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 ...!"