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When a friend shared a link to Why We Care About Other People’s Sex Lives, a look at the evolutionary psychology behind ideas of sexual morality, I was skeptical. As I’ve ranted about to anyone who will listen, I have a hate-hate relationship with evolutionary psychology and related fields such as literary Darwinism. They’re just so… essentializing. Ugh.

But the above-linked article caught my interest. The author looks at a number of recent studies about how people judge casual sex. In one instance: “Even after controlling for variables like age, religiosity, and political affiliation, the study authors found that people who saw female financial dependence on men as more common were also more likely to negatively judge promiscuity in both sexes.” Why does this occur? I’m not inclined to go with the evo psych reductionist reasoning that women are less horny than men but simultaneously more calculating; instead, I’d like to draw some parallels between sexual and economic principles.

What do sexual morality and financial dependence have in common? The concept of limited good. As folklorist Alan Dundes explains in this interview about evil eye beliefs: “The idea is that many peasant societies have what anthropologist George Foster refers to as the concept of ‘limited good.’ There’s only so much wealth and health. So you want to conceal your wealth because people are going to wish that they had it, otherwise you’ll lose it.” Dundes goes on to argue that expressive culture (in this case, folk belief about the evil eye) reflects a society’s underlying worldview of paradigm about economic exchange.

So when we have an economic system that commodifies certain kinds of social and sexual interactions (such as marriage) by directly tying them to one’s ability to survive and thrive, it’s not surprising to see that same attitude reflected in a society’s sexual attitudes. The fear about not enough potential (and desirable) spouses to go around (hence not enough access to married-life-resources) affects beliefs about sexual practices, turning sex into a commodity when really, it doesn’t have to be that way. We know from the non-monogamous emotion of compersion (feeling joy when someone else feels joy) that it’s possible to react to sharing your partner with another with positive, constructive emotions rather than destructive, possessive, jealous ones.

I sometimes wonder how sexual behaviors and stereotypes will change in my utopian vision of the future, wherein we move from a limited good economy to one where marriage isn’t required to obtain health insurance, citizenship, or other concrete goods. Will sex ever be de-commodified? I’m not sure, but I hope we move more in that direction.

Oh, and there’s another, simpler idea that I’d like to extract from the essay on sexual morality: the notion that a society’s attitudes about sexuality can (and perhaps should) change over time. The authors of Sex at Dawn (which I review here) also implicitly explore this concept. What I like about the idea that attitudes about sex are always evolving is that it recognizes that sexual behavior is always culturally constructed. Our ideas about sex are always changing due to a confluence of various factors: the ways in which we have sex change, our social paradigms (some of which explicitly relate to sex) change, and our scientific understanding of sexual functioning is always evolving too.

Basically, there’s always been an amazing diversity of sexual practices throughout human history. In my mind, that’s as it should be. There is no one way to have sex. There is no universal, monolithic meaning of sex. The only thing that’s universal about sex – other than it happening to continue humankind’s existence on this world – is that I believe sex should be considered among the list of universal human rights.

So, let’s keep up the dialogue about sex and society. Hopefully a greater understanding of how these paradigms intersect and influence one another will lead to more tolerance and progressive social change.

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Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

One of the things I love about my family is that they take an active interest in my career and hobbies. So when I flew into L.A. to see my folks, my dad handed me a big box of newspaper clippings, related to literature, folklore, dance, sex education, and so on.

Among them was an opinion piece from the L.A. Times about a recent piece of California legislation, SB 967. This would mandate, among other things, that all California universities include the following language about sexual contact that occurs on campus:

  • An affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by a complainant.
  • Prohibition on an accused perpetrator using self-intoxication or recklessness as a defense.  It would also not be a defense if the accused failed to take reasonable steps to ascertain consent.
  • An explicit provision that an individual is unable to give consent for sexual activity if the individual is asleep or unconscious; incapacitated due to drugs and/or alcohol; or unable to communicate due to a mental and/or physical condition.
  • A preponderance of the evidence standard in the determination of disciplinary action.

And so on. So far, so good, right?

Well… no. One of the opinion pieces, published in the Sunday June 1 L.A. Times, thinks that an affirmative consent standard is not only unlikely, but also unsexy. He writes: “The legislation’s affirmative consent requirement doesn’t apply just to sex. It covers all physical contact for which consent is required by a college’s sexual assault policy, like intimate touching. In real life, such contact is welcomed after it begins, not affirmatively consented to in advance.”

I hope y’all see that this is really problematic. This statement exemplifies the sex-negativity prevalent in our culture, specifically the idea that having to obtain consent by explicitly asking for it is un-sexy. It’s not hard to see where this idea comes from; in practically every Hollywood flick the characters experience mind-numbing chemistry, kiss, and wind up in bed together, with nary a word spoken.

Is it really all that terrible to have to ask for someone’s consent before touching or kissing them? Would it really be so soberingly un-sexy to say something like, “Hey, I’d like to kiss you. How do you feel about that?” Apparently, yes, there is no greater boner-killer than verbally obtaining consent.

What’s even more  troubling is that this opinion was expressed by Hans Bader, an attorney and former U.S. Department of Education Lawyer. In other words, the people making our laws don’t think obtaining verbal, explicit consent is sexy or feasible.

Another person, Sandra Perez, wrote in to say: “Legislation in Sacramento essentially would mandate that a would-be Romeo obtain an express opt-in before proceeding to bed with his sweetheart, as if any such target of Romeo’s desires doesn’t have ample opportunity to communicate her unequivocal wish to opt out.” This is another WTF comment, since it both assumes that men are always the initiators of sexual contact (which is a harmful construct of performing idealized masculinity) and that there are never coercive situations wherein women – or men – don’t feel safe saying no.

I’m saddened and disturbs that both of the quotes in this opinion piece reinforce negative, harmful, and untrue ideas about consent. Whether or not you’re in California and hence potentially affected by this law, I recommend reading up on consent and figuring out how to make it a more prominent part of your conversations and your practices. So here are some links:

Please read and consider passing on these links. I’m aware that there are more sophisticated (often feminist) conversations happening around consent, specifically problematizing the notion of “enthusiastic consent (and this discussion too), but hey, we have to start somewhere.

P.S. June is  Adult Sex Ed month! Consider this post a contribution!

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My post Claiming the Title of Sex Educator recently went live at MySexProfessor, and in that vein, I’m going to start posting more sex education and sex research content here at my personal blog (update: now that I have a blog at my sex education site, more content of this nature will go there!). I’ll begin with a post about how we talk about deviance and consent, and where these subjects (maybe surprisingly) intersect.

There’s a journalistic account going around about a young man who identifies as a pedophile in that he’s attracted to children, but he has never acted on that attraction. In fact, he’s actively seeking help in order to keep from acting on it. Pedophilia is one the most taboo and reviled sexuality topics in our society, and I like how the interview humanizes the man. It’s worth a listen if you have the time (it’s around 30 minutes long).

The story got me thinking about how we tend to talk about sexual deviancy. The more taboo a topic is, the more likely the discussion of it is to be framed in terms of morality or wrongness. In other words, stigma has an incredibly polarizing effect on discourse.

But you know what? Pretty much any sexual act has the potential to be just as “deviant” as the most stigmatized and taboo acts out there. This is because every sex act that involves more than one person hinges on consent, and even the most innocent-seeming act can become a violation if consent is lacking.

This is where the “would you do it to/with a pet?” question comes in. Think of something you might do to, say, a cat or dog as a friendly gesture:

  • Hug
  • Pet
  • Feed
  • Walk or play with

You don’t have to ask your cat or dog whether you can interact with it in a low-key, friendly way, in a manner that presumes some familiarity but does not transgress the animal’s bodily boundaries or cause it pain. Similarly, you usually don’t have to ask a friend consent before hugging her, or offering him food, or shaking zir hand.

Then think of some other activities, which you would NOT do to your pet. These could involve forcibly penetrating it, or beating it. Why would those actions be wrong? Because your pet cannot consent to sex with a human, nor to receiving pain. Animals think differently than humans and we haven’t figured out how to bridge a lot of those gaps just yet. Humans, on the other hand, are capable of communicating with one another about marvelously complex things, including giving and receiving physical pain in the pursuit of pleasure as with kink/BDSM, or choosing to enter into sex work.

My point here is that if it’s not an act that you would feel okay doing to an alive-and-feeling being that is incapable of communicating consent — it is potentially a “deviant” act. Being kissed without consent can be an invasive, horrible experience. Having sex without consent – that’s called rape.  Whether it’s the most vanilla thing in that world or as taboo as it gets, any partnered sexual activity has the potential to be traumatic if its occurs without consent.

Obviously the pet analogy falls apart at some point. Some people enjoy sloppy wet dog kisses, and the dogs seem to enjoy them right back. The activity of wrestling with one’s pet may cross into rough play, rougher than you’d do with a non-consenting human. I just wanted to come up with a metaphor that would resonate with people, that would make you think about the activities which require explicit consent and the activities that do not.

The flip side is that if any act, no matter how innocent or well-intended, can become monstrous when it occurs without consent, then any deviant/taboo/bizarre act can be seen as okay if consent is granted. Or at least, I’ll see it that way, and encourage others to have an open enough mind to do so.

Once again: if you’re a consenting adult, I support you doing anything. Consent should always be communicated, negotiated, and re-negotiated, so the more we read and talk and write about it, the better!

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A friend brought to my attention this letter by an anonymous group, calling itself Women for Academic Freedom, claiming that a critique of a soon-to-be-published book’s transphobic aspects is actually part of a well-orchestrated attempt by transgendered folks to oppress women. More than they’re already oppressed. Or something.

If that’s what academic freedom looks like, I don’t want any part in it.

Academic freedom does not mean that you get to invent agendas or twist facts to your liking. It should not mean that you get to target a minority group and then blame them for your own problems. It should also not mean that you twist feminism to be a rallying cry in the oppression of others.

According to the CDC, transgender people are among the highest risk groups for HIV infection. This round-up of transgender murder statistics suggests that transgender people are far more likely to be murdered than cis-gendered people (though by how much is difficult to determine, as this is a population often forced to work underground, so statistics can be hard to come by). More stats on physical and sexual violence can be found here.

Somehow the “Women for Academic Freedom” seem to have not noticed any of these truths about how much violence and hardship transgendered people face on a daily basis. It makes me suspect that they’re not, in the end, very good at research. It also looks as though they’ve bought into a zero sum game, similar to what we folklorists like to call a limited-good worldview: the idea that there’s only so much “good” (whether wealth or good luck or general prosperity) to go around in a given community, and thus anyone who’s able to get a piece of the pie is automatically depriving someone else of theirs. Paying attention to the struggles of transgender people need not detract from feminist concerns about the oppression of women.

If anything, this is a rehashing of the old “can a feminist really choose to be a stay-at-home mom?” debate. The important thing, from my rather third-wave vantage point, is that feminism encourages women to choose their own life paths, regardless of whether they’re engaging in a traditionally feminine pursuit or not. What matters is that they’re able to choose it, in a more-or-less unconstrained manner (and I know, we could sit and debate all day about whether any choice in a patriarchal context is unconstrained, but hopefully, eventually, all people, both men and women, will be able to make choices outside unduly coercive situations). And really, I thought we’d gotten over this question – but here it is again, rehashed in a new setting. These “Women for Academic Freedom” seem to be saying, “But those terrible transpeople are adhering to rigid gender roles, which are exactly what we radical feminists are trying to destroy, so that they can no longer oppress women!” Um, people, let’s try this again: it doesn’t matter whether you’re choosing to do something masculine or feminine, whether it’s a woman choosing to stay at home with kids or go out working or try both, or whether it’s a person choosing their gender identity to conform to given gender roles or not… it’s the same debate.

Prescriptive gender roles suck for many people, so let’s simply accept it when people choose to embrace any and all aspects of a gender role, whether or not it’s the one they were assigned at birth. Let’s encourage people to figure out what works for them as individuals, in this weird world of conflicting messages and multiple waves of feminism and lots of backlash against both feminists and non-gendered-conforming individuals. Why can’t we see that this is the same struggle, to police identities?

This excellent Shakesville post already refuted most of the point that the “Women for Academic Freedom” tried to make in their letter. It’s a stellar post, so you should go read it. In case you don’t, however, here are two of my favorite paragraphs:

Simply put, ignoring the lived experiences of trans* folk, sweeping aside the violence they live with, the employment discrimination, the fear that can accompany something as simple as going to the bathroom or shopping for clothes, or all the million other ways that trans* folk are treated as less than? That’s wrong. Trying to teach students that they should hate and fear fellow students, teachers, loved ones, colleagues, who happen to be trans* men and women, is wrong. Re-centering discussions about trans* issues to focus on a relatively privileged group, cis women, is wrong. I know readers of this space know this, but it cannot be said enough.

But academic freedom (although it is far from perfectly applied) is supposed to work both ways. It protects the right to cover trans* issues accurately in class. It protects the right for professors to be trans* activists and allies off-campus and on. For trans* academics, to make their voices heard, and for cis academics to support them. That’s what academic freedom is supposed to do, and by Maude, I will be using mine as much as I can.

Academic freedom is not about teaching hate. It should be about teaching rigorous research skills, and spreading knowledge, and showing students how to sift through facts in order to reach a bigger picture, even knowing that there are often multiple interpretations of a given situation, and no single one may be the only right one.

I’m learning how to become a trans ally, which in no way conflicts with my feminism, or my academic freedom. That’s part of why I write about this stuff, to hopefully promote tolerance, and encourage people to think about the ideas they’ve been indoctrinated with (and I include myself in that category, as I don’t doubt that my cis-gendered privilege sometimes gets in the way of me seeing the actual risks and realities of trans issues).

I engage with trans issues with little risk to myself, which is an indication of the privilege I as a cis-gendered person hold. For an intelligent, compelling rumination on what it is to engage with risk and teach (trans)gender from a sociology perspective, check out this guest post at Conditionally Accepted. I highly, highly recommend it.

And in the meantime, let’s all keep fighting for an academic freedom that doesn’t invent enemies and further the oppression of already-struggling groups, eh?

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As someone who wears the “blogger” hat quite frequently, I always wonder how much sharing constitutes oversharing. Does my audience really need to know if I’m feeling cranky and bloated because I’m on my period, or that I made yet another batch of jam with farmers market berries, or that I’ve been lifting weights for X number of consecutive weeks and I’m happy with the results? On a less formal level than blogging, do I write about these things on my Facebook, to keep my faraway friends and family appraised of how I’m doing?

After giving it some thought, I’ve decided that yes, I’m in favor of what might be considered by some to be oversharing. There are both personal and political reasons for this.

On the personal front, I was raised in a household that was very tolerant of difference. We held (and continue to hold) some rather non-conformist values, and I was exposed to multiple cultures at an early age (it helps when your mom is an art teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, working primarily with mentally handicapped high-schoolers). As my parents took me and my sister on various trips, we wandered through art museum after art museum, and later ventured to Europe. It became incredibly obvious that what is considered polite or appropriate varies by subculture and by region. This awareness of how arbitrary social norms are influences me to want to challenge them on principle, to push people to see if they realize whether their responses are due to socially conditioning or individually held values (as though it were easy to distinguish between the two!).

I’m a firm believer in respecting other people’s boundaries, whether we’re talking about giving consent for intimate acts or social interactions. And yet I see no reason to artificially enforce cultural norms that are arbitrary to the point of being silly. Don’t get me wrong, my parents raised me to be polite – but I will bring up politicized issues like the way women’s bodies are treated in our culture, from advertising to fat-shaming, at every opportunity. I will also include my own personal experiences in these conversations. If that kind of oversharing offends you, well, you’d better own that and tell me so, because I’ll respect your boundaries – but you need to be self-aware enough to set them in the first place.

This leads us into my political reasons for oversharing. I hinted at them above, when listing activities that some people might not care to hear about, whether thinking they’re extraneous or icky. What did all those descriptions have in common? They relate to bodies: eating and cooking bodies, menstruating bodies, exercising bodies. As I’ve discussed over at MySexProfessor.com, dualism is an insidious Western mentality that separates minds from bodies, valuing the mental over the physical, the rational over the passionate, and the masculine over the feminine. By talking so much about my body and related activities, I open myself to various kinds of criticism: that I spend too much time in the physical world and not enough in the mental realm that as an academic I’m supposed to inhabit; that I am shallow; that I am vain. The gendered dimensions of dualism make it clear that women are more likely to be aligned with the body than men are, resulting in our devaluing and degradation.

So I share about my life in a small gesture of resistance to the prevalence of dualism. I share about my life in order to say yes, I’m a woman, and yes, I happen to be extraordinarily intelligent, but I do not neglect my physical existence, and if you have a problem with that, well, you should work on those unconscious biases of yours while I’m over here busily (and happily) living my life.

There’s another reason that I share, sometimes to the point of oversharing. I’m painfully aware that people like me did not and do not always have a voice. Very few written records of historical women’s daily experiences exist. Those that do are, in European history at least, overwhelmingly noble (as not many lower-class women could read or write). Other people at the margins of society – gays and lesbians and transfolks, people of color in white-dominated societies, and so on – have also been voiceless and powerless in many situations, throughout many centuries. This makes me angry. I know that our oppressions and struggles are not equal or symmetrical, but I’m angry nonetheless. I’m angry that our experiences get lost and neglected because literacy and education are not yet considered universal human rights. I’m angry that history was written by the victors, most of whom were wealthy, Christian, heterosexual, monogamous, cis-gendered, neurotypical, European white men. I’m angry that even with the wealth of information at my fingertips thanks to the Internet, I still won’t be able to learn about what women’s lives were like in historical periods when men’s lives, and the lives of the rich, and the religious upper castes, were the sole ones being documented.

As a folklorist, I believe in the transformative power of personal narratives, those stories we tell based on our experiences. I want to see everyone’s lives documented. We all have stories, and those stories are treasures.

As a feminist, I want to see women, women’s lives, and women’s experiences and stories valued at least as much as those of men. I want to see that for all oppressed peoples no matter why they’re being oppressed, whether it’s skin color or religion or social class or sexuality or gender identity or nationality or (dis)ability.

So I share about my life. Sometimes I overshare. I broadcast it to the world, documenting it on the screen and in pen and ink. Maybe these small acts of resistance matter as such, and maybe they don’t, maybe they border on solipsism and narcissism. But I share because I know there are people like me living right now who cannot. Because if I’d been born perhaps one century ago, and definitely two or three centuries or more ago, I would not have been able to document my life.

Again and again, I return to the feminist slogan “the personal is political.” And yet I long for a day when it will no longer be useful. Perhaps documenting lives, even to the point of oversharing, is a step that will help us imagine that future.

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Ack, I’d meant to post more this month. But this month turned into moving (which involved a multi-state roadtrip to accomplish family and furniture goals all in one go), plus facing the academic job market, plus traveling to New Orleans for the American Folklore Society’s annual meeting (which was a blast, as expected).

So I’ve been busy.

But I’ve also been thinking about where we stop, where we set our goals, where we declare ourselves complacent. For me, as a feminist, that’s a touchy issue; I don’t know if we’ll ever satisfactorily determine the extent to which men and women are different or the same. Nature and nurture are notoriously difficult to entangle. So part of the issue is: when should feminists stop demanding equal rights for women? What if we find out that there are, in fact, ways in which men and women are substantially different so we can’t really aspire to equality in certain sectors to begin with?

I don’t tend to take that argument very far, as I think we can aspire to a ton of equal rights sorts of things while core similarities/differences remain unresolved. Such as, ya know, eliminating sexual violence and rape and lack of access to contraceptive rights. Basic stuff.

However, Laurie Penny’s post on feminism and gratitude really resonated with me. She writes about how

Women have made enormous strides in the past hundred years, yes, of course we have, but let’s get beyond this idea that we’re supposed to be grateful that some of us are now permitted a warped sort of equality in a fundamentally unequal labour market. We have no reason to be grateful. We have every right to want more. We have a right to want everything, including not being morally and financially attacked by bigots in government with a business agenda every time they want to distract attention from their own fuckups. We have every right to demand more than this.

Yes, yes, and yes. Being told to be grateful for how far we’ve come is a derailing tactic, as well as an implicit threat. I am cheerfully ungrateful in the face of everything we have left to accomplish.

This, I suppose, is a nice lead-in to the harvest holiday season. I spent most of yesterday talking about Halloween with my folklore class, but we also discussed the wheel of the year and how seasonal change affected (and continues to affect) agricultural societies. Harvest holidays are especially prominent and widespread, because people use them to mark the time of the year when they have enough to eat, and have to work hard to pull in the last of the crops before the winter comes.

So gratitude has been very much on my mind lately, between folklore topics and personal ones (we live in a nice place; we have food; we have supportive friends and family).

But I refuse to be bullied into being “grateful” for how far women have come. The day when someone can legitimately pull that is a long way off in my view, unfortunately.

In the meantime… yay for autumn and colored leaves and pumpkins!


I’ve been turning this post over in my head for a few months, and now seems like a good time to make it.

I am not accused too often of being an “angry feminist,” but it still happens from time to time. As though that is such a terrible thing to be; worse than a greedy capitalist, or a dishonest politician, or an unapologetic rapist. As though it would be better for me to not be angry or not be feminist, but be something else instead, even if that something else is also a negative trait.

This Tiger Beatdown post on angry-feminist-shaming really resonated with me. In it, Flavia writes: I refuse to be boxed in the simplified category of “ranter” because I am angry. Because this anger makes me “difficult”, it makes me “alienating”, it makes me “impossible to deal with” and I should just accept that certain things just are.

Anger drives us to action; anger keeps us from being complacent. Yet it is a really charged thing for women to be angry, since in many cultures, women are not supposed to get angry. There is no safe way for us to unleash our passions. In folklore, literature, and history, we see the dire consequences of women getting angry: Medea, Snow White’s (step)mother, the doomed Amazons, the Maenads. There is little cultural space for women’s anger. We are supposed to swallow it and, I don’t know, transform it into milk chocolate hearts and rainbow bird’s nests. Or better yet, not feel it at all.

This excellent (but potentially triggering) post at Fugitivus talks about the conditioning women undergo to be pleasant and agreeable in every.single.interaction of their lives, and how given that context, it’s unsurprising that “if you accept those social interactions as normal and appropriate in your day to day life, there is absolutely no reason you should be shocked that rape occurs without screaming, without fighting, without bruising, without provocation, and without prosecution. Behavior exists on a continuum.”

One reason I chafe at the negative connotations of the “angry feminist” label is that it’s meant to police women’s behavior. Because if being an angry woman is clearly unacceptable in our society, being an angry feminist must be a billion times worse.

Another reason I dislike the stigma is that I don’t actually see being an angry feminist as a bad thing depending on what you are doing with that anger. I totally do not mean this to turn into a judgment of how those feminists are doing it wrong but these feminists are doing it right; rather, I mean that anger can be an intensely destructive emotion, and that shit will consume you if you let it. Which is not helpful for anyone, really, unless self-destruction does something unique or desirable for you.

But here is the thing: when feminists are angry, we are angry about oppression. We are angry about women’s (and indeed, men’s) options and identities being limited and defined by patriarchy, religion, laws, culture. We are pissed off that being born with a certain set of genitals means you are far more likely to experience sexual assault, to be denied health care coverage, to take a pay cut for the same work.

And our anger is frequently tempered with empathy. Feminism is a collective movement. You gain empathy by realizing that yeah, it also sucks for people who are both like you and unlike you. That opens you up to awareness that oppression happens on many axes, not just gender/sexuality, but also ethnicity, religious identity, immigrant status, nationality, class, and so on.

When you start to think about oppression and you start to realize how much it sucks to be oppressed, you generally don’t want to inflict those same feelings on others. This is where I’m going with the empathy thing. And while bell hooks has said this way more eloquently than I ever will, this is why feminism can and should intersect with multiple anti-oppression stances, and why all forms of oppression are related.

I think this, ultimately, is why the idea of the angry feminist is so threatening in a contemporary mainstream American/Western context: because the oppressors can’t understand a way of being angry that does not involve doing violence to others. Since that is how they work, by keeping others in check through fear and control. It’s power-over rather than power-with, to borrow a term from Starhawk.

But many feminists (and again, it’s such a broad movement that it’s hard to generalize about) understand that being oppressed–for gender or anything else–really blows, so we channel our anger into challenging oppression, not redirecting it onto whoever’s lower on the totem pole than us. We comprehend the destructive effects of displaced abusive anger and instead strive for transformative passionate anger.

Not that we’re perfect and get it right every time; I still feel helpless, and I still fight losing battles on the internet with people who are turned off by my anger so I really should adopt another tactic but I don’t because this shit is so raw, this being told I am less than human and don’t deserve sovereignty over my body. I am trying to do it better, to be more compassionate, to channel my anger into something useful and not wallow in rageful depression or lash out at potential allies.

This is why I don’t back away from the term angry feminist: I think it can teach us many things. It can be used to start conversations, or to end them, if the idea of an angry woman is so alien as to point out irreconciliable differences that it’s not worth bashing your head against. We do need some amount of self-preservation instincts to keep up this fight while life goes on around us, after all.

I hope that someday we won’t even need the term anymore: that women will have socially acceptable access to the same range of emotions as men, and that the idea of feminism will be something taught in history classes since it’ll no longer be necessary once gender-based oppression is banished forever. Yeah, I can keep dreaming. But I like my anger with a dash of optimism.

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I am a teacher, scholar, feminist and performer (among the other identities I shift in and out of). One of the common threads that runs through all these roles is the desire, and even the necessity, to critique and thus transform. But when you’re critiquing someone’s dancing, someone’s writing, or someone’s political stance, how do you go about it positively, in a way that makes people receptive to it (or at least doesn’t turn them off from the very first words you say)?

One dancer I respect told me that she always praises a dance student before going on to offer criticism (as in, “That was a beautiful shimmy! Now make sure you stay in posture and hold your arms at shoulder height”). That helps a student be ready to receive the criticism and take it to heart in the way it was meant: as a tool to aid in growth and progress, rather than as an insult or an attempt to take someone down a notch.

At conferences, if I see a paper I really don’t like because I think the scholar doesn’t know what she’s talking about, I try to open with something nice before I go on to my criticism (for instance, “I thought your connection between X and Y tale types was really clever. However, I think you may be a bit off base in focusing on the origins of motifs that we can’t verify with empirical research…”). Not that it always works; I’ve had people go into rude-defensive mode, but at least I tried.

As a feminist, I’m aware that it can take a lot of positive reinforcement to reach a woman through the layer of negativity that we tend to accrue in our culture. Sometimes it takes a while to get someone to accept a compliment—and I mean truly accept it, not just smile and nod while thinking “But I’m actually still doing the whole move wrong, and I’m fat, and I’m not as young as the other girls in the class.” This is unfortunate, and I’m hoping that creating more safe spaces for women to, for instance, take up belly dancing for the sheer joy of it will help.

I wasn’t always this way; people who have danced with me know that I tend to be extremely critical of myself and of others. But I mean it in the best possible way; I assume that everyone is as ruthlessly disciplined and intent on self-improvement as I am. I’ve since learned that this is not true, and that not everyone wants to hear about every little thing they did wrong in a choreography, or every little thing I think could’ve been better in an essay. I still think that my ability to be incisively critical is one of my strengths, since I have a highly trained eye when it comes to both intellectual and aesthetic pursuits, but I’ve learned to keep a lot of my thoughts to myself unless asked to share. I’ve seen, firsthand, how important it is to boost people up before you tear them down (or act in such a way that they perceive it like that). I’m stubborn so it took a while for me to recognize this, but I’m here now. And I also, along the same lines, try not to say anything unless I have something nice to say, which is hard since I tend to be blunt, but oh well.

So  now, because I truly believe that it’s both important and effective to offer creative, positive, or constructive comments/suggestions before moving into the negative, destructive, or super-critical stuff, I’m figuring out how to implement it in the rest of my life.

For example, as a pro-choice, sex-positive feminist, I am not thrilled with how so many American religious conservatives want to not only outlaw abortion but try to restrict access to birth control and sex education. This, when our country can’t even seem to take care of the children that already exist: malnutrition, poor literacy, and other physical and social health issues plague our young. So… why not address this issue (the constructive part) before trying to take away people’s choices and access (the destructive part)? I mean, why not throw all those resources into trying to help the needy citizens of our country instead of legislating against, shaming, and sometimes even committing acts of violence against the people who provide access to and obtain abortions and birth control?

That is the political feminist portion of this post, and I know that not everyone will agree with me here (for instance, you could argue that saving the life of a fetus is a more constructive act than trying to help an impoverished child, prisoner, or mentally ill person, though I’m not quite sure how that logic prioritizes a not-yet life over an existing life). But what I hope people get out of this post is the will to reexamine your rhetoric, intentions, and actions when you interact with people. Could you go about something more constructively or creatively at first? Could you do something to inspire confidence in someone rather than insecurity?

(fyi, I was tempted to make a bunch of jokes about constructionism vs. deconstructionism for my academic readers, since I’m a huge social constructionist and find deconstruction to be passably interesting, but I’ll spare you!)

It basically comes down to this: do you want to create or inspire, or tear things down? There’s certainly a time for both, as when tearing down harmful institutions such as slavery or fascist governments, or in times of personal metamorphosis, but I think we need to examine our motivations in which types of actions we begin with. Since I’m folklorist, I’ll remind others: you win more flies with honey than vinegar.

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Again, normally I save the sex posts for MySexProfessor.com … but this is a little more, hm, shall we say, political than my blogging there tends to be.

What sparked this rant? This Feministe post about an American Christian evangelical group that is sending missionaries over to Thailand to “save” the bar girls there.

I don’t even know where to begin. Go click on the link and watch the video if you have the stomach for patronizing, classist, colonialist, sexist propaganda.

First? It is beyond me how a bunch of American, privileged-enough-to-travel-to-Thailand women can claim to understand where Thai sex workers are coming from. How can they talk about morality and sin when these women are working in the sex economy in order to survive? How dare these privileged American women project their sexual norms onto women from another culture, and women who are most likely disadvantaged at that? What’s their solution – are they going to pay for the Thai women to come to the US, learn English, and learn vocational skills? Because anything less than that is bullshit. Anything less than that is a misinformed (at best) attempt to tell other people to prize morals over food. And anyone who tells you that has probably never been hungry or poor.

Next: these women are saying masturbating is a sin. NO. NO. NO. I cannot believe there are still doctrines that say that. Becoming acquainted with your body can only be a good thing. It will only benefit your future partners (or partner if you’re saving yourself for “the one”) and your children and your community. Your body is not sinful. Your body is just your body. It just is. It’s a part of you. Like, maybe you shouldn’t masturbate so much that you rub yourself raw or miss important commitments. Moderation in everything, my dears. But seriously. People who say that masturbation is wrong should be taken to fucking court as far as I’m concerned BECAUSE THEY ARE WRONG. We have empirically proven that it’s normal and healthy. Even bloody Fox News agrees on this.

(if I believed in hell, I would say that there is a special hell reserved for people who tell teens that masturbation is immoral and sinful, just as I think there should be a special hell for people who instruct schoolchildren that abstinence is the only way to go because condoms don’t work and will give you diseases anyway… but since I don’t believe in hell, I can only hope that these people become enlightened enough to realize that they’re inflicting unnecessary harm on young minds)

Finally, the “When I’m With My Daddy” song playing in the video, along with all the He/Him/Christ stuff? Is downright creepy. It is patronizing and creepy to show these young women subjugating themselves to Him and His stuff and so on as the only way to deal with sexuality. Would they make a video showing young men doing the same? Nope, that would be deemed homoerotic. It’s uncomfortable for me to watch these young women saying how pure they feel because of Him, how cleansed of sexual anything… and yet they’re in a position to “rescue” other women who are quite possibly undergoing trauma these girls have never imagined?

I’m all for the message of acceptance in the video, and that message in Christianity in general. When people fulfill the teachings of Christ, I think that’s awesome. But I find this evangelical brand of Christianity offensive, patronizing, and creepy. Like, how is this not about controlling women’s sexuality? I just… ugh. I need to go cleanse my palate now that I’ve gotten this rant out of my system.

(I’m not trying to imply that all of Christianity is creepy, and I hope I haven’t given that impression… but y’all need to reevaluate what you’re doing if some parts of your religion come off as creepy to non-Christians, especially if you’re an evangelical religion, which I gather Christianity is)

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This weekend, some folklore colleagues and I watched an Estonian film titled “Nukitsamees” which translates to “Little Bumpy” (the title character is a little witch child with horns). The plot begins rather like the Western fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” with a brother and sister lost in the woods, taken to the home of a witch where they live with the constant threat of being eaten. When they escape, they take the witch’s child with them, and though he is unruly, he eventually chooses to live a human life. There is much rejoicing, singing, dancing, and valorizing of the heteronormative family.

What really struck me about the film, however, was the grim terror that the children experienced while living in the witch’s house. While it was quite graphically depicted in the film, this is a feature of many related stories as well: the despondence and despair of the children upon discovering what they’ve stumbled into. The tale plot about children living in the house of cannibals – be they giants or witches – is quite widespread throughout Europe and Asia (I could go into specifics if I wanted to nerd out about the international transmission of folklore, but I’ll spare you that rant unless someone specifically asks about it).

These tales address very real fears of abandonment and child abuse, but more than that, I believe they deal with the experience of living in an environment that is experienced as harsh, hostile, and dangerous. The children are forced to work all day and night; they know that they could be punished or killed for any arbitrary reason; they know that their bodies will sustain the bodies of their captors, giving the captors life built on death.

What is this really about? I think these stories are about patriarchy, or, more broadly, a hierarchically stratified society that thrives upon the labor of the disenfranchised, literally building the lives of the empowered upon the bodies of the disempowered. In the case of women’s experiences of patriarchy, everything I wrote in the above paragraph applies: women’s labor in the domestic sphere is endless, filling each day and night; women (and men too) are policed and punished for any number of arbitrary transgressions when they step outside their gender roles; and women’s reproductive labor is the foundation of society’s continuation. Sexual assault remains astoundingly prevalent and functions as a powerful threat to keep women in their places, while cultural rhetoric places the blame on women who are raped as though they somehow asked for it.

Much of the same could be said for the working class in a capitalist society; for people of color in a racist society; for the urban poor in a classist society; for the untouchables in a caste society; and so on. These are the people whose bodies bear the brunt of mainstream society’s desires and needs. Those who live more comfortable lives are unaware that they are simply being fattened by the witch before being shoved into the oven.

Stories like “Hansel and Gretel” and “Nukitsamees” give us an emotional vocabulary with which to articulate experiences of fear, complicity, and hostility. Those of us who study culture know that most people can’t articulate the basic principles of the culture they live in, just like they can’t articulate all of the principles of the language they speak. We’re like fish who can’t tell that we’re swimming in water. Our culture is so infused with power relations that we can’t even begin to say where they begin and end.

The setting – a terrifying house that is not a home – intensifies the cultural conflicts we all experience. The hostility is coming from inside the house (sorry, couldn’t resist the temptation to make a BSG reference) when that is the very last place that should be experienced as hostile. Fairy tales as a genre make these artistic distortions, playing with significant themes like home and family, in order to critique these very institutions.

The imagery of terror in stories holds up a mirror so that we can see what our lives are like. Some of us are living comfortably in cages or cradles; some of us are breaking our backs stoking the fire; too many of us have already been eaten, rent limb from limb, or know people who have suffered terribly.

We are all living in the house of cannibals.

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