April, as you probably know, is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Instead of doing a post about sexual assault, I’ve decided to do a little project. One of my favorite books is the phenomenal anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape edited by Jacyln Friedman and Jessica Valenti. I read this book when it came out in 2008 and it had a profound impact on how I understand rape and sexual assault and also how I came into my late-blooming (but enthusiastic) feminism. So for Sexual Assault Awareness Month this year, two years later, I’m going to be blogging day-by-day about the essays in the book. There are 26 days left in April and 27 essays in the book, so I’ll do one a day except for one doubling-up. I’ll use cut tags so it won’t clog your RSS feed reader up too much, but I’ll try to identify the topic of each post clearly in the title so you know whether you’re interested. I won’t be blogging about the entire essay most days, but I’ll share my thoughts or vibe off of a topic brought up in the essay. So, without further ado, it’s time for Day One, reading “Offensive Feminism: The Conservative Gender Norms That Perpetuate Rape Culture, and How Feminists Can Fight Back” by Jill Filipovic.
I was just reading an article comparing US and Mexican abortion laws, and the author, Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, made a really good point that I think we need to keep reminding ourselves of as we fight for our liberal values. We can talk about individual autonomy and choice all we want, and that perspective can be great, but choice doesn’t mean much if you can’t access the choice. Often choices require financial privilege or other means that not everyone has. While some forms of privacy/autonomy are easy for governments to ensure (negative liberties that don’t require the government to take action, only to refrain from it), positive autonomy requires resources.
This is where I go all socialist on you, but I really think we have a lot to learn from forms of government (and on a smaller level, forms of community activism or tribal systems) where the focus is on the group rather than the individual. Yes, this form can hurt women when they are blended into the group as a whole, but it also can provide guarantees of community support. The individualist system often claims to give all individuals a choice, autonomy, etc., but if the individuals do not have the resources to exercise these rights, then those individuals (often women) will suffer. The challenge is to find a balance, where women are not marginalized, not erased, and not harmed in between the lines of the law. It’s probably a challenge that can never be fully realized, but it’s a good goal.
From time to time, I get really thoughtful comments that make me want to respond a little more thoroughly than a usual quick reply, and unfortunately the WordPress system doesn’t allow for any sort of direct reply or notification. I got one of those comments the other day from reader Teresa on this post, and so I thought I’d post my reply here. It raises some interesting questions.
Yes, I think our descendants will be embarrassed about a number of things happening now. You bring up that there is a difference between a constitution and democracy, and that’s something most Americans probably wouldn’t think about. The Constitution lists what the government cannot do to us, while “democracy” is focused almost entirely at this time on what the government should be doing for us.
Obama has picked up FDR’s idea for a second Bill of Rights to give the country a “positive” list of what the government must do rather than what it must not do. Included in the list are things like jobs and houses and health care and education. But are those correctly labeled as “rights”? I understand a right as something natural that doesn’t impinge on another. If we guarantee everyone a satisfying job or house, then that means government must force someone else to provide it. I honestly don’t think most Americans have fully considered what Obama is proposing, or they are so stunned they don’t believe he will pursue these things.
The notion that Obama or his supporters would support the right to a job or housing or health care and construct the government machinery to strip mine the country for the resources but not the right to marry is outrageous, and I marvel still at the coalition of constituencies that gave him the election while denying this basic human right to the LGBT. Freedom and equality are not the same thing. Often they are contradictory, with freedom being the riskier, and only truly democratic ideal.
So what is a right? The classic notion is that for someone to have a right, someone else must have a corresponding duty. At the time of this country’s founding, the Framers were thinking about negative liberties in the context of an aggressive, intrusive imperial government. The duty of the government was simply to stay the hell out – don’t stop people from speaking, from practicing their religion, from electing representatives. These were freedoms from intrusion, not freedoms to a particular object. One man’s right ended where another’s began.
But then socialism began to ascend, along with the idea of a state that has a positive duty to provide certain benefits to its citizens, whether that be health care, a living wage, or education. People started talking about economic, social, and cultural rights. Personally, I’m a strong believer in these rights, and in the idea that the state, to the extent of its resources, has a duty to provide them. So my idea of rights does include jobs, houses, health care, and education, not only the “natural rights.”
Still, the “to the extent of its resources” bit is crucial. I tend to support politicians that I think lean towards my socialist ideology, which includes providing to the citizens. I also recognize that no politician can actually provide health care for all, quality education for all, a house for every citizen or a job for every citizen. I think we should work towards these goals, but we don’t have the resources to achieve them. We can’t achieve world peace, either, but does that mean that constantly working towards it is a waste of time? I don’t think so.
I agree with Teresa, though, that it’s interesting that people would simultaneously vote for a candidate who is trying to assure everyone these positive economic, social, and cultural rights and vote against propositions that simply assure everyone the civil and political right to be left alone. The right to marry does generally fall under positive rights, but as the Supreme Court has recognized there is a big difference between not having the resources to provide a service at all and having the resources but excluding only one group from its benefits. I do see how this particular fight can fall into the category of government intrusion into individuals’ private lives, and I find it upsetting that the people of several states have decided this election to allow it.