Friday, December 28, 2012

Why are women typically more religious than men?

There are some really dodgy theories about sex chromosomes and their influence on human behaviour, but this one shocked me on account of the source and context. I was listening to the Christmas Eve edition of the Infinite Monkey Cage, which was a really good episode and had three guests I'd turn on the radio for - Mark Gatiss, Richard Wiseman and Steve Jones (of the snail fame). Their other guest was Victor Stock, the former Dean of Guildford Cathedral, who was rather brilliant. 

But the great Steve Jones was talking about the evolutionary psychology of religion and came out with the following;
"Universally, worldwide, it's always been the case that those who are crippled and afflicted by having a Y chromosome - that's all of us on this platform - are less religious, and less willing to accept religion that women who don't have a Y chromosome. It's very hard not to argue that there's not some kind of biology there. We may not know exactly what it is, but biology is in there somewhere."
He then goes on to explain that people on the autistic spectrum are much less likely to be religious, which must, he feels, have a biological explanation.  I'm sure someone else can clear that one up.

Of course, the important phrase is "in there somewhere", but does it have to be?  It may be that biology does play some role in religiosity, but before the end of the programme, I had thought of a number of reasons why women may exhibit greater religiosity than men.  And I think only someone living in the West could possibly assert that biology must play a role. So...

The Possible Reasons Why Women Would Be Typically More Religious Than Men 
as came into my head in the space of five minutes - okay, it took longer to write down!
  • Cis men typically possess an XY pair of sex chromosomes, cis women typically possess an XX. There may be something about the difference between these particular chromosomes which alters men and women's brains to make women more prone to religious feeling - however that may be defined - than men. 
  • Globally and locally, women are more likely to live in poverty. Across the world, there is a strong inverse correlation between wealth and religiosity.  There are many exceptions and complexities, but these trends are pretty crystal; women are more likely to be poor, poor people are more likely to be religious. 
  • Women are more likely to witness birth and death first-hand. Obviously, women are more likely to give birth but, although it's commonplace for fathers to be there in this country, across the world, women are more likely to attend births.  Women are more likely to care for the sick and dying, and to be with people in their last moments. Understanding, celebrating and coping with birth and death is one of the major themes of all religious and folk traditions. Religion often gives people the language to use and the stories to tell on such occasions. 
  • Women are more likely to live with chronic illness. Faith can help people cope psychologically with loss, pain and other difficulties, but organised religion is also good at combating social isolation and in many cultures, providing nursing care and assistance where state help is absent.
  • Women like dresses.  Although predominantly men, most religious leaders wear dresses, often with elaborate trims and accessories, depending on the occasion. Women may attend places of worship to see the dresses their leaders are wearing.
  • Across the world, women are much less likely to get very much school education. Women are less likely to be literate. Women are less likely to learn about other belief systems or acquire the intellectual tools and information which allow some people to doubt the messages they've been taught all their lives.
  • Women are more likely to be widowed and/ or to live alone for significant periods of their lives.  Organised religion is often excellent at combating social isolation. There ought to be, but there is no organised humanist system for holding communities together and looking out for people on their own.  
  • Women are more likely to find themselves in situations of abject helplessness; rape, slavery and domestic abuse. Faith gives some folk something to hold onto when everything else is out of their control. This isn't necessary faith in God or gods, but it often is. 
  • Kate Middleton got married in a really big church. All women are interested in the life of Kate Middleton and so are more likely to go to church in an attempt to emulate their idol. 
  • Women are more likely to be responsible for the moral and intellectual education of their children. In many parts of the world, organised religion is at the centre of all available education - even in the UK, many better state schools are church schools.  One big reason some religious institutions spend so much energy trying to subjugate and control women is because mothers are seen as the key to their children's religiosity; control the women and you control the next generation.
  • Because certain religious institutions do spend so much energy trying to control and subjugate women, that tends to keep women hooked.  You're nothing, you're a spare rib, you're weakness, you're a temptress and a slut who brings violence upon yourself, but come here every Sunday and you will be forgiven.  Men can feel tremendous religious guilt, of course, but often having less laid on their heads, it may be easier to walk away. If you have grown up believing that your very physical being is responsible for not only your sin but the sin of those around you, it's really difficult to finally stop apologising. 
  • Women are less likely to have opportunities for fulfillment in paid work. Religious institutions are very good at organising and valuing unpaid volunteers who care for the sick, provide childcare and other social services, produce and distribute clothes and food for the poor, make crafts, raise-money and so forth.  
  • The major religious festivals almost always involve a lot of baking (with and without yeast). Women are really good at baking. Women become involved in religion so that they can show off how good they are at baking.

I think there are probably other ways that religions allow women, who often live in circumstances of very little power, to have some power, even if they're very rarely the ones in charge.  Even in ancient Athens, which was an extraordinarily sexist place, the city cult was headed by a massively powerful priestess.

None of this means that biology has nothing to do with religiosity, but as is almost always the case with the claims of evolutionary biology around gender, there are other more obvious explanations that need exploring first.

Monday, December 24, 2012


Today I am thirty two, which is a happy number.  When I said last year was the happiest of my life, I meant it sincerely. And when I say that 2012 has been even better than that, it really has.

So much has happened this year that I'm in danger of sounding like one of those awful smug Round-Robin Christmas Letters (the family recently received one with the line "According to my calendar, I didn't do anything in September - but I expect I was simply too busy to write it down!"). But I am proud of what a full life I have now, and memories of arriving at so many birthdays with a sense of disappointment, shame and the desperate hope that next year would be better, make me want to celebrate the fact that I now enjoy my birthday and only hope that next year will be half as good as this one.

Of course, this year's not been plain sailing; my health is more stable than it used to be, but there have still been several periods when I've been stuck in bed all the time. Stephen's health has been up and down, there's been stress, serious illness and death in the extended family, and earlier in the year we lost a special family friend.  However, today is all about the good stuff.

My thirty-second year in bullet points (but no particular order):
Stephen, a beautiful white man with dark wavy
hair and glasses, behind a birthday cake with
number-shaped candles reading "30".
  • Between us, Stephen, my sister and I organised a surprise party for my Dad's 60th birthday - which remained a surprise until about twenty minutes before the event. This was a massive undertaking, negotiating with my mother, organising food and drink and smuggling a gazebo in the boot of Dad's car under the pretense that the weight was just books and clothes. I also made a great deal of bunting in the early spring, not realising that, with the various events in the summer, I would have been able to buy bunting for a few quid a mile. 
  • Stephen himself turned 30 in May. That was a fantastic day. 
  • Stephen had his graduation in March. We traveled into the centre of London (the first time in seven years for me) and attended the graduation at the Barbican. 
  • We made our first music video, which went viral and became the ukelele precursor to (and possibly the inspiration for) Gangnam Style.

(Click CC button for closed captions.)
  • I entered a painting into the National Portrait Competition. That was exciting. I dragged Stephen and Mike to Shoreditch as a detour on our way to Stephen's graduation and about a month later, Mum went on a railway odyssey to pick it up again.  As expected, nothing came of it - the winner was very well deserved - but it was a very positive and interesting experience. 
  • I didn't do a great deal of painting this year, but I did paint an A1 (about 600x800mm) portrait of Dad for his birthday. It's very tricky to paint on a canvas that size without an easel (I have a suitable easel, but I didn't have it with me). It's also fairly tricking to move such a painting and its frame around without a person you live with noticing. Fortunately, he's not very observant.
  • I made cards and things as I always do, but my favourite artsy things this year was designing a plate for Alex. I bought Sophie a melamine plate with a lion on for Christmas and decided to look for something similar, but a bit more grown-up for Alex. I couldn't find anything I liked even slightly so with Stephen's help, I got a plate made from a design I had drawn on paper and coloured in on the computer.
  • The plate was partly inspired by the fact that this year, one of us got the best diagnoses ever.  Find physical impairment emasculating? Fed up with bodily difference being considered a sign of weakness? Try Viking Disease
  • Stephen's photography was featured in an exhibition at Guildford Cathedral. He exhibited two photographs and somehow managed to sell three.
  • Another week of photos, and I will have completed a Project 365 (or 366 - I did get in a muddle and I do appear to have lost a day somehow).  You can tell the parts of the year when I was unwell, as I have taken one or two hundred momentously boring photos. 
  • We also made an incredibly realistic alpaca puppet. Yes, that is a puppet. No, honestly - if you look really carefully, you can see the strings.
  • The low point of the year was, after having had surgery to remove a tumour on his kidney, Stephen's uncle became very seriously ill. For several weeks, we were almost certain that he was going to die, with one crisis after another - internal bleeding, accumulating gasses and MRSA - until he finally turned a corner. And now, despite the fact he still has what amounts to an open wound on his belly, the uncle is fit as a fiddle and has been recently driving round France. Meanwhile, so much of the tissue of his kidney died that it seems very unlikely that the cancer will come back.  
  • In July, Stephen and I got engaged. We've set a date for next summer and we've talked about it a lot, but to be perfectly honest, that's just about as far as we've got.
Sophie - A pale-skinned baby with dark eyes and a wide mouth
looks up and smiles. 
  • Our niece Sophie was born. We went down to the New Forest to meet her, which was a huge day but a really special one. Sophie visited us in Surrey in November. She is an incredibly smiley baby, and my sister's family seem extremely happy.
  • I didn't expect to be affected by the Jubilee in any way, shape or form. As it was, the Sunday of the Jubilee weekend with Stephen's Monarchist family was a very special day, I wore my tiara, we violently spatchcocked and barbequed a whole chicken and then had hysterics over the BBC coverage of the Jubilee Flotilla (this coverage was later criticised, but it was as if Brass Eye had done it, so it was great). We fell asleep at some point and woke up to see the chamber choir singing in the rain. Now that's what I call pluck
A Union Flag flies amid the greenery.

  • We ended up watching more sport over a two week period than I have in the last twenty years. I really enjoyed the Olympics, although I felt much less positive about the Paralympics.

    • I entered my first novel into a competition to have it read over and assessed by a literary consultancy. It won the free read, and I got such a lovely flattering e-mail about the sample chapters that I printed it off and stuck it to the notice board. I received the report last week and it was really positive - there were weaknesses I knew about, and my reader pretty much spelled out what I needed to do. Enough time has passed that I'm quite looking forward to going back and polishing it up a bit. 
    • Despite so much going on this year, my second novel is progressing at a pace, and it feels really good.  Of course I have massive wobbles in confidence, but other times, I think it is bloody good. I never felt that way about my first novel whilst writing it. I hope this is another sign of increased confidence, and not a tragic delusion.
    • In the last few weeks, my forth wisdom tooth is on the move.  Yes, I'm still teething.

    A very Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, and a peaceful, relaxing few days to everyone else. I hope you all have an excellent 2013 - you all deserve it. And thank you, one and all, for your ongoing presence and support.

    Monday, December 17, 2012

    A Culture of Dubious Consent

    [Content warning for rape and sexually explicit language. Also overlong - I wrote this in tiny bits over the course of a tough week and it will probably take you even longer to read. Consider reading this instead.]

    The sex in Christopher Brookmyre novels is pretty good as sex in fiction goes, mostly because of the light-heartedness of it all. Sex, written about with too much earnest, is often hilarious. In A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away, we hear about the loss of the hero's virginity to the woman he will later marry. Everything is wonderful until, at the last minute, the boy withdraws and ejaculates on his lover's face, just like he's seen in the porn films. Only then does he witness her shock and revulsion, and realises his terrible mistake. Between them, they sort it all out and live happily ever after. Until years later, when her ex-boyfriend tries to blow up a Hydroelectric Power Station on the day of the Highland Games*.

    There's been an almighty row this last week or so after Alyssa Royse wrote an article called Nice Guys Commit Rape (originally at the Good Men Project). When I first read this, I was extremely angry; Royse talks about how her friend raped a woman at a party while she was asleep, and despite repeatedly stating how this was rape and there was no excuse (who knew?), she nevertheless discusses the victim's flirtatious behaviour at length, talks about grey areas and tries to defend the rapist as a nice person who made a simple mistake. The Good Men Project went on to try to back up her argument by publishing an anonymous post by a unrepentant rapist, which is possibly even worse than it sounds, but has been demolished thoroughly by No Sleep 'Til Brooklands, Ozzy Frantz, Ally Fogg, Yes Means Yes and Cliff Pervocracy, among others.

    At this time, I spoke to a friend who felt frustrated that Royse had raised an important point that had since been thoroughly lost, partly in her delivery but partly in the argument - about whether someone can rape people and still be a good person somehow - that ensued. My friend talked about a rapist she knew and how he would be mortified at that label. And while what he did was wrong, there were cultural reasons he was able to frame it differently in his own head. Examining that, she said, isn't the same as condoning the crime.

    Competent adults should know when they're doing is wrong. It's not a question of but... culture. However, rape stats vary a great deal around the world. Certain contexts of rape, like prison rape, marital rape or rape within military service, are endemic in some countries and relatively low in others. This is not because some countries produce better human beings**.

    Feminists call this rape culture, but that covers a load of different issues. Royse claims her friend did not understand that the absence of consent or consciousness turns sex into rape. I doubt that very much, but there are cultural messages which enable rapists to make these arguments about confusion. As Cliff Pervocracy says in her excellent post We are the 95% (as in, the roughly 95% of people who manage not to commit rape);
    If affirmative, negotiated, freely given consent is the norm, then rapists lose the ability to say "I just didn't know." They can no longer make anyone think "but regular sex looks practically the same." If romance doesn't work a damn thing like rape, rapists can't hide behind "I was trying to be romantic." 
    As Cliff says, rapists lie about their confusion and ignorance, but they are lying to themselves as well as the rest of us.  So I wanted to talk about the specific cultural messages we get, not about rape, but about consent and the way that works in heterosexual relationships. Because most of this is about men and women. All these issues bleed out to effect everyone. Men and non-binary people who are raped by women and men are effected by all of this. But it all starts with ideas which help male rapists reason away their assaults on women.

    1. Sexual arousal takes over men's bodies so they can't be accountable for their actions. 

    The psychological effects of alcohol vary from culture to culture, according to expectation. In the UK, folks expect to become aggressive, so that happens. If you trick British people into thinking they have consumed alcohol, they forget to say please or thank you and fights break out.  Elsewhere, people don't expect this so they drink peaceably until they gently slide off their chairs. In other places, they don't even sit on chairs to begin with, so there are even fewer injuries.

    The same goes for sexual arousal. Plenty of people live with frustrated desires, remain celibate or faithful within unhappy marriages, refusing sex when the opportunity arises for various moral, social, medical or religious reasons. Meanwhile, most people have the experience of having to stop in the middle of sex when someone faints, something dislocates or goes into cramp or someone's grandmother walks into the room. Even when arousal is at its absolute peak, it is perfectly possible - if sometimes frustrating and demoralising - to call the whole thing off.

    In movies, characters who don't have a great deal of sexual chemistry - and often don't even like each other - frequently become overcome in the moment and have sex, just so there's a little flesh on the screen. Of course, people do sometimes have spontaneous sex in weird circumstances with people they hardly know in real life, but if the aliens had nothing but Hollywood to go by, they might suppose that any time a man and a beautiful woman find themselves in a situation of tension or peril and certainly any time a man and a woman like each other, sex becomes inevitable.

    During the notorious Reddit thread where men were invited to discuss why they had committed rape, men (rapists and non-rapists alike) repeatedly stated that men think with their penises. If we were to believe this to be the case, for even a moment, women could never be safe in the company of men.

    2. Women want men who want them.  Men simply have to prove the strength of their desire.

    We're taught that romantically, a woman is an entirely passive creature.  If she's pretty enough, a man falls in love with her. And so long as he isn't the Sheriff of Nottingham or Prince Humperdinck, his love will make her love him back. Women don't love or desire men for themselves, because men aren't particularly attractive in their own right; women love men because men want and love them.

    (In fact, given their supposed passivity, you might be under the impression that a woman would fall in love with the Sheriff of Nottingham or Prince Humperdinck, if only their hearts hadn't already been claimed by other men.)

    Thus, there are three love stories in maybe ninety percent of mainstream movies:
    1. Boy meets girl.  Boy falls in love with girl.  Girl sees this and falls in love with boy.
    2. Boy meets girl.  Boy falls in love with girl.  Girl doesn't see or believe it, so isn't interested until boy has thoroughly proven his love through heroic deeds. Girl falls in love with boy.
    3. Boy meets girl.  Boy falls in love with girl.  Girl doesn't love him back and she turns out to be a bitch. Girl is killed or runs off with the bad-guy.  Boy meets new girl.
    Unrequited attraction between two people who are both perfectly nice and lovely but just don't feel the same way about each other almost never happens in movies.  Proof of Life is one rather obscure example. There's unrequited love in Love Actually but even then his hostile, creepy and underhand behaviour is completely forgiven when it turns out Andrew Lincoln's character is in love with Keira Knightley. People behave decently with unrequited love in books - Brideshead Revisited and Little Dorrit spring to mind - but much less often than in real life.

    Meanwhile, fictional men do tremendously creepy and criminal things which magically work out because the women fall in love with them (as in Twilight and its fanfic Fifty Shades of Grey - though this is by no means the preserve of vampires or sadists). And you think, well, that is just fiction - in real life, people must know this stuff is wrong. Then you read about a guy who dies from cold and alcohol, camping outside an ex-girlfriend's house having harassed and stalked her for a few months, being portrayed as a tragic hero who died of a broken heart.

    Talented people have vented the despair, longing and humiliation of unrequited love or rejection into beautiful music and these have become regular romantic songs. People dance to Every Breath You Take or Adele's Someone Like You at their weddings. There's plenty of other popular music whose lyrics are about dark subjects, but we don't accidentally play Don't Fear The Reaper at funerals because we've forgotten what the lyrics are saying (admittedly, my Gran wanted We've Got All The Time In The World at Grandad's, but we talked her round).

    Unrequited love, unrequited sexual attraction and rejection are very normal human experiences, very painful as they sometimes are, but our culture gives confusing messages about what folk - especially men - should do about them.  Our stories and songs suggest that a true hero pursues his beloved no matter what, no matter how she feels about it. Common sense, decency and the law says mourn and move on.

    Financial sense says write a catchy song about how you're feeling. People will probably play it at their weddings.

    3. Women don't know what they want when it comes to sex so men have to decide on their behalf. 

    This is a staple of our culture. Creators of film and fiction get away with it because in those universes, the woman is often fighting her own desires.  On the one hand, she doesn't want to have sex on the side of the volcano with a man she barely knows because she is not a slut. On the other hand, she wants to have sex with the hero, because he loves or wants her (see above) and anyway, the volcano is erupting in a poorly thought-out metaphor which will lead to their imminent deaths. So it's up to him to get on with it, before she gets into a lava.

    This used to be even worse, when a heroine's hysterical state was fairly frequently resolved by a slap round the face, being carried off kicking and screaming (as in Gone With the Wind, although the film makes it look like rape) or an actually rape (as in Hitchcock's Marnie). Yet even in 2012, Christian Grey tells his victim that she's over-thinking and ignores her when she withdraws consent.

    There are reasons why this nonsense exists. Many women are conditioned against saying no. Many women are also conditioned not to ask for the things they want, especially when it comes to sex.  But uncertainty is a legitimate state.  Not yet ready (whether before a first-time or five thousandth time) and not entirely comfortable are also entirely legitimate, even if a person is very much in love or else aching with lust.  These are also inactive states. Uncertainty means No. You don't act before you're sure of your feelings and you certainly don't need others to make up your mind for you.

    If there is a person out there who really does say "No" when they mean "Yes", they're not competent enough to be having sexual relationships.

    4. Sex is part of a complex bartering system between straight men and women.

    Loads of cultural sources, especially men's and women's magazines, trashy newspaper columns, rom coms, certain religious rhetoric, pop psychology and self-help books treat heterosexuality as a system of heavily-encoded interminable bargaining. They say that men and women want completely different things but can never say so, so must instead dance around one another, each pretending to concede to the desires of the other whilst all the time securing their own bizarre goals.  It stinks to high heaven. It makes everyone miserable. It ruins relationships and it is a contributing factor in our rape statistics.

    Principally, this message says that sex is something women give to men in exchange for the things they really want, like affection, money, babies or someone to open jars. In the godawful Bridesmaids, for example, sex - including deeply unsatisfactory and outright coercive sex - is something women put up with in order to obtain such glories as having a boyfriend, receiving a compliment and of course, goal of all feminine goals, being and staying married. Out of the six women principle characters in a smutty sweary rom com (that is to say, it is by no means afraid of the subject matter), only one expresses any sexual desire. Which is funny, because she is the fat one! Oh, how we laughed.

    This is not my universe, but over the years, I have heard all kinds of theories about behaviours which indicate that a woman is prepared to have sex with any given man (you know, apart from initiating sex or expressing her wishes verbally - women never do that). These include going on a third date, letting him buy dinner, letting him buy desert, letting him walk her home, introducing him to a friend, asking him to go shopping with her, letting him put up a shelf or change a fuse and many more. The meme of the Friendzone is all about men who feel they have fulfilled their part of this mystical bargain but aren't getting the sex they deserve. Instead of dutiful sex, they are saddled with miserable and unending friendship.

    The idea that men and women naturally want different things but cannot communicate directly is one of the most dangerous ideas there is in heterosexual relationships.  It allows both men and women to justify abuses by assuming the other party's true feelings, including feelings that directly contradict what has been said.  These assumptions can be about sex (she owes me, it's her duty, men want sex all the time) as well as reproduction (all women want/ need to have babies deep down, no man thinks he's ready to be a father until he is one). They really can mess up lives.

    5. Passion is expressed in conflict and violence.

    Melissa McEwan spells this out in her afore-linked essay Rape Culture 101 (I've left her links in and really you should read the whole thing some time, even if you don't like the phrase Rape Culture):
    Rape culture is regarding violence as sexy and sexuality as violent. Rape culture is treating rape as a compliment, as the unbridled passion stirred in a healthy man by a beautiful woman, making irresistible the urge to rip open her bodice or slam her against a wall, or a wrought-iron fence, or a car hood, or pull her by her hair, or shove her onto a bed, or any one of a million other images of fight-fucking in movies and television shows and on the covers of romance novels that convey violent urges are inextricably linked with (straight) sexuality.
    In the movie Red Road, a woman becomes obsessed with the man who killed her husband and daughter in a drug-fueled car crash. It's a bleak and harrowing film, but it nevertheless has great merit - mostly for the use of CCTV (the protagonist is a CCTV operator who spots her enemy on camera). She gets closer to this man who she believes to be a monster and, outraged that he is out of prison, she sees an opportunity to frame him for rape. So they have consensual sex and she tries to rough things up a bit, in order to acquire a few marks and bruises. And that's awkward, because he's behaving normally and is nervous of not messing it up.

    I have no experience in this area, but I'm sure most times two people have sex for the first time, both parties will go about this with significant caution. You don't necessarily know the other person's likes and dislikes, you don't know the other person's body, but most of all, you don't want to sing such a duff note that the other party screams, throws you off or laughs in your face.

    Yet most of the sex we see in movies is supposed to be the first time two people make love, usually two people who don't know one another all that well, and yet it is almost always forceful and rough - ripped clothing, pinning down etc.. And that's a problem. Because it encourages the idea that this is how it's done and (particularly) first-time sex should feel or look a bit like a fight.  

    6. Sex is the grail.

    At the end of almost every movie, the hero gets the girl.  She is the physical reward a man receives for saving the world, solving the mystery, winning the game or growing as a human being.  If a man in a movie picks up a woman's scattered groceries, he will most likely get to have sex with her. If he rescues her from a burning building, it's a done deal. Great, good and victorious men get to have sex with whatever beautiful woman happens to be standing nearby.

    So first off, there's the problem of heterosexual sex being a reward. Women are human beings with sexual autonomy, varying tastes, interests, codes and feelings of their own, so however great a heterosexual man may be, even if he has saved the world from nuclear apocalypse, he will never be able to do whatever he likes, with whoever he likes, whenever he likes. Yet whenever a famous man stands accused of rape, some fan will always ask the sincere question, "But who on Earth would say no to him?"  Nobody ever says no to James Bond.  Nobody ever says no to any decent, brave or talented man in a movie - at least not for long.

    If you're not winning or questing for anything in particular, then sex may become the objective. I'm not talking about folks going out on a Saturday night with the hope of getting laid (or whatever the hi-tech equivalent is). Such people, for the most part, do so because they enjoy the experience. They enjoy the company of friends, they enjoy alcohol and the nightlife and, if they are lucky, they enjoy the experience of meeting, talking to and having sex with an attractive stranger. If they don't get lucky, then there will be other nights and even in the absence of sex, there are always stories to tell. It's what some people do for fun. Sex is sometimes part of that fun. At its absolute basest level, sex is a fun activity that two or more people enjoy together.

    I'm talking about the aspect of our culture which treats sex like the acquisition of points in a video game. You don't enjoy the points, but they give the game purpose, they show you are good at the game and you may boast to your friends about how many points you have.  Young men who have no points at all are in real social trouble; their masculinity will be questioned and they may be treated as strange, incomplete. But any man may feel anxious about the points he has. On a recent television programme about how many of us have Neanderthal DNA, the comedian presenter listened to the theories*** about cross-breeding and concluded, "Every hole's a goal!" The Good Men Project's pet rapist joked that the violent rape he committed, cheered on by his buddies, could be described as a "particularly harsh third base". The fact that folks even talk in terms of first, second and third base is pretty grim - especially as there are four bases in rounders.

    Sex is not a thing to be acquired, like points in a videogame. Sex is an experience, which occurs when two or more people want the same thing at the same time.  This is mostly down to luck and circumstance.  Given the great variety of people who manage to have sex, it is hardly an achievement in
    itself.  Sex can be lots of things, but fundamentally, it is an enjoyable activity.

    Edit: Stephen pointed out to me that there was an early computer game which scored points in this way. I imagine there have been many more since, but it sure started early.

    7. Sexual Violence or Coercion is a Joke.

    We joke about things to make them less horrific, and rape is among them. In A Woman In Berlin, victims of rape joke about their horrendous - but in postwar Berlin, very commonplace - experiences. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where rape victims are usually the butt of the joke. Only this last week, there has been Virgin Mobile's visual rape joke and FHM telling chaps not to wear women's socks:
    “If you run out of socks, you have two options: recycle, or go sock-free. No matter how cold it is, it’s never acceptable to wear your girlfriend / mother / victim’s socks.”
    Alyssa Royse jokes about her rapist friend's victim "But if something walks like a fuck and talks like a fuck, at what point are we supposed to understand that it's not a fuck?". The GMP rapist titters throughout his piece about how he's going to keep on "partying", whatever. This is humour about massively traumatic incidents in women's lives. Things that can effect them in profound ways for years to come.

    Rapists joke about rape to render their crimes less serious.  Rape in humour, especially gendered humour about what men and women are like, normalises violence and rape along with men being poor cooks and women being obsessed by footwear. If it's a joke, then it doesn't count as a crime, it couldn't be too bad. Most people who tell rape jokes are not rapists, but we need to be aware that rapists, as well as victims, might be in the room. And as I've said before on numerous occasions, you need to consider who you might be hurting and who you might be comforting with a joke. 

    Most people, including the vast majority of men, do not commit rape. Without needing a discussion, we all understand the absolute basics of consent. Many of us have made small mistakes, misread signals, make a fool of ourselves, even made someone else feel a little uncomfortable and culture often plays a part in that - like the character who thinks all straight sex concludes with the man coming on someone's face. Rape is not like that. It is not a misunderstanding of a situation. But rapists, however, tell us it is like that and, because we're decent and inclined to believe the best of others, we sometimes get sucked in.

    Alyssa Royse says "...we're all accomplices in making women's bodies and sexuality a prize and something to which some men feel entitled".  I don't think that's true. But we are all part of a culture which allows a rapist to tell his friends about his dreadful confusion, and to receive empathy and reassurance in return.

    The final word to the great Cliff Pervocracy;
    "So when you hear all the totally plausible ways it could have been you, realize: nope, probably couldn't have been. Most people don't struggle not to commit rape. Most people don't have trouble understanding sexual refusal. The vast majority of people go through drunken blunders and miscommunication and bad breakups without committing or being accused of rape, just as the vast majority of people don't have trouble restraining themselves from torture or murder.  
    And forget the numbers for a second. If you, personally, make a commitment to never have sex without unambiguous consent, your odds of being a not-rapist are 100%. It can't "happen to you" if you decide not to do it."

    * My copy is in a box, in an attic, two hundred miles away. So there's a small chance I'm remembering the wrong book or it wasn't quite as I describe in some way.

    ** Except possibly New Zealand.  Everyone I've come across from New Zealand is lovely. They produced the classic movie Tongan Ninja, the great band Flight of the Concords, everything looks like Middle Earth and they have those funky green endangered owls that tried to mate with Mark Carwardine. If it wasn't so far away from everything, I'd move there!

    *** It's not an irrelevant point that all the theories of interbreeding asked the question, "Why would human men decide to have sex with Neanderthal females?" and most of them relied upon human masculine sexual aggression. This is the nature of our cultural imagination.

    Friday, November 30, 2012

    On Naming Children & Fictional Characters

    Sophie and I were both worried about the baby with no name.
    (An unhappy looking white woman and baby niece.)
    My sister was telling me about a very indecisive couple she knows.  They had a baby and announced its birth, explaining that they hadn't come up with a name yet.  In the UK, you're legally obliged to register a birth within four weeks.  At three weeks and six days, they finally made their minds up. Or at least, kind of - the child now has two forenames, the father refers to her by her first name and the mother by her second.

    I can completely understand this.

    Names fascinate me. I've always been interested in the origin of names and the way that names evolve, concealing, preserving or celebrating cultural identities. I like the sound of names and the way those sounds conjure up ideas about a person's nature; softness, sharpness, hardness, roundness, grandour, strength, wisdom and frailty. Our arbitrary rules about what makes a feminine or masculine name (which don't apply elsewhere in the world, Peaches). I like the way that people move through different names, diminutives, pet names, formal names, married names, pen and stage names and our ability to change our identity through tweaking or completely changing our names. I like the capacity for the sound of our names to give comfort, arousal, irritation or terror ("They're coming to get you, Barbara..."). In the news, I'm always spotting evidence of nominative determinism; an anatomist called Dr Bone, a bird expect called Prof. Crowe and so forth (I'm sad to report that when I googled the best study I knew into this, I found that it had been debunked - but that only makes it interesting in another way).

    So yes, I'm like names.

    So if I ever had to name a human being.... well, fictional characters are hard enough.  I spend more time on this than you could ever imagine.  I was relieved when I saw an interview with Graham Linehan who spoke about how the writing of The IT Crowd was delayed because he couldn't quite decide on what Roy's name should be.  And that's the guy who dreamed up Father Ted Crilly.

    A fictional character's name, like that of a child, must
    1. Be distinct from the names of other characters (or in the case of babies, nearby children) 
    2. Be memorable enough in its own right
    3. Not have any strong unintentional association with a famous person or fictional character.
    4. Fit in naturally with the context of their life (not really applicable to babies) and 
    5. Just feel right.
    1. Coming up with a distinct name sounds simple, but it is much easier when dealing with fictional characters than people. Just within my own family, there are three Michaels, plus pairs of Stephens, Jeans, Christophers and even Rosemarys - none of whom were first born children taking a parent's name. At high school, there were three Elizabeths, three Emmas and two Georginas in a class of just twenty-five girls. Although we cringe (or admire the massive power of fiction*) when we see that Harry and Bella are now among the most popular baby names, the things that influence name choices are usually quite subtle. You may well find the very special name you've chosen for your child is commonplace among her peers, with no clue why so many people chose Pandora this year. (There was a Pandora at school. Everyone got nervous when she opened her packed lunch...)

    Yet if you're writing a family or a class of children, you'd be much more careful about repetition. It's probably as hard to write characters with the same name as it is to read about them and keep track. Emily Bronte gets away with it because she kills the original Cathy giving birth to the next Cathy.

    It's not just to do with straight repetition - it's terrifically easy to muddle some names, like Mary, Marie and Maria.  Personally I still have to look up which evil wizard is Saruman and which is Sauron and it's a good job Arathorn only featured historically, given that his son is Aragorn. At least, his first born - the family don't like to talk about his wayward vegetarian younger brother Araquorn. 

    I soon cheered up but Sophie had needed to think about it.
    (A happier woman with uncertain baby niece.)
    When my sister and brother in law were thinking of names for their children, they pretty much ruled out the names of anyone they knew well. They even ruled out my favourite, Phillipa, because they know a man called Philip. Some excuse...

    2. Memorability should be easier, in theory, if you're writing fantasy or sci-fi or making up a child's name from scratch. But memorability isn't just about being unique. It also helps
    • If a name can be easily spelled. 
    • If a name is easily pronounced.  It really matters.  Sometimes it's not possible, if you're writing in English about a non-English culture.  But it is much harder to hold a name in your head if you can't imagine what it sounds like.
    War and Peace is the only book where I actually took notes on the characters because I was losing track. Obviously, reading in translation, I can't complain, but I had big problems with diminutives. So for example Pytor or Peter was Petra to his family and Pierre in some contexts. Which would have been manageable if there weren't five thousand other characters I was trying to hold in my head.

    I don't know whether to applaud or condemn Dickens for his capacity to come up with memorable names.  The trouble is that characters in the Dickens parody Bleak Expectations wouldn't exactly seem out of place if they came up in one of his novels; Pip Bin, Harry Biscuit, Skinflint Parsimonious, Gently Benevolent and so forth. Certainly Dickens displays a love of language in his ability to come up with names that give you information about a character; Mrs Todger, Edward Murdstone, Mr Bumble, Betsy Trotwood, Orlick and perhaps most the explicit, Uriah Heep.  But it often feels too much. Mervin Peake and Terry Pratchett do the same kind of thing, but then they're writing in fantastical worlds, with no attempt to persuade the reader that these are people you might meet on the streets of a real city.

    Anyway, really simple names, well chosen, can be just as memorable as complex ones; Harry Potter, James Bond or Jim Hawkins, for example. Douglas Adams was great with very simple but memorable names, as well as the sci-fi Zaphod Beetlebrox; Arthur Dent, Dirk Gently, Richard MacDuff and the genius of Ford Prefect, given that Ford Prefect sounds like it ought to be perfectly sensible and ordinary name.

    I've also decided there's something about first names with three syllables that benefit a great deal from a monosyllabic last name such as Atticus Finch, Artemis Fowl and Sebastian Flight - such good names!

    I'm really struggling to think of female characters in literature who have really fantastic names. Any suggestions?

    3. The absence of strong confusing associations should be a no-brainer.  Marilyn was not named after Marilyn Monroe, but having grown up in the 50s and 60s, she still imagines that Monroe is the first thing that comes to a person's mind when they hear her name. Any Kylies or Adeles growing up now may come to consider themselves cursed by their famous namesakes.

    One of the strangest criticisms of Fifty Shades of Grey is that it is a book all about a woman who doesn't eat unless she is told to, called Ana, and the only female character she likes is called Mia. Ana and Mia (here's the Google results, which come with a serious health warning) are slang terms used by people with anorexia and bulimia, particularly those who support one another's disordered behaviour through on-line community. It seems to me extremely unlikely that the author did this intentionally, but it is jarring and, when intention is suspected, rather sinister. 

    4. Whilst there is virtue in not making life especially hard for a child, I think it would be fairly unhealthy for parents to consider the social context when coming up with a name. Hopefully, your child will go out into the world and mix with a great number of different people.  Name them accordingly.

    After a while, we were both feeling better.
    (Same happy woman and equally happy baby).
    Everything about social context is fluid and riddled with exceptions. My parents say that if I had been a boy, I would have been called Desmond, after my grandfather. I have never known another Desmond and all the famous Desmonds I can think of are much older than me and black.  However, I could have been called Desmond, got along just fine and I'm not sure anyone would have considered it that remarkable.

    As it is, I can count on one hand the Deborahs I've had personal contact with (I've met dozens in fiction) and nobody's commented that it is a strange name. I am however, aware that before the early twentieth century, it would be a very unusual name for a British gentile. Same with Ruth, Issac and a few other Old Testament names. (I don't think anyone's been called Nebuchadnezzar since Nebuchadnezzar - apart from the second King Nebuchadnezzar, I suppose, and the name was enough to give him nightmares!) 

    Here are further considerations:
    • Socio-Economic Class.  Names that don't sit with the class origins of a character jar a lot with me, because they suggest ignorance - for example, when a upper middle class writer has got a Tarquin selling drugs from the council flat he grew up in.  He probably carries them around in a Waitrose carrier bag. However, these trends change very quickly. When I was a kid, Milo was a posh name, then there was a character Milo on kids TV and there are now many young boys called Milo from many different backgrounds. Similarly, I should imagine there are far more British working class Gileses, Cordelias and Xanders around now whose parents enjoyed Buffy The Vampire Slayer. There was a girl at my school called Bali, who would loudly proclaim that this was Bali with an L I (not to be confused with Barley) because that was where she was conceived. I imagine her folks had to be fairly wealthy, whereas these days far more people can afford to travel and use their children's names to commemorate the sex they have had in exotic locations. 
    • Age. There is a slightly ridiculous article on the BBC website about baby names which were unlikely to be rehabilitated called In search of a baby called Derek (which of course resulted in such a response from Dereks and their parents that they had to publish a whole page of them) which, although being a little wide of the mark, does make the point about naming, fashion and the course of time. Although, few names completely disappear (except possibly Adolf), there were very few Dillons about before The Magic Roundabout and (contrary to a terrible film I saw last week), you didn't get many Gavins in ancient Rome. 
    • Religion.  Most British Catholic families I know, even now, stick to Saints names (there's an awful lot of them). Many Muslims and Jews, regardless of where they or their families come from, choose Arabic and Hebrew names respectively. Although this doesn't apply to everyone, by any means, it is a factor to bear in mind. 
    • Cultural Heritage and Naturalisation. One is as important as the other - some immigrant groups will take British names - sometimes even changing existing first and surnames - while others will hold onto tradition. Then, generations down the line, some will revert to traditional names and others will choose British names instead. Which is partly to say that there are no hard and fast rules, but these are things which would be very useful to know about your characters and their background.  Also, if you're writing a story based on a spaceship in the year 3012, with a predominantly white crew with names like Cobalt and Squee, you need to think about why your token Asian guy might be called Rajendra. Also, the white thing.
    • Sexuality. This is entirely in the negative - believe it or not, a person's sexuality does not influence what their parents name them at birth. Some girl's names are butch and some boy's names are rather camp, for whatever reason (Round The Horn did for Julian and Sandy forever), but gay people are no more likely possess them than anyone else. Radclyffe Hall (originally Margaret) had the heroine of Well of Loneliness christened Stephen because her parents wanted their child to be a boy. I mean, I know it was a different time and Hall had never listened to Lady Gaga's Born This Way, but you'd think she'd have realised from personal experience that Stephen would have been into girls even if she'd been called Stephanie.
    Sophie was very pleased once we'd sorted this business of
    naming people out. (a very smiley white baby)
    5. It's got to feel right. My sister and brother-in-law had firm ideas for names for their children, but didn't tell anyone before they were born, just in case the babies came out looking like someone else entirely. Sophie looks like a Sophie, but she might have come out looking like a Wendoline or even a Rover.

    Part of this issue is around diminutives. I've known parents who name their child Michael or Catherine, but then cringe whenever people address them (or worse, they call themselves) Mike, Mick, Cath or Kate.  And of course, different people attract, prefer, tolerate or loathe the diminutives to their name. Parents need to anticipate this and not mind, but writers need to understand how this is going to work for their characters.

    There must be a reason that nearly no-one ever calls me Debbie, whereas Rosemary is known as Rosie to everyone who first met her as an adult.  I don't know what it is, but if we were fictional characters, our author would need to know. Perhaps we are, and they do! If so, someone needs to work harder on the dialogue - way too many ums and urghs.

    People call Gerald Gerry, but at some point he decided that he could no longer tolerate it.  He then made the mistake of correcting his son-in-law's innocent mistake (nobody knew Gerry was a problem), with the now infamous words, "That's Gerald, dear boy."  Years later, he is still frequently addressed as Gerald Dear Boy by various family members.  This little story tells you an awful lot about this character and his family.

    When writing fiction, some names come to my head and stick so fast that it would be a terrific wrench to change it.  Others take a lot of thought and I can change them several times as I'm going along.  Even the names of minor characters can require a great deal of contemplation - with some books, you can read the writer's contempt for their minor characters, being all Johns and Janes, Smiths and Joneses.

    But to name an actual human being, who would take that name and wear it for eighty or ninety years? I'd need a lot more than nine months to work that one out.

    Of course, some people get to choose their own name, sometimes when they transition, sometimes when they want or urgently need a fresh start for other reasons. In a strange way, I imagine that's easier, but I'd really love to know how it's done. When one close friend told me the secret of their original name, I exclaimed with horror, "But I'm sure you were never a [insert the most unsuitable name imaginable]!"

    * I recently met a six year old Merlin. It was difficult not to ask how he felt about his name.

    Tuesday, November 27, 2012

    Bisexuality en Vogue and Other Myths and Legends

    For a while, I've been thinking about writing a myth-busting post about bisexuality*.  Then Daniel Warner wrote an article in the Huffington Post, which neatly provides a run-through of almost every myth there is, entitled Bisexuality: Is it Fun, Non-Committal or Just Plain Greedy? (via @GirlWithTheCane) Sometimes, someone will ask a rhetorical question and I find myself compelled to answer. Warner explains,
    "As an adult I have never really given bisexuality much thought. When people described themselves as being bisexual I automatically assumed they were gay (if male), trying to make themselves more interesting (if female) or desperate to broaden their appeal and fan base (if famous)."
    I recently read that one reason Caitlin Moran's feminism is so appealing is that she doesn't use the word phallocentric. So I won't. It's just that our culture loves winkles, and in the face of the slightest ambiguity, assumes that a person has a preference for winkles (or at least a preference for the kind of people who usually possess them). If a man wears a pink shirt or a flash of paisley, my Dad thinks he must like winkles.  The other day, a friend referred to a boy liking amateur dramatics, as if that suggested he was winkily inclined. When lesbians fail to shave their heads and wear standard-issue dungarees, it is often assumed that deep down, they too have a winkle predilection. We live in a phallocentric culture winkle wonderland.

    As a younger woman, the suggestion that I said I was bisexual to seem more interesting (or even sexier) made me feel quite sick with rage. I didn't have the most difficult adolescence as queer adolescences go, but it was pretty tough. Growing up in the environment I did, I was disgusted by my own emotions - not just sexual feelings towards female friends, which felt like the creepiest kind of treachery - but my own capacity for love.  For falling in love with the wrong people.  It wasn't the biggest factor, but this self-disgust contributed to a deep and nearly deadly depression at the age of eighteen. Because, you know, I thought it made me more interesting...

    There was a period of history when a number of famous men came out as bisexual before later describing themselves as gay.  I can't imagine Elton John was actually the last to do this, but I can't think of any recent examples.  I do know that the open bisexuality of famous men is still considered spoken about as a stepping stone to coming out properly.  In every day life, bisexual men are often treated as if they're still half in denial about their true sexuality and that any relationships they have with women are somehow a facade.

    I care much less about what folks think of me now, but I worry for youngsters coming up in not greatly improved circumstances. Despite often enjoying straight privilege, bisexual people are more vulnerable to mental ill health than gay people. As a youngster, I didn't know how to describe my sexuality, even to myself, and felt I had made a mistake with every new feeling - oh, I must be a lesbian, oh no, turns out I'm straight all along. I was an outsider, but without an outsider community to turn to.  As an adult, I feel a sense of belonging among queer people, at least until the Daniel Warners of this world chip in.
    "Bisexual... Liberal Democrat... you also only drink fair trade coffee, ride a bicycle and recycle your newspapers... unshaven armpits and mohair sweaters."
    In fairness, all of that is true.  Bisexual people are better human beings than straight or gay people, apart from our tragically misplaced faith in moderate-sounding politicians. And we love mohair.  I once had this mohair sweater with an asymmetrical neckline, and thick black and baby pink stripes - oh, you had to see it - it was gorgeous!
    "I have never suffered indecisive people. You make a choice and stick with it. Good or bad, wrong or right, back door or front door, you better know your way in and your way out and just get on with it. Bisexuality seemed lazy rather than greedy. I couldn't imagine anyone who would be thrilled finding out that their partner didn't really mind if they were Jack or Jill, unless, of course, they were both being taken up the hill together."
    See, it's like this.  I lack whatever wiring it is which allows people to discriminate, romantically and sexually, between people of different genders.  When I find people attractive, it isn't because of their gender.  There are sexual characteristics I find attractive, but not for their own sake. It depends on what suits a person.  It depends on the whole package.

    Less unusually, I don't have a particular preference for colouring, height or body shape. It's not that I'm not fussy - physical beauty matters a great deal to me, but there are different kinds. Similarly, I read widely, but that doesn't mean that when I recommend a book, I can somehow be considered less fussy than someone who only reads within one narrow genre.

    Some people only tend to fancy tall people or blond people or big-bottomed people - and that's okay - but for most of us our attraction tends to work on a more case by case basis. For me, gender is part of that flexibility.

    As for partners not being thrilled, I have learnt through extensive research that Daniel Warner has a beard. I wonder if it would be a worry to him if a partner didn't have a particular preference for a bearded man over someone clean shaven?  Some people love beards, some people hate them, but lots of people judge a man's attractiveness according to the complete package. Bisexuality is like that... and then again, it isn't.

    After all, if a bisexual person fancies you, then they're attracted to you over a much bigger pool of people than if they were straight or gay. They could fancy literally anyone and yet they fancy you. Of course, whether you feel honoured about this depends on who they are (although bisexual people are almost as hot as they are ethical), but if you were into them, why on Earth would you not be thrilled?
    "Now, it's fashionable to kiss a girl and like it. It's okay to admit you may have had a dalliance with Jim when you're really into Jessie and it's not frowned upon if you can get it up for Belinda when you're getting down with Bill."
    Yes, yes, bisexuality is naturally non-monogamous.

    No, of course not!  It's like this.  Some gynophiles have a preference for say, white women with blonde hair - and as I've said, that's okay.  But most of us aren't wired that way (and arguably, there are strong cultural influences on the characteristics we find attractive, so wiring may be the wrong word in any case).

    Most gynophiles (I should imagine, I haven't had time to ask) have the capacity to be attracted to lovely women of any colouring. Straight men and gay women don't tend to have a succession of girlfriends who look exactly the same (when they do, it tends to raise eyebrows).

    So imagine a lesbian meets and falls in love with a beautiful white woman with blonde hair.  They marry and live happily ever after. Does anyone ever ask this lesbian, "Don't you miss having sex with black women? What about Asian women? What about redheads?  How can you have a fulfilling sex life without including all these people with characteristics you could be attracted to?"

    (Nor, incidentally, do other non-blonde women approach the couple and expect them to want a threesome. Nor is her wife likely to demand a threesome with a brown-haired woman she happens to fancy, on the grounds that because our lesbian can be attracted to non-blonde women, she must be attracted to - and happy to open up her marriage to - this particular one. I hope.**)

    At one point, I became smitten with Queen Latifah and rented pretty much every film she's ever been in.  She's been in some truly terrible films, lovely though she is.  I later had a phase of infatuation with Tom Hollander and rented every film he's ever been in.  Those films were better, on average.  I consider these two actors to be very sexually attractive, but I acknowledge that they are very very different in manner and physique.

    So say I got together with Queen Latifah - it could happen one day. Why does being bisexual mean I couldn't be happily monogamous, when say, the capacity to fancy someone short, slight, white and very very English, doesn't? Is gender really the biggest difference between Queen Latifah and Tom Hollander? Really?

    Oh okay, but my point is, not to me.

    Of course, some people are promiscuous.  Some people (gay, straight or bi) are unfulfilled having sex with just one person and will seek out a wide variety of sexual partners. However, most people can be very happy with one person.  Most people who are lucky enough to fall in love, fall in love with one person, and are only seriously interested in having sex with that person (some monogamous people have a promiscuous fantasy life, others do not).  Some people fall in love with and partner more than one person, but I've never known a polyamourous person to keep a checklist of characteristics that each partner must represent.

    It's all about love, man.  Clearly you don't have to be bisexual to have sex with people of all genders - most gay men, and quite a few gay women I know have had heterosexual sex at some point, whether under social pressure or as an experiment and very many straight people - especially men - have had homosexual experiences at some point. They never had to make a choice and stick to it.  In some cases, they had to find out who they were.  In other cases, they were horny and went where the mood took them.  Reports of pleasure, horror and dissonance vary widely.

    But bisexuality, like homosexuality, is ultimately about romantic feeling, identity and love - the big stuff.  If it was just sex, we could all choose to live straight lives and avoid a lot of hassle. And I suspect that, when people are allowed to be themselves, the capacity for monogamy, commitment and devotion is fairly evenly spread across all orientations.

    "Bisexuality is en vogue, it's the new black and it's the boy/girl thing that's on every boy and girls lips."
    If this were true, there wouldn't be articles like this one.  It wouldn't be okay to talk about people of any sexuality as if it were something between a lifestyle choice and a rude joke.

    As a bisexual cis woman partnered to a man, I have three metric tonnes of straight privilege.  But there are plenty of bisexual people who suffer the full force of society's homophobia every day and still have this kind of crap to deal with, even from within the queer community. And that really sucks.

    In other news, I had a rant at Where's the Benefit? about Lord Freud and the Risk-Taking Poor.

    * To me, bisexual means having sexual desires towards people of both my gender (homo) and other genders (hetero).  Other people believe the bi in bisexual implies that there are only two genders, or that a bisexual person is only attracted to men and women.  Such people may prefer pansexual, and I would prefer to use pansexuality for clarity, only very few people know what it means and it still conjures up images of fauns to me. Not that fauns aren't tremendously sexy, what with cute little horns and tail, the posture of a man wearing high heels and those legs, covered in lovely mohair...

    ** Yes, this did happen to me.  The odd thing was that the woman in question was straight, was with someone else and had shown no interest in either of us, but these seemed smaller obstacles to my ex than getting me to agree to it.  When I didn't, I was told that I only said I was bisexual to seem more interesting.

    Saturday, November 17, 2012

    Down with Coupledom, Up with Love!

    People don't have a whole lot of conscious control over romantic love.

    You can, of course, enjoy the state you're in and work to maintain that happy state. So for example, if you prefer being single, it's best not to sign up for But if you want to be absolutely sure, you've also got to avoid lingering eye contact with strangers on buses and in book shops, avoid making new friends with people of romantically-compatible genders and orientations, and ruthlessly ditch old friends at the slightest change in your feelings about one another. You can have sex, but only with deeply unattractive strangers, and even then there's some risk that you might get talking, find that they have a dazzling personality which cancels out the warts, and that third eye, though not matching the others in size or colour, has a certain sort of bloodshot charm in the first cool light of morning.

    So however much you love the single life, if you are capable of romantic feeling, a mutually-electrifying bolt may strike.  It's perfectly healthy to work on the basis that it won't, but if it does, your choice will be significantly diminished.  If two people are in love and want to be together, it is unlikely that they will prefer any life without the other.

    This is why when I see the phrase single by choice, I wonder.  Some people are, of course, aromantic or not particularly inclined to romance, and others have phases in their life when they're not interested, but that stuff's not a choice either.  However, it really doesn't matter. For one thing, some people can exercise romantic preference in ways others cannot and maybe I can't understand. For another, we live in a culture which privileges the heterosexual couple above all other combinations of adults and family units. Single people are certainly not the most reviled sexual minority (I mean, how?!) but our culture is constructed in a way that makes being single - a state that most people will experience for at least some years of their adult life - tougher than it ought to be.

    What gives me the willies is couples who behave as if they have made a choice. It makes me worry that they did. These are the sort who believe that life is always better lived in pairs and that everyone, absolutely everyone would be better off if they were to follow suit.  Due to my medical condition, I have only been single for four days since I was eighteen, so I've never been subjected to the mean things said to single people, but I do hear things said about them. Obviously, there's the universal assumption that single people are lonely, unfulfilled and actively looking for a partner, but the other great offenders include

    • "She could easily find a partner if she wasn't so fussy." You can be too fussy about food when you're eating nothing but baked beans and white bread. You can be too fussy when shopping for a pair of winter shoes when it's already November and you're still wearing sandals. You can even be too fussy when applying for a job you only need as a stop gap.  You can't be too fussy when it comes to love or sex or any significant emotional investment. This stuff is about joy!  In the absence of the joy potential, what's the point?  And how precious is romantic love if you're not extremely fussy?  "I love you, but any number of people would do just as well."
    • "If only she met someone, maybe she'd be able to lose weight."  I've also heard meeting someone as the solution to mental illness, financial hardship and simply being a little bit odd.  I don't know how common the weight loss one is, but I have a family member who says this about any woman who is both fat and single, whatever her life circumstances.  As well as the assumption that all fat people want to lose weight and the assumption that love will do that (what with all those full English breakfasts in bed, boxes of chocolate, romantic restaurant dinners, champagne celebrations, tiramisu-flavoured body paint etc.), it reminds me of a time that pregnancy was recommended to me as a way of boosting my immune system. Not a responsible attitude towards major life events!
    • "He'll settle down once he meets a nice girl."  This is usually heard about young men who are in some kind of trouble or aimlessly drifting, but can be heard about men of any age who haven't met other people's standards of growing up and settling down.  It's this idea of men as naturally a bit savage and useless and women as a civilising force. To me, it begs questions such as, would such a man want such a woman? Would such a woman want such a man? Might the two of them not make one another dreadfully unhappy, given that one is apparently a Neanderthal and the other is a Homo Superior?
    Much of any critique of the single life or coupledom is about gender stereotypes. When attached people lament the plight of their single friends and family, it is often gendered; women need someone to look after and men need someone to look after them - and sometimes vice versa, but always in very gendered ways; a man providing money, a woman providing someone to be ambitious for etc.. When the BBC asked for readers stories about single life, some men wrote about their freedom from controlling women and some women wrote about their freedom from infantile men. Several readers felt compelled to mention that they weren't gay or anything. Single, but not gay - who could have imagined such a thing?

    (Weirdly, I observe that missionary marrieds are particularly moved by the plight of their single gay friends, and try to set them up with even greater desperation. If straight Susan is single, they'll try hooking her up with the postman who is roughly the same age, shares her love of Thai food and has a cousin who was an extra in Susan's favourite movie (although he's never seen the film himself).  If lesbian Laura is single, they'll try hooking her up with a woman they met on holiday in Brazil, who still lives in Brazil, is thirty years older than Laura and already has a wife.)

    Coupledom is, of course, completely overrated and our culture acknowledges this fact at the same time as thrusting it upon us as a model of normality.  You only need to watch your average ad break to see what our culture depicts as normal couples, not getting on very well, resenting each other and buying stuff to make them feel better. The Dulux paint one is my favourite - look at the exchange of looks between these two at the end!  It started out so nicely with the sexy red walls, but now their life has become - like their walls - grey.  It's a fate worse than magnolia! 

    There are various practical and financial advantages to pooling your resources with another person. And the idea is that it is nice to have someone else around to listen to your troubles and to be able to have sex without so much as putting your best shoes on.  That's the idea, but it is awash with complexity and trouble unless you genuinely, sincerely and consistently delight in one another's company. After all, you have to listen to their troubles, and maybe they have a headache - or a shoe fetish! Meanwhile, apart from the sex part, all of this could be achieved with close friends or family members (or what s. e. smith describes as a queerplatonic partner), without all the cultural expectation of exclusivity, permanence and the dedication of most of your free time.

    Because being in a romantic relationship with someone who isn't even your friend has got to be far lonelier and more humiliating than being single, especially when you've been led to believe (by your culture and perhaps your partner too) that this is a great deal better than the alternative. Lonely people often live in terror of increased levels of loneliness. But here's something I learnt.

    After I left my first marriage, I considered whether I had wasted ten years of my life being miserable and lonely. And at times, I had been desperately lonely, have many unhappy, humiliating or frightening memories from being with my ex. However, I also have many happy memories from this period of my life. I didn't see nearly enough of them, but I did have very good times with friends and family. I lived in interesting places and enjoyed the world around me. I read a great number of books.  I learnt to play the guitar. I made stuff, I sewed, I painted, I started this blog. I studied. I listened to a lot of music and watched lots of films. And against incredible odds, I wrote my first novel (which is now prize-winning, if as yet unpublished).

    And had I been single, I might have done a lot more of all that and would have been a very great deal happier. Of course, I don't have a clue - genuinely - how I would enjoy being single. I wouldn't live alone because I couldn't, and so long as I found somewhere comfortable to live, I imagine I would be cool with it.  Being mutually head over heels in love (despite the collision and entanglement of legs) makes me extremely happy, but putting all this time, energy and emotion into somebody who is anything less than fantastic? Never again. I have fantastic friends. I have fantastic family members. I am, myself, fairly fantastic. Stephen gets my time, energy and love because he is super-fantastic, and gives me much more in return.

    Love is underrated.  Romantic love is underrated, and treated with cynicism in our culture. I think it's tragic the way that the idea of coupledom, a state of gender-based mutual irritation and tolerance, has become the dominant model of what romantic relationships are like.

    But all the other kinds of love, and especially friendship, are even more underrated and undervalued. Love is a big part of what makes any of us happy, but it comes in many different shapes and flavours, and rarely involves a conscious choice. 

    Tuesday, November 06, 2012

    Disability in Fiction - A Load of Lovely Links

    Thanks in part to your support, the brilliant Lisa Egan made the Independent on Sunday's Pink List, coming in as the country's 78th most influential LGBT person.  Leave this place at once and read her excellent acceptance blog post on the double discrimination of being disabled and gay.  Hooray! (That's hooray she made the list, not that... well, you know what I mean.)

    I've been meaning to compile a list of useful links around the fictional representation of disabled people. This is going to be a work in progress and I would very much appreciate your help.  I've compiled this list by memory and from the links given in the comments, so if you have a link to any resource, blog post or article on this, please add it to the comments and I'll add it to my list.

    And by all means, if in the future you write or create something about disability in fiction, feel free to come back and (as long as it is suitable) I'll add it to the body of the post. 


    This is Stuffed Olive's project which promotes fully inclusive young adult fiction; "specifically fiction with protagonists from groups with limited visibility in popular culture" including disabled people.

    The idea is to compile a database of information writing by disabled people about their impairments, how they are misrepresented in fiction, examples of where they are represented well and resources to help writers represent them better.

    Media Representation of Disabled People

    Provides a basic and accessible breakdown of the problems with disability as currently represented in the media in general.

    Rachel's blog covers many disability-related subjects, but features frequent reviews of books and other cultural materials featuring disabled people.

    Lisy Babe's Thoughts on TV and Film

    As mentioned previously, Lisy talks about disability in TV and film and she also frequently uses this Tumblr to link to useful or pertinent articles or news.

    s. e. smith

    is one of the most prolific writers on social justice and popular culture on-line, writing about disability and other identities in film, television and books. However ou writes about all sorts, all over the place, so all I can suggest is that you follow ou particularly at Bitch Magazine, but also Tigerbeatdown, Global Comment and ou own blog, this ain't livin'

    The FWD team did loads of book, television and film reviews.  I especially recommend trawling through them if you are a non-disabled writer or lack confidence in writing characters with particular impairments. The FWD team were not any kind of representative cross-section of disabled people and we all have different sensitivities when it comes to this stuff (especially language), but a little reading here would give you a good idea about common mistakes and cliches, together with some of the nuances of good representation.

    Bogi Tak√°cs: reviews of literature featuring disabled characters.

    Loads of fairly short, very readable reviews featuring common tropes of disability in fiction. Prezzey also has a tag for reviews of work by disabled authors.

    Blindness Resources Guide for Fanfiction (thanks chordatesrock)

    Advice that focuses on portraying a particular blind character (Auggie Anderson from Covert Affairs), however contains tips and resources that would be useful to anyone writing a blind character.

    Articles, Essays and Blog Posts: 

    this ain't livin': Writing The Other

    s. e. smith addresses the anxiety that writers may feel in writing about people with different identities and outlines the importance of putting character before identity. 

    Writing on Stella Duffy's blog, actor Lisa Hammond describes the various fears that can stop non-cliched disabled characters appearing on television, and disabled actors being cast in roles which aren't all about their impairments.

    SpeEdChange: "God Bless Us Everyone"

    Ira explores the position of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, his history as a character in the book and the subsequent movie adaptations and his changing symbolism over the years.

    Bea Magazine: Bitches Be Cray: The Good, The Bad, and the Pretty Little Liars of Mental Health on TV

    This is all about recent (possibly current) US TV shows, but Diane Shipley writes well about the use and abuse of female characters and mental illness in fiction.

    It's not actually about fiction, but since this trope has not been covered by any of the other links and it is very well written, Unreliable Witness: Experience mental illness? Oh, you must be creative

    Lisybabe's Blog: Handle With Care by Jodi Picoult
    and So scared of breaking it that you won't let it bend (a review of Unbreakable)

    These posts are very specific, about one particular book and film and about the representation of one condition.  But they provide very good examples of the ways that writers and film-makers can latch onto the idea of a medical condition and twist the facts to fit a dramatic story, without considering a readership or audience who have that condition.

    The Independent: Why do Bond villains need facial scars?

    Victoria Wright talks about the unrelenting trope of the villain maid evil by a facial disfigurement.

    Feminist Philosophers: Moving Beyond The Stereotypes

    Posts on disability at Feminist Philosophers are a touch disappointing, but the comments thread under this post contains many recommendation for good fictional writing with disabled characters.

    These are mostly about addressing common mistakes or assumptions about the lives and behaviour of disabled people including sexuality, attitude towards impairment, the practicalities of life and megalomania. Again, the comments contain some good stuff too. I've also got a Fiction tag which has some other posts on disability and fiction.

    The following links are all courtesy of chordatesrock - Thanks! 

    Rabbit Lord Of The Undead on how hallucinations & delusions are nothing like on TV

    An excellent and personal explanation of one person's experience of hallucinations and delusions, which are, of course nothing like you see on TV or film.

    kestrell: What Good Writers Still Get Wrong About Blind People Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

    Three detailed essays on blind characters in fiction, as well as general stereotypes and misconceptions about blind people and their abilities.

    katta: Some Clues on How Not To Write Deaf Characters.

    A critique of the common mistakes that writers make when writing deaf characters, with a particular focus on American Sign Language (although I'm sure the same applies to BSL etc - it's about meaning, not words).

    The 32nd Flavor: A House Rant, As Promised

    Milkshake writes in detail about the character of House and some of the impossible things fanfic-writers want that character to do, including activities that would need a great number of pillows.

    Right, what have I forgotten or not seen yet?  Yes, my criteria is fairly loose.