“You can’t have equality or tenderness or intimacy as long as there is rape, because rape means terror. It means that part of the population lives in a state of terror and pretends–to please and pacify you–that it doesn’t. So there is no honesty. How can there be? Can you imagine what it is like to live as a woman day in and day out with the threat of rape? Or what it is like to live with the reality? I want to see you use those legendary bodies and that legendary strength and that legendary courage and the tenderness that you say you have in behalf of women; and that means against the rapists, against the pimps, and against the pornographers. It means something more than a personal renunciation. It means a systematic, political, active, public attack. And there has been very little of that.
I came here today because I don’t believe that rape is inevitable or natural. If I did, I would have no reason to be here. If I did, my political practice would be different than it is. Have you ever wondered why we are not just in armed combat against you? It’s not because there is a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It is because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.”
The trope that women hate women never feels true to me, even though I read the Phyllis Chesler book and I work with teenage girls, who are supposed to be the worst bullies of all. They’re not. Teenage girls experience the gamut of human emotion including a desire for power, which they rarely achieve via any other means but their sexuality — how “hot” they are; what they’re wearing; which guys want to date them. When they behave badly, it’s usually a sane reaction to an insane situation — an understandable response to a toxic culture that ensmallens them; asks them to be sexy but not “slutty,” (i.e. sexual); to self-objectify and see themselves through male eyes. This isn’t news. Have you listened to any mainstream hip-hop lately, the kind they played at my gym this afternoon? Watched any cable TV? Seen what’s new in free online pornography? (Skip the vileness and check out one angry girl instead).
Anyway. The subject of single-sex education came up in a staff meeting today, and the other 15 people at the table agreed that they would ONLY teach at a boys’ school because girls are “mean.” They’re “bitchy.” They “turn on each other.” I was fucking horrified, of course, so I said I’d much rather teach girls because, when you take boys out of the equation, they tend to calm down, re-focus, and do amazing things academically and socially.
Several of my colleagues laughed quietly at me. I could read their faces: Yeah, of course, she’s a dyke. The woman sitting next to me, who teaches a male-dominated subject required to succeed in most high-earning careers, hardly looked up from her grading but I saw her face as 60 years’ worth of rage and bitterness broke the tight surface and she said, with real hatred in her voice, “I hate women. They’re nasty and two-faced; you can’t trust them.”
“All of them?” I asked, thinking STOCKHOLM SYNDROME STOCKHOLM SYNDROME YOU HAS IT.
“Most,” she scowled. “I prayed to have only male children, and I got what I wanted.”
I gently posited that the world hates women, so naturally we begin to hate ourselves — had she listened to any rap or accidentally clicked on any porn lately; had she ever heard the term ‘internalized misog’–
“I don’t hate women because of porn,” she said, viciously inking an “F” at the top of a unit test. “I hate them because they’re shallow, petty bitches.”
What I wanted to ask, of course, was this: Are you like “most” women, or are you an exception? If you’re an exception, how — and by whom, and with what — have you been rewarded? Does your special, non-bad-woman status make you feel more worthy? Does it make you immune to the dangers and degradations “most” other women fear? Are you magic? Also, do you hate yourself, or just the rest of us? Where is your disconnect? Can you hear yourself? Do you know that the girls hear you, too? Every single day?
Oh, the Internet cray these days. I can’t keep up. We got blogs censored over here; death threats over there, general freakout braiding it all together like a horrible Victorian mourning brooch made of human hair. And Feministing has outdone itself. Just as fat is the most concentrated form of energy in the body, so Feministing (although they sometimes do some excellent reporting) is often the most concentrated form of clueless pomo derp on the Internet.
Today, they’ve interviewed a trans guy performing in a play loosely based on the Tyler Clementi tragedy. It sounds good, and were I visiting Chicago, I’d go see it. BUT. Please shudder at the following excerpt:
AS: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
JJ: I think it’s a constant challenge – whatever identities we align ourselves with – to face our own privilege, and kindly, constructively call each other out when we don’t.
My aghast-ness springs from the following:
1. A constant challenge for who? Navel-gazing academics and performance artists? Who the fuck sits around talking about which “identities they align” themselves with? Early-20somethings, mental patients (cray!) and the unemployed, that’s who. I wish I had the time, money, leisure, and/or large academic grant sufficient to allow me to sit around and ruminate re: the “identities I align” with. Mostly, though, I go to work, which robs me of 8-10 daily hours of precious identity-aligning time.
2. “Face our own privilege.” I am all for examining what makes some lives easier/less-fraught than others but “privilege-checking” has become a quick, effective way of stopping productive disagreement; the silencer on the shut-down gun. We feel embarrassed and guilty when someone accuses us of being unaware of our privilege; as though we have hurt someone — it’s reminiscent of childhood, when our mothers scolded us for not appreciating how lucky we were compared to less-lucky kids. Women respond to this kind of chastisement because we don’t want to be jerks; we don’t want to hurt anyone. Because hey, we could be wrong, after all. We better apologize.
Privilege-checking, though, can become a useless and destructive exercise. From a recent piece at Left Foot Forward:
“At the heart of “privilege-checking” however is a kind of narcissism and desire to exercise guilt, which arouses a great many problems of itself. First of all “privilege-checking” assumes that we can only understand things we have direct experience of, as Tom Midlane recently put it. This just needlessly problematises solidarity and divides those who are fighting the good fight against societal injustice into blocks of oppressed and non-oppressed. The protest space is necessarily subjective, sure, but it is also a space for fighting the greater good in union.
Looking deep into one’s soul and seeking self-privilege is peculiarly individualistic and contrary to the spirit of protest.
Secondly, I suspect it only serves to underline a guilt which, stripped down, is ultimately hubristic. I’m reminded of how Pascal Bruckner defined guilt in his book on the subject, as a substitute for power for the middle class European individual in a post-empire age, or a way to appear to reverse the co-ordinates of power relations in society, when in fact the presence of guilt firmly keeps those relations in place.
In this sense guilt only divides people from the guilty (non-oppressed) to the non-guilty (oppressed).”
3. “Kindly, constructively call each other out.” Is it possible to laugh oneself into a hernia? How many actual times has your average liberal been successful in “kindly, constructively” calling another liberal out? How many actual times has it not devolved into a welter of unhappiness and misunderstanding; a comment thread swirling into the dark? Has anyone ever said “Thank you for calling me out on my privilege” without clenched teeth and/or a vicious little masochistic thrill of self-abnegation? Do privilege-checkers and callers-out have any idea how ridiculous the rest of the world finds this exercise? How much a form of non-action? How effective a distraction from the fact that about 400 people have REAL privilege and control most of the wealth in this country?
Also, figuring out one’s own precisely-calibrated levels of privilege is a Byzantine task, i.e., what if you’re perceived as “white,” but your parents are immigrants for whom English is a second language? What if you come from an upper-middle-class background and hold an advanced degree but earn less than $30,000 a year? What if you were once quite beautiful but, now that you’ve hit your mid-forties, no one really looks at you anymore? What if you make a ton of money but you live in a red state and can’t pass as a non-dyke? Do people need a briefing re: the intricacies of your personal privilege before they decide how seriously to take you? Like I said, NOT ENOUGH TIME. GET ME A FULLY-FUNDED FEDERAL GRANT.
4. The greatest challenge facing feminism today.” Speaking of the rest of the world, I’m thinking the greatest challenge lies there. I would like to make a list of challenges that in my opinion (and yours?) present a greater challenge to feminism — which is a political, not an individual, movement concerned with the well-being and fate of women as a class. Such as:
- female genital mutilation affecting millions of girls/women around the globe
- the sex-selective abortion of girl children
- the murder of girl children
- the forced marriage (selling) of girl children to older men
- sex trafficking/slavery
- honor killings
- rape as a weapon in relationships
- rape as a weapon of war
- women forced into survival sex (rape) as a direct consequence of war
- the possibility of rape wherever and whenever
- increasingly brutal, sadistic rape p0rn available for free online
- the murder of women by boyfriends or husbands (“domestic violence”)
- inaccessibility of education for females
- dearth of female political power
- the victimization of elderly women
- curtailed or nonexistent reproductive rights
- compulsory pregnancy
- preventable, yet unprevented, death in childbirth
- economic inequality: women do most of the work but own much less of the wealth
- poverty has a woman’s face, and a girl’s, and mostly they are faces of color
- prostitution, prostitution, prostitution
Thursday was a day that will live in infamy, even though it happened 71 years and 5 months later and Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn’t around to DECLARE it a day that would live in infamy. But it was.
You have to understand. I expect a certain amount of scorched-earth holiday shenanigans at my cousin K.’s house. She’s fabulous, but her husband’s family distinguishes itself with its love of vicious purebred Akitas and phrases like “impactful leadership style.” Last year, when I dripped a little coffee on the living room rug, one of them asked me, “Do you know how much that rug cost?”
“Well, no,” I replied.
“More than you make in a year,” he said.
So, yeah! I was ready for anything when I walked in the door, except for what I saw: My 26-year-old relative, Daniel, happily injecting a vial of testosterone at the Crate & Barrel’ed-out kitchen table. This is dick move #2,749 on Dan’s part, coming, as it does, after three arrests and a $60,000 stint in rehab and that’s just the shit we know about. This a person who should not (is not allowed to, according to the great state of Arizona) drink or use drugs, but there he was, tapping a vial of T right in front of our parents on Thanksgiving Day. Mine, appalled, left the room . His pretended nothing was afoot. Their older son died years ago; Danny is all they have left. My cousin K. would walk over fire and broken glass for this child; would turn herself inside out for him. She has. His legal bills read like the defense budget. She’s talked herself hoarse; cried herself dry.
“The fuck, little buddy?” I asked when the adults were out of earshot.
“I’m seeing a nature-o-path,” he said. “Gonna trim off that last layer of fat! Also, he’s got me on some amphetamines and HGH. I have a boner all the time! I have to” (here he tried to shoot me an impish grin but succeeded only in looking demented) “park the car in the garage constantly, if you know what I mean.”
“Um,” I said. Fought an unbidden image of changing his diaper 25 years ago.
“LET’S GO TO THE GYM!” he suggested, so we did. After 90 minutes of stair-stepping, I went out to the pool to find Dan. He had three women sort of cornered in the hot tub, talking at them hard and fast. I recognized the expressions on their faces: This guy is making us uncomfortable. We wish he’d go away.
I walked up and telegraphed them with my eyes: Sorry. He’s annoying, but not dangerous.
They telegraphed back: He’s with you?
Yeah, I replied silently. I got him. I’ll be taking this male gazer with me.
We were hardly in the car before he was rhapsodizing about two of the women. “They’re mother and daughter; can you believe that?” he asked. “I could have done ’em both, right there in the hot tub. The daughter was into it, you could tell. She wanted to motorboard me.”
“I think she just wanted to enjoy the hot tub,” I said. “With her mother. On Thanksgiving.”
Then I stopped, because I remembered: Some people are always spoiling for a fight. They’re like Devil’s Snare; you just have to go limp. Don’t struggle. Don’t betray by word or action that they’re getting to you. Don’t say, “I hate the way you treat women” to such a person, because he’ll reply, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” and you’ll say, “Yeah, you do — women are people, not targets and receptacles,” and he’ll say, “She wouldn’t be wearing that bathing suit in public if she didn’t want it,” and then you’ll say “RAPE CULTURE, ASSHOLE” and then dinner is ruined and all you’ve done is sweat up your nice silk cardigan.
He did it again at the grocery store on the way home: Saw a woman, approached her, spoke to her uninvited and unwelcome and refused to read her Go away, creep signals. Then he picked her apart: “Great ass but weird nose. She doesn’t need that cake, either. Hey, check out the picture of this chick on my phone. Would you do her? She knows how to spread her legs.” Grotesquely, he moved his own thighs apart.
“No idea,” I said. “I don’t know her as a person. I don’t know if she’s funny or smart or kind; I don’t know if we’d get each other. And looking at her photo makes me sad.”
Because, I thought, looking at the girl’s mechanical fishlipped selfie sexpot death stare, this pic is a performance. It isn’t desire or joy, it’s thinly-veiled contempt. It’s what she thinks you want, and you’re what she thinks she wants, or at least she wants you to want her because that’s what she thinks she’s supposed to want; what gives her value as a human being, because she doesn’t know any better. She’s never felt her own desire, and in a pornsick world, never will. She can only see herself through the eyes of a guy like you. It’s the only power she thinks she’s got, and that’s shitty, therefore looking at her photo makes me sad.
“It just does,” I said.
“Hey, did you hear what happened to my mom?” he asked, slugging his container of Muscle Milk. “She got robbed by three guys in a parking garage. They snuck up on her and hit her in the face, but she set the car alarm off and they ran away.”
That was his version. My cousin K’s, which I heard after dinner, went like this:
“I knew something was wrong. They were looking at me and then they were following me; they wanted something. I ran as fast as I could but there were three of them. I decided that I wasn’t going to let them get me in the car. If I was going to die, I was going to die on the floor of that garage, not out in the desert, so at least you all would know what happened to me. I thought about Daniel. And I took my keys and shoved them down my pants, and when the men caught me I pretended I’d lost them. One of them hit me in the face; he chipped my tooth. Another one knocked me down. I reached into my pants; hit the panic button on my key ring and the alarm went off. They ran away. I gave the police a false name; I don’t know why. Maybe I thought they might come back. They might find me again.”
That’s just it, yes? A man approaches you, uninvited and unwelcome; it doesn’t feel right. He wants something that’s yours that you don’t want to give him — your car, your body, your attention. It is merely a matter of scale. The continuum starts at “annoying pain in the ass” and ends at “serial rapist;” you better figure out which one so you’ll know whether to unlock your car door and drive away or shove your keys down your pants and run like hell. He might leave you alone; he might find you again. All you know is, he’s some woman’s son.
I’m teaching through June. There are other things I could be doing, like watching back-to-back episodes of “Hoarders” or giving myself thousands of tiny paper cuts, but the vet bills, my friends. The vet bills. I’ve got a 16-year-old tabby cat who’s been with me since I was 21– the mute and trusting witness to a dozen relocations and as many jobs; 5,000 miles of air/auto travel; oxytocin-splattered months of new love and ensuing heartbreak; and 5 Presidential administrations. Now he has some thyroid thing that’s taken him from 20 pounds to 9.5 and causes mournful, accusatory early-morning yowling. I told the vet (on whom I have a mild, nonsexual crush because of his New York accent, mmmmm) “Listen, I’m familiar with the customary feline life span and I’m not asking for miracles, but I love this goddamn cat. See what you can do.” What he can do involves prescription kibble and a comprehensive blood/urine panel, ergo, summer school.
I take less shit in summer school than I do during the regular year. I’m a lot less fun, because many of these students rejected the life rafts they were thrown during the academic year. It’s pretty hard to fail my class, because I’ll work with any and all learning styles. You lean towards the experiential/kinesthetic side of things? I’ll let you demonstrate your knowledge via interpretive dance. To fail my class, you have to commit to failure. You have to never show up, or stab me in the chest with a #2 pencil. Even then, I might let you slide with a D if you wow me with an extra-credit project and a well-written Apology and Promise to Do Better. Help me help you!
So my roomful of 35 kids has shown a tenacious commitment to failure (except for the girl who’s trying to graduate early) and some don’t care if they fail again. In order to motivate them to read and write, I’ve assigned a high-interest YA novel I love. I believe in this book. It saves lives. It’s about acquantance rape, but it isn’t heavy-handed. It just tells a story: Here is a girl like you, or like your sister or good friend. Here is what a boy she trusts does to her. Here are the profoundly damaging emotional and physical results.
I could lecture kids all day about healthy relationships — no means no; consent means enthusiastic consent — but nothing works better than a well-told story. Plus, the movie version stars Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” fame (irony) so everybody’s been rapt. But I can’t vouch for the boys’ level of understanding. During one scene of the film, when Stewart’s character Melinda leans out the window of a car and whoops with the joy of being young and on her way to a party, I heard one kid giggle and mutter, “Show us your titties.” After the party and the rape, when Melinda stumbles home carrying her shoes, I heard another giggle. I hope to God it’s because the scene is discomfiting and sometimes kids deal with discomfort by giggling — not because the idea of a violated, hurt girl stumbling home strikes any of my students as funny. I really hope to God. When I heard those giggles, I wanted to stop the film and take the kid to task, but thought embarrassing him might be counter-productive. Maybe just be patient; let the whole film sink in first. Or not. I don’t know.
I gave the kids an Anticipation Guide pre-reading quiz which has 10 statements to “agree” or “disagree” with, e.g., “A girl dressed provocatively at a party deserves any negative attention she gets,” “A girl who gets drunk or high is still able to consent to sexual activity,” etc. I had to stop reading those quizzes after three minutes. It was as bad as you think, boys and girls alike. And I’m afraid that one book and one month with me isn’t enough to override our sick, woman-hating, porn-infected culture even a tiny little bit. I’m afraid that the damage is done — teenage boys see women as existing to please them; to be “hot,” sweet, and accommodating. You know how offended men get when a woman isn’t sufficiently “hot,” sweet, and accommodating? As though her failure to be those things is somehow a personal, punishable affront? That shit starts early. I can’t keep from being personally triggered when I see it, so I called in a guest speaker from the rape crisis center. I’ll teach the book; she’ll do the rest. I’ll let you know how that goes.
*“Nathaniel Hawthorne often uses symbolism in his work. What do you think of Hawthorne’s use of symbolism? Do you think symbolism is necessary for an author to get his/her point across? If you were to chose 2-3 symbols to express the themes of your own life, what would they be? Discuss in your groups, then draw a picture of your symbols.”
During first period today, one of the girls sprinted to the bathroom to throw up. A quartet of concerned friends gathered around her afterwards to whisper and comfort.
“She might be…” one of the friends told me, eyebrows raised meaningfully. “But it’s OK, miss! She’s married!”
Here is where I bit my lip not to scream, “NO, THAT MAKES IT MUCH WORSE.” The student, at 17, is married. And academically gifted. And her future is now a fucking waste — or, at the very least, difficult and limited — but none of these girls gets that. They think it’s romantic and sweet.
Then I went to lunch, where a 23-year-old teacher who is clueless was saying how she “wouldn’t mind” getting pregnant this year after her wedding, because “that’s what my mom did, and then she stayed home. Which I wouldn’t mind either.”
Look. It’s great to live the life you choose, if you’re privileged enough to choose it from an array of attractive options. But why are so many women willfully stupid about the consequences of their choices if something goes wrong or they change their minds about what they want?
Why is it not TERRIFYING to contemplate dropping out of the workforce in this economy? Why is it not A VERY SCARY THING to leave school or a career before you have any real skills; before you’re competent in your field; before you have a degree or tenure or any kind of work-related security? Why are women not understanding that economic dependence on a man LIMITS YOUR CHOICES in a very practical, day-to-day way? How can women see all the 30-year-old single mothers; the 40-year-old divorcees; the 60-year-old-widows scraping by and not think: That’s where I’m headed if I don’t take my own life seriously?
Like I said, I never meant to fuck a Teletubby. But it was Halloween night in Toronto and I was cold (having dressed, as I usually do, as a generic Slutty Witch). I was at an outdoor bar with a few women from the Pillow Fight League, wishing I’d brought a jacket to go over my lace slip.
Soon enough, a hot little number in a Teletubby costume sent over a Jack and Coke. She was there with three other Teletubbies, but the others kept their giant head masks on.
“I’M TINKY WINKY,” she yelled over the music as we danced.
“COOL,” I yelled back, because I am known for my lady-conversating skills.
One thing, as it is wont to do, led to another. Tinky Winky, her friends, and I bar-hopped around Church and Wellesley — they in their giant Teletubby heads, me in my pointy hat — until it was just Tinky and I standing in the searing cold air in front of a mini high-rise.
“I live up there,” she said, like it’d just occurred to her. “Want to get warm?”
Did I want to get warm? Did I want a million dollars? Did I want the sky to fill with rainbows?
As we walked into her apartment, I panicked: Her Teletubby head looks different. It’s purple. Wasn’t it green before? Did I go home with the wrong Teletubby?
I held my breath as she unmasked. She was the right Teletubby. She was absolutely the right Teletubby for the next three hours. But in that moment, before I knew for sure, I realized it didn’t matter — if she’d been the wrong Teletubby, I’d have rolled with it.
Which was a new thing. Until I was almost 30 and started sleeping with women, I thought of sex as a sacred promise that bonded me to someone else forever. This ruined the sex itself, since I was so focused on forcing the relationship that my body went numb.
After I re-filed sex under “Research and Development,” I relaxed: What did I want? What did I like? What was I willing to try? My sexuality had been obscured by malecentric narrative and desire, so I really didn’t know. Self-objectification: we’re all soaking in it, until we’re not.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want just one woman to love. I did. But I wasn’t going to keep my lace slip on until she arrived. I was going to find something to love about a lot of different women: Her hair; her laugh; the way she could run a mile in under six minutes. And I was going to discover what I wanted in bed — not what I assumed I wanted, but actually enjoyed.
I cooked a lot of eggs during the next nine years. Scrambled, hard-boiled, soft-boiled, poached — if you liked it, I could make it for you. I’d squeeze you some fresh juice, too, for the road. And I wouldn’t (usually) agonize over whether you called again or not. I slept with a semi-famous folk singer and got a song written about me, which was fun.
But the best thing I learned from sleeping with lots of women wasn’t about sex, it was about secrets. Women told me things in bed that they wouldn’t have told me anywhere else — stories about their childhoods; their insecurities; their hopes; their ongoing sense of nameless dread. The more they told me, the more I understood how not-alone I was. Things I’d been afraid to share, or even admit, were de-fraught and de-fused, and it created a new kind of intimacy — not “We’re sleeping together, therefore we MUST be bonded,” but something natural and healing: Here we are, in this human thing together.
And when I fell in love again — whether it worked out or not — sex with that woman was better because of the sex I’d had with women I didn’t love. I knew what I wanted. I knew what was real and what was someone else’s fantasy. I was present and powerful, not acting out a pre-fab script. So when I read things like this, or hear my students slut-shaming, I remember Tinky Winky and her warm, fuzzy hands. And I am so grateful.
I’m standing in the copy room when a Social Studies/History teacher walks in. She is 12. Or 23, or whatever. A newlywed; freshly pregnant. To distract her from the hundreds of copies I’m making before she can get a turn at the machine, I ask her what she’s teaching today.
“I’m teaching a lesson on oppression,” she says brightly. “I’m getting on my Oppression Soapbox. We’re going to look at all kinds of oppression — race and class. Economics too. How they all come together.”
“And women?” I ask. “Sex and gender?”
“Nooo,” she says, looking at me like I just started squirting ketchup from the copy room fridge directly into my mouth. “That’s not really…that’s not part of it. That’s not my thing.”
And then I died a little inside, because we live here. Female oppression IS her thing, she just doesn’t know it yet. She has no sense of history — no concept of the way things used to be for women and how they could be again if we just sort of don’t care until it’s too late.
Sometimes, you just can’t find it in yourself to argue. Sometimes, you know that only time will do the job.
I see what they did here, and it’s well-meant…
“She thought skinnier people were happier?” No. The anorexic mindset has nothing to do with happiness. It has to do with with the high of self-mortification; the power of control; and the considerable social rewards that come with being the thinnest girl in the room.
So, an anorexic is going to linger over the photo on the left. That woman’s emaciation isn’t scary, it’s THINSPIRATIONAL. It’s the goal. It’s what she uses to muffle hunger pangs; to spur on her Sisyphean stairmaster trudge.
The photo on the right is what the anorexic fears. She doesn’t see strength, just bulk –nonessential flesh that needs to be burned away. These photos aren’t going to help her decide in favor of healthy eating and training; they’re going to trigger her illness further.
Also — and file this under Tiresome Irony — these photos serve as yet another way to judge women’s bodies against one another, without considering how cultural realities affect those bodies. Without sparing a thought to how women’s choices are skewed by race, class, and the ubiquitous Western media monster.
The only sort-of unusual thing is that these photos, currently making the rounds on Facebook weightlifting/CrossFit circles, depict the same woman. Otherwise, this is an old, tired routine in the guise of something edgy. Like burlesque, but with extra protein and judgement.