With the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, there's been a lot of talk of the “success” of the American gay/GLBT movement, and questions about where to go next. Alex Blaze, at The Bilerico Project, recently pointed out that straight* support for queer rights only goes as far as erasing the most obvious markers of discrimination (marriage equality, exclusion from the military, perhaps adoption rights or immigration rights). The deeper quality of life issues, he argued, will only be fought for by queer folks themselves. Gender policing, workplace discrimination, lack of media representation, generally speaking, the oppressive heteronormativity of our society – these are things that cis straight people are neither well-equipped to notice, nor particularly interested in dismantling. But it's amazing how internalized these assumptions can be, to the point that even many LGBT activists cannot conceive of advancing queer liberation very much farther than straight allies.

This point was brought home to me several months ago by a service at Washington, D.C.'s All Souls' Unitarian Universalist Church last year. All Souls' is a welcoming church: at the time, they had two gay/lesbian pastors, were deeply involved in the fight to legalize same-sex marriage in D.C,, hosted a gay men's group and other queer-oriented discussions, and otherwise supported the large minority of queer parishioners. But none of that prepared me for my shock when the pastor used the story of two male partners as the core of a sermon on love and relationships – and the only example of romantic love. The mainstream LGBT rights movement focuses on allowing queer people to participate in heteronormative culture. Sometimes we advocate for better representation in the media – better meaning more proportional to the size of the LGBT population, more positive in the straight majority's eyes, more in line with mainstream LGBT movement goals. Rarely, if ever, do we think that queer people could, or should, be role models for the rest of society.

Even LGBT rights activists often buy into the myth that what's good for the majority must be good for everyone. Add to that the need to be politically palatable, and we find a lot of heteronormativity in mainstream LGBT activism. But I know that I, too, moderate my presentation, and maybe even my goals and aspirations, so as not to make straight people too uncomfortable. I think most of us do so, consciously or not. I don't just mean staying closeted out of a real fear of violence – which is understandable – but rather censoring yourself about the rather wild queer party last night so as not to support the idea that queer people are degenerate, and nodding along with talk of “when you're married with kids...” because it's too much effort to disrupt everything by saying that you don't believe in marriage and plan to live in a queer poly household where any children will be by adoption only. The other day, I hesitated before recommending a book to a friend because, well, it has mostly queer characters, and maybe my friend didn't want to read about them. I think we expect queer people to identify with straight protagonists (because they're the default, don'tchaknow, and so they stand for everybody), but believe it would be too much to ask straight people to identify with queers. When we do this, we're still positioning ourselves as less than our straight counterparts.

This is why I burst into tears at that Valentine's day service, hearing someone say to a straight audience: let these men be an example to you, and know that their relationship is worthy not because it is an imitation of yours, but because they are humans, doing what humans do – forming relationships and loving and fucking – and doing their best to do it with honesty and integrity and respect. I think we need to remember, in our queer communities, that our worth cannot be earned by trying to play someone else's game. We are already worthy by the simple fact of our being human. Our feelings, our ambitions, our ways of acting and interacting – these are all legitimate, and worthy of respect. Can we imagine a world in which our diversity of experiences and desires are valued and supported, instead of trying to stretch the normative model a tiny bit wider so a few more people can squeeze in? I want to hear your thoughts and dreams – how would the world look if you could fully be who you want to be? And what steps can we take toward that goal?

Hat/tip to my friends at Against Equality, who helped me first think about where the mainstream “Equality” paradigm went wrong. And they're planning a speaking tour for the spring, so perhaps you can hear them yourselves!

* I'm using the word “straight” here to mean non-queer. There are many heterosexual people who consider themselves part of the queer spectrum (being trans-, kinky, poly, gender non-conforming, etc.); they are not who I mean here.

(...to the full post)

This post comes out of a lively debate about the differences between radical activism and academia that I have been having with fellow-blogger Julian Real. The discussion started after I posted some comments on Andrea Dworkin's book, Pornography, which you can read here. To see Julian's response to my original post, please click here. And also click here, to read my answer to Julian, as well as his reply. The post below starts by attempting to answer the following question that Julian posed: What do you wish to do about rape, genocide, and poverty on Below the Belt?

Below the Belt can do a limited number of things about rape, genocide and poverty. Only about 30% of the world's population currently has access to the Internet and an even smaller percentage of Internet users speak English. Therefore, on a global scale, Below the Belt cannot directly affect the lives of the poorest people and the most oppressed - those who have to struggle on a daily basis for survival, for food, water, shelter, and freedom from bodily harm. Its immediate impact is limited to those who have access to the Internet and to those who are fluent in English. This is, on a world scale, a relatively wealthy minority. And I think all bloggers should be conscious of this - whatever they publish online is only directly accessible to a small number of people, usually those who are rich enough to have the Internet, a global "elite" of sorts. This is not to say that groups and individuals within this "elite" are not subject to systematic rape, poverty, or the risk of being killed, but that they are (relatively speaking) in a privileged position vis-a-vis the majority of humans around the world.

Does this mean that Below the Belt and other blogs can do absolutely nothing about the worst forms of oppression? I do not think so. We can influence the way that those who are relatively privileged think and act towards the most oppressed and towards issues of oppression. I cannot speak for everyone on Below the Belt (we have a variety of writers - all with different goals), but in my writing, I want to do two things: (1) to examine and critique ideas that form the foundation for oppressive practices, with the aim of getting people to think about how they think about the world; and (2) to provide an introduction to some issues in gender studies, feminism, queer theory, history, and philosophy - a sort of 'Gender Studies 101'.

You might say that this an anti-radical, anti-activist, anti-anti-oppression agenda, but I don't agree. Let's take the issue of genocide. What needs to happen in order for a genocide to occur? There needs to be an elite willing to slaughter an entire group of people, a specialized 'armed group' to carry out the majority of the killings (I'm thinking of the Einsatzgruppen during the holocaust or the Interahamwe in Rwanda), a majority of the non-target population brainwashed into staying silent or participating in the slaughter (with dissenters murdered or tortured), a sufficient military buildup, development of ways of identifying the people to be killed (I.D. cards, badges, and other symbols), an animalization/de-humanization of the target group (in Rwanda, Tutsis were referred to as Inyenzi or cockroaches), assurance that no other state or international organization will intervene to stop the bloodshed etc...

In addition to all of this, and perhaps prior to it, something has to happen at the ideational level. Both the elites organizing the slaughter and the masses co-opted into it need to be able to believe that a certain ethnic/religious/national/gender category is capable of doing things as a group - that the individuals within it are all virtually the same, with the same biological characteristics (usually biologically inferior, but sometimes also with some laudable aspects, e.g. - Hitler occasionally showed admiration for ‘the cunning' of the Jews), and that they have all signed a social contract with each other to support certain nefarious activities against "the state" or against some other entity: "the Jews" or "the Tutsis" or "the Women" or "the Indians" all have the same aims and the same goals, they are all "in league" with each other. Genocide and ethnic cleansing depend to an extent on our capacity to think about large groups in a particular way, to reduce individuals to their collective identities, to believe that ethnic/gender/national etc.. groups can actually behave in unison, all with the same purposes and with the same goals.

What I aim to do on Below the Belt is to criticize conceptions such as these and thereby challenge the ways of thinking that form the foundation for oppressive practices. I want to get people to think about how they think about the world, how they think about others, how they think about other(ed) categories of gender, nationality, race, sex, and ethnicity. This isn't as important as providing material resources (food, shelter, or arms) to people who are at risk of genocide, undermining the flow of such material to the genocidaires, exposing the existence of genocide, mobilizing international public opinion against the actions of the oppressors, or getting international organizations to develop mechanisms for stopping mass slaughter. But it is still a worthwhile endeavor. Genocide will be harder to undertake, harder to justify, and it will be harder to co-opt people into genocide, if ideas about the ontological validity of fundamental national/gender/ethnic/religious characteristics are discredited.

Andrea Dworkin herself recognized that the ways we conceive of the world (the ideas we have about other subjects and objects) are crucial enablers of genocide. In the essay you recommended for me, "Biological Superiority: the World's Most Dangerous and Deadly Idea," Dworkin rejects matriarchal arguments about the biological superiority of women to men because she recognizes that such a theorization of an entire gendered category could lay the groundwork for genocide against it - this has already happened to women all over the world, would it really be a good thing if something similar could happen to men? I completely agree with Dworkin in this case, but I would extend her argument: it is not just ideas about the biological superiority or inferiority of particular national/ethnic/gendered groups, but sweeping generalizations about the supposed immutable “character” (whether cultural, biological, or political) of these categories that can form the basis for genocide or ethnic cleansing. In practice, the cultural and political generalizations are never really that distinct from the biological generalizations – but ultimately, they can have similar effects.

I realize that there are some serious problems with this argument, because people do do things in groups. I am just now doing some research about Iceland and I’m looking into how, in the 19th Century, wealthy landowning farmers developed a social system which guaranteed them a steady supply of cheap labor. In order to get permission to marry and own land, ordinary people had to earn a certain amount of money, and basically, the only way they could earn it in such an isolated and rural country was to become paid servants to landowning farmers. The farmers collectively kept wages low, which meant that poor Icelanders would have to work for them from at least their mid-teens until their thirties, thus providing a steady supply of cheap labor and keeping their profits high. Clearly, “the landowning farmers” created a social system that functioned to support their material interests. People can and do act collectively – but can they really do so in extremely large groups, such as nations and genders? And what are the consequences of imbuing such big collectives with sweeping generalizations? Does it set the stage for ethnic cleansing or genocide? At what point do broad statements about "group characteristics" become dangerous? I don’t really know how to solve this problem (aside from marshalling the rather primitive distinction between "small" and "big" groups or drawing on the difference between "organized interests" and "identity categories"), and I would appreciate any insights you or other readers may have, as well as any guidance about writers who have tried to wrestle with this issue.

Nevertheless, I do want to note that I have not acquired these ideas about genocide, generalizations, and collective identity through academia, but mainly through the personal experience of living in a context in which genocide and ethnic cleansing were quite close to home. I am, unfortunately, very familiar with the kinds of mindsets and theorizing that it takes to justify mass slaughter of a different nationality. Contrary to your assumptions, I am not from the United States, although I did go to university there. I bring this up because you seem to think that I am invested in the U.S. liberal academic project with my heart and soul, and that all my ideas emanate from it. I realize that my recent writing does give a very academic impression, given how full it is of citations, academic protocol, technical language, and academic authors. But it was never my intention to be a parrot of U.S. academia, and I am sorry to have made myself seem like that.

About the U.S. academic project, I do agree with you that it is, in general, about maintaining the status quo. In many cases, it also directly links into supporting U.S. global hegemony, the spread of capitalism, developing technology for the U.S. military, and a whole host of other atrocities. Nevertheless, I would argue that while academic institutions are thoroughly involved in upholding things as they are, individuals within academia are able to use the resources of their position for liberatory and subversive ends. Being an academic means being bestowed with astounding privilege – with the time to gather information, to read, to think, to write, and to speak on a variety of subjects. It is rarely the intention of the institutions, or the people and organizations that fund them, to allow this level of freedom. And while they often succeed in curtailing it, some individual academics have been able to use the time and money that they have been given as a platform from which to inform people and move them to action.

For example, Judith Butler has spoken and written eloquently about recent conflicts in the Middle East and she has also recently refused a prize at the Berlin Gay Pride Parade, after speaking with Muslim queer activists and hearing their stories of oppression within the German mainstream LGBTQ movement – thus bringing attention to the problem of Islamophobia in queer communities. Many of the people you cite on your blog are academics – bell hooks, Catherine MacKinnon, Patricia Hill Collins – which gives me some hope that there will continue to be space in academia for radical, liberatory voices. Although, as you point out, the situation is getting more difficult, with cuts to public education funding limiting academic posts, with increasing corporate sponsorship of academia, and with the internet providing more opportunities for surveillance and censorship of people’s voices - it seems that the potential for inspirational and transformative education within academia is unfortunately diminishing by the day.

And it has also diminished in the broader society, with the mainstream media cutting off radical activists’ access to the public – in this case, I also very much agree with you. But I don’t think at all that radical activists are bad at expressing themselves, or that the increasing poverty of political discourse is in any way their fault – did I say anything to suggest otherwise? And if I point out that radical critiques of society should indicate pathways for getting out of hell, how is this "seeing what activists do and don’t do as the problem"? Or blaming the victim? I am really not saying that the reason oppression still exists is because of things activists have or have not done. There are many reasons for this – very few of which have to do with the people working practically for change. The reason I like to encourage radicals to develop theories that leave open possibilities for change and to develop solutions for the problems they describe is because not doing so could lead to a resigned pessimism of the following type: "the powers that be are the powers that be, they are evil and all-powerful… but there is little that you and I can do about it, things will most likely stay the same." Noam Chomsky’s writing about U.S. hegemony does this, to an extent. I would argue that Dworkin’s Pornography also risks inspiring such an attitude. But what I am definitely not saying is that it is the fault of people like Noam Chomsky and Andrea Dworkin that things are the way the are.

As you probably gathered from my discussion above, I don’t subscribe to a sharp distinction between "thinking" and "acting." Thinking, reading, and speaking are, in a literal sense, actions. And in order to inspire people to act, you first have to get them to think. The Andrea Dworkin books that I have read are all about showing people a different way of perceiving the world and thinking about it than what is presented to them in the mainstream. It is about exposing the systematized violence and harm that societal discourses generally keep out of view. This inspires people to act – but before they act, they have to think. Otherwise, they would be automatons, robots, flinching instinctively at every juncture. Perhaps this should be the natural response to violence and oppression, perhaps it should not be necessary to think about it, perhaps it should just instinctively feel wrong and inspire a reflex action (akin to burning oneself on a stove). But unfortunately, this does not happen often enough, and in order to realize the reality of racism, patriarchy, genocide, and rape, people have to "un-think" years of socialization. Getting people to think more, to think about how they think, and to think differently is part-and-parcel of inspiring them to act – the two projects cannot be separated.

A similar logic can also be used to deal with this very important question, that you posed:

"I'll bet you that there are far more books on 'how to critique the idea of gender' in Academia right now than there are on "how to end male supremacy". Why? I'd be interested to know why you think that is the case, and what the function of such anti-activist 'gender discourse' is, politically/socially?"

I do agree that, right now, books and articles on "critiquing the idea of gender" are much more prominent in academia than work on ‘how to end male supremacy’. There are a variety of reasons for this. Firstly, I think that a number of feminist theorists have adopted the view that male supremacy and female subordination may be embedded in the way we conceive of gender itself. The way that the binary gender system sets up males and females as inevitable "polar opposites" and embeds oppressive distinctions between the sexes such as strong/weak, big/small, powerful/powerless, basically assures a priori that females will be oppressed. Since females are portrayed – by definition – as the opposite of males, the discourse will ensure that they remain "the second sex." I have dealt with this issue in some of my previous posts (see "Gender As Discourse," and "Strong Man, Weak Woman"). I don’t think that activists and academics who have moved towards critiquing the idea of gender do not care about ending the subordination of women – they are looking for the root causes of it. Undermining modern discourses about gender, and encouraging the creation of a gendered world that transcends the current binary is, in my view, not a separate project from combating male domination.

Secondly, the popularity of "critiquing the idea of gender" also has to do with increased concern for ending violence against people who do not identify within the binary gender system and those who do not meet expectations of masculinity and femininity. Transgender people and others who fall outside the current gender structure cannot even claim an existence for themselves under the current rules, and feminine men and masculine women live in constant terror of the threat of violence. However, it is important to note that the violence is aimed disproportionately at feminine men, transfeminine people and at femininity in general, which suggests that homophobia and sissyphobia are basically misogyny, enacted on male-bodied people. This is not to say that masculine women and transmasculine people do not face their own struggle against violence, but that the attacks on femininity are often much more intense, savage, and systematic. Some feminists, by focusing on the category of "woman" as the sole subject of feminism, ended up not paying enough attention to those who do not identify as either men or women or who are identified by others as somehow not in line with these categories.

Nevertheless – I do see how post-structuralist critiques of the idea of gender can be almost completely irrelevant in the context of, for example, a rape crisis center, female genital mutilation, or the fostering of gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia. For the raped and battered woman, gender is unfortunately all too real and dithering on about its social construction may not be helpful (although, admittedly, understanding gender as a product of oppressive social forces, rather than natural instincts, may help to deal with the trauma). Ultimately, while the “here-and-now” work of ending gendered violence – and violence in general – may draw on some academic ideas, it is not at all dependent on them. And the dominance of the "critiquing the idea of gender" view in academia has served to divert attention away from practical efforts to combat the continuing structural violence against women and feminine persons, from the struggles for liberation waged by feminists around the world, and from the connections between movements for environmental sustainability, racial justice, and women’s survival. Academia has betrayed activism – there is no doubt about this. Academics are, as such, unwittingly complicit with those who wish to continue the violence, the oppression, the hatred, and the murder.

But this does not mean that we should completely discard intellectual responses to oppression! As I outlined in my discussion of genocide above, there is a place for both the practical work of ensuring that mass slaughter does not happen (providing resources to populations likely to be affected, giving out humanitarian aid, developing international institutional mechanisms to prevent genocide) and the intellectual work of critiquing the ideas and world-views that make large-scale killing conceivable and possible in the first place. Ideally, the two should not be separated and they should work in tandem, although I do see how, in a condition of primary emergency, the “here-and-now” work of ensuring the killing is prevented and helping the (potential) victims is more important. I believe that, in academia and in the broader society, there should be a place for practical activist work on ending oppression and for the more theoretical endeavor of thinking about the ideas and conditions that make structural violence possible. It is unacceptable that the former is currently marginalized and this situation needs to be changed.

On the subject of post-structuralism, I don’t think that ideas about the normative foundations for (and functions of) empirical claims are entirely useless for activists. The way that I was laying out my position on this issue was far too depoliticized, and I see how you could have perceived my point of view as fundamentally impractical and nihilistic. When I said that different empirical claims about how the world "is" are tied to normative ideas about how the world "should be," I should have added that empirical world-views are index-linked to specific power-political interests, often buttressing oppressive social structures. Thus, supposedly "empirical" claims about women’s physical and intellectual capacities have served to ensure that women remain physically weaker than men and that they are excluded from academic, scientific and political positions. Activists could therefore use post-structuralist ideas about the connection between ideas about how the world "is" and nefarious political goals in order to undermine the worldviews that form some of the foundations of structural inequality. I certainly don’t think that oppression originates in the improper "exchange" of ideas, nor do I believe that ideas are "freely exchanged." Rather, I would argue that one of the primary ways that structural inequalities of power are maintained is through the propagation of ideas about reality that have the function of upholding them, that make them seem invisible, and that make them appear natural.

In my work, I aim to evaluate claims about "reality" not only on the extent to which are truthful but also on the basis of whose interests and which normative goals they will uphold. I therefore support any depictions of reality which uphold the interests of women, queer folks, indigenous peoples, and non-whites. This does not mean that I view things like whether patriarchy exists or whether American Indians are under assault as "debatable" – and this is a charge that is often thrown at people engaging in post-structuralist analysis: "you doubt whether the sky is really blue and you might even believe that pigs can fly." This is not at all the case, and I think it is a profound misreading of post-structural theory (caused in some cases by the obscurity of the kind of writing this theory inspires). But while there is no need to debate the existence of patriarchy or the oppression of non-whites, there are questions about these phenomena that are definitely worth much consideration, the answers to which will directly impact how they are dealt with: what causes patriarchy? Through which mechanisms does it work? Does it exist in all societies, and if not, under what conditions has it not existed? Why is it currently in place? What are the causes of racism? Why does it exist and how does it work? Getting to the vital issue – "what is to be done?" – first requires thinking about and responding to some of the questions such as the ones I enumerated above.

I am also by no means requesting that Andrea Dworkin and others put forward their positions solely in “this-is-how-I-see-it” terms. I do not see worldviews and theories as being a "personal" thing, with each individual having their own unique way of seeing things. This would be to deny the social nature of knowledge and to make all claims about the world contingent purely on individual experience. Rather, what I noticed in Dworkin’s approach is a long-standing tradition in Western (especially liberal and capitalist) thought of conceptualizing individuals as rational actors, seeking to minimize costs and maximize benefits. I also noticed that, in line with social contract theory, Dworkin imbued very large collectives with the capacity to form informal pacts, think rationally, and operate for their own survival. I am sorry if I gave this impression – but I was not critiquing the views laid out in Pornography because they were Dworkin’s personal views, or because they were the views of a white woman, but rather because those views were based on certain ontological assumptions about human nature and society which have a long and distinguished history in Western philosophy and with which I have disagreements – this is as much a critique of Dworkin as it is a critique of, for example, Adam Smith or Jean-Jacques Rousseau or John Rawls. I was also not criticizing Dworkin’s views so that I, as a "white man" (for the record, I don’t identify as a "man"), can claim objectivity and ownership of the way the world really "is." My post was written in the style of a philosophy-student-cum-wannabe-academic: you might think that this is an oppressive identity to take on, or that this is the identity that "white men" who want to author reality adopt. There is truth to this, but as I described above, there is also a positive side to academic intellectual thought and this is what I want to be a part of on Below the Belt.

(...to the full post)

Reports of my banishment to the Phantom Zone have been greatly exaggerated. Rather, I was drafted for a tour of duty in the North Pole, taking pictures of crying children with Santa for peanuts.

Last month, I held a benefit for myself, called "Apocalypstick Now", to help cover living and medical expenses so I could continue my activism work in the Bay Area and not relocate to my mother's house in Phoenix, AZ. A few days before the event, I received a message from Mira Bellwether, asking if I'd like a free copy of FTW #0 in lieu of a monetary donation.

After reading it, I am sure you will agree that this was very much like Stephen Hawking offering you an advanced copy of A Brief History Of Time because he couldn't make it to your symposium. Or maybe you won't. Maybe you didn't read A Brief History Of Time, and you aren't going to for a while, because you need to read this first.

This is the most important ongoing work on trans female sexuality ever. No takebacksies.

Mira not only agreed to come on BTB and pop off some good shit about sex and gender, but she has enabled my dream of being a zine writer by letting me contribute to a future issue FTW. Oh, here's the website. You might need that. -- TCMV

1) What prompted you to create FTW? Was it born of a desire to create a resource or were there more personal motives at play?

Several different factors motivated me to start "Fucking Trans Women." Most basically, I wanted to start talking to other trans women about our sex lives, and I wanted to write it all down so that we could share that knowledge and conversation. I would include that among "personal motives" but it's also a desire to create a resource. Certainly some of my desire to create the zine came from wanting to inform and introduce potential and current lovers to topics that directly affect my own sex life.

I wanted my lovers to have resources that they didn't already have, and I also wanted a resource of my own and ideas from other trans women. I have a strong desire to create a community resource developed by trans women coming from very different places, but really that came after the initial motivations. Certain teaching moments and difficult interruptions in sex prompted the more pointed or urgent pieces: it seems that I am forever introducing lovers to thinking about soft penises and about sperm; that I'm always having a 101 type conversation about pregnancy or about erections when I really just want to get on with it. Some of this is due to who I tend to fuck: mostly cis women and some trans men, and more rarely some gay cis men. But across the board sexual partners seem to be very ill-prepared for having sex with trans women. Soft penises are a particular sticking point because our culture defines the sexuality and prowess of a penis by its hardness. Size, yes, but something large and soft is not nearly so desired as a penis at any size that is consistently erect on command.

I find that my sexual partners come from a range of experiences but their knowledge is generally quite limited when it comes to trans women. It's very rare that I date or have sex with folks who have experience with other trans women, especially more than one or two trans women. Much of the information and experience that is necessary to having good sex with me is simply not widely disseminated information. At least so far, trans women have not been particularly good at communicating and disseminating information about our sex lives. Whether with other trans women or with everyone else, we don't usually talk about sex in informative and instructive ways, When I was researching the zine I felt that I must be missing something, that there must be a treasure trove of information out there that I was missing. And perhaps there still is, but in truth I don't think it exists. That's why this zine needs to exist.

More than one of my lovers has lamented that they wished they had a reference manual for my body, at least as a departure point, and that has played a large part in its development. Most of the people I have sex with have never had to seriously consider the possibility of a woman impregnating them, for example, or the idea that a soft, biological penis is a receptive pleasure center. Some of my past lovers had never had anal sex, gone down on a penis, or touched semen.

A certain amount of basic education is necessary. And because topics like these are so erratically discussed, if at all, a basic guide and an ongoing conversation is exactly what we need, Trans women, of course, have a wide variety of bodies and genitalia. But whatever our bodies are like, it's helpful for our lovers to have some bearing and understanding of what's going on in our pants. That isn't the same as knowing how boys' penises work, nor is it the same as knowing how cis women's bodies work, although being informed on both is certainly helpful. Part of my goal is therefore to create a resource specifically for trans women, drawn from our own knowledge and experience.

There were, of course, other motivations for creating "Fucking Trans Women" that are frankly a little depressing. It's a common complaint among the trans women I know that lovers either have to be educated or have prior experience, or else sex is probably going to suck. You hear horror stories, and you experience horror stories. It's no fun being told by a lover that they want you to fuck them because they fantasize about "being dominated by a man." It's no fun revealing your sexy parts to someone who responds "wow, it's been a while since I've seen one of those." The wildly inaccurate assumptions that I've encountered regarding my sexual activities and practices and desires certainly prompted me to begin writing down all the things I never wanted to be asked again, comments that I never needed to hear again, and questions that needed to be put to bed with a definitive answer. To a certain extent banishing bad sexual practices that are caused by ignorance is a motivating factor. Or as one friend put it, getting really sick of bad blowjobs.

There are all sorts of cold-shower-comments and questions that we can and should address in public, documented discussions rather than trusting to impromptu pillow talk. Why is the "101" conversation so annoying? Because so much is riding on it, because it usually happens at the worst time possible, and because it can feel repetitious. Why should we have to explain everything on the fly? Why not have something to point to and say "here, check this out." Or better yet, something that our lovers will have already read, so that they come to a conversation prepared to discuss personal desires and preferences rather than very basic questions and assumptions. Those are the kinds of questions I want to talk about with my lovers, because really I'm much more interested in having sex than in giving monologues.

I should reiterate the role that my lovers had in instigating this project. Many, many hours of conversation with past and present lovers have contributed to this zine. Beginning with statements that begin "I wish I would have known..." all the way through my writing process and publication, these are the folks who gave me the most support and the best ideas. I wish I could give equal credit to other trans women, but with a few delightful exceptions most other trans women I know have been quiet on the topic, no matter how much I poke and prod. That's a sign to me that the zine needs to exist, and needs to continue on, because clearly sex is a topic that we're not entirely comfortable talking about.

2) Though an e-zine, FTW #0 has an unmistakable "cut and paste" aesthetic telltale of the older generation of paper and ink zines. Can you explain how and why you gave it this look?

There are at least two answers to that question. One is basically "money." Let's start with money.

There is a very simple explanation for why the Zero issue has the look of something cut and pasted together, and that's because it was. I did the entire initial layout with paper and scissors and glue sticks, and then scanned it all into my computer. From there I edited it several more times using the very basic tools I had at my disposal. I don't have a ton of experience using either photoshop or layout tools, and I was making do with very little.

I do prefer the aesthetic of older zines made in this fashion, but at the time I was making it my own aesthetic preferences weren't the motivating factor. The deciding factor was money. I was working with a barely-functional computer with a cracked LCD screen and a budget of about $80, all donated by friends. I was (and still am) unemployed, and was at the point of quite literally begging for glue sticks and paper from friends and family so that I could assemble a zine. The decision to distribute the zine digitally was also a cost-saving measure. The cost of running the website and various fees for payments is much less than printing several hundred copies and trying to distribute them through the mail or in person. At present I don't operate the zine for profit, all of the sales and donations go right back into the zine itself, including gathering the capital for (hopefully) a print run of the next issue. But sales and donations also pay for the tools to make the zine. Initially that was glue sticks and paper and print cartridges, but since the Zero issue went on sale I've been able to make some repairs to my laptop and acquire some software. But you know, I do think that the aesthetic will probably remain much the same for issue #1, for an entirely different reason, even though I'm not exactly raking in the dough.

The other major reason for the zine's aesthetic is that it brings to mind an earlier time in queer and women's movements when paper zines were the best tools readily and cheaply available for distributing information. During an excursion to the archives I discovered zines by trans women from the late 60s and early 70s, which is really quite remarkable considering just how short a time transsexual women have existed in the public imagination. What's equally remarkable is that the things we talk about to each other have not substantially changed. I'm not just talking about the problems we face not shifting, I'm saying that our discourse has really not advanced very far in the past 50 years. The majority of written or otherwise documented discourse among trans women is really very limited and focuses by and large on identity and theory and rights, not shared goals or building community or being into who we are in substantial, sustained, and shared ways. As we all know, there's also a TON of internet debate that boils down to "why I don't like other trans women" and "someone said something offensive." I don't want to get into a lengthy critique, so for the sake of brevity I'll make a comparison instead.

Consider what trans men have done with media in the past fifteen years, or even the past five, and then compare some of those achievements with what trans women have done. We have done less. No doubt some of our achievements, especially individual achievements, have been spectacular, but on the whole I see us lagging behind tremendously. Another comparison I would make is between the organizational and artistic efforts of trans women in the last 50 years and the work done by cis feminists and/or queers. Now, to be fair, there aren't as many of us as there are cis women or queers by a long shot, and we're often quite widely dispersed, but nonetheless, what have we got to show for ourselves? That question will make some people bristle and no doubt several examples of the awesome things we're doing will immediately come to mind. But really, let's take stock. Why is it not possible for us to have something like "Original Plumbing"? And I think the answer to that question is probably cynicism and negativity and lots and lots of shame.

Even the most radical, the most gorgeous, the most productive, and the most self-assured of my trans women friends still have doubts that it's possible for us to create our own art and media and shape our own images. My go-to example of this comes from a friend, an artist and a performer, who mentioned during a conversation that she "couldn't take pictures of naked trans women and hang them in the Lexington Club. There's already a name for that: it's shemale porn." I was truly taken aback by this statement. If anyone could make that project happen, she would definitely be on my short list of artists who could do it amazingly well. But also I was surprised by the sheer negativity of her appraisal. Not only did she say that she "couldn't" do it, she was implying that it couldn't be done, and even if it were, the art that would be produced would be pornographic by nature.

What that moment said to me was that we are behind. We have a lot of catching up to do in terms of self-esteem, building community, and taking control of our images. Part of that work is to create space for trans women to be sexual without being reduced to our sexuality. And there's really only one way to do that, which is to start making our own self-representations that include our sexuality. That's part of the impetus for the zine, and part of the reason for its aesthetic. I think perhaps we need to be reminded that we're working with the same problems that cis women were dealing with in the late 70s and early 80s and are still tangling with today. The "virgin or whore" duality applies just as much to us as it does to cis women, and lashing out at any representation that either sexualizes us or desexualizes us is NOT going to help. So I think, let's remind ourselves aesthetically as well as discursively that much of what we're working on aren't new problems. They've been dealt with before, and we're lucky that we have examples to draw from. Writing off feminism and queer politics because they haven't embraced us in the past isn't doing us any favors, especially because we can learn so much from what has come before. We don't need to reinvent the wheel, most of the time we just need to modify it to better suit our own needs.

So why choose an aesthetic that brings to mind an older generation of activism? Because we could use the reminder that entire generations of activism have gone before and have made a lot of progress on goals that we're still too timid to even consider realistic, like being sexual without being reduced to our sexuality. We need the reminder.

3) FTW #0 is to my memory the first discourse on sexual activity that actually talks about engaging with a soft, unerect penis. Why do you think others have shied away from this subject, leading to an "erect penis only" philosophy in most sexual discourse?

The short, harsh answer to this question is that in the public imagination a limp penis is considered worthless, or an unfunny joke. As I mention in the zine, the operating word here is phallocentrism, a term that (much like the cut and paste format of the zine) is perhaps a little unfashionable, and brings to mind angry second-wave feminists. Well, good. Again, we could use the reminder that others have been here before, even if they weren't interested in exactly the same issues.

Why don't sex writers talk about soft penises? Because they lack the imagination and/or the drive to think about them sexually. It's unimaginable that a penis could be both sexual and soft. The quintessential sign of a sexual penis is an erection, and without it there'd nothing to talk about, at least as far as they are concerned. Why don't sex writers talk about soft penises? Because our culture is still phallocentric. It is obsessed with penile hardness and penetration.

That's my answer to the question you asked. The question that you didn't ask that I'm going to answer anyway is why I *did* write about soft penises when no one else does.

This was one of the first topics that I simply knew had to be in the first issue to make me happy, because it's a subject that's been on my mind since I was a child. In the zine I tell a story about my first experience measuring my own penis at a very young age out of fears of inadequacy, and measuring it soft instead of hard because that's the way I generally experienced my penis, as all penis-having individuals do. Penises are soft 98% of the time, and I am a sexual being 100% of the time, even if I don't feel like having sex at a given moment. Overwhelmingly, my penis is soft most of the time.

I would say that most writers on sex think of the penis as a sort of container for erections, and that erections are the real sex organ. They would say that to have sex you have to "achieve" an erection and then bring it to the point of orgasm, which is more or less the same thing as ejaculation. And at that point, one sex act is presumed to be complete.

This is not how I think about penises. I think of them first and foremost as organs of pleasure, designed to receive as well as give pleasure, but for the moment let's concentrate on receiving. It can be counter intuitive to think of the penis as a receptive organ, particularly because we usually think of it erect. But once you think of a soft penis, it's easy to see how it can be a receptive organ. With one or two differences, biological penises are almost identical structurally to biological clitorises: spongy tissue interspersed with an extremely high density of nerve fibers and nerve endings. They develop from exactly the same tissues in a fetus and contain approximately the same number of nerve endings, despite what the Vagina Monologues may have led you to believe. (Those in the penis are not as concentrated in the glans but are dispersed more widely through the shaft.) The tissues that make up the penis are by default extremely elastic, soft, and sensitive. Nerves don't stop working when a penis is not erect. And once you banish the assumption that penises only work when they are erect, it's remarkably easy to imagine a variety of ways of stimulating their sexy parts and giving them pleasure: orally, manually, with any number of vibrators or sensations. It's more difficult for most penises to reach orgasm soft, but in my opinion that's a question of habit.

I think this is a particularly important topic for trans women because we don't always feel fantastic about our genitalia. I think some of the reason for that discomfort is that we, along with our sexual partners, make determinations and assumptions about how we ought to have sex based on our biology. We think about genitals prescriptively, about what they should do, rather than descriptively, in terms of what they actually do.

Simply put, part of the project of FTW is to write about the bodies and sex lives of trans women descriptively.

4) Do you, as a writer on sex and a sexual educator, agree with the idea that there is an inherent "sexphobia" in the trans community that prevents us from having meaningful, informative discussions on intimacy, and do you see FTW as a means to challenge fear or ignorance around sex in the community?

I wouldn't call the sexphobia I see an "inherent" part of either being a trans woman or having community with other trans people. Again, look at what the trans guys are up to. They're able to objectify themselves and each other in ways that feel good, or positive, or inspiring, and at the same time are having conversations about non-consensual objectification and fetishization. These are very similar to some of the conversations I see happening between trans women, but what we *don't* have yet is an organized effort to take back our own sexualities and sexual representations. That is to say, we need to be able, and to feel able, to make our own art, write about our own sex lives, and in general start representing ourselves.

I think that there's a strong taboo against talking sex, and that comes from several places. Most of them are historical precedents: reasons for not talking about our sex lives that, in the past, made a great deal more sense than they might today, or that make much more sense in a clinical/medical context than they do socially. There have been times, and there are still times and places, when talking about your sex life honestly could disqualify you from a surgery or from receiving proper medical treatment. That's real, but luckily I think that mode of medical and psychological care is on the way out. This makes things easier because we can look at that and say "oh, right, that's part of our history but it doesn't need to be part of who we are forever."

I think that the "sexphobia" you're naming could be compared to periods of sexual prohibition within any community, sexual prohibitions that eventually pass away if they're not functional or helpful. Lesbian feminism in the 1970s, for example, strongly discouraged penetrative sex, and although some of those writers have an ongoing impact on how we think about and talk about sex, and while we can still see vestiges of that thinking in some lesbian communities, on the whole we mostly recognize it for a bunch of nonsense that is not to be taken seriously. Likewise, I think that fifty years from now trans women will look back at sexphobia and be quite confused.

So yes, I know the phenomenon that you're talking about, and it's a problem, and we need to do away with it. It's not doing us any good refusing to talk about our sex lives, especially with each other. I think it's important to write these conversations down, make them productive and accessible, and to start building models for healthily sexual lives as trans women. Again, I think this comes back to reinventing the wheel, a really wasteful use of our time when we could instead be building knowledge bases together and cataloging various aspects of our sex lives for each other and, ultimately, for future generations.

I see far too many disparaging comments about the sex lives of trans women coming from other trans women. Absurdly, I hear just as much derision toward sexualization as I hear about desexualization. I think the way to deal with this is basically to ignore those conversations and give people something to think about. "Fucking Trans Women" is definitely about challenging fear and ignorance of our sexualities. This is trickier to talk about but I want to include self-hatred in that list of opponents as well, and shame. We excel at treating each other poorly and avoiding each other, and that has to stop. Political and social movements gain traction in direct proportion to how many people work together. When that number is generally less than five, an obvious problem presents itself. Sex is one of those subjects that seems to divide trans women and discourage working with one another. As I see it that makes it all the more urgent to discuss and build community around.

This zine is designed to be a collaborative catalog of our sexualities and sexual knowledge, and one goal of making such a catalog is to dispel the idea that there's just one right way to be sexual as a trans woman. Our sexual practices are as various as we are, and absolutely none of them makes any of us less a trans woman. We have a lot to gain from talking to each other frankly and without shame about our sex lives, and the only way to do it is to start doing it.

5) Have you given current or potential partners copies of this zine to read before having sex with you? It seems the obvious thing to do...

Ha! Doesn't it?

And on the other hand, it's something that I want my friends to have and read just as much as people I'm interested in or am involved with. There's this "eureka" effect that many people seem to get from reading the Zero issue, and that's just as important to me as informing the people who I, personally, want to sleep with.

But yes, of course I have. That's part of what it's for, and I encourage anyone who buys a copy to do the same!

6) So let's talk about "shemale porn". Some trans women (who are attracted to other trans women, myself included), find it hard to enjoy porn involving other trans women because the focus is entirely on our genitalia and who needs to process body dysphoria when you're trying to get off? Do you think our cultural disdain for our own sexuality contributes to this sentiment, or is it entirely a symptom of cis hetero men trying to objectify us for the money? Should we get over ourselves? Is there any smut you would recommend as an alternative?

When I think of shemale porn, I think of "girl on girl" porn because to my mind they have a great deal in common. They're produced for the benefit of a specific audience that really has nothing to do with the people who are making the porn except to fetishize and objectify them. In that sense shemale porn also has a lot in common with the overwhelming majority of mainstream porn.

I like having sex with other trans women as well, and I like porn, and I hear what you're saying about shemale porn being excessively focused on genitalia. But honestly that focus isn't what turns me off about shemale porn. We're all at different places with our bodies, whatever our bodies may be like, but even though I don't find a focus on genitalia distracting or bothersome I still don't have much interest in shemale porn.

I think what turns me off is that porn involving trans women exoticizes our bodies and makes our entire body the erotic object in question. There's a presumption of juxtaposition, as if the parts themselves shouldn't go together, or that when they do they are sexual by nature. All that's really required to make shemale porn is our bodies in a state of semi-undress.

Not only is that boring, there's also no place for me in that equation. I don't enjoy watching another trans woman pull down her pants and stand still so some straight cis dude can jerk off while staring at her, nor do I get off on being leered at myself by some anonymous straight dude. That's what I find myself looking for in porn: a place in which I fit either as a voyeur or a participant. Knowing who shemale porn is largely consumed by, and being totally disinterested in straight cis dudes, I get turned off.

I guess that what I'm saying is that crotches don't turn me off, the format of shemale porn turns me off for most of the same reasons that other mainstream porn turns me off: it wasn't designed with me in mind.

There are a few trans women out there trying to make porn with trans women in it that isn't shemale porn, and that's really awesome and commendable. I think the best alternative to mainstream shemale porn is to make our own porn and erotica, and to ask around about what our friends enjoy and what people are making, ideally in real conversation.

That's not a one-stop answer for where to find something better, and really that's the point. It's healthy to enjoy our own bodies and to watch each other having sex. Normalizing conversation about sex is an absolutely essential part of making that happen. Figuring out what we really want to see and participate in is way more productive, I feel, than waiting for someone else to make it happen.

My answer to this question is rather anticlimactic, so I'll add that I'd love to see someone do an article for FTW on this subject.

7) In Issue #0 you discuss pregnancy and why a trans woman who is sexually active with cis women needs to have a contingency plan if she "knocks up" her partner. I can't thank you enough for bringing this topic to the floor. The "estrogen makes you sterile" myth has proven untrue time and time again and yet you can, without any effort, find trans people on message boards saying they don't need condoms or can't have babies. What's with that shit? Is there any correlation between a reluctance to talk about sex and unrealistic ideas on how our bodies work?

There is absolutely a correlation between misunderstanding our bodies and reluctance to talk about them! I know that for myself, the things I know the least about are also the ones I feel the least comfortable talking about. Teaching myself more about how my body works always helps me gain greater confidence in myself and a greater ability to communicate what I need and want, including what I don't need or want.

You do still find people with wild misconceptions about their own bodies and that's one of the many good reasons for a zine like this to exist. There's a fine line between self-definition and, on the other hand, wishful thinking. I think that the variable effects of hormones and genetics and other factors, combined with a lack of reliable information, leaves a lot of trans women wishing and hoping for the impossible or the improbable, particularly about our own bodies. The more informed we are about our own biology the less apt we are to mistake magical thinking for reality.

Pregnancy is an especially obvious example of where gaps in our knowledge meet magical thinking. Who can realistically afford to get a sperm count, and even for those who can, wouldn't you rather be doing almost anything else in the world with your time and money? Pretending that because you are a woman you no longer have sperm is an unrealistic and dangerous alternative as long as you still have testicles, and for a lot of us that's the hard reality of it. Whatever you're doing with your hormones, it's simply not possible to be sure unless you check, so I think the most sensible option is to take precautions and make a plan for what happens if you get someone pregnant.

It makes sense to me that we should develop an understanding of ourselves as women who are differently equipped (in a variety of ways) from cis women. I don't see any advantage in denying that what I have in my pants is a penis, for example. But as I say in the zine, my penis is a woman's penis. The very combination of those words can feel absurd at first, but to me that's what feels most accurate and most realistic. I like it when my lovers call my penis my clit and that doesn't feel strange to me or inaccurate, because it's both things, not one or the other.

I feel better adjusted to myself for thinking descriptively, expanding the category "women" to include women like me. I can change things about my body if I want to or need to, and I might feel better about myself for doing so, but I'll be a woman either way.

The alternative is magical thinking, which is a kind of associational logic. I think of this as a sort of prescriptive thinking: these two things go together, so when one thing changes the other must change as well. That kind of logic says that because I'm a woman, all sorts of things must be true about my body, my mind, my behavior, and so on.

But that's just nonsense. Some things might change, or might have been so to begin with. But it's no more true that being a woman makes your body one way than it's true that being a boy or a man makes your body another. We know that's the case. I think the potential consequences of that stripe of magical thinking can ultimately be very damaging, particularly when certain elements of the body or the mind or behavior fail to magically change. We can fall prey to thinking of ourselves as not "really" women if one aspect of who we are isn't stereotypically feminine, and again, that's just not the case! Nor is it the case that estrogen causes you to desire men, shoot blanks, or behave in stereotypically feminine ways. Women come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and some of us can get other women pregnant.

So what's up with that shit? The short answer (after my long answer) is that misinformation and wishful thinking are to blame.

8) You're accepting submissions from other writers for future issues of FTW (I know this because I'm working on my contribution as we speak). Let's reassure everyone at home reading this who might want to contribute but is afraid their voice or experience isn't "welcome". Who are you interested in hearing from? What perspectives are you looking for? Yes, you in the back, I'm getting to that. Can cis people or trans men who have experience in having sex with trans women contribute?

FTW is seeking contributions from trans women and anyone who has sex with trans women, no matter how much or how little sex you've had, no matter with how many partners, and whether you're a cis person or a trans person. The objective of this project is good information and accumulation of knowledge, and all sorts of people have contributions to make regardless of identity, or because of identity. In point of fact, some contributions will necessarily come from people who aren't trans women. Ideally sometime soon, say a year from now, I'd like to be able to say that we have articles and art by, among others, queer cis women, queer trans women, butches, femmes, trans men, cis men, genderqueer folks, straight trans women, folks in BDSM community, people who make porn involving trans women, people with disabilities, people of color, couples, singles, people in polyamorous relationships, intersex folks, and folks in trans-trans relationships. Some of these will describe the same contributions, but all of these will be about different aspects and experiences of having sex with trans women.

In short, everyone is welcome and encouraged to contribute.

9) Have you received any static from other trans women about this project? Have you been accused of "shit-stirring" or "objectifying" our bodies or some other naysayer nonsense like that?

There are always naysayers, some more or less vocal than others, but in the way of most naysayers they have largely kept their complaints limited to the area immediately surrounding their own private soap box.

When I was making the first issue of the zine I imagined I might see a lot more resistance than I actually encountered. It's easy to second-guess your work when you have little or no feedback on it and nothing like it has really been done before. Luckily that's no longer the case, and after almost two months of the first issue being available, I have to say that the vast majority of feedback, we're talking 99%, has been really supportive. On the whole I find that lots of people really want this zine to happen and think it's due (or overdue.)

10) Would you be interested in future issues of FTW featuring erotica? Do you think smut can be a tool to educate?

Absolutely! I've already accepted one piece that I would call semi-autobiographical erotica. I've said that this zine is about a lot of things during the course of this interview, but it would be totally remiss not to mention that this zine is sexy. There are dirty pictures and art inside for a reason. Truthfully I'm not interested in producing something that isn't thoroughly hot, sexy, and fun, because those are qualities that I think are truly essential to all good sex.

(...to the full post)

“Men want women to be objects, controllable as objects are controllable… Adult men have made their seedy pact with and for male power…and no matter how afraid [they are] of…other men, [they have] taken a vow – one for all and all for one – and [they] will not tell”
- Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (65-66)

“Men are shits and take pride in it”
- Andrea Dworkin, Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant (146)

In my previous post, I argued that Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating cold be seen as a proto-queer theoretical text. But in my reading of Pornography: Men Possessing Women – which is considered to be Dworkin’s magnum opus – I found that the kind of feminism she developed later on in her life does not sit very comfortably with modern trends in queer, feminist, and gender theory.

Pornography – what is it about?

In Pornography, Dworkin provides a sharp and lucid portrayal of the power men hold over women in Euro-American societies. She argues that masculine power is established, firstly, through the subliminally propagated notion that “men have [a] self and…women…by definition, lack it” (13). This male self has “the right to take what it needs,” and if resistance is encountered, physical strength is used to ensure that it can gets what it wishes. Importantly, Dworkin emphasizes that men are not a priori stronger than women, but that the difference in strength between the sexes is at least in part the result of socialization: “in the raising of women, physical strength is undermined and sabotaged. Physical incapacity is a form of feminine beauty” (14). Thus, the socially created absolute physical strength of men over women functions as a pillar of domination and gives men a stick with which to terrorize women (and each other).

Male dominance also relies on “the power of naming,” through which men are accorded the right to “define experience, to articulate boundaries and values…to control perception itself” (19). For example, the use of masculine pronouns or the word “man” to refer to humans-in-general signals that women are excluded from the category of humanity. Furthermore, systems of money and property, as they have stood for much of recorded history, clearly empower men: “in many parts of the world, the male right to own women…is still absolute,” and with money, men can buy “women, sex, status, dignity, self-esteem, recognition,” etc… (19). Ownership of women, in turn, “licenses [men to do] whatever [they] wish” to the women they buy: her body belongs to him for his own sexual release, to beat, to impregnate” (19). And sexuality is defined on this basis:

“…the male, through each and every one of his institutions, forces the female conform to his supremely ridiculous definition of her as a sexual object. He fetishizes her body as a whole and in its parts. He exiles her from every realm of expression outside the strictly male-defined sexual or male-defined maternal.” (22)

Sexual power is thus established as “authentically originat[ing] in the penis,” as centered on the sexual objectification, abuse, humiliation, and violation of women (24). In this system, sex is interpreted as being essentially about force and violence, and sexual freedom is defined “as men doing what they want” (99). Pornography is a literary, artistic, and cinematic genre that reflects and propagates this misogynistic system of values. Dworkin is often misread as arguing against erotic art in general, which is not the case, as she clearly points out that:

“The word pornography does not mean ‘writing about sex’ or ‘depictions of the erotic’ or ‘depictions of sexual acts’ or ‘depictions of nude bodies’ or ‘sexual representations’ or any other such euphemism. It means the graphic depiction of women as vile whores…The word pornography, derived from the Ancient Greek porne and graphos means ‘writing about whores.’ [In Ancient Greece], Porne mean[t]…specifically and exclusively the lowest class of whore, which…was the brothel slut available to all male citizens.” (199-200)

Thus, when discussing pornography, Dworkin refers to all those depictions of sexuality that propagate the pillars of male domination described above, e.g. – the idea that men have a self and women do not, that men can legitimately use physical power to terrorize women, that they can possess women’s bodies, and that sexual satisfaction is achieved through force and violation enacted upon these owned and enslaved bodies. Pornography must be opposed, Dworkin contends, because it is a reflection of misogyny and because it will teach a new generation of men to treat women as their property, as their whores.

Problems of Rationality and Collective Action

Despite the conceptual clarity and power of Dworkin’s vision, I believe that there are fundamental problems with her framework for analyzing gender relations, which make it difficult to reconcile Pornography with the queer theoretical tradition. Put simply, Dworkin implies that the adoption of patriarchal and misogynistic values is a rational choice that virtually all men make at a very young age. This dynamic is then extended to the collective level, where men consciously form a pact to take ownership of women’s bodies and to treat them as non-humans, as “chattel property” (102). Basically, Dworkin contends that all men are basically in league with each other, conspiring to put women in their place.

To support this contention, she cites Shulamith Firestone’s argument from The Dialectic of Sex, arguing that the development of misogynistic mindsets originates in early childhood and that it is basically the result of a decision by boys to prioritize their own physical safety. The young boy is given two options: “Be the mother – do the housework – or be the father – carry a big stick. Be the mother – be fucked – or be the father – do the fucking. The boy has a choice” (49, emphasis added). And since “men are distinguished from women by their commitment to do violence” (53), the boy will inevitably experience the father’s physical aggression towards his mother, himself and others. He will thus realize his mother’s powerlessness, her degraded role in the family and in society. On the basis of these perceptions, he will conclude that “it is safer to be like the father than like the mother,” he will become a man to “escape being [a] victim” (51). The adoption of a misogynistic worldview and the process of becoming a man is therefore portrayed by Dworkin as a rational choice that the young boy makes for his own physical health and self-preservation. And this choice ends up forming “the basis for his adult behavior” (66).

Dworkin then goes on to claim that these choices for self-preservation are subsequently transferred to the collective level: the individual rationality that men possess as boys continues to be expressed by virtually all adult men as a group. For instance, in Dworkin’s view, the point of homophobia is to shield “men from rape by other men” (61). Since “male sexuality is expressed as force or violence, men as a class…enforce the taboo against male homosexuality to protect themselves from having that force or violence directed against them” (60). “Men as a class” are thus imputed with the ability to make collective rational choices, geared towards the preservation of the extant misogynistic/patriarchal system: “Adult men have made their seedy pact with and for male power…and no matter how afraid [the individual man] is of those other men, he has taken a vow – one for all and all for one” to protect and uphold the common values and desires of men (66).

But can we assume that collective agreement and action by virtually all men – billions of them – is possible? Queer theorists have critiqued Second Wave feminists’ presumptuous attempts to speak for “all women,” and I believe that this would also apply to any attempts to speak on behalf of “all men.” Can it really be said that all men have a tacit agreement with each other, that they have common values and desires, and that they work collaboratively to make them a reality? Are social contracts amongst all members of a particular gender practically tenable? I would argue that they are definitely not. While men may discuss values, agree with each other, and collectively implement decisions as a gender in fairly small groups (e.g. – in college fraternities), there are far too many men in the world for collective thinking, contracts and choices to be made. Dworkin almost makes it seem as if men as a group consciously choose to create the kind of social structure that promotes violence against women.

Moreover, can it really be said that, prior to this collective agreement between adult men, virtually all boys make individual decisions to adopt a misogynistic framework, on the basis of protecting themselves from their fathers’ violence? Dworkin offers little evidence to support this view and the reader is left to evaluate it largely on the basis of its “commonsensical” appeal, e.g. – men are more violent than women, and therefore, it follows that the majority of violence in the family will come from fathers. But does it make sense to claim that the adoption of demeaning ideas about women is a rational (cost/benefit) choice? Do individuals actually think that way about gender issues? Should we be assuming this level of rational thinking among human beings, especially very young ones?

Overall, I believe there is reason to doubt the empirical value of Dworkin’s two central assumptions: (1) that most boys individually choose to become violent and misogynistic in order to protect themselves against their fathers’ violence, and (2) that men as a group collectively agree on and implement commonly-held gynocidal values. There is no way of actually knowing if the decision to become a misogynist is a rational one (that would require going into the minds of most young boys while they are growing up) and it is impossible to imagine a consensual and collective contract among all men to oppress women. Despite the intuitive plausibility of these ideas, it is unlikely that social dynamics actually work in this way.

Can men change?

Another problem with Dworkin’s way of viewing the origins and maintenance of a misogynistic system is that it makes changing the system seem like a virtually impossible task. Indeed, in contrast to Woman Hating, Pornography contains hardly any ideas about how misogyny, patriarchy, and sexism can be overcome. And indeed – the theoretical framework that Dworkin develops makes change seem very unlikely: boys make conscious decisions to become sexists at a very young age, in response to a practically inevitable phenomenon (the father’s violence). Once made, this decision is fixed, agreed upon, and further ossified at the collective level. How can we even conceive of men being changed, if their development into misogynists is viewed as a practical inevitability, an act of individual self-preservation and collective will?

This problem is compounded by Dworkin’s pessimism about the existence of non-misogynistic men, whom she makes out to be almost as rare as unicorns:

“An absence or repudiation of masculine aggression, which is exceptional and which does exist in an eccentric and miniscule minority composed of both homosexual and heterosexual men, distinguishes some men from most, or to be more precise, the needle from the haystack.” (57)

So what kinds of solutions for ending misogyny and gender fascism are conceivable, if non-misogynistic men are so few and far between that they are barely significant? While Pornography offers hardly any concrete solutions to the problem, Second Wave feminism has given us an idea of what a response to men, as a gender that is unlikely to change, would look like. For instance, Valerie Solanas outlined a plan for eliminating the male sex in The SCUM Manifesto, and a score of theorists (such as Mary Daly and Sheila Jeffreys) have advocated a quasi-permanent female separatism from all male influence. Dworkin herself, in a book titled Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women’s Liberation, argued that the proper response to global misogyny is to establish a women’s homeland with “land and guns” – like the Zionists did in Palestine.

Thus, not only are there empirical problems with Dworkin’s approach to gender issues – it also leads to ethically impoverished responses to sexism whereby the only way to get rid of oppression is to eliminate men, completely separate oneself from them, or take up arms. This is what happens when gender relations are portrayed as ossified and unchangeable – when the oppressors, rather than the systems of oppression, are imbued with rationality, consciousness, and intentionality.

A Queer(er) Conception

In my view, therefore, Dworkin’s approach to gender in Pornography is incompatible with queer theory. It is an essentialist view that undermines the possibilities for changing gendered behavior, since it posits that misogyny and sexism are rationally chosen at a very young age, reinforced through macro-collective agreement in later-life, and extremely difficult to undo. A queer theoretical perspective would be different from this in several important ways.

Firstly, the adoption of a misogynistic worldview would not be conceived as the result of a rational cost-benefit analysis, derived from experiencing the seemingly inevitable violence of the father. Instead, the young person would be conceptualized as coming into contact with social discourses about men and women, and thereby, acquiring ideas about what they are really like and beginning to see oneself as a gendered being. In that sense, queer theory does not assume that most fathers are violent (or that most mothers are non-violent), and it sees the process of gender construction as heavily influenced by the ideas that are dominant in society.

In seeking to understand why many men are misogynists, queer theorists would most likely argue that it is because social discourse is misogynistic, because it contains demeaning ideas about women’s bodies, intellectual abilities, and personalities. It is therefore not necessary to assume that the decision to become misogynistic is the result of some internal rational calculus – rather, practically everyone drifts into misogyny by virtue of their membership in sexist society. I do not think that becoming a sexist is a rational, conscious, purposeful decision – at least not at the individual level. And if such decisions do exist, they occur in the context of having already been socialized into believing certain things about men and women “in general.”

Secondly, having understood that misogynistic mindsets originate in the way that gender is socially constituted, it is then irrelevant whether or not men get together and collectively agree to oppress women, because social discourse already ensures that women will be oppressed. Indeed, we do not need to imagine hypothetical and unrealistic “social contracts” among all men to oppress women because such an action would not even be needed to ensure the subjugation of women. The ideas that are dominant in society ensure that nearly everybody will be a participant in that subjugation, that it will be embedded in social interactions, and (re)enforced by social institutions.

Finally, conceptualizing gender oppression as the result of system-level social discourses inspires different kinds of solutions for gender progress. Instead of requiring the elimination of men or separation from them, changing social discourse will lead to the possibility of changing men and changing gender. Queer theory invests the human subject with an ability to change for the better, and in that sense, it enables us to imagine a differently gendered world – and one that is not created as such through violence or separatism. In Pornography, Andrea Dworkin’s vision is devoid of this impulse.


Overall, the conceptions of gender relations outlined in Woman Hating and Pornography could not be more different. The former takes a revolutionary approach to gender and sexuality, calling for a complete overthrow of the binary gender system as it stands today. People are conceptualized as changeable, as having the capacity to transform themselves and to end the gender system as we know it today.

These ideas are not found in Pornography. Instead, this work is so firmly rooted in analyzing the misogynistic system – as it stands today – that it fails to provide any alternatives. Dworkin conceptualizes men as evil, unchangeable creatures who are rationally, intentionally, consciously and collectively crushing women. Unfortunately, with such a portrayal, the scope of conceivable solutions for ending misogyny and patriarchy can only be very narrow.

***For More Information***

While her books are, unfortunately, quite hard to find, there are plenty of websites where you can access Andrea Dworkin's work. For more on radical feminism, I recommend Alice Echols' Daring to be Bad, which also reveals further unacknowledged connections between radical feminism and queer theory. On queer theory, Judith Butler's Gender Trouble remains an excellent introduction. For a more contemporary discussion, check out the recently released Feminism is Queer by Mimi Marinucci.

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And now, a word from our editor:

In an effort to steer BelowTheBelt in a more interactive, community discussion-oriented direction (and, frankly, increase readership), I'm reaching out to other queer artists and writers to like, talk about stuff.

Today my metaphorical "guest" is Sam Berliner, director of Genderbusters.

TCMV: I think it's best we get the awkward "ask the artist their inspiration" part out of the way and move on, eyes averted, as if nothing happened. Where did Genderbusters come from? Was it born solely out of creative expression and/or is it a response to the current gender environment in our culture?

SB: Genderbusters is my first year film for my Cinema MFA program at San Francisco State University that I completed this past May 2010. My classmates and I were all required to make 5 minute 16mm films in order to continue onto the second year of the program. I knew I wanted to make something about gender, something with a positive spin, and something that would spark direct action and education. I went through a number of different ideas before finally coming up with gender superheroes. (One of the earlier incarnations was on an airplane where the flight attendant speech was altered to say something along the lines of "the gender road in life can be bumpy and difficult so please be careful when opening overhead bins as the contents may have shifted throughout the flight." Haha. Yes, clearly that one found its way to the trash pretty quickly.) Seriously though, it was and will continue to be my core driving passion to create films in which people of all genders, bodies, sexual orientations, and the beautiful combinations of all of those things are able to properly represent themselves on the screen. My goal as a filmmaker is to create a positive voice for the trans, genderqueer, androgynous & gender-fluid folks not yet represented on screen, document our history, serve as a call to action to be recognized and respected by society at large, and force our culture to evolve.

TCMV: How did you assemble your cast and crew? Did you hold auditions? Were they friends/classmates of yours? How does a queer filmmaker begin the process of putting together a project like this?

SB: I assembled my crew from my classmates and my colleagues in the Bay Area. I have lived here since 2005, have worked on many projects over the years, and met some fabulous people who share my passion for telling these kinds of stories. I feel very lucky as a queer/trans filmmaker to have the wonderful connections that I do to a network of other queer/trans filmmakers all with different skills and passions that they bring to each new project. In terms of casting, it was extremely important to me to have the actors playing the parts actually inhabit those identities in their real lives. I was not interested in actors "acting" genderqueer or trans. I wanted folks with those identities to be able to authentically represent themselves on the screen. So I asked friends of mine, both from "real life" and YouTube, to be a part of the project, and taught them about acting and how to work on a film set as we went.

TCMV: How much of the film was the result of collaborative input and how much was your vision as the director?

SB: The film's core is my vision as writer and director but I could not have done it without the help of many people, most directly, my classmates and professors in my program at SF State. The film went through copious revisions every step of the way from script-writing to editing to color correction. So in this way, as well as through the work of my amazing crew on set, I was able to hone my vision for the project and make it come alive. It was a beautiful, if incredibly painstaking and detail-oriented process. But I love every step of it and that's why I know I am in the right profession. A fun example of my vision coming through the process is the Genderbusters logo which I doodled in my notebook in class one day. It is the letter G busting through a 3-dimensional box (the gender box) with pointy triangle-edged "busting" power. I had asked my friend to design the logo and brought my doodle to him and he said "that's it!" So all he had to do was bring it into Illustrator and clean it up so I could bring it to the screen printing shop to be put onto our T-shirts! (Which *achem* are for sale. Check out the website for more information: www.wix.com/berliner/genderbusters.)

TCMV: Student films are a very voluntary labor. Do you know how much it would have cost to make Genderbusters if you were to compensate cast/crew and rent equipment/locales?

SB: It definitely would have cost a lot of money if Genderbusters were not a student film. As it is, the film was costly in terms of shooting on film (stock, shipping, developing, telecine, color correction, travel to LA), renting lights in addition to the equipment we got from school, all kinds of other costs like craft services and reimbursing people for transportation, not to mention post-production costs like making DigiBeta tapes to screen at festivals, DVD duplication for sale, post office costs etc. Whew! We were lucky enough to get some food donated, some equipment from school, and the kindness of people’s hearts to work for food and a copy of the film. The costs would have been considerable had it not been a student production and there would have been much more emphasis on fundraising, grant writing and fiscal sponsorship.

TCMV: The film utilizes a lot of color. Bright, vibrant, primary colors. Was this purely an aesthetic decision or was it intended to symbolize diversity and inclusion, you know, like that thing the LGBT community uses as its logo, with all the colors and everything, you know what I'm talking about, right?

SB: Interesting that you bring the film's colors back to the LGBTQ rainbow aesthetic! I actually hadn't thought of that! The reason behind the color pallet is that I wanted the film to look like a comic book for the superheroes (which my friend has coined "super-queeros") with the brightest, punchiest colors possible. This informed the costumes, the set decoration, and the film stock-- we shot on Fuji 160T which is extra colorful.

TCMV: Were there any comic books in particular you used for inspiration in creating the look and feel of Genderbusters? Would you say the Genderbusters are more like The Avengers or the Justice League (alternatively, The Runaways or Teen Titans, if you're going for more of a "youth" vibe)?

SB: I was inspired specifically in terms of color schemes and camera movement by the Pixar film “The Incredibles.” The film’s rich primary colors in the costumes/set decoration and quick tension-building movements/cuts were quite the high standard and kept pushing me to be more creative and fun with the look of the film.

TCMV: Many of the scenes in the film depict real-life situations many queers encounter in the binary world. Did you, the cast or crew draw on personal experiences while filming them? Are there any other "like real life" situations that you wish you could have depicted in the film?

SB: In writing the script I brainstormed the most common awkward binary dilemmas that I, and those in my community, have experienced as non-gender-normative folks. Specifically, I drew from the work I have done on the YouTube collaborative channel that I was a part of for two years called GenderqueerChat. (www.youtube.com/genderqueerchat.) On the channel, we discuss a different topic every week as genderqueer people and over the years we have created a significant body of work. I went back through the videos and pulled out the most poignant experiences. Throughout the semester, I whittled the list down to 3 since the film had to be 5 minutes. But there are many more dilemmas to be explored. In fact, people have come up to me and said "I needed the Genderbusters the other day when..." The best stories are when people remember the tag line for the film, "there's a hero in all of us," and take it upon themselves to resolve the awkward situations. Real life action sparked from film is my goal and it is phenomenal when people feel inspired and confident to do so. -- During rehearsals and filming it was very natural for the actors to draw from personal experiences to inform their performances since they inhabit the identities in their real lives as queer/trans folks.

TCMV: True or false: the increasing visibility of gender variant persyns on youtube can serve as a response to the misrepresentation of the community in other media?

SB: Tricky question. I would hope to say true but I think that the YouTube community is rather insular, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, being somewhat insular ensures it as a safe space for those who need it. On the other hand, it means the messages of growth and diversity within the gender community are not getting out there into the public where they need to be seen in order to help facilitate social change around these issues. I think that being on YouTube one can certainly respond to and criticize the misrepresentations that are out there, but as a limited medium it can only reach so many people. That being said, of course there are some exceptions. For example the It Gets Better project has breached the gap between the folks who frequent YouTube as well as the public in general. I even heard a story about it on NPR! I would hope that more uses of YouTube could breach this gap moving forward.

TCMV: What could/should be done, in your opinion, to help the gender community breach that gap from "corner of the internet" to mainstream media the same way that the "It Gets Better" project has? Do you believe that the continued circulation of your film and projects like it can help?

SB: I think that the gender community can continue to breach the gap to the mainstream by continuing to make films, blogs, artwork, books, music etc. Movements take a long time to gain momentum and infiltrate the rest of society and there’s a lot of really fantastic work being done that is slowly getting these messages out there. The more the better! And I think it’s working! On NPR they said the word transgender and had a whole story about transgendered little girls and the Gender Odyssey conference in Seattle, on a DVD jacket I saw the words non-normative gender, Obama even said the word transgender in an address to the entire country! I think we all just have to have the strength and bravery to be and express ourselves and in time the culture will shift.

TCMV: Unlike other superheroes, the Genderbusters lack an archnemesis. Did you ever consider having a villain for them to thwart? Would you make the gender binary wear a cape?

SB: Great question! Yes, I considered having an archnemesis for the Genderbusters to fight, a personified version of the Binary like the Binary Police or a Binary Machine, but none of the ideas were working as well as a general sense of the Binary’s infiltration of society. I tried to work this idea subtly into the film through art direction in the wardrobe: Those within the confines of the binary wear drab, muted colors, the characters in need of the Genderbusters wear somewhat more colorful clothes, and the Genderbusters themselves wear ridiculously bright colorful costumes.

TCMV: Are there plans for a sequel or full-length feature? Can I be in it?

SB: While I think that Genderbusters has a lot of potential to be made into a series or a feature length film, I am letting it have its own life as a short project for now and focusing on getting it out there. Perhaps in the future I will revisit the concept and expand it, in which case I’ll contact you :), but that’s where things are at for now. More immediate is the need for real life Genderbusters and what we all can do to push the Gender Evolution Revolution forwards in our own lives. A couple of my friends were even talking about starting up a real group with direct actions!

TCMV: I can't get this image of Genderbuster flash mobs placing stickers on single gender bathrooms and wreaking chaos in the clothing departments of the local Macy's out of my head. I imagine this isn't what your friends were thinking of when they said "direct actions". But now that I've put this idea in our readers' heads, would you endorse this sort of behavior in achieving the Gender Evolution Revolution? For those who haven't seen Genderbusters, what can people do to push forward the Gender Evolution Revolution?

SB: Haha! Ok, no wrecking havoc per se, more like gender-neutral bathroom stickers, flyers for gender related rights, that kind of thing. In the film, there’s a Here’s Five Things You Can Do to Join the Gender Revolution section. Here are the suggestions: “Start a direct action group of gender revolutionaries in your area and lobby against transphobic legislation. Visit Camp Trans to protest the exclusion of trans women from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Make art- create alternatives to popular culture like zines and films that reflect who you are! Organize a trans march in your area- make it inclusive to all genders and allies.”

TCMV: I'd never be able to wipe the egg on my face if I didn't ask: do you have any advice to parlay to aspiring queer filmmakers looking to tackle similar projects? Is there anything they can learn from your experience or little-known resources you'd wish to point them towards?

SB: Here is some advice that I would give to aspiring queer filmmakers: (1) Express your unique self. We need so many more stories of queer/gender-variant folks out there! (2) Partner with friends/community resources. Start a film group where a bunch of friends get together at a coffee shop and workshop ideas and even potentially work on each other’s projects. In terms of monetary help, you could get financial contributions if you have a fiscal sponsor (an organization you partner with so that when people donate to your project is it tax deductable) so see what your local LGBT center is willing to do. (3) Use the internet to your advantage! Start a Facebook page for your film group, a website, there is so much networking that can be done online. (4) Take advantage of your local community college film classes, production, editing, theory, history, it’s all really important and idea-inspiring stuff! Plus the classes are inexpensive. (5) Watch as many queer and gender-bendy films you can get your hands on. Go to art events, film festivals, book readings, plays. Get out and support your community and not only will people support you back but you can find inspiration in their work and potential collaborators.

Please visit the Genderbusters website and the facebook group. There are DVDs and T-shirts for sale.

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