~oOo~

2013-01-31

comment post: pressure to self-disclose in the classroom

unidentified classroom, possibly in Georgia (Library of Congress)
I subscribe to a number of listservs through H-Net, an online hub for humanities scholars. This past week, on  H-HistSex, the list for History of Sexuality, there's been a discussion about class exercises for the first day of class in a gender/sexuality course. I can't link to the conversation "thread" as a stable link, but you can find all of the relevant emails in the January 2013 log with the subject heading Re: Exercise for first day of class in gender/sex course. The resulting conversation was one that I thought some people who read this blog might be interested in. So I'm sharing a few excerpts here (all publicly accessible through the message log above) and wrapping up the post with my own comment which I sent out this afternoon to the group.

Several faculty contributed ideas about "getting to know you" activities that included some sort of topical self-disclosure and/or exercise designed to prompt personal reflection about sexuality and gender. For example:
I teach an introductory class ... and it's often fun to make them stand up and ask them to sit if the statement you make applies to them . . . to see who is the last one standing. You can use all kinds of "gender" statements like "I've dressed as the 'opposite' sex" or "I've seen a drag show." They seem to like this exercise.
And:
I have found that simple writing a three paragraph first person narrative as an opposite gender as useful exercises. Students have responded initially as very difficult to do. But in the end they find it increased awareness of gender issues.
Or:
Think of a pivotal experience that made you aware of the construction of gender in your own life.  Use details to describe a specific incident or two.  It could be either a positive (empowering) incident, or negative (discriminatory, hurtful) incident...Not only does it get them thinking of the issues we'll be covering, but it has turned out to be a wonderful "getting to know you" kind of exercise.
To which some people pushed back, suggesting that such activities can be experienced as threatening or alienating to some students:
You don't want to instantly lose shy, introverted students who have not faced explicit or alternate understandings of sex and gender. Some students do NOT want to talk in front of large groups.  Further, there might be students from very conservative backgrounds who will be lost if they are pushed too quickly.
Or, as another contributor pointed out:
We might want to reconsider activities that require students to self-expose by standing or moving or agreeing/admitting to statements. This can be very problematic for any students who are/identify/gravitate toward the non-normative (i.e., trans- and genderqueer students, students who may be questioning their gender and/or sexual orientations, as well as for students who are disabled). There requires a lot of imposed confession of students. Ditto the activity that requires students to write as the "opposite" gender -- what do I write about if I am identifying as trans or gender queer?
What I think is most interesting is the resistance that these cautions provoked among some other contributors. One person wrote:
If students aren't exposed to this theorization of the personal and personal theorization in our classrooms with forthcoming discussion leaders that role model critical thinking then where exactly will they be exposed to it? A puritanical fear of sharing about gender and sex and sexuality seems to me counter-productive to the very purpose of feminism and women's/gender/sexuality studies.
That was the contribution that finally prompted me to enter into the discussion myself, from the perspective of someone who has been in the study, not instructor position, as well as someone who has thought deeply and observed closely the power dynamics in the classroom. Here is my full comment [with a few clarifications added in brackets]:
In response to the observation "A puritanical fear of sharing about gender and sex and sexuality seems to me counter-productive to the very purpose of feminism and women's/gender/sexuality studies," I would just like to offer a couple of thoughts.

I am a former women's studies student (B.A., self-designed major) and have experience in graduate school in gender studies classrooms as well, although my advanced degrees are in History and Archives Management. I believe in the power of self-disclosure in the classroom, but I also think that it is important that student[s] feel INVITED rather than REQUIRED to share aspects of their life story, particularly in a classroom setting where there is a power dynamic (all classroom settings) and before trust between students and between each student and the faculty member has been established (e.g. on the first day of class). I have been in situations where there was pressure to share aspects of my life story that I didn't feel comfortable sharing, and later felt a (low-grade, admittedly) kind of violation [as a result]. I have also been in class with students who do NOT experience schools as safe spaces, OR who experience schools as safe spaces precisely because they don't require that level of self-disclosure (which the students associate with bullying, etc.).

So while sharing personal experience can be very powerful in the right setting, it can also feel violating and can cause students to turn away from the very type of gender theorizing we hope to encourage them to pursue. Perhaps if such exercises are done early on in class (or, indeed, at any point during the semester), the sharing of reflections by the student could be optional? (And I mean truly optional, with no pressure from the professor to disclose what they don't feel comfortable disclosing.) Obviously, the professor can do everything possible to model an open and non-judgmental space, but it is impossible to know what baggage every student may carry into the classroom -- particularly around experiences of sex and gender which are so deeply personal (and often private, even if not shameful) experiences.

I think the success of such sharing turns on consent. Think, for example, of the psychological difference between choosing to self-disclose one's sexual orientation or gender identity and being "outed" by someone when you weren't ready or didn't feel safe doing so.

I am all for open discussion about gender and sexuality, but I think every student is in a different place in terms of their willingness and ability to speak in deeply personal terms about what those things mean to them. The option for speaking about those ideas with a little more distance and self-protection, particularly at first, seems respectful of that variation among learners.
I had at least one participant email me off-list to thank me for speaking up. I think the entire exchange is a really important example of how mindful we all need to be about the situation nature of self-disclosure and the way that power dynamics can make something that sounds liberating (and might even be liberating for some people in the space) coercive, an abuse of professorial power.

Yes, as the faculty member responsible for teaching the class, you can ask your students to do difficult intellectual and even emotionally-stretching tasks. In a class on sexuality and gender a responsible professor will likely push most of their students to the edge (or beyond) of their comfort zone at some point during the semester. However, there is a difference between requiring students to think critically about gender and sexuality and demand that they share aspects of their identity or experiences in a room full of quasi-strangers, at least some of whom are likely to hold negative beliefs -- or at least misconceptions about -- those qualities. I would not have felt safe, for example, speaking about my emerging bisexual desires in the women'e studies classes I took as an undergraduate because of remarks other students had made about bisexual promiscuity. I would have not felt safe talking about my interest in pornography or BDSM role-play around some of my women's studies faculty. In graduate school, I had a trans friend who came out (voice shaking) in order to combat some of the stereotypes being tossed around in class, and felt conflicted about that self-disclosure after the fact. I had friends from working-class backgrounds who struggled with feelings of difference; simply saying as an introductory exercise that they came from a household below the poverty line wouldn't have made them feel any more like they belonged in the classroom space.

There are ways to allow for self-disclosure without demanding it -- mostly by modeling acceptance as a mentor and encouraging students to examine their pre-conceptions about others. When you speak up as a faculty member and challenge a student's sloppy thinking you're sending a message to that quiet student in the back room that they can also raise challenges to similar statements, without prefacing those arguments with a litany of self-identity qualifications. And I'd argue that this ultimately makes the classroom a safer space for everyone within it to listen, to speak, and stand a chance of being heard.

2013-01-29

booknotes: urban histories

Looking at my reading selections for the past couple of months, I can sort them into two basic piles: books having to do with gender/sexuality/feminism (what else is new?) and books on urban history. The urban history kick is a relatively new thing for me, prompted by a) an ongoing side research project that requires background knowledge about Boston circa the 1910s, b) the aggressive gentrification of our neighborhood -- fingers crossed we're not priced out! -- and c) happening upon a cultural history of "main street" on the new books wall at our local public library (see below). I'm going to do a collective review of the gender/sexuality/feminism books next week -- once I finish my advance review copy of this promising anthology on hard core porn -- but first, here are my thoughts on a few urban history titles.

Fogelson, Robert. Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950 (Yale U. P., 2001) and Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia, 1870-1930 (Yale U.P., 2005). More or less by accident -- Downtown was what our local library had on the shelf! -- I stumbled upon preeminent historian of urban America Robert Fogelson's work when I went in search of Boston and Brookline histories back in December. In Downtown Fogelson explores the development of the central business district in American cities -- thanks to the layout of New York City colloquially known as "downtown" regardless of geographic orientation -- and traces its fate through the first half of the twentieth century as it moved from the business district to the central business district to simply one of many business districts. He touches on a number of key cities, although New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles are recurring examples. I particularly enjoyed the attention to the perennial question of public transit and the changes wrought by the rise of the automobile. Fogelson pays particular attention to the interplay between city planners and businessmen (the urban elite) and the populace at large -- the way in which those with power seek to create and control a certain type of urban environment on the one hand, while unanticipated and often anarchic-feeling forces bring changes economic and cultural to the urban landscape.

It's the desire for stasis that is, in fact, at the heart of the second Fogelson book I read: Bourgeois Nightmares. The title, a play on Robert Fishman's Bourgeois Utopias (1987), explores the dark side of America's suburban sprawl between 1870-1930. Fogelson begins his narrative by suggesting that the central desire which drove the American upper-, upper-middle- and middle-classes to suburban subdivisions around the turn of the twentieth century was the desire for stability. In order to sell land in these new neighborhoods, subdividers had to sell the promise of that stability -- the promise that one's land would never fall in value, that one's neighborhood would remain pleasant, that one's neighbors would always be desirable. The mechanism by which they enforced stability was through the creation of restrictive covenants: contractual limitations on how landowners could use and dispose of the land which they purchased. Most notoriously, restrictions were used to exclude non-white (and sometimes non-Christian and even non-Protestant) residents from the suburban development. They were also used to police the aesthetics of place: fences, landscaping, architectural design, the domestic animals one could own, the signs one could put up, and the business one could do from one's property. Fogelson convincingly argues that restrictive covenants were a successful marketing tool despite the limitations they placed on property rights because they reassured the "bourgeois" classes that they were protected not only from outsider undesirables but also from the potentially-appalling behavior of their peer neighbors.

Holton, Wilfred and William A. Newman. Boston's Back Bay: The Story of America's Greatest Nineteenth-Century Landfill Project (Northeastern U.P., 2006). The Massachusetts Historical Society moved into the back bay in the 1890s, as the back bay landfill project was nearing its close. The land on which the MHS stands, at the corner of Boylston Street and The Fenway, teeters on the edge of landfill and what used to be known as Gravelly Point. Originally, the Back Bay served as both a source of hydro power and also Boston's sewer -- where the citizens of Boston sent their waste in hopes that the tide would wash it out to sea (a hit-or-miss proposition, particularly after the bay was sectioned by dams and railway bridges in the early 1800s. Between the 1820s and the 1890s the Commonwealth of Massachsuetts undertook the massive land-creation project of filling in the bay and what seems like the daunting task of selling the recently-noxious area as a posh neighborhood of expensive townhouses and cultural institutions. Holton and Newman are primarily interested in the engineering innovations that made filling in the Back Bay tidal flat possible and the construction of buildings feasible. Honestly, there's only so much detail about railway lines, gravel pits, and building foundations I can sustain interest for, although descriptions of the changing landscape and the generous inclusion of maps to chart the progress of land-creation were both welcome. I would have appreciated more cultural and social history. Given the Back Bay's numerous drawbacks as land for residential construction -- including a high water table that caused sewers to back up twice daily and fill basements with toxic and foul-smelling substances! -- the successful selling of the neighborhood as a desirable location for the Boston elites is a story that begs to be told in more depth. Still, I do feel I now have a better grasp on the whys and hows of the Back Bay landfill project. Now on to Nancy Seashole's Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston (MIT Press, 2003).

Kaplan, Justin. When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in the Gilded Age (Viking, 2006). One feature of American downtown life in the Gilded Age was the luxury hotel. Using the real estate giants William Waldorf Astor and his cousin John Jacob Astor as his biographical through-line, Justin Kaplan offers a lively tour of the rise of the modern-day hotel during the late nineteenth-century. What I found most fascinating about the book -- apart from the salacious details of intra-familial rivalry -- was the cultural history of a type of institution (the luxury hotel) that today we take more or less for granted as an essential feature in any city. Yet the first establishment that approximated what we think of as a hotel, The Tremont here in Boston, opened in 1829. It was the first lodging-house to become a destination per se rather than just a place for businessmen and travelers to find a bed and a meal in transit from one location to the next. Its indoor bathrooms, particularly, became so popular that upperclass families in the nearby Beacon Hill neighborhood sometimes made there way to the hotel for their weekly bath. The Astor family built on these innovations with alacrity and by the end of the 1800s their hotels in New York City were the subject of songs, the hub of high society, where people went to see and be seen. While Kaplan's narrative is short on footnotes, it is grounded in the historical record and is not overly ambitious in its claims. An entertaining and informative read.

Orvell, Miles. The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space and Community (University of North Carolina Press, 2012). Orvell's work is a cultural history of "main street" in America -- both how it actually functioned in the social and economic landscape and also what it signified in the American mind. Examining literary and cinematic portrayals as well as the politics of creating, destroying, and rehabilitating "main street" as a social space throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Orvell points to the ongoing tension in the American cultural landscape between "main street" as a site for wholesome enjoyment and small-town safety and main street as a site for small-mindedness and community policing. The idyllic nature of small-town / "main street" America, in other words, very often depends on the erasure of people whose presence is disruptive to "niceness": educated women with uppity notions about gender equality, labor organizers, and -- over and over again -- those whose skin color, ethnicity, and religion fail to conform with a WASP-y vision of true American-ness. From 19th-century paeons to the "vanishing" New England village square to late-20th century Disney-sponsored planned communities, The Death and Life of Main Street offers a highly readable, well-researched window into one particular facet of the (real and mythical) American landscape.

Next on the urban history reading list is Stephen Puleo's A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900 (Beacon Press, 2010). I'll be sure to let you know how it goes! But next week we'll be taking a turn to a mix of books both historical and cultural that touch on human sexuality and the politics thereof.

2013-01-26

why do I write (and read) fan fiction? [part three]

See part one and part two for the context of this post.

So having explored fan fiction generally (and why I'm drawn to it) and erotic fan fiction as a sub-genre of fic, and why I think it's important, I thought I'd round this little series out with some thoughts on what draws me to the particular fandoms and pairings (relationships) I write ... and what I'm trying to do when I write them. Besides, you know, enjoy the smut. I'm also going to address, below, a couple of questions I've fielded lately about the ethics of fic-writing practice.

Donna Noble (Doctor Who)*
Why write the pairings I write?

Well, so, it's tempting to say that I write the things I write because I find them compelling and I just do, okay? On a certain level, trying to explain why you find the the fiction you like compelling is like trying to explain why you love your partner. It's not really reducible to a bullet point list.

But on the other hand, I'm me. So of course I have some Thoughts on the subject. And it starts with the fact that I consumed a lot of erotic fan fiction at a point where I was beginning to actively think about relational sexuality and how sexual identity and desire worked in peoples' lives (see post two). And I really enjoyed a lot of fan fic I was reading, mostly gay male pairings 'cause those were the fandoms Hanna and I were reading, but I struggled to find sexually-explicit lesbian pairings. And the femslash I did come across was frustratingly in-explicit about sex, or written by people who didn't seem to fully grasp the possibilities of what two female-bodied people might do together, sexual-intimacy wise. Hetero and gay male sex scenes in fic (and, to be fair, in a lot of regular porn) work on a fairly standard narrative arc that culminates in penetrative sex -- penis-in-vagina or anal sex -- as The Most Bestest Form of Sexual Intimacy. It's pretty much always orgasm-producing for both partners and sometimes it's clear the authors (and the characters they're writing) don't consider sex to have happened until there's been a penis inside a vagina or an anus.

Without a penis, what do you do?! Okay, yes, there are dildos and vibrators, but honestly not a lot of fics wade into the territory of sex toys very skillfully, and dildos in a lesbian sex scene too often just cue the author to assume sex with a dildo is about role playing het sex. Which it can be, but certainly doesn't have to be. In my opinion, it's much more fun to start without that penetrative-sex-as-goal model in mind and think about all the ways two bodies might come together (double entendre very much intended).

Idris - the TARDIS personified (Doctor Who)*
So I developed a (Queer, Feminist) Agenda. Which was to inject the world with realistic smut about ladybits. Smut that was tactile, visceral, about real bodies coming together and people making meaning out of the sex they were engaged in. And I'm an historian, so I started out pilfering from Downton Abbey, writing an eight-story arc about Sybil Crawley and Gwen. And I went on from there to other female pairings and eventually stuck my toe into the waters of m/m slash. It was kind of terrifying at first, pushing out into writing about men having sex -- something I don't have hands-on experience with. But I discovered that, at least the way I go about it, the characters take hold of the narrative regardless of gender and help me feel my way through giving them positive (and I hope realistic) sexual experiences! And in part, I was motivated by the same (Queer, Feminist) Agenda as I had been with writing female-bodied sex scenes: the be-all and end-all of sex for guys doesn't have to be penetration.

I'm hardly the first person to observe this, but for people who are queer in some way, writing slash fiction can be a way to revise the heteronormative narratives of mainstream media. And, I'd add as a feminist, it can be a way to revise sexism and other isms as well. Watching a television show with primarily straight relationships and re-writing or filling in those stories to imagine queer relationships injects our experience into the cultural discourse. Characters on television, in film, in books, are assumed straight until explicitly identified as queer; fan fiction more often assumes that everyone is a little bit queer unless they're proven to be straight. It's a re-visioning of the world in which sexual variety is the norm -- one part reflection of our actual experiences in queer subcultures, and one part wishful "what if..." thinking. Looking at my small repertoire of fic pairings, I'd argue I tend to choose characters who have the potential to -- when queered in some way -- disrupt the normative expectations about sex and relationships that we see in a lot of porn, erotica, and mainstream media -- television shows, movies, etc., the original material from which fan fiction is born. Perhaps starting out as a critique of the original material, I often find my acts of fanfic subversion increases my pleasure as a consumer of the original material.

I enjoy writing stories about women unabashedly enjoying sex and knowing their bodies. I enjoy writing stories about elder folk, late-in-life lesbianism, about people having sex when their bodies don't always work the way they want them to. I like writing fic in which it's taken for granted (by me, the author, at least) that men can, and do, enjoy a full range of emotional intimacy, body insecurities, carry baggage from damaging relationships, enjoy sex that isn't always fucking. (In fact, I have yet to write a fic that includes men having anal sex.) I like writing the vulnerability of desire, about what it means to expose to another person just how much you want, and (often even more frightening) what you want. I like writing sex that includes awkward conversations and misunderstandings and bodies that frustrate and fears that overwhelm -- but that all ultimately circle around that moment of knowing and being known that can come when people get naked together, in every sense of the word.

The ethics of slash: a few final thoughts.

Aside from the ethics of porn, which is a topic about which much ink (and internet bile) has been spilled, the ethics of fan fiction (or, more generally, "transformative works") is itself a topic for discussion on the internet and beyond. Hanna and I belong to the Organization of Transformative Works, a non-profit organization that advocates for the practice of fan works and also runs the Archive of Our Own project, which seeks to collect and preserve fan works online. They publish a peer-reviewed journal, Transformative Works and Cultures, that explores fandom in its infinite varieties. So if you're interest is piqued and you'd like to delve into the politics and culture of fan creation -- or poke around and read some fic or whatever variety! -- I really can't recommend them highly enough.

What I wanted to do here is touch on a couple of ethical issues that have come up recently in conversation with friends -- namely the ethics of "m/m erotica" written by women, and the practice of writing RPF or "real person" fic.

Can, or should, women write erotica about gay men?

Periodically, there are internet-based wrangles over whether or not "m/m erotica" -- which in the world of published romance/erotica generally means "gay porn for girls," or (usually) women-authored fiction about gay male relationships marketed to a (presumed straight) female readership -- is ethical (see for example here and here). The question is whether the m/m genre is exploitative, a hetero appropriation of gay male culture. The practice of writing erotic fan fiction is overwhelmingly a female one, and male/male pairings -- as I write above -- generate an incredible amount of enthusiasm, from both writers and readers (who appear to be, again, overwhelmingly female).

As an aside: fan-fiction writing as a feminized activity is something that deserves attention, and I have no doubt someone somewhere is doing incredible work on it. I think there's a lot to explore in that dynamic -- and I'm looking forward to being a part of the conversation, along with people who've done way more research than I into the phenomenon.

But back to the ethics of being a woman writing/reading porn involving men having sex with other men. Which is something I, a cis woman, do on a near-daily basis (see above). I admit that, when the articles about m/m erotica appeared, I did some soul-searching about it. When people suggest an activity might be exploitative it's pretty much always a good idea to take their position seriously and listen to what they have to say. But. Here's my thing about the case against m/m erotica: it basically comes down to an argument that if people of sexual identity A create or consume erotica about (fictional) people of sexual identity B, particularly if there's a dynamic of social privilege in the mix, that's per se a problem.

But sexual identity isn't some sort of siloed, static thing -- or at least I don't experience it that way. Our sexual identities, desires, practices -- they're messy and complicated and shift over time. Preferred sex and/or gender of one's actual partners aside, we can have fantasies and enjoy porn about practices we would never want to actually engage in. And, I would argue, we can find porn about bodies and practices we don't per se find arousing, arousing because so much of sex isn't the geometry of bodies coming together but (see post two) the narrative surrounding that context. Recent research is beginning to support this notion, particularly for female-bodied persons. As J. Jack Halberstam points out in the recent book Gaga Feminism (Beacon Press, 2012):
People are not asking why it is that gay men do not, generally speaking, produce any [sexual] fantasies around femininity, while lesbians produce lots of fantasy environments that include men or masculinity. When, in The Kids Are All Right, the lesbian couple watches gay male pornography to spice up their sex life, the scene was met with incredulity, especially from gay men. Indeed, a gay magazine journalist called me and asked me to comment on this bizarre (to him) scene. I responded that lots of lesbians watch and like gay male porn, straight male porn, and everything in between ... [According to sexual response studies] while men, gay and straight, tend to respond in inflexible ways to erotic images of men and women (straight men want to see female bodies, gay men want to see male bodies), women, gay and straight, tend to respond in flexible ways to images of men, women, and animals. (p. 87-88).
So my point is that what sounds like a fairly reasonable call for non-appropriation ("what do these straight women think they're doing, fantasizing about gay men!") becomes tangled really quickly.

To use my own example: I'm a bisexual woman in a same-sex relationship with another woman. Does that mean I'm only "allowed" to be involved in reading/writing porn featuring two women? Are threesomes okay -- or not, because I'm not in an open or poly relationship? If I write about sex involving male bodies, is it okay because as a bi woman I'm sexually attracted to men? But then it would be okay for straight women to write gay porn also, so maybe I'm only allowed to write porn about hetero pairings? But I've never been in a straight relationship, and identify as part of the queer community -- so maybe that's off-limits as well. But if I'm part of the queer community then we're back where we started: maybe I get to create and consume porn about same-sex couples because I'm part of a same-sex couple?

So you end up on this merry-go-round of factors that could be used to determine who is or isn't "qualified" or ethically able to create certain types of sexual fictions. And I think that that sort of policing ultimately impoverishes us all. If we started saying that straight people could only write or enjoy porn about straight folks, and gay men and lesbians could only write or enjoy porn about gay men and lesbians ... not only would we miss out exploring the sexual diversity of humanity through the imaginative act of writing and reading, but we'd also be ignoring that there are people who don't fit into these neat and tidy categories of the self.

I'm not saying there isn't a place for critique. Hell, in my book, there's nothing in the world so sacrosanct as to be beyond critique. And I absolutely believe that there is porn out there that fetishizes queerness for the straight gaze. I mean, I wouldn't be writing porn in the first place if I hadn't gotten frustrated with the conventions and stereotypes I saw being recapitulated over and over in the porn I was reading. So I think anyone involved in writing erotica should be open to conversation about their work, open to hearing people say, "Hey, that thing you did there in that story rubbed me the wrong way, and here's why." It's not a requirement to engage, but I would hope the resulting conversation could be an opportunity for growth for all involved.

What are my feelings on "real person" erotic fan fiction?

Yup, it's a thing in the world, people writing (often erotic) fan fiction featuring real-life celebrities. Often, though not always, these celebrities are the actors portraying the characters that these same authors write other fan fiction pieces about. But there are also people who write erotic fan fiction about politicians, musicians, and other people in the public eye.

I had a follower on Twitter ask me last week what I think about the practice:
I responded:

And I'm not sure I have a whole lot more to add to this "short answer" response. Characters (whether portrayed by actors or written about in a text) are characters not human beings. We joke about how they take over our brains and insist their own version of events, but at the end of the day they are human creations -- not humans themselves. They have no independent bodily autonomy or agency. They have no legal or social standing as persons. Real people do.

Real people can create erotica or pornography that involves themselves and offer it to others (friends or strangers) to enjoy consuming -- as long as everyone's staying safe and is able to consent without coercion I'm down with that. I even think teenagers technically under the age of consent should have the protected right to create erotica materials involving themselves and share those materials with their peers as part of their own sexual exploration. Obviously this raises questions about how to give them a safe space to explore their sexuality without being exploited, and I agree that's a conversation to be had. But the general principle is: we should all have the creative license to explore our sexuality in textual and visual ways and share it as we desire.

However: consent is key here. I imagine human beings have always developed fantasies around other actual people prior to full and enthusiastic consent being given -- in the case of those we later become sexually intimate with -- or in situations where those relationships will never flower, but we're crushing hard anyway. This isn't about policing personal imagination -- have all the damn fantasies you want about whomever and whatever you find turns you on.

I'd argue, though, that in the case of fantasies about real live actual people who aren't involved in the spinning out of those fantasies? Those stories or images are best left in private spaces: your computer hard-drive, your journal, whatever. I'm not thinking so much of regulation here -- I'm not arguing we pull RPF from the Archive and ban people from publishing more -- but I'm arguing that as a matter of common courtesy it's kinda, well, rude, to put your fantasies about actual people who you have no relationship with and who aren't consenting to have these sexualized stories or images created around them out into the world of the 'net where those same people could presumably come across said stories by Googling their names.

If someone wrote an erotica story -- even a really sweet hot one! -- about me as me and posted it online and I stumbled across it, it would feel really stalkery and invasive to me. Like, my wife is the only one at this point in time who has my permission to spin out stories about my bits that way.

So yes, I do think there are boundaries and ethical considerations where fan-creation is concerned. And I appreciate that there are people within fandom who are willing and interested in engaging in ongoing conversations about those difficult aspects of the genre. What I do hope is that those outside of the genre will think twice before dismissing the practice wholesale as facile or perverted (in the not-cool way). Because I think fan engagement with (mainstream) creative works has a lot of potential to change and complicate the (mainstream) conversation about human sexuality.


*One of the pieces of fan fiction I'm most proud of is a Donna Noble/Idris fic completed for last year's International Day of Femslash.

2013-01-22

movienotes: les miserables

I have some book reviews I need to write for books I've read this month, and a third "why I write fic" post in the queue, but I just got back from a weekend with my sister in the beautiful Austin, Texas, and my brain can't seem to form coherent-yet-complex thoughts. So instead, I'm going to offer up a few observations about the film version of Les Miserables that I saw in the theater the weekend before last.

Javert (Crowe) and Valjean (Jackman)
I saw the musical once before, live, when I was in London in January of 2004. My principle memories at the time involve enjoying the music (I'm a life-long musical theatre fan, so a good musical will always win me over in the end), being distracted by the book I'd picked up that day and brought with me to read during intermission (The Time-Traveler's Wife), and my surprise at the fact that the emotional-relational through-line for the story is not the second act marriage-plot between Marius and Cosette but the connection forged between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. It is their dance of power, desperation, obsession, compassion, forgiveness, and despair that drive the plot from start to finish. Hugo's novel is that 19th century classic the Social Problems Novel and, and is -- I'm sure I am far from the first to remark upon this! -- a queer choice for musical theatre.

Fantine (Hathaway) selling her hair.
A few thoughts in no particular order:
  • Women, work and society. The film version of Les Mis had some really interesting (largely visual) observations to make about women and work. There's Fantine, Anne Hathaway's character, who is working in a factory to pay for her daughter's care. Rumored to be a slut, and punished by the foreman for being a single mother, she's cast onto the streets and sells her hair, teeth, and sex before succumbing to consumption. Her daughter, Cosette, has been boarded out as a laborer herself, working for a couple running an inn (the buffoonish and cruel Thenardiers). While Cosette is rescued by Valjean and ascends to the middle class through marriage (one could argue a certain kind of "wage work" in its own right, certainly an economic decision), her age-mate Eponine Thenardier -- abused by her parents and pining after Cosette's lover -- cross-dresses as a boy to join the revolution and ultimately dies on the barricade. On the periphery of the story drift prostitutes, beggars, and female religious who serve as nurses and also offer refuge for Jean Valjean at various points throughout the story. When the student revolutionaries are shot by French soldiers, the uprising put down, it is women who are left to scrub down the blood-filled streets. Overall, Les Mis hammers home in multiple ways the limited options for the vast majority of women in 19th century France. True, there were limited options for most people living in France at that time -- but this film adaptation does a good job of highlighting the way women's sex/gender limited them in particular ways.
  • Futility of revolutionary action? Throughout, the film/musical has a deeply ambivalent relationship to the politics of its student revolutionaries. Marius's boyfriend Enjolras is a charismatic and idealistic young Parisian student who, with a group of peers, orchestrates a violent rebellion (based on a real historical incident) that ultimately fails and leaves everyone -- save Marius, rescued by Jean Valjean for his adopted daughter's sake -- dead. In Hugo's world, the violence of the state (personified by Javert; more below) is responsible for the wretchedness of virtually every character in the story, but political action is depicted as ultimately futile and deadly. Yet the film ends with a triumphant reprise of the rebels call to arms, with Fantine, Valjean, and all of the dead students waving tricolor flags high above the Parisian skyline. Have they ... won? And if so, how? Is the film meant to suggest revolutionary action is ever-needed? If the next generation (Marius and Cosette) have retreated into bourgeois respectability -- Marius' father welcomes them in with open arms and throws a lavish party for their wedding -- should this be considered a win? For whom? I have read some reviews that suggest Hugo's narrative points toward interpersonal love triumphing over political action (again, more below) but if that is the thrust of the plot it is an unsatisfying one: many people, even many "deserving" poor, die or are left in desperate poverty despite benevolence (and occasionally actual care) extended to them by others. If I had to guess, I'd hazard that Hugo might imagine that all attempts to improve the human condition on a large scale are doomed to failure, and that one-to-one interactions are our only -- and ultimately futile -- recourse.
  • Letting go of the next generation. As I wrote above, my first impressions of Les Mis is that it is a story about parents and letting go. Fantine, first, must let go of Cosette in order to provide for her (by going to work and leaving her with the innkeepers), and then ultimately must let her go when she dies and entrusts her to Valjean, a man she barely knows. She cannot know what her daughter's future holds -- for good or ill -- and yet must depart. And then in the second act Valjean must let go of Cosette when she falls in love with Marius. While at first this loss is painful to him, and he tries to leave  the country with Cosette in tow, when he intercepts a letter from Marius to Cosette he regrets his actions and rescues Marius from the barricades. After the two children are engaged to be married, Valjean -- his duty to his daughter complete, now she is in another man's care -- he departs to a monastery to die. We also have, of course, all of the children who die: Eponine and the students, including a young street urchin named Gavroche who is the first casualty of the day. The adults may believe these young peoples' actions are foolish and futile, dangerous even, but the young people ultimately must forge their own paths.
  • The central romance in the story is between Valjean and Javert. So, okay, you don't have to read their relationship as one long exercise in Unresolved Sexual Tension - but I certainly found it much more satisfying than the Marius/Cosette situation, let me tell you. Inspector Javert spends decades in pursuit of Valjean, obsessed with the man and fascinated/repulsed by the notion that the "criminal" Valjean (imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread) could ever be anything other than a criminal. Valjean, whose religious conversion shortly after he is paroled helps him rebuild his life, tries to model a more nuanced morality for Javert (while, you know, evading re-arrest!) -- and in the penultimate scene he succeeds. Given the opportunity to kill or capture Valjean, whom he has tracked into the Parisian sewers, Javert lets Valjean go. And is so shattered by his decision to let the rule of law go in the interest of human compassion that he commits suicide.
  • Oh, and the acting. I was really impressed with everyone in this cast, all of whom seemed to really be throwing themselves into their work both musically and acting-wise. At times, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe really seemed to be struggling with the score which surprised me -- since I know Jackman, at least, is a strong singer. But I think that might have been a function of recording the songs live on-set rather than in a recording studio before or after the shoot. And Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the odious Thenardiers were delightfully campy, offering some of the only comic relief around -- and even then, theirs is a story that has a pretty tragic side if you linger more than a moment or two). 
And that's all I got, folks. If you're musical theater fans or fans of the Victorian "social problem" novel, I'd highly recommend seeing the film -- preferably in the theatre since it truly is a spectacle of a movie musical. I know some people were really frustrated by the filming -- the tendency to frame actors in the corner of the screen, or incompletely, but I actually like that technique for the way it makes you notice the composition of the shot, makes you realize a visual image is being constructed for you, rather than allowing you to feel you're simply immersed in the action. Artifice, in this instance I would argue, works well with the musical genre.

2013-01-17

why do I write (and read) fan fiction? [part two]

(via)
See part one for the background to this post.

I've been letting this sit in my drafts folder for a couple of days and I'm starting to feel the weight of perfection closing in ... so quickly, quickly! I'm going to try and get these ideas out there before I'm crushed by the tyranny of Unfinished Thoughts.

Why write erotic fan fiction?

Why erotic fan fiction indeed.

So a couple of things.

Building on what I wrote in response to the question "why fan fiction," thinking about the lives of characters "off screen" (or after the novel or series is done) can often translate into imagining the playing-out of relationships that were established in canon. Not only do many mainstream novels (not just the ones for children and young adults) fade to black around sexual encounters, they often skirt the whole question entirely by ending the story arc with the get-together moment, or at least the early days of the relationship. Inquiring minds want to know what happens after -- and once you get to beyond a certain age, it seems pretty clear that sexual intimacy is often (though obviously not always) a part of the "after." It's long been a habit of the heart, for me, to extend the existence of fictional characters to give them the relationships and experiences the main narrative only gestures toward.

Too, when I was re-introduced to the concept of fan-created fiction and other fan works, it was as a genre that focused heavily on "slash," or fan work where characters' sexual relationships (whether canon or not) were the central theme. If your only encounter with fan works is through reading about 50 Shades of Gray or the resulting mainstream news coverage of fan fiction as a phenomenon, you can be forgiven in assuming that all fan fiction is erotic. It's not. I'm not sufficiently expert in the field to say what percentage of fan work is, in part or primarily, erotic (I'd guess a substantial proportion, but that's also what I tend to go looking for so my sample is extremely biased), but erotica is not the only direction fan work can take. Yet it was a key factor in what drew me, as an adult, back into the practice of fan writing.

I read it exclusively, for awhile, but eventually I started looking for pairings and stories that I couldn't find anywhere (more on that in part three) ... in other words, I found a gap in the literature! And like any nerdy academic, once I'd found the gap(s) people weren't exploring I determined to explore them. So pretty soon, I started writing, and people started reading, and people by their own account enjoyed what they read, and who doesn't like positive reinforcement?!

You could also ask the question this way: Why write erotic fan fiction?

I find erotica in general a compelling genre, and one -- as I've written before -- that has a great deal of (often underestimated) potential to help us explore meaningful aspects of the human condition. But I often find erotic fiction of the non-fannish variety incredibly hit-or-miss. As a member of my writing group and I were bemoaning the other day, it's often the case that you pick up an anthology of Best Lesbian Erotica or Best Erotic Romance or even the more theme-driven works (steampunk, quickies, food porn, BDSM, etc.) and at the most you find two or three stories out of twenty that dampen the knickers.

I always thought, you know, "different strokes for different folks" (in this case, ahem, quite literally), but then I discovered erotic fan fiction? Maybe it was just that I happened to re-acquaint myself with the genre at a time when I was ready to start thinking about sexual narratives in a more sustained way. Maybe it was because I was exploring my own sexual potential in concrete ways, and thus sexual knowledge, both fictive and non, were suddenly ever more compelling. This is part of the equation, surely. Fan fiction -- the writing and the reading, the community sharing -- has become entangled in my learnings and conversations about sexuality more generally and how we human beings narrate desire.

But as I've been turning this question over in my head the last couple of days, I think there's actually another more ... technical? ... reason why fan fiction erotica has a higher success rate for me (in terms of capturing my interest as a creator and consumer) than erotica in general. And the reason goes something like this: sex gains meaning through context. There are different schools of thought about what makes for effective porn, and some people will argue -- or even just take as read -- that effective porn is effective precisely because it's non-contextual and non-specific. That the characters are effective primarily because they are utterly interchangeable. One of the arguments for why so few male performers emerge as stars in the mainstream porn business is precisely this: that the ideal (male) porn actor fades into the background, is unremarkable enough that the (presumed hetero male) viewer can effectively erase the actor from the scene and insert himself into the action. But for me, the exact opposite is true: the more particular and real the characters in a given story are, the more heartbreaking and hot the sex. Because I've been convinced I should care. Sex acts are weird and messy and frankly ridiculous ... it's we (participants and witnesses) who imbue the acts with meaning. (You'll say there's a physical component as well, and I'm not disputing that, but consider the difference between being someone biting your neck out of the blue and sucking a hickey into your shoulder in the midst of lovemaking ... it's context that makes the physical activity feel good, not the actions in and of themselves.)

Intimacy can be the work of a fleeting moment or happen in the context of a life-long relationship, but without context sex acts themselves are, well, boring (to me, at least).

Fan fiction evokes context. True, the best fan fiction can stand on its own and be enjoyed by readers who know virtually nothing about the canon narratives to which the fic refers. Case in point, when Hanna first started sharing fic with me she was largely sending me stories written for anime and gaming 'verses I had no context for. And they were still compelling and hot. But I think there's a way that even just knowing these stories tie into a larger narrative encourage us to build context and imbue a scene with meaning. We don't have to know every detail of that context, just that there is one. We're encouraged to see the characters not just as conduits for sexual satisfaction, but individuals with full lives and the weight of personal history which they bring to their (fictional) sexual encounters.

As someone who counted fictional characters as intimate friends from a very early age, I guess it's not a big surprise to me that the act of participating (as a voyeur-reader, or as an author-creator) in the intimacy of fictional characters feels real and satisfying in a way that more conventional types of erotic creation/consumption have not, for me.

I also think the energy of the fan community feeds into this: virtually all of the fan writers creating smut in this context are also readers -- we swap work, we are one anothers' editors, we cheer on stories, we're invested in the (fictional) relationships working, so perhaps there's something in the very activity of co-creation that's ... erotic? It's similar to the really good energy you get in a class where everything gels and a critical mass of professor and students are pushing one another toward mutual heightened understanding? The relationship isn't just between the reader and the characters, but also the writer-reader and the reader-writer; even if fan fiction is penned (or typed) by a single author, there's usually a whole network of fellow fans around that author who create context for the work itself. And I think somehow that gives the relationship(s) and sexual intimacies within the work a unique intensity of meaning.

Stay tuned for part three, where I muse more specifically about why I write the particular types of erotic fan-fiction I write...

2013-01-15

'after pornified' book giveaway! [free stuff]

My friend Anne Sabo has given me three signed copies of her recent book, After Pornified: How Women are Transforming Pornography and Why it Really Matters (see my review here). And I would love to pass them along to you!

The only requirement is that you read and review the book by March 1st, post the review to Amazon.com and whatever other blogging or book-themed social networking site (GoodReads, LibraryThing, etc.) you choose and send the link to me.

Psyched to start reading? Leave a comment by midnight this coming Friday (so 12:00am 1/19/2013) on this post including an email where I can reach you and sharing, via link or description, one of your favorite pieces of erotica (can be any medium). I'll be taking all eligible entrants and randomly selecting three via the slip-of-paper-in-a-bowl method.

On Tuesday, January 22nd, I'll contact the three winners by email for a mailing address and send out the books via first class mail.

Let the commenting begin!

2013-01-10

why do I write (and read) fan fiction? [part one]

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This topic has been kicking around in the back of my mind for awhile, in nebulous form, and then in the past couple of weeks I've (coincidentally?) found myself engaged in discussing theories of fan fiction and erotica writing with several friends via email, as well as the wonderful women of my #firstthedraft writing group. With encouragement from #ftd, here are my thoughts in blog post form.

I actually think the question why I write erotic fan fiction has several layers, and I'm going to unpack them successively: why fan fiction, why erotic fan fiction, and why the specific fandoms and pairings that I've chosen write. I also want to emphasize, because this is the sort of thing -- both in terms of fandom and in terms of porn/erotica -- about which people have Big and Important Feelings, that I am speaking very much for myself here. This is a post (or, rather, a series of posts) about why I write the erotic fan fiction I write. I am not attempting to synthesize the phenomenon writ large or pass judgement about what are the Correct and Right ways to approach the activity. I'm only trying to respond to the question people have asked me in various ways: Why do you do this thing you do? What do you find enjoyable about it? Is there anything you find troubling about the practice?

For all of you who have asked those questions, I'd love to continue the conversation in comments -- so please do participate if you feel so moved!

Note: It will be unsurprising to most of you that my thoughts are lengthy. So I'm breaking this post into three sections, the first of which is below. Parts two and three will be forthcoming and will be linked from this post as they go live.

Why write fan fiction?

So I've only been consciously participating in online fan spaces and reading/writing fan fiction identified as such for about five years. However, retroactively I would argue that my present practice of fan fictionalizing is only the most recent manifestation of the way I have always, since early childhood, interacted with fictional narratives. Some of my earliest memories are from around the age of five or six spinning out stories about my favorite fictional characters -- at that time stories like Little House in the Big Woods and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. My childhood psycho-temporal spaces felt ... porous. My parents never judged us in our childhood practices blurring that line in our imaginative play. (This seems important, because I did know families where the children were schooled early and often on what was and was not "real" and judged harshly for flights of fancy.)

So I had an active imaginative (and often, with friends and siblings, collaboratively imaginative) inner life growing up. I put myself to sleep telling stories about "what happened after..." the end of my favorite books or series; my favorite characters became imaginary playmates; and in adolescence the nearest and dearest of those characters were part of my coming-of-age in intimate ways. They became active participants (as much as fictional characters can be) in my exploration of sexuality and relationships. I not only rehearsed the good and the bad (and the smutty) that actually appeared in the books that I read ... but I spun out elaborate stories incorporating my nearest and dearest (fictional) friends, and myself, building relational networks, families, and developing (hypothetical) sexual intimacies in various ways. In retrospect, I think this alternate universe I inhabited in my head helped me process a lot of the new information I was taking in -- physical changes, emotional upheavals, learnings about what it meant to be an adult in a variety of ways -- without feeling overwhelmed.

Without boring you to tears giving the world-building details, the space I created was one where I could literally move back and forth from childhood and adulthood, exploring the confines and capabilities of each mode of being. Imaginatively living an adult life elsewhere helped me approach my teenage years as if I had the confidence and experience of an adult.

In addition to being useful psychically and emotionally for me, I think the spinning out of private fan-fiction-like scenarios fed my insatiable desire to know more: to know about character motivation, to know what happened next, to know what the characters were thinking and feeling about events that took place, to know what might happen if event X or conversation Y took place. There's a great passage in one of E. Nesbit's Treasure Seekers books where the narrator informs the reader that lots of everyday things have happened (like eating and sleeping and going to the toilet) that he hasn't bothered to write down because those are all the boring bits that everyone does but no one wants to read about. Fiction necessarily revises for a tighter narrative, and things get left out. As a reader, I wanted them back in -- so I put them there, and molded them to my own particular specifications.

In those years, I encountered both professional and amateur fan works (from my mother's little stories about the Pevensie children that she penned for us at Christmastime to fan art to the Star Wars sequel novels to Neil Gaiman's "The Problem of Susan") but I wasn't actively participating in fan communities. I had friends who did (for example, a friend who was active in an online forum for writing stories inspired by Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels) but didn't hear a lot that drew me into active involvement. There was lots of interpersonal drama and litigation fears and, hey, I was already writing/imagining on my own so why bother with the added complication of other fans with their own vision and agenda?

But I got my fan community "reboot" (so to speak) when I met Hanna and she re-introduced me to the activities and pleasures of being a fan -- and this time, being a fan as part of a wider network of fans enjoying the same work(s) of whatever medium. Obviously the Internet had come along in the meantime, and as I was already involved in the feminist blogosphere I had some sense of how online communities work and what their pleasures and pitfalls are. Over time, the language of fandom bled into the language of feminism and became part of my social experience, as feminism had, both on- and offline.

These days, I really enjoy the positive energy of the fan circles in which I run. I enjoy that fans feel license to take joyful pleasure in things and create works inspired by those things. I enjoy the way those creations are shared freely and embraced by the fellow creator-consumer audience. I enjoy the practices of "gifting" works and creating "inspired by" pieces which complement one another or build off another fan's work. I like how the currency of fandom is mutual appreciation and celebration of amateur creation. (And simultaneously I'm much better able than I was as a teenager to ignore or minimize the drama and intensity which can overtake online communities of any kind. I've learned, in other words, when to close the internet browser and walk away!)

So I write fan fiction because I always have, and now know that this practice has a name! I write fan fiction because I'm always hungry to know more, and to make the fictional characters I love known to me in ways that go beyond the bounds of a single novel or series or television show or film. And I enjoy participating in such a positive, creative space that is outside of the economies of wage-work. I purposefully decided not to pursue a career as a writer in part because I wanted writing to be something that I could always come to voluntarily, without worrying whether or not I could pay rent. (I don't think this is a better or purer way to approach writing than writing as a job -- more power to those who do! It just wasn't for me, and I appreciate that I can continue to write and find readers in this playful alternative space.)

Click here for part two: "Why write erotic fan fiction?"

2013-01-08

booknotes: what is marriage for?

Last week, I reviewed Public Vows which explored the history of American custom and law surrounding marriage. This week, I have some reflections on journalist E. J. Graff's book on roughly the same subject: What is Marriage For?: The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (Beacon Press, 1999).

While Cott is an academic historian, Graff is a journalist -- and the differences in these two books reflects that to a great extent. This is not to say one is better than the other: Nancy Cott's work is a carefully-delineated study of American marriage from the Revolution to the late twentieth century while Graff's is a more wide-ranging exploration of what marriage has been and meant in the West over the past two millennia. Both work in their own ways to point out that the present-day arguments about the demise of "marriage culture" and/or the end of civilization as we know it because of [insert marriage change of your choice] is actually nothing new. Reactionaries have been raising a hue and cry in every era about the passing of one concept of marriage in favor of another, and our current notion of what "traditional" marriage looks like (what Cott referred to as Christian monogamy grounded in affection and entered by mutual consent) is actually a fairly new -- Graff would even say radical -- departure from the marriage norms of our forebears.

While for Cott the question of same-sex marriage is almost a coda to the main body of her argument -- which centers around non-white peoples' and women's citizenship rights and how they interact with marriage law -- same-sex relationships are the raison d'etre of Graff's work. After marrying her partner, Madeline, in 1992, Graff began to explore the slippery history of "marriage" and its meaning, with the goal of answering the question of whether same-sex couples can or do reasonably occupy the same space as other-sex couples in the present-day landscape of marriage beliefs, law, and practice. It will perhaps come as no surprise that Graff's answer is, again and again, that yes same-sex couples fit quite abley into our current notion of what a marriage is and does:
There remains an uneasy tension between, on the one hand, marriage as a way to resist consumer capitalism's pressure on the individual soul -- and, on the other, to fulfill consumer capitalism's ideology of individual love and commitment. But [today's reactionaries] wrongly choose those who love among the same sex as their scapegoats. The move toward same-sex marriage is the consequence, not the cause, of many other changes in Western life -- changes like legalized contraception, already inscribed in Western laws. A pluralistic democracy cannot fairly bar as pariahs people who fully fit its ideology of the meaning of sex within marriage (87). 
There were a few details in analysis upon which Graff and I disagree, such as her argument that the logic that allows for same-sex relationships (modern notions of love and personal choice) does not allow for polygyny, since the reasons for polygyny have traditionally been about political alliances and patriarchal kinship consolidation. While true insofar as it goes, her conclusion that therefore same-sex relationship recognition is in NO WAY related to recognition of more-than-two marriage models seems to ignore the way in which modern polyamory also draws on notions of love and personal choice. But that's overall a small quibble with what is an entertaining and well-researched exploration into the slippery meaning of something we think we all "know" when we see (or enter into) it.

2013-01-04

booknotes: public vows

I thought I'd kick off my 2013 book reviews with a few thoughts about the last book I read in 2012. That would be Nancy F. Cott's Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Harvard U.P., 2000), which I picked up at the Montague Book Mill last week. A slim volume, Public Vows explores the ways in which local, state, and national culture and regulation have shaped the meaning and utility of marriage in the U.S. from the Revolution to the dawn of the 21st century.

Cott's overall point is that while marriage in the United States has been considered a private zone -- affectually and contractually -- it is also constrained by public custom and legal regulation. As she writes in the introduction:
In the marriage ceremony the public recognizes and supports the couple's reciprocal bond, and guarantees that this commitment (made in accord with the public's requirements) will be honored as something valuable not only to the pair but to the community at large. Their bond will be honored even by public force ... the public sets the terms of marriage (2).
Those terms have been paradoxically remarkably tenacious and constantly in flux. As Cott demonstrates, Americans have generally privileged the monogamous Christian marriage as the "common sense" of marriage relationships, despite the fact that at the time of the United States' founding "the predominance of monogamy was by no means a foregone conclusion" (9).

In the years of the Early Republic, this relationship was one of coverture, in which the wife's political identity was subsumed by that of her husband upon marriage; the husband was charged with representing his wife in the public realm much as a member of Congress (the founding generation of American political theorists drew this analogy) represented his constituents. As women and free blacks struggled for citizenship status throughout the 19th century, the terms of marriage (who could marry and the rights and duties marriage entailed) shifted to meet -- or at times to combat -- these new demands. Waves of immigration and anti-immigrant sentiment shaped laws around marriage as politicians determined what foreign marriage practices would be recognized as valid, and the changing economic landscape shaped and re-shaped understandings of how work and marriage inter-related.

Much of what Cott has to say will come as no surprise to historians of women's and gender history, or even social and labor history: notions of citizenship and personhood are uniquely tied up, in United States law and social custom, with one's status not only as an individual but also as the member of an acceptable family unit. Conformity to marriage norms can have real impact on one's status as a citizen (as any first-generation immigrant can tell you), and while women's political lives are no longer subsumed under their husband's at the altar, the assumption that women will be (hetero)wives continues to endure in tax codes and other legacies of coverture in the legal-political realm.

Cott touches only lightly on same-sex marriage in the final chapter of Public Vows, underscoring how little "gay marriage" actually has to do with the revolution(s) in modern family organization that the last two centuries of American history have seen. Feminist agitation has, indeed, played a much bigger role in shifting marriage onto new ground. As Cott observes, "So far as it is a public institution, [marriage] is a vehicle through which the apparatus of the state can shape the gender order.... Turning men and women into husbands and wives, marriage has designated the ways both sexes act in the world and the reciprocal relationship between them" (3). These designations often reach beyond the actually married, constraining the lives of the non-married as well. As women gained more equal footing as citizens, the shape of marriage as an economic, political, and personal relationship was fundamentally changed. In the context of this long sweep of change, the extension of civil marriage rights to same-sex couples is but a small step in the direction of equal citizenship status for all, regardless of gender or affectional ties.

Conversely, the fact that same-sex marriage evokes such strong reactionary feelings points toward the centrality of the Christian monogamous marriage plot to the organization of American civic life: as a key aspect of our project to differentiate ourselves from European and other world governments. By governing who is let in (and who kept out) of marriage we -- as a nation-state -- are often simultaneously identifying who -- both symbolically and literally -- is allowed to be a citizen.

I'm following my reading of Public Vows with E.J. Graff's contemporaneous What Is Marriage For? (Beacon Press, 1999). Like Cott, Graff explores the historical shape of marriage and discovers heterogeneity rather than some ur- form of "traditional" marriage ... I'm looking forward to limning the similarities and differences between their arguments, so look for a review here soon!

2013-01-01

looking back on the (previous) year in books

My reading goal in 2012, courtesy of Goodreads' reading challenge, was to finish 104 books (an average of two books per week). It was a goal I fell short of by six books, wrapping up the year in reading with #97 yesterday afternoon: Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation by Nancy F. Cott (Harvard U.P., 2000).

(If only they allowed us to count fan fiction -- Hanna and I would have shot passed our goals and then some this year!)

But never mind -- I'm trying not to feel a failure for having fallen short: it was an ambitious goal, outstripping my previous record of the past five years (89 books in 2009) by fifteen titles. And there were some really great and interesting reads to be had in those ninety-seven titles. Below I've picked out my top fifteen titles. You can definitely see the way I trend: keywords include "sexuality," "politics," "history," "gender," and "feminism."

(Within the list order is strictly alpha by author; links are all to my blog reviews of said titles)

Memorable Reads of 2012:

Pray the Gay Away by Bernadette Barton

The Book of Mormon Girl by Joanna Brooks

The Straight State by Margot Canaday

Love the Sin by Janet Jacobsen and Anne Pellegrini

Bodies of Knowledge by Wendy Kline

The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate by Christine Overall (MIT Press, 2012).

Well Met by Rachel Lee Rubin

After Pornified by Anne Sabo

Passing Strange by Martha Sandweiss

Not Under My Roof by Amy Schalet

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

So, what were your memorable reads in 2012? Got anything you're excitedly looking forward to checking out in 2013? Share in comments! Inquiring minds want to know :)