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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

It’s no exaggeration to describe Elizabeth Nolan Brown as one of the strongest, most stalwart allies of sex workers writing today; she covers several sex work stories per week in her space at Reason, and never flinches or missteps.  Regular readers have seen me praise her in many a news item, so I’m sure y’all can guess that I was thrilled when she agreed to contribute my first guest spot of 2015. 

If You Give a Masochist a Cookie

Elizabeth N BrownIt wouldn’t be quite accurate to say I had my first kinky boyfriend at age 25.  My most significant college beau and I dabbled in all sorts of not-totally-vanilla play, from ice cubes and hot wax to strangling and faux non-consent.  But for the most part, these endeavors felt clumsy and inauthentic, two 19-year-olds parroting what we thought kinky* sex was supposed to be.  For years after that, I dated people who seemed perfectly content with perfectly “normal” sex lives—I think the kinkiest thing I did with my post-college boyfriend was watch the Paris Hilton sex tape together before fucking.  I wasn’t unsatisfied, at least not with the sex (monogamy, my friends, is another story).  But I also had no idea what I was missing.  And then along came the man I’ll call “Chris”.  He had a beautiful body, a giant cock, and a sexy voice, but easily the best part about him when it came to sex was that he knew what he liked and wanted.  These days I still loathe asking men to do this or roleplay that in bed, because as it turns out I have a very strong sexually submissive streak.  But I couldn’t have told you that at the time–I didn’t have the vocabulary.  I needed someone like Chris not because I was hesitant to ask for what I wanted, but because I honestly had no idea what that was.

Thank goodness Chris and I were on the same kink wavelength—had my first dom liked dressing in leather, or insisted I call him master, or been into ball-gags and caning, I may have balked and thrown the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak; I don’t mean to disparage any of these activities, but they are just not for me.  Instead, Chris and I sometimes role-played realistic situations where he might be in a position of power over me—boss, professor, etcetera.  I remember one time asking, early on, if he was going to punish me, and his answer was an emphatic “no”—punishment was cruel, he explained; what he was meting out was “discipline.”  Part of this discipline involved him slapping me across the face from time to time during sex; I loved it, and I fell in love with him.  For the first time in the history of my sex life, I was never, ever bored during sex.  The relationship with Chris didn’t last, but my conviction that I needed a little kink in my sex life did.  Not all the time, mind you—I am not a fetishist.  But I am also never going to last with someone who isn’t at least a little bit dominant, a little bit weird, and a little bit rough in bed.

The reason I bring all this up has to do with a series of tweets I saw from Jillian Keenan in late December.  Earlier in the year she wrote for Slate about enjoying being spanked, an essay she called “the first piece that truly demanded courage” for her to publish.  Why should Keenan, a seasoned writer published in places such as The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and the New Yorker, feel such trepidation admitting to such a little thing as liking spanking?  Especially in these post-50 Shades of Gray times in which we live?

A few incidents give us a clue, the first involving 50 Shades film actor Jamie Dornan.  Dornan recently told Elle magazine that after visiting a dungeon for research, he had to take a “long shower” before touching his wife or child.  Despite starring in a movie about BDSM, Dorman apparently thinks he can catch kink cooties just by being near people who like a little real life BDSM action.  The other incidents comes from Keenan herself, who relayed them in the aforementioned series of tweets.  An acquaintance “apparently used to hang out in a building with an adjacent dungeon, and watched people as they entered and left it.”  The dude’s “major takeaway—the biggest ‘shock’ of watching this dungeon entrance—he repeated several times: ‘They were all businessmen!’chocolate chips  Another person Keenan had talked with recently, a private investigator, was shocked when she followed a man to an “S&M party” and found that “they served cookies there!  At this S&M thing—cookies!”  Keenan concluded, “Stigma is subtle, but it’s real…We’re still seen as ‘creepy’ anomalies rather than as what we are:  cookie-eating, job-having humans.”

Since my time with Chris, I’ve encountered all sorts of respectable, cookie-eating, job-having humans who enjoyed engaging in any number of kinky activities (many of which I went along with, some which I did not).  There was the amiable real estate agent and local kickball star obsessed with face-fucking, enemas, faux-incest, and someday having a submissive housewife.  There was the professor and family man who liked to leave me dirty messages about tying me up and cumming on my face.  There was the high-powered lawyer who flew women from around the country to an apartment decorated with expensive bondage art and featuring a medieval-looking spanking chair and a wide assortment of canes.  There was the sadistic civil liberties activist who genuinely scared (and also thrilled) me with his unflinching roughness…the professionally-conservative couple who invited me into a threesome…the shy writer who wanted to pick out slutty clothing for me and then watch from afar as I paraded publicly in it.  There were run-of-the-mill rough-sex fans who worked in architecture, journalism, tech entrepreneurship, financial planning, education, construction.  A shocking (to me) number fantasized about watching a girlfriend with another man, sometimes multiple men.

Beyond the realm of my personal lovers, I’ve met more polyamorous people than I can count over the past few years.  I’ve lived with women really into whipping and spanking.  I’ve known lawyers and art curators and students to slip easily in and out of various forms of sex work.  I’ve also never gone to any sort of kink meetup, joined any sort of fetish website, or otherwise specifically sought these people, with the exception of one Craigslist paramour.  When you open up with friends and lovers about kink, it’s kind of amazing what you can uncover.  Most people have at least some sexual fantasies that are much “weirder” than the easily-scandalized would dream.  And the kinkiest people I’ve known are the sorts you’d never suspect if your idea of kink only involves large women in leather corsets and “creepy” losers in flasher trenchcoats.

Regular readers of Maggie’s blog are certain to be unsurprised by any of this—I know I am preaching to the proverbial choir here.  But while I’ve hinted around about my own kinky side previously, I suppose I’ve never come right out online and said it.  I’ve certainly never noted the normalcy of all my own kinky lovers and friends.  And in the interest of doing my little part for destigmatizing, it’s probably about damn time I did so.  Am I feeling a little of the trepidation Keenan felt when admitting to an enthusiasm for spanking?  Of course.  I’m a professional writer, also, often about quite serious subjects.  And there are those who will use any hint of sexual “deviance” to try and discredit you.  As a woman, there are those who will use writing about your sex life at all as evidence you’re not fit for more intellectual pursuits.  But to bluntly use one of my favorite idioms:  fuck that noise.  My vagina and my competence actually have very little bearing on one another.  And isn’t that the crux of the kink issue?  People want certain sexual activities to stand for so, so, so much more than they do.

To those who can’t imagine liking bondage, group sex, submission, latex, cuckolding, strap-ons, spanking, or whatever, enjoying any of these things must be part of some pathology, or at least indicative of more widespread weirdness.  (Much the same way people think about sex workers who don’t fit their victim narrative.)  But sometimes sex is just sex; turn-ons are just turn-ons.  They say nothing about who someone is as a person, what their life must be like, or their larger value system.  They reveal nothing more than that someone likes bondage, group sex, submission, etcetera.  Human beings contain multitudes, y’all.  And even sexual sadists eat cookies.

*I kind of hate lumping all sorts of dissimilar sexual activities together under the term “kink”, but for purposes of this essay it will have to do. I’m equally un-fond of describing some sex as “vanilla”, but (like hipster) it’s an imperfect yet appropriately connotative term.

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Every thing teaches transition, transference, metamorphosis:  therein is human power, in transference, not in creation; & therein is human destiny, not in longevity but in removal.  We dive & reappear in new places.
–  Ralph Waldo Emerson

So here we are again, for the fifth time; I daresay this is becoming a habit.  That’s really not surprising; ever since I retired from sex work in 2006, my life has been bound by habits and schedules, like a cocoon I wove to give myself structure and meaning at a time when the framework that had defined my life for nine years had suddenly been taken away.  That self-imposed bondage was comfortable and safe; it allowed me time to think and to explore, to figure out who I was now and to decide what was important to me and where I wanted my life to go.  And as I slowly, haltingly learned about the power of the internet, I also became aware of a great restlessness and dissatisfaction in myself; I found myself talking about sex work and sex worker rights on message boards that had absolutely nothing to do with the subject, and began to resent prissy moderators who could delete anything I wrote on a whim.  By the time I had been retired for four years, I could stand it no more; I had to stake out a place in this new digital world where I could share the truth about my life, my sisters and the only work I ever loved.  At first, I was extremely anonymous; in May of 2012 I even turned down an offer to host a TV show on the History Channel because I was just not ready for that kind of exposure.  I had not yet broken out of my cocoon, but merely reshaped it for purposes of my activism.

But in the summer of 2012, that all began to change when I accepted an invitation to appear at the Southern Harm Reduction Conference; a few weeks later I agreed to speak at Albany Law School’s symposium the next February.  The cocoon had become too small and much too restrictive, and I was breaking out of it; people began to hear my voice in interviews and see my face at events, and when I decided to go on my tour last summer I shook the last tatters of silk from my newfound wings and proudly revealed my face (and the rest of me) for the world to see.  There’s no turning back now; the die, as the man said in Latin, is cast.  In the past few months I’ve been recognized twice in the small town I live nearest, and that’s just fine with me; I wouldn’t turn down a TV hosting gig now as easily as I turned down the reality show offer I got last spring.  Flitting under my own power from coast to coast last summer was the scariest, craziest, least-scripted thing I’ve ever done, and also one of the most rewarding; this year I plan to explore even more widely.  Sometimes I miss the coziness of that cocoon, but the warmth of the sun and the smell of the flowers and the feel of the breeze under my wings are far better, and the work Aphrodite wants me to do can’t be done while tied up in the dark.

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Boxing Day 2014

While it’s true that we can no longer put the entire world on hold for twelve days, I’m sure most of you can manage two.Maggie McNeill

Xmas kitty sleepingDoctors, so it is said, make the worst patients; they will not heed the advice they give to everyone else.  I guess I’m the same way; though I’m always giving others advice that is generally lauded as good, I never seem to heed my own counsel.  One timely example is the advice I always give in this blog on Boxing Day, as stated in the epigram above; though I’m always telling y’all not to be in too much of a rush to get back to work, I myself tend to be in motion every waking hour…and that’s sometimes as many as 20 per day when I’m on tour, and 18 per day at home.  And yes, holidays too.  But I had a lot of time to think when I was alone in the car this summer, and that was even more true on the long train trip from Chicago to Seattle, over 48 hours without internet.  And right after that came the visit to Seattle itself, which affected me profoundly for a number of reasons; the end result is that I realized I really don’t have to knock myself out quite so much, and I really can relax just a little bit.  Oh, don’t worry, I’m much too tightly-wound to slack off for very long; however, when one is over the top of a hill and rolling down the other side, there’s no harm in stepping on the clutch and just letting gravity and momentum do the work for a little while.  Things will continue here as they always have, but right now I’m just enjoying the last bit of three days of coasting.

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Yule 2014

Here comes the sun,
Here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right.
 –  George Harrison

Some people wonder why I, a pagan, celebrate Christmas.  Certainly many pagans don’t, and the same could be said of many atheists and many others of non-Christian faiths.  At the same time, many other non-Christians do indeed celebrate Christmas; it’s the single most popular holiday in the world, with thriving observances outside majority-Christian lands in Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore and South Korea.  It’s also the oldest, with roots reaching back roughly 6000 years to a land whose name is now lost to memory.  In a very real sense, the story of Christmas is the story of human civilization, and it belongs to everyone rather than only to the members of the Johnny-come-lately religion whose label and rationale is now most commonly associated with it (and whose leaders, until quite recently, wanted absolutely nothing to do with it because they recognized it as the pagan rite it is).

Though people have affixed all sorts of mythology to the holiday, the real reason it exists is the event which occurred last night at 23:03 UTC:  the winter solstice, when the apparent course of the sun reaches its southernmost point.  Last night was the longest of the year, and for the next six months the days will increase in length while the sun’s apparent course moves northward.  For modern people, wrapped in our technological cocoons and insulated from Nature, it hardly makes any difference; but for our ancestors, dependent upon the return of the spring for their crops to grow, the “rebirth” of the sun was a cause for joy and celebration.  It meant they could be sure that, no matter how cold the rest of the winter to come might be, that it would eventually end; the snow would melt, the plants would blossom and the crops upon which civilization depended could be cultivated.  There’s still a lesson there for us:  no matter how bleak things may appear, and no matter how oppressive the weight of tribulation, there is yet hope; the sun always returns, and spring always comes, even if we must endure dreadful storms before it does.  And if that isn’t a reason to celebrate, I can’t think of a better one.

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Angels we have heard on high,
Tell us to go out and BUY.
 –  Tom Lehrer, “A Christmas Carol

Though I should be used to it by now, the ridiculously-early Christmas displays still come as a shock to me.  The first one this year was at our local farm supply store, which was actually putting out Christmas merchandise (sans decoration) fully two weeks before Halloween.  Because this particular establishment has no Halloween merchandise, I was irresistibly reminded of my own statement from last year’s “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”: “were it not for Halloween’s growing popularity as an adult drinking holiday [Christmas displays] might have broken into October by now.”  But all the non-farm-supply-venues didn’t wait much longer; the City of Seattle was putting up its decorations the Monday after I arrived, and I saw more than a few fully-decked houses from the train coming back into Chicago on the 21st.  And who could forget this cheery holiday scene from Ferguson, Missouri this past Monday, courtesy of Reuters? Ferguson 11-24-14

Actually, that’s an apt (if grim) metaphor for what Yuletide in the United States has become:  a superficial show of holiday cheer and “goodwill to Man” draped over the ugliness of a fully-realized fascist state.  Because my Outlook email filters don’t work on webmail, I was forced to hand-delete countless pieces of “Black Friday” spam while I was traveling, and some of them actually did what I’ve been grimly joking for years they soon would do:  refer to Thanksgiving Day as “Black Friday Eve”.  Words fail me.

Needless to say, I won’t be leaving my property today except perhaps to go to the mailbox.  Instead, I plan to find and decorate a tree, work on my blog, enjoy leftovers from yesterday and perhaps call a few of my friends.  Though I do indeed buy presents for those I love, that can wait for another day when the lemmings aren’t swarming quite so thickly (and dangerously).  And you can bet I’ll do as much of it online as possible, so as to avoid as much of the fake festivity of the stores as I possibly can.

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chicken dinnerI actually wrote last week’s diary entry a few hours before going over to Mistress Matisse‘s house to prepare dinner, because I was pretty sure I would not get back early enough to write it after.  And was I ever right; Matisse, Jae, Savannah and I had a lovely evening I’ll always remember.  To an outside observer it probably wouldn’t have looked all that exciting (except for the nudity, cuddling and horseplay), but when sex worker friends get together there’s a kind of camaraderie that I’ve not generally felt among groups of other adult women; it’s a sense of shared experience, of being denizens of a secret world unknown to the general population.  Perhaps we cleave to each other more tightly because the “good” women of the world reject us; perhaps it’s an outgrowth of the necessity for us to watch each other’s backs.  And perhaps it’s also due to our comfort with displays of affection and intimacy that others would find shameful.  In any case, it was one of those magical nights when everything works out wonderfully, and I hope my next visit is just as grand!

On Tuesday I had lunch with FurryGirl, then in the evening Savannah and I were on a panel discussion with another advocate and three prohibitionists.  If I must say so myself, we wiped the floor with them; our statistics and logical points were answered with collectivism, social engineering, attacks on “patriarchy” and “capitalism” and one panelist repeatedly quoting her grandmother as an authority on Amerind culture.  They seemed to lose most of the audience by about halfway through the event.

I was not at all happy to leave the next morning, but at least my return journey to Chicago was not marred by motion sickness; I accomplished this by taking pseudoephedrine all day and diphenhydramine all night, thought the combination did leave me a bit fuzzy-headed the next day.  At dinner on the second night I was seated next to comics legend Mike Grell, and he and I talked about both his work and mine; I also gave him the very last copy of my book from the stock I took on the tour.  In Chicago*, I had breakfast with Cathryn Berarovitch before boarding my train to Kansas City, on which I discussed sex worker rights for several hours with the young man sitting next to me.  Unfortunately, the last part of the trip left me dizzy, shaky and just short of sick, and I had trouble sleeping in the hotel afterward; I think I may have taken just a bit too much antihistamine medication on the journey.

Though it wasn’t nearly as bad as either flying or the bus ride from Hell, I have come to the conclusion that it’s just not a good idea for me to ride any common carrier.  Driving, on the other hand, works well for me; in addition to avoiding motion sickness it also gives me much greater flexibility.  So I’m planning to buy a dependable late-model used car that gets excellent gas mileage, to use strictly for touring; my preliminary research indicates I should be able to get what I want for approximately $3000.  I’ve already got about a third of that from funds left over from my tour and accumulated from book sales, subscriptions and the like, but if you’d like to help out with this project just PayPal me whatever amount you like and make sure you put a note that it’s to go toward the car fund.

*And speaking of Chicago, here’s the article student organizer Clairemarie LoCicero wrote about the talk I gave at Loyola on the way out to Seattle.

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Plead what I will be, not what I have been;
Not my deserts, but what I will deserve.  –  Shakespeare, Richard III (IV,iv)

If you’ve been reading me for a while you’ve noticed that I’m a bit persnickety about words.  OK, that’s an understatement; I can actually be downright maniacal about them.  But as I pointed out in “Nasty Words”,

As a writer, words are my tools, and I cherish them and baby them the way a good mechanic cares for the tools of his trade.  And just as a good mechanic always uses the right tool for the job rather than trying to make do with whatever happens to be nearby, so I insist on using the right word…and just as some mechanics are annoyed by seeing others misuse or abuse their tools, so am I annoyed by the misuse or abuse of words…

This doesn’t mean I’m a grammar Nazi, though (as you’ve also probably noticed).  It’s not misspellings, malapropisms or mistakes like “irregardless” that set my teeth on edge, and you’ll probably never see me rail about them unless I’m deliberately trying to be difficult.  No, what annoys me are A) words which are improperly constructed (such as “homophobia”) or improperly used (such as “vagina”) by people who should know better, trying to sound “proper” or “intellectual” or “serious” and failing miserably; and B) proper words used properly which nonetheless grate on my nerves due to their referring to morally or philosophically objectionable concepts.  I’ve already written about (A) in the aforementioned “Nasty Words”, and about one important example of (B) in “The Privilege Paradigm”.  But today I’d like to target the word “deserve”, the visible part of an iceberg of moral odiousness floating unseen below the social waterline.

Weighing of the HeartIf you’re scratching your head about now, consider what the word “deserve” implies:  that there is some absolute and unambiguous moral standard in the universe against which actions and people can be weighed like a heart against a feather in the Egyptian afterlife, with “deserving” things exalted with hosannahs and “undeserving” thrown to that crocodile-headed thing.  Yes, that’s an exaggeration, but not by much; “deserve” implies a clear, objective standard on which all right-thinking people can agree, and sets up an external authority as the judge.  And those implications lead to two important misrepresentations of subjective things as objective; the first is merely annoying, while the second is one of the chief rationalizations for tyranny.

The first of those misrepresentations is the one used with irksome regularity in advertisements for luxury goods or what we might call “common luxuries”, things such as ice cream or fast food which aren’t luxurious, but aren’t strictly necessary either. It’s nearly impossible to go a day without seeing some huckster hawking his goods with phrases like McDonald’s classic “You deserve a break today,” implying that the consumer is a long-suffering paragon of virtue whose unremitting efforts go unrecognized by Them, despite the fact that the whole business would fall apart if not for her. So even if she isn’t paid as much as she “deserves” or given the praise she “deserves”, she can reward herself by spending money at whatever business the ad is trying to promote. Vacation travel is one of the most notorious abusers of the word, but in a bad economy it has a strong challenger in loan companies who promise to give the consumer “the credit you deserve”, implying that hey, it isn’t actually your fault that you defaulted on all those bills. Am I implying that people with bad credit are deadbeats? Not at all; life is hard and shit happens (and I’m only just building back my own credit from a near-total wipeout in the autumn of 2008). But let’s not pretend that good credit is some kind of award for the virtuous, either; actuarial tables are not based in scruples, but in statistics. Either there’s a good chance a lender will get his money back from a borrower or there isn’t, and “deserve” has nothing to do with it.  That also happens to be the title of an excellent essay by Ken “Popehat” White which I linked in “Return of the Agitator“:

…the central narrative of our criminal justice system…offers the ultimate excuse for cutting corners, giving police the benefit of the doubt, looking the other way at constitutional violations, putting our thumbs on the state’s end of the scales of justice.  He got what he deserved — that’s what one side says, cutting through facts and law and reasoned analysis to pure us vs. them.  He didn’t deserve that,  says the other side, unwittingly lending support to the implicit argument that there are some who do.  But deserve’s got nothing to do with it.  Heroism and villainy have nothing to do with it.  We have to demand that everyone be treated justly, whether our viscera tell us that they do not deserve the rule of law at all…because it’s…foolish and perilous to let the state (or the mob) decide who deserves rights and who doesn’t…

I'm No Saint, I'm No Angel, I'm Just Human by Rebivaleska (2012)The word “deserve” is thus allowed to excuse the inexcusable; it’s OK that we gunned down that black kid, because he stole a pack of cigarettes two years ago.  It’s OK we raped that woman, because she’s a streetwalker.  It’s OK we’re fining charities for feeding those people, because they’re drug addicts.  It’s OK we entirely shut these men out of human society, because they’re “sex offenders”.  They don’t deserve to be treated like human beings, because they’re “no angels”…the implication being, of course, that only angels deserve humane treatment, no matter what the easy-credit guys tell you.  And if you see nothing wrong with that implication, you deserve everything you get.

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