The First Time

Once again it’s Valentine’s Day, when young lovers exchange tokens and thoughts turn to romance. Valentine’s Day, day of Hallmark cards with trite rhymes repeated in thousands of homes, and wilting flowers bought as an afterthought from the petrol station on the way home.

Oh my, I’m a cynical, old woman, aren’t I? So long in a marriage that the only sparks are static when I take off my dressing gown and go to bed, cuddling my fluffy penguin. That’s not a pet name for my wife: I literally mean a fluffy stuffed toy.

But even people as old and decrepit as us were once in the first flush of youth, and Valentine’s Day with its symbols of love speaks to the surging of life with the first stirrings of Spring.

And the young certainly feel stirrings and surges! I know I did. No more beating around the bush: I’m talking about sex.

Do you become embarrassed when the subject of sex arises? Become coy at the thought of talking about it, never mind actually doing it?

Why is that? What feelings do you associate with the idea of sex? Have you been taught that it’s somehow dirty or sinful? That “good” girls (and boys, but mostly girls) don’t talk about it? Don’t think about it? And certainly don’t go out looking for it!

Well, fuck that! Sex has two purposes. The one you probably got taught about at school is procreation: making babies. But did they tell you about the other reason? The big reason? The reason why so many people have so much sex? It’s because it can be immensely pleasurable.

Pleasure. Joy. Ecstasy. Bliss. Fun. Now, if that’s not a good reason to do something I don’t know what is. I’m not here to try to teach you how to have sex, when to have sex, or who to have sex with (if anyone: it can be just as enjoyable flying solo).

No, I’m here to promote a positive attitude towards sex. And an important part of that is destroying the myth about it being something special, or precious. Ditch those thoughts: it’s not. And virginity? It’s bullshit. Just a crock of shit cooked up to try to control women.

See that body of yours? It’s all yours. Nobody else’s. There is not one single other person on this whole planet who has any right to tell you what to do with it. Bodies are great: endlessly fascinating. They make funny noises. They can look weird; they can look amazing. And you can play with them. In fact that’s part of the fun of having a body: playing with it. Doing stuff with it that feels great.

Sex is one of those things that can feel great. And really it’s not any more exotic than another activity I find pleasurable: eating. Now, when I first started eating I was very young. Far too young for sex (that came later when my body had developed more).

I wasn’t very good at eating when it was all new to me. I don’t even remember my first time. For a long time it was just messy and awkward, but kind of fun too. And you can turn it into a game: play with your food. I might have forgotten my first time but over the years I do recall the best times.

Sex is just like that. When you stop thinking of it as some special, magical activity and just take it as it comes you can start to relax and have real fun with it. Like most activities you get better with practice. Your first time will probably be messy, awkward and even uncomfortable. There’s no reason to expect it to be perfect or even memorable. Would you expect your first time riding a bike to be perfect? So why set unrealistic expectations when it comes to sex? Hey, you’re new at this: you’ll get better. Practice.

Focus on the things you like. Experiment, try new stuff, see what you enjoy. Always be in control: it’s your body so you decide what happens to it. If you don’t want to do something or you don’t like something, you get to say no. You decide to try something and change your mind, you get to say no. You set the boundaries. That’s the essence of consent: nobody does anything to you unless you give permission. And you can withdraw that permission any time it suits you, for any reason.

Anyone at all who doesn’t ask your consent, who doesn’t respect your boundaries, is in the wrong. There is no middle ground, there are no grey areas (especially not fifty shades of them). Sex without consent is rape.

I’m a great believer in exploring your own body, discovering what turns you on or off, what sensations you enjoy. The better you know how your body responds to various stimulation, the more able you will be to talk to a partner about it and let them know what you like. And hopefully they will have done the same and you can both be off to a running start.

The bottom line is that sex is not a mystery. It’s a normal bodily function, like walking. Although most places it’s probably best to keep the sex indoors. Or at least out of sight of other people. Walking in public is fine though.

So get out there, or stay in bed, or whatever suits you, and have more sex. Have different kinds of sex. On your own or with a friend. Also, be responsible: think about the risks and take steps to minimise them. After all, you don’t want anything to go wrong. It’s like making sure you have appropriate gear before going walking in the hills: the sensible thing to do. Yes, you could try to walk up Ben Nevis in a T-shirt in the middle of winter but bits would probably drop off and I don’t think you’d make it back.

Above all, approach it with an open mind and a positive attitude. Even joke about it. (Don’t penises look funny? Imagine one with googly eyes!) Who knows, it could become your favourite hobby! Or even a career! Sex is not special, but it can be great fun. And fun is generally worth the effort.

Confidante

When I was younger I was dismissive of people who saw therapists. “What’s the use in that?” I used to think to myself. I didn’t get it at all; it made no sense.

But now I think I’d like to have somebody I could talk to about anything that was on my mind without worrying about being judged or that it might affect a relationship with a friend.

I need a confidante. Somebody to listen while I pour out a stream of thoughts from my turbulent mind. I’m not looking for answers or advice so much. But somebody who could prompt and guide the process would help.

I’m not seeking offers here; I don’t want to have to worry about how much I open up, about confidentiality. I need the reassurance of a relationship that is entirely professional and governed by professional standards.

I guess I’m in the market for a therapist. The younger me would be aghast.

The bottom line is that I need to open up about certain things. Keeping it all in is becoming harmful. It’s making me more vulnerable to depression.

There are some things from my past, some from my present. Things I’ve locked away, things I try to avoid. Things that worry me and others that absolutely terrify me. They’re not going to go away, but just maybe I can learn to live with them.

Learning to Think

One of the most pernicious lies I can think of is that it’s wrong or weak to change your mind. That once a decision is made you are committed to that course regardless of the consequences. To which I simply say, “Bollocks!”

As we grow we acquire a cultural opinion–a meme if you like–that decisiveness is what matters. It’s better to make any decision and move forward than to stop and wait for a degree of certainty.

Motion is everything, the direction secondary. Except that you must never backtrack. No about-face, U-turn or retreat. Think about those terms: “backtrack”, “about-face”, “U-turn”, “retreat”. See how they are imbued with negative connotations: you have been conditioned to see them that way.

The consequence of this is that a bad decision is seen as better than no decision at all, and that bad decision, once made, commits you to a particular course of action. This is accepted by many without question and yet it is utterly false.

Let’s think about a simple scenario: you want to cross the street so you decide to step out into the road. Okay, you’ve made a decision (good for you!). Are you now committed to crossing that road come what may? Or should you change your mind and retreat if you notice a car approaching after stepping out?

My point is that we rarely have all the information at the point of making a decision. We try to predict what will happen but in all except the most trivial cases we cannot know. This means we know more about the consequences of our decision after making it, once we have taken the first steps along that course.

Which is more foolish? To argue that a decision has been made, it is set in stone and we must continue along that particular path, or to re-examine the decision periodically and judge whether it is still a beneficial course of action?

It’s not a new phenomenon. Wellington was castigated in the weeks and months following the 1809 Battle of Talavera when rather than advancing on French-held Madrid (a key aim of that summer’s campaign) after the French retreat, he made a rapid withdrawal back into Portugal and spent the winter sheltered behind the defensive Lines of Torres Vedras.

At no point did Wellington have complete information about the size or disposition of the French forces opposing him, but his success in the Peninsular War long-term was a result of planning for different scenarios together with his ability to abandon a plan when he saw that circumstances had changed.

If not for the support of influential figures in London, Wellington would have been replaced as commander and the history of the Napoleonic Wars would have been very different. And even today it is politically almost impossible for anybody to change a decision once made.

The core of the problem is absolutism, the idea that every question has one correct answer. Reality doesn’t work like that, but few people are comfortable dealing with probabilities. But incomplete information means that a decision based on what appears most likely at one point in time can easily turn out to be the wrong course of action, something that comes to light later as we learn more.

Politicians don’t help their situation by applying absolutist arguments to justify their decisions: their way is the One True Path, the only way that will work. It means that when events conspire to frustrate their plans they need to maintain the fiction that their original decision was correct and continues to be correct.

There can be no wrong decisions because their jobs depend on the illusion that they alone have the right answers. We are all losers because this binds them to inflexible ideologies and prevents them from adapting to changing circumstances.

The way out of the trap is to recognize and admit that the world is a complex place and it’s not always clear how best to get to where we want to be. Admit that pressing on regardless sometimes means going further down a dead-end path, wasting time and resources in pointless activity.

Adaptability and flexibility are what matters most. Setting goals matters, but it’s not so important how they are reached. Indeed, stating what outcome you hope to achieve should be the most important thing.

Regarding the EU Referendum, the biggest problem with it as far as I’m concerned is that is offered a choice of two courses of action (leave the EU or remain in it). Nowhere did it ask people what they hoped to achieve by those actions. It was like asking people whether to turn left or right without giving them any idea where they were trying to get to, or where either path might end up.

It means that the government have a (narrow) mandate to take a particular course of action–leave the EU–without saying anything about what it is intended to achieve. Is it supposed to create jobs? Cut NHS waiting times? Stop it raining on Bank Holidays?

At times like these it is more important than ever to scrutinize those in power. To be critical. To ask “Why?” and “How?” Don’t be satisfied with attractive but empty slogans. Push for the details, and if they can’t or won’t provide them ask yourself why they might not want to reveal their objectives. Are they really working in the best interests of you and me, or of corporate lobbyists?

Question everything. Be critical. Think for yourself.

 

 

A Song For Europe

To the tune of American Pie:

A long, long time ago
I can still remember how
This country used to make me smile
And I knew that in the EU
My dream of peace might just come true
And maybe we’d be happy for a while.

But referendum made me shiver
With every paper they’d deliver
Bad news on the front page
I couldn’t believe the rage.

I just remember that I cried
When I read about the exit tide
Something touched me deep inside
The day the UK died.
So

Bye, bye, all you European guys
They have wrecked it, we’ve got Brexit, ‘cos they swallowed the lies
And them Eton boys who told the biggest pork pies
Singin’ we’re all right, we’ve got old school ties
We’re all right, we’ve got old school ties

Did you hear the tales they told
And do you believe you’ve got control
If that Farage tells you so?
Do you believe migration’s bad?
Are Ukip not just raving mad?
Johnson got stabbed in the back by Gove.

Well I know you wanted Boris in
‘Cause I saw you share that post of him
You repeated his bullshit
Three fifty million, wasn’t it?

I was a voice of reason for Remain
Listenin’ as the experts said again and again
You’d flush the country down the drain
The day you voted Leave.
I started singin’,

Bye, bye, all you European guys
They have wrecked it, we’ve got Brexit, ‘cos they swallowed the lies
Forty eight percent will not just close up our eyes
Singin’ never gonna let EU die,
Never gonna let EU die.

Breaking the Impasse

The referendum was a disaster. There, I’ve said it. I’m not talking about the result. I mean the whole ill-conceived exercise. And its outcome: the uncertainty we now find ourselves in the middle of is not doing anybody any good, inside the UK or out.

Nobody appears to have a plan for exiting the EU: if they did we’d have started the process already. I believe the problem is that if you ask a hundred people what they want the future relationship between the UK and the rest of the world to look like you’ll get dozens of different answers.

The one big positive of the referendum has been to expose the immense dissatisfaction across the country with the current state of affairs. But just as people had many different reasons for choosing how they voted, so there are many different causes for that dissatisfaction.

I’m all for leaving, if by leaving you mean the huge inequalities between the rich and the poor, the increasing squeeze we feel on our ability to simply carry on with our day to day lives, the way that politicians in Westminster feel more and more remote from the realities of life in the UK, the way so many people feel their needs are ignored.

All these things and more came out in the vote to leave. Against them were a fear of the unknown, of some calamity in the event of such a big change. But also a feeling among many remain voters that their situation was bearable and that the ideals for which the EU was founded have deep meaning and significance.

By making it a stark choice between in or out the referendum completely ignored the fact that many on both sides share common concerns about pressures on public services like the NHS, on schools, on housing, on jobs. For me these are more important issues than whether or not the UK remains in the EU. But they are not being addressed. Both sides in the referendum used them to score points but since the result was called nobody has put forward any plan to improve the state of things.

I think it’s time for a revolution. A revolution in the way we as a country approach the issues directly affecting us, the people, right now. Our democracy is broken. We don’t feel our representatives in parliament really represent us: we vote for them every four or five years and after that we go back to being ignored and told what to do.

The current system lacks feedback; it lacks the input from the people at the bottom, the electorate, about what we need. Not what a political party thought we wanted and promised years ago in order to get our vote, but what we want and need today.

I propose putting together a representative group of people from across the country. All ages, all political leanings, all levels of education. Selected by lot, like a big jury. Give them full access to all the information, all the experts, and let them decide between them what needs to change and how to go about it. We trust juries a lot more than politicians, and that is how juries work.

They won’t be experts themselves, at least not when they start. But they will represent us with all our hopes and fears. They will be us. I’d certainly trust them to work for the benefit of the people of this country. More so than the politicians. I’m sure that between them they could work out a set of priorities and a new direction for the country. One that a clear majority of people could get behind and support.

It’s an idea that is being used (in similar form) in Ireland today to work on constitutional issues. It could work here too. And it would give people a real voice, not only to decide on issues but also to decide what issues are important. Out political system is failing us. Let’s do things differently going forward. Let’s make our democracy more direct. Let’s involve the people directly. And we’ll have a chance to make things better for all of us and not just the 1%, the elite, the rich.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Last Thursday 17 million people in the UK voted to, well, what exactly did they vote for? Not what they were promised, that’s becoming increasingly clear.

The referendum asked a deceptively simple question: should the UK remain in the EU or leave. I say “deceptively” because it was an attempt to put an exceedingly complex issue into yes/no terms.

I’m sure a lot of people, like me, saw the question as one between the known quantity that was remaining in the EU and a leap in the dark. Equally, many suffering under the results of years of austerity felt that any change, any hope was better than keeping things as they were.

I woke up on Friday morning to the result and immediately suffered a huge attack of anxiety because it was clear that my stable little world had fallen down and we were in uncharted territory. I don’t handle change well and this has been change on a massive scale.

At a time when the country needs clear leadership more than ever the politicians are running around like headless chickens. The Prime Minister, by resigning, has become little more than a figurehead while the two factions of the Conservative party fight between themselves for supremacy.

The tensions in the Labour party between Jeremy Corbyn with the support of grass-roots members and unions, and his MPs, many of whom oppose his leadership, have decimated the effectiveness of the opposition.

The country’s economy has been severely weakened with stock markets and the pound falling. The Chancellor, George Osborne, announced this morning that taxes will have to rise and spending will be cut. Not only is austerity here to stay for a long while, it’s going to get worse.

And with key figures from the victorious Leave campaign retracting their pre-referendum claims and promises, Boris Johnson talking about effectively remaining in Europe on similar terms to what we have today, I find myself wondering what it was all for.

The country has been weakened and it will take years to recover. Deep divisions in society have been exposed and the wounds remain open. Although a majority voted to leave there were almost as many who voted the opposite way: it really is a split right down the middle of the country.

Parliament is a representative democracy, but how can they represent such polar opposites? Politics is often a balancing act but right now they have one foot either side of a chasm that is widening.

Things must be resolved quickly to end the uncertainty. That means compromise; there’s not the time to build consensus. The country needs leadership, somebody to establish its direction, but nobody today wants to be the one to make that move from which there might be no going back.

The referendum was an ill-considered response to a problem that had nothing to do with the EU: divisions in the Conservative party. It’s resulted in the country being dragged into a situation that nobody wants: we’re standing on the edge of a cliff and the ground is crumbling under our feet. We either launch ourselves forward or step back, but that needs a leader to make the call. We don’t have that right now.

I want to see some honesty from the politicians. I want to know whether they have any idea what to do, where to take the country. Because all the signs at present are that they do not have a clue.

I believe that if they do not know how to achieve the goals they promised when campaigning to leave then they should abandon the attempt and return to where we were before this mess. Start over. Ask people the right questions. Listen to their concerns about poverty, loss of services, the erosion of community, the increasing disconnection between the average person and the governors in Westminster.

People are angry and with good reason. Angry people look for someone or something to blame and this was manipulated by referendum campaigners who offered a series of scapegoats: immigration, EU bureaucracy. Slogans like “Take back control” and “Stronger in” appeal on an emotional level, deliberately, so that people do not question what they really mean.

Televised “debates” that were just Britain’s Got Talent contests to put on the best performance. Never mind what they said, who said it in the most convincing tone? The end result: a hideously complicated issue reduced to soundbites.

It took me days of research to begin to understand the issues, and even after that what I came away with was mostly the feeling that international relations and the economics of nation states are almost beyond human understanding. I have little confidence in my ability to make an informed decision, which convinced me that it was better to let things continue as they stood.

Is that even an option now that the referendum result was to leave? Do we have to continue to head out into the unknown, given that the first few steps have resulted in serious negative consequences? We’ve had a little taste of the dish in front of us and it’s unpleasant. Do we have to clean our plate, or can we send it back and order something new?

We know where we stand and it’s on the brink. The question is where do we go from here?

Post Nationalism

I’ll say this for social media: national boundaries are feeling increasingly irrelevant.

The people I have connections to through Facebook in particular (but also Twitter) fall into roughly three groups. There are people I’ve met socially in the flesh, people I’ve worked with and, most of all, people with whom I share an aspect of my identity as an autistic trans woman.

Apologies to those in the first two groups, but with a few notable exceptions it is the last group with whom I feel the greatest affinity. The people who know what it means to be autistic or to be trans without me needing to explain myself.

The thing about these overlapping groups of autistics and trans folk is that they include people from a number of countries and ethnicities but that does not form the basis of the community.

Through interacting with and getting to know these people it has become abundantly clear that what we have in common has nothing to do with nationality: we are able to make common cause within a culture that owes nothing to geographic boundaries.

In many respects I see something similar in my work environment. I work for a subsidiary of a US-owned company. The development department that I’m a part of has teams located in the US, UK, Finland and Poland. I’ve had meetings where every participant was in a different physical location.

Whether you agree with it or not, globalization is a fact. It’s here now and with the world becoming ever more connected it’s only going to become more and more widespread. Barriers are coming down. First information and money, then goods and finally people moving more and more freely across the world.

The EU for all its flaws is, I think, a good example of this. The opening up and integration of most of the continent is a prime reason why there has not been any armed conflict between its member states–even the thought of a Europe-wide war has become almost unthinkable. It’s something that transcends nations, a reason to work together. It’s provided stability and shown that the EU as a whole is much stronger than any of its individual constituents.

That stability is facing a serious threat this week as the UK holds a referendum on its continued membership of the EU. Petty nationalistic interests are on the rise, threatening to not just rock the boat but overturn it. They’d leave us all adrift in uncharted waters. It’s telling that people like Putin who would benefit from weakening the EU favor the UK’s withdrawal from the union, while people like Obama and every EU leader have spoken in support of retaining the status quo.

The Legacy of Empire

One hundred years ago, on Easter Monday, thousands of ordinary people rose up against the powers that had occupied their country for generations. The uprising was defeated within a week, opposed by overwhelming force.

Nearly three hundred civilians were left dead by the bombs and bullets of the Empire, and many of the rebel leaders were quickly convicted of treason and executed. Against the backdrop of global conflict this could easily have been just a footnote in history.

It wasn’t the first uprising, and it wouldn’t be the last. But the violence of the response, the lack of discrimination with which thousands–many of whom had no involvement–were taken prisoner and interned fostered growing resentment of the occupation and support for the rebel cause and its armed opposition to British rule.

The Easter Rising of 1916 was the turbulent birth of the modern Irish Republic. It saw the issuing of the Proclamation of the Republic, claiming independence from the United Kingdom, and the banner under which they fought was the tricolour that is today the flag of the Republic.

Unlike America’s Fourth of July, the Irish Easter Rising is rarely mentioned in mainland Britain. Irish independence was to take many more years to achieve, and even then the six counties of Northern Ireland were excluded, remaining under British rule: the country was partitioned.

The fallout from this continued to fuel conflict for decades, leading to the Troubles and the equation in mainland Britain of Republicanism with terrorism. However, the Good Friday agreement of 1998 signalled the willingness of most of the parties involved to end the armed conflict and pursue their aims by peaceful means.

That is not to forget all those who died on both sides of the fighting; rather it is to honour them by constructive actions, building a better future for all of us. Forgiveness and reconciliation are the way to achieve this, not the bitterness of resentment and blame.

In many ways for people in the UK, Ireland is our closest neighbour. We share a common language, and many Irish live and work in the UK. Because of this and the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK, many mainland British hardly think of the Republic of Ireland as a distinct country. But of course that is exactly what it is.

It’s time the UK acknowledged the Easter Rising of 1916 in the same way we acknowledge the Fourth of July for Americans: as the moment when a nation threw off the shackles of Empire and took its first steps towards self-determination and independence. Surely that is something all people deserve the right to, and something to celebrate.

I’d like to thank Tric Kearney for her post Tomorrow we rightly celebrate as the inspiration for this.

Saying It Doesn’t Make It So

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

There’s an article that I’m seeing a lot on my timeline just lately titled All white people are inherently white supremacists. Now, I have a knee-jerk reaction to generalization in all forms which is to assume that there are holes in the argument.

In this case, what stands out first and foremost is that it is the old “all men are inherently rapists” trope, recast in terms of race.

But there’s a little twist in this article: the author tells us that when they say supremacist they don’t mean quite what the dictionary tells you the word means, what everybody who hasn’t read the article would assume it means.

No, in this article a supremacist is not someone who advocates for the superiority of a particular group; it is someone who benefits from the advantaged status of that group. In my book (despite the denial of the author) they are talking about privilege.

Sorry, but you don’t get to redefine such a loaded word just because it suits your desire for an attention-grabbing headline. There are already words and phrases in existence that carry the meaning you want, unless you just intend to provoke and incite a reaction.

It’s disingenuous of the author: the redefinition of the word is calculated to undermine the position of anybody asserting that they are not a white supremacist. And because it’s about race, that touchiest of subjects, especially in the US, people are reluctant to call “bullshit” lest they incur the righteous wrath of those who take it all at face value.

The essence of this piece is to imply that all white people are the same: at heart they are indistinguishable from the shaven-headed neo-Nazis and KKK members who proclaim the primacy of the “white race”. I call bullshit.

There’s a particular statement in the article, “All white people […] won’t challenge and disagree with genocide, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, gentrification, the hypersexualization of young Black girls, the criminalization of young Black boys.”

That’s simply not true. In fact I find it hard to credit that more than a handful of white people would agree with those things. But according to the author all white people “are inherently racist” and by implication support the oppression and subjugation of other races.

I must admit I’ve been surprised by the support shown for this deeply flawed article with its sweeping generalizations and unsupported, easily refutable claims. It’s the same sort of polemic as Trump’s attacks on Mexican immigrants in that it caters to the prejudices and insecurities of a particular audience.

But here’s the thing: just because the author believes in what they wrote, just because there are published words on a page does not make it true. I know what a supremacist is, and claiming it means something else just doesn’t hold water. If you want to play games with language, you’ve got to do a damn sight better than that.

Mother’s Love

Today is Mothering Sunday in the UK, Mothers’ Day. I was always very close to my mother and it was heart-breaking when she died six years ago. It’s still heart-breaking.

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One of the few photos I have of my mother, Maureen, seen here with my daughter.

There’s so much I never got chance to tell her. She never got the chance to know me as Alexandra; I regret that she died before she could see me as her daughter. But my regrets are minor compared to my memories of the many happy times I spent with her. Going out for meals, shopping, cooking together, or just sitting doing a crossword.

If I have one wish it would be to live up to the example she set. She demonstrated every day such kindness and love, and I would not be the person I am today without her guidance and influence.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her, remembering her with a degree of affection that brings a tear to my eye. I miss her terribly, but I console myself with the thought that she lives on in me, in my memories and in my heart.