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?”.

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.

What is “Sex Critical” and why should we care about it?

The title of this blog — Sex Critical — is taken from a term I used (I don’t know if I could legitimately go so far as to say “coined”, though I hadn’t heard or read it previously) in a paper I recently wrote on the ubiquitous (and ever so tedious) Fifty Shades trilogy by E. L. James. One of the aims of my paper was to show how most existing commentary on the books is a bit limited and frustrating because it pursues rigidly dichotomous lines of response. The nature of these will be all too familiar to anyone who regularly reads academic, journalistic, and feminist writing on sexuality and gender. On the one hand, liberal or “sex-positive” feminists and activists criticized the book’s gender stereotyping and the (in)accuracy of its portrayal of BDSM, but defended strongly its exploration of sexual practices and behaviours and promoted the beneficent effects on female readers of exposure to erotic material — any erotic material. On the other hand, certain members of the radical feminist, anti-BDSM fringe used Fifty Shades as something of a pretext for furthering an agenda which holds that there is no difference between BDSM and domestic abuse, both being versions of the heteronormative patriarchal archiplot.

I wanted in my paper to try to talk about the trilogy in a way that avoided this polarization, a way that challenged those rather tired binaries of positive/ negative; good/ bad; healthy/ harmful. (My training in continental philosophy, the fact that I imbibed Derrida with my Alma Mater’s milk, makes the urge to challenge binaries almost an involuntary reflex.) And, more fundamentally — and reaching beyond that paper’s concern with Fifty Shades I wanted to question the value of the sex-positive/ anti-sex dichotomy altogether.

Don’t get me wrong, I can see the benefits of a sex-positive agenda and I admire the writing of some sex-positive academics and bloggers. (I particularly like some of the more recent writings of Cliff Pervocracy.) Women’s sexual possibilities have been historically limited and regulated, with iniquitous double standards being applied to our desires and behaviour. It is a legitimate feminist endeavour to think about how the relationship between gender, sex, and shame needs to be put into question. But a fair bit of so-called third-wave feminism or (heinous term coming up) “post-feminism” is less concerned with critical interrogation and more with celebrating a “liberation” that is only arguably won, and with arguing for the liberating nature of sex per se (a premise that, as a Foucault-sympathizer, I cannot totally accept). Moreover, the championing of forms of sex that look pretty identical to hetero-patriarchal ideals, rebranded as ironic, postmodern, and thereby “empowering” (a word I also loathe), troubles me.

A recent post by a blogger I admire enormously offered a spirited response to precisely these tendencies in sex positivism. A Radical Transfeminist proposed rehabilitating and adopting the term “sex-negative”, usually flung around in the guise of a slur, as a proud badge of resistance to the worst excesses of knee-jerk, neo-liberal, individualistic choice feminism and the worrying tendency of some of its adherents to adopt rhetoric that strongly resembles compulsory sexuality for women. What of asexuality? What of the fact that many women’s (indeed people’s) experiences of sex are traumatic, abusive or simply indifferent? Why should a whole social justice movement devote itself to the pursuit of orgasm? These are valid questions. While I very much liked the strategic thrust of A Radical Transfeminist’s post, I prefer to eschew altogether the either/ or logic that the lexicon of “positive”/ “negative” presupposes. I also dislike the way in which such language silences the questions that to me seem key: positive for whom? Negative in terms of whose ideological agenda and interests? The very notion that “positive”/ “negative” can ever be universal qualities, that anything can ever be equally “good” or “bad” for all groups and classes, strikes me as ultimately wrongheaded.

The following may be a few starting points:

  • All forms of sexuality and all sexual representations should be equally susceptible to critical thinking and interrogation about the normative or otherwise ideologies they uphold.
  •  The discursive trappings of heterosexual relationships, intercourse, and reproduction deserve just as much critical scrutiny as non-normative identities/ behaviours/ presentations and “extreme” bodily practices (if not more, given the historical lack of critical attention brought to bear on what is perceived to be the norm, leading to unquestioning acceptance of potential inequalities and harm).
  • To what extent do we need to question the usefulness of the term “sexuality” and its reach as an umbrella? Foucault advocated in his 1976 work La volonté de savoir (The Will to Knowledge) replacing “sex-desire” with “bodies and pleasures”. He believed that the reification of “sexuality”, in all its discursive forms, contributed to the constraints on social subjects to perform assigned identities, and to invest in the medical, psychological and ontological meaningfulness of those identities. We have not moved very far in the direction of Foucault’s declassification of sex in the 30-odd years since he wrote those words. If anything, we are proliferating ever more discourses about it and believing more ardently that it is the truth of who we are. It might be time to become altogether more critical about “sex” qua classificatory field.

Since delivering that paper on Fifty Shades at a session of the Onscenity network, I’ve become aware of folks using the term “sex critical” (and kindly name-checking me) in academic seminars, on Twitter, and elsewhere on the WWW. It seemed both appropriate and timely, then, to give that name to the blog I have been threatening to set up for so long, and to attempt to develop here, over the coming weeks and months, a viable sex-critical methodology for analyzing cultural phenomena pertaining to sexuality and gender.

[Disclaimer: I am an unapologetic professional academic, working from a critical humanities perspective, and with a broadly constructionist worldview. Although I intend to write here in a less formal style than I would deploy in, for example, an article for New Formations, I will use academic terminology. There is no obligation to read here if academese offends you or is otherwise not your “thang”. All opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the official views of my employing institution. Sometimes I might post about things entirely unrelated to sexuality and gender, just because I feel like it.]

[Edit: 1 January 2013: My paper on Fifty Shades of Grey discussed in this post is now published as an article in Psychology and Sexuality, available here.]