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A Radically Queer Gift Guide: Gifts for Queer Readers

While I’m not exactly a great big fan of capitalist gift-obtaining sprees, I’m pretty excited to finally have a year where I remember to post a Radically Queer Gift Guide. Why? Well, I do enjoy putting my money where my mouth is, and so many of the gifts I’ll suggest in these series come from creators and businesses I’m proud to support. Others may be from larger companies, so of course spend at your own discretion, but I am guilty as the next person of sometimes falling prey to the lure of big-box geekery.

For the first post in this series, the focus is on books, always my favorite gift to give and receive. I’m featuring some favorites both old and new that will appeal to radicals, queers, activists, and anyone on your list who appreciates a bit of mind-opening in paperback form.

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Taking a Literary White People Break: First Ten #50POCBooks

After a somewhat abortive start when I realized I just wasn’t reading anything at all, I re-started a plan to just not read white authors for the next fifty books I read starting in March. The only exception to the rule is for books I’m reading for review: otherwise, I thought it would be a good idea to take a break from white people for a while. Let’s face it; our ideas are pretty easy to come by. If you’d like to do a similar thing, tag your posts or Tweets with #50POCBooks so we can share recs with each other.

The first ten books I read, not really by any plan, included nine books by women, and all the books were by black authors/contributors. Five of the authors/contributors were some flavor of queer. Some of the books I started with were classics I’ve been meaning to read for a million years, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Tar Baby. I also finally read my first bell hooks book (Communion) and my first June Jordan and Audre Lorde essay collections (Some of Us Did Not Die and Sister Outsider, respectively). I also read a couple of Nikki Giovanni poetry collections, a collection of writing by black gay men, and my second Octavia Butler novel (Parable of the Talents).

Most of the books I read, I loved. I was particularly struck personally by Communion, and will likely come back to some thoughts on love and what love is in a separate post inspired by that book. I want to read more of all of these authors, and this challenge seems like a good time to do so. I found it particularly powerful to read fiction and poetry by black women as I’ve read so much non-fiction about black femininity, intersectionality, and womanism but less “creative work” by black female authors. I’m also kind of on a nerdy linguistic tear after reading a fair bit of prose and poetry written in AAVE and other dialects. Sometimes I get a bit nostalgic, because I grew up in the South and went to a minority-white elementary school, so there’s this weird brain connection between Southern AAVE and childhood for me.

In the name of honestly, I’ll also note that it’s hard for me to write about literature and poetry written by POC because the last thing I want is to sound like the white anthropologist or professor: “See how the exotic other speaks!” Thus these posts may be less analytic or attendant to racial issues raised in the books, and more generally about my impressions reading. Of course much of what I read in this first batch addressed issues of black resilience, civil rights, oppression, and power, but I don’t feel that I’m the right person to comment on those themes. I will generally say that I am both struck and unsurprised by the talent of the authors I read for these first ten books, and their facility with addressing both the bullshit black communities face and the power and grace within those communities.

You can find full titles and authors to the books I read on Goodreads here.

Wendy Shalit’s Return to Modesty

When I’m reading non-fiction, I often come across titles that are referenced as representative as “the other side” and end up curious about those books.  Wendy Shalit’s 1999 book, A Return to Modesty, was one of these, and when I found it on the bookshelf at work I decided to give it a read.

I don’t disagree with every single thing Shalit says, but I do think she’s missing a lot.  Two major “gaps” were evident to me in her argument, which is about things like modest dress and the the hookup culture.  One is that she quotes a few feminists who mention the heterosexism inherent in a “traditional” gendered view of female modesty, waiting till marriage, etc., and she never addresses this argument.  Queer women are completely erased in her book.  Perhaps, not identifying with the conservative movement herself, Shalit would just apply her argument to same-sex marriage and say that gay women should be modest to preserve their sexual allure before marriage, but she is so into gender roles that I’m not sure how that would work.

Second, Shalit talks a lot about modesty vs. prudery, framing modesty as being erotic in its sense of mystery and using that to make the no-sex-before-marriage argument, but she never talks about what happens after marriage.  She seems to me to lose a little credibility because she was, as far as I can tell, a 24-year-old unmarried virgin writing advocating abstinence before marriage.  Since Shalit had no experience at the time of writing of the glorious post-marriage sex she seems to be hyping, one has to wonder.

Certainly, there is some allure to be found in mystery.  Covering up can be sexy, I actually agree with that.  I also agree that if everyone runs around naked, nudity isn’t very erotic.  On the other hand, even beyond the “try before you buy” argument about having sex before marriage to determine compatibility, I just don’t see what happens to her argument about mystery when a couple marries.  So you have all the sexy anticipation, you get married, and… then what?  Mature sexual relationships, including those between married people, require some comfort with our bodies once they are naked, ability to communicate about sex, ability to explore desire, etc.  I’m not saying you can’t have these things if you haven’t had sex before marriage, but I think you need to consider them.

She talks about how nudity often turns people off because it shows people all the body types that exist, all the blemishes and fat and whatever else Shalit considers unattractive.  But those things exist, and it seems to me that Shalit’s argument basically encourages shame about any perceived bodily imperfections, rather than encouraging communication and openness about sex.

I also find Shalit’s argument about androgyny kind of funny.  She seems to think that modern sexualized society encourages women to be sexual and therefore “like men.”  It reminds me a little bit of websites and communities that advertise as “genderqueer” and rather cater exclusively to trans people.  Androgyny is not the same thing as masculinity.  Some of us do have a fairly androgynous approach to sexuality, and that approach isn’t to “have sex like men,” but rather to de-gender sexuality and focus on its elements on their own terms.  And, big surprise, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  When I encounter “womanly shame” or embarassment about sex, I don’t think, like Shalit does, oh, this is a sign that I should embrace female modesty and avoid sex.  I think hmm, this particular practice or partner isn’t something I’m ready for.  It’s time to be honest about that and proceed with caution–a fairly non-gendered response.

Blogging “Yes” Day 26: A Culture Gone Wild

Note: I wrote this post last night, April 30, but for some reason it didn’t go through. Here’s take two.

It’s day twenty-seven of the Blogging “Yes” project, the final day.  Thank you to everyone who dropped by to read the posts, and to everyone who picked up the book and read along with me.  You can see all the project posts by using the Blogging “Yes” tag.  So, today I read Jaclyn Friedman’s essay, “In Defense of Going Wild or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Pleasure (and How You Can, Too).” Not everything in this essay sat well with me, but what I do want to focus on is the correlation between male drinking and rape, and how a particular male-focused culture is partly to blame for our stigmas about girls “going wild.”

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Blogging “Yes” Day 25: Real Sex Education

For day twenty five of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read “Real Sex Education” by Cara Kulwicki.  Cara is one of my favorite bloggers because she keeps everyone updated on all the crappy victim-blaming stuff that goes on, but sex education is also one of her big topics.  I remember reading this essay for the first time and being really intrigued because I knew I was for comprehensive sex education, but I had no way of picturing what that would look like.  If you think about what Cara’s proposing, it really could be revolutionary.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 24: The Link Between Rape and Purity

We’re coming into the home stretch of the Blogging “Yes” project.  It’s day twenty four, and I read Jessica Valenti’s “Purely Rape: The Myth of Sexual Purity and How it Reinforces Rape Culture.”  This essay is basically a very bite-sized version of the argument in Valenti’s book, The Purity Myth, but what really stuck with my is an example from my own state, Maryland, of a law (no longer in force) that made rape impossible if a woman said no after penetration.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 23: Defining Virginity

For day twenty-three of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read “The Process-Oriented Virgin” by Hanne Blank, author of Virgin: The Untouched History (and apparently a fellow Baltimorean!)  I’ve blogged here before about my personal virginity definitions, so I may be rehashing a bit, but I think Blank does a good job of making a point that comes up again and again in feminist circles: there really is no such thing as a virgin.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 22: Control in Sex Work and BDSM

For day twenty two of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read a conversation entitled “Who’re You Calling a Whore?: A Conversation with Three Sex Workers on Sexuality, Empowerment, and the Industry.”  The sex workers in question are Susan Lopez, Saundra, and Mariko Passion, and the conversation focuses on various issues of power, control, and empowerment in sex work.  As I was reading, I found myself drawing a lot of parallels with BDSM, especially when it comes to female control and empowerment, and I thought I’d comment on those here.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 21: The Flip Side of Pro-Choice

For day twenty-one of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read “When Pregnancy Is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Be Pregnant” by Tioloma Jayasinghe.  This essay was something of a revelation when I first read it, because like most (white, middle class) people I tended to have a knee-jerk reaction when I heard about “crack babies” and pregnant women drinking or doing drugs.  How dare the mother?  How sad for the child.  Jayasinghe does a good job of pointing out the problems with this reaction, which include ignorance of the roots of the problem in racism and poverty, studies that show hard drugs actually aren’t proven to harm babies, and the lack of available treatment options for mothers who do want help with a drug problem.  This is an issue that is in fact just as important to the pro-choice movement as the right to a legal and affordable abortion, but much less talked-about.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 20: Men in Feminist Spaces

For day twenty of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read Cristina Meztli Tzintzún’s essay, “Killing Misogyny: A Personal Story of Love, Violence, and Strategies for Survival.”  Tzintzún tells the story of her struggles with the cycle of abuse, cheating, and STDs, and I wanted to particularly focus on an issue she brings up towards the end of the essay, which is how the feminist movement and other progressive movements can address the involvement of abusive and oppressive men.

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