Up Front by Emma Hart



We on the Left may have better stories than the Right, but man can we make ourselves thornier dilemmas. Oh man, I don't think bakers should be allowed to refuse to serve gay couples, but I do think restaurateurs should be allowed to refuse to serve members of the Trump administration, am I a hypocrite? I think racists should shut the fuck up, does that mean I'm opposed to free speech? Is saying a swear or calling someone a racist as bad or worse than, y'know, being a racist? Because sometimes I feel like I don't know anything any more.

For that last, at least, the perennially fantastic Captain Awkward has some words:

“I know Dave keeps grabbing your ass when you walk by, but you didn’t really need to yell at him like that! How is he supposed to learn if you can’t even be polite?”

“Punching Nazis might turn totally normal people who definitely didn’t have any problematic beliefs before this moment into Nazis!”

“I know Uncle Carl said some racist things at dinner, but how do you expect him to learn if you can’t sit silently while he does that? Don’t you want to be civil?”

All the politeness, "How dare women say 'cunt' while talking about the men who call them cunts why yes I am a man how is that relevant?" bullshit is "You're damaging your cause by being angry," and its sole purpose is to get you to Shut Up.

But these days when everything is so awful everywhere all the time, it's so hard to be sure of anything. And it's working. I am starting to not want to talk about politics any more. I am starting to shut up.

I wanted to write about the move to make it easier for transgender people to change their gender on their birth certificates. Then, for no reason I can fathom without drowning in bile and cynicism, both Stuff and The Herald chose to lend their platforms to a small group of very vocal transphobes. I watched several trans people take a break from Twitter in part because of the actions of their allies in exposing them to this hatred in the process of disagreeing with it. Goodness, I thought, not wanting to use any rude words, I don't want to be That Person. If I wrote about this, and those fuckwits shit this is really hard those Differently Moraled people found it, what would I do? Do I throw any pretense of Reasoned Both Sides Discussion out the window and just delete all their comments?

Turns out this is really simple. Of course I flicking do, and here's why.

One way to cut through all the bullfaeces around an issue is to ask the question, "Where should this discussion be centred? Who is at the heart of it?" I once watched two cis Facebook acquaintances have a long, calm, reasoned discussion as to whether or not it was okay for Scarlett Johansson to play a trans man. Not once did they mention trans people. Not once. It was an abstract, intellectual problem for them. Once you put trans people at the centre of that conversation, and stop making it about Scarlett Johansson's acting ability or whether any actor should play any part that's not their own identity, it becomes a much simpler question. Also, though this shouldn't be a major concern, you will look like less of a really big male chicken.

A while back, there was a campaign around diversity in board gaming and role-playing called You Are Welcome at my Table. On the surface of it, that's a great idea, but underneath, it bugged me. If you say that everyone is welcome at your table, then some people are really going to feel unwelcome. You're only halfway there. If you want pressured minorities at your tables, in your spaces, then you are going to have to say to the people who persecute them, "No. You are not welcome. Kindly be on your way." Unfettered free speech or free access is like an unfettered free market; it preserves the inequalities that already exist.

My friend Sinead and I used to talk about people being "worth the price of admission". They have flaws, and you're well aware of them, but on balance, you want those people in your life. You understand that for other people, their price calculation may be different. This isn't, I hasten to add, for Decidedly Not Nice people, but for people like the guy I was good friends with at uni who was super, super competitive. I was okay with it, but I understood when it bugged the living heck out of others.

Spaces also have a Price of Admission, beyond any door charge, that varies from person to person. How far is it from your house/work? Are stairs a problem? Is it noisy? Is it full of racists? Is that going to be 'slightly unpleasant', 'psychologically scarring' or 'a high likelihood of an assault'? The prices of admission to your "open table" for the minority and the bigot are not equal.

That's why No Transphobes. The price of their not-admission is that they have one less place where they can exercise their speech, just one. The price of their admission, which trans people would have to pay, would be that this wouldn't be a safe space, for people lacking in safe spaces. That's why it's different.


A Word About Safety

I don’t often get to be a journalist’s go-to comment these days, but it appears that when the call is “Quick, someone find me a feminist submissive,” that’s still just me.

Be aware that this column, and pretty much every link in it, may be extremely triggering.

So I was called upon to comment for this column about a recent rape case where the defendant was acquitted because the complainant didn’t use a previously-agreed safe-word. And I find I still have things to say, because fucking hell, nobody in that courtroom seems to have had a fucking clue about BDSM practice.

I was told that the defence lawyer mentioned 50 Shades of Grey in his opening address, and basically nothing I said after that has been printed because of all the swearing. I’ve been saying for years that book would get people hurt, and I did not need proof. (I’m not going to go into my issues with it here, I’ll just say the relationship it depicts is profoundly abusive, and if you want to know more, just read this.) Especially right after it became a ‘sensation’, we had people turning up on FetLife thinking it was a model of how to behave as a Dom, and as a sub. It is not. It is the opposite of that. Male Doms think they can do anything they want. Female subs think they don’t get a say. This is bullshit. I said I wasn’t going to go into it. I lied.

But let’s talk a bit more about consent in BDSM relationships. I’m going to use gender-neutral pronouns: between fem-Domme/male sub couples, same-sex couples, and various multi-member groupings, male Dom/female sub pairings are a minority in BDSM, and nothing I am saying applies only to one gender.

Use of a safe-word immediately ends play. That doesn’t mean that nothing else ends play. Saying, “Well they didn’t use their safe-word,” is like saying, “Well, they didn’t say no.” There is so much more to securing comprehensive consent. We know what we’re doing is dangerous.

One of the things that most surprises vanilla people about good BDSM practice is how nerdy it is. I have a six-page spreadsheet of sexual practices that I will, won’t, or might engage in. I’ve sat through an hour-long PowerPoint safety briefing. I was talking to my Dom about this, and he added that when you want to try something new, you spend hours researching how to do it properly, because you don’t want to hurt your partner.

And then we spent several minutes trying to talk our way out of that knot, because of course you DO want to hurt your partner. But not hurt them. You don’t want to injure them, and you really don’t want to traumatise them. You want to hurt them as they want to be hurt. That’s not a matter of only using a particular level of force, it’s really granular, that’s why the spreadsheet is six pages long. For me, for instance, particular language or humiliation play is completely off limits, because it’s enormously triggering. Physical violence is much easier to deal with. Restraint is fine for me but gagging is not, because I had my jaw muscles cut when I had brain surgery.

This is why we talk about this stuff, at length, in detail, before we play, and we’re really specific. You don’t “spring” BDSM play on people. Also, we do “check-ins” while we play. (Link NSFW.) Even if we’ve discussed what we’re doing, even when we have a safe-word, a Dom will check in with their sub, ask if they’re okay, how they’re doing. This isn’t just to get a Green, a Red, or an Orange (a ‘yes but’). The Dom should be using the sub’s entire response to get a read on their mental and physical state. If a sub can’t speak (and this happens), they can’t safe-word. (I don’t mean ‘can’t speak because they’re gagged’, I mean the psychological process of framing speech has become too difficult.)

All of this, spread-sheets and safety briefings and check-ins and discussion, exists to protect Doms as well as subs.

And another thing.

Sex therapist Edit Horvath told the court submissive partners were encouraged to resist rough sex and to role play by using force and words such as "no" and "stop".

Only code words could end the "alternative paradigm", she said, as normal words and actions didn't hold their typical meanings.

"'No' is part of the fantasy they're acting out."


I don’t know what she was asked, but what she is describing is not true of all BDSM play. It’s not true of “rough sex”. What she is describing is “consensual non-consent”, or rape play. We are aware that, like fire play, breath play, and blood play, it’s really dangerous, requires a high level of trust, and should only be practiced by people who really know what they’re doing and have a good understanding of each other.

Now maybe you’re thinking, but Emma, I don’t give a crap what you people do, it’s none of my business, this kind of thing should be private, stop shoving it in our faces. But maybe one day you’ll be on a jury, and you’ll realise that there is a four-letter word to describe this

They were not seeing each other at the time of the alleged rape. There had been no discussion before she went to his house of having sex. During the alleged rape, she pleaded [with] him to stop, cried, said no, vomited, and had a panic attack.

and it’s not ‘kink’.


The Real Victims, Here

The other day, I was talking to a friend about the awful petition against Debbie Hockley. He was really amused that it only had 400 signatures, and not so long ago I would have agreed with him. These poor pathetic little boys, huddled together in their internet bunkers, so terrified of women they have to threaten them with violence. Mock them. Ignore them.

The thing is, sometimes they come out of their caves, and they kill us.

If, until recently, you were unaware of the existence of incels, 1/ well done, and 2/ I’m sorry, you must have had a shit few days. If you’re still thinking, (probably not for the first time) “Emma, what the fuck are you talking about?” here’s a quick primer.

“Incels,” or “involuntary celibates,” are part of the online male supremacist ecosystem. The Southern Poverty Law Center added male supremacy to the ideologies tracked on the hate map this year, because of the way these groups consistently denigrate and dehumanize women, often including advocating physical and sexual violence against them. On the internet, the male supremacist ideology takes a few different forms. One of the newest forms is “incel.”

Incels grew out of the pick-up artist movement, which purports to offer men strategies to persuade, pressure, cajole or trick women into sleeping with them. When those strategies (or “game”) unsurprisingly proved unsuccessful for many men, they became deeply bitter. To an incel, sex is a basic human right for all men. So the women who deny them that right are committing a heinous — and punishable — crime.

There are two things I want to note about incels. Firstly, they’re not after sex. No, hear me out. They don’t want to get laid. They wouldn’t visit a sex worker. They want sex slaves. Their sense of entitlement to women is not limited to their bodies. The woman they want is a lingerie model with a string in her back you can pull to hear one of five crawlingly obsequious phrases. They want women, not so much for real relationships as for pets. If the Canadian government actually did what one of them demanded and issue “everyone” with a girlfriend, the very first thing they’d do is complain that she wasn’t hot enough.

Secondly, they’re not victims. There is no sympathy to be felt for them. They’re not the way they are because women won’t sleep with them. Women won’t sleep with them because they’re the way they are. They’re no more victims of selfish vain women than Trump racists are suffering from “economic anxiety”.

They cannot be fixed by giving them sex. Nor should they be. Anyone asking any women – including sex workers – to give themselves up to be raped by an utter shit-weasel in order to stop him murdering is not a person I can comprehend. Them not getting laid is not the problem. Them feeling utterly entitled to women is the problem. That’s what needs fixing. 

This isn’t the only example of weirdly-placed victimhood that’s had me pondering lately. Poor Israel Folau, all those people calling him a homophobic idiot just because he said something idiotically homophobic. Christians are the real victims here. And poor white people, getting called racist. There was some bitter amusement in watching people rushing so fast from defending racism to defending homophobia they didn’t notice they’d changed sides of the sacred Free Speech debate.

Earlier in the year, when I was dealing with the fallout from The Tweet, there were a bunch of comments that, despite my best efforts, stuck in my head. One was a woman who said, “I wonder what happened to make her such a victim.” Heaps of people accused me of playing the victim, or being a professional victim.

Hi. I’m Emma, and I’m a victim.

That’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s not a word I’m going to dodge. All it means is that someone else did something to me. It’s not a failing. When people call me a victim, and imply that I’m weak, I’m not Fighting Back and Soldiering On, what it means is that I’ve spoken up, I’ve spoken out. That is me fighting back, and they don’t like it. I don’t talk about what happened, and I still get shit for talking about it too much.

It took a lot, this acceptance. It’s a weird feeling, the first time you see your name on a police form next to the word “victim”. It took several people telling me I was screaming in my sleep, and a couple of therapists saying “It sounds like you have PTSD” before I accepted that yeah, I probably have PTSD. Spending twenty minutes helplessly crying after being triggered is not a Great Time, and it has yet to make me famous or rich. I am definitely doing this Professional Victim thing wrong.

So if I’m going to get slagged off for being Such a Victim, allow me to stand up and take the Victim Podium. Again, two things. One, stop using the word “victim” as an insult. Two, stop applying it to the people who victimise us. They don’t have a fucking point. They’re not just expressing an opinion. We shouldn’t just be nicer to them if we want to stay alive.


Why a Woman is Like a Bicycle

The other day, I was watching people discussing the tacks on the Island Bay cycleway and wondering at the vitriol that is so often directed at cyclists. It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with my Dom a few days earlier, and so I tweeted the essence of that.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what happened next. At some point, it was retweeted by Ben Goldacre and William Gibson. Before I went to bed on Day One, I received notifications that I was trending in Sydney, Melbourne, Manchester, Dublin, Berlin, and Toronto.

When I got up on Day Two, Twitter was concerned. “Hey,” it said, “you seem to be getting a shit-tonne of notifications, do you want to apply some filters to that?” And I thought, some more? Because I already had all the basic ‘troll be gone’ filters turned on.

I spent half an hour reading replies to that tweet. And then I switched my notifications to “only people who follow me”. Because holy shit, it turns out hitting the conjunction of cycling and feminism makes the internet explode. My guess is I have read about 10% of the responses to that tweet, and if they are representative, I have been told to fuck off about a hundred times. I’m okay with that, because many more times than that, a guy has gone, “Holy shit, I hadn’t thought about it like that.”

There have, however, been some criticisms, so I am using this ‘more than 240 characters’ space to address them.

But this doesn’t work because men can get off their bikes.

Yes, you’re quite right. See that bit where I said cycling was exactly like being female? Oh, no, wait, I didn’t. What you’d need to do to prove me wrong is come up with something that is closer to the experience of being female. Yes, I’m nit-picking your nit-pick. Annoying, isn’t it?

The point of the analogy is that this is an experience some men have had that might give them some insight into and empathy for the lived experience of many women. You are in an environment that is designed by people who aren’t you, for people who aren’t you. You know most people aren’t the ones who will hurt you either deliberately or through just utterly not caring, but you have to treat them all as if they are in order to keep yourself safe. If you don’t keep yourself safe, no matter what you do, people will blame you for the harm someone else caused you. And some people fucking hate you, just for existing. That kind of combative hyper-vigilance is exhausting. Welcome to our world.

And if you genuinely think my analogy isn’t giving women enough credit, maybe read the tweets I sent earlier in the day about being driven out of my house and stalked down Linwood Ave.

I bet I’m the 300th person to mention the clothes.

Dude, you are not wrong.

But men fight wars!

Wherever you come from, dude, men are able to avoid fighting in wars. Where they can’t, women can’t avoid war either, and they tend not to get guns. Wherever you come from, dude, the men who do fight wars are disproportionately neither middle-class nor white.

But men are more likely to be attacked on the street!

Yes. They are.

Men are more likely to be the victims of violence from strangers, in public places. Women are more likely to be the victims of violence from people they know, in private homes. Men are more likely to be the perpetrators of violence. So you’re right, absolutely everybody would be safer if women went out, and men stayed home.

Wait. Was that not your point?

Cyclists and women, always whining all the fucking time.

And you are doing what now?

I fucking hate cyclists, the things they do, they’re just asking to get killed to death, and fuck them.

I fucking hate women, the things they do, they’re just asking to get killed to death, and fuck them.

Thank you for proving my point.


Too Sexy for Your Site

Ever since the election, I’ve been pondering writing a column about the changes that would need to happen to MSD for us to be treating all our people like actual people. It goes much further than removing “excessive sanctions”. Thing is, I’m on a benefit, and I don’t think I can risk it. I haven’t done anything that would justify stopping my payments, but that’s hardly relevant.

In lieu of mine, read Catriona MacLennan’s blog instead. There are several things I would add even to this, but I don’t feel safe talking about them in public. I’d say, buy me a drink and we’ll talk, but that might be construed as financial support.

So let’s talk about something where I feel much safer: sex.

Last week, Twitter blocked the tag “bisexual” in image searches. It might have been a mistake, but it wasn’t a “technical issue”.

“One of the signals we use to identify sensitive media is a list of terms that frequently appear alongside adult content. Many of these words on the list are not inherently explicit, which is why they must be used alongside other signals to determine if content is sensitive.

“Our implementation of this list in search allowed Tweets to be categorised based solely on text, without taking other signals into account. Also, the list was out of date, had not been maintained and incorrectly included terms that are primarily used in non-sensitive contexts.”

It doesn’t matter how many times people use the word ‘bisexual’ in searches for porn, it should never be on this kind of list. Yet it’s not the first time a company with huge online influence has made this kind of “mistake”. Again, actual porn was easily accessible, but an LGBT term was not. Again, the erasure was a result of an attempt to ‘protect’ people, to solve a problem not properly understood by the company. Your defaults are not neutral, and neither are your algorithms.

Twitter at least swiftly put up their hand to the mistake. But it was fascinating for me watching the conversations unfold with the bisexual awareness accounts that raised the problem. There are two comments in particular that caught my attention like a broken nail snagging in your tights. I’m not going to name the people who made them, because it doesn’t matter and they don’t need the attention.

One was a dear man who said, “I don’t understand, why are people searching for their sexuality? I’m straight and I’ve never done a search for that.”

Of course you haven’t. You don’t have to. This is part of what you get for being the default: no hashtag. Your sexuality is so prevalent you can’t even see it. Nobody’s ever told you straights don’t exist. You’ve never had to come out. You don’t need to go searching to find people who look like you.

Then there was the person who, appalled at what Twitter had done, said, “It’s not like we’re a fetish!” Reader, my forehead thumped into my wrist-rest just as hard this second time, but for reasons perhaps more difficult to understand.

Here’s the thing everyone who is in some way not the straight-monogamous-vanilla-cissexual default has in common: our sex is somehow more powerful. It’s more dangerous, especially to children, and has to be more tightly controlled. Just walking down the street or going to a work event with your same-sex partner, or multiple partners, is somehow a sexual act. I’ve worked on a site where a same-sex kiss was banned on a PG-13 board, because it was just too damn sexual. Stupid sexy gays. I guess we just have to suck this up, right, because our Identity is Sexual. Not like straight people. They don’t have sexual identities, they just are.

And I know some of you are probably thinking, but kink is different, right? Kink is entirely about sex. It’s what you do, not who you are. How could kink not be sexual?

Here’s a thought experiment. It’s entirely hypothetical, of course, because there’s no way I could currently be in a D/s relationship, because despite it involving no financial support, that’s emotional support and I could lose my benefit if I was doing that. (Being made entirely financially dependent on a new partner could in no way enable relationship abuse, of course, and nobody’s MSD KPIs would give a shit if it did.)

So say, hypothetically, you got up for breakfast with your Dom and then his mum came in and you realised you’d forgotten you were still wearing your collar. I mean, that’s really embarrassing, right? God. So awkward. Imagine if that happened to someone who totally isn’t me.

So how is my collar more sexual than your wedding ring? They both symbolise a physical and emotional relationship. (The linked page is relatively Safe For Work. It contains the word ‘fuck’, but so does this column, now. The site as a whole is incredibly NSFW.) Why shouldn’t it be okay for me to wear my collar in public? It’s not sex.

I have a tattoo on my left arm. It unites a bisexual awareness symbol with a BDSM symbol. I’m always very cautious explaining it when people ask what it means. It’s a tattoo. It’s not sex. (It couldn’t be a vanilla symbol for the same reason it couldn’t be a straight pride symbol: those aren’t things.)

But no, we have to keep our heads down, because what if we polluted your children with our culture of explicit consent, with our nerdy spreadsheets and safety briefings and training sessions? Imagine. Straight vanilla sexual culture is doing such a sterling job of keeping people safe.

Twitter has restored my ability to search for “bisexual” pictures. Thing is, the hashtag is full of hard-core anime porn. Well done.