So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

31 March, 2009

Diamond in the Rough

(Editorial note: One of a pile of posts I've been chewing on (I'll try to get the others done soon; at the moment they include some sexual assault processing, meditations on my pregnant body, possibly some crazed mysticism, maybe something about the financial mess, maybe some bisexuality and homosociality, and a couple of other things). I'm writing this now in part because becstar - a poster from Feministing quoted in two previous posts - has dropped by, and I'd like to give her someplace less cranky to comment if she's so inclined.)

One of the things that comes up a lot in some flavors of discussion is about the "influence of patriarchy" or similar things. Basically, cultural environment and such. I wrote about this a while back in terms primarily of homophobia and ablism as promoted in language, but I'm writing a bit more broadly for the nonce, though I'll drag it back to sexuality again somewhere.

I don't think I can honestly describe the cultural flavor I grew up in as "patriarchal". I would call it, instead, "corporatist". Which is interesting, as neither of my parents had 'mainstream' jobs - my mother a freelancer and fine artist, my father a professor, then working at a startup, and eventually a consultant-type - so I didn't get the Company Man indoctrination at home. It was almost all surrounding culture.

In that surrounding culture, the central question of identity was "What do you do?" What is your form of employment? How do you obtain money? This was a fundamentally depersonalised question: the individuality did not matter, all that was significant was this sense of what position one was holding in the mechanism of production. The answer had significant class effects - from the answer, one could extrapolate a rough expectation of income and associations, and from there determine who was 'appropriate' to associate with.

As I observed the adult world surrounding me, I saw a lot of reinforcement of this essential framing of identity. Long working hours were the rule rather than an exception in most cases - the job was more a part of many people's lives than anything else. I became dimly aware that things like medical care depended on employment, as well as the ability to maintain food and shelter. I heard on the news about people who had less good employment than my parents, and consequently poorer health, and the message I got was quite clear: job is quality of life, and worthiness of person.

At the same time, I watched the way certain forms of work were treated. One category of these was the "women's work" category - housework, childcare, other domestic labor. Often times this didn't count as "doing" at all (in response to "What do you do?"), and thus meant that women doing these tasks had no access to a legitimate identity. ("Didn't you used to be Ann Crittenden?") The other category was work in the arts - whether as a fine artist like my mother, or a writer, or a poet, or a musician, or a sculptor, or whatever else, giving that sort of answer to "What do you do?" got "No, I mean your real job." Art was a frivolity, a triviality, perhaps allowed to be considered a "real job" if one was very successful, but (vide the Dire Straits): "That ain't working, that's the way you do it, you play the guitar on the MTV. That ain't working, that's the way you do it, you get your money for nothing and the chicks are for free." (And for the concept of 'free chicks', I'm left with referencing Figleaf's "worthiness trap" posts, like this one.)

The short version is that it was a cultural setup where, broadly speaking, there were sets of roles, and one's value as a person depended on fitting into those roles properly and suppressing anything untidy (keep your head and hands inside the vehicle) into those few bits and time that were not the property of the Job.

And I have always been ... quirky. In my childhood, I was much more comfortable with younger children (I was the oldest child on my block by three or four years, so spent a lot of time in the company of children my brother's age) or adults, and very uncertain about fitting into the roles and groups that were part of the social system for children. And because I went about unprotected by a pubescent monkey troop, I was a prime target for sexual harassment; it was very much shaped by my experience as The One Who Does Not Conform, who is therefore sexually available or exploitable or at the very least can be abused without repercussions from any of the other local primates. If I had been able to pick a role and stick with it, if I'd had a "job" in the junior high school world, a legitimate identity, I would have been a less appealing target.

Overlaid upon this depersonalisation, a Momo-reminiscent obession with conformity and fitting in and keeping up with the Joneses and similar things was the world of "Just Do It" philosophy. Just about everyone I know from something roughly comparable to my background has talked about the secret sense of obligation they had from very young: to be the one who Fixed The World. And that intense, isolating sole pressure to be saviour to a world much larger and much more impersonal became a dominant feature of the zeitgeist I grew up with; not for nothing did I have a conversational exchange that went, "My goal: have children who need less therapy than I do," "I think that's the goal of our entire generation."

So: harshly enforced conformity to a world defined explicitly defined as defective and in need of saving; isolation even in a community context due to unrealistic imposed expectations; enforcement of these conditions managed with compulsion, shaming, and occasional violence. In the world of my childhood and in these terms, it was primarily the case that the girls were the enforcers and the shamers and the primary inflictors of severe harm, while the boys' threats were for the most part simpler, less abstract, more physical, and of lesser significance. (It's easier to talk about the menace perpetrated by the boys because there's more often a specific thing to poke at. The whole experience was full of hostility, though, with many of the exceptions nonetheless including accidental harm.)

On the one hand, I was recognised as Exceptional by parts of the adult world. I advanced ahead of my age group academically and was promoted accordingly. I had opportunities that others did not as people tried to figure out how to manage me and using the advantages of my class background.


All of that difference fed both the "Just Do It" illusion that I was capable of changing the world, not-so-secretly special, and the sense that I was recognised as significant not because of anything about the core of me, but because I was particularly suited to the facelessness of my current Job: student. I was lavished with privileges and academic attention and so rarely felt that I was recognised as a person. I was an Early Reader, a Mathematically Gifted, The Logical One, Science Girl, whatever.

Out of that morass of culture and personal history and everything else came a deep, intense, and powerful drive: to be recognised as whole and complete. To be something other than an animated role-fulfiller, something personal and real.

I wrote before about how the first boy who told me I was beautiful broke open my walls and what that meant, and that was all responding to that need, that hunger, to be complete, to be seen: and that was what laid me open for the assault. To be treated as something other than an instrument to the Job; how could I find the will to turn that down when I was screaming for it inside? I suspect sometimes that that, more than anything, is why the assault broke me like it did.

I don't talk about the details of my young fantasies, but I can speak in generalities.

And the generalities of the kink that I built for myself were: that in a world of depersonalisation, reduced to soulless bodies and skills kept in lines, owned and exploited by faceless organisations, there was someone with a face, a soul, a devotion, who would defy all custom and tradition to treat me as an individual, precious, cherished, important, who would see and value all of me, no matter what the risk, no matter what the cost.

Ask me what effect patriarchy had on my kink?

It made me want to be found: the diamond in the rough.


Trinity said...

I don't know if you've been reading my novel, or even if you'd want to, but there's a part in it that's about the finding.

The character is already marked as valuable, so it's a little different, but there's still that element of the person who dominates her going, "Oh look, a treasure!" Where the others mean she's been groomed to be one, this person means she is one.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

It's always good to see someone pointing at the same sorts of things I want to point at, like that.

Becstar said...

All I'll say at the moment is that my upbringing was obviously vastly different from you own but with similar consequences (without the kink obviously - I seem to be searching in a different way).

Before I say anything else though I will ask how welcome I am to be engaging in these types of discussions with you in particular and your readers in general. If its not wanted I'll go on my way, if it is I'll attempt to be as neutral as I can and actually try to explain myself better than I have a tendency to do.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

You are welcome to comment here so long as you are comfortable doing so. If you want to get a sense of the tone of things around here (which is very varied), feel free to pick a link from my tag cloud and explore.

It's a public internet space; it just happens to be my public internet space.

Becstar said...

If I had to classify myself at a base level I would say that I would lean towards dominant rather than submissive (but really if it was a scale and the middle was vanilla I would only be a notch above - maybe it would be more accurately described as overly confident?).

I was also that girl though (the one people looked over because god forbid a girl have a brain!) and experiences a form of abuse in my first experience with a guy (I don't really consider him my first partner) and with my first boyfriend.

I think that is why I found this post interesting because instead of cementing anything that had been in me previously it made me staunchly vanilla. Boyfriend asked me to fuck him and even that made me completely freak out. My version of wanting to be appreciated came in the form of wanting someone who would give up any kind of sexuality that wasn't based on "making love" (because I still don't believe there is a man alive who only ever wants to have sex that is that vanilla).

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Think about it this way -- some people like both, some people like neither. The term in the kink community for people who are 'in the middle' on a particular axis is "switch". This is separate from being vanilla, really. Sexuality is a non-Cartesian graph.

Personally, I am a somewhat switchy submissive and a straight-up bondage switch who has very little experience as a bondage top. (Not that it stops me reacting....) I don't need a kinky relationship per se, but I need one in which it's okay for me to be kinky and express that if it comes up.

(Which was actually a point of contention with my most recent ex; I wound up stifling huge amounts of my sexual responses because he got increasingly uncomfortable the less vanilla anything was. It was one of the various factors that led to the end of the relationship.)

So yeah, I have broken up with someone because he only really wanted vanilla. There's a bit about this in one of the posts I linked on the other post (Marked Case of Equal).

brooksmoses said...

Becstar: There's a piece of what you're saying that I'm a bit fuzzy on, where you refer to a man giving up any form of sexuality that's not "making love", and then parenthetically refer to men wanting sex that's not vanilla.

I'm reading that as that you're using "making love" and "vanilla sex" to refer to the same thing, and I find that confusing because to me they're quite different (although often overlapping).

To me, "vanilla sex" means (approximately) that it's sex that doesn't involve toys, doesn't involve explicit playing with power dynamics [1] (and, in particular, does not involve power dynamics that are consciously skewed), doesn't involve things that would typically feel painful, involves exactly two people, and so on -- basically, it doesn't involve "kinky" stuff, for whatever the relevant culture considers "kinky".

"Making love", to me, means sex that results in feelings of being loved, and of being safe and connected. (There's all sorts of mystical language about "touching the whole person" and so forth that comes out of attempts to put words on it.) It pretty much amounts to using the endorphins and high-powered emotional sensations of sex to produce a very particular sort of head trip.

In that sense, "vanilla" is very much about the context of the surrounding sexual culture (and varies , and "making love" is only about the people actually involved.

These often overlap -- certainly, a substantial fraction of the reasonably good sex that happens in the world is both "vanilla" and "making love". However, there's also plenty of sex that's "vanilla" and not "making love" -- you only need to look as far as a lot of mainstream porn (though, often, you have to subtract out a bit of misogyny from it), but aside from that there's no doubt plenty of vanilla sex where at least one person it it is essentially using the other person as a masturbation aid.

Similarly, there's plenty of sex that I'd call "making love" that wouldn't count as vanilla. That's inherent in the fact that "vanilla" is culturally-based; what one culture (or microculture) thinks of as completely unremarkably would be kinky to another. (Are positions other than standard missionary "kinky"? Were they in the mythical 1950s?) A particular example would be some of Dw3t-Hthr's descriptions of sex with her liege; those definitely seem to result in her feeling loved and safe and wanted and connected, in startlingly powerful ways.

So I guess I'm not sure which of these things is what you're wanting, and what you're asserting that no man "only wants".

brooksmoses said...

Hmm. I seem to have forgotten a footnote (or, really, forgotten to take out the tag for it, since it's rather tangential). It was going to be a recognition that there are also power dynamics in "vanilla" sex, simply because when more than one human being is involved there are always power dynamics going on (and, when it's as intimate as sex, usually lots of them in complicated intersecting directions); the distinction is more whether they're just there or are being consciously played with.

For example, misogynist abuse per se is not a thing I would call "kinky"; it's just misogynist abuse and something entirely unrelated to kink. Consensual intentionally-chosen misogynist abuse of a sort that's not usual for the participants, on the other hand, would be something I'd call "kinky" (and would also definitely call "not my kink at all").

Also, I forgot a closing parenthesis, so I'll include that too: )

Becstar said...

Sorry in advance if this doesn't make much sense, I'm working off hardly any sleep.

I think there is a difference between vanilla sex and "making love" but that because I only sleep with people who I love there tends to be cross over when I'm talking about my own experiences.

I don't really count porn sex as vanilla sex in the same way I have been told BDSM porn does not represent actual BDSM. Mainly I agree with your first definition of it with no power imbalances, no toys etc.

I don't actually like the term making love very much but I tend to use it for all the soppy connotations it brings with it - the version that is based on vanilla sex plus love (think dim lighting, soft movements etc). That is what I want and what no man I have ever come across wants (doubly true now that I found out the boyfriend as a dominant streak :s )

brooksmoses said...

Okay, I sort of understand what you mean now. It's far more specific than what I'd mean by either "vanilla sex" or "making love" (and certainly far more specific than what I'd mean by "vanilla sex plus love"), though, so I would expect that describing it a bit more clearly -- and using lots of words, rather than just two or three to point at it -- might very well help with explaining what you want to people that you're hoping to do it with.

(Then again, I suppose I don't know that you're not already doing that with those people, since this is an entirely different sort of conversation with an entirely different set of people.)