Friday, August 28, 2009

Sex Writing

Note: If you have been reading this blog to your small child before bed, you might want to skip this post.

Recently I’ve been enjoying a column about bondage and discipline (otherwise known as BDSM, which stands for some slightly convoluted and contested mash-up of bondage and discipline, dominant and submissive, and sadism and masochism), written by a dominatrix called Mistress Matisse. I found the column through the website of my personal guru, Dan Savage.

I have always enjoyed reading about sexuality, and it has often dawned on me (usually because my friends tend to point it out) that this interest seems incongruous with other parts of my life.

This is what they’re getting at: I am the kind of person whose frequency of having sex correlates directly to me dating or being in a relationship with somebody. And I often go years without dating or being in a relationship. You can finish the syllogism yourself.

So why do I like reading about sexuality so much, when so often the information is not immediately applicable to my life? It’s not because it’s arousing—a lot of writing about sex is strikingly un-sexy, involving a lot of technical details, tips about technique, philosophical discussions of various kinks that the reader may find distinctly not to his or her taste.

The thing I enjoy about sex writing is that it deals with the philosophy of how our bodies interact with our psyches. Sexuality is like food or illness or disability or athletics. It’s difficult to integrate the biological realities of our body with our sense of ourselves as social and intellectual beings.

This conflict between physical and social self is one of my favorite subjects to think about, and sexuality is one of the most entertaining venues through which to consider it. A lot of what is written about sexuality applies to how we understand our own identities. For example, in his advice column, Dan Savage responds to a reader who describes himself as “slightly homophobic,” and who was therefore horrified to have engaged in sexual acts with a male friend during an ecstasy-fueled party that turned into an orgy. Dan Savage responds:

“Studies have shown that homophobia, slight or otherwise, correlates neatly with homosexual urges. Why? Because a guy who has 98.2% hetero desires and just 1.8% heterosexual will, to protect himself from his homosexual urges, cultivate a slight case of homophobia. This slight case of homophobia serves to reassure the 98.2% straight guy that he’s really 100% straight.”

This response, while well-phrased, is common wisdom, but in combination with the question that elicited it, it’s fascinating. The reader is distraught because he committed a number of sexual acts that didn’t fit with his sense of self. Instead of viewing the situation factually—I had a sexual experience with a man; therefore, it seems that, occasionally and under very specialized circumstances, I am attracted to men—his response is mortification, thinking that he has gone crazy and made a horrible mistake.

Savage’s response begs the question: why would somebody who is 98.2% straight need to convince himself that he is 100% straight? I think, among other reasons (like living in a homophobic society), that this points to fear about fluidity of our identities. We spend a lot of time and energy constructing consistent personae, and we often stake quite a bit on those personae: our relationships, our friendships, our jobs, our status. If a straight man is a little bit gay, or a masculine man is a little bit womanly, he feels his sense of who he is, what he likes, what he represents is threatened.

Even if we don’t live in terror of having our sexual or gender identities disturbed, we are scared of losing our identities in other way, often for good reason. A momentary lapse of identity could cost us our jobs—for example, if we decide to forget our identity as employee and scream at our boss. For some people, it could cost us our lives, such as if an otherwise brave and resourceful soldier has a lapse in those qualities.

At the same time, Savage’s response also alludes to how limiting it is to not have any flexibility in one’s identity. Having a rigid identity means that we cannot be empathetic, because we cannot find some part of ourselves that is different from our overriding identities. If I cannot accept the possibility that I have parts of myself that are gay or straight or male or female, how can I understand those who are gay or straight or male or female? How can I understand those who do not fit into these categories so neatly?

I have particularly enjoyed reading Mistress Matisse’s column because of the connection it draws to life beyond the bedroom, the dungeon, or the Folsom Street Fair. And not just because of the ways that we are dominant or submissive in our regular lives, which is a common explanation of how BDSM connects to non-erotic life. What I like about her column, and about much writing about BDSM is that it focuses so explicitly on the physical realities of sexuality, and, by extension, the physical realities of having a body and being human.

Most people presumably have sex assuming or hoping that it will be exciting—i.e. sexy—but BDSM practitioners work actively at creating that excitement. People who are into BDSM have to plan their erotic encounters carefully. They have to buy special equipment and learn techniques for causing intense sensations (a.k.a. pain).

This leads them to think a lot about how bodies work. For example, Mistress Matisse wrote the following (in her personal blog, not her column) about her first time inserting her fist into a man’s rectum:

“It’s tremendously intimate, too. I could feel his heart beating. It’s sort of amazing to feel that and think, Well, yeah - your hand isn’t that far away from it!

In this situation, Matisse isn’t just having a sexual encounter, but learning more about the capacities of our bodies, and how our bodies and psyches react to extreme circumstances. I don’t foresee a situation in which I will need much of the practical information in this blog post, and yet I learned a lot from it, not the least of which was what it feels like to have your hand fully inside of another person’s body—and isn’t that something worth learning about?

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Legislation is like sausage. You want the outcome but you don’t want to see how its made.

This metaphor, sausage-making, has been all over the news for the last month as the federal government tries to create a health care plan. At first, the NPR announcers would explain the full simile every time they discussed the issue: You know, it’s like what they say about lawmaking…

Now they no longer bother to explain the origin of the metaphor; they simply refer to the legislating process as sausage-making. When the intricacies of one proposed health-care model get too complicated to discuss any further, the commentator dismisses the line of discussion with, It’s all part of the sausage-making process. Or when a guest expert is questioned on some flaw in his or her favored plan, the expert will say, But this is all just the sausage-making. The implication is that these details are so messy and unpleasant that the public would do better to just shut them out—cover our ears, shut our eyes, la la la I can’t hear you making that sausage—and enjoy the delicious outcome when it is delivered from the kitchen in its appetizing and seemingly sanitary state.

And yes, in this metaphor, the senate is the kitchen. The chefs are on August recess this month, so today I heard this on the radio: The Obama administration is still trying to make sausage even though there are no senators in the kitchen.

Clearly sausage-making has become a conventionalized term, a micro-cliché meant to encapsulate both the ugliness of the legislative process as well as the implication that the public would be better off not knowing about this ugliness. Like most clichés, it started with a clever idea but has now become a lazy shorthand, an expression that permits us not to dwell too long on its meaning.

This type of lazy analogy seems like a bad thing, but the analogies at the beginning of the sub-prime mortgage crisis were even worse. These analogies did not have a conventionalized meaning; instead, they were being used to actively argue for a particular course of action.

Think about it, the expert on the radio show would say. If your car is about to go off a cliff, you don’t slam on the breaks. You steer away from the cliff.

This, self-evidently, proved that the government should impose a moratorium on foreclosures. Or maybe it was that the government should not impose a moratorium; I can’t remember what the cliff represented exactly. The commentator didn’t have much time to speak, and in lieu of explaining why his plan would work, he used the metaphor. He probably thought that it would be attention-catching and memorable, which it was; unfortunately, I can’t remember his actual argument.

I heard so many of these analogies on the topic of the mortgage and banking crisis that I needed to write them down to remember them all:

The economy is like an ocean; it rises and falls, and consumers are like a boat… For a plant to grow, it needs sunlight and water; it won’t grow if you stick it in a closet… If a person is overweight, he needs to cut out unnecessary parts of his diet but not key nutrients…

All of these analogies would have been fine illustrations of an argument, but, in almost all cases, they were given as the main explanation in support of a particular argument. Why do you think regulations would stifle the creative forces of the market? Because the economy is like an ocean. Why do you think we need to invest government money in the housing market? Because the economy is like a plant.

I heard one analogy that I thought was actually helpful: “People say that the mortgage and banking sectors should be unregulated, that the market will regulate itself. You wouldn’t say that about the meat industry.” We regulate the meat industry because we know we can’t count on the market to protect something as important as our health; likewise (according to the analogy), we can’t count on the market to protect the public from poor lending practices and their disastrous results for the economy. This analogy, which compared regulation in several areas, actually seemed to be part of the argument, as opposed to a metaphor that was being inflated into something more.

The critical thinking textbook I teach from says this about false analogies: “In a false analogy, one compares two things in which the key features are different.” I always tell my students that I don’t quite agree with this definition, since almost any analogy compares things that are different; that’s the whole point of an analogy. The book gives an example of a mountain climber who argues that while his sport is dangerous, people die taking showers, too. The book claims that this analogy is false because mountain climbing and showering are different: “To construct a more convincing analogy, the mountain climber should compare the risk in mountain climbing with that in another high-risk sport such as race car driving.”

This suggestion seems strange to me. If the mountain climber’s point was that many daily activities contain an element of risk, why would he compare climbing to race car driving? What would it do for his argument to compare two similar things?

However, when I think about the metaphors used for the economic crisis, I start to agree with the authors of my textbook, that sometimes analogizing similar things is more persuasive than different ones. The housing industry works something like the meat industry, and it is helpful to compare the role that regulations play in both markets.

I believe that the purpose of the analogy is what determines whether it is false. When you’re trying to illuminate an abstract concept (such as the value and necessity of taking risks), you may need to bring together wildly different ideas and draw unlikely connections. Mountain climbing is nothing like taking a shower—and yet, how fascinating to think that many people die showering each year, and yet we never fear taking a shower, while we might fear mountain climbing based on one horrific story. So difference works in this kind of example.

However, when you are trying to advocate for a law or government policy, and your sole argument is a horribly oversimplified analogy, I’ll have to object: the economy is not a plant, a car, the ocean, or a sausage!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Jennifer—Used to keep up with world news before I got on Facebook. Now I never look at the major news sites. I feel guilty!

David—But I bet none of your friends write for the major news sites.

Karin Spirn's Note: Six Thoughts About Facebook
1. When I was growing up, I never got excited about looking at anything on a computer. The computer was for typing my homework and maybe playing a video game if there was nothing else to do. I never came home after a long day and planted myself in front of the computer to relax. I never looked at the computer every ten minutes while doing chores or talking on the phone. I never got out of bed during a 3 a.m. bout of insomnia and sat in front of the computer.

It seems like another world, looking back, a strange and incomprehensible place.

2. When I was sixteen, my father took me to his Silicon Valley office to look at something on the computer.

“I want to show you this new thing,” he said. “It’s called the Worldwide Web. Groups or businesses can have a page on here, and you can look at it.”

I tried to imagine what he was talking about: a sort of giant, computerized want ads.

“The colleges you want to apply to will all have sites on here,” he told me with excitement. He fiddled around, typing in something or other.

“See, like Berkeley has a site, right here.”

He showed me the U.C. Berkeley home page, which had some logos and pictures of the campus. It looked about as exciting as a brochure.

“Wow,” I said, giving the screen a cursory glance.

“You should play around on this site,” he said. “See, you can click on these buttons and it will tell you about the school.”

I sat down and did some polite clicking around. Admissions policies, campus map, photographs of a few buildings. I had seen most of this before, on paper or in person. The fact that it was now on a computer made it if anything less accessible, not more.

3. Click on the link for “almost twenty years later,” and you’ll find me checking my email and Facebook account any time there is a computer nearby. My students, most of them teenagers, as I was when I found the internet too boring to be bothered with, cannot stop staring at the computer screen. Teachers don’t want their classes scheduled in a classroom with computers because the students will compulsively check email, MySpace, Facebook.

The most obvious reason for this shift in the appeal of the computer is the vast wealth of information available on the internet. But when my students are screwing around online during class, they are not reading about current events or even celebrity gossip. They are on MySpace and Facebook, reading about themselves. They are looking at pictures of themselves and their friends. They are writing silly notes and reading their friends’ silly responses. They are scanning their friends’ pages, hoping to find some juicy bit of information to cheer up their depressing day of schoolwork, a photograph of the boy or girl they like, some hint that he or she likes them back.

That’s what makes the internet more than just a regular source of information, so much more exciting than a library, bookstore, or newsstand. It is filled with news not just about the outside world, but about ourselves, our friends, what our friends think about us. Large parts of our identity are housed online, on our homepages, our profiles, our blogs, and those of our friends. The computer has gone from being something utilitarian, as neutral as a stopwatch or a calculator, to become a part of ourselves.

Karin—should stop rambling on about Facebook and go to bed.

4. If your work involves sitting in front of a computer, Facebook is almost like having all your friends at work with you in a big, virtual room. It’s ingenious, really. We’re all sitting in front of our computers, stressed out and lonely, all day long. Why shouldn’t we be exchanging witty quips with our friends? Then we can almost pretend that we are not at work at all, that we are out at the bar, some strange sort of bar where our childhood best friend and that nice girl from our yoga class suddenly team up to advise us on our love lives or career choices.

5. I wonder if our need to create this bar scene as we work is an indication of our alienation as workers. Sitting in front of a computer is a lonely sort of work. Perhaps if we were out working on the farm or tending to the house with our herd of assorted children, we wouldn’t feel the need to be connected to the simulacra of friends who are miles and miles away.

Marie to Karin—you said you needed to go to bed. Why are you still on here?

6. Then again, I share an office with a friend, and we sometimes use Facebook to communicate. We have been known to write Facebook comments to each other while sitting in the room at the same time. We are both typing on computers, so sometimes it makes sense to continue communicating using that tool. Plus if we were to simply make our amusing comment aloud, it would not be on display to entertain the others in our online work-bar.

Karin—This reminds me of that joke we used to make about how our students take a walk.

Marie—Two students take a walk wearing headphones, listening to their ipods, and texting each other for conversation.
Karin—We’re just like them.
Marie—Well, they are the future. Scary, isn’t it?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Going Hard

The timer rang, indicating the round had begun. I threw a few light jabs at my partner. She stepped in and returned a hard cross to my head. Not quite I’m-trying-to-knock-you-out-hard, but hard enough to make my brain feel a little bruised. We exchanged a few more punches, and again the hard cross landed on my nose, followed by a powerful hook that hit me in the temple.

I stopped. “Are we supposed to be going that hard?” I asked her.

This was my first time really sparring in the new boxing teacher’s class. Two days ago I had taken this class and we had done light sparring, with no headgear, lightly tapping each other with our punches. He hadn’t given us any direction on how hard to hit now that we were wearing full gear. I had assumed it would be harder, but not this hard; this was like a real fight.

“What’s going on over there?” the teacher asked.

“She wants to know how hard we’re supposed to go,” my partner said.

The teacher turned to me, his face serious and angry. “Don’t stop fighting to talk,” he said. “If you have a question, ask me.”

He paused for a moment to let this instruction sink in, then added, “Go hard!”

So, with those expectations clear, I began to throw hard punches back at my partner, and she threw hard punches back at me. By the end of the first round, she looked a little shaken and she informed me that my nose was bleeding.

We each fought five more rounds like that, two with each other and then three with other partners. The entire time we were sparring, our teacher was yelling insulting comments, some of them at us, but blessedly, more of them at the other students.

“You look horrible out there,” I heard him saying to a grim-faced young kickboxer. “You should be doing better. You’ve competed, in kickboxing not boxing, but it’s all the same thing, competition. You just look horrible.” He shook his head, his facial expression conveying a mixture of disappointment and disgust.

After class, the teacher instructed us to huddle around as he made a speech.

“I’m not angry,” he said. “I may seem angry, but I’m not angry. I’m just frustrated. I just want you all to get better so that if you keep sparring or maybe compete, you’ll be used to what it’s like in a fight. I don’t believe in learning at the fight; I’ve always been against that.”

I’m a teacher, and what I’ve always been against is any type of pedagogy that involves insulting students. Teachers who scrawl Not English in the margin next to a grammatical error committed by a recent immigrant or who use the phrase I’m disappointed in their final comments have always horrified me. How are the students supposed to learn if the teacher takes every mistake as a personal affront? Do we really want students’ main goal as they write to be avoiding mistakes?

One of the reasons I love teaching writing is that it is a process, and there is always room for improvement. Even the most disastrous essay on Shakespeare or Michael Moore or An Educational Experience That Had a Positive Impact on My Life contains the seeds of great writing. Much of the greatest writing begins as a shitty first draft, and focusing on the negative is not only depressing, but counterproductive, since it is both the teacher’s and student’s job to find those moments of potential and nurture them; simply avoiding crappy writing is not enough to constitute great writing. A writer who fears grammatical errors, clichés, missing topic sentences, or incorrect analyses will become too paralyzed to write anything at all. So mistakes are encouraged, especially those sorts of mistakes that come from experiment, pushing a bit further, taking risks and trying new strategies.

On the other hand, I realize that we have a certain privilege, as writers, to be able to make mistakes. What if I were teaching my students something that they could not afford to mess up, something like heart surgery or bridge design or how to pilot a commercial jet? My liberal, nurturing, let-them-make-mistakes attitude would hardly work in those cases. Even for my friend who works in a machine shop, a tiny miscalculation can lead to the destruction of a ten-thousand dollar piece of metal or having to start an almost-complete project all over again.

In fields where a mistake could cost people their lives, the training reflects a no-mistakes-permitted philosophy and is often geared towards weeding out those who are prone to error. The training to become a doctor has become so competitive in terms of factual knowledge that I often fear that the doctors of my generation will all have horrible social skills, since they have to compete ruthlessly with their colleagues and forgo most social events just to make it into medical school. And while this does worry me, truthfully, if somebody is taking a scalpel to my brain, heart, or any other important part of my body, their fabulous bedside manner means nothing if they can’t remember the correct place to make the incision.

I know that the tough-love attitude of such areas of study has its own rewards. My friend who just finished her medical residency told me that not only was the arduous schedule worthwhile, but that she actually enjoyed the long, sleepless nights.

“I think there’s some self selection,” she told me. “The people who get into this field enjoy this sort of thing, working thirty-six hour shifts. You kind of get into it. Actually, the older doctors always say we have it easy. They worked like fifty hours in a row during their residencies.”

I often wonder, could people learn to be good doctors without going through this ordeal? Do the long hours contribute significant knowledge that could only be obtained through the efficiency of a sleepless apprenticeship? Or does this apprenticeship simply serve to weed out those who, under the pressure of overwork and exhaustion, might get confused about which finger they were supposed to be amputating? Either way, one can see the value in having to jump through a few fiery hoops on your own before you attempt to do so carrying a passenger on your back.

This brings me back to my boxing training. On the scale of necessary perfectionism, boxing falls somewhere between English class and brain surgery. It’s a lot more dangerous than writing essays, but no matter how much you mess it up, no one but (in the very worst case scenario) yourself is going to die. But the question remains: if I don’t go hard while I practice, will I be able to handle going hard in a competition or street fight?

My fear is that I won’t—yet I don’t want to train that hard, at least not on a weekly basis, which I suppose explains why I make my living as an English teacher and not a boxer or a brain surgeon. Still, I always wonder if I am doing a disservice to my learning when I choose light sparring over the harder sort.

And yet, when I find myself in a situation such as this boxing class, where I am unexpectedly faced with harder sparring than I had expected, or a spazzy, dangerous partner, or a distractingly critical teacher, I actually do fine. I landed about as many hard punches on my partner as she landed on me, possible even more. And once I realized how forceful her punches were going to be, I evaded almost all of them. I did all of this using the same techniques I had been practicing in my light sparring class, against an opponent who was much more accustomed to this higher level of impact than I was.

So perhaps I don’t need to feel guilty about my English-teacher sparring. Maybe it’s preparing me for brain-surgeon boxing after all.