The boys I hookup with hate asking questions. We’ve all sat in health class and listened to Mr. G describe consent as an ongoing conversation, But questions like “Do you like this?” and “Would you do X?” and “Is this okay?” and “Did you finish?” are questions no one ever even thought to ask me until just this past year. If our hookup culture is anything, it is notoriously silent on all fronts. In sexual encounters where this culture of silence feels most prominent, I have this image of myself that pops into my head wherein I am just a trash can with my name scrawled on it in sharpie. I can’t talk, I can’t move, I can only hold things. I call it a sexual receptacle.
The first time I conjure up this image I am in tenth grade, making out with my boyfriend when he starts to push on the top of my head. At first I think maybe this is just him trying to be sexy–a misguided attempt to be hot by being rough. But he keeps pushing, and it’s not painful or uncomfortable and I don’t feel unsafe, it’s just constant–almost in the background. And I realize that he thinks he is posing a question. To him, this is equivalent to asking politely for a blowjob. I silently push back, a firm “no,” holding my lid tightly shut.
The second time this happens, I am in the middle of a subway car on my way to a party, talking to an upperclassman who wants to know whether he has a shot with my friend. I tell him I think she might be interested in someone else, and he looks dejected for a minute before leaning in and kissing me. I pull away, refusing his offer. He looks at me, vaguely surprised. I stare back. He leans in again and I, pushed back against the wall of the car, reluctantly oblige, my lid pried open.
A few weeks later I am with the same boy at a different party. I am talking with friends when he approaches and puts his arm around me. I walk away, pretending to go join another conversation across the room. He follows me a moment later and drapes his arm back across my shoulder. I silently shrug it off, give a small smile and pretend I need to use the bathroom. I spend the rest of my night dodging eager arm attached to clueless guy, once again stuck in the position of having to defend my space.
In too many of my sexual encounters, verbal conversation seems replaced by a kind of sexual charades–clarity and consideration sacrificed out of fear that talking will ruin “the mood.” That rocks though, because I hate “the mood,” because a lot of the time “the mood” is absolutely toxic. A lot of the time, “the mood” seems to promote unwilling silence and and utter lack of interest in the other person’s comfort. I hate the mood because the mood makes me a receptacle: ready and eager to give you head, something to do with your tongue or your arm. Slowly, though, I am learning not to take shit from the boys I hook up with–to talk to them and demand that they talk to me. With words, not actions.
Every year for Christmas, my older cousin gifts me books—lovely, badass female-written books. This year, along with two rebel woman memoirs (Pink Steam and Drugs Are Nice, for those interested), she gave me Lies: A Journal of Materialist Feminism, Volume 1, 2012. Lies is a collection of essays, poems, et cetera addressing gender relations, sex, and politics. Not only is there a range of content and form, there are various writing styles as well. However, the one thing that unites all of the pieces in Lies is that each one comes from a place of struggle. Each one touches on the complex contradiction that is so difficult to talk about in our society—the feeling that something essential about our immediate and larger communities is utterly toxic, yet at every turn there is something to tell us we’ve over-thought, over-felt and the toxicity we speak of is gone, outdated, or was never there. When I use this term “toxicity”, I am not referring exclusively to misogyny, but to racial and economic issues as well, as Lies discusses all of these.
I started reading Lies at my boyfriend’s house while he was on his computer and a blizzard was starting to form. The first piece I finished is called “Letters to L: Paranoia and Visions”. As I read it, I kept hoping for a happy ending—a solution or at least a suggestion—telling me how to exist sanely in society as an unrelenting feminist. I didn’t get my happy ending and when I finished reading, I found myself feeling oddly numb. To process this feeling, I stared into space for a few minutes. My boyfriend noticed my strange state and asked me how the book was going; I had no idea how to respond. “Weellll, I’m learning a lot and that’s really cool but the content here is particularly personal to me so I’m getting kind of emotional but don’t worry, I think it’s a good thing…!!!” is something I could have said. Instead I announced that the book was very good.
Even writing a thank you-letter to my cousin was tricky. Lies is the type of book you give to someone in confidence, trusting they’ll be receptive to the moving, yet cringe-worthy, experience you get from reading it. For me, the way it resonated was at times isolating and even saddening. What persists throughout the entire book is an eerie pessimism; the message underlying each piece seems to suggest that all our efforts to combat social injustices will be held against us. That said, it’s incredibly important, while reading Lies, to remember that each piece comes from a place of passionate opinion and it is up to each reader to do what they will with that. The compilation represents one very concentrated feminist attitude, which may be compatible to some while others may need to take the book with several grains of salt. Regardless, Lies offers a lot to learn and an emotional experience for all.
Yesterday, STAGE presidents Priya Dieterich and Isabel Cristo were guest bloggers on the Praxis blog at Big Think. They wrote about their experience taking senior portraits, the instructions for which–different for girls and boys–were startlingly outdated and sexist. Click here to check out what they had to say.
The photos above were taken as part of BHSEC’s contribution to the “I Need Feminism” campaign, which was started by students at Duke University and has spread across college campuses and the internet. The entirety of BHSEC’s photo project will be posted here within the week!