Conjoined Twins Serve to Teach us a Lesson about Normality

Having read an article in today’s Huffington Post about a set of 12 year old conjoined twin boys from India called Shivanath and Shivram Sahu it got me thinking about how we perceive normality both in physical and gendered terms. The twin boys who share a set of legs have learned to live a life in harmony and even though experts say they could be separated, they and their father (and their mother?, any idea what she thinks journalists?) are adamant that they wish to remain conjoined. The twins came from an impoverished Indian background and one wonders if, in a more affluent Western environment whether they would have had the opportunity to live such a different life.

The article and associated video piece pivot around the idea that individuality is at least desirable if not ultimately a necessity once these boys hit puberty and want to have children of their own (for one brother at least). This is the undertone of the piece, even when surgical separation would result in leaving one of them without any legs and therefore wheelchair bound and reliant entirely on lifelong care. It is argued by medical professionals this is preferable in order that they can fall in love and marry as individual men, such being the centralised notion of the importance of marriage and procreation in ours and India’s society. But at least in this article we are also being asked to consider their position and to change ours away from what the doctor advises, it focuses on the boys’ and the father’s words.

This reminded me of a few other instances recently where some cemented ideas of physical normalcy has been challenged. A friend of mine had a baby a few months ago which was intersex, the first time I (or she) had experienced such a rare phenomenon in anything other than in representations in the media. My heart went out to her, she seemed a very attentive mother of her first born and clearly loved her intersex child very much, yet it was very important to her and the medical profession to ascertain the child’s sex as soon as possible. I thought it was important that I bring to her attention the studies and writings I had come across during my gender PhD that shows that intersex adults often wish their parents had left their bodies alone as they can face serious physical and emotional repercussions and may require lifelong medication. So I messaged her even though I felt I was intruding (and so did my husband for that matter!) because I think we need to fight the silence more than anything. My friend was unlikely to know anyone else who had spent so long learning about the socially constructed nature of gender and if I didn’t fight my English middle class woman’s tendency to keep quiet under the proviso that ‘parents and/or doctors know best’, then she was possibly not going to hear it from anyone.

I urged her to allow her child time to choose its own gender, to give it a gender neutral name, toys, clothes etc., and to actively give the child space. I added that in 16 years time if the child wants to change sex, the operations will be far more advanced. Meaning that if her child wanted to have a male body for instance, he would be far more likely to get a penis that works well in every sense by then (they can grow vaginas in the lab already), and this needed weighing up against a perceived idea of her child passing in an assigned sex whilst young (which I don’t think would be achievable anyway, kids are very perceptive to difference).

I knew encouraging someone to accept their child was different and to resist the need to conform was a big ask, especially as she wasn’t the anti establishment type, and I knew that it might well be perceived as interfering but to her credit she thanked me for my advice and has done since on other occasions too. However, the first thing the doctors did was to undertake blood tests, which showed the child was ‘really’ a boy, and so he has been channeled. I since heard that ‘he’ was going in for genital surgery, which although she said was more about his ability to urinate rather than to assign gender, I wasn’t so sure and I really felt I could no longer sit by and watch, so I have since ceased contact, it just made me very angry that the child was not consenting, not just to the surgery but also to being labelled a boy.

I have written before about my beliefs about gender being an arbitrary performance assigned to us at birth and it seems according to a recent article by a a intersex person called Claudia, I am not alone in arguing for an understanding of gender as something we should all consciously choose, this being especially crucial for intersex people. It frustrates me to see the countless examples of how we police gender and sexuality, whilst still believing ourselves to be liberal. Yet I can understand why we do it, not least that it took a PhD to learn about how we nudge each other into acceptable social places in invisible ways, and to stop feeling the abject horror of seeing someone different, myself. Even after many years of reading both gender and more generally, philosophy (that challenges the way we perceive most things as givens) I still had to consciously make the jump to viewing transgender, intersex and physically disabled people as ‘one of us’, simply because I thought it politically and ethically necessary. I’m glad to say like all types of learning, it soon becomes second nature but at first it felt really odd, a feeling that contradicts my beliefs in equality and therefore something I don’t like to admit to.

We are not truly encouraged to see similarity in others across gender, sexuality, etc. yet at the same time we are encouraged to be politically correct in assigning equal rights. People are different but equal is the mantra. Yes, on the face of it that is true but surely we have more overlap than exclusivity in what we share across all human manifestations? As Judith Butler points out, it is a political act to chose to focus on the ways men and women differ (genitals, breasts, etc.) when physically 90-95% of our bodies are the same.

This brings us back to the dreaded (in feminism, anyway) ‘human’ of the Enlightenment, the unpoliticised white, rich heterosexual male that spoke for all, without any sense of contradiction. It was assumed that women were the same but different, right up until the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft began to argue otherwise in 1792. Indeed we are different, and feminism has quite rightly explored women’s differences. But sometimes it feels like our focus on difference only serves to make us intolerant, precisely because we cant see similarities between ‘us’ and ‘them’. There is an underlying similarity in the way we all approach The Other, whether they be transgender, intersex, conjoined or any other manifestation of the human kind. We approach it with fear, that is until we are exposed to more difference and we can incorporate such people into a wider sense of what it is to be human, just as we have historically done across sexuality lines with homosexual people. Shivanath and Shivram’s body teaches us that we may invest too much in an ideal of autonomy (it is interesting that they should come from a culture that is less focused on individuality than the West) and Claudia can show us that we need to chill out about ‘saving’ intersex children from themselves. Maybe its us they all need saving from after all.

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Successful Campaign outside of the Stop Porn Culture symposium

My husband Tim and I moved to Los Angeles as of this Monday and much as I am over the moon about emigrating (it took over 14 months and a decent amount of money to get a visa), I’m really sad to have missed the industry led campaign outside of the Stop Porn Culture conference as run by anti-porn feminists Gail Dines and Julie Bindell yesterday in London. Industry professionals Renee Richards and Jerry Barnett at Sex and Censorship led a strong team of over 50 industry (adult and sex work) folk to counter the message being argued by the conference that porn is necessarily pernicious and damaging to women. The message was clear, the only people women in the industries need saving from are the sex negative feminists. This was a message I had heard many times at the Sex Worker Open University.  Much as people envision sex workers, particularly, needing saving from dangerous customers, in fact the obverse is more true, no one is more dangerous to them (or pornstars) than those employees and supporters of the rescue industries.

So, to those in the industry, sorry I couldn’t be there (I’m also in the final two weeks of my PhD) but you have my full support and I am really pleased to see that different sex industries (in this case sex workers and porn industry folk) are beginning to join together to fight the common enemy. I have always argued at We Consent, that this is what we need to do to realise the similarities between the various anti sex industry moral panics, and to beat them.

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Palm Phwoar Award won at the Shaftas!

I am very proud to announce that I won a Services to the Industry award called the Palm Phwoar at Thursday night’s Shaftas. I had originally been up for Best Girl/Girl Series but lost out to Lynsey Dawn McKenzie (who must have loads more fans on social media than me, so I should have seen that coming…) and thought that was that, then to my, and everyone’s complete surprise they announced a special award just for me!

This is the first time my campaigning on behalf of the porn industry since 2000 has been formally recognised in the industry (apart form an Erotic Award in 2010, which was specifically for standing in the election). I was and am, genuinely chuffed at this award and want to give a big thanks out to Television X who awarded it to me. Also, a big thanks to all who voted for me for the Girl/Girl award even though I didn’t win I appreciate the support.

The awards ceremony was Television X’s coming of age party as it turned 18 years old. It was really fun as there were a lot of faces I had not seen since I worked there in the late nineties and early noughties like producers Shag and Mutt, as well as porn star Rebekka Jordan (who now has a couple of kids and lives what she called a ‘normal life’ on the south coast) as well as old work colleagues like my long-term friend Giles Harding who worked as an editor until he sadly had a car crash and became wheelchair bound 12 years ago. It was great to see him there in amongst the revellers. Angel Long won a few awards, which was great because she was one of the first porn stars I filmed many moons ago and it’s always great to see porn stars careers progress.

I was interviewed for the Channel by Tanya Tate, who was very nice and also keen to agree that women in the industry like us choose our jobs over others and are as much professional business owners as women in other industries. US porn megastar Jesse Jane presented an award too, which was a nice surprise. All in all a great night all round in London’s Leicester Square!

 

 

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Please vote for me at The Shaftas!

I am very proud to have been nominated for best girl/girl series at this year’s Shaftas for my 13 part series Planet Nadia, which was shot in 2000. I decided to direct this series in a completely unique way.  Instead of just shooting Nadia meeting a different woman each week and basically doing the same sort of acts but just in a different suburban room with a different model, as is the usual format for a girl/girl series, I shot a mini soap opera.  We followed Nadia over 13 weeks as her life developed. She went for a job interview, became homeless, got a job and got a new home across the span of the series.  I also referenced my other series Majella Mates and Eat Me/Keep Me (a la Knott’s Landing/Dallas) as she mentioned in conversation about meeting her friends and having fun with them, which we had witnessed in the other series.  Overall, I built an environment where Nadia existed as a real woman, which resulted in it becoming a bit of a cult series for British Porn fans.

Not only was I at the top of my game but so was Nadia, easily one of the best (if not the best) porn stars I have ever filmed. I also reinvented porn aesthetics by dressing the porn stars in trendy art student’s clothes and placing them in bohemian surroundings. Nadia was perfect for this because she was fashion conscious herself.  In one scene she had sex with Layla Jade in a cluttered kitchen sink and in another she slept with Amelia in a derelict Brixton squat replete with a massive hole in the ceiling and a rusty motorbike in the front room, all with the stars wearing funky clothes and agent provocateur underwear.  I say underwear, actually I couldn’t afford the bras so I deliberately chose flat chested women to film, so I only need buy the underpants.

Anyway, it would mean the world to me to finally be appreciated for this genre changing series so please vote for me here.  You will go through some other awards first (just choose the name you like the most if you don’t know them). I’m up for girl/girl series a few pages in, under Anna Span/Planet Nadia. But hurry it closes very soon!

Thanks very much, Anna x

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Poststructuralism article in El Pais today

Anyone speak Spanish?

I was interviewed by a London-based Spanish journalist called Maruxa Ruiz del Arbol earlier this week on the subjects of poststructuralism and the inclusion of men in feminist/gender debate; she got in touch with me after seeing me talk at BBC 100 Women.  Much as I can’t speak Spanish I ran the article through Google Translate and it seems to be a very nice article.  I was particularly happy with doing this because it is not often I am interviewed on general gender subjects (which is the subject of my research PhD), usually I am interviewed about porn, which is fine but I can talk about other subjects too. Also, although poststructuralism is highly influencial (since 1990) in the gender studies academy, it is almost unknown outside of it, which is a shame because I think it offers the greatest toolkit for defeating gender inequality, due to its focus on similarities between men and women, whilst simultaneously underlining the arbitrary nature of our socialised gendered selves. The ‘structure’ in ‘poststructuralism’ can be thought of as the gender binary, male-female, so this theory is ‘post’ that binary, in other words it goes beyond it seeing gender as something we all do, as though it was ‘between’ men, women and trans people (have I lost you yet?!)

I was interested to see how Maruxa would reflect upon the notoriously difficult to understand poststructuralist gender philosophy, (I think she did very well, especially for someone using a second language) particularly that of queer theorist Judith Butler, who is a huge influence on my own gender theories and of whom I spoke of at length.  Butler’s writing style leaves many perplexed (as it did me when I first discovered it), indeed she once won the World’s Worst Sentence award.

Briefly, Butler argues that instead of thinking of gender as the social part of us that makes us male/female/trans, which is opposed to the physical body/hormones, which is known as our ‘sex’, we should see all of our self –  body and all – as gender (the social part), because we cannot know the body except through gender. For instance I always give the example of how developed our knowledge of women’s reproductive capabilities (fertility treatment) has become since the 1960’s in comparison to how inept the medical profession is at helping women who suffer from orgasmic dysfunction. Women have been of greater use to men as mothers than satisfied lovers, in other words.

Butler argues that we focus on gender differences such as primary and secondary sexual attributes (penis/vagina/breasts), rather than the far greater number of physical similarities we share (most internal organs, skin, bones, etc).  This choice to focus on differences is a political one, she argues because it allows for a hierarchy where men are favoured.

Butler uses the term ‘performativity’, a portmanteau of ‘performance’ and ‘activity’ to describe how we ‘do’ gender. We unconsciously perform our gender as per sets of norms that existed before we were born and into which we are thrown. Our sexuality and our gender are conveyor belts along which we travel, often without question. she asks us to imagine a situation where a parent (especially a lesbian parent) holds aloft their newborn child and says “it’s a lesbian!”. The common response (Daily Mail anyone?) would be anger at the parent’s choice of the child’s sexuality on their behalf, but Butler argues this is exactly what we do when we assume a child to be heterosexual. As non-heterosexual people know, it takes a lot of guts to buck the trend and deny the policing of their sexuality to fit society’s norms. The second point Butler makes is that we do the same thing when we declare “it’s a girl!/boy!”. We don’t just describe a biological fact, we simultaneously ascribe an appropriate conveyor belt; female: socially focused, emotionally aware, discouraged from ambition, fearing of attack, etc, or, male: singularly focussed, encouraged to be ambitious, and discouraged to express emotions other than anger, etc.

That gender norms need to be constantly policed in society (calling a woman a slag, discouraging ‘softer’ tastes in men, etc) is proof of it’s arbitrariness, for if gender were as set in stone as we are led to believe, it wouldn’t need constant reinforcement…

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Some reflections on the 100 Women Event

Im having had a hectic week so I’m afraid this is the earliest opportunity I have had to write a post regarding my experiences last Friday at the BBC’s 100 Women event.  I was really pleased to be invited and even more pleased to see two other sex industry women there too; Brooke Magnanti and Sarah Walker who runs the English Collective of Prostitutes. Three per cent sex workers, that’s a good start…

The event was very well organised and the people running it were lovely if a little knackered. I attended all of the debates and spoke in many of them including on whether feminism can include religion. My answer to this was yes, as ultimately even though religion is necessarily sexist due to the writings supporting misogynistic behaviour (ten sections encouraging rape in the bible alone) and of homophobic ideas, as a pornographer I knew how it felt to be excluded from ‘real feminism’ so I wasn’t about to make the same mistake myself. After all just because some women are religious doesn’t mean they don’t have valid ideas about other areas of the gender debate. I also spoke in the debate of female representation asking people to keep up the hope as the music industry used to be dire until Amy Winehouse came along, now more women than men have hits.

I took part in a debate on the future of feminism, which was way too short but I got one of my two main points across, that we need to focus on incorporating men’s views on gender into our debates. After all, how can we know male behaviour deemed offensive isn’t in fact men reacting defensively to power women have if we don’t interview them?  I received a number of tweets on the subject, some saying that feminism already talks to men (which I don’t even think is largely true) to which I replied that we don’t just need to talk to men, we need to listen to them, which definitely isn’t happening right now. I also called myself a post structuralist, rather than a feminist, which I then described as someone who believes that gender is a performance, something that is done, rather than just a biological reality (although of course the body exists).

The other point I wanted to make, which I didn’t get a chance to was personified throughout many of the debates that day, and was my only frustration with the event.  I often get annoyed that feminism is equated with socialism (which I am using as short hand for the many left wing forms of feminism).  It is assumed that women are naturally socialist, that we value the role of a large, prescriptive State that ‘saves’ women.  I’m a liberal, so this is not a belief I share, neither do Conservatives and I find it is seen as very unpopular, often anti-feminist, to argue for other means apart from structural change to help towards gender equality. Try saying that neo-liberalism isn’t a) all bad, and b) realistically doesnt exist outside of us because we willed it to be and we all enjoy the fruits of it every day.  The argument against capitalism/neo-liberalism (which share many traits and often get blurred into one debate) always ignores the positives of capitalism in my experience, like access to education (porn paid for two of my degrees so far), travel, technology, fashion, nice food etc…

I really feel that socialist feminism has the hegemony, the powerful position within feminism and when I once said this to my supervisor she said that the whole point of feminism was that there was no hegemony; oh how you speak from the position of privilege, I thought, privilege being invisible to those that have it and very visible to those that dont…

Anyway, the debates in the morning were often very left wing which left me feeling rather oppressed, being supposedly out numbered, however a nice chat with one lady at lunch soon restored my mood. The highlights of the day have to be the one on one conversations I had with some of the attendees, especially Gurinder Chadha (director of Bend it like Beckham) on film making and my PhD; Paris Lees (transgender activist) whom I had many conversations around how feminism is not as inclusive of dissenting voices as it ought to be; Barbara Hewson (lawyer that specialises in fighting for women’s reproductive rights) on being on the receiving end of moral panics around sexuality; Marianne Pearl (international journalist who runs Chime for Change) on my PhD and how writing from the first person is often enlightening, and Comedian Kate Smurthwaite on defending atheism.

I have to say the event was great, I saw some fantastically famous women, Martina Navratilova, Cherie Blair, Gurinder Chadha, former New Zealand PM Helen Clark, Ann Leslie, Susie Orbach and Jacqui Smith among others. I learned an awful lot, especially about the international state of women’s rights. I do hope they do it again next year…

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Media Appearances for 100 Women tomorrow

I can confirm I will be on the BBC World Service Newsday radio programme sometime between 5.30-6.00am tomorrow, and part of a live debate to be aired on the World Service between 11.10-11.20 on the modern definition of feminism.  I have yet to have confirmed an appearance on New at 6pm and News at Ten too.  The 100 Women debate is being broadcast live throughout the day until 5.30pm tomorrow too, so I’m sure I will be part of that as well. I’m very much looking forward to it.

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