Tag Archives: agony aunt

Radical Agony Aunts: “I don’t respect my passive boyfriend”

Dear Radical Agony Aunts,

My dilemma is that I am a total hypocrite when it comes to what I seemingly want from a partner. I find men who match certain gendered roles set aside for men attractive; I find physically brawny men attractive, men who are good at DIY, who can find their way about, who are smart, confident, competent and will debate etc.

I have a very lovely and sweet and feminist boyfriend (who is also gorgeous), yet I sometimes don’t respect him because he can be quite passive and doesn’t really participate in debates, so sometimes I wonder if he is smart enough for me. I can be quite dismissive of him and can accuse him of being a bit useless. He isn’t physically muscley and doesn’t do DIY and is crap at reading maps, doesn’t make decisions quickly, so I feel I have to take control ALL of the time and sometimes that is tiresome. I am a strong personality and I am definitely the dominant partner in the relationship and it saddens and worries me that I don’t respect him because of this.

I should be happy that he doesn’t expect me to do the cooking, shopping and cleaning, or expect that it should automatically be him that drives etc. I would be maddened by an alpha male who expected me to follow gender roles assigned to me as a woman – the nurturing little wifey etc. so as much as I know I am being totally hypocritical I can’t help it. How can I stop being a hypocrite and also stop being a bit of a bully to him? Why do I have this internal need for him to be smarter than me for me to respect him?

Personal agony aunt

Personal agony aunt

The Personal’s response:

Dear Strong Personality,

So let me get this straight: you don’t respect your boyfriend, you feel he isn’t smart enough for you, you tell him he’s useless, you’re dismissive of him and you are more attracted to his complete opposite in terms of personality and physical type. Believe me, these are not words I say very often – but poor man!

But you know you’re treating him badly; that’s why you’ve written to us. Of course relationships have their ups and downs, and things may get better between you. But when you stop respecting someone, as you say you have, it’s a big deal. If you look at your partner and find your lip curling instead of your heart swelling, is there a way forward? I can’t tell from your letter whether your boyfriend has changed or whether he was never your type. Either way, are DIY and map reading really so important to you? Or are you (and I apologise for the phrase) just not that into him and looking for any reason why he’s not right for you? I think you need to consider whether the two of you have a future.

Like you, I’ve been out with men who looked good on paper – right-on types who wouldn’t hurt a fly, nice to their mums, good listeners, eager to please. In principle, my ideal men. In theory, a perfect match. In practice, kinda boring. We agreed on everything – but how was I going to develop my own thinking and my own view of the world without anyone challenging my opinions? Being with a good listener is great, but if we can’t learn from each other it’s bound to feel sterile. It’s a hard lesson that no amount of “looks good on paper” or 90% match from a computer algorithm is a guarantee that there will be a spark.

You give a pretty detailed description of the kind of man you find attractive, so I’m wondering if you’ve already met someone else who fits your ideal profile. You ask if it’s possible to hold feminist views and still be attracted to alpha male types. My very definite answer is: well, that all depends. If someone is an alpha sexually and that’s what you’re after, then of course – we are excited by what excites us, politics or no politics. The same goes for decisive personalities.

However if  someone’s view of alpha is insisting we play traditional female roles in everyday life, regardless of our own needs and desires, then we have to accept that they are a hindrance to us leading a feminist life and make our choices accordingly. That may be something you have to negotiate in a future partnership.

You use the word hypocrite three times in your letter and it’s a harsh word to use about yourself. I wouldn’t call you a hypocrite. But it is heartless to keep your boyfriend around when you seem to despise him, and it’s doing you no good either. If you really can’t respect who he is, then you need to take action. It’s nice when someone else takes responsibility for decisions, but sometimes you’ve just got to Do It Yourself.

Personal agony aunt

Political agony aunt

Dear Strong Personality,

Your question comes from the heart, and the sincerity in the expression of a deeply felt quandary is irrefutable. But when you ask how you can stop being a “hypocrite,” you introduce a term that is deeply unsuitable to the complexities of human relationships, especially sexual and romantic ones. Posed in such terms, the answer is simple: either change your desire or change your boyfriend.

The framing of your question, however, makes it difficult for the first to happen anytime soon. You talk about your desires as if they exist independently of you – as if such desires and tendencies had been offloaded onto your person, and could not be removed from you without some fundamental loss of personality. But to think about desires in such terms is to abstract them from the real situations and relations in which they develop and are expressed.

Even your self is presented here as if it were another person, fully formed and implacable. “I”, in your letter, operates almost in the third person. The same goes for the qualities that you attribute to your partner. You wonder if he “is” smart enough for you. But intelligence, so conceived, is an abstraction; and so is the lack of it. Intelligence arises in situations, and situations either release or stultify it. If desire could be so easily satisfied by items on a checklist (brawny, good at DIY, smart, confident, competent, good debater, etc.) then you ought to have no trouble upgrading. But we are not consumers when it comes to romance and love; desire is not so satisfiable.

You may not be attracted to your boyfriend. However, I don’t think this is due to his inability to read a map, or his lack of muscles. The negative checklist (passivity, lack of debating skills, indecisiveness) is as implausible as the positive one.

What would happen if you reconceptualise your boyfriend’s passivity as a form of agency, one that has developed over many years, and that has led him to his current situation of being partnered with a “strong” personality? Could you try to understand his map-reading incompetence, similarly, as a capacity – a decision taken early in life, in a specific situation, to organise the mind around one set of coordinates (for example, temporal ones) rather than another (spatial)? What happens if you approach his refusal to debate as motivated by intelligence rather than its absence?

Email your questions and dilemmas to agony@feministtimes.com

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Review: My Life in Agony, Irma Kurtz

Our Personal Agony Aunt reviews My Life in Agony by Irma Kurtz, published by Alma Books.

Irma Kurtz, “the unshockable Queen of advice”, has been the agony aunt at Cosmopolitan since 1975. Her new book is part memoir, part compilation of typical reader letters, and part agony aunt manual. The book is juicily subtitled Confessions of a Professional Agony Aunt; I wasn’t quite expecting the saucy double entendres you’d see in a 70s British sex comedy, but I wanted to hear her stories – her Jewish New Jersey childhood and post-war adolescence, her move to Paris as a teenager, leading to her decision to lose her virginity on the boat to Europe – in a lifeboat, no less.

She was a lone parent at a time when that was presumably even more frowned on than it is now (the book is short on dates but this seems to be the early 70s). She has the odd teasing career story, such as being sent to interview a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and being thankful that her anti-Semitic hosts mishear her name as Curtis. She was a pioneer in London’s bohemia, living in Notting Hill and Soho when they were poor arty areas for sex workers and outsiders, rather than aspirational Millionaire Rows. Yes, that’s a broad I want to read about.

But if 70s sex comedies taught us anything, it’s that juicy expectations are always frustrated – and sadly Kurtz and her fascinating life are tantalisingly absent from most of her biography. If you’re looking to understand the feminist times of that era, or learn how a creative and independent woman experienced life in a Britain in social turmoil, you won’t find it here.

There’s no doubt she has seen all human life in her post bag – problems on sex, family, friendship, independence, body image, mental health and ageing are all used to illustrate her quietly feminist worldview and to reflect different stages in her life. And for all aspiring agony aunts, she confirms certain intuitions about the role. The person with the problem knows the answer herself deep down but needs to hear it aloud. The agony aunt’s experience “must be one ingredient of her response, but it is never the recipe.”

There’s no shortage of sound advice in this book but the tone can be irritatingly lofty – I kept seeing her sentences sewn and framed like “Home Sweet Home” above mantelpieces of yore. She describes the role of the agony aunt as one of common sense, leading to wisdom over time through constant learning. But this develops into a series of “Common Sense says…. and Wisdom answers… “ homilies, a conceit to which the reader ultimately responds “So what?”

Kurtz’s life story is intriguing – I wish I’d learned more about it from reading her memoir. She seems much more comfortable using reader letters to explain the world than telling her own story. At one point she quotes her advice to an ageing friend who has complained about the lack of attention paid to older women: “Invisibility is no bad thing. People reveal lots more if they can’t see you watching them…” Perhaps after a lifetime of listening to and focusing on other people, she is uncomfortable being in the spotlight herself. Dear Irma, if that’s how you feel, here’s my advice: don’t write a book.

My Life in Agony by Irma Kurtz was published by Alma Books on 15 February.

See more from our Radical Agony Aunts here, or contact them with your own questions: agony@feministtimes.com

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Radical Agony Aunts: “Letting my family down”

Dear Radical Agony Aunts,

Just wondering if you have any take on the fact that many woman suffer from guilt when they have not actually done anything wrong?

I have recently had to give up a job and career that I loved due to ill health. The doctors could not give me a diagnosis and I was left hanging in limbo, unwell and depressed having lost a major part of my life. I spent huge swathes of time trying to work out what had gone wrong and what I had done wrong. The concept of “bad luck” did not resonate, it must be MY fault! I also tortured myself emotionally because I was “letting my family down.” Needless to say none of this agonising helped anybody but it was there and dominated for a long time.

This does seem to be a self flagellating aspect of the female psyche in this country. We tend to self deprecate, self criticise and generally self demean as a regular default.

I hope that the next generations of women ease up on this along with the perfectionism script which I believe is linked.

Sorry if this is not in the format you want but please use it anonymously as you wish. It is very important niggling worm that wastes an enormous amount of energy and creativity as it erodes our strength.

Personal agony aunt

Personal agony aunt

The Personal’s response:

Dear Feeling-Guilty,

Lena Dunham tweet, 6 November: Free epitaph: ‘She did whatever the fuck she wanted then worried mightily she had offended you’.  

What is it with women and our guilt? As Lena Dunham’s tweet suggests, even those of us who try to live an unrestrainedly feminist life are not free from the potential for guilt. I can cope with the real shame that follows the big mistakes I’ve made, the terrible things I’ve done that impacted hugely on other people. I seem to be able to find a way to forgive myself for those after time, and to learn from them. But I don’t feel like I’ll ever be free of the everyday guilt from (real and imaginary) things that I haven’t caused and can’t fix. I was never a fan of Bridget Jones but there’s no denying that character resonates with many women, with her daily tally of fags, booze and calories: a guilty checklist of failure, imperfection and self-imposed limitation.

I spoke to a lot of women when I saw your email, who all owned up to regular unreasonable guilt, and almost everyone blamed (guess who?) their mothers. A cliché I know, but maybe that’s true for some. I don’t remember my mother often laying guilt on me either explicitly or subliminally, and she’s heroically disinclined to feel guilt herself. But when I was young, my dad had a gambling problem and my mum had to work 6 days a week to keep the family going. So I saw her take responsibility for the family every day and that’s what I learned from her. But why does a positive lesson in responsibility turn into a psyche-damaging guilt?

Somehow we absorb the perfectionism that you mention, with expectations (from our mothers, maybe, but also from every kind of societal pressure) that we have to clean things up, make things right, never fail, never cut ourselves any slack because we don’t deserve any . We know rationally that’s not true, but as your story shows, guilt is a very irrational and all-consuming emotion.

There’s a bit of ego there for us, believing that only we can sort things out.  But I think that for some women (and certainly for me), guilt is our, ahem, guilty pleasure. We allow ourselves to feel guilty for the secret joy of private punishment, of dwelling on what terrible people we are. You’re right to describe this as “self flagellation” because although we may not physically beat ourselves (I’ll leave “food as punishment” for another column), we can give ourselves a good emotional kicking any time of the day or night in the privacy of our own heads. We waste time and energy on wallowing in guilt rather than focusing on the reasons we set (and allow others to set) such impossibly high standards for ourselves.

Time has given you the opportunity to see how artificial your guilt was, how it came from nothing to take over your life. Guilt is often baseless but oh so numbing. We can wrap it round us till it feels like a blanket but don’t be fooled – it’s always a straitjacket.

Personal agony auntThe Political’s response:

Dear Feeling-Guilty,

Is it really guilt you’re suffering from, or shame? The difference between guilt and shame is one of the great chestnuts of feminist theory, and of social activism more generally. The difference has tended to be elaborated in the following terms: I feel guilty for something I have done, but I feel shame for what or who I am. Following this distinction, guilt is seen to be relatively manageable. Shame, however, can cause deep, lifelong misery. In a state of shame, as a classic essay puts it, “the entire self is the object of denigration; the ashamed person understands herself to be bad” (Silberstein et al). Your experience of feeling “tortured”, together with your clear acknowledgement that you have done nothing wrong, leads me to think that shame may be a more productive term with which to characterize your problem.

Nevertheless, recent research has contested the close relation between shame and the self, on the grounds that selfhood is not a unity that warrants such a feeling. If we feel ashamed for “what we are,” that may be an indication that we are not what society insists on telling us we are, and tells us with special intensity in moments when we are most vulnerable. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir provides what is still one of the most incisive analyses of shame, in her account of the adolescent girl who, at the very moment her body is changing, becomes “for others a thing: on the street men follow her with their eyes and comment on her anatomy. She would like to be invisible; it frightens her to become flesh and to show her flesh.” For Beauvoir, what is important is not what the girl “is,” but her reduction to a “thing” in the eyes of the men she encounters.

All this is to say that, despite what your present circumstances seem to be telling you, despite the changes that have been happening to you, you are not a nonproductive invalid, nor a failed breadwinner, nor an undiagnosable patient, nor a mid-career dropout. The first step away from the feeling of shame is to understand that shame results from the imposition of social categories that everything in us screams out against. The key to release is contained in your message: “the perfectionism script”. But to characterize your experience as shame rather than guilt suggests that the problem is not simply perfectionism, but the extended power of a consumer society that seems increasingly able to define the terms in which we perceive and evaluate ourselves.

Further reading:
Lisa R. Silberstein, Ruth H. Striegel-Moore and Judith Rodin, “Feeling Fat: A Woman’s Shame,” in Helen Block Lewis (editor), The Role of Shame in Symptom Formation, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 1987, pp. 89-108.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley, New York: Vintage 1952.

Silvan Tomkins, Shame and its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, edited by Adam Frank and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Durham, NC: Duke University Press 1995.

Email your questions and dilemmas to agony@feministtimes.com

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Radical Agony Aunts: “Threatened, objectified and worthless”

Dear Radical Agony Aunts,

I’d like to precede my question by describing two things that happened to me, within a few weeks of each other.

It was mid-afternoon and I was walking home from the tube. It was during the hot spell, so I had bare legs under my dress and was wearing sandals. I was walking down a busy pavement that runs alongside a main road. I hadn’t gone far before some called to me from behind, I glanced round and could see a youngish man a few metres behind me on the pavement, on a bike. He called out that yes, he was talking to me and then started making comments about my legs. I carried on walking and didn’t look behind again. He followed me, on his bike and kept making remarks. After a while I noticed he had crossed the road and I made my turning to walk home.

Another day, walking home after work from the tube. This time it was a little bit later, certainly cooler. I could see a man walking towards me from the opposite direction, and as he got closer, started making noises, then as we passed made some comments and stood still as I walked by. I didn’t make any contact or reply, just pretended to ignore the whole thing.

My question really is, what should I have done? In both cases I did not engage, ignored what was happening and hoped the men would go away. But I feel ashamed and hypocritical to have been so passive. My beliefs are that no man should feel they have the right to make me feel threatened, objectified or worthless at any point. I feel the best thing to do would have been to challenge both men at the time it happened, to let them know that it is not OK to treat me or any woman in this way. I’ve imagined myself doing this and the words I might use many times, but when it comes to it, I’m too unsure of myself and probably too scared to do it.

Personal agony aunt

Personal agony aunt

The Personal’s response:

Dear Objectified,

I spent 6 months in Paris when I was a student.  Beautiful amazing Paris – and boy was I miserable. I was homesick, lonely, young and nervous, and all day long I got unwanted attention from men. I’ve never felt so totally beleaguered and diminished by a place, or so anxious about going out by myself. I was leered at and yelled at, and grabbed on the Metro several times. I’d go to the cinema and a man would sit right next to me, even in a practically empty auditorium. Once, when I was walking by a park, a man on the other side of the railings matched my footsteps and then, having got my attention, stuck his penis through the railings at me. My reaction till then had been to remove myself from the situation and ignore it, but this crudely symbolic violation was too much and I burst into tears. This wasn’t your archetypal dirty old man either – I’d guess he was maybe 25 and wearing  the uniform of every French student in the late 80s: slicked back hair, small round glasses and a Christopher Lambert mac . But what I remember most is his face before he scarpered – his triumphant smile. He’d won.

It’s unbelievable it still happens so often. Why do some men do it? Do they even see an individual woman, or does our presence just trigger some sexist motion-sensor? This isn’t about mutual attraction or a shared interest in talking, a flirty to-and-fro. This is a one-sided  affair; it’s not  a conversation, it’s control.

From the “Look At Me!” attention grabbing and the reduction of the whole woman  to component body parts, right through to the genuinely frightening threats like being followed, as you describe, it’s all about macho power and the need to intrude. “Woman minding her own business? Not good enough – I WILL make my presence felt and she WILL interact with me.”

So how should we respond? Of course it’s tempting  to challenge, to tell them it’s unacceptable, or even to imagine a violent response. Like you I imagine the words I’d use, the sheer force of my argument and logic forcing them to see the error of their ways (as if) or at least shut up until I’m round the corner. Except… isn’t a reaction, any reaction, the whole aim of their game? It’s not passive to walk on by. I’m starting to believe the most feminist response is the one you chose – not to be suckered into a conversation you didn’t want to take part in.

Of course some situations shouldn’t be ignored and threats and harassment should always be reported to the police. But for shouts and comments, I think back to my flasher. I don’t have a clear memory of his penis (one meets so many people…) but I won’t ever forget his gleeful face. And my response fed his glee. So now I do just what you did – silence, no acknowledgement, no indication that I’ve noticed  or that I care. This conversation’s over.

Personal agony aunt

Political agony aunt

The Political’s response:

Dear Objectified,

It is easier to understand what is happening in these two incidents than to know how to respond to them. Such violent episodes show us why so much attention has been paid by feminist theorists to vision, to the “gaze,” which for most feminists is gendered as male. For the work of feminist scholars such as Laura Mulvey or Griselda Pollock, the impact of this gendered gaze is most easily identifiable in the history of art and of cinema. Film, for Mulvey, especially conventional Hollywood cinema, naturalizes a basic asymmetry in the relations of men and women to vision itself, and the same goes for the history of European painting. The aggressive gaze being cast on you is not simply the gaze of an obnoxious man upon a vulnerable woman; it is a power that has been for centuries institutionalized as the natural right of men to look, and the burden upon women of being looked at. Mulvey talks, in the context of cinema, of woman’s status as the “bearer” of meaning and man’s as the “maker” of meaning. Our aesthetic categories are affected by this – most crucially, of course, the idea of beauty, which universalizes the asymmetry. It is why simply staring back at the man, responding with an equally invasive gaze, perhaps accompanied by a string of expletives, is desirable, but not necessarily possible.

A response that would emerge out of Mulvey’s film theory would involve the presence of a film camera, by means of which a third eye, one no longer snarled up in the disequivalent relations between men and woman, might be introduced. Mulvey is writing about the options open to feminist filmmakers faced with the weight of convention that naturalizes the male gaze by obscuring the presence of the camera. “The first blow against the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions… is to free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment. There is no doubt that this destroys the satisfaction pleasure, and privilege of the ‘invisible guest’.” Such possibilities have become widely available since Mulvey wrote these lines simply because so many of us now have access to video cameras via our personal devices as a matter of course. Turning the camera on the male upsets the gendered economy of the gaze.

In the absence of such a technical solution, we might draw an analogy with the colonial situation. Frantz Fanon presented the situation of the black man in colonial society in ways that are analogous to the analysis of feminist theorists. For Fanon, the black man always occupies the position of being passively looked at; only the white man can look. Vision, here, is again conceived as a universal myth that obscures the inequality of access to it. The question, Griselda Pollock writes, is one of who can look and who cannot. Fanon puts it brilliantly: “The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man.” Like you, Fanon found the experience shaming. The insight led Fanon to understand the inevitability of violence in the colonial context: “At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self respect.” This was not, for Fanon, a recommendation for violence but the characterization of a situation (Algeria in the 1950s) whose violence was already apparent, initiated not by the anti-colonial resistance but by the French occupying power. It is not necessary to advocate violence, the situation is already one of violence. The cold realization that, in our experience of being made the scopophilic objects of men on the street we are being subjected to an already existent, pervasive violence simply clears the way for action that can free us from the feeling of shame and passivity.

Further reading:
Griselda Pollock, “Beholding Art History: Vision, Place and Power,” in Stephen Melville and Bill Readings (eds), Vision and Textuality, London: Macmillan 1985, pp. 38-66

Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” from Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds), New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 833-44.

Frantz Fanon, “The Lived Experience of the Black Man,” Black Skin White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox, New York: Grove, 2008, pp. 89-119.

Frantz Fanon, “Concerning Violence,” The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1990, pp. 27-84.

Email your questions and dilemmas to agony@feministtimes.com

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Radical Agony Aunts: “too much of a turnoff”?

Dear Radical Agony Aunts,

I’m single and haven’t had the courage to attempt a relationship since I had breast cancer some years ago. A couple of years after the cancer I had plastic surgery and I think they did a rubbish job; I think it’s unsightly and I have no sensation in either breast. They did another operation to try to fix it with only slight improvement. I was worn out by surgery and refused to let them try again. So now I have what I think is a body that no person could ever feel aroused by. And a relationship has to have a sexual element, doesn’t it? Well, I want sex! I keep thinking through scenarios where I meet someone who’s attracted to my personality but when we try to go to bed they just can’t get aroused by my body and say “no, it’s just too much of a turnoff”.

I hope this isn’t taken as in any way insulting other women whose bodies have been damaged by breast cancer. Lots of women are already with a partner when cancer strikes and their partner simply continues to love them. But there are probably also lots of women like me who weren’t in a relationship at the time and who now don’t have to confidence to attempt it.

I doubt that more surgery would help and in any case the NHS (can’t afford private) might not be willing to do it now so many years have passed. I’m 46 and hetero. It was many years ago that I had the cancer. It’s been a long time.

Duh that reads back as very depressing. On the other hand I’ve always been a FEMINIST and that’s something to feel good about. Yes!

Personal agony aunt

Personal agony aunt

The Personal’s response:

Dear Feminist,

You’re right, it IS something to feel good about – and you’re here and you’re well and you want something new. Congratulations!

I started down the wrong road when I first read your email. I spoke to a breast cancer survivor friend about her experience, I searched the Breast Cancer Care website for answers, I thought about conversations you might have with your doctor. Wrong approach.

Because as you say, confidence is what you’re missing. If you had your version of “perfect” boobs, I’m guessing you’d still feel nervous about a new relationship. I can’t deny body image has a huge impact on our confidence. We’re constantly under pressure to conform to some notional ideal and force-fed images of “perfection”. We all feel that pressure all the time, but it’s all a lie. There’s the actual lie of airbrushing and other digital manipulation. There’s also the lack of truth and the artificiality of us plucking every hair, whitening every tooth, whittling our bodies down so we can be the pocket-size dolls these images say we should be. But you and I are feminists, so let’s not breathe life into that lie by believing it. We know there is no perfect woman. There’s only you and me, and our friends, sisters and mothers with the various pesky body parts that we love or hate, but which are never going to add up to the perfect ten. There’s only our beautiful individuality.

But exposing that individuality needs confidence. I once dated a few people through a phone-based singles service. The initial phone chats were great – we were witty and flirty and could be anyone we wanted. But then the “So… shall we meet up?” question would arise, and suddenly everything seemed scarily serious. But how do we get what we want if we can’t open ourelves up to it?

All I wanted to be when I grew up was a fiction writer. I dabbled but never took it seriously enough or worked hard enough to make it happen. I read a lot of “how to write” books, I joined a number of writing groups, I went to conferences. I made time for all of that but never put the hours into writing. And now in my day job away from agony aunting, I do write for a living – fundraising and communication for a charity whose aims I respect. So I kinda like my job, and it’s kinda got a creativity to it, and a regular salary is nice – but I know I haven’t achieved my ambitions. And that’s because I haven’t taken risks. Sound familiar?

I don’t want to play down your issues with your breasts, especially the lack of sensation. Medical knowledge and response to breast cancer is increasing all the time. If you can bear the thought of putting yourself through it, maybe there are more up-to-date approaches that can help, even in the NHS.

But whether or not you decide on more medical intervention, exposing your body is a big deal. Exposing yourself to the possibility of something new feels even huger. You might be disappointed. You may meet some fools. It’s going to be hard to start with, but you have to risk it.

You survived cancer, lady. Don’t be afraid that dating will be too big a challenge. We can spend a lifetime waiting to feel brave. Or we can just be brave.

Political agony aunt

Political agony aunt

The Political’s response:

Dear Feminist,

In search of the conceptual key to your problem, I returned to Deleuze and Guattari‘s notion of the body without organs (in A Thousand Plateaus). Basically, the concept of the “Body without Organs” is a critique of the notion of the “body as such”, the natural body. The “body as such” is for Deleuze and Guattari the “organised” body, the body that has been defined by utility, by its separation into distinct, zoned, functioning and comprehended elements (a breast is for sucking, etc.). That process of definition/organisation is always repressive.

For Deleuze and Guattari, almost every imaginative activity of men and women – including sexual activity – is evidence of the fact that we cannot be reduced to the fact of our merely organic existence. Insofar as we see the breast as a “normal” part of the female body, as having a beautiful (that is to say, natural) form, and as necessary for the attraction of a sexual partner, we are existing in a highly normative and repressive system of the body, the ultimate logic of which is theological.

For Deleuze and Guattari, the only body worth talking about is not the organized body (the medicalised, zoned body reduced to its functions, the “body as such”), but the Body without Organs: a body that is always in the process of being produced. For in fact, there is nothing natural or given about the “natural” or “organic” body:

“The BwO is not opposed to the organs; rather, the BwO and its ‘true organs’, which must be composed and positioned, are opposed to the organism, the organic organization of the organs”.

Even the organism is produced: “The organism is not at all the body, the BwO; rather it is a stratum on the BwO, in other words, a phenomenon of accumulation, coagulation, and sedimentation that, in order to extract useful labor from the BwO, imposes upon it forms, functions, bonds, dominant and hierarchized organizations, organized transcendences.”

Desire, for Deleuze and Guattari, is a force that cannot be contained by these processes of organization (“sedimentation and coagulation,”), which are for Deleuze and Guattari counter-productive forces: ways in which the dominant society (for want of a better term) attempts to discipline and regulate the productive forces, which are desiring forces. Desire, for D&G, has nothing to do with fulfilling a primary “lack”; nor does it have anything to do with pleasure (Freud’s “pleasure principle”); nor is desire about fantasy.

In fact, all these “explanations” are for Deleuze and Guattari ways in which the BwO is regulated and normalized. For D&G, desire has everything to do with production, i.e. with the project of creating the BwO. Desire is creative: it’s a wholly positive force; so masochism, for example, is not a “symptom” of a childhood trauma (as it was for Freud), but an example of the project to produce the BwO that is entirely of a kind with the projects of painters or writers: none of these activities should be subjected to interpretation, but should instead be considered as experiments, “programs,” undertaken in the cause of the BwO.

The other D and G would advise you to be more perverse, to denormativize the breast, indeed, to see the very normalisation of the breast as the perversion of a repressive society founded on the fascism of the normative body.

For what it’s worth, D&G would fancy you more than before. Hope this helps.

Further reading: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “How Do You Make Yourself a Body without Organs?” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnosota Press 1987, pp. 149-66.

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