On sexual fluidity and the inferiority of singles

Howdy from the land of crazy busy single people who are also writing books while working demanding day jobs. The sheer number of spam comments on my blog drove me back here, I have to confess. I figured while I was slaying spam demons, I might as well share a quick update with you guys.
First, I wrote this piece for Bitch Magazine on sexual fluidity. I struggled with writing it, then I struggled with sharing it, but I figured if there was one group of people that I wanted to share it with, it was those of you who know so very much about my views on relationships (maybe more than you want to know!) and also it explains in more detail some of the challenges I’ve faced with single life:

I wonder if, in the perceived pressure to declare oneself along one line or another, we don’t also confine ourselves to thinking about desire in compartmentalized ways. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” I live those lines like a mantra. I like that possibility and openness. I have learned to be comfortable with the ambiguity, even if the world isn’t quite ready yet.

I also loved recently reading this piece at Role Reboot, “Being Alone Does Not Make Me Inferior.” It all resonated with me, particularly this:

What irks is not the pain of aloneness, but the perpetuation of the myth that being alone needs fixing and the only remedy is a romantic relationship…

Can I clear my mind of this myth that aloneness makes one inferior? Is my work with my students, my tending of native plants to heal our ecosystem, or my prayers for those in need any less meaningful because I come home to a spouseless and childless apartment?

I will not lie: I hope in the deepest crevices of my being to fall mutually in love one day. Yet, perhaps that is not the end game for me.

In a book of essays and stories, Steve Almond inscribed, “Your only job is to LOVE HARD.” No object needed. Just love.

 

Single Lady Quotes: Gloria Anzaldúa

Credit: Indiana University Bloomington

The first interracial, truly multicultural understanding of feminism I experienced came from Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga’s edited anthology, This Bridge Called My Back. As I wrote a month ago for Warscapes, that was back in high school, when I first became acutely aware of living between very different worlds:

I first read Anzaldúa as one of a handful of young women of color at Emma Willard, an elite boarding school in Troy, New York. I pretended to borrow This Bridge Called My Back, only the second anthology of feminist writing (other than The Black Woman, edited by Toni Cade Bambara). I was actually a veteran book thief by then, so the truth is that I stole it from the library, and it completely changed my world view.

Books that oriented me in a non-white, non-privileged experience were my anchors as I negotiated home insecurity, the scars of homelessness from the past, and attempted to reconcile the bare beauty of amassing privilege on Emma Willard’s campus. I did not know it was nepantla, the Nahuatl word for “that uncertain terrain one crosses when moving from one place to another.” I knew I was grateful for three meals a day, finally, and the long stretches of uninterrupted quiet time to read and study as leaves fell with their autumn splendor on perfect green grass.

I was relieved to read The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader which I just happened to have in my house while I was contemplating what it meant to be writing for myself in the city where she went to school, was assaulted and later had to move. She was a writer, a bridge, a feminist from modest circumstances who was committed to living life on her terms. What inspires me about her life and her work was that she was unapologetically passionate about her community. The result is a body of work that continues to resonate within and outside of the Chicano community. I think she would have wanted it that way.

“Nobody’s going to save you. No one’s going to cut you down, cut the thorns thick around you. No one’s going to storm the castle walls nor kiss awake your birth, climb down your hair, nor mount you onto the white steed. There is no one who will feed the yearning. Face it. You will have to do, do it yourself.”

“So if we won’t forget past grievances, let us forgive. Carrying the ghosts of past grievances no vale la pena. It is not worth the grief. It keeps us from ourselves and each other; it keeps us from new relationship. We need to cultivate other ways of coping.” (This inspired my piece at The Feminist Wire.)

“Adjectives are a way of constraining and controlling. ‘The more adjectives you have, the tighter the box.’ Marking is always marking down…my labeling of myself is so that the Chicana and lesbian and all the other persons in me don’t get erased, omitted and killed. Naming is how I make my presence known, how I assert who and what I am and want to be known as. Naming myself is a survival tactic.”

“Though we tremble before uncertain futures
may we meet illness, death and adversity with strength
may we dance in the face of our fears.”

It’s your anniversary: Reflections on Year One

There is nothing like standing in the middle of a crowd and feeling utterly alone.

The loneliest I have ever felt has been standing in a room full of dressed up people, my mind somewhere else entirely, my heart aching for something, though I couldn’t figure out what it could possibly be.

A year ago, against the backdrop of other life changes, I started Single & Happy. It was initially called Single, Happy & Free for like, two weeks, but that seemed to be rubbing it in. And the tag line for months was about statistics be damned, because I was really angry about all of the stories in our culture that shame black women in particular for being successful, having standards and yet, somehow still being unfit for companionship.

I didn’t really want to write a book about it. I said I did, but I prayed for different guidance. A lot of people like the idea of mavericks, of people who say the thing that folks think but won’t write or talk about in public, but being one, going against the popular culture stream is something I didn’t think was in the cards for me.

Meanwhile, I had tried all of the online dating sites with the exception of a few, but what I learned after spending money I didn’t have to waste was that while there are all kinds of people who can find companionship that way, it wasn’t for me. I was also angry that no matter where I went — from my therapist’s couch to meetings with supervisors to happy hours and picnics —  the world reflected back to me what I believed about myself: I was not enough. I needed to get a partner. Sure, happiness and solitude – yeah, whatever! But you are a shell of a woman without a romantic relationship.

It was an incomplete story. I fleshed out what I was feeling and reacting to by reading books, like Samhita Mukhopadhyay‘s Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life, and Ralph Richard Banks’ Is Marriage for White People? and Florence Falk’s On My Own: The Art of Being A Woman Alone and Patricia Hill Collin’s Black Sexual Politics, among others. I could see how relationships for other black women in the past, the memorable ones, my heroes – Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth – had never been in the foreground for historians.

It turned out that Harriet Tubman was married a few times. How come I had only ever seen her pictured alone?

I learned that there is more than one way to find love, to be happy and fall in love with oneself while also reframing the discussion about what it means to be single.

For years, I had heard that single black women, and later, their white, breadwinning counterparts, were all these things: emasculating, overbearing, too fat, too dark, too much of everything. Those degrees would not keep us warm at night. That weave looked nice on a video hoe, but a man can’t run his fingers through that. Go natural if you want, but for some men, that makes you look too mannish. Too strong.

Too everything.

The message: These black women don’t know how to treat a man. “You don’t know how to let a man be a man.” Maybe you won at life by surviving all the things black women have to. But you have failed at matters of the heart. You have failed at the ultimate prize of womanhood: to be chosen. To be accepted, for life, in marriage.

And this: By succeeding, moving forward, we are making the brothers look bad.

And we are not alone. This year, I took note of the increasing rhetoric of the End of Men debate. What is a man without full ownership of patriarchy, when women are allegedly snatching up all the jobs and the money (spoiler alert: we are not). Why can’t white women, too, have it all – the partnership, the great job, the freedom and the money? Well, white follows black. So, welcome, sisters, to the reality of life as a black woman.

You can have most of “it,” whatever “it” is. But you will get called out for being something other than a woman. Insecure, mean-spirited, disenfranchised, coddled boys will find ways to remind you that you are only worthy when a man puts a ring on it. Which, as we know from the many stories of relationship mayhem, divorce and tragedy that circulate through our headlines, is just not true.

But I created Single & Happy thinking that I would keep it private until I could figure out what I was really trying to say, while I worked on a little book that I thought might actually be of service to some other folks. It turned out that I was right, that I had friends around the world who agreed with me, and when they didn’t, had reasonable arguments to the contrary.

I’m more Eeyore than Pooh or Piglet on any given day, so the Single & Happy title could often be read as a misnomer. But because of y’all, it is almost always true. Thanks for reading and for visiting. Looking forward to another year of sharing and commenting and dancing a little to old songs from the 90s with y’all.

The Gen. Petraeus scandal and what it means for singles

I have been trying to avoid the Gen. David Petraeus situation, but this weekend, I succumbed just a little bit.

Over at Foreign Policy, Rosa Brooks’ Sex and the Modern Soldier, explores whether the military has a woman problem — it appears that it does — and if the conservative culture leads to more infidelity:

Officially, military culture tends to smile upon marriage and frown upon singleness. The military provides married personnel with benefits not available to single personnel, and even today, officers often feel that remaining unmarried is regarded as professionally suspect (not just because it may raise suspicions of homosexuality — for senior male officers in particular, a wife has historically been considered a must-have accessory, needed in her hostess role as much as in her role as companion). But ironically, the military’s very “pro-marriage” culture may lead to a higher incidence of divorce and marital problems.

The idea that unmarried leaders are professionally suspect is embedded in more than just the military. Unmarried women in public life are generally regarded with suspicion (Sonia Sotomayor and Condoleezza Rice come immediately to mind) and perhaps because of the sheer number of sex abuse cases that have emerged in recent years out of the Catholic Church, so are unmarried men.

I wonder if those of us who make Gods of our leaders, especially those who serve in the military, aren’t partially to blame for a culture that supports the lavish treatment conferred on Gen. Petraeus and his peers. Former defense secretary Robert Gates is quoted saying: “There is something about a sense of entitlement and of having great power that skews people’s judgment.”

The inference is usually that concern for one’s spouse (also love, respect, honor) should factor into any judgment, but clearly that’s not always the case.  Is it that the moral bar, then, is too high for those we would consider our heroes? Men like Petraeus often pledge to serve God and country, like church leaders. Here’s what Albert Mohler says about the importance of being married for church leaders:

I would base my argument on the most normative New Testament texts that describe the pastor. In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, the Apostle Paul presents Timothy, and thus the church, with this instruction:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.  Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

Now that scandals like Petraeus’ have become unfortunately commonplace, it seems worth asking whether keeping up appearances ends up being more harmful than useful in relationships. Any why do we harp on the sexual aspect of a man’s disgrace during these affairs instead of all the other flaws?

At Feminism and Religion, Martha Mount Shoop’s “The David Syndrome?” reflects on what scandals like the Petraeus affair mean for women:

I’ve wondered off and on whether working closely with men who have power in institutions built on male models of power is ever safe for competent and capable women.  The competitive ethos that patriarchy encourages seems to make everyone the object of conquest.  And when a woman is the object of conquest, sexual conquest may often still be the most direct path to victory.

For unmarried people, then, just being in close proximity to power or even trying to acquire some of their own, also means setting themselves up for a higher probability of being ensnared in messy relationships — as if we didn’t have enough to worry about.

“It is not worth the grief” An essay at the Feminist Wire about work & self-care

 

I wrote a piece for the wonderful forum on black women’s health published at The Feminist Wire today:

There was something really satisfying about it, I think, because I was used to abuse. I had no idea what to do with my feelings when I wasn’t working. My work addiction provided immediate gratification so that I was always accessible to anyone – student, editor, supervisor or reader.

As Gloria Anzaldúa wrote in another context, “no vale la pena…it is not worth the grief.” Like my peers in academia who are full professors, I know what it means to be fully committed to the world in which we find ourselves. When I started teaching, I had the same porous boundaries with my students. I was answering emails and phone calls at all hours, regardless of what the syllabus said. For my 60+ hours per week, I was essentially paid the wage of an intern with no benefits, which is why it was useful to continue working at the paper.

My life was my work. Work was my life. I was always exhausted. I thought this was what it took to live the American dream, but I was not really living.

I hope you enjoy it. Ironically, I still work all the time. It feels different (and more anxiety-producing at times) because I’m working for myself now, but I know it will resonate with some of you.

Single Lady Music: Beyoncé

File this under #GuiltyPleasures.

I became totally enamored of Destiny’s Child back when Wyclef was closer to relevance and I halfway believed a singing career a la Mariah Carey or Lauryn Hill was in my future. I could sing a little bit, despite awful stage fright, so the yearning, sticky-sweet ballads of my generation were right up my alley. I was as likely to jam to Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin as I was to try to reach all of the high notes of Whitney Houston or Rachelle Ferrell.

As much as I love soul, R&B and gospel, there’s something about pop music from the 1990s, particularly, that inspires a deep nostalgia that I’m not yet comfortable with entirely. I don’t want to say that Beyoncé is the Diana Ross of my generation, but the glamour, the talent and the iconography are all there. It’s likely that “Single Ladies” tipped her into the pop artist stratosphere, but maybe she was going to be that famous anyway because she’s just that talented.

Nineteen-ninety-something.

Why is she always so naked? Why is she telling girls that we run the world when, clearly, there’s still so much misogyny in the world? What kind of message does our love for Beyoncé send to little girls who can’t live up to the standard of beauty that Beyoncé seems to set?

I don’t have answers for any of those questions. And I have written defenses of Beyoncé in the past, so I won’t go back into it. But the reason she’s become so popular is that there aren’t many singular black female figures in popular culture (not just those who are unmarried, since Mr. Carter put a ring on it a while ago) who seem to “have it all” – beauty, brains, a loving partnership and a sense of self outside of that partnership. For me, Beyoncé’s confidence and self-possession counterbalances the hypersexual sultry stuff.

There isn’t anywhere in our culture where women don’t get mixed messages about women, independence and relationships. I don’t think it’s fair that Beyoncé is the symbol of our angst about not committed to chastity or promiscuity. I love that she uses what she has to get what she wants; that’s what I aspire to do.

Here are some of my favorites.

Upgrade U: I know the feminists among us will pretend that we didn’t like this song, but I’ll just come out and admit that I loved it. I love it still.

Diva: I was inspired to write an essay about my short, failed attempt at being a rapper for an anthology when I heard this one.

Independent Women Part 1: Wow, it makes me feel old that this was 12 years ago. But whatever. I like the remix better, though.

Irreplaceable: Every woman who has had to, um, put someone out loves this song. It’s just a given.

Best Thing I Never Had: Honestly, I hated this song when I first heard it. But it resonated with me for a dozen reasons when I started listening to Beyonce 4 again recently.

What’s your favorite Single Lady music? I’m a Keri Hilson fan, too. We’ll get to her in a minute.

Contemplating hook-up culture and female empowerment

If women are so powerful now, why is there so much angst about their power?

This is the first thing I thought about when I read the article adapted from Hanna Rosin’s new book, The End of Men, which I thought I wanted to read at one point. In the Atlantic’s September issue, she writes about the rise of successful women and ways in which women now have the agency – financial and otherwise – to plan for temporary intimacy in lieu of waiting around for love. The article is called “Boys on the Side” and here are some passages that jumped out at me:

Single young women in their sexual prime—that is, their 20s and early 30s, the same age as the women at the business-­school party—are for the first time in history more success­ful, on average, than the single young men around them. They are more likely to have a college degree and, in aggregate, they make more money. What makes this remarkable development possible is not just the pill or legal abortion but the whole new landscape of sexual freedom—the ability to delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don’t derail education or career. To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.

It’s important to note a couple of things here. Rosin is specifically writing about the white middle class and upper middle class experience.

This is one of the things that riles me about writing and popular culture about single women, generally – in order for a case to be made for a strong story pitch, these stories are only considered universal (like the HBO show Girls, which is referenced in the story later) if they center around the white middle-class and upper middle-class experience. The reason that’s important is that it leaves out huge swaths of women of color who, culturally and sometimes out of necessity and cultural allegiance, make totally different decisions. I don’t know any women of color who could be described as cannily manipulating hook-up culture on college campuses to make space for their success. I don’t know any working class or poor women of any race or cultural background who would do that, either. There is, too, the underlying idea that hook-up culture is a white thing, not unlike marriage, ironically.

This article made me think a SPIN article published in 1998 while I was a sophomore at Vassar. The story, “Sex Ed,” featured at least one black male classmate I was friends with at the time, but it was essentially a story about the fact that for men on campus, “hooking up was as easy as ordering a pizza.” The reason hooking up was so easy, as explained by SPIN, was the fact that women outnumbered men on campus (the ratio was reportedly 60:40) and a large percentage of the men and women on campus were gay, which meant that heterosexual women had to be more aggressive if they wanted to hook up with men on campus.

I bring that story up because it points to an old idea: that for women to participate in the full secular college experience and have a little fun, they have always had to do more work than men. I was the exact opposite of the college girls that are characterized as dismissing overly serious suitors to make space for my success, so maybe I have a hard time understanding the sentiment. This strikes me as a dangerous corollary to the Having it All debate – where the narratives of women who suddenly act like men have traditionally acted are a new sociological puzzle.

Cultural, racial and class differences are key here, too, to say nothing of people who fall into non-gender conforming categories; the narrative that has been bought and sold to black women in particular is that we cannot afford to let go even of casual relationships with our black male peers if we seek marriage because they are so rarefied in academic and corporate spaces that if we act like some of the women Rosin highlights in Boys on the Side, we will be Forever Alone.

Here, Rosin goes into more detail about a 2004 study on sexual abuse on college campuses:

Women in the dorm complained to the researchers about the double standard, about being called sluts, about not being treated with respect. But what emerged from four years of research was the sense that hooking up was part of a larger romantic strategy, part of what Armstrong came to think of as a “sexual career.” For an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hookups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-development or schoolwork. Hookups functioned as a “delay tactic,” Armstrong writes, because the immediate priority, for the privileged women at least, was setting themselves up for a career. “If I want to maintain the lifestyle that I’ve grown up with,” one woman told Armstrong, “I have to work. I just don’t see myself being someone who marries young and lives off of some boy’s money.” Or from another woman: “I want to get secure in a city and in a job … I’m not in any hurry at all. As long as I’m married by 30, I’m good.”

The women still had to deal with the old-fashioned burden of protecting their personal reputations, but in the long view, what they really wanted to protect was their future professional reputations. “Rather than struggling to get into relationships,” Armstrong reported, women “had to work to avoid them.” (One woman lied to an interested guy, portraying herself as “extremely conservative” to avoid dating him.) Many did not want a relationship to steal time away from their friendships or studying.

In that research, by the way, two-thirds of the subjects of sociologists’ research came from “more privileged” backgrounds. This idea of cultivating a “sexual career” is one that would offer a variety of side-eye glances from women of color, full stop. I understand the need to frame a story around existing data, but this is one example of just one side of the story.

The absence of women of color and people who are not so privileged from stories like this speaks loudly. It infers that the overarching narrative of white female sexual agency is the dominant story for all women everywhere, which is less true now than it ever has been, considering the growing diversity of our country. The absence of our narrative from discussions about women’s sexual liberation, too, shows that feminists still haven’t found a way to bridge the racial and class gaps that inform our discourse on everything from politics and business to love and relationships.

Caitlin Moran and the real definition of spinster

I enjoyed listening to Caitlin Moran on NPR talking about feminism a few weeks ago, though the reviews of her book, How To Be A Woman, haven’t been that stellar.

This part of her conversation jumped out at me though because it highlights the double standard that women face when they decide to be single and/or not to bear children.

“The word ‘barren’ tells you everything you need to know. The word ‘spinster’ tells you everything you need to know about our attitude of women who choose not to marry. … Imagine if you saw George Clooney on the cover of a magazine every week with: ‘Is George broody? Is George gonna adopt a baby? When is George gonna have another kid?’ It would just seem weird. We’d seem demented, yet it’s totally valid for women.”

I have been calling myself a spinster, first as a joke and then as a badge of pride, since the 90s. I used to tease people who would ask me how I would manage to both be an ambitious woman in the world and have a meaningful relationship with a guy who was not intimidated by either by telling them that I would end up moving to the mountains with a pack of dogs living nearby a friend or two.

It took me awhile to learn the origin of the word spinster – do people even use that word anymore? Florence Falk in her 2007 book, On My Own: The Art of Being A Woman Alone, writes:

Once upon a time, the spinster was, quite simply, a spinner of thread. And since spinning was most commonly done by young unmarried women, the term came to represent unmarried women in English legal documents dating from as early as the 1600s. By the following century, it was used to describe any “woman still unmarried and beyond the usual age for it.” Over time, this spinster morphed into the spinster female archetype of the once luscious woman gone to seed, also known by such various synonyms as “thornback,” “stale maid,” “old maid,” and antique virgin.

Gosh, folks used to be harsh. Does anyone really call women spinsters anymore? Especially since more of us are single than not?

Single Lady Quotes: bell hooks

From Goodreads

I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance.

As a young writer, I aspired to be a poet like Ntozake Shange, who distilled so much of the black girl’s experience in her poetry and a warrior like Alice Walker. Intellectually, I yearned for the freedom, clarity and possession that marked bell hooks’ work.
bell hooks was the first black woman intellectual I admired. I read Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life – a conversation between bell hooks and Cornel West, when I was 13, and never stopped admiring her work. It also allowed me to envision myself as an intellectual in my own right. hooks has written over 30 books.

“To return to love, to get the love we always wanted but never had, to have the love we want but are not prepared to give, we seek romantic relationships. We believe these relationships, more than any other, will rescue and redeem us. True love does have the power to redeem but only if we are ready for redemption. Love saves us only if we want to be saved.”

“Love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.”

“One of the major tasks black women face as we work for emotional healing is to understand more fully what love is so that we do not imagine that love and abuse can be simultaneously present in our lives. Most abuse is life-threatening, whether it wounds our bodies or our psyches. Understanding love as a life-force that urges us to move against death enables us to see clearly that, where love is, there can be no disenabling, disempowering, or life-destroying abuse.”

“It is the absence of love that has made it so difficult for us to stay alive or, if alive, to live fully. When we love ourselves, we want to live fully…When we love ourselves, we know that we much do more than survive. We must have the means to live fully.”

“Exclusion and isolation, whether they occur through overt or covert acts, have always been useful tactics of terrorism, a powerful way to coerce individuals to conform, to change. No insurgent intellectual, no dissenting critical voice in this society escapes the pressure to conform….We can all be had, co-opted, bought. There is no special grace that rescues any of us. There is only a constant struggle to keep the faith, to relentlessly rejoice in an engagement with critical ideas that is itself liberatory, a practice of freedom.”

Single Lady Quotes: Madonna

“I’m anal retentive. I’m a workaholic. I have insomnia. And I’m a control freak. That’s why I’m not married. Who could stand me?”

““I’ve been popular and unpopular successful and unsuccessful loved and loathed and I know how meaningless it all is. Therefore I feel free to take whatever risks I want.”

“If your joy is derived from what society thinks of you, you’re always going to be disappointed.”

So sayeth Madonna, who I have loved through all of her transformations. Yes, even when she had no business trying to rap.

This is also a plug. I wrote an essay that appears in the new Soft Skull Press anthology, Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop.  You can follow Laura Barcella, who edited the anthology, on Twitter.  If you get a chance to read it, let me know what you think.  It’s already gotten some good reviews, which is exciting.This one at For Books’ Sake says I have a different opinion of Madonna than bell hooks.  And I didn’t even know that bell hooks had called Madonna a plantation mistress. Guess I’ve got some (more) reading to do.

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