Category Archives: Sexuality

Joy, Fear, and Twerking: the Glory of Amber Rose

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Amber Rose set the Internet on fire over the weekend when she uploaded a video of herself twerking to celebrate her husband Wiz Khalifa’s album hitting number one on the Billboard 200. The video was shared on her Instagram account, where she is seen practicing flawless butt cheek isolation and then a twerk so effortless that it defies the laws of physics. Some of us shamelessly hit “replay” up to twenty times and screamed “yassss!” But not everyone. No, there are those among us who see a woman twerking and rather than celebrating her body and agency would prefer to denigrate her and call her names. Mainly, “hoe.” I have some thoughts about this.

Amber Rose and women like her disrupt everything we have been taught about the Madonna-whore dichotomy. There are two kinds of women, we are taught: women who are pure and good, wives and mothers on the pedestal of femininity; and there are the other women, the whores, the sluts, the strippers. You are either one or the other, we are taught, and we, women, grow up believing it: setting ourselves up against other women in a desperate effort to delineate between us and them, bashing other women’s sexual agency in a pathetic bargain with patriarchy with the hopes that by calling her a whore, we will remain safely in the Madonna camp. We learn, eventually (some later than others), that actually there is no protection from being called a whore in a world built on the denigration of women: you can be fat or thin, black or white, virgin or not, straight or not, wearing clothes or not, and still be called a whore. Any one of us is at risk of being labeled such at any moment: in the instant it takes for a rumor to start or a kiss to be delivered, in the three and a half minutes it takes for a song to play and our booties to shake, we can be removed from good girl to bad, never to return.

Navigating Madonna-whore territory is a one-way street, you see, and that’s where the often said “Can’t turn a hoe into a housewife” comes into play: a hoe, once a hoe, can never be anything but. I think many people use this phrase thinking they’re communicating something about “hoes’” behavior: that once married she will continue to behave as a hoe, cheating on her man or whatever it is that people who use this phrase with a straight face imagine “hoes” as doing. But I think it actually says something more about the trajectory of the perception of women’s sexual identities: not that she will continue to do “hoe shit,” but that once seen as a hoe, one will always be seen as a hoe. It says something about perception, and also about reputation. Once I (whoever “I” may be) perceives a woman as unworthy of respect, then her inhumanity is permanent, a systematic erasure of worth in which one by one, woman by woman, all of us lose our humanity over time: with every rape, every short skirt, every leaked photo, every rumored blowjob, every former stripping career, with every incident where patriarchy and its many, many gazes deems us no longer worthy of respect, we are no longer worthy of having one toe in the Madonna camp. We are delegated to whore, and with every one of these things, we are stripped, demoted, erased.

And it is a demotion, a permanent one. It truly is a one-way street: once labeled “hoe,” it seems, we can never come back. Hoe cannot become housewife, but housewife can certainly become hoe, knocked off the pedestal of approved sexual agency and expression, infants be damned, marriages be damned. We saw this recently with Beyoncé, who after the VMAs was criticized for her sometimes “provocative” dancing while Blue Ivy watched from the audience. “What is she teaching her daughter?” some asked, pearls tightly clutched. I would answer, “Agency. Independence. Talent.” But others, it would seem, say watching her mother dance and sing in front of millions—while making millions—is teaching Blue not to respect and value her body. Even when married and a mother—the supposed safeguards against being called a whore— Beyoncé’s “goodness” and motherhood are called into question. Much of this is because Beyoncé is a black woman: black motherhood is constantly under attack by racists and White Feminists alike. But the attacks on Amber Rose’s parenthood seem more of an afterthought to the attacks on her sexuality as a whole. The fact that she was once a stripper draws the misogynist gatekeepers to her like sharks to blood in water: something about the fact that she’s married with a child (Madonna characteristics) but still twerking (“whore” characteristics) sets teeth to gnashing.

One thing about Amber Rose and Wiz Khalifa is how happy they seem. He’s kissing her bald head. He’s holding her hand. He’s bouncing their beautiful, happy baby on his shoulders. Their joy must seem baffling to those bound by the virgin-whore dichotomy. “But she’s a hoe,” Twitter stutters. “But she was a stripper,” I’ve seen it said on Facebook. The anger at the idea of a woman who once got naked for money being in a happy, healthy, supportive marriage is palpable. Because at the bottom of all this anger and disbelief is one thing: the belief that certain women don’t deserve to be happy. “Hoes” don’t deserve happy endings, right? The one-way street of hoedom should mean a cul-de-sac of misery, right? She shook her ass on stage and therefore she should be banished to the darkest corners of the world for eternity, husbandless, childless, alone. Right? I’ve even seen sympathy expressed for Wiz: sympathy and derision. “I can’t believe he’s letting her do that.” Letting. Or, “Wiz married a hoe…poor guy thought he could turn her around.” The idea that he supports and respects what his wife does with her body—because it’s still hers, after all: marriage did not make her his property—never occurs to them. “Poor guy.” Nothing worse than being married to/dating a hoe, as parts of masculinity are still tied up in penetrating virgins and not in sleeping with a woman who has already had sex. Nothing worse. Except for being a hoe, of course, which is why the sympathy is aimed at Wiz, but the anger is reserved for Amber.

The anger at Amber Rose comes from a place of fear—all hate is fear, at its root—fear of a woman who exists outside of patriarchal parameters. How else can she be controlled? But for women, I also hear the anger coming from a place of envy. We, women, have been carrying the burden of misogyny our entire lives, toeing the line, lying about our “body count,” keeping our sexuality a secret. We’re afraid our happiness might be yanked away at any moment: that one day someone will point their finger and call us a hoe and we’ll find ourselves known as the wrong kind of woman, even if we’ve played by the “rules,” kept our legs shut and our hems long. Women who are angry at Amber Rose, eager to call her a whore: are you angry because she dared to twerk on Instagram, or are you angry because she is standing with one foot firmly in the mother-wife camp, and the other in the camp that is half-naked and booty-shaking? Are you angry because she’s doing what should never be done, or are you angry because she’s doing what we should all be allowed to do but feel we cannot?

This isn’t the first time Amber has posted a twerking video. Scroll back through her Instagram and you’ll find it: Amber in a squat wearing a white dress, twerking on her wedding day. Her wedding day. Say what you want: I say it’s glorious. I say it’s glorious the same way I thought it was glorious when Beyoncé transitioned (flawlessly) from shaking her stuff at the VMAs to swaying to her song about her daughter. These women find joy in their bodies—mother, wife, lover, woman. Joy. I think when it comes down to it, it’s their joy that misogyny hates the most. The idea that the stone “hoe” has been cast…and it bounced off harmlessly. The fearful word that is designed to control women’s sexuality, keep us from shaking our asses—and the world—into chaos, is slowly losing its power.

It might feel strange for those who have built their worlds on the idea of one-dimensional women without scope and depth: either virgin or whore and nothing in between. There are good mothers, and there are women who jiggle their asses. We have been told that those women are separate, confined to two bodies, never intersecting. This is a lie. Amber is mother and twerk-extraordinaire. Beyoncé is both wife and glorious wiggling goddess. I look at the future and I see a world of women who are both, either, or, and. Women of all, women of any. Women of whatever the fuck we choose, whenever the fuck we choose. Women who shake when we want to shake and the only thing the world has to say is “Yassss.”

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Male Bonding and Gang Rape: The Socialization of Men in Rape Culture

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When we talk about patriarchy and rape culture, the conversation is generally about women and the effects on our minds, bodies and lives: our socialization in the classroom of rape culture and the ways in which our identities are deformed by it. The place of men in the discussion tends to be limited. In some circles it is understood that men are also certainly victims of rape culture, especially in discussions around the prison industrial complex. But what we don’t talk about is the way men relate to one another within the confines of rape culture and patriarchy.

In these two classrooms, men are taught what is valuable about men and women. In men, violence, strength, toughness, and hyper-masculinity are rewarded, admirable characteristics, as is evidenced everywhere from the portrayal of heroes in Hollywood to the value we place on some of the highest-paid men in the country: professional athletes. Be like them. Don’t cry. Don’t hug—that’s gay. Don’t trust bitches (women). Support your family. Bros before hoes. These are only some of the things men learn under this doctrine. Vulnerability is a woman’s trait. Sex is a sport with no emotional value. Don’t be “gay.” Don’t be “feminine.” The list goes on and on. Thus the corner of the box in which men are allowed to exist is painted smaller and smaller; their identities allowed less and less room.

Among all these teachings are men’s relationships with women, and, of course, their relationships with one another. Women—despite the system of constant passive aggressive competition and backbiting that is encouraged by patriarchy and which many women struggle to overcome even as adults—are allowed more spaces in which bonding can occur. The teaching that “girls are nice,” however damaging in other aspects, does encourage our togetherness: sisterhood is a word we use to define the emotional space we are able to share. Divine Secrets of the the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Waiting to Exhale, Bridesmaids: the films about our bonding experiences are gentle and tear-jerking and are generally centered in some way around men—that’s an entirely separate blog post. What about men? For men, movies about brotherhood are usually in the context of war/violence and/or sexual conquest. Think American Pie, The Hangover, Wedding Crashers, Lethal Weapon. Google “movies about male bonding,” “movies about male friendship.” Male friendship, it seems, is fostered in the context of exploitation of women and in the context of someone getting punched in the face or shot.

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Where is the gentle space for male friendship? (And especially for black male friendship: other than The Best Man, which is positive for men in many ways but fails in its representation and expectations of women, I saw very few films listed about relationships between black men.) “Gentleness,” “tenderness,” “intimacy,” “vulnerability.” These characteristics are kryptonite to the hyper-masculine persona patriarchy creates. If we ask where the safe space is for men to create tender, intimate, vulnerable friendships with one another, the answer is that it barely exists. “Gentle,” “vulnerable”: these are words reserved for women and (goes the logic) gay men. The limits created by patriarchal society are taught to men and are then reinforced by media of all kinds, but especially by Hollywood. If you are male, men learn, this is how you socialize: in the context of violence and in the context of sex, and never in the context of intimacy. Especially not with other men.

Under this law, there exists a deep chasm that separates men from one another. The chasm of male isolation and masculinity; trenches dug by untouchable, invulnerable laws of manhood. Studies on the connection between masculinity and loneliness tell me that men are often starved for contact with other men: not sexually, but physically and emotionally. Decades of fathers hugging daughters but not sons. Handshakes instead. Men, then, bond where they can and in spaces deemed acceptable by the patriarchy that programmed them. Strip clubs. Bachelor parties. Sports. It’s been said that some of the most powerful relationships between men are those between soldiers and athletes/teammates. Perhaps because those are two of the only arenas in which male intimacy is not only encouraged, but unchecked.

We must also think about sex in this context: the male experience and perception of sex within the confines of a culture that socializes for violence and invulnerability. I have written (or perhaps just tweeted?) previously on the effects of this teaching on the potential of sexual harmony between men and women—we’re teaching girls that their bodies are temples, and we’re teaching boys to be Raiders of the Lost Ark—but what about the male experience and perception of the act of rape? If men are socialized to bond in contexts of sex and violence, it seems rape culture has created, in gang rape, a space that men see as a space for brotherhood.

Many of us have learned that rape is not a sexual act, but an act of dominance. We have also learned that, in rape culture, women’s bodies are not owned by women; but exist as mere objects of male consumption. We are not surprised, then, by the idea of gang rape as a bonding activity: men dominating that which they have been taught is dominatable, alongside brothers who are otherwise unreachable except in these contexts of sex and violence, and—it must follow—sexual violence. Women’s bodies, here, are merely props in the context of a masked ball of male intimacy.

This is not to say that all men raised in a patriarchal rape culture will participate in gang rape. Of course not. But it does help explain the mentality of those that do. Those that do are treated with this societal astonishment, more so than individual rapists, as if we have never seen the likes of anything before or since. Steubenville, of course, comes to mind. Not exactly a “gang” of male individuals, but two boys participating—together, with witnesses—in the sexual assault of an unconscious girl. How could they do it, the nation asked, horrified. What is wrong with those boys? Not gang-y enough for you? What about the case in Texas where as many as ten men raped a thirteen year old girl, cheering and filming the attack? In Cambodia, groups of men admit that gang rape is for fun. Just as shocking was the efforts of men (and women) to protect these rapists: a mutation of the “boys will be boys” mentality, condemnation of the thirteen-year old victim as a “spider” luring the men “into her web.” In the case of Steubenville, rampant attempts to cover up the actions of the boys. Rape isn’t a crime, the people involved with the above examples would say, it’s just something that men do. Sometimes with other men.

Are we really surprised? Are we really surprised that when we socialize men and boys to value violence, invulnerability and hyper-masculinity in one another, that they actually gravitate toward contexts that encourage those behaviors? Are we really surprised that when we socialize men to bond in the context of sex (a la American Pie) and violence (every war movie ever) that they bond in contexts of sex and violence? I’m not just talking about rape. How can we wonder about the chasm between men and the isolation of the male experience without looking to the teachings of patriarchal rape culture as a source? Something is deeply wrong with what we’re teaching boys about women and consent when they can participate in/witness a gang rape and cheer for it as if for a basketball game.

But what that means is that something is also deeply wrong with what we’re teaching boys about how to be a boy and how to bond with other boys. Would we rather our boys bond over rape, or with gentleness, vulnerability, and tenderness? Would we rather our boys find friendship in the context of violence, or in the context of behavior that our damaging definitions of masculinity might condemn as feminine or—“worse”—gay? Violence and sex cannot be the only two paths across the chasm of male isolation. Let’s build other bridges.

Let’s Get It On: Trains vs. Threesomes

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In an earlier blog I stated that occasionally I see something repeated enough times that I feel inclined to write about it here. This is one of those topics. Strong sexual themes below: you’ve been warned. (Who am I kidding. I know you’re only going to read further now, you horndogs.)

Three people are having sex. Most people would call this a threesome. It makes sense, right? Three people. Having sex. It’s a threesome. Now, from my perspective, threesomes look like this:

One man + two women = a threesome

One woman + two men = a threesome

Three women = a threesome

Three men = a threesome

Because….three. Threesome. But there are certain parties who insist that what we call a threesome depends on the genitalia those three parties possess. From their perspective, it looks like this:

One man and two women = a threesome

One woman and two men = a train

Before you ask, I don’t know what happened to the three men and three women scenarios. Lost in the Land of Heteronormativity, perhaps. The people that hold this latter understanding of group sex don’t ever discuss what same-sex sex looks like. But that’s another discussion. For now let’s focus on threesomes vs. trains.

For context, a train has always been defined as one woman and a large group of men. The imagery of the term is crass, of course: a long “train” of men lines up and has sex with the woman one after the other. Historically, a woman who participates in a train is viewed, discussed, and treated as an object of the highest contempt. A woman who participates in a train, according to men and women who subscribe to misogynistic standards of sexuality, is not a woman but a whore, deserving of any and every abuse, both verbal and physical. The men who participate in trains, of course, are invisible in this interaction. No shame falls on their shoulders. The word “train” is heavy with a history of sexist, shaming connotation.

So there’s that. Now we get to the real root of this discussion: why those (both men and women) who insist that a sexual encounter consisting of one man and two women is a threesome, yet a sexual encounter consisting of one woman and two men is a train, are deeply immersed in misogyny.

Basic Sexism

In its simplest form of analysis, the abovementioned understanding of threesomes puts on display its basic sexism. A man engaging in sex with two women at the same time has traditionally been given a badge of honor, a societal backslap, an historical high-five. He is perceived as sexually potent, a master of seduction with an endless supply of stamina. It is commonplace in Hollywood films for the macho male star to rise from his bed while the camera catches sight of not one, but two women in his bed (see Star Trek: Into Darkness and Troy for two immediate examples).

Women, however, are given no such congratulations. Female sexuality remains a force worthy of fear in our society—why else was American Pie, a story about teenage boys on a quest to lose their virginities, given an R rating by the MPAA but, Coming Soon, a similar story but with female stars, originally slapped with an NC-17 rating? The idea of a woman having the appetite not only to enjoy sex, but to enjoy sex with two simultaneous partners is not worthy of awe and admiration, but rather humiliation and degradation.

It is misogynistic to imply that a man enjoying a threesome with two women is a mark of status, but the reverse is a mark of shame. Behavior (whether sexual or merely social) being rewarded when committed by a man and disgraced when committed by a woman (and vice versa) is one of the most basic structures of sexism in our society. Changing the vocabulary we use to describe a threesome when it involves two men and a woman, subbing in “train,” with all its “slutty” implications and layers of shame to describe an act regularly applauded when committed by men, is sexist. And that’s that.

The Doer and the Done

The other regularly-spouted bit of nonsense I hear that defends “train” being used to describe a one-woman-with-two-men threesome is this (and I’ll try to make it comprehensible, as it rarely is when spouted by the people this blog criticizes): “A threesome is when all three people are interacting. Two women and a man are all touching/pleasuring each other. With two men and a woman, only the men are touching the woman. They’re not touching each other. So it’s a train. They’re doing her.”

This is my face right now.

1)   Your assumption that two men are not touching each other during a threesome with a woman is heteronormative. In short, how the fuck do you know?

2)   Wait…are you saying it’s bad for two men involved in a threesome with a woman to touch each other? Goodbye.

3)   If two men and a woman are engaging in a threesome, what do you think is happening exactly? One man might be having sex with her vaginally/anally while the other is kissing her, receiving oral sex from her, etc. ….I’m still not understanding how this is not a threesome?

In short, the people who subscribe to these kinds of notions reveal themselves for what they are: fragile minds bogged down in misogynist thinking who literally cannot imagine an encounter in which a woman has sexual agency free from shame. In the minds of these people, a woman does not DO during sex, but is done. Men are DOING her, and she is being DONE. Even when she is performing oral sex, she is not doing, but having something done to her. This line of reasoning is a little rapey, if you think about it.

If sex is consensual, and it damn well better be, then a woman is fully capable of DOING. Two men is her prerogative. So is three. So is four. Know why? Because she can do what the hell she wants with her vagina to as many people as she wants. A threesome does not become a train merely because only one of the three is female.

Your sexist notion of female sexual behavior does not get to rename an act simply because of a woman’s participation in it. That’s like calling women’s basketball pussyball. It’s basketball. Its name doesn’t change simply because the people on the court are people who you believe should be shamed for their bodies and actions. Basketball. Threesomes. Call it what it is and keep your sexist little semantics to yourself.

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