Monday, September 28, 2015

Slut (Affectionately, of Course)

Sometimes my job as an editor gets a little personal. For instance, one phrase I detest is "start a family," when what's meant is "start to have children." Whenever I come across "They wanted to start a family," I either change it to something like "They wanted to have kids" or, if the wording doesn't fit with the tone or I have reason to think the writer could stand to be educated, I'll tell him or her that two people in a relationship are a family—and saying they aren't until they start reproducing devalues not only them but other couples who don't have offspring. So can we please come up with another way of saying this?

Last week, I was copyediting an article—that is, doing a second read after the assigning editor had done the main job. And also after our boss had read it, come to think of it, so two people had signed off on it before me. It was a somewhat irreverent piece about a hairdresser who happens to be openly gay. At one point, the author says the guy "goes through men like Kleenex," according to his gaggle of loyal female customers. 

I first queried the editor, saying I found that phrase unnecessarily judgmental. "So he sleeps around or has lots of boyfriends or whatever," I said. "Does this mean he 'disposes' of them? Maybe, maybe not. I don't know. Does [the author]—or these women?"

The editor said to ask the writer, which, because she's normally very opinionated and hadn't hesitated to address my other queries about the article, I took to mean either she thought it was a good question but wanted the author to come up with the actual rewording or she considered it a dumb, nitpicky question she didn't have the patience to address. So I asked the author, using pretty much the same words I'd used with my colleague.

The writer replied: "This was actually one of the milder descriptions. Someone else used the term 'slut,' affectionately of course—and just during my time with him, I was on hand to see one relationship go from prepping for third date (the sex date, he reminded me) to crazy love to kaput. But maybe something like: 'His clients say you need a program to keep up with his love life.' "

I forwarded that note to the editor, and since she'd been noncommittal before, I underscored my concern (just in case she was considering leaving it as is): "I still strongly feel—no matter what the women said—that it seems gratuitously judgmental to use the 'like Kleenex' line. So I favor the rewrite, or something like it. If it were a quote, I actually would have no problem, because then it would be specifically attributed to one catty person, but 'his clients say' he goes through them like Kleenex? That's a very specific simile attached to a not-at-all specific group of people."

We decided to change it, with the tweak of "you need a flow chart to keep up with his love life"—my idea since we agreed that "program" was a vague, bland word. I was fine with a vivid description of his love life—it was the shaming attitude that was uncalled for, and downright annoying. 

Do I think many straight people (which my colleague and the writer, a freelancer, are) are often clueless and Puritanical in their perception of casual sex, particularly among gay men? Yes, I do.

Weekend, a really beautiful movie not
unrelated to the subject at hand.

I'm sensitive to this subject because during a particular period in my life when I was single, I had a lot of sex with a lot of men I met online. Sometimes now when I can't fall asleep, instead of counting sheep, I'll count the number of guys I hooked up with between 2003 and 2007. I always come up with a slightly different total, which is what makes it challenging—kind of like a sexual Sudoku. The number is less than my age today, but that's all I'll say. 

I'm determined to settle it definitively one of these days, but for now it varies: In one tally, I'll forget the silver daddy with the pierced navel ("a reminder to keep my belly in shape"), or the guy who lived over the coffee shop I got together with after Thanksgiving dinner with my family, or the very first guy I met on the first night after my ex and I definitively broke up—the liberating encounter that started it all. 

They were almost all, each of them, lovely: courteous, warm, considerate, affectionate men—whether, as in most cases, I never saw them again or, as in others, we had a few assignations. Nothing degrading or dangerous happened once. (Lucky? Maybe. But the majority of people are, I found, basically decent.) 

So yeah, I was having tons of sex. Would that make me a "slut" in the eyes of some skinny horse-country lady with straw-colored hair extensions? Probably. And what about my two coworkers (one female, one male, both straight) who read the hairdresser article before me and didn't pause at the extraneous and irrelevant characterization of a gay man as someone who supposedly treated his sex partners like "Kleenex," based on nothing other than the mostly anecdotal evidence that he had many of them?

I think they'd consider me a slut, too. So I spoke up for all of us. 

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