June 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

features

Polyamorously Perverse

It can be so satisfying to curl up and read a self-help book that you can’t really use. Too many self-help books that you can use are agonizing, even menacing sometimes, like that “friend” who tells you that you look bad when you do look bad -- or, that worse “friend” who tells you that you look bad when you actually look really sexy, in a tousled way. My most loathed self-help book is He’s Just Not That Into You, because the book is right that’s he’s Not Into Me -- in fact, No One is Into Me except people I am Not Into, and maybe no one ever will be again, thank you for noticing -- but it’s wrong about everything else. Yet, I can’t completely discount it, since it’s right about that one key detail. The fact that the main author and the wife he’s so Into both look like ALF offers some solace (Margaret Cho or Viggo Mortensen or Gisele Budchen or Sylvia Earle or David Byrne would probably write a different book), but it still gets to me.

Good self help books, like good friends, should never tell you (metaphorically or actually) that you look bad, even if you do. Instead, they should tell you how to look exactly the way you want to look, instantly, and they should do it in a way that makes you feel happy and excited and adored. If they aren’t going to do that, they should go away and let you comfort yourself with a nice novel, or a reread of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, or a movie, or an inadvertently funny self-help book that you can’t use, and that therefore doesn’t hit any raw nerves.

I thought that The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Adventures would be one of those pleasantly irrelevant self-help books for me. Sure, I might have gotten drunk recently and fooled around with someone who was nine when Kurt Cobain died. Who hasn’t? But two years out of a long-term relationship (which I ended with all the speed and clarity of using a Nerf ball to break through a brick wall), I have a life largely free of any kind of amory, let alone wild and crazy multiple amory that has to be negotiated or managed. 

Also, although Bookslut is my favorite website, I’m not even a bookslut. I’m more of a bookprude or a booktease. Sure, I read alone in my room late at night, or -- when the mood strikes -- in a frenzied, solitary bout in the bathroom on a sunny afternoon. Who doesn’t? But, although I freeze a little when it happens, I don’t like it when you push your latest Jonathan Safran Foer or Zadie Smith or Ann Patchett book all hard up against me and tell me I’ll love it, because you love it. I won’t love it. But, even if you’re right and I would love it, I have to be in the mood. God, I hate pretending I’m enjoying your stupid book! And, I don’t want to go out and have coffee with a book just because your friend wrote it and your friend is such a nice person and you think it’s a nice book. You are misunderstanding what I want. You think because I’m in my thirties and newly single, I’m just desperate to settle down with a nice book. I don’t like nice books any more than I did when I was fifteen. Sure, sometimes I open myself wide and let a book pound itself deep inside of me till I’m ravenous for more, till I can’t control myself, till I’m shaking and flushed and so transformed that I want to experience the book again, that believe I love the book, that I want to live with the book forever. No matter how bad for me it is. Do you really think that’s going to happen with your nice friend’s nice book? It isn’t. Go away. I do know it seems alluring and delicious to talk about books with me, especially after I let you do it just a little tiny bit, and then the next time just a little tiny bit more. I know it might seem like I want to. I guess I’m just not ready. It’s not that I don’t love books, it’s that I love them too much to share the secret flower of my love with just anyone. It has to be with someone special.

I was looking forward to reading The Ethical Slut from a luxurious distance, making fun of its self-help exercises and probably turning up my prudish nose at its sex-positive sensibility. So, imagine my surprise when I found out that it is entirely inclusive of people who choose monogamy (as I did in the past), people who aren’t getting laid because they can’t find a willing partner they are attracted to (me now!), people who don’t want to get laid, and, well, basically everyone. And, imagine my even greater surprise when I started loving the book in all its thoughtful sluttiness, enough that I wanted to talk about it.

Now, I was all set to explain how I’m sex-negative as I wrote about The Ethical Slut. I relate to Third Wave feminists about as happily as I relate to YM magazine or Tampax’s ad copy. Comparing them to the radical old guard is like comparing Bacardi Breezers to 16-year-old Lagavulin or Bulgarian rosewater from fragrant blossoms grown on the land that was once Thrace. I believe that everyone who has sex, or does not, is trapped in our sick, exploitative society, and whether we rebel against sex role norms or not, our personal expression -- sexually, socially, creatively, spiritually -- is inescapably shaped by that problem. I think that Andrea Dworkin’s brilliant work on this subject has been gravely misunderstood -- sure, it’s within a flawed ouevre, but find me any great thinker with an unflawed oeuvre.

Although there are fatal flaws in journalist Victor Malarek’s new book Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It (reviewed in last month’s Bookslut), I agree with its premises, including the idea that consuming (some) porn is connected to using a prostitute. Sure, if you’re looking at pictures of a 15- or 16-year-old girl on the Internet who has been paid or forced to hold open the lips of her vulva, and rubbing yourself until you come, it’s not exactly the same as paying a pimp to have the same kid jerk you to orgasm in a dark hotel room. Congratulations to you. And if you use pictures of scantily-clad 15- or 16-year-old bodies in a mainstream fashion magazine to sell perfume or shoes, well, there’s not even any debate about your behavior. It’s telling that there are acres of books about prostitutes and so few about Johns. And you only have to look at the age that most sex workers enter the field (in my city: 13 on average, for girls) -- or at the subject matter of the most popular porn in America -- to understand that prostitution is rarely a transaction between consenting adults.

There’s something creepy, to me, about using people as objects instead of people, and buying and selling live human bodies (as domestic servants, as cheap labor to mass-produce objects, or for sexual release). And maybe if and when we exploit other people -- for sex, or for labor -- even if we are only masturbating to their frozen images or wearing cute tie-dye panties that they made for us in a Chinese sweatshop while we drink a $4 coffee and read about how to open our sex life -- maybe we should feel ashamed. My views on this subject don’t mean that I’ve found some pure, uncompromised way to live a radical life -- far from it. I’m not able to persuasively articulate my positions. And, unfortunately, even thinking about sexism and racism and slavery makes me shrill and hysterical and causes my uterus to rove dangerously around my body, and I have to stop before I punch some sex-positive chippie in the nose or get thrown into a sanatorium.

According to the definitions in the glossary in the back of The Ethical Slut, I’m actually not sex-negative, in that I don’t believe sex or desire are inherently dangerous or wrong. The Ethical Slut authors Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton might disagree with me about some things, but they conscientiously address the ways that outdated, sick-o social gender roles hurt our ability to freely express our sexuality and humanity. They even have actually clever solutions to some of the related problems that come up. But that’s not the best thing about this book.

The best thing about The Ethical Slut is that it’s that rare, good self-help book, like that rare good friend, the one who gives you advice that actually works to get you what you want (not just what’s “best” for you, but what you want!), and doesn’t judge you. Janet and Dossie (longtime lovers, best friends, and collaborators who have never lived together, and have continued their partnership through many other relationships) think I’m completely wonderful and fantastic just the way I am, not in some dumb “be all that you can be” way, but because they think people in general are pretty great. They think my body is adorable and sexy. They think there are people out there who would love to connect with me and be in my life. They don’t think anything about me is defective, at all. They don’t even think all the weird, complicated, impossible things I want mean that something is wrong with me. They don’t want me to settle for anything, sexually or otherwise, although they would like me to toss any kind of checklist out the window and open my mind and heart to connecting with people who might not fit into a tired, misguided ideal of beauty or success. They want me to figure out what I want, and to go and get it. The old myths about what “everybody knows” don’t have to be true.

“We encourage you to explore your own realities and create your own legend, one that spurs you onward in your evolution…” There are quite a few ways in which sluts have “chosen to organize their lives and loves. You get to choose one, or several, or invent one of your own. Relationship structures, we think, should be designed to fit the people in them, rather than people chosen to fit some abstract ideal of the perfect relationship. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, as long as everyone’s having fun and getting their needs met.” By letting each relationship organically find its own form and its own level, we get to live in a richer, more exciting universe.

Janet and Dossie want me to operate from a place of abundance, as if there’s more than enough sex, love, fulfillment, and fun to go around, instead of from a “starvation economy.” And, starvation is definitely the place I’ve been operating from! I can’t imagine one person I am attracted to wanting to make out with me, let alone finding a delightful abundance of beautiful connections with lots of exciting people. Not to worry. “Sometimes, you just have to try it and see.” Janet and Dossie go on to talk about developing “slut skills” like emotional honesty, limit setting, creating boundaries, and making thoughtful, conscious choices. There are sections on opening existing relationships, keeping sex safe, flirting and cruising, handling conflict, making agreements, healthy breakups, “clean” sex, childrearing in open relationships, and handling jealousy.

On “living single”: “The important thing is to be aware of your needs and wants, so you can go about getting them met with full consciousness… Do not commit yourself to a lifetime of hinting and hoping. When you figure out what you want and ask for it, you’ll be surprised how often the answer is ‘yes.’” Really? I hope this might be true. The hinting and hoping hasn’t been such a great strategy so far.

On gender roles: “What we can all learn from transgender people is that gender is malleable… If you think this doesn’t apply to you, that you are certain of your gender and that it’s immutable, please consider that a great many people are born with characteristics of both genders: depending on whose definition you use, anywhere from two to seventeen babies out of a thousand are born with chromosomes and/or genitalia that place them somewhere between the extremes of the gender continuum. We’re not generally aware of these people in our midst because their appearance is usually surgically altered early in life… And a great many people whose genitals and chromosomes are all lined up with biological norms nonetheless feel strongly that they would live more happily and appropriately when presenting as a different gender than the one the doctor assigned them at birth… Gender-queer people -- those who choose to live their lives somewhere between the usual gender roles -- are softening the boundaries of gender and demonstrating what life without binary gender might look like.” Yes! And, thank god.

On marriage: “If we ran the world, we would abolish marriage as a legal concept, allowing people to enter into contract relationships as allowed by the perfectly adequate laws that already govern other forms of legal partnerships.” Me too!

On monogamy: “We believe that monogamy will continue to thrive as it always has, a perfectly valid choice for those who truly choose it. (We don’t think it’s much of a choice when you are forbidden to choose anything else.)”

On sex: “Are you having sex right now? Yes, you are, and so are we… We think that the question of when you’re having sex is actually sort of meaningless. Sexual energy pervades everything all the time; we inhale it into our lungs and exude it from our pores… We think erotic energy is everywhere… We have had long, intense, intimate conversations that felt deeply sexual to us. And we have had intercourse that didn’t feel terrible sexual. Our best definition here is that sex is whatever the people engaging in it think it is.”

On sex books: “When you sit down to write a book about sex, as we hope you one day will, you will discover that centuries of censorship have left us with very little adequate language with which to discuss the joys and occasional worries of sex.” Janet and Dossie want me to write my own book about sex, and I can tell they really mean it! How deliciously (book)slutty of them!

In conclusion: “We want to create a world where everyone has plenty of what they need: of community, of connection, of touch and sex and love… We dream of a world where no one has desires they have no hope of fulfilling, where no one suffers from shame because of their desires, or embarrassment about their dreams, where no one is starving from lack of sex.”

Wow! This is maybe the perfect self-help book. This Kool Aid is so delicious! Except, except, except. Well, what about rape, and slavery? It’s one thing if your dreams and desires lead you to sluttitude or S/M between consenting adults or the consensual exploration knismolagnia or diaperism or emetophilia or furry-ism -- but what about all of the (verifiably millions) of people who sexually prey on kids, a predilection that is more common by far than most of those potentially consensual paraphilias? “There is nothing in the world so terrific that it can’t be abused if you’re determined to do so: Familial connections can be violated, sexual desire can be manipulated. Even chocolate can be abused,” write Dossie and Janet, “Abuse doesn’t change the basic wonderfulness of any of these things: the danger lies in the motivation of the abuser, not the nature of the item… If all sex were consensual and pleasurable, how would the world feel about it then? How would you feel? If you look deep inside yourself, you may find bits and pieces of sex-negativism, often hiding behind judgmental words like ‘promiscuous,’ ‘hedonistic,’ ‘decadent,’ and ‘nonproductive.’”

Okay, but, but, but! (My inner prude leaps out.) The fact is that the abuse of sex, and sexual violation, are so widespread, so ubiquitous, and so deeply entrenched in our society that the problem isn’t an occasional abuse of something terrific. The problem is a widespread epidemic of real horror that third wave feminists and other sex positive folks wish to downplay. Now, if all sex were consensual and pleasurable, I would celebrate! I would be open to the idea of everyone doing what turns them on, so long as it isn’t abusive, even if it nudges at my own gag reflex (emetophilia, ewww). But, Janet and Dossie’s idea that no one has low self-esteem at the moment of orgasm? Are they kidding? They should read Michele Tea’s Rent Girl, where she describes the horrible feeling of coming during sex with a john she loathes. The idea that everyone looks gorgeous when they’re coming is more subjective, but I kept thinking of Lukas Moodysson’s movie Lilya 4-Ever, with visuals of johns grunting themselves into ecstasy over the body of a teenage sex slave. And then there’s this, in the “Flirting and Cruising” chapter:

“Being asked, even by someone you don’t find attractive, is a compliment and deserves a thank you. If you think someone is ridiculous for finding you attractive, we worry about your self-esteem.”

Come on. Anyone who’s ever been a teenage girl knows that lots of people are attracted to you the way a snake is attracted to another animal’s eggs, or a thief is attracted to a tourist’s wallet. I love the idea of living in a sexual utopia where there are no categories or hierarchies and no one is treated as an object, or exploited for being vulnerable. But we don’t live in that world yet, and in this world people’s interest is often sleazy and nefarious. Am I starting to sound shrill again? I’m starting to feel shrill.

Also, I am skeptical about the polyamory part. Don’t get me wrong -- I am equally skeptical about other relationship forms (such as monogamy or serial monogamy) in our society. Abuse and violation are rampant, but even in consensual connections, we are all so compromised in terms of our ability to express ourselves honestly that, whether or not they enjoy sex with lots of people or with one person or not at all, most people lie through their teeth often, especially in intimate settings, and manipulate or abuse each other, and grasp around for power, and deceive themselves. There was a humorous section in the first edition of Ethical Slut that talked about “how to fuck up,” which included suggestions like, “Remain technically faithful to your partner while breaking the spirit of whatever agreement you have whenever possible” and “Avoid self-knowledge.” The new edition is sleeker and more elegant, but I rather liked that “fuck up” list, because I think most people act in those ways, and most people I know are monogamous that way, and most people would be polyamorous that way, too, were they to try consensual polyamory. Whereas, Janet and Dossie seem to think most people have the capacity to be ethical. I would feel less shrill and hysterical and bummed out if I agreed with them.

In response to the charge that sluts are “easy,” The Ethical Slut authors respond: “Is there, we wonder, some virtue in being difficult?” Well, is there? Maybe. Isn’t our culture slutty in some yucky ways, with all of our diarrheic Facebook confessionals? (For some reason, I think putting a tell-all article in a magazine or even on a good website has an elegance lacking in Facebook blogs -- it’s posing nude for an artist like Alice Neel versus taking off your clothes in the middle of Union Square. It’s the delicious frission of context. In her excellent autobiography Killer Life, producer Christine Vachon explains that some of her films do poorly with test audiences, because people need some preparation to understand how to view them. They don’t have the obviousness and simplicity of derivative crowd-pleasers.) Isn’t there some beauty, some life-affirming dignity, in letting only a very select elite touch your nipples, or talk philosophy with you, or hear about your deepest, most tender feelings and your freshest ideas? Isn’t there still something sexy, mysterious, and profound in the hard-to-get? Maybe not.

“If you’re reading and enjoying The Ethical Slut today,” write Janet and Dossie, “thank a hippie.” I’ve just finished historian Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo’s rich and interesting study Daughters of Aquarius: Women of the Sixties Counterculture (which I think everybody should read in conjunction with Alice Echol’s Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975), and hippie women had some beautiful ideas. Things went wrong, of course. Lots of women reported feeling pushed into free love relationships that they didn’t want, for fear of being labeled “uptight.” When the going got dismal, hippie men would “split,” leaving women to provide for their hippie babies. The idea of embracing “the natural look” got co-opted by advertising conglomerates immediately, so instead of getting to revel in their blotchy, lumpy, unique bodies (the original idea), women were pushed to look airbrushed without the help of visible make-up or supportive lingerie. Still -- the ideas of opening our minds and hearts, coming from a place of love, expanding our consciousness, mending the world, embracing pleasure, turning on, tuning in, dropping out? Maybe we shouldn’t abandon them.

I had a good friend once, who had a hot older brother and a closet full of spandex things and who was never boring. Once, over snakebites in Camden Town, I asked her for advice about my crush -- a wiry, cigarette-scented older boy who played guitar. “If it’s meant to happen, it’ll happen,” she said. And it was wonderful advice! It was meant to happen -- the boy was really Into Me. Back then, I could listen to advice like that without clamping into a fist inside or getting all snarly about its triteness, its meaninglessness, its fatalism. After all, boys were Into Me all the time, lots of things were meant to happen, and the world was extraordinary, and huge. That friend and I drifted apart. She was a friend of the moment, or I was. Dossie and Janet would say that the friendship was no less valuable than one that lasted forever.

Ultimately, as enamored as I am with my new self-help friends, I’m torn. Do I go wild and explore the possibilities of sluttitude, or do I retreat into my prudish shell? “We can’t tell you what letting go will feel like,” write Janet and Dossie, “all we can do is assure you that you will learn something from it. Scary… and satisfying!”

I’m going to go with Janet and Dossie this time. My way hasn’t been working so well. “Imagine what it would feel like to live in an abundance of sex and love, to feel that you had all of both that you could possibly want, free of any feelings of deprivation or neediness.” That sounds nice.