Down to a T

I recently read a piece (I can’t remember where so can’t provide a reference) in which it was argued that the T in LGBT I was out of place since gender is a distinct phenomenon from sexual orientation. On one level this is true although we might point out that if a change of gender does not entail a change in sexual orientation this would mean that the act of transitioning the T actually entails the L or G since a straight man transitioning becomes a lesbian.

But there is a deeper problem with this way of thinking. It simply has an excessively narrow view  both of gender and sexuality and  ignores the ways in which they have been intertwined in gay and lesbian subcultures.

I began to think about this whilst at Tate Britain last week,  visiting the exhibition Queer British Art 1861 to 1967, held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

For, from the Victorian era, experiments with gender fluidity were part of the artistic expression of gay and lesbian identity. Everywhere where there is androgyny and this was something that was clear to contemporary observers.   Clothes, make up, hair,  the use of beautiful young men as models for female figures from  classical mythology, this even before we get onto pantomime dames and  drag queens. In short, those who identified with alternative and stigmatised sexualities, sought to perform their sexuality in ways that also challenged gender stereotypes. Look, for example, at the photograph of Quentin Crisp in the exhibition or the iconic portrait of Radclyffe Hall.

And maybe the words gay and lesbian are out of place here too. At the start of the period represented by the exhibition medical science had still to invent and define hetero- and homosexuality as concepts. As categories they can be restricting too. Science seeks to define and classify. Art doesn’t.  Art like this serves to undermine the neat order of science’s categories. It points the way to which allow us can live art through our sexuality and through our performance of gender. Queer art is saying that sexuality is elusive, a range of possibilities, a range of pleasures, and gender a stage for our self-representation. Seen through the prism of art, rigid definitions of gender are as constraining as heteronormative binary views of sexuality and, in a sense, underpin them.

There were parts of this exhibition I found deeply erotic. Some of the exhibition was wickedly funny. Take a look at the library book covers doctored by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, an act for which the state exacted vicious revenge with six month prison sentences.  All of it was empowering, much of it beautiful. I left, thinking that sexuality and gender form a space where can express ourselves, a space where we can be free.

Sexy Summer Book Club

I am pretty undisciplined when it comes to reading. I usually have seven or more books on the go at any one time, read on the loo, on the bus, while stirring porridge, often just a page or two at a time, before I put the book down and move on to something else. I do plenty of reading but seem to take ages to finish individual books.  It is not unusual for a book for a book to lie untouched for several weeks and, when I pick it up to resume reading, I find I have lost the thread.

For this reason, I am great joiner of book clubs. I regularly attend the Birmingham Feminists Book Club and have read some wonderful books by the likes of Sarah Waters, Maya Angelou and Angela Carter. Book clubs make you read to a deadline and think about what you are reading so that you can contribute to the discussion.  In short, it gives you discipline.

Strange as it may seem, I don’t read nearly as much smut as I ought to.  So I thought that the Sexy Summer Book Club might be an opportunity. We began with the sexual reminiscences and reflections of Girl on the Net. Now I have known GoTN for a few years, having originally met her at Eroticon. I got to chat to her quite a bit as we were often to be found outside the building with the smoking crew. And bonding over a cigarette is a great way to bond, at least with people you are probably never going to go to bed with.

But I had never read very much of her writing. Partly this is because I don’t read a lot of blogs and things online. After a day in the office mired in Excel spreadsheets I just don’t like spending much time reading from screens in the evening. Book Club seemed like a good opportunity to make good the omission.

And I totally loved How a Bad Girl Falls in Love. The GoTN who came off the page was  the same GoTN I love smoking and drinking with. Witty and clever, with a sharp eye for the detail or observation that saves five hundred words, forthright in her opinions, a big personality.

Yet there is more here than opinion, humorous asides and fab sex (although there is plenty of all those). She also writes about her struggles with anxiety and low self-esteem and this, too, is something I can relate to.  I sometimes think it goes with the territory for those of us who became aware, possibly at a young age, that we were different in terms of our sexuality.  The journey away from shame and self-loathing towards an acceptance of who you are and the confidence to simply be yourself is a long one. And even when you find soul mates, in the kink scene or the sex blogging community, for example, the black clouds never quite leave you. Maybe life would be untroubled if all my sex was vanilla, if I didn’t know what a spreader bar was or a dildo?

But ultimately we are who we are. And in my darkest moments  I know that they are people lime GoTN  who will get me, will not judge, will give me love. Which I will reciprocate. Because that is one of the great things to come out of the book for me, the realisation that GoTN is not just a companion in nicotine and cider, but, in all her complexity, a soul mate.

I also understand where she is coming from sexually and why she likes the particular pieces of writing of mine that she does. And some of the writing in this book is hot. I read the book in the gym and had to interrupt my workout on one occasion to go to the Ladies and play with myself. And that, dear reader is the acid test, isn’t it?

A Pin To See The Peepshow

My interest in true crime dates from the time when, as a child, I listened to Edgar Lustgarten’s half hour programmes on Radio 4, when , in a rich, fruity voice he recounted famous murders of the past. So it was that I first heard about Armstrong the Hay poisoner, about the Brighton trunk murders of 1934, the Stratton brothers who, in 1905, became the first defendants convicted of murder on the basis of fingerprint evidence, and many other notorious cases.

Lustgarten seemed to revel in the often gory detail and he left no doubt that he considered the gallows a just destination for those who killed. He also believed that there had been few true miscarriages of justice and had a faith in the criminal justice system that few would have today. He even disputed the innocence of Timothy Evans.

There was really only one hanging that disturbed him and, when I first heard his account of the Ilford murder of 1922, I detected a tremor of emotion in his voice. For Lustgarten believed passionately in the innocence of Edith Thompson.

The facts of the case are well enough known.  Thompson, who was 28 at the time of the killing, lived in Ilford with her slightly older husband Percy. Their life was one of middle class respectability and quiet prosperity. Edith was a career woman and had worked her way up to be head buyer for a firm of milliners.  The marriage, however, was not happy and she embarked on an affair with a younger man called Freddy Bywaters. This proved her downfall. The jealous Bywaters, frustrated that Edith would not leave her husband, (something she could only do at huge personal cost) ran up behind the couple one evening as they walked home from the theatre and stabbed Percy Thompson to death.

There was no evidence that Edith knew that Bywaters had planned to do this, still less that she had incited him. Nonetheless she found herself on trial for murder. Bywaters had foolishly kept all her letters, in which she fantasised about killing or harming Percy, about putting ground glass in his dinner for example.   These were pure fantasy but deadly in the hands  of a prosecution seeking to plant a picture of Edith Thompson as an evil and manipulative woman. What was not fantasy was the fact that Edith had committed adultery and had had an illegal abortion.  For the social conventions of the time this put her pretty much beyond the pale and led her to the gallows at Holloway.

The case inspired the novel A Pin To See The Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse that I have just finished reading. Her heroine is called Julia Starling, nee Almond, and the setting moved across London to Chiswick.  Two thirds of the book is a portrait of London life from the period just before the First World War up to the early 1920s. Julia is a complex and contradictory character, attractive yet flawed. The narrative cleverly builds up the tension between the   dreams fostered by her daily contact with the wealthy aristocratic women she mixes with at the shop where she works, women whose money allows them moral leeway, and the drab lower middle class existence she has to return to each evening. Like Edith Thompson, she embarks on a an affair with dire consequences.

The last third of the book is essentially a fictionalised retelling of the actual trial of Thompson and Bywaters. It is compelling but grim, the story of a woman caught up in the machinery of a system that she does not understand and which she is powerless to stop.

Jesse’s novel was also dramatised but a performing licence was refused by the Lord Chamberlain. It was, even by 1934, too sensitive a matter for the authorities. Eventually in 1973 it was serialised for television by Elaine Morgan, with Francesca Annis playing the lead role.

The case continues to fascinate, principally because of Edith Thompson. Everyone who studies the case finds her an attractive personality. She is in many ways strikingly modern, a career woman with a good salary and financial independence (something which was held against her), a woman who enjoyed sex, and gave eloquent expression in her writing to her erotic imagination. She was a woman trapped in her time and, importantly, her class. For, even in 1922, her life would have been different had she been born into the aristocracy and not the suburban lower middle class. She was a victim of class prejudice as well as misogyny. At the time commentators sneeringly described her as a kind of low rent Madame Bovary. Killing Edith Thompson was not enough it seems. Her reputation had to be trashed as well.

This all happened nearly a century ago but the case still has resonance. Women are still harshly treated by the criminal justice system, more likely to be imprisoned than mean for similar offences, this despite the fact that women are more likely to have childcare responsibilities. It is, at times, as if women defendants are judged not just for their crimes, but for falling short of some ill-defined ideal of what a woman should be.

We have, I suppose, moved on from the times when a 28 year old woman could be killed by the state for liking sex  but not wanting to have a baby, but we haven’t moved far enough.

An Appetite for Pleasure

When I was 11 and staying at a friend’s house, we stumbled upon her father’s porn stash. We spent the afternoon leafing through these well- thumbed copies of Men Only.  At this distance in time I don’t remember a great deal about them except being fascinated by a photospread of a guy eating bananas and cream off his partner’s lady parts. And so a connection between food and sex was established in my mind. A current male lover loves to lick various sweet treats off my feet and this is as good a pedicure as I have had in any salon and delightfully erotic.

I, in my time, have greedily licked yoghurt and honey off cock, I have drawn a Cadbury’s Flake out of a girlfriend with my teeth (and soaked in pussy juice a Flake is, well, something else) and I still shudder to think to think about the mess a lover and I made of a hotel bed with a steak and kidney pie.

The point for me is that food is sensual, sex is sensual. Eating oysters is quite a bit like sucking cock, it’s just that cock is even better when your lover comes in your mouth. And like all the sensual pleasures they are predicated on mortality. I was, therefore,  little surprised a while ago to talk to a sex positive lady (and part time sex worker)   describing the way in which she had lost weight, through one of the many faddish diets.

“I haven’t eaten for 48 hours”  she said with a smile. “And I’m nor even hungry.”

Well, yes, I thought but this is missing the point. Food is not an enemy it is a pleasure to be embraced like a lover. Eat well, eat regularly just not to excess. Deny yourself nothing. Yet so many people do. And they are surely blunting their sensual appetite more generally. Deny yourself dessert  and what are you going to lick off your lover before you fuck? And how can you get properly horny and have the energy for love making without steak or oysters or a glass of wine?

I have lost three and a half stone since the beginning of 2015. I am now dress size 12 to 14 where I was once a 22. Some of this was down to running but mainly it is down to making the decision to eat well and eat regularly. Three proper meals, no snacks. Oh and room for dessert, room for cheese, room for wine.  It was while visiting friends In France that I had this idea. My friends pointed out that there are far fewer overweight people in France than in England yet most French people eat well. I had to agree.

I really can’t imagine Catherine Deneuve going 48 hours without food and not feeling hungry, still less being happy about it. So I’m just off out to buy cheese and maybe a crème brulee. And then I will see where the evening takes me.

Smutathon

Five weeks after my third half-marathon, in Manchester, I am taking on a new challenge, a writing marathon, the first Smutathon.  Now In have never written anywhere near as much smut as I would have liked and I see in this an opportunity to catch up, spending 12 hours writing filth. This will be in London in the company of other members of the Eroticon family   so it will be fun and very sociable, particularly if I take a couple of bottles of gin 🙂

This is filth with a purpose as we aim to raise money for two worthy causes, Rape Crisis and Backlash which campaigns against censorship and for sexual freedom.

This may seem to some an odd pairing. There are, after all, those who see censorship as a necessary step towards reducing the incidence of rape and sexual assault. Only recently I read Julie Bindel (who else) going on about porn culture and its role in the oppression of women as if she was unaware that women are both producers and consumers of porn, and that the often niche porn (BDSM for example) that women produce is most at risk from the puritanical urges of our politicians.

I think I can speak from all my fellow participants when I say that we reject this view. The full and free expression of human sexuality is joyful and life enhancing.  And I emphasise free. This means consent at all times. Our choices are ours and ours alone. Politicians (and Julie Bindel) need to remember this too.

I hope you are able to support us. You can sponsor us here

Oh and huge thanks to the wonderful Coffee and Kink who had the idea and the energy to bring it about. You can follow her blog here

As for me I really can’t wait until July 1st.

 

 

Identity

This post arises from the happy coincidence of two books I have been reading recently, books which, at first sight, don’t seem to have much in common. The first is Maya Angelou’s “See How The Caged Bird Sings.” We discussed it this morning at the monthly Birmingham Feminist Book Club. Part of a wide-ranging discussion revolved around literature as a means of self understanding, this arising from Angelou’s won discussion in her book of what reading the classics of English literature, and especially, Shakespeare, meant to her, and how she was able, by engaging with the texts, to make sense of her own experience.

This was a concept that was made real for me a couple of years ago when I was a volunteer buddy for a Community Interest Company that worked with adults experiencing mental health difficulties, in particular by encouraging them to read literature and sharing their experiences. To get a flavour of what they did I was invited to attend one of the meetings. We were reading Rose Tremain’s novel The Road Home. The group consisted of people of varying ages, many of whom lived in considerable isolation, an isolation made worse by anxiety and phobias. Some of them only left the house for the weekly meeting in a local library. Most of them had little experience of serious reading. From the discussion, however, it became clear that the book was opening doors for them and all of them were able to use the text to make sense of their own lives, at the same times bringing their won experiences to bear in interpreting the text. As they talked they gave me new insights into the book. This experience was both illuminating and humbling.

These experiences and thoughts are particularly relevant to the other book I have been reading. This is an anthology called Identity, whose contributors all attended the recent Eroticon conference. I have to declare an interest. I was one of the contributors. But that is now why I am writing about it. The content is pretty eclectic, some of it personal reminiscence, and painful reminiscence at that, some of it fantasy, some of it opinion, some of it seriously hot, you know, the stuff you read one handed.  And then there was Meg-John Barker’s piece on erotic fiction as means of self understanding which got me reflecting again on my own identity, or in this case my sexual identity and what it means to me. This short essay was in my head as I read the other pieces and enriched my reading experience.  This really is as a wonderful anthology and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Erotic fiction has changed my life. I really don’t know why, one day in 2012, I felt the urge tio write a story about a carer in a elderly person’s home who has a relationship with a gay man whose carer he is. Other stories followed. I went online, I set up a Twitter account, I read voraciously, I discovered Eroticon and became part of a community. And a new Eve emerged, an Eve who is kinky, bisexual, who is proud to know sex workers she can call friends, an Eve committed to the freeest possible expression of human sexuality (subject to consent). In short an Eve I could not have imagined even existed only 6 years ago. It is through erotic literature that I have discovered what was previously latent, and been able to articulate it.

The main protagonist of my first story was Eric, an Oxford graduate who had been jailed for “gross indecency” in the dark days before 1967 and who experienced late sexual joy with a younger man. I killed him off at the end as the younger man had to move on and make his own way as a gay man in a different age, but acutely aware of the debt gay men, indeed all of us who are in some way not heteronormative, owe to those who suffered for daring to be different. I made sure, however, that Eric died happy, at peace with himself. I knew then that I owed him that. I know now that I owe him much more.

He’s In Love With Rock’n’Roll Woah

This year seems to be quite big for anniversaries. I have probably heard enough about Sergeant Pepper and anyway always preferred Revolver. The 40th anniversary of the first Clash album passed yesterday with rather less fanfare but it is a milestone of its own particularly for those of us old enough to remember it (and buy it). A lot of the songs still stand up, fast, frenetic and angry. Career Opportunities is probably even more relevant in an age of zero hours contracts than it was when it was written. Those who don’t remember the 1970s may not know who the first song on Side One was about. When I listened to it first, aged 15, I remembered this story from three years earlier.

I remembered reading about the singer Janie Jones being jailed for 7 years in  1974 for “controlling prostitutes”. What this amounted to in practice was procuring sex workers for prominent people who wanted paid sex, in this case at parties she organised. In effect she was a middle woman putting sex workers in touch with clients. The press reported extensively on this, with no end of titillating detail. The News of the World printed lurid stories about Janie in  Holloway, and the pink silk sheets she allegedly had on her prison bunk. These stories were really the fetishisation of Janie as “caged woman”, and evidence, if any were needed, that this was a newspaper for wankers. In 1977 Janie herself was not long out of prison and, seeking to lie low for a bit, not thrilled to hear that a punk band had recorded a sing about her. That is, until she heard it. She apparently loved the song and later worked with the band.

Her case is another example of the prurience and hypocrisy that still surrounds sex and sexuality in this country. She was made an example of to protect the better connected people who had been guests at her sex parties. Her 7 year sentence was, by the standards of 1974, an era before the sentence inflation of the last two decades, incredibly harsh. The cycle of hypocrisy was: it happens but we pretend it doesn’t. If it becomes public we find a scapegoat and fetishise them for the benefit of the plebs who also have to sign up to the hypocrisy.

If attitudes to sex in 1974 were essentially infantile, we may ask if anything significant has changed. In recent years we have had the ATVOD rulings on the depiction of things like face sitting and squirting, all this from a body whose Chief Executive, according to those who have had direct dealings with him, knows an awful lot about BDSM practices for a man who thinks mature adults need to be protected from them. We now have the Digital Economy which will bring in its wake further chilling of sexual self-expression. And all the time we have the tireless and rather unholy alliance of religious fundamentalists and radical feminists who think that consensual sex with an exchange of money is “violence against women” and that sex workers need to be rescued, even if they don’t want to be. Thus we have the ludicrous spectacle of feminists trying to control the bodies of other, usually less privileged, women in the name of giving them bodily autonomy.

And, in 2017 no less than in 1974, it is women’s sexuality that is stigmatised, women’s bodies that need to be controlled. We should be angry. Just as The Clash were forty years ago.