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Last night in Edmonton, my Fringe friend was admiring the constellation of buttons that spreads like a neon-colored Milky Way across the ceiling of the Deerinator. She was able to identify a few of them, and I pointed out others that were more obscure. I don’t often spend time enjoying the collection—it’s there with me whenever I drive—which I guess is why I remembered the back corners. “Back there I put… shrines, I guess you’d call them?”
She craned her head back to look while I described Heather, the woman who had first given me space to perform (and whose boots I inherited and have been wearing pretty much non-stop since 2009). And in the other corner, I said, was the shrine to Vee Anne, my Fringe friend and regular New Orleans billet who passed away in 2014.
These were the two women I knew as my peers, I said. Women of a certain age who were pushing ahead and directing their own shit. When they passed away, it just felt lonelier out here. These were my colleagues, I said, and I miss them.
As I told my fringe friend during the drive last night, these women remain the two performing women that I’ve spent the most time with, and we spent a lot of time talking about making our own way as non-traditional female artists (women of a certain age, doing performance work of a definitely if not explicitly feminist kind). I had talked with Heather about budget planning long before I went to school about it. I talked with Vee Anne about intellectual property and gratuitous shock value in theatre. It was something, to be able to have those conversations.
Naturally my fringe friend and I began sharing our own experiences out on the Fringe as women, especially as women of a certain age (in Fringe theatre, as in film and other performance spheres, women reach that "certain age" far earlier than men do, whatever the actual number of years). And I felt a visceral sense of relief to be talking about it again, as if my rib cage could loosen a little. I could be open about this.
Because, see, none of this gets discussed very much out in public. No one wants to be the one bringing sour grapes to the Fringe banquet. But naturally I have opinions about sexism on the Fringe; I am developing other opinions about ageism on the Fringe, and where those two intersect. The precarity of Fringe performing, combined with the fact that women tend to be pigeonholed and overlooked out in the rough-and-tumble marketplace of the fringe, makes this an important subject of discussion for any two or more female performers to have. Such conversations will not happen by themselves.
Frankly, any conversations about how we survive, how we struggle, are never going to be carried by the Fringe platform. The festivals do not have anything to gain by disseminating information about how inherently challenging, not to say problematic, they themselves are. They don’t benefit by talking too overtly about structural inequities both inside the system and outside as well. They need us artists to keep thinking that we have a chance, the same chance as anyone. I’m not saying that the fringe festivals are actively holding us down or oppressing us; I’m just saying the system thrives on the myth of the noble bootstrapping artist, and talking about individual experiences as manifestations of systemic inequities would detract from the mythos.
I still don’t know how that’s going to change, but these are the things that Heather and Vee Anne and I talked about with each other. The first step toward solving the problem is the same as it always has been: admitting that there is one. Then you find other people who are seeing the same thing, or at least are willing to believe that what you’re seeing and saying is true. I need this shared experience, now more than ever, and I’m so grateful when I find it. Rare though it is, it’s such a simple thing:
No, you’re not making this up. Yes, this is harder than it should be. No, it’s not fair. Yes, tell me.
NOTE: the #fringefemme hash-tag was created in 2009, I believe at the Edmonton Fringe, to lift up solo female playwright/performers. Time to revive that shit.
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He doesn’t let me into his life, not even in a bullshit, made-up sort of way. When I ask him what he’s been up to since we last talked, he always says, “nothing much, just working.” Which, fair enough. That’s what a lot of people do. But he knows that I travel—with only the vaguest sense of why—and so he asks me what I’ve been up to. This is a tricky question.
The answer either needs to involve young boys—I mean pre-teens—or young barely legal men, and stories like that are not the tricky part. I’ve done variations on both themes, but with this guy I never know which he really wants, and he’s not telling. THAT is the tricky part.
More often than not he will switch up on me, after I’ve been going along at a good clip along one track, getting deeper and deeper into the narrative, such as it is. We’ve really developed this scene for six or seven minutes, and then suddenly he’ll say, “So what else have you been up to?” And that’s my cue, that we are jumping tracks, which means that I now have two minutes to start from ground zero, develop the plot, and get him to come. It feels as though he’s trying to jam two full-length feature films into a sexy three-minute trailer.
I feel more than a bit manipulated. The part of me that wants to keep people happy, this is the part that will let him go on and on and over the time limit, because he hasn’t come yet. He knows this, and at least partly believes that it’s entirely my responsibility, because he often demands it of me, in a way that is no less urgent for being entirely irrational: “Make me come, make me come!” If we’ve had to interrupt the story and start from the beginning again, well that’s okay. People change their mind.
But that other part of me is keeping one eye cocked at the timer, and it’s clear very quickly that he’s going to go over. I have no problem giving him the two-minute warning, and then telling him I have to go once he hits the upper limit of his over time (1 minute over). But it’s always work I’d rather not do, that I shouldn’t have to do if he hadn’t dropped onto a different track when the original time package was almost up.
I want him to choose, because my choosing is so rarely right. I can’t tell if I’m actually making the wrong choice all the time, or if that’s just the way he likes to operate. Why shouldn’t he? I mean, he gets a nice long appetizer followed by a quick and dirty main course, and more of that than he actually paid for. Sounds like a deal to me!
I finally told him in our most recent call, told him to choose for himself. He responded by saying, “Which one turns you on the most?” (because lately he’s been getting into me coming, SIGH). I had to bite back a sharp retort—NEITHER ONE TURNS ME ON, YOU IDIOT—and instead said, no, sweetie, you choose, I like ‘em both, but it’s more important what you want. Also, I added, because I was really sick of going over time with him, we need to pick one and stick to it. I always end up going over time with you, and I can’t do that.
“Oh,” he said, as if that problem had genuinely never occurred to him.
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I know that my callers are possibly/probably/definitely lying, depending on what we’re talking about. The more illegal or messy or “extreme” their fantasy is, the less likely it is that they are doing it in real life. I have to behave as if I believed my callers, just for better phone acting—I don’t want to sound skeptical or second-guess them, obviously—but that’s never really a problem. Some guys make it extra easy for me to think they’re lying.
Like the Sniffer. From the first call I took with him, I never believed in the existence of Wanda’s, his favorite brothel. I do think brothels exist. I just don’t believe that some brothel in the nearly rural South is just coincidentally staffed by a lot of the types of women that the Sniffer happens to like—older, very hirsute, chubby-to-fat, willing to stay “stinky”—types that are not commonly sought after out in the rest of the world. I doubt that he could walk in on a slow Sunday, as he says he normally does, and just pick out two or three stinky, hairy ladies who are willing to give him a free pass to eat out their well-fucked pussies and have them piss on him. There’s too much “that’s not the way the world works” in there.
So I’m used to having to stretch my mind to accommodate the Sniffer’s universe in it. I didn’t think he could lie any harder. He didn’t need to. Just stop there, sir. The tissue of untruth is getting might see-through. But no. He went ahead and put down another layer of bullshit.
He claimed, with all sincerity, that a work-from-home fraud protection representative called to check on some charges on his bank card, specifically the charges that my phone-sex company had processed, and when the Sniffer told the lady what those charges were for, and what he talked about during the phone sex sessions, he said that she not only did not hang up on him, but asked him questions about his fetishes and listened to him jack off toward the end of the call.
He said she sounded fascinated. I said, I bet. He said, “She kept asking me for details and so I gave them to her.” I said, Of course it sounds interesting. I bet she hasn’t really run across anything like this before. Meanwhile, my mind drifted to all of the non-sex phone workers I’ve heard being angry—and rightfully so—about dudes being sleazy at them during a work call. All of them would shut that shit down; none of them would consent to sit there and listen to a man jerking off. They don’t get paid enough for that. Hell, I barely get paid enough for that. Another lie.
But as I agreed and nodded and encouraged him to talk about this phone encounter that almost certainly does not exist, I realized that it’s not just his kinks that he wants indulged; he’s also got a fairly detailed fantasy about how other people feel about these kinks.
That is, by talking about the abundance of stinky, hairy, and charitable sex workers at the local brothel, or pretending that some random older lady checking on his credit card activity would be so interested in his kinks as to give him free phone sex, the Sniffer is creating a fantasy world where his kinks are common. He’s mixing up the bits where he’s special and unique with a world where he is welcomed as a sort of sexual connoisseur, where he could have his choice of lovely (by his standard) ladies with which to frolic, where he could randomly run into women who share his thing, who celebrate it.
Some people thrive on being an outsider, but most want to belong. Apparently even the Sniffer.
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I’ve been systematically dismantling Terrible Sex Tips for over a year now, flagging, reading, and shredding all kinds of sex and relationship pieces in an effort to really pinpoint why they are crap. This research uniquely qualifies me to speak out about how to become a more savvy consumer of such advice piece. How do you know when the tips are truly terrible? What red flags wave brightly from the pages of that women’s magazine or that men’s web site, warning you that what you’re about to read is going to be utter shite?
There are the obvious flags, like loading on credentials that turn out later to be from an online diploma mill, or calling something “kinky” or “adventurous” without discussing the subjectivity of desire, or calling a sex move “the best thing ever.” Oh, and hyperbole is fine when you’re just talking with friends, but I am not your friend, Sex Tip Writer, and your enthusiasm about an activity you just discovered gets in the way of my assessing the actual activity.
Here are seven more warning signs that the article you are looking at is probably Terrible:
- It includes positions without giving you good reasons for trying them. Usually this is couched in language like “something to cross off the list” or “worth it for bragging rights,” some shit like that. The higher the number contained in the title, the more likely you’re going to have some filler positions in there.
- It includes positions or activities for reasons that aren’t about sex or relationships at all. I get the whole interconnectivity of everything, and that we’re rarely “just” having fun. But there’s no need to add in exercises for maximizing your sweat time.
- It talks about public sex without bringing up ethics. It’s not prudish to talk about not involving bystanders in a scene against their will; that’s called “consent”. Some discussion of public sex and indecency charges and the law is also in order, at least mentioning it as a possible concern.
- It talks about BDSM without safety tips or safe words. How many “spice up your relationship with kink” pieces have I seen that talk about trying out soft bondage, like scarves or ties, without having a pair of emergency scissors or shears on hand? How many advocates of spanking or rape fantasies don’t bother talking about safe words? <sigh> Fuck you very much, 50 Shades of Grey.
- It pushes a product or specific skill/training as a solution. We understand that people putting themselves out there as experts—myself included!—are trying to drum up business for themselves in some way. But some “experts” are less expert than others, and a ham-handed link between writing and product/service just comes off as infomercial, and does not inspire trust. Also, you can tell when someone has gotten paid off by a PR rep.
- It is seasonal in nature, fucking on the Fourth of July or “give thanks for the thumb up the bum!” The reader is just going to get a list of recycled sex tips that have been renamed in some cheesy fashion. This is where you get “riding the reindeer” jokes. http://www.camerynmoore.com/2015/12/21/terrible-sex-tips-five-christmas-sex-positions-for-a-really-happy-holiday/
- It speaks generally about desire, usually about what men or women want, and doesn’t really spend any time at all on the real truth, that we are all different.
Why do I care about this stuff? Well, in my growing experience with Terrible Sex Tips, I find that the things that make them terrible often reveal gaps in our collective sexual awareness, or damaging assumptions or problematic myths. These seven signs of a Terrible Sex Tip piece are seven places where we need to do some work.
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My surfer dude is one of my few callers who has ever referred to his partner in our conversations, not in a sexual way, but in a “hey, this person exists in my life, and she’s amazing, but I couldn’t tell her the sorts of stuff I do with you” way. That’s a direct quote. So, since he was being really up front about this, I asked the logical follow-up question: why can’t you tell her? And he said simply, “She wouldn’t understand.”
I did not press, because that is not my job, to be a consciousness-raiser and sexuality coach. (Maybe it could be? I’ll get back to you on that. But definitely it is not something I do for my callers.) As far as I know, Surfer Dude is still with his girlfriend, and he obviously hasn’t told her, because he’s still calling me at least once a month, so that I can pretend to be a sexy female UPS driver delivering a new dildo and I catch "Wendy" watching porn and we can do some sweaty, hot, girl-on-girl frottage and pussy eating..
But that one sentence has remained emblematic for me, of the dilemma that so many people face when talking with their partners about their desires: “They wouldn’t understand.”
First of all, we don’t know that "they wouldn’t understand." When it comes to sharing our deep-down sexual truths with a partner, well, we hopefully have a good sense about our lovers’ general open-mindedness and adventurousness or what-not, we don’t know for a fact whether or not they will understand until we share our thing, until we open that door of mystery and see what's behind it. Self-disclosure always carries a risk. Someone who seems strict or uptight may be totally down, and someone who is otherwise very chill may have a private trauma in their past that they are reacting with. Or maybe it is just very strongly Not A Thing for them. We don’t know, so, strictly speaking, “they might not understand.”
And anyway, them not understanding is not the actual fear, is it? There is nothing to fear in someone looking at you blankly, or asking for repeated clarification, or finally, after 30 minutes of careful back-and-forthing, shrugging their shoulders and saying, “I just don’t get it.” Unspoken in that sentence is what we fear what might happen after, if they don’t.
What lies there, in that heart of fear? What might my surfer dude actually be afraid of? What are we afraid of, when we imagine our partners’ incomprehension or non-acceptance of our desires or fantasies or kinks?
- They might leave us, too disgusted by our revelation to be in our presence for one more day, one more minute.
- They might laugh at us, and share our secret with others so that they may laugh too.
- They might report us, if our fantasies are very extreme and on the other side of the taboo line.
- They might look at our life together as a lie, if they believe, as many people do, that fantasies must mean something in real life.
- They might look at our life together as a lie, if it turns out that our fantasies actually do mean something in real life.
- They might look at us as a liar, someone who cannot be trusted because what we reveal doesn’t match up with who they thought we were.
When you look at the array of possible outcomes to sharing our deepest scariest sex secrets, even with someone who loves us, then yes, Surfer Dude's trepidation makes total sense. As it is, he gets by with 10 or 15 minutes of phone sex every three or four weeks, and obviously feels that getting caught in it is something he's willing to risk more than what might happen if he told his girlfriend. We all have to make these judgment calls about our own lives. Sometimes things aren’t safe, emotionally or even physically. I won’t make that blanket judgment call for anyone.
But if you are facing one of these dilemmas, where you think someone “won’t understand,” I hope you’ll sit with it a while, and really think about all of the possible outcomes if they don’t understand, and then… well, what happens if they do?
Is opening that door worth it? Only you get to decide. But that decision should be a conscious one, which you revisit every now and then.
Living life in fear, even little fears, isn’t the best way to live.
I'm no sexuality and relationship coach, but I think about them a lot. It's just one of the many things I do in my writing work, which you help make possible when you become a patron of mine over on Patreon!