On Men, Ren, and a Devastated Community


Question: “What man would you be most devastated to learn had secretly been a misogynist all along?”

Answer: My brother. My closest male friends. My favorite male podcasters. My favorite male musicians. Male theatre actors I’ve cried over and crushed on. The cast of Whose Line Is It Anyway.

A seemingly-progressive friend-with-benefits who talked the talk of sex-positivity and consensual kink. Oh wait, that happened already. A seemingly-progressive radio personality I once found charming. Oh wait, that happened already. A seemingly-progressive photographer who once shot pictures of me naked and having sex. Oh wait, that just happened.

In a world where men didn’t systematically hold far more power than women, where men’s abuse of women was as harshly stigmatized and fairly punished as it deserves to be, and where male hatred of women was not a widespread cultural problem, this question would be nothing more than a harmless hypothetical. But since we don’t live in that world, it’s a terrifying question to me. Every time another seemingly “good,” “safe” man is revealed to be toxic garbage, I can’t help but wonder: Who’s next? Who else will betray us? Who else will break our hearts?

The first night I remember meeting Ren Bostelaar in person, it was for a porn shoot for a feminist porn collective owned by some friends of mine. (They’ve since cut ties with him.) I remember, very clearly, that he asked me if I would be comfortable receiving some direction from him during the shoot – if, for example, he needed me to move a leg or turn my head so he could get a better shot. I was charmed that he asked this, and that he was (or seemed) so respectful, so conscientious a photographer. I said yes, of course that was okay. He didn’t give me any direction during the shoot after all, but that interaction stuck with me. He’s a good guy, I remember thinking.

Later, when he sent me the photos, I was delighted. He’d made me look great, and thereby, feel great. I told him so. “I’m so glad you like them!” he replied. Again, I thought: He’s a good guy.

Friends of mine liked him – progressive, feminist friends who I admired and whose opinions I trusted. Any time he was brought up in conversation, people spoke well of him. He’s a good guy. This is the thing about abusers, of all sorts: they are highly skilled at convincing people of their goodness. They are charming and persuasive. They know how to work a room, how to get people in their sway, and they do it amazingly well and often.

In the feminist and sex-positive communities I’ve been a part of, women rely heavily on other women’s testimonials about men in order to know which ones can and cannot be trusted. Men who are widely vetted as “good guys” usually attain that honor through consistently being good: supporting women, listening to us, calling out shitty dudes, speaking out in defense of feminism and women, and so on. It is understood that being a male ally is achievable only through consistent action, not just words. We watch carefully to see which men do what – and which men don’t do anything when they ought to do something. This information is always noted, assessed, and discussed in backchannels. It is a way we endeavor, as women, to keep ourselves and each other safe.

What’s devastating is that even men who’ve been widely vetted as “good,” like Ren, can turn out to be very much not so. Can turn out to have – in this case – leaked women’s private nude photos and personal information onto a “misogynistic cesspool of the internet.” We do all this careful screening and watching and weeding-out, and it can all be meaningless in the end, because people’s outward personas can look entirely different from the hate and rage swirling inside them.

This is why many women I know, myself included, have been tweeting/posting/saying lately that we feel we can’t trust men right now. Because even the men who seemed the most trustworthy can fail us. This is not unreasonable. If a panel of esteemed marine biologists told me a particular bay was safe to swim in, but then I saw someone get mauled by a shark in said bay, there’s no fuckin’ way I would set foot in that bay ever again, scientists be damned. This is not discrimination, unfair generalization, or unreasonable paranoia. This is pragmatism. This is self-protection. This is learning from experience.

I’m not saying there are no men I trust, or that I’ll never trust a man again, or that I believe all men to be inherently untrustworthy. I’m just saying, I and many other women in my community feel we need to be careful about men right now, and going forward. Even more careful than we had previously been about men, which was pretty damn careful.

Men: we do not need your loud proclamations of #NotAllMen, your privilege-blind demand that we consider all men innocent until proven otherwise, or your hindsight-20/20 insistence that you knew the creep was a creep before his creepiness went public. We need, instead, your support, your action, and your resolve. We need you to call out misogyny when you see it in your social spheres, to examine and unlearn your own misogyny when it comes up, and to listen to the concerns and frustrations of women.

To return to my shark metaphor: we don’t need you yelling at us about how the water’s fine. We need you lifeguarding, patrolling the water, and ready to take down a shark when the time comes.

We Deserve More Orgasms, Dammit

“How are you, Kate? What have you been up to lately?”

“I’m writing a magazine article about the orgasm gap and it is blowing my damn mind!!”

My friends are tired of hearing about it, I’m sure. There are more interesting things we could discuss, probably. But it’s an occupational hazard of journalism to become temporarily obsessed with whatever you’re currently covering. I’ve gone through these fixations before with other assignments: spanking, squirtingBenedict Cumberbatch. And though my focused fascination didn’t always last, I always learned something in the process that I took with me into my ensuing experiences, my work, my life.

One of my favorite editors sent me an email a couple months ago, saying two new books were coming out on female sexuality and I might want to review them for her magazine, or possibly write a feature on them. “Has women’s time finally cum?” she joked in the email. I agreed to write about the books, and she had them sent to my house.

The books, as it turned out, were Closer and Becoming Cliterate – two fabulous reads which assess the current state of sexual sociopolitics and women’s sexuality. They have a lot of commonalities – both mention the A-spot, to my great glee; both advocate masturbation and mindfulness as potential solutions to women’s sexual woes – but what struck me most was both books’ examinations of the orgasm gap.

Closer quotes a 2015 Cosmopolitan study which found that only 57% of women usually reach orgasm with a partner, while their partners climax 95% of the time. Becoming Cliterate adds that in first-time hookups, only 4% of women say they usually reach orgasm, versus 55% of men. Yes, folks: we’re well into the 21st century and these sad stats are still true. It’s been over 50 years since the supposed sexual revolution of the ’60s and women’s orgasms are still trailing men’s. This is unacceptable.

I told my mom about this assignment, and the books I was reading for it, during an Uber ride to a family gathering. (The driver was probably judging us pretty hard. Oh well.) “Do you think that’s true?” she said, of the orgasm gap. I paused and furrowed my brow. “It’s scientifically proven. Yeah, it’s true,” I replied. Then she clarified: “No, I mean, is it personally true, for you?”

While I declined to answer that question when my mom asked it – hey, kids and parents have gotta set boundaries somewhere – she did get me thinking about orgasm disparity in my own life. Like the authors of the books I’ve mentioned, I also have access to scientific data. Mine’s just self-made and a lot more specific: my sex spreadsheets!

In reviewing my orgasm stats from 2016, here’s what I know:
• I came during 58% of my sexual encounters; my partners, comparatively, came 76% of the time.
• I’m statistically likeliest to come with partners I’ve banged at least a few times. I had eight first-time encounters in 2016, only two of which resulted in orgasm for me. (What was the common element between those two orgasmic successes? In both cases, the sex took place in my own bed and involved toys – a relative rarity for me in first-time encounters.)
• Multiple orgasms, while rare for me, are possible – with partners I’m suuuuper comfortable around. (My only multiple-orgasm sessions in 2016 were with a boyfriend I’d banged 13 times already, and a fuckbuddy I’d known for over a year and fucked 15 times before.)

Both Closer and Becoming Cliterate quote studies which’ve found that women are likelier to reach orgasm in ongoing relationships (whether romantic or just friends-with-benefits-esque) than in casual or one-off encounters. I can’t speak for other women, but I know why this is true for me: when I don’t know someone as well, I’m often too nervous, anxious, and insecure to ask for what will get me off. I’m trying to play the role of a “cool girl,” which includes being undemanding about my own sexual needs and just rolling with whatever my partner wants to do.

In more established relationships, though, that nervous magic wears off and is replaced by magic of a different sort. With my longest-term fuckbuddy, for example, I have no qualms about requesting he focus his fingers on my A-spot for a while instead of fucking me with his dick, and I know he’s super vibrator-positive so I’ll gladly grab my Tango or even my big bulky Magic Wand during sex with him, certain he won’t judge me or feel displaced.

Even with him, though – even though he’s made me come over a dozen times, knows exactly how to do it, and has never once balked at anything I’ve asked him to do in service of my orgasm – I still get hung up about “taking too long.” I’ll gladly spend ten or twenty minutes blowing him, because I genuinely love doing it and I find his pleasure deeply fulfilling, but if he spends more than three minutes focusing on my pleasure, I start to get anxious. “Are you getting tired?” I’ll ask, breathless with guilty arousal. “Do you want to stop?”

To his immense credit, he always reacts like this is a silly question – lovingly, of course. Hell, even the very first time we banged, he reminded me, “You’re getting in your head. Just relax and enjoy.” I’ve heard these words, or similar ones, come out of his mouth so many times since then. He’s exceptionally good at calming me down and helping me remember that pleasure is as much my right as it is his. But it’s sad that this is a rare talent among men. It’s sad that I feel I have to ask for this reassurance, rather than just receiving it by default or not needing it at all.

According to both the books I’ve read on it, the orgasm gap exists primarily because our culture still overvalues penile pleasure and undervalues clitoral pleasure. Though the penis and clitoris are anatomically analogous, and though stimulation of the clitoris is as necessary for its owners’ orgasms as stimulation of the penis is for its’ owners orgasms, and though this has been widely known for decades, the clit still doesn’t get its due attention in far too many hetero encounters. Focused clit stimulation is still mostly relegated to “foreplay,” while intercourse remains the conceptual centerpiece of straight sex, even though most women don’t get off from it without “extra” clit stim. The feminist babes who spearheaded the sexual revolution in the ’60s must be so sad and angry that it’s 2017 and women still aren’t getting off as often as we ought to.

So many times, I have told a partner, “Making me come is difficult,” when what I meant was, “I know exactly what’s required for me to get off, but I’m scared you don’t care enough to learn how to make it happen, so I’m not even going to try to teach you.” I have often said, “Don’t worry about making me come, I’m fine,” when what I meant was, “I don’t feel entitled to pleasure, even though I believe you are.” I still often say, “It’s probably not going to happen tonight,” when what I mean is, “It could happen if you did what it takes to make it happen, but I’m too embarrassed to show you how to do that, or to ask you to work that hard for me.” Meanwhile, I’m still giving diligent blowjobs left and right, time and effort be damned. It’s inequitable and it’s unacceptable.

I recently hooked up with someone at a sex club whom I’d just met an hour before, and to my immense surprise, he made me come. This, as I’ve mentioned, almost never happens to me – it’s one of the key reasons I decided to eschew one-night stands in 2017. But on that particular night, I’d smoked a little weed, so my sensitivity was high and my inhibitions were low. My hookup also kept emphasizing how much he wanted to please me, which helped. Teaching him to fingerbang me properly felt fun and exciting, rather than intimidating like it usually does with new partners.

Mid-encounter, I realized – as I often do – that my orgasm would remain out of reach unless I brought a vibrator into the mix. So I stole a line Bex once recommended I use: “Do you wanna see me come?” No halfway-decent partner would ever say no to that. When I got the affirmative reply I wanted, I went and fetched a vibe from my locker – and when I pressed it to my clit while his fingers resumed their magic inside me, my orgasm transformed from elusive to impending. And then it happened, more quickly and easily than I even expected, my muscles wetly clenching around his hand. “Oh my god, I can’t believe you made me come,” I slurred as I floated back to earth.

The truth is, it’s not hard for me to come with new partners; it’s hard for me to feel brave enough to make sure I come. The actual mechanics of my orgasm are not difficult. If I can muster the courage to give a partner thirty seconds of verbal instruction, or even to grab their hand and show them what to do, they usually figure it out pretty quick. And what’s more, they’re usually thrilled to put the work in, rather than seeming inconvenienced. It’s partnered sex; we’re there for each other, not for ourselves. Most of the joy of fucking another human is their reactions, and knowing your own role in those reactions. I know this to be true from my own perspective, but it’s sometimes hard for me to remember that my partners feel that way, too.

As easy as it would be to blame sociocultural forces for denying me orgasms, ultimately I have the power to overcome those forces in my sexual interactions. It’s as simple as asking for what I want, or just stimulating my clit during sex myself without waiting for “permission” to do so. Men typically have no qualms about expecting that they will get off at some point during sex, and taking steps to make sure that it happens. I need to practice adopting that same attitude, in the same guiltless and casual way, so that I can start getting off more consistently. Because I fucking deserve that.

What are your experiences with the “orgasm gap”? Got any tips for getting over anxiety about expecting or deserving an orgasm?

The Unladylike Project: Calling Men Out

me rolling my eyes and looking exasperated as hell

Empowerment is more easily said than done. There are so many feminist principles that I champion in theory, and that I’d gladly shout from the rooftops or text to friends in all caps, but that I find so damn hard to implement in my actual life.

One such principle is the idea that men should treat women well, listen to us, respect us. Obviously I believe this. I decry disrespectful men on the internet, point out when dudes treat my friends poorly, and criticize shitty men in TV and film. But when it comes to how I’m treated by the men in my life, I find it harder to kick up a fuss.

True, I’m lucky enough that most of the men in my close social circles are fantastic. My little brother is one of my favorite people on earth and treats me like a precious jewel; my dad is an upstanding protector and a fierce feminist; I have several male friends who perennially prove themselves feminist allies. Unfortunately, though, patriarchal conditioning is really hard to unlearn, and even the best men sometimes backslide into toxically sexist behaviors without noticing it. And sometimes I backslide right along with them.

These aberrations come in many forms. There are the family parties where the men sit comfortably in their armchairs after dinner while the women clear the table. There’s the subtle way I and my single female friends are likelier to be harangued about not having a partner than our male friends are. There’s the expectation that women are “naturally better” at emotional labor and are thus expected to nurture and support our male friends in times of need, even when we barely have the energy to take care of our own needs.

Most of the time, I am pleased as punch to help my friends – of all genders – in any way I can. But when the labor expected of me becomes too much, and operates along visible gender lines, sometimes I need to call out my dude-friends for tumbling into troubling tropes. And I’m usually too meek to speak up when I need to, due to yet another gendered trope which says women should be subservient, small, and “ladylike.” Well, fuck that. If someone’s walking all over me, I am well within my rights to point that out and insist that they stop!

Our culture encourages women to cattily compete with one another, while constantly deferring to men and seeking to impress them. This results in a psychological environment where I’m much likelier to blame a woman or get angry with her, even if a man is equally or moreso to blame for whatever slight has taken place. This is internalized misogyny through and through, and I hate that I sometimes unwittingly perpetuate it. I want to take off the rose-colored glasses through which I see men, and expect as much from them as I expect from everyone else in my life: respect, kindness, consideration, integrity. Men aren’t exempt from being decent humans just ’cause I find some of them attractive and want them to think I’m attractive too. That’s no excuse!

Some of my male friends know about my tendency to downplay my own needs and boundaries, so they’ll check in occasionally: “Please let me know if I’m talking about myself too much,” they’ll say, or, “Feel free to ignore this unsolicited advice if I’m totally mansplaining, but…” It’s great that they give me these opportunities to set boundaries when I need to. I should take them up on those offers more often. It’s important to me that I be a polite, kind, supportive person, but you start to lose your energy for supportiveness when people are constantly steamrolling over you. So maintaining better boundaries, and calling out people who mistreat me, is good not only for me but also for my friends. I am a better friend to them when I am mentally and emotionally healthy and happy.

Non-male readers: do you also have trouble speaking up when men treat you badly or carelessly? Got any tips?

This Book is Awesome: “How to Be a Woman” by Caitlin Moran

Within the span of about a month in 2014, three different people said to me, “You have to read Caitlin Moran’s book. You would love it.” All three recommendations came from people I trusted, people who don’t say “You would love it” unless I, specifically, would actually love what they’re talking about. So I filed away the name of the book, determined to get to it eventually.

Then, when I was in Montreal on vacation, an opportunity presented itself: my travel buddy wanted to spend a whole morning in a coffee shop chillin’ out, and I hadn’t brought a book, so we stopped in Indigo to load up on entertainment. My eyes fell on How to Be a Woman and I thought, Yes. That.

I knew this was a book about feminism, but I was not prepared for how funny it is. It is laugh-out-loud, snort-coffee-through-your-nose funny. My friend must have thought I was a weirdo because I laughed so often in that Montreal café that I started to draw concerned looks from the other tables. I couldn’t help it. Caitlin Moran is fucking hilarious.

Moran – a British music journalist – has a lot to say in this book about feminism, about girlhood, about life as a woman. Her main thesis, so far as I can tell, is that society makes womanhood out to be easy and automatic, when actually a lot of work goes into performing the role of woman “correctly.” Whether it’s getting your period for the first time, or figuring out how to walk in heels, or negotiating body image struggles, there’s basically no part of being a woman that is as effortless as it’s supposed to be. And it’s incredibly comforting to have that affirmed by such a smart, funny, clever woman, so articulately and emotively.

There’s a lot of sharp contrast in this book. I cried with laughter while reading Moran’s essay on deciding what slang term for “vagina” to use around her daughters (“cunt,” she thought, was maybe not super appropriate for a toddler), and then I just plain cried when reading about Moran’s horrific childbirth experience. Every inch of this book is equal parts relatable and instructive, equal parts funny and painful. That is so hard to do and I admire Caitlin so much for her candor, her ability to open up about these difficult topics and to do it in a way that’s so engaging and keeps me nodding along, like, “Yes! I know that feeling!”

A personal sore spot for me at the moment is my relationship with food, and how it relates to body image. My heart hurt with recognition when I read Caitlin’s chapter about fatness, fitness, and food, in which she posits that the reason so many women struggle with food addiction is that it’s a way of getting “high” without inconveniencing other people. It gives you a momentary rush and release, on the same spectrum as drugs or booze, but it doesn’t require anyone to drive you home, hold back your hair while you puke, or keep your intoxicated shouting under control – since women, above all, are taught not to inconvenience others. That was a freeing and eye-opening revelation for me, and certainly gave me some food for thought (if you’ll pardon the pun).

It’s pretty rare that I read a funny, silly book like this and actually want to read it again, not only to re-experience the laughs but also to re-absorb all the wisdom contained within. But How to Be a Woman, I can already tell, will be a bible of sorts for me as I continue growing into the woman I’m going to be. Caitlin Moran has seen and done it all, has made a great number of mistakes she wants other women to be able to sidestep, and so this book feels like a cross between a Tina Fey-esque funnyfest and a concerned letter from an older sister. It’s so, so wonderful, and I think you would love it.

Sharing the Sexy #30

• Everything you ever wanted to know about foot fetishes.

Dating tips for feminist men. There needs to be more resources like this!

• Here is a zine on learning good consent.

• This is also a really great consent resource, including sample scripts for consent-related conversations you might have with your partner(s).

Why does spanking feel so good? (When I saw this, it made me wonder if Lelo is thinking of releasing a paddle… Think it could rival this one?)

• The Red Tent Sisters weigh in on how to ease into using menstrual cups for the first time.

• Lilly drops some truth bombs about sex toys and body size.