Against proposals

Content note: this post discusses on coercion in relationships

Recently, I had the abject misfortune to find myself part of a captive audience to a public proposal. I veered between burning mortification, obsessive checking that the woman was in fact definitely happy about this, and fury because I really needed a wee and this public proposal was going on right in front of my route to the toilet.

Public proposals have been discussed a lot in feminist circles, often viewed as coercive, rooted in insecurity, and not giving the person being proposed to a decent chance to say no. In short, they’re not romantic, they’re manipulative. This additional social pressure, with all eyes on you, makes it incredibly difficult to refuse, especially if the relationship you’re in already has overtones of coercive control. If you’re on TV, on a crowded street, on a packed aeroplane, you know that everyone is expecting you to say “yes” so everyone can feel good–and for women in particular this is the sort of situation where we’re socialised to avoid letting everyone down.

And of course, it’s almost always women being proposed to by men. You may have the odd same-sex couple or woman proposing to a man, and these are so remarkable they appear all over the bloody news (thus furthering the pressure).

Public proposals are, in short, dire. I don’t believe in carceral measures for massive social problems, but if I did, I’d make public proposals punishable by death.

However, what I want to talk about is wider: the notion of the proposal itself. This, too, is unnecessary and actually rather weird when we drill down into it. Many couples, when deciding to get married, deploy the following format: one partner “pops the question” to the other, with a little bit of pomp and ceremony, perhaps kneeling and a bit of jewellery. The words uttered are usually a variation on the theme of “will you marry me?”, and the proposee will then say either yes or no.

Getting married is a major life decision, and yet it is the only major life decision I can think of which involves a bizarre ritual in making the decision. We do not buy a ring while figuring out whether to go to university or not. We do not book a fancy restaurant to have a think about buying a house. We do not get down on one knee when deciding if we want to have children. We do not put a cute little question in a fortune cookie when working through the various treatment options for an illness.

All of this would be ludicrous, and this is because all of these major life decisions are not just simple questions, but rather discussions that need to take place in an ongoing process, which include all affected parties. They can be boiled down into a blunt yes/no question, but we know it would be ridiculous to do so.

Now, I don’t doubt that people who decide to marry have these discussions after the question has been asked: I fervently hope everyone talks it through absolutely thoroughly and doesn’t just dive into planning the wedding. Some might even have these conversations before, rendering the proposal itself a strictly performative gesture.

There is something distasteful about the framing of the question itself: “Will you marry me?” as opposed to a more mutual “Let’s get married”, which could grow organically from conversations about your relationship, where you want it to go, and so forth.

The nature of the proposal as a ritual is rooted, perhaps, in traditional heterosexual patriarchal expectations of how romance works. There is assumed to be an opacity to your partner’s thoughts, needs and feelings, which must somehow be elucidated. This is unnecessary: just by communicating, you can know, always, which page your lover is on. The veil of uncertainty of their intentions within the relationship needs not to be pierced if it is not there in the first place. If we all simply talked to each other, there’d be no need for all the rigmarole.

Capitalism, too, no doubt plays its own part: diamond rings became a part of the ritual for real people following a marketing campaign in 1938 when the Depression had flushed the price of diamonds down the toilet and diamond cartels wanted to get rich. As with Christmas, yes, there were some ancient traditions (the rich sometimes used diamond rings from the Renaissance onwards), but more importantly, capitalism saw it as the opportunity to profit. Along with the marketing for the rings, there was a marketing for something else: the proposal as an occasion, rather than an idea that comes into being mutually, with little ceremony.

Until recently, it was fairly traditional to ask the woman’s father’s permission to get married. Thankfully, this tradition has decayed and continues to wither. This is good, because it is grossly patriarchal in the most literal sense. Perhaps in the future we will see this happen to proposals themselves: an utterly unnecessary tradition.

Some people like grand romantic gestures, and I suppose, good for them. YKINMKBYKIOK. Just please, please, communicate rather than pop a question.


Enjoyed what you read? Consider becoming a Patron, or leave a tip.


In which I struggle to care about hetero civil partnerships

This week, a straight couple are challenging a terrible case of discrimination in the high court: they want a civil partnership, like same sex couples can have, but they’re not allowed one.

Now, at first it might seem like it’s a little bit weird that civil partnerships are only available to same sex couples, but actually under a power system which centres and favours heterosexuality, it makes perfect sense. Civil partnerships were brought in as the “lesser” option for same sex couples: marriage without polluting the Very Important Institution Of Marriage with all the gayness. Civil partnerships are pretty much exactly the same as a marriage, legally, except without the word “marriage”.

There’s a comparison here. Basically it’s the same, with a couple of pretty trivial differences: you can’t terminate a civil partnership if one partner had a STI at the time of the formation (though you can with marriage); you can’t terminate civil partnerships due to adultery (which doesn’t exist within civil partnerships); civil partnership certificates have both parents’ names on them (when, to be honest, neither certificate should have anyone’s parents’ names on them); and the register of civil partnerships is electronic. It comes down to words, at the end of the day.

Don’t get me wrong. I can see how this might be appealing to people who consider themselves too modern for marriage, but would like all the perks: the tax breaks, the sneaking around inheritance tax, and so forth. These things are, of course, a product of social engineering on the part of the state, encouraging people into little nuclear family arrangements, into a contract which makes it harder to get out of the arrangement. Nonetheless, it’s a pretty powerful piece of social engineering, and I can see why, if your life can in any way be bent into this little contract, you’d want to do it.

The thing is, it’s hardly an oppression that straight people can’t use the word that same sex couples use for the arrangement they were originally fobbed off with. Is it bad that cohabiting man-and-woman couples don’t have access to various tax things without getting married? Well, not particularly to me–I’m fully expecting not to be in a position wherein I’ll ever have anything for anyone else to inherit, and one of the biggest tax breaks of all is not cohabiting with anyone. But assuming these things do matter to you–why campaign for marriage-under-a-different-name when you could campaign for your cohabitation to be recognised? If you’ve lived together for years and got kids together, why shouldn’t this be recognised without having to get your very specific legal seal of approval? Why not ask for that? 

Not marrying should have the same benefits as marrying, for those who want it. And when I use the word “marry” there, I am including civil partnerships, because they are essentially the same. Support those who choose to stay the fuck out of it, and let them benefit too.

What would be healthier for everyone would be if the institution of marriage (including civil partnership) became irrelevant from a legal standpoint: sure, keep it as something with religious significance, keep it as something with cultural significance, but is it really necessary? Every time the marriage question comes up, I find myself saying no: open up those benefits to anyone in any domestic arrangement, and stop socially engineering relationships. If you don’t want the crap that comes with the word “marriage”, then the path is clear, even if it is a harder one: fight marriage.

Savages: not the kind of poly representation we need

This post contains spoilers right to the end for Savages. If you haven’t seen Savages yet, read this and save yourselves the price of a cinema ticket and two hours of your life. 

I went to see Savages today. The film has generated quite a bit of buzz in the poly community, as it’s a mainstream poly film wherein the relationship between the characters isn’t the main focus. What could possibly go wrong? Well, absolutely everything.

Our protagonist is a woman called O–which is short for OMG PLEASE STOP DOING CAPTAIN OBVIOUS VOICE-OVERS IT’S PRETTY GRATING–and her two male partners, Nice Boyfriend and Violent Boyfriend (I think they had names, but to be honest, this was the depth of their characterisation). They’re in a V-relationship (or as the mainstream media reviews tend to put it, O is their “shared girlfriend”).

Nice Boyfriend and Violent Boyfriend run a cannabis operation, where Nice Boyfriend does all the nice bits and Violent Boyfriend does all the violent bits. Meanwhile, O is just sort of there. Then one day, some mean Mexicans decide they want to take over the Boyfriends’ business, and because they’re the baddies, they kidnap O, and the Boyfriends work together to rescue her. Lots of violence ensues.

There’s a lot wrong with this film. So much that it’s pretty difficult to know where to start, so excuse me for being kind of stream-of-consciousness, because it’s so intersectionally awful that I’ll probably end up tackling it all at once.

Firstly, it’s pretty fucking sexist. There are two major female characters in this film. The first is O, who is our standard passive Hollywood damsel. She lets the men get on with their business while she just does… something. It’s not clear what she does, what she likes, anything. Awful, cardboard cutout characterisation is a hallmark of this film. O just provides a droning voice-over at various points in the film where the writers can’t be bothered to show rather than tell. She gets kidnapped and raped, and is largely a rather grating McGuffin so the men can do their thing.

Our other woman is Elena Sanchez, played by a Salma Hayek who looked a little young for the role she was shoved into. Elena is the head of a Mexican drug cartel, who starts out as a cardboard cutout female baddie, right down to the red dress. At this point, I’d thought the character was put in to detract criticism from the passivity of the other female lead, but it is later revealed that she’s so evil because her husband and sons were killed. And then motherhood turns out to be her major weakness, which is exploited by the Boyfriends who kidnap her daughter in order to get O back (they literally stuff this woman into a fridge during the kidnap).

Because O is so horribly badly characterised and lacking a single trait other than vapidity, it’s hard to see why the Boyfriends want her back. Perhaps it’s because she’s the only person in the world as one-dimensional as they.

You might have noticed that the baddies are Mexican. This is not handled in a way that is anything other than really fucking racist. We are presented with two sides. On the one side, we have the white, blonde O and the white Boyfriends. They are the GOODIES. On the other side, there’s a bunch of Mexicans. They are the BADDIES. The GOODIES describe the BADDIES as “savages” occasionally, presumably as the scriptwriters give each other a self-congratulatory pat on the arse for having managed to name-check the title so clunkily. Meanwhile, the BADDIES think the GOODIES are savages because they’re in a poly relationship. Yes. They say that. They actually say that.

As well as Elena Sanchez, there’s also two other Mexican baddies of note. One is played by Benicio del Toro, and his character is a rapist and a murderer and generally a thoroughly unpleasant human being. The other is a young guy who ends up getting killed by Benicio and I’m not entirely sure why. They’re all just cardboard cutouts, with various stereotypes about Hispanic people tacked on for good measure.

Also present is benevolent sexism. Nice Boyfriend is shown to be nice because sometimes he goes to Africa and cuddles brown children.

Now, it’s worth looking at where the characters end up to lay bare the fucking mess of sexism and racism in this fucking film, but this matter is complicated by the fact the film has two endings. It has a sad ending, wherein everybody dies, and a happy ending, which is the “actual” ending. This isn’t some alternate ending deal, though. It’s like they decided this film was so shit that nobody would shell out for the DVD so just stuck both endings in the film, with the sad ending being something O and her irritating voice-overs have just made up.

In the “actual” ending, Elena gets arrested along with all the other Mexicans except Benicio, who has quite a nice ending and lives happily ever after. The (white) cop who does the operation does really, really fucking well for himself. O is rescued by not one, but two men, and our protagonist triad go and live somewhere remote and cuddle brown children.

Among all the racism and sexism, it isn’t even that good a depiction of polyamory. This might be somewhat related to Hollywood’s general aversion to sex, while it embraces violence. We get teased with the beginnings of a threesome scene which fades to black before the clothes even come off, while we are treated to, among other things, a kneecapping scene and a shot of a big fucking hole in the back of someone’s head. So perhaps this goes some way to explaining the utter clusterfuck of the main relationship.

O explicitly describes her two partners as being equivalent to one–each representing a “half” of something she needs. Nice Boyfriend is nice; Violent Boyfriend is violent, and a voice-over informs us of exactly how they are opposites of each other and the only thing they have in common with each other is O (and their drug business, which O has conveniently forgotten for the purpose of the voice-over). Um, right.

In the bad ending, Nice Boyfriend is shot in the neck and Definitely Going To Die, so the other two commit suicide and they all die together in the desert, because apparently the writers couldn’t possibly imagine any other way for a poly relationship where one partner dies could end.  Meanwhile, in the happy ending, in another of O’s fucking voice-overs, O informs us that she isn’t sure if three people can ever love each other in a way that is balanced, and that they’ve become savages and she’d rather not live like a savage. And they cuddle some brown children, and they cuddle each other. In both endings, they pay their dues for their sin.

So, in short, it’s a terrible film. Yes, it depicts some characters who happen to be poly, but quite frankly if it’s happening in films that awful, I’d rather we stayed invisible.

“You’re polyamorous, right? Like in the execrable Savages?”

No. Nothing of the sort.

CoupleDumb: dumb advice for couples

Let me introduce you to a website called CoupleDumb. They claim to offer expert relationship advice, with therapeutic credentials and stuff. The credentials probably exist, but, having seen the advice they are providing and the way they provide it, I seriously doubt it’s in the field of relationship advice.

I was introduced to them thanks to @fearlessknits, who sometimes feeds me fury-fodder. CoupleDumb have written something remarkably stupid about polyamory, entitled “Polyamory- too much love?

Amanda Jones has written an amazing line-by-line deconstruction of the article, starting with the title alone:

As you can see, the piece begins with a clear statement of prejudice. The first two words are “Too much”. Tecnically we call this begging the question. Two words in and you’ve already decided polyamory isn’t valid. You’ll now go on to use your premise to support itself. In other words – express a prejudice. As I said onTwitter, ‘opinions without data are prejudices’.

I’d strongly recommend reading both CoupleDumb’s piece and Amanda’s amazing riposte. Ultimately, CoupleDumb argue that poly is “trendy”, poly people can’t possibly “give” enough to our partners, that long-distance relationships can’t work for those same reasons, polyamory is immature, that possessiveness is a healthy part of a relationship and poly folk are too quick to reject it and finally that hierarchies always emerge in poly relationships.

Those familiar with relationships–particularly, but not necessarily poly ones–will notice all of these points have something in common: they’re utter bollocks. There’s even more myths, misconceptions and prejudices throughout, which is why you should really read Amanda’s post for the full rundown.

Now, the thing is, CoupleDumb offer really, really bad relationship advice. I made it ten pages into their archives, and in between the egregious product placement, most of the problems they address could easily be solved by the answer “adopt poly principles”. Let’s have a look at a few of the issues CoupleDumb tackle very poorly.

Too much of an opinion

One of the biggest problems that couples face is having an impartial person support them. What usually occurs is that each person in a couple talks with friends and family who will usually support them in their irresponsibility. It is a rare occasion where you get a friend or family member tell you that you need to take responsibility unless, of course the friend/family member does not think highly of your interpersonal skills.

Poly people tend to do things differently. We’re honest. Like, really honest. We communicate well because we have to. We have the additional benefit of being plugged in to larger groups of people: partners, lovers, metamours and friends who are also poly, and also really, really honest. It’s useful, because along the way, someone will always point out to you when you’re being the dick. It’s not just about being honest with partners. It’s about being honest with everyone.

Get to boinking

When we wrote and said not to give up on sex, we really meant not to give up on passion. Don’t give up on lust because lust is part of love. If you do not have lust in your marriage then you have downgraded your love from consummate to compassionate. Now this is nice but it isn’t going to get a movie written about your undying love. This is the love that really good friends have. BFF. In Harry Met Sally, this is the part of the movie where she calls him crying and they talk a lot. Nice but not the true love that we all want at the end of the movie.

Yeah, poly folk tend not to go after the kind of love that’s at the end of a movie, because it’s kind of almost always portrayed as monogamous. Or, as CoupleDumb put it “true love”. Because any other form of love is untrue, according to them. Particularly if you’re not fucking (or buying jewellery, which makes the male partner in a heterosexual relationship feel “like a big man”, apparently). Unlike CoupleDumb, poly people accept the uniqueness of connections between unique people. Which sometimes involves heaps and heaps of sex, and sometimes it doesn’t, and either and anything in between is cool if everyone’s comfortable with it.

Robert Pattinson, this is why people cheat” (I have literally no idea why this is addressed to the bloke from Twilight. I googled for literally seconds and couldn’t find any evidence of him writing to CoupleDumb soliciting their terrible advice)

Yes, CoupleDumb always says that it takes two to tango but individual responsibility cannot be denied or lost in this conversation. Instead of having an affair, a person can approach their partner and tell them that they are unsatisfied. But, we don’t do that. When we should be talking we tend to hide and assume something will bring you together. If you identified that something is missing in a relationship it is your duty to inform your partner. It is what a responsible person does.

Infidelity has reached epidemic proportions due to our loose understanding of commitment and non-existent understanding of responsibility.  If you really want to affair proof your relationship, begin with understanding that your word is your bond. Anything outside of your commitment is not just an attack on your relationship but an annihilation of your integrity.

Again, poly people are honest. “We don’t do that” doesn’t apply to us. However, anything “outside” the commitment isn’t an “annihilation of our integrity”. It’s something that exists. We have relationships with many people at once. We’re upfront about it. Often, we strive to make sure our partners know each other–not know about each other. Far from annihilating anything, it enhances.

Sexless marriage

Now, there are times when the libido is compromised whether through illness, stress or medications. This does not mean that sex is off the table. The compromised partner can still provide sexual stimulation to their spouse and believing that you cannot perform because you do not want to is tantamount to saying that you do not care about your partner’s needs.

OH SWEET BABY FUCKING gjlkkjfse .kujujksf0krf;oiuijkf;kujso

*composes self*

No. Not wanting to have sex means you don’t have to have sex. It’s not about anyone else. It’s that you don’t want to have sex with that person at that time, and they must respect that.

If polyamory were a religion, chances are our bible would be “The Ethical Slut“, a “Poly 101” text which explains poly principles very well. The Ethical Slut has huge chunks dedicated to consent, communication, and why you shouldn’t do anything you don’t feel comfortable with. It’s quite big on what we now call enthusiastic consent. This tenet is really important in poly communities. We don’t take kindly to guilt trips as laid out by CoupleDumb. We prefer to have sex riddled with enthusiastic yeses. Enthusiastic consent is the only way to ensure great sex.

Anyway, given quite a lot of their advice regards just gritting your teeth and getting on with sex you don’t want to have because that’s what makes you have Disney Princess true love, you’d be forgiven to thinking that’s all there is to it. Nope. Unfortunately there’s also such a thing as too much sex.

Sexfull marriage. Too much of a good thing?

A sexfull marriage sounds great but you have to wonder what would happen if sex was not possible. What if you had to go on a business trip? What if the kids got sick? What if your partner hurts their back? Can you do something other than sex? Do you talk?

Yeah, so apparently if you’re having a lot of sex, you’re probably not doing much talking. I have absolutely no idea who these people are talking to, but generally it’s possible to do both. Poly people, as I’ve said numerous times in this post alone, manage to do both. Also, there’s that big support network I’ve been banging on about.

Maybe the CoupleDumb writers–a married couple themselves–have a marriage that works for them based on the principles they’ve outlined throughout their relationship advice. The thing is, throughout their project, they’ve been pushing their views on others, sticking to a very narrow, dogmatic view of how a relationship should work. And that doesn’t work for everyone. Hell, it doesn’t really work for many people at all, which is why the model they’re pushing results in high rates of cheating.

While very few will benefit from what CoupleDumb have to say, whether in a poly relationship or not, everyone benefits from the openness, consent and respect for individuality which make up poly principles.

Gay marriage advocates, stop throwing poly people under the bus

I’ve said before that I’m conflicted about same sex marriage, because, ultimately, I’d rather see the institution as a whole abolished. On the whole, though, I’ve got no problem with same sex marriage as a transitional demand and have no problem with people choosing to get the state involved in their two-person relationships.

The thing is, I am very unhappy with how some people are asking for this. They’ll argue against the “slippery slope” argument by throwing poly people under the bus. “No, we’re only asking for two people in love to get married, not poly or incest or bestiality. You silly conservatives, thinking you’d catch us out,” they say.

Now, I understand that they’re fighting against a daft argument in the first place. The thing is, this riposte is fairly fucking offensive to poly people.

Firstly, it kind of sucks to get mentioned in the same breath as incest and bestiality. These things are not the same, and personally I find them rather squicky. But, more importantly, these things are not the same, and I’d rather they weren’t all lumped together, unless you’re in consensual polyamorous relationship with your brother and a very enthusiastically randy shih-tzu.

Secondly, polygamy is always, always, always conflated with polyamory. Again, these things are not the same: polygamy refers to a specific type of multiple-partner relationship which is a subtype of polyamory. It’s a set-up which is generally steeped in religion and bad gender politics and is therefore easier to dismiss than other types of poly relationship. However, by not pointing out that this is only one multiple-partner arrangement, one throws all poly people under that bus.

Now, there might be more harms inherent in polygamous relationships than there are in other forms of poly, due to its ties with religion and patriarchy. However, there are more harms inherent to certain types of any sort of relationships. Should we ban marriages where there’s a significant age difference? What about where one partner has a record for domestic violence? Of course not, that’d be bloody silly. So why are the gay marriage advocates throwing all poly people under the bus because some relationships are fucked up?

Then there’s the nicer, more watered-down argument. That marriages including more than two people would be too hardthat poly marriages would be more of a redefinition of marriage than same-sex marriage. Now, this is all well and good, except same-sex marriage also involves a redefinition, and that’s exactly where the struggle lies. In my opinion, we might as well go the whole hog while we’re doing this (if we’re not just going to abolish the whole archaic institution). The thing is, I’m not asking that they make our struggle a part of theirs. I’m just asking not to get chucked under the bus in the process.

And it’s entirely possible to refute the slippery slope argument without throwing anyone under the bus. This widely-circulated infographic does so fairly adeptly. Because, yes, that’s all same-sex marriage will lead to: gay people getting married. Depending on your politics, that may or may not be enough, but either way, pointing out that simple fact and nothing else will expose the underlying bigotry in the anti-SSM camp. All ethical issues aside, throwing poly people under the bus derails this very simple and powerful point.

So I plead with the gay marriage advocates: stop throwing us under the bus to get what you want.


Lesbian sex: IT’S A TRAP! (apparently) is one of the darker corners of the internet. I last turned my fire on them for presenting pick up lines to run away from really quickly, but this time they’ve excelled themselves with an article entitled “SCIENTIFIC FACT: HOW SHE TRICKS YOU INTO CHEATING“.

So, how are these conniving bitches tricking men into accepting infidelity? Apparently, by fucking women. Twitterer @cwhelton has illustrated this conjecture admirably.

According to “science”, apparently men are far more likely to accept a woman partner’s infidelity if she cheats with a woman rather than a man. AskMen offer this scientific analysis:

Research shows that part of the problem is that the male’s perception of two women getting it on is erotic, and envisioning themselves joining the party is like the double rainbow of sex fantasies.

Out of morbid curiosity, I hunted down the original study, “Sex Differences in Response to Imagining a Partner’s Heterosexual or Homosexual Affair”, which can be downloaded from the author’s website. The study takes an evolutionary psychology tack, and the AskMen article is therefore an instance of the “human centipede” approach to science reporting: regurgitating a shit study into even shittier shit.

The authors hypothesised that men would be less likely to forgive a female partner if she cheated on them with a man than with a woman, because of the risk of her getting pregnant from a heterosexual affair. They weren’t really sure about women’s responses.

To test their hypotheses, they administered a survey to some students, in two parts. In part one, they were asked to imagine a scenario wherein a partner was cheating in either a same-sex or heterosexual affair, and then quizzed on how likely they would be to forgive the partner. As a point of comparison, they were asked if they had ever experienced infidelity and whether they forgave the partner. In this section, they were never asked if it was a same-sex or heterosexual experience of cheating, which sort of blows any real-world significance of the results right out of the water. Also not asked: whether the participants were heterosexual or somewhere on the queer spectrum. Also not asked: anything to do with why they would forgive or not forgive the real or imagined partners.

On the whole, women were less likely to forgive infidelity than men. This was probably skewed by more than half of the male participants saying they would forgive a female partner who cheated with another woman (although only 22% would forgive cheating with a man). The results skewed the other way with the women participants: fewer would forgive a partner cheating with another man than with another woman.

In their discussion, the authors return to banging the pregnancy drum, an analysis that their own results don’t really support: if it were entirely down to risk of pregnancy (and all the childrearing shit that evolutionary psychologists obsess over), then, surely, women would also be more likely to forgive a same-sex affair.

It gives me great distress to announce that AskMen’s analysis of the experimental results–lesbian sex is hot–is actually a better analysis than that provided by the authors of the study. There are a lot of societal prejudices at play here: lesbian sex isn’t seen as “real” sex by many heterosexuals (poor them), while sex between men is still subject to a lot of stigma. Lesbians are hot; gays are icky.

This attitude pervades not just the Normals with their tedious concerns about cheating, but also the poly/open relationship community: it is still far more common to see men with harems of women, men defining terms of their relationships wherein women may only play with other women, and the dreaded Unicorn Hunters. It’s everywhere, and it really needs to fuck off.

With some better science, it might be interesting to get to the bottom of why so many are squicked by gay sex but turned on by lesbian sex. And then we can make the myth die forever.


Tip of the masochistic hat to @syn who found the AskMen article.

Samantha Brick, attractiveness and missing the point entirely

Some textbook link-baiting trolling has been occurring over at Daily Mail towers these last few days. “Journalist” Samantha Brick has written a piece entitled “THERE ARE DOWNSIDES TO LOOKING THIS PRETTY: WHY WOMEN HATE ME FOR BEING BEAUTIFUL” [clean link]. In it, Brick describes at length how pretty she is, and how nicely the world treats her: she is the very embodiment of Hakim’s thesis that “the world smiles at attractive people, and they smile back“.

But wait! As I am sure the title signified, it is not all farting rainbow kittens when you look like Samantha Brick. See, other women hate her. They see her as a threat, a great big husband-stealing threat. Daily, Samantha Brick receives animosity, and it must all be because she’s pretty.

Well, no, not exactly. Firstly, it’s probable that at least some of the scorn she receives is due to the fact she’s a fucking Daily Mail journalist. While some people are fascist scum who enjoy reading poorly-written tabloids, many are not. Without even seeing a picture of a Mail journalist, I know that I probably hate them just a little bit, as their continued existence in their professional capacity makes the world a significantly worse place.

As for the rest, Brick seems to have missed the point entirely. There are two large problems she outlines, and neither are explored adequately as instead the piece consists of a repetitive litany of “I’m so pretty and they’re all so mean”. The first problem is benevolent sexism, which Brick receives frequently in the form of freebies from men. She is clearly moving in circles wherein benevolent sexism is more widely accepted, and does not see a problem with it. Unfortunately for Brick, it is a massive problem for her, creating a feedback loop where she can only be judged for the fact that she is a good-looking woman.

This problem can easily be solved by Samantha Brick living up to her name and throwing bricks at sexists.

The other problem Brick highlights is hegemonic heterosexuality. In Brick’s world, heterosexual monogamous relationships are the only possible way to be with people. “A catch” in this system becomes a scarce resource: if you’re lucky, you’ll get one partner; if you’re really lucky, they’ll be a good one. This feeds competition and jealousy, when everything could quite nicely be solved by everyone chucking their keys in a bowl and having a nice orgy over a selection of hummus dips.

Brick’s experience further ties in with the class structure we inhabit: she is reasonably well-off, and therefore can afford good clothes, good make-up, good self-presentation. This luxury may not be available to her neighbours. Again, in this kyriarchical minefield, envy rises and animosity is fuelled.

So, ultimately, all of Samantha Brick’s problems would be solved if she grabbed some bricks and effected a revolution.

Of course, this is not the course Brick chose to pursue. Today, another Mail article appeared: “THE I’M SO BEAUTIFUL BACKLASH… THE BILE JUST PROVES I’M RIGHT“. Er, no it doesn’t.

In this piece, Brick reiterates that women are just nasty, jealous bitches (for some reason, the criticism she received from men is ungendered: presumably this conflicts with her thesis that it’s just horrid, horrid women).

Once again, there are a few good points in the article, which Samantha Brick misses entirely. She is right to point out that much of the backlash levelled at her was “well, she’s not really that attractive”, and that is rather nasty. What she ignores, though, is that this is indicative of a system which is radically in need of bashing in with bricks, and that her looks should be completely irrelevant.

Samantha Brick is both a victim and a perpetrator in this system. Assuming what she has written encapsulates her true experience rather than sensationalist Daily Mail drivel, she has stumbled on a whole host of problems for which she chooses to lash out at her peers and shift the blame onto individuals. Yet it is not a problem of personal meanness, or spite. It is a cluster of symptoms of system which needs destroying.

Samantha Brick, live up to your name. Bring bricks. See you on the barricades.

Nothing says “I love you” like reinforcing stereotypes for profit

Sometimes I wonder if the capitalist calendar is marked not by months, but by abstract concepts from which to draw profit. March is the month of maternity; October, horror; April, rebirth by the medium of chocolate. And so forth. February happens to be the month where romantic love is the money-spinner, by accident of having the feast of an early Christian martyr plonked squarely in the middle of it. This has been twisted into tawdry pink cards, oversized teddies, lavish dinners for two, knickers, flowers and chocolate. Nothing, we are told, says “I love you” like excessive consumption.

To sell this idea, the marketers and media-types operate in stereotypes. It’s easier for them, that way. In the first few weeks of February, therefore, we are bombarded with narratives of “getting him to propose” and “getting her in the mood”, because of course men only want to get laid and women only want to get married. The tropes of hegemonic monogamy are paraded around, playing on the niggling fears of the masses that they may end up alone if they do not capitulate and buy that heart-shaped box of champagne truffles.

It’s all grindingly awful for those of us who do not subscribe to the ideals of the default brand of monogamy. It is probably worse still for those who believe, but are single. It is the sort of thing that makes one want to leave the country and head far, far away, were it not for the fact that flights seem to cost more in the middle of February due to the glut of minibreaks for two. Instead, I learned to filter out the monotonous drone of “BUY BUY BUY”. It is only the truly terrible that makes it through. This year, I have noticed–rather fittingly for National Monogamy Day–two particularly horrid ad campaigns.

While walking through Waterloo, I encountered a set of billboards featuring a model in underwear covering herself with a bunch of flowers. LOVE STUCK? it proclaimed, before breathlessly telling me to hold my smartphone up to the poster and view it through an app to “see the model come to life” and get gift ideas. I didn’t bother. I guessed that what would happen would be that the flowers would fall away, leaving the nubile young model prancing about in her scanties. One quick Google later, and I was proved right.

This ad campaign features several of the oppressively tiresome Valentine’s Day ad tropes. It essentially says “Hello men! I know Valentine’s Day sucks, but if you buy her some nice undies, she’ll have to let you look at her in a state of near-undress. Then you’ll probably get to have a go on her tits.” It unabashedly, unashamedly advertises to the male gaze, taking the objectification of women to giddying heights. The only thing that differentiates this ad campaign from the dull static hum of the rest of it is the technological side of things. It is, at its heart, the digital age equivalent of pens that reveal a naked lady when you click the top.

The other campaign that came to my attention was one flogging gin, using the folk tradition of women being “allowed” to propose on the leap day by putting on murkily misogynistic events. Here, if you are a woman, you can learn “the knowledge and skills to trap your man” in a way which is presumably unrelated to how the words “gin” and “trap” traditionally fit into a sentence together. In order to provide equality in advertising, men may attend a “school for scoundrels” where they may learn how to “retain their liberty”. I would say that implicit in this campaign is the stereotype that women want commitment while men do not, but it is actually spelled out in the top of their publicity materials. 

Far too many young women run the risk of a Horrendous Disappointment – and too many men may succumb to dread ‘Commitment’…

What is to be done about such egregiously awful ad campaigns? So much of what they are trying to do is to gain attention, and by being so overtly hideous, they are bound to draw the eye. I have purposely avoided naming the brands in the post for this reason, and I have a personal policy of not buying from brands whose advertising has really pissed me off.

The problem is not so much that these campaigns will cause controversy: neither campaign has provoked more than a tiny murmur of frustration. The issue here is that to most people they are eye-catching not because of their flaws, but because they’re a little bit different, a little bit exciting. There is a fine line to walk between discussing misogyny in advertising and accidentally publicising companies that blithely push stereotypes to make a little bit more money in the post-Christmas slump.

The fact is, it is simply not acceptable to turn humans into cartoonish parodies: the ogling, horny man and the woman who will do anything to marry him.  It is patronising, dehumanising, and reinforces a power structure which reifies these archetypes, while wiping away any person who does not conform. This wearisome shit needs calling where its seen in the faint hope that one day we can chip away enough that February is just a short month and if you fancy giving a lover a present, then that’s absolutely fine, but nobody’s going to try and make you.

There is no ad-blocker for life, unfortunately. We need to work around that.

An actual product that actually exists

Hegemonic monogamy of the “default option” variety is usually rooted in the set of ideas that give rise to the erotic capitalist dystopia. It is a mutually-beneficial arrangement wherein both parties get the sex that they want and there’s two people to raise any kids, should the need arise. The hegemonically monogamous relationship generally means that neither partner strays: if one does, they will usually make an effort to cover their tracks, as breaking the rules means the partnership will end, or the cheater will be punished. Of course, monogamous relationships are often far more than this coldly clinical arrangement of mutually-assured destruction, and it’s an arrangement that works well for many.

Not for all, it seems, as this is an actual product that actually exists in the world: the Handzoff wristband. These colourful little bands bear the words “HANDZ OFF MY BOYFRIEND/GIRLFRIEND”. Once applied, they cannot be removed, a point the site is so eager to push that they wrote it in BIG RED CAPITAL LETTERS. Also in BIG RED CAPITAL LETTERS is a list of potential uses for these wristbands: perhaps the discerning customer may wish to mark their partner when they go on holiday or a business trip?

These lurid colour-coded bands–reflecting the traditional pink-for-a-girl blue-for-a-boy–have two important characteristics distinguishing them from the wedding ring, that more traditional “stylish… perfect symbol that you are in a committed relationship”. Firstly, they are far, far cheaper at only £2.5o a pop. Secondly, the only way of getting it off is by cutting or otherwise tampering. A boring old wedding ring can merely be slipped off; how will the suspicious wife know that her husband is cheating if he can hide his marital status so easily?

The product seems to be based on a fundamental mishearing of the phrase “keeping tabs on each other”: Handzoff bands are designed to “keep tags on each other”. This original phrase is loaded enough: it evokes ideas of spying, of checking those text messages and fitting a GPS locator to a partner’s phone. To tag one’s partner is simply taking this to its logical conclusion.

It is not polyer-than-thou to suggest that a relationship ought to be based on trust: all of my mono friends I know would agree with this. And yet there is this thread running through hegemonic monogamy which suggests that the person you are with just cannot be trusted. It manifests everywhere: the frequent magazine articles promising to tell you “HOW TO TELL IF YOUR MAN IS CHEATING”; the media fascination with non-wifely places footballers are putting their penises; the vast incomes raked in by private detectives for adultery cases. Mistrust seems to be the foundation on which we are told to conduct our relationships, sold to us part and parcel with the default optioning of monogamy. The only surprise with the Handzoff wristbands is that they didn’t appear earlier. 

And of course this isn’t the way we should live our lives, fretting every time a partner pops out to the shops, just in case she’s going to get a quick fingerfuck from the postman.  We need to rethink the way we view relationships and see that if there is no trust there, it is not a relationship worth keeping in the first place. A cheap rubber wristband is not going to help that.

When is an attack not an attack?

Today, I found myself in a position I hadn’t been in since early 2010: I agreed with Nick Clegg. On the proposed tax breaks for married couples, Clegg said the following:

“We can all agree that strong relationships between parents are important, but not agree that the state should use the tax system to encourage a particular family form.”

I don’t take this to mean that Clegg has suddenly started talking sense. He has just spotted an open goal and managed to kick the ball in vaguely the right direction in a desperate bid to resuscitate his dead party, the political equivalent of slapping a corpse and screaming “PLEASE DON’T DIE ON ME, I LOVE YOU”.

He does have a very good point, though. The state should have no role in meddling with how a family should look. This suggestion has naturally pissed off some of the usual suspects like Cristina Odone and the bafflingly-still-alive Norman Tebbit. As always, when a socially progressive attitude towards families is expressed, they fall back on the favourite language: the language of being under attack.

It happens all the time. The notion of the family being somehow attacked crops up frequently in discussion of marriage equality, the rhetoric surrounding single-parent families, and more broadly in terms of socially progressive legislation. Put simply, they cry out THOSE SCARY HUMMUS-MUNCHERS ARE COMING FOR OUR CHILDREN. In fact, it is nothing of the kind.

The language of the attack on the family implicitly applies the capitalist narrative of scarcity to families. As with money, their line of reasoning goes, there is a finite amount of love in the world, and we’d better not let those scrounging single mothers or gays have any of it, lest there’s none left for anyone else. By their very existence, non-conventional families threaten the social order by apparently hogging some love which could better go to a family with a mummy, a daddy and 2.4 kiddiwinks.

Of course, this line of reasoning is patent gibberish. Love is infinite, and money is a fiction so the narratives fail to hold up in any way imaginable. I pity those who believe that a family with one parent, or four parents or two parents who happen to be of the same sex are in any way a threat to their wellbeing. They are hiding from an imaginary foe, terrified that the rug will come out from under them when that rug is perfectly secure.

Perhaps the fear is where all of this ends, yet I suspect that using the language of an external threat or attack serves a deeper, murkier function. When one is attacked, one has two options: to fight, or to surrender. While an unprovoked attack is generally frowned upon, few except the most peaceful of pacifists will have an issue with self-defence. Pretending that families are under attack therefore legitimises the genuinely coercive tactics that the state is using to regulate family structure. It stops being outright aggression and starts to look like reasonable defence against the phalanx of queers and single mums who are bogarting all the nice things.

There is no attack on the traditional family. If anything, it is quite the other way round: we are being gradually coerced into living in the way that suits the state. It’s so clear, even a Lib Dem can spot it.