A curmudgeon’s 5-point guide to the horrors of Valentine’s Day

538021_10152176360145995_418958348_nThe reasons to despise this day are probably too numerous to list in a short post, and the web is already awash with critical analyses of the problems of Saint V (I agree with everything Priyamvada Gopal says in the Guardian, for example), so I shall confine myself here to drawing attention to a mere sample of the most egregious:

1)   It is a meaningless, arbitrary, commercial junket designed to persuade people to part with their cash in celebration of a faux, cliché-ridden, romantic “holiday”. It is Hallmark’s dream and the critical thinker’s nightmare. Restaurants are packed to bursting with grinning, hand-holding sheep, gazing into each other’s eyes over stubby candles and trying to forget how much they despise each other the rest of the year – for the good of the children and the mortgage. Food-shopping also becomes a nightmare on this date, as one desperate, manic-eyed couple wrestles viciously with another for the last dressed lobster or bottle of special-offer champagne. (I witnessed this in Waitrose last year. I was tempted to distribute mogadons to all present.) In short, those who do not engage in this circus are not safe to eat out or buy food to cook at home on 14 February.

2)   Valentine’s day marginalizes those who, through determined choice or otherwise, are not part of a couple and encourages people to locate their self-worth in their desirability to another person. The cultural effects of this, especially on the insecure, non-normative young, are invidious. Quoting Rae Earl’s My Mad, Fat Teenage Diary, which I was moved to read having watched the TV adaptation on 4OD, re: Valentine’s Day cards: “Mum got three. Loads of people at school got one. One cow got flowers. […] I’m just so jealous I could cry. Of course I didn’t get any. You get home and all the way back you are hoping – but no. Not a chance. I hate Valentine’s Day. It’s like a distorting mirror. It makes you feel even fatter than you already are”. The discourse of romantic love is traditionally aimed at and, in high capitalism, marketed to, young, heterosexual women. It promises a huge lie. It promises that being desired, and measuring oneself in terms of patriarchy-compliant fuckability, will materially and emotionally improve one’s life. Probably, the very opposite is true.

3)   It 418233_10150661065115979_953643242_nis heteronormative and mono-normative in design, even if individuals choose to adapt or creatively deform the way in which they celebrate it. While I am all in favour of queer inversions and subversions in general, some institutions/ customs are, to my mind, so full of rot that they are not worth the effort of recuperation. I’m afraid marriage comes under that heading for me too. If a system is built on dubious historical foundations (the ownership of women) and fosters ideological iniquities (tax breaks and unmerited social approbation for those who enter that state), then what is queer about grabbing a piece of the pie for yourselves, while leaving others (the single; those in non-standard, non-paired, non-mongomous relationships; the asexual) out in the cold? How is this even vaguely radical?

4)   Loving somebody or several somebodies is great. Structuring your understanding of love around a set of culturally dictated norms borrowed from the outmoded, misogynistic discourse of  “romance” or “courtly love” is not. And expressing that highly codified idea of love on one day of the year only is, frankly, ridiculous.

44ff711f60dfa448e16aa4594ce08aee255)   If there is a holiday to celebrate happy, smug, conformist coupledom, why is there no holiday to celebrate how much one loves oneself? The answer is obvious. Hetero-repro-patriarchy does not want us being happy and at peace on our own (or in our friendship groups, or with our networks of lovers). In particular, hegemonic culture aggressively discourages primary narcissism, especially for women. Heteropatriarchy is threatened by asexuality, by alternative relationship structures, and by sexual dissidence. It wants us all to be obedient citizens: coupling up, paying taxes, buying houses, feeding the economy, and engaging in the ultimate secondary narcissism of producing children.

Some of these points are obviously tongue-in-cheek, while others suggest issues we might genuinely want to think about more seriously. Most fundamentally, we need to change the cultural script so that people no longer ask: “What’s wrong with me because I’m alone on Valentine’s Day?”, but rather: “What’s wrong with a culture that encourages me to ask that sort of question?”.

Some thoughts on words and power, prompted by recent debates in print and social media

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, […] how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

Writing is an inherently ethically charged act. Words are never neutral. Each time we exercise the force of our polemic and employ rhetoric to argue, persuade, or provoke, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves: what are the effects of our words likely to be, and who will be served by them? Of course there can be unintended outcomes. People read and interpret differently. Someone will always be offended. The meaning of words does not reside wholly with their producer. And yet, some effects are wholly predictable, aren’t they?

It is all too easy to use words against the marginalized and vulnerable (even if we occupy the position of the marginalized and vulnerable ourselves). The fact is that we all internalize the prejudices of the world in which we live. Slurs can be unthinkingly repeated by those of us who would rationally challenge the beliefs upon which they rest.* But the effects of slurs, whether intended or not, whether explicitly and maliciously written or carelessly and casually insinuated, can only be to perpetuate the status quo. Unless we are really happy with the system in which we live—a late-capitalistic hetero-patriarchy—we might want to think very carefully about any words we put out into the world that can have the net effect of shoring it up while pitting potential allies in discontent against each other. Context matters too. When a profit-making publication is paying a person to produce words, and when more money will be made out of perceived outrages committed, the onus on the critical writer to act ethically and deliver a message of social commentary without repeating society’s bigotry is all the more urgent. Yet even on our own blogs, on Twitter, in the free media that is the World Wide Web, how much more efficacious activism would be if we applied these ethical considerations to all our words.

Too often, sight of a potential common political goal is lost. Groups, self-defining along the lines of identity politics, engage in the much-discussed “oppression Olympics”, misdirecting righteous anger at each other rather than at the systems that produce and maintain the conditions of their shared oppression. A concerted effort on the part of a marginalized group, motivated by the passion of injustice felt, can be tremendously potent and have effects that are devastating. But what a waste of effort if such resistant, transformative zeal is misdirected, not at the institutions that perpetuate iniquity, but rather at a member of another group also urging change but using unwise words carelessly or angrily.

Writers interested in social justice need to think about strategies for promoting resistance and commonality. We need to avoid further dividing those who share an investment in challenging normativity, but whose approaches issue from (at once entrenched and precarious) exclusionary identitarian positions. A question to ask ourselves, before putting down words on paper or a screen, has to be: am I speaking truth to power or am I attacking those who are already disadvantaged by the system? This is not a matter of “political correctness”. It is, rather, both an expedient political strategy and a commitment to the ethic of avoiding causing harm to others. For, make no mistake, words can do harm.

*In cases where we are unintentional mouthpieces for a bigotry we do not believe in, but that is so prevalent in our culture that we soak in it and unwittingly reproduce it, we can respond responsibly and graciously when criticized. And we can learn from such criticisms in order to become better writers and readers. I try to do this. I will go on trying to do this.

It’s a wonderful life … for the obediently heteronormative.

I watched It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) this afternoon. It’s a yearly ritual. My companion and I, who avowedly “don’t do Christmas”, make these little concessions: It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve. A Christmas Carol on Christmas Day. And though we harrumph our way through them, like the consummate curmudgeons we are, bemoaning how cringingly annoying Tiny Tim unfailingly is, a tear nevertheless pricks at our eyes at those points in the narrative that are designed precisely to manipulate all but the most hardened viewer, touching on our collective weak spot for beautiful lies about hope, kindness, and personal redemption.


George and Mary: happily married.

Towards the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence (Henry Travers), the “angel class 2” questing for his wings, shows a suicidal George, played by a young Jimmy Stewart, all the horrors that would have befallen his small home town of Bedford Falls had he never been born. Bedford Falls is now renamed “Potterville”, after the corrupt Plutocrat who, in this parallel world, absent George’s friendly family business, has a monopoly on the townspeople’s accommodation and debt. George’s little brother, who went on be a decorated war hero in Bedford Falls, instead died at the age of 9 in Potterville, because George was not there to save him when he slipped into an icy lake. The old druggist, Gower, for whom George worked as a boy, is an outcast who has served time in jail because there was no young George to stop him accidentally dispensing poison to a customer in a grief-stricken state on the day of his son’s death. But finally, when Clarence has revealed bombshell after bombshell, and he has told our hero “you see, George, you had a wonderful life”, and our eyes are as wet and stinging as they can get, he drops the ultimate piece of bad news about the alternative, George-free world of Potterville. “What happened to Mary?” George asks, of his wife (Donna Reed). Clarence is loth to tell him. Clarence demurs. “I’m not supposed to tell you…,” he protests. Finally, however, he speaks the fated words: “She became an old maid”! The horror on George’s face is an absolute picture.


The very worst fate for a woman: she’s an old maid!

Then we see the Pottersville version of Mary. She is a librarian; her hair is pulled primly back; spectacles are perched on her nose. She hurries from the library, clutching her bag to her chest, brow furrowed, visibly beset by nerves: a picture of curdled, sexually unsatisfied femininity. When a desperate George approaches her with the words “I’m your husband”, she screams, completing this portrait of hysteria. Without having benefited from contact with the healing properties of a man’s penis and undergone the female duty of maternal labour in its literal and figurative senses, Mary has met the very worst end that can be imagined for a woman in her society: being alone and working for a living.


“All by myself. I don’t want to be all by myself. Any mor-or-ore…”

It’s around that point that the tears in my eyes dry right up and a feminist grimace quirks my curmudgeonly upper lip. It simply won’t do to think “well, the film was made in the 1940s; things are different now…”. For the message the film delivers at this point is not so far from the message of noughties mainstream films such as Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), which opens with single girl Renée Zellweger at Christmas, alone in her flat, singing drunken, desperate karaoke (Jamie O’Neal’s “All by myself”) in her pyjamas, and ends with her embracing Colin Firth in just her knickers and sweater in a swirling snowstorm, her face a picture of blessed relief at the dreadful fate she has escaped. The invidious message has really not passed away from our culture as it should have done. What is that message?

It’s a wonderful life… for the obediently heteronormative!


Yuletide greetings, Sex Critical readers. May your chestnuts roast, may your pudding flame, and may your critical edge not be blunted by the saccharine of the season.

On authorship and authority: Writing outside of the rules

A review of Meg Barker, Rewriting the Rules: An Integrative Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships (Routledge, 2012), Katherine Angel, Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell (Allen Lane, 2012), and their critical receptions.

September 2012 saw the publication of two non-academic books authored by writers from within the academy. While generically very different, both shared the aim of bringing critical scrutiny to bear on specific aspects of sexuality.  Also, both attempted to expound a broadly sex-critical perspective to a mainstream readership perhaps unfamiliar with the language and tools used in academia and in subcultural sexual communities to define and question sexual practices, identities, and relationships.

Social psychologist and sex therapist Meg Barker’s Rewriting the Rules describes itself as an “anti-self-help book”. It challenges the commonly perceived need for any strict rules to govern the ways in which we have (sexual) relationships, whether these issue from the heteronormative mainstream — obsessed as it is with marriage, the market, and monogamy — or from the codas of alternative subcultures such as queer, polyamory, and BDSM/ kink cultures. Written in a friendly, nonjudgmental, often lightly humorous style, it gently encourages the reader to rethink quite radically the ways in which s/he understands and conceptualizes romantic/ sexual relationships. In a particularly brilliant passage, Barker uses her experience of place and time to suggest analogously a different way of thinking about the value of maintaining constancy within relationships, and thereby to question the universal value of monogamy and life-time commitment:

I think about my own relationship with cities. When I moved out of London, for example, I found that London and I were much better together when we were in a long-distance relationship than when we rubbed up against each other every day. Consider times of day: I used to have a relationship with the time between midnight and two in the morning: a loose, rumpled time of fuzzy edges, drunken camaraderie with strangers and greasy gutters. We broke up and I hardly ever see that time any more, but I do have a new relationship with the time between six and seven a.m.: it is a sharp, silvery grey, raw and empty time, but I am growing to love it. (pp. 110-111)

Such passages are genuinely subversive in their at once light and suggestive, yet ideologically devastating, destabilization of the dogmas by which so many live — and suffer.

Unmastered, by Katherine Angel, who is a researcher in the History of Medicine at Warwick University, is a literary memoir that attempts to describe the tensions, paradoxes and pain faced by the first-person narrator who struggles to reconcile the embodied experience of heterosexual desire with feminist consciousness in a patriarchal culture. Mixing first-person anecdotes, some of them extremely intimate, with insights from feminist luminaries and critical theorists, Angel’s text goes beyond simple confessional discourse and contributes to a longstanding, polyvocal meditation about the place of desire, the body, and hunger in female lives:

When I was a teenager, when I was small, and feeling desire — an amorphous lust, targeted at no one particular thing, and perhaps in fact targeted at myself — I wondered: where were the hungry women? (p. 120)

Angel’s closest interlocutors in this “wondering” are not, in fact, the Anglo-American feminists she cites liberally, but French writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Annie Ernaux, Marguerite Duras, and Hélène Cixous. All of these writers foreground the female heterosexual experience in patriarchy and the perceived power and punishments of female embodiment and “hunger”. (Like Angel, de Beauvoir wrote of the experience of abortion, and Ernaux of the tension between overwhelming physical love for a man and ideals of independent womanhood.) And, in the case of Ernaux, Duras and Cixous, there is also a shared predilection for experimental prose form. The blank sheets peppered only with one or two words that characterize Angel’s text (“Fuck me. Yes fuck me!” gets its own page; as does “I am so fucking hungry!”; as does “Am I pornography?”) were an innovation of exponents of both écriture féminine and the modernist nouveau roman.

I’m interested in the nature of the critical response these books have received almost as much as I am interested in the books themselves. Critical response can be seen as something of a litmus test, not always of the quality of the works under review, but rather of the extent to which a given book and its author conform to or flout conventional expectations — both generic and gendered. In looking at reviews of the two books, I have been especially interested in how reviewers respond to these two female academics writing in generic modes that are not strictly their professional “territory”.

In the case of Barker’s book, her academic credentials are generally perceived as reinforcing the value of her contribution to (or, more properly, contestation of) the self-help genre. Michael Gratzke (himself an academic) writes in one of the first published reviews of Rewriting the Rules:

The author is indeed “a therapist specialising in sexual and relationship therapy”. (She is also a senior lecturer in Psychology at the Open University). The book comes – therefore – with excellent credentials. No online doctorates here. The author is a bona fide expert in her field, not a jumped up journo dabbling with people’s feelings whilst making a quick buck.

While it is no doubt the case that Barker’s sound knowledge of psychological and sociological relationship research enables her to distil complex theory and findings in an extremely reader-friendly way, the reviewer appeals to a model of authority that is quite out of keeping with Barker’s authorial voice, which deliberately and strategically undermines the value of those authority discourses that tell people how to order and organize self, sexuality, companionship, and desire. That even positive reviews of Rewriting the Rules seem unwilling to embrace this anarchic principle with regard to the role of authorship and authority is a testimony to the truly innovative nature of the project Barker is undertaking.

Angel’s roots in the academy, on the other hand, have been held against her by some critics who seem to feel that an academic has no business straying into literary writing. Talitha Stevenson, writing in The Guardian, opines:

Academics aren’t usually expected to apply themselves fanatically to writing well, but Angel, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the history of medicine at Warwick University, is not writing as an academic. As the climax to an anecdote “it was an afterthought. It wasn’t the main act. Or even an act at all,” employs the cheap adrenal thumps of advertising copy, or of Raymond Carver when he’d had too much to drink. And “Am I pornography?” is not an aphorism, even if it is printed on its own on a page. For ars this brevis, vita is not long enough.

The sneering contempt of the tone of this review suggests irresistibly the idea that toes are being trodden on, that labels are not being respected. The “rule” is that the literary writer is that professional who may legitimately, authentically, play with language, whereas the academic may only comment upon the “real” writer’s use of language. By juxtaposing Angel’s job title so ostentatiously with negative assessments of her book’s literary merit, Stevenson reveals her hand.

A more sympathetic and well-rounded review of Unmastered penned by Olivia Laing, also appeared in The Guardian. Laing acknowledges Angel’s position within the academy, but gives this a positive spin, hinting at the point I made above regarding the place Angel’s text finds within a broader genealogy of writing about desire:

Angel is an academic at Warwick University, a researcher in the history of female sexual problems. As such, her investigations […] occur within what is emphatically a larger conversation. She uses pared-down, poetic fragments from a multitude of fellow explorers – among them Woolf, Sontag, Susie Orbach, Havelock Ellis and Michel Foucault – as a way of building up a working map of sexual desire.

However, Laing expresses a single reservation about the book that I must admit I share:

Angel’s assumptions about sexuality tend toward the heteronormative and can on occasion feel a touch coercive. A statement like: ‘I was weaned on this – the hypostatised, brutal man; the yielding, deferring woman. So, by the way, were you’ might be true in terms of the dominant culture but elides entirely the subtle shadings of sexual difference. This is particularly odd when so few of the writers she draws upon […] can be categorised as entirely heterosexual.

I can imagine that many readers will find Unmastered’s overwhelming focus on white, middle-class, heterosexual, genital-focused desire and identity alienating — and these are precisely the charges that are often brought against Angel’s unacknowledged Francophone foremothers too. While I have no problem with a heterosexual female writer narrating the story of her desire, it is unquestionably significant in the context of examining the normativity of editorial decisions and publishing policy that it is this narrative of female desire, rather than a queer or otherwise non-normative one, that was chosen to be published and promoted by a major, mainstream literary publisher.

For myself, I found Unmastered most relatable and insightful when it dwelt not on the pleasures and problems of vaginal penetration, M-f bondage, or abortion — I have read of those before — but rather on the relationships of power, pleasure, and disavowal at work in professional life. Angel’s description of the jarring experience of sitting in academic seminars about pornography and being expected to reach easy answers about whether pornography is “good” or “bad”/ “educational” or “destructive”; and, moreover, being expected to divorce the emotional, physical, desiring self from the intellectual, cerebral subject of the academy is, for me, the book’s high point. This is a section in which something is beautifully expressed that I had undoubtedly experienced, but had never read nor heard articulated clearly before.

Both books provoked a great deal of reflection in me. I read Unmastered in September, and Rewriting the Rules in early October, and I have been mulling them over ever since, noticing the relevance of their insights to various current discussions and issues, and observing with interest their critical reception. In different ways, both Angel and Barker cross the threshold of the academy to spread the sex-critical word and, in so doing, they invite us to reflect not only upon the questions about sexuality and relationships that their books explicitly raise, but also on the multiple and overlapping roles of academic, author, and desiring self — roles that seem, in their interstices, to provoke consternation about the nature of epistemological authority and authenticity.

Meg Barker’s blog, in which she continues the work begun in Rewriting the Rules can be found here.
Katherine Angel’s author website can be found here.

On keeping Ian Brady alive

As long as Ian Brady lives, he is made to serve a useful function: as a convenient cultural repository for evil.

Credit: Miles Cole

As I write this piece, doctors are struggling to keep serial killer Ian Brady alive. For more than 10 years, the “Moors Murderer” who, with his partner, Myra Hindley, killed at least five children between 1963 and 1965 – has campaigned from the psychiatric hospital in which he is confined to be allowed to die. He has pursued this end just as tirelessly as Hindley, who died in prison in 2002, campaigned for her release.

Brady has found himself squarely in the public eye in recent months owing to three events. In July, he was taken from Ashworth to Fazakerley Hospital, following a seizure that prevented him attending a mental health tribunal regarding his application to be allowed to die. August saw the death of Winnie Johnson, mother of Keith Bennett, the only known Moors victim whose remains have not been recovered. And Johnson’s death came only days after the arrest of Brady’s mental health advocate, Jackie Powell, on suspicion of “preventing the burial of a body without lawful exercise”, after she allegedly refused to disclose the contents of a letter from Brady revealing the whereabouts of Keith’s body that was to be passed to his surviving family in the event of Brady’s death.

While some of the victims’ relatives have spoken out about their desire for Brady’s death, it is instructive to reflect on the meaning of the very determined unwillingness on the part of the authorities to let Brady die. (He has been force-fed during the course of his more-than-decade-long hunger strike, and was resuscitated using a defibrillator after his heart stopped for seven minutes, it was reported, on 7th October.) The concerted effort to keep Brady alive parallels metaphorically the longevity of the perhaps unconscious cultural function that he continues to serve, some 46 years after his trial, as a collective figure of hate.

The fact that Brady and Hindley killed children rendered them the “most evil” of murderers. Public hatred accrued especially to Hindley as a woman and therefore as doubly deviant in having transgressed both the legal prohibition on killing and the social edict that women shall protect children. This hatred has passed to Brady in the wake of Hindley’s death. The recent documentary broadcast on Channel 4, Ian Brady: Endgames of a Psychopath, sets Brady up as a Machiavellian figure, taunting Johnson from his hospital bed with the secret knowledge he possesses – the location of the remaining grave – and thereby exercising the power of manipulation over others that is meant to be the sole motivation of that rare type of psychiatric personage, the psychopath. Brady did not appear in the documentary, nor was his voice heard. Black-and-white still photographs that flashed up on the screen were the only evidence that there was a face and an individual behind the Gothic drama being rehearsed. And, while the most recent photograph shows an obviously sick and dying man, this cadaverous physiognomy only contributes to the idea of Brady as some kind of undead monster haunting the cultural imaginary.

Brady and his crimes have thus taken on folkloric proportions. While it is understandable that the murders provoked outrage, this mechanism of dehumanization is possibly the least helpful response society can have to such crimes. The figure of the murderer, since at least the 19th century, has been represented as Janus-faced: an exceptional being on the one hand, transcending ordinary codes of morality in the manner of the Nietzschean Superman, and an atavistic beast on the other: the embodiment of unreasoned animal passions, of civilization gone awry, as described by Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso. The figure of the devious genius criminal is a persona that Brady himself has cultivated, as seen in his claim that his crimes were “existential experiments”.

The effect of this dual othering of the murderer has been to create a “them” and “us” distinction between the normal citizen and those beings perceived to be ontologically capable of evil. While apparently inspiring unadulterated horror, Brady in fact serves a reassuring function for society at large. Excessive media treatment of Brady’s (and, before her death, Hindley’s) spectacular wickedness in abducting and killing children diverts attention from the fact that most abuse of and violence against children happens in the home and within the family. The mystification of Brady enables us to avoid having to question our own, and our culture’s, capacity for enacting less extravagant types of everyday iniquity and harm.

That rare specimen must be kept alive – in body or in the cultural imagination, literally or figuratively – for goodness’s sake. For, so long as he and his persona survive, we can convince and comfort ourselves that we all know where evil lives.


A version of this piece first appeared in the Times Higher Education on 18 October 2012 (link here). It is republished here with their kind permission.

The argument made in this article is a necessarily much abridged and somewhat simplified version of the main premise of my forthcoming book, The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer, which I have previously plugged here. The book will be published by Chicago University Press in March 2013 and can be pre-ordered here.