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International Anti Street Harassment Day: Living in a Culture of Fear

If you’re lucky enough not to live in a culture of fear, then I’m happy for you.  It must be really excellent.  Today, for International Anti Street Harassment Day, I want to focus on what it’s like to live in a culture of fear, and how we can all contribute to reducing that culture, little by little.

Street harassment is a pervasive problem.  Of course, its degree varies drastically from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, and country to country.  Some of us fear being raped or mugged when we walk home late at night or take public transportation, even though our actual odds of being attacked are slim.  Others know that leaving the house is more than likely to result rape, but do so because the family needs food or water, or a single woman has no choice but to work.  Obviously, it takes different tools and resources to combat different problems along this scale.

However, I do think that there are some common techniques we can use to address pervasive, systemic fear, and I want to mention a few of these today.

  1. Respect for difference. So many things fall under this–eradicating sexism and patriarchy, fighting homophobia, racism, ableism, etc., teaching tolerance and acceptance of those different from us, including divergent opinions in educational curricula.  Not all street harassment has to do with difference, but a lot of it does.  Hatred for women, or a sense of entitlement over women’s bodies, is a huge problem.  Discomfort with gender and sexuality alternatives often leads to violence, which is then supported by an insecure peer group.  Racism can contribute to everything from inappropriate comments shouted from a car to systemic rape in times of war.  Education and discussion are crucial to making these behaviors unacceptable.
  2. Building community. It’s scary to be alone on the street.  It’s much scarier when it feels like there’s nowhere to turn, like there’s no safe house to run to if someone gets violent, like a bystander is unlikely to help or may even join in.  We’ve all heard stories about the rape that took place on the street where people heard a woman’s screams but did not come to her aid or even call the police.  We need to build community around our schools, neighborhoods, and wider environments.  The more someone feels a sense of belonging to an area, the more people someone knows, the easier it is to seek help and the less power the perpetrator has.
  3. Identifying perpetrators. There have been some great activist steps in this direction, from ad campaigns designed to shame bullies and cat callers to the amazing Hollaback movement that was started to identify harassers and share stories of street harassment.  Identifying those who cat call, touch without consent, bully, assault, rape, and otherwise harm individuals on the street is important because it takes the feeling of safety away from the perpetrator and starts to build that sense of safety around the victim or potential victim.  Telling stories builds community and pushes back fear, while showing harassers that their actions are not okay and will not go unpunished.  I’ve always loved the sense of community justice that exists in many cultures, and is in my opinion far more effective than the penal system.  The stronger a community, the more effective the threat of community banishment or shaming is.  Hollaback brings this concept to communities all over the world.  If you’ve witnessed or been a victim of street harassment, I encourage you to report the incident here.  We need to stand together and say that no form of street harassment is okay, whether it’s a word or a casual touch or something more.  We all have a right to our bodies, to our privacy, and to our safety on the street.
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More from the World of Body Negativity

Just for fun, I decided to Google and see if I could find some sexy lingerie that isn’t “cute” or girly–maybe boyshorts and a flattering sports bra?  I wasn’t too surprised to find this to be a challenge, but I was particularly disappointed by one hit from Woman’s Day magazine.

We’ve all seen this kind of thing, but I think it’s ubiquitous enough to escape our notice when a magazine or advertiser pulls it on us.  In this example, an article on lingerie gives a number of options for women with different “body types.”  The common thread, though, is that all the body types are described in the language of problems, not assets.

Woman’s Day suggests lingerie for “too much tummy,” “no curves,” and “small chest” to either add or take away from whatever curves a woman has.  Even the seemingly positive or neutral categories “big bust” and “full hips” focus on minimizing the chest or drawing the eye to the chest and away from the hips.  The idea is that whatever you have, there’s something wrong with it.  The grass is always greener on the other end of the lingerie aisle.

Where are the underwear advertisements that celebrate a woman’s figure?  How about playing up a round tummy, hips that are curvy or square, breasts of any size, curvy or straight?  It’s not difficult to design lingerie to flatter body parts as they are–in fact, probably easier than trying to hide whatever you have.  No wonder we’re all running around trying to heal from our insecurities, when we can’t even buy underwear without being told how deficient we are.

Women’s Equality Day: What Is Suffrage, Anyway?

I think most of us who grew up in the United States in the late 20th century have a limited understanding of what the right to vote actually means.  As we celebrate 90 years of women’s suffrage this year, it’s interesting to look back to the founding of the US and consider what voting, and democracy, meant to early Americans.

I’ve been reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States this week, and its chapters do a great job of putting democracy in perspective.  The Founders, lauded in our classrooms as almost omnipotent men, benevolent providers of justice and equality, were actually concerned at the founding of our country about making the Constitution too democratic.  The Founders didn’t want to risk the United States becoming a nation where rich and poor people alike had a share in the workings of state, and they certainly didn’t see blacks, women, Indians, or recent immigrants getting involved.  Property qualifications varied from state to state, but everywhere the voting population was a definite minority of the general populous.

Now, of course, people can vote without owning any property.  Blacks, women, naturalized citizens, American Indians, and the poor make up a large part of the total voting population.  But capitalism is still firmly entrenched in our ideas of government and society.  Children still sneer at “commies,” and those in power are ingenious at turning different groups against one another and stigmatizing any desire for socialism or communal living.  Our system of property ownership, our “rags to riches myth,” the institution of marriage–all these things perpetuate a capitalist ideal that focuses on the individual, not the group.  And who’s in power?  Well, the business interests still aren’t doing too badly.  Rich white men may be joined by women and people of color in the corridors of power, but classism in the United States is alive and well, along with racism and sexism.

So let’s continue fighting for equality, rather than resting on our laurels.  Let’s take this occasion to reflect on how we can use our activism, our writing, our entrepreneurship, our leadership, our coalitions, and yes, our vote, creatively to increase access to political life and economic well-being for more and more people in the United States.  And let’s think about how we define “well-being,” exactly, and consider how our hallowed institutions do and don’t meet our needs as individuals and a community.

Blogging “Yes” Day 13: Linking the Discourse on Female Sexuality and Date Rape

Here we are at day thirteen of the Blogging “Yes” project, and Lisa Jervis’s essay “An Old Enemy in a New Outfit: How Date Rape Became Gray Rape and Why It Matters.”  Jervis is the founding editor of Bitch magazine and her essay is another that will contain concepts very familiar to most feminists.  It focuses on the idea of “gray” rape, which is an updated spin on the “date rape is not as serious” victim-blaming discourse that’s been around, well, probably as long as dating culture.  What I wanted to highlight here is the connection between the “gray” rape discourse and modern  messages about women’s sexuality.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 11: Rape, Immigration, and Citizenship Privilege

Today I read Miriam Zoila Pérez’s essay, “When Sexual Autonomy Isn’t Enough: Sexual Violence Against Immigrant Women in the United States” for day eleven of the Blogging “Yes” project.  You may know Miriam from Feministing, or from her own blog, Radical Doula.  She’s one of my favorite bloggers out there, and in this essay she sheds light on an important issue, namely sexual violence faced by immigrant women. I also want to recommend a related blog post on Feministe written by brownfemipower, Confronting Citizenship in Sexual Assault.

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Thoughts on Gender from a Telemarketer

At the moment, I’m working in the subscriptions office of a major symphony orchestra, and I’ve found some trends emerging in the past four months or so when it comes to the spin callers and patrons place on gender (and sexuality).  This is just a list, maybe intelligent thoughts will follow:

  • Husband: “You’ll have to talk to my wife.  She’s my secretary/social secretary/the family secretary.”
  • Callers assuming that the wife might be home during the day but the husband will only be home at night.
  • Callers saying “is your wife home?” or “is your husband home?” without any evidence that the relationship between the male and female member of a household is indeed husband/wife.
  • Callers assuming that “partner” means opposite sex.
  • Callers suggesting that a patron bring a date to the symphony, as opposed to a friend or family member.
  • Wife: “My husband’s in charge/has all the control/etc.”
  • Husband: “No, she doesn’t want that” or “Honey, you don’t want that.”

Gender roles are everywhere!

I’ve been using the Livemocha community for language learning, which is wonderful and I can’t believe I never knew about it before, but I noticed one annoying thing. The pictures for young/old and fat/thin are all women, and the pictures for rich/poor and tall/short are men. Coincidence? Methinks not.

Construction of the Female Body in Gynecology

I attended an interesting talk today at the CRT at 20 conference on the topic of medical education and cultural competency, focusing especially on women of color’s experiences with gynecology.  I started thinking about a tangential topic that I think is sometimes overlooked in LGBT studies: lesbians’ experience with sexual and reproductive health care services.  

Later I will probably post some comments on how lesbians experience sexual and reproductive health care generally and differently from heterosexual women.  Just now, though, I had a thought about the construction of the female body and how badly this jives with feminism and with lesbianism.  

There has been a lot of talk among feminists about how the female sexual organs are reduced to their reproductive function, and how women’s sexual pleasure can be effectively erased from a discussion about women’s anatomy.  My thought is that the woman’s body is sexualized, but it is sexualized only with reference to the man/the male body.  

When you think about this part of the body, it’s likely that one of your first thoughts concerns the vagina.  My guess is that gynecologists and other health care professionals see the vagina in two ways: as a receptacle for the penis (focusing on sexual health, contraception, disease, etc.) or as a passageway for a child (focusing on pregnancy, fertility, etc.)  I think this is also true of the culture in general.

One problem is that the vagina is, for many women, not the site of sexual pleasure (or not the sole site), and so there is a separation between health and pleasure.  I would posit that it is difficult to celebrate and enjoy the experience of health and health care when it is separated in this way from sexual pleasure.  I think most of us experience our body in vastly different ways in the bedroom and in the doctor’s office.  Another problem is that it makes the healthcare experience irrelevant for lesbian women, especially lesbian women not interested in giving birth.  Our concerns may be difficult to express because society and our health care experiences have not given us a language to express them.  I know that I find the gynecologist fairly irrelevant to me – I get an annual pap smear and I get birth control for migraines, but that’s it.  My doctor is not necessarily someone I trust, nor do I associate him with my overall health.

I think that this disconnect may also have something to do with why lesbian women often do not go in for services such as pap smears, mammograms, and STI tests.  STIs are often conceived of as a penis-in-vagina consequence.  Even if we know that STIs can be transferred through any fluid contact, the lesbian community tends to see barrier methods as weird.  If not weird, they’re just a pain.  I’d guess that many of us haven’t asked our health care provider for advice concerning sexual health.  I’ve had experiences with a female gynecologist who told me I only needed pap smears if I were having sex with a man, and a female resident whom I asked about sexual health and she said she didn’t know anything about STI risks.  I’ve also had a lot of frustrating experiences when I’m talking with a health care professional about PCOS and he or she tells me repeatedly about my fertility options and forces literature on me, even though I say that I am not interested in having children, ever.  I was even once told “oh, you’ll change your mind.”  I find this condescending, and the lack of agency makes me fearful of healthcare. 

I’m not sure exactly how this could be fixed, but I do think that in anatomy courses and wherever else medical students learn about the female body, the woman should be construed as a whole person, and her experiences of her body considered fully.  I want health care professionals to think of women’s sexuality in terms of her own body, and all of it – not in terms of a penis and a vagina, plus possible “alternatives.”  I also think that healthcare professionals need to learn how to have effective dialogues that do not make assumptions about sexual practices or reproductive choices.  I don’t know how we get there, but I hope it’s where we’re going.

Sexism is irrelevant?

I just watched the Charlie Gibson interview with Sarah Palin on YouTube, and though there were plenty of things I had an opinion about, one that stuck out in my mind is Palin saying that the question of whether criticism of her trying to raise a family and run for VP is sexist is irrelevant.  The way she framed the issue, talking about being part of the Title IX generation, etc. etc., struck me as saying that sexism is irrelevant, or maybe even non-existent, in this day and age.  Sure, maybe people don’t come right and say “you can’t be the Vice President because you are a woman and a woman with children,” but sexism is extremely pervasive, and I can’t imagine that Palin has never in her life faced sexism.  I’m sure it helps to be on the “right side” of things as far as the way the rich, white, conservative straight men who run the country see it, but I find this interesting.  Is this how she feels personally or only politically?  Does she honestly think she’s never been the victim of sexism?

Half-naked fifteen year olds, clearly what we need

Today’s sexism in the media rant focuses on a disturbing trend of sexualizing children.  Now I admit I have some somewhat old fogie-esque views on this topic, because I think the longer people wait to have sex, in most cases, the better.  As much as I embrace sexual freedom in some ways, and am uncomfortable saying that you shouldn’t be allowed to have sex if you’re under eighteen (and definitely don’t think we should demonize those that do), it bothers me that children and young teenagers are having sex.  Maybe this is part of my middle-class privilege, in that I was “protected” from that in ways (and also just exempted by the fortunate fact that I was not a gorgeous fifteen-year-old), but it creeps me out when I see children marketed as sex objects.

Feministing recently posted two examples, here and here.  The poster’s focus in showing the first ad, a creepy television spot demonstrating how a new cell phone can be used for stalking your sleeping neighbor, was that stalking/objectification is wrong.  The poster’s focus in the second ad, a BMW magazine spread, is again the objectification of the woman pictured.  Both perfectly good points, but I was surprised that neither poster noted that the “women” shown are teenaged girls.  The actresses themselves may be eighteen, but I would pin them both in the 12-15 age range.  What creeps me out is not only that we’re objectifying women, but that we’re objectifying kids, more or less.  Especially in the second ad, the whole “yeah, you know she’s not a virgin” message nearly made my mouth drop open.  Sure, in today’s culture perhaps it’s not inaccurate to assume that a teenager or preteen has probably been abused in the past, but should we be celebrating it?