Tag Archives: feminism

Book Review: The Pleasure Plan by Laura Zam

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

This honest account of a quest for pain-free intimacy pulls no punches.

With its pink-purse cover and self-help-conjuring title, Laura Zam’s The Pleasure Plan has the auspices of yet another treatise on the elusive art of sexual-spark kindling. And while there can never be enough books written on the topic, this one has a slightly different audience in mind — namely, those of us too “broken” for a conventional sex book and for whom there is nothing normal or conventional about intercourse.

Not to mention that this book is more a quest to avoid pain than to find pleasure in the face of dyspareunia, vaginismus, or sexual aversion disorder. As the author puts it, “I have every hooha hangup in the DSM.” Though the condition affects between 10 and 20 percent of women, the author herself didn’t know it had a name — or names — until she was in her 40s.

Lest you’re inclined to think that incredibly painful intercourse is no big deal, people with disorders like vaginismus often cannot even wear tampons. Psychologically, they experience during sex something akin to PTSD. Intercourse is “like being a virgin every single time. Madonna, this is not sexy,” the author explains. And since sex is the lingua franca of our society, you can surmise what a death knell this can be for relationships.

The book — which grew, in part, out of the author’s “Modern Love” essay in the New York Times — starts on a happy note: Zam has met and married her husband, Kurt, but hasn’t told him about her “hooha hangups.”

Insert screeching-halt noise here.

You might be wondering how someone could not know his partner isn’t only not having a particularly good time in bed but is enduring lightning-bolt levels of pain. You might also wonder why the author hasn’t revealed this fact to the love of her life.

This dynamic is less a commentary on Zam’s particular relationship than an indictment of the social norms that drive women to literally grin and bare it. These norms also discourage women from admitting to anything other than a perfect sex life. As Zam puts it, “Privacy has stolen my life force.”

But tell her partner she does, and she goes a step further, undertaking the Sisyphean task of trying to remedy her problem. Like a lot of us “broken” ones, however, as a survivor of childhood trauma, she first must untangle how much of the issue is psychological, how much is physical, and how much is both — a case of “my mind is telling me yes, but my body is screaming a hell no.”

Zam begins a tortuous tour of 15 specialists, exploring EFT (emotional freedom techniques), hypnosis, tantra, trauma therapy, group couples’ workshops, pelvic-floor physical therapy, vaginal weights, and dilators. Unfortunately, vaginismus is poorly understood and difficult to treat, and the situation isn’t helped by various medical professionals’ dismissive stances.

For example, a hypnotist asked Zam pointedly, “You do want to stay married, right?” before doling out the several-hundred-dollar advice to “Just do it.” A sex therapist refuses to see Zam before sending her to a physical therapist first because “she doesn’t deal with vaginal pain.”

(Please, dear reader, don’t start in about how patient Kurt must be for going through this with her. Enough about others. Let’s talk about us, not the long-suffering partners we have a really hard time finding in the first place.)

While Zam’s book is filled with levity — which I interpret as “laughing to keep from crying” — there’s nothing funny about being in so much pain that every attempt at intimacy feels like something to be endured. “Do I love Kurt in these moments? I don’t know. I am too far away to notice,” writes the author. “I strap down my animal sadness so I don’t saturate the bed with the wrong kind of moisture.”

Zam interweaves into The Pleasure Plan stories of her family and growing up as a commentary on trauma and resilience. It makes for engrossing reading and, likely, some vigorous nodding in agreement from people who identify as female and who, like the author, laugh to keep from crying.

Although the clinical term of “vaginismus brought on by fear of penetration” is one way to describe the Hydra she is fighting, “I don’t want anything inside me” captures it more aptly. In its face, Zam perseveres long after most would have given up. At times, the methods of the “healers” she consults are downright hilarious, such as the cringe-worthy approach of “repeating vapid, lascivious language while in a pseudotrance.” (No, it doesn’t work.)

The response to Zam’s book has been overwhelmingly positive, and she has been praised for her bravery in writing it. Of course, a subset of critics harps on Kurt’s patience and understanding. But forget him for a moment. This is about her pain, remember?

The Pleasure Plan isn’t a quest for pleasure. It is an attempt to contend with physical and social pain — the pain of being rejected as a weirdo too broken to repair. Sex is enormously important in our society. If one can’t function sexually, is one doomed to a lifetime of loneliness?

The book is full of questions and exercises to help readers develop their own plan and asks, “Where are you stuck in your sexual healing?” Alas, this presupposes that we all want to become unstuck, when many of us have simply dropped out of the, er, marketplace altogether. Maybe in her next book, Zam could address some alternate forms of relationships where intimacy is not expressed through intercourse alone, open relationships, or even asexuality.

Despite this small cavil, The Pleasure Plan is a must-read not just for people affected by dyspareunia, but for anyone interested in learning more about a complicated condition foreign to most. The book will move you and keep you reading no matter your gender or “hooha hangups” — or lack thereof.

VICE’s New Channel for Women Aims to be the New Face of Feminism

My post for the Ministers of Design Blog

VICE, the magazine and online platform that has long be THE platform for all things subversive and hip (and arguably, wryly hipsterish), is launching a new channel Broadly, described as a “women’s interest platform that will feature original, reported stories on pretty much everything from a female perspective with online videos and articles.” By women; for women.

Tracie Egan Morrissey, a veteran editor at Jezebel, brought the idea of a site telling stories from a woman’s perspective to Vice cofounders Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi last year. “I pitched them this idea,” she says, “and they hired me on the spot.”

At launch, Broadly has “Ovary Action,” a show about the war on women’s reproductive rights; “Style & Error,” a show about women’s fashion, like the iconic power suit; and an interview series called “Broadly Meets,” featuring prominent women like Rose McGowan and Virginie Despentes.

To avoid the terrible trolling that usually besets anything even remotely related to women on the web, Broadly will have no comments section: “When women are speaking online, it’s such a lightning rod for every angle—other feminists are telling you you’re not doing feminism properly, MRAs are coming in and calling you a fat whore,” Morrissey explains.

Vice tends to skew to a rather masculine audience, even if a lot of the readers are female too, but with swagger-ific coverage of things like the Atlanta Twins, porn stars, and Action Brosnon, it’s not exactly Gloria Steinem’s oeuvre either.

“Young women—millennial women—are really smart, are really well educated, and they want this kind of news,” Morrissey adds. “It’s fun to be distracted on Twitter with bullshit here and there, but covering abortion rights and the things happening to women right now is really, really, really needed.”

So how does Broadly intend to deal with the dreaded “feminazi” label or even more the point, the commodification of feminism as “girl power.”  “I think if you’re a woman, and you’re not a feminist, then you’re an idiot,” Morrissey says.

So, here’s to Broadly–the broad news sources for us broads. With its grrl power, rather than “girl power,” ethos, Vice’s “better half” looks to be off to a riotous start. Follow Broadly on Twitter at @Broadly.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Focus on Care at Home and Abroad

My piece published here
Also here
Renowned scholar and President of the New America Foundation, Anne-Marie Slaughter, visited SIS as part of the Dean’s Discussion lecture series. Titling her talk, Revaluing Care, at Home and Abroad, Dr. Slaughter spoke about a broad range of issues, domestic and foreign. The revaluing of care is a reference to a feminist theory called ethics of care; one of the relevant tenets of that theory is valuing actions in the private sphere equally to those in the public one.
In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter published an article in The Atlantic entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All; she wryly remarked that, to this day, this article keeps being referenced as the article amongst the myriad of pieces she has authored in her 20+ year academic career.  In outlining the evolution of her thinking since the article was published, Dr. Slaughter said, “I don’t think the problem alone is discrimination against women, although that is not to dismiss that as an ongoing problem facing women, especially low-income women.” The severe underrepresentation of women in positions of power is, in a sense, baffling considering the much-rosier statistics of women graduating college. “The deeper problem that unites the many facets of the symptoms we see is less about women per se and more about not valuing the kind of work that women have traditionally done. We don’t value care; we value competition and consumption.”

“There is a deep unconscious bias on the part of men in the academy. We need more women in senior professorial positions. So much of advancing in the academic requires being selfish and saying ‘no’ as what is valued are big ideas and a body of scholarship. This often works against women who mentor students and are asked to contribute to the community.”

Dr. Slaughter suggested that until we are able to value care as much as earning an income and until we learn to support care-givers, not much headway can be made. She has been using Twitter (and the hashtags #wherearethewomen and #foreignpolicyinterrupted) actively to raise the profile of women in international affairs. “There is a deep unconscious bias on the part of men in the academy. We need more women in senior professorial positions. So much of advancing in the academic requires being selfish and saying ‘no’ as what is valued are big ideas and a body of scholarship. This often works against women who mentor students and are asked to contribute to the community.”
Taking her care vs. competition framework to a grander scale, Dr. Slaughter said, “We should place an equal weight on human interest and government interest. What happens to people in a country should be of as much value as what happens politically.” Referring to the ongoing civil war, she stated, “I have been very passionate about the need to do more in Syria.” Invoking the principle of “responsibility to protect” is relevant in the case of Syria which is committing crimes against humanity on its own territory. “Syria is the Rwanda of our time. An estimated 150,000 people have already died in this conflict; the entire region surrounding Syria has become majorly destabilized.” Dr. Slaughter expressed outrage and dismay that Assad is still allowed to operate from the air, a capacity she feels could have easily and swiftly been disabled by intervention. “I wish the President had used force as soon as the chemical weapons use by Assad, with the approval of international bodies.” Talking about Russia, Dr. Slaughter felt that Putin is being given way too much power by the second-Cold-Water rhetoric. “His approval ratings are not that great at home,” she added.
You can watch a video of her talk here.

Cosmopolitan Sex Workers: An Interview with Christine Chin

Originally published on The Stoner’s Journal

Professor Christine Chin came to write her ground-breaking book, Cosmopolitan Sex Workers: Women and Migration in a Global City, somewhat reluctantly as sex work a subject she was not initially interested in and one that is fraught with contention in feminist scholar circles.My first book was about domestic workers in Asia; my second was about global cruise ships. Even though I kept hearing about sex workers, I was not interested in conducting research on the topic initially. One of the reasons was that the debate amongst feminists on how to understand this phenomenon was divided between abolitionists and those who felt that sex workers had agency and that it was a valid choice, with the dominant perspective being the abolitionist. I did not want to get into this debate as I felt it was too binary and picking a side was incredibly limiting.”

Dr. Chin instead allowed what was coming in from the field to shape her line of inquiry—for example, news reports of immigration raids were suggesting that not all of the women in the industry had been trafficked. “I started to dig into this somewhat reluctantly, but I also saw how the literature up to this point was so rigid and so…almost morally rarefied; it was very focused on sex trafficking and I felt that there was an unrecognized spectrum of experience that could only be seen by letting the women tell their stories.”
Utilizing an ethnographic method, Dr. Chin interviewed a number of sex workers from all over the world–including Asia, the Middle East, and Russia–living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, shattering  many of the prevailing views on the industry, and turning her research lens on non-trafficked women who willingly migrate to major global metropolises for sex work. Uncovering a wide spectrum of experiences, including the nature of the migration (serial, where women shuttle back and forth between home and a city vs. circular, where the women move within the global cities of a region and then move to another region), whether the workers moved with the aid of a syndicate or independently, and the motivation for their involvement in the industry, Cosmopolitan Sex Workers paints a complex picture of the structural forces of globalization at play and how the women very keenly understand and respond to them.
When I sat down with Dr. Chin to discuss her book, she outlined three of the key findings of Cosmopolitan Sex Workers. Firstly, migration for sex work is being globalized via an interconnected web of global cities that are nodes on this new frontier. For example, there are Senegalese women in Paris and Eastern European women in the Middle East—in other words, the same forces at play as a result of globalization are impacting this industry in predictable ways as well. The clients these women serve also travel to these destinations driven by the same economic motivations. Second, the common assumption that the workers are the “poorest of the poor,” is often not true. Some of the women are college graduates and/or come from middle class families. The women enter the business for a variety of reasons. For example, to assist their families, save money to start a business, get an education abroad, enjoy a certain more consumptive lifestyle, or simply earn income while travelling. These are the same reasons most workers migrate, regardless of their profession. From the women’s perspective, and the reason Dr. Chin prefers to use the term “sex work” rather than “prostitution,” sex work is work.  Dr. Chin underlines the fact that doing this strictly for survival purposes is not always the case; for many of the women, this is a very calculated choice based on a careful consideration of their ability to earn income doing work that is commonly associated with—and available to–migrants, more specifically domestic work or other blue-collar labor. Sadly, the math weighs heavily on the side of sex work, which could earn them something akin to ten times as much as what they could bring in otherwise. Women’s monthly incomes (post-syndicate “taxes”) range between several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. Thus, the impetus lies somewhere between a familiar, pragmatic strategy and an imperative.

Trafficking map: USA Routes

Sex trafficking USA routes via anti-trafficking organization The Future Group

Finally, Dr. Chin reflects on how neoliberal globalization facilitates the occurrence of the relatively new phenomenon of non-trafficked sex workers. Some of the women contract with syndicates or facilitating groups—one of those syndicates is explored in-depth in the book. Morphing from a traditional Chinese secret society or a triad to a new model of a transnational corporation, it reflects the environment of the global city. Whereas organizations such as this one previous dealt in debt bondage and extortion, the newly “cleaned up” climate of the global cities rendered those feudal vestige industries obsolete, if you will. This is a horizontal organization that conducts a lot of “legitimate” business, such as investing and as a business organization also responds to the needs of its clients. What are those needs, you might ask? Predictably, fair-skinned women are in high demand, as are African women who are perceived to be “exotic” in Europe. To quote one of the members, “they want to make this a five star city; we will give them five star women.” Women who contract with such syndicates pay agreed-upon fees and a percentage of their income in return for syndicate-arrangement of their travel documents, transportation, board and lodging, and personal security.  The spaces for the sex work are very varied as are the hierarchies of what was “in,” in other words: The physical characteristics of the women controlled where they could work and what prices they could command. Most of these women come into the cities under the auspices of either a tourist or a student visa. Though it deserves mentioning that some actually were receiving legitimate educations and not just using the visa status as a cover.

“The political economy of colonialism is not that terribly removed from the political economy of globalization and the sex industry illustrates that these ‘shadow economies’ are not afterthoughts or side effects but something that is inherently built into the system.”

“The political economy of colonialism is not that terribly removed from the political economy of globalization and the sex industry illustrates that these ‘shadow economies’ are not afterthoughts or side effects but something that is inherently built into the system,” Dr. Chin says. This system, in parallel with the same structural forces in place under colonialism, is highly gendered and racialized. Dr. Chin explains, “The book shows the gradations, the nuances of something that was previously thought to be very binary. I wanted to show that the women are responding, and rather astutely so, to structural forces at play. They understand the hypocrisies inherent in the system—the fact that their occupation is morally-condemned, yet at the same time, work such as being a domestic servant is so incredibly low-paying and subjects them to abuse as well.”