Thursday, April 29, 2010

What is orientation, anyway?

(This is the first in a short series of posts about sexuality and gender)
I had the opportunity to enjoy a wonderful, long conversation with a new friend last night that covered a whole range of topics, from politics to feminism to grandparents. Beer was enjoyed by all. Much commiserating about life occurred. Many insights were shared.

One of the really interesting ones for me was actually something that I said, which is weird because I hadn't thought about it much before this particular conversation. Go privilege! We were talking about orientation, and I realized (as I was saying it) that I'm not really sure what orientation is.

I identify as straight - in common understanding, that would mean I'm attracted to women, right? But in muddied, complicated world of sexuality and gender, what does that really mean? Does it mean that I am attracted sexually only to people who are female-bodied? What if they identify as men, and look like boys or men? Body parts without context (or, say, the rest of a human attached to them) are not particularly interesting to me sexually, so my orientation isn't based solely on body parts and genitals.

Does my straightness mean that I am attracted to people who LOOK the way I've been socialized to assume women look? Am I attracted to a series of cosmetic and maybe clothing choices like long hair, skirts, certain hip/waist ratios? Male-bodied people can definitely choose to wear skirts if they want, and some male-bodied people will have similar hip/waist ratios as female bodied ones (probably fewer, but still enough).

Does my straightness mean that I am attracted to behavior? Am I looking for signs of traditional femininity in my partners? A certain passiveness, delicateness, and so on? So far, my actual life choices would indicate that I'm not the biggest fan of traditional femininity in behavioral terms - I tend to be interested in more aggressive partners.

So, if I can't pin down my orientation based on body type, presentation, or behavior, what the hell is it governed by? I have traditionally identified as straight both because I thought it was somehow objectively true for myself, but also because I didn't want to appropriate any marginalized sexualities to try and make myself look cooler or more interesting as a member of the gender justice world. I've never described myself as queer because I've never felt like I lived the non-standard sexuality (and subsequent marginalization) that the term implies. The society around me has more or less always supported my attractions and sexuality, even if it wasn't able to really provide a clear message about what that sexuality was (I mean, aside from NOT being gay, whatever that meant).

One of the messages the gender justice movement has been able to send to people pretty well is the idea that gender is not a binary: the world does not consist of men and women, who each evince certain personality traits and body types without any overlap. We recognize that there are many, many different genders. Many activists will describe gender on a continuum, but I don't even like that framework because I think it's still too narrow. Likewise, orientation falls the same way. I'm not attracted to all women. I'm not attracted to all female-bodied people. My orientation is some strange hybrid of genetic predisposition and socialization that drives my interests. Orientation, like gender, is more like a plot on a map than a place on a continuum, and it's CERTAINLY a lot more varied than a check box of straight, gay, or bi.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Feminism is not a pick-up line

So a little bit of background here - I wrote a post for the BARCC blog a couple of weeks ago about being an ally, and trying to deal with being a straight white dude in a variety of movements where I need to recognize my privilege with the quickness. Here is my favorite part of that post (is it weird to link to my own stuff?):

The real danger with the good guy mindset is that it gets real easy to make my feminism cosmetic only; to make it a button I wear at NOW meetings or an interesting piece of conversational material I can pull out at a party when I want an otherwise uninterested woman to think I’m cool, different, and “not like those other guys.” Seriously, though, “I’m a feminist!” isn’t a pick-up line.

A couple of weeks later, two of my favorite bloggers wrote pieces that, while not companions per se, certainly touch on an issue related to this. First, Holly over at the Pervocracy, and then Cuppy at her place, both write excellent posts about trying to both fit feminism into their lives, and still have lives in addition to that. I have often felt these things as well - feminism is really important to me, and a major source of my identity, but I also really like Led Zeppelin and soccer and martial arts and terrible action movies and God of War and Warhammer 40K. Some of those things don't really have any particular relation to feminism in general, some of them can be incorporated into my belief system (go Boston Breakers!) . Some of them are...harder to do that with (no women in the 41st millennium!) But feminism is a big pillar on which my sense of self rests. It generally informs the rest of what I do with my time and my life.

So. I want to represent myself honestly to the world. I want people who are interested in meeting me to have a rough sketch of the things we might have in common, and as a straight dude, I want potential female partners of mine to have a clue what makes me tick. Where does that desire to be honest, and to express myself, start becoming...exploitative, perhaps? I list a lot of my loves on things like Facebook...including feminism. It's on my OkCupid profile. I make no bones about being involved in the movement when I talk to people. And, to be fair, despite my post for the BARCC blog, that has gotten me a couple of dates with women. I don't think I mean for my involvement in this world to be self-promotion, but it sometimes feels like it's coming across that way. I sometimes feel like I'm name-checking my favorite band and insinuating that I know the lead singer when I talk about my feminism, even if I'm not trying to impress someone.

A lot of my own personal feminism is external to me (on a side note, I hate saying things like "my feminism" because it makes me think I'm in Konoha and Naruto is about to go into a lengthy four-episode flashback about "his ninja way!"). I'd like to think I do a lot of internal work, too, to start breaking down the walls of misogyny that built up like plaque in my system, but more of my feminism is directed towards the neighborhood I live in and the organizations I work with. I feel like having straight dudes who openly identify as feminists is important for the movement, and that's been where I live for the past couple of years. So I'm a little conflicted - I like being the straight guy who's a feminist, but I don't want to abuse it. For me, reconciling my life with my feminism is also reconciling my sexuality with my feminism. I'm not sure I've figured out how to do that completely yet.

Bowling Teams

I've been spending more of my time recently over at the BARCC blog; come and find me over there on Mondays.

With HCR now passed (it's a BFD!), I can resume my regularly scheduled ranting about political and social messaging in a broader context than one bill. Since the HCR bill decided to throw women under the bus, as pretty much always happens when we talk about sexual and reproductive health, I'm in the mood this morning to rant about rape culture.

Here's an example of excellent, grassroots, media supported social messaging: bowling team names. I'm in a seasonal bowling league with some good friends from college, and here's what I've noticed about bowling team names (and to an extent, bar trivia names, too) - they are all required, by John Locke's social contract, to be terrible puns. All of them. Pretty much without exception.

So in my league, we've got my team (Split Happens), the reigning champs, Living on a Spare, and so forth. When my team captain first sent out her email to get our ideas for team names, she didn't explicitly tell us that we had to pick something that was a terrible bowling pun - we just knew we were supposed to do that. There is enough support in the social atmosphere for us to have learned through osmosis that this is the convention in bowling leagues.

Where did we get this information? Probably a bunch of different places: Obviously, the Big Lebowski is a big driver of it, as is probably a small stable of other bowling-focused large-budget comedies I saw as a kid. A few episodes of the Simpsons here and there, a few episodes of other major TV shows, and the words and conversations of my parents and adult relations when I was a kid, made me aware that this was the naming convention in bowling leagues.

This led me to wonder - how is that the world that I float in on a day-to-day basis is able to educate me quite firmly about the social conventions of something so trivial, like a bowling league, but it is unable to create a coherent message about sexuality? Obviously, there are less social power dynamics at play in a bowling league than in our overall messages about sexuality, so that's one reason at least that our messages aren't as easily shaped.

Rape prevention activists also don't get a whole lot of support from mainstream media, and we're not making a lot of our own media in the meantime. I'm talking social media, not news reports and blog posts - both of those are great, but when my friends get together on the weekends to have fun and shoot the shit, we don't quote our favorite blog posts (well, not most of the time, anyway). We toss jokes back and forth from our favorite TV shows, movies, and sometimes viral videos, if they are funny enough.

One of the tools progressives and gender justice folks like myself will need to really push back against rape culture is the support of major social media, to start creating a viable alternative social space for people to make jokes, have fun, and share common experiences and loves that aren't sexist and rape-y.

My ultimate goal in this world is to make consent in sex, and respect, as basic and easy to learn through osmosis as how we're supposed to name bowling teams.