Thursday, November 16, 2017

On MSM, Femininity, and Fags

In Dude You’re a Fag, CJ Pascoe argues that young, presumably heterosexual, men construct their masculinity in opposition to femininity and an abstract “fag” identity, a “specter of failed masculinity” embodied in an effeminate man. Extending Pascoe’s framework to adult men who have sex with men (MSM), their erotic practices suggest they too construct masculine sexual identities in opposition to femininity and feminine gay men—“fags,” a point that should concern feminists.

Given the return of Will and Grace to the small screen, one would think that MSM would embrace characters like “Jack”, a flamboyant and feminine W&G character. But sexual identities and practices remain complicated. Indeed, I use MSM rather than gay, queer, joto, etc., to reference the subjects of this piece since other descriptors carry connotations that many MSM repudiate in seeking same-sex sex. For instance, there are MSM who identify as straight and are unlikely to adopt gay or bi labels for variousreasons. That is why I focus on MSM’s sexual practices vis-à-vis femininity and “fags.”

Today’s literature on men’s sexual practices suggests men’s sexuality is as fluid as women’s is thought to be. This NSFW vignette on Ric offers insight into a MSM who does not identify as gay or bi because “straight people don’t give shit” about those labels. But he does identify as a “cocksucking anal slut faggot” to his prospective suitors. Arguably, Ric strategically calls himself a “faggot” to attract straight men whose partners may not consent to fellatio or anal sex. By marking himself as a “faggot” at the outset of his sexual encounters, Ric allows his MSM partners to remain straight and masculine throughout sex. Moreover, Ric’s sexual practices suggest that “fags” are MSM who are anally receptive or willing to perform fellatio.

When other straight-identified MSM were queried about their sexual practices, their responses repudiated femininity and fag(ness). One stated, “I don’t want the effeminate ones.”Another said he identified as straight because he “likes to hunt, fish, camp,and raise cattle for a living." In other words, these MSM don’t want to have sex with nor be considered “fags.” What then of Ric’s MSM partners who had sex with a self-professed “cocksucking anal slut faggot”? These sexual practices expose the amorphous, irrational logic undergirding MSM sexual identities, which are tinged with misogyny since they are constructed at the expense of femininity, especially femininity embodied in men—“fags.”

The same outlook can be found among users of the MSM hookup app Grindr. Its users, including many who identify as gay, routinely employ describers like “masc,” “chill,” and “dude,” to convey they are not effeminate and attract other “masc” or “real men.” This suggests that MSM, irrespective of sexual orientation, place a premium on masculinity over femininity, including “fags.” Thus, Grindr enables its users to spread an insidious form of misogyny that privileges masculinity over femininity in what is commonly thought to be a progressive space. I guess gay friendly spaces are only friendly so long as you’re not a fag—so much for gay men’s progressiveness! (For more on this, see Why areFaggots so Afraid of Faggots?)

So why should this concern feminists? It’s easy to dismiss the misogyny that colors MSM’s sexual practices as only extending to MSM’s bedrooms. But feminists should be alarmed that MSM are hindering sexual equality by reifying masculine privilege in one of our most personal and valued spheres of action, the bedroom. As feminists, we must provide more nuanced critiques of erotic practices, including the ways in which gender is mapped onto erotic practices at the expense of femininity. Curtly, we will not be able to “fuck our way to freedom” so long as fucking is construed as entailing privileged masculine elements over feminine elements.

What might the first female American President look like?

Donald Trump’s victory over Hilary Clinton in last year’s American presidential election came as a huge shock to many feminists both in the US and beyond. Like many around the world, I found myself consumed by this fascinating and controversial race. Had Hillary been elected, she would have been the first female President of the US. 

Despite the disappointment that some liberals and feminists felt at the result, it seems to be largely taken for granted among women I meet that there will be a female (liberal or conservative) in the White House someday. This has led me to wonder what kind of future female President would prove a good role model for women both in America and around the world. 

As an Irish person who, before August of this year, had never been to the US, I cannot claim to be an expert in American politics. My perspective therefore is merely that of a respectful “outsider looking in,” and is based on experience and knowledge of my own country, Ireland.

In Ireland we can claim some pedigree when it comes to women Presidents. Two of our last three Presidents have been females, Mary Robinson (1990-97) and Mary McAleese (1997-2011). Of course, unlike America, Ireland is no superpower. Our international profile could never equal that of the US. Irish Government also works differently to here. Our Presidents are more figureheads than politicians, with the political role kept separate and played by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister). This is very different to America where the President combines both the figurehead and political functions. All this makes comparisons between the two offices neither easy nor always reasonable.

Nevertheless, I feel that Ireland’s two past female Presidents merit at least some consideration as good role models for feminists and any future, aspiring American woman President. Both Robinson and McAleese played pivotal roles in transforming Ireland into a more liberal, peaceful and inclusive society. In their own different ways, too, each showed examples of compassion, courage and sincerity that, to my mind, ought to resonate with all women. 

On a personal level, I initially came to admire Robinson because she was the first Head of State of any country to visit my own native West Belfast. This was an area whose people had been devastated by the Irish ‘Troubles’ of the 1960s to mid-90s and which had become deeply embittered by decades-long marginalization and repression. In the teeth of establishment outrage, Robinson went into West Belfast and publicly praised the spirit of its long suffering community. She also, on her visit, met with and shook hands with the community’s then infamous elected representative, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams. It was a vital and key first step in the Irish peace process.

Likewise, Robinson challenged traditional Irish nationalist shibboleths by becoming the first Irish President both to visit the United Kingdom and to meet, at Buckingham Palace, a British monarch, the present Queen Elizabeth II. On foot of this, she welcomed senior members of the British royal family, most notably the Prince of Wales, to her official residence in Dublin, Áras an Uachtaráin. These were bold moves that dramatically changed the face of existing Anglo-Irish relations.

For me, though, the most compelling example Robinson gave us of a great female Presidential role model came in 1992. She was one of the first world leaders, at that time, to highlight publicly the horrors of famine and genocide in Somalia and Rwanda. After personally visiting, over 3 days, thousands of sick and dying refugees across the region, a visibly tearful and shaken Irish woman President stood before the press cameras and famously declared:- 

“I’m sorry that I cannot be entirely calm speaking to you, because I have such a sense of what the world must take responsibility for.”

Her words and demeanour on this occasion shamed the West into action and led to the first concerted international humanitarian response to the Somalian and Rwandan crises.

Robinson’s successor, Mary McAleese, during her time in office, worked tirelessly to address issues of sectarianism and violence in the north of Ireland through an openly declared policy of “building bridges”. Picking up the mantle of her predecessor, McAleese invited Britain’s Queen Elizabeth to make a first ever state visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011 – a move that initially discomfited some Irish Republicans but ultimately helped open a new door - not necessarily of agreement - but certainly respect and understanding between them and the British Royal Family. 

Early in her Presidency, McAleese also incurred the wrath of the then powerful, male dominated Catholic hierarchy in Ireland by accepting communion in an Anglican church. Although a devout Catholic herself, McAleese saw the move in the context of Ireland’s long history of religious conflict. For her, respecting and representing Irish people of different religious traditions was a core, and hugely important, responsibility of her office. 

It was a similar sense of duty that impelled McAleese, as President, to call for the complete deconstruction of homophobia in Ireland. In a broadcast from Áras an Uachtaráin (Ireland’s equivalent to an Oval Office) McAleese endorsed the Irish LGBT rights campaign and praised campaigners for working to bring fully to fruition the country’s founding Proclamation that “all the children of the nation shall be cherished equally”. In 2010 she signed into law the state’s first legislation recognising the validity of same sex relationships (civil partnerships). Within 5 years of this, attitudes to LGBT people in Ireland had changed so dramatically that the country, by popular referendum, voted to amend the Irish constitution to allow for same sex marriage. The extent of the shift in Irish social attitudes that McAleese helped bring about is no better testified than by the appointment, just last June, of Ireland's first openly gay Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadakar. It is an extraordinary change in a country formerly dominated by the Catholic church.

It seems to me, then, that in order to become a great role model for women in the US and across the world, the first American woman President should consider becoming a transforming President, at least in the spirit of Robinson and McAleese. Ireland is, of course, a tiny country. But perhaps women from even a great country, like the US, who aspire to great political office, like the American President, can sometimes look towards a small country and draw some inspiration? Perhaps too, that first American woman President, when she takes office, might be able to connect, in some way, with the thoughts of Mary Robinson, after she was elected Ireland’s first woman President:-
“I must be a President for all the people, but more than that, I want to be a President for all the people. Because I was elected by men and women of all parties and none, by many with great moral courage, who stepped out from the faded flags of the Civil War and voted for a new Ireland, and above all by the women of Ireland, mná na hÉireann, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system. And who came out massively to make their mark on the ballot paper and on a new Ireland.”

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Airing Ireland's dirty linen

Moving to America has made me realise how proud I am to be Irish. While my migration to Davis was inherently daunting, the fear and uncertainty about being so far away from home has been tempered by the genuine warmth of those who detect even the slightest hint of my accent. In many ways, it has helped me combat the sense of feeling like an outsider.

While I consider it a privilege that the utterance of my nationality enjoys a largely positive reception, my absence from Ireland has imparted on me a large deal of objectivity in it’s assessment, particularly from a feminist perspective. The reality is, although I’m proud of certain facets of my Irish identity, as a woman I’m also deeply embarrassed by it.

Earlier last week, a New York Time’s video titled ‘The lost children of Tuam’ circulated my Facebook newsfeed. This deeply poignant video documents the discovery, and subsequent cover up of a mass burial chamber, where the remains of at least 796 ‘illegitimate’ children and infants were dumped by the Bon Secours sisters in an act of what can only be described as pure sacrilege. You see, the Republic of Ireland, since its nascence in the early 20th Century, has been ensnared and indoctrinated by the Catholic Church. The result? The systemic enslavement and abuse of thousands of unmarried mothers in ‘mother and baby homes’, otherwise known as Magdalene Laundries, which were run by four religious orders of the Catholic Church and covertly financed by the Irish State.

The Magdalene Laundries have left a gaping wound across the social and political landscape of modern Ireland. Often referred to as Magdalene Asylums, they appeared on the surface to be institutions where women were expected to work in a laundry in return for bed, board and atonement for their sins. Behind this façade a different story. The nuns that ran these laundries quietly profited off washing the linen of local wealthy families while at the same time physically, emotionally and spiritually abusing these women.

They functioned as institutions for ‘fallen women’, so firmly believed to be in the clutches of depravity for daring to, or having the misfortune of becoming pregnant outside of marriage. With contraception only barely being legalised in Ireland in 1980 (another string of society the master puppeteer Church controlled), accidental pregnancies, not to mention pregnancies arising from the abhorrent acts of rape and incest, were almost inevitable. Among these “fallen women” were sufferers of mental health illnesses as well as women with petty criminal convictions, however the vast majority of those enslaved were unmarried mothers averaging at the tender age of 23.

The short film gives a voice to some of the survivors of this particular mother and baby home in Tuam. One man painfully detailed that when his mother had gotten pregnant outside of marriage “the priest in the parish got to hear about it and told her parents that it was an awful disgrace. That she couldn’t be seen out because she’d be a bad influence”. I assure you, this was not an isolated incident. We have to remember that practically until the turn of the 21st Century, the Catholic Church ruled supreme in Ireland. A priest paying attention to a particular person or a particular family was akin to God himself sitting down with you for tea. This monopoly on society meant that a priest telling a family how disgraceful their daughter was would often garner a visceral reaction of shame and disgust, resulting in their ‘beloved’ daughter being coerced into a mother and baby home in order to escape the toxic scrutiny of the insular Irish society. Almost always the families were told the same lie; “the nuns would look after her there”.

While the government closed this particular mother and baby home in Tuam in 1961, it continued to operate similar homes across the country right up until 1996. I wouldn’t have enough space in this post to fully detail the abuses women faced at the hands of the supposedly ‘trusted’ clergy, however at least 23,000 unmarried women were put in these homes and forced to give up their infants. Whether they were starved, neglected, left to fester in their own waste, smothered, beaten or illegally bartered off to rich American families, their children were most brutally punished for being the fruits of a perceived union of ‘sin’. They were punished for the innocence of their mere existence.

I was born a year after the last laundry was shut. However, growing up in a supposed ‘post-laundry’ landscape doesn’t rid the horrors from Irish memories or consciences. In 2013, our former Taoiseach Enda Kenny was moved to tears in the Dáil while issuing a formal apology to all women whose suffering had long gone unnoticed. This apology was accompanied by a plan to provide reparations to the few remaining survivors of the laundries, with the Church so piously refusing to contribute.  However, it was not until February 2017 that the mass grave in Tuam was addressed by Kenny in the Dáil;
“No nuns broke into our homes to kidnap our children. We gave them up to what we convinced ourselves was the nuns' care. We gave them up maybe to spare them the savagery of gossip, the wink and the elbow language of delight in which the holier than thous were particularly fluent.... Indeed for a while it seems as if in Ireland our women had the amazing capacity to self impregnate”.

While State-issued apologies can do little more than affirm an injustice was committed, I struggle with the fact that my country propagated such a disgraceful, inhuman treatment of women merely because society deemed them to have "fallen". It’s a topic I can do little justice to in a blog post other than highlight its existence. However, to end almost where I began, in times such as these when I find myself marooned from home undergoing bouts of homesickness, I can’t neglect this. As a feminist, my national pride is wholly eclipsed by the embarrassment flowing from my country’s acts against women, and no number of Americans warmly telling me what percentage Irish heritage they are will ever override that embarrassment.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Roy Moore, females, and small-town access to justice

Media accounts sometimes implicate rural access-to-justice issues, though the connection is not always obvious at first blush.  Perhaps no story better illustrates this point than the recent allegations against the candidate for U.S. Senate from Alabama, Roy Moore.  Moore, a small-town lawyer turned-twice-removed Alabama Supreme Court justice, is now facing multiple allegations of inappropriate conduct with underage women in the 1970s.  Many have asked why the women (girls, some of them, at the time) did not come forward sooner.  I assert that the answer to this question lies in the complex barriers that have long deterred those in rural communities from pursuing legal redress.

By now, we are all familiar with the allegations against Alabama Senate Republican nominee Roy Moore. The salacious accounts, initially published by the Washington Post, paint Moore as an opportunistic predator who used his power and influence in the small city of Gadsden, Alabama as a means to attract and "romance" teenage girls. A report from a former co-worker notes that Moore's affairs with teenage girls were "common knowledge." Moore himself issued a sloppily worded defense on Sean Hannity's program, where he stated that he could not deny that he had dated teenage girls in the past.

Many, including Moore himself, have asked why these women would wait four decades to come forward with their stories. Steve Bannon has even accused Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos of engaging in a  conspiracy to destroy Moore's candidacy. The people who ask these questions seem  ignorant of the social dynamics of tight-knit rural communities and the secrecy that can often times be fostered by these communities.

As the WaPo story notes, Moore was seen as a local hero. Like many rural communities, Gadsden (population 37,000), has been in a state of decline brought upon it by a loss of manufacturing jobs.  With opportunities few and far between, the fact that Moore had managed to gain admission to West Point and then to law school was seen as an inspiration to the people of the town. As is common in many rural communities, being a lawyer also conferred a certain amount of social capital upon Moore. The level of admiration for Moore was such that when Debbie Wesson Gibson asked for her mother's permission to date Moore, her mother told that she would be the "luckiest girl in the world" if Moore, then 34, were interested in her.

To make allegations against Roy Moore in 1970s Alabama would have been a tremendous uphill climb for anyone, much less a teenager. Even his co-workers viewed Moore's tendency to date teenagers as essentially a personality quirk, not anything that warranted investigation and possible prosecution. As Moore himself noted in his interview with Sean Hannity, he never dated a girl without her mother's permission. The WaPo story even notes an instance where Moore stopped dating a girl when her mother did not give permission for the relationship to continue. From the evidence presented, it seems that Moore was careful to target girls whose parents were okay with the age difference and at least, in one case, encouraged the relationship to continue.

In small towns, relationships and social standing are both very important forms of currency. In sociologist Cynthia Duncan's book Worlds Apart, Duncan tells a story about a young man in a small town in Appalachia that is able to secure a bank loan with no questions asked because of a familial relationship with a person with whom the banker had done business.  The young man's relationships and social standing made him inherently trustworthy and conferred upon him a certain amount of credibility. Roy Moore was certainly a beneficiary of being seen as trustworthy because of his social standing as well.

The standing of women in Alabama in this time period also presented a barrier. The most famous illustration of this from Alabama came from 1961 when Alabama First Lady Lurleen Wallace was diagnosed with uterine cancer. As was standard practice at the time, the doctor told only her husband, Governor George Wallace, who then insisted that the diagnosis be kept from his wife. First Lady Wallace did not find out that she had cancer until 1965. Wallace would later die from this cancer during her own term as governor, which she was serving as a surrogate for her term-limited husband.

If the First Lady of Alabama was seen as so lowly that a cancer diagnosis was hidden from her, what hope would a young girl in a small town have of successfully seeking justice against a respected local attorney?  indeed, against the local district attorney/prosecuting attorney?

Another barrier is the lack of general knowledge of how to avail oneself to the protections of the legal system. In 1969, the Duke University Law Review conducted a study on the legal issues of the rural poor. Their focus was an unnamed county in eastern North Carolina. What they found was that a very small percentage of people sought legal action when wronged by either the government or another private party. The study also found that many of them were unaware that they could even do so.

The idea that Roy Moore would have been prosecuted for his actions in 1970s Alabama is laughable at best.  Moore was insulated by a culture that knew of his actions but did not take action to stop them.  He was also enabled by parents who felt that dating Moore was advantageous for their daughters, regardless of the implications of the age difference. In a small city going through economic turmoil, Moore was seen as a shining light, proof that you could escape your circumstances and make something of yourself. The notion that the credibility of the accusers is impeached by their "failure" to come forward 40 years ago is intellectually dishonest.

While Moore's actions are egregious and--we would hope--atypical of any community, they do point to the vulnerability of people who are facing injustices and have nowhere to turn. As the Duke study notes, the issue of justice in rural communities has long been hampered by a lack of resources and knowledge of the legal system. While many communities have access to civil legal aid programs that can help people, particularly victims of domestic violence, seek protective orders and other remedies against abusers, many of those programs are increasingly facing cuts on the state and federal level. In fact, President Donald Trump's proposed budget from earlier this year called for the elimination of the LSC, which provides grants to legal aid programs.

Before asking why these women did not come forward 40 years ago, perhaps we should examine the barriers that made doing so effectively impossible.

Another post about Roy Moore and rurality is here.

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.  By Christopher Chavis 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Double Eye Lid Surgery – What's The Big Deal?



Korean-Americans have a fascination with double-eyelid surgery. For some second generation Korean-American females, it is considered a rite of passage to undergo the surgical procedure at the age of eighteen. I remember on the eve of my sister’s eighteenth birthday, our mother told my sister that money had been set aside to pay for the elective surgery – if my sister wanted the procedure. Our family did not grow up with a lot of money, with little to no savings to speak of. The mere fact that our parents had specifically earmarked money for the sole purpose of an elective surgery spoke volumes. The normative subtext of our mother’s statement becomes clearer situated in this context: you should get this surgery.

In Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian American Women and Comestic Surgery, Eugeina Kaw offers a descriptive account of the phenomenon of double eyelid surgery, and its social implications. Kaw provides a thorough analysis of how and why Asian-American women feel compelled into getting plastic surgery, mainly for reconstruction of the nose and the eyes.

Her views on the strict racialization of facial features and what this racialization leads to, hinges on three key aspects: (i) the “cultural and institutional structures” of a society (namely the medical field and media), (ii) the effects of a consumer orientated society, and (iii) the “internalization of racial and gender stereotypes”. Kaw further argues that these different aspects work together in order to influence Asian-American women into feeling the need obtain a more “American” look.

Let me first begin by posing a two-part question: does the medical field and cosmetic field work in conjunction to create a particular definition of beauty and if they do, how and why do Asian-American women buy into the mold of beauty that defines the “Asian” look as undesirable?

Kaw argues that the medical field, in conjunction with a consumer orientated society, does in fact shape the way people in a society come to think about what it means to appear beautiful. Eugeina Kaw believes that Asian-American women learn to associate the characteristic Asiatic facial features with negative traits such as: passivity, dullness, a lacking of expression, and slow wit. As a result of Asian-American women correlating their facial features (flat nose, “slanty eyes”) with negative traits, they “strive for a face with larger eyes and a more prominent nose,” which Kaw argues can be understood as wanting a more “American” face. These associations that Asian-American women make can be attributed to the fact that they have been continually exposed to racial stereotypes through two main socializing agents: family and media.

For example, when my sister was a junior in high school, my aunt and mother persuaded my sister to get the double eyelid surgery during her summer visit to Korea. My sister said at that age, she was easily persuaded into getting the surgery because she personally believed that “American” looking eyes were more attractive than the shape of “Asian” eyes. It seemed as if her readiness to accept the surgery stemmed from her over-exposure to American media and the transmission of cultural values that my aunt and mother held (family as a socializing agent).*

The strength of this cultural learning is only reinforced by the manner in which the medical field perpetuates these racial ideologies that influences Asian-American women to associate negative traits with their natural facial features. Although, the medical professionals never hint at the fact overtly, it is subtly implied in the way doctors describe “Asian” facial features. Terminology and phraseology such as “the absence of of the palpebral fold produces a passive expression which seems to epitomize the stoical and unemotional manner of the Oriental”, expresses the view that medical knowledge is based off of “scientific rationality”. By referring to science as their justification for such characterizations, and using medical terminology, they protect themselves from racial criticisms by hiding behind the “veil of objectivity” of the medical field.

If we were to embrace the view that Asian-American women are being subtly influenced into conforming to the Western standard of beauty, what possible solutions are there to regain autonomy and empowerment? Referring back to my sister, as she became more knowledgeable in the field of sociology and Asian-American studies, her views on double eyelid surgery drastically changed. She began to despise the fact that she had undergone the surgery, and realized her decision to get the double eyelids was heavily influenced by problematic external factors. 

*I recognize that I may be editorializing here, in an attempt to shoehorn my sister’s experiences within Eugeina Kaw’s framework. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Queer signaling and femme invisibility

Is there a "right way" to be queer? Queer theory advocates subversion, transgression, destabilization, and volatility in the face of dominant hetero-patriarchal norm. It supports those who fall outside the boundaries of "proper sexual desire, gender performance, and anatomical form." It is, essentially, anti-essentialist. As a result, one could argue, it cannot/does not require any particular set of attributes, behaviors, or beliefs. However, I find myself questioning that conclusion.

In 1995, queer theorist David Halperin complained: “There is now a right way to be queer ... to invert the norms of straight society." His implication was that queerness had been commodified and distilled down to a particular image. Consider, for example, the image of an impeccably dressed and groomed fit gay man (later commodified for straight men as "metrosexual") or the image of an androgynous L.A. lesbian (think Shane from The L Word with her transgressive short haircuts and masculine or agendered clothing, or even Ellen Degeneres).

While the ethos of queer theory suggests there is no "right way" to be queer, the reality is that a large contingent of queer culture has adopted its own signaling practices and image standards. It is difficult to identify as queer based solely on sexual identity or desire. Rather, one must “perform” as queer in a manner that not only identifies you as queer for the outside world, but indicates to the queer community that you are "one of us."

This system, of course, has ramifications for those that don't choose to perform or conform to queer identifiers. I can speak specifically from my perspective as a queer woman who generally presents heteronormatively (on the more feminine side of the spectrum... aka a "femme"). I have never had short hair, I like getting my nails done and wearing makeup, and I frequently wear heels and dresses when I go out or to formal social events. I am generally only identified as (or suspected to be) queer when I am with an obviously queer partner or engaging in transgressive activities (for example, when I played rugby, a decidedly "non-feminine" sport, in college). These choices aren't made for convenience's sake. I am not actively trying to "pass" in straight society. While I am aware that my preferences are largely shaped by gender expectations of the society I grew up in, they are still my preferences, and I have no desire to "queer up" my look.

Not presenting as outwardly queer has obvious benefits. I am allowed a pass in spaces where visible queerness might be a profound social or professional obstacle – or even where it might be dangerous. It's easier for me to find clothing that reflects my own personal style and is made with women's curves in mind. I can use the women's restroom without being questioned or yelled at (a sadly common experience for my past girlfriends). However, this choice comes also comes with challenges. "Looking straight" means I must constantly "come out" to people – people at my job, people at school, to men who are interested in dating, and in just about every other social situation where I am meeting individuals for the first time. It means being asked to explain and justify my sexual identity to clueless people who assert "you just don't look gay." At the same time, without outward queer identifiers, I find I am also invisible to or discounted by other members of the queer community (a phenomenon identified as "femme erasure"). As a result I often find myself uncomfortably straddling the line between heteronormative culture and queer culture, feeling part of – yet also apart from – both.

Another challenge faced by queer women who present as femme is that they remain subject to dominant or toxic masculinity, not just from cis-men, but from members of the queer community who have retained or adopted practices that subjugate the feminine. When I dated more androgynous or butch women, others often assumed that I was the passive partner in the relationship. Restaurant bills would be put in front of my partners. While car shopping, salesmen first approached my partner who came with me. Past partners were invited by men to participate in activities that excluded or marginalized femme women (think strip clubs, cigars, golf), or were treated as inherently more intelligent, driven, or professional, simply as a result of their having a more masculine presentation.

Misogyny percolates into dating and relationships between femmes and other queer women too. Femmes are often expected to play the traditional feminine role, which involves taking on a disproportionate amount of housework/cooking or doing the majority of the emotional labor in the relationship. Some past partners assumed that if the relationship progressed I would be comfortable with my career taking a backseat, that I would take my partner's last name, or that I would spend more time at home with any kids that might enter the picture.

This is not to say that femmes are by and large dismissed as pariahs in the queer community, but it is interesting to see how sexism persists even in a movement that purports to reject patriarchy, gender barriers, and other expressions of heteronormativity. However, an increased movement among queer folks to make the community more inclusive of and welcoming to femmes heartens me. In fact, the butch community (the other end of the spectrum) has produced some of the femme community's strongest allies. I look forward to seeing how this movement plays out and evolves within the greater queer community over time.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

DeVos and campus sexual assault


President Trump's Department of Education chair Betsy DeVos recently made headlines by rescinding the Obama administration's guidelines for campus sexual assault investigations/adjudications, as set forth in the so-called "Dear Colleague Letter.

DeVos decided to do so after meeting with multiple stakeholders/advocacy groups including, most controversially, "men's rights" groups and advocacy groups for the wrongfully accused. For example, one group she met with was Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, which advocates for increased due process rights for those accused of sexual assault on campus. The group was recently "labeled misogynistic by the Southern Poverty Law Center after it published a set of 'key facts' about domestic violence that said 'female initiation of partner violence is the leading reason for the woman becoming a victim of subsequent injury.'" It is incredible that an agency tasked with promoting the civil rights protections and anti-sex discrimination provisions of Title IX would actively seek the opinions of such an organization.

After repealing the Obama-era guidelines, DeVos put new interim guidelines (in the form of a Q&A) in place. Citing due process considerations, the guidelines now allow campuses to choose between the preponderance of the evidence standard and the clear and convincing evidence standard when investigating allegations of sexual assault.

I have actually been surprised by the public criticism of the preponderance of the evidence standard of review. Multiple news outlets, including USA Today, the New York Times, and The Atlantic have published editorials and opinion pieces supporting the decision to move toward a stricter standard of review in campus sexual assault investigations. While I support a fair review process, I also recognize the various reasons a preponderance of the evidence standard is appropriate for campuses. First, campus investigations aren't criminal investigations, and thus the preponderance of the evidence standard (which is used in civil proceedings) seems more fitting. Additionally, colleges and universities have an interest in protecting their students (both the accuser/survivor, and other students on campus) and should be able to do so by making their own determinations of whether or not student conduct violations have occurred. Why should allegations of sexual misconduct be held to a higher standard of review than other student conduct violations?

Most importantly, in my view, the preponderance standard places the accuser and the accused on more equal footing. This latter consideration is especially critical in sexual assault cases where there may already be a tremendous power imbalance between the accuser and accused and where social stigma and skepticism attaches to survivors from the moment they come forward.

While ample room exists for improvement in other aspects of campus investigations, I don't believe that the preponderance of the evidence standard is the problem. Heightening the standard of review would make it even more difficult for survivors to get a meaningful resolution and might further deter survivors from reporting sexual assaults.

Another troubling component of DeVos' interim guidelines is that it opens the door to informal resolution such as mediation. As I learned from watching The Hunting Ground, universities have a strong financial incentive to gloss over incidents of sexual violence that occur on campus. Despite this recognized conflict of interest, the interim guidelines fail to provide any details on how a mediation should be carried out. This is problematic, since universities have a strong incentive to steer parties toward informal mediation, rather than dealing with a more difficult (from a public relations standpoint) adversarial process. Furthermore, doesn't mediation intuitively signal that each party carries some blame or, alternatively, that there is no liable party? What message does this send to perpetrators who, through mediation, may evade meaningful punishment for their actions? Will mediation deter perpetrators from engaging in sexually assaultive conduct in the future?

Additionally, although a sexual assault is treated as a civil rights violation under Title IX, the fact is that the underlying behavior was sexually violent conduct. As a result, survivors of sexual assault often experience feelings of trauma, confusion, shame, and internalized guilt. Is a face-to-face mediation between a survivor and a perpetrator appropriate in the aftermath of a sexual assault? Are college administrators equipped to protect survivors and prevent additional trauma during the process?

Overall, I feel DeVos' interim guidelines signal that the current administration is more concerned with the rights of the accused than those of the victims. Furthermore, these new rules are a solution to a problem (false accusations) that is overestimated and overblown... only 2%-10% of rape accusations are estimated to be false. Compare the dubious concerns over a false accusation epidemic with the very real and demonstrable epidemic of campus sexual assault. Given the data, it should be clear that campus sexual assaults - not false accusations - are the larger problem. Thus, Title IX policies and procedures should be written in a way that leads schools to effectively and meaningfully address sexual assaults. Rather than giving campuses more leeway, we should give clear and detailed guidance for all schools to follow. This would would encourage consistent treatment of cases across campuses and make it more difficult for disingenuous institutions/administrators to sweep sexual violence under the rug.


A number of Democratic lawmakers have recently put forward legislation that would make certain advisory guidelines of the Dear Colleague Letter (including use of the preponderance of the evidence standard) actual law. Unfortunately, given the current political climate, I have little optimism of their efforts succeeding. Nevertheless, if and when Congress decides to codify guidelines for dealing with campus sexual assault, one can only hope it considers the purpose behind Title IX: to allow students equal access to education, with meaningful protections from sexual harassment and violence... not to shelter institutions or the accused.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A feminist joto's take on Playboy

I was about thirteen years old when I stumbled upon a discarded Playboy magazine. It was on the floor of a public, single-stall bathroom. The cover of the magazine immediately peaked my interest. I reached for it and leafed through it as I went about by business. Admittedly, by that age I knew I was what older Latinas referred to as curioso, a questionable euphemism that some Latinx folks use to refer to jotos and gender non-conforming individuals—it’s akin to calling someone precious. And they were right. By then I knew I was somehow “different” from other boys: I found myself “crushing on” boys and not girls, developing friendships mostly with girls, and distancing myself from stereotypically masculine activities, including sports. Indeed, I dreaded the weekends, when my father would seize control of the tv, and I had to pretend to cheer for Club America, his favorite soccer team. But I did enjoy screaming “gooooooooooooool” whenever a player scored a goal.

And yet the contents of the magazine mesmerized me. I was still learning English then, so I paid little attention to the text. Instead, I perused the photo spreads, each of which led to a moment of solemn introspection: “Is this what I’m supposed to like?” I looked at the models’ breasts, “nada” (nothing). I looked further below, “tampoco” (still nothing). I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to feel, but I didn’t feel anything. Still, I remained captivated.

I continued examining the pictures carefully. The models were beautiful, glamorous, and radiated confidence. Their pictures made me wonder if I would ever exude femininity like them, a thought that confirmed I was curioso. By then at least ten minutes had passed, so I quickly tossed the magazine aside, cleaned up, and walked out. Today, I wonder if that discarded Playboy magazine answered other questions that questioning teenagers may have had.

In retrospect, perusing that Playboy magazine forced me to confront my sexuality and gender identity over the course of a bathroom break. No, I didn’t walk out of the stall screaming, “soy joto” (I’m gay). But as I forged my identity moving forward, I felt empowered knowing I enjoyed the performance of but wasn’t attracted to femininity—a topic I’ll discuss in a later post. For that reason, I have a somewhat positive attitude toward Playboy.

Some would argue, however, that Playboy magazine is inherently antithetical to feminism because it perpetuates women’s sexual objectification. But that argument is too facile. Look around! Contemporary capitalist culture is predicated on sexual objectification. Indeed, H & M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria’s Secret, etc., ads rival many of Playboy magazine’s “soft-core” images. But Playboy magazine at least has the decency to admit it uses adult models for adult entertainment purposes. In contrast, many retailers’ ads sexually objectify (underage) women and men without “for adults” labels, and the retailers peddle the ads for mass consumption free of charge. Even our food ads employ sexual imagery to wet our appetites—remember these Carl’s Jr ads? I can’t recall the last time ate a hamburger in that manner. Thus, if Playboy undermines the feminist cause, so do a lot of soft-core ads, and it behooves us, feminists, to think twice about the retailers we patronize since our money may very well be spent on soft-core ads.

That is not to say that Playboy is not without problems. Indeed, one problem is its lack of diversity with respect to race, look, size, and ableness. Arguably, if Playboy magazine is going to continue structuring its consumers’ desires, it should at least structure them in a more inclusive fashion. And we should demand the same from advertisers. Personally, I’m glad I found that Playboy when I did because it cleared up important questions early in my life. If I had similar questions today, a Victoria’s Secret catalogue may suffice.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The post-Harvey Weinstein landscape

If you've paid attention to the news in the last two weeks, you've undoubtably seen the name Harvey Weinstein quite a bit. Weinstein, co-founder of juggernaut film studio The Weinstein Company, was recently fired after dozens of women in the industry publicly revealed that they had been sexually assaulted by him. The New York Times did a good job of recapping the story so far. Particularly eye-opening, there were claims of sexual assault from some of Hollywood's biggest leading women like Angeline Jolie and Eva Green. This is not to say famous women are worthier of attention, it's intended merely to highlight the extent of Harvey Weinstein's disregard for women. It takes a particular state of mind for a person to think they can assault some of the world's most high-profile women without consequence. For those interested, Jezebel has a running list of the women who have come out against Harvey Weinstein.

Beyond Harvey Weinstein, this story is significant for other reasons. This scandal has revealed quite a bit about our society, good and bad. Starting with the good, women and men alike took social media by storm with "#metoo" as a means of raising awareness and a show of solidarity in the wake of the Weinstein scandal. The hashtag was used by those who had experienced sexual assault in their own lives. As Facebook and Twitter feeds drowned in #metoo posts, many including myself reflected in horror as friends and family put a face to sexual assault and just how pervasive the problem really is. While this is nothing to feel positive about, it did at least help show the gravity of the situation. The #metoo phenomenon has led to increased conversation about sexual assault and how to remedy it. More specifically, many men responded with detailed "#Iwill" commitments to do better to prevent sexual assault in the future. 

The #metoo campaign was not entirely uncontroversial. For many it is traumatizing to see how pervasive the problem of sexual assault is, leading to a feeling of inescapability. Additionally the #metoo campaign faces the same major challenge that all other social media campaigns do, having a real effect beyond creating conversation. Hashtags, promises, and conversation are meaningless unless they can lead to real concrete action. This does not mean that the conversation is entirely useless. No matter how small a step it might be, it is in fact forward progress. 

Turning the spotlight back to Hollywood, it'll be interested to see how the industry responds. While a superficial look may make it seem like the correct steps have been taken, a deeper look reveals otherwise. The Weinstein Company decided to part ways with Harvey Weinstein but only after he first attempted to distance himself from the company by taking an indefinite leave of absence.  It's hard to keep from assuming that The Weinstein Company decided to fire Harvey Weinstein primarily as a business decision. If it had been more profitable to keep Weinstein in his position or allow him to distance himself for a while before returning, the company would have probably done that. Recent comments from industry insiders suggest that Harvey Weinstein's decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct was no secret. It is difficult to believe that the board of directors of The Weinstein Company were less privy to their co-founder's reputation than the rest of Hollywood yet they took no action until the recent outpouring of confessions. 

Melanie McFarland of Salon shares my concerns, going as far as to say, "But the grim truth is that women will find it difficult, if not impossible, to beat the Hollywood system because men in power do not want them to." It's hard not to be pessimistic, or perhaps simply realistic, about what we can expect from Hollywood in the post-Harvey Weinstein world. One of the only few things for certain in this moment is that there is a golden opportunity to correct course. With all of the recent attention on sexual assault there is no time like the present for both Hollywood and society as a whole to take the next steps towards a more healthy future. These steps will be uncomfortable, they'll require require us to be honest with ourselves about the ugly ways we've allowed people, particularly women, to suffer. The easy way out will  be to continue with business as usual but we cannot allow that to happen. We must strive to make the Harvey Weinstein scandal the watershed moment some believe that is it, not just another blimp on the radar. 

#LeanIn – Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead attempts to take steps towards equalizing the gender disparity that exists in top level professional positions and positions of power in general. Within her proposal, she asserts that focusing on the "internal barriers" (e.g. internalized feminized passivity), as opposed to the "external barriers" (e.g. institutional forms of oppression) is crucial in order for women to gain power.

Accordingly, her main solution to the issue is a simple matter of women "leaning in," which entails that women must shed their negative gendered image as timid and un-efficacious subjects; and instead, become more assertive and determined in their pursuits. Although I see the merit in Sheryl Sandberg's philosophy, it seems that her narrow and problematic conception of gender must be refined in order for her proposal to become a more feasible solution.

Before delving into what I consider the problematic aspect of her suggestion is, I should give a positive account of what her theory would look like in practice. Sheryl Sandberg is specifically addressing the issue of gender inequalities within the professional world. She expresses that this inequality is a function of the various sets of barriers that women continually face when attempting to move up in the professional world.

Consequently, the issue then becomes a matter of identifying what those barriers are and how women should approach the issue of tearing them down. Sheryl Sandberg dichotomizes the barriers into two possibilities: external barriers and internal barriers. The external barriers, as understood by Sandberg, are those which present significant difficulties that are not in the control of the individual, and are erected by society.

The internal barriers are the internalized negative messages that women are bombarded with during the formative years of their lives. The message confers upon women the normative notion that they should not be assertive, aggressive, outspoken, or more successful than men. As a result, women are conditioned to become less ambitious than men and should accept their inevitable subordination as second-class citizens – or so the story goes.

Sheryl Sandberg takes it upon herself to primarily focus on the internal dimension of the issue, because she believes that they are more immediately available to us to "dismantle." Her reasoning seems to be as follows: given that institutional barriers are outside the control of a single individual, it might prove to be a more efficient method of instantiating social change by addressing issues which are immediately accessible and alterable (i.e. the internal psychological constitution of an individual).

However, Sheryl Sandberg seems to problematically take for granted that gender is simply an ascribed property to an individual, that one has a free and unrestricted choice to enact. From the manner in which Sheryl Sandberg speaks of gendered behavior, in lines such as "aggressive women violate the unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct," "from the moment we are born, boys and girls are treated differently," and "the gender stereotypes introduced in childhood are reinforced throughout our lives," I infer that she is operating under the assumption that because gender is merely a social construction (and not an immutable biological reality), she believes that individuals can freely choose whether or not to enact their ascribed masculine or feminine properties.

The concern here then is that Sheryl Sandberg fails to recognize the complexity of how gender operates within our society, and the pervasiveness of it, in which individuals almost feel a compulsory response to enact a certain kind of gender. To put it more succinctly: the problematic aspect is not the claim that one should do gender differently, rather it is the supposition that one has the free range to do so.

In our heavily gendered society, our everyday interactions are instances of doing gender. More importantly, insofar as one does gender, one does not do gender individually, rather one performs gender by interacting with an equally well-versed individual who has the capacity to judge ones performance and hold the performer accountable for performing their gender correctly.

In this way, a structure of accountability is created which functions as a system of social control by way of reinforcing the notion of correct or proper gender performance. A corollary aspect of this social accountability structure is that the endeavor of doing gender then becomes both interactional and institutional. In other words, gender performance is not merely an individual enactment of gendered behavior, but rather it functions as a complex system of interrelations between individuals and institutional arrangements.

Consequently, one can see how Sheryl Sandberg's suggestion of "leaning in" is too individualistic to become a potential solution to the systemic problem of gender disparity in the professional field.





Friday, October 20, 2017

#MeToo social media phenomenon resonates in rural America, too

Don't miss Ashley Westerman's story this morning out of western Kentucky, which is where Westerman happens to have grown up.  Indeed this story arose from Westerman's observation that the hashtag #metoo had caught on among those in her home community, something she says is unusual.
People don't usually jump onto social media campaign bandwagons like that ... This is the first time I've noticed an issue campaign like this trickle down in my home community.  
This phenomenon would suggest a greater "feminist consciousness" than is typically associated with rural people and places--though those rural women might not label it "feminist."

One woman Westerman interviewed was Julie Martin, who is probably middle-aged because she has three daughters and four granddaughters.  Martin reported that, especially when she was younger, she was subject to unwanted behavior from male colleagues.  Martin initially worked as a grocery clerk and then in the medical field, but she has spent the last 14 years working at the local school.  Martin is quoted:
They would refer to you as sugar [expletive] or honey bun and sweetheart and darling. And I'm not your sweetheart. And I'm not your darling, you know (laughter)? I had one grab my behind. And after I jumped him and explained sternly that that was not acceptable, I never had that problem with him again. But you always have the verbal harassment--that some guys just feel they have that privilege.
Martin never reported any of the behavior.  Why not?  Well, her answer echoes the rural ethos of  self-reliance:
I've always been one of those that was taught that you deal with problems yourself. You don't shove them on someone else. When he grabbed me on the butt, I didn't go to my supervisor. And to this day, I still regret not going to my supervisor and saying, hey, we have a problem.
Further, she would encourage her daughters and granddaughters to report.  Martin indicated that she thinks women are now more empowered by social media, which has helped to diminish the stigma associated with these incidents.
It doesn't really matter whether you're in a small community or a larger city. That's something that has just always been not talked about. And so many people have faced that. And maybe they felt that they were the only ones. And then when they started seeing me too, me too, me too, they're like, hey, wait a minute. Me too. And it's nothing to be ashamed of.
Here's a great segment on American Public Media's "The World" about sexual harassment around the world.  One woman talked about how having jobs in the service sector, like restaurants, where sexual banter is common can leave one thinking that such behavior is normal--and that you just have to deal it. 

Here's a related post on how the January 2017 Women's March played out in rural places, too. 

Cross posted to Legal Ruralism.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Attitudes to female appearance and body stereotyping: what can women do?

In my first blog on women in sport, I suggested that attitudes to female appearance and body stereotyping present barriers to girls’ acceptance in sport on their own terms. What I didn’t do was consider what women ought to do about appearance/body stereotyping in general.

Perhaps, we could begin by finding a vision to inspire us all? Personally, I’m inspired by the simple ideal espoused by singer and actress, Ariana Grande. In a tweet two years ago, Grande expressed frustration at the continual media focus on issues like her appearance, the boy she might be dating and what she saw as an ever present misogyny in the American film and music business. Her longing was for a world where every woman would be far more valued for their personal accomplishments and who they are as individuals. Who could argue with that?

The only question, then, is how women get themselves there. Perhaps the answer lies in more and more women, as a collective, forcing change by resisting gender stereotyping from cradle to grave? Many feminists, for example, claim that individuals, almost from birth, undergo a process of socialisation through which they are taught “gender appropriate” behaviours, attitudes, roles and activities. According to this theory, girls are generally conditioned to value appearance, while boys are encouraged to value strength and material success. This is revealed in the toys girls and boys play with: the Barbie doll vs. the action figure (or, as feminists might see it, the pretty girl vs. the strong man). Such toys, coupled with parent encouragement, subtly teach girls that their most important attribute is their appearance.

For many feminists, therefore, the notion that girls are normally interested in appearance and boys are strong and competitive is not natural. It is instead artificially inculcated from birth. To feminists, this gender socialisation undermines the natural individuality of both girls and boys. Thus, as girls grow into women, they are encouraged to believe that they will be more widely accepted when their physical appearance conforms to what society values. Since, as feminism argues, we live in a patriarchal society, the valued female appearance and body type is shaped by the contemporary preferences of heterosexual men. This “ideal” is then propagandised through the media and popular culture. The consequences of such valuation, feminists often maintain, is that women, whose appearance does not conform to patriarchal preferences, are more likely to be marginalised and to struggle to earn public acceptance.

For some, the best way for women to overcome appearance and body stereotyping is through what is popularly known as ‘body positivism’. “Embrace”, a Netflix documentary directed by body positivity activist, Taryn Brumfitt, suggests that women, are culturally conditioned to hate their bodies, and that their approximation to beauty is far too often allowed to define their social value. The body positivity movement seeks to challenge this by encouraging women to learn instead to “love their bodies”. Body positivism is not an expressly “feminist” movement and not all the women featured in “Embrace” would necessarily identify as feminists. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice the clear parallels between feminist and body positivity gender conditioning theory. Could this, then, be the action women need to take to break down gender stereotyping and attain the Ariana Grande vision of being valued for her personal accomplishments and who she is as an individual?

Perhaps or perhaps not. I would contend that the modelling industry ought to be regarded as the common arch-enemy of both the feminist and body positivity movements. This is because it is a leading propagator of female body stereotyping in magazines and on TV. Body positivism is rightly critical of the modelling industry for that reason. Yet its attempts to “change the face” of modelling to bring it more into line with the values of the body positivity movement have been, at best, feeble.

In ‘Embrace’, Brumfitt interviews Mia Freedman, former editor of women’s magazine Cosmopolitan, who describes some of the barriers she encountered during her quest to diversify the female body images used in her publication. Freedman banned diets and tried to include more women of different races and body shapes. However, retail brands refused to provide clothes for her non-stereotypical models because they didn’t want anyone bigger than a size 8 (AUS) associated with their products. Photographers and makeup artists also refused to take part in shoots on the same basis.

For me, the obvious conclusion from the Cosmopolitan story is that body positivism’s idea that women can successfully overcome female body stereotyping by learning to love their bodies is wrong headed. Sorry body positivity, but that is not, I believe, what women primarily need to do. What women need to do first is to recognise that the problem here is not their attitude, rather it is the attitude of society as a whole. Therefore, it is society that needs to change, not women. Society should instead be encouraged to ‘embrace’, from cradle to grave, the Ariana Grande vision. All parts of society must learn to respect every girl’s (and boy’s) individuality. It should never be allowed to compress children psychologically into standard, stereotyped gender roles that are, more often than not, entirely unnatural to them as separate and unique human beings.

This, to me, is what feminism is all about. And it is only when society is fully altered through feminism that women will truly become more ‘body positive’. Feminism therefore, to me, is exactly what women ought to do about appearance/body stereotyping and is the true path to the Ariana Grande vision.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Squeezing into sexism?

In my most recent post, I alluded to classical ballet’s flirtation with feminism in the form of Isadora Duncan, a 19th Century American dancer, refusing to wear a restrictive whale-boned corset while performing, and instead opted for a loose-fitting Grecian tunic. While this defiant outfit change may garner a “so what?” reaction from some, her intrepid move inspired me to reflect upon the corset as a symbol so deeply enshrined in history as an instrument of female oppression, but also as a possible symbol of female emancipation.

The “progressive” intellectual and social reformer Havelock Ellis once wrote that the evolution from “horizontality to verticality” was more difficult for females than males, and also that a “woman might be physiologically truer to herself if she went always on all fours”. The blatant comparison drawn between women and base four-legged animals aside, the opinion of such an “expert” instilled a grotesque image of women as feeble, spineless creatures into society from the Middle Ages to the Mid Twentieth Century. It’s no wonder that at the pinnacle of their popularity in the Victorian era, the garb of a ‘respectable’ and ‘decently dressed’ lady demanded a corset, with anything less only insinuating loose morals.

So what did the traditional corset represent? The entire design of corsets with their cinched waists that are quite literally breath-taking, aimed to fabricate the ‘ideal’ hourglass figure in order to satiate the mainstream male sexual desires of the hay day. A slim waist with accentuated hips and breasts subliminally equates to fertility which in turn equates to childbearing capacity, apparently. Men made up the vast majority of corset makers, with Louis XIV of France reported to have ordered a guild of female dressmakers to make all the clothes for women in French court, apart from riding habits and corsets, which were left exclusively in the domain of men. So while male appetites defined the silhouette of the woman, male hands too contributed to their caging.

While the artist Manet once remarked “the satin corset may be the new nude of our era”, when referring to his infamous painting ‘Nana’, the inherent sexuality of the corset has and will always continue to ooze. The popularity of corsetry had fluctuated and nearly fizzled out since Manet’s time, yet we have Madonna to thank for so kindly reviving the draconian garment during her 1990 Blonde Ambition Tour, in which she collaborated with Jean-Paul Gaultier to produce the iconicpink cone bra corset. Riding the wave of sex-positive feminism, Madonna’s corset was a distinctly different creature from the antiquity all had grown accustomed to, adding fuel to the flames of the Underwear as Outerwear movement.

This concept that underwear should be worn over clothes, not under them, or even by itself (why not?), bolsters the arguments of sex-positive feminism that have been bubbling over since the early ‘80s. Despite the centuries of tight-laced terror inflicted upon women, somehow the corset has come to embody this in full. We need only look to the 2017 Spring/Summer collections of countless couturiers for our proof. Along with printed tees proclaiming “we should all be feminists”, Christian Dior’s first female creative director Maria Grazia-Chiuri, showcased the emerging trend with a subtle nod to their boned brethren. Isabel Marant, Les Copains, Stella McCartney,MISBHV, Fenty x Puma, to name but a few, point to the plethora of designers rooting for the revival of corsetry, albeit in a deconstructed sense.

Somehow in the tumultuous lifespan of this garment, the Kardashians enter the fray. Their iconic pedalling of waist trainers as exercise and weight loss aids serve only to remind us that the corset in any shape or form is repugnant to feminist ideals. Kim, Khloé and Kylie being the most flagrant offenders, attempt to reinforce this idea of centuries past that the hourglass figure equates to beauty by pawning it off as “body positivity”. Unfortunately for the rest of us lacking in surgically endowed curves, waist trainers won’t give us anything other than indigestion and a sense of inferiority.

Women’s bodies have never been good enough, a fact that has repeatedly reasserted itself throughout history, and corsetry hasn’t been alone in highlighting this. From foot binding to fad diets, there has never really been an acceptance of the uniqueness and individuality of the female form. Although sex-positive feminism and the Underwear as Outerwear movement have characterised modern day corsetry as being a distinct choice that women have control over as opposed to a mandatory imposition, in light of what the corset originally and still fundamentally embodies, it’s safe to say no amount of Madonna’s or Kim Kardashian’s will ever squeeze me back into this form of sexism.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Lancet article on distance to abortion providers spawns some urbancentric headlines

The Lancet Public Health, the prestigious medical journal, published an article yesterday about the distances women in the U.S. have to travel for abortion care, and lots of mainstream media outlets picked up the story.  What initially struck me about several stories was the focus on this fact:  1 in 5 U.S. women must travel more than 43 miles to get to an abortion provider.  This is a factoid that would have the average rural woman thinking, "no big deal," because rural residents travel distances like that for everyday activities--like getting to work.  What burdens many rural women, you see, are much greater distances.

An opening line of the Guttmacher Institute's press release about the article does acknowledge some other key data points:
Nationally, half of all women of reproductive age lived within 11 miles of the nearest abortion clinic in 2014.  However, a substantial minority of women, particularly those in rural areas, lived significantly farther away.  (emphasis added)
The article was written by three Guttmacher Institute researchers, including lead author Jonathan Bearak.  The map accompanying the article shows a big swath running north to south through the middle of America as the most vast abortion desert.

NPR's coverage did a better job of highlighting what I would say is the more salient fact regarding rural women.  Their headline was "For Many Women, the Nearest Abortion Provider is Hundreds of Miles Away." Sarah McCammon's story features a woman in Sioux Falls, South Dakota who elected to drive 4 hours to Minneapolis for an abortion because the State of Minnesota does not impose a 72-hour waiting period like South Dakota does.

Here's another excerpt from Guttmacher's press release, which quotes Bearak:

Women and abortion clinics are both concentrated in urban areas, so it is not surprising that most women live relatively close to an abortion clinic.  However, distance may be a significant barrier to accessing abortion care for the substantial minority who live farther away, and especially for economically disadvantaged women, who make up the majority of abortion patients.
The title of The Lancet article is "Disparities and Change Over Time in Distance Needed to Travel to Access an Abortion in the U.S.:  A Spatial Analysis."  One of the "over time" findings is that between 2011 and 2014, distances to clinics remained the same in 34 states, while they increased in 7.  Needless to say, the states where the distances have increased include states like Wisconsin, Texas, and Alabama, all of which have passed so-called TRAP laws, Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, the constitutionality of which have been litigated in recent years.

CNN's coverage of the article featured a more appropriate headline that pleased me for its focus on the extreme distances facing some women.  The headline is "Some US women travel hundreds of miles for abortions, analysis finds."  That story included this additional information, the first line of which states what should be obvious:
"How far a woman has to travel for an abortion is a key measure of access," Bearak said. Other measures include restrictive laws and financial constraints.

To analyze how far women travel to terminate a pregnancy across the nation, the researchers began with data on the location of abortion providers and women. The information on women was based on census block groups, Bearak said: "That is the smallest publicly available geographic unit." Within states are counties, within counties are census tracts, and within tracts are block groups.
This analysis sounds very similar to what researchers did to quantify abortion availability in Texas following the different stages of implementation of House Bill 2, which was ultimately struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt in 2016. 

My extensive writing about distance, travel, and abortion access is herehere, and here, along with many posts under the "abortion" label on the Legal Ruralism blog.

In other abortion news, don't miss this story of abortion hypocrisy.

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Is Catherine MacKinnon "over the top" about prostitution?

Recently in class we considered some of the work of radical feminist, Catherine MacKinnon. I had come across MacKinnon before, and like many people, I initially regarded her views as 'over the top.' Why on earth, I used to think, do we need Catherine MacKinnon to give talks at Universities explaining why prostitution, for example, is wrong? We know that already and, certainly, in the Western World, no one these days would seriously try to defend prostitution as a way of life (in public at least), any more than they would seek to defend rape or paedophilia.

How wrong I was. With a quick bit of research, I discovered that former Playboy model, Kendra Wilkinson, had, in TMZ news in 2014, publicly called on the United States to legalize prostitution on the grounds that the sex is consensual. On foot of this, TMZ news undertook a poll of its readers on legalizing prostitution. The New York Daily News also carried an article in 2012 arguing that prostitution is a choice and legalization would help eliminate abuse of non-adult prostitutes and poor women. In 2013, Ole Martin Moen, Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Oslo presented a scholarly critique in the Journal of Medical Ethics which maintained that "prostitution is no more harmful than a long line of occupations that we commonly accept without hesitation."

Time, then, to stand with Catherine MacKinnon. Whatever anyone thinks of her, the stark reality is that the vast majority of people who work as prostitutes are women - an estimated 90% in most countries. If, therefore, prostitution is a choice, and is as harmless as ethical scholars like Ole Martin Moen submit, then why aren't more men doing it?

Catherine MacKinnon has the answer. It is because prostitution is widely recognised as a form of sexual exploitation that violates fundamental human rights. It is because specialist international studies (e.g. Farley 2003) shows that most prostitutes suffer severe violence, including sexual assault and rape – often on a repeat basis. It is because in Europe, for instance, at least 1 in 7 prostitutes are victims of trafficking. It is because a large proportion (68%) of prostitutes suffer from PTSD, with a level of severity comparable to that experienced by Vietnam War veterans, as well as psychological dissociation (Farley, 2003). It is also because, for most women, prostitution is entered into as a last resort and is such a negative experience that they would prefer to escape it if they could (Farley 2003).

Given these findings, only a fool or a fraud could seriously argue that legalisation would help eliminate abuse of non-adults and women. But then again, how do we answer the Kendra Wilkinsons of this world who believe that prostitution should be seen as a consensual activity? Yet again, the bulk of the evidence supports the Catherine MacKinnon position. Case after case and independent study after independent study (Orr 2001, Farley 2003, Brennan 2004) reveals that most sex workers enter the industry as a survival strategy.

In short, rather than consenting, it seems that the bulk of women are forced to prostitute themselves out of desperation. Hence, it is difficult to disagree with the Catherine McKinnon view that "the money coerces the consent, rather than guaranteeing it". It therefore genuinely does represent, as she argues, a practice, by-in-large, of "serial rape."

MacKinnon has attracted an abundance of criticism for her radical feminist stances on issues like prostitution. Yet the more I look around, and the more I research the subject, the more I realise that voiceless and exploited women and prostitutes really need people like her. They need her and people to persistently challenge the public defenders of the 'money for sex industry'. They need people like her to remind us how much prostitution reduces women to merchandise to be bought, sold and abused. Therefore, legalising it would reinforce their oppression by male-dominated societies and present a clear affront to the concept of gender equality. So, if viewing prostitution as a symbol of the disempowerment of women in a patriarchal society now makes me 'over the top', then I’ll take it.