(Note: This post is a republication of my original post from September 8, 2011. To the best of my knowledge, the problematic issues with the Mission Control venue in San Francisco described below have not been addressed, much less resolved.)
Although I was ultimately unable to attend the Threshold party at Mission Control this past Saturday, I still obtained a tally of the venue’s imagery, as promised. Having received permission to share the message I got verbatim, here are Threshold “Relaunched” tally’s results:
I categorized based on sexy-women (25), sexy-men(3), and neutral-women(4), neutral-men (0).
When I first entered I was pretty impressed, as the three sexy men images were in the lobby (with the third actually more in the hall, but definitely in the entrance type area). This was all there was, however.
Most of the sexy-women images were pretty tame, vanilla images, evoking a roaring 20s aesthetic (flapper girls, etc), but when you got into the rooms that were more explicitly sexual (the orgy room and the dungeon-themed room), the images were exclusively of women, and the dungeon-themed room was entirely submissive women.
This was kind of a depressing little project.
Depressing, indeed: that’s 29 to 3.
I also asked specifically about trans-identified media:
As a followup, were you able to see any imagery that included trans iconography of any kind, or were all the pictures cisgender people?
My correspondent replied:
As far as I know, all of the images were of cis people[…], though there was one image that included cross dressing (lesbian couple, vaguely american gothic, butch/femme). I can’t really say that none of the images were of trans people, since one can’t really know how the models identify, etc, but there was no explicitly trans media, as far as I remember.
Last time I obtained a tally of Mission Control’s imagery, three months ago, the results were skewed 22 to 1 in favor of depicting female bodies. I also didn’t see any explicitly trans media then, and I even noted the very same lesbian image referenced here. So it seems “install[ing] new art,” as Mission Control said they’d do, isn’t a priority for them. What else is new?
This post isn’t really about countering systemic bias in iconographic representation—making the invisible visible so we can finally see what we want to be—important as I believe that is. This post is about something far more fundamental: it’s about why and how some things stay invisible.
Parts of our exchange offered an example of a conversation that I have with others far more frequently than I’m able to ethically share. It goes like this. Usually, upon receiving a private message with useful information in it, I respond with a request:
How would you feel about my publishing the tally you sent me as a status update, so it’s recorded on the Internet machine forever? :) I won’t cite you as the source unless you let me know that you’re comfortable with that. On a similar note, I’d also love to share your own words […] on my blog, because it adds so much feeling to the sterile numbers in the tally. But again, I’ll only do that if you’re comfortable with it, which is why I’m asking first, and I need not identify you by name or anything, either. Let me know?
Regardless, thank you again.
Sometimes their answer is no. Sometimes their answer is yes. Sometimes their answer itself offers an invaluable insight into the way systems of oppression work. This is an instance of the last case:
My first reaction in hearing you ask to use some of the text was definitely some nervousness. I know you’re offering to not use my name, but I feel that someone still might recognize me. And then I’m like “wow, there’s the power of the threat of ostracism!” Since moving [to the Bay Area], I’ve been a pretty lonely kid. so the prospect of making enemies in the scene before I’ve really made many friends is pretty scary.
Long story short: It’s shameful to find myself driven to hide my observations/experiences in order to promote my standing in the community. So, to hell with it. Yeah, go ahead and use whatever text you want.
Kink In Exile explained what’s happening here more succinctly than I could: “the reason you stay within the lines is so that you don’t fall into the victim class.” And, for risking that, I would be remiss not to point out that my correspondent is braver than that word can adequately express—a new personal hero of mine. Until you are free to draw your own lines, going outside the lines others draw is vitally important; anything less than agitation is tantamount to anesthetization.
Moreover, the issue of inequitable media representation directly affects people’s experience at such “sex-positive” venues. In another portion of our exchange, my correspondent wrote of Mission Control’s Threshold party:
There was a neat liquid nitrogen demonstration, but I left when that opened up for people to try out, and it seemed pretty clear that the volunteers were all going to be women who were being urged to undress to some degree or another. It was partly a safety concern (if the nitrogen pools, it will burn), but the audience’s fervor at their undress made me uncomfortable. As a fat genderqueer, I wanted to feel what it was like, but didn’t dare go line up to try it out.
I wrote back:
While I’m sure the hosts were competent with their props, I know all too well what you’re talking about when you talk about it seeming “pretty clear that the volunteers were all going to be women who were being urged to undress to some degree or another.” And I’m sorry you experienced that discomfort, especially in a party where I know how much the hosts tried to make all their guests feel safe and comfortable, although in a rather misguided way.
Moreover, I’m sensitive to that particular discomfort you’ve described despite often presenting as a skinny man, not a fat genderqueer, for the exact same reasons.
I was at a small, private gathering just last week and although I ultimately had a great time, there was a moment early in the night when all of the women-identified people in the room were naked and none of the men were. And this kind of thing, where only female bodies are on display or are more easily (eagerly?) socially exposed, happens all the time. In Seattle several weeks ago, I was recruited to perform in a Polyamory Fashion Show because all the other male-identified performers had dropped out at the last minute, leaving only women. The organizer, bless her persistence and commitment, turned [to me and] asked me to hop in place of the others. And, only half-jokingly, I replied, “Well, in the name of gender diversity, I’ll do it!”
This is an important reminder that homogeny in iconography and representation as you describe is a disservice to all people. Until the phrase “women in porn” does not almost universally imply “skinny white able-bodied ciswomen in porn,” both men like me, fat genderqueers like you, and all women who aren’t the women included in too many people’s conception of “women in porn,” will need far too much courage to dare brave an audience’s fervor like the one you encountered.
I’d have wanted to feel what it was like, too. And I wouldn’t have dared line up in an environment like that, either.
Later, I received the following elaboration:
The hosts were great with the demo, it was definitely totally safe[…]. The issue started with the demo bottom being [a] skinny white cis woman (which is totally not her/their fault, since she’s the fiancee of the demo top and she can’t help her body type/race/status/gender). It just got bad when she asked the demo top if she should disrobe at all and the crowd started jeering for her to “take it off.” This sort of behavior continued when it was opened up for people to volunteer to feel what it was like. After one or two volunteers, I slipped out of the room to go back to watching porn.
This is not a “minor” concern nor an isolated incident: it is one of the injuries leading to sexual death by a thousand cuts. I’m often asked why I am so passionate about every small cut in that set of 1,000 as I am with the most heinous iniquities in our world. I’ve long had trouble articulating an answer because the answer is so obvious to me that it’s the question which seems absurd. Everything—everything—is connected.
Again, Kink In Exile explains this succinctly:
What I didn’t realize for a long time in looking at sexuality communities is that though often experienced in a bubble these communities are not created in a bubble, and from there the connection between the devaluation of[, for example,] male submission and the experiences of American girls in math courses is glaringly obvious. Deviance from gender norms scares people because it exposes them to the potential that they will accidentally fall into the victim class.
[Therefore, i]t is good and proper to work for someone else’s benefit because every time you take down a system of oppression you take down a threat against yourself.
The inverse of that statement is equally important to articulate: it is good and proper to work for your own benefit because every time you free yourself from an oppression, you offer others an escape from it, too. The lack of sexually submissive masculine imagery, for example, is not more or less important, is not more or less painful, than the business world’s “glass ceiling” restricting women’s upward mobility. Each of these are different branches of the same insidious evil, and different faces of the same struggle against it.
Divide and conquer is every oppression’s primary stratagem. Unity with diversity ought therefore be the root principle guiding every social justice movement. I do not advocate for valuing sexually submissive masculinity because those of who us express it are any more integral to a socially just world than any other group, but rather because we are an equally and uniquely integral piece of the whole.
I have learned of the diversity of intimacy from the asexuality movement, of the value of transforming the structure of relationships from the polyamory movement, of myriad physical beauties from the body-positivity movement. In Buddhism, the archetype of invincible equanimity is Guanyin, a compassionate deity whose thousand hands hold one instrument of liberation each. My pains are not an expression of self-pitying grievance. They are expressions of the struggle to fulfill an obligation to give to others the one instrument of liberation only I can forge, so that we all may use it. Each of Guanyin’s one thousand instruments of liberation has the power to heal one of the thousand cuts to sexual freedom.
Every one of you has such an instrument, because, in the words of Martha Graham:
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching[…].
That’s why ostracism is so powerful and so harmful: it is the epistemic equivalent of rejecting the instrument of liberation being offered.
To all my brave correspondents, for each of your unique struggles, I want to say as I said to the person who offered me a tally of Mission Control’s imagery at Threshold:
[T]hank you so much for the effort you put into this, for relaying your experiences so thoughtfully and honestly, and for sticking with it despite the depressing outcome and personal difficulty you had that night. Thank you so, so much.
Now, go out there and keep marching.