Monday, June 26, 2006


I am reading Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy, it's a new book concerned with a trend in society which has occurred over the last decade or so, whereby women have started to exploit themselves and each other sexually, in the same way that men have been doing. But rather than this been seen as exploitation, it's viewed as progressive, because women are now sexually liberated and can have fun etc. Although it's not really a sign of progress, just a more subtle trick where women have bought into a myth that they need to act like porn stars to get male attention and validation. So women wear the Playboy logo, strip off for the cameras, go to "pole-dancing" classes, get breast implants etc etc. It's a depressing thesis really. The point is, they are not liberated really, any power that they gain is diminished by the fact that they're still playing by straight men's rules

And I think the same could be said for a lot of mainstream gay culture, which if anything, is even more shallow, objectifying, sex-obsessed and marketised than the "Women's Raunch" culture that Levy describes. In the last few years or so there seems to have been a HUGE increase in the number of gay websites where you can subscribe to see young men engaging in sex for money. Clearly, it's driven by market forces - the people who run these sites are doing it to make money, though for most of them, getting to give blow-jobs to the models is a perk of the job.

These men are often labelled as straight. Here's a typical example from Chris Geary's porn site "Horny Model Boys"

Naughty straight boys… don’t you just love them. Josh is just 19 years old and one of those boys that doesn’t care about his dignity; happy to strip naked whenever. Get him drunk and you can’t keep his clothes on him.

I have an ambivalent attitude towards pornography. On the one hand, it's difficult not to be aroused by it. It's a form of safe sex at least. And, as someone once said, with masturbation, at least you don't have to look your best :) But then on the other hand, if you start thinking about the models as people rather than objects, then it all seems a bit nasty and wrong. I don't think, for example, that I'd like anyone in my family to do porn. And I keep thinking that all of these people are someone's son, maybe someone's dad, someone's uncle, someone's brother...

And the obsession with straight boys - isn't there something just a tiny bit self-rejecting about the whole thing? It's like, can't gay people find each other attractive any more? Why is it sexier if they're straight? Is it because we like the idea of corrupting someone? Or is it the association of heterosexuality with masculinity? There is also an obession with youth and hairless muscularity, the images that we are told we should find attracive are increasingly homogenised and out of reach for many people. In the latest Augusten Burroughs book I read, he casually wrote about how he takes steroids to get bigger muscles and that almost every gay man in Manhattan is doing the same. No matter that steriods can cause all sorts of medical problems - it's looking good on the outside that counts, doesn't it?

How long are those images and clips going to float around on the internet, popping up perhaps years later to haunt the people who posed for them when they were younger? Maybe it actually won't matter in the future? On sites like gaydar, almost everyone is their own porn star, offering poorly-lit, flabbily authentic cock-shots of themselves that often resemble chopped meat. Perhaps before long it simply won't matter that the whole world can find out what you look like naked, on all fours, engaged in a sex act with someone else. Welcome to the 21st century. We're all porn stars now.

Pictures seem to be back again.

I love this one. It's from a local artist, I've been in exactly this position myself...

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Waiting in the Zero Tolerance Zone

My fella was ill last night so we ended up going to the local Accident and Emergency Department. The waiting room was a scary place - lots of people who had that wasted, desperate drug-addict look. People were coming in, but nobody was getting seen and we wondered whether there were any doctors back there. The receptionist sat behind a glass screen and appeared to be deaf. She made everyone repeat all their information so loudly that you got to hear about everyone's symptoms along with their name, address and telephone number.

The room was hot and people started to get impatient and then angry. A woman began swearing loudly, "we've been fucking here for fucking hours. My husband's going fucking blind!". She went up to the front desk to complain. A girl came in and told the receptionist, "My drink was spiked on Thursday night and since then I haven't had any feeling in my left arm. I'm 16." An old man with his arm in a sling kept getting up to say he hadn't eaten since 11 am. As it got later, drunks who'd been involved in accidents or fights started to come in. The use of the word "fuck" increased to the point where a nurse told someone to watch his language (which he did for about 5 seconds). People started watching each other jealously. The man with the sling got up again to leave. At that point, a nurse called his name. "Finally!" said the woman with the blind husband. "Well done mate!" She then apologised to the room for her swearing. Nobody looked at her.

I noticed that there was a sign on the wall that said "We are a zero tolerance zone! We will not accept intimidating behaviour towards our staff!" and words to that effect. I've started to see this sign in other places too, particularly on public transport. It makes me sad - the fact that they have to have a sign like this kind of suggests that as a society we are getting badly behaved. I'd hate to have to work for British Rail or the National Health Service or anything that involves "the Great British Public".

But I also suspect that these signs tend to occur in institutions where the service is actually poor or under-funded - so people are more likely to get angry with the poor, hapless staff (who have no control over policy) because they have to wait longer or pay more for something that isn't very good. Train tickets, for example, are hideously expensive in the UK (I paid £50 for a single from London to Bristol last week and had to stand in a bit of over-heated corridor, squashed in with 11 other people for more than half the journey as there were no seats). So I'm not very impressed with zero-tolerance signs any more. It seems to be an admission "Yeah, we're crap, but you no longer have a right to complain, except by writing a letter or filling in a form, which we won't read".

With that said, the A+E waiting room made me a bit depressed about the way that British society is changing. It was really grim. I know people are not at their best when they're ill and hot and have to wait for hours, but there was something that felt very wrong about it all, in a way I've never felt before when I've been in that situation. Perhaps "fuck" no longer means the same thing to people as it did 10 or 20 years ago. For me, it is a very strong word, which I use sparingly and never in public spaces because I view it as intended to be offensive. So when people say it constantly, it must be either that they simply want to cause offence, or they can't view the word in the same way that I do. Watch Big Brother, for example and almost everyone uses "fuck" constantly. The Tourette's Syndrome contestant, Pete, probably swears less on average than the others. Maybe it just means I'm getting old and I am turning into one of those people who've got left behind and will now always be harking back to a "golden age" when things were better. I know that's not true though. On one level, our society is a nicer place to be - it's much easier to be gay now, than it is 20 years ago. Racism and to a lesser extent, sexism, on a casual and instutitution level are now tabooed. But we seem to be a coarser society than we were 20 years ago. I realised in that waiting room that I didn't know how to talk to most of those people.

After a while, I went out to get a newspaper, where I read this article, which seemed horribly illustrative as I live in Clifton, the place it talks about. I'm sure that a few of the 8,000 "problematic addicts" of Bristol were in the waiting room with us. I often fool myself that Bristol is a lovely place to live, but it's only because in reality, Bristol for me is a relatively small area of incredibly expensive houses and chi-chi boutiques, restaurants and coffee-shops which I never need to venture out of.

We waited 2 hours and then we were sent away with some paracetamol. My fella is still ill today. I guess we'll just have to hope it gets better by itself.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

On another note - I don't seem to be able to post pictures to Blogger any more. I suspect I may have reached my 300 MB capacity. I don't want to go back and delete pictures from old posts. So I don't know what to do about it. Has anybody else had this issue?

I have been reading about Gilbert Herdt's book "Guardian of the Flutes", written in 1981. It's about a tribe called the Sambia where homosexuality plays a large part in boy-to-man rituals. In order to become a man, boys have to perform oral sex on the older men of the tribe and ingest their semen, which it is believed, will make them manly. More info here. Herdt's study is often used in social constructionist arguments about sexuality - the idea that it is society which shapes our sexual identities, rather than them being something we are born with. Herdt's study isn't the only one which supports this point of view. Other cultures have also had very different notions about sexuality - we all know about the Ancient Romans and the Greeks, for example - and there are studies which show that in Muslim countries, homosexuality is common, although goes unspoken. What's interesting about a lot of these cultures though, is that the homosexuality occurs in particular circumstances - and the men who engage in it usually marry women and have children as well.

In many of these cultures there is a huge premium placed on the family and the importance of having children - for some, it is to do with having kids to look after you when you're old, or to send them out to work as soon as possible, or so kids can be sold off in arranged marriages, pass on the family name etc etc. Family life is also big where there are strong inequalities between men and women, as well as marked differences in gender roles - men go out and work, women stay at home and look after children and do domestic jobs. But our western society isn't as bothered about these things as it used to be. Where a society is relatively poor, I'd argue that there are huge pressures to be heterosexual (at least most of the time) - because families act as support networks. However, it's clear that in these societies, homosexuality is also tolerated, as long as it occurs in the background and doesn't disrupt family life.

But our society is different. We have pension schemes, health care and the relatively new notion of "romantic love". Women can go out and work for themselves. We're not as dependent on family structures of support as we used to be - which means we have more chioces. So you can now choose" to "come out" of the closet, and live a gay lifestyle - something which is not an option in other cultures, where there is enormous pressure on you to get married. (I found it interesting when I went to India, for example, where everyone asked me if I was married and then wanted to know exactly why I wasn't, when I said no. At the time, I thought - god, what a repressive society this is! Get me back to the UK so I can be myself and not have to excuse it!)

But my question is - does more choice and freedom result in us having a sexual identity which is more "honest" - i.e. now we get what we want and don't have to hide it? Or are the western identities like homosexual/heterosexual simply forcing us into a narrow set of boxes - where there is less room for us to engage in a fuller range of sexual expression? If evidence from these other cultures suggests that many people are actually bisexual, then where does that leave most people in our culture? They either come out as gay - which is fine for the 4-10% of us who only prefer same-sex partneers. Or they reject that identity, because they can't commit to it 100%, and opt for a straight life - which is what 90%+ of men in our society do (and plenty of women too). But what about all those men and women who actually wouldn't mind a bit of gay sex every now and again? Where do they go? They do exist - and they're not staying at home twiddling their thumbs. Sexual health workers have a name for men like this "MSM" - Men who have Sex with Men (which is a bit of mouthful). I kind of worry about them. First, they often have to be secret about a large part of their sex-lives - which must put all kinds of pressure and guilt issues on them. Second, they can't risk the gay scene, so they have to hang out in heterosexual society and put up with all the homophobia which goes with that, and that can't be good for their self-esteem. Third, even the gay world derides them - saying that they're trying to have their cake and eat it, or hating them for not being brave enough to "come out of the closet". Or these poor guys repress all their same-sex desire and it drives them mad - they end up being the ones screaming about "puffs" and "fags" the loudest.

So I think our present system of gay OR straight is very nice for you if you are one of those people who are lucky enough to be 100% gay or 100% straight. I'd say I'm 100% gay pretty much (or maybe 99% - but that 1% is for another posting). But if you like both sexes, and aren't lucky enough to be living in some well-educated, urban, sophisticated part of the country, then you're screwed (or not screwed!) I've met quite a few of these sorts of men and I always end up feeling sorry for them, wishing that there was more acceptance and awareness of bisexuality in our society. I wish we weren't so hung up on boxing people into tight categories that make us commit to a lifestyle (with a predefined set of expectations attached to it).

And I wish that society didn't place so much pressure on people to be monogamous in heterosexual couples, instead of acknowledging that people don't stop fancying other people once they get married - and if they do want to have sex with other people (male or female) every now and then, that it doesn't have to result in a screaming drama and divorce. Watch any soap opera and 50% of the plotlines revolve around someone getting "betrayed" sexually - we are socially programmed through the media to think that sexual infidelity must result in the end of a relationship. If only people could just be allowed to communicate their feelings and be honest about their sexual desires - and even glad for their spouses when they get a bit of sex outside the marriage, I'm sure divorce rates would drop dramatically. It would of course require us all to discard a lot of our Victorian sexual repression and hypocrisy - as well as jealousy and insecurity, but hey, this is the 21st Century. Maybe it's time we took a grown-up view of sex, rather than viewing it as a Carry-On film or a particularly grim episode of EastEnders.

I started this blog entry by writing about how our western society gives us more choice and freedom in terms of sexuality, because we get to "come out" as gay if we want to. However, in hindsight - I actually think we have less. These identity labels are traps for most people that restrict their potential, and our continual hang-up on monogamy simply puts a pressure on most couples that they cannot withstand, especially in our over-sexualised society. No wonder, divorce rates are so high.

We need to accept that as humans we are sometimes monogamous, sometimes polygamous, sometimes monosexual, sometimes bisesxual. And just deal with it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Two very heavy ideas

Thanks to Trashbinder for the link.

I first saw Beyond the Valley of the Dolls about ten years ago. It blew me away - an hour and a half of mescalin-injected kitsch with hyper-fast editing, an improbable soap opera storyline, bewildering array of characters, funky 1970s slang and some of the hippest musical numbers around. I became slightly obsessed with porn star Ashley St Ives, her shrieks of "Bentley" during car-sex and her predatory, lascivious glares. I tried to track down Michael Blodgett's (Lance Rock) acting credits on the internet movie database, got the bootleg copy of the soundtrack and hosted Beyond the Valley of the Dolls parties at my home for my bemused friends. For a while, I would only consider new friendships with people if they had seen and loved this film. And it was the film that made me want to go and watch all of Russ Meyer's other movies - although only really Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! lived up to BVOD.

If you haven't seen the film, then the clip below is the ad for it - it's even faster, buzzier and more hyper than the film itself. It's a one way trip all the way down...

"This is what living is all about"

Monday, June 12, 2006

Naomi Cleaver is blonde, dainty, ultra-confident, impeccably dressed and posh. She's one of those women whom I know I would fancy if I were straight. She hosts a tv programme on Channel 4 called Honey I Ruined the House, where she argues and cajoles clueless families into painting their magnolia walls bright red, putting free-standing baths in their bedrooms and knocking down walls to make an open-plan utopia. These home improvement programmes are a bit past their sell-by date now. Homeowners all put in new kitchens and bathrooms to get the maximum value out of their houses and as a result you cannot now buy a garage for less than £200,000 in some parts of the UK. If you're not on the property ladder now, you may as well invest your money in plastic surgery and find yourself a rich stockbroker instead.

So in order to inject a bit of life into her programme, Naomi has gone all scientific (indexed by the fact she now has a 'laboratory' and wears white while she writes things on perspex walls). The owners of the homes are now "tagged" (an interesting metaphor considering that they are guilty of home decorating crimes) and computers track their every move so that Naomi can then present them with detailed graphs and print-outs, telling them "You only spend 8 minutes a day in your kitchen!" or "You only use 20% of your home!" This information is then used in order to redesign the house - so that the space is put to better use. One aspect of this being that "modern" people apparently now use their kitchens to entertain and now this should be the focus of the house.

I probably spend less than 8 minutes a day in my kitchen (it's a tiny cubby-hole, so small that the fridge is out in the corrdidor - I can imagine that Naomi would tip it over in a speechless rage if she ever saw it). But the last place I lived in had a massive kitchen and I didn't spend much time in it either. I rarely bother with the bedrooms either. We have a huge huge lounge and I probably spend 95% of my waking hours in there when I'm at home. It doubles as a piano room, tv room, film projector room, dining room and double-office (for both me and my fella). He has his own little cube-thing at the back of the room and I use the dining room table. Most people would think this is bizarre - that we spend so much time together in the same room, even when working, and Naomi would no doubt insist on converting our kitchen into a proper office, while putting the kitchen stuff into our living room or something. But I like having him around where I can see him. Not that I'm controlling or anything :)

Naomi would also hate all the magnolia walls and insist that we get everything wall-papered to look like a London nightclub. Still, we're not intending to stay here very long, and magnolia is so neutral that nobody really gets too offended by it. I guess the next owners can go mad with the turquoise.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

That ringtone is so chrismoyles

Chris Moyles is a Radio 1 DJ who referred to a mobile phone ring tone as "gay". He was using it in that very playground way where gay now means lame. A viewer complained about it and the BBC apparently acknowledged that the word could cause offence to some listeners but he was not being homophobic in his use of the word. They said it would be advisable to think more carefully about the use of gay in its derogatory sense in future because of the words potential to cause "unintended offence".

This is very disappointing - you'd think the BBC's Board of Governors would be more sensitive to this issue. Imagine you are a 13 year old child at school - you're starting to have feelings for people of the same sex, and are terrified about it. It doesn't help that the only word you know to describe how you feel: "gay" is only ever used to refer to things that are bad. And not only are all the other kids using "gay" to mean rubbish, but Radio 1 DJs are doing it too. It's hard enough to get through your teens when you're gay - but at least when I was growing up, "gay" just meant fancying people of the same sex. Now there is no word which means that and has a positive association. We no longer have a word left that isn't tainted in some way ("homosexual" has a criminal-medical-condition etymology, we can discount the hundreds of words like "faggot", "batty-boy" and "puff" which are straight-forwardly derogative an even the reclaimed "queer" is still used negatively by many people). How are gay people supposed to forge a positive self-image it there are no good labels?

Imagine if the same thing was done on race rather than sexuality. Imagine if people decided that "African-American" meant "crap" - "Oh I don't want that mobile phone, it's really African American"... The cries of outrage would be huge - people would rightly lose their jobs over it. There would be campaigns and demos. But because it's "just" gay people, Chris Moyles is vindicated. Well if that's the case, then I'd like to suggest that from now on we change the meaning of the phrase "Chris Moyles". How about "Chris Moyles" now means bigotted and unthinking? Or "Chris Moyles" could be the new "gay/lame". Or better still, Chris Moyles could refer to homosexuality - as in "I had some great Chrismoyles sex the other night". It could catch on.
Back from Venice

I have been in Venice all week, or what I now think of as George Romero's Land of the Dead. Venice is very beautiful but because of this it attracts too many tourists, a high proportion being very old people (the wealthy "Grey Perspectives" from the Mosaic Social Categorisation scheme) who have trouble walking. There are a lot of very narrow streets, filled with tourist shops (fans, masks and glassware seem to be the key bits of tat that you can buy in Venice. As a result, the simple act of walking from one place to the next takes three times as long as it normally does because you are forced into a never-ending queue of zombiefied pensioners who like to browse and often get confused about where they are supposed to be and simply stop dead in their tracks. There are no cars and few trees in Venice. We were staying in a hotel which overlooked St Marks Square - the ultimate tourist locus - full of men selling roses, expensive cafes (20 Euros for a pot of tea), each with its own live outdoor mini-orchestra, playing a selection of cheesy tunes (Moon River is a favourite), pigeons, people selling pigeon food and tourists feeding pigeons and then shrieking in fear/delight as the pigeons crawl all over them. Venice also has mosquitos. Our hotel room had white walls, which on further inspection were covered in little dark red stains. We didn't realise why at first, until after the first night when we woke up to realise our room was some sort of HQ for mosquitos. I don't get bitten very much and my body doesn't react when I am bitten, but my poor fella must have no resistance at all (Irish stock) so each bite swells huge, red and angry, like he's been hit with a hammer in a Tom and Jerry film. So he spent every night running round, swatting mosquitos with a towel, and contributing to many more dark red stains on the walls. Our bedroom became a war zone.

Although we were only away for four nights, I have really missed the UK, especially tv. I don't really trust or believe people who say they never watch tv. However, because of the lack of tv in the rooom (there was one but I couldn't get it to work), I read three books instead. Auggesten Burroughs' "Magical Thinking" (he's always a safe option), "Blink" (a very "airport" book about how we make snap decisions) and "Londonstani", which is about this gang of Asian lads and is written in gangsta/semi-mobile phone speak with lots of "innits". By the end of the book I was actually thinking in the same way that the book was written, "I is tired now"... etc. It has a twist at the end which is probably very obvious to everyone but I never get twists so am always delightfully surprised (I am an author's dream reader). I now wish I was in one of those middle-class book clubs so that I could talk to some other people about how much I enjoyed the book.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Lazy Post

Rupert and Felicity and Wayne and Leeanne

This website at UCL allows you to type in your surname and see where people who share the same surname live and lived 100 years ago. Looking at the surnames of my four grandparents, it's interesting to see that my two grandmother's names are mainly from the northeast of England, whereas my grandfathers came from the southwest/Wales and Scotland. Although my surname is a traditional "common" surname, reflecting a trade, the majority of its holders are in the top quarter of society. Weird.

The site also has a link to Experian, which has created an extremely detailed social classification of people living in the UK called Mosiac. Using multi-statistical techniques people can be grouped into 11 major categories, which are further sub-divided into 61 types. Rupert and Felicity, for example are part of category A - Symbols of Success. A little photomontage shows smiling be-suited couples, surrounded by golf balls, Amex cards, a Marks and Spencers shopping bag, a yacht, sports car and personal organiser. On the other hand, Group I: Twilight Substinence are called Percy and Ada, and their photo montage shows an elderly couple surrounded by a budgie, dice, Daily Mirror, TV listings magzines, bus, pots of jam, playing cards and a pension book. For some reason, I get a little choked when I look at Percy and Ada's photomontage.

Because Mosaic is created by professionals, the detailed 210 page document it produces is rather sniffy about some of the social categories, particularly those who watch tv or aspire towards "lazy beach holidays". However, it makes for fascinating reading, especially when you try to work out where you fit into the system. I'm a bit difficult to classify because I was born into the working-class D "Ties of Community" class (most likely something like D21 Respectable Rows or D24 Coronation Street), but for most of my life have been in E Urban Intelligence, either as a student (E34 University Challenge) and then a researcher/young lecturer. (E33 Town Gown Transition). But my fella on the other hand is most definitely an A (Symbol of Success, most likely A02 Cultural Leadership) which probably explains why I often feel that socially I fit in everywhere and nowhere simulaneously. I still do lots of "D" things like eating egg and chips, watching soap operas and reality tv and going to cheap seaside resorts. And I can't engage with a lot of "E" things like Radio 4, The Guardian, organic food or being green (I do recycle - but I find the whole ethos rather dreary, puritanical and judgey). Culturally, I'm useless - I can't stand most classical music, theatre makes me itchy and bored, ditto opera, I dutifully go round museums and galleries but my heart's not usually in it, and I'm hopeless at giving opinions about world events unless they directly relate to me - which is rare. At an "E" dinner-party the other night I was stumped to find anything interesting to say about Europe. Most of my friends are typical Es - and I think I now know why I find it hard to understand them and they me. Maybe Mosiac should invent a new category just for me - "Trash Dressed Up".