The Handmaid’s Tale is a relatively accurate depiction of modern sexual relationships – just not in the way you think

Last week the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was released on SBS. In doing so the show has revilatised Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel, being considered in many ways a prescient story to tell in our current political climate.

I’ve watched the first four episode of The Handmaid’s Tale so far, and am thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve found the storytelling really engaging, and in particular am loving the juxtaposition between Offred’s internal monologue versus the society in which she has found herself. It is often rare to see an example of a dystopian future where a character has moved so cleanly from society to the next, and I think the Handmaid’s Tale has portrayed that transition exquisitely.

However, there is another reason I’ve found the show so fascinating — that is how clearly it describes, even if in an exaggerated manner, the deep roots of sexual relations, and in turn sexism and women’s oppression, within liberal societies. It does so however in a way opposite to what many think.

Continue reading The Handmaid’s Tale is a relatively accurate depiction of modern sexual relationships – just not in the way you think

Freedom and the injured subject

Over recent times, particularly since the plebiscite and Safe Schools debates within Australia, I have noticed a strong narrative of ‘suffering’ and ‘vulnerability’ within large parts of the queer community. Mainstream queer discourse has increasingly turned towards defining queer people as ‘vulnerable’, ones who have ‘suffered’ a great ‘injury’, and whose main quest is for those injuries to be fixed in some way. I have spoken about this issue in my podcast Queers with Benjamin Riley, and in Archer Magazine Fury wrote spectacularly about the same issue, stating that:

we queer folk have only been given the option to understand ourselves through the lens of pain. Because of this, it’s hardly a surprise how much we judge and police queerness by its proximity to suffering.

Fury continues, stating:

Oppression and its relevant experiences have become an important tool to define what makes us different to the mainstream and to each other. This, in its turn, has been important to ferry resources to the most in need. However, it is not without its downsides. It is easy to process the conversation around oppression like it, in itself, is a tangible metric instead of a shared context which yields statistical trends.

Given this recent turn I thought it would be interesting to have a quick look at one of the key texts I have discovered for my PhD over the past months, Wendy Brown’s “States of Injury”. Written in the 1990s, this book is a collection of essays , asking the provocative questions, how has injury become the basis for political identity in contemporary life, and how have law and other state institutions come to be seen as redressing such injuries rather than as perpetrating them? It would be possible to go through each and every essay with a blog post (maybe not a bad idea!). But for today I want to start by looking at the first chapter, which as an introduction presents Brown’s thesis as a whole.

Continue reading Freedom and the injured subject

Marriage equality, capitalism, and gay identity

This lecture was given to the GEND1001 class at the Australian National University in 

May 2017. 

What I am going to do today is take a brief look at the history of homosexuality and the homosexual, or queer, movement in the modern era. In doing so I will be specifically focusing on gay identity as it exists today, in particular examining the movement for marriage equality and what that says about gay identity.

I’m going to do this in the following way:

  1. First I am going to briefly examine the history of the same-sex marriage movement, starting from about the 1990s.
  2. Second I will look at two of the major critique of same sex marriage, being feminist critiques of marriage and assimilationist critiques.
  3. Finally I am going to bring this together into my particular field of interest, examining same-sex marriage as a tool for the incorporation of gay, lesbian, and increasingly trans* people into our capitalist economic system.

Continue reading Marriage equality, capitalism, and gay identity

Newsletter #10: Just keeping on moving on

Check out my latest newsletter below. You can sign up to get my newsletter straight to your inbox here!

Hello all!

It’s been a couple of months, so it feels like time for another newsletter on everything that’s been happening in my world of writing and research.

As Winter hits in Canberra I am thoroughly enjoying being able to hole myself up into my new office with some good books and some good writing. What a better way to spend the cold days. But here are some updates on things that have been happening.

Continue reading Newsletter #10: Just keeping on moving on

Gay Sex is Fun

This speech was presented as part of the Noted Festival Event on Thursday the 5th of May: ‘AIDS Action Council presents Gay Sex is Fun’.

Thank you to Noted for inviting me to speak and for the AIDS Action Council of the ACT for putting on this excellent event.

Speech

Growing up as a man who is attracted to men I very early on became aware that my life was supposedly going to be a lot harder than many others.

When I came out to my mother for example she said her only worry was that my homosexuality would make my life harder. My first relationship with a boy, one that lasted a huge three weeks (that’s a long time for a teenager), ended after he decided that he could not be gay and that he would be straight from now on. Based on his regular appearances on my Grindr feed I assume that has not worked out. But I still remember thinking that that would never occur if I were straight. And even now, when insisting we’re all ‘born this may’ many gays demand that “of course I’m born gay, who would choose this?” It’s like homosexuality is exactly what our protractors say it is; a disease from which we should all wish we were cured.

Now, I do not want to deny that gay lives have been and remain hard. Discrimination, repression and violence towards gay people remains rife.

Yet, at the same time, I feel an intense need to say, fuck that! Fuck this idea that being gay is a thing that’d we’d all want to avoid like the plague. Fuck the idea that it is something no one would choose.

I say this not just because gay sex — that which happens between a monogamous couple with the hope that one day this sex will be legitimised by the state and that next time the wedding rings will have to be taken off before the fingering begins — is fun, although I am sure it is.

I’m saying it because the very nature of being gay has the potential to open up a range of sexual possibilities, ones that I know I likely would never had explored if I were straight.

Continue reading Gay Sex is Fun

Organising Life

I feel in many ways that my work life is not the most organised. For years now I have balanced multiple jobs and projects, something that continues today even as I start my PhD. I’m doing a PhD while writing articles, doing some other freelance work, making a podcast, and hoping to continue progressing my books.

In the past I’ve managed much of this in an ad hoc manner, largely dealing with the urgent stuff first, and putting the important, but less urgent, stuff second. It’s been a bit of a strategy of figuring out what needs to be done in a week, without necessarily prioritising items with a long term focus.

While it’s something I’ve dabbled in and out of before, over the past week, I’ve decided that this multitude of projects probably requires some more organisation. Increasingly I see myself de-prioritising big, but important projects, something that is certainly not possible while I’m trying to produce a thesis.

I’ve started small, this week doing something that has been valuable to me in the past – defining a priorities list and providing some weekly quotas of work I need to do one each. So, I have put hours per week I should be spending on the PhD, other writing, podcast, promotions etc. I am now also keeping a bit of a record of every day, making sure I keep track.

So far, as has happened before, I have found this extremely useful. It keeps me on track, and stops me from getting too distracted. They very nature of keeping track of the hours I am doing keeps me focused, even though I am the only one who sees the spreadsheet I have developed.

Building from this I hope to maybe be able to create some form of routine, dedicating particular hours of a day to particular focus areas. This I think will have the potential to force me to open whatever document I need to open, keeping me on task no matter what I need to do.

This is just a starting point for me. A PhD in particular is something that requires some forms of systems. Otherwise I fear I will get two years in and have achieved nothing and panic.

In the meantime though I’d love to hear your ideas? How do you keep your work life going? What strategies are good for you, and what aren’t?

Newsletter #9: Rejections and Starting a PhD

Hi all,

Welcome to a very long overdue newsletter for 2017. Here are some updates on everything I’ve been up to and progress on my writing.

I’ve started this year feeling quite confident about my book Sexy Capitalism, beginning to finally send off proposals to a number of publishers in the past couple of months.

In doing so I have started to receive the inevitable rejections, with a few publishers already coming back to say my work is not for them. I have also got some very clear feedback about some of the shortcomings of the book as it stands, with editors giving serious advice of what I need to work on.

The feedback has been an interesting mix. I have received some positive comments, with some saying they think the chapters I have written so far have been interesting and that the book is something that should be published (yay!). In the meantime I have had some comments that the content is at times a bit dry, and a bit too niche. I’ve also had some specific comments on the theory I have been working on, in particular in relation to the early stages of capitalism, requiring me to do some more research and background reading to ensure I get everything write.

This is okay, and clearly a part of the writing process. It is something that every writer goes through to some extent. However, at the same time it has definitely been tough. I get immediate feelings that I am both failing and disappointing all of you who have supported me for so long. Even though I have always been warned that writing a book is hard, and takes a lot of time, part of me is surprised at how difficult it has been so far.

The book is still a work in progress, and one I am still working on and thinking about every day. It is not an easy piece and something that is taking a lot of research and writing to make right. I am now working to take on this feedback, taking a step back from the narrow focus I have been taking in many ways to re-broaden the appeal, and to research some of the key areas of theoretical shortcomings I need to fix up. Despite the disappointments I will insist on getting it done, making sure it becomes a reality as soon as it can.

In the meantime I thank you all again for your support and patience, and will keep you updated as things progress in the future. Never fear, it will happen!

Starting the PhD

In the meantime, this month I officially started my studies as a PhD student at the ANU. I have really enjoyed my first month and am loving the institutional support I am receiving as part of this work. I feel like this is something I really needed to do to create some stability and certainty, and am excited about the research I am embarking upon (which you can read about here).

One thing I am definitely working on is the balance between this research and my other writing work, which I fully intend to continue on as much as physically possible. While I absolutely feel this is an opportunity I needed to take up, I have, and continue to feel, nervous, that this will hold me back from working on Sexy Capitalism and my other writing. While there’s a good chance this will make things a little slower, at the same time it is also giving me a whole bunch of support behind my writing, which I think will inevitably make the writing process easier. It also means I do not have to search for anywhere near as much other work, which is a big load off my mind and time! As my research topic is very similar to the book and other writing I do, I hope to be able build them off each other, with the book informing the PhD and vice versa. It will be a challenge, but one I am determined to manage.

I will keep you all up to date with the research as it progresses!

Recent articles 

Here is a collection of articles since I last e-mailed.

Articles:

— BBC Future: What if the state provided everyone with a basic income?
— The Guardian: Anxiety is a way of life for Gen Y: in an insecure world is it any surprise?
— SBS Sexuality: Let’s take a moment to reflect on the importance of Paris is Burning
— SBS Sexuality: Intersex people have called for action. It’s time to listen.
— SBS Sexuality: Despite perceptions, poverty still has a queer face.

Blog posts:

Celebrating David Bowie: The closest thing I’ll ever get to the concert I’ll never see.
Book review: The Gentrification of the Mind.
Medicine, the breakdown of its authority, and the consequences
Learning how to write.

That’s it for me this month. Thanks again all for your support and I will be back in touch soon!

Simon

Learning how to write

Last year I finally finished the second draft of my novel, Forgiveness, and was/still am super excited about it. I thought I’d really hit the nail on the head and sent it off to a couple of contacts with hopes of getting some good reviews or even someone who was keen to publish.

Despite my excitement however I received (as everyone does) some early knock backs. The biggest feedback I received was that while the story was good (yay!) my writing needed work. I needed to develop the emotions and back-story of the book, moving away from telling and more into showing.

I have to admit I was a little taken aback and the thought of going through the entire book again to re-edit was, and remains, daunting. Part of me just wanted to keep pushing, ignoring the comments and hoping someone else sees it differently. However, with other things on my mind the book fell off the priority list for a little while, and I didn’t really touched it for months. Recently however I’ve tried to go and have another look, to see where I can fix things and make them better. I have some changes to story I want to make, as well a desire to see if I can find ways to improve the writing as I go in.

Reading the first couple of chapters what has struck me is how correct those readers were. While I remain immensely proud of what I’ve achieved so far, going back to look at what I’ve written I see the major problems with the writing. The book in many places is quilt stilted and unemotional, full of short sentences that I thought were being ‘direct’, but in fact were just me cutting off any depth. I spent a lot of time in this draft cutting things down, trying to stop myself from being long winded, but in the end just made something that was a bit dry.

I’ve also found this recently in an instance of my non-fiction. Re-reading my proposal for Sexy Capitalism I realised how dry and boring the language was (feedback I have also received from people who have read it). Trying to constrain it to the compulsory two pages I took all life out of it, making it a dull representation of what the book is about (and far duller than the chapters I’ve written).

This is something I’ve struggled with throughout this writing process. All of the stuff I read about writing talks about the ‘author’s voice’, that natural thing you develop that defines you as a writer. I have to admit this is something I’ve continuously struggled to find, or at least to see in myself. Even in my non-fiction, where I am far more confident, I sometimes fail to see what is uniquely mine, instead picturing myself largely as being a ‘nothing’ in a crowd of amazing writers with amazing voices and points-of-view.

What has been excited about re-reading the chapters however, and going over my proposal for Sexy Capitalism, is that while I’ve noticed the stilted language, I can easily see a way out of it. Instead of being stuck I have a world of ideas of how to change things. I feel more confident in starting over. I feel much more confident that I have a voice that I have developed and will be able to express in the new draft.

I want to be able to define how it is that I feel more confident in doing this. I wish I could put it down to a formula, something I can copy and repeat for every project I work on. But what I’ve realised is that this is just a measure of time, and practice. Writing, despite all we may like to hear, is not just something that is inherently ‘there’ – you’re either good at it or you’re not – it is something that takes practice, time and dedication (when you can manage that). What I’m noticing more and more is simply how much my writing is improving with every practice that I do. Just like anything else I’m learning new skills, figuring out what’s and what doesn’t, and learning how to adapt to those circumstances.

And so in many ways I feel like now is the time when I’m finally starting to properly learn how to write. I’m finally getting the skill down, and finding my voice in doing so. Despite the daunting task of re-writing the book, that is quite exciting!

Medicine, the breakdown of its authority, and its consequences

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to be able to attend a Masterclass by Professor Nikolas Rose titled ‘Social Sciences and the Self in the Age of the Brain’. Professor Rose has a long history in sociology, with a particular interest in the intersection between conceptions of the self and subjectivity with biomedicine. This is all underpinned by analyses of authority and power, and how our power systems interact and inform our concepts of the self.

The Masterclass included a morning of discussion with Professor Rose tackling these issues, following by some fascinating presentations from participants.  Presentations included discussions on abortion law in Australia, the connection between perceptions of the self and music, the rise of ‘brain game’ devices and how these provide a sense of ‘brain training’, and a really fascinating talk on how women with autism interact with the medical system.

There is so much I could talk about this Masterclass, but I wanted to touch on some questions of medical authority that sparked in my mind.

At one point in the Masterclass we ended up debating and discussing the concept of leadership. We talked about how leadership has been given a psychological basis, with the concept being that leadership is an ‘inherent trait’, a trait that few are provided, and which is denied to others.

This discussion connected me back to an article I read a long time ago, titled “Leadership: An Alienating Social Myth” by Gary Gemmill and Judith Oakley. In this article Gemmill and Oakley argue that the very concept of leadership – the idea that our organisations, institutions, and broader society, require great leaders in order to survive — is a ‘myth’. This myth is one designed specifically in order to create and reinforce particular social structures and systems of power. As they argue:

“The social myth around leaders serves to program life out of people (non-leaders) who, with the social lobotimization, appear as cheerful robots (Mill, 1956). It is our contention that the myth making around the concept of leadership is, as Bennis arrests, and unconscious conspiracy, or social hoax, aimed at maintaining the status quo (Bennis, 1989).”

“Leadership theories espousing “traits” or “great person” explanations reinforce and reflect the widespread tendency of people to deskill themselves and idealise leaders by implying that only a select few are good enough to exercise initiative.”

What was interesting to me was connecting these concepts of leadership with medical authority. Throughout the masterclass we discussed the authority medical practitioners have in our society, with Professor Rose and one point commenting that for many ‘the drug a doctor provides is doctor’. Doctors and other medical practitioners have taken on particular ‘leadership’ roles in our society, given not just significant control over individual people’s health, but also increasingly over public policy and debate.

In many cases this is extremely important. We all value having the expertise of a doctor, who has studied at University for a very long time, when we get sick.  We cannot all be experts in this area, and giving that expertise to those who can focus in on it makes total sense.

However, as discussed in the masterclass, this expertise also takes on particular power roles, ones that have and continue to be used, just like leadership, to reinforce particular social roles. Professor Rose focuses this inquiry specifically on the ‘psy’ medical professions – psychology, psychiatry etc etc.  These practices of the brain have been integral to shaping our concept of subjectivity and the self, and then provide avenues for which to exclude or punish those who do not meet collectively agreed upon acceptable senses of self.

Professor Rose gave as an example one of his first ever jobs, a teacher in a school in the United Kingdom for ‘maladjusted students’. Professor Rose interrogated the very concept of ‘maladjustment’, questioning the biomedical explanations provided for this ‘condition’. The concept of ‘maladjustment’ Professor Rose said was based in biomedical understandings (i.e. that these kids were inherently maladjusted), giving medical authority to the exclusion of these students in to what was likely a poorly funded and supported school. In doing so it ignored the social causes behind these kid’s behaviour, in turn ignoring the possibility that their behaviour may actually be 100% reasonable given their circumstances.

This sort of medical authority is common in our society. One only needs to look at the way homosexuals and other ‘sexual deviants’ have been treated by mainstream capitalist society – whether it is through the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness, or the castration of sexual deviants – as active uses of medical authority to enforce particular social norms. The oppression of sexual minorities has, at least for the past 100 years, been inherently based in medical language and acts – an act of using the trust, authority and expertise of medical practitioners as a way to justify minority oppression.

However, as we are able to challenge dominant ideas of leadership, we also have the capacity to challenge these conceptions of medical authority as well. The best example I can find of this is the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s. In this instance the issue was not medical practitioners using their trade to actively oppress minority groups (although that certainly did occur), but rather those in power often refusing to act either fast enough or with enough intent to halt the crisis (note that this is not an attack on individual medical practitioners, but rather on those who held significant power and did little to act on a major epidemic). Put simply, unlike many other epidemics, many of the powerful medical authorities, particularly in the United States, dragged their heals on HIV/AIDS, holding up life-saving treatments at times when they were desperately needed. This scenario is a perfect example of the use of an illness to attack a minority group, and then the withholding of medical intervention as a way to deny a solution to the problem. It is a clear use of medical authority to attack a minority group.

What we saw in response was the very use of this authority as a counterpoint. Receiving no joy from many in positions of power, HIV/AIDS activists and sufferers, sought out that authority themselves. People learned about the disease and drugs to deal with it, set up ‘buyer’s clubs’, and presented medical arguments to those in power in order to create change. They usurped the authority of the medical profession and took it for themselves when they needed it.

This in many ways was successful, finally pushing those in power to take the epidemic more seriously, to provide more funding, and to eventually get us to the point where HIV/AIDS has become manageable in Western Countries.

However it also has side effects. Professor Rose noted that one of the side effects of this approach was that it created an increasing focus on individual responsibility for health issues. The authority of doctor’s broke down to a point we are increasingly seeing where they are no longer considered the key point-person of an individual’s health, with ‘individual responsibility’ taking a much larger role. This has positives and negatives – while some authority has been usurped from medical practitioners, it also often places this authority and responsibility into the hands of those who may not have the capacity or skills to implement it.

What we are seeing though clearly is a break down in much of the medical authority in our society, coming at a time of a breakdown in other forms of authority structures, in particular the political class. The question is, what does this look like? The side effect of this break down of authority is that we are all taking more ‘control’ over our health and medical decisions. We all have to work on our own to fix our health, or we face punishment. But this does not seem to be that much of a solution either, as it once again ignores the inherent power structures that allow for authority structures to help shape our concept of the self. In fact one could argue that the provision of ‘individual responsibility’ in health matters is once again the implementation of medical authority structures – with this time medical approaches being used to enforce strict concepts of individualism. It is not a community approach to health, but rather a competitive individualist one, one where if you fail doing it by yourself you are then left behind.

This role of authority in creating concepts of individuality and concepts of the self is something I will be exploring more as I undertake my research. It is clear Professor Rose is someone I will have to continue reading. This masterclass was great, and I look forward to exploring these issues further.

Feelings of Nostalgia: How the Personal Became Political

This week I attended the symposium run by the ANU Gender Institute, How the Personal Became Political: re-assessing Australia’s revolutions in gender and sexuality in the 1970s.

Unfortunately I was quite busy with some other things over the two days of the event, so was only able to attend a few of the talks. However I saw some really great talks. 

I went to the excellent key note from Elizabeth Reid, in which she reflected on the birth of the women’s liberation movement and the integration (and the problems with this) of that movement into bureaucratic structures. I then went to a great plenary of ‘questioning gendered structures’. This involved talks from Amanda Laugesen on campaigns to change sexist language, a great reflection from Julie McLeod on introducing discussions of gender and sexuality into schools (something is very relevant for right now) and a really fascinating talk from Georgine Clarsen, where she spoke about working class women, particular those involved in trades, and their involvement in the feminist movement. Finally, on the second day I went to the final plenary, where I heard Jon Piccini talk about the legacy of Dennis Altman and his role in the liberation movements of the 1970s, and then ended the day with a talk from Carolyn D’Cruz on the origins of gender, sexuality and diversity studies in Australian universities (again something that is very relevant with the cuts to those studies today).

Overall, the small amount of this conference I went to was really interesting. Over forty years since the birth of the women’s and gay liberation movements of the 1970s, it was quite fascinating to hear the perspectives of those who were at the forefront of those movements, in particular in the context of where we are today.

One of the most interesting parts of this was what I can only describe is a dominating feeling of nostalgia for those times. The speakers throughout the conferences often I feel reflected on these times not just as the birth of the gay and women’s movements, but also as the pinnacle of them. There was a clear perception from so many that things had gone backwards — both in terms of broader political debate, but also of the politics of the feminist and gay movements as they exist today.

This is something I’ve noticed a bit recently. At the Homosexual Histories Conference I went to in late November I noticed the very same feeling. A lot of the talks (naturally) focused on this era, with participants gleefully looking at that time as one they’d like to revisit.

My initial reaction this nostalgic turn was one of a bit of annoyance. Part of this feels a bit like a generational difference — one in which those of older generations look down in derision at those who have come after them, with a thought that basically says ‘we did this much better than you’. It feels a bit like folks throwing stones from the outside of movements that are currently happening.

But once I got over my generational insult, I looked at this with a clearer head. That is because I think there is a lot to be said about this nostalgia, it is a feeling we should certainly respect, and absolutely learn from. This is for two reasons.

First, it is because I think a lot of the politics, strategies, and tactics of the women’s and gay liberation movements of the 1970s were significantly superior to those of the predominant identity politics that exists today. The language and politics of collective liberation is one that is much stronger, in my view, than the language of identity that exists today.

Secondly however, and more importantly, I think the nostalgia reflects very strongly on identity-based social movements today. This nostalgia represents, in many ways, an isolation and distance many feel from identity-politics. It’s not just the ‘old guard’ saying ‘we did this better than you’, but instead reflecting on the fact that identity politics puts up huge barriers to participation and collective action, even for those who have led these movements in the past. Identity politics has become one obsessed with political and identity purity, something that is not provided to early leaders of the women’s and gay liberation movements, whose politics are regularly questioned. Many of these leaders are therefore left out of identity-politics today, naturally making them feel isolate, and nostalgic for a past that was seemingly more inclusive. 

This is the real learning point, and the real shame, of this conference for me. What was presented was fascinating accounts of ground breaking movements. They provided essential lessons for feminist and queer today. But I fear these lessons are not being listened to — you just had to look at the age profile of the symposium to see that — largely because identity politics puts up so many barriers that the message will never get through. We all lose when that happens.