aspect the history of emergency contraception in the U.S. that is touched upon in The Morning After but largely passed over is the shift within the religious right from being fairly neutral about birth control and family planning mid-century (with the exception of the Catholic church) to actually conflating the pharmaceutical birth control options with abortion. Not just in that the two are morally equivalent, but that taking birth control pills (including postcoital birth control) causes you to abort. While medically inaccurate this  blurring of the boundary between what is pre-pregnancy birth control and what is abortion expands the backlash on women's reproductive agency exponentially. Birth control advocates can no longer gain allies among anti-abortion activists by arguing (as they did throughout the twentieth century) that the birth control pill will lower the abortion rate by preventing undesired or mis-timed pregnancies. Because "birth control" as become synonymous with "abortion" in many anti-abortion circles. This is a rhetorical shift with on-the-ground consequences, and emergency contraception had no small part to play in this tug-of-war over women's lives. I would have liked to see this particular chapter in the history of EC given a little more time.

Overall, The Morning After is a solid history of a specific type of contraceptive technology, and one which I am glad to have read, as both an historian of feminism, gender, and sexuality, and as someone who tries to stay current in the world of reproductive justice activism.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

booknotes: trans/love

Last week, my friend Minerva loaned me her copy of the recent anthology Trans/Love: Radical Sex, Love & Relationships Beyond the Gender Binary (Manic D Press, 2012) edited by Morty Diamond. I'd been looking to read a copy since it was reviewed favorably by TT Jax over at Lambda Literary. It's great when your friends' libraries so nicely complement your own reading habits!

I'll say right off the top that I read this volume from the perspective of someone who is a cisgendered woman and doesn't identify as genderqueer. A lot of the specifics of these pieces, then, speak to a particular type of pain of dislocation, rejection, and longing, that I will never experience in my bones. At the same time, I'd push back against anyone who thinks Trans/Love is a book written exclusively by and for folks whose bodies, minds, and hearts pull them "beyond the gender binary." While the raison d'etre of this volume is trans* experiences with "sex, love and relationships," I'd argue that the most powerful essays in this volume do what creative nonfiction and memoir do best: speak to the universal through the lens of the particular. Gender identity aside, we're all struggling to connect with one another, to form successful relationships (sexually-intimate and otherwise), to imagine that others will find our broken, misshapen, all-too-human bodies and selves loveable, fuckable, worthy of care and attention.

The contributions to Trans/Love run the gamut from raw pain to domestic contentment; from fierce pride to playful lust. In essays like "Cherry Picking" by Julia Serano and "Fifty Reasons I Love My Man" by Bryn Kelly we get tender portraits of loving relationships that at their core are about lovers who delight in one anothers' form and being. Kelly is by turns sweet and hilarious, cataloging the everyday compatibility that are so often the glue of our intimate partnerships:
We are both messy people and we're messy together. He's the best roommate I've ever had. I've always lived with other girls -- specifically with the kind of girl who, though we saw each other six times a day, would tend to leave annoying passive-aggressive notes on the fridge saying things like, "Could the person who drank my almond milk please replace it? It is a very important ingredient in my agave-gingko-buckwheat smoothie at 6am every day as I am currently on a 700-calorie-a-day diet which is dangerous is not done consistently and accurately." With him, it's like, "Oh, man, there's no more almond milk. Let's go get some more almond milk." (65).
 And while many pieces explore the pain of dissociation from one's physical self, there are some beautifully-rendered meditations on the way in which relational sex can bring us back to earth, back to ourselves, into humanity. It's obviously not the only thing capable of grounding us in the here-and-now, but can certainly facilitate embodiment and connection. In "ReSexing Trans," Kai Kohlsdorf argues that "the validation and the comfort we experience in sex ... allows us to experience our identities in the ways we want and need to. Without that, I know I would be lost" (108).

I found the anthology worked best in small doses, an essay at a time to be read and digested. In part because many of the contributions are intense and personal articulations of loss, longing, anger, pain, injustice. In "Fat, Trans, and Single," Joelle Ruby Ryan writes about the multiple ways other people refuse to acknowledge hir right to embodiment. In "Out of the Darkness," Jakob Hero describes the messy process of learning not to apologize for his body, the path away from self-loathing to self-respect, the journey to a place where he can recognize that other peoples' discomfort with his way of being in the world is their problem, not his. The harsh flipside of this self-treasuring is -- for any of us who refuse mainstream dictates -- of course that even when we acknowledge that other peoples' bigotry is their own burden to bear, so often it still hurts us, still impinges upon us, still makes it that much more difficult to find that person (or persons) who'll turn around to us in the kitchen and say, "let's go get some more almond milk," or fuck us until we know we are found.

Trans/Love is a welcome addition to the small but growing collection of genderqueer literature that encourages all of us to think about sex, gender, relationships, and humanity, in all its glorious particularity.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

maurice sendak: first memories

When I got to work this morning, my Google Reader was rapidly filling with blog posts about the death of author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, at the age of 83.

I don't have any big thoughts about Sendak and his the power for good his work was in the world, so instead I thought I'd share with you a couple of Sendak books that aren't as well known and are, in fact, two of his works I remember best from early childhood.

Before I was born, my parents adopted a golden retriever named Satch (after jazz musician Louis Armstrong, whose nickname was "Satchmo"). This was one of the books they had in their collection of dog care manuals, and I remember really loving the comic-strip layout, as well as the adorable and mischievous pup.

This lushly-illustrated story with text by Charlotte Zolotow and illustrations by Sendak relates the quest of a child to find the perfect gift for her mother. I remember Mr. Rabbit feeling slightly threatening, even though he's kind and helpful, perhaps because he is more adult-sized in the illustrations than child-sized. Yet overall, it's a quiet low-key story with a sweet resolution, and a rhythmic feeling to it that was incredibly soothing when I was small.

Just looking over Sendak's bibliography of works reminds me how much of my childhood library was touched by his work. So thanks, man, for making my world that much more vivid and Truthful.

Cross-posted at the feminist librarian.

booknotes: hit list

Over the weekend I read Hit List, Laurell K. Hamilton's latest (#20) installment in the Anita Blake urban noir series (Berkeley, 2011). I first started reading Hamilton back around 2005-06 when I was working at Barnes & Noble. Since then, I've read and watched a lot more genre/horror material as well as more sexually-explicit fiction. I've done more thinking about sexual activity and negotiation, about sexually-intimate relationships, and the portrayal of all of these in fiction. And it's interesting returning to the series with all of that under my belt. A few observations (spoilers below):

1. I continue to appreciate the explicit sexual negotiation and emphasis on pleasure in this series. Yes, there's kinky stuff going on, and certainly an element of "dub con" (dubious consent) what with the metaphysical crap flying around and the fact that Anita, at this point, is a powerful necromancer/vampire servant/lycanthrope/succubus. She needs sex to survive. But even in the midst of metaphysical need, she's determined to make sure those she feeds from are giving informed consent, and there's lots of extended conversation woven into most scenes about whether people are feeling physically safe and good, what their headspace is like, etc.

2. She seems to have switched gears from erotica to "special victims unit" crime drama in the past few installments. My memory of the past three or four installments is a little hazy, but it feels like since writing Harlequin Hamilton has shifted from Anita's ongoing political, relational, sexual negotiations with Jean-Claude and those who count as the inner circle. So  ... Micah, Nathaniel, Asher, Jason, Damian, Requiem,  Richard (though I wish he'd just pack up his bitchy ass and leave), and probably a couple of others I'm forgetting. Mostly Jean-Claude, Micah, Nathaniel, and Asher. With Damian as her vampire servant alongside Nathaniel (yeah, the metaphysics are diagram-worthy at this point).

I'm not sure how I feel about this, as a reader. On the one hand, I enjoy the U.S. Marshal story lines with Edward, who's a really strong character (and I totally appreciate having a well-developed male character who Anita's not sleeping with). On the other hand, with Edward comes Olaf the serial killer who has his eye on Anita, and I am so totally not interested in his kind of creepy. And I'm not that into the crime drama stories. I find the vampire and were clan political negotiations a lot of fun (seriously), and I like how Anita is settling into her new metaphysical powers and working with her "sweeties" to organize domestic and sexual co-habitation. As melodramatic as the whole pregnancy-scare part of Danse Macabre was, I liked how one of the points of that plot point was to point out how Richard didn't take her disinterest in parenting seriously, while the men who she's formed close bonds with did and supported her unequivocally as the primary decision-maker. Similarly, Hamilton was starting to develop some much-needed discussion of queer sexuality, that I was looking forward (both from an intellectual and an erotic standpoint) to having her work out with her characters. Which brings me to ...

3. Heterocentric much? One of the reasons I got tired of the Hamilton books after mainlining the first ten or so was the growing realization that, while many of the male characters were bisexual or fluid in their sexual desires, Anita was only interested in men, and was actually kinda homophobic. All of the sex, even the group sex, is men focused on Anita, even the men who are interested in one another or otherwise inclined. To some extent, the metaphysical aspects of the stories dictate this framing, but it also got really boring. I wanted more women characters, I wanted more lesbian and bi/fluid characters, and I wanted Anita in bed with them (I won't lie). I also really didn't get Anita's problem with her boyfriends also being in each others' pants. Any sort of poly arrangement that involves multiple people all having sex with one spouse/lover but not with each other seems like a set up for inequality and rivalries, which is in fact what develops as the stories progress. By the end of Harlequin Anita as a character seems to be making serious headway with her own issues with gay sex (hooray!) and I'd love to see more exploration of that in future.

4. Oh my freakin' god the gender essentialism drives me nuts as you probably would have guessed. Everyone is relentlessly described in terms of their masculine/feminine characteristics, particularly when it comes to cross-gender interactions. It's a constant, constant game of Who Has the Biggest Dick, and usually a major component of that is various male characters wanting in Anita's pants, or in her heart, or just generally being pissed she's having sex with other men. Irrespective of whether they want sex with her. It's relentless alpha-male jockeying and wow does it get old. On the plus side, it gets old for Anita, too, who basically responds with, "And I'm the Biggest Dick in This Room." And to the extent that Anita is "one of the boys" she's defying gender stereotypes in interesting ways. But this gender non-conformity the main character doesn't seem to have prompted Hamilton to revisit the idea of gender essentialism in a more basic sense. It feels like male characters are still treated as male first and as individuals second. And women, too, generally either behave in gender atypical ways (i.e. Claudia the bodyguard, who's a front runner in my list of Women I Want to See More Often/See Anita Fuck) or various forms of female stereotypes -- jealous vamps, sirens, unhappy career women, soccer moms.

So in sum ... I hope in the future there's lesbian sex, more vampire politics, that Jean-Claude/Asher/Anita threesome I was promised back in Danse Macabre, and Richard's ass handed to him on a platter. And Olaf dead.