Not As Easy To Pretend

A couple of weeks ago, someone found this blog via the search term “becky and sam slash fiction.” Which reminded me of a question that’s always bothered me about 7.8, “It’s Time For A Wedding”: why doesn’t Becky sleep with Sam when she has the chance?

This wee dram of a story is Becky’s answer.

Not As Easy To Pretend

Here’s why it didn’t work out between me and Sam:

He’s supposed to be with Dean.

You’d think I’d have known that.

I mean, you’d think of anyone, I would have known that!

Geez.

But I let, you know, other stuff overrule my brain and ended up making the worst mistake of my life.

Ok, maybe more than one.

I mean, I’m not an idiot. At some level, I knew it was a terrible plan, like Wesley-in-Angel level bad, but the first time I touched him again, in Vegas, I so did not care. I mean, I’d have risked the Apocalypse at that point, just have him look at me the way he does Dean.

Which, see? I knew better. Knew he didn’t belong with me. Knew those eyes wouldn’t have the same depth, or darkness, or love or lust or anything when they looked at me, no matter how much demon crap I gave him. Not the same as when he gazed down at Dean, all that affection practically spilling over his eyelashes and into his brother’s face.

Hmm. I like that. Maybe I can use it in the AU I’m working on.

Anyway.

So even then, when I should have been focused on writing my own story–OUR own story–I couldn’t escape the pull of theirs. It was stronger, hotter, sweeter than anything I could dream of between Sam and me.

Because, you know. I totally had that chance.

For over a week.

He was half-naked in my bed for more than a week and I–

Never so much as kissed him.

Except for that one time, at the table, but that doesn’t count because we were both upright and I had other things to worry about, then, than in cataloguing the smooth of his lips, the swing of his hips.

If you want to know the truth: at night, I slept on the couch.

He wanted to. Offered even, to give up the bed for me.

He’s really thoughtful, like that.

But no. There’s no way he would have fit there, and even he could see that through his puppy dog haze. So he’d sigh, every night, and pat my head. Kiss my cheek and hold me close just long enough for me to remember why I was doing this in the first place. Why I was willing to take all these crazy chances which, honestly, is not really my MO, taking chances.

Then he’d open his arms and squeeze my elbow and wind himself in my sheets. Bury his head under my pillows where I’d sighed his name a hundred times and tumble over into sleep.

He snored, but just a little. Not enough to keep me up, but enough to remind me that he was still there.

It was comforting. Human-generated white noise.

I’d stretch out on the couch and just lie there, for a while. Listening.

Thinking about the curve of his spine in the dark. I wondered if it looked like the way I’d described it in my story “Ceremony”:

He arched above Dean and his spine was like a snake, warm and alive under Dean’s fingers as he stroked, coaxed Sam’s tongue into his mouth and counted down each vertebrae like a rosary, Hail Marys in his mouth as they fucked.

And I knew I could get up and go look. Could watch his back rise and fall with sleep. Told myself it was research for my next fic, but something stopped me. Held me back.

I guess I felt like his body wasn’t mine to see. Not like that.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. There was part of me that wanted to dive under the covers and swallow him whole. I mean, yeah.

To see if he really was proportional.

And I knew he’d have let me. Heck, he’d have liked it, if only because of the drugs, but.

It wasn’t his decision to make. Not his body to give.

It was Dean’s.

If Sam belongs to anyone, it’s not to himself. It’s Dean.

So I didn’t get up. Never did. Just lay there and listened and thought of all the nights that Dean had done the same.

**

And then, I admit, things got a little weird.

I did.

Because when the drug ran out, when Guy started acting like a jerk, I was desperate. Didn’t know what else to do.

It was as though all my logic got stripped away, all of my ability to reason, to think, and there was just Sam, his heavy body in my parents’ bed at the cabin, and I’d have done almost anything–I did–to keep him close.

Even though I knew it was just a loan. That Dean would come to collect him sooner or later. Because he always does.

And the worst part is, I babbled. You know, somebody like me that’s always thinking in words, choosing them deliberately, being really careful about crafting and I just lost all of that, in front of Sam. I said all the worst things that popped into my head, all the stuff I’ve thought about us but never even written in the forums because everyone would think I was trolling. It was awful. So embarrassing. I could see that, in his eyes, how crazy I must have looked to him, then.

But I couldn’t stop.

He does something to me. Something I can almost control in my fic, but in real life? Forget it. He is just too–

Too–

Beautiful and perfect and broken. A body with a billion pieces that only Dean can reassemble, can stitch together with his hands and his mouth and a thousand whispers of “I’ve got you, Sammy.”

That’s from “Religion of the Fields.” One of the first things I ever wrote.

And it’s true. I’ve seen it.

Ok, I haven’t seen them like, you know, but the way they are when they’re in the same space? The way they stand, kind of leaning towards the other like magnets? Their eyes snagged on each other’s faces? Oh yeah. I’m telling you.

It’s all true.

Anyway.

I’ll never see them again.

When I write it down like that, I believe it.

When I see it on the page, I know that it’s true.

But in my heart, I keep hoping, I guess. Which is silly.

I mean, I’ve got them here with me all the time, in my fic. On my site. In my writing.

Sometimes, I sleep on the couch at night and pretend that Sam’s still here. That the whir of the fan in the bedroom is really the sound of his breath. That I can get up anytime I want and stand over him, watch his spine ripple like a snake in the dark.

It’s not as easy to pretend, now, as it was. As I’d still like it to be.

Gimme What You Got (But Not Your Cock)

Magic Mike in three lines:

  1. Too much Soderbergh.
  2. Not enough cock.
  3. The female gaze says what?

A spoiler-y feminist take after the jump. Continue reading “Gimme What You Got (But Not Your Cock)”

Dirty Angel In A Trenchcoat


As women, we need permission to burn.

We need somebody to give us permission to ogle, to turn the unabashed gaze on male beauty and just go with it.

Most of the time, we need permission from ourselves. As the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts point out, our brain chemistry demands that we give ourselves a mental go-ahead before the brain lust meets the body and those Wonder Twin powers activate into something wonderful.

But there’s also a lot of cultural and social crap that gets into our heads and gums up the works even more.

I wish this weren’t the case. I wish I didn’t feel a twinge of guilt when I look “too long” at the pretty. It’s a twinge born of feminism (you should not want what the heterosexist patriarchy tells you to, goddamn it.) and a childhood spent in church (thou shalt not want, well, anything. Ever. That’s not God.).

The church thing you’d think would be gone by now; hell, even as a kid, I resisted. The feminism? Well, again, I push back when my well-meaning colleagues attempt to regulate, to school me in the power of not-want, but those little twin voices, those towering thou shalt nots, are still there, still perched on my shoulder and tsking when I stare too hard at Padelecki or cross my eyes over the angel, yes.

But now I know they’re there, those voices, now I know enough to acknowledge and then ignore. Because I’m trying to give myself permission to take pleasure in the gaze.

That’s why, to me, the movie Magic Mike is so freaking genius. It’s a permission slip of a film, sculpted as an invitation, a way of saying: yes, you women so inclined (and gay men), come and pay your money for two hours of dominant discourse-sponsored gazing. No guilt, no shame, just two hours of looking that’s been sanctioned by the powers that be.

Because those boys on the screen?

They know you’re coming only for them, that their agressive lack of clothing is what’s gonna drive you to the theater. And that’s OK, hell, it’s more than ok: it’s awesome. Cough up the cash, ladies (and gents), and bask in sex with little fear of being mocked or even noted. Because you’ll be among friends.

So this is what I love, what I wish weren’t quite so culturally necessary: an excuse for communal lust, for a public performance of female desire in which we as the audience can feel safe in participating. It’s like a natural evolutionary step from the Fifty Shades phenomenon, the motion picture equivalent of reading a novel with a very sexy cover in public.

And yeah, it’s the commodification of female desire, and ok, it’s a little heteronormative in its approach (though the outreach to the gay press has been great), and in some ways it’s just as prescriptive in terms of what I (the female audience) should want as my feminist colleagues and the church, but.

If they’re marketing to us–the “us” that’s not white, heterosexual, and male–honey, let’s jump on it and give them reason to do it to us, for us all over again.

Erotica, Porn, And a “Contagion of Pleasure”

A question that keeps coming up [heh] in my research is one that annoys me: what’s the difference between erotica and pornography?

[My addendum: who the bloody hell says that there IS one?]

Although I may reject the premise of the question, that does pretty much no good, for it’s one that’s been around at least as long as first-wave feminism and continues to pop up pretty prominately in contemporary culture. See discussions of Fifty Shades of Gray or the presence/absence of the “PWP” [Porn Without Plot] tag in slash communities, for example. As a culture, we keep acting like there’s a distinction here, so I’m spending some time trying to figure out why.

For the record: In my own work, I don’t see a meaningful distinction between erotica and porn. It’s all about sex and emotion and getting the fuck off. All of the gendered bullshit that’s bundled into these debates just pisses me off and I’m veering wildly off track. Let me table the Rage Cat for a later discussion.

Last week, I read a terrific (apparently foundational) article in romance studies called “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different” by Ann Barr Snitow, published in 1979. Snitow’s work [which deserves its own post. Or four.] pointed me in the direction of the November 1978 issue of Msmagazine, then at the height of its cultural powers (the cover’s posted above).

There are three articles devoted to the erotica vs. pornography question in that issue, but I’m going to focus for now on Gloria Steinem’s “Erotica and Pornography: A Clear and Present Difference.”

In the article, after a long and confusing introduction about humans’ capacities as a species (??), Steinem lays out what’s essentially a entomological distinction between erotica and porn. She argues that erotica “is rooted in eros or passionate love, and thus in the idea of positive choice, free will, the yearning for a particular person” (75). By contrast, she posits, pornography:

“begins with a root meaning ‘prostitution’ or ‘female captives,’ thus letting us [who is “us”?] know that the subject is not mutual love, or love at all, but domination and violence against women…It ends with a root meaning ‘writing about’ or ‘description of’ which puts still more distance between subject and object, and replaces spontaneous yearning for closeness with objectification and a voyeur.” (54)

She then sketches this difference in several other ways, including:

  • “Perhaps one could simply say that erotica is about sexuality, but pornography is about power and sex-as-weapon” (54)
  • Erotica is “a mutually pleasurable, sexual expression between people who have enough power to be there by positive choice”; while pornography, on the other hand, carries a “message…[of] violence, dominance, and conquest” (54).

Ultimately, the vision of sex she presents here reads as a naive, almost romantically-idealized, view of sex. It feels as though 1978 Steinem is invoking the spirits of two (or more) imaginary partners who are wholly decontextualized from the wider world.

Love isn’t always fucking in a bed of roses–and anyway, those bitches have thorns.

Despite her desire for lovers to be fully embodied–to be in bed by choice made in both body and mind–the kind of sex that Steinem describes, to which she aspires, is one outside of time. Status is elemental to our interactions with other humans; whether we are conscious of them or not, we’re engaged in constant negotiations of status with all of the people whom we meet in a given day. Even our virtual interactions are marked by the back-and-forth of status games. While gender can and does affect those interactions, our sense and performance of our own always-shifting statuses, it’s not the sole determining factor, nor is it the only exigence for status exchanges.

Frankly, I don’t buy Steinem’s morpheme-based argument. To me, it feels that she reads the “textbook” definitions of erotica and pornography, of their entomological roots, far beyond what the text itself actually says, and actively avoids engaging with how those linguistics elements compare/contrast with the practical use and understanding of those concepts in modern (as of 1978) life.

To be blunt: her implicit assertion seems to be that erotica is good because it’s more “feminine” in nature–deals with feelings and love and all that shit–while pornography is bad because it’s used by men, created by men, espoused by men, in order to maintain the patriarchy. I’m essentializing here, and I realize. However, her assertions that erotica has a “sensuality and touch and warmth” and concerns itself with “shared pleasure,” while pornography uses sex to “reinforce some inequality, or to create one,” sounds pretty fucking gendered in its construction to me (53).

I’m also struck by her resistance to pleasure in this piece, to discussing erotica–if one accepts her argument that erotica is good–as a means through which a woman might gain some getting off, if you know what I mean.

Here’s the closest Steinem comes to acknowledging why a woman might want to use erotica:

“It [erotica] may or may not strike a sense-memory in the viewer, or be creative enough to make the unknown seem real; but it doesn’t require us to identify with a conquerer or victim [as she does porn, she argues]. It is truly sensuous, and may give us a contagion of pleasure.” (54)

It’s that last phrase that struck me: what’s a “contagion” of pleasure, exactly? Why not straight-up pleasure? What’s the virus that’s being transmitted? Why does Steinem seem to associate [physical] pleasure gained from a “photo or a film of people making love; really making love” as an infection, as something external that invades the viewer’s body from the outside?

The cynic in me wonders if this passage suggests a deeper resistance to heavily sexualized texts, if there’s not an implicit assumption here that getting off from the outside in isn’t as “good” or “right” as getting off with an imaginary, egalitarian lover.

There’s a whiff here of policing here, I think, of telling feminists of 1978 what they should want, what they should desire. And you know how I feel about that. Sad to say, such conversations, such attempts at community policing, are still ongoing, not just in explicitly feminist communities, I’d argue, but in many places where women gather around a shared ideology.

We Make It. With Love.

No, no, I’m listening. Not just staring at your beautiful face.

My friend and collaborator fanspired kicked a lovely and complicated question at me yesterday, and as a) the answer to her question is sort of fundamental to this blog; and b) my response spun out into a 20-page dissertation, I decided to post my response here.

Fanspired asked:

I’m puzzled about the relationship between these two [feminism and slash], given that we’re reading a genre of porn that specifically excludes us…Why do feminists read/write male/male slash?

I can answer that question only in terms of my own thinking and experiences. There’s been much written on this subject, and I suspect that there are probably as many answers to your question as there are feminists in slash fandom. Know, then, that my response pivots around my own beliefs, and makes no attempt to speak for feminists in slash as a whole.

The simplest answer, for me, is that such practices are a means through which, by which, to resist the way that female sexual desire and expression is coded, understood, and controlled within the dominant discourse.

In Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins, scholar of fan practices in general and one of the first to write about slash practice specifically, puts it this way:

“Slash confronts the most repressive forms of sexual identity and provides utopian alternatives to current configurations of gender; slash does not, however, provide a politically stable or even consistently coherent response to these concerns.” (189-190).

As a feminist, I see slash practices as active, resistant, and women-centered.

Active in that writing and reading slash fiction allows women [and some men] to re-author their own sexuality outside of the constraints of heternormativity. Hell, I’d argue that having to select any kind of label for one’s sexual identity, be it hetero or gay or bi or whatever, is more constraining than constructive. Indeed, the Kinsey scale suggests to me that there are very few of us who fit neatly and with no ragged edges into any of these categories.

I think sexual identity for many people isn’t “stable” or consistant over the course of our entire lives, although the dominant discourse is loathe to acknowledge or explore this idea–in part, I think, because these identities are too freaking complicated and individual to be easily narrativized. It’s much easier to say: you’re gay or you’re straight. Maybe bi. But that’s it! More than three and it gets confusing, damn it.

We’re watching you, too, babe.

So, for me, reading and writing slash gives me a chance to run around in many different kinds of sexual expressions, performances of desire, and sex acts outside of the binaries that dominate Western discourse around sexuality: gay and straight/male and female. In doing so, I can actively write, rewrite, and write again my own sexual identity, rather than serving as a passive receptor of male [eh] sexual desire, as the dominant discourse tells me I do every damn day. Indeed, the dd still tells us, I’d argue, that, as women, we “should” be good and wait for the men to come to us; that we should be content, as John Berger might say, to be the object of the gaze, rather than its master.

Well, I call bullshit.

Slash, for me, is also a form of resistance. The dominant discourse instructs us that what we should want, as women,  is nice, safe, straight, vanilla sex with a man –unless we want to sleep with other women in front of/for the pleasure of men. That’s ok, too, but only if we recognize that what we really want at the end of the day is to be on the receiving end of a dick. Because, yeah.

Now, some would say (to me, at the last conference I went to) that writing/reading M/M slash is NOT a practice of resistance because it’s essentially women lusting after men. That is, the dominant discourse tells us we should desire beautiful men, and thus engaging in slash wherein we deify the male body is, in effect, doing exactly what the patriarchy wants.

This scholar then reminded the audience and I that the producers of SPN have learned to aim their program at women, in so far as having the boys in various states of undress and using the pretty as a selling point (all true). Therefore, she posited, by agreeing that yes, these men are hot (and trading on that in our fic), we’re giving into the dominant discourse, rather than scorning its advances.

Again, I call bullshit.

To embrace the pretty, to happily consume this, this, and this, and then to use that pretty to our own devices–to write/read Sam and Dean or Dean and Cas or Sam and Dean and Cas into hot sex–is, I think, pretty fucking feminist in nature.

Slavoj Zizek–who is an idiot on a lot of things, in my opinion–wisely suggested that the purest form of resistance against the dominant ideology is to embrace the ideology with open arms. So, ok PTB, you want to keep our eyeballs on SPN by dropping images like this into our laps? Awesome. We’re gonna take those–thank you–and do with them what we will: some of which you’ll be ok with, because it’ll make you money, and some of which you’ll have no fucking control over, no matter how meta you try to get on us, baby.

K/S, the granddaddy of them all.

As feminst scholar Constance Penley puts it in NASA/TREK, her brilliant examination of Kirk/Spock slash:

“slash fans do more than ‘make do’; they make  (106).

Penley also notes Joanna Russ’ notion that slash writing is, essentially,

pornography by women, for women, with love (qtd. 103).

This is the last key piece of the puzzle, for me. Slash fiction is a space that dominated by women. Period. At some level, we’re women writing for, and to, other women. Sometimes, we’re an audience of one. Other times, the stories that we shape and kick out into the world are consumed by women whom we will never meet–but who will use our stories in their own way, make and remake them, hate them or love them, say “that’s not my Sam and Dean!” or “oh, god, that’s what my boys look like, too.”

This isn’t to say that a discursive space that’s dominated by women is inherently feminist in nature. It’s not. But, for me, spaces like the Sam/Dean Slash Archive or Archive of Our Own or any of the thousands of relevant LiveJournal pages allow for conversation and exchange between women that the dominant discourse discourages if not outright denies. We can talk, in these spaces, about sex and desire and character and narrative and incest and wingfic and curtains and emotion and trauma in ways that we can’t do in our everyday lives. If anything, SPN has become a feminized space because the characters are vehicles that make such conversations possible, even desirable, and provide the means through which, by which, we as women (primarily) can have them.

It’s not just about female appropriation of the male form–the most frequent academic criticism I’ve read and heard against slash. Hell, we might have a little penis envy, but so what? Reading and writing slash fic lets us try on the cock for awhile, put it to its best (most enthusiastic?) possible usage, and then reap the benefits of that textual world as only women can.

Don’t worry, baby: we usually play nice.

So you’re right, fanspired: on the surface, slash fic can look misogynistic. It’s women playing with men, navigating, negotiating, exploring, fuck, enjoying their sexuality via the male body. But I’d argue that the lack of gender constraints, the opportunity to resist the dominant discourse’s expectations of female sexuality, and the highly feminized communities that slash offers make reading and writing slash conducive to feminist participation, study, and interpretation.

As my boy Henry Jenkins points out:

not all of slash is feminist; yet one cannot totally ignore the progressive potential of this exchange.” (221)

As a feminist, it’s that “progressive potential,” the opportunity to repeat with difference, as Judith Butler might say, that keeps me coming back–yes–to slash.

Fantasy and Ivory

In general, I’ve tried to stay out of the Fifty Shades of Gray debate, in part because I think others have covered the territory quite well (see the Smart Bitches’ awesome take, for example). And, well, after perusing three free chapters of the first book on Amazon, I have zero desire to read the damn things. Not my kind of (hot, same-sex, well-written) porn. Which is cool.

However, I have [and do] laud the books for starting a long-overdue (if often juvenile) conversation in the US about women, erotica, and desire.

That said, Ruth Marcus’ column in today’s Washington Post brought out what is, for me, a new and unpleasant wrinkle in this debate: women telling women what we, as good feminists, should REALLY be fantasizing about.

After blushing for several paragraphs over talking about BDSM sex (tee hee! she’s so naughty!), Marcus actually does a nice job of kicking down Katie Roiphe’s ridiculous claims in Newsweek that feminists want to be subs in the bedroom because they’re tired of being in charge, because they’re threatened by what Roiphe claims is the “shaky” nature of “male dominance” in contemporary society.

Marcus cuts Roiphe to the quick (hurray!) and observes that Gray may be difficult to discuss, in part, because to do so

requires acknowledging gender differences that we’ve been conditioned to deny.

That is: that women’s fantasies be different than men’s.

Okey dokey.

But then–alas–here’s Marcus’ kicker:

Ultimately, Leonard [EL James’ real name] makes the key distinction: between women’s fantasies and their realities. “In real life, I think it’s something very, very different,” she told NBC. “You want someone who does the dishes.”

Now that’s one hot fantasy.

See, women of America (who read the Post)! Here’s what you SHOULD lust after:

And not this:

And DEFINITELY not this:

Gay porn stars of the 1970s? Out of bounds!

Now, I’m all for acknowledging all kinds of desires, especially those that transcend the binary of male and female. If everyone’s legal and consenting, then hop to it.

But, damn it, I’m ANNOYED by Marcus’ choice here. It feels to me as though, with that kicker, she’s distancing herself from those naughty ladies who read Gray, who read erotica/porn so they can fantasize about fucking beautiful men (or women!).

In essence, Marcus’ closing statement feels like an act of imaginative policing, of telling us feminists what we should really want is not a hot sex partner(s) but a man who’ll happily soldier 50% of the housework. That we should get turned on not by this–

–but by the sight of our (presumably male) partner doing the goddamn dishes.

You know, to each her own. That’s cool. But please, middle-aged woman who writes op-ed columns for the Post: please do not presume to tell me, as a feminist (who writes porn) what my fantasies may or may not include. Thank you.

You can have the dishwashing husbands of America all to yourself, darlin. I’ll take the boy with the stupid hat and the stuffed bird.