Interview: A Conversation With Cultural Commentatrix A.V. Flox

March 1, 2015
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Interview: A Conversation With Cultural Commentatrix A.V. Flox

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys a frank, open and, above all, intelligent conversation about sex, then the chances are you already know A.V. Flox, the sharp and insightful Editor-in-Chief of Slantist – accurately described as “what your newspaper would look like if it had a section dedicated to news about sex” – as well as an active and prolific voice on Twitter, where her keen eye, razor wit and cultural smarts provide an often funny and always compelling running social commentary. 

While A.V.’s work focuses predominantly on sex (as she says herself, “I write about sex… I do it because everyone does, but they’re too caught up in the titillation to really impart anything meaningful. And you deserve something meaningful”), she never shies away from politics and all those other aspects of life that comprise the human experience. That’s not too surprising from someone so clearly interested in the Internet, in science and technology, in human rights and labor rights. Sometimes those worlds will collide and we’ll see A.V. vociferously championing freedom of speech in the battle against censorship, and bringing to light the struggles of identity politics and of sex worker rights. 

Put simply, A.V. Flox is a true 21t Century thinker, a progressive philosopher. So I felt very fortunate indeed to have the opportunity of connecting with A.V. from the opposite side of the world and picking her brains about her work, her ethos, and, of course, about modern sexuality. 

This is our conversation, edited for clarity and length…

Looking over your work, you seem to be interested in a lot of things, love, sex, politics, technology… is there anything you don’t write about?

One of the hardest things I ever did was helping a friend who was writing a book about love and our concepts of love in America and he wanted to find people who have love that other people don’t believe is real love… I went on the Internet and started looking for somebody who harbors emotional feelings towards people who we believe are basically incapable of consenting to these feelings. I managed to find someone who was a pedophile but was not a child molester, and he explained what that meant. That did not make it easier, talking to this person. He was big activist about how some people have these desires but they aren’t guilty of anything until they act on them. It was incredibly difficult. I think that was probably the most horrifying thing I’ve ever encountered.

You seem to have a very evolved sense of social consciousness; do you think you have the function of being a social educator?

I believe that writers, whether they’re doing fiction or non-fiction, are working to expand people’s minds. I don’t necessarily think we always educate people about good things. We do open minds. I think every writer tries to do that, whether they’re aware of it or not. In terms of social consciousness, that’s part of the writer’s personality. If somebody cares really deeply about something, you’re always going to get into it.

You can see an evolution of how writing about certain issues has really changed the way I look at the world. I started out a very sex-positive sort of feminist, where sex is great and everything is jolly, to realizing that when you’re looking at sex work or participating in sex work, it isn’t always great; it’s like any other job, sometimes it sucks, sometimes your clients are assholes. And that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be positive all the time. Demanding that anyone in any aspect of the sex industry be really happy and positive about sex all the time is really oppressive. So I’ve gravitated far away from this sex-positive notion. Sex is a neutral thing.

You often talk about the politics of identity. Why is that topic important to you?

I don’t know if I’ve written that much about identity but I do know that I talk about it a lot on Twitter, especially when trying to explain to people why it’s so important for certain groups to have a say in how they are represented. Chelsea Poe was asking porn companies to stop using slurs to market their materials about trans performers. One example was the frequent use of the term she-male. Some say, well, the porn industry has this term and they’ve used it forever and everybody knows what it is; when people put it into Google, they come up with our sub so we’re just going to leave them up. I don’t think that’s a good enough answer. The people performing should have a say in how they are being marketed.

This is a long-running issue in porn. Back when we used to steal our parents’ Playboys, we would see these amazing pictorials about Daisy or Suzie and the copy was just catering to the fantasy and had no relation whatsoever to the person. A lot of groups are still stuck in this world where the copy is written for them and they have no representation; they’re just being sold as product. They have every right to be people too. That’s what the full ‘trans vs. she-male’ debate was about.

A tweet of yours referred to porn as “freedom’s canary in the coal mine” and that, whether we liked it or not, we had to “pay attention” to porn…

One of the more interesting things about the history of censorship in the US is how much was censored as a result of obscenity laws. We had amazing works that were banned because of concerns over sex and how much we were sharing sex in literature and art. A lesser-known aspect of obscenity laws is how they impact science.  Science is very important to our development. As a culture and a society, understanding it is of critical importance, and public access to this information is really important as well. Limiting the circulation of certain papers because they might be ‘obscene’ reduces the ability of researchers to communicate ideas. Art has a function, science has a function, and these things are the first to suffer once porn goes.

Where do you think the social aversion to pornography comes from?

It’s a cultural thing. We are raised to believe that certain things are very private; they’re shameful; if they’re seen, it should be embarrassing. There’s a virginity trope among women where a woman’s value is directly related to her ability to defend her sexual self, from her own desires as well as others’. It’s very different for men, in that they are encouraged to go out and have sex, but only with women. Masculinity is incredibly policed; any man who is interested in anything that is not hetero-normative is severely punished for such desires, or even expressing the ideas.

Both men and women deal with this on a regular basis and anyone who is gender-nonconforming will deal with it because gender roles and presentation are tied so deeply to sex. We’ve conflated a lot of ideas. We have very rigid structures and social norms about what those ideas mean and this trickles down into sex.

I think the political aversion to sexuality is a form of state control. Sexuality is so tied to our bodies and our minds and our emotional states and sense of wellbeing that controlling that is the height of authoritarian regimes.

What’s really risky is that we’re doing lots of things at the same time. It’s not just banning pornography, which I agree is not appropriate for all audiences; at the same time we’re taking away all porn, we’re also taking away the sex ed. Because we cannot take away all the porn, we really need to have sex ed.

A lot of mainstream porn has a certain look, and it’s affecting people’s expectations of the sexual act. If we don’t have sex education that lets at least adolescents know that the sexual act isn’t just these five positions that are great for camera angles and horrible for real life, then we’re going to be running into a lot of problems; taking the porn away isn’t going to fix that.

Do you think the difference with porn is that somehow there’s no suspension of disbelief?

I don’t know that porn has enough time to suspend any disbelief. I have this conversation a lot with people who are upset about how bad porn films are; there’s no real character development; no narrative. I say, you’ve got to have five sex scenes, and each scene is around eight minutes, so already you’ve lost a big chunk of your movie. That’s why parodies are so popular, because you can latch on to existing stories and characters.

I don’t know whether porn has the responsibility to let people know they are creating a fantasy. Do you really have to put a warning on the coke machine that if you tip it over, it might squish you?

It comes back to sex ed. I’d already learned about sex, on a technical level, before I had any real exposure to porn. Now though, if I were growing up, I’d have porn, porn, porn, all the time, constant access, so now my reality would be formed by pornography, at the same time it was formed by thinking spaceships were real. At that age, it all conflates…

There are just so many things about development, about desire, about sexuality, that porn just isn’t going to delve into, because porn is really catering to a very specific audience, so even though you have a little more representation for other desires, you are still going to run into things that porn can’t help you understand. We are doing a disservice to young people by not allowing open sex education.

Interview: A Conversation With Cultural Commentatrix A.V. Flox

Why should we all be concerned about how we treat sex workers, whether we’re talking about business or the whole concept of slut shaming; why is it something we should be aware of?

A lot of people are concerned about sex work, but we need to be aware of what our concern becomes. One of the biggest issues I see facing sex workers now is the ‘rescue’ industry. A lot of people in that industry are really deeply invested in helping. However, the help is not necessarily what we want it to be.

When you think about it logically, we need to understand sex work as a labor issue, not a moral one. As long as we believe that selling that part of the body is worse than anything else, we’re not actually going to have a good solution in terms of labor. Forcing people to work in a sweatshop [instead] is really no more noble than coercing them to have sex. I don’t see this being better. A lot of rescue organizations do just that sort of thing and that is deeply troubling. I think people who donate to causes because they want to save these poor trafficked women don’t really understand that what they’re actually doing is creating a second-class citizen labor force. The reason we should really be concerned about sex work is because many people, in trying to help, are actually making things worse.

So what can be done?

Listening to sex workers is probably the most important thing you can do. One of the great things about the Internet is that you actually can find sex workers talking about issues. They’re pointing out abuses that occur through the rescue industry; coming together in ways that were previously impossible; you have sex workers collaborating from Australia to the US to the EU and to Asia. There are conferences; they’re talking about how this moralizing panic and concern about human trafficking is taking a lot of time and energy away from reduction efforts, and so negatively impacting on those who really are the victims of trafficking. You’ll find that a lot of people who work in the rescue industry put an incredible amount of emphasis on sex trafficking and don’t really talk about the number of illegal immigrants working in homes, restaurants and factories; that’s a really big problem.

Before I got involved in writing about sex work, I wrote about labor and a lot of my ideas about sex work really come from that background. It’s really important to understand it as a form of labor. There are so many people working in our fields and factories that have been trafficked, that can’t get out, yet we are selling these stories over and over. Basically, I think it’s a form of pornography consumption. The interest in stories around trafficked women and especially children and the way that these victims of actual trafficking are paraded around at dinner parties and fundraisers, giving all these details of their experiences, it’s really exploitive to me.

We get to hear this horrible story, and it is very sexual, and we also get to rescue people, so we have authentic justice playing out while simultaneously consuming pornography. It’s very much an emphasis on the sex and the seediness and the moralizing, and not really any real concern for workers’ rights, for people who are trafficked or the situation faced by millions of immigrant workers. These are people that could be doing a lot of good if they were only able to see beyond the sexual and moral aspects of the ‘save the prostituted women’ crusade.

It sounds self-congratulatory…

If you’re donating money to the Sex Workers Outreach Project, you are very welcome to self-congratulate. But I do think we need to analyze what ‘rescue’ really means, and not just in terms of sex work.

Moving away, I can see society having difficulty getting its head around certain concepts, like trans-identity and so on; basically because even now society hasn’t really got its head around the fact of women yet. What’s it going to take to attain the most basic form of gender equality?

I wouldn’t say that the world isn’t aware of women, but I do understand what you’re trying to say… there’s still a lot of inequality despite having made a great deal of progress. I definitely think that. But, at least for feminism, we’ve come to a revolutionary point where the discussions are moving away from a certain set of educated white women, and are being had by many different kinds of women.

There’s a lot of backlash because radical feminism has been very vocal and has a much longer history; you see a lot of backlash especially amongst sex workers and adult entertainers who don’t want to use the word ‘feminist’ because they associate it with radical ideas.

We’re seeing a lot of different movements springing up around gender identity, around sexual identity as well, and I believe in the power of the conversations that are being had. I don’t necessarily think backlash is a sign we are moving backwards; it’s the sign of real structural change. We’re making a lot of progress by having these conversations. They’re everywhere; they come up on blogs, in the news, on TV shows.

I disagree that society can’t wrap its head around transgender issues. I think this is going to be the year of transgender. We’ve been seeing a lot more representation of trans; people in the media; we have a television show, with a trans performer, and she is not just an actress, she is a real activist and very involved in a lot of issues. Society is beginning to wrap its mind around these things, because you can’t ignore people who refuse to be silenced. The Internet has enabled these groups to really come together. They’re speaking out. They’re not afraid.

When I say the world isn’t ready for it, I mean the world is never ready, for anything, until it is forced to deal with it…

It’s definitely going to affect the way that things are; it’s definitely going to affect people’s sense of self. One of the things people are most resistant to is when their ideas of the reality of themselves are challenged. This includes simple things, like becoming aware of a privilege. People are so sensitive about being called out on privilege, like it’s a bad word.

Any number of things make it easier to move up and beyond. Some people have them and some don’t. It’s a lot to do with that random chance at the moment you were born, of exactly who you were born to and who you were born as. It’s looking at the world and realizing that it’s not just a meritocracy… It’s destabilizing for a lot of people.

Let’s move on to something you wrote a while back and which became known as The Consent Rant. Where did that spring from? Why is the consent question so important?

The consent rant was part of a discussion I was having with friends; somebody was worried about how consent, particularly with somebody during sex, was sort of like planning, and planning took the spontaneity out of the moment. This was the most outrageous thing I’d ever heard. Planning doesn’t take away the sentiment or make anything less real. How many weddings have you attended? Do you really think that planning makes something less real? I mean… give me a break! How many people plan romantic getaways, vacations, honeymoons, birthdays… nothing about planning or checking in with a person makes anything less real.

That rant about planning and spontaneity quickly descended into gender issues. Men have a tendency to be worried about bringing up sex on the first date. They think to do so is considered very forward, inappropriate, because it suggests that they feel like they’re entitled. It’s something I understand; if you’re aware of social pressures, you may be aware that bringing up sex might make somebody feel pressured. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a crazy bad concern. I think it’s very thoughtful. At the same time, I think talking about sex early on is really important.

I like to talk about sex right away. If you don’t like what I like, then maybe we should just hang out and not date anymore. Why should we spend a lot of time investing in each other as a potential partner if it’s going to turn out that you don’t like anal? The whole ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ stems from the belief that everyone likes the same thing.  That’s not the way sex is. We don’t just like the same thing. We like all kinds of weird things. I don’t want to be on date 13 and pull out my xenomorph dildo and have my partner be like, what is that? I would rather him tell me I’m a freak right away, before we’ve spent a significant amount of time together.

Weirdly, I found that men reacted very negatively to women bringing that up right away. They worry about what kind of women this is talking to them about sex. Does she want something from me? It’s slut shaming! This woman is talking about sex very openly, she’s obviously had a lot of it; her interest in sex means she’s probably going to be a bad long-term partner; she’s probably a cheater; she’s probably going to be a horrible mother; all of these weird things suddenly come together into this terror. So women who are very forward about sex tend to be discarded or men have sex with them but don’t want to pursue long-term relationships.

Interview: A Conversation With Cultural Commentatrix A.V. Flox

You could say this kind of reaction to a woman’s open sexuality is based on a man’s fear of his power being taken away from him.

I don’t necessarily think men feel they are having their power taken away by a woman who is sexual, because I don’t think a lot of us think about our power that way.

Part of this gender role thing we’ve created also involves a vision of the woman as a cunning minx who wants to trap you into this world of white picket fences and babies. Men are always worried about falling into a situation where they won’t be able to advocate for their wants. But I think this is also true of women.

More than gender, that is a social issue. That’s what happens when you live in a culture where gender roles are so heavily policed. We have to worry about falling into things that we don’t really want, because they can happen.

I tend to think that the fear of encountering a sexual woman is more rooted in slut shaming than anything else. It is a belief that the woman who is sexually forward is a suspicious character, immoral in some way, untrustworthy. 

An un-evolved way of looking, really…

I don’t like to use the term ‘un-evolved’, in the same way I don’t like to use the term ‘alpha’ to refer to a man who has his shit together, because we do a disservice to science when we borrow words without their entire meaning. So it’s not that it’s not evolved; it’s that it is oppressive.

But isn’t it oppressive because people haven’t learnt to change? When I say evolution, I don’t mean in the Darwinian sense; just that nothing should remain static; as long as things are static, we won’t see any progress. So in that sense, I’m talking about the mind that refuses to change its ideas, and that is problematic.

I do think it’s problematic. I can’t tell you the number of men who have written me saying, ‘I’ve been married for 10 years and my wife doesn’t want to have sex with me and I’m thinking about cheating… what should I do?’ I say, well, can’t you talk to her about this? Mismatched sexualities is not uncommon; sometimes we start and we’re both really into it and then the chemistry fades and you’ve got to work on it… If you’re committing your life to a person, maybe you should make sure they want to have sex or they like sex; that you can talk to them about sex. It’s really kind of a shocking moment for [people] to realize they didn’t select for a sexual person.

It’s just something we weren’t taught to think about…

Right! But we’re taught to think so much about everything else! Some people go into dating with all these assumptions, like I don’t want to be with a guy in marketing, or in tech or I don’t want a woman who’s an attorney or Christian or whatever. It’s like you’re more worried about their day job than who they are. People aren’t static, so even if you marry a person who is very sexual, that might change.

This ties in to sexual education. When you want to have a relationship, there are certain conversations you should be having. They’re not just about what sort of contraceptives you’re going to use; you should talk about the emotional meaning and the expectations that follow sex. I don’t think that people do that even when they are open to discussing sex. So, not only are we missing the critical sex conversation, we’re also missing critical parts of the conversation once we get to the place where we can have sex.

This is a terrible cliché, but do you think the secret to a good, healthy sexual relationship is communication?

We believe that talking is the same as communicating. We believe that if we say, ‘Are you hungry?’ we’re communicating that ‘I would like to go out to eat now.’ We do this all the time with all kinds of expectations. Like, ‘Are you thinking of maybe doing laundry this weekend?’ That does not communicate a goddam thing! We ask these questions instead of just saying what we want. We say communication is key, but we don’t understand what it means and we don’t understand the boundaries of it. For instance, one of the most popular clichés amongst sexperts – and I hate this – is ‘Ask him his fantasy!’

It’s a very private question…

I cannot think of anything more harmful to a relationship that is sexually on the rocks, where people are feeling maybe a little rejected, or insecure about the relationship, to go and demand something from somebody else that they don’t really understand. We don’t really have a definition of what a fantasy is… I don’t know if you know what YIFF is. YIFF stands for Young Incredibly Fuckable Furries… it’s like young, twenty-something furry animals that have been completely anthropomorphized. People on Tumblr make cartoons and entire comics of these little human-like animals, and they enable me to enter a really fun space where I can interact with sexual beings without worrying about the exploitation of workers, the age of performers or my own body-image hang-ups, because they’re… squirrels. They’re drawings! I don’t have to worry if the performers are being paid or anything at all and it’s a wonderful relief.

So if somebody says, ‘What is something you fantasize about?’ and I end up talking about Joe the Horse and his many affairs with Tony the Tiger, I wouldn’t be surprised if that person was all of a sudden very worried that I couldn’t pet-sit for them anymore… he might freak out, or have an expectation that I might want him to dress up.

This happens all the time. People say, ‘I was fantasizing about a threesome’ – what does that mean? Does that mean you are now responsible for creating a situation that fulfills a fantasy? What if they say, “I was thinking about you and your sister’? It’s not necessarily something they want to happen.

When people say talk about your fantasy, they’re actually doing an enormous disservice to people, because people don’t go into that conversation saying, ‘Let’s talk about something we would like to do together’. Are you now responsible for enabling that to happen? What if you don’t feel comfortable? You end up with all these questions and if your relationship is on unsteady ground and you feel a little insecure sexually, this could go wrong in every possible way.

There’s also a certain sense of entitlement, like, I’m doing this for you, asking you your fantasy, therefore you must tell me your fantasy. It’s a really coercive situation, where they must accept and they must convey the fantasy through you, and a lot of people find it safer to just lie; something easy, something executable, because people are worried what others will think of their fantasies, because they’re worried they’ll make their partner insecure.

The most important thing about communication is understanding it’s not just talking. It’s about creating a nest-space where your partner feels safe sharing with you, and that requires you to be very secure, and that requires your partner to be secure. It also requires you to understand that you can’t make somebody secure; they have to be secure. Checking in on your relationship all the time, making sure things are okay, allowing your partner to share experiences that may freak you out a little bit. It’s really important to take the time and listen and take care to understand what our partner is saying, and not take it personally.

You cannot be everything to everyone; you cannot own your fantasies; you cannot be entitled to your fantasies. If you allow people to have space then they can have that security to say I don’t want to share with you and that’s okay. You’re not going to bring it up as a joke later; you’re just going to leave your partner alone. But if you haven’t established a relationship where these things aren’t in place, that your partner isn’t aware that their free to say what they want without these awful consequences, then you don’t have a place where you can go into the deepest aspects of another person’s sexuality.

Honestly, if you don’t have that framework, I don’t even know if you are able to have sex in an ethical way. You can’t have sex in an ethical way with somebody if you’re not entirely sure that they could express to you that they don’t want to.

So, yes, communication is key, but sadly very few people know how to do it.

Okay, so finally, in another tweet, you said, “culture does its best to bake ideas into us about what’s acceptable and what’s desirable.” How do we take control of the recipe of our own existence; how do the ingredients beat the chef?

The best thing you can probably do is get to know yourself. This sounds trite and easy to do except I have no actual guidebook. Really get to know yourself and really get to know what exactly appeals to you, and look at the world around you. Do you see a lot? Are you responding to something external, to signals from peers that indicate that these are things you should be finding attractive?

I don’t know if there’s anything you can actually do about it. People like what they like. Do you really care about external validation? When you go out on a date with somebody and you find people responding to that person’s attractiveness, is that really important to you? Is it important what your family and friends think about the person you’re dating? Analyze how much of that external validation you actually require and begin asking yourself whether it’s worth it. The world is really large and we don’t have to exist in social circles where the values don’t reflect our own. But until we really understand what those values are, we don’t know if they reflect our own.

It really becomes a question of analyzing what we like about things, how much input we require from others. Just be aware and examine whether your decisions and your choices and your desires are good and ethical and enable the world and the people in it to function in a way that is good, or whether you might accidentally be oppressing somebody. And do what you can to make sure that you don’t.

For more of A.V. Flox, just follow her on Twitter.

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