Sunday, 24 March 2013

52. It looks like a vagina

I remember once I was talking to a man called Neil, a friend of a friend who I was reasonably well acquainted with. We were in a flower shop, a group of us, we were buying some flowers for someone's birthday.

Neil and I were standing next to each other, looking at an orchid. I am very fond of orchids.
This one had a dramatic spray of ice-white flowers, freckled deep purple, rising from a nest of shiny dark-green leaves. It was so beautiful it made me shiver slightly.

I looked at the delicate, architectural folds of a single flower's petals, and I was struck by a thought. I turned to Neil and said: "Isn't it interesting? Sometimes you can really see that it's true - flowers are the genitals of a plant."

He said: "What?" and I said: "It looks like a vagina."

Neil fixed his eyes on me. His mouth tightened. He was clearly as disgusted and deeply angry as if I had hit him.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" he said quietly.

Then he turned his back on me and walked away. Following that day, he avoided me, and we never really spoke again.

I've thought about this quite a lot, and I still can't see why that was an offensive thing to say. It may be that in Neil's world one does not talk about genitalia unless it is under very specific circumstances, in which case I could well have embarrassed him by dropping the V-bomb in a public place at 10am. But that still doesn't explain why he reacted with such horrified rage.

The only conclusion I can come to is that Neil regarded vaginas as inherently offensive. He didn't understand how you could look at a beautiful flower and compare it to such a horrid thing, and he thought anyone who could make that mental connection was a pervert.

The folds of flower petals do look like the folds of labia (or, if you want to put it another way, vaginas look like flowers). I find this visual connection between plant sex - which (whether one pretends otherwise or not) is what all flowers are - and human sex very satisfying and beautiful. It feels like a subtle connection, a reaffirmation of our place in the grand order of nature.

The only way this resemblance is disgusting and horrifying is if you think vaginas are disgusting and horrifying. This interests me, because by Neil's own account - and by all the evidence of his behaviour - he was a straight man. Before this conversation - if I had ever thought about it - I would have assumed he would like vaginas, and generally be pretty unambiguous about approving of them as a good thing. Clearly this was not the case.

It's true vaginas are not anywhere near as aesthetically appealing as flowers. The resemblance is more in the arrangement of petals and the lines than in the level of beauty, but then penises aren't beautiful objects either. However, speaking as a straight woman, I do like penises. I like the way they feel to the touch, warm, the soft skin above the hard muscle. I like the men they're attached to. I like just generally having them about.

It does make me wonder what Neil was like in bed. Horrific, probably. Lust and revulsion, that's a toxic combination. Wanting to get off, hating himself for needing it. But he's not alone. One of the saddest things humanity ever did to itself was the way we have divorced ourselves from our sexual selves. The way, culturally, we have made sex into something that's separate from the rest of our world, our sexual needs into a weakness to be concealed and ashamed of, our genitals into something disgusting. The way we still marginalise prostitutes and condemn pornography. We could choose to celebrate one as a profession and the other as an art form, but that would mean accepting our sexual needs instead of masking them. Instead we continue to pretend neither exist, even though both have been present in our culture for as long as records have existed and will continue until the extinction of humanity.

Most people manage to get past this, ignore the cultural cues, and have a healthy relationship with their libidos. Some of us don't.

Neil clearly hadn't, and - for different reasons - I haven't either. I am in what one might define as ongoing peace talks with my sexuality. We are negotiating a ceasefire. I still hope that one day we can work together. 

Sunday, 17 March 2013

51. Sexy but not too sexy

Amanda, Freddy, Alex and I are downstairs in a bar. We are waiting for the first gig from Gin's new band. Alex has her arm around Amanda's neck.

I have finished my drink. I go upstairs to get another.

The bar is along the right hand side wall, and at the front there is a large window which looks across the street at a restaurant lit by candles on the tables. The tables are full of couples on Saturday night dates. I watch one couple, who look to be in their mid to late 20s. The woman is slim, dark-haired, wearing black trousers and a black mesh halter top, laced across her back. She has nude lipstick on. Sexy, but not too sexy.

The man has a blond beard and black-framed glasses. He's wearing pointed boots and skinny jeans, with a t-shirt which probably cost my entire week's food budget.

I imagine who they are. The guy has a smell of graphic designer about him. Maybe IT. She looks like marketing. As I watch she takes a good swig of her red wine, and then nearly spits it out when the guy says something funny. She puts her hand to her mouth, swallows, laughs uproariously, so loudly people nearby are looking. He's laughing too. He puts his hand across the table and on to hers. First date? Second date? Three months in? They're having a good time.

That little gesture - the guy putting his hand out to her - makes my throat constrict. I want someone to value me like that. To want to touch me in front of other people, like I'm his girlfriend.

Yeah, well, you can't make that happen. All I can do is live my own life, stay open to meeting people, and deal with my own feelings. I'll meet someone who feels like that about me; or I won't. I can ask for it, but I can't demand. It's not within my remit to control.


How would you know what men like? I say silently to him. You're not exactly representative. According to you, what men like is pre-pubescents. What do you mean, Cosmopolitan, anyway?

Looks like my personal paedophile has merged with my internalised cultural misogyny. Fucking great. I'm excited to be working with that combination.

I move on and study the other tables. At the next table a blonde woman is sitting by herself. She's pretty, but dressed badly. Her hair's pulled back in a way which doesn't suit her. I initially thought she was in her 50s, but she's at least 10 years younger than that. She looks sad, as if she's given up on something.

She's looking out of the window, drinking white wine. Derek walks up to the table and sits down opposite her.

I blink. I look away. I look back. He's still there. He has taken the chair opposite the window and next to her, so he's looking directly at this bar. I am suddenly aware that the lights in this bar are bright. I must be framed in this window. I think I see a faint smile on his face.

How would he know I was here? Don't be silly. Facebook. The band has a facebook page which I have liked. I've even written on the wall to say I'm going to be here.

I close my eyes. I can feel myself fragmenting. I am hyper-aware and at the same time not here. I'm frozen in space, unable to move or speak.

The music around me is Dirty Laundry by Don Henley. I'm remotely surprised by this. Is Don Henley cool now? Was Don Henley always cool and I just didn't know that? Or is this just one of those hipster irony things that I never get?

Personally, I don't think it matters. I like this song in a non-ironic way. It is, yes indeed, interesting when people die.

No, you can't. Don't disassociate. Don't you dare. I am here. I am Alice.

I force myself back into reality. Derek is still there. He looks straight at the bar - at me - for a second. With an effort, I turn and go down the stairs to rejoin my friends. 

Sunday, 10 March 2013

50. On her soft blue flowered rug

Amanda and I are lying on Amanda's living room floor, on her soft blue flowered rug, and talking about consent.

Consent - the rights and wrongs of when you are having consensual sex and when you are raping someone - is something I give a lot of thought to, as a sexual assault victim. My case is obviously very clear cut. There are few people who would argue that it was ok for a grown man to threaten an eight-year-old child into giving him a blow job.

Amanda has made Kir Royales. We are drinking them out of pint glasses, with pink bendy straws. Amanda's terrier Buffy is curled up on the wicker basket chair and Repo Man is playing on the TV. Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez are doing speed in the front seats of a car, and although Amanda has muted the sound I've seen the film enough times to know that Harry is saying "Ordinary fuckin' people. I hate them."

We got on to this subject because Amanda is incensed by a story her friend Jill told her. Jill went out one night, got drunk, and met a man. She went home with this man, but because she'd had too much to drink nothing happened; she passed out on his sofa and he put her under a quilt and went to bed. She woke up three hours later to find his flatmate - who had clearly just come in to find a strange drunk girl asleep on the sofa - giving her a vigorous fucking.

"What bothers me," says Amanda, "I mean - quite apart from the obvious reason why it would bother me - is that she doesn't appear to think there is anything wrong with it. I mean, she told it like it was a funny story. Like it was "Oops, I got really drunk and fell down the stairs in The Kasbah and now I have a bruise shaped exactly like Mauritius" funny. I was all like " got raped." And she said: "Well, not really," and, I mean, how is that not really rape? I mean, it wasn't even the same fucking guy! Not that it wouldn't have been rape, if it even was the same fucking guy!"

"Do you think the other guy knows?" I ask. "He put her to bed when she passed out. That was a nice thing to do. Do you think he knows?"

Amanda said: "I doubt it. Jill said this guy finished and went to his room without saying a word, but by then it was 5am and she was awake so she just left."

We think for a while. We drink Kir Royale.

"She wouldn't have a case," I say. I sympathise with this. I don't have a case. It's 27 years later, I have no name, no clear description, no evidence and no witnesses. One day I might see Matthew, walking around town. Maybe I have seen him. I don't remember him all that well. He could work in the same offices as me.

He away with it. And there is nothing I can do. And he has almost certainly done it to other children since, and there's nothing I can do about that either.

Jill also has no evidence and no witnesses. And in our current culture, it would be easy for the man to say she consented and she was just drunk. The guy who brought her home might testify that she passed out...or he might not. Bros before hos, right? Who would he believe? The drunk girl who came on to him and came home with him with the intention of having sex, or the guy he has presumably known for some time?

But how do you know when someone is consenting, or when they feel coerced? Some rapes are easy to concede. Penetrating someone who is unconscious, that's clearly rape. Having sex with someone who is so out of their mind on drink or drugs that they don't know where they are is clearly rape. Holding someone down and fucking them when they are struggling and trying to get away is clearly rape. Keeping going when someone says "No, no, stop I don't want this," that is clearly rape.

But there are other forms of coercion. There's guilt-tripping, and emotional blackmail, and anger when you refuse, and minimising how you feel.

There's the shamer: "Wow. I didn't think you were this uptight." There's the persuader: "How do you know you don't like anal if you've never tried it?" There's the therapist: "I know you have all these childhood issues, but you just need some good sex to help you get over it." There's the time honoured whiner: "But I really, really want to have sex." There's the guy who is a nice guy so why won't you, and the girl who has wanted you so much and after all this time can't she even...

And the end result is you have sex you don't want to have because you feel obliged or forced into it. And - although prevailing opinion among my peers is otherwise - situations like that are rape.

Although, unlike your standard physically coercive rape, these rapes occur also because, culturally speaking, both the predator and the victim feel that it is not "real" rape and so therefore they are less confident in - respectively - saying "no" and listening to "no". 

"Can't you just give me a blow-job?" Amanda mimicks, and we both fall about laughing.

She says: "The only solution is to get someone to say "Yes, I want to fuck," every time."

"Don't you think that's a bit impractical?"

She shakes her head. "No. It's kind of sexy, actually, getting them to say the words. But then, I'm a talker."

"What about if you're in a relationship and you're really attuned and you know you both want to have sex?"

She thinks about it. "I guess that's ok. But how do you know you're attuned?"