Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Frankly, I'm Disgusted

So recently at Feministe a guest blogger, Erica, has been collecting sex stories and retelling them. I have found the series entertaining, enlightening, and at times a sad and frustrating mirror on our society. However, all in all, I think the stories are what we need to hear.

Then, late last week, Erica wrote a piece titled "Jesus is Such a Cockblocker." The post (originally listed w/o the now included trigger warning) sparked a lot of controversy as it attempts to humorously describe a situation in which a young woman coerces her Christian boyfriend into having sex, without outright acknowledging that this is sexual assault.

Then, Erica issued an apology, also originally without a trigger warning, in response to the fact that the first post angered a LOT of people who were pretty upset that a fabulous feminist website would essentially post a story which boiled down to a rape joke. The main objections were:

1) If you reversed the male and female characters no one would be laughing. Why should we be treating men differently?
2) Why wouldn't Erica acknowledge the problematic nature of this topic?
3) Why wouldn't there be a trigger warning?
4) Why did the apology say "I apologize if some of you found the language used in it triggering..." (emphasis mine) making it seem insincere.
5) Why did Christianity have to be made fun of in the post?
6) Why would Feministe put this up?
7) Why aren't we calling this woman a rapist?

Of course, comments amassed on both of the posts...I abstained from saying anything there, because I felt everything was already very well said. I felt that a pretty healthy discussion opened up about the appropriateness of putting this on Feministe. Some people made way too many assumptions about the original story, but other than that, I felt the backlash was healthy and deserved.

I was curious why no one from Feministe (from the NONguest status) really came out and said: Yes, this is a problem, and we won't be posting stories like this again.

Then today I look at those entries and commenting is closed.

I don't get it.

I'm pretty disappointed about how Feministe has handled this. It essentially is their error, and instead of more proactively taking ownership of it, they have erased all of the comments, including the very healthy ones which tackle this problematic situation head on. I just feel that putting up the two trigger warnings isn't enough.

This story still could have been told, but through the lens of discussing it for what it really is: A tragedy examining how differing opinions, religion, and rigid gender roles can complicate sexual relationships and lead to really nasty things. Not as a joke.

I guess I just expected more from Feministe.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

No One Showed...

Warning: I'm going to be very vague, as to not call out any specific organizations. Also, the title of this blog is a huge spoiler alert, so my apologies for that in advance.

This week, a local organization which focuses on encouraging diversity and ending hate, is hosting its annual educator's conference. Today's theme was civil rights issues. Earlier this month, the girl-serving feminist organization I work for was approached about being doing a workshop on the topic of gender. A coworker, Lora, and myself volunteered to conduct this workshop, as we both feel passionately about feminism.

So, Lora and I each devoted a good amount of time preparing for this workshop...really putting our hearts and souls into it. Today, we arrived at the conference site early and set up our room. The entire time we were discussing gender topics (one of my favorite pastimes, and I sense one of Lora's too.) We were excited, we were passionate, and we were

...stood up.

Ok, not really stood up, per se, but it sure felt like it. You see, no one came to our session. There were only half of the conference attendees present today, but nevertheless, the other option was chosen over ours by 100% of them.

I don't want to bash the other session that was available for the attendees, so I won't even mention what it was. It is, however, another extremely important social justice topic and I am happy that people paid it attention.

I'm not happy that gender was paid NO attention.

It echoes how I feel about the current state of gender. I feel like the common consensus is that we really do live in a "post-feminist" world and gender isn't that big of a deal anymore. I mean, I get it. Women can vote. Women are a majority of college graduates now. There are protections against workplace discrimination and harassment. There is so much we should be thankful for. But does this mean that the world is really "post-feminist?" I'm going to drop a few statistics that would have been shared with our audience today, had anyone showed:

v 70% of the 855 million illiterate adults in the world are female.

v While women produce nearly 80% of the world's food, they receive less than 10% of the agricultural assistance.

v 75% of 85-year-old Social Security recipients are female and why women are almost twice as likely as men to spend their later years in poverty.

v Over 50% of Americans are women yet only 22% of American senators are female.

v 84% of spouse abuse victims were females, and 86% of victims of dating partner abuse at were female.

v Women working 41 to 44 hours per week earn 84.6% of what men working similar hours earn; women working more than 60 hours per week earn only 78.3% of what men in the same time category earn.

I think you can pretty clearly see that the battle is not over. And needless to say, Lora and I were very disappointed and just plain bummed about the whole thing. I don't consider it a waste, because we plan on using this as sort of a gender sensitivity/awareness 101 for other groups of adults in the future.

But I can't help but think about it over and over. The fact that no one thought the topic was important enough to investigate, is exactly WHY we should be talking about this in the first place.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Feminist Fiction: Walking While Woman

Sometimes I write random fiction short stories. This is one. It was feminist-y so I posted it. While totally fictional, the feelings invoked come from my experience, as most women can relate to the risks of walking while woman.

She passed this area nearly every day and every day it was the same. It didn't matter what she wore. That was her first mistake, thinking that it was her fault for wearing a short skirt, the first time it happened. Soon, however, she realized it didn't matter. In the winter, she wore a long parka and loose fitting, boy cut jeans. Her shape, like everyone on the street, was a formless blob. But even then the comments kept up. "Girl, you looking good" was replaced with "Baby, you cold? I can warm you up."

So came spring and she surrendered to the impending warmth and just wore what she wanted. She realized the fault wasn't hers and she knew with complete certainty that covering herself with uncomfortable layers wouldn't make her feel any safer in the streets.

It wasn't just the area, either, although the stretch in front of her school tended to be the worst. She knew this because she had tried other routes. For a while she felt more safe, but by the third day or so the inevitable happened and a comment was made blocks away from the usual spot. It was in that moment that she came to terms with the fact that it wasn't her clothes and it wasn't the route (so there was no sense in wasting 30 minutes going the long way.) It wasn't even just her, either, because things were said to her friends and her mom. It just seemed to be the liability of walking while woman.

It hadn't always been like this for her. Just a few years ago, when she was first in Junior High, she was nearly invisible in the streets. People would busily rush by her and not bat an eye. Back when she was still outside the adult world, she often lamented the fact that she was just some kid walking to school with her brother. One of hundreds, in the street.

But over the course of a few short years, something happened. She didn't feel invisible anymore. In fact, it got to the point where she felt constantly under observance, as if her body had become public domain for eye trolling. While it was hard enough to clumsily navigate her way into an adult female body, the added stress of having said changing body publicly ogled and discussed was almost too much to bear.

The first time it happened to her, she didn't know what to do. On the subway, an older man in a business suit sat next to her and she could sense that he was scanning her body invasively. He leaned over to her, placed his hand on an uncovered knee inches from the hem of her mini skirt and said in a hushed tone, "My God, you are beautiful." His hot breathe felt greasy and oppressive on her neck. She scooted away slightly and did what one is taught to do when given a compliment. She said nervously, "thank you," even though every instinct in her body was setting her into full flight mode. Luckily, her stop was next.

It terrified her. His words on their surface were innocent, but she intuitively knew that something wasn't right. She had many times before imagined a similar scenario with the cute boy in her study hall, but in that scenario, they were on a date or at a party, and it would always happen after a long, painfully soul bearing conversation, in which both of them admit it was love at first sight.

In these scenes, in her mind, she felt an excited rush and was totally safe. But the first time someone who wasn't family told her she was beautiful, it wasn't like that at all. It was terrifying and the only rush she felt was of disgust.

It was like that day, she got it. She knew why her mom sometimes told her to "keep walking" when some man called "ladies" at them. She suddenly had a flood of memories: Her mom calling men creeps or telling one of them to fuck off. She honestly hadn't considered what was really going on before. But she also hadn't felt this type of fear yet, and she didn't know what it was all about.

That day, she saw her mom in a new light. A few weeks before, they had a fight over curfew. Her older brother could stay out much later than she could when he was her age. She was so indignant at this fact and thought her mom was being incredibly unfair. How could she treat her own daughter so blatantly different? In the argument she was proud to threw the word discrimination in her mom's face.

All her mom said was that "it's just different," with a heavy sigh.

At the time, she couldn't have been madder at her mom. But thinking about it now, after feeling that fear, she knew what the difference was. Her brother was never taking the risk of walking while woman. Her mom didn't make the rules; the rules were always there, and they were always unfair.

This was almost a year ago now, and since then the shock of the comments wore off with their increased frequency. The shock wore off, but the fear remained the same. The city she had once loved started to feel untrustworthy and unseemly. While she had now learned to not let them control her clothes or her route, they still held the power of fear over her. She couldn't shake the sense of incredible injustice. Injustice when her brother stayed out late or happily grabbed his book bag and shouted to them "I'm going out."

Did he ever feel unsafe? Did he ever make someone feel unsafe? Did any of this ever cross his mind?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Privilege and Feminism 101

Disclaimer: This discussion centers on people who unwittingly make comments that come from a place of privilege...not trolls who relish in, flaunt, or cling to their privilege. And I have a bad feeling it will be a little ranty, so bear with me.

I've noticed that there is a nasty little trend in the comment sections of the feminist blogosphere. Someone makes an earnest, although somewhat misguided or misworded comment and sure enough the chorus of "Check your privilege" starts up.

Let me back up...privilege is something very real in our society. Any time the experience of one group of people becomes what is the "norm," privilege is at play. There's white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, abled privilege, Christian privilege, monetary privilege, American privilege...it goes on and on. If there's an -ism, there's a privilege. Here are a few examples of how people benefit from various privileges:

  • White: If you have always freely entered stores without the stare of "why are you here? are you shoplifting?" or you've never had someone you didn't know ask to touch your hair, or you've never had someone assume you are incapable of a sunburn, you're probably the beneficiary of white privilege.
  • Male: If you're praised for doing domestic tasks (but not expected to do them), if you've never felt that your body isn't good enough because of the images in a magazine, if you've never felt forced to shave your armpits or legs, if you've never had your leadership/math/physical/video game abilities questioned before someone knew anything about you, you're probably the beneficiary of male privilege.
  • Heterosexual: If you could (or have) legally marry the person you love, if you've never been told that your chosen family structure is dangerous to kids or that your sex life isn't "real", you're probably the beneficiary of heterosexual privilege.

So what's the problem? Why have I even mentioned the "check your privilege" argument? If someone is operating from a place a privilege, we should address this...right?

Yes, I think it is critical to help people understand how they are benefiting from privilege and to help them understand that their perspective or experience is not universal. However, I think that "check your privilege" is a piss poor way to do this.

What ends up happening is that "check your privilege" becomes a stock statement thrown around and it has undesirable effects. People who were earnestly trying to engage in a feminist discussions are shut down. They feel alienated and belittled. Because in many cases (but not all by any stretch of the imagination) an honest mistake has been made, people aren't even really sure what they did wrong. It's essentially the feminist version of a pet owner swatting their dog's nose with a newspaper and saying "Bad dog." No real change is made.

Now, often the counter point to the suggestion that we should help each other understand issues like this is the "It's not my place to educate anyone!" but that, again, doesn't get us anywhere. No, it's not anyone's JOB to educate another (save teachers, of course!) but it is certainly logical that when you engage in a discussion/debate on a forum, you're going to have to explain your view and give background as to why the person you disagree with is incorrect. Saying "check your privilege" does both nothing to substantiate your own view nor truly refute the other person. A much more productive solution is to point out the privileged parts of the argument and explain why they are problematic.

Often, people commenting on the feminist blogs where this happens are novices to the topic. The attempt to engage in an extremely popular and well known online feminist community when you are just opening up to a whole new world of thought can be intimidating. To be shot down immediately, leaving you unsure what even happened, is not a desirable outcome, and it's not good practice for feminism. It sends potential allies away before they even get to really dig into the topic and learn about privilege.

I would argue...and stay with me here...that people who invoke this knee-jerk reaction are actually exercising educational privilege, or perhaps privilege within the feminist community. First of all, it assumes that the reader knows what the phrase means and even more basically what privilege is and how they benefit from it. Secondly, it establishes this hierarchy and policing of fellow feminists. Instead of being informational, like a gentle correction would be, it ends up being, frankly...elitist. When I see people use the phrase, I always get the sense that it's delivered in a "What, are you new to this?!" kind of way (even though I know it is sometimes well intentioned.) And isn't it wrong to assume that everyone who is interested in gender topics has had the experience of taking the same classes or reading the same books or having the same discussions or following the same blogs as you?

I don't want to sound like I'm making the case for ignorance, but the fact of the matter is that there will always be people joining the feminist world at the 101 level. And when it comes to the Internet, blogs will be frequently be an entry point. It's been disturbing to me how I HAVE seen feminist commenters talking down to others, literally saying "Oh, I'm sorry...You must be new to this" or "Well, I guess you're at the 101 level." ...and saying these things to people interested in the same topics as them, although perhaps not as informed.

You know what? It's OK to be at the 101 level. We were all there before and THAT'S OK.

Lastly, I think that saying phrases like this without engaging in actual discourse is a silencing tactic. For me, it's in the same vein as the tone argument. You know..."I'll listen to your viewpoint when you're not so angry" translation: I don't want to listen to your viewpoint. Except now it's, "I'll listen to your viewpoint when you read a book on feminism" translation: I don't want to listen to your viewpoint. Again, I'm not talking about people who are blatantly not feminist...but rather those who are earnestly trying, but say something that unwittingly is rooted in privilege. Because feminism is so complex, they could very well have a valid viewpoint that happens to be clouded in privilege. So call out the privilege and discuss the viewpoint...don't outright ignore them.

Ok, though...I get it. It's tiring and infuriating to live in a world full of people assuming their experience is universal, and knowing their experience is nothing like yours. It's enraging to be on the flip side of the privilege. I validate those feelings and I can see how sometimes you really just want to say, "CHECK UR PRIVILEGEEEE" and not fully engage in a debate...but for that, I give you this suggestion: If you feel passionately enough to invoke this phrase, then you should feel passionately enough to actually engage. Throwing in the old "check your privilege" standby does nothing.

For anyone.


Now, for the trolls talking privilege...don't even give them the satisfaction of replying to their garbage. F'realz.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Is There a Feminist Litmus Test?

So lately there's been a lot of discussion about what exactly makes a feminist. I've seen it come up in three different arenas lately.

1) Is Sarah Palin really a feminist?
2) Can you be pro-life and feminist?
3) Is Sex and the City feminist?

For the record, I find it really, really problematic to try to put an identity on anyone...so the case of Sarah Palin is a little different from the others. You can analyze if a movie or a piece of policy is feminist, but it's dangerous territory to attempt to say a person is not a feminist for her. Like Amanda Hess said in the second link, "Sarah Palin identifies as feminist now, and we all have to sort of smile and nod because we’re not allowed to eject anyone from the club — there are enough people who want nothing to do with us, so we take whoever we can get. ‘Feminist’ can mean a lot of things now."

However, Jessica Valenti does make a really compelling case about the anti-feminist aspects of Palin, in the first link.

So can there, or SHOULD there be a litmus test for feminism? Honestly, it's probably not a good idea to try to say who is and isn't in the club, like Amanda suggests HOWEVER, that doesn't mean there's no reason for us to really analyze things like policies and pieces of media. There are some absolutes we can claim about feminism...here are a couple I've been pondering.

1) Feminism stands in opposition to sexism. If something is sexist, then it cannot be feminist. If it relies on gender based stereotypes, it cannot be feminist.
2) Feminism doesn't tread on the rights, choices, or autonomy of people (women.)

Let me reference the other two examples above. I'll start with being pro-life. When I was a wee young feminist, I used to think that you could be anti-choice and be a feminist. I thought there was two sides to every feminist discussion and I too could see how women deserve better choices than just to have an abortion or not (such as a social support system that aids women who encounter unplanned pregnancies but DO want to keep the baby.)

However, I have come to see that there is a big difference between being personally pro-life and politically anti-choice. I see it as your right to say, "I feel that an abortion is the wrong choice for me" when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. But to say, "I feel that an abortion should never be an option for any woman" is to strip women of a distinct right, thereby being anti-woman, and inherently anti-feminist.

But does my belief that being anti-choice is anti-feminist make being pro-choice a test for feminists? No. I won't tell a person that feminism is off limits to them because they are anti-choice. So, I don't see it as a litmus test, but I do think it's ok to acknowledge that it's anti-feminist to try to tell someone else what to do what with reproductive organs.

I've come to understand that feminism is too complex to attempt to construct a black and white test. Rather, we've got to examine the feminist and anti-feminist sides of everything. Same goes for Sex and the City and so many other such female centric shows. Unfortunately, media is not to the point where there are completely and wholly feminist shows or characters. So while Sex and the City has its really refreshing pro-female side (four women talking honestly about sex, discussing body image, standing by each other and putting themselves above men) it also has its distinctly anti-feminist sides (classism, racism, and a narrow/stereotypical depiction of beauty.)

As feminists, it's important to dissect and analyze our society...and frankly it's fun. But once we can get to the point where we don't get stuck on trying to label people feminist or not, we can dig into the really interesting discussions about what makes an ideology, movie, song, or whatever empowering or not to women without alienating anyone right off the bat.