What Happened in Montreal

What happened in Montreal in 1989 was an act of hate, resentment and fear. It was an act of entitlement. It was the act of a man who felt that he deserved something, that he was entitled by birthright to a privileged education, with all of the socioeconomic benefits that this would entail. It was the act of a man who believed that it was others who were taking this entitlement from him, that it was women and feminists who were blocking his access to what was rightfully, morally, unequivocally his.

What happened in Montreal was male privilege at its worst, or at least at its most blatant.

But it wasn’t unique. On December 6th, we remember what happened in Montreal and the 14 women killed by Marc Lepine. But we also remember that what happened in Montreal did not happen to those 14 women simply because Marc Lepine was a sick man who could not face the challenges of life and needed to lash out against someone. Anyone.  It happened to those 14 women because Marc Lepine felt he deserved something that they had, that he was entitled to something that they had gotten unjustly. What happened in Montreal happened because of what we call male privilege. Not exclusively – this does not mean that Marc Lepine was “society’s fault”, that he had no control and bore no responsibility for his actions. But when I hear men expressing sentiments ranging from entitlement, to resentment, to anger, to rage at what they have lost and what has been taken from them by feminists and feminism and women, this is what I’m thinking about.

This is where “lest we forget” matters, to me. Because what happened in Montreal is happening now.

…and Children

This is a post that has nothing to do with elections of any kind. Consider yourselves warned.

Two (of three) of my classes have conspired this week to make all of my readings relate to the subject of HIV/AIDS in Africa as it connects to various aspects of Globalization. This particular pile includes Stephen Lewis’ 2005 Massey Lectures “Race Against Time“, the fourth part of which is called “Women: Half the World Barely Represented”. Instead of picking up the book itself, I’ve been listening to the recorded versions of the lectures as broadcast on CBC, and I think there’s some advantage to that, because Lewis is an incredibly passionate speaker and the sincerity of his anger and frustration comes through much more clearly in his own voice.

Though his assignment and main point of reference is HIV/AIDS in Africa, this lecture is about global gender inequality in its entirety and the incredible lack of attention paid to women’s needs by the international community, specifically the UN. In his analysis, despite the rhetoric of the UN statements, women are treated in one of two ways. First, through “gender mainstreaming”, which assumes that women’s issues will be taken care of if we just let the boys in charge continue trying to fix things as they always have, specificity of concerns be damned, and (more importantly) with no respect for the fact that we’re starting at a disadvantage. Second, lumped in with “and children” or as “pregnant women and babies” or “and families”. It’s that second point that interests me.

The compare and contrast of UNIFEM vs. UNICEF reveals that while the latter had over 8000 full time staff in 2004, the former had 45 or 50, and the budget differential came out 40:1. Now, I should hope it’s obvious that this argument is not intended to say that children are unimportant, nor would I pretend that women’s rights and concerns can be divorced from children’s/family needs, particularly as connected to poverty and especially globally. But I find those statistics telling, and I also find it noteworthy that we, as feminists, often find ourselves arguing for women’s rights with reference to the way improving them will have an impact on children, families, communities etc. Again, don’t get me wrong – there is definitely a relationship. I fully believe that improvements in women’s rights and making specific effort to reduce women’s experiences of poverty, violence and marginalization will improve the broader community, including the lives of children/families and have a positive impact on local economies.

But somehow, I can’t help but notice that we’re falling into a trap of feeling that we have to justify women’s rights with reference to some logic other than women’s rights. Women matter because of children, because of their role in the family, because of the community. We can get people to care when we call it child poverty, which obscures the reality that (both locally and globally) we’re largely talking about women’s poverty. If we’re talking about women specifically, without reference to chidlren, pregnancy or families, we get what Lewis calls “a monolith of indifference and paralysis” (his argument is a lot more extensive than I’m presenting here; I highly recommend the book/lecture recordings if you get a chance). As his title suggests, we’re talking about half the world, but there’s very little motivation for talking about their rights in and of themselves. Women’s marginalization has an extremely strong correlation to child poverty, infant mortality, children’s health, you name it…and child poverty, infant mortality, children’s health are extremely important issues. But that’s not why women’s rights matter, and I’m frustrated to no end that the only way we’re able to get women’s issues on the radar is to frame them in terms of their impact on children.

Lewis describes his experiences trying to refocus attention on women in Africa, and in particular on their increased vulnerability to HIV/AIDS, among UN agencies and refers to their attitude as nothing short of contempt. Just from basic experience advocating the relevance of feminism, I can relate to that feeling, and I often find myself falling into the “…and children” trap. To me, this is all connected to the idea of childhood innocence, and the division of the world into deserving vs. undeserving victims. It’s a lot easier to shut your mind off to caring about victims of domestic violence when you perceive it as in some way connected to their own choices. Living in a highly individualistic, bootstraps-based culture, we absolve ourselves of responsibility for adults, but our sympathies are piqued when it comes to helpless children. I don’t think this is disconnected from our sense of what it means to be “charitable” and compassionate, either, as I’ve talked before about how that is frequently a top-down process that ensures that the giver is able to retain a solid sense of hir own superiority. There’s little moral ambiguity – and little loss of control by those who already have power – involved in giving food to starving children, but attempting to deal with the agency and self-determining capacity of adult women (or racialized populations, for that matter) might just mean we disagree and could even find out that “our side” is wrong.

This is getting me into much more basic philosophical territory, but as usual, all roads seem to lead to the same common themes in my mind. I doubt it’s coincidental.

Do Men Have a Role in Sexual Assault Centres?

The Kyle Payne story has resulted in a lot of people questioning whether men can/should ever be in a position to counsel rape survivors, and several people outright saying no way, no how. I’ve already said my piece on why I find it problematic at best to go anywhere near the idea that Kyle Payne is equivalent to all male feminists, but this seems a reasonable opportunity to open up some thoughts on women-only space in general, specifically for sexual assault centres (partially as a result of the conversation on this thread b/w hysperia, myself and later, GallingGalla).

I’ll come right out and admit that I’ve never been entirely comfortable with women only designations in sexual assault centres. The argument in favour of this limitation is usually that women who have been assaulted sometimes (or even often) find it triggering, intimidating or uncomfortable to be around men when they are in a vulnerable position (admitting to and talking about having been assaulted/abused). I’m sympathetic to that argument, but still disagree with it for a couple of reasons. The main one is that it involves completely preventing men who need the help of sexual assault centres (men who have been assaulted themselves, or even partners and supporters of women who’ve been assaulted, but who aren’t ready/able to come to talk to someone themselves) from accessing the services because we’ve placed such a high priority on what I perceive to be a relatively small proportion of female victims getting exactly the kind of service that they want. I realize this comes off as a kind of dispassionate cost-benefit analysis, and I hope I don’t sound heartless in saying this, because it does, overall, come from caring. Maybe I’m wrong about the proportion, because all there is on that front is anecdotal evidence, but my main point is – allowing men into the space doesn’t hinder the centre from counseling these women at all, whereas the reverse is true.

Now, disclaimers on that point – I am not making a “reverse discrimination” argument. What I’m looking at is how best to get counseling services to those affected by rape and sexual violence. Period, full stop. The second disclaimer, as I said to hysperia on matttbastard’s thread, is that I think she is right that there are plenty of ways for men to access services in the mainstream medical establishment, and there are an abundance of male professionals outside of feminist sexual assault centres. True. Whether there are people who are prepared to provide the highest calibre of service to an individual dealing with sexual violence is an entirely separate question. And, again, while I’m well aware of the financial limitations faced by SACs, I think there are compromises that may be possible – could the space be women only on certain days of the week, for example, while allowing men to access it on one or two days? Female survivors who really do feel that they need to know that no men are going to be around while they start to discuss this issue can be informed of these arrangements, and schedule appointments or groups accordingly.

The issue of male counselors is perhaps more challenging, but my primary point is essentially the same as the above – our concern should be in listening to individual survivors and providing the options that they need in order to heal. And here, I’m going to switch over to talking mainly about women survivors, because I think I’ve amply covered male survivors, and yet I think that the wishes of some women are not necessarily given the same weight in these conversations about the issue (and I don’t even mean trans women and the whole horror show that is the reality that it’s okay to exclude them entirely from rape crisis centres in this country, as “men”). I’ve heard women mention that the way they’ve been treated by certain women has been worse than the way they’ve been treated by men in any context, or that women have presented more challenges in their rape recovery than men have.

I’m a very extroverted person, which means, among other things, that I talk through my shit with a number of people as part of coping and dealing. I’ve seen a number of professionals – psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, rape crisis counselors, etc – and I’ve talked to a lot of my peers or mentors about the sexual violence in my past. I’ve heard minimizing from both men and women, victim-blaming from both men and women (possibly more from women) and gotten wonderful, kind, loving support from both men and women. There were times in my life when I honestly preferred to talk to men about these issues. I never heard anyone say that though – sometimes a woman who’s been assaulted really needs a trusted male she can turn to to talk about how she feels. I heard, over and over, that many survivors find it difficult to be around men at all. I heard that women often think that only women can understand, but that we live in a society that discourages women from finding that space in which they can talk to another women about experiences like that. I’m not saying these messages had a hugely detrimental impact on me, personally (though they may have on others), because the women professionals I’ve spoken to at two different SACs have been phenomenal, but there was a sense that I felt like I should only want to talk to a woman about what I was feeling. And you know, when fragile like that, I’ll pretty much reach out for any script that someone hands me that I think might help – if I have some trust for you/your philosophy/your organization, and you tell me this is how I’m going to feel better, I’ll go that way.

Why did I feel more comfortable around certain men at times? I’m not entirely sure. It could be grounded in a lot of internalized patriarchal, male-approval-seeking bullshit, or equally bullshit granting of added authority to male voices, or a genuine need to overcome the sense that men are not trustworthy and prove that not all of my trust in men has been misplaced, or it could just have been the specific individuals that were around me at these times and the nature of our relationships. Fuck if I know. And fuck if it should matter. Plenty of people, anti-feminists among them, will point out that women’s desire to not be around any men at all following an assault is not a rational decision (the anti-feminist point being that she should therefore stop feeling that way), and…well, of course it’s not. But that’s okay, because see, listening to the woman tell you what she needs in order to get past the feelings that she finds intolerable is kinda that point. So I don’t really feel like it’s important to find a rational reason why I might feel the way I have about what I need, and I don’t really feel like it’s okay for people to tell me that why I feel that way is just wrong.

Which again comes back to the compromise point – is it possible for all of us, who have experienced sexual violence, to be getting what we need? To be listened to? To find our own way through recovery, which is going to be affected by all of our other baggage, by the specifics of the assault that happened to us, by our personalities, by whatever? I think I’ll finally be introducing a new category with this post, which is “Not Rocket Science”, because this shouldn’t feel as complicated as it does. Men can betray women, and if they’re seriously fucked up, they’ll use positions of trust among vulnerable people to do it. Women can betray women, and if they’re seriously fucked up, they’ll do the same. On whole, statistically, men do more damage to women in more significant ways. No, this is not an equal situation, and honestly, if that’s a point you want to argue, then I don’t think this is the place for you.

This lengthy argument is entirely from what I consider a pragmatic, practical perspective, without even touching the philosophical stuff (because there is an essentialism to saying that men are inherently, naturally, biologically, more capable of this kind of manipulation than women are, or that women are automatically safer, more understanding, more comforting…almost like they’re naturally…nurturing and empathetic or whatever). The point is to help people recover from sexual violence. Universalizing a certain kind of reaction is not okay, has never been okay, and continues in feminist and non-feminist or anti-feminist circles alike. Categorically deciding that certain people – men – can’t help another category – women, or female victims – isn’t going to help, either.

Moment of Clarity

Every so often, a situation hands you exactly that way of explaining clearly why a given behaviour is bullshit in a way that even people who really struggle with this feminism thing can find kind of revealing.

I often want to forget how difficult it is at times to explain to people why street harassment sucks, and that it’s not designed to compliment, it’s designed to intimidate. Betacandy did a fantastic job spelling a lot of this out in a general way a while ago. Specifically, I really like this point:

Most often, catcalling at a woman is a way men socialize with each other. You’re trying to impress each other with who can say the most outrageous things, or who can get a smile or glance from the most passing women. The woman is just part of the scenery, so it’s no surprise you’re oblivious to her feelings. Her responses don’t represent a person with sensitivities to you; they represent a finish line, and tell you whether or not your verbal volleys are scoring.

I don’t know how many different ways I can explain to some people that what they’re doing is decidedly not treating women they’re catcalling like human beings, so I do like these convenient anecdotal demonstrations of the point – A friend just told me a story about how she was walking home from work a couple of weeks ago and a bunch of guys started giving her the standard bullshit catcalls. “Hey baby come on over here” kind of shit, whatever whatever whatever. They’re in a group of about ten or twelve, she’s by herself. She’s ignoring them, making a point not to look at them, and speeding up her pace.

Suddenly, one of them recognized her, and realized she’s someone the entire pack of guys knew, so he said “Hey guys, stop it – it’s M. Leave her alone”. And they did. A couple even shouted apologies (which she also ignored).

If asked, I’m pretty sure these guys would not have copped to trying to intimidate random women on the street. But as soon as it was someone they knew, there was this level of consciousness to it – oh, we’re bothering her, and she’s someone we like, so we should stop. She has a name, she’s someone we’ve spoken to, she’s a damn human being – and lo and behold, as soon as that gets recognized, her emotions and discomfort are clear, and this is an unacceptable way to treat her.

Again with this women are people thing. Why the fuck is this so damn hard to grasp?

Utopian Politics

I was listening to an episode (now months old, having long been gathering mold on my hard drive) of CBC Radio’s Ideas not long ago featuring an interview with John “so not the scary Mars-Venus guy” Gray called “Utopian Dreams”. The argument he makes draws together a number of points that I seem to keep coming back to, and that I’ve seen a lot of other bloggers/people who think trying to deal with, based on the feeling that there’s a connection between the kind of mentality that promotes fundamentalist religion and a certain branch of secular politics, or feminism, or any number of other “isms”, actually. It’s probably not dissimilar to what’s being argued in the book The Fundamentalist Mind, but I haven’t gotten around to picking that one up yet.

The basic premise is that there’s a certain kind of secular political attitude that’s actually more “religious”, in that it depends on pushing society toward an ultimate utopian goal. Since Gray is a historian, one of his main points is that this kind of political thought didn’t arise until after the advent of the same belief in Western religion. Many of the specifics of Marxist theory and practice, therefore, couldn’t have happened outside of a post-Christian culture, regardless of how atheistic the philosophy is. He talks a lot in the interview about how the so-called “war on terror” generally, and the war in Iraq specifically, exemplifies this mentality – those who buy into the war (again, either generally or specifically) believe that the actions currently being undertaken will produce an “ideal” state (sometimes locally, often globally), a utopian democracy (Hell, from my outsider’s perspective, even the seemingly unquestionable notion of the inherent superiority of the US model of government, democracy etc, including the completely standard use of the terms ‘unconstitutional’ or ‘unamerican’ to automatically mean bad bad bad and wrong wrong wrong, qualifies as a utopian concept, but that’s really another story).

I feel like this premise goes a long way toward explaining the connection that I see between a number of seriously problematic political and activist philosophies – they all depend on some utopian vision at the end of it, present day be damned, ends-justify-means, and yes we CAN make this perfect world if only we can get RID of X, Y, Z. This applies, as suggested, to Marxism and to the war on terror, as well as to any kind of extreme racism/nationalism…but also, I think it applies to certain subgroups of feminism.

Anti-porn feminism emphasizes eliminating pornography and prostitution in order to eliminate violence against women and misogyny in general. There are two main possibilities for countering this point from a feminist perspective- the first is to say that the strategy isn’t going to be successful (and that maybe the productive methodology would reverse the cause-effect roles in that equation) and the second is to say that misogyny and violence are the problems in and of themselves, and that if those could be successfully eliminated, then porn/prostitution wouldn’t be objectifying, wouldn’t be violent, wouldn’t centre the male gaze and would celebrate women/sexuality of all kinds. I personally favour the second, not least because I think the first is the far weaker argument, and the one that continues to ignore the needs/opinions of sex workers (those most immediately affected by any correlation between misogyny and sex work), but also because that argument still buys into the utopian mentality that assumes we can know, with absolute certainty, what a world without sin would look like and where this teleological journey is ultimately taking us. Conversations with people who believe that they do know this can be extremely frustrating, because the very idea that it’s possible that other genuinely believe that what they are describing is not actually The Ideal is just not on the radar.

There’s a reason it feels not that different from trying to have a conversation with a right-wing Christian fundamentalist, and it’s not just that both of those categories are against pornography. I tend to think it’s also not just about the polarized view of the world or about the apparent inability to tolerate dissent. I’ve never taken a course in “Utopian Literature”, but I know a few people who have and am led to believe that the first thing you learn on that theme is that utopian literature is always dystopian literature, making the point that whatever political processes are involved in utopia creation inherently result in dystopia. I was saying in a conversation recently that (in addition to about a hundred other reasons I’m sick of the constant handwringing by feminists about the woeful state of the Movement These Days) there’s something simultaneously pessimistic and extremely naive to arguments about how feminism has lost its way, become distracted by all these *other* issues that aren’t the One True Feminism at all. I say naive because, often, these arguments depend on harkening back to First/Second wave feminism, and contrasting the fact that they achieved Monumental Social Change (citing legal reforms like suffrage, anti-violence measures and abortion rights) with the disparate, disunited, unfocussed Third(ish) wave…and it seems like the point gets missed that legal reform and actual change are two entirely different animals, and while both are necessary, mistaking the lack of the former for the completely lack of the latter is pretty condescending, while taking a nostalgic “those were the days” kind of attitude while assuming the former represents Success is really a very limited view of the situation.

Personally, I actually have to give this some more thought, because I think in a lot of ways I do subscribe to a somewhat utopian form of religion, even if I find it problematic (at best) in politics, and I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a worthwhile division to make.

What Kyle Payne Reflects

In the ever-widening discussion of the predatory actions of Kyle Payne (see Ren Ev for a roundup listing of many, many blogs that have written on the subject), there has been some discussion of whether certain groups – in particular, radical anti-porn feminists and male feminists – should have to defend themselves from all being tarred with the Kyle Payne brush. Ren (again, since she’s been most tirelessly beating this drum ever since it was brought to her attention, even despite those *horrifying* burns she’s dealing with) has a post responding to the defensiveness from some radical feminist bloggers (who had previously linked to Payne, or included him in a Carnival), in which she makes the most important point there is on the issue: Kyle Payne’s actions reflect Kyle Payne, and only Kyle Payne. They don’t reflect on anyone who believed him and trusted him, confided in him, or shared certain elements of his opinions.

I know I made a bit of a mistake in the way I expressed myself on GallingGalla’s post on this, and as I said in follow-up there, I do get that there’s a victim-blaming tone to what I said. What I was trying to get at, and I still think it’s important, is that one of the things this story (again) brings to light, is that it’s not okay – and not possible – to assume that all members of Category A are good (and by extension, non-members of Category A are less good, possibly even bad) and trustworthy on all things in all ways at all times. Kyle Payne may or may not actually be against pornography – much as many of us have been psychoanalyzing the guy, there’s only one person living in his head, and thankfully, it ain’t me. But logic 101 says that it’s pretty much irrelevant. Accepting the premises “Kyle Payne is anti-porn” and “Kyle Payne is a rapist” does not lead to the conclusion that “anti-porn activists are all rapists”. Not sure if the “not rocket scientist” in me needs to point out that if the premise is switched to “Kyle Payne is pro-porn”, the applicability of the conclusion remains the same (ie. non-existent), but…

Male feminists, same deal. Part of the point I was trying to make at GallingGalla’s place is much better elucidated by belledame and Betacandy in comments over at Feministe:

belle: but yeah, there -are- some red flags. it’s not foolproof though. I do also think that sometimes, stuff like “dick=bad, estrogen=safe” actually makes it -harder- to identify predators, because honestly that’s not what it’s about.

Beta: It’s really not easy to identify predators, and yet our culture makes victims feel bad for not recognizing them. “Didn’t you know there was something off about him?” and so on.

Post “Prince Charming as Abusive Control Freak”, yeah, I’m pretty wary of the kind of guy who dresses everything up in terms of just how completely he is going to save me, the one who seems just far too good to be true, the one who always knows exactly the right words and turns of phrase like maybe it’s actually kind of practiced…but “male feminists” categorically? Not the same thing. Because you know, the thing with predators is, if the red-flag-warning-sign for potential predator becomes “identifies as feminist” then real predator will shift identifiers, will find a new one, will adapt to the given situation.

Sometimes, as was raised in that Feministe thread I’ve linked, I worry that the more I unpack this stuff, the more I come to the conclusion that there’s no way to trust anybody, ever. And the thing is…there isn’t. Not for real, not with absolute certainty, not completely. Not on sight, real or virtual. There’s no quick answer, no quick solution, no marker that will make all of this easy and simple and protect us, forever and for always, from ever being hurt or victimized again. Hell, my grandmother is still coming to terms with the very real and very personal reality that ordination to the Catholic priesthood does not automatically make a person trustworthy and safe. My dad, a high school principal post-Columbine, was subject to demands from angry parents that he ban trench coats, with the justification that they could be used to hide weapons. His response was “And if socks can be used to ban weapons, should we also ban socks?” The delusion that we’ll find the marker, that we’ll be the ones to know, is only hurting us and making us more vulnerable to the one who doesn’t fit our assumptions.

This isn’t new. Kyle Payne reflects exactly what predatory behaviour has always reflected – predatory behaviour. Adaptation. Manipulation and deception. Showing people what they want to see. Not radical feminism, not pornography, not male feminism, not men in general, not feminism in general

(*ETA: Just to be clear, I do stand by the original reason I made that comment on GallingGalla’s post, which is that she’s right to express anger at her own categorical exclusion from radfem conversation because of who she is and what she believes, and then to get extra angry when others don’t seem to understand why she’s pointing out the multiple problems with this logic, including the fact that this exclusion doesn’t prevent predators from getting in anyway, and never can)

How I Became a Sex-Positive Feminist

So a lot of people have already answered this question, but as usual, I’m slow with the thinking. See brilliance, for example, from Sarah J, from Caroline, from belledame (note particularly belledame’s points about the heteronormative attitude toward female same-sex attraction in the question).

It’s an extremely frustrating question. I joined in the snark inherent in putting a bunch of sexy hockey player pictures up for a couple of reasons (the first being sexy hockey players), but I’m under no illusion that doing so answered the question or got anywhere near the problem with the question, so allow me to go on a bit of a ramble that hopefully knocks out some insight or insight-inducing obviousness, at the very least.

First, Laura notes that she hates the term “sex positive”, but that there isn’t a better one. Personally, I hate it too, and generally only see it being used mockingly by those who oppose it, though they seem to hate it too and use it with attached disclaimers like “self-described” or “self-proclaimed”. Even the Carnival is called “Sexual Freedom and Autonomy”. I didn’t really ever declare myself “sex positive”. The closest I really came was on this post, when I said:

If this makes me a twittery sex-pos moron, well, hook me up. Hearing echoes of the words of rapists from the mouths of self-identified feminists is not on my list of ways to have a good time.

That’s reason #1 for the frustration. I may be wrong, but nobody seems happy with this term, and yet somehow everybody seems to think it’s the best of the available options, despite the fact that dialogue around it seriously loses focus because nobody being happy with it means nobody really has a good sense of what it means.

Reason #2 for the frustration is also pretty well covered in that post of mine that I linked – I stumbled into “sex positivity” not because I was looking for ways to be turned on, or because I was looking for a philosophical/political way to reconcile my feminism with liking p*rn, or because I felt like it would make me more popular with the boys (newsflash: it hasn’t), or because I don’t give a fuck about violence against women and would rather talk about cutesy sparkliness and hot het sex. I came to this position because more and more, I’m convinced that politically, placing limits – be they legal or social – on sexuality and on sexual expression is only serving and can only serve to increase rates of violence against women, decrease options for doing anything about it, and worsen the impact of the events. So this kind of “riddle me this, ladies” tone smacks of missing the point, to me – “if you all are so all about the feminism, why don’t you think there should be more pictures of men, hmm?”. And then the “gotcha” in the comments, from Jennifer Drew:

Well the answer is obvious because men’s naked bodies must never ever be exposed. Only women are sexualised objects never, ever men. But still it is sex positive because women’s naked bodies are exposed for men to leer at and other women too can look and compare themselves to such images. It is called male-centric ideologies but masking itself as ‘sex positive’ which means women = sexual commodities but never ever men.

Now, in my case, I’m not linking to pictures or anything anyway (also, most of the world and I remain in blissful ignorance of one another), so I know I’m not really the target for the question, but God-fucking-dammit does this “obvious” answer piss me off. In so far as I’m a “sex positive” feminist, I focus primarily on talking about how women are affected because I can see with my obvious-seeing eyes that women in our society have been the ones who haven’t been allowed to enjoy/express/appreciate the full range of human experiences, including sexuality. Virgin/whore dichotomies ensure that no matter what, no matter in what environment, no matter what choice a woman makes, she will be subjected to sexual scrutiny that is inherently dehumanizing. “Radical” feminists denigrating women who participate in p*rn as “fuck holes” (and sidebar: is anyone asking them why they’re not questioning how the men are seen as merely “fuck sticks”, there only to give the women screaming orgasms?) are participating in exactly that game. “Beyond” feminist cartoonists who justify mocking conventionally attractive women by saying that their beauty is placing pressure on the rest of us are participating in that game. Frustrated feminists who emphasize that at least “a little bit of kink/p*rn watching” has become practically mandatory in young liberal culture (wish I could find the link to the thread that was saying that repeatedly, but I totally can’t remember where I saw it) and who blame “sex-positivity” for the fact that some assholes call them “prudes” are participating in that game (and missing the point about who the other participants are).

Yesterday, I decided my “Female Desire Week” angle would be the hockey players, for reasons that are extremely obvious if you know anything about either hockey or real-life me. Others posted pics and videos of actors, musicians, other athletes, etc. And you know, in light of how Madonna/Beyoncé/Scarlett Johanssen and women like them are getting shit for daring to be (conventionally) attractive in addition to talented and for posing in ways that might turn men on or whatever, here’s something that strikes me about this whole “where are the men in this equation” question: If you look through those pictures I posted, Sergei Federov and Sheldon Souray in particular are *clearly* posed in a way that is pretty much *nothing but* sexual. Sidney Crosby is a little bit of sport, a whole lot of sex. Sarah J’s posted shot of Vinnie Lecavalier? Same thing. But all of those guys are still hockey players, no one’s suggesting they’re diminishing the quality of their game by posing, and no one seems to be criticizing them for daring to have bodies that they use for sex in addition to hitting other men into boards. I noted the double bind of finding them attractive in yesterday’s post: if I’m turned on by sexy men while watching hockey, I’m likely to be mocked as a giggly, boy-crazy ditz who can’t appreciate the beautiful poetry on ice or whateverthefuck, but even as friends are teasing me for this, I’m told that women aren’t as visually stimulated.

See the problem here? Men are allowed to be sexual entities and simultaneously talented, accomplished, successful individuals. Men are presumed to be sexually free to do what they want with their bodies. If I’m focusing on women, it’s because, duh, they’re the ones who still aren’t able to do that. This would be what’s known as “not rocket science”.

I do want to look at least a little at how I reconcile this “sex positivity” (or whatever the kids are calling it these days) with practicing my faith, but this would be, as usual, far too long already.

Why Anti-Sex Work Feminism is Objectifying

Following up on my last post, I realized a concept that’s probably worth some expansion. I’ve posted a little bit before on sex work and sex workers’ rights, but not much on thoughts that are at the core of that issue. And thinking about objectification, including the note I made that assessing the relative “value” of a person – essentially, assigning her a price tag – is objectifying, regardless of the criteria for judgment. The clarifying point was that we have to assume that we’re speaking outside of any discussion of the value of the work that she does, since the nature of living in any kind of economic structure means that we have to have some sort of system for assigning exactly that kind of price tag.

Anti-prostitution radical feminists will argue that paying for the use of another person’s body is objectification, and that using one’s own sexuality in this way part of the same objectifying system*. I also regularly see the argument made by radfem women that “sex-positive” feminists (choosing the most polite and least aggressive possible out of the terms I’ve seen used) are always saying that sex work is a job just like any other. Though I’ve never actually heard the argument itself (only the dismissive and fed-up references to it from those who oppose the position), it brings home a point: if sex work, in and of itself, is not a “job like any other” in which an individual is being paid for her actions, then it has to be because somehow sexuality itself is different, especially for women. Unlike other actions, services, jobs, sex work reaches to the core of one’s being to a point where one is no longer merely being paid a wage for a job. By engaging in this work, a woman is, in fact, selling her very self. The language we use to talk about sex work (and the metaphorical extensions of sex-work related words) emphasizes this point – by charging a fee to have sex with someone, a woman has sold her body and herself. Linguistically speaking, there’s a metonymy there – the “part” (sexuality) has come to substitute for the whole woman.

That’s objectification, and it’s objectification in the narrow, limited, sex-specific sense of the word – the definition of a woman’s self has been reduced to her sexuality, her value has become inextricably attached to her sex. On the other hand, it’s perfectly acceptable – laudable, even – for me to charge for the use of my brain, or for me to be “valued” for my intelligence. That wouldn’t be considered being “used”, it wouldn’t be thought of as “selling myself”. Paradoxically, that’s like saying that my brain is less valuable, less connected to what I am as a person – it can be partitioned off, the use of it essentially “rented” by my employers, and I can joyfully and proudly accept payment for it while I continue to use my brain outside of the workplace to also attract potentially desirable mates. “Selling” my brain doesn’t take anything from me, doesn’t make me less whole, doesn’t make me damaged goods, and yet somehow, selling my body in a sexual manner (because, of course, if I were selling the use of my body for work in a factory, we again would not be having this conversation) would. If my sexuality is not the sum total of my humanity, if it is not even the primary source of my “value”, then this attitude towards sex work is nonsensical.

Sex work, as it exists in the world today, is not “work like any other”. It would be delusional to argue that it is. But nothing in the work itself makes it so – what makes it different is misogyny, objectification and the reduction of women to mere sexuality. If we’re going to have a conversation about revolutionizing social attitudes towards women, women’s bodies, sexuality and sex work (which we need to do if we’re going to get anywhere near the root causes of violence and the rates of violence faced by sex workers), we can’t do it while we’re still equating sexuality with self. We can’t do it while we’re objectifying.

*Of course, the more intelligent, misogynistic, right-wing Christians will use essentially the same argument – that they are merely trying to protect these poor women from the consequences of their own bad decisions. Both angles of opposition are casting themselves in the knight-in-shining-armour role in the fantasy of victimized women who need rescuing (see also the rather brilliantly worded challenge by Ren Ev to seriously examine the concept of agency).

(Random note: This is my 100th post on this blog. That is meaningless, of course, except in the context that should I now be canceled, I would be eligible to go into syndication and continue making money for the corporate machine.)

A Ramble Through Objectification

The Apostate recently reposted this article explaining why, despite her radical feminist politics, she has chosen to post pictures of herself in a bikini. In it, she includes exactly the kind of limited definition of “objectification” that I find I frequently have to overcome in conversations about feminism.

Objectification is not thinking looks matter or admiring someone’s good looks. Objectification is when you assume that the only thing of value in a person is their physical body or the sexual value you find in that body. That’s a dehumanizing thing to do, because although many of us are sexual beings who enjoy our bodies and don’t mind others enjoying our bodies, none of us have sole value ONLY as such. Feminists are sensitive about this because women have been and still often are valued primarily if not solely for their looks or their sexual value.

She’s making this distinction because the post is based on a counter-argument to the old cliché that feminists are ugly, old, can’t get laid, etc. And I agree that it is objectifying when the only thing of value about a person is hir physical body, when you reduce the individual to sexuality, creating an all or nothing of “valuable” or “not” based on whether or not you find hir attractive. But the reason this is a dehumanizing thing to do, and objectifying thing to do, has nothing to do with the fact that it’s sex. Objectification happens because you have made another human being into a tool, defined hir worth based on what you can gain, created a system of valuation in humanity.

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My Body is Not a Moral Issue

I know this thing is extremely long, but I don’t want to put anything behind a cut, because I kinda like the damn thing. Semi-sincere apologies for that. 

I was once talking to a guy I didn’t know very well who was in the process of getting over some serious illnesses. I commented that he was looking ‘good’ – meaning ‘healthier’, ‘stronger’, etc. He was the kind of guy who is not comfortable with the kind of vulnerability and humility that comes with accepting a genuine, heartfelt (albeit extremely simple) compliment like that, so his immediate response was to tell me that I was looking good – meaning ‘hot’, with an accompanying leer. I attempted to deflect/move past the gross feeling with a simple ‘thank you’. He put his hand on my elbow, paused dramatically and said “No – thank you“.

Simple incident, but the ick factor on that one has stuck with me, partially because it comes along with a sense of indignation that he would thank me for looking a certain way, as though of course my appearance is a favour I give to the men I encounter.

Was he conscious of that? Of course not. Was he trying to assert power over me more than anything else? Obviously. But in this case, his attempt to do so contained an explicit version of the near-constant message that women’s bodies are subject to scrutiny in a way that makes looking conventionally attractive a moral virtue. Shapely Prose and many of the other “fat acceptance” blogs say this over and over and over. To wit, the new addition to the Comment Policy includes a quote from hypothetical Skinny Person A:

I really respect what you’re doing here, because people comment on my body and my eating habits all the time, and they assume I’m unhealthy just because of my weight. I don’t know what it’s like to be fat in this society, but I know what it’s like to have my body treated as public property and be judged negatively because of my size.

(emphasis mine). The rhetoric around food and fat-themed body commentary is, of course, that people are only concerned for our health. Shapely Prose is generally fantastic about emphasizing the serious flaws in the science used to back up the ‘obesity epidemic’ health care crisis, as well as the disingenuous way that this health-based altruism somehow only ever seems to show up with respect to women who don’t fit the standard mold.

Fat is not a moral issue, even if we (read: marketers) talk about chocolate as “sinful” and the cultural standard dialogue around women and food inevitably involves a quick round of “oh-I-shouldn’t” and “I’ll just have to cut back at dinner” prior to just shutting up and eating already. The way we talk about getting enough exercise and having a healthy diet does not emphasize the possible benefits of increased energy, mental health and ability to sleep – instead, we talk as though even God will love you more if you do these things, so go right ahead and take that holier-than-thou self-satisfied tone as you lecture someone about cutting carbs. You’re doing it because you’re a Better Person, and somewhere, somehow, there’s a high-falutin’ moral explanation for how that’s the case. Nobody ever bothers to suggest that it might just be plain, simple, totally natural selfish self-interest, whether that interest is based on a healthy desire to feel better and have more energy or social pressure to look better and conform.

My mother identifies a weight range with maybe 5-10 pounds of leeway on either side of “target weight” in which she will tell me I’m “healthy”. Above that, I’m too fat, below that I’m too thin. Every time I visit, she comments. Too fat. Too skinny. Just right – stay right there, don’t move. If I object to what she says, an argument ensues – she’s only worried about my health, and if I’m not concerned about the way I look, it must be because I have no self-respect and don’t even want to try to be a better person.

No. It’s not. Because see, my body is neither public property nor even, really, a personal, private moral issue. My body is pretty much just the interface my brain uses to interact with the world. I’m not doing the boys a favour if it looks good enough and I’m not letting them down if it doesn’t. Nor am I betraying my commitment to God, my family and my mother country if I’m not skinny and “healthy”.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject, I’m also not betraying my feminist moral principles by wearing a low-cut top, having sex when, with whom and in what manner I feel like, or, in fact, by being a young, skinny, conventionally attractive straight woman. What I do with my body is a moral issue only if I am using it to hurt other people, in which case we’re back to that interface thing again. Dressing in a way that gets me that “thank you“? Not a sign of my weakness in capitulation to patriarchal norms or willingness to conform any more than it’s a generous favour I’m doing for the men in question. The number of dates after which I will have sex with a new partner, if at all? Also not a moral issue. Whether or not I like role play, traditionally female submissive sex roles, bondage, whatever? Not a moral issue and none of your goddamn business until we get to the number of dates after which I’ll consider having sex with you. The fact that I, personally, tend to only like sex with men, rather than women? Ditto. If I pretty much figure that I never want to have sex or be in a relationship at all, ever again, because the complicated interrelations with other people are just not worth it? Nope, not that, either.

What I’m talking about here is not hypothetical. So much rhetoric goes into asking whether it’s possible to be a feminist who likes a certain kind of sex – right down to whether it’s really okay for a feminist to like het sex, or whether she’s inevitably being coerced by the strong invisible arm of the patriarchy literally every time she has it at all (the people who say these things probably won’t believe me, and I won’t be the first to say it, but let me just be totally clear when I emphasize that I’m not).  While the general public is out there sending me messages about how my body is a moral issue on one side of the equation – must look good enough, must please the boys, must make Mom assume I’m ‘healthy’, even if I’m not – many feminists in here are writing theoretical pieces on what it’s okay to like, how it’s okay to dress, what it’s okay to be in my body.

My body, last I checked, is not theoretical. My body is used against me by people who want to ‘keep me in my place’ and it will be whether it’s a conventionally attractive body for which I’m being thanked or I end up wrinkly, fat and hairy two years from now. It’s also appropriated as a topic of discourse – what it looks like, what I do with it – among people who see their own bodies being used against them for political purposes and want to use those bodies to make different political points.

My body is not a political point.

Using my body to do stuff, whatever that stuff may be, is not about being “empowerful”. It’s just about being me, interacting, interfacing. It’s about the stuff that I’m doing. The reason that watered down Spice Girls faux-feminism is problematic, to me, is because that kind of “empowerment” still accepts that it’s okay to make my body into a moral issue and political statement. And the reason transphobic, lesbian separatist feminism is problematic, to me, is the exact same one. You’re still working out your arguments using, literally and figuratively, other women’s bodies, including mine.

Memo from me: My body, in and of itself, is not a moral issue. No matter who you are, I kindly ask that you please stop treating it as such.