So I’m at a party and a stranger asks what I do.  When I tell them I’m a sex columnist, they laugh and joke that they should send me a letter.  “I’m not that sort of columnist,” I say.

Their brow creases.  “Well then, what do you write about?”

When I tell them sexual politics, they often look twice as confused.  “What’s that?” they ask, or else they shrug and say, “Isn’t that quite a limited topic?”

It isn’t their fault that they aren’t aware.  In most communities, sex is so taboo that people just don’t register the sexual side of political issues.  They know Michele Bachmann’s anti-gay stance is destructive, but they don’t particularly consider it a sexual topic.  Neither do they think that the Miss Universe contest, or Anders Beiring Breivik’s sexist manifesto, impinge on people’s sexual lives. That’s not to say they don’t care, because often they really do.  But the word “sex” doesn’t enter their minds.  Brothel closures, sex workers’ rights, condoms in porn, gay suicide…once I mention these topics, a light goes on and they’re with me.  But the fact that we’re not encouraged to view these issues as sexually political speaks to the effect that sexual silencing can have.  (In fact, in a recent column, I wrote about Michele Bachmann and the damaging power that her silence can wield).

The truth is, when we don’t talk about a powerful human issue, suddenly it’s everywhere — the elephant in the room.  That elephant can be so darn hard to ignore that we have to play psychological tricks with ourselves to keep it invisible.  Our unconscious gets used to automatically suppressing the sexual so that our conscious minds stop making the connection.  This could be viewed as an adaptive quality.  (You should see how often people glare at me because I even mention sex).  But I believe we need to start reversing this process, especially since so many are missing the lies we’re being told about sexuality.

Seeing as you are reading this post, I’m confident that your eyes are open to sexual issues.  So I thought you might be especially stirred by a list I created in order to answer the question, “What is Sexual Politics?”  I’ve entitled the list, “What Sexual Politics Is,” and it contains some (but by no means all) of the political issues that fire me up, right now:

Sexual Politics is:

When you work in a brothel where your clients dodge payment, until the brothel building is deemed structurally unsafe, and, much to the delight of the neighbors, is eventually closed down.  The fact that you were working in dangerous conditions isn’t mentioned by the local press. (And will you get arrested?  And Jesus, where will you sleep tonight?).

When five year-old children in Amsterdam ask their teacher “What is sex?” and he tells them it is a loving act, and none of the parents prosecute.

When your teenage son commits suicide because he was bullied for being gay, and then, after his death, the bullies continue to chant “We’re glad you’re dead,” when a grieving family member is near.

Sexual politics is a  vibrator that’s illegal, even when it’s shaped like a rubber duck.  It’s when queer sex and queer love are looked on as sinful.  It’s when you want to marry your lover, but aren’t allowed.

It’s when a porn movie, with consenting actors, is more shocking to many than the war scenes on the news.

It’s the boy who says no to condoms.  It’s the girl who says no to pleasure.  It’s the kid who feels neither female nor male, but is told that isn’t good enough, and wants hir life to end.  (If this is you, dear one, please look to Kate Bornstein who is amazing).

It’s the man who spends time with a sex worker and suddenly feels embraced and at peace, even though, technically, he’s just made himself a criminal.

It’s a world that doesn’t understand when a trans woman is having sex with a male partner and they identify as gay.  Or a world in which people who are attracted to both men and women are told that they aren’t real unless they choose.

It is a woman who has experienced deep trauma and decides to bravely enact a rape fantasy to deal with her pain.  Then, after this role-play with a trusted partner, she feels significantly healed, but is described by so-called “feminists” as as victimizing herself.

It’s a Facebook wall of rape jokes by men who, apparently, are making jovial confessions online, yet Facebook refuses to remove the conversation.

It’s when the word “cunt” is considered more offensive than “cock,” or when you’re in love with more than one person, yet society tells you you’re not.

(And that’s just the start of it).

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I first received the email warning me that a breasteraunt wanted to open in the middle of town, I snorted it off. “Yeah, right,” I thought. “Like they’re going to let them do that here.” The almighty They—those who are not me. The bucolic Here—Evanston, Illinois, which boasts not only Northwestern University and some Lake Michigan shoreline but also, I’d wager, the most Whole Foods square footage per capita of any town in a thousand mile radius and a population that yes, by and large does think it’s pretty special, what with our diversity and community and well-preserved Victorian architecture. It’s the type of place where you have to have three hearings just to put up a fence in your yard, where you’ll get a visit from the city if your neighbors don’t like the placement of your garbage can. It’s a nuclear free zone. These alarmists leaning on the horn about the Tilted Kilt, sort of a Celtic-themed Hooters, and calling me out as a “Parent of Evanston” who should be concerned weren’t going to get me parading downtown with a bull horn: “What do we want? Tits covered! When do we want it? Now!”

The restaurant sounded tacky, but complaining about skimpy uniforms wasn’t my style—especially when the whole thing seemed hypothetical.

It wasn’t until last month, when the developer had applied for a liquor license and it seemed like an approval might actually come to pass, that I decided to pay attention. I looked at the Tilted Kilt’s web site and read about the controversy in news outlets, and it was the comments following the articles and editorials, as much as “The Kilt Calendar Girls” video that I clicked on, that actually got my ire up.

“Quit the elitist attutude because you are a woman and wake up and realize what century you are in!”

“If you have three kids and dont want to go there, DON’T GO….This is the US of A. You are a socialist and need to live in Old Russia, and keep your kids inside….”

“Grow up and smell the deficit.”

Being told I was stupid for questioning a business venture made me question it all the more. And what I found upon examination was a perfect circle of capitalist fucktitude→ The overdevelopment of Evanston’s downtown during the boom years, the evacuation of the older buildings and the bust’s resultant under-occupation of the new ones, the scorn and disgust for those who don’t see the vacancies as reason to do whatever it takes to attract new businesses and bow down to the almighty revenue, the call for personal responsibility in the face of any resulting issue or problem, and the fact that if the restaurant was a success, it’d be the male developers and investors who’d rake in the big bucks, while the young women who worked there would receive the same relatively shitty pay as any other service drone while having to continually invest in a high-maintenance look and run the risk, should the context change slightly, of being told that they flaunted themselves like sluts and so deserved what they got at the after-party or in the parking garage.

Even six months ago I might have believed, or wanted to, that last worry to be over-stated or far-fetched, but victim-bashing has been high-profile this spring. When the New York Times ran a story on the gang rape of an 11 year old girl, they famously included quotations describing her sexy, mature attire (which I had something to say about), and, more recently, a Toronto police chief told a group of women that if they didn’t want to get raped, they shouldn’t dress like sluts. Somewhat relatedly, a commentator on CNN gave a long diatribe about how parents shouldn’t let their kids dress like tramps, and the opinion went viral, appearing in countless blogs and being recommended by over four hundred thousand people on Facebook, including several of my friends.

Oh, yes, I decided. In this climate, I have every right to have an opinion about a sexual themed eatery where the “entertainers”—so-called to avoid sex discrimination suits—dress as naughty school girls. I have a responsibility to have an opinion about it. I know that according to the CNN commentator and the indignant righteous everywhere, I shouldn’t blame society for my parenting weakness, that it’s all on me, but come on, I need some help here. My three-year old is tripping over shoes that are a size too big for her as I type this because I could not convince her to wear anything else before we had to get out the door this morning, so I better take some preemptive action before I have a middle school principal reprimanding me for “letting” my offspring wear a plaid bustier to band rehearsal.

I clicked on the petition to deny a liquor license to the Tilted Kilt, and I signed it.

But when I scrolled through the dozens of the anti-Tilted Kilt comments on the petition site—well, I have a contrarian streak, and they gave me pause, too.

“Our children should never be exposed to this kind of establishment!”

“I do not want to dread walking downtown with my dauthers.”

“Please spare our daughters from this damaging model of sexual objectification.”

“There are too many diseases in the world already that have no cure! All because of SEX! Temptation creates sex, sex. Please do not allow this Tilted Kilt to take place!”

Hmmmm. What do we mean by never? By damaging? By temptation?

True, when pro-breasterant commenters suggested that instead of banning a tax-paying business from town parents should instead use the presence of the Tilted Kilt as a teaching moment, I didn’t relish having the conversation that quickly popped to mind. My son’s the oldest, so I’d have to deal with him first.

“Mom, I want to have my fourteenth birthday party at the Twisted Kilt.”

“No, son.”

“Ah, man. Why not? Miles had his party there. You never let me do anything. Everyone has a bigger TV than us. I hate this family!”

“I don’t approve of businesses that train scantily clad young women of a very specific aesthetic type to offer sexual innuendo as they serve burgers. I believe this contributes to a climate of sexism—even to a culture of sexual violence. And although I know sexuality has been part of the marketplace since forever, I really think, as a young person, you should develop your own sexuality and discover that of others in a more organic, more egalitarian, less pre-packaged fashion.”

“Does that mean I should hide my search history when I look at porn on the computer?”

“I would appreciate that.”

“What about dad’s photography books?”

“Those are art.”

“Really? Even Tokyo Lucky Hole? Cool. Whatever. Paintball then.”

But would it really be that bad to have a masquerading tittie bar in town?

During my own adolescence, no one put blinders on me, and I don’t think I’m the worse for it. As a teenager, I worked in a diner for a guy who also owned the only strip bar in town, which was located in an alley a couple blocks away from the restaurant. (My friend and I were hired by him when he came through the car wash we were working as part of a school fundraiser—five bucks and you’d get your car washed by a gaggle of high schoolers in bathing suits.) Most of the bar’s dancers were imported to our small, rust-belt town; they came in on the Greyhound for week or two stints. When things were slow on my shift, as they often were, I’d sometimes be asked to use my parent’s Ford Fairmont station wagon to ferry the ladies between the restaurant and the seedy hotel where they stayed. Some of them were drugged and scuzzy. Some of them were nice, confiding or conspiratorial with me as I sat on the bed and watched them get ready. What stands out now is how pale most of them were; this was before tanning booths were ubiquitous, but just. Perhaps my own sense of self emerged intact because the women who came through on the Pittsburgh to Buffalo stripper circuit were not necessarily representing an ideal or upholding any rigid notions of beauty. I mean, for one thing, lots of them were getting around by Greyhound, OK? And reliable cars and tans weren’t the only things they were missing. There was no fake anything, to the discernible eye—the dancers had flopping boobs of various density; teeth that probably hadn’t been subject to orthodontia, let alone bleach; muscle tone that more often bespoke a penchant for cocaine or for chicken wings than a regimen of Pilates (or Jane Fonda’s workout, as would have been the case at the time). I saw that the men buzzed brighter around some of the dancers than others—I remember in particular a woman who looked like Crystal Gayle, with a tent of long brown hair and a Mona Lisa smile—but there was no one exact model. The quality of the most desired women was ineffable. Sometimes, running back and forth with coffee refills to a booth where some regulars were sniggering about something that had gone down at the club, I felt alienated by the presence of commoditized sex, and I was probably subject to a few more objectifying remarks than I would have been elsewhere, which could make me uncomfortable. Perhaps the environment did contribute to the feminist rage I’d be feeling a couple years later. But mostly I was curious. And generally I had a healthy body image, a healthy sense of my sexual self. I didn’t obsess about my imperfections, was vain but not encumbered by vanity. My feelings of sexiness didn’t lodge in the eye of the beholder or what I believed was seen there, and I was having a great time rolling around with my very nice boyfriend. If more than less, I basically wish the same for my own daughter.

But it does seem to be a different era. And yes, I do worry about how the image-onslaught of literally or figuratively photoshopped sexuality will affect my girl child. I do see the ways in which narrow standards of desirability can be warping to girls (and boys). For example, from what I gather, the ubiquity of internet porn has created, among other things, an expectation of what the ideal vulva looks like, a market for plastic surgery of the pussy. At my diner job, I had to wait outside the strip club when I was assigned to pick up one of the dancers there; I was never allowed in the door. But even if I had spent every shift with a front row seat at the rowdy bar, I’m pretty sure I still wouldn’t have thought to criticize the appearance of my labial lips. Clicking through the girls competing to be in next year’s Tilted Kilt calendar, it’s amazing how differences are canceled. White girls, Asian girls, African American girls, they all start to look like a mass—the same shape, the same expression, the same presentation. It’s depressing to me. Deadening. I can hope that my daughter acquires punk rock sensibilities and purposefully chooses an opposite track—and my son too—but I’ll tell you what, I notice that even the counter-culture girls I see these days have brilliant white teeth and smooth armpits. I’d place a bet that they don’t have much pubic hair, either.

So, although I couldn’t heartily join in some of the most dramatic hand wringing about the Tilted Kilt, I left my name on the petition. And when the day of the hearing for the liquor license came, I watched it closely.

By this time, more than 2000 people had signed their opposition to the restaurant’s opening in downtown Evanston, and critics packed the hearing. Defenders also came out, representatives from the chain and the businessman and his wife who wanted to open the local branch. In the face of accusations that revealing costumes and the serving of alcohol increased the risk of sexual violence, the company argued that they do everything they can to protect their employees from being disrespected; that there’s no sexual innuendo in the menu or marketing. They essentially said that the web site is misleading, that the Tilted Kilt is a high-end establishment that draws people in with pretty women, yes, but that keeps them with a big beer selection and a plethora of even bigger TVs that all have the game on.

“And let me make it clear, the entertainment is not the young ladies and women that are working there as wait staff. The entertainment is that it’s a sports bar,” Carol Mengel, the businessman’s wife stated at the hearing, according to the Chicago Tribune.

A-ha! Reading that quote helped me put my finger on what was bothering me most. I was more offended by the boosters’ denial that the carefully casted boobilitious staff was not offering sexual entertainment than I would have been if reps had said, yeah, we’re selling sexiness—whoo boy, have you taken a look at those ladies?—and that’s just fine.

Because look, I myself like to be waited on by beautiful servers. Especially as I get older, I like it inordinately. And when I used to go to clubs, I was happiest when foxy dancers-for-hire were shaking it on a platform in full view, the less clothing they had on the better. Who knows where I’d be putting my dollar bills if I were a guy, and actively enticed. I’m not saying I don’t have reservations about sex work; I do, along with a lot of interest. But about the concept of pushed up, spray tanned boobs as functional wallpaper, I’m finding I don’t feel too ambivalent.

It’s not too far afield from the reaction I had when I first learned there was a service that hired out bikini clad-women as house cleaners. Strippers, prostitutes, masseuses, dominatrixes—I get why someone would do and pay someone to do all those jobs. But stripper/toilet-cleaner? That gets my judgment going: Ewwwwwww.

While still in college, I had a friend who started stripping at a little dive bar. After a short time, she wanted to see what else was out there in the world of adult entertainment, and I made the rounds with her. The only place I remember going into was a joint with the TVs behind the bar and the stripper stage to the patrons’ backs. In the afternoon, when we walked in, one tired woman in a fishnet body stocking with a couple of dollars folded suggestively against her belly whirled desultorily around the pole while two of the three patrons at the bar looked the other way, at the game. This made such a depressing impression on me that I can recall the image as if I’d just turned away from it. If you’re taking off your clothes and dancing, whatever else there is to say about the dynamic, attention should be paid. Tits-out waitresses running back into the greasy-floored kitchen to get another ramekin of mayonnaise while recreating men let out a uniform cheer at a ref’s call—I call that a poor use of youth’s voluptuous blossoms.

After hearing testimonials from both sides on the day of the hearing, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl delayed her decision about the Tilted Kilt, and the town had another week to question our views, comment on them, and berate the opposition. My own opinion was crystallizing, and, finally, I was putting both my feet down on one side of the fence and honing my battle cry: “What do we want? Reverence for the sexy! When do we want it? Well, it’s a goal!”

A week later, on May 2, the final verdict came in. Mayor Tisdale voted against the liquor license.

“We are proud of (our) diversity and are sensitive to anything that would stereotype or demean us,” The Chicago Tribune quotes her as saying. “The final straw was at the end of the liquor commission hearing,” she said. “I was given a business card from the owner that shows a picture of one of the entertainers — that is what the waitresses are called. She had no head — it was just breasts, a shrug shirt, a bare midriff and the kilt, that little skirt.”

Ah, Evanston. I knew They would never let that tacky shit open up in our town square. Good call.

On April 3rd, an estimated 3000 to 4000 protestors walked the streets of Toronto armed with banners saying “Stop Slut Shaming” and “Reclaim the Word Slut.” Many who attended the Toronto Slut Walk wore classically “slutty” attire, including low cut tops and brightly colored fishnets. Here’s why they were protesting:  At a local community meeting about women’s safety, Constable Michael Sanguinetti had recommended that if women wanted to avoid sexual assault they shouldn’t dress like “sluts.”

Recently, I’ve seen many debates about how to fight such slut shaming. There are too many people who will call a woman a slut in an attempt to control her sexuality. “Be less sexually empowered,” they tell us, “because if you don’t, we’ll brand you.” Well, announcing that those who dress like “sluts” should cover themselves up to help prevent violence does even more damage. Imagine if you’d been assaulted in a short skirt and heard a thing like that. “Was it my fault?” you might ask yourself. The answer is no, no, no.

Sanguinetti has apologized for his remark, and I’m glad to hear it.  Holy heck, you should be able to walk down the street wearing anything you like without being attacked, regardless of gender, sexuality or aesthetic. Any fool knows that.

But as sex educator and call girl Veronica Monet reminds us, the “slut” archetype is deeply engrained in our culture, and many of us don’t even realize. On In Bed with Susie Bright (The Sex Remedy interviews) Monet explains that when lecturing at San Francisco State University, she asks the guys in the room to think back to when they were last called a whore. “There is a lot of laughing, giggling and shuffling around,” says Monet. But when she then asks the girls to reflect on the last time they were called a whore, the room goes deadly silent. In response, Monet tells the students, “Let me explain why sex worker rights apply to you.”

Of course, she’s spot on.  Whenever any woman is attacked because of her sexual behavior, all of us feel the impact; and when women are threatened, so are other groups, because how can we not be affected by one another? Monet also speaks to the power of reclaiming language – like many sex workers, she uses the word whore with pride. Also, it’s worth remembering that there are male and transgender sex workers too – when slut or whore are used to control women sexually, these terms mess with the rights of sex workers of all genders.

By being ready to educate society, Monet’s response to such problems is similar in many ways to the concept of Slut Walk.  When we start to confront problems like slut shaming, our response has to be creative – moving away from widespread stereotypes demands breaking free from social constraints and that’s a creative endeavor.  I’m reminded of Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” in which the artist displayed her actual bed, along with its clutter, as an artistic installation.  The piece was short-listed for the Turner Prize in 1999 and has become a classic.  Complete with dirty underwear, condoms, and urine-soaked sheets, many call it an intimate “confession” about a young woman’s way of life.  But I like to look at Emin’s “My Bed” as a vehicle for the artist to shout the truth:  We’re not always virgins with clean sheets, she seems to say, and we’re done with being ashamed.

Well, as a dear friend recently reminded me, creative activism must exist in small ways as well as big. Slut Walk Boston is taking place on May 7th and I will be there. But if you can’t attend, do keep speaking out and if you don’t feel you can stand up for your rights at the time, you can always do so later.  An email, some sharp wit, or even a raised eyebrow – these are all creative responses and they count.

It’s been said that one flap of a butterfly’s wings can cause a tornado. And I don’t doubt it for a second.

For more on the topic of slut shaming, including how to fight it, check out these resources from Betty Dodson & Carlin Ross.