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bodies and politics

Posted at 13:24 on 25 Sep 2009 by Pandora / Blake

My friend who has spent several years working with urban sex workers pointed me at a couple of heated discussions about sex work lately. Of course, conversations about sex work are often heated, mostly because not enough of the people participating in public debate seem to understand that it's just as unhelpful to generalise about all sex workers as it is to generalise about all women, or all people of colour, or any group defined by the mainstream as Not One Of Us.

However, once you get past Julie Bindel's predictably ignorant hostility, this debate on legislating prostitution contains some surprisingly balanced views. (Oooh, words cannot express how much it infuriates me that Ms Bindel is so often wheeled out to represent "the feminist perspective". Not all feminists think all sex workers are necessarily victims! I'm a feminist, I work in the sex industry, I'm not a victim, and Julie Bindel doesn't represent ME.)

There are some excellent, moderate, well-reasoned arguments in that thread, from a variety of perspectives, including some realistic analysis from a politician and a police inspector, all of whom advocate a balanced approach aimed at helping women who want to leave prostitution, and not persecuting those who don't. I'm not surprised to hear this from a sex worker, but it's affirming to hear it from the HM Inspector of Constabulary for Scotland:

Having led the Operation Pentameter investigation into sex trafficking in Scotland, I know that there is a serious problem around enforced prostitution. But you cant assume that everyone in the industry is there because of coercion, and moralising the argument by saying that no-one working in the industry could be doing so of their own free will detracts from efforts to protect the vulnerable.

Sadly, all this common sense doesn't seem to have got through to Julie Bindel, who continued to make outrageously blanket statements about the victimhood of all sex workers in today's Guardian, in response to Pamela Stephenson Connolly's Agony Aunt letter to a reader "hooked on prostitutes". I found Connolly's initial advice far more sensible than her justification after the fact, which contained several flawed assumptions, but Julie Bindel's closing remarks are so ignorant the stupidity sort of cancels out:

"Next time you're with a sex worker, ask her for some pointers," concludes Stephenson Connolly. Does she really think women having to service punters for a living concern themselves with teaching men how to give pleasure to women? They want to get it over with as quickly as possible and learn how to fake enjoyment rather than actually achieving it. Prostitution is a nasty business.

Why of course Julie, I forgot that you are both omnipotent and telepathic, and capable of speaking on behalf of all women without actually consulting them. Need I mention that, on the contrary, the sex and spanking professionals I know who offer private services consider listening, counselling and offering comfort and support just as much their job as the physical aspects? Most of the sex workers I know would be not only willing, but more than able to offer a client good advice about sex or relationships - especially if that client was a regular.

Yes, I know this isn't true of everyone who sells sex. Guess what? Sex workers aren't a monolithic group of identically hapless victims, and calling them so is just as dangerous and offensive as calling all women sluts or bitches. Sadly, this basic fact seems to have escaped Ms Bindel.


The fashion industry finally seems to be catching up with the European spanking scene in its acceptance of a variety of body shapes: size 12 and 14 women recently appeared alongside their thinner counterparts on catwalks during London Fashion Week. Of course, such an outrageous decision was never going to happen without drama, but let's face it: the industry is probably better off without the stylist who flounced out in protest. The show only included three "normal-sized" and even they only went up to size 14 (I think 16 is the average dress size in the UK?) but it's another baby step, to match the success of Beth Ditto's fashion brand, and plus-size model Crystal Renn's "new vogue for women 'lush and sparkly with nary a jutting collarbone in sight'."

Designer Mask Fast showcased sexy minidresses on the models, proving his designs don't just look good on size 0 figures. Fashion, advertising and entertainment still have a long way to go in embracing body-positivity, but it's good to see it gaining momentum.


On the topic of fantasy bodies vs. real ones, Natty has written another excellent post about being kinky with a chronic illness, called When Play Is Work. I've already written a lengthy comment in reply, so I won't say much more here. This topic is extra-relevant to me today: my hopes of getting a chance to play with Tom this weekend have just been scuppered by his work again. I'm more worried about him than disappointed: I know if I'm patient we'll find time eventually, and I'm lucky to live so close that we can spend time snuggling and looking after each other instead. But at times like this the contrast between the films I make and real life couldn't be more obvious.

Natty's post is valuable because it highlights the way that even when reality doesn't mirror fantasy, it can still be beautiful, rewarding and memorable. For Tom, like Natty, play is often hard work - and that's one of the reasons it's so intense and rewarding when we do manage it. And when it's just as often me who's too tired to play, it's good to be reminded that play doesn't have to be easy, or perfect, or live up to fantasised expectations. Flexibility, empathy and understanding will go a long way.

But sometimes, working hard just isn't the answer. Pushing myself too hard is often the reason I'm too exhausted to enjoy play, and exerting myself further may not help in that situation. And I certainly wouldn't ever expect Tom to work harder than he does to try and provide what I need - I'm more likely to want to reassure him that it's okay if he can't. It's down to the individual to assess how far they can push their body, and when it's time to chill out and give yourself a break. I can't make that decision for Tom any more than I'd want to make it for Natty.

I am blessed in my relationships in so many ways, and I try to be aware of how lucky I am. But even spanking models have to deal with reality undermining fantasy at times, and none of us are on top form all the time.

In producing my own spanking porn, I already intend to emphasise the agency, desire and personality of my submissive models (male and female), respect their boundaries, and celebrate a variety of body types. But I'm still trying to work out how to make spanking films that deal positively with disability and illness. Domestic discipline scenes dealing with real people's limits with humour and sensitivity are a possibility. And if I work with disabled models I can ask them if they'd like to appear on film with any visible supports they may have, such as crutches or a wheelchair - but not all disabilities are visible.

Fantasy is usually idealised, but I want to try and be as inclusive as possible: I want to make porn people can recognise themselves in. I know too many kinky people with chronic health problems to be comfortable erasing their experience for the sake of a whitewashed, glamorous, unrealistic fantasy world. There must be ways of telling hot stories about real people, making the reality of having a non-perfect body crucial to a kinky narrative in the way that Jacqueline Applebee does in stories such as What I Do For My Pain. I'm still trying to work out the best way to approach this (and I imagine it'll be an ongoing process), so I'd love to hear any input, stories or ideas you may have.

Keep reading »

Tags: Body positivity, Gender politics, health and disability, learning curves, Politics, rant, Sex worker rights


are you mentally disordered?

Posted at 21:25 on 6 May 2009 by Pandora / Blake

The DSM, the official diagnostic list of mental disorders for medical practitioners in the US, gets updated every so often. It's about to undergo its fifth major re-write; each revision so far has resulted in the list of recognised mental disorders substantially increasing. Whether this expansion constitutes discovery or invention is an open question.

Obviously there is a need for constant revision and improvement of criteria, especially in areas where new research and knowledge is available. But the overseeing body that writes the manual is the American Psychiatric Association, an academic group who have very little interaction with patients. Practicing psychologists, licensed professional counsellors, and clinical social workers are not directly involved with defining diagnostic criteria.

The suggested revisions to the gender and sexuality section of the DSM are a cause for alarm. They propose hugely expanding the "paraphilia" section to include any sexual interest that is not:

a) an interest in genital stimulation or preparatory fondling;
b) an interest in anyone other than phenotypically normal, consenting adult human partners.

This new language risks classifying anyone who has alternative sex or who is attracted to gender-variant people, disabled people or even fat people as mentally disordered. Julia Serano writes on Feministing:

Blanchard and other like-minded sex researchers have coined words like Gynandromorphophilia (attraction to trans women), Andromimetophilia (attraction to trans men), Abasiophilia (attraction to people who are physically disabled), Acrotomophilia (attraction to amputees), Gerontophilia (attraction to elderly people), Fat Fetishism (attraction to fat people), etc., and have forwarded them in the medical literature to denote the presumed "paraphilic" nature of such attractions. This tendency reinforces the cultural belief that young, thin, able-bodied cisgender women and men are the only legitimate objects of sexual desire, and that you must be mentally disordered in some way if you are attracted to someone who falls outside of this ideal.

The proposed revisions on cross-dressing are quite simply revolting. They classify any transgender or transvestite behaviour as a "fetish", regardless of whether the individual's motivations are sexual. They also set up a sexist double standard whereby "heterosexual males" who experience "recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving cross-dressing" are classified as paraphilic.

As Kelly Winters explains:

Curiously, women and gay men are free to wear whatever clothing they chose without a label of mental illness. This criterion serves to enforce a stricter standard of conformity for straight males than women or gay men. Its dual standard not only reflects the social privilege of heterosexual males in American culture, but promotes it. One implication is that biological males who emulate women, with their lower social status, are presumed irrational and mentally disordered, while biological females who emulate males are not. A second implication stereotypically associates femininity and cross-dressing with male homosexuality and serves to punish straight males who transgress this stereotype.

The proposed revisions risk stigmatizing countless sane individuals with erotic tastes outside a strictly-sanctioned norm. They would lend credibility to those who wish to condemn or discriminate people on these grounds. They would also risk adversely affecting people who are happy in their alternative sexuality but seeking treatment for other mental health problems, by giving judgmental medical practitioners authority to mis-diagnose their sexual practices as being the source of the problem. Labelling any form of gender or sexual expression as a "mental disorder" has the potential to be hugely damaging, and ignores the vast spectrum of natural sexual and gender variation that exists in the world.

Some argue that the criteria would only apply if the individual were deeply distressed by their sexual interests, but this is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, someone might only be upset because of the social stigma attached to their fetish; if it were widely understood and accepted they would have no need to fear. Secondly, the wording is vague enough to allow scope for abuse of the criteria by unethical or ignorant practitioners imposing their personal morality on a diagnosis.

This is worrying whether you're in the US or not. If you agree, Feministing has some suggestions about what you can do to help.

Keep reading »

Tags: health and disability, in the news, Kink activism, Politics, rant


pain relief

Posted at 18:35 on 3 Oct 2008 by Pandora / Blake

Natty has been writing some excellent posts lately on kink, sexuality, and chronic pain or illness. This is an issue that is very close to my heart, as both of my partners have chronic pain, and one of them also has a chronic illness. I've wondered in the past the extent to which my choosing two dominant men who aren't fully able-bodied had something to do with my submission. Nursing has certainly become a consciously submissive act in one of my relationships, and I find caring for my partner when they're suffering almost as rewarding as I find sexual submission. It also makes the power imbalance feel more natural - we are dependent on each other, it's not all one way. They look after me as my Dom, and I look after them as their sub. We care for each other.

I don't write much about the sexual consequences of my partners' physical health, and I don't think I ever could - it's far too private, and not my secrets to share. But I do want to tell you two stories about pain and kink which I think follows on from what Natty has to say.

I have a switch friend who I'll call X. X enjoys exploring both facets of their sexuality, and find that their submission and dominance tend to arise in very different circumstances, with very different types of people. One day, their life is changed by an awful accident. They are bedridden for months, and suffer from chronic pain and impaired movement to this day. Since the accident, they have not felt able to explore their submissive side, and instead have focussed increasingly on their dominance. Being forced to lie still for so long, being forced to endure pain they did not want, having control of their life and their body taken away from them, removed any desire they had to play with those things. Now, they are determined to be as fully in control of their life as possible. Their body, their environment - these are things they are not willing to surrender to anyone else. They don't know if they'll learn to switch again in the future, but even if they do, their personality has been deeply affected by the accident, and they'll never enjoy submission and pain in the way they used to.

I have another friend who we'll call Y. Y has a condition which means they've suffered from chronic pain all their life. Like X, they were a switch, and enjoyed playing both roles in power games with lovers. They enjoyed giving and receiving pain. Eventually, they started receiving surgical treatment to correct some of the symptoms of their condition. They spent a considerable amount of time in hospital, and then bedridden, in pain unable to fully care for themselves. The medication they were prescribed for the pain had unfortunate side effects, and they preferred to avoid it. Instead, their switch relationship shifted while they were recovering from the surgery. They started submitting to their partner much more consistently than they ever had before. They sought out sexual pain because it was empowering. By surrendering control of their body to their partner, they wrested it away from their illness, from the doctors. Pain became translated for them, became something with positive associations. By choosing an affirming, intimate, conscious pain experience, the pain experience they had no choice about became easier to bear.

I don't really have anything to add to the story, except to say that Y still mostly identifies as submissive, and that I don't really know of any outside factors that might explain why X went one way and Y went the other. I just think it's fascinating, the way the human mind and body is capable of responding to these experiences. And I defy anyone to talk to X and Y and then try to argue that kink is damaging and unhealthy.

There are more people out there with invisible disabilities than you might think. If it wasn't so widely misunderstood and stigmatised, I wonder how many more of them might find solace and empowerment through a sexual exploration of pain.

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Tags: Body positivity, dominance and submission, health and disability, making a scene, Politics


Night of the Senses

Posted at 08:38 on 4 Sep 2008 by Pandora / Blake

D. and I are lucky enough to be attending the Erotic Awards Ceremony in London next week, to support our friend Niki Flynn in her nomination for Best Writer. Fingers crossed that the judges show excellent taste and award her the title she richly deserves. Either way, though, the night promises to be a good one, as the ceremony takes place at a grand fetish ball - billed as a "sexual carnival, an erotic wonderland" - called Night of the Senses.

I'm sure we'll find something to amuse us among the various entertainments on offer - from the Roissy Dungeon to the Grope Box, the Tantric Cavern and even (apparently) Messy Cake Fights. The kinky cabaret sounds promising and I'm looking forward to discovering what the Women's Womb involves. I've never been to this event before, but Turner Prize winner, artist Grayson Perry wrote a whole page about the Erotic Awards in The Times, describing them as "The good people in a gloriously mucky business". The event is designed to promote inclusivity and diversity, not only for the queer, genderfucked, and the gloriously perverted, novices and old-timers alike, but it's one of the few erotic events to put a particular emphasis on the inclusion of disabled people.

I'll be interested to see how the event organisers cope with the spiral staircase at their chosen venue, Mass/Babalou, which is inconvenient even for the able-bodied (particularly if you're wearing fetish heels). The Erotic Awards have always had a strong emphasis on access, with an annual award being given for disability-friendly site design. In fact, the Night of the Senses is the main fundraiser for the Outsider's Trust, the charity for disabled people to enjoy sexual pleasure and form relationships.

Ticket sales are low this year; we're in the middle of a recession, after all, and it's not a cheap night out at 60 a head. However, most of that money goes on the entertainments and Outsiders, to which the event donates an average of 12,000 a year. This is possible because all the organisers, stewards and hosts are volunteers.

The Night of the Senses encourages a spirit of hedonism and autonomy. As it happens, fellow spanking blogger Natty was writing only yesterday about the prevalence of white, privileged, able-bodied, middle-class people in literary as well as visual porn. People lacking these privileges deserve porn which represents their identities and desires just as queer people, trans people, kinky people deserve porn which caters to them. These are not minorities any more than fat people are a minority, but our culture would prefer them to be invisible.

As a member of the privileged group, I find it difficult to write porn from the POV of a person of colour, or a disabled person, because I would feel presumptuous writing from supposition rather than experience. Individuals from these groups deserve to be given their own voice, not to be represented by an able-bodied white girl. I can't try to fill these gaps in the sex industry alone. But I can show support to inclusive writers such as Jacqueline Applebee, who works tirelessly to promote bisexual visibility in porn, disabled visibility, coloured visibility. Characters for whom these traits are incidental, background information rather than a central plot point. Characters for whom these traits are not quirky, not problematic, just the way that person is and part of their sex appeal. What we need are more pornographers and more writers, more spanking models and site owners, from these social demographics. We need more disabled adult models who are not fetishised for their disability, but simply expressing their desires in the same way I am. The Outsider's Trust supports the same goals.

If you're thinking of going to a fetish event this year, please consider spending your money on a good cause as well as a good time. Night of the Senses offers big reductions for groups of 5 and concessions, and the ticket price includes the Little Book of Delights as a memento of the evening. And you get the chance to meet Niki and me. I hope I'll see some of you there :)

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Tags: health and disability, making a scene, Niki Flynn, Politics


"Whipping cures depression"

Posted at 11:13 on 19 Dec 2007 by Pandora / Blake

I recently found this link to what appears to be a genuine (if slightly out-of-date) news article:

Whipping therapy cures depression and suicide crises

Siberian scientists believe that addiction to alcohol and narcotics, as well as depression, suicidal thoughts and psychosomatic diseases occur when an individual loses his or her interest in life. The absence of the will to live is caused with decreasing production of endorphins - the substance, which is known as the hormone of happiness. If a depressed individual receives a physical punishment, whipping that is, it will stir up endorphin receptors, activate the production of happiness and eventually remove depressive feelings.

Russian scientists recommend the following course of the whipping therapy: 30 sessions of 60 whips on the buttocks in every procedure. A group of drug addicts volunteered to test the new method of treatment: the results can be described as good and excellent.

The idea that a the occasional beating can be good for your mental health isn't really news to us. But masochists and kinksters aren't the only people who have tapped into the human endorphin response. Flagellation has a place in a number of religious traditions - medieval Catholicism, Tibetan Buddhism, Gardnerian Wicca. The euphoria triggered by exercise is similar, I think.

I'm not sure I'm convinced that this treatment has a universal application, though. I don't really understand the psychology, but it seems plausible that there's some correlation between people exhibiting the self-destructive behaviours described above, and people who will respond well to endorphin manipulation. Note that the article says that the treatment was only tested on volunteers - that has to skew the results slightly.

The whipping therapy becomes much more efficient when a patients receives the punishment from a person of the opposite sex. The effect is astounding: the patient starts seeing only bright colors in the surrounding world, the heartache disappears, although it will take a certain time for the buttocks to heal, of course, Sergei Speransky told the Izvestia newspaper.

Well, I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks that sounds familiar :) But what about people who are attracted to the same sex, eh? It bugs me when queerness is ignored by sex psychologists.

Nonetheless, I have to applaud the courage and open-mindedness of the research team. It would be great if the positive results of a healthy kink life were more widely recognised, particularly by the medical profession; if popular opinion saw what we do as part of a sane, affirming, balanced lifestyle, and not a symptom of being wrong in the head. I wonder if this Dr. Speransky is one of us?

Keep reading »

Tags: health and disability, in the news, Politics, those crazy kinksters


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