The Feministing Five: Hanne Blank

Hanne Blank is a historian and author of several books including Virgin: The Untouched History, Unruly Appetites and the forthcoming Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality. Virgin, which came out a few years ago, is one of the most thoroughly-researched and readable books about sex, culture and history that you’ll ever find, and I highly recommend you pick up a copy. Straight will be out in February 2012 and I suspect it will be just as rigorous and equally riveting.

Blank is also the author of Big Big Love: A Sourcebook on Sex and Relationships for People of Size and Those Who Love Them. This book flies in the face of the idea that sex is only for skinny people, and gives much-needed advice for people of size on issues from how to find a partner to what sexual positions work best once you find them. Big Big Love is being reprinted this year, and I spoke to Hanne about why the book is so important – because it’s the only one of its kind. Big Big Love will be re-released on September 20th, and Blank will be touring the East Coast in October, so check your local bookstore to see if she’s stopping by.

And now, without further ado, The Feministing Five, with Hanne Blank.

Chloe Angyal: What necessitated the second edition of Big Big Love?

Hanne Blank: The reason the second edition is due is that the first edition went out of print. The original publisher, Greenery Press, took that book out of print a while ago, and it was the only book of its kind. It was the only book out there about sex and relationships issues for fat people, and then when it was pulled out of print, there was nothing. So it was important for me to get it back into print somehow, so that resource would simply exist again. The technical side of sex – you know, what body part you put where – really doesn’t change so much depending on what size the person is, but there are a lot of social issues that come up. There are a lot of issues of self esteem and attractiveness and where do you find a partner. What do you do if you live in this culture that’s very fat-negative, where fat people supposedly aren’t sexually interesting, and nobody’s supposed to admit to being sexually interested in fat people, where are you going to find the people who are? What do you do with them once you find them? And how do you explain this to your mother? There are a lot of issues that go along with it.

In a lot of ways, it is somewhat similar to coming out as queer and to dealing with queer sexuality. It’s not that what you actually do with your genitals is so different – after all, the only really, intrinsically heterosexual act is the one that requires a penis and a vagina at the same time. Everybody has more or less the same equipment, genitally speaking, and there’s a limited roster of things that we can do with those body parts. It’s the social stuff that makes it tricky and complicated.

CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

HB: I don’t have a single favorite, I have a bunch of favorites. They range from Persephone, who I always thought of as a heroine, because the first version of Persephone that I ever read had her rebelling against Hades and wanting to leave Hell. And then there are other versions where she just sort of mopes around in the underworld eating pomegranate seeds until her mother comes to drag her out, but that wasn’t the one I was first exposed to. I love Susannah in the Mozart opera The Marriage of Figaro. I have always adored her. And then there’s the character of Antonia, the film Antonia’s Line, by a Dutch woman named Marleen Gorris. The character of Antonia is this fantastic, feisty matriarch.

Most of my real life heroines are people whose names nobody would know. They’re people I meet, women I’ve known for years who are doing extraordinary things and living with a lot of compassion, often in really trying circumstances. Basically, women who manage to create these beautiful lives, and make change, and make difference in spite of the patriarchy’s best efforts to stop them. My godson’s mother, for instance, is a single mother of color in Baltimore city, who is raising a kid on her own, and she runs a cleaning company that employs what are euphemistically called “at risk” inner city kids. So she has made this way to make her life and make a living doing this incredibly effective work with these kids who, in many cases, don’t really have parents or stable family situations, but they have a job with someone who cares about them, who teaches them, who works with them, who gives them a fantastic role model. She’s really taking it head on and making it go. And of course, she’s the mother of my godson, who is the most adorable five-year-old in the entire universe.

CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?

HB: Essentially any time Michelle Bachmann’s and Sarah Palin’s names get mentioned, I want to throw things. I am embarrassed to share a biological sex with these women, and watching them pander to the patriarchy and pull the puppet strings of the electorate is really shameful. Both the fact that they try to do it, and the fact that they mostly get away with it, make me completely insane.

CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?

HB: My usual answer to this, because it comes up at conferences and things, is that we really suffer from a lack of perspective and a lack of memory. A lot of the big, underlying problems that I see feminism confront is that several generations of women who are accustomed now to having contraceptive access, to being able to vote, to having bank accounts and holding down jobs. We’ve got two generations, I would say, of women who have never lived in a world where women were not approximately half of the global paid workforce. And I think that our memories are really, really short. A lot of what I hear when I talk to women about their reluctance to identify themselves as feminists, is that they just don’t think that it’s necessary. It’s, “I’m not going to go out and burn my bra for the right to go to college, I’m already in college, who the hell are you?”

Historically – because I’m trained as a historian, I tend to take the long view – I’m acutely aware of just how short the time has been that women have had the kinds of liberties and protections and freedoms that women have in the First World. and I think that when you lose sight of that and come to assume that that’s the way it’s always been and the way it’s always going to be, and you don’t have to defend it or do anything about it, it’s taken for granted. We lose that perspective and we lose the impetus to give a damn. And once you’ve lost that impetus to give a damn, you’re not going to be storming any barricades. You’re going to be looking at the barricades and saying, “What the hell’s that doing there?”

CA: You’re going to a dessert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

HB: Hummus, a generous supply of really good English cider, and my partner of the last fifteen years.

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