Wednesday, 21 September 2011

DIY: A Sex of One's Own

My generation came of age during Second-Wave Feminism.  By the time we reached 18, the country was already entering its 'post-feminist' phase.

In these final years before the discovery of the AIDS virus, we were the direct heirs of the most recent Sexual Revolution.  We enjoyed easy access to birth control and the knowledge that, if we did get pregnant, abortions were legal and affordable.  Our spiritual forebears were slightly older women who still looked and acted like hippies, who went bra-less, who hitchhiked and camped alone, who didn't give a rat's ass about makeup (unless it was body paint), who lived in communal homes, and slept with anyone they wanted to.

By 1982, most of us were more influenced by pictures of freedom-fighters in Latin America than fashion spreads in Vogue.  We had copies of Nancy Chodorow's Reproduction of Mothering and treated it like gospel.  Accordingly, the oppressor we sought to escape was not an abstract Patriarchy--the enforcer in Judith Butler-speak of 'regulatory norms'--but someone much closer to home:  a.k.a., our own mother, who, just as Chodorow said, was actively, energetically working to turn us into her.  Over Turkey preparation, she'd patiently endure our rants against Ronald Reagan, against his administration's gay-bashing, against U.S. intervention in El Salvador, before asking about that special boy, if he was possibly the one, and if we were taking necessary precautions--not to avoid an unwanted pregnancy--but to nail down our catch.

After turning 18, I and others of my generation fled our mothers in countless ways: even in winter, we went around in bare feet and rarely laundered hippie skirts; we traveled the country solo in Greyhound buses, took jobs as cashiers, copy editors, or bicycle couriers to cover rent for a room of our own; in short, pursued a life of uprooted movement, animated by the drive to defer husbands and households for as long as humanly possible, if not forever.


And then, in 1985, Wendy Cheek was murdered in San Francisco.

A lot of things came together in this incident.  Wendy went to the same College I did and, even though I only knew her from a distance, she was, to my mind, the embodiment of Free Spirit.  She wafted across campus in her diaphonous clothes, a sensuous, blond, California girl who made the rest of us, however hard we tried, feel like hard-bitten East Coast Calvinist prudes.  That's about all I knew of her until several years later when I moved to California for graduate school and read an article in the local newspaper describing how she's been raped, tortured, murdered, her body incinerated and abandoned under a heap of auto parts in San Mateo County.
Like I said, up until that point, sex had never been scary for me or my friends.  In the shelter of our Counter-Culture, it had never occurred to any of us that we could mortally offend anyone by being female.  Especially because, in our minds, we weren't really women at all, but a new breed.

A week before Wendy died, Robert Fairbank assaulted another woman.  After he'd hit her in the head several times, Arlene G, as she is named in the court records, pleaded with him to let her go, then, realizing that he was too drug-addled to reason with, sucked him off repeatedly while he phoned porn sites.  Afterward, he invited her out to dinner.  On the way to the restaurant, she successfully escaped and reported the incident to Police.
Thanks to the War on Drugs (Wiki:  "In the 1980s, while the number of arrests for all crimes was rising 28%, the number of arrests for drug offenses rose 126%"), the prisons had no vacancies.  The Judge let Fairbank out on parole and Fairbank killed Wendy one week later.  He took her to the same room where he assaulted Arlene G, made her put on the same red jumpsuit, called the same porn sites.  The autopsy showed that Wendy died of multiple stab and puncture wounds.  I can't get it out of my head that Fairbank was pissed at Arlene G for tricking him and took out his rage--against all women--on Wendy.  But even worse, Wendy died, forced to submit to a gender rite we'd grown up believing did not and should not define us.

Something was happening.  The original threat, of being dragged into domesticity and mothering, was matched on the other side by the hard reality of gender-based violence which it would also be--in numerous ways--our generation's lot to face.

Does anyone remember the story of the Peasant's Wise Daughter?  After being awarded a piece of land by the king, the peasant, in the course of digging up his field, finds a gold mortar and insists on returning it to his royal benefactor.  The daughter warns him that he should not do so, as the king will obviously demand the pestle that goes with it.  The daughter proves right.  The king, suspecting the peasant of withholding the pestle, throws him in prison.  "Alas, alas, if I had but listened to my daughter..." the peasant laments.  To which the king responds, "If you have a daughter who is as wise as that, let her come here."  In a way that definitely casts suspicion on the king's motives, he challenges the daughter to a test:  "[Come] to me not clothed, not naked, not riding, not walking... and if you can do that I will marry you."

   The wise daughter handily wins the bet by showing up naked in a fishing net dragged by an ass:
So she went away, put off everything she had on, and then she was not clothed, and took a great fishing net, and seated herself in it and wrapped it entirely round and round her, so that she was not naked, and she hired an ass, and tied the fisherman's net to its tail, so that it was forced to drag her along, and that was neither riding nor walking.

Being without boundaries was starting to make me nervous, as if it was dangerous to exist with so little definition.  But the boundaries other people threw up for protection, it seemed to me, made the problem worse.  Heavy duty security devices screamed out:  I'm valuable.  Steal me!
The paradox of the Peasant's Daughter:  How does one repel violation while dismantling the walls of self?  How do we win by kissing dirt?


From 18 on, I was happy to be confirmed in my androgyny, my defiance of set roles and gender types.  But, on turning 29, something told me I would be safer in general--my experience of the world less organized around fear and uncertainty--if I chose, against personal resistance, to claim some form of gender definition.  In a move that might seem strange--or not--to young women now, my answer was, rather than take self-defense classes, or get a gun, to buy my own high heels.

My first pair was not particularly high, but high enough to make walking feel unlike walking (another paradox).  Until that point, I had been padding around the world in the equivalent of bedroom slippers, trusting enough in circumstances and contingencies to think that nothing more stiff and upright was necessary.  The shoes were a revelation.

I wasn't dressed for 5th Avenue.  I didn't pair the heels with sleek designer suits or dresses.  My clothes did not say:  I dare you to fight me for them.  I did not give off a sense of entitlement.  I did reek, however, of definition.  Starting that day, I walked everywhere.  150 blocks/day through every part of town.  It didn't feel at the time like I was trying to conquer fear, so much as meditate on what drove it, contemplating where the fear came from, how much it has to do with what a person thinks they have to lose, what they perceive as belonging to them.  So I wasn't just learning to walk in heels, but learning to wear my own sexuality, not like a possession someone can steal, but like something bone-deep.  A source, not of gratuitous provocation, but inviolable power.  Far from feeling like a target, I had never felt more warmly welcomed.  I was regaled with hearty support:  'Great shoes, great gams,' which seriously altered the outlook--and sense of connectedness--of someone who, until then, had passed through the androgynous back-alleys of life, dodging the shackles, not only of definition, but define-ability.

Evolution of the Species


Evolution of Identity

Taking long walks that summer through the Bronx, through East and West Harlem, down Riverside Drive to 11th and 12th Avenues--stopping to talk to people at corner stores, to construction workers, to families barbecuing outside their homes, to people living on the street, to new mothers and crack dealers--the summer of '91 was my Debutante Ball.  I learned that the people of New York City respond to nothing more warmly than a frank declaration, the place where hard edges and personal openness meet.


Two years ago I was in a Toronto sex shop buying gear for Halloween.  The salesgirl, a Women's Studies major dressed as Wonder Woman, apologized repeatedly:  for her costume, for the fact that her boyfriend wanted her to wear it, and beyond that, for the fact that she had let her boyfriend persuade her to wear it, performing mea culpas as if I were, well, her mother or one of her Women's Studies profs.  I have to remind myself--at 49 now--that young women her age were, indeed, raised and taught by women my age.  Whereas my generation defied our mothers by rejecting heels (and everything we thought they represented), this generation apologizes to their mothers for succumbing to the lure of those symbols.

Symbols are collectively determined.  Judith Butler tries to play it both ways, saying what you can't escape you have to subvert.  Apologies to Judith, but, if you want to be an active participant in culture, you can't opt out and say:  I choose to parody the conventions, to exist tangential to definition.  The definitions will catch up with you, one way or another (R.I.P. Wendy).  Better, IMHO, to seize the reins and help re-shape the meaning.

My own high heels, far from signaling a caving in to convention, a buckling to societal expectation, proved a calling card, a declaration of being ready to play by a set of established rules.  Since I turned 18, no one has told me how to dress.  Certainly not my mother.  Especially not the media.  I dress for my partner (not because he makes me wear stuff I don't want to, but because I want to reciprocate the many things he does for me) and in ways I hope will set a sex-positive example for my daughter.  Today, I am active not only in making my own shoes, but in making my own sexual identity.  When I walk in the world, I am neither armored nor undefined.  I am connected and grounded, through a pair of heels and a sex to proudly call my own.

Cross posted to dagblog

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