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.