Sunday, September 14, 2014

Why we all must help carry the weight

Fact: According to the NCADV, one in every four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

Fact: More than three women per day lose their lives at the hands of their partners.

Fact: An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.

Fact: Almost one-third of female homicide victims that are reported in police records are killed by an intimate partner.

Fact: Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police.

Domestic Violence Fact Sheet

I've often been asked why feminism  is so important to me. A week ago in my journalism class, I was called out by my professor for being a champion of this cause. She said, “often times people who have experienced oppression themselves, or fought the battle for others day in and day out, are the ones who become the voices who speak from the margins.” As she spoke, I began to consider why my investment in these issues is so powerful. It was not long before it became clear to me that it is easily encompassed in one word sentences:

Frozen. Powerless. Silent. Overcome.

But, how does a person facing oppression, or powerlessness, or silence, or abuse, become empowered to speak from this marginal space? In a world that values NFL stats over human well-being, Heisman Trophies over justice for rape victims, and right to privacy over victim advocacy, how do these marginalized voices find the strength to speak?  

The answer can be found at Columbia University, where students are helping rape survivor Emma Sulkowicz “carry the weight” of her mattress until she no longer has to go to school with her rapist. Stated another way, the answer is found in community, shared struggles, and above all, speaking out against the problematic assumptions our society is still making about the value of certain human beings.

Questions surrounding gender and disempowerment, and the ethics of domestic violence cases, are becoming particularly pressing in light of the infamous surveillance video of former Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his wife Janay Rice in the elevator.

I've heard it said that the video never should have been released, that Rice has a right to privacy that was violated by the release of such a private moment. I've heard it said that Rice should not have lost his job; he should ‘of course’ face punishment, but everyone commits crimes. I've heard it said that feminists are using these instances to further affirm their hatred of men, and that we should probably be talking about more important issues in the world.

I’d like to respond to each of these assertions, highlighting the ways that silence surrounding issues of domestic violence is in fact deadly for those experiencing it. With each day we choose not to act, or not to see, more and more women and men are silently being injured or killed at the hands of an intimate partner.

The New York Times recently published an article that highlights the numerous professional athletes who have continued to play their sports after being charged for assault Link to full article. The author discusses the ways that professional sports outlets have asserted that, “there is a presumption of innocence and that it is not [the league’s] role to supersede the criminal justice system.” Many advocacy groups have highlighted the ways that, unlike other crimes, victims are not always eager to seek justice, and for complicated reasons, charges are often dropped.

But this doesn't mean the assault didn't happen.

The video of Ray Rice confirms what is often so easily denied or covered up: particularly within hyper-masculine arenas like professional sports, masculinity is coded through violence and power, and this puts numerous women and children in jeopardy (both those who are directly involved with these players and those who look up to them). This video forces institutions so quick to defend its players (the essential source of the vast amounts of money generated in professional sports) to admit that a problem exists, and must be addressed.

Finally, videos like this one become a form of witness for all the stories that have been silenced, prompting people to speak out like never before for more stringent forms of accountability and justice in these situations. Awareness creates community, and promotes change. To paraphrase sportscaster James Brown, whether or not Janay Rice considers herself a victim of domestic abuse, many other women are, and this is why the video must be shown.

When considering the argument that Ray Rice should not have lost his contract in the face of these charges, it is important to note that this decision represents an outlier in the way women are treated, and valued, in the sports world. Last year, I overheard a conversation in which two men were discussing the case of Jameis Winston, an FSU football player slated to win the Heisman Trophy and lead Florida State to the national championship. A woman had asserted over a year ago that she was raped by a stranger outside of a Florida bar, implicating Winston, and it was found that both University and law enforcement did little to validate the charges until after the year’s football season had ended. Later, in the face of a championship, most were quick to dismiss the charges in favor of a win for the team. On the bus that day, the men I was sitting next to asserted a variety of things about the victim: that she accused a well-known figure as a means of turning the public spotlight her way, that she was drunk and therefore at fault as well, and that, whether the story was true or not, the game was ultimately the most important thing to consider.

If professional leagues do not set the example for fans by instilling greater standards of accountability for the players they employ, confronting these issues rather than burying them in rhetoric of victim blaming and “presumed innocence”, nothing is ever going to change, and women will continue to fear the consequences of speaking out. It is deadly to continue blaming the victim, for each time the message is sent that this form of masculinity is permissible, the fans who look up to these men they call heroes learn that treating other people like this is okay. And thus, the cycle of violence continues.

Overall, the Ray Rice video represents a call to action, both for professional athletic leagues and those of us outside of the sports world. 

We need to address the problematic relationship between masculinity and violence that is largely accepted in this country, reversing the stereotypes that to be a man is comparable with being the most strong, the most stoic, and the most dominant. We need to be better role models for our boys, having conversations  about the dangerous lessons they learn at school or from mainstream media about what constitutes manliness. We need to teach youth that when you shame others for what their bodies look like, or bully people just because they are smaller or weaker, this is not a demonstration of strength or an assertion of worth. Having conversations with fathers about the example they are setting for their kids, and the kind of masculinity they are modeling, is crucial not just for children, but for partners who might find themselves in harm’s way.

Domestic violence is a problem that must be addressed because it perpetuates (often gender-based) power hierarchies through terror. It facilitates silence through the most eviscerating forms of violation, paralyzing those who experience it by masking hate in words of love and intimacy. It is a trap that is almost impossible to escape, because nothing is harder than leaving those you love behind. This is why we must stand with the victims, and speak out against these dangerous forms of masculinity. 

If you find yourself in his situation, please seek help. You are never alone. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Stopping the Violence at Home and Abroad: The Power of our Words in Today’s Media-Driven World

Over the summer of 2014, even a passing glance at news outlets would reveal the particularly troubling state of today’s world. The media portrait that has been constructed is one of fast-growing monstrosity, whether it is based in Gaza, Iraq, Syria, or as close to home as Ferguson, Missouri. Countless politicians and political analysts have appeared on CNN and elsewhere, either calling for the President to act more forcefully in navigating these complex situations, or heralding his political strategies as brilliant and preservative of everything we the people hold dear.

I by no means intend to spend my words proffering yet another assertion about what is right in any of these current crises, for as with any binarized statement, the process of heralding one faction as right while the other as completely wrong collapses under any amount of pressure. I am also unwilling to again assert the White House as a scapegoat for the violence unfolding in the world today. Rather, I intend to highlight a troubling tendency I have found not just on the news, but also among my own conversations with friends and formidable opponents concerning the progression of these various events. There is a part each of us can play in stopping the violence at home and abroad, awareness and a desire to understand rather than retaliate crucial to the healing of this broken world in which we live.  

This morning on CNN, Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida appeared on News Room to discuss and analyze the role of the President and Congress in the current conflict with ISIS. While her interview was frustrating on numerous levels, what I found most unnerving was her repetitive use of the word “cancer” to describe this radical organization, asserting that excessive force must be unleashed as soon as possible in order to eradicate this disease from the world. The image of a detrimental and violent plague spreading to infiltrate our own country was accomplished fully by juxtaposing her interview with a story about the San Diego native revealed to be a sympathizer of ISIS. Thus, thousands of humans are dehumanized and equated with a disease to be eradicated, and yet another person of color is portrayed as a violent threat on national media. Two birds, one stone.

The repetition of her phrase was obviously planned, as nobody repeats a phrase 6+ times unless they meant to say it. My question is why she felt it would be so powerful to make this parallel, and so important that people remember it that she repeat it as many times as she did. I think the answer is rather obvious, and is similar to the reason the host of the program referred to ISIS as savage at the beginning of the hour. These words function as a means of dehumanizing the Other, placing blanket assertions of inhumanity and evil over large groups of disadvantaged people as a means of justifying more and more retaliatory violence.

I want to be clear. I am not in any way attempting to justify brutal murder, threats of terrorist action, or compulsory religious compliance. I do however want to be sure we all realize what we are doing when we use the language we do, and the effect it has on the people towards which we direct it.

I recently learned of an initiative through the EU to deport individuals particularly of Iraqi or Afghani origin, titled the European Return Platform for Unaccompanied Minors. This legislation, masked in rhetoric of family reunion and reaffirming asylum programs in countries like Norway, Sweden, the UK, and the Netherlands,  has been examined by many academics who argue that its true intentions are much more sinister. Though the programs mandates shelter for those that are sent home, and professes to find their families when they arrive, the implementation of these goals is much easier said than done, and many children and young adults find themselves forced into militant groups when they are forced to return home and their families are nowhere to be found.  Are these people evil, equitable to a cancer we must eradicate with any force necessary? Certainly if they are, it is a cancer of our own making. The very people we send away, who become too much of an economic burden to help, those are the ones who later appear on our news programs and who must be destroyed.

My point is simple, though sometimes, easier said than done. The nameless individuals towards whom we are directing our blind hatred are humans too, and the popular narrative of dehumanization and mass criminalization are just as detrimental to the well-being of these people as the bombs we are dropping on their homes. When we equate people to diseases and monsters, it makes it that much easier for us to forget to be empathetic, to harden our hearts to the very thing that binds us all together in the first place. It makes it easy for us to deport children back the violent countries they fought so hard to escape, to assume just because they share the brown skin of the extremist leaders we so fear that they must also be evil. Yet every time we do this, we put another life at risk.

Luckily for us, the world is changing. Social media provides the opportunity for an alternate narrative to surface. Movements like Humans of New York, and the countless news outlets that publish the images and stories of the people caught in the middle of distant political power struggles, do the hard work of illuminating the faces and the stories that populate the stereotypes to which we cling, revealing the way their stories contrast with the popular narrative.

It is up to each of us as members of the world community to consider the impact of the things we say about others before we voice them. It is up to us to let go of fear and anger and remember our common humanity, understanding that disadvantaged and desperate people are often driven to great and sometimes terrible acts of desperation. It is up to us to do the hard work of understanding others, of learning their stories and perhaps acknowledging our implicit part in them before we condemn them to death.

One act of violence does not justify another, and suppressing the anger of the world with more violence is a temporary solution that will not lead to long-term healing.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

RE: "Why It’s Ok to Want to be a Stay at Home Mom" OR, Let's Change the Conversation about Feminism and Motherhood

The morning began like any other. I was sipping coffee in my living room, alternating between my Facebook news feed and the current updates on my handy New York Times news app. Suddenly, my hand froze. The familiar face of one of my most avidly conservative friends smiled back at me from her small thumbnail profile picture, and next to it read the status update:

The thing is, no matter how much we strive for it, men and women aren’t equal. We get the opportunity to be something men can never be- and that is pretty awesome.”

Feeling my feminist hackles beginning to rise, I immediately clicked on the link to the full piece on Total Sorority Move (which by the way, does in no way redeem itself). I tried to let the article go, but have gone back to re-read it several times since its initial publication…and after the hundredth visit, I feel compelled to respond to what I see as a fundamental lack of education on the part of the author.

I understand that the internet is a beautiful and nuanced equalizer of opinions, allowing the publication of not just my opinion, but those who believe differently than me. However, if this woman is going to identify in the feminist camp (which she does, somewhat sarcastically, about halfway through the article) there are several things about the cause I support of which she should be aware.

The article begins by revealing a perpetual and frustrating reliance on the gender binary, and the notion that, “girls do certain things/boys do certain things”. She writes, “We did it all. We were the fearless females who could compete with the boys, but still be in our play kitchen in time to make dinner.”

Here, I run into several points of contention. Haven’t we moved away from a style of parenting, and for that matter a viewpoint on the world, that asserts women must be the ones to cook dinner at night, and men must be the ones bringing home the bacon? In a world of flex-time work schedules, co-parenting models, and family leave provided for not just women, but men as well, can we disperse with the tired stereotype that women wake up in the morning each day with enough energy to take care of the house, work a full-time job, and have a fabulous dinner and a beer waiting for her man at five o’clock? Nobody can do that, which is why teamwork is important, and roles subject to flexibility. Two people supporting the other’s dreams is what makes for a successful marriage and a happy couple (unashamedly progressive AND idealistic…)

Another important point of contention arises when the author writes, “As little girls, our parents told us, ‘you can do anything if you set your mind to it because they wanted us to reach for the stars, dare to dream, and live out all the other hopeful clichés you can think of.”

Here, I respond that yes, some people are this lucky. Some people do have parents that encourage them to live out their dreams, but some of us don’t. Feminism is a cause that empowers those women too, defying class, gender, and race stereotypes that assert that certain women can achieve whatever they want, and others are relegated to a second class position. It’s about the success of all women, not just you. And also, why take such a cynical, mocking tone about these dreams your parents had for you? These “hopeful clichés” are some of the greatest blessings you could ever have. Not all of us have parents on our sides supporting our dreams, and you have no idea what kind of a difference that solid foundation can make in the life of a child. So please, don’t brush that off like it’s nothing. It’s offensive and inconsiderate to those who would have given anything for a home like that.

The article proceeds to describe the author’s journey through college, and how at the end of her four years, long-term relationship and diploma in hand, she decided that her primary goals in life were going to be embodied in the phrase wife and mother. She writes, “Now, before you start throwing flaming pieces of hate mail at me, give me a second to explain…just because all of us don’t play football and compete with boys, it does not mean that our gender as a whole can’t…” This line was a breath of fresh air, a nice nuancing of femininity. In my first pass of this post, I almost let myself calm down. But, she proceeds onward.

“…the fact that we can create another human being inside our bodies AND bleed without dying for seven days, we can obviously do anything. The sheer willpower it takes to even leave my bed when  I take those little brown pills at the end of the month should be reason enough to never again hear the totally dated ‘men are superior’ argument.”

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I resent my power as a woman being limited to my reproductive organs. This is simply another perspective on the, to borrow our author’s word, dated perspective that reduces a woman to what is going on between her legs.

·         19th Century Victorian Science: Women are the weaker sex because their nervous system is actually linked with their vaginas, hence Hysteria.
·         The Madonna/Whore complex: A woman is either perfect and untouchable, and therefore fragile and in need or protection, or she is a slut worthy of mockery and shame. These two categories are the sum total of her identity.
·         American Politics today: Women are too weak to run our country because they may be PMS-ing at the White House! We can’t have that kind of rash, emotional consciousness running our country!!
·         Total Sorority Move: The only reason women are worthy of respect is because we can make babies.

I’ll move on.

The article progresses and I begin to notice a trend. Throughout the remainder of the piece, every time women are mentioned, the focus of their lives and experiences are entirely wrapped up in someone other than themselves. This, for me, is a problem.

The author first writes, “I went off to college and had the time of my life drinking, partying, and playing with boys’ hearts…As predicted, by senior year, when most college students start actually becoming adults, my views began to focus and change. I was in a serious relationship…”

Here, the author sums up her experience in college- the time of your life when you are given four uninterrupted years to define who you are and where your passions lie- in the boys she dated and the parties she attended. What happened to ambition, experience, and education?

I worry about what is not being said. Do you really want to be a wife and mother, or did you spend four years attending the parties searching for the serious relationship everyone in the South expects you to find, and at the end of that time, found that you had nothing else to show for yourself? I’ve been there. I attended the Southern Liberal Arts School, and felt the pressure every day from my mother to settle down. But I also chose to ignore that.

She then proceeds to herald her mother as “an angel” and essentially a superhero for carrying her for nine months, driving her places and buying her clothes, making her favorite meals, smiling and powering through every single day of her lives without a thank you.

I’m not denying the truth of any of these points. My mother was that superhero too, and throughout my childhood, I told everyone that I wanted to be a mom as well, because she was the most amazing person in my life.

However, then I started to grow up, and examine my mother’s life more closely. I realize now the incredible sacrifice my mother made in the act of putting her children first in her life, and I argue it is a sacrifice no woman should have to make. My mother has nothing left in her life now that her children are grown. They were her goal, her ambition, and her life…and three adult children and one divorce later, I have to ask, was it all worth it? A woman’s life should never be reduced to her child’s needs alone, just like a woman’s body should not have to succumb to carrying and birthing a child without it being a choice. Being a mother involves sacrifice, change, and growth, I understand that. But it also does not have to be the end all, be all of any person’s life. A woman can be a great mother to her children, and also a goal toward which her girls could strive. An example of passions lived out, of challenges overcome, and of goals met. I want to be that kind of mother for my kids, not just the kind that has a killer recipe for spaghetti sauce or whatever.

The author further writes, “Why is it that a job that is of the utmost importance is also considered ‘embarrassing to strive for?’ Can you imagine someone asking what you want to do with your life and answering, ‘I want to be a great wife and mother?’ No, because we would not only be ridiculed, but we would be made to feel like we’re settling for less than what we can accomplish."

Here is where the article frustrates me most. Here lies the unexamined and demeaning generalization of feminists that paints us as she-monsters who hate all women who do not burn their bras and never return to the kitchen.

That’s not what feminism is about. Feminism is about choice, freedom, and the liberty of all people to define their bodies and circumstances uninhibited by the boxes of identity created for us by gender, sexual orientation, race, and/or class. Feminism opens doors, it does not close them. If motherhood is a calling on your life, as a feminist, I support your choices. I hope to one day be right there with you. But, I also encourage you to think very clearly about what it is you hope to accomplish in your life. Author, if you dream of being #famous as you say in the article, go for it. Don’t let some tawdry assertion that you cannot accomplish your dreams and also have a family keep you from trying to squeeze all the marrow out of this one existence that we have. Find a partner who supports your dreams, and change the world together.

Overall, I respond to this article thus: as women, we are the bearers of one of the most blessed burdens in life. However, it is unnecessary to justify that privilege through masking feelings of gendered obligation in feminist language of choice. Being a mother is and can be part of a life well lived, however the great thing about feminism is that we believe a woman’s life can be so much more than just the children she has. It’s about breaking down the gender-based limitations this article so desperately seeks to shore up.

And that is pretty awesome.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

"Let's Talk About Sex, Baby": Hook Up Culture and the Beginning of Open Conversations about Sex on Campus

The night always begins innocently enough. A young, college-age girl with beautiful blonde hair and an innocent smile enters a crowded party with her group of similarly attractive young friends. Smoke clouds the air and loud music throbs from nearby speakers. Sweating, drunken bodies press together, moving to the beat of the music. For a moment, she looks afraid.

Then, a smiling boy in a fraternity jersey appears at her side, presses a beer into her hand and asks her to dance. The rest of the night is a blur of drink and laughter and a parade of faces and names she’ll never remember in the morning, and at the end of the night her friends shoo her back to his dorm on campus, giggling and whispering to each other as the two stumble away.

In his room, they fall into his too-small, twin size bed. Hands venture, bodies awkwardly move in tandem, he fumbles for a condom. It is over just as quickly as it began, and the bliss of drunken sleep subsumes the post-coital awkwardness. She will probably sneak out of his room in the early hours of the morning, and they will never speak of this night again…until the next party.

Whether this story has unfolded next to you in the fraternity house or appeared on the movie screen in the latest chick flick, it is not a new or surprising progression of events. Hook up culture on American college campuses is a phenomenon that has received much attention in recent years. Responses range from the unequivocal support of pop culture feminists, who herald hooking up as a way to finally liberate women from patriarchal and moralistic boxes that inhibit their sexuality, to the religious fundamentalists who link hooking up with sexually transmitted diseases, binge drinking, depression, and damnation.

In an article for the Los Angeles Times published in 2013, Bob Laird expresses the common belief among numerous journalists and concerned citizens that hook up culture is a particularly sinister condition of today’s youth. He quotes columnist Emma Tietel, who writes with unintentional hyperbole in Maclean's that, “if you have empty, meaningless sex throughout college, you'll become an emotional cripple, contract gonorrhea and, most likely, vomit.”

On the other side, author Jessica Valenti writes in her book, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (2010), that the problem is not casual sex, but the “moral panic” that has arisen as a result of it. She focuses on America’s obsession with virginity in young women, outlining the still-prevalent relationship between female worth and archaic notions of purity. She outlines the ways that the ‘either/or’ trap of Madonna/whore imagery creates an impossible standard for women, and causes the emotionally-damaging guilt many women experience after a sexual encounter.

Whether positive or negative, it is clear that society as a whole is still very invested in the question of what young people are doing with their bodies, particularly when it comes to controlling them.

In response to all the chatter, psychologists and sociologists have begun to investigate the phenomenon of adolescent hook ups more systematically, and surprisingly, their findings have worked to dispel many of the myths that are circulating about notions of hooking up today. In fact, not only have sociologists proven that young people today are having no more sex than the generation before them, research has also proven that, though some hook ups can have emotionally detrimental effects for both men and women, experiences vary from both very positive to very negative results.

Though 90 percent of college students said in a 2010 study conducted Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Laura Hamilton, and Paula England that their college or university took part in hook up culture, surveys proved that no more than 20 percent of students hook up very often. The study also found that one-third of students abstain from hooking up altogether, and the remainders are occasional participators.

In 2009, the National Survey of Family Growth found that the percent of women who have had premarital sex by age 20 (65-76 percent) is roughly the same for all groups born after 1948. In the same year, the results of the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by The Center for Disease Control reported that rates of sexual intercourse among 9th-12th graders decreased from 1991-2007, as did numbers of partners. Reports of condom use increased.

According to these numbers, hooking up is not as rampant as both supporters and critics are asserting. Young people are having just as much sex as their parents, and are using more protection when they do. It is also important to note that sociologists like Paula England have proven through studies like this one, “Hooking Up and Forming Romantic Relationships on Today’s ­College Campuses” (2008), that casual sex hasn’t replaced committed relationships. Students often participate in both at different times during college, and by their senior year, 69 percent of heterosexual students that participated in her survey had been in college relationships of at least six months.

This information therefore begs the question: if casual sex is not emotionally crippling the youth of America, if it is not unnecessarily perpetuating depression or unhealthy dating habits, and if it is not even a new phenomenon…what then is the problem with hooking up on college campuses?

Returning to Jessica Valenti’s notion of The Purity Myth, and her assertion that today’s culture has forged many problematic links between sexuality and self-worth, the problem with hooking up is not the act of sex (or any form of that behavior) itself. The problem is the ways that society has mythologized sex, transforming it from a fun and often intimate exchange between two people to a primary means of proving one’s value to others.  

For most, the problems with hooking up do not become apparent until the sex act is done, when friends suddenly transition from applauding a sense of adventure to making ‘slut’ jokes, and whispering to everyone what happened. Memories of middle school sex education classes or church services that preached abstinence as the only appropriate way to approach sex before marriage will suddenly return to mind. The analogy of the chocolate bar, of giving a piece of one’s self away that can never be gotten back, may haunt young women for days.

Problems arise when the guys grabs drinks later on that Saturday afternoon, and the obligatory rendition of the night’s events transforms his partner from a person to a conquest used to affirm his masculinity. The trap of hyper-sexualized language and demeaning stereotypes gains him further credibility, and at the suggestion of his friends he waits for days to call or text, not wanting to appear needy or un-manly.

The problem with hooking up is the gendered double standard that associates female sexuality with guilt and shame, and male sexuality with affirmation and power. A woman may feel insecure after sex because of heightened levels of oxytocin that promote feelings of attachment, or she may experience feelings of worthlessness because, after the sex act occurs, words like ‘slut’ or ‘ho’ become parts of her identity. Message boards on campus label her as ‘easy’ or as a ‘tease’, or worst of all, a ‘prude’.

Jessica Valenti asks the question in The Purity Myth, “What's the difference between venerating women for being fuckable and putting them on a purity pedestal?” In both cases, society is basing a woman’s worth on her ability to impress men, or conform to a certain sexual standard; her worth is invariably tied to what is happening between her legs. It is for this reason that hook up culture is so detrimental, not because of what it is, but the way we talk about it. 

Many university communities are realizing this social tendency to be the true villain of hook up culture, and a movement known as “Sex Week” is circulating as a means of finally telling students the “truth” about sex.

The idea was first conceived at Yale University in 2002, and has since been imitated at many different universities across the country, including Harvard, Washington University, Kentucky University, and Northeastern. Douglas Quenqua writes for The New York Times in 2012 that these programs have arisen in response to a rising concern among students that the sex education offered to young people through schools and churches is not adequate preparation for the reality of the experience.

He writes that, at these events, students seem less interested in debating the various political agendas surrounding sex, such as contraception accessibility or reproductive rights issues. Rather, they are more interested in considering how these issues relate to their own lives. In the spring of 2012, Harvard’s Sex Week schedule included a lecture called, “Hooking Up on Campus”, in which Dr. Lisa Wade used survey data and first-person stories to reveal the reality of hook up culture, arguing that it is a mythical world constructed of media-based stereotypes (such as the sexually liberated woman who can have sex with anyone without consequences, as seen in the hit HBO series, ‘Girls’). More recent years have included conversations on masculinity and sex, redefining virginity, and even workshops about sexual health.

As Sex Week has spread to more campuses, it has maintained an effective balance between discussions of sexual health and sexual pleasure. Unlike typical student run, university sanctioned orientation programs that have been standard on college campuses since the discovery of H.I.V./AIDS, Sex Week organizers seeks to go beyond instruction on safe sex, rape prevention, and sexually transmitted diseases. They intend to break the problematic silence that surrounds conversations about sex in the current cultural moment, ideally seeking to create a judgment-free zone where people can bring their questions, and learn how to have more comfortable and fulfilled sex lives on campus.

Harvard student Danny Bicknell of the class of 2013 writes on the Harvard Sex Week web site that, “I’m supporting Sex Week because I support open, honest communication that empowers individuals to feel confident and respected amongst their peers. Sex Week will initiate greater sustained conversation and awareness of gender and sexuality issues that are relevant to all college students.”

He is one of many who openly voice their support of this growing phenomenon on college campuses, and despite faculty and parental pushback, students who take part in these events believe that they are merely working to address the reality of today’s college student. Many students do have sex for the first time in college, and it is important to foster a community where this experience is not paired with shame, secure in the knowledge that this experience is one of many crucial moments in the maturation process.

Movements like Sex Weeks are only one of the many ways that student communities are fostering openness and comfort with issues of the body and sexuality on college campuses today. Other universities opt for programs such as Love Your Body Week, which target similar issues.  Regardless of the name, it seems that more and more students and faculty alike are aware of the necessity of decoupling sex and silence within American culture, and are instead attempting to transform the bedroom into a place of equality and mutual respect.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Things I Wish Would End #3: Equal Work, Unequal Pay

“It’s not that I don't want to have children, it’s that I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to afford them,” said a friend of mine a few days ago in a conversation in our Women’s and Gender Studies seminar on Mothers and Daughters. This week in class, we’ve been reading a book called The Motherhood Manifesto by Joan Blades- it’s a fabulous read I would highly recommend to any woman in America before you begin the process of family planning. Here are some things I’ve learned:

When this book was published, women…
  • Make up 46% of the workforce (that number is certainly larger now, six years later)
  • 81% of women between the ages of 25-34 are in the workforce
  • 82% of women become mothers by the time they turn 40
  • In America, women make 77 cents to every male dollar
  • Non-mothers make about 10% less than men on the whole; single mothers make 34% less
  • Mothers are 44% LESS likely to be hired than non-mothers
  • If a woman spends 3 or more years out of the labor force, she suffers a 37% loss of earnings
It is mere coincidence that our professor assigned this book at the exact moment that the Senate chose to block Obama’s revisions to the Paycheck Fairness Act, ones which would close loopholes and prevent further gender-based discrimination from taking place in the workplace. Despite the opposition, Obama still issued an executive order prohibiting contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their pay with each other, as well as mandates to the Department of Labor to start collecting data on how much contractors pay employees by sex and race.

My question(s) to the GOP spokespeople who deemed these moves by Obama and the Dems to be just another “desperate political ploy” to rally voter support are thus: Why is it so unfathomable that politicians would see equal pay to women and minorities as an important issue to address, one which can be linked to a boost in the overall economy? Why are we continuing to subsidize inequality in big businesses by allowing a low minimum wage to persist (a problem which affects women more prominently, as they already face a pay deficit)? Why are we crippling our mothers, those who are responsible for the next generation of Americans by refusing to hire them or offer the benefits they need?
By way of addressing these questions, I’m going to outline what I see to be three detriments of persisting pay inequality in America, and in doing this, hopefully clear up any doubt that this blatant discrimination (because that’s what this all boils down to…discrimination and perhaps greed) has got to stop.

First, inequality of pay cripples the workforce by promoting dissatisfaction and higher turnover among workers, increasing training and recruiting costs for companies due to higher turnover, and allows for big businesses to continue to pay their workers low wages at the expense of American taxpayers. I know that’s a mouthful, so bear with me. For most Americans, economic security begins with being able to make enough money to afford basic food, healthcare, housing, education, and other necessities. In this day and age, when the cost of living is ever-inflating, more and more people are falling below the poverty line because minimum wage and what constitutes a living wage are no longer synonymous. People in these jobs are forced to either search for higher paying options or work long, complicated work schedules just to make ends meet, mothers in particular affected by this problem (due to aforementioned hiring and pay disparities).This creates greater expenses for the companies, as higher turnover requires more money to recruit new employees to fill those created gaps, and train them once they are hired.

The Women vs. Wal-Mart Supreme Court case of 2011 is a perfect example of how this pay deficit affects the American taxpayers at large (this case cited in The Motherhood Manifesto). In this case, a single mother working at Wal-Mart to support her family realized that a male coworker was making 10,000 dollars more per year than her. She subsequently filed an employee discrimination lawsuit, which she lost by the way, the courts finding no way to prove gender discrimination across a company as large as this one. My point here is this: by paying this mother significantly less, despite the fact that she has the same responsibilities as her male coworker (children, bills, etc.) Wal-Mart is increasing the possibility of a need for welfare, or other government aid to supplement her low-paying job. In a country where the average CEO salary is millions of dollars, does it not make more sense to level the proverbial playing fields of salaries, demanding a living wage for all employees, rather than subsidizing the greed and discrimination of big businesses with taxpayer dollars?
Second, this persisting wage gap cripples the American family by making it more difficult for even two salaries to meet the basic needs that accompany having children. As already stated, the cost of living in the country is ever-growing. More and more families require two salaries to make ends meet each month, and this fact certainly is a factor in the rise of women in the workforce in past years. However, a new state-by-state analysis by the National Partnership for Women and Families reveals just how much this pay inequality affects the American family. The study is based on US Census data, and it analyzed the gender pay gap and women's spending power in all 50 states. It also looked at race, which made the gender pay gap even greater. They found that large disparities exist across the states for both racial minorities and women.

The report found that, for instance, if a woman working full-time in Ohio were paid as much as a man, she could afford nine more months of mortgage and utility payments, while a woman in Louisiana could afford 21 more months of rent if she earned the average male wages in the state (Louisiana and Ohio being some of the states where the gender discrepancies are the highest, Alabama, Utah, and West Virginia being others). Why not give these resources to the American family, particularly when it has been proven that raising wages will not affect the overall economic security of the company (the lowering cost of training and recruiting supplementing any loss.)

Further, continuing to offer no family-friendly policies for women in the workplace (such as paternity leave or subsidized child care), forces women to pay the price for sick children or family members, and to potentially lose their jobs, should they face the choice between caring for a child or making it to work on time. California is the ONLY state out of 50 that offers paid family leave for women, and this is still offered for only six months (this being low compared to the year minimum found elsewhere). Women in America are largely forced, when it is time to have children, to string together fragments of unpaid leave and sick days, so as to be able to have some time to heal and bond with their child. This leads to numerous American families falling below the poverty line after having a child, unable to make ends meet with just one salary, and no support during this difficult time. The United States is one of the only industrialized nations left in the world that largely offers no form of paid family leave or subsidized child care to its working mothers.
Finally, fair wages for women impacts the next generation. Allowing families to be more financially mobile allows for better childcare, and therefore higher cognitive and emotional development in infancy and youth. Studies show that more family friendly policies like paid parental leave lead to better prenatal and postnatal care, more intense parental bonding in a child’s lifetime, lower accident rates, and 25% fewer postnatal deaths (statistics from The Motherhood Manifesto). Providing benefits for part-time and low-wage workers, and comprehensive healthcare for children, allows women to care for the health of their child effectively. The Affordable Care Act has certainly taken steps in ensuring some of these categories, but it remains to be seen how effective that legislation will be for families.

Returning to the conversation between my friend and me in class, if women are expected to supply the next generation of American children in the current economic climate, changes must be made in policy to support these children better. The reality of our culture today is that women are in the workplace, and no amount of wishing or antiquated gender ideology is going to change that. It’s time to leave behind these 50’s style, Mad Men-eque politics that privilege one family model over another, and ignore the needs of half the current workforce.

To the GOP politicians that blocked Obama’s work on the Paycheck Fairness Act: if you are going to be pro-life, and encourage women to have children, the first step is to let go of your own prejudice, or your profound selfishness, and give the same benefits to others that you enjoy. Stop trying to control the body of the woman having the child, then offering no benefits for the baby once it arrives. This is 2014, you should know better; let’s finally get to a place of equal pay for equal work.  


Friday, March 14, 2014

Things I Wish Would End #2: The Approachable Feminist Movement

While perusing my favorite feminist blogs this morning over coffee, I noticed an update concerning the “Ban Bossy” campaign, a movement spearheaded by the female trifecta of Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg, CEO of the Girl Scouts of America Anna Maria Chavez, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

As described on the website,, this campaign functions as a call for people to remove words like “bossy” from their vocabularies. Sandberg and others highlight the ways that words like these become derogatory and patronizing in their gender-specific nature, usually applied to strong women in the business world. The campaign argues that the word “bossy” is often used to undermine women of power, differentiating them from men who are simply heralded as “bosses”. The goals of this movement are twofold: creating awareness of the inequality that is facilitated through ascribing certain language to women, and empowering them to assert their authority and pursue leadership roles without facing the resulting negative stereotypes.

Sandberg is quoted as saying, in reference to the campaign, that “what hasn’t changed fast enough [in society] is our acceptance and encouragement of female leadership. That goes for all of us- parents, teachers, managers, society, everyone.” She says elsewhere in her bestselling book, Lean In, that women taking top positions in the business world will benefit the plight of women everywhere, breaking down gendered boundaries in our society and leading the way in the goal for gender equality.

By way of addressing what I see to be a rather pressing issue concerning campaigns like these, I want to begin by saying that I do not disagree with the goals laid out by Sandberg in her literature and political activism. No self-respecting feminist would disagree with the need for greater equality in the workplace, with the abolishment of derogatory, gender-specific language, or with the need for more female leadership in our world…because who runs the world according to Beyoncé? ;)

I do, however, think there could be a problem with women like Sandberg becoming the principal face of the modern feminist movement, as well as with her assertion that her place at the top is somehow bettering someone else’s place at the bottom.

Sandberg represents one kind of woman in the world, and a very specific one at that. A Harvard Business grad from an educated family, it is easy to imagine why, when she “leaned in” to her career, people stopped to listen. Women like Sandberg possess certain social caliber through background, race, and through her obviously heteronormative relationship described in her book. She was born into a place of privilege, and therefore has access to certain rights, and the luxury to be concerned about certain issues; issues like this label assigned to her in elementary school.

However, what about the rest of the world? What about the people to whom the word bossy might only scratch the surface of the derogatory language assigned to their person?

In light of the recent moves to limit reproductive options for women of this country, in light of the incredible violence enacted on individuals of non-normative sexuality around the world (see Russia), and the recent moves towards segregating spaces based on sexual orientation in places like Kansas and Arizona, is “banning bossy” really the issue behind which Sandberg and others should be throwing their highly influential voices?

Or, should we instead be focusing on the larger, more pressing ways that our world today is continuously devaluing certain bodies? Should we not be working to develop concrete ways to decrease prejudice-based violence in any form it comes, rather than constructing another sterile political movement the elite can support without any controversy?

The problem with campaigns like “Ban Bossy” is that they function solely as public cheer leading events that are devoid of real, concrete solutions to make the world a better place. They represent an approachable form of the feminist movement that is a dilution of what the movement should be- an exclusive rather than inclusive conversation about social justice that obscures the plight of individuals outside the privileged center. The Girl Scouts of America will get behind a campaign like this one, but they won’t take a stand against abortion issues, refusing to address a more touchy political issue that is vital to the achievement of equal rights for the empowered women they claim to support. Companies like TEDWomen are similar, as they will lead the cheer leading of the accomplishments of individual women achieving great success, but they won’t touch hot political issues like reproductive justice either.

Empowerment is crucial to the greater success of women in the world. Bossiness (read assertiveness) is directly linked with self-confidence, and empowering women to refuse the devaluation of their bodies and fight to achieve their dreams despite obstacles is definitely something I support. However, empowerment is not enough. There needs to be action and change behind these feelings, and movement towards more inclusive social policies that privilege all women (not just the ones at the top), or the movement is rendered futile. 

I understand that in order to appeal to the masses, there a certain amount of pandering that must be done. However, I think it is a problem to brand the “feminist” movement with campaigns like these hip and trendy ones that refuse to cover any new ground, stating what we already know about the problems of gender in America. I understand that it is uncomfortable to talk about the more difficult issues, to dirty one’s hands by taking a stand in the face of issues that may be politically or ideologically unpopular. I know that it is easier to pretend that people around the world are not fighting for their lives simply for being different. However, we cannot let our discomfort impede our willingness to act.

The problem is not “bossy”, the problem is the systematic devaluing of women through larger social ideologies that confine women to certain spaces. The problem is class and raced based stereotypes that facilitate acts of violence without repercussion.

Let’s stop talking about “bossy”, and start discussing the issues that really matter, providing solutions that will invoke real change in the world today. Let’s expand our vision outside of our own comfort zones and acknowledge the humanity of those different than us, instead of pretending our privileged success has anything to do with their struggles. Let’s reach out a helping hand, instead of another carefully tailored political slogan. Only then will we even begin to make a difference in our shared quest for a better world.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My Beef with Academia #1: “Who Is Our Public?”

Not long ago I attended a lecture here at Wake Forest University called, “The Humanities and Their Publics: Four Futures.” I was really excited about attending this talk, because for one, I’m a classic nerdy graduate student who not-so-secretly loves rubbing elbows with the academic elite, and also because I’m coming into a crisis in my perception of this field I’ve chosen. I initially began to pursue a career in academia because I wanted to learn how to make a difference in the world. However, since my arrival at graduate school, I’ve been left wondering: to what part of the world does this field of study grant me access, and is it an effective means of evoking change?

Because of these questions, I was instantly drawn to this talk I understood to be an exploration of the future of the study of the humanities, asking questions about who our “public” should be, and if we are reaching it in the right ways. After all, as the speaker highlighted, the humanities are becoming more and more interdisciplinary: History, English, and the Classics all intersect with a variety of disciplines including the sciences and the social sciences (issues of gender, sexuality, etc.). The humanities have therefore transformed into a voice for human rights issues, and I hoped this would be mentioned in the conversation, helping me to mediate some questions I have about my future in this field.

However, Ian Baucom’s talk was not what I anticipated, and left me with more questions than answers about what I understand to be the future of the study of the humanities. In a presentation entrenched in esoteric language, Baucom presented what he believes to be the four “publics” of humanities discourse: the disciplines of the humanities themselves (and discussions by faculty therein), college and university administrators (Deans, Provosts) and faculty in the sciences and social sciences, the national civic/public sphere, and the university as a transnational institution.

As I was listening to Baucom speak, and observing the question and answer session that directly followed, I became more and more concerned about the tone of this discussion, and the direction it was headed.
First, there was no mention of students, in the classroom or online, when considering the “publics” of humanities discourse. I found this to be extremely troubling, despite the fact that for many professors, teaching functions as a somewhat necessary evil in the greater scheme of producing one’s own academic scholarship. This should not be the case. It should be a privilege to share one’s knowledge with young minds and inspire them to grow and pursue their own interests and passions. This is one of the fundamental reasons I initially thought I would pursue a Ph.D and teach on the university level, for I wanted to fill this inspirational role many professors had filled for me over the years.

Secondly, I was bothered by the way in which online options were addressed in the lecture, however not necessarily surprised, as this section of the presentation functioned as a rather adept image of the way academia functions in relation to the outside world. Baucom highlighted the efforts being made through online options to create international relations between universities, sharing resources and expertise with the goal of reaching as many students as possible. That all sounds great. However, Baucom went on to question whether a student unable to pay the 50,000 dollars it takes to get in the door of a school like Wake Forest should have access to that classroom, and further if the teaching methods would even reach a “public” outside of carefully trained, Liberal Arts majors.

These questions underscore a central problem I have with my discipline in its given moment, and allude to the greater set of reasons I have been rendered disillusioned a year into my Masters. As writers, should not our discourse be open to public eyes? Should it not be phrased in language people can understand? Why do we spend so much time deconstructing essentialist identity if we ourselves are creating another form of caste system that keeps those of "lower" intelligence or means out?

As I said above, I became an English major because I wanted to make a difference in the world, and I thought there was no better way to accomplish this goal than by studying those who, through words, had made such a profound impact on the past. I took on a focus in Victorian Literature, not necessarily because Nineteenth Century British Fiction keeps me up at night (though Wuthering Heights will always be my favorite book). I chose this moment in history because a society with the most rigidly policed rules and norms creates the most possibilities for disruption, and I spent four years of undergraduate experience writing about every representation of expansive gender spectrums, non-normative gender and sexuality, and constructed racial hierarchies evidenced in any Victorian novel I could get my hands on. I believed I was fighting for human rights, and that arguing for greater social justice through a vehicle of education and literature legitimized my words.

I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to emulate professors like the ones I had in the English department at Furman University, individuals who challenged the small-minded, conservative ideology I toted with me from my hometown, encouraging me instead to think for myself and construct my own worldview.

It is for these reasons I believe that academia is valuable. The study of the humanities provides an incredible mirror for the world in which we live, and if done well, this can be used as a tool to help prevent history from repeating itself, working towards a more expansive, open world.  
However, this is not the picture of academia created by Baucom in his discussion of the University and its “publics”. His talk revealed a world of intellectual work that was anything but open to the public: phrased in language a select few understand, accessible only to the upper class elites who have the social and economic status to reach it, and kept out of the hands of the masses by a refusal to make resources available to lower brackets. Students were forgotten in favor of highlighting one’s own intellectual achievements. At the end of the day, the essential premise that academia is in some sort of transitional state was proven false, as this is the same, self-consumed world that has always existed.

This conclusion is a hard one to swallow, and I fully believe one can love something and still have deep problems with the ways that it’s executed. I love academia, and I think the study of the humanities is deeply valuable to our continuous growth as a society. I’m grateful for the resources it has given me in the pursuit of my passions. However, I cannot imagine myself in six years in stuffy auditorium, discussing a public for my words that will never hear what I have to say. Just as it is not the healthy that need a doctor, I want my words to be read and understood by those for which they matter. I want the things I say to make the world a better place for them, and not just function as another way I assure the world of my own brilliance.

I hope we can one day penetrate the bubble that sections off the elite university from the world outside, uniting the most brilliant minds of today in a quest for a better world. Who knows, maybe I’ll start the revolution.