A Gender Neutral Valentine’s Gift Guide For 2018

It’s that time again! Time to celebrate and express the love, companionship, mutual respect and sexual chemistry that goes along with having a significant other. I’ve thought a lot about Valentine’s Day over the years and I’ve realised that just like with weddings and engagements, my problem isn’t with the thing itself, it’s how unbearably performative and consumerist they are. How we love doesn’t have to be controlled by outside forces; and what other people think and expect should never be a part of how you express your love for each other.

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But there simply isn’t very much inspiration out there for people who don’t want to browse through ‘for her’ and ‘for him’ gift guides which rarely feature anything your wonderful, unique partner would actually like. The decision to put something in a gendered gift guide is limited by the necessity that the things are masculine or feminine, and I think that’s a terrible way to choose a gift for your lover. So I thought I would try to help by providing some ideas for you to express your love with a thoughtful, unique and gender free gift! Throughout this guide, I’ve suggested a mix of luxury brands and smaller independent brands, so you can choose what kind of ‘special’ you want your gift to be!

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© Tartan Blanket Company 2018

A cosy blanket for snuggling under. I think these Tartan Blanket Company blankets are just absolutely delightful, and you can even get ones made out of 30% recycled fabric, which is awesome! They come in every colour type imaginable too so whatever your, and/or your lover’s home looks like you can find something that will be perfect!

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© Bloomtown UK

A massage oil or bar. Who doesn’t love a massage from their significant other? A luxurious oil, together with the promise that you’ll both get plenty of use out of it, is the perfect gift. There are so many different choices when it comes to scents and textures, but I think Bloomtown Botanicals has to be up there with the best. Their massage oils come in a variety of scents so you can pick one you know you’ll both love. One of my personal favourite massage oils is Aesop Geranium Leaf Hydrating Body Treatment which smells floral and heady without being too ‘pink’. It also leaves the skin phenomenally soft. If you want something with less packaging though, try a massage bar instead. Lush are definitely the masters of the massage bar, so check them out!

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© Life of Spice

Fancy herbs and spices. If your lover loves to cook, this is a great gift for them. Life of Spice make the most amazing herb and spices, both single and mixes and they’re available in sets too. I love the little tins they come in as well, very practical and cool looking.

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© Thought

Some really nice socks. Everyone talks about how socks are a super boring gift but seriously, have you put new socks on recently? It’s the BEST. Especially if they’re fancy, not a multipack from H&M. I don’t know about you but I wear my socks until they resemble a string vest because for some reason, buying myself new socks is an adult chore I’ve just never gotten into. Socks are a great gift, and I love the brand Thought for their sustainable selection which includes bamboo, wool and cotton. There’s a tonne of designs to choose from too!

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© Rustic Retro Furniture

A Bath Caddy. Does your love enjoy long soaks in the bath? A bath caddy is the perfect gift for anyone who likes to read in the bath too as there’s space for a book, candle and drink. They aren’t as expensive as I expected either, and this one from Etsy is really affordable, and has amaaaaazing reviews!

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© Emina Botanic Boutique 2018

Bath Salts. If you read my blog you should know there was no way I would ever not recommend buying someone a nice bath product. And if your love doesn’t have access to a bath, or doesn’t like them, what about a gorgeous body scrub? Soothed muscles and soft skin are a great gift to give someone you love. One of the best body scrubs to give as a gift is Aesop’s Geranium Leaf Scrub which contains pumice and bamboo suspended in a thick, geranium scented gel. It’s absolutely beautiful and very luxurious. If you’re looking for a luxurious bath oil, go for Olverum – it’s one of the oldest bath products in the world and has an absolutely stunning rosemary scent. If you’d like something by a small-maker, Emina Botanic Boutique does a gorgeous range of bath salts, as well as a Grapefruit Body Scrub. Or if your lover likes to exercise, what about this post-workout relaxation kit from Golden Rooster Balms? I also love the look of these Himalayan Bath Salts, it has jasmine and green tea in it! Can you imagine how soothing that must be? I think I might just treat myself to that one…

 

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An amazing cookbook. Another one for people who love to cook, or someone who wants to cook more from scratch. I cannot recommend Anna Jones highly enough, her recipes are beyond delicious and very nutritious in a ‘taste comes first’ kind of way. She uses ingredients and combinations that may seem unfamiliar at first, but will quickly become staples in your home because of how easy to make, and utterly delicious they are. I have all three of her books, A Modern Way to Cook, A Modern Way to Eat and The Modern Cook’s Year and any of the three is a great choice.

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© James Barker Draws

A cactus, succulent or houseplant. What could be more romantic on Valentine’s Day than adopting  a baby together? Just kidding. But still, everyone needs more plants in their life (unless you’re me and you live in a literal jungle already, in which case, what about a cute little plant themed embroidery gift? Or a leaf print shopping bag?) If they live in a small flat, what about a little selection of succulents from Plant Parcel, or a pretty little Pilea from Geo-Fleur? Or if they have a bit more space, a beautiful Monstera Deliciosa?

I hope these suggestions have helped inspire you! Happy Valentine’s Day when it comes!

 

 

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12 Things men want women to know about sex – the feminist version!

Last week I went to a brilliant panel discussion by the Scarlet Ladies – it was called ‘Grill the Guys’ and was an opportunity for an audience of women to ask 6 guys with diverse sexual backgrounds any questions they wanted to about sex and relationships. It was really interesting to hear so many men talking about sex openly. Even people who have male sexual partners only generally get to talk to a few of them in depth, so this was phenomenally informative. My own partner was really interested in the points I came back with, so I thought I would share some of the best gems of knowledge from the evening, interspersed with some ideas my partner would like to share as well.

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A quick note: I found the event to be quite cis-heteronormative, for example the term ‘sex’ was often used to describe p-in-v penetration, with other forms of sex described as ‘foreplay’. I wasn’t sure about this so I’ve edited some snippets from the talk, however I recognise that people talking in depth about the kind of sex they have do need to rely on their own terminology.  As a group, the Scarlet Ladies welcome all women, so I don’t think this reflects on them, it was simply the nature of this particular talk.

12 Things men want you to know about sex:

1. A man can be really, super, ridiculously aroused but still unable to get it up. Sometimes it just isn’t happening and it can be for hundreds of different reasons. Since men are encouraged to push their feelings away, there might be something bothering them that they aren’t aware of. Or it might be something far more benign. Talking never hurt anyone so be nice, understanding, and encourage them to share their thoughts!

2. Similarly, it’s also true that sometimes penetration just doesn’t feel good for women. Don’t feel obligated to go ahead; communicate it with your partner and have sex some other way if you still want to. Be patient obviously; some of them might not be familiar with the fact that a woman is sometimes just unable to take a dick!

3. It’s very difficult to understand exactly what something feels like when you don’t have the same sexual equipment. This is why men can have a hard time with the clitoris, even when they’re genuinely trying, and this is why communication (and demonstration) is essential.

4. However, the pleasurable feelings that men and women experience are actually very similar (after all, they’re made from exactly the same stuff). By communicating the actual sensations you’re experiencing, you might be able to understand one another’s pleasure even better.

5. It’s easier for men to be lazy about sex because of how their orgasms are achieved. Encourage your male partners to explore the different responses of both your bodies, not just yours. Once they understand how their own body responds to different things, they will be able to better understand yours as well.

6. Embrace the fact that the way they touch you feels different to the way you touch yourself, and the way you touch them is different to the way they do it too. It’s not a bad thing; you can touch each other in ways its physically impossible to touch yourself – so embrace the differences and enjoy them.

7. That being said, for a lot of men there’s nothing sexier than watching their partner touch herself.

8. Sex isn’t just penetration – some people enjoy extraordinarily satisfying sex lives without ever putting anything in anyone else. Don’t limit yourself by considering penetration as the end game, and don’t let male partners limit your sexual experience  by doing this either.

9. If you can’t orgasm with your partner and you genuinely don’t mind …explain it to him. He has absolutely no right to be fragile about it. You have every right to expect the sex you want to have. Your orgasm isn’t for his gratification.

10. Most of the time, great sex is not beautiful sex.

11. Period sex is great – you don’t deserve to feel ashamed or embarrassed. Don’t be shy about asserting your desire to have period sex.

12. Neither party should ever assume that penetration a certainty. Even if you’re naked, in bed and kissing.

Alix Fox, the host of the discussion I attended, summed it up perfectly at the end; “There’s no right or wrong way to have sex and the most important thing is that everyone involved has a good time.” I’m really grateful to her, and the panel of men including Exhibit A, Master Dominic and Paul Thomas Bell for their time and insights!

The Scarlet Ladies is a fantastic member’s club that are working to dispel the shame and silence around women’s sexuality, enabling women to open up to themselves and their partners. They hold talks twice a month and I really recommend you check them out!

 

 

 

A Feminist Engagement

A quick note: In this blog post I will talk about how my partner and I got engaged. This is in no way intended to criticise any one else’s proposal – ESPECIALLY LGBTQ+ couples who have had to fight for their right to just to have access to the traditional, patriarchal symbolism of marriage and engagement. The story is in essence heteronormative because we are a middle class cis man and woman, but the actual message is intended to be highly inclusive. I am not going to compromise when sharing my opinions on engagement traditions, because if I can’t share them here, where can I? But I don’t mean for you to feel hurt or judged if these formed part of your (or your dream) proposal. I believe that we have a responsibility as feminists to challenge the way things are done. It’s not a personal attack on you or your relationship, I know that there are many factors to take into account when considering how to get engaged and married, and I respect your right to choose your own path. Just as I don’t know your backstory, you do not know ours. 

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A year and a half ago, walking down Tottenham Court Road at the weekend, my partner James and I were talking about the future. We’d spoken about it many, many times before, about love, marriage, relationships, children. But this time, the conversation bent a little and we drew ourselves into a discussion about when. We stopped outside Boots, with half of London pushing past us unnoticed, and hesitantly, emotionally landed on 2017 as the year we wanted to get married. A consensual agreement, whatever form it takes, is essential to any feminist engagement. Springing a marriage proposal on someone out of nowhere has been widely misrepresented as romantic because of the misogynistic, heteronormative assumption that women are always ready to get married. These surprise proposals can range anywhere from a bit misguided to emotionally manipulative, and there’s just no need for it.

Over the next few months we frequently discussed the idea of a ‘proposal’, and whether or not we wanted it to be a part of our love story. James asked me about rings, saying he didn’t want to get me a diamond because not only are they horrifically unethical, their value came purely from a marketing campaign by De Beers in the early 20th Century (and also, as a geologist he has serious opinions about rocks). But I was adamant that I didn’t want a ring, and his response was relief. We both think that ethically sourced wedding rings are a beautiful way to symbolise your dedication to your partner. But engagement rings are yet another example of imbalanced, gendered expectations between women and men. ‘Marking’ a woman as yours when you have no such mark yourself. ‘Buying’ her. I’m not saying I think they’re inherently bad, especially since it’s becoming more mainstream for non-heteronormative couples to have them too, but for us it just seemed like pointless consumerism. There was absolutely no way that one of us was wearing an engagement ring while the other wasn’t, but we also didn’t see the appeal in both of us wearing one.

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However, the idea of proposing just seemed so lovely. A declaration of love, a statement of intent and a memory that we could share. Plus, neither of us had cried over the sheer weight of our feelings for each other since we first said ‘I love you’, and it’s nice to do that occasionally. We were immediately in mutual agreement that I would be the one to do it. Much of this was from a desire to challenge the status quo of course – engagements have a very sexist history, there’s no denying it. But also, I am bisexual, so until I met James I never knew who I’d end up with. I never really imagined being proposed to, but often thought about myself doing it, because that’s just who I am – it’s the kind of gesture I live for.

If you’re wondering how James, ‘as a man’ felt about the subject – he simply didn’t. As a feminist the idea of anything being a ‘threat to his masculinity’ is laughable to him. I’m not sure what else to say on the subject, other than by him being strong enough to free himself from oppressive, fragile ideas about how to ‘be a man’, he was able to experience the joy and excitement that comes with the person he loves making a grandly romantic gesture of love towards him.

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So with that decided, the task fell to me to decide how and when I was going to do it.  I had a vague idea in mind but it didn’t fully form until we decided to go on holiday to Paris. James’ birthday fell in the week we planned to go away and I thought to myself that it would be the perfect opportunity to ask him. But Paris didn’t seem like a particularly personal choice, so I suggested we spend a few days there and then travel south to explore the Calanques National Park on his birthday (a beautiful national pack on the coast near Marseille that consists of incredible rocky cliffs leading into little beaches, the perfect holiday spot for a geologist). He enthusiastically agreed to this, because one of our favourite things to do as a couple is hike. I think it must have been pretty obvious what I was planning at this point, and he tells me he was pretty sure after I suggested a ‘birthday hike through a beautiful outcrop of rocky cliffs’, haha.

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Location decided, my plan for how to actually go about it came to me almost immediately. We briefly discussed the idea of gifts like watches and bracelets instead of a ring, but we were both totally disinterested and a bit uncomfortable with the whole ‘here is a gift, will you marry me’ thing. We definitely felt like there was something missing from the whole thing, and I realised that it was the idea that our love should benefit only us. I decided to spend the money I would have spent on a ring on charity donations. I worked out that if I were to save up to buy a ring in my current financial situation, I could afford to spend £500 on it (another thing that we really need to stop doing? Selling the idea that a proposal has to be extravagant. Not everyone has disposable income and people shouldn’t feel the need to empty their bank account for love) so I set that as my donation budget, and that’s when the full idea came to me:

I chose five charities that reminded me of something I love about James. They were things that are external to our relationship, aspects of his personality that I deeply admire but have nothing to do with me. I donated £100 to each charity, and asked them if they would be able to send me a ‘thank you’ letter (all but one said they do this anyway so I wasn’t putting them out, the other emailed it to me so I printed it and put it in an envelope). On the back of each of the envelopes, I wrote the reason why I’d donated to that particular charity.

5 reasons2.jpgThe charities chose were WaterAid, Women’s Aid, Woman Kind, Amnesty International and Mind.

After spending a magical few days in Paris, we travelled down on the TGV to Marseilles, and the next day was his birthday. I packed us a picnic in our backpack, hid the five letters in different places in there and put a note on the top saying ‘five reasons’. I wouldn’t let him go in the backpack until we had hiked to our picnic spot – one of the hundreds of secluded beaches dotted along the Calanques coastline.

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After we had settled on the beautiful stony beach, I told James he could finally look in the backpack. He drew each letter out and read the notes on the backs (I told him not to open them until he found them all) and was completely confused, but touched by whatever I was doing. After he had found them all and had opened a couple, I took his hands and said that these charities all worked on areas that are related to things I admire about who he is as a person, and then started telling him all of the things I love about the way he is with me. The way I love how safe he makes me feel, how patient he is with me, how he makes me laugh so much and how he is so open, so kind, so affectionate. Obviously we were both crying at this point, and through my tears I managed to say ‘I want to marry you’, to which he responded ‘Of course’ and kissed me. Then we both realised I hadn’t actually said what I meant to say, so I pulled away and said ‘Will you marry me’ to which he again responded ‘Of course’, and we kissed. So yeah, I messed that part up lmao.

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We cried a bit more as he read all the letters. We had our lunch (brie and tomatoes on still-warm bread from the patisserie next to our AirBnB), and splashed in the freezing water for a bit. It was absolutely perfect, and I was so happy and proud that I was able to make my partner feel so loved and wanted.

Everything about our proposal was intensely unique to both of us, but at the same time it also helped other people. Me being the one to do it ended up being the least important part. Our proposal’s unique, personal nature, combined with a concerted effort to help make other people’s lives better is what made it feminist. And we will always be proud of that. I hope that weddings and engagements don’t go away, because they are a wonderful way to express dedication and love. But they are steeped in years of oppression, negativity, consumerism and selfishness. I’m absolutely not saying people should do what we did and I’m definitely not saying that I created the perfect proposal. Rather, I just want to share this and use it to communicate the idea that we all need to work hard emotionally, creatively and intelligently to make these gestures as beautiful and inclusive as they have the potential to be.