Archive for feminism

Telling Strangers to Smile, and Other Patriarchal Entitlement

Posted in Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

“Hey, I like your hair!”

 

I was halfway through opening my mouth to say a quick “thanx” , when the second half of the statement hit me like a slap across the face:

 

“But you dropped your smile!”

 

Now, as a young female-bodied person in a city like Toronto, I’m no stranger to street harassment.  It’s rare that I can be out walking, shopping, etc. for more than a few minutes without someone shouting a catcall or honking a horn or making an unsolicited comment on my appearance.  And most of it rolls right off my back — in the 5 years I’ve been living in this city, I’ve developed a thousand-mile stare, resting bitch face, and a purposeful stride when walking anywhere.  I’ve learned to put up the armor, to keep going and ignore, to be ready to run or to fight if they pursue me.  I’ve learned how to identify which people are just harmlessly creepy, and which are more likely to be genuine threats:  the kind that reach in for a grope, or start following you when you don’t respond to their advances.

 

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This particular time, though, I was truly caught off-guard.  I was in a neighborhood where I generally feel fairly “safe” — Church and Wellesley, right in the middle of the gay village, where the street harassment that I witness is usually male-on-male (and yeah, it’s uncomfortable, but at least it’s not directed at me).  The person talking at me was female.  And she was carrying a binder.  She was out campaigning for pledges for Plan Canada’s “Because I am a Girl” campaign, and that was what stopped me dead in my tracks, mouth open, not even knowing how to begin to respond.  I actually took a few steps away before turning around and confronting her.

 

“No, you know what?  You don’t get to say that to me.  That is fucking sexist, and it is bullshit.  You don’t own my body”.  She stammered a protest, tried to claim that she hadn’t said anything wrong, but I was already spinning on my heel to walk away — moving faster, bitch-face firmly in place, practically fuming that an ostensibly feminist organization couldn’t even be bothered to give their canvassers some simple sensitivity training about how to correctly approach a person cold.

 

Why You Should Never Tell a Person — Especially a Female-Bodied Person — to Smile

What it comes down to, mostly, is the simple fact that a stranger does not owe you anything.  If they’re a service-industry person and you’re their customer, fine, they might be expected to appear pleasant and pleasing to you (and you might be justified in knocking a percentage or two off the tip for surly, unsmiling service).  Human resources might back you up when you complain about that coworker who’s never happy. And if a friend or family member is looking unsmiling and dour, you’re probably justified in asking them what’s going on.  But with a stranger?

You don’t know what their day has been like.  You don’t know what’s on their mind.  Maybe they just got dumped, their dog just died, they’ve got a major deadline coming up at work and are stressed and overtired — or maybe some other asshole just said something awful to them not ten seconds ago.  Maybe they’re going home to a sick child, or fighting to keep from being evicted, or running late, or they just threw their seven-dollar latte in the trash because the barista screwed up and made it with soy milk.  Or maybe, just maybe, the expression on their face has to do with absolutely anything in the world that isn’t you.  Maybe they’re lost in thought, and it isn’t a frown, just a pensive non-smile.  Or maybe they’ve been warned not to smile at strangers (especially strange men), because then they might be thought to be “asking for it” (whatever “it” is).

Women, especially, spend a lot of our time being told (by the media, by peers, etc), that our bodies are not our own.  Ongoing debates about topics such as abortion, the definition of “rape” (especially as it pertains to “marital rape” and “coercive rape”), access to contraception, etc., frame women’s bodies as something of a sociopolitical object, not a person.  Puritanical attitudes towards sex place women as “gatekeepers” of sexual and sensual pleasure, foisting the responsibility  for others’ misbehaviour onto us in a sort of paternalistic “well you should have known better” and “boys will be boys” shrugging-off of the realities of the world.  And yet, simultaneously, we are expected to be miraculously young-and-beautiful (via cosmetics, surgeries, whatever), eternally thin, eternally sexually appealing, because to not conform to society’s standards of feminine beauty is to appear “slovenly” and “uncaring” and “unprofessional”.  Displays of negative emotion are seen as either weak or threatening (or sometimes both), and yet being stoic  and self-contained is “unnatural” or unfeminine (and, again, may well be taken as a threat).  Every decision that we take with our appearance is a catch-22 of some sort, and will likely be questioned and criticized by many people.

 

So when you tell a female-bodied person to “smile, sweetheart”, or that her face would look better with a smile on it, or that she shouldn’t forget her smile, or whatever else — you’re playing in to that patriarchal concept that women’s bodies are not our own, but rather public property, useful only to please others.  Telling anyone to smile for you is entitled, but cultural context makes this even more true when that person is a woman.

 

Why it is Threatening (and what you should do about that)

Of course, the reasons why street harassment is shitty don’t end with simple objectification and entitlement. There’s the threat element, too. Not every instance of street harassment is a red-alert, fight-or-flight sort of situation — in the case of the stupid Church Street girl with her binder and her lack of training, I certainly didn’t feel like I was in any danger. It was daylight, a busy street, a relatively safe neighborhood, and she was just one person, not much taller than me. It was unlikely in the extreme that she was carrying a concealed weapon, or going to jump me when I turned my back. But the majority of street harassment isn’t quite so benign. It only takes one instance of getting groped on the subway, or followed home late at night, or having objects thrown at you, to plant the seed of fear & have you questioning your safety every time someone makes eye contact or steps into your personal bubble. And we spend a lot of time getting warned to not get ourselves raped — whenever an attack is in the news, a woman is questioned for what she was wearing, why she was alone, why she was in that neighborhood, why she didn’t call for help or fight harder to escape or have the presence of mind to have not been born with a vagina. So we are constantly questioning, constantly worrying, wondering if letting our guard down for even a moment will be the time that we made a mistake & get assaulted or raped or killed as a consequence.

And it really doesn’t matter that 99% of the time, it isn’t a threat. The vast majority of the time, the person approaching you with a leer or a whistle or an unsolicited comment or a demand for a smile is going to just walk away (perhaps after hurling an insult at you for daring to snub their advances — “stuck up bitch”, or “fuck you, you’re ugly anyway”, or something of that ilk is fairly common). Those few times when it IS a threat, we need to be on guard and ready to act — to run, to scream, to fight, whatever is necessary to protect ourselves, because if we don’t put up enough of a fight, the law won’t defend us nor punish our attackers.  If we’re not ready to claw the fucker’s eyes out while screaming RAPE at the top of our lungs, we were clearly “asking for it”, and it wasn’t “legitimate rape“.

This is all, of course, a symptom of a much larger problem –again, cultural context means everything. If victims were better protected by the legal system, we wouldn’t have to rely so much on our own physical ability to defend ourselves. If criminals were punished more effectively, there would be fewer willing to commit the crimes in the first place. And if people were taught to not commit rape, instead of being taught to not GET raped, we might have different social norms to work with, here. But until we see wide, systemic change, every approach must be treated as a threat — because if it isn’t, you were “asking for it”.

 

Hollaback

There’s been quite a bit of attention paid, in recent years, to the Hollaback movement. Basically, it encourages victims and witnesses of street harassment to do exactly what I did: call them out on it.

While I think that the general idea has some merit, it’s not really the solution. As anyone who experiences regular street harassment can tell you, engaging them usually only serves to make it worse. People are, as a rule, usually unwilling to admit wrongdoing, even when directly confronted. They’re more likely to react with aggression to what they perceive as an attack on them. So in many cases (the already threatening cases, as outlined above), being able to “hollaback” at someone who has just threatened you takes real courage, and a willingness to fight or run like hell should things go south.

And Hollaback does, unfortunately, put too much onus on the victim to save themselves. While the campaign encourages people who are merely witnesses or bystanders to speak up as well, it is largely aimed at the people (women, people of colour, and other visible minorities) who are already being oppressed and attacked. It’s an imperfect, band-aid solution at best. Worth drawing attention to, though, because in cases where it IS safe to do so, calling people out (whether in the moment, or after the fact via means such as social media, blogging about it, postering areas where street harassment habitually occurs, etc) draws attention to the issue and hopefully encourages & supports other who are experiencing the same sort of attacks.

 

Of course, as critical as I am of Hollaback’s effectiveness, I’m not sure if we have any better solutions right now.

Social change is a long, convoluted, difficult, painful process. I don’t really expect that I will ever, in my lifetime, see a world where women in densely populated urban areas are truly free to go about our days. But I do hope that it will get at least a little bit better. Getting street harassed by a supposedly-feminist canvasser was a pretty low point, I think, and the world needs, absolutely NEEDS, to be better than this.

For the moment, pleasant fantasies will have to do.

 

Why Saying “I’m Not a Feminist” is NEVER an Okay Thing To Do

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

There are a lot of misconceptions about feminism in the world.

There are many different reasons for this, of course.  Feminism is a complicated topic.  It’s hard to look at approximately 50% of the world’s population — women of all races, all nationalities, all ages, all sexual orientations, all income brackets, all political affiliations, all education levels, etc — and define a simple, clear message that everyone can agree upon.  Especially since the advent of 3rd wave feminism, there are countless splinter and “niche” groups working under the greater feminist umbrella, and often working directly at cross-purposes to one another, or talking about completely different topics.  In an age where information is readily accessed with the click of a mouse, we’re faced with an overwhelming glut of information regarding feminism, and very little of it is concise or clear or speaks with a single voice representing all of us.

But when it’s stripped back to the bare essentials, feminism *does* have one simple, easily expressed goal:  gender equality, and the elimination of sexism.  We disagree (sometimes vehemently) on how best to *achieve* that goal, of course, but the goal remains the same for all.  And when you strip it back to that — when you say, “gender equality” instead of “feminism” — there are very few people who’ll argue against it.

And this is why the way we express ourselves about feminism, and the way we self-identify, needs to see some serious change.

If you believe that sexism is a bad thing, and that a person’s gender does not determine their worth, then you’re a feminist.  You may not agree with *every* feminist group (no one does — there are simply too many of them out there) — but you’re a feminist, of some description.  That’s all there is to it.  Saying “I’m not a feminist”, then, is a lie — and worse, it’s hurting feminists (and people) everywhere.

When most people say “I’m not a feminist”, it’s because they’re misguided about what feminism means.  They’ve bought in to a harmful stereotype — the man-hating, (often) lesbian, radical feminist who burns bras, thinks men should be slaves, and considers all penetrative sex to be rape.  This is a stereotype that was created by (and has been largely perpetuated by) the oppressing class, as a way of discrediting the perfectly logical claim that women are people and should be treated as such.  It’s a caricature, designed to make feminists look laughable and ridiculous and unfeminine, and unsexy, and unlovable, and criminal.  So when you characterize all feminists this way, it’s no different than characterizing all Scots as “cheap”, or all Irishmen as “drunks”.  You’re buying in to a bigoted stereotype, rather than learning about the individual people.

And when you buy in to that bigoted stereotype, and say “I’m not a feminist”, you’re also lumping yourself in with the people who actually ARE bigots.  You’re aligning yourself with the people who believe that women’s rights should be taken away so we can go back to the “good old days”.  You’re aligning yourself with sexual predators and rapists who don’t want their victims to have rights or be treated as people.  You’re aligning yourself with the Taliban who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head for wanting an education.

Do you really want to be on the same side as those people?

I’m not saying that you should blindly help any cause that identifies itself as “feminist”.  There’s no “supreme guiding council of feminist elders”, and no peer-review process, to determine the validity of any particular group’s claim to feminism.  There are plenty of self-identified “feminist” groups out there who have views that may not, in fact, be particularly helpful ones.  There are radfem groups who call themselves feminist but believe in the subjugation of men (I happen to strongly dispute their use of the term “feminist”, since by definition any group that advocates sexism is not, in fact, feminist — but that’s an issue that’s still considered up for debate in the broader feminist community).  There are feminist groups who are anti-choice, or who align themselves with religious organizations, or who are sex-worker exclusionary, or trans-exclusionary, or classist/racist/etc in their aims, and I disagree vehemently with all of those things.  And there are many feminist groups advocating for very specific, niche causes that may or may not be relevant to a particular person’s life — for example, a group dedicated to eliminating sexism in the medical profession might have a very good point, but not be relevant to me personally, as I’m an arts worker, not a doctor (dammit, Jim!).  So just calling yourself “feminist” doesn’t make you right, and it’s still important to research the motivations and background of any group you’re looking to join up with or support.

One of the biggest groups who commonly say “I’m not a feminist” are, unfortunately, men.  They’ll say, “I believe in women’s rights and equality, but I can’t be a feminist ’cause I’m a guy”.  And that’s just ridiculously misguided.  Not only is it perfectly possible for a guy to believe in gender equality (thus making him a feminist), it’s supremely important for people who are NOT women, who are NOT a part of the oppressed class, to take up the banner of feminism and make a conscious choice to support feminist aims.  Because it’s the oppressing class (in this case, males) who has the majority of the power — and thus, it’s males who have the most power to change things.  It’s been proven time and again that it’s easier for men (and especially white men) to get top positions at most jobs — they’re the bosses, the ones in charge of salaries, the ones in charge of hiring, and the ones in charge of policy.  They’re the majority of the politicians.  They’re the educators at universities.  They’re the police and the lawyers and the judges who enforce and influence the laws.  So if they’re working with feminist aims in mind (ie, a CEO who implements fair hiring policies, or a politician who fights for women’s reproductive rights), they’re in a position to do much more to help the cause than almost anyone else would be capable of.  They’re the ones who, by and large, have the ability to tip the scales and start the workings of a fair society.

Another group that commonly denies feminism is people of colour.  This is a more problematic issue — people of colour are already a part of an oppressed class, whether they are female or male or anything in-between.  They’re already fighting for fair wages, fair representation, and fair application of the law.  And many feminist groups are, unfortunately, very whitewashed.  Because it’s white people who have traditionally had more education & wealth, it’s white women who largely spearheaded the early feminist movements, and it’s white women who have remained at the forefront.  Many feminist groups are blatantly racist (or at least racially insensitive), and when you bring religion into the equation (people of colour are traditionally more attached to their faith, for a variety of reasons not worth going into here), it gets even more difficult — many feminist groups actively attack religious organizations, without regard to the people who worship that particular god, and this can be a massive turn-off for otherwise pro-gender-equality types.  And because feminism has historically been white, it’s difficult for people of colour to break that barrier — too many, already exhausted from spending a lifetime being oppressed for the colour of their skin, walk into a feminist meeting only to see a sea of white faces and no one who looks remotely like themselves, and they feel automatically excluded.  It’s hard to blame people for feeling that way.  In the end, though, we’ll never be able to make feminism more POC-friendly without having some people of colour standing in those rooms.  Some are going to have to break down those barriers, and walk into those rooms full of white faces, and decide they’re going to stay.  And those of us who *are* white need to recognize this difficulty, and welcome such people with open arms, so that more of them will feel comfortable saying “I’m a feminist”.

What I find, personally, the most painful, are those women who believe that identifying as feminist will make them seem unattractive.  They’re victims of fear — fear of being hated, fear of being spurned, fear of being alone.  These are the people who media depictions of feminists are directly attacking, and directly oppressing.  I just want to take those women and say, “It’s okay! What they said on TV was a lie — you can be a feminist and still be beautiful, and feminine, and a stay-at-home-mom, and people will still love you”.  And they tell me that they’re “not as strong” as I am, or that they “don’t belong”.  And that’s so wrong, because you don’t have to be an exception — or an exceptional person — to be a feminist.  You just have to believe in equality.

In most media depictions, it’s the loudest and most strident voices who get the most airtime.  These are the people who are easy to pick out of a crowd, and they give entertainment and good sound bites.  They’re also the people who are easiest to ridicule and discredit.  So we need more of the “normal” people, the ones with perfectly rational and moderate views (the ones that the majority of us espouse) to stand up and say clearly, “I’m a feminist”.  We need to drown out those radical voices, and get voices of reason to be standing at the forefront.  Because until we can “normalize” feminism, it’s never going to be fully successful.

And it really should be perfectly “normal” to believe that all people should have equal rights, right?

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: The Psychology of Being an Enabler, and Why “Awareness” Isn’t Enough

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

It often surprises people to learn that I’ve been in not just one, but several different unhealthy and abusive relationships (and not just in my personal life — I’ve had abusive work situations, too).  As an outspoken feminist, an accomplished martial artist, a highly intelligent and university-educated person, and coming from a privileged childhood (so, no poverty-related issues to overcome), it seems on the surface that I’d be the last person to put myself in a position to be abused.  But my situation isn’t a unique one, and there are a lot of women out there who come across as strong, confident, and goal-oriented, who wind up in unhealthy relationships — serially.  Over and over again.  And the question that always comes up when these relationships fall apart and the abuse is exposed to the world is, “why would you ever put up with that?”  Because we know that we were being treated wrong.  We can identify and discuss the ways in which we were abused.  But we stayed anyway, and that’s an incredibly confusing thing — often, even to us.  Why did we put up with it?

But we don’t have to look far to see a plethora of examples of just these sorts of unhealthy relationships in media.  A popular sitcom trope is that of the beautiful, intelligent, capable woman who is in a relationship with (and continually forgives) a borderline-abusive jerk.  Look at Marge & Homer, Peter & Lois, Wilma & Fred, Spike & Buffy, Barney & Robin, Shrek & Fiona, Belle & Prince Adam … you get the idea.  The idea of a strong woman supporting and forgiving a weak man (often because he’s “just a man” and doesn’t know any better) is well-established.

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The problem is that, like many other women, I’m a fixer.  I like to take things that are broken, and make them better.  And I don’t give up easily on a “project” I’ve taken on.  The traits that make me a fixer are generally considered positive traits, and many of them are traditionally considered “feminine”:  I’m a care-giver, a nurturer, a teacher, a healer.  I’m also stubborn and independent, which in  the context of an abusive relationship means that when trouble comes along, I tend to batten down the hatches and isolate myself while I fix whatever is going on, rather than seeking help from friends or family.  I self-isolate, which makes me the perfect target for an abuser.

Another factor that enters in to this equation is a sense of shame.  Because I am intelligent enough to recognize what’s going on, I will see the abuse — and try to hide it.  I don’t want my intelligent, feminist friends and family to realize that I’ve fucked up and attached myself to another abusive, controlling, life-draining, soul-destroying human being.  So when I see abusive behaviours, I’ll recognize in my brain “he’s gaslighting me”, or “he’s telling me how I should feel instead of acknowledging my emotions”, or “did he really just try to bully me into doing that?” … and I’ll hide it.  Ashamed that I’ve gotten myself into another such situation, I’ll laugh it off, keep it secret, and try to deal with it behind closed doors, because I know that one of the first questions out of anyone else’s mouth is going to be, “why would you put up with that?” — and I don’t have a good answer.

There’s always a reason why we stay, of course.  Love, often.  It’s hard to walk away from a person you love — and abusers are master manipulators.  They often set it up so that you’ll feel that if you leave, their life will be ruined.  It’s hard to take responsibility for destroying someone you care about, and that romantic sense that “you complete me” can quickly become a terrifying trap.  But there are more subtle tactics, too.  Mental illness, for example, is often used as an excuse for bad behaviours.  We tell ourselves things like, “he’s lashing out at me because he can’t cope with his own depression”, instead of recognizing the attacks for what they really are.  We tell ourselves that we can’t leave someone who’s mentally ill, that leaving someone who’s sick would be just as bad as leaving someone because they have cancer.  But bad behaviour is bad behaviour, and we have to learn eventually to escape from it.

So many campaigns against abuse, these days, are about “awareness”.  About teaching us to recognize abuse.  But the problem is that simple “awareness” isn’t enough.  I knew last November that one of my relationships had turned abusive — it took until the spring before I stopped sleeping with him, and until the end of summer before the shit really hit the fan and I stopped publicly defending his behaviour.   I was aware that he was continually gaslighting me, negging me, telling me how I should be feeling, manipulating and controlling my emotions — and when I would try to call him out on it, he’d have a “mental breakdown” and beg me for comfort, beg me to tell him it was okay and that I still loved him.  When friends and loved ones told me, “he shouldn’t be treating you like that,” I shrugged it off, even as I mentally agreed with them.  But I couldn’t give up on it and live with the consequences of another public, humiliating failure.

We need, as a society, to stop treating abuse victims like they’re stupid.  We aren’t stupid.  We know what’s going on, and we know it isn’t right.  We just don’t know how to end these relationships without being stigmatized.  Being cast as a “victim” is bad enough — being cast as a stupid victim who didn’t know what was happening?  Is intolerable.  The discussion needs to change, because “awareness” is only the first step.  After that there’s actually getting out, and getting on with your life, which is where you really need the support.

In Defense of the Marilyns

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

215px-LegallyBlondeTheMusicalIn my glamorous life as a contract techie (haha), I’ve been spending the past couple of weeks working backstage as a sound tech on a production of “Legally Blonde, The Musical”.  Based on the 2001 movie, the plot is pretty familiar:  blonde sorority babe Elle Woods pursues a law degree at Harvard in an attempt to win back her ex-boyfriend, and along the way discovers that she’s actually pretty good at this “law” thing when she wins a case by catching two witnesses perjuring themselves:  the first by claiming he’s not gay (but clearly he was, since he didn’t respond to Elle’s cheerleader dancing), and the second by lying about taking a shower after getting a perm (and Elle, of course, knows everything about hair care).  Elle ends up deciding that she’s better off without said ex-boyfriend in her life, getting her law degree, and marrying her T.A. instead.  The show is, of course, plagued by sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia.  If I were to go into all of the problems with the show, this would be a VERY long blog post, so I’m going to stick to just the one that is, in my opinion, the most insidious:  the “Marilyn vs. Jackie” problem.

Something that’s probably very easily overlooked in a casual viewing of this musical is the fact that Elle dropped everything to follow her ex to law school.  She moved across the country, abandoning her dreams of a film career and leaving friends and family behind.  The fact that her dreams changed through the course of the action is all well and good — but  the judgmental attitude towards the life she left behind is something incredibly problematic.  Throughout the musical, her ex refers insultingly to Elle as a “Marilyn” (a reference to a line in the song “Serious”, when he breaks up with her and says that he needs a girlfriend who’s “less of a Marilyn more of a Jackie”, meaning of course Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy).  Others also heap insults on her liking for hair products, fashionable clothing, and hedonistic pleasures, and at the end of the musical it is joked about that Warner (the ex) dropped out of school and pursued a career as a male model instead.  Elle’s blondeness and her fashion sense are a constant focus, and even when she turns this knowledge to her advantage (most notably, when she uses her knowledge of hair care to catch a lying murderer), it gains her no respect from her superiors (her boss initially compliments her, but then makes sexual advances to her and fires her when she refuses him).  And even Elle herself, and the friends & family she left behind in L.A., comment on how she is able to do “more” with her life when she pursues law.

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All of this raises the question:  what’s wrong with being a “Marilyn”?  Elle is clearly a highly intelligent woman.  Combined with her privileged position in life (she comes from money and her parents were able to just casually pay her way through law school — it’s clear she’s never had to work in her life), Elle would likely have found success in any career she chose to put her mind to.  Had she stayed in L.A. and pursued that film career, she’d probably have done well at it (as Marilyn Monroe did).  Who’s to say that her life as a lawyer will truly be more fulfilling than her original plans would have been?  That’s quite a judgment to cast on those who elect to become actors or models or other “superficial” things.

While I think it’s important to support people (of all genders) who pursue non-traditional careers and lives, I think it’s VERY key that we not do so at the expense of those who choose a more straightforwards path.  And yes, it can be a difficult balancing act.  I don’t personally choose to wear makeup in my day-to-day life, but I don’t judge women who do wear makeup in a harsh manner.  I don’t personally want to have kids or a traditional, heteronormative family, but I have to be careful not to treat others badly for wanting those things.  I don’t personally work a traditionally “womanly” job, but I don’t have anything against those women who do (or against women who are homemakers or stay-at-home moms instead of staying in the workforce after marriage).

The important thing to remember about feminism is that women have fought for the past hundred years for the right to choose what to do with our lives.  We can choose to go into traditionally male-centric careers — or not.  And men can choose the same.  We can choose to be Marilyns, knowing that there are other options available to us.  We can decide what is best for us, and what is going to make us happiest and most fulfilled.

Saying that any one choice is not as good as the others, that “manly” jobs are better than “womanly” ones, is just subscribing to the same old problematic set of assumptions that we’ve been trying to shake off in the first place.

Rape Fantasies: Why Consent Isn’t Sexy, and Why You’re Not a Bad Feminist for Enjoying It

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

TRIGGER WARNING – obviously.  Don’t read this post if you’re upset by analytical discussions of rape.

 

I’ll admit it:  I’m a fan of smutty literature.  Romance novels, Internet slash-fiction, even just regular old books with well-written sex scenes thrown in there.  I started swiping my mom’s Harlequin romances in my early teens, keeping favourite ones hidden in between the mattress and the bedframe for late-night reading.  Female friends and I would find books at the library with good sex scenes and share them, often reading the steamiest passages aloud and giggling at our own fascination with sex.  As I got older and became sexually active, those books served as guides — how to touch, how to talk, what to expect.  They taught me the words for what I wanted, how to ask my partners for things, and how to enjoy myself doing it.  In many ways, romance novels were what taught me to be a feminist, because it was from them that I learned the sex-positive and body-positive attitudes that my adolescence would not otherwise have provided.

 

But there was always one thing that puzzled me.  Why did so many of these books contain — and even romanticize — rape?

 

 

It’s a question that’s come up a lot in recent years, especially with the popularization of Twilight, Game of Thrones, and 50 Shades.  These are things marketed to women, popular among women, and yet they show women accepting, and even sometimes enjoying, being raped and abused.  It’s not a new phenomenon — I can remember Game of Thrones being among those books my friends and I found at the library, and heck, even 3onguochildhood fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty contain questionable ideas about consent — but it leaves a lot of us conflicted.  At least 50% of women will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives.  I’m certainly not the only one of my friends who has experienced sexual assault and rape.  And yet many of us still find something attractive, something undeniably sexy, about scenes like the ones between Danerys and Drogo in GoT.  While the reality of rape is abhorrent and terrifying, there is still something about the fantasy that has the power to turn us on.

 

What really got me thinking about it, though, was when one of my friends called herself a “bad feminist” for enjoying that fantasy.  And I immediately felt like she was wrong.  But it took me some time to define exactly why I feel that rape fantasies are not, inherently, an “unfeminist” thing to have.

 

Why We Enjoy the Fantasy

The first thing that I had to question, of course, was where this fantasy comes from, and why we have it.  In the end, I decided that there are a multitude of factors in play, here — and that’s really not surprising.  Culturally, we are pretty obsessed with sex, and both sex and gender play a huge role in almost every aspect of our society.  These are deeply ingrained things that we’re dealing with, here.  And there are likely more reasons than just the ones that I’m listing (feel free to bring up others in the comments, if you like).

  1. Puritanical attitudes towards sex.  If we believe that sex is bad or “dirty”, as many of us have been raised to think, then saying “yes” is an impure act.  This is especially true when you’re talking about premarital sex, casual sex, or pretty much any sex that is not purely for the purposes of procreation.  Women, especially, are often told that good girls don’t have (or at least, don’t enjoy) sex, and that we must always be careful to not act “slutty”.  Women who do openly enjoy sex are often punished by society for doing so.  As a result, saying “no” seems like a virtuous, positive thing to do.  The rape fantasy then becomes, somewhat perversely, a way of indulging in a sexual fantasy wherein you don’t have to say “yes” (thus becoming a “slut” and damning yourself).  In such a fantasy, you can maintain your “purity” while still engaging in the act.  Of course, such a fantasy is problematic — and it doesn’t line up with reality.  Victim-blaming and the idea that rape victims somehow “asked for it” means that in reality, a woman who has gone through rape is usually stigmatized as a “slut” anyhow.  But a fantasy world where you can escape from such stigmatization and abuse, and enjoy sex without feeling guilt about it, is actually a pretty sex-positive thing, when you get right down to it.  Especially for younger women or those from particularly sheltered, puritanical upbringings, the rape fantasy may actually be an avenue towards more sex-positive attitudes in their lives in general.
  2. Conventional ideals of “manliness”.   The knight in shining armor.  The dashing pirate/outlaw.  The lone wolf, or the rebel who plays by his own rules.  The millionaire playboy.  The mystery, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a vest.  What do all of these “romantic ideals” have in common?  Power.  Whether it be money, fame, good looks, the power of the unknown, or just raw muscle and steel, men are expected by society to wield power if they want to be attractive.  And that, of course, is what rape is all about:  it’s about power.  This is why rape occurs across all demographics, and doesn’t depend on a victim’s attractiveness or age or place within society.  And so for women, having been raised being told that the best man to have is the most powerful one — well, what’s more powerful than a rapist?
  3. The other side of power and control.  Jumping off from #2, we come to the other side of power:  being powerless.  A lack of control.  It’s something that many of us seek out quite actively, as a form of escape from our daily lives and the demands of mature adulthood.  We enjoy getting “swept up in the moment” and being able to just go along with things, no decision-making required.  We escape into books and media, into drunken nights with friends, into cruise vacations where the biggest choice you have to make is “chicken or fish?”.  Sex can be a terrifying thing to be in control of, especially if you’re inexperienced or not confident in your abilities.  The rape fantasy takes away the need to be “good” at what you’re doing.  It takes away the responsibility of pleasing your partner.  It allows you to simply receive, without having to give anything back.  For the neophyte, this sort of fantasy can take away some of the anxieties surrounding sex, actually encouraging more sex-positive attitudes because it frees them up to simply enjoy, without worrying about their skill level.
  4. A female sort of power.  There is another way to interpret the power relationship in rape fantasies:  in the concept of the male as a stupid, insatiable animal, unable to resist a woman’s sexy wiles.  This particular fantasy stems from right-wing, conservative attitudes towards rape, which are unfortunately quite pervasive in our society.  When victims are blamed for being raped because they were “acting slutty” or “dressed inappropriately”, and when rapists are excused because “boys will be boys”, it’s an incredibly sexist and sex-negative thing.  But if you take that particular fantasy, and examine it purely as fantasy, it becomes the victim who holds the power.  For women, raised in a society where power tends to be tied to male privilege, the idea of being able to drive a man to unspeakable acts just by looking really, really good?  That’s a pretty cool power fantasy right there.  And it’s also a body-positive sort of fantasy, too, because it requires that the victim be not just desirable, but VERY desirable.  It lets you feel wanted, and in a world where the media regularly tells us that our body is not good enough just as it is?  That can be a very positive feeling.
  5. Exposure.  Like me, many women had some of their first encounters with the concept of enjoyable sex through romance novels.  And a lot of romance novels contain depictions of rape — maybe as many as half of them.  Most such depictions aren’t terribly realistic (usually the men involved are ridiculously good looking and are experienced sexual gods capable of giving multiple, mind-blowing orgasms, and the sex itself isn’t in any way violent or taboo — just non-consensual, because the woman is protesting even as she enjoys it).  We also see depictions of rape in plenty of other media — mainstream TV, movies, books, and porn all contain it with some frequency.  With such fuel for our imaginations, it’s not surprising that our fantasy lives also contain depictions of rape.
  6. Fear.  There’s a fine line between fear and excitement.  It’s why we enjoy roller coasters, horror movies, and skydiving.  Fear gets your heart pumping and your adrenaline rushing.  It does, in some sense, turn you on.  The fear associated with the idea of rape can do exactly the same thing — especially when, just like with a roller coaster or a horror movie, we know we’re in no real danger.  When it’s all a fantasy, you can experience that fear in a controlled and safe fashion.  This is also a common theory as to why some victims of actual rape may afterwards enjoy rape fantasies, while still hating and fearing what truly happened to them:  it’s a way of controlling and “taking back” the power of the experience.
  7. Exploring the taboo.  This one links back to #1 in many ways, because we live in a society with a lot of taboos — especially when it comes to sex and sexuality.  A part of figuring out your own sexuality is in exploring those various taboos, and finding out which ones are fun and which are scary.  Rape is a taboo that most people would never want to explore outside of the realm of pure fantasy, but considering it as fantasy can definitely be a part of healthy sexual exploration, because doing so can help you to define your limits and your desires.

 

Why it’s Not “Unfeminist” to Like It

I touched on a few of the reasons in my list up there — depending on the context of your particular fantasy, rape fantasies may include aspects that are decidedly sex-positive and body-positive, and they can certainly be a part of  a healthy fantasy life.

 

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More important, though, is the fact that rape fantasies are just that:  fantasies.  And fantasies, by their very nature, really can’t be non-consensual.  The one doing the fantasizing is always in control, and can stop things whenever they want to.  This is why in BDSM, “rape play” or “consensual non-consent” can be enjoyed:  because the “victim” in this case has a safe-word and can stop things at any time if it becomes too frightening or painful.  They are completely in control, even if it seems to be otherwise.  And of course, taking back control of traumatizing, terrifying things like rape is a part of what feminism is all about.  It’s about taking and enjoying your individual power as a human being.

 

Of course, finding an actual partner to engage in such fantasies with is a problematic thing in and of itself.  Fantasizing about being raped is a very different thing from fantasizing about being a rapist.  So taking this kind of a fantasy from your mind into the bedroom is something to be done with a lot of caution, and only with a partner who you very deeply trust.  Someone who’s immediately eager to try it probably isn’t the safest person to play with (better to choose someone who’s uncomfortable, but willing to do it because it’s something you want), and while it may be a very private and intimate fantasy, it’s something perhaps better kept to a public dungeon or play space, where there will be others around to ensure that your safe words are heeded if they must be used.  It wouldn’t be fun for “play rape” to turn into the actual thing.

What is “Real Beauty”, Anyway?

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

My social media network has been alive, these past few days, with two things:  the Boston Marathon Explosions, and Dove’s latest advertising campaign.

There’s not much I can say about Boston that hasn’t already been said.  It horrifies me that people can plan & commit such acts of violence.  It scares me that we still, a couple of days later, have no idea who did it, or where and when they might strike again.  I’m afraid of the what the political fallout will be, since if it truly was a terror attack on American soil … well, we have Afghanistan and Iraq and the past 12 years to tell us what can happen as a result of that.

So instead, I’ll talk about the other thing that’s been bugging the hell out of me for the past few days:  Dove’ “real beauty sketches” campaign.

real-beauty

For those unfamiliar with the campaign (although seriously, have you been living under a rock all week?  This thing is showing up everywhere right now), Dove marketing people hired a police sketch artist to do a series of drawings.  In the sketch on the left, you see a woman as described by herself.  On the right you see the same woman as described by a random stranger.  The point of the exercise (besides selling Dove products — I’ll get into that later) is ostensibly to show women that we are our own harshest critics & that other people see more beauty in us than we do in ourselves.

Most of my issues with the campaign have been covered quite eloquently by tumblr user Jazz in her post on the subject.  Jazz’s post, too, has been making the rounds on social media, so this may not be the first you’re seeing of it (I shared it via my Facebook page yesterday).  I agree with the points that she has made, and definitely suggest that you go and read what she has to say.  I’ll reiterate a few of the main points, and add some new ones of my own.

While the idea that we need to focus less on our flaws and think more positively of ourselves is a good one, the overall message of the campaign falls far short of the mark from a feminist perspective.

As Jazz points out in her post, the majority of the participants are white women, with light hair & eyes.  They are young (probably all under 40), slim, and conform to a very conventional standard of beauty.  There are women of colour in the campaign, but in the video they see very little face time, and none of them are featured in the extra interviews available on the website.  This is the standard of beauty that we are always shown by the cosmetics industry:  young, white, and slim.  For a campaign that claims to break boundaries, it’s very much inside the box.

Why not feature some people who are NOT conventionally beautiful?  Someone significantly overweight, or in their 80s, or with very obvious scars/birthmarks/other “deformities” on their face, or with very “ethnic” features (even the women of colour shown in the video are people with relatively neutral features).  Why not show a man, or a transgendered person?  Why is beauty something only for cisgendered women?

Just as important are the descriptive words being used in the video.  The “negative” terms that women are using to describe their own features are things like “fat, rounder face”, “freckles”, “40 and starting to get crow’s feet”, “thin lips”, “tired looking”, “big jaw”.  While the sketches revealed that the majority of the participants were overly focused on these “negative” aspects, the video did nothing to destroy the perception that these are “bad” traits … and this is incredibly sad, because for the most part these are not “bad” things.  A rounder face or thinner lips or a wider jawline may not be what’s popular in the media right now,  but if it’s the shape you were born with then there’s nothing you can do about it, and you should feel beautiful even if you’re not like what you see in make-up ads, because beauty comes in all shapes.  Freckles and crows’ feet and tiredness: that’s all just life.  None of us look airbrushed; the life we’ve lived is going to show on our faces, and we should LOVE that, not feel pressured to cover it up.

While the video tries to be uplifting, it’s still delivering a hurtful message to women who don’t fit that conventional standard of beauty.  Someone who honestly looks more like the sketches on the left might come away actually feeling worse about themselves, because they’ve been reminded yet again that they’re not thin and white and young.

Perhaps the most troubling thing said in the whole video is this, though:

[Beauty] impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, they way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.

Because if you’re female, the most important thing is to be beautiful.  It doesn’t matter how skilled you are; how intelligent; how kind; how loving and giving and wonderful.  If you’re not beautiful, you’re a second-class woman.  There’s something “critical” missing from your life, and you cannot be happy without it.  You can’t even be a good person and treat others (your children, even!) right if you’re not beautiful and don’t believe that you are beautiful.

That’s right.  If you’re ugly, you’re a bad person.  If you doubt yourself, you’re going to treat other people wrong and your life will suck because of it.  Thanx, Dove.  Thanx for reminding us all that the most important part of being female is being aesthetically pleasing.

And of course, when it comes right down to it, that *is* what Dove is trying to sell you.  They want you to buy their beauty products and their moisturizers.  They want you to buy their “pro*age” lotion to get rid of those crow’s feet, and their “colour care” shampoo to keep your dye-job shiny and “natural” looking.  They want you to shave off all your body hair, smell like a flower garden, and cover up your “flaws”, just like any other cosmetics company.  So they need you to believe that you ARE flawed, and that you need products to make you better.  It is, in the end, marketing.  And advertisers discovered long ago that the way to make you buy a product, is to make you feel as though you’re not as good without it.

If I were to redo this campaign, I’d rather see them focus on things that aren’t traditionally beautiful. I want to see someone’s scars being complimented as a sign of strength, or their round “overweight” belly being loved for its soft warmth, or their adorable freckles being complimented rather than showing this constant quest for “clear” skin. I want beauty to be about more than just cisgendered women.  I want to love people for their bald patches and their places where there’s too much hair and for their stretch marks and their crooked teeth and their beautiful asymmetry.  I want people to meet up in darkened rooms where they can’t see each other at all, and can only use talk & touch without sight to tell them what they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. I want to be truly colourblind, and blind to gender, and blind to sexual orientation, and blind to traditional ideas of “beauty”. I’m kind of an idealist that way.

Expectations of Genius

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

I stumbled across this story today in my ramblings around the Internet.

It bothers me how the media buys in to the stereotype of the “dumb blonde” and the idea that beautiful women cannot possibly be intelligent, too — I’ve talked about this before.  It’s hard to be judged as “stupid” before you’ve even opened your mouth, just because of how you look.  It’s hard to fight an uphill battle every day against the preconceived notion that if you’re pretty, you’ve had everything handed to you on a silver platter and have never had to work or to fight for what you have in your life.  It’s hard to stay positive when people attack you based on those assumptions, or avoid you entirely and refuse to get to know you.

But what actually struck me more, in reading this story, was the commentary surrounding how this girl is “wasting her potential”.  How she’s wasting valuable time, thought, and energy on a beauty routine that involves self-tanner and fake nails.  How she’s wasting her mind by watching trash TV shows.  How she’s wasting her thoughts and her potential on dreams of a future in performance.  The general disdain for beauty and so-called “superficial” pursuits is prevalent throughout the article, and even more so in the comments being left by readers.

This kind of pressure is commonly faced by those of us with higher-than-average intellects, and it can be absolutely crushing.  When everyone’s telling you how much you could do and pushing you to “live up to your full potential”, it feels as though the expectations placed upon you are almost impossible to live up to — as though nothing you do can ever possibly be good enough.  Any “wasted” time becomes a source of guilt, and whenever you can’t be in two places at once or do everything perfectly on the first try, you feel as though you’re letting everyone down and not doing as well as you “should” be.  And when you need to ask for help, you feel bad, as though you’re somehow failing by needing someone else to lend a hand or show you the way.  And it can feel incredibly unfair when you feel those expectations being put upon you, but not on anybody else:  I still feel a huge sense of injustice when my parents brush off my siblings’ lack of scholastic ability, when they spent so much time berating me for every “A minus” grade that I “could have done better” on, or when a well-meaning friend or relative criticizes my choice to pursue an arts career when I “could be” a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist or whatever other career they happen to think is more suitable.

This is a pressure that I’ve faced throughout my life, and I’m sure the girl in this story is feeling a huge wave of it right now.  And it’s completely unfair.

First of all, there’s the simple fact that just having a high IQ does not mean you’re good at every single subject.  You may be able to grasp unfamiliar concepts more quickly, remember things more readily, or assimilate information in a quick & easy fashion, but that doesn’t mean you’re good at everything you do.  I still have my subjects that I struggle in, and so does every other “genius” I’ve ever met.  I’ve needed extra help, from time to time, and it’s often frustratingly hard to get — it’s amazing how often people will say things like, “but you’re smart, why can’t you understand this?”, or dismiss your efforts as though you’re not even trying because “you’d get it if you just put your mind to it”.  But just being generally smart does not mean you’ve got a natural aptitude for everything.

And along with aptitude, there’s interest.  Different things catch different people’s attention, and we shouldn’t feel limited to only certain areas of study because those are traditionally seen as more “intellectual”.  So what if a smart person wants to apply their brains to an artistic field, or if they’d rather do a job that involves using their hands?  A person shouldn’t need to feel intellectually challenged by their work every single day (unless that’s what they themselves actually want).  And if a person decides to go into a field that’s not “intellectual”, they shouldn’t feel guilty because they “could” be doing something else.  I may be intelligent, but I wouldn’t be happy working in a lab — spending my life trying to cure cancer or blaze new legal trails would leave me feeling unhappy and unfulfilled, and ultimately I’d never have the sort of passion for the work that drives true innovation.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that IQ is only one measure of intelligence.  As we come to understand more and more about the way the human brain works, we’re beginning to place more important on things like the “emotional quotient” and on different learning styles and “types” of intelligence.  A person who has a relatively average IQ, but is very passionate about their subject, is likely to spend more time and energy working on it — and if they’re coming at it from a different angle or “learning style”, they may see things in it that a traditionally-intelligent, “booksmart”-type would not see.

There’s a high level of “burnout” among high-IQ individuals, and a lot of that is directly related to these pressures that we face.  We’re expected to be highly self-reliant and to need less teaching.  Our peers often rely on us to help them out when they are struggling with a topic (“hey, you’re smart, can you explain this?”), but who do the “smart kids” turn to when we’re in need of a little help?  If we choose to spend a few hours relaxing and playing a video game or watching TV, we face the criticism that we “should be” learning something instead, never mind that down-time and letting your brain shut off for a while is important for all people (“why aren’t you off curing cancer right now instead of watching that reality TV show?”).  And often our less-intellectual friends come to rely on us for things that aren’t even really our responsibility:  we’re the ones who are expected to remember every little detail, even if we’re not directly in charge (“well you should have known better”).  Sometimes the more you deliver, the more it seems people expect of you, until everything in life becomes a thankless struggle to keep up with the expectations that are being placed on you.