A snapshot of the New Zealand Left’s problem with gender and sex work

At the fourth Social Movements, Resistance and Social Change Conference in September 2017, many people talked about feeling ‘unsettled’ in a positive way; that is, challenged to step out of colonial and other dominant norms they have unconsciously absorbed. However, marginalised people live in a constant state of being unsettled and feeling out of place. For Māori, this includes literal alienation from their land, communities, culture, language, ways of being, and Te Ao Māori overall. It is hard to understand how deeply and intimately the roots of colonisation go, and the Social Movements Conference (SMC) 2017 tried to uncover some of them with the theme of “Beyond Capitalism – Beyond Colonisation”. In theory, leftist conferences provide these sorts of challenges, but also provide a place for minorities of all stripes to feel settled and at ease. It can be jarring to realise that a promised haven does not in fact offer a place to rest or stand, but will continue to pull the rug out from under your feet. In light of this, I’m writing to discuss the ongoing gender problem in the SMCs so far.

To give context to my piece, I will first discuss my experience of the 2016 SMC. Earlier that year, I moved to Wellington, my hometown, to heal from severe trauma from an ostensible leftist whose misogyny included virulent hatred of sex workers. A month or so afterwards, I heard that Pala Molisa, a man who has actively campaigned against sex workers’ rights and wants to incarcerate their clients (the ‘Nordic Model’ which harms sex workers directly), was still on the Counterfutures board and would be speaking at the SMC. This news left me huddled in a ball on the floor crying; I can only imagine how it felt for people not only who are sex workers, but have been directly abused by Molisa himself and/or his partner Renée Gerlich. Many of these people are Māori and trans people, and have also been victimised by the virulent transphobia and transmisogyny of Molisa and Gerlich, who remain a persistently boring thorn in the side of the Wellington Left and beyond. Many sex workers and their allies petititoned the conference organisers to drop Molisa from the conference, without success (his talk was cancelled due to a scheduling clash). After the event, the organisers posted on the event’s Facebook page that “we want to state clearly that we 100% support the rights of all workers, including sex workers”, but failed to provide any material examples for how this support would manifest in future, or to publicly acknowledge the controversy over Molisa.

In light of such an error, one might hope that the subsequent conference would include work on this topic. However, I would have been surprised if any sex workers submitted proposals to SMC 2017, given reasonable suspicion that their work would not be supported. Although popular culture portrays sex workers in particular as voiceless victims, the reality is that their voices are ignored and stigmatised. This dismissal not only contributes to the marginalisation of these working class people, but impoverishes our leftist politics overall. Sex worker rights advocates have done invaluable work on the intersections of race, class struggle, gender, sexuality, disability, migration, and a whole host of other topics; their work and overall class positions situate them at the margins of society, where they can see the centre a lot more clearly than many of us. (I will provide some great literature by sex workers and their allies, from Aotearoa and beyond, at the end of this article.)

Perhaps one of the reasons that sex workers are not included in conferences like these is because of an aversion to class politics that periodically emerged at SMC 2017. The sometimes-explicit dismissal of socialism in a conference titled “Beyond capitalism” was bewildering, manifesting most strongly in the rejection of Alex Birchall’s paper on ethnicity and class politics (which has been covered here). Although the discussion around decolonisation politics is for Māori to have amongst themselves, I would like to briefly promote the perspectives of young Māori leftists Emmy Rākete, Kendra Cox and Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho on class struggle as a weapon against colonisation. Te Aho wrote: “The contribution Marxist theory makes to indigenous struggles for freedom is rooted in Marxist discourse on historical materialism and the ongoing contemporary effects of historically established economic and political systems which continue to feed inequities in all aspects of Māori lives today. It is the inevitability of the struggle for freedom from the shackles of the powerful that render Marx’s theory so powerful in indigenous human rights movements around the world.”

It would be one thing if sex workers’ voices were the only notable absence from the Social Movements conferences. However, I am concerned with an overall lack of discussion on gender politics. Although there were a few papers in 2017 that were centred around gender, and more that included it as a significant part of their theory, gender politics did not have as much space as one would expect for such a crucial issue. While I appreciate that organisers can only work with what submissions they receive, any lack of proposals explicitly on gender, sex work and/or trans rights issues represents an issue with the conference rather than the population. Many people in Aotearoa are bursting to discuss how their lives are affected by gender oppression and its various subsets, but without a forum that seeks out their input will once again be forced to sit silently in the corner and watch their oppression(s) get worse.

A lot of work by Māori women and other gender minorities suggests that a conference themed around decolonisation urgently needed to prioritise gender theory from people of colour. People like Ani Mikaere(*) and Kim McBreen have shown that institutions like patriarchy, queerphobia and transphobia/transmisogyny are the product of the violent Pakeha colonial system that insists on rigid binary gender roles, the inferiority of women, and mandatory heterosexuality. My critique here is not at all aimed at the women and other people of colour who were conference participants; these discourses were not absent from their panels. Rather, I question some of the conference organising that led to some of these perspectives being sidelined, or at least not given as much attention as they might. Most dismaying to me was the simultaneous scheduling of workshops on care and activism, prison abolition, and Māori constitutional change, leading to the PoC-led one on violence and abuse on the Left being cancelled. Although I appreciate that scheduling mixups are often inevitable, the fact that organisers doubled up these inter-related panels but not the seven animal rights talks (i.e. two panels) or lifestyle activism topics left me wondering exactly who these conferences are for.

So to Make Gender Great Again, where to from here? One of the solutions I propose to the Social Movements organisers is to theme their next conference around gender oppression in New Zealand. As the Māori theorists I have highlighted show, this work can easily build on from the decolonisation theme of 2017, as Māori women and gender minorities suffer from [trans]misogynist systems. Although much of the hatred of sex workers and trans women/people comes from within feminism itself, this could be averted by making it crystal clear that those who wish to deny or ‘critique’ the rights of these people are fundamentally not welcome at the conference. If organisers do not feel adequately prepared to filter these things out, perhaps they could seek the assistance of those who are experienced in these matters. In the interest of avoiding clumsy and under-developed gender politics, not every paper would have to explicitly focus on gender, but those that centre the topic(s) at work should be prioritised for next year.

I hope this piece will be received in good faith by the organisers of the SMCs, because I do mean it as such. There were many aspects of the conference I enjoyed; it was great to meet new people, learn new things (shout-out from me to the Matike Mai workshop and Brown Girls Speak: On Decolonising the Ivory Tower), and get the opportunity to speak on the Capitalism and Affect panel along with other great speakers and a room full of interesting people. Therefore I am not writing this to fully condemn SMC or its organisers; I appreciate that organising conferences is hard work. However, I wanted to raise my concerns publicly because private negotiations have only produced minimal changes so far, and I know that I and many others will not be attending next year’s conference if these issues aren’t dealt with. Raising them creates constant dilemmas; if we speak politely, will we be ignored? Should we shout more, or will we be aggressively chastised and shut down? Either way, women and other gender minorities are hurting, and we are sick of having both to speak quietly and to publicly bleed in order to (maybe) be taken seriously. Given how many of us are crucial in building and sustaining the Left, let it be a place for us to settle and feel at ease.


(*) Mikaere’s article “Māori women: Caught in the contradictions of a colonised reality” has significantly informed my views on this, but sadly is now hard to find online. The full publication details are: Mikaere, Ani, “Māori women: Caught in the contradictions of a colonised reality”, Waikato Law Review, Vol. 2, 1994, pp. 125-149

Resources on sex work (a very short list)




David Bowie, Lori Lightning and power

Update, 19 January 2016: In response to some criticisms from friends, I regret that some of what I posted here was triggering for quite a few people. I did not think through what it’s like for people who have been abused to see other people publicly rhapsodising over their abuser’s good qualities, as I did in this article, and as many others have done elsewhere. The points that some people (friends, if you’re reading this and want to be credited please let me know) highlighted to me are:

  • Lori Lightning’s agency/consent/enjoyment to her encounter is not mutually exclusive with her grooming and coercion
  • This woman is probably not the only underage woman Bowie had sex with; in the climate surrounding his death, it would be very difficult for women who are not okay with his treatment of them to come out. He also contributed to a culture where this sort of behaviour was/is broadly acceptable, and while I’ve heard that in later life he decried it in other members of his band, it still doesn’t redeem what he did. There are plenty of other people who decried this who DIDN’T ever have sex with children; give them massive platforms instead.
  • Wanda Nichols, an adult woman, accused Bowie of rape in 1987. It must have been enormously hard to go up against a star of his stature; there are no motives for doing so except wanting justice (if you’re going to say money then I think you’re ignorant of how difficult, traumatic and largely unsuccessful it is to publicly make a rape accusation against anyone). Bowie was cleared by the courts (proving my point before) but this means nothing; as lawyer and twitter queen @moscaddie said: “reasonable doubt is a very important concept, FOR JURORS. in the courtroom of twitter, ur office, or ur wee heart & mind, BELIEVE SURVIVORS”
  • Bowie’s glaring whiteness protects him from proper condemnation of his behaviour. This article by a gender/queer Latinx person covers this to some degree. Although the article’s discussion of an anti-carceral state is on-point, I don’t think survivors should have to practice compassion if they don’t want to. Survivors don’t owe people like Bowie shit.

This is a long way of saying that I’m sorry for being less vehement than I should’ve been earlier. I will be deleting any comments that imply that what Bowie did was not so bad or that it was the 70s and this sort of thing was de rigeur back then. The only reason it is a minute fraction less de rigeur now is because people stood up and opposed it; we have to keep doing that now.


CW: discussion of child sexuality, childhood physical and sexual abuse

In the wake of David Bowie’s death, there has been a fair amount of internet discussion about the fact that he had sex with groupie Lori Lightning when she was 13 and he was around 26. Much of the internet has quite understandably been quick to frame this as sexual assault, and Bowie as an abuser. Certainly it is statutory rape, and there are a whole host of ways in which it is possible to say that what Bowie did was wrong. But to tell Lori Lightning that her that age at the time means that she didn’t consent, even though everything she says indicates she did, is exactly the sort of gaslighting that abusers do. This demonstrates the problem with messages about how “kids can’t consent”; while it acknowledges that free and informed consent to certain acts from children is highly unlikely, it denies the agency of children in ways that are harmful when it comes to children’s non-sexual life. This kind of message is used to justify things like hitting your child because they don’t know what’s good for them, and gives license to not listen to children because they have not been acknowledged as fully-formed human beings. It also shows that Western culture has no frameworks to deal with child sexuality; where to acknowledge that child sexuality exists is seen as giving carte blanche for adults—particularly men—to do what they like with children.

This is a terrible dichotomy indeed. Terrible in that it is thoroughly unnecessary; it is possible to believe that 13-yr-old people can consent to sex AND say that adults should absolutely not be having sex with them. The power differential between adults and children is too great; not merely isolated to sex, but in how adults are set up to have total control over children’s lives and wellbeing. In some ways this power differential is necessary, as children do not always have the physical or mental capacity to make healthy decisions for themselves. Power can be and is often exercised for good, but there is a persistent risk and reality that adults will not always use their power solely to benefit the children in their care. It is clear that Lightning consented to and enjoyed her encounter, and in her case that’s all there is to it. In some cases the pleasure of fucking is not merely sexual pleasure from the act but from what it signifies; the euphoria of being wanted by a man of Bowie’s talent and stature must have been intoxicating, and nothing she has said publicly indicates that she regrets the encounter. But Bowie took a phenomenal risk with her wellbeing; committing sexual acts with people that age often causes lifelong trauma and PTSD. Consent is not the only metric to assess whether a sexual encounter has been exploitative or not. Sometimes the exploitation in sexual encounters comes from forces outside of the encounter itself; a significant age gap being one example, the inability of many women to enjoy sex because of patriarchal body issues being another. Rebecca Traister writes:

Contemporary feminism’s shortcomings may lie in not its over­radicalization but rather its under­radicalization. Because, outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex. Young feminists have adopted an exuberant, raunchy, confident, righteously unapologetic, slut-walking ideology that sees sex — as long as it’s consensual — as an expression of feminist liberation. The result is a neatly halved sexual universe, in which there is either assault or there is sex positivity. Which means a vast expanse of bad sex — joyless, exploitative encounters that reflect a persistently sexist culture and can be hard to acknowledge without sounding prudish — has gone largely uninterrogated, leaving some young women wondering why they feel so fucked by fucking.

Having to hold Bowie’s many wonderful qualities in mind with the fact that he was willing to have sex with a 13-yr-old girl speaks to the dissociative nature of being a woman and engaging with music made by men. To love and admire men like this while knowing that they’re willing to risk massively fucking with your wellbeing; often, in cases like Gary Glitter, that they don’t care when they have massively fucked with your wellbeing as long as they don’t have to hear about it. To love Led Zeppelin and Nick Cave like anyone else and to stretch yourself to try fit into the protagonist’s position, yet be aware in the background of your mind how much this music hates you or sees you as nothing. Realising why “have you heard about the Midnight Rambler” was spraypainted across a wall in a dark part of Brooklyn, Wellington; left up for years even while the council removed tagging that looked less white. To know that these men will not find beauty in the strong, complex, challenging, intelligent nature of adult womanhood, but prefer us at an age where we are more likely to be compliant and naïve, more likely to reflect men at twice their natural size rather than demand mutual reflection. This aspect of Bowie’s character, simultaneously predatory and pathetic, is what disgusts me regardless of Lightning’s feelings herself; that at my age he was more interested in ego flattery from 13-yr-old girls than healthy adult relationships with women. A woman quoted by Shulamith Firestone said that “no man can love a girl the way a girl loves a man”. Indeed, we tend to love our men for what they are, not what they do for us; masculinity operates in the reverse.

As a friend pointed out, none of these post-mortem exposés were made of Lemmy, who not only did the same thing as Bowie but bragged about it in his song Jailbait. This is because of the particular nature of Bowie as an icon; he inspired and helped a lot of queer people and misfits carve out a place for themselves in the world. Bowie is the kind of star who saved people’s lives, who let them know that their weirdnesses were okay and that they were not alone. I loved Bowie for his musical complexity; you can listen to his back catalogue for hours and not get bored because it is so varied and interesting. It is perhaps unfair on men like Lemmy that we do not hold them to higher standards, but we think we know how to react to that straightforward sort of misogyny. The discussion over Bowie represents the struggle of finding out bad things about people we love and not knowing quite how to react. As Aoife wrote at freethoughtblogs: “I’m supposed to call him a monster because of this, and stop feeling sad about his death. I can’t do that. I can call him someone who did a monstrous thing, though.” The exercise of power isn’t all or nothing. Living in patriarchy involves moments of absolute horror with a lot of boredom the rest of the time, and is often mixed in with pleasure in strange and perturbing ways. It doesn’t need to be traumatic to be wrong; I can detail the ways in which men hate me without feeling much emotion, but it’s still a boring and annoying thing to deal with. The demand that women feel constantly outraged or upset about patriarchy is a liberalism that sees outrage as praxis in itself; sometimes we need to conserve our energy so that we can throw bricks when the time comes. Besides, we want to love talented, interesting, witty, beautiful men like Bowie; it is profoundly sad when they make it more difficult for us.

This isn’t much of an obituary. But despite Bowie’s flaws, I’m sad that he’s gone; this is the kind of person whose death would feel surprising and wrong even if he had lived to be a hundred, as he had an aura of immortality about him. I am grateful for the ways in which he made my friends’ lives easier, for being able to shout along to Life On Mars with my best friend, for what he did for queers, and for the way he made bad teeth look endearing. In this rather lovely radio clip Scott Walker, a brilliant musician and one of Bowie’s major influences, called him up on his birthday to thank Bowie for everything he’d done and for his “generosity of spirit when it comes to other artists” which he’d been a beneficiary from himself. I’ll close with this clip of the sweet and awkward young Bowie being interviewed by Russel Harty in 1973, who asks “Do you indulge in any form of worship?” to which Bowie pauses and then replies “Life. I love life very much indeed.”

Men and love: Women’s search for life in an emotional wasteland

Dedicated to a variety of men I have known: some who I have loved, some who have hurt people I love.

There is currently a vast communication breakdown between genders in how the process of love is meant to work. Although love is commonly understood to involve some levels of kindness, generosity and vulnerability, its current state under patriarchy means that many men flatly refuse to take responsibility for how much their behaviour hurts the women they claim to love. While not exclusive to any person or gender, this resistance to accountability is a general trait shared by those who hold power and are unwilling to relinquish it—wealthy people, white people, able-bodied people and so forth. But when it comes to masculinity, and particularly to heterosexual masculinity, this behaviour is deeply intertwined with gendered differences in understandings of what it means to love another and to be loved in turn. Despite how masculine power means that men generally retain a certain distance from and contempt for women as a whole, it is highly unlikely that a man will be able to live out his whole life without knowing, loving or needing a woman at an intimate level, even if it is only his mother. In turn, this is perhaps one of the most damning parts of patriarchy for women; to paraphrase what bell hooks wrote in her book Communion: The Female Search for Love, we cannot stop loving our fathers, our brothers, our lovers, our friends, our comrades, even “when they hurt us again and again”.

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When open relationships break up: How to support your free-loving friends

When I first announced on Facebook that I was “in an open relationship”, it being approximately the third and the most serious relationship I had been in so far, the update brought a handful of ‘likes’ and one comment from a woman who merely said ‘Yolo’. On the one hand, correct–I do only live once, I may as well have a boyfriend while I stalk the confines of this mortal plain. But on the other, it was clear that she saw my open relationship as a wacky experiment, rather than as a rather nice part of a lifestyle that I had committed to long before this particular partner–indeed, a decision I had made before I got into any relationships.

In a world where exclusive monogamy rules at a global level, and many of us get a lot of our early relationship lessons from Snow White or romantic comedies, open relationships are frequently treated as a novelty object, rather than as legitimate relationships with feelings as messy and deep and loving–or not–as any other kind. When they break up, some of the same attitudes come out from well-meaning people whose presence is often necessary and appreciated, but who accidentally say some unhelpful or damaging things with regard to the open relationship aspect. So for people bemused by the whole thing, here’s some advice about how to help your free-loving friends out when they have relationship problems.

But first, a preamble: what the fuck is an open relationship?
Hell, before we even start on that, let’s clear up what we mean by ‘relationship’. This would take a long time to do comprehensively–I’m considering writing a thesis on it–but the short version of how it’s largely defined by dominant Western culture is: an ongoing sexual and emotional agreement between two (or more) people. Now of course not all ongoing sexual agreements are going to be ‘relationships’, but it’s very rare that explicitly non-sexual agreements are termed as such. (I suggest the romantic relationships of asexual people are a rare exception.) Of course, people often disrupt this definition of relationship in their personal lives–I’ve had platonic best friends who I often felt I was in a relationship with, given that the high levels of commitment, emotions and co-dependency outweighed those I’ve had with many sexual partners. But these sorts of relationships aren’t generally used by the state to halve your student allowance, nor to legally bind people during a ceremony that bridal shops and elderly aunts tell you is the best day of your life. Whether we like it or not, these capital-R Relationships exist as a cultural and institutional way of organising people’s social, emotional and economic lives, and it’s really hard to escape that social conditioning even if you want to.

So if we’ve got that definition of relationship down, let’s look at the ‘open’ part. Basically it involves the possibility of engaging sexually with more than one person during the same time period. (And again, I say sexually here because obvs you engage emotionally/socially with more than one person during a time period–such people are called ‘friends’.) One of the reasons many people interpret open relationships as a ridiculous and impossible idea is because they’re characterised as a bizarre and otherworldly category of intimacy, wherein you have to open yourself to a whole world of chaos where any and all limits on your partner’s behaviour are taken off, and then robotically shut yourself off from feeling or expressing any misgivings about them hooking up with anyone else. In the romantic comedy No Strings Attached, which flirts with the idea of non-exclusive non-monogamy, Natalie Portman’s character sets a ground rule with her friend-with-benefits that they are to have “no jealousy”. This is pretty ludicrous–who can promise to never have an emotion? Even the most experienced free lovers get jealous from time to time; although they might interpret and express that feeling differently, anyone who says they never get jealous is straight-up lying or deluded. But when culture only talks about the most extreme working conditions for open relationships, it’s small wonder many people stick to exclusive monogamy. (And I’d argue that culture paints them as such precisely for that end, but that’s another discussion.)

But not all open relationships are the base-jumping of intimate human interaction. In reality, the relative openness of any relationship forms part of a spectrum. Think of it like a door: everyone can only open themselves far before their hinges start squeaking–some people may be able to open your door farther than others, some might make you want to lock that door up for a long time afterwards. To get away from a weird metaphor, I’m just going to say these things are hugely variable: some people who describe themselves as ‘in an open relationship’ have one primary partner and sleep with other friends on the side, or only make out with other strangers at parties. Some may require advance notice of hookups or a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy; some may welcome their lover back from their month-long holiday, ask “So, how was your trip down south? If you know what I mean?” and guffaw inappropriately. Others might have more than one capital-R Relationship at the same time, or be part of an agreement between three people. Everyone sets their own limits for what they feel comfortable with–there’s no magical ‘right’ or universal way to do an open relationship, because each individual has different limits on what they can and want to do in the context of sex and love.

So that’s the preamble, and we’ve established, I hope, that open relationships are real relationships, and come with all the love and arguing and vulnerability and quoting the LOTR opening during sex that any other relationships do. (Heavens no I’ve never done that why are you staring at me.) And, like any other relationships, they end at some point, and working through the logistics of breaking up is painful and scary and boring and periodically amusing and complicated. Unfortunately, many people tend to assume there are different rules for how to respond to their tearful friend on the phone about their seemingly unusual situation. So to help support and avoid hurting your loved ones when they’ve got out of an open relationship, some tips:

1. Don’t assume the breakup has happened because it was an open relationship
This sort of assumption is actually made about a whole host of different kinds of relationships: queer ones, ones involving sex workers, interracial ones–as though they’re uniquely dysfunctional, whereas white cisgender hetero monogamy always works amazingly (ha ha…ha.) Before even asking me why my breakup had happened–which was nothing to do with any other lovers–people lined up to tell me that “this is what happens with open relationships”. Similarly, my friend was arbitrarily blamed for her relationship breakup because “you can’t trust those bisexuals”. True, it can be rough pursuing a non-normative relationship; and it sure isn’t helpful that one’s pain during a breakup is suddenly not their own to flounder in, but supposed to represent an entire social demographic of strangers. If you’re an outsider, you might have uncomfortable feelings about the idea of open relationships, or know that you couldn’t do them yourself–that’s fine, but that’s not your friend’s problem, and it’s really not the time for you to bring that stuff up.

Even if someone’s breakup did happen because the people involved couldn’t hack an open relationship framework, picking this time to moralise about open relationships as a whole is effectively saying “Ha, you thought you could get one over on culture and you lost, you should probably quit trying. Not only is your relationship fucked, but your whole sexual-romantic orientation, methodology and belief system is too! Er, hugs.” What sort of defeatism is this! Besides, this sort of automatic naysaying to alternative relationships is why, for example, a lot of queer movements put up a happy front where only comely monogamous cisgender couples who’ve been together for decades get the spotlight. This means that a lot of queer domestic violence and rape goes unaddressed, because if we talked about it then culture would throw out all of queerness. This same pattern is going to happen as open relationships become more socially visible in the West–the smiling white middle class faces of polyamory, meaning “many lovers” (*), will take centre stage, and the cheating (yes, it happens in open relationships too when you break their rules), abuse, inequality and oppression that can happen in all relationships will be pushed behind the scenes.

TL;DR: Breakups are painful enough without the added violence of your friends culturing at you. Don’t do it.

2. Don’t imply that the relationship didn’t matter much to the person because it was an open one
A lot of people tend to think that people who do anything other than lifetime exclusive monogamy are roaming sluts whose feelings melt away like icecream when confronted with a new, hot person. And yeah, some of them probably are; good for them, so long as they aren’t being abusive to others. But I’d say most of us aren’t like this. Even against our will we become entwined with other people, and extrication of one’s identity and heart from another person can be a brutal affair; parts of it may always remain within that person, even the smallest shards. Many people offer cheery “Plenty more fish in the sea!” platitudes, which midst emotional agony can feel a bit like “get over this now because your crying is making me uncomfortable”. It’s safe to say most people in open relationships know there’s more than one fish in the sea, given they usually don’t ascribe to the One True Love theory. If they’re lucky they may even have other sexy, er, fish, around to comfort them (and cumfort them oh ho ho). But no person and no relationship can ever be replaced, so each breakup will represents a unique loss. If your friend was having a fight with their best friend or even their casual friend, you (hopefully) wouldn’t only say “What’s the problem, you have other friends!” Best not to do it for romantic relationships either.

3. Don’t vilify the person’s ex
For the most part, breakups don’t represent a clean break where one day you’re lying in bed watching Avatar: The Last Airbender with your partner and the next you’re not speaking anymore, forever. In many cases, there’s a decent chance for reconciliation between parties, even just to a friends or friendly level, so vilification is pretty counter-productive. Despite my so-far fairly successful policy of staying friends with my exes, I’ve still had people say post-breakups that my partner is “better off without that ho” or that my partner was a total dick. Although the “ho” comment could just have referred to me standing and walking while being a woman, it felt like an attack on the openness of our relationship, as though I was just a big slut and that’s why we broke up. Not true, not helpful for either of us. (Besides that I was offended by the whore-shaming aspect; fuck that oppressive noise.)

While it’s sometimes okay to comment on the inappropriate behaviour of someone’s ex, it’s not generally helpful to hate on them. If you tell someone that their partner is a monster, that makes them the bride of a monster, and can hurt their sense of self and evaluation of their own judgment. Your friend may want you to say “she’s a shit person eh”, but it’s not really your evaluation to make. A possible exception for this is cases where the person’s partner has been abusive. But even then, it’s probably safest to express anger at their behaviour, e.g. “making you cry about money and pointedly sleeping with your friend right after you said you felt jealous about their relationship was a royally fucked up thing to do, and says far more about them and their own insecurities than it does about you”, rather than vilifying the person as a whole.

4. Help the person find a sense of agency, particularly if they’re the dumpee
People who have just had a breakup may be feeling very overwhelmed and disempowered; they might have to find new living quarters, sort out custody and care of children, get divorce papers going, change workplaces and social scenes, and adjust to a whole new life routine that has a gaping hole in it. It can be hard enough to feel in control of one’s own life at the best of times, and such an event can amplify this feeling tenfold. This is the same for open relationships; they might–not always–have another sexy bed to go stay in, but the breakup still represents a change in their lifestyle, no matter which side of the breakup they’re on. While sometimes all you can do is sit and nod while they cry next to you, at certain points it can be good to gently prompt them towards thinking of things they can do to feel better. How they can use the time they have to read that book, or get that piece of writing done (yes this piece partly exists as a self-directed therapeutic exercise), or catch up with these particular friends–basically that they have autonomy over their own life, and while their ex may still be a huge part of it, they still have the power to do some positive, independent things for themselves. It’s best if they can remain in the driver’s seat for this though, rather than being overwhelmed with suggestions, which leads to my next point:

5. Actively listen, and follow their lead as much as possible.
Obviously this should top the list, but hey, my poorly-structured article, my rules. It’s probably this far down the list because it’s so hugely complicated and variable. Since breakups involve a whole swathe of emotions, the way people want to get support will similarly vary. If they want to talk about the breakup, let them talk, and actively respond to what they’re saying. If they don’t want to, don’t push them; you might not be the right person or it might not be the right time. They might just want you to distract them with gardening or discussion about your baby or that stupid evo psych article you just read.

If they don’t bring up the open aspect of their relationship, don’t press them on it. You may be curious for salacious details of the other people they were sleeping with, but unless they offer them, save your musings for your elaborate fanfic comic lying under your bed. However, your friend may want to talk over the open quality of their relationship with you, if it had caused them problems. It’s worth noting these problems can come from both ends of the spectrum; their partner may have slept with too many other people for their liking, or their partner might have tried to control them too much. They may voice doubts that open relationships are for them, or at least decide that they’re not going to try them again for awhile. On the other hand, they may believe that open relationships are the only form of relationship in which they can function. Either way, these are ongoing thought processes, and the person doesn’t have to solidly decide what their stance is. There is no universal answer as to whether monogamy or non-monogamy is ‘better’ or ‘more natural’ for humans–in context, any such arrangement can be healthy or messed up for each person and their various partners.

6. Look after yourself if need be
It’s often not easy supporting someone through a breakup. The person in question can be very angry, depressed and pessimistic, which can be hard to be around for long periods. As mentioned before, people in open relationships sometimes have more support people to call on than others, but it’s not always the case, and hence they may inadvertently push your emotional capabilities a bit in their misery. If you’re feeling tired and discouraged after supporting your friend, vent to your partner or sister or other friend about it–not to the person in question. This follows an excellent idea called Ring Theory (see: http://www.aish.com/jl/l/dam/Giving-Comfort-The-Ring-Theory.html)–you send comfort in towards people at the centre of a trauma, and vent your hard feelings outward. There are many ways of spreading the support base around so it doesn’t fall on one person, and so everyone gets what help they need.

Any of these tips sound familiar to you monogamously-inclined types? Good! While I don’t want to get into a milquetoast Same Love type of discourse, open relationships really aren’t that radically different from non-open ones. (If they can even be classified as discrete categories, given the aforementioned spectrum of openness.) So just do the usual things. Be nice to your friend or family member, go get the tissue box when they’re weeping copiously on your shoulder, stand next to them while they throw empty beer bottles at the wall in a parking lot, watch Labyrinth with them, sit and actively listen to them talk through their pain, tell them how sorry you are that things didn’t work out and that they’re feeling sad, remind them they’re not an awful person, let them know they are loved and can love again.


(*) Semantic yet political point of interest: Some people conflate open relationships and polyamory. IMO this is inadequate analysis–to me polyamory refers to the number of partners you have, where openness refers to the attitude and ethics brought to relationships. (I also call this ‘free love’, but people often look at me like I’m just talking about Woodstock.) Furthermore, you can in fact have closed polyamorous relationships, e.g. four people who’ve agreed to have sex and other funtimes with each other, but frown upon external relations. Such an agreement is called polyfidelity.

Just as not all polyamories are the same, not all monogamies are the same either. Some couples who identify and practise their relationship monogamously will still talk to each other about people they find attractive, whereas others won’t or can’t. I also posit the idea of an open monogamous relationship–one where both parties are totally fine with the idea of their partner sleeping with other people, but don’t have the time or particular inclination to sleep with anyone else in the vicinity. (Perhaps they aren’t particularly sextroverted, yep that word just happened *deal with it*.) Besides, even the most wildly polyamorous people are not open to everything; most would set limits on their partners sleeping with all their friends and coworkers and whatnot. I also resent the idea that polyamory=fully ethical, honest and open relationships too; just as in any other demographic there are plenty of racist sexist abusive jerks out there who are right into polyamory. Freedom and love, it hardly needs saying, are vastly complex concepts, and sleeping with many other people at once is not inherently loving or liberatory.

On TVNZ’s unethical public experiment with domestic violence

One of my religious studies lecturers once said not to bother with universities if you wanted to conduct psychological or social experiments in a hurry. Even a brief glance at the Otago psychology ethics page shows that academia’s ethical regulation has, in general, become much more rigorous since the days of the Milgram experiment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment). To receive permission to conduct an experiment, one must fill out a highly detailed application, including consent forms from all the participants, analysis of the participants’ social demographics, and details of risk of discomfort. So if you don’t want that level of scrutiny, my lecturer said, just make a reality TV show.

It turns out we don’t have to reach as far as reality TV; even publicly-funded current affairs shows are fair game for unethical experiments. TVNZ’s programme Seven Sharp recently ran an item called “Bystander Test – abuse in public: What would you do if you were confronted by a woman who’s clearly in trouble? Craig Stanaway put that to the test.” The piece can be viewed here: http://tvnz.co.nz/seven-sharp/bystander-test-abuse-in-public-video-5369156. I will add what they neglected to: a trigger warning for domestic violence and abuse.

For the benefit of those who don’t want to watch the video, the experiment was conducted twice at a park in South Auckland, where a woman actor, heavily made up to appear bruised, sat down on a bench and waited around looking nervous. After a few minutes a man actor sat down next to her and began to argue with her. She burst into tears, and he roughly dragged her away by her arm. Seven Sharp then interviewed bystanders about what they had seen. Three women were interviewed after the first trial; each expressed some dismay and uncertainty about what they should have done. The male actor suggested to the camera that the lack of reaction from the public was because “there weren’t many guys around”. The second trial of the experiment asked “So what happens when there are guys around?” In this instance a German man asked the woman if she was alright, and almost got violent when the abuser showed up. “By this stage we decide to pull a halt to the experiment; our actors appear in danger,” intoned the narrator as, astoundingly, “Smack My Bitch Up” by the Prodigy played in the background.

So, to recap, TVNZ conducted a social experiment on public violence which almost led to public violence. It’s difficult to see what the purpose of the piece is; at face value all it does is demonstrate that yes, the bystander effect exists. This is not news: the social psychological phenomenon of the bystander effect was first investigated in 1968, in response to the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese (whose neighbours heard and did nothing). Even if our TV researchers were studying a new phenomenon, the psychological distress caused to this experiment’s participants is not permitted by most ethics committees. The piece thus appears to come from pundits wandering into specialised fields of study with little prior knowledge or research.

Overall, focusing on the bystander is a curious, seemingly random angle for a story to take on a statistic about domestic violence rates, since the majority of domestic violence does not, of course, happen in the public eye. As such, this piece is in fact quite casually related to the domestic violence statistics recited during the introduction. TVNZ are comparing apples with oranges, or apples with bus conductors or the moon, but presenting it as insightful commentary on a national problem. Why on earth focus the thrust of a story on what uninvolved parties should or shouldn’t do? It speaks to our cultural determination to never, never confront the causes of domestic violence. To shut our eyes to the isolation, domination and control that comes with the institutions of masculinity, the nuclear family and exclusive monogamy, or discuss how these problems are exacerbated by economic downturn and our national alcoholism.

Far from decrying the violence inherent in patriarchally-constructed masculinity, Seven Sharp revels in it. We are to celebrate the German bystander who had lost some of his teeth fighting to protect two women from public violence, and was prepared to do it again because “he has no acceptance for this shit.” The latter half of the piece implies that domestic violence can be stopped by brave (male) people who step in to fight the abuser. This is a twist on the White Ribbon Campaign, which pushes for cisgendered men to take responsibility for the violence of their gender. But while it is possible for men to stop domestic violence from happening, this is not done by trading malevolent patriarchs for benevolent ones. If it must be said again, women are not shrinking violets in need of such protection. We just want to not be threatened with violence.

This somewhat sloppy journalism is partly a result of the medium the TVNZ crew work in. Television doesn’t generally have much room to provide context and analysis, especially not in half-hour slots. Even without constant advertisements under capitalism, even within a utopian egalitarian society without violence, the medium of television must work primarily with what images and sounds are available. It does not easily lend itself to abstraction and systematic evaluation. Try imagine what it would take to turn this blogpost into a television programme for someone who is a layperson to domestic violence. How would you angle the camera, how would you include the digressions of my hyperlinks? I would be unusable for a narrator if I were a terrible public speaker. How would you reframe my story to do what television does really well–to engender an emotional response? As Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, the medium is the message. If the causes of and perpetration of domestic violence are largely invisible in society, then they cannot be filmed, and thus cannot appear on television. The fragmented nature of news reporting, exacerbated by the general fragmentation of neoliberalism, 24-hour news channels and rapid-fire internet journalism, means there is no time for context, no time for continuity, no time to dismantle deeply entrenched cultural paradigms.

We can make time for brief stories, so here is mine. I was once attacked in public. A stranger on a bus slapped me in the face (the first time I remember), a working class Maori woman who appeared to be on drugs. And no, not many people helped me out. If my life were turned into a biopic it might make for a dramatic spectacle, a focal point of sorts. But what of it? At the time I was upset and cross with the bystanders, but it doesn’t make for a very interesting story, not for long. I was more concerned for her–what had gone wrong in her life that she hit out at strangers? What has gone wrong in our society that so many men are violent, and so many women die from it? Why aren’t our male TV presenters willing to examine their gender’s problems? These questions could indeed make for compelling television, if it were angled right.

Love and domination and anger and activism and whoa hey I have a blog

Hallo internet. I noticed that my Facebook posts were getting really long, so I thought I’d blog some of them. I’ve been reading Communion: The Female Search for Love by bell hooks, and this part I liked:

If feminists had continued to talk about love, then we would have needed to speak about the extreme lovelessness that is at the heart of domination…We would have had to break through the wall of denial that seduces us all to accept subordination and domination as natural facts of everyday life. We would be telling everyone, especially the men in our lives, again and again that domination and love do not go together, that if one is present, the other is not. We would not have allowed our fathers, brothers, male comrades, or lovers to believe they love us when they hurt us again and again.

Women and men who are still seduced by domination cannot know love. Yet everywhere we turn, our culture tells us we can still know love even in the midst of relationships charged with coercive pain and domination. The time has come to tell the truth. Again. There is no love without justice.

It’s kind of bizarre when looked at, this social paradigm wherein people can justify straight-up abusive behaviour by saying it’s because they care about the other person. But caring about and caring for are not necessarily the same thing. Of course, caring for someone can involve behaviour that is not, on the surface, particularly pleasant, and doesn’t produce immediately nice results. For example, you might have a fight with your partner to try convince them their alcoholism is doing the family harm. You do it because you have faith that it will produce positive results later on. I once saw an evangelical preacher on stage saying that love is an action, not a feeling. (I got scared for a bit that I was converting to Pentecostalism, because he had actually made sense. Later I learned you can take useful bits from an ideology without subscribing to the whole, but I was 15 then and a grumpy atheist. Shrug.) But too often, trying to direct a person’s behaviour happens not because the behaviour does any real harm, but out of one’s internal insecurity manifesting in control and domination. It’s happened to me before, and I think I’ve done it before. (Sorry.)

So we look the other way at abusive behaviour when it happens in the context of a relationship, since relationships are meant to be the ultimate manifestation of love. We’re willing to believe that even rather horrible emotions like gut-souring jealousy and fear, or blinding fury, or even boredom can represent love. I recently talked to a polyamorous man who slurred earnestly that “polyamory…it’s all just about love.” I said I agreed in principle, but that loving wasn’t as straightforward as you might think, given that it is not easy for oppressed people to love freely. But not to worry, he assured me, there were no really oppressive systems in New Zealand these days. (I laughed in his face and said “you’re flat-out wrong, pal.”) And sure enough, later than night he greeted me by slapping my ass. Had I bothered to get angry at this, I would probably have been accused of disrupting the love buzz or what have you. The idea that love can be represented by many different emotions is abandoned when convenient for privileged people.

The idea of love as a feeling rather than an action has formed a notable trend in liberal activism. Much of this is carried out by middle class white people who have a certain level of indignance about the state of the world, but are rarely forced to feel anger and fear very personally when attacked by oppression. The idea of using The Power Of Love in order to end oppression has been co-opted by capitalist-friendly entertaining activism that can comfortably be advertised. This is not love; this is The Power Of Niceness. At a same-sex marriage rally (not a protest) last year, we were told to smile at our detractors and applaud the police for showing up–the mood had to be celebratory, and the upset, resentful and/or fatigued queers would just have to smile through their teeth. Apparently getting openly angry or miserable about structural oppression is too alienating for the majority, who must now be handled with kid gloves lest they oppress us more. (Or, more cynically, lest their offices of power be destroyed so that certain liberal activists cannot one day ascend into them.) Somehow these privileged people have become our first priority to convince of our positions, even though they are usually the hardest to reach since they have the most to lose.

When did love become so polite? I agree that the overall aim of leftist activism should be to spread love, but we cannot do this without acknowledging the material and structural constraints that currently stand in the way of loving. Most of these constraints will not be pushed out of the way within our lifetimes, so we don’t have time to get every single individual wholly on board before acting. Loving humanity doesn’t mean you have to like all of them–who has time to get to know and get on with everyone? The idea of leftist activism is more about balancing scales to bring about justice, and hence enable love. And if you are to build a new world order based on love and fairness, you have to destroy bits of the old world that are taking up space. Destruction isn’t always a bad thing. More often than not, this process only happens when people get furious enough to put themselves in some personal discomfort for wider goals. I take a line from the brilliant 1976 film Network, where an anchorman having a nervous breakdown on air shouts to his viewers that “You’ve got to get mad! You’ve got to say, I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!” Was there ever a statement more positive, more self-loving? And yet it’s intimately tied up with anger. Love may sometimes be tied up with other feelings that are generally characterised as unpleasant. Love is grief and pain and fear too.

Anyway I gotta go out and belatedly get drunk with people, but yeah. Love is complicated and messy #breakingnews. Pulp wrote a wonderful song about it (fuck I don’t know how to hyperlink properly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhdTbqdYCRU). TL;DR: everyone should listen to Pulp and read bell hooks. ❤