Exposing40

Friends. Photography. Adventure.

Category: Review (page 1 of 2)

Status, stigma and self-testing

I am writing this from the back of a vehicle in Nigeria. I’m in Lagos, the biggest city in Africa and home to 21 million people. New Africa. A so-called mega city. Vibrant, ambitious, tenacious, captivating. And becoming increasingly liberal as the trappings of our globalised world take hold? Not where it really matters, no.
Today I was told of a dress code for women who attend a business skills development course. Encouraged into business and championed as role models for a modernising country? Yes, but as just as long they don’t do it in trousers, v neck tops or skirts that end above the knee. But worse than that, sexual freedom is being curtailed.
In 2014, the Nigerian government increased the punishment for homosexuality to 14 years in jail. Anyone ‘assisting couples’ may face a 10 year sentence. In 2010, just 18% of men who have sex with men were reached with HIV prevention services. They do not access the services they need to manage their sexual health out of fear for their freedom. The result? In 2007, 13.5% of men who have sex with men were living with HIV. By 2016, that had risen to 23%. It’s not only men who have sex with men whose health is being failed by the Nigerian government. They are falling short on recommended target for testing, treatment and counselling services for the whole population. The country has second largest HIV epidemic in the world.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, in my hotel my room in Lagos, I exercised a privilege many Nigerians don’t have. I took an HIV test. The kit came courtesy of Freedom Shop and was given to me at Eroticon. The whole process took about half an hour in total: a few minutes reading the blurb that came with the test, five or ten minutes rereading The Other Livvy and Emmeline Peach’s great reviews, an embarrassing number of minutes summoning up the courage to use the lancet and then 15 minutes for the test to progress. It was easy, discreet and, actually, quite an empowering experience. It may sound odd to say I enjoyed the process, but I did. I was in control.
I live in the UK. Here we can pick up a kit like the Bio-Sure HIV Self Test for under £30 and test at a time that suits us. If we have a little more time and are not anxious about visiting a clinic we can test for free. Home testing kits are free for high risk groups. Yet, despite the ease with which we can access testing and a low prevalence rate, the UK still needs to make progress. Here, new diagnoses are almost double the average for Western Europe, it is estimated that 13,500 are unaware of their positive status and 40% of those diagnosed positive receive a late diagnosis. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles found that just 14% of those who identified as high risk had taken a test recently.
It is easy to think that the world has got a handle on the HIV pandemic. Comparatively speaking it has. The first time I worked in Africa, in 2003, I was visiting communities where almost the entire population of working age adults had died and the majority of households were headed by grandparents or children. Then, fewer than 200,000 people around the world were accessing treatment, now 19.5 million people receive antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. An HIV positive person on ARVs who has had an undetectable viral load for more than six months can’t pass it on.
But there is still a long way to go. 17.2 million HIV+ people still aren’t getting treatment. The rate of HIV infection hasn’t declined amongst adults since 2010. There were 1.8 million new cases in 2016. We all have a role to play in tackling HIV, by taking care of our own sexual health, especially if we are lucky enough to live in a country where stigma is (relatively) low and testing and treatment services are free, by staying up to date on the facts and testing our knowledge and joining campaigns where our voice can make a difference.
Happy World AIDS Day!
For self-testing kits plus a whole lot of other useful stuff for staying safe and heathy visit https://www.freedoms-shop.com/

When Love-Affair Friendships End

This time last year I’d just been dumped. Not quite ghosted but not far off. In the year since it happened I’ve trodden the well-worn post-break-up path; there’s been shock, disbelief, ‘what did I do wrong?’ wondering, looking at their social media feeds, sadness, anger and bitching. The only good thing about it all is that I haven’t been going through it alone. You see, I wasn’t dumped by a lover, I was dumped by a friend and Jedi Hamster and Charlotte Brown were dumped at the same time.
The screen grab opposite is the message that dropped into our WhatsApp group (and yes, don’t judge, we did also have a separate for-spoiler-avoidance GBBO chat!) and then ‘xx left’. Just like that. Actually, probably not ‘just like that’. In hindsight the signs had been there for a while: subtle and not-so-subtle silences that would smart; an air of disapproval and judgement; casual criticism of things we’d always enjoyed together that felt like a point being made; and sometimes just undeniably mean behaviour.
But why am I using this language? Isn’t it a bit relationship-y? Well, yes, but in the last week I’ve discovered a new label – love-affair friendships. I picked it up in Rosie Wilby’s Is Monogamy Dead? In it she references the “impenetrable fortress of female friendship”, speaks of how “intense non-sexual trysts between women are common” and ponders whether “a world beyond the oppressive binary of relationships being either sexual or not, might be the richer and more vibrant one.”
I wonder how many of you are nodding along to that as I was when I read those words. I’d wager that many women reading this will recognise some of their friendships in those statements. Not all of them. We can ‘just’ be mates. But it’s undeniable that many (most?) of us have a handful of ‘food for the soul’ friendships that aside from the physical component can feel as intimate as the relationships we enjoy with our partners. Are those friendships more common between women than men? I don’t know!
So what was our group was like? Well, we were funny as fuck, obviously. We were so funny we decided we needed a shared Twitter account to give life to our musings and observations. That was bollocks and lasted about a month – in jokes are rarely funny to the outside world! But while the belly laughs were good, we bonded over far more than our ability to make each other laugh; all of us single, childfree and with complex relationships with our families, we recognised ourselves and our hang-ups in each other’s experiences and responses. Some of our chats about body positivity and sex probably sowed the seeds of this blog. Jedi Hamster came up with the name Exposing 40!
Should friendships like this last forever just because, for a time, they felt so significant? No, of course not! I have often thought that there’s excessive pressure for longevity and commitment placed on female friendships and an assumption of loyalty that is rarely expected of male friends or sexual partnerships. A few years back a sociologist from the University of Utrecht in the Netherland founds that on average we ‘lose’ 50% of our friends every seven years. I can believe this. Lives evolve, circumstances change and we meet new friends through jobs, travels, volunteering, new lovers.
But there’s a difference between the natural ebb and flow of ‘of the moment’ friendships and the fracturing of the ones that help shape us. And there’s no recognisable prescription for getting over those. No automatic right to mourn. If I split up with a partner and needed a cry or a bitch, that would be perfectly normal – people know how to rally for that. Break up with a friend and want to talk it out? There aren’t the same social norms around that.
But how does all this fit with a book about monogamy? Doesn’t monogamy refer to lovers not friends? Well, you might think so but Rosie explores monogamy in the wider sense. The jumping off point for her book is a survey where she poses a series of questions to help her unpick respondents’ views on monogamy and what counts as infidelity. Now, if you’re a deeply scientific person concerned with credible representative samples, then look away. Me? As a twenty-something PR who felt her cheeks burn when interrogated by a journalist about the ‘80% of Welsh respondents’ and then had to confess that the Welsh contingent in fact numbered 10, it should be said that I am not averse to a wafer-thin bit of evidence if it provides a good hook for a story. And this book is full of good stories.
If you’re endlessly fascinated with human experiences, emotions and behaviours then ignore the sample size (100!) and just soak up the stories. Through 49 pithy and anecdote-driven chapters Rosie explores what monogamy really means. If you’re not in an open relationship what counts as cheating, kissing or falling in love but doing nothing about it? Do our needs for emotional security and physical intimacy need to be found in the same person? That’s a lot of pressure for one person. If our lives are a rich tapestry of different people with whom we enjoy different connections, are we all a bit non-monogamous?
As the book is winding up she talks about the issue of language and muses that “if we don’t have the words for a particular type of loving relationship, we can’t talk about it and it remains invisible.” Like I said above, I hadn’t heard the term love-affair friendship until a week ago. I don’t actually need my friendships to be more visible in the literal sense of the word – I play a pretty open hand as far as talking about the friends that really matter to me goes! But taking that label to reconsider certain friendships was an interesting exercise.
Was our friend wrong for wanting out? No. No more than a partner would be wrong for ending a relationship if it no longer brought joy. But I also know exactly how she would have responded had a man behaved towards us in the way she did. What are our responsibilities when we decide a friendship has run its course? There’s no blueprint for ending them. But just going dark leaves a bitterness that’s sometimes a bit hard to swallow, even if the collective moaning sessions are therapeutic.
Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

On the power of feedback

“My name is Exposing 40 and I am a feedback junkie”.
I wish I wasn’t. I wish I didn’t need the endorphin rush of kind words and encouragement. I wish that silence didn’t occasionally leave me a quivering ball of self-doubt. I wish that thoughtless and careless words didn’t break me. But as I’ve increasingly realised as I get older, it’s very hard to change the way we are hardwired.
I have a friend who used to say ‘R-E-F-L-E-C-T-O-R’ in a deep sci-fi film voice whenever I started a conversation with ‘I’ve been thinking…’ I’m sure many friends and lovers over the years have uttered a silent ‘oh fuck, here we go’ when I start a conversation with those words. Sometimes I have just been thinking and have a passing point to make, but more often than not it’s shorthand for ‘I’ve been worrying about this and I really need to talk it through to get my head round it/feel reassured/be told I am worrying about nothing etc etc’.
For many years I tried to stifle this tendency and my need for feedback and discussion when I was with partners. I worried that this need equalled ‘neediness’ and if there’s one thing I loathe the idea of being, it’s needy. But I’ve realised (after much thinking and reflection, of course!) that the need to discuss my insecurities and seek out reassurance from those I trust is a strength, not a weakness. For me, it’s about learning about myself, facing up to what makes me feel vulnerable and trying to be the best I can be.
When it comes to sex, I want to talk through things I have or haven’t tried and I want feedback on what I do and whether I am doing it well. Regarding body confidence, I don’t mind admitting how much I have gained from people’s comments on my photos or how good an enthusiastic comment when I am naked makes me feel. We seek out development opportunities – whether that’s a professional coach, a tailored marathon training plan or a course about something we’re interested in – in all other areas of life without questioning it so why not with sex and our relationship with our bodies?
Earlier this year a new partner said ‘sit on my face’ in a tone that wasn’t brooking any argument. I hesitated for a fraction and then did as he instructed. ‘I’ve never done that before,’ I said an hour or so later as we were eating pizza. He looked surprised. ‘I just have things in my head that I don’t think are possible as a bigger woman.’ It’s true. It’s not like I actually thought I’m going to suffocate someone with my stomach, but I just had it in my head that it wouldn’t be hot for them. He and I ended up having a chat about weight and different body types and sex that left me feeing that little bit more relaxed and confident. And I’ve happily hopped on board his and other faces since. Win!
But while comfortable conversation can bolster us, words delivered carelessly can diminish us. Last summer, out of the blue, someone I was close to told me my photography was becoming lazy and I wasn’t making any effort anymore. I’m posting naked photos of myself and my friends to help us celebrate our diverse bodies and I am writing posts that think through some of my bigger emotional obstacles and I am being lazy? The unkindness of that comment, delivered across a table in a crowded pub, reduced me to tears and that friendship was never the same again. That someone would be so unkind about this photography project, which has been the source of so much fun and personal growth for me and helped other people feel differently about themselves, rocked me. Recently the awesome @confess_hannah wrote powerfully in her post Pussy Pride about the lasting impact of a thoughtless comment about her vulva.
Earlier this month I attended the Scarlet Ladies Body Positive Sex event. Many things were discussed during the evening but as I let the discussions percolate in my brain for a week or so, what I kept coming back to was that many of the experiences women shared – both good and bad – were connected back to this idea of feedback and the power other people’s words have to lift us up or crush us.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of Scarlet Ladies, it was founded by Sarah and Jannette who believe in the power of sharing ideas and experiences to change perceptions around female sexuality. Their regular women-only discussion events provide a safe and confidential space where women can share experiences. So, if you fancy attending in the future and are concerned that you might see yourself quoted on a blog somewhere, don’t worry – I am not writing anything without consent and all the quotes below come from answers to my emailed questions.
Attending the event was Michelle from Mindset for Life. Michelle runs the brilliant Scarred not Scared campaign, which draws on her experiences of having 15 post-surgery scars and encourages others to share the stories of their scars. On the evening she spoke of only having had one positive sexual experience.
“My most recent experience in the bedroom was the positive experience I was referring to (thankfully I’ve had another since the talk!) and that was when the guy I was with kissed my scars. Every time before there have been negative comments, awkwardness around it or blatant body shaming. These negative experiences have made me more hesitant to talk about my surgeries and more nervous when I finally do discuss them. Now, they don’t affect my body image but when I was younger, they certainly did – it really fed into what I believed about my attractiveness and more so, I thought it was a normal way to react. Through my experiences, I was taught that scars were disgusting and I learnt to agree.”
Co-founder Sarah, who was on the panel for this event, told a quite wonderful story about the time a boyfriend spent 20 minutes or more just looking at and gently playing with her vulva, describing it in detail. It was completely spontaneous and really a very beautiful and intimate experience. It was something that was really special and allowed me to open up to him sexually in ways I had not previously. It was almost as if I broke free from the confinement of having to be beautiful all the time. It just didn’t matter. My vulva is what it is and that’s fine. It no longer needed a label of whether it was beautiful or ugly or something in between.” Sarah said.
That experience also stood her in good stead for the time a casual partner said her vulva looked like a cauliflower. “That incident, as I tried to explain on the panel, did not affect me at all. It was funny when he said it and we had a laugh. This incident only happened in the last few years, by which point I was already pretty confident about the appearance of my vulva. Had someone said that to me when I was 20, it would have been a different story.”
I think there’s a nice point in that comment from Sarah about the value of having positive experiences in the bank and how they build our resilience and self-confidence. In the same way that Michelle experienced self-doubt from the layering of negative experiences, Sarah’s ability to cope with what at other times in her life may have been a damaging comment was born out of that banked experience. I’m not saying we should all leap on the positive feedback bandwagon and throw it around like a confetti at a wedding, but I do think it is worth remembering that casual words of encouragement or bigger meaningful discussions can play a role in building the confidence of those closest to us.
I and many others in the sex blogging community have spoken before about what a warm and supportive space our part of the internet is. I know much of my personal development over the last 2.5 years has come as a result of this blog. The photography side of it is unapologetically celebratory and fun, while over time my writing has become more open and honest. Reading other people’s blogs and talking to people I have met on here has encouraged me to be more honest with myself and others about what I really think and what my expectations are. It has taught me not to be embarrassed by my emotional response to things.
As the evening ended it struck me that many of people who attend these events probably aren’t part of the sex blogging community. What Scarlet Ladies creates in its safe places is the spirit of openness and support and learning that many of us here benefit from on a day-to-day basis. At the event Michelle spoke with some emotion and frustration about the changing nature of the body positivity movement. She spoke of not quite knowing where to go next with her work. Last week when I looked her up on Twitter to make contact for this post I spotted her announcement that all her social content for the week would be sex-related: “Inspired by @scarletladies”, she’d tweeted. There’s some feedback worth having!
Scarlet Ladies invited me to the event in return for a review but all opinions are my own. Many more topics were discussed on the evening beyond the angle I have chosen to explore in this post. The wide-ranging conversation covered everything from period sex to body hair to fat girl fetishes to fat positivity versus body positivity. If you’re interested in checking out a Scarlet Ladies event you can find out more at http://scarletladiestalk.com/.
 

Shaping the Body

It’s Saturday, it’s sunny and even better I have a guest post from @jedihamster001. I’ve had my eye on the Shaping the Body exhibition up in York for quite a while now. I’ve been to the city twice in my life; she’s a regular visitor. So when she hopped on the train north recently I added this to her list of things to do. She’s wrong about her “less than perfect” body (*insert Paddington Bear hard stare) and about 99 Red Balloons, but other than that this is an awesome read!

As good and solid a friendship as Exposing 40 and I have, our opinions differ on a lot of things: She’s never seen Star Wars, I’ll never love anyone the way I love Chewbacca. There are entire whatsapp conversations dedicated to which language one should sing 99 Red Balloons in (German, obviously). I once had to pretend it was agave nectar sweetening our watermelon mimosas (sorry about that, E40, but who doesn’t like honey?!).
When it comes to getting our kecks off in front of others, again we’re different: E40 joyfully takes hers off at any given opportunity and invites lusty gazes, whilst I don’t really believe that anyone could, would, or indeed should want to look upon my less-than-perfect form.
So when I found myself on a random weekend in York a few weeks ago, I was really interested to go (at her suggestion) to the Shaping The Body exhibition at the Castle Museum: charting 400 years of fashion, food and life, and how the definition of the ‘perfect’ body has changed over the centuries.
That weekend was almost 20 years to the day since I’d first visited the city before going to college there, 18 years old and with no clue about who or what I wanted to be. As walked through the city on my way I started thinking about how I looked in 1997, what I wore, and how I felt about my body.
I’ve always been a big girl, and as a teen I was painfully aware of my flaws, comparing myself to my thinner friends and batting away any compliments, convinced that I was being at best humoured and at worst, mocked. I had no clue about dressing myself: scruffy student stayed with me far longer after graduating than it should have done and I honestly have no idea why denim shirts were such a big part of my wardrobe. No really. I had THREE.
These days, I use my clothes as my costume. When I need to feel powerful at work, it’s the rock chick look with lots of mascara and big high-heeled boots; to feel demure it’s a flowery dress, sandals and a shit-ton of lip goo that my hair invariably gets stuck in (I said I knew how to dress myself, I never said I was graceful!). My clothes are my armour, making me into the person I need to be at that given moment. Take away that armour and I’m just a wobbly thirtysomething overly concerned about her backrolls.
Shaping the Body works hard to show its visitors that worrying about how we look is by no means a modern phenomenon:
“In today’s selfie generation, it is said that we have become more image conscious than ever before, with the lengths that people will go to in order to achieve the ‘perfect’ look seeming ever more drastic, but the reality is that even before the age of the digital camera, people would go to extremes to conform to fashion, whether through changing diet or clothing which modified the body’s shape,” [taken from the York Castle Museum website]
There’s an interesting trawl through some torturous clothing – a corset that cinched in the waist to mere inches, spiky heels that could easily double as a weapon, and I’m pretty sure I spotted a dress lined with mercury. Century by century and, latterly, decade by decade trends and styles are analysed: I laughed for about a year when I realised that circa 1752, ‘you’re looking thin’ could have been seen as an insult.
All of this was interesting but by no means ground-breaking. What really made me catch my breath was further into the exhibition, exploring body image, how we view our bodies and how we define ourselves with what we wear.
img_2701A clothes dummy covered in labels where people were encouraged to write about how they feel about themselves yielded the header image, and the below brought tears to my eyes – the artist had made a plaque to commemorate the moment the first time he tried on a man’s shirt in public after coming out as trans.
A transwoman had donated the outfit she wore when she felt she first ‘passed’ as female; punks described how they were judged not on their personality but on their hairstyles; fashion students created pieces in response to the theme ‘Identity’ with mixed results – some felt more profound maybe than others, but emphasised that it’s unfair to scoff at another’s insecurities.
It gave me a lot to think about as I exited through the gift shop. I’m not sure I learned anything new but as a resource for teens/young people to combat the constant barrage of what constitutes ‘perfection’, it’s invaluable. My 18 year old self would have loved it, I think. 38 year old me is still laughing about the denim shirts.

Things that made me go WOW

More than two weeks has passed since the WOW Festival and I had meant to write something before now. Where does time go? I went to a couple of really thought-provoking sessions, one on body positivity and one on the politics and socioeconomics of food and will draw some reflection from those together in a longer post at some point over the next few weeks. But before that I wanted to share a few quick recollections of some things that grabbed my attention and that I think some of you may be interested in.
Foreign Body by Imogen Butler-Cole
This was a really beautiful, powerful and courageous show exploring healing after sexual assault. At times it was hard to remember to breathe. The physical performance was captivating but the power comes in the verbal testimonies from the performer, the perpetrator of one of her assaults and survivors of sexual assault. That the perpetrator was included in the show was both powerful and particularly relevant given the festival had bowed to pressure to remove a session where a speaker was to appear alongside the man who raped her.
Many of us know Emily Rose through Twitter or from Eroticon; as Emily Jacob she runs Reconnected Life and was speaking on the panel after the show. Related to the controversy, she made some really interesting points about the need to involve men who assault women in dialogue, saying it will help break down the misconception that rapists are ‘a mysterious monster in the shadows’ – “they are our neighbours, people we know, perceived pillars of the community, and that needs to be talked about.”
Foreign Body is showing at Hamilton House in Bristol on Friday 31st March and Saturday 1st April if you happen to be in the area.
“Your human rights are our human rights”
In her closing address on the Sunday afternoon Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, Jude Kelly, noted that she was speaking to a room of predominantly white women. She called on us to not just check that privilege but to use it where we can to create change.
This echoed the call to action I had heard in two sessions over the weekend where twice speakers had spoken of how the human rights of Asian communities are ignored in the face of white people’s fears that they would be tiptoeing around cultural practices. “Don’t be afraid to speak out because you’re white, it’s not offending another culture.” said Coco Khan of The Guardian in the Sex and the Subcontinent session, “If you see a friend being bullied or abused, stick up for them. Your human rights are our human rights.” That came on the back of a discussion about a young Asian man who after 13 years in a relationship with another man came out to his family, but was so publically shamed by them he committed suicide.
The day before Jasvinder Sanghera, the founder of Kharma Nirvana which supports victims of honour crimes and forced marriages, told the audience that in one academic year in one local authority in the north of England 110 girls were removed from the school register to be forced into marriage. The police officer who raised it was disciplined. 110 girls removed from schools to be taken out of the country to be forced into marriage and no action taken.
Be each other’s Wonderbras
Phyllis Lyon had never heard the word lesbian when she became friends with Del Martin in 1950. In 1952 they became lovers. On Valentine’s Day 1953 they moved into an apartment on Castro Street in San Francisco. In 1955 they founded Daughters of Bilitis, the first social and political organisation for lesbians in the US. In the 1960s Betty Friedan, then president of the National Organisation of Women, referenced Daughters of Bilitis when she coined the expression ‘lavender menace’ to describe the threat that she believed lesbian associations posed to the emerging women’s movement.
Another woman we heard about was Ida B Wells, the first black female editor of a newspaper in the US and a civil rights and women’s rights activist. Wells had a long running and public feud with Frances Willard a white suffragist and also dedicated a chapter of her book A Red Record to condemning Willard for using rhetoric that promoted crimes against African Americans in America. Apparently, as recently as 1967 black women were told by white women to walk at the back of feminist marches in the US.
These stories were shared in the Badass Feminists from History session. We learnt that throughout history some of the biggest challenges to the feminist movement has come from other parts of feminist movement. Author Kathy Lette called on us to be each other’s Wonderbras and always support each other. The Pollyanna in me agrees with that. But this piece argues that the intersectionality of issues within the movement means there has always been and will always be ‘infighting’ and that debate and argument are inevitable, healthy and make it stronger. I can see both points.
Both the above stories and 50 more can be found in Modern Women: 52 Pioneers.
Postscript: Lyon and Martin married in June 2008 in the first same-sex wedding to take place in San Francisco after the California Supreme Court’s legalised same-sex marriage in California. Martin died three months later.
Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

Faces, Freebies and Friends!

For Wicked Wednesday’s Meeting prompt and @writtenbyjenny’s Ten Things I Took Home from Eroticon meme…

Faces: I didn’t actually take faces away. That would be gruesome. But I put faces to bodies! I have been admiring the creativity, honesty, vulnerability, courage and downright hotness of my fellow Sinful Sundayers for more than two years now. How wonderful to meet so many of you.

HIV testing kit: You don’t have to find time to visit a clinic or go out of your way to keep on top of your sexual health responsibilities. I’ll be trying Freedoms Shop’s  home HIV testing kit and posting a review here very soon. Eroticon delegates will recognise the name from the generous quantities of free lube and condoms.

Prizes and freebies: The Eroticon tombola was about 100 times more brilliant than the last village fete one I took a chance on. Dodgy talcum powder, strange tinned food or a We Vibe Wish? *Happy dance* Add to that all goodies from the amazing sponsors, the Kinkcraft cane I made and the book I snaffled from Girl on the Net and you’ll appreciate that my inner magpie is very happy.

Purchases: The shopportunities were glorious! A beautiful ceramic dildo from Ceramic Pleasures was the first thing to get me to dip my hands in pocket. And a generous 30% Godemiche discount resulted in a Galaxy Ambit and GOLD GLITTERY butt plug hitting my online shopping basket on Monday. Yes I did say GOLD GLITTER. It’s from the new Effulgence range. Effulgence means brilliant radiance. So I learnt a glorious new word too.

Resolve: For more than 18 months I’ve been chewing over an idea for an essay focused on the role of nudity in political protest. I haven’t got off my arse to research this but I ran the idea past Kate Lister as a potential post for Whores of Yore and she liked it. And now I am saying I will do it here so I will have to.

Ideas: In the opening session the panel referenced the lack of diversity in imagery for sex stories in the mainstream media. I asked the panel what the photographers in the room could do about this. It’s a difficult one; photo libraries pay little and setting up your own commercial library is hard work (I am doing this in my professional life at the moment!). Nobody should have to give away their work. But I am also interested in how we might be able to use the collective talents, body types and identities of those in our community to change visual narratives. Ideas and conversations about this welcome.

More consideration: A month ago I had this conversation with Exhibit A on Twitter. Yesterday ahead of meeting Formidable Femme I had a wander through her archive and read this post. I wouldn’t say my views on wanting to see nudes on my timeline has changed that much and I would much rather people posted the direct links to their nudes so the preview images catch my eye amidst the stock shots (see above point!). BUT I would be much more mindful of consent and a lot less quick with my ‘pah, people should be more open-minded!’ than I was a month ago. As we pottered in Sh! Women’s Store I asked Sarah her view. My blog is about celebrating the beauty of all our bodies and for me hiding my photos is at odds with that. Her view was to still share the posts but tweet a warning before sharing certain images. I am not sure how well this would work when Twitter has an annoying habit of muddling up the order in which we see tweets, but it’s certainly something I will be more thoughtful about doing when appropriate. I think it’s a balance and at the moment I can’t see me offering warnings about joyful silly celebratory photos of a couple of bottoms running across a bridge, but if I am going to post a photo of my vulva then I will probably be mindful that however subtle and delicate the edit looks to me, it may offend others.

A new commitment to pyjama parties: Did Maria, Tabitha and I hotfoot it home early every night to bundle into our pyjamas and open a bottle of fizz? Damn right we did! Did we laugh and cry and massage the tension out of each other’s feet, shoulders and minds. Yep! Did we road test Tabitha’s new nipple suckers? Err… no comment! Never underestimate the value of time spent with fierce funny supportive women. And never put a Doxy in your ear, even if Tabitha tells you to…

Contentment: The deep comforting contentment that comes from time spent learning and in good company.

Admiration: I admired Girl on the Net, Molly and Michael anyway but, well, what can I say? A quite brilliant achievement. Group hugs all round. Actually, no, the fuss might scare Girl on the Net off. Smooches for Molly and Michael and a quick rendition of Climb Every Mountain for Girl on the Net.

Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

Undressing for Dinner

‘Are you hungry?’
‘Um…I don’t know, I don’t think so. Maybe. I think the fizz has filled me up. But yes, probably.’

Eloquent!

I’m not sure if it was a teasing question, or just comic timing but I’d blatantly been staring at his cock, visible as he sat on the bar stool in the too-short white robes we’d just changed into. Hungry? Yes.
I like to buy experiences as birthday presents. Presents that create memories. My Mum gets trips to gardens and lunches with views. My best friends and I have saved £20 month for years and go on weekends to New York and spas, and dance at concerts. Exhibit A got dinner at The Bunyadi, London’s first naked restaurant. I’m not sure if the 40,000+ waiting list is fact or clever PR built around the number of people that signed up for more information when news of London’s latest pop up restaurant was released earlier this year, but I only booked a week or two in advance so I’m suspicious about that spin!

A few minutes later we were shown to our table through the black out curtains to the side of the bar. The restaurant, a ‘complex’ of private booths created with winding bamboo walls is in near darkness, lit only by candles. Once in your booth you disrobe. Seats are tree stumps, the tables made of wider slices of tree trunks. Terracotta plates and wine goblets and edible cutlery removed all the clatter of a normal restaurant. The website isn’t wrong when it describes it as having the feel of a spa. The waiters and waitresses are also naked, bar some strategically arranged ivy underwear: ‘It’s a very A Midsummer Night’s Dream outfit,’ observed Exhibit A. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from the food, assuming it would be okay at best and that the experience would be the main attraction, but actually it was delicious. And no hot food or liquids that could create a painful accident if you spilt it in your lap! Salmon sashimi, steak tartare and a coconut mousse. There’s a choice of vegan or non vegan too.

Directing us back to the bar after dinner the waitress told us robes were no longer compulsory in the bar. Back on the bar stools you soak up the experience of collective nakedness. It was at that stage that the ‘rules’ come into focus. No photography (the ones here were snapped quickly in the changing rooms) and ‘no sexual activity’. A quick affectionate slap to my arse or me unthinkingly running my hand up and down his leg as we chat suddenly comes into sharp focus and something you wouldn’t think twice about when clothed suddenly has a frisson about it. But a good teasing one! ‘The best and worst bit of last night was the constant tease of just wanting to take your cock in my mouth and feel it get hard and not being able to,’ I messaged the next day.
I’m sure some people keep their eyes firmly on themselves and their drinks, but we’re not those types of people and happily (but discreetly!) drunk in the nakedness around us. ‘If you could fuck anyone in this bar who would it be?’ he asked. ‘Her,’ I said, nodding to a woman stood at the bar to our left, chatting to her friend. Of course he immediately struck up conversation. What followed was two hours of conversation covering everything from careers in law to non monogamous partnerships to our blogs to sex positive and sex negative parents to body piercing and Doxy wands. I’m not sure if I vocalised it or just thought it, but at one point it crossed my mind that I hadn’t for one moment felt self-conscious or tried to tuck in my belly or worried about my flat nipples.
At the end of the evening, wobbly from the wine and atmosphere, we all get dressed. I remember looking at the two women we’d spend the last couple of hours talking to and being surprised at what they were both wearing. I’ve no idea why, really. I don’t know what I would have put them in, but I remember thinking if I’d been asked how they’d dress based on the conversations we’d been having and their different confidence levels I’d have probably swapped their outfits over. A reminder that so often our clothes are our armour and part of the story we tell the outside world about ourselves.
We all go our separate ways. Him to have an unfortunate end to the evening involving a bike and a pavement, one of them South and me and the hot woman to share a taxi to South East London where we both live. I could say my evening ended there, but it would be a lie. Three hours later in bed she says, ‘This is so bizarre. I’ve spent all evening saying “don’t look at her tits, don’t look at her tits!”‘ ‘Really?!’ ‘Yes! I clocked you as soon as you two walked into the bar.’

That was a surprise! I’m not self-depreciating; of course I know people fancy me but I always assumed I am more of a package! Not someone you’d notice as they walked into the room but someone you fancy more as the layers of their personality and experiences are revealed. I rely on good dresses and skinny jeans that show off my legs, shoes and jewellery that catches the eye. Things that distract from the middle bit, basically! I didn’t imagine for one minute that naked me walking into a room would catch an eye or that being perched on a stool with my belly rolled up and odd-shaped breasts on full display would be in any way hot to a stranger.

‘Ha! He asked who’d I’d most want to fuck minutes after we sat down and I said you.’

‘Oh my God. I assume nobody ever fancies me. I think they always fancy my hot friend.’

So there you have it. Great atmosphere, delicious food and assumption-busting encounters. 

Normal is Everyone’s Different

I cry quite easily. OK, I cry really easily. But really, you try reading the comments section on the Great Wall of Vagina site without welling up…
It’s too late for me and my health because it got ruined by labiaplasty. But it isn’t too late for others and I honour and thank you for this.
Great Wall of Vagina“I’m 17 and was really self-conscious about my ‘lady parts’. I was already thinking about having surgery to ‘fix’ it. Seeing your sculpture totally changed my mind and now I feel 100 times better about myself!”
“I was referred to this site by my gynaecologist when I asked about vaginal rejuvenation. I’m happy to discover that I am perfect already.” 
This important piece of art has allowed my daughter and me to discuss and explore how everyone is different and beautiful.”
Much has been written about Jamie McCartney’s Great Wall of Vagina and I am sure most of you will know of it. For those of you who don’t, it’s a nine-metre-long plaster cast sculpture of 400 vulvas, featuring women aged from 18 to 76 and including mothers and daughters, identical twins, transgendered men and women, a woman pre- and post-natal and another pre- and post-labiaplasty.
Speaking at Sh! on Saturday, McCartney revealed that he had hoped to feature more post-labiaplasty women, but only one of the eight who had been cast pre-op returned. Why? Because, rather brilliantly, they had all changed their mind about going ahead with the operation after seeing their plaster cast. “I had always thought it looked like a parrot’s beak,” exclaimed one, apparently astonished to find that she looked ‘normal’. Or, more to the point, when she realised that normal is actually that everyone is different.
And the one who did come back to be recast post-op? Well she bought her friend to do the cast because she was so unhappy with the results of her operation she didn’t want Jamie to see her again. How overwhelmingly sad that a woman should feel so ashamed of how she looks she puts herself under the knife, then feels more shame as a result.
The strapline of the Great Wall of Vagina is ‘Changing Female Body Image through Art’ and it is clear how committed McCartney is to using his work to help women think differently about themselves. He believes the power of plaster casting as a tool for reflecting on self-image lies in the fact it’s three dimensional, tactile and offers a scale that doesn’t always exist in the flatness of a photograph or a reflection in the mirror. He revealed how plaster casting his own body helped him deal with his own eating disorder and told of mothers bringing their anorexic daughters to be cast by him so they can truly see how they look.
McCartney had been dabbling in genital plaster casting with partners for some time but decided to develop the project after being shocked to learn that that labiaplasty was one of the fastest growing cosmetic surgery procedures in the UK. He wanted to use his art to educate, inform and change attitudes. He probably didn’t imagine that a decade on his art would be featured in educational text books and that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the body that sets clinical standards and provides doctors with training and lifelong learning, would exhibit his work. Amazing!
One of the most poignant stories he told was not of a woman who used the opportunity to be cast to reflect on how she looks but instead used it to take ownership of her own body. In the book of the project she writes about the experiences rape and abortion and feeling that “my cunt has always been violated.” Through being cast she felt she had changed the narrative of her body.
It really is the most brilliant life-changing piece of sculpture!
A section of the Great Wall of Vagina is currently on show at Sh! and I would definitely recommend you have a wander round the website too. And did you know that almost five years ago it was this sculpture also inspired Molly’s amazing Pussy Pride project? Check that out too!
Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

Who Are You Calling Crazy Cat Lady?

‘Who here has children?’ No hands raised.

‘Who here has a cat?’ A smattering of hands…

This was Jody Day’s opening gambit at the Who’s Afraid of the Crazy Cat Lady? session at the WOW Festival a couple of weeks back. I had baulked slightly at the title. I knew it was tongue-in-cheek, but really? Are we not done with that stereotype yet? It seems not. Last week, while I was still writing this post, The Telegraph used a photo of Holly Brockwell cradling a cat as the main image in its story about her sterilisation at the age of 29. Lazy, predictable, patronising photography.
Day went on to say that: “the most shamed stereotype is a single unmarried woman over 40 without children”. As someone who ticks all four of those descriptors I don’t like this statement and I’m not sure I really agree with it either. For sure, in certain sections of the media, independent women seem to be feared and are therefore pilloried, but to be dubbed the most shamed feels a little strong. While I wouldn’t say I have ever felt shamed, people certainly make huge assumptions.

The predominant assumption is that women who don’t have children must have wanted them. A few years back at a previous WOW Festival, Day, who runs a network for childless women called Gateway Women, introduced me to the terms childless and childfree; childless refers to women who wanted children but either through medical reasons or circumstance did not have them, while childfree is the term for women who made a distinct choice that children were not for them. But whether a woman is childless or childfree, it really isn’t anyone’s right to question or provide opinion unless the discussion has been invited. Nobody can know what emotional or physical struggles may exist behind a single or partnered woman not having children.
A frequent slight levelled at the childfree is that we are selfish. If recognising that the change to my life as I know and love it would be seismic and unbearable, and I would likely resent a child, makes me selfish, then I will live with that label. And if my decision means our overcrowded world and stretched public services feel the ripple effect of my selfishness, then I will suck that up too.

The suggestion that does sting is that a life without children is somehow unfulfilling or incomplete. A complete and fulfilling life is the one that is best for the person living it, not the one that’s best for the person sitting in judgement. There are many things in my life that make me deeply happy and personally fulfilled (including this blog) and I am involved in things that I think make me good for my community and the wider world. I am unspeakably proud of the business I run and the difference it makes to disadvantaged people and communities in the UK and around the world.

One of the most fulfilling things in my life is the role I am able to play in the lives of other people’s children. You see, not wanting your own children doesn’t mean you don’t want children in your life. There is an African proverb that I love and subscribe to – ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’ – and I take my role in that village very seriously. Children need role models living different lives and adults they can trust outside of the immediate family. I have said to my friends that I want my home to be the safe place that when the inevitable teenage tension kicks in the kids can ‘escape’ to, while the parents can (hopefully!) be reassured that the kids will be OK. And when they’re are ready to have their first solo adventures in London then I hope it will be my spare room they crash in. I have an Auntie like that and her role in my life has been transformative.

It’s the politics of the issue I am most interested in. Today, 20% of women aged 45 are childless or childfree and there are 1.5 million women in their 40s and 50s who do not have children. It is likely that this percentage will continue to grow. Yet political rhetoric and policy generally speaks to ‘hardworking families’. Who is speaking to or thinking about us? And it’s not just about children, it’s about being single too. Ten percent of adults aged 25 – 44 now live alone. That is a huge section of the voting population whose votes are pretty bloody important.

The last time there was such a large population of women in the UK who were single and without children was after WW1 when the number of casualties meant there were two million more young women (known as The Surplus Women) than young men. The war ended in 1919. It had only been in 1918 that women over 30 had won the right to vote and it would be another decade before there was parity in voting age for men and women. The Surplus Women had limited political power. We have greater potential to be a force for change.

This month saw the release of Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. It charts social progress in America and looks at how it has been influenced by changing marriage patterns. Day quoted a segment from the book that evidences the impact the single woman vote had on Obama’s victory. The book concludes that through the decades single women in America have been the primary drivers of social change.

Of course, one of the biggest game changers for women and their decision around marriage is shifting attitudes towards sex. In an interview about her book Traister spoke of how previous generations of American women “were reliant on marriage as a way to have a sex life that was socially sanctioned”. Singled Out by Virginia Nicolson documents the lives of The Surplus Women and quotes a ‘sex philosopher’ as recommending the single girl “keep sex in a strong-box, with other interests sitting on the lid to hold it tight”.

Happily, I don’t have to put sex in a box or get married to enjoy it! Of course, sex and living independently is not always an easily navigable thing. You’re horny on a Sunday afternoon but by Tuesday when you have a plan you’re more interested in eating pasta and pesto and watching The Night Manager on iPlayer. You arrive back in the UK from a work trip the day after a lover leaves for a month in America. You’re excited to see one of your favourite people to be naked with but then hormones get the better of you and you cry-talk for three hours and then realise it’ll probably be another fortnight till your diaries match and you can suck his cock. A partner becomes uncomfortable that his wife’s secondary partnership has ended and even though she tries to allay his concerns he still ends your fledgling relationship.

But aren’t there hiccups, hormones and hurdles to get over however you carve out your relationships? I am much more comfortable having my own space than sharing it and I don’t want to be anyone’s priority or to have to consider anyone else in the decisions I make about my own life, so these arrangements work for me. And I am happy. Day closed her talk by making the point that despite all the progress we have made, a woman in her 40s or 50s who is happy being single is still seen as countercultural but, she said, “you cannot shame me with my singleness or my childlessness.”

Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

A Brush with Spirited Bodies

Lucy & E40 (L-R) by Patsy Hans

Lucy & E40 by Patsy Hans


Trigger: violence against women
I stood naked on stage, back-to-back with another woman, arms raised as if protecting ourselves. The eyes of 40 other women were on us. I swallowed the lump in my throat and blinked back the tears. Feelings of vulnerability surged through me.

“In the UK, prosecutions for violence against women include domestic abuse, rape, forced marriage, stalking, honour-based violence, trafficking, female genital mutilation, child abuse, and offences related to prostitutions and pornography.”

“Around the world a woman is killed in an honour crime every 90 minutes. If a woman is seen to have bought shame on the family by refusing to enter an arranged marriage, looking too long at a boy, or even being raped, a man is free to kill her as long as another family member forgives him.”

The tears I blinked back were not for me. I personally did not feel vulnerable. Quite the opposite. I was enveloped in warmth and good will. I was mentally stilled by the concentration of staying physically still, absorbing the meditative silence of those concentrating on their drawing. The surge of emotion as we held positions that spoke of violence and trauma were for the women whose lives I was imagining as the words above were read out. Somehow, the experience of feeling so strong through being completely naked enabled me to feel more acutely the vulnerability of the women whose stories we were hearing.
I hadn’t really expected the experience of modelling for life drawing to be particularly emotional, but then I am not sure what I had expected. Participating was a spur of the moment decision. Reading the programme for the WOW Festival the night before, I had spotted that Spirited Bodies was running a life drawing session and audience members were free to model. I tweeted them in the morning and then turned up really early. I planted myself on the front row, a complete fraud amongst the people who wanted a prime position because they could actually draw. I didn’t want to draw, I wanted to take all my clothes off!
I didn’t want to take my clothes off quite as much as Nat who walked to the back of the room and stripped naked before realising the only other people who were so far naked were the Spirited Bodies cast! When audience participation actually started, unencumbered by clothes as she was, she was first on stage. Waiting for the rest of us to peel off the layers, she described seeing “a line of naked amazingness proudly walking on stage.”
And it was a proud feeling. A slightly out of body feeling, but also proud. Looking into the audience there was a sea of smiling faces and a ripple of applause. Looking around the other volunteers I noted that we were all wearing the same slightly dappy grins as we looked to the more experienced models for direction. It struck me that everyone’s face was open and warm and full of anticipation. I didn’t know any of these women but it felt safe.
We settled self-consciously into our first pose. “We’re going for a drink after this,” I muttered not very quietly. A collective chuckle and quick agreement. Later, in the bar, three of us who posed chatted to Patsy, one of the artists. She commented on how nice it was seeing the camaraderie that existed amongst those of us on stage. I am glad the audience could see that because up there it felt really tangible. While the segment on trauma and violence was an incredibly powerful and emotional experience, at times it was also really bloody funny.
“I have cramp in my thumb.” “What?!”
“My thighs are really sweaty.”  
“I was paranoid my period was going to arrive.” “So was I!” 
“Farting would have been the worst thing to happen!” 
But most of all it was humbling and uplifting. On stage were a group of amazing women of all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities, trusting the women in the audience. And in the audience were women using the trust we put in them to find their own meditative space as they sketched. There was no judgement in the room, just a heady mixture of solitude and solidarity.
Thank you to Spirited Bodies for an amazing experience – I hope our paths cross again. Thank you to the artists for your work – I have credited those of you whose names I know, but please do get in touch if I haven’t and you want a link back to your site or Twitter.
https://spiritedbodies.com/

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