The Best of Millicent and Carla Fran

So, our “Best of” category currently republishes all the posts we like in their entirety. It’s been kind of tough to navigate, so we’re experimenting with other ways of organizing old posts. This is going to be an updating work in progress, but this post should work as a sort-of-helpful index to the site.

Here, in no particular order, are some posts we regard as decentish:

The “Sloppy Jane” or “Nu Woman” Series (the advent of the awkward female in film and television)

From Carla Fran:

From Millicent

Masculinity and Media

On Nostalgia

The INTERNET series

On Consent

The “Women’s Reproductive Health” series

Feminism

Millicent’s “Selfish Women” series

Delightful Historical Flotsam

Movies

The Women on TV Series

Carla Fran on Hollywood Series

Millicent on the weird racism at the Oakland Zoo.

Carla Fran’s “Weddings” series

Millicent’s “Arcane Scholarship Applied to Contemporary Issues” series

Death and Mourning

Writing

Books

Millicent’s “Christianity” series

The “Memory” Series

The Eugenics Series

Millicent’s Natural Disasters and How They’re Told Series

On the 2009 UC Berkeley Strike

Sex

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What I Didn’t Know About Consent

Dear Millicent,

I’m diving in to what blogs do best, and am about to get all personal and tell you about my bedroom. Excited? Me too. I want to look specifically at:

  • How does consent happen in long-term sexual relationships (including the business time dilemma)?
  • Even when we think we are empowered and in the know, what scripts are we really relying on?

Mr. Carla Fran and I recently had an awkward encounter where, in what was otherwise a normal scene of marital conjugality, he did not hear my protestations that a particular gesture hurt. I didn’t say it particularly loudly, and we both had been drinking. I said it again and he did not change his actions. I decided to  move along, confused if alarm was called for or not. We finished the act, I felt discombobulated, and when we talked about it the next day, I realized I was in a streak of turmoil about something that to him was an unheard note: a miscommunication with the unfortunate outcome of my discomfort.

I explained how this was problematic, even if it happened in our stable, well-built long-ass time together–how it triggered two immediate fears for me: the fear of assault, and the fear that I simply let it happen. I wanted him to realize the immense power imbalance that makes any insult in this realm scary, that rape is real and huge and terrifying, and that if anything that even is a hint of rape-like protocol is called out, that immediate concern and authentic apology are called for, and enough conversation to understand why alarm bells went off, and what everything actually meant.

So I started reading about what was a fairly undealt with word to me, consent. I thought I had the privilege of never really having to examine consent because I always had loving partners, and that “consent” was a word used primarily in lectures to teenagers or in examinations of rape.  Finding things to read was easy, because, in a strangely-timed way, this is an ideal moment to have this conflict.  With the Assange case, there have been so many helpful discussions and definitions put forward that it makes talking about such a scary subject easier, especially with the honesty some writers put forward. And I learned some things, huge things, when I really was just hoping to find language to help describe what I was feeling.

The key posts that were the most helpful were Scarleteen’s Driver’s Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent, Jaclyn Friedman’s The (Nonexistent) Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Consequences of Enthusiastic Consent, and Heather Corinna’s Immodest Proposal. Here is a quick bullet list of my own revelations:

  • Being a sexual partner doesn’t meant going along with whatever because it’s all fine, but instead enthusiastically agreeing, where, according to Corinna, ideally “by the time anyone gets near anyone else’s genitals they are puffed up with arousal like a baboon’s bright red behind.” She also suggests that sex is quite a feat of timing really, since it demands that two people want to tear each others’ clothes off at the same time. If they don’t want to (let’s say one partner is really ready to get their partner naked, and the other partner isn’t against the idea but also wants to read a magazine) then they shouldn’t proceed.  Lukewarm and superhot does not a tryst make.  I think this is more difficult in the long-term not because desire fades, but because the hot hot heat of that stages is so hot and babooned up, whereas in the long-haul there is a assumption that happiness is very much based on perfunctory business time, or compromise (i.e. Dan Savage’s hearty salute to the GGG partner, though the Game part of that does assume a kind of enthusiastic consent). “I’m tired, I have to go to work in the morning” does not stand as enthusiastic consent, but is a script I know well, and one of the reasons the Flight of the Conchords nailed it, hard.
  • The corollary to this is that it is okay to withdraw consent whenever and both parties know this without worry of insult. Kissing does not have to lead to hot kissing and hot kissing does not have to lead to sex, which sounds obvious, but I think is a common issue in long-term relationships where it is well known that certain gestures lead to certain outcomes.  A peck on the cheek, sex isn’t exactly on the table. A long kiss with some tongue, and it could easily be assumed that sex is en route. That is unless, you’re practicing enthusiastic consent, and the pressure evaporates because you are only going to hot kiss if you clearly really really wanna hot kiss.  There’s no obligation in good sex, even of the sweetest kind. {Except of course the obligation of respect and sexual health and birth control and all that jazz}.
  • Consent is not just a verbal thing about saying yes or no. I was so used to making consent the stuff of high-school assembly speeches, that I had reduced it to a quick “no means no” existence. In  movies, if a woman says “no” we know absolutely this is a rape scene. If she’s crying or upset, or says “that hurts” pretty much the same deal. But a lack of consent can also be defined by the contrast of what counts as consent. Interest vs. passivity, reaching vs. pushing away, sounds of pleasure vs. sounds of discomfort, joy vs. stress.  Enthusiastic consent is a thing of great beauty, and logically leads to great sex.
  • In our discussions about consent, my partner had to take responsibility for not ensuring consent before moving forward, and I had to take responsibility for not loudly and concretely confirming my consent status either physically or verbally.  I don’t mean to overemphasize this, but we have a solid relationship built on equality and respect both in and out of the bedroom. We also had gotten ourselves into an intoxicated situation where consent was missing. This event made us both examine important aspects we had been blind to, how quiet I had been, how much we were assuming, and how used we were to this.  It made bad moments of power imbalance inevitable, sooner or later. Looking back, mutual enthusiastic consent has certainly been part of our sex-life at times, but it wasn’t something I was paying enough attention to, because I honestly didn’t think of it.
  • And that’s because there is a lot of shit in the world that has affected my view of gender, performance, and what goes on in the bedroom (or wherever you bold souls may take it). I very much agree with Friedman’s take that saying no is hard for lots of reasons, and saying no isn’t just about rape:

Similarly, when we learn as young girls to tolerate “low-level” boundary violations like the ones we often are forced to suffer in silence at school, at home and on the street – bra-snapping, boob-grabbing, ass pinching, catcalling, dick flashing “all in good fun” relentless violations that adults and authorities routinely ignore – it makes it harder for us to notice when even greater boundaries are being violated, eventually leading to the reality that many women who are raped just freeze and fall silent, because that’s what they’ve been taught to do over and over since day one.  You tell me what’s more infantilizing: repeatedly letting boys (and grown men) off the hook for their behavior because “boys will be boys” and we can’t ever expect any differently, or creating a consent standard in which all partners take active responsibility for their partner’s safety, and which acknowledges the truly diseased sexual culture we’re soaking in every day.

In Immodest Proposal, looking at the lack of female desire in our cultural expectations of sex, Corinna says:

We’ve long idealized or enabled the romance-novel script of ravishment: reluctant women and passive girls swayed into sex by strong partners. While we’re slowly coming around to the notion that violent force is not romantic, and rape not sex, but assault, “gentle persuasion” is still swoon-worthy stuff. The young woman who is provided a sexual awakening by an almost-paternal male partner remains an ideal, common fantasy or a profound fear if those roles can’t be adequately performed for or by women and men alike.

The chastity-belts of yesteryear are on display in our museums; those of the current day live on the mutilated genitals of poor women of color in Africa and wealthy white women in Los Angeles alike, in sex education curricula and the tiresome continuance of good girl/bad girl binaries, and in suburban households everywhere where a male partner has a hard-drive full of porn everyone knows is there and recognizes he may bring in his head to sex with partners while his female other makes sure her vibrator is well-hidden and would never consider asking her partner to use it during sex together for fear of making him feel insecure.

And all of this and more has gone on for so long and been so widespread that what should be a simple given of our yes can often seem an unattainable ideal.

  • All of which opened my eyes, took a burden off, and put another, much happier one back on.  Apparently, until this past week, I have been a bit of a sexual mute. A mature, strong, confident woman, who didn’t know the basic idea that she was supposed to say yes when she wanted (and not just in an effort to be sexy for the partner’s pleasure, or to fulfill some dumb rule prescribed by the Millionaire Matchmaker), and to say no when she wanted as well.  I thought the abstract idea of my desire meant that I had to be pro-sex (not prudish, NSFW Fleshbot savvy, aggressive enough to change positions or suggest a lighter touch) and that my idea of consent in a stable relationship was that it was invisible and moot. I have to learn to use my voice in the way that I always thought I was, but was obviously only superficially doing.
  • Now I’m learning.  My partner and I are re-approaching consent, starting at the very beginning with a lot of talk.  We both feel liberated by the idea that there is no set pattern for how things must be, and that neither of us knows what the coming pattern is.  And I’m a little scared, because now I have to do way more work in the bedroom than I am used to doing, and I can’t blame anything on things I haven’t said. I have to find a vocabulary, and that scariest of things, I have to use it.
  • Another benefit of this ugly moment in our bed is that my partner had to examine his own preconceptions, and voice his concerns about patterns we had so set that they were in the running to be part of our general makeup forever and ever. I think he also took on a little bit more of how scary sexual inequality is, shedding light on larger struggles affecting way more people than the two of us in our cozy home.

Corinna ends her piece, which was part of Friedman’s collection Yes Means Yes, with a vision of what enthusiastic consent is, and where our girl goes off into the world, and finds her very healthy way:

Without the assurance or expectation that she has an age-old script to follow that wasn’t written by her, she not only knows she will have to be more creative sexually than women before her, she’s looking forward to it. She has no expectation of being asked to perform or of asking a partner to perform: her expectations are all about both of them engaging in expression, not performance. She’s not expecting porn or a romance novel: she’s expecting an interpretive dance.

M., you and I have written a lot here about the dynamics of desire, the facility of fantasy, and the complexities possible in each. I think I have been maybe off angle–thinking that, more or less, the only choices were porn, romance novel, or the awareness of settling for the real world. Like an unhappy malcontent on his birthday, pissed that he didn’t get any of the gifts he made up in his or  head, I didn’t realize that I was part of that big day. This all sounds so broad, but I mean it in the most specific of ways. Pronouncing desire is an important part of life, as long as everybody’s pronouncements (likes and dislikes) are heard and understood. And that it can be really hard to pronounce desire because the words can feel clunky and weird in our mouths, or are just plain unknown. I’m sure this will be as obvious as Early Bird Money Pie from Peep Show to many people, but for all my talk about the importance of voice and empowerment, this was a bit of a blindside. And a windfall.

Again, Corinna writes something awesome and helpful:

Consent is absolutely foundational for any kind of healthy sexuality. But our sexual revolution can only begin not only after every woman is at yes, with every invitation, but after – be it to man, woman or someone else entirely, and spoken by anyone – that yes is less one person’s answer to another’s request and more an expression or validation of any person’s own or shared desire….

Which brings me back to Business Time. That sketch blew my mind when I first saw it because I thought it was being wonderfully honest. Now I see it as a representation of what we accept as the diluted real thing. Business Time should not be something we can all relate to.  It’s still funny as it pokes at disheartening patterns, but much more brutal. Domestic dude wants sex, domestic lady doesn’t. He decides they are having sex, she vaguely gets into it, but in the end she is dissatisfied and he had a two minute encounter that could have been masturbatory at best. If consent has reared it’s forgotten head, at the worst, Sally would have slept well and Jemaine would have taken care of himself. In the best case scenario, the Flight of Conchords would have a whole other song about the surprise of awesome sexy times, and the recycling could still be taken out, cuz that’s important, too.

This American Life’s episode last week was called “Say Anything”, asking if talking really helps.  The first segment was about a book from the eighties called Please Read This For Me: How to Tell the Man You Love Things You Can’t Put into Words. The idea was that women could find the chapter on their problem, bookmark it, and have their partner read it. I listened to this right as I was spelunking in the internet to find out how to talk to Mr. Carla Fran about what had happened, why it scared me, and why it was important. We read these blog posts together, and we talked. And the answer is yes, TAL, talking really helps, as does action, and research, and checking blindspots.

Marriage is built on consent. Consent to not sleep with other people, consent to share finances, consent to mutually lift the burden of adulthood together.  And one of the greatest struggles I have found in partnering, one that you and I have parsed here enough that it seems we haven’t found satisfaction in articulation, is the boundaries of domestic space. We have asked how to share work and time with a partner, and what limits are necessary, what limits are the least flexible. Living together is the concrete of the larger, scarier and abstract boundary that is tested and wrestled when we  join up eternally with somebody in the eyes of the establishment: self vs. other. Relationships, and especially marriage, can be a challenge to voice, especially for women, but I’m starting to realize that even voice isn’t what I thought it was.  Claiming self, space, and desire isn’t the stuff of scripts and movie roles, or blog posts.  Finding words is hard. I get why women bought that book in the eighties. I get why Sally sleeps with Jemaine. I get why Mr. Carla Fran and I had to have a major talk about hard to say things. But I’m also really excited about interpretive dance.

To recap, the lessons being learned:

  1. only have sex when you really really want to
  2. say no when you don’t want to, there’s no risk of being impolite
  3. consent is part of even established relationships
  4. find a way to say what you want, it’s important
  5. assumptions aren’t doing you any favors
  6. be like a baboon. A lucky lucky baboon.

Yours,

CF

How #MooreandMe Worked

I’ve been riveted by the #MooreandMe campaign (for the uninitiated, #MooreandMe is a Twitter-based campaign initiated by Sady Doyle in response to Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann’s mischaracterizations and outright dismissals of the allegations against Assange. Sady Doyle supplies a timeline of the events (with quotes) here. Matthew Elliot has a smart post covering the protest here. Kate Harding explains why she joined here, Jessica Valenti has a good roundup of relevant links here, other links are available at the bottom of this post).

I’m not interested in talking about Julian Assange, or the rape allegations, or Keith Olbermann, or Michael Moore. People have done that elsewhere much better than I could—a substantial list of links is available below. My interests are more instrumental: what can we learn about Twitter’s usefulness as a site for activism, having watched #MooreandMe in operation?

That said, this post will not be legible without some basic background information. So…

You should really go read Kate Harding’s “Some Shit I’m Sick of Hearing About Regarding Rape and Assange,” which will put the vast majority of misinformation about #Mooreandme to rest. And then come back.

Trigger warning: This post includes detailed information on the Julian Assange rape allegations and reproduces Tweets from known trolls.

Despite the derision that Twitter-based campaigns tend to attract (chiefly as a lazy and ineffective form of activism), #MooreandMe has been a remarkably effective and steadfast protest (thanks largely to the dogged persistence of Sady Doyle and Kate Harding, whose prolific Twitterfeeds will quickly dispense with any and all accusations of laziness). It’s been an astoundingly efficient recruitment tool, it has raised funds, it has been covered everywhere from Salon to Mediaite to The Atlantic, and it has succeeded (as of this writing) in getting at least partial acknowledgment from Keith Olbermann.

Why?

Well, Twitter is, quite possibly, the best available medium for this particular kind of protest. The format has a number of features that level a playing field that tends to push women into the outfield.

The first advantage? Disembodiment.

Audio

Because there’s no audio component to Twitter, women’s voices are harder to dismiss as “shrill” or “annoying.” Because there’s no audio component, Keith Olbermann’s words can’t benefit from his baritone gravitas. The subconscious processes that incline us to hear a man’s voice (and a lower voice) as more judicious or reasonable or authoritative than a woman’s are harder to trigger on Twitter. Like  song lyrics in the absence of the song, both sets of words have to stand alone. This is an amazingly democratizing side effect.

Olbermann, as we all know, has a long record of deploying his tone, and I mean that literally—often by shouting. On Twitter, it’s been harder for him to figure out how to control that other kind of “tone,” the kind English teachers kept trying to teach us and that seems so ineffable and hard to pin down until you see something like this:

I might actually use this to teach “tone” to undergraduates. One short Tweet from Keith Olbermann and “tone” makes all the sense in the world. By eliminating some auditory channels that would normally distract us and make an absurd question like the above sound sensible and germane, we hear more clearly the real tone underpinning that rhetoric. Twitter, for all its frivolity, lets us hear some things more clearly.

Image

Which brings me to the second advantage Twitter affords women: comparative invisibility. In the example above, Keith Olbermann demonstrates a kneejerk (and often quite effective) response to a female opponent—scour her image for something to criticize. Olbermann did his best, but he didn’t have much to work with. Twitter actually offers precious little fodder to those who, if provided with a physical image, would immediately criticize their weight, size, demeanor, etc.

Despite the abundance of determined trolls (as well as legitimate critics) using the #Mooreandme hashtag, you’ll find comparatively few references to the appearances of the women concerned. If you’ve spent any time anywhere else on the internet, you’ll know how unprecedented this is.

Trolls, Usefulness Of

Plenty of what’s happening at #Mooreandme has ample precedent. Trolls like Twitter. But! In this case, the trolls have actually done the #Mooreandme campaign an enormous service. Twitter might be the only format where, if you search for #Mooreandme, you’ll see not only the activists (who, like all activists, will sound earnest and monotonous and defensive to an uninitiated audience), but also the abusive responses they receive. It’s awful to watch, and it’s certainly taken its toll on Sady Doyle, whose account of what she’s gone through is here, but at least that suffering is public. It’s hard to think of a better way to illustrate the kind of harassment and psychological abuse to which women (and rape victims) are frequently subject. And the trolls are doing all the work of a documentary/exposé themselves!

I want to talk about some of the trolls in some detail, because there’s a lot to be learned from what this kind of discourse does or can do—unwittingly—for protests in general.  The “transparency” of Twitter offers (like Wikileaks) a complete record that makes it hard for people genuinely interested in examining the movement to unsee the amount of misinformation and abuse there is, when it comes to rape and consent.

Let’s start with one of the uglier characters, GoldenScepter, who mainly sticks to questioning the protesters’ sexuality and calling the people involved c*nts. Here are some sample Tweets:

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that GoldenScepter (Paul Gaskin) ended up getting trolled by an impersonator, GoldenSceptRE, Paul Gasskin:.

He didn’t take it well:

As it happens, GoldenScepter was wrong on that score.)

Now, GoldenScepter (the original) is, as the above Tweets indicate, an admitted troll—someone being intentionally provocative and inflammatory, with no real investment in what s/he says. The art of trolling consist of posting to a group that believes in a certain principle, and posting in a way designed to attract predictable responses or flames. As eHow helpfully puts it: “As a good troll, your goal is to abuse the members psychologically and provoke negative reactions out of them.”

A troll is, in that sense, actually a pretty useful index; a good troll does his/her research and outlines and articulates the extreme position—the position likeliest to occasion the population protesting the most grief. What’s interesting about #Mooreandme as an exercise is that it demonstrates, with alarming clarity, that the line between trolls and self-proclaimed “genuine critics” of the Assange case is thin to nonexistent.

For example, here’s a Tweet from good ol’ GoldenScepter:

Here’s a Tweet from a new account with no followers:

And then there’s this:

Now: tell the trolls apart from the non-trolls genuinely interested in having a conversation about rape.

Tough, right?

Now, defenders of trolldom will say that this is the point: a troll is a gifted imitator of an agenda he disbelieves. But unlike conversations about, say, God, or porn, the conversation about rape—and whether a woman might stay the night with her rapist, or buy him breakfast, and whether penetrating someone without a condom when she asked him to wear one—these are, despite the troll’s best efforts, rather nuanced discussions about what constitutes consent. When you, as a lurker, find yourself lining up with a troll’s views, it’s hard not to conclude that you need to reexamine your position. Plenty of people who joined #Mooreandme have expressed some surprise at how badly they’d misunderstood the allegations and what does and doesn’t constitute sexual abuse.

This—drawing in and persuading outsiders—seems to me to be a fairly new phenomenon in internet activism. Sady Doyle has stumbled onto a form of protest that exposes people who don’t usually think about this stuff or encounter it to issues that deserve consideration. No matter what your pet issue or issues happen to be, chances are you self-select your web-browsing to reflect those interests. One of the worst consequences of the death of newspapers is the extent to which Americans have lost a shared platform. Where once people of different political persuasions read the same paper and shared a few basic tenets of what constitutes life in meatland, your average person these days gets their news from Fox or MSNBC and the websites of their choosing. The result is an ever-sharpening divide between the realities of Left and Right. Twitter makes possible—in a way nothing else really does—the reemergence of a truly public platform.

I don’t want to overstate this; I don’t think Twitter will save the world. But I’m deeply interested in the possibilities #Mooreandme has revealed. Whether Assange is guilty or innocent matters deeply. He deserves due process, as do his accusers, and I don’t mean to minimize either his situation or the important work WikiLeaks does. But looked at as an experiment in online activism, #Mooreandme isn’t really about him. It’s about a form of activism that allows people, women in particular, to skip over the stupid but daunting obstacles of voice and image that so often get in the way of the message being heard. And it offers an opportunity to actually reach the unengaged and uninformed and clarify, to crib from Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape.

That the conversation is happening publicly, in a space that can’t be limited to women’s-only interests, makes Twitter a kind of anti-ghetto. Even if you have no interest in women’s issues or #Mooreandme, if you follow anyone who’s talking about it, you’re getting some exposure, and it’s amazingly easy to get more.

Rape Apologism:

Now, the other thing #Mooreandme has demonstrated is how easily some will dismiss women’s concerns as tangential, irrelevant or trumped-up. Several of the critics of #Mooreandme don’t understand what the phrase “rape apologism” means. (It does not, as many seem to think, mean apologizing for a rapist.) Here are a couple of definitions that should put us all be more or less on the same page:

Rape Apologism, as defined by FinallyFeminism:

The simple answer is that a rape apology is any argument that boils down to the myth that rapists can be provoked into raping by what the victim does or does not do.

Such apologies feed off the old myth that rapists have no control over the sexual temptation they experience in response to the victim, therefore the victim could have avoided awakening the irresistible rape temptation by behaving differently. It’s classic victim-blaming.

Most people who make such arguments are not consciously intending to defend rapists. They are simply repeating arguments they have heard before and haven’t fully examined.

Another definition, from gethenblog:

Rape apologism is when someone says that rape isn’t really rape, or that rape is not really that bad, or makes an unfounded claim that allegations of rape are untrue, or claims that rape allegations in general are often untrue and should not be taken seriously. In reality the rape of false rape allegations is around 1-2%, the same as for other crimes.

#Mooreandme has attracted not only legitimate criticisms but also the usual arguments that come up whenever rape allegations surface. In short, variations on rape apologism. This happens often, and it’s difficult to address on (for example) comment boards, where people rarely sustain a discussion for long.

Rather than play Whackamole at a distance (from a blog, say), Twitter allows people to respond to those old chestnuts directly AND it allows lurkers to see those exchanges.

Straw Men and Other ManHaters

It’s clear, at this point, that there are lots of critics of #Mooreandme who just plain haven’t done their homework. Again–if you’re new, read Kate Harding’s post. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’ll give you a sense of what #Mooreandme ISN’T about.

Twitter has many perks, but ease of documentation isn’t one of them. This cuts two ways. On the one hand, it gives both sides of the conversation a certain fluidity and lets new people join in. On the other, it makes that same conversation repeat, sometimes in less than useful ways. (People tend to harden and get more extreme as they rehearse and rehash a position—Twitter demonstrates this beautifully.) I’ve collected some of the main trends via specific Tweets.

Straw man #1: #MooreandMe blame Julian Assange for daring to defend himself. He should be convicted without a trial. He shouldn’t get bail. Period.

Response

Straw Man 2: MooreandMe takes the accusers’ account to be unadulterated Truth and thinks we should eliminate due process and presume all accused rapists (and Julian Assange in particular) guilty:

Straw Man 3: #MooreandMe wants men to be perfect mind-readers. (Despite the fact that, according to details published in The Guardian, the women said, explicitly, that their boundaries included wearing a condom.)

Straw Man 4: Guiding view seems to be that protesting and/or holding journalists and commentators accountable for reporting facts is just as bad as rape.  Corollary: accusing a man of rape is as bad or worse than being raped.

Response: 

Straw Man 5: #MooreandMe irrationally objects to Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann pointing out the true fact that the rape allegations coincided with Julian Assange’s political persecution. 

Response:

Straw Man 5.5: If you are a man, your reason for supporting MooreandMe is clearly sex:

Straw Man 6: MooreandMe are trying to strip men of their rights by saying sex without a condom is rape!

and the corollary, that you’ve consented to sex if you’re in bed with someone:

(That’s from the official California Fire News Twitterfeed. Weird. [Correction: No, it’s not—it’s a fan.])

Response:

Straw Man 7: MooreandMe was started by the CIA. The participants have probably been “bamboozled” into participating.

Straw Man 8: MooreandMe is unfairly representing the character of the opposition it faces.

Since woodenshow seems to see himself as more representative, here’s what his objections looks like:

Straw Man 9: MooreandMe is doing Feminism (and Michael Moore) wrong, because it is furthering capitalism.

Straw Man 10: #Mooreandme will never ever be happy. They want Keith Olbermann to beg for mercy.

Response:


Straw Man 11: MooreandMe is guilty of missing the really important thing, which is not women, but something else:

For Will Shetterly, the unsubstantiated charge of “neoliberalism” seems to negate the validity of #Mooreandme’s claims:

Will Shetterly, to put it another way, agrees with this guy:

Straw Man 12: Guiding View: MooreandMe is hell-bent on protecting Assange’s accusers; when they’ve sacrificed that right by leaking Assange’s. name.

Response:

I have to add here that women who have accused someone of rape or harassment are almost without exception dragged through a miserable process. Their pasts are intensely scrutinized, their motives are questioned, and their conduct is constantly evaluated and reevaluated. That’s the norm.

Look up the case of the gang rape in Richmond:

Morales’ attorney, Ernesto Castillo, acknowledged that his client had sexually assaulted the victim and urinated on her, but said the acts owed to childishness and foolishness.

Castillo said the victim – who was later found to have a blood-alcohol level of 0.35, more than four times the legal driving limit – willingly “drank herself into a state of unconsciousness” by chugging brandy provided by the suspects.

Castillo said the girl had been beaten but not raped by force, because the blows were “not used to overcome her will. She’s incapacitated.”

See, she wasn’t beaten to overcome her will; she was already incapacitated. Anyway, she was drunk. It’s extremely lucky that the SFChronicle does not reveal the names of alleged rape victims (or minors), since this could ruin her life. For a more in-depth account of how women get blamed—and why it’s useful to protect their names—see this harrowing account of a woman who visited four hospitals after being drugged and raped but was unable to get a rape kit, because she had been drinking when she was drugged.

As to whether concealing the alleged vicitms’ names is acceptable journalistic practice, well, there’s a debate. This overview of common practice at JusticeJournalism is well worth a look. Nick Kristof justifies his decision to publish the names of 9-year-old victims at the New York Times here. (His argument, in part: “On the one hand, it’s impossible to get rape on the agenda when the victims are anonymous. Human beings just aren’t hard-wired to feel compassion for classes of victims, but for individuals.”)

It’s an interesting argument—and doesn’t hold water for a second. Here’s one account of what’s happening to Assange’s accusers. Not a whole lot of compassion out there.

As to why Sady Doyle and other #MooreandMe people objected to Keith Olbermann retweeting a link containing the victims’ names when they were already public, it’s worth knowing that most newspapers have a policy against doing this. As for #MooreandMe, here’s what they say:

The “Kill Yourself” Tweet Keith Olbermann Received:

Here it is:

Some have suggested that this is a reference to an e-mail Keith Olbermann wrote in response to someone taunting him, in which he says, “Hey, save the oxygen for somebody whose brain can use it. Kill yourself.” Olbermann later apologized.

The Kill Yourself Tweet was condemned by #Mooreandme people:


Moderate Objections:

Aubrey Clark has a two part statement of her objections to the MooreandMe campaign, delivered via Twitter here and here. ETA: It’s well worth reading them in their entirety. The problematic part of her argument (in my view) is here:

Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore, for reasons obvious to anyone who has followed the Wikileaks saga for the past year, support Julian Assange’s innocence. They did not have to choose a side, but in choosing chose that one, and (in the case of Moore) have defended it vociferously. …

and here:

“You must have done something.” The five words no rape survivor should ever hear. A tacit example of rape apology. Does Michael Moore believe that Julian Assange committed rape, but that the rape was somehow justified? Based on his own statements, that does not appear to be that case. After relying so heavily on heretofore trusted reporting from multiple sources, the certainty bias kicks in. Michael Moore is not a rape apologist, because he does not believe that Julian Assange committed rape, and therefore has nothing to defend. Language shapes our thinking. We must choose our words carefully, they have power over us.

Let’s start with the first part: it’s illogical to assert that Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore have the right to choose a side and “defend it vociferously” when you’re criticizing the opposition for doing the same thing, as if that were a bad thing. Clark may have a point, of course: there is something about a sports culture that encourages people to brainlessly choose “teams.” That the tendency exists is not a reason to accept it. Particularly when the people choosing “teams” (and slandering the other side) are trusted providers of news.

As to the second part, no one thinks Moore is knowingly defending a rapist. It is precisely the problem that Michael Moore has chosen to believe—on precious little evidence, and with real consequences to women who may have been raped—that Assange is innocent. The inevitable corrollary to that belief is that the accusers are liars. That’s a dangerous and damaging mindset because it perpetuates an environment where people can “believe” (as if this were something that happened in a vacuum!), at random, and in the absence of due process, that women who have been raped are liars, just because. As Clark says, “we must choose our words carefully.” Men in powerful media positions should be doubly careful.

How #MooreandMe Has Helped Change Discourse On Twitter and Elsewhere:

Case 1: Naomi Klein

Case 2: Andrew Sullivan.

Watch Andrew Sullivan (and his readers) learn a little about what does and doesn’t constitute consent. He started by posting this reader who “cut to the chase“. Here’s an excerpt:

It seems unlikely to me that anyone would include a situation that did not include an explicit ‘no’ under the category of rape, but then I’ve learned that feminists often believe things that I find impossible to imagine.

That reader wanted to know whether the words “no” or “stop” had ever been uttered. If they hadn’t, there was no way this could be considered rape. This reader is–I have no doubt–a rational, concerned citizen. It’s just that s/he hasn’t given this any thought.

Andrew Sullivan followed that up with two other comments from readers. One is a litany of excuses:

It’s possible she said stop and he didn’t hear it (how quiet is your sexual activity?). It’s possible he heard a “no” but confused them with all the other “no’s” that were of a very different sort. [Editor’s note: WHAT?!!] It’s also possible that no one was aware that the condom was broke until afterwards (although from what I’ve heard, that’s not true). Of course, it’s also possible he heard her say no, understand what she meant, ignored her, and continued to have intercourse against her will.

The other clarifies why this conversation needs to be had–and why the reader who “cut to the chase” missed the chase by a mile:

I’m a longtime reader, but this is my first time writing in to respond to a post. The reader you quoted saying that “It seems unlikely to me that anyone would include a situation that did not include an explicit ‘no’ under the category of rape, but then I’ve learned that feminists often believe things that I find impo`ssible to imagine” hasn’t cut to any chase at all, unless you count a crabby and ill-defined crusade against feminism. Any serious consideration of rape shows that he’s way off-base. I’m a law student, and I can tell you that American rape case law includes plenty of examples of rape without an explicit “no,” including but not limited to victims who are minors, mentally incompetent, drunk, drugged, coerced, or, as in one of the actual charges against Assange, asleep.

Andrew Sullivan gets it, and Patrick Appel corrects the coverage. Read today’s post.

Case 3: Keith Olbermann

After considerable hostility, Keith Olbermann acknowledged that he shouldn’t have retweeted a link containing questionable information regarding one of the accusers. In fact, he remembered on December 21, 2010 that he had already Tweeted an apology on December 7, 2010.

Case 4: Michael Moore

It started here (link contains video of the Keith Obermann/Michael Moore interview on Julian Assange):

It ended here, on the Rachel Maddow show:

As you’ll see from this rushed clip — transcript’s coming — Moore said he’s concerned that there’s a “concerted attempt” to stop Wikileaks and others who are trying to tell the truth about what he calls America’s six wars. As for the charges against Assange, Moore noted that he helped start a rape-crisis center in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and said the charges against Assange should be fully examined.

“Every woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted or raped has to be, must be, taken seriously. Those charges have to be investigated to the fullest extent possible,” Moore said. “For too long, and too many women have been abused in our society , because they were not listened to, and they just got shoved aside. . . .So I think these two alleged victims have to be taken seriously and Mr. Assange has to answer the questions.”

This is what should be happening.

To conclude, this portion of John Humphrys’ BBC interview with Julian Assange:

Q: Does put up with you mean having you in their beds?

JA: Of course on occasion, I mean I’m an adult man, but women have been generous to me over many years.

Q: In what sense?

JA: You know, in a sense of assisting me with my work, caring for me, loving me and so on. That is what I am used to. So this particular episode in Sweden came as a great shock. The personal shock of having people you’re close to doing that, actually much harder to deal with, in a much greater feeling of betrayal than all of these political disputes I have with United States and being sued by banks and so on. Much harder to handle.

That feeling of betrayal is much harder to handle. It’s enlightening to think about how #Mooreandme dealt with it. Sady Doyle, my hat’s off to you.

Primary Sources:

The Guardian: 10 Days in Sweden: The full allegations against Julian Assange

BBC: Transcript: The Assange Interview

Naomi Wolf and Jaclyn Friedman Debate Assange Rape Case on Democracy Now

Keith Olbermann’s Apology

The Michael Moore Interview With Rachel Maddow, 12/21

Commentary:

Robert Stacy McCain: You Buy The Ticket, You Take the Ride.

Mediaite: Michael Moore’s Comments On Julian Assange Rape Allegations Spark Outrage.

Salon (Alex Pareene) Keith Olbermann “suspends” Twitter Account Over Assange Furor

Zunguzungu: If you’ll pardon the presumption…

Kate Harding: Some Shit I’m Sick of Hearing Regarding Rape and Assange

Mediaite: Keith Olbermann Refuses to Correct Treatment of Rape Allegations...

Behind the Blue Sky.

Scarleteen: Why We Don’t Always Know

Feministing: Keith Olbermann Responds ….

Andrew Sullivan: Sady Doyle gives Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann...

Hay Ladies: Who Will Rape Me?

Pandagon (Amanda Marcotte): Moore and Me Continues

WashingtonCityPaper: Test Case: You’re Not A Rape Victim Unless Police Say

Juridikbloggen: Open Letter To Mr. Michael Moore (from a Swedish lawyer)

Open Letter to Naomi Wolf (by silentkpants)

Fugitivus: Love for Sady, Love for Survivors

Freudian Slip: Rape Matters

StudentActivism: Naomi Wolf Misrepresents the Facts of the Julian Assange Rape Allegations. Again.

Spilt Milk: Who Hears You When You Speak About Rape

Wayne Myers: Assange and Wikileaks: The Best Way To Frame Someone Is For Something They Actually Did.

CrooksandLiars: Why Assange and WikiLeaks have won this round

StudentActivism: The Death of the CIA “Honeypot” Theory

Kate Harding: MooreandMe Day 7: Keith Olbermann’s Got Questions

BoingBoing: Julian Assange: “I’m Not a Player, I Just Crush A Lot.”

AnotherFeministBlog: You May Have Noticed…

AlterNet: The One Thing You Won’t Find in the Wikileaks Cables: Concern for Women

LeakingKettle: A Mother’s Plea: Julian Assange No Criminal

[Edited: As per Tao’s correction in the comments, I’ve removed one of his Tweets.]

Becoming a Doula, Finding the F-Word the Long Way

Dear M,

I have been trying to write for a while on my experience as a doula. It was through my doula work that I realized feminism matters, and that activism comes in all shapes and sizes.  I’m going to cut up my thoughts into a few parts for the ease of reading, and hope they remain readable and interesting.  Doula-ing and even writing about doulawork is absolutely navel-gazing, but with real navels.  Think of the next set of posts as a kind of mini-series, with sprawling plots, melodrama, and declarations of love.

Yours,

CF

For starters, here are some prefaces.

Part 1: I have so many prefaces

I am not pregnant, or interested in becoming pregnant.  I don’t get on very well with babies, but do feel lucky when they make intense eye contact with me.  I also love seeing happy parents and happy children, but motherhood often looks like a giant con to me–one where you plunk down all your capital and find out that you paid to get a huge demotion that comes with a lot more grunt work.  The majority of my fears are either about catastrophe (sharks, bent metal) or palimpsests of mediocre living.  But this is not about that.

The next preface: I am a shoddy activist.  My history in making a difference can be broken down into half-assed moments heavily informed by television:

  • Watching the episode of The Wonder Years where Fred Savage rips paper out of his notebook in rebellion, inciting his entire class to do the same.  It made me want to start a revolution.
  • Putting a pin that said “Homophobia is a social disease” on my bag in seventh grade, admiring the compression of the statement.  I didn’t realize that this meant I had inadvertently outed myself until about 15 years later.  This might explain why I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was in my twenties. That pin got thrown out the bus window by a dickwad 7th grader.  It was one of the first times that somebody had done something directly mean to me or my property.  Even my friends laughed.  Fucking middle school.
  • Bob Saget hosted a TV special about saving the rainforests, and recycling.  There were a lot of kids involved, and it seemed representative, as if we were having a teleconference.
  • But, then there was the episode of Family Ties where Tina Yothers freaks out because she can’t do enough to save the environment–I think she starts crying about a shampoo bottle.  This always seemed like a cautionary tale against activism, because it will just make you unhappy.
  • My freshman year in college I was part of a program that had lots of hotshot students coming up with sexy projects.  My friend and I found out that our professor was good friends with Dave Matthews.  We decided that our way of saving the world (and more so, making a name for ourselves) would be to get ten kids from all different backgrounds and fund them for college as long as they gathered once every year.  We didn’t know about the 7 Up series, but it was along those lines with the incentive of free college.  We thought we would break down some serious shit.  We wanted Dave Matthews to fund it.  I remember my face flushing violently as we proposed our idea to our professor.  He told us he almost mentioned it on the phone to Dave, but didn’t.  I also wrote about the project in my hated composition class, and got a B on the paper because the idea seemed “under-developed.” Our other ideas included getting everybody on campus to give us one dollar each so that we could go to Paris.

Next up: ignoring feminism, adulthood, and professors with nice offices…Part 2

Bride Revisited

Dear Millicent,

Excuse my punned title. So, I think this is a thing people do: get bridal portraits on their wedding anniversaries.  They get back in their wedding clothes again, hire a photographer again, and look off in the distance or at each other in scenic locations, again.  This seemed like a horrible idea to me.  I would never undergo the barks of my wedding photographer asking me to do quirky things like kneel in a church aisle and kiss my husband on the cheek (who kisses cheeks anyways!). Especially because of the awkward power struggle with a photographer. They ask one to do things that seem humiliating, and then that greatest of humiliations, one does it.

But, BUT, I think I am wrong about these anniversary portraits.  Looking at them on the internet, they kinda broke my heart.  There’s something about seeing a bride or a couple back in the anticipatory frame without the anticipation.  They aren’t scared or hopeful anymore.  The few I could pull up from a cheap Google search were tender and showed couples that were very glad to be where they were, and a bit of an ode to peace with one’s decisions.

My aunt recently did this to celebrate her 10th, and, like all brides, she looks darn beautiful in the shots.  But, she doesn’t exactly look like a bride. In a way, she looks like what we hope we look like as brides. In one, her hand is behind her back and she is looking off to the horizon in a cactus garden.  She said this was because the dress no longer fits, so she had to hold the back together.  I want to say she looks like a domestic goddess, but that is too weak. Her muscles work against the poof of the dress, and her expression is satisfied.  And that may be the thing that is absent in most day of wedding portraits–satisfaction.  Instead there is the sweaty/happy/all-chips-in adrenaline pang or the great-expected-smile.  She looks like a woman who has had a child, who is older and less worried about people seeing her confidence and badassery.  She looks really happy that she got into that dress 10 years ago, and that she is happy to be in it again.

The marker of the same clothes and the same style of photography does wonders to show what an anniversary is often about: a look at where we’ve travailed and travelled, and if we are happy to be here.  So, I have taken to calling this kind of portrait “The Great White Hope.”

Would love to see more of these, and hope Chelsea does the same in 2020.

Yours,

CF

My Question for The Other Guys

Dear Millicent,

My big question after watching The Other Guys stems from a helpful checklist in an old Emily the Strange Address book I once had (and a qualifier that would be helpful in a cellphone address book as well): after writing in somebody’s info you marked them either “part of the posse” or “part of the problem.” I can’t decide which box this movies gets ticked.

The movie very obviously satires the machismo of the cop movie genre by loudly riffing with Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson fulfilling every cliche of buddy cop drama possible, and then centering on their opposite as the two protagonists. Instead of leather jacket wearing hotrodders, Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are their own brand of screwed up guys stationed in mediocrity.  Ferrell is a gullible accountant who carries a wooden gun and enjoys making apps for his iphone. Wahlberg’s career was re-aligned when he accidentally shot Derek Jeter, losing the World Series for New York.  After the two rockstar cops meet the kind of mortality the genre always allows them to evade, these two try to step up and take their place.

And it’s funny to see the basic Bad Boys formula get poked at, and almost skewered. It’s funny to see Will Ferrell say things like “I think I got so drunk last night I ate a tube of toothpaste thinking it was astronaut food.”  These cops drive a Prius, their captain has a second job at Bed, Bath and Beyond, and there is actual paperwork to do and the movie explains who does it.

At first glance, the poking isn’t sharp enough to cut or skewer.  The movie wobbles between joke and these guys actually becoming the trite stereotype the movie originally insisted on removing.  There is an unwieldy critique of white collar crime and the government bailout system riding underneath the plot (and fully installed in the credits–all interesting, but distracting).  By the end, they seem like nicer versions of Jackson and Johnson, their arc stalled out midway, having jettisoned the satire for plot completion.

And, my feminist hackles got all hackled up early on…at which point I sat in the theater with my lips pursed and thought “does my feminism blind me from seeing the larger whole? Can I now not appreciate something because it fails on one level that happens to be particularly important to me? Is this why feminists are so often accused of being humorless?” To which I then thought, “I’d prefer my humor to not be working against my general beliefs, and if that makes me a stalwart, then so be it.”  To which I then thought, “I really wish there were more women in power with these movies not to make things more feminine, but to just shed some goddamn light on how wack all this is.” To which I then thought of Louis C.K. saying in a standup routine, “It is great to be a white man in America. Really, I would reup every time!”  And then I started paying attention again to the movie.

Here were my initial balks:

  • To show his dislike of Ferrell’s character, Wahlberg says “even the sound of his piss is feminine.”
  • To show his dislike of Ferrell’s Prius, Wahlberg says “it feels like I am actually in a vagina.”
  • The other cops agree: to deride the Prius, they say things like “it looks like a tampon on wheels.” There are several of these, all comparing the Prius as a particularly female car, and thus an obvious insult.
  • Ferrell is a total asshole to his wife, at one point verging on abusive, and she coddles him accordingly.
  • Wahlberg woos a woman by stalking her, which she first describes as creepy, but then eventually marries him.
  • There are four women in the movie: hot wife, sweet girlfriend, shrewish ex, Anne Heche.
  • Ferrell has a history as a pimp, which he learns to embrace and accept, which makes him a better man.

I left the movie, thinking it was okay as a gesture of comedy, but disappointed by the sexism, and the fact that if this was indeed made for adolescent boys, then Priuses had become untouchable, and the idea that feminine=bad (and funny!) had been reinforced.

But, then I thought, maybe everything in the movie had been an attempt, perhaps unsuccessfully, to prod the original stereotype. Maybe even down to the sexism, it was mocking the ridiculous masculinity of the cop genre.

As counterpoint to my original balks (a rebalking!):

  • Wahlberg’s hatred of his partner’s “weakness” is overplayed to show the fear of femininity in cop movie culture
  • The bro rant against the Prius is overplayed to emphasize the above, and to highlight the general nonsensical misogyny of the genre
  • Eva Mendes’ role is a play on how often ugly cops have gorgeous wives they mistreat, and these wives often conveniently announce a pregnancy to raise the stakes, as well as always exist to offer the downtrodden male cop succor and sex (and dinner).
  • Wahlberg’s stalking is a direct reference to Carlito’s Way, where Carlito does indeed stalk Penelope Anne Miller in her ballet class, which is portrayed as romantic.
  • There aren’t any women besides wives, girlfriend’s, and a hooker or two in cop movies.
  • Ferrell’s pimp past as a take on the dark side the cops are given to show their understanding of the law, and the animal within.

And so, instead of being irritatingly blind and glib, the movie becomes savvy, part of the posse, leaning towards a feminist critique of masculinity. And, this might have actually been a key theme in the original script.  If it was in there, the movie was re-shaped so unevenly by its final product,  this theme is smothered enough to almost become invisible, and certainly for the 14-year-olds out there watching, non-existent.

Confusingly, Entertainment Weekly reviewed the movie as  “a comedy of manhood for the age of emasculation.”  Emasculation here seems like the wrong word, and leans towards the old school of offense.  Perhaps what it tried to be was a comedy of manhood for the age of men as real people.  Now, if the ladies (and the poor Prius) could get the same service.

Contra “Priv-Lit”

I saw Eat, Pray, Love. Here are some reviews. Bitch Magazine hails it as the latest expression of “priv-lit,” a genre they define as the candy-coloured “recessionista” descendant of the self-indulgent decadence of Sex and the City.

Here’s how Joshunda Sanders and Diana Barnes-Brown in Bitch Magazine define “priv-lit”:

Sarma Melngailis, a New York restaurant owner who writes about eating raw and organic food on the blogs welikeitraw.com and oneluckyduck.com, promises her readers—most of them women—that if they can just give up their Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and replace it with her $9 coconut water and $12 nut-milk shakes they, too, can be happy and healthy. (She’s very consistent about plugging her products’ ability to combat hangovers and sexify one’s appearance, too.) The now-famous Skinny Bitch cookbook franchise plumbs even more sinister depths in its insistence that women can stop nighttime snacking with the oh-so-simple fix of hiring a personal chef with vegan culinary training. Actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s web venture, GOOP, uses catchy, imperative section headings (“Get,” “Do,” “Be”) and the nonsensical tagline “Nourish the inner aspect” to neatly establish a rhetorical link between action, spending, and the whole of existence. Even Julie and Julia, the blog that became a book that became a hit movie, is complicit in spreading the trend. Julie Powell’s story—that of an ennui-ridden professional whose journey of self-discovery involves cooking her way through Julia Child—features one-meal shopping lists whose cost rivals standard monthly food-stamp allotments for many American families.

Like every trend piece, this one is bogus. It points to exactly two extremely unsurprising things: people do stuff when they’re bored because they want to be less bored, and some of the bored people who also happen to be American women harbor a capitalist inclination to turn every fad to profit.

Entrepreneurship exists: there are female consumers and female capitalists trying to get them to part with their money. Is this really a surprise? Is it the lamentable state of affairs Bitch Magazine suggests it is?

Let’s address how old this story is by starting with a dollop of history. Faddish and profitable self-actualization is not new: the seventies gave us Carlos Castaneda. The eighties brought us Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits for Highly Effective People.” The nineties brought us “The Celestine Prophecy.” Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” is a sappy secular Bible. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” teaches us how to live the good life by not poisoning our bodies with endless corn—a non-choice for your average American. All of these have millions of consumers who have found something of value in them, or who have continued to invest in the related workshops hoping to reach what they have been promised. But if we want to criticize expensive myths of self-actualization, let’s be serious about it. You don’t have to do yoga or go abroad to ruin yourself in the pursuit of happiness. The nationally broadcast recipe—”buy a house”—has been far more expensive and disastrous to our economy and to women and men alike than all these gurus combined. Certainly more than Elizabeth Gilbert writing about how she learned to do downward dog.

So, in the world of self-help, there are greater offenders than Gilbert or Bushnell. But what are the stakes of this new “candy-colored” group of gurus? Sanders and Barnes-Brown explain it this way:

Today’s “recessionista” mind-set promotes spending quietly over spending less. Priv-lit takes a similar approach: Hiding familiar motives behind ambient lighting and organic scented candles, the genre at once masks and promotes the destructive expectations of traditional femininity and consumer culture, making them that much harder to fight.

This is an old critique, structurally identical to the claim that politically correct language does nothing but send prejudice underground, “camouflaging” it and making it harder to expose and fight. I have yet to encounter a member of any minority group that shared this view—and I imagine there aren’t many feminists who prefer overt misogyny to the alternative. We’re all finally Hobbesians: we can’t control the contents of people’s minds, nor should we wish to, but we can and should articulate the boundaries of acceptable behaviors. Which brings me to the real oddity of the argument here: If Oprah and Gilbert are indeed tricking women back into expectations of traditional femininity—being wives and mothers, say-—by “[being] willing to spend extravagantly, leave our families, or abandon our jobs in order to fit ill-defined notions of what it is to be ‘whole’”; if, in other words, they are tricking women into occupying traditional roles by encouraging them to leave them, all I can say is that it seems an inefficient method.

That’s not to say that antifeminist tropes don’t live within the industry: almost by definition, they do. Still, here’s what Sanders and Barnes-Brown expose as a sneaky trick:

One of the brilliant parts of the self-help genre as a whole is that there are these various contradicting threads or themes, all woven together, and emphasized differently at different times,” says Dr. Micki McGee, a sociologist and cultural critic at Fordham University and the author of Self-Help, Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life. “Self-improvement culture in general has the contradictory effect of undermining self-assurance by suggesting that all of us are in need of constant, effortful (and often expensive) improvement. There is the danger of over-investing in this literature not only financially, but also psychologically.”

This is undeniably true. And, like self-help literature, fortune cookies and the astrologer’s toolkit, it applies to pretty much everything. In fact, “suggesting that all of us are in need of constant, effortful (and often expensive) improvement” is a remarkably tidy description of marketing. That is what capitalism is.

It’s fine to critique capitalism, if that’s really what this article is about. But to camouflage a critique of capitalism as a critique of a made-up genre peculiar to women is a bit of a bait-and-switch, not so different in principle from “hiding familiar motives behind ambient lighting and organic scented candles.”

The secret agenda here—the good and decent impulse that leads feminists like Sanders and Barnes-Brown to write life prescriptions against life prescriptions—is the desire to protect women from the effects of capitalism. Advertising is where patriarchy and capital intersect, and the marketable desire (as far as women are concerned) is chronically narrated back to us as the desire to be desired. In this respect at least, the list of imperatives seems to me to offer a step in the right direction. GOOPian imperatives to “Do.” and “Be.” are better than the culture-wide imperatives to “Be Doable.” “Eat” and “Pray” and “Love” are better than “Cover yourself in chocolate,” “Be the goddess on the pedestal” and “Be loved.” It’s a small, maybe even a sad distinction to propose, but as some Eastern guru somewhere said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. (I kid–it was Lao-tzu.)

(My internet time is running out—thoughts on whether that’s a good step or not, and further thoughts on Eat, Pray, Love and movie-watching habits coming soon to a theater near you.)

Fondly,
M

Christian Boys on How Girls Can Stop Making Them “Stumble”: (Hint: Don’t Move. And Make Sure You’re Not-Moving On Purpose.)

I love the smell of sexism in the evening. Are you ready for “The Rebelution“? Where teenagers “rebel against low expectations”? Sociological Images published the results of a survey of 1600 Christians on how “modest” they consider various articles of clothing and behavior (and the corresponding “value” of the wearer/actor). Boys and girls took the survey and the behaviors of both genders were up for discussion. It was a productive conversation wherein both sides got to express their points of view and their spiritual and physical struggles with desire.

Ha. I kid.

Here’s what really happened: the only gender subjected to the “Modest or Not” test? Women. (Sorry, “girls.”) The 1600 respondents invited to minutely inspect and judge every aspect of female behavior, attire and deportment? Men. (Correction: “guys.”) The theological dimension? None—unless you count “stumbling,” an undefined expression the survey uses to describe a temporary lapse, always by a male in response to female lures.

The “Modesty Survey” got its start when a young woman suggested an “anonymous discussion on modesty” between boys and girls. The survey counts itself a rousing success at achieving this (potentially quite useful) goal. The number of female respondents? Zero. Girls were apparently encouraged to ask questions, just not answer them.

Respondents were given statements with which they could agree or disagree. The good part: the Christian boys often seemed to be quite a bit more thoughtful than whoever put this survey together. The bad part? Whoever designed it seems to have wilfully ignored two truths—boys have self-control, girls feel desire—and one claim: neither sex has any business policing the movements of the other.

Here are some sample statements boys are invited to have an opinion about. They can Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral [not a verb, that always bugs me], Disagree, or Strongly Disagree:

  • Playing with jewelry, such as a necklace, is a stumbling block.” (Result: 58% “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree.” Phew!)
  • A purse with the strap diagonally across the chest draws too much attention to the bust.” (Result: 47% of respondents “Agree” or “Strongly Agree.” According to that bunch, messenger bags are  for whores.) To be fair, some guys were a little more sensible. One comments: “This is a case where if the guy is staring then he should check himself on that. I wear a messenger bag myself, so I can’t hold a double standard. I can, however, hold myself to a higher standard and just not look.”
  • Others had detailed procedures; some were ready to break out the measuring cups:

    “Depends upon how heavy the bag is. If the strap pushes on the shirt such that the breasts are separated as one looks down, it’s immodest.”

  • “Playing with hair is not a stumbling block.” 61% agree! Girls can play with their hair, but by gum, THERE ARE LIMITS:

    “Not in of itself, but if you spend a lot of time playing with your hair it makes a guy wonder if you aren’t trying to attract attention.”

    And if a guy is [count the qualifiers] wondering whether you might be trying to attract attention, you are conclusively IMMODEST. Someone else offers the following clarification:

    “Technically, it’s a flirting technique.”

    According to this young man, “flirting techniques” are not “stumbling blocks” in the pursuit of Christianity. An 18-year old respondent, however, does “find it hard to imagine a beautiful and modest woman doing it. It does perhaps exceed the bounds of propriety.”

Try this one on for size:

  • It is a stumbling block to see a girl lying down, even if she’s just hanging out on the floor or on a couch with her friends.” (22% agreed.)

Or this one!

  • Seeing a girl’s chest bounce when she is walking or running is a stumbling block. No running, ladies. Or walking, unless you have strapped your boobs down like Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love. In sum, cross-dressing might be best.

How about this?

  • The lines of undergarments, visible under clothing, cause guys to stumble.” (72% Agree or Strongly Agree). As this is virtually impossible with the majority of bras, you may want to dispense with them altogether. Or cross-dress (see above).
  • Seeing a girl take off a pullover (i.e. a shirt that must be pulled over the head) is a stumbling block, even if she is wearing a modest shirt underneath.” Here’s a fascinating comment:

    “It kind of depends, if she is careful it is not a problem, but most girls don’t think about it and so it becomes one. It’s not that they don’t care, it just isn’t something they think usually think of.”

“It isn’t something they think usually of.” Amazing how much real understanding that shows, and how radically it goes off-track. That statement says something true about a basically “modest” existence—a perspective so pure  it doesn’t even suspect that the behavior in question might provoke lust—yet contains within it the injunction that she should “think of” the lust she is always in danger of provoking.  In other words, it’s not enough for her to be innocent. She needs to be intentional about her refusal to arouse. But not too much, because if she shows she understands too well, she’s in danger of (oh devilry!) abusing that knowledge to “get attention.” Not to court attention is insufficient: she should “be careful” when she takes a sweater off.  She needs to actively, deliberately not-arouse. She should become self-conscious, limit her movements, regard herself not as a thing that exists and sees, but as a terrible catalyst that can at any moment tempt men to their eternal damnation.

That’s not enough, of course. In order to understand how not to arouse her Christian brothers, she must first understand what does. (Like messenger bags.) To protect them properly, she has to become not just conversant but fluent in all possible masculine sexual fantasies. She has to learn their origin and derivation. She has to study how men can possibly convert an innocent movement (like walking) into an erotic stimulus. In fact, she has to become a virtual Ph.D. on masculine sexuality; she has to become a fantasizing male-by-proxy in order to avoid tempting any such male. She must call on all her resources, her empathy, her understanding, to imagine what it is like to be male and incorrigibly sexual. And she should perform these empathic acrobatics without having any sexual thoughts of her own.

Now, this is all ostensibly to protect the souls of her “Christian brothers.” What about her soul? From a Christian point of view, can there be a better recipe for temptation than to force a human being to become a theoretical expert in precisely the imaginary prurient scenarios that ostensibly jeopardize the souls of men?

Back to the survey. To state the obvious, here’s what all this teaches boys: All that matters is your reaction. The difference between a modest behavior and an immodest one is the desire it stirs or doesn’t stir in you. Ideally, a woman will fully understand her awful power and control it responsibly; if not, it’s her fault. But since a woman’s (I’m sorry, “girl’s”) intent is unknowable, what determines her success or failure at “modesty” is the effect she produces on you. Moreover, Christian boys, your subjective state of arousal at a particular moment trumps a “girl’s” liberty to exist freely (the way you do). Women should actively police their behaviors, their movements, their clothing and their faces so you don’t have to spend the occasional (and unavoidable) tempted minute staring into your own soul. And rest assured: girls feel no desire or temptation themselves, so you are free to be as attractive and flirtatious as you like without feeling a moment’s guilt. Your relationship to your body can be joyous. It doesn’t fall to you to labor under the metaphysical mindfuck of being told that your body—YOUR body! the one you were born in, the thing you are!—shares in the guilt it provokes in others the minute it takes any pleasure in its God-given beauty. Boys, you needn’t know that your beauty is also your disease (as a result of which you may end up among the damned; in the absence of which you may end up alone).

To state something equally obvious: none of this disaster of a philosophy is the boys’ fault. I have no doubt the Modesty Survey respondents have good hearts. They’re grappling with one of the great human problems: how to deal with the fact that you live in and through a body, and how to understand the complicated dance between desire and its fulfillment or diffusion. These are all large and complex issues of personhood and it is certainly not the boys’ fault that this survey invites toxic answers. (By virtue of its structure, the survey excludes any other kind). The fault lies with the pernicious idiots who invent “tools” like this one, tools that claim to measure but actually perpetuate the dehumanizing idea that one gender gets to dictate what the other one does.

Here is the real image for the survey. I wish I were kidding:

Maybe when Christians adopt the veil we’ll finally have world peace.

Or maybe, instead of turning girls into stones by making them feel guilty for the physics of their bodies when they walk, we can teach each sex not to blame the other when it “stumbles.” We could all work on getting better balance.

M

TL;DR

Natalia Cecire at Works Cited wrote a great post called “Attention and Length” in response to Zunguzungu’s criticism of the NYTimes’ discussion of tenure, where she talks about how the quality of an online conversation is a function of how it balances length with the internet reader’s legendarily short attention-span. In replying to her post I realized I was exceeding—oh irony!—the parameters of attention and length appropriate to a comment. So I’ve moved the entire mess here.

To catch you up: ZZ points out that the NYTimes (among its many hamhanded missteps) limited the five opinion pieces on tenure to 350 words, which pretty much guaranteed a superficial treatment of a notoriously complex issue. The word-limit was an unnecessary constraint since space on the internet is cheap-to-free. Natalia writes that the real constraint on cyber-writing isn’t space; it’s attention.
There is certainly a culture of the internet that privileges the short form, and culture is very, very strong.

Yup. This is such an interesting conundrum. Personally, I think internet culture is in late adolescence and, having stuffed itself silly on Mars Bars, tacos, Youtube and porn, begins to crave something a little more substantial. It wants porn, but it wants late-night talks about Nietzsche and the meaning of life too. The  apparent success of iTunes U, TED videos and other load-bearing long-form tools leads me to hope that a similar tolerance (thanks to Kindles too, as Natalia says) will develop for written content. Someday, TL;DR may stop describing (and perpetuating) the outer limits of our attention spans online.

That’s a sunny vision, but one I believe in precisely because the internet is one of the only formats that can allow for the “depth of discussion”  ZZ  missed in the NYTimes forum. The kind of discussion, in fact, that he and Natalia have had, and which I’m jumping into here.

Natalia turns her take on this to academic writing, a genre where the vigorous exchange of ideas is a Holy Grail mired in a no-man’s land. Attention, length and the time elapsed from writing to publication all make a discussion practically impossible. As an academic, you might see something you wrote published as much as a year later, by which time (if you hope to keep your job) you’ve started work on something else and probably lost interest in it. Maybe someone else will find what you said interesting, but for you the scent is cold (or cooling). A dialogue under these conditions is plainly impossible; a series of monologues is all this easily allows.

Digital humanists are tackling the temporal aspect of this problem with verve—Hack the Academy was an effort to produce a book in a week. It’s an interesting project. I contributed, although I’m still not sure why they felt the need to call what they produced a book. Seems like quite the wrong vehicle for what they’re crafting.

If the digital humanities become a reality, articles will probably get shorter. (Not the worst thing in the world—I’d welcome a more vibrant intellectual culture that beefed up Notes & Queries, which at least signal genuine engagement.) Again, I’m okay with that, although I’m leery of a troubling tendency toward making speed a virtue in its own right.  What I like about the digital humanities as an enterprise, though, is its interest in redefining the work of the scholar (known for its profound isolation) as an ongoing conversation.

Because here’s the thing: the lack of venues that permit “depth of discussion” is systemic. Natalia’s analogy to the MLA roundtable is uncomfortably apt, and shows how challenging it is to find a format that can host a conversation of substance. (I’ll have something to say in this connection about the Journolist kerfuffle, which shows  how tempting such a conversation can be, and how intoxicating.)

To get biographical for a minute: I’ve been to exactly one conference and it struck me as a waste of time, largely because of the unsuitability of the medium for the message. For some reason we’ve refused, in the academy, to acknowledge the important difference between how we process language that’s *heard* vs. language that’s *read*. The chief concession the conference makes to this changed circumstance pertains to length—a conference paper will be shorter! (Much like writing on the internet! And just as unrewarding.)

We continue to operate under the absurd premise that fifteen people sitting in a room will be able to absorb and respond to a piece of dense academic prose after a single hearing. This is not something we train for, nor is it something we do well, but the format persists.

In refusing to adapt to the demands of what is, in essence, a classroom (and we are teachers!), the conference consigns us to an endless cycle of unsatisfying intellectual encounters. (Somehow the lecture—a more friendly beast, and one that we use to launch real discussions in our own classrooms—has been deemed inadequate.) No wonder the scholars that take the trouble to “translate” their written work into something that can be delivered orally are so successful. It’s  refreshing, after watching speaker after speaker look up blankly from her stapled sheets, to hear from someone who seems as interested in actually engaging an audience as s/he is in performing the dull rituals of professionalization.

Of course, giving the audience free rein isn’t the answer either. Anyone who’s been to a department meeting knows that two hundred professors in a room without the “shut-up-and-listen” rule is a recipe for something uncanny and infinite, a cross between Borel’s monkeys and Schrodinger’s cat.

M

Dear Sarah Palin: Refudiate the Mama Grizzly, For She is Pro-Choice.

I was thinking about this “mama grizzly” model of womanhood and decided to do a little research, since this, according to Ms. Palin, is the way of America’s future. It turns out the Mama Grizzly’s maternal excellence—the reason Sarah Palin chose her as her symbol—is a direct function of her ability to become a mother when circumstances are precisely right, and not before. In a nutshell, Mama Grizzlies abort.

What I found: Not only do female grizzlies like to play the field—with multiple partners, and repeated encounters that last up to an hour—they also terminate the pregnancy if the timing is poor.  A female grizzly won’t carry a fetus to term unless she is in “peak condition” and has the wherewithal to support her offspring. As is the case with other bears, “if the mother has not accumulated enough fat to sustain herself as well as developing cubs,” the fertilized embryo will be reabsorbed into the not-going-to-be-a-mother-yet’s body.

From Mountainnature:

After mating, the female may be pregnant, but that does not mean she will give birth to cubs. There is an old joke that you can’t be half pregnant, but bears have proven this statement to be false. Bears, weasels and some seals have developed a process called delayed implantation. The fertilized egg develops into a small embryo called a blastocyst. This is where the interesting stuff begins. After this brief period of development, of the fertilized egg suddenly stops growing and simply floats freely in the uterus for several months.

If a sow is in peak condition when she heads into her winter den, the embryo implants in the uterus and begin to develop. She’ll wake up during January or February to give birth. …

If the sow is not in peak condition at the onset of hibernation, her body will reabsorb the embryo and not give birth that year. This gives bears more control over their reproductive rate than just about any other animal.

Humans included.

Keep your paws off my uterus and no one gets hurt.

M