body image · Sat with Nat · sex

Nat gets a night guard and contemplates ableist ideas about sex appeal

Last month I shared some of my experience encountering sexism while accessing medical care.

Nat gets her hearing checked…

I’ve since seen my dentist, who I just love as we’ve had the most amazing discussions over the years, and gotten a night guard (aka bite plate aka mouth guard). I’m very privileged that my extended dental benefits covered the multiple visits and the appliance.

A selfie of Nat making the “ah” face revealing a clear mouth guard on her bottom teeth. She is inside her car and wearing a super cute pink blouse.

I immediately thought about how unsexy I felt. This was echoed by many folks who decided that this alone was enough to not wear a dental appliance.

That sat really poorly with me. This night guard is a minor thing, easily removed when needed. My muscles are relaxing as the appliance does its job. But yet it felt like such a big thing to myself and other people because of concerns around losing sex appeal.

Not rational and, for myself, not terribly examined.

The night guard is to alleviate numbness in my face caused my clenching of my jaw. Scarring on the inside of my cheeks and scalloping along the edges of my tongue were signs I was indeed a clencher. So is my sister Anj and my father. It’s likely gotten worse because of a change in my paid work that has increased my stress.

The benefits of wearing this little clear appliance are less headaches and a return of feeling to my face.

I think, at the heart of all this sex appeal talk, is a nugget of ableism. The idea that only bodies that don’t need assistive devices, dental appliances or any other supports are less sexy than able/unassisted bodies is deeply problematic and I need to fight that impulse.

The other part is our old frenemy, sexism and the idea that women must constantly strive to be sexy to all people, especially men, at all times.

You know what is sexy? Someone who has had a good night’s sleep instead of clenching their jaw into spasms. Self care is sexy AF.

Basically if someone dares tell you or me that our self care, dental appliances, accessibility supports or anything else we need to be well are somehow making us less sexy we need to flip those people the bird.

body image · bras · fitness · sex

Lingerie: the final frontier

It took me ages to be OK with my body.

I was 26 when I realized I was unhappy with how I looked, and always had been, and that my unhappiness had been normalized by me (and by some of those who love me). Things hit a tipping point one autumn day at the Gap: I realized I couldn’t fit into the maroon corduroys (a size up from my already-plus-size) I’d brought sheepishly into the change room with me. I decided that was it: I wanted to look – but especially to feel – differently about my body.

Fast forward 17 years, and I weigh only marginally less than I did that day. Though my body is now fitter, stronger, and – most importantly – makes me feel proud and strong and happy every day. I celebrate regularly by buying clothes that I think look amazing, no longer believing they are not “for me.” ALL the clothes are for me, and for my beautiful body, yo.

But lingerie. Man, oh man, lingerie. The final frontier.

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(An image of a thin white female torso and upper thighs, wearing low-rise panties with an image of Deadpool giving the thumbs-up and a word bubble that says “approved!” Basically all lingerie trauma in one handy meme.)

To be honest, I hadn’t much considered lingerie, ever. Once I’d become more fit and shifted my body image, I bought dresses of all kinds and enjoyed admiring myself in mirrors everywhere; I embraced versions of the feminine that fit me and that felt like me. But lingerie: well, it felt like a thing you buy so you can get sexy with someone you also find sexy, and I didn’t have that in my life. For a while I pretended that was totally fine, until I just couldn’t anymore.

Some of you may remember my adventures in online dating – a challenging place for a feminist to seek satisfaction. I’m pleased to report, though, that I met a really wonderful human on Tinder, of all places; I marvel every day at what it feels like to be treated with tender, supportive respect by someone who also really fancies your body and wants to see you in lingerie.

Wait… say what?

D told me early on that he was very keen on lingerie, if I was into it; I was flattered but also daunted by the prospect of purchasing the goods, so I let it drop for a while. Then, as our relationship progressed, and as we got more invested in one another, our sexual connection became more intense. I realized that, yes, I did really want to buy some lingerie: for him to celebrate and enjoy my body, but also for me to celebrate and enjoy it with him.

But lingerie shopping! Man oh man, the shopping.

Here’s what happened when I dove into the lacy capitalist fray.

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(A vintage, sepia-toned, “western”-style poster featuring a white woman sporting a cowboy hat, tassled black gloves, a gun in a holster, and a bra with seriously pointy boobs. She gives us a sly, full-on look as she reaches for her weapon. The poster reads: “I dreamed I was WANTED in my Maidenform bra.”)

Take one: the pressure cooker

I was having lunch at my favourite grungy diner with a good friend and his son, in an upscale shopping area in downtown Toronto. I trust P and know his queer sensibility jives with my feminist one, so I asked him about good places to buy fun, sexy, lingerie. He had lots of advice, but it was more involved than I’d hoped: it included a trip across town, some recon in the gay village, and perhaps more conversation about preferences with (admittedly amazing and sensitive) staffers than I imagined I’d want to have. (I felt like I was in a hurry, though maybe I was just scared.)

After we parted, I remembered a shop I’d been to in the neighbourhood with another friend, years before. She was practiced at the lingerie thing and it seemed to work for her, so I headed over on a bit of a whim.

This was my first mistake.

The shop had a kind of “foyer,” with stairs leading up to the main retail area; there were a number of older, well dressed, white women milling about, and I could tell quickly that they were staff – and that they outnumbered customers, most likely on purpose. I smiled but tried not to make eye contact with any of them; I was immediately and completely uncomfortable. I felt myself trying to make myself shrink a bit, sort of disappear. I should have run for the exit, but my feet felt like lead. I didn’t want to be rude.

Just as I began fingering a few lovely-looking slips, discovering to my horror how expensive they were, one of the well dressed women approached me.

Did I know the majority of their selection was in drawers? She asked. What was I looking for? How much time did I have?

Anxious, I mumbled maybe 20 minutes, half an hour. (A lie: I had, like T-minus-get-me-out-of-here.)

Oh, that’s plenty of time! my WDW cooed. She began locating more slip options for me. (I have no idea why I told her I was interested in slips. I wasn’t. I was interested in sexy, hot, amazingly bodacious shit. Yet telling her this seemed, somehow, both impossible and gross.) Before I knew it I was in a change room.

I put on the first slip – a beautiful sky-blue number that was, admittedly, elegant and fell prettily over my waist and hips. WDW asked if she could have a look; I opened my change room door awkwardly, just a bit. Oh, we’ve cracked it! she cried. It was made for you! (NB: this is WDW-speak for “spend $300 on this now.”)

Other WDWs then crowded around to look at me, up and down from head to toe, as my mortified soul left my body and slid between the floorboards.

Now you need panties, my WDW told me, and she was off; she returned moments later with a thong made of polyester with a funny little flower at the back, right at the top of the butt crack bit. It seemed SO TYRA BANKS, but without the RuPaul irony. I could not imagine myself in it. It was $95.

Try them on over your own, go ahead, she instructed. I did what I was told.

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(Another vintage magazine image: this is from a French publication circa 1950, and shows a white woman from behind. She is dressed in netted stockings and a corset, lacy panties and evening gloves. She has curly shoulder-length blond hair and a neutral expression. Though she appears to be posing with hands on hips for effect, the image is structured to suggest she is dressing, or being dressed, and has only just reached the part with all the trussing.)

Then, something odd happened.

I realized that I did not want to buy these two items – even though part of me actually kind of liked these two items – but that I was definitely about to buy these two items. I would purchase them for reasons I could not quite fathom in the moment, but which had a very clear and firm hold on me nevertheless.

The feeling was overwhelming. It was not rational. I thought a lot about it afterward, as I clutched my shopping bag sadly on the train ride home.

Reflecting on the whole episode a few days later, with Cate and with my friend Natalie, I tried to get to the bottom of why I seemed to have lost all of my agency in that funny bi-level store, among those well-dressed older white women.

I realized that the entire experience had reminded me of the shame I used to feel when shopping for what felt like my bad, wrong, ugly body.

Of how I would find it easier just to be swept along by the maternal figures throwing fabric at me. Of how my mom – bless my mom, and all her own tricky body issues, and her best of intentions –would begin every one of our visits to clothing stores when I was a teen by demanding of staffers, “do you have this in an extra large?”

That feeling of being judged – it cascaded over me, got into my pores and seams, began to crush me.

That feeling of being looked at, constantly looked at, but not being seen. Not being even remotely seen as the woman I want to be.

The WDW was not my mom, but she might as well have been; she might as well have been all of the well-meaning women in all of the stores that litter my ugly-body history. I realized I would have done anything, anything, both to please her and to get away from her, as quickly as I could.

Take two: the feminist local

Natalie said: that experience sounds horrible! Did you know, though, that R’s friend’s wife runs a great lingerie shop just up the road from here?

We were having coffee in her neighbourhood, and I put two and two together: the shop I’d passed on my way to meet her – the one with the hot mesh body suit in the window, the one that seemed so welcoming and warm from the street – was the shop she was talking about.

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(This is a photo of a sexy black mesh body suit on a mannequin in the window of Stole My Heart, an amazing west-Toronto feminist lingerie store. I took it through the glass storefront window on a cloudy afternoon, and we can see an apartment building, some trees, and sky reflected in the window, as well as some big red peonies. I have no idea where they came from, but they totally rock the shot.)

Let’s go together, Natalie said. And one Saturday afternoon in March we did. This time, the experience was remarkably different for me, in every way. For one thing, it felt safe. Natalie is loving and supportive and I knew she had my back. But also: the shop was small and all on one level; there were sexy, fun, come-what-may pieces on mannequins and hangers all over the place. Ashley was tending shop on her own, and greeted us right away as friends (and, I suspect, not just because she knows Natalie.) Instantly I felt at home. In fact, I felt protected.

The shop is called Stole My Heart; co-founders Amy Pearson and Ashley Holden opened it precisely in order to counteract the kinds of experiences I had with the WDW. They write:

Lingerie has the ability to make women feel confident, beautiful and unique, but those aren’t often the feelings we experience while shopping for underwear. Having braved many a lingerie store together, we’ve been pushed up and sucked in, all the while struggling to find flattering pieces that we could get excited about trying on. We decided that we all deserve better and Stole My Heart was born. (Click here for more.)

Amy and Ashley’s aim in building the space and curating its collection was to celebrate body diversity, to support women designers and sustainable brands, and (this is my favourite bit) to “speak to the many definitions of femininity” that women inhabit daily.

store_interior_large

(Stole My Heart from the back looking at the window: lingerie on hangers, a brown wicker light fixture, black and white furniture signalling laid-back Victoriana. The writing on the wall literally says: “take your own breath away.”)

I knew none of this going in, note: I had not looked online, not Googled a thing. I had Natalie’s word and a glance through a window to go on. And yet instantly I could feel how different this vibe was: I was ok to be myself, to be honest and to be awkward if I needed to be. It was all good.

Emboldened, I said to Ashley: I want something sexy, for me and my partner to play in. But I’d like it to be comfortable, something I can wear and enjoy anytime.

Nat and I grabbed change rooms, and Ashley brought us all manner of things: stuff I’d picked out with her on a go-round the shop, stuff she’d remembered she had in a drawer, stuff from up high and down low. (The body suit, natch.) She thought I should start with mediums, but instantly I knew those were too small. I called out: could I have the mesh body suit in large? from behind the curtain; Yup! she hollered cheerfully back. And try this one, too!

She measured me and confirmed my bra size, then presented me with an array of gorgeous options I’d never have looked at myself. The one I least expected to want stole my heart.

I bought it for me, and I bought the body suit for me and D. (Bonus: it’s made of recycled fabric! It’s eco-lingerie!) Nat bought herself her first-ever proper nightgown, to celebrate an amazing new job.

As we paid (no sales counter – just an iPad along the wall, next to a comfy sofa and a table laden with chocolates, to which I helped myself, OF COURSE), we chatted about the experience I’d had with the WDW. Ashley commiserated. I mentioned what an utter delight this experience had been, the polar opposite – enough of a pleasure to make me want to come back, again and again, kind of just to hang out, actually.

Neither Nat nor I wanted boxes for our purchases; instead, Ashley wrapped them beautifully in tissue paper, and then put them into bespoke cloth bags, with “Stole My Heart” on one side, and a strong-ass bitch in a body suit on the other. (I like it almost as much as I like the new bra.)

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(Best. Tote. Ever. This image is of my Stole My Heart cloth tote bag, which is black and features a white drawing of an ordinary-sized female body with long hair. She is flexing a bicep and looking at it admiringly.)

The take-away

Shopping is hard, my friends; we know this. But it’s not hard because there’s anything wrong with our bodies, or anything wrong with being firmly, proudly, openly sexual – even in public. It’s hard because of the structures that shape our consumption. As women, we’ve long been coached to hide our bodies, demure about things sexual, even despise ourselves for spending money on ourselves. Lingerie shops often reproduce this vibe – because they are usually heteronormative spaces that institutionalize a particular kind of femininity-under-patriarchy, but also because they know that shame sells. Once caught in the net, I’d spend anything to be free.

So let’s seek out spaces that resist this vibe, that challenge our received body norms by making structural changes to curate a different kind of shopping feeling. Not shame but joy. Not fear but pride. Not the long, judging look of the matriarch, but the supportive and generous vision of the friend, the peer, the equal.

The look you give yourself, when you take your own breath away.

Thanks, Ashley!

Kim

advertising · body image · eating disorders · fitness · gender policing · media · objectification · sex

Really, Walmart? Really?

I don’t love Walmart. I don’t love Cosmo Magazine. I really don’t love what Walmart has done with Cosmo Magazine in 5000 locations in the good ole’ USA. Sam brought this article to our attention on our contributor discussion page and said, “Blog fodder. Do feminists agree with conservatives on this one?” I swear sometimes she says stuff just to get me riled up enough to write a blog. . .oh. . .wait.

So in a nutshell, Cosmo will not be available at the checkout where all the precious minds of little girls might get polluted with its sordid sexual content. Dawn Hawkins of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (Formerly known as Morality in the Media) claimed it as a victory of her organization’s own making, referencing #metoo as the inspiration for this action. Walmart made a vague statement about it being a “business decision” in which it “consulted” with unnamed entities. Cosmo isn’t being banned. It’s just being moved.

Honestly, do I care? I hate Cosmo. I mostly hate it because it over promises on the sex tips. Here’s an example, “7 Best Sex Positions for Female Orgasm“. It says these tips will “guarantee to help you orgasm”. But you know what? That’s bullshit. I’ve tried every one of them. I want my guarantee! They get me every time and dash my hopes. But you know what else is in there? This gem about the fight to include women’s choice into Obamacare. There’s also this one about my current favourite teen that isn’t related to me, Emma Gonzales, and the photoshopped picture of her ripping up the bill of rights.

When Sam asked if feminists agreed with conservatives, I will confess to having a trauma trigger. It all goes back to a time in 1990. I was a young impressionable law student and I read Catharine MacKinnon. For those who are too young to remember, these were troubled times in the feminist movement (I mean, when aren’t there troubled times). There was a general agreement that pornography, as conceptualized by the patriarchy, was not great for women. It was not about our pleasure, it was not about our agency, it was not about our actual bodies. It was about our function and that function was to arouse and get off men. That’s objectifying. That’s an impoverished view of women and women’s sexuality. But in the hopes of doing something about it, feminists teamed up with the “moral majority” of conservative evangelical politics. They argued for an end to the scourge using legal tools and in the process, did a terrible disservice to a lot of women, including me. In this discourse, sexuality became even more of a source of shame and, as happens, marginalized sexuality took the brunt of it. Somehow the mainstream porn industry continued to thrive while it was harder for alternate voices to get in there and change any of these narratives. Things didn’t get better for women as a result of this unholy alliance because it got hijacked by the more powerful partner in the endeavour. (This is an admittedly uncomplicated summary).

Meanwhile I wasted 10 years of my life not doing fun sexy things that I wanted to do because I thought it would make me a bad feminist. Did those well meaning white lady anti-porn feminists mean for any of this to happen? Of course not. But you can be sure that the folks like Ms. Hawkins would be pretty pleased that I stayed away from all that perverted hanky panky I was trying not to think about.

So, back to beleaguered Cosmo. I wish it was not such a trashy mag. I wish it portrayed more real bodies. I wish the sex advice was better. But other than that, it’s not the worst. They have stopped putting diet advice on the cover. There is a lot in the magazine that speaks to women’s agency. That it reports on celebrity gossip is not a thing that should banish it to the back shelves. I’m curious if that trashiest of trash piles the National Enquirer can still be found eye level with the kidletts? Likely. The hypocrisy is beyond the pale.

A brief perusal of the website of the NCOSE indicates that its main focus is on enforcing and strengthening obscenity law, educating young people about the dangers of overconsumption of porn, prohibiting the exchange of sex for money and somehow “stopping the demand for purchased sex”, I guess through the punishment of being caught (?). While their goals are around the protection of women and vulnerable young people, their tools involve repressing the material, not educating or empowering the victims in the ways I think are helpful. Their aims are also decidedly not sex or sex work positive. I guess that’s where we differ, me and Ms. Hawkins. Cosmo is imperfect, but it is somewhat educational. It reflects reality. NCOSE targeted Cosmo because it is a somewhat sex positive liberal trash mag. I will take that over a sex negative conservative mouth piece of a shameful president any day of the week.

So the answer, Sam, is NO!

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A Gif of an older glamorous white woman in big sunglasses and a scarf wagging her finger and shaking her head, “Nuh uh, honey”.
cycling · sex

Cycling Doesn’t Harm Women’s Sexual Experiences But It Might Cause Self-Pleasuring in a Field of Flowers*

*Not to be coy but I am trying to stick with words that won’t get us thrown off Facebook.

I love Bicycling magazine’s gradual move to becoming a more inclusive place. I especially like the work of Selene Yeager. She’s the best thing about Bicycling magazine. (I’m a big fan)

And I was really happy to see this story,  Cycling Doesn’t Harm Women’s Sexual Health, Study Finds.

It settles a question that’s been around forever, like since back when doctors worried that cycling caused women to masturbate excessively and possibly caused our uteruses to collapse. See Bicycles: Making good women go bad since the 1800s. See also Vibrating bike seats and the female orgasm and Bike seats, speed, and sexual depravity.

Even in 2012, stories like this were making the news: Riding bikes harmful to female sexual health

But, yay! The new study looked at the experiences of more than three thousand women and found only good news. Here’s this snippet from the Bicycling magazine story.

Two months after the biggest study to date assured men that, contrary to decades of misinformation, cycling won’t kill their erections, women can welcome some good news of their own. The largest study of its kind just reported that cycling had no negative impact on the sexual and urinary function of even the most active women riders. What’s more, women who clocked the highest mileage showed better sexual function than their non-cycling peers.

“Turns out the women who biked more frequently tended to report better experiences in the bedroom. “We found that lifetime miles ridden was associated with better sexual function, as measured by a common, validated questionnaire,” researcher Thomas W. Gaither, a UCSF medical student, said in a press release.

Good news for women who ride.

One question for Bicycling magazine: Why this image? First, not exactly an image of woman who rides her bikes a lot. Second, it looks like she hopped off her bike to pleasure herself in the field. Am I the only person this thought occurred to? (I actually know that’s not true since a Guelph faculty member and friend came up to me in a meeting and said that she hasn’t stopped laughing since she saw the photo with the story. She says she’s going to look at women laying bedside their bikes differently from now on.)

Also, also, the caption: “Women who ride bikes tend to have better experiences riding, well, other things.”

 

equality · fitness · sex · weight lifting

Thoughts about fitness, consent, and pleasure

*Trigger warning: this post discusses issues around sexual violence and consent.

Regular readers of FFI know I’m an avid cyclist and sometime internet dater; what you may or may not know is that in my work life I’m a theatre scholar – I teach, write about, and regularly attend live shows of all kinds. It’s a huge privilege to be able to say, as I did on a recent Friday afternoon, “I have to leave my desk and take the train into town to see a play!”

That particular play is called Asking For It; is a piece of “verbatim” theatre – that is, theatre composed of interview material gathered, with full consent of participants, by the author and star of the show, Ellie Moon. Its jumping-off point was the media storm surrounding the now-disgraced CBC Radio host and popular member of Toronto’s arts community, Jian Ghomeshi, who between 2014 and 2016 was tried both in a court of law, and in the court of public opinion, for physical violence against women during sexual encounters. (I won’t go over the details of the case here, except to say that it turned out to be a textbook example of how the law treats women in situations like this one; if I had to send you to some sources for a primer, I would choose this one, and this one.)

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The promotional image for Asking For It, by Ellie Moon (Nightwood Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest in Toronto). The image shows a white woman (Ellie), both alluring and fierce, looking into the camera. Her long hair blows gently in the wind. Her neck bears a tattoo that reads “shocking to some”. The background is a sepia tone.

Moon was living in England when the scandal around Ghomeshi broke, but she was back in Canada as a jobbing actor when he went to trial. She found herself, as a result of the issues in the air, wondering about her own sexual preferences, those of others, and why we are not good at talking openly with one another about either sexual pleasure or sexual consent. The show asks: “How do we convey, and experience, sexual consent in 2017?” Using her interview material, transcripts from social media, and her own reflections (as a sexually active woman and a performer in the show) Moon creates a complex image of the ambiguities and ambivalences that shadow what we do and do not want to happen in private sexual encounters, and what we do and do not want to talk about afterward.

It’s a superb show, but why am I talking about it here?

For me, fitness isn’t just about building muscle, climbing hills on my bike, or stretching my aching hamstrings in yoga. It’s not only about eating yummy green things (and yummy chocolate things), getting proper sleep, and trying to drink less. It’s also about feeling safe, feeling joy, and feeling cared for in bed, when I’m not in bed alone. So while, as a theatre scholar, I was struck by the skill evident in Moon’s production and her adept use of the verbatim genre, as a woman interested in fitness and wellness (my own and that of others), I found the show struck some deeper chords.

Social messages these days try to make consent appear very clear-cut: no means no. And it absolutely does. But feeling consent, conveying consent, and expressing the shift from consent to non-consent when you’re deep into it can be a great deal more murky than the prevailing winds want to suggest – which can lead in turn to feelings of confusion and shame for men, women, and those who identify as non-binary alike. This is a large part of what Moon and her co-performers get into during Asking For It, and I found the labour of their honest reflection useful, moving, and also a bit of a relief.

Logo_ConsentIsSexy

A pink button against a denim jacket reads: “Ask First. Make it Sexy. Consent is sexy. consentissexy.net.”

What happens, for example, when we’ve having loads of fun, but then suddenly, for one partner, something shifts? Whose responsibility is it to stop? How do we stop and not make things “weird”? Why do some of us (usually, women) feel such a need to keep things “light” (rather than “weird”) – and at what cost?

I had this experience not too long ago: I found myself crying into my pillow while my partner was behind me. We had been having fun, and then, suddenly, I was not. I felt such shame; the tears followed. He was unaware of the tears; I was fighting them because I didn’t know whether or not I was still consenting to what was going on, and that was making me even more anxious. (Note: he did not do anything for which he did not have my permission.) I cared about his experience and I didn’t want to hurt him; I also knew he didn’t want to hurt me. Eventually I told him to stop and went into the bathroom; when I returned, we sat and talked it through. After that, everything was absolutely fine.

This is an example of consensual sex working very well indeed – we talked it through; everything was absolutely fine – but it’s also an example of the complexities consent always presents in the moment-to-moment-ness of sexual encounters in the real world. Was it my job to tell him to stop? His to check in with me? Mine to give him signs that problems were surfacing? I have no solid answers to these questions. I think ideally he would have checked when I stopped being responsive, and I would have demonstrated more openly that I was starting to experience discomfort. But I know for certain that neither of us wanted to hurt the other – both of us wanted to consent to pleasure in one another, and we had / we did.

I also have no doubt that I was able to express my growing non-consent, eventually though imperfectly, because I am in my 40s and I now have a strong sense of myself as an independent sexual subject. Had I been in my 20s, and especially myself in my 20s, I’m pretty sure it would not have gone as well.

Which makes me worry a lot about my students.

Then there’s the question of where each partner’s responsibility lies in the acts of asking for, giving, and receiving consent before we even get going. Yes, in heterosexual situations men typically hold the balance of power, and so should always ask to make sure consent is intended (rather than simply assumed on their part). After all, violence in relation to sex is about power: social, historical, and physical.

But power does not always break down along expected gender lines, even in heterosexual situations.

In the sexual relationship I have with the man in the anecdote above, power is surprisingly balanced; we weigh similar amounts and are similarly strong, and our personal identifications (based on gender, ethnicity, race, and class) mean that in some key ways I am culturally more privileged than he is. Further, I initiate our sexual encounters at least as often, if not more often, than he does. Given these factors, I consider it my responsibility to ask his consent before I move too far forward; we do this playfully, thanks to a rapport built up over time (and thanks to our mutually compatible senses of humour).

About three quarters of the way through Asking For It, Moon and fellow actor Christine Horne recreate, for the audience, an encounter from Moon’s research between her and a friend: after a boozy dinner they are on a Toronto bus. Horne’s character tells Moon she should be approaching strangers as well as friends for her project of collecting material for the play, and so Moon goes over (rather reluctantly, and bashfully) to the only other passenger on the bus, a man played by Steve McCarthy. She asks him to talk into her phone about his experiences of asking for and receiving consent; he asks her if she is coming onto him. She says no; she explains the play project and asks again for his feedback. He becomes angry, though not hostile; he is obviously frustrated and feels blindsided. Moon then admits she’s “a little bit drunk”, and he says, “can you imagine if the situations were reversed?” If he approached her on the bus, asked to talk about sex, and admitted to being tipsy? Moon is taken aback; she gets it – that image represents the opposite of the safe situation they are currently in, and they both know it – but she also, at least a little bit, gets the difference. “But I asked you,” she says quietly.

She opened with a request for consent.

I find myself thinking about these issues as a 43-year-old woman who wants to enjoy sex but also to stay safe and healthy and happy in my sexual life. I also find myself thinking about these issues as a feminist, and as a feminist teacher.

I am often asked to explain feminism to others; I don’t mind doing it, because I’ve had a lot of practice. To me, feminism means appreciating and recognizing the privilege our sex and gender identities afford in relation to others, and in conjunction with other forms of privilege or non-privilege our bodies bear.

For me, as for Moon, “feminism” is a word that means “equality”‘; sadly, “equality” is a complex concept, and we seem to be living in a moment that jettisons complexity, too frequently, in favour of the superficial. A lot of the talk around consent is actually fairly superficial: no means no, dammit! Just follow that mantra and you’ll be fine. A lot of the men in Moon’s play know this mantra, but are struggling: they think that checking in, or making sure to ask, is the sum total of their responsibility. OR, they are angry and frustrated that, in the consent game, girls seem to be getting all the joy and none of the struggle.

Yes, no means no. But can everyone say no, really?

What these guys (and, frankly, what a lot of us) miss is that it’s really not that easy, for any of us. Understanding consent as more than a word or two – understanding it as a factor of power imbalances, historical privilege, and the challenges and joys that have arisen as women have become more culturally and economically powerful players in the public sphere – means coming to grips with consent as something that needs to be constantly negotiated between sexual partners, and something that needs to be fulsomely (not superficially) expressed by both parties.

It means recognizing that some of us have more vocal power than others. That some of us feel more free than others to express what it is we want. That some of us fear speaking out, ever, about sexual feeling, because the consequences can be catastrophic.

It means talking through power and privilege, even as we talk about consent.

 

aging · fitness · sex

Girlfriend Therapy

My last post was about my online dating travails; it tells the story of me learning to cope with the badness of online dating, while finding the goodness in online dating (including the freedom to be many versions of my sexual self – exciting and healthy, though also quite daunting at times).

This post is going to be about something related but very different: finding the time and the space to make new female friends in middle age.

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Friends in middle age: Sam, me, and Susan – with a couple of terrific guys on the Three Ports Tour 2016.

Now, before we go any further, I want to be clear: for me, this issue is intimately related (just like the online dating issue) to my health and wellness, as well as to my fitness. When I think about how I might be fit for purpose in this world – able to carry on in my job, to carry on caring for my parents and my dog, to carry on managing the expectations placed on me by all the stakeholders in my world, and ALSO, FIRST, to carry on taking good care of ME – I think about a lot more than riding my bike or rowing or yoga. All those things matter. But so much more matters, too.

This past weekend was the Women’s March all over the world, and especially in Washington. My colleague (and sometime-contributor here) Alison went to Washington; she filled me in and I was filled with envy. Catherine blogged on the weekend about not going; like her, I made an alternative choice. It wasn’t without conflict, but it was absolutely for me about self-care. I realised I couldn’t march, because I wasn’t in a place to give that much at that moment. So instead I made a joyously selfish and entirely feminist choice: to take care of myself, by reaching out to another, wonderful woman in my life.

I was incredibly moved by Susan’s last post here on the blog, about her daughter and their recent experience shopping for clothes. I decided, after reading it, to send Susan an email thanking her for it and describing how I’d connected to it. Susan and I have been riding a few times before, thanks to Sam, but we’ve not hung out. A few times I have wished we could: Susan’s canoe trips sound TDF, and her dog Shelby is a sweetheart. So this time I was bold: I told Susan what her post had meant to me, and I asked if we could maybe hang out some time.

Susan wrote the kindest email back. In it, she said (and I’m going to take a chance here and say she would not mind me quoting this to you!):

This is just the loveliest thing. I mean, how often do middle age women get emails from other women saying “I want to be your friend?” Possibly never until right now.

And you know, she’s right. We hit a certain age (for me it was my early 20s) and realise that we’re growing apart from the community of young women we’ve (if we are lucky – and I know not all of us are) become attached to and reliant on. Some of us get long-term boyfriends or girlfriends, and our dynamics shift. Then we go to college or uni, sometimes far from one another. Babies come. Or careers blossom. We move around, away. We connect online a bit, see each other sometimes. In the process, of course, we make other friends, but if we are in long-term relationships or have families at home to care for, it becomes harder and less of a priority to connect with those close friends from our past, or even those new friends around the corner. Nuclear family-think sets in – another word for (hetero)normativity.

When I left Canada for a new job in England in 2012, I left a clutch of wonderful female friends behind. I missed them like hell! And when I came back, in late 2014, I left an equally fabulous posse of wonderful women once more. I ache with the loss of them in my daily life. We connect on Skype, but it’s not the same. Even with my best girls just up the highway in Toronto now, it’s hard to stay connected. There are loads of demands on our time, many children now among us, and a two hour drive is a two hour drive…

Last Sunday, I made that drive – to meet up with Susan and walk our dogs along the glorious trails near her house on the Niagara escarpment. We shared a bit about our pasts – partners, experiences, losses – that we didn’t know about one another before. We talked about work and kids. We talked about mental health struggles. We talked about the fog, the sumac, the gorgeous spaces all around us. We shared the pleasures of ambulatory, sensory therapy. We kept on top of the dogs! We got home and Susan gave me a cup of green tea in the most hilarious mug I have ever seen. Then Shelby did some genuinely wicked canine tricks for me.

We agreed we needed to do it again.

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This is not the mug Susan offered me. Hers is substantially funnier.

I’ve realised recently that I’ve been in the process, for 18 months or so now, of remaking my life. Returning from abroad to an old job and a much-loved house but a very new living and working situation has been at turns familiar and shattering. I’ve not got my bearings yet. I’m still figuring stuff out: who I want to be in the second half of my life; who I’d like to have around me as I grow old; what I want to give my body now, and what I want it to give me in return; who I’d like to have sex with, and who I’d like to spend my nights with; where I want to live – REALLY live. At a distance from some of the people and places that have deeply mattered to me thus far in my life, I’ve at times felt helpless and bereft in the face of these questions.

But I don’t need to be. Because there are so many amazing, strong, compassionate, loving – and did I mention STRONG? – women around me. Like Susan.

Thank god for us all!

Kim

body image · fitness · objectification · sex

Wellness tips for women online

Almost two years ago I split up with my husband. We had been together for over 15 years, and had been living in England for two, when I made the difficult decision to return to Canada (partly for work, partly to help support my ailing mother). After six months of draining and expensive transatlantic commuting, he left me. Or, rather, the relationship fell painfully apart, as distance, time, and sheer exhaustion broke its back.

Losing my long-term partner was hard for loads of reasons, but perhaps the worst of all was knowing I’d need to get back to dating again. I wasn’t done being in love, being cared for, or having sex – but to be honest, I barely remembered how to get myself these things.

I was an awkward kid with some body dysmorphia issues, and through my teens I was fat. I hated when people looked at me, and I did not like putting myself on the line for fear of teasing, bullying, humiliation – all the stuff I’d been trained in middle school to expect when I allowed my vulnerabilities to show. How I managed to date at all, let alone find a loving partner of many years, still seems slightly miraculous to me.

Almost a year on from the break-up, I met somebody. He seemed wonderful and at first I was over the moon. But it was short lived: he had lots of mental health issues, and they intervened before we could really get started. Needless to say I was disappointed; quite apart from the fact that I genuinely fancied him, I also thought I might have had a narrow escape!

I thought I might be able to avoid online dating.

Naive, I know. What do you do when you’re over 40, a smart professional woman with a bunch of impressive degrees, a nice house and a proper salary? If you’re lucky you live in a big city and have the chance to meet folks at great bars, restaurants, or local cafes. Or maybe there are lots of prospective partners at your gym/in your cycling club/amongst your friends’ friends.

Maybe you’re one of those people who routinely gets lucky on public transit.

Nope, me neither.

I live in a small city where the majority of the population is a) my colleagues, largely partnered; b) my students, and therefore off limits; c) folks who generally don’t share my values. (My university, and the town it’s in, are both pretty darn conservative. I am not.) Which means the in-person decks were stacked against me from the start.

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Having dating issues? Phoebe Waller-Bridge (as Fleabag) will help.

This is the story of what happened when I decided to embrace the inevitable and head online. It is not meant to be a “use this site, but not this site!” how-to guide by any means; rather, it’s about self-care during the online dating process, especially for women.

Because holy cow, does online dating ever require self care.

STEP ONE: Match me. No, really.

I started with Match on the advice of a friend. It’s relationship-friendly, so that was good; I’m more into relationships than hookups. It wanted a lot of information from me, so I gamely gave details. I tried to include fun, flirty photos and information, but let’s face it: I’m a brainy geek with a cycling habit. It’s all relative, and, relatively speaking, my profile probably made me a niche product at best.

Result? Crickets.

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Note: searching for memes for this post is among the most fun I’ve ever had online.

The site kept prompting me to “like” and “wink” at men’s profiles (I am straight, and shopped for men only), and it kept encouraging me to send messages to them to boost the chances of a reply. I did that – a lot. I got nothing – literally NOTHING – in return. I started to wonder what was wrong with me. Did these men get my messages, look at my profile, think “ew! brainy cycling geek! RUN!” and do just that? With no positive feedback (heck, no feedback of any kind), plus the irksome website constantly prompting me to make my profile more seductive and my images more enticing, I grew more and more sure (despite, once more, I repeat, no actual, real-world evidence) that I was simply the most undesireable woman on earth, and was just going to have to accept that.

Result? I felt like utter shit. Every single day.

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How’d I get through this? Well, for one thing, I sought the help of friends. This might sound like an obvious strategy, but it didn’t seem obvious in the moment.

Let me reiterate here that my experience online thus far had been entirely isolating and a painful trigger for every ugly fear I’d ever nourished as a young woman about my physical inadequacy. No number of degrees, salary points, or QOM victories in my pockets could make up for the way Match’s structure encouraged me to locate my self-worth in being “liked” or “winked at” by random guys on the internet.

I’ve not hit a lot of glass ceilings in my life, but every morning when I woke up to check my empty message box I felt the painful banging.

Because, as I think we all know by now, the patriarchy is alive and well and breeding like rabbits on the web.

So reaching out to friends was tough – not obvious, but essential. I felt like I was admitting failure, but Sarah and Hillary, to whom I turned for support, sat me down and walked me through the ways in which the site was designed to infantilize users and create unreasonable, heteronormative expectations.

We talked about strategies for creating super-cute winky-winky profile images, sexy but not too OTT; we worked on profile language that would be clever and inviting but not confusing or intimidating for guys not in on the geek culture that feeds me. We talked about the pros and cons of listing/not listing my doctoral degree, or my salary. (Match asks for info on education and salary. Thanks, Match.) Most importantly, we talked about all of this as a strategy, not as reality. We talked about the problems inherent in the structure of the online game, but also about why we were playing it – what results we wanted it, for better or worse, to yield. We talked about the difference between the perceptions we were creating, the reality we were living, and the injustice of the two not being able to match, and still earn a Match.

In other words, we had a genuinely feminist conversation (over killer burgers and fries, y’all – because internet dating requires sustenance), and that conversation really buoyed me, lifted me up out of the sense of despair and identity confusion the online experience had been germinating for me.

The changes Sarah and Hillary helped me make to my profile did not improve results, but the time we spent together helped to improve my attitude tenfold: I was reminded I could remain firmly feminist, my whole, powerful self, and still do this, if this was a route to a relationship and a relationship was what I wanted. So when my paid three months on Match.com expired, I decided to take a risk and head for Tinder.

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My genuine apologies to the two men in this photo, but: WORD.

STEP TWO: is that a dick pic I see before me?

My goodness, yes it is. I was in theory prepared for the onslaught of purely sexual interest I knew would arrive with Tinder, but I wasn’t prepared for how bad it would make me feel. Once again, I was hit in the gut: a year ago I’d never have believed that an excess of interest in my body would feel as wrenching as *no* interest in my body, but there it was. Being asked for sexual favours, for photos of breasts or “pussy”… let’s just say Donald Trump was simply citing the zeitgeist, not saying anything particularly shocking.

The result? God, I felt degraded. SO. DEGRADED.

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Not because I don’t love my body, but because I unabashedly do! Because my body is so much more than its parts, isolated and fetishised; it is rich, dense, historical terrain. It is the sum of my achievements, written in its scars, in my (I think really sexy) laugh lines, and in all the ways the sun and the light and the rain colour my skin so I need not wear makeup (which makes me itchy – I’ve never liked it).

This problem was trickier to solve than the one Match had thrown me. Being asked to forget that my body is MY body and nobody else’s, being encouraged to turn it into free, animated porn on demand was possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face head-on (sorry). I was socialised as a “good girl”; I’ve been programmed to please everybody all the time. But I couldn’t do this. I did not want this.

On Tinder, I had to face the shocking disjuncture between two versions of “good”: the “good” girl who tries to please the men around her, and the “good” girl who wants to take proper care of herself.

And then, of course, there was the spectre of the OTHER girl inside me: the girl who knows “good” is total bullshit, one of a million ways our culture tries to keep us from our most powerful selves, and our most powerful desires.

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Thank you, Mata Hari. Check her out on DocZone at CBC.CA.

Ironically, I came to terms with Tinder when I realised that nope, I didn’t want to be anybody’s pussy shot – but likewise, yup, I really did want to have some hot, random sex, and that there was nothing not “good”, not healthy, not wonderful about that.

So I swiped with abandon. I chose to be as direct and clear as I could be once a conversation started. No, I won’t invite you over if we’ve not met yet. Yes, I’m up for lots of things but safety comes first, including having an in-person conversation with you, and insisting on condoms every time. If you get demanding I’ll be leaving; I far prefer to share. Honesty is rule #1.

I’m not entirely sure how I got to this place; it’s in many ways the opposite of where I started. I began with Match in the firm belief I wanted a relationship, and felt instantly like I was back in junior high school, alone in the hall with my baggy clothes and self-loathing. I had, then, to find my way back to myself; I did that by reaching out to my network of feminist comrades. Next I lived through the experience of being sexualised and objectified, then realised with a fair bit of humility that I wasn’t going through anything that MOST women haven’t been through, pretty much daily, for, um, thousands of years. I remembered that together we’ve grown much, much stronger – and that I, too, am strong, proud of my beautiful body, and excited to honour it whenever I can.

That, I think, is when I realized that I can honour and celebrate my body by owning my sexual desire, and by asserting both my desire as well as my body’s human rights in equal measure online. The web dating world looks at first glance like either a grammar-school gym or a pussy-grabbing free for all, depending on your particular patriarchal filter, but it doesn’t actually need to be either.

Because man, are there ever a lot of strong women out there on the internet! Let’s own our needs, lusts, and urges, ladies, and not be afraid to assert our hard-earned power.

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