Pornographic, Offensive, or Just a Naked Body?

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Last week, when I posted this article on Facebook, a couple of my guy friends expressed their discomfort with the art work I used. Several of my girlfriends defended the image. There was a debate about whether Facebook’s terms of service explicitly forbade all nudity or just pornography and whether this piece of art crossed the line into being pornography. You can read all the comments here.

As I pondered how to respond, I scrolled around clicking “like” on my friends’ clever witticisms and taking personality quizzes (I’m Bjork, according to Buzzfeed). And then I stumbled across a photo of a man I’ve never met naked in a bathtub eating a burrito.

Now… let’s talk about what’s pornographic and what’s offensive. The idea of pornography is that it’s intended to be used as masturbatory material. That is the supposed difference between porn and art. Of course, it’s also possible that a piece of fine art could arouse the viewer, and maybe the artist even created it with that intention. In those cases, the quality of the work is often what determines the difference. If the artist is good enough, the sexy painting ends up in a museum. If not, it goes in a closet.

For something to be offensive, on the other hand, is more serious. I’m not offended by things I simply disagree with, though. I am offended by sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of hate. Hate is the only thing I find truly offensive. Everything else is usually a matter of taste.

If you label something offensive just because you don’t agree with it, what you’re engaging in is not morality, it’s censorship. You are not “protecting the children” by shielding their eyes from a perfectly healthy image of a woman looking at her body in a mirror. Our society largely invalidates brilliant art work because we’re uncomfortable with the fact that it turns us on, or might turn someone on, or maybe just reminds us a little too much of sex.

To be clear, the picture I posted was of a woman looking at her vulva with a mirror. As my friend Krista said, “our necks don’t bend enough to see all the good stuff.” The woman is learning about her body and admiring it. She is smiling into the mirror. She loves herself. I don’t find anything offensive about that idea or the picture, and in fact the whole damn thing makes me happy.

As for the guy in the bath tub photo, that I didn’t want to see. I’ll admit I’ve posted a dorky selfie or two, but what the hell man? Actually, the photo was taken and posted by bathtub guy’s friend (who is my friend, hence me seeing the photo). I can’t quite imagine the circumstances that lead to this photo being taken, but I’m sure it was hilarious for the two of them. However, if any of my friends posted something that unflattering of me on the internet, we wouldn’t be friends anymore. But I’m still not offended by the photo. Furthermore, I doubt anyone will complain to my friend about the picture because we know him and his weird sense of humor. Everyone will roll their eyes and laugh about it. Facebook will not take down the post. It’s just a naked guy in a bathtub eating a burrito.

What’s wrong with that?

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Miley Cyrus Wrecks Your Idea of Herself

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So, I recently watched Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” video, and I gotta say … I know everyone’s still pissed about her VMA performance, and I have some feelings about that too, but this video on its own is actually really fucking good.

People have been saying it’s disturbing or cheap or trashy, and I disagree. Women wear skimpy clothing and dance provocatively in videos for male artists all the time. Every day, we see women in the media used as props to make the men around them look better. A woman’s beauty and sexuality are used as a marketing tool for cars, beer, web hosting, you name it. What people can’t stand is that in this video, Miley absolutely works her stuff in way that benefits herself instead of someone else. She’s getting naked to sing a song and sell some records. She’s making money. Yes, it’s shameless. It should be. If a man had *ahem* assets like that, you bet he’d be working it to sell some records. Why shouldn’t Miley?

I’m not saying I agree with everything the girl does. I think her VMA performance (along with her video for “We Can’t Stop”) was a disaster because it treated black women’s bodies as a joke. I wasn’t fond of the dancing with Robin Thicke because his whole damn song is about date rape. And I don’t approve of twerking not because it’s too sexual but because the mere thought of doing it makes my back hurt. Yeah, so what, I’m old.

Anyway, I’m not some die-hard Miley defender. I’m not really a fan of her music. I think she needs more sane adults in her life. But as for her music videos, I think the strong reactions people have to her are more indicative of our own hangups than something wrong with her. If it freaks you out that much to see a woman acting sexy without a man around, maybe you’ve got some shit to work through. If you’re afraid she’s sending the wrong message to young women, maybe think about what message you’d like your daughter to receive and then have an honest conversation about that. And of course, if you simply don’t like what you’re seeing, you have options. You could go make something better.

 

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The Quotebook: Malleus Maleficarum

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Well, ain’t that just the gosh dern truth?

I bought a copy of this book a few years ago because I feel it’s important to remember that shit like this did exist. The world has been taught that a self-possessed, sexual woman is a dangerous thing. Turns out, they’re right. 🙂

Don’t know what the Malleus Maleficarum is? It’s a manual for identifying, persecuting, and punishing people thought to be witches, mostly women of course. More history and the complete text are available here.

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The Angry Sexy Feminist Post

El_Paral·lel_1894-1939-_exhibit_at_CCCB_in_Barcelona_(97)Eusebi_Planes-_Noble_Juego_del_TresilloOver the weekend, I went to a Bodysex workshop with Betty Dodson and Carlin Ross. I didn’t talk about it much in advance because I was nervous and not sure what everyone else would think about my doing this. I’m back home now, and I can’t stop talking about it and thinking about it. I knew I wanted to write about it, but I couldn’t figure out what to say.

Then I had this dream:

I owe a lot of money to several men, and every time I accept help from another man, it leads to me being more deeply compromised. I feel harassed, threatened, and deeply ashamed. I don’t know why I owe anyone anything, yet I feel so very wrong. I go home to my parents but can’t bring myself to ask for their help because doing so would mean admitting that I am somehow wrong, even though I don’t think I’ve done anything to deserve this. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel: I keep picturing the face of one of the women from the Bodysex workshop. Every time I picture her face, I feel comforted. My instincts tell me I can go to her for help. She will not shame me, and she will help me find my way.

My alarm went off before I could go visit the woman in my dream, but as I wrote it down, I realized just how powerful the workshop was. Having known these women for only a couple days, they have already worked their way into my dreams. One woman’s smiling face is now a symbol of hope, love, and acceptance. I have never in my life felt safer and more beautiful than I did in Betty Dodson’s living room surrounded by these beautiful, strong women.

I’ve been trying to write about this workshop since Sunday evening when I took the train home and wrote copious notes about everything I’d seen, heard and experienced. I’ve been talking about the workshop to anyone who will listen while also feeling self-conscious about explaining it to people. Try telling your friends you just spent two days naked in a room full of strangers and it wasn’t weird. See what kind of response you get. My experience has been that everyone wants to be happy for you, but they’re also sortof perplexed and afraid you will disrobe at any moment without warning now that you’re a great big hippy feminist. And honestly? If I could get away with it, I would. One young woman in the workshop said it best: “Clothes never fit exactly right. But this?” she said, motioning to her own skin, “This is a perfect fit.” 

But here’s the thing: It was the most miraculous, warm, supportive, joyful, sensual and healing experience I’ve had … maybe ever. Over thousands of years of twisted social programming, we have been taught to hate and fear women’s bodies and women’s desires. To be in a room full of women and embrace and celebrate our bodies feels like an absolute goddamn revolution. It was literally one big room full of bad bitches.

Furthermore, Betty Dodson is my personal hero and has been since I was like eight years old (no kidding) when I saw one of her workshops on a documentary and thought, “I want to do that.” So, in some ways I feel like I was born to do this work.

“And what is this work?” you might ask. For me, it’s the work of teaching women to love their bodies, teaching people that women are to be respected and revered, making people realize that when you judge, hate, and abuse women, you’re doing a disservice to humanity. For me, the work is dispelling the idea that Eve was made of Adam’s rib. Fuck that noise. You got born out of a vulva, ok? So stop acting like women are dirty. Hating women is hating the truth about where you came from.

At the end of the workshop, Betty had us all circle up again, look each other in the eyes, and commit to carrying on the work. Loving, accepting, and celebrating women can change the world, but there’s a lot of work to do, and it starts with us.

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What if Ginsberg were a feminist?

Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen (Marie Antoinette)

I have always considered myself a feminist. Even as a little kid. I don’t know why or where it came from. My mom was never a very liberal lady. It’s not like we sat around the dinner table talking about Gloria Steinem. Still, I considered myself a feminist because I didn’t like the assumptions boys made about me as a kid, the way they acted with an unspoken air of superiority when I was clearly (clearly!) smarter than them, more interesting, and bound for much greater things.

And yet, as I work on my new poetry collection, I’m feeling surprised at the intense feminist stuff coming from my pen. Today, I worked on a poem tentatively titled, “Anthem of the Great American Slut,” which is … something I never would’ve had the nerve to write or blog about a couple years ago. And I’m surprised at how strongly I feel about it. It’s a poem of intense female desire and shame, two things that are intimately linked if you grew up in Catholic schools right at the dawn of internet porn.

At the same time, I’m remembering that scene in Austin Powers when a young woman invites Austin back to her apartment. She offers to read him some of her poetry, and he excitedly agrees, assuming it’s going to be erotic poetry. She informs him that actually she writes political poetry and he resigns himself to a night of boredom, yawning rudely and rolling his eyes while she blithely reads on. While I write,I see a little Austin Powers in the back of my mind with a sarcastic face just yawning like, “Ugh. This. Is Not. Sexy.”

Beauty, according to Disney

Don’t get me wrong. I’m gonna write it anyway. I’m just having a bit of anxiety about how it will be received, if it’s received at all.

This may have to do with the fact that I’ve been studying Ginsberg again. I watched Howl the other night. The movie was not great. There’s a lot of unconvincing animation and not much action. However, the glimpse into Ginsberg’s personality and what prompted the poem is really valuable. And now, I find myself wanting to curse more and use the word “cunt” as liberally as he uses the word “cock,” because why not? But it feels more transgressive. It feels scary, even.

What Ginsberg had on his side was the fact that even though homosexuality was taboo, being a male and talking liberally about male homosexuality was shocking but still more acceptable than being female and openly acknowledging your (whisper) lady parts. That kind of talk was reserved for doctors’ offices and brothels. Maybe one awkward conversation with your mother while she bathed you at some point and explained that your privates were your special little secret.

I think this secrecy and shame around women’s bodies is bullshit and I want to blow the whole thing apart, but I’m still a product of my time like everyone else, which means I’m subject to the same shame and fear. But Ginsberg believed in writing what scares you, and I think he was onto something there. If I’m scared of it, then other people are probably scared of it, too. And if I’m lucky, maybe there’s someone out there just waiting for a poem that can hold their hand and look the fear in the eye with them.

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