Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I will hold out- I will scream and I will shout

This post on Yes Means Yes really made me think. It discusses the "boiling frog" principle and applies it to sexual assault- how women are taught, throughout their whole lives, not to raise their voices, put up a fight, or make a fuss. I think it also applies really well to street harassment.

I wasn't always as brave as I am now. I wasn't always as willing or able to kick and scream and raise absolute hell when I was being made to feel afraid. I credit internet feminism with bringing out my natural belligerence, and I couldn't thank the movement enough. Because of discussions on amazing blogs like Yes Means Yes, Jezebel, figleaf, and the rest, I feel like I have the right to enforce my boundaries and protect my privacy in a way that makes me feel safe. This wasn't always true.

A couple of years ago, when I was maybe 17, I was hanging around my town library on a Saturday afternoon, waiting for the guys at the tire place to be done fixing up my car. I was in the stacks, idly perusing titles, when a guy came up to me and asked the time.

"One-fifteen," I answered, or something like that. I barely looked at the guy- I was too busy looking at books. Then he went away, and I continued wandering around the shelves.

After a minute or two, I became aware that this man was following me as I walked around. He was also doing that stereotypically creepy heavy-breathing thing as he did so. I was immediately terrified- my heart was racing almost instantly.

This man was making me feel so unsafe. I was in a library with tons of other people, but what did I do? Did I tell a librarian or another adult? Nope. Even though I felt, distinctly, that what was happening to me was not okay, I wasn't sure enough. I didn't feel that I could tell someone and not be laughed at or brushed off. What if this wasn't really happening? Should I really make a fuss?

This man proceeded to follow me out of the library and into the Whole Foods next door. My rationale: maybe if there are lots of people then he won't follow me in. This plan did not work. He followed me in and then sat down a few tables away from where I sat, staring at me.

This is when I thought that I had to tell someone, so I called my dad. I told him what was happening and that I was freaking out, and he helped me stay calm. He told me to stay where there were lots of people, and to try and go get my car.

So, still on the phone with Dad, I made my way out of the Whole Foods and down the street. For one happy second I thought the creepy guy was done following me, but I looked back and my heart sank as I saw he hadn't given up on his mission of making a teenage girl so afraid she felt like throwing up.

He followed me all the way down the street- several blocks- staying maybe fifteen feet behind me the whole time. As I walked, my all-encompassing terror started to subside even as the adrenaline kept pumping. What right does this guy have? I kept thinking to myself. What right does he have to make me so afraid in my own hometown? This isn't okay. I deserve to feel safe.

Finally, I was crossed the street to get to the tire place where my car was. My heart leapt into my throat again as I contemplated the thought that this dude would know which car was mine. I couldn't let that happen.

I turned around to face this guy, who was in the middle of crossing the street (I secretly hoped that maybe he would get hit by a car, but no such luck) and I said, as loudly and forcefully as possible without actually yelling, "Would you PLEASE stop following me?" He muttered something unintelligible and vaguely apologetic-sounding and walked away to leave me alone at last.

I felt victorious, at first, but also drained from the whole traumatic experience. The whole time, worst-case scenarios had been racing through my head. What if he has a gun? Or a knife? What if he tries to hurt me or rape me? With him gone, I could finally breathe, but I had to reflect on how unsafe women are made to feel in public space. Would a cisgender male ever have put up with this crap? No, not in a million years, huh? Then why the hell should I? After that day, I promised myself that I would do whatever was in my power to never allow anyone to make me feel that way again.

More than anything, I wish that no person ever had to feel this way. I should never have to realize that I should never be made to feel unsafe in a public place- it should just be a given, like how 99.99% of men walk around every day without being intimidated, catcalled, followed, or harassed in any way. I deserve to feel safe- just like the other half of the population.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sappho: Restoring that which is beautiful to its rightful place

In my women in antiquity class, which is taught by my very attractive classics professor (on whom I and most of the rest of the class have a massive crush), we've been talking about Sappho, famously gay lady poet of the 3rd century BCE. 

While both my professor and I are inclined to believe in her gayness ( My professor knows better than I, since her PhD was on the biographical tradition of Sappho in antiquity, but I was sort of already convinced for lots of reasons) there is this alternate historical tradition where you read her gay poetry with hetero blinders so it comes out as "affection toward her students" or "they're really just wedding hymns, guys" or, alternatively, the simple hysteria response of "why does everything have to be GAY with you people?!"

Of course, it's not really about co-opting everything to be gay just because now we actually have a queer-positive lens through which to view history, and we're going to paint everything rainbow just because we can. It's more about seeing things in a way that we ("we" being feminist/gay/queer-positive historians and translators) were never allowed to before, and in reconstructing that which has been purposely buried or lost. Sappho especially was incredibly censored, particularly during the 19th century, by both translators and commentators. In the 1800s, prominent scholars saw Sappho's most explicit (and beautiful) declaration of desire for another woman, poem #2, as a "homosexual psychotic breakdown."

So much of history, at this point, is about resurrecting lost voices. We see this in the rising history of indigenous peoples who were colonized by Europeans, in women-inclusive history, and in the history of slaves in the American South and the Caribbean. These are all relatively recent movements in scholarship that have picked up intensely since their beginnings in the '70s and '80s, finally making history about other groups of people besides straight white men. These are all efforts towards creating a fuller portrait of societies that came before ours, and without this larger sense we can't hope to understand the past.

A huge part of our job as historians is thus to restore what has been censored or effaced or conveniently forgotten. I hope I can continue that fight as I do research and study history. Without those on the edges and the margins, we'll never see the bigger picture.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

VIrgin/Whore: I wish we could stop talking about it

Fellow college-age blogger Abi wrote this post about “purity,” and about kids being kids, over-sexualization, etc., and I have some things to say about it. Her whole post can be found here:

First of all, I don't like “purity.” I really don't like it. This concept has been used right up to the present day,as a way to make women act in a certain and prescribed manner. There should be no expression of sexuality because that threatens patriarchal control over women's lives. These ideas, when run through the modern Christian right-wing movement, make people say things like this, from Abi's post:

What does it matter if I have sex with every guy I'm attracted to, or even not attracted to? Why shouldn't I? Girls and guys are crumpling to the demands of society, of peer pressure, of lust, and of pure emotion with no backing. It seems we've forgotten the power that comes with purity.”

Falling to peer pressure is bad. And the reason it happens is because society creates this pressure cooker, in which sexuality has to be proven, performed, gossiped over, and salaciously relished.

The problem is, this pressure cooker is, at least partially, created by an adherence to “purity” and virginal behavior as the ideals that women should aspire to. If you're supposed to be a “good girl,” who doesn't exercise her sexuality or flash any skin, and then you deviate from this norm, it becomes a big frackin' deal that everybody has to discuss, gossip, salaciously relish. It wouldn't be salacious if that unreasonable virginal ideal wasn't there, and if we could safely exercise our sexuality with whomever we saw fit.

If we didn't have to fit the modest mold of the virginal pure girl, then we wouldn't have the “bad girl” or the “fallen woman” archetypes, either, and we might have just that much more freedom without the fear of retribution, judgment, and hatred. If we, as a society, didn't create this framework to hold women and femininity captive, wouldn't everyone of all genders be that much freer to explore and play and flaunt as much as they pleased?

So where is the power that comes with purity? I can only see this emphasis on circumscribed sexuality as a highly negative force. Abi goes on to say the following:

I wore overalls until sixth grade. I didn't wear make-up until eleventh. I was running around and having a super childhood, and I didn't care to be older than I was, wear short skirts, talk on a cell phone, or chase boys. Now I look at young girls and they're all dressing like little whores “

First of all, I can't stand the narrative of makeup as a bad mature thing that you're not allowed to use until you're older. I'm glad that I got a ridiculous shiny purple makeup box when I was around 11 or so that let me turn my face into a work of art. I wanted peacock-blue eyelids and green lips and glitttery cheeks. I wanted to be a chrome-washed robot or a jeweled space alien, and that goofy technicolor kiddie makeup let me express anything I wanted in the safety of the bathroom mirror. Later, when I got involved in theatre, I learned the importance of makeup as a mask, as an illusion, that lets you become anything and anyone. Makeup is just a thing, and it can be used in negative ways just like anything else. But cosmetics are in no way intrinsically bad, and they can be amazing in many ways. Makeup lets you become both the canvas and the artist, so don't demonize the paints.

Secondly, I don't think it's okay to say that “all” young girls dress like prostitutes- or to use the word “whores” in reference to young girls, period. I don't think it's true, for one- in my personal experience as a babysitter and nanny, I have encountered very few little girls who didn't dress their age. The little girls that I've had the pleasure to take care of have been running around in muddy jeans and sneakers (and yes, overalls!), very much enjoying their childhoods. This is where I would say, at least on the basis of what I've seen, that the kids are generally doing all right.

But I do believe that over-sexualization is a problem, especially when it is foisted onto young people at an age when they aren't able to first figure things out on their own, and so they start mimicking what they see on TV and the internet and all the other oh-so-youth-corrupting forces of today. The cultural narrative that frames sex as a performance that you should start on right away if you want to be cool and accepted has obviously got to change.

It is precisely because of this performance-oriented attitude that I think we, as a people, need to stop holding "purity" as the only acceptable way to perform sexuality. If we uphold purity as an ideal, we stifle self-expression and the healthy exploration of an essential part of life.

So, over-sexualization is bad, and so is the imposition of “purity,” and they are two sides of the same coin. Every time we, as a society, impose either side of this dichotomy, we are getting up in young people's sexual business, which is totally unwise and utterly unfair to everyone involved. Don't impose strictures of shame and fear on exploration, experience, and physical learning. Instead, provide open, inclusive, available, and scientifically accurate sex ed, and let kids do their thing. Young people are not idiots, and they have opinions and brains of their own. They are not going to engage in behavior they're not ready for if they're given an open and safe cultural environment where they can choose how to develop and explore their sexual lives. 

It is so hurtful for the norm, the ideal, the aspiration, to be “purity.” That's what you're supposed to strive for, and if you fall short, then you're just a whore. But if you take away that expectation, that don't-you-dare-explore-because-it's-bad mentality? And you have a much more open and free space for sexuality in society, where young people can be sexual at their own pace, in safe environments, when they choose to do so.

This is all from a pretty hetero-centrist perspective, as you can tell. I am talking basically about straight kids, since queer culture (to make a large generalization) usually tends to be more sex-positive and less slut-shamey.

Other people have written about this issue far more brilliantly, so check out Jezebel has to say about a very creepy aspect of this whole business- purity balls.

Starting Out.

My name is T, and I can't help but think it's time that I told the Internet what I thought about some things. I've been inspired by Jezebel and Feministing and lots of others to whom I can only look up to as the teeniest of dust motes- real heavies of LGBT blogging like Joe My God, for instance. I'll be writing about things like feminism, queer culture, sex, politics, history and spirituality- not to say the least of things I think are funny. So expect everything (including kitten videos!). I would like to put myself forth as a young voice who is eager to examine everything that catches my eye through a queer, feminist, and sex-positive lens. I'm snarky, strong, and ready to talk, so come here for a pretty package with a pretty big bite.