So there’s been yet another kerfuffle in the m/m community about this post over Dirty Discourse (warning for some NSFW images attached thereto). The post was entitled ‘Gay Men Are Not Collectables’ and in it the anonymous author talks about how uncomfortable the m/m community makes him feel.
In all honesty, it’s … not that great a post. It makes a lot of quite troubling generalisations about the community and the genre, and can’t quite decide whether it’s talking about m/m romance, LGBTQ fiction in general or the community as a whole. Some of the things it singles out for criticism (like characters feeling compelled to shag in the most implausible and unlikely situations) are, I would argue, conventions of the romance genre rather than illustrations of authors’ perceptions about gay men (although for what it’s worth, I can see that those conventions and perceptions can intersect problematically).
Having said that, I sort of feel that 90% of the responses to this post have been massively, massively worse than the post itself. And, in fact, have demonstrated in glorious technicolour many of the problems the original piece was talking about. Basically we’ve got a pretty much textbook run down of all the annoying derailing nonsense that comes up every time a marginalised person complains about the ways in which they feel marginalised. We got the tone argument, we got “I’m an ally, therefore my behaviour cannot be harmful”, we got “I’m a member of the same marginalised group and it doesn’t bother me, therefore it should not bother any other members of the marginalised group to which I belong” or, even better, “I have a friend who is in the marginalised group and it doesn’t bother him/her/them, therefore it should not bother any other members of the marginalised group to which my friend belongs and anyone who claims it does is a lying sock puppet of the intellectual liberal elite”. Oh, and, of course the “they say it to each other so it’s okay” argument.
Before I go any further, I should say that I think the real problem here is that we’ve only really had the internet for a couple of decades, and people are very, very bad at understanding how communities work on it. It is extraordinarily easy for a genuinely and objectively tiny group of people to look like they represent an entire social group. The writer of the original article seems primarily upset because he’s assumed that the quite small minority who post pictures of eighteen-year-old’s arseholes to Facebook represent “the m/m community”. The people posting those pictures don’t understand what he’s upset about because, as far as they’re concerned, the men in those pictures represent “the gay community”. And I’m probably disproportionately angry about this whole thing because I’m interpreting the one or two people who’ve written profoundly ignorant and entitled responses to the original post as representing the broader community of LGBTQ+ romance readers.
A good illustration of this phenomenon is the way the original post accuses m/m readers of applying a double standard when they salivate over strongly sexualised pictures of gay men but object to strongly sexualised pictures of women. This seems to commit the classic online social fallacy of assuming that everybody who posts in a particular forum (be it a message board, a Fb group or whatever) is basically the same person. Some people, many of them women, some of them perhaps m/m readers, object to lads’ mags and page three girls. There is no evidence at all that those people are the same ones who are posting borderline pornographic images of hot young twinks to Fb. Some might be. Most probably aren’t.
A big part of the problem here is that both, for want of a less divisive word, “sides” are treating each other as monoliths. It is in no way helpful to make generalisations about m/m readers on the basis of the behaviour of a relatively small number of them. But neither it is helpful to judge the impact of that behaviour purely on the basis of your token gay friend. Or, for that matter, purely on the basis of your own experiences.
Anyway, having discussed the dangers of treating heterogeneous groups as a monolith I’m now going to run through the things I found most problematic about the way “the community” has responded to this post. And, in the spirit of everything I’ve just said, I’d point out that by “the community” I mean specifically those members of the community who have exhibited the behaviours I’m about to complain about. And who I don’t necessarily think are particularly representative of the community as a whole.
Sigh. A really depressing number of comments on this post concentrated almost exclusively on the fact the author had chosen to write it anonymously. Let me be very clear about this: if somebody does not feel safe interacting with you under their real name, that is your problem not their problem. I would love to live in a world where we could trust that we could speak freely and share our concerns honestly and open-heartedly without the fear of petty, spiteful or vindictive repercussions from people who disagree with us.
We do not live in that world.
I know for a fact that there are people who do not read my work, who post negative reviews of my books on GR, and who actively discourage other people from reading or associating with me because they dislike my opinions. I recently wrote a post about my issues with the naked butlers at the UK Meet and I got an amazing amount of shit for it. Blogs stopped hosting me, people stopped speaking to me. This community (and, again, I should stress that by “this community” I actually mean “a small number of members of this community”) take it spectacularly personally if you dare to suggest that they aren’t perfect models of supportive LGBTQ+ advocacy.
I can absolutely see why the author of the not very good post didn’t want to put himself through that.
On The Tone Argument
Double sigh. Y’know, I’m not even sure I can be bothered to write about this one. Just please, next time you read a post by a marginalised person who seems angry or upset about something, and you want to leave them a comment saying that they’d be better off expressing themselves differently, Google “tone argument”.
In fact. Here, let me do it for you.
Objectification, like censorship, is one of those words that the internet has morphed beyond recognition and usefulness. Let me run down the list.
- No, looking at someone and thinking they’re attractive is not objectification.
- No, looking at someone, thinking they’re attractive and concluding therefore that you would like to have sex with them is not objectification.
- No, taking your shirt off in public or wearing buttless chaps (or for that matter a short skirt) is not “objectifying yourself.” I seriously can’t fucking believe we are even having this conversation. Or that people might even be suggesting this in the 21st century. For fuck’s sake.
- Yes, it is possible for an image to be objectifying in some contexts and not others.
- Yes, it is possible for a particular use of an image to be objectifying even if the person in the image volunteered for it to be taken.
Basically, the problem here is that people genuinely seem to make no distinction between “objectification of” and “sexual attraction to” but they are very different things and, in fact, largely unrelated. I’ll be fair here (okay, I’ll self-define as being fair here, it’s up to you to decide how fair you think I’m being) and say that I actually think the original post has pretty much this problem as well when it complains about people not finding out the names of the naked butlers are the UK Meet (if nothing else, a lot of people did).
If I had to define objectification, I would say something like: it is when you behave towards a person or class of person in such a way that you deny their essential humanity and treat them instead as an object that exists only for your gratification. Although sexual gratification is the most obvious form to consider, I think exclusive focus on it has led to this unhelpful blurring of the lines between fancying someone and objectifying them. The complicated and disquieting reality is that it is possible for any behaviour or set of behaviours to be objectifying or not objectifying depending heavily on the context.
When you snap at a harried waiter for being slow with your bill you are, in a sense, objectifying them. You’re treating them as if they have no existence outside of the function they perform for you. Conversely, if you look at a naked butler and think “gosh, I’d like to have sex with that man” while maintaining an awareness that he’s an actual person with feelings, boundaries and priorities that do not necessarily coincide with yours, that might not be objectifying. Conversely conversely, you can have a conversation with a naked butler in which you find out his name, personal history and whether or not he’s a drug addict but do so purely to gratify your desire to think of yourself as the sort of person who would have that sort of conversation, and never stop to think whether he actually wants to be talking to you. In which case, in a sense, you are objectifying him. And to make things even more complicated, in any or all of these situations the person with whom you are interacting may or may not feel objectified by your behaviour and that may or may not correlate with whether your behaviour is, in your own head, objectifying.
One of the most objectifying things I’ve ever seen on the internet (and by on the internet, I mean in a part of the internet that I had, hitherto, chosen to frequent) was on a Facebook group that I quit shortly afterwards for reasons I hope will be apparent. The comment to which I objected was “ooh, plot bunny? :)”. The artefact that had inspired the comment was a video of Kevin Kantor’s performance poem People You May Know. A video in which a young man, obviously close to tears, recites a poem about how he felt when the man who raped him showed up on the “people you may know” tab on Facebook.
And the thing is, I understand where the commenter was coming from. Authors objectify. It’s what we do. We take real things that happen to real people and we turn them into imaginary things that happen to imaginary people, and then we sell those imaginary things to other real people for money. And, when you think about it like that, it’s kind of fucked up.
You do, as a writer, develop an instinct. You will hear a story or an anecdote or a poem and you will think to yourself “possible protagonist, possible opening chapter, possible story for a character to tell in a bar.” I catch myself doing this all the time. There are anecdotes I have stopped sharing with people because I’ve caught myself turning them into fiction and have forgotten that they were real things that happened to real people. And so, yes, when I listen to Kevin Kantor’s poem People You May Know, of course I think “possible idea for a novel, possible idea of an antagonist, possible romantic interest, possible series of shorts.”
But I like to think if I was talking about it on Facebook, I would have shown some fucking respect to the young man who stood up and told a story about how he felt when he found out that he and his rapist had three mutual friends. I like to think that whatever I had said about it, I wouldn’t have put a fucking smiley face at the end.
And, of course, even now I am arguably appropriating and objectifying again. I am taking this man’s experience and the art that this man made about his experience and I am, in essence, using it to score cheap points in an argument on the internet. But at least I know I’m doing it and at least it concerns me.
Do people objectify other people all the time? Obviously they do. People hurt other people all the time. But that doesn’t mean that hurting people is something we should celebrate. Or that it is not something we should try to avoid. If someone who you claim to care about or who belongs to a group you claim to care about and to support stands up and says “this hurts me” it is profoundly callous to turn around and say “well you hurt people too.”
Which brings us to my next point.
On Being An Ally
I’m going to repeat myself here. If somebody you claim to care about or belongs to a group you claim to care about and to support says you are hurt them, here are a list of ways you should not respond:
- By telling them at that they hurt other people
- By telling them about the other people that you don’t hurt
- By telling them how important the thing that hurts them is to you
- By telling them that the thing that hurts them isn’t about them
- By telling them that you don’t care if you hurt them, but that they should also be grateful because of how much you care about them
For some reasons that I can actually understand, a lot of people seem to have interpreted the original post as being about the old question of whether heterosexual woman can “authentically” write about gay men. I mostly don’t read the post that way. There are a couple of bits where the author says that he feels the ways gay men are portrayed in m/m perpetuate harmful stereotypes but he never actually said women shouldn’t be writing it. I suspect that part of the reason people have interpreted the post this way is because you’re only really allowed to have one of two opinions about the issue of heterosexual women who write male/male romance.
- It is inherently disgusting, appropriative and homophobic and should be stopped
- It is inherently supportive and empowering and doing it makes you the allyest ally out of all possible allies
Put simply, neither of these things are true. And, obviously, I’ve exaggerated both of them for rhetorical affect. Nevertheless, the community (and, again, I should stress that when I say “the community” I mean “a small number of people I perhaps wrongly assume are representative of m/m writers and readers as a whole”) continually speaks and acts as if reading and writing m/m is an inherently queer-friendly act. This is as absurd as insisting that reading magazines with pictures of women in them is inherently feminist.
The thing is, I do genuinely believe that the majority of heterosexual female m/m readers and writers really do want to support LGBTQ+ rights and causes, and a great many actively do, and by quite direct means. But the mere act of reading or writing m/m fiction does not, by itself, promote LGBTQ+ rights. Indeed, in some circumstances, it may be to their detriment if the fiction you are reading or writing reinforces harmful stereotypes or contributes to the fetishisation of gay men (which is a real thing) or otherwise undermines the notion that LGBTQ+ people are real human beings with real lives.
I’ve written about this before, but being an ally is something you do moment to moment. In any given instance, either you are behaving as an ally would behave or you are not. And it doesn’t matter what you’ve done previously or what you might do in the future. If a member of a marginalised group tells you they are upset by something and you ignore them, silence them or shout at them for posting anonymously you are, in that moment, not being an ally.
On By Women For Women
This is a tricky one. There are, if we’re being technical, six ways you can respond to the assertion that m/m is primarily written by and for heterosexual women.
- It is true and it is a good thing that it is true
- It is true and it is a bad thing that it is true
- It is true and it is neither good nor bad that it is true
- It is false and it is a good thing that it is false
- It is false and it is a bad thing that it is false
- It is false and it is neither good nor bad that it is false
Essentially the original post asserted (2) and, perhaps understandably, a lot of people came back in the comments and, on their own personal blogs, asserting (1).
I’m personally more inclined to assert either (3) or (6). That is, while I agree that a large number of m/m writers or readers are heterosexual women (and if we’re being complete about it, white, cisgendered middle class heterosexual, American women) I think it’s quite important not to erase, or minimise the contribution of, those writers or readers who do not fit into one or more of those categories. It isn’t a representative sample but of the writers and readers who contributed to Queer Romance Month in October, I’d estimate that between 60 and 70% were LGBTQ+ identified.
And, even if we do accept for a moment, that (white, middle class, cisgendered, American) heterosexual women do comprise more than half of the readership of m/m it isn’t immediately clear to me that this makes it morally desirable to privilege their preferences over those of other marginalised groups who are also within the community. There are difficult issues of intersectionality here because the relative balance of power between heterosexual women and homosexual men is, to put it bluntly, unclearly defined. But I generally consider it unhelpful for a literary genre, especially one predicated on diversity, to celebrate a lack of diversity within itself.
Furthermore, even if I were to accept that it is both factual and desirable for m/m romance to be primarily the purview of (white, middle class, cisgendered, American) heterosexual women it does not follow that these (white, middle class, cisgendered, American) heterosexual women have no responsibility to consider the affect that their literature has on the people it is about. People of colour do not lose the right to be offended by, say, the outrageously racist content of HP Lovecraft’s literary corpus simply because he did not write it with people of colour in mind.
Finally, I am actually genuinely completely happy for (white, middle class, cisgendered, American) heterosexual women who read and write m/m to say that they think it is both true and desirable for these books to be written by and for (white, middle class, cisgendered, American) heterosexual women. I am completely happy for people to say that they don’t think readers and writers of m/m romance should give two shits about what actual LGBTQ+ people feel about their books. That’s fine.
But can people who think that please stop also self-defining as allies. Or, at the very least, stop asserting their ally status in the same damn comment as they tell the LGBTQ+ identified to get the hell out the genre.
On Your Friends and Being One Of The Good Ones
These are two distinct issues that are sort of the same issue. And because I favour elegance of expression over clarity of structure, I’m going to deal with the second one first.
Quite a lot of the comments on the post I don’t particularly agree with are from gay men saying (and I paraphrase) “this is all bollocks, the m/m community is wonderful, I love all you awesome ladies, you are awesome ladies xoxo y so srs”. These comments then get a lot of replies saying (and, again, I’m paraphrasing, though not by much) things like “at last, thank you for being so sensible about this”, “I love you” and “you go girlfriend.”
To put this in the most general terms possible, people who belong to marginalised groups receive enormous validation from people who do not belong to those marginalised groups for declaring that they are not bothered by the ways in which their group is marginalised. You get exactly the same thing with complaints about sexism, in video-gaming, SFF and geek culture in general. A game, for example, will contain something obviously and manifestly sexist (like the way a scantily clad woman was used literally as a flag in the capture the flag mode in Duke Nukem Forever) and people will say “hang on, isn’t this a bit sexist?” prompting an avalanche of abuse and, more often than any of us should ever have to take for granted, rape threats. Then someone will pop up and say “I’m a woman and I find this empowering” or even just “I’m a woman and this doesn’t particularly bother me.” And they will be instantly lavished with the adoration of the community, which will be keen to be praise their good sense, intelligence and perspective. They will then forever more be pointed at every time anyone suggests that a game where you slap a half-naked woman to get her back to your base might have some issues with its portrayal of women.
And, obviously, there is nothing wrong with individual members of marginalised groups not being bothered by things that bother other members of that marginalised group. And there is nothing wrong with these people expressing their feelings. There is everything wrong with the existence of these people being used by those outside the marginalised group as a stick to beat people within the group who fail to live up to their example. Or, in extreme cases, to deny that those people even exist.
I have genuinely had people tell me to my face that only misguided but well intentioned straight people object to the use of gay as a pejorative. I’ve had people tell me that only white atheist left wing intellectuals are bothered by depictions of the prophet Mohammed. People will latch so strongly onto any example that absolves them of the responsibility to think about their behaviour that they will literally deny the existence of anybody who expresses an idea they don’t want to have to think about. Only three weeks ago on an episode of QI, Stephen Fry asserted with all the authority of a BBC presenter, as if it were an absolute and uncontroversial fact, that it’s completely okay to refer to Native Americans as “Indians”. He did this on the basis that there is a single institution called The American Indian Council. This would be fucking hilarious if it wasn’t so fucking depressing.
To put it another way, members of marginalised groups are under extraordinary social pressure to say they are not bothered by things. To avow as loudly and frequently as possible that the way things are is the way it is desirable for them to be. And, yes, some of them might genuinely be okay with it but there will be others who just don’t want to make waves.
Which brings us around to the gay friends. And, again, I will say that I am sure there are plenty of gay people who don’t mind gay being used a pejorative. I’m sure there are quite a lot of gay men who quite enjoy being slightly fetishised by straight women because, in a safe space, being fetishised can actually be quite fun, especially if you are (as the post I don’t particularly agree with pointed out) put on something of a pedestal.
Every time I hear someone say that the thing that is being called out as inappropriate is okay because their mate is okay with it I always find myself wondering how honest their mate is being. Because, let’s face it, if you have to choose between spending your whole life explaining to your friends why their behaviour hurts you or just letting it go and accepting a low-key level of pain and discomfort as the price of being friends with your friends you are extraordinarily likely to choose the latter.
I had a friend at university who used to pick up (as in physically lift up) small women and they basically all hated it but he was such a nice guy and would retreat into such privileged obliviousness whenever anybody tried to talk to him about it that everybody just kind of put it up with it for literally years. And, if you’d asked him in that time, he would genuinely not for one second have considered the possibility that he was upsetting people. And if you had told him on the internet that women generally don’t like being randomly hoisted into the air by large men he would, I’m sure, have stridently and defiantly told you that he lifted his female friends up all the time and it was absolutely fine. He did eventually stop but only because he freaked someone out so badly she accidentally kicked him in the head.
As a rule, I don’t like to make assumptions about people I don’t know or to make too many sweeping generalisations but I confess that every time I hear someone say “I’ve got a friend who’s gay and they say it’s fine” I at least consider the possibility that what they’re really saying is “I have bullied my one gay friend into validating my homophobic behaviour and don’t even realise I’ve done it.”
Wow. This was long.
In short then:
The original post and the replies to it are problematic because they’re both wrong in diametrically opposed ways. The original post significantly mischaracterises the m/m romance community and, I believe unthinkingly, conflates broad romance tropes with homophobic stereotypes. The replies, however, mostly ignore these issues and, instead, take the poster to task for his anonymity, his ingratitude towards his “allies” in the community, and his gender. In the process, the overwhelming message that the m/m community (and I should re-iterate what I said at the start of this post, which is that by the m/m community I really mean, ‘the small number of writers and readers who have directly commented on this and whose comments I consider to send this message, which may or may not be representative of the community as whole, whatever that even means’) sends back to him is: this genre is about you, not for you.
If that’s the message the community wants to send, then that is genuinely fine. But I think it’s something we should at least think about. And if, at the end of the day, we decide “yes that’s our position” then maybe, just maybe, we should stop patting ourselves on the back about how fucking inclusive we are.