All the “-isms” and Why They Matter.

“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”

– Scott WoodsScottWoods2748_small

This quote has spent the past several days circulating among my Facebook friends, and it in combination with some internet infighting has made me really want to address the understanding and use of “-isms.” Racism, Sexism, Cissexism, are all examples.

(It’s somewhat unfortunate that the above quote regards racism, because that is the one “-ism” that doesn’t follow the sort of language pattern I want to discuss. But, the description of the term as it is can be applied to most any “-ism.”)

There is an important actual and linguistic difference between individualized and institutionalized marginalization. Individual marginalization has terms like misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, etc. It refers to the ways in which a person or discrete small group of individuals are hateful to another. The “-isms” refer to institutionalized, internalized, ways of thinking and behaving that marginalize others without any conscious intent to do so. Here are some examples:

If a man tells a woman he’s going to rape her because she refused to accept his romantic advances, he’s a misogynist. If a person with no ill will toward women honestly believes women are “just different” and that’s why women are often less successful in science and math, they are being sexist.

If someone calls a trans* person a “trap,” or a “tranny,” they’re being transphobic. The fact that people actually feel the need to legislate the use of “correct” bathrooms because they’re really concerned about how genitalia align with bodily functions, they’re being cissexist. Or, for a more “polite” example, when every fucking interview with a trans* person crashes and burns because the interviewer asks about the interviewee’s genitalia, those interviewers are being cissexist.

Waving a sign that says “God Hates Fags” is homophobic. When a gay couple gets married and everyone legitimately wonders who’s going to wear the dress vs the tux (no matter the gender of the couple), that is heterosexist, though in this case the term more frequently used is heteronormative.

Telling a polyamorous person that she is “cheating” on her husband with her other partner(s) is polyphobic (I’m not 100% sure that’s a word, but it really ought to be). When filling out a medical form regarding sexual history, and there’s only one space for a “primary” or “main” partner, that’s monogamism.

And, as I mentioned at the beginning, racism is more difficult to parse out because there is only one term. If someone calls a black person the n-slur, they’re being racist.The appropriation of the cultural mores of another race because you think it’s fun and will make you cool, is racist. The prosecution of drug charges that results in an overwhelmingly black prison population, is also racist. The differences in behaviors and intentions all just have one word, and frankly throw my whole argument out of whack. But, it wouldn’t be the English language if a few words didn’t follow the rules.

The upshot of all this, as with any of my commentary about marginalized groups, is to check your privilege before you say something. No, you might not be transphobic, you might not be homophobic, you might not be polyphobic or misogynist or a hateful person of any sort. But, the insidious thing about “-isms” is that they can thrive without hate. They can be perpetuated without malice or intention. As Woods states, “It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you.” Whether or not we “like” black people, gay people, women, etc., we still view those who are different from ourselves in particular ways that can very easily become marginalizing.

If you are not a member of the particular marginalized group you’re discussing or interacting with, you’re liable to fall into an “-ism” trap because that’s just the way we’re brought up to think. Woods refers to this trap as a vast ocean we’re floating in, “a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it.” The privileged perspective that gives rise to the many “-isms” is an integrated parts of our lives that we have to consciously and constantly resist in order to truly support those who are not privileged in the same ways we are.

This last bit about “in the same ways we are” is important. A lot of people think they can’t be marginalizing because they are marginalized. Being poly does not make you magically a queer ally, being trans* does not make you immune from racism, etc. Every group carries unique sets of privileges that allow them to marginalize other groups. 

There are already a lot of resources addressing how to deal with privilege and be a true ally, and I don’t think I need to become one more. The simple point I’m trying to make is that a lot of us think that just because we aren’t hateful people means that we automatically do not marginalize others, and that’s simply untrue. Not being hateful is a solid baseline, but to work our way out of the deeply ingrained “-isms” that teach us what is normal and what is other, is an ongoing and difficult process. Though, I would argue, it is a necessary one to be an actualized person and full member of humanity at large.

 

Who Is “Undateable:” How Pop Comedy is Feeding Misogyny

Undateable book coverThere is a new comedy playing on NBC entitled “Undateable.” The program is based on a book of the same name by Ellen Rakieten and Anne Coyle. I confess, I have not yet watched the show, but the idea that this book – which I have read – could be turned into a TV show, gave me serious pause. The book is a list of traits which, the author assures, will make a man completely undesirable to women. Most of these traits are incredibly shallow and completely arbitrary. To fit oneself to the author’s ideal of manhood would be challenging at best, but more likely personally limiting, stifling personal expression in order to make him ideal mate material. For example: it’s unacceptable to have body piercings or multiple tattoos, but it’s also unacceptable to wear tube socks or fanny packs (don’t be too edgy or too wholesome). It’s unacceptable to go shirtless in public or to go to conventions (don’t be too confident or too nerdy). It’s unacceptable to try to look rich if you aren’t, to wear the wrong hairstyle on your head OR your body, to read on the toilet (no, really), work out too much – or not enough, own the wrong pet (which apparently is anything but a dog), and the list goes on. Frankly, from reading this book I can’t imagine what kind of man IS dateable.

There’s a point to this, let me get there.

This new TV show inspired a lovely (as-always) “article” from Buzzfeed entitled “11 Signs You are Definitely in the Friendzone.” The entire notion of “the friendzone” is one I keep hoping will be abandoned because we’ve all finally figured out that it’s the product of whiny misogynists with a massive sense of entitlement. The problem is, the innate misogyny in the entire cultural notion of “the friendzone” is constantly being softened by articles like this that make it look like a simple experience we can all relate to and smile at together.

The Friendzone is not a simple or a benign concept. There are generally two states of existence labeled as “the friendzone.” First is the one propagated by popular media, the amusing shell we like to pretend misogynists are referring to when they lament being “friendzoned.” This is the simple, common, experience where you have two people in a platonic relationship where one person has unrequited romantic desire for the other. We’ve all been there. Either the person with the crush gets over it and then it’s just friendship, or the person with the crush can’t handle the discomfort and the relationship ends. Pretty simple. By that definition, I’ve been “in the friendzone.” But that’s not some classification I was stuck in because I’m not good enough dating material, or because the other person thought they were too good for me, or anything like that. We were just…friends. That’s it. And this simple go-to definition is all most of the world pictures when we hear those words.

The second definition of the friendzone is the complicated, dangerous, insidious one that is perpetuated by the aforementioned whiny misogynists. It’s where a “nice guy” has a crush on a girl. So he becomes her friend, or at least behaves as such, in the hopes of it leading to a romantic relationship. When it doesn’t, for any reason, he believes he has been cheated, that he has put in the time and effort required for repayment in romance and/or sex. He feels slighted by her lack of interest, and because he’s sure that he’s “nice,” that he’s “the good guy,” he begins to believe that girls only like “assholes.” In his mind, this is obvious, because if he is nice, and she doesn’t like him then clearly she doesn’t like people that are nice.

That idea, that girls only like assholes, can go bad in two ways (yes, I know, I’m branching and branching, but they’ll come back together in the end I promise). The first is that the guy decides to BECOME an asshole. This gives rise to pick-up artists and RedPillers who objectify and assault women because they believe that it’s the best way to get laid. If they don’t take what they want (often in the form of sexual assault) they believe that they’ll never get it. The worst part is, in a literal sense, these strategies work. Because yes, if someone gets a girl drunk, or psychologically manipulates her, he might wind up having sex with her. The fact that this sex is barely consensual at best doesn’t matter. It still counts as a success, and thus the man can tell his buddies “See? I told you women only want assholes. When I was nice I never got laid, but now I do.”

The other end of the spectrum is groups like PUAHate, the forum frequented by Elliot Rodger before his shooting spree. This group seethes against the women who won’t have sex with them. They believe they deserve women’s bodies, and that women are simply awful for not sharing. An article on Jezebel.com described them most aptly:

“PUAHate, as other outlets have discussed, is an offshoot of the Pick Up Artist community populated by men (and, allegedly, women) who believe Pick Up Artistry to be a sham waste of money not because women are more than “targets” and “prey,” but because women are fucking hopeless cunts who can’t be convinced to give nice guys a chance. Women, argue PUAHaters, will only go out with good looking alpha males and would never look twice at anyone who isn’t a musclebound dreamboat with a six-figure income, and most men will never be those things, and so the world is against them and life is unfair.”

If your head works like mine, you’re starting to see the branches come back together. If not, here goes.

PUAHaters, who gave rise to a multiple murderer, believe that women are only interested in a very narrow category of men, an unattainable ideal, that they can never achieve.

The book Undateable, written by women, is describing the exact, very narrow category of manhood that has permission to be with women.

In short: pop culture, you’re not helping.

I’m not blaming this book for misogyny. That would be insane.

What I am saying is that when pop media insist on perpetuating the stereotype that women only desire this very specific, “ideal,” type of man, existing misogynists feel justified in their hatred. When a misogynist has formed his opinion that women will never want him because he wears the wrong clothes, has the wrong hobbies, has the wrong body, or is just plain “too nice,” he needs to be disillusioned, not shown examples showing him that he’s right.

I am not failing to acknowledge that this is comedy. I know this. But comedy needs to take on stereotypes, satirize them, and thereby tear them down. The book Undateable, instead, laughs at the “undateable” men, rather than the prejudicial attitudes that determined these qualities to be negative in the first place. I hoped that the book’s conclusion would at least provide me with some hope. That it would say “yeah, we’re saying these men are undateable, but hey to each their own, it’s really not our place to judge anyone.” That’s not what I got. What I actually got was additional mockery with a splash of self-objectification (“Lose the nasty flavor saver and go pull some ass.” PULL some ASS? Really, ladies? Do you want the man you’re dating to think of you as “some ass” that he’s “pulling?”).

This is here solely to prove that despite my long absence, I am not dead, and this is not a ghost writer.

This is here solely to prove that despite my long absence, I am not dead, and this is not a ghost writer.

Again, I am not contending that this sort of material, or the jocular attitude toward the “friendzone,” or any other misguided forms of comedy are the source of the deep misogyny found in PUAHate, the MRA, or The Red Pill. But when misogyny has become as widespread and dangerous as Elliot Rodger has proven it to be, I truly believe it is the responsibility of every media outlet, from the news, to comedy, to this dinky little blog in a corner of the internet, to make itself part of the solution. The ongoing refusal of the aforementioned media to acknowledge the depth of the problem, and therefore to deny responsibility for creating a solution, is what I find deplorable.

How to Acknowledge Privilege

As I have stated from the start in this blog, I find myself in a position of tenuous balance between privilege and otherness. On the one hand I am white, cis-gendered, educated, and middle class. On the other, I am a woman, queer, and poly. This means that I frequently find myself contemplating what privilege really means, and how to appropriately acknowledge the ways in which I view the world from a privileged position.

A lot of folks balk at the idea of privilege, reacting as though acknowledging their personal privilege means abandoning the value of their opinions. This is a common view among the MRA (men’s rights activist) people: they reject the notion of their own privilege because they believe acknowledgment will require them to always be wrong. Thus, they insist they are not privileged, and rather trot out all their personal insecurities as weak arguments against it.

On the opposite side, which is where I sometimes find myself sliding, there is the overreaction to one’s own privilege that results in a fear of expressing opinions outside of my personal purview. I will sometimes completely avoid weighing in on any subject which I can’t address from experience, because I believe that my personal privilege colors my opinion enough to be not only invalid but potentially insensitive. For example, I would be happy to absorb, but resist ever engaging in, a conversation about trans* visibility, because I believe my cis-gendered perspective is incapable of presenting a valid statement on the subject.

That fear is not actually legitimate. I can educate myself and participate in discourse on subjects that I do not personally experience. And I can do so without disowning my experience of privilege. The how is a little tricky for me.

For those just tuning in to the world of useful life knowledge, when I talk about privilege I am referring to the ingrained perspective on the world which a person gains when they are in a normative position for their culture. For example, here in the US, and particularly in the Midwest where I make my home, the perspective on gender of a person who is cis-gendered is a privileged perspective. Sexuality for a heterosexual, race for a white person, religion for a Christian, etc.

My mind both rails against and shudders at my personal experience of privilege. Sometimes I feel like I should be allowed to relate to all oppressed groups, because I fall into several categories of otherness myself. The pride in me says, “I’m not normative, I’m alternative in all these ways, there’s no way I’m privileged.” Other times I see all the ways in which my privilege blinds me, and I just want to apologize to everyone, or find some way to eliminate my privilege, which of course isn’t possible without completely chucking out all cultural norms.

There is a balance to be struck. The experience of privilege can’t be eliminated or ignored. Most of us live with it in one way or another. At the same time, we shouldn’t hide from any subject on which we have a privileged perspective, because increasing our understanding will allow us to participate in important issues, even if they’re not ones we ourselves experience. I want to be a positive force for things like trans* issues, but I can’t do that if I believe my privileged position makes me incapable of it.

The fact is, privilege is ok. It’s not something I chose – I didn’t one day decide which normative molds I was going to fit and which ones I wasn’t. Privilege is not something to treat with shame or fear. It’s something to acknowledge openly, and factor into my daily experiences, seeing the ways in which it colors my opinions without feeling the compulsion to immediately negate those opinions.

I’m sure that for anyone with a background in women’s studies, queer theory, gender studies, etc, this whole post has been a 101-level snore. Personally, I have no academic background on these subjects. I gather my knowledge through blogs, articles, and experience. So sometimes my revelations are really a little bit basic. But I hope that for some folks, what I have to say can be as helpful as it is for me to get it written down.

Preferred Pronouns – Asking a Hard Question

One of my pet projects in my silly little queer poly feminist sex-positive life is to deconstruct ideas of politeness, and thereby better understand why we treat people the way we do, and whether some attempts to be “polite” are actually undermining our abilities to be better people.

As always, I’m leading in with a big grand statement rather than just telling you what’s on my mind. As the title suggests, what is on my mind tonight is preferred pronouns. Knowing which pronoun to apply to a particular person is primarily a relevant concern for the queer community, but it should be an issue for consideration among all American English speakers. (I don’t know a damn thing about etiquette or linguistics in any other cultures or languages, so I won’t even try to speak to them [Haha, speak to them! See what I did there?])

It’s becoming an increasingly accepted practice among the queer community that when you meet a person who is not blatantly masculine or feminine – or, in many circles, when you meet anyone at all – you ask him/her/ze/them for his/her/zir/their preferred pronoun. If you somehow got on my blog and don’t know what I mean by that, here’s a for-instance.

I’ve just met someone at a party. It appears to me that this person is biologically male, but this person is wearing a dress and makeup. The individual is introduced to me as Robin. Robin’s gender is ambiguous to me, so I say to Robin, “Hello Robin, it’s very nice to meet you. What are your preferred pronouns?” Robin then tells me he, she, ze, they, or some variation. Sometimes a person will even tell me “I don’t care.” This discloses to me Robin’s chosen gender identity, thus preventing me from making incorrect assumptions and being offensive.

With me so far? Good.

This is me from the summer after 8th grade. Most of the bullshit from my classmates happened in middle school, but this is the closest pic to that time period that I could find.

This is me from the summer after 8th grade. Most of the bullshit from my classmates happened in middle school, but this is the closest pic to that time period that I could find.

For a long time, I had trouble accepting this custom. When I was growing up, I would have people ask me (or ask my friends) “are you a boy or a girl?” as an insult. I was never particularly androgynous, even at my most pubescently awkward stages. Yes, I admit, I often wore men’s jeans, and by the end of 8th grade I had a short haircut. But my figure was never terribly angular, in the typically masculine way. So that means that “are you a boy or a girl?” really meant, “you’re a very ugly girl.” And I didn’t enjoy that.

Additionally, asking someone for their preferred pronoun made me uncomfortable because I was raised to understand that even if you aren’t trying to be mean, asking someone “are you a boy or a girl?” is rude. And the reason that it’s rude is because you’re telling this person that you can’t tell his/her/zir/their gender just by looking. And, here’s the payoff, not being able to judge a person’s gender by sight is a bad thing. Thus, you don’t ask.

Well, I’ve reached a point in my life where I understand that gender is not a binary, that people don’t have to fit into an either-or world, and that even if a person wants to live in a concrete male or female gender identity, it doesn’t have to present itself through typical masculine/feminine visuals. What that means is that to look at a person and not be able to judge gender right away is not a negative reflection on that person. When I see someone and I can’t tell if that person is a man, a woman, neither or both, it doesn’t mean that person is failing at his/her/zir/their gender by being visually ambiguous. And therefore, asking someone about preferred pronouns respects his/her/zir/their personal choice to select a gender identity, and expresses my willingness to accept that identity, no matter what it is.

The important difference, I think, is that I’ve developed the understanding that gender identity is a choice. And by that I am not trying to invoke nature/nurture arguments, but simply to say that it doesn’t matter what a person looks like, or what kind of genitalia that person has: whatever identity a person discloses to me, that’s the truth.

Edit: I was looking so hard for this image when I wrote this post last night, but wasn’t able to get my hands on it. This has been the best visual aid for gender identification that I’ve ever come across. No, I didn’t create it, and unfortunately I don’t know who did or I’d be happy to give appropriate credit.270873_168099213351707_1010752796_n

The Objectification Spectrum, and Where Flattering Meets Rude

This is obviously not my first post about objectification, consent to be gazed upon, or the concept of respect regarding sexual gazing. These are pet subjects for me, but I don’t want to re-cover ground I’ve already trod upon. However, I had a recent experience that made me question when and how one can and should give consent to being physically objectified, and the responsibility of the gazer in such situations.

Right, so that was incredibly vague. Here’s what happened:

A few weeks ago I went to a private BDSM play party, wherein I was generally comfortable and among friends, but the party was sufficiently well-attended I certainly didn’t know everyone. I was naked save for a piece of body jewelry, and received a lot of friendly comments toward my recently finished tattoo. At one point in the evening, a couple of men were standing behind me, one commenting on my tattoo, the other commenting on my body, making jokes to the effect of “oh, she has a tattoo? I didn’t notice.” They couldn’t have been more than a foot away, and I heard every word they said.

I was extremely uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable not because they were enjoying looking at my body, but because by commenting on it while so close to me, they either completely forgot that I was a person who was capable of hearing them, or they didn’t care. This I did not appreciate. I confess to being shy, and therefore generally unhappy with being spoken to by strangers, but at that close range I would much rather be spoken to than spoken about. I felt that my personhood was somehow being taken from me by being so freely commented upon without any nod to my living presence near them.

So, the next question in my mind was, what would have been the right way for that scenario to unfold? I suppose ideally, these men would have introduced themselves, and then shared their opinions with me, rather than simply near me. Second best would be to keep their comments to themselves until I was out of earshot, because while it’s generally considered rude to talk about other people, at least by avoiding being overheard they would be acknowledging that I am a person who can hear.

The other – much more complicated – question is, where on the spectrum does some kind of spoken communication need to happen to constitute consent? I’ve said before that I believe to make something visible is consent for it to be seen. To be looked at does not require explicit consent. Obviously, any thoughts that go along with looking also don’t. I can fantasize about whomever I want, whenever I want. Look at any part of me that you can see without touching – that’s fair game. Think your free personal thoughts about what you see, as innocuous or lewd as they may be.

But what comes next? To give consent of any kind involves some kind of spoken interaction, so it seems like speaking to someone should be a free action (to steal a term from RPG’s). On the other hand, street harassment often takes the form of words and is certainly not okay. I absolutely love this comic I found on the subject:

street_harassment1

Comic by Barry Deutsch – click through to read.

I’m constantly thinking about where lines are drawn, and the distinction here between what is a compliment and what is harassment gave me a lot of food for thought. It’s (mostly) not the words that make the difference. If a person at the aforementioned party approached me, made eye contact, and said “I think you have an incredibly hot ass,” I would not be threatened. I might be a little awkward, but I’d be flattered. It might even “make my day.” But when someone calls those words out to me on the street, it makes me very nervous.

The easy answer is that the line is about motivation, but since we can’t know someone else’s motives, it’s not a workable solution. I don’t know if the person talking to me wants to pick me up, assault me, or just offer me a compliment in passing. I can’t know, in either circumstance.

I really wanted a big “ta-da!” to close this out, but I’m honestly stymied. I can tell you with certainty that verbally expressing sexual desire toward a woman is not inherently harassment, but I can’t tell you exactly what is. Especially because there’s also a realm in between acceptable and unacceptable, and that is “rude.” What the men at the party did to me was rude. It was not harassment, but it wasn’t ok either. It was rude, which is somewhere between the two.

While I may not have a pretty bow to wrap this up in, I will say this line of thinking is making me realize how difficult it can be for men to honestly express their sexual desires toward women. If I was a good person who was often in fear of being labeled a predator, I’d err dramatically on the side of caution, and would thereby probably not have any sex ever. The lines are blurry, and as a woman I’m generally viewed as less threatening and therefore less likely to accidentally find myself on the wrong side of the line. As a woman, that line is interesting to contemplate. If I were a man, it would terrify me.

“I’m a Social Farter” – Another Example of the Shock-And-Awe Anti-Smoking Approach

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This is what I walked past at GenCon 2012, looking every bit like another video game demo, complete with line of eager participants.

Anti-smoking campaigns are notorious for being filled with little white lies, misleading tactics and outright misdirection to sell you their ideology. Anyone who’s a BFN (big fucking nerd) like myself and goes to conventions has seen the god-awful Flavor Monsters booth sponsored by Truth, where visitors enter a high-budget booth and are told that if they demo this fun new game they get a free tshirt. No commitment or investment required. Once you give them your email address and “play” through this “game,” however, you realize that the “flavor monsters” are the eeeevil flavors that eeeevil tobacco corporations are placing in their products to fool poor unsuspecting Americans into consuming their eeeevil products. Thanks, Truth, for the bait-and-switch, and for once again reminding us that you think Americans are too stupid to decide for themselves whether or not they want to give themselves cancer. I personally was pretty annoyed when flavored cigarettes got outlawed, and I’m pretty sure that the cigar-smokers and dippers out there would be equally annoyed if flavors were outlawed there are well.

430006826_640That’s not what I am posting about right now, though. The video that caught my attention today is less about the bait-and-switch and more about using charisma and humor to cover up bad logic. The ad is by a California anti-smoking campaign and features a woman who identifies herself as a “Social Farter.” She isn’t really a farter, she says, she only farts when she’s out with friends, when she’s drinking, or sometimes to break the ice and meet a guy. It’s an analogy, you see. The payoff, of the ad is the tagline “Social smoking is as ridiculous as social farting.” Oh, that’s so clever! You exclaim. Well, no, no it’s not. The problem is that farting and smoking aren’t analogous at all. One is a bodily function that frankly you must perform at some point or else you will experience pretty significant physical pain, and is socially unacceptable in public venues, much like many other bodily functions. The other is a mood-altering recreational drug that is acceptable to consume in many public venues. And it is, in fact, more pleasant to consume in combination with alcohol and socialization because of the aforementioned mood-altering characteristics. But we’re all supposed to be both amused and vaguely horrified at this woman farting in social settings in order to produce in the audience a similar feeling toward social smoking. The analogy doesn’t actually stand on its own, but if the creators can convince their audience of a connection, then the audience will view social smoking as equally ludicrous, and equally distasteful, as social farting. Fortunately, unlike Pavlov and his bell, the human mind is complicated enough that if you put two things next to one another we do not automatically decide they are related. No, social farting is not analogous to social smoking. Sorry, you’re just plain wrong, and being intentionally wrong to manipulate my thinking is even worse.

Nudity, Sexuality, Body-Positivity: Why my sexiness (or lack thereof) has no bearing on my body-positive viewpoint.

Obviously this is all sex appeal. Photo by Allan Crain.

There is an idea in our culture that a naked human body is somehow inherently sexual. This is a fact that we take for granted in our everyday lives, to the point that I would be surprised if at least a few people didn’t read that sentence and think “wait, it’s not?” When I marched in the 2012 Pride parade wearing denim shorts and a pair of pasties, myself and a few other girls in similar garb were berated on the grounds that this was not “family friendly.” The implication there being, of course, that we were sexually explicit and therefore inappropriate for children’s eyes. We weren’t performing any sexual behaviors – we weren’t making out with each other, caressing our own or anyone else’s bodies, or making lewd gestures or comments. We simply had a whole lot of exposed skin. And frankly, at Pride, I think that ought to be ok, especially since it happens in June which in my city is approximately a billion degrees.

When Congressman Barney Frank was interviewed by CNS News regarding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in December of 2010, he was asked to address the issue of straight and homosexual men being required to shower together. His response was one of mock dismay, and he goes on to refer to it as a “silly issue,” asking “what is it you think goes on when you shower with homosexuals?”

The interviewer was offering the implication that if homosexual men were to share a shower with other men, heterosexual or otherwise, they would inevitably become aroused by the presence of naked male bodies. Because these men are attracted to men, being around them while nude will surely result in arousal. Congressmen Frank’s rebuttal is that showering is not a sex act, and heterosexual men are not going to be threatened by the presence of homosexuals in their showers. He says that homosexuals, “don’t get [them]selves dry-cleaned, [they] tend to take showers.” He defuses the sexual innuendo of the interviewer’s question by comparing showering to laundry, and I am on board with his comparison. In many ways, showering is a lot closer to laundry than it is to sex, but because it involves naked bodies a sexual association is inevitably placed upon it.

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Pictured: Debi Laszewski, professional bodybuilder, personal trainer, and model.

This assumption is so far reaching that we take it for granted, but it has troubling implications. If the purpose of the naked body is solely to fuck, then its sexual appeal becomes the most important measure of its worth. This is not only utterly wrong but often downright foolish. Here’s a not-very-funny story: I have a friend who is a college professor and body builder. He told me a story about a 19-year-old male student who walked into his office one day and saw a photo on his desktop of an award-winning female body builder, a friend of his. The student’s immediate reaction was “I wouldn’t fuck THAT!”

Needless to say, the student got an earful from his professor, but my simple response to this mindless outburst would be simply “so what?” This woman is taking mindful control of her body, and winning awards for it. It is hers to design and build to her specifications, and she prizes it enough to pit herself against other bodies in competition – and comes out on top! Yet somehow this young man seemed to think that his sexual desire – or lack thereof – for this woman was a legitimate basis on which to judge her body. He intentionally disparaged her body solely because he did not want to have sex with it. That’s more than mean, that’s insane.

This train of thinking about nudity, sexuality, and sexual desirability, makes the body-positivity movement immensely more difficult to propagate. I’ve heard people issue “reassurance” to women about their bodies by telling them, in essence, “there’s somebody out there who’s into that.” If the best thing you can tell a woman insecure about her naked body is that there’s someone in the world who’d want to fuck it, you’ve got an utterly warped sense of the human body. Telling women that they don’t have to conform to the Western white-hetero-middle-class ideals of beauty is a good start. Tell women that they don’t have to look like a Victoria’s Secret model. But don’t tell them that the reason they don’t have to look that way is because someone will still think they’re sexy. It’s probably true, and it’s good to feel sexy. But how fuckable a person’s body is doesn’t measure the value of that body.

People’s bodies are constantly judged with a sexual slant. Men disparage female body builders because nobody wants a woman who looks “like a man.” A sexy photograph of a tattooed woman on Facebook got the comment, “Interesting post but someday she’s gonna want to just git nekkid with someone…” These comments are not only disparaging a person’s body based on its sexual appeal, they’re judging people based on the bodies they’ve created ON PURPOSE. This is important to me.

I think the judgment of a modded body is different from the more common (but equally reprehensible) activities of fat-bashing and thin-bashing and judgment of any sort of natural bodily design. Those kinds of comments carry the implication that the person being judged is somehow unfortunate, that they should change their body to improve it, because obviously no one WANTS to be “like that,” whether the “that” in question is fat, thin, small breasted, large-assed, whatever. There’s a different flavor of ignorance there, that the person is somehow incomplete or needs improvement.

When someone flings sexually-based judgments at a modded body, it’s as if they’re saying the person has done something wrong. “Your body is for my enjoyment, so what on earth compelled you to do that to it?” seems to be the question. It’s almost accusatory.

I know that distinction was a bit of a transgression from my point, so I’ll bring it back around. In both cases, bodies are being viewed in terms of whether or not people want to have sex with them. And really, the only people I care about when it comes to their opinion on my fuckability, are my partners. My body image ought not to be based on my “attractiveness.” (I say ought not to because I’ll admit I get hung up on it too.) It should be based on what I’ve done with it, and whether my treatment of my body is what I desire, and whether said treatment is obtaining the desired results. For example, I’m incredibly pleased and satisfied with the tattoo on my back. I’m less pleased and satisfied with the current shape of my legs, because I don’t run as often as I want to. I’m not displeased with my legs because they aren’t sexy: I’m displeased because I’m working toward a goal and am not achieving it to my personal satisfaction.

My sister likes to argue with me over the term body-positivity, and say that really it ought to be body-neutrality. Bodies are not inherently positive OR negative, and we do not have the right to judge or shame the bodies of others. Thus, neutral. I’ll agree with that; however body-positivity for me isn’t necessarily the same as self-love, -image, or -esteem. Body positivity is about accepting other people’s body choices as their own, and encouraging their intentional bodies. I will confess a distaste for people with apathy toward their own bodies. But if you are owning and creating your body to your personal specifications, you are what body-positivity is about for me. I don’t care if you love yourself, or if you look in the mirror and feel pretty, or whatever. It’s about acknowledging your body as your instrument, and owning its shape and maintenance. It’s about self-consciousness, rather than self-esteem. And it’s completely incompatible with the sexual objectification of the naked body, which is all about becoming desirable to a non-existent and unreachable public opinion. The non-consensual sexualization of my body destroys my agency by framing it in terms I didn’t choose or create, based on a standard that is ill-defined and worse-understood. It cannot possibly coexist with my idea of body-positivity, and frankly I like my opinions better.

Throwing Out The Baby With The Bathwater – Sexual Hygiene and Advertising

One of the issues that often gets all wrapped up in feminism and empowerment is vaginal odor. How are vaginas supposed to smell? How are we supposed to clean them? These are surprisingly fraught questions, considering we don’t think that hard about any other part of our bodies. I don’t see a lot of political groups campaigning against deodorant or shampoo, though sexism is rampant in those ads as well. But feminists get really angry about advertising for any sort of vaginal hygiene product. I’m not going to say that those ads aren’t regularly sexist, because they are. The difference is that instead of attacking the sexist ad campaign, people are opposing the product being advertised.

deodorant adHere’s an example. This is a men’s deodorant ad. It’s a fairly typical sexualized rendition of a woman, with the added bonus that she is rendered non-threatening by cooking a turkey in a 1950’s style oven (subtle, right?). The tag line, “Can she make you lose control?” tells us how desirable she is, and that this deodorant is SO amazing that you can look at her and not get all sweaty. Right. I’m not going to even bother with the issues of male sexuality and their depiction in mass media in this post, so that’s enough said for that ad.

deodorant ad2

Click through to see the full-size image and read the text.

Switch to a women’s deodorant ad. Here we have…well…a fairly typical sexualized rendition of a woman, though in this case she is posed to be less “come-hither” and more “look-at-me!” But here we’re supposed to want to BE the woman, because she is brave, and look at how she waves that scarf around. We’re ready to expose our skin because this product has made that skin acceptable to be seen in public. (Don’t even get me started on advertising for razor blades along those lines.)

My point is, we can look at these ads and say “why yes, those are sexist and stupid,” without throwing away all our deodorant.

Here’s my stance on the whole line of vaginal hygiene products. Douching, and anything that is designed to rinse out the inside of your vagina is scary and dangerous and bad for you. Don’t do it. However, a lot of the companies that make douches also make body washes designed to be used externally, that clean your vulva without interfering with the natural pH levels the way soap does. I think that’s pretty great. Eve Ensler wrote, in the ever-famous Vagina Monologues, “I don’t want my pussy to smell like rain.” I don’t either, Eve. However, I also don’t want it to smell like I just came home from the gym – you know, after I come home from the gym. I don’t want lingering male fluids getting unpleasant after I have sex. And I don’t agree that “just water” is the right way to clean it. It’s true that soap is harsh and you shouldn’t use it. But for fuck’s sake, it’s 2013, and science has produced products that you CAN use on your vulva and not screw up your pH balance. And you can buy ones that smell like nothing. Not like roses, or rain. They have no scent at all. They just clean off the gym-sweat or the cum or the stubborn blood stains during shark week, without making me smell like I’m trying to perfume away my natural vaginal odor. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

summersevead

Click through to see the full-size image and read the text.

On the other hand, there is something very obviously wrong with the way these products are sold to us. They aren’t pitched for the uses I described above – they’re not just another soap or deodorant. Having a clean vagina, we are led to believe, makes us better women.

This is not an article in a magazine that just happens to have a Summer’s Eve ad underneath it. This whole page is the ad. Yes, that’s right, they wrote up an entire bogus article on being a strong professional woman, only to turn it around at the end and tell you that the best way to be successful is to have a pleasant smelling vagina. Thank you, Summer’s Eve, for reducing my worth to my sexual organs and their hygiene. Fun fact: unless a woman is suffering from a serious infection, a vagina cannot be smelled from across the room. I promise, no woman’s boss will ever judge her based on vaginal cleanliness, unless said boss is fucking her. And that just made this ad go from annoying to creepy.

Summers-Eve-Helen

Click through to see the full-size image and read the text.

This one I just…I hardly know where to begin. Helen of Troy was already the most beautiful woman in the world, but if only she had tried OUR products! Really? Did that really make it into print? The most legendary beauty in Western history: well, she was pretty great, but she would have been better if she douched. A woman’s value, in this case her beauty, once again dependent upon how she cleans her vagina. What the hell.

My point is, these ads are stupid and terrible, but so are those deodorant ads. Just because the ideology that a product is trying to sell us is complete sexist tripe doesn’t mean that the product itself is worthless. A woman shouldn’t measure her value by how much her vagina smells like flowers, or soap, or vagina; but that doesn’t mean she necessarily ought not to use a cleaning product. The Secret ad is trying to sell me self-confidence, and I reject their shallow notion of confidence, but I’m still going to buy deodorant. Summer’s Eve is trying to sell us self-worth, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t just buy body wash.

Advertising, or Why Watching Television is Hard

nba-commercials

Isn’t it so funny? Because see, Asian men are short and basketball players are tall. Contrast is amusing!

I saw a commercial last night for some cel phone thing that let you get NBA information all the time. I don’t really care about sports, or confusing phone add-ons, so I don’t recall exactly what they were trying to sell me. But this was the story: an Asian family is coming downstairs for breakfast, only to see that their dad has transformed into some famous tall black basketball player – I didn’t catch his name. See? Don’t care about sports. Anyway, his pajamas are super short and he looks very silly, he has a dialogue with his son to the effect of “you look different!” The mother looks at him, and in sultry-voice says “I’ve got something for you to do.” Cut to him cleaning the gutters without a ladder. The end.

On the surface, it’s basically “ha-ha, that’s so funny, he’s cleaning gutters because he’s tall.” And what they’re selling you is a famous basketball player in your house. If you had this phone thing, it’d be like having this basketball player at your disposal all the time. How fun for you!

Unfortunately, commercials (and all of television) are always rich with layers, usually exploiting negative cultural expectations regarding race, sex, and class. In this case, we’re given the Asian mom supposedly coming on to the big black man. This resonates with our expectation: big black men are virile, Asian women look cold on the surface, but are all secretly wild and kinky in bed. But it turns around! She wants him to clean the gutters! That’s funny because while it doesn’t follow the expectation of the dialogue, we’re still not surprised: this is a woman with a child, and a woman who looks her middle-age. Those women don’t want to have sex, they just want their husbands to do chores for them. So it’s a funny twist that doesn’t take us outside our realm of anticipated stereotypes.

This is how I watch television. All the time. On one hand, it’s incredibly frustrating, because I can’t just laugh at a joke. I can’t just sit through a love scene without picking apart its implications. On…well, not the other hand, but maybe the other side of the other hand, it’s also incredibly frustrating because I know that so many people just DO laugh at the jokes, and enjoy the scenes, and just buy it all without examining what their entertainment is telling them.

The worst culprit, of course, is advertising, because it is specifically aimed at selling you something, and only has a very short time to do so. However, whenever I see an ad get called out for encouraging dangerous cultural biases, there will inevitably be some detractor telling us that we’ve got our collective panties in a twist and it’s “just a commercial.” For example, this delightful ad for Audi aired during the Superbowl this year.

audi-superbowl-commercialThe commercial creates a subtle environment, in which every moment plays a part. The kid starts out anxious, unhappy that he’s going to prom alone. The mother’s reassurance is ineffective, but the father hands him the keys to the Audi and says “have fun.” A look of shock passes over his face, but now that he can drive the Audi, he’s more confident. He parks in the principal’s space, marches into the prom, and kisses the prom queen without introduction or overture. He’s cheered by the general assembly, but the prom king gives him a black eye. He drives home, exultant, and fades out to Audi telling us: “Bravery. It’s what defines us.”

Let’s go over what this kid did, and someone please tell me what was brave about it? He parks in the principal’s parking space. This is defiant, not brave. It exemplifies bravery as willingness to take something that does not belong to you (that part’s important, read it again). He kisses the prom queen, who does not even know he’s there until he’s touching her. That’s not bravery, that’s assault. It is again exemplifying bravery as willingness to take what you want regardless of the consequences. It frames the prom queen as a “what,” rather than a “who.”

The commercial was posted on the Slutwalk Facebook page, saying:
“Grabbing someone and kissing them without their permission is not Brave, it’s Cowardly, and it is Assault. Just because we’re women doesn’t mean that our default state of existence is community property. No Thanks to Venables Bell & Partners for creating this Audi ad, and inspiring a generation of consumers watching the ads at the Super Bowl to think that grabbing and kissing someone without their permission = Brave.”

One of the first responses was from a man who said, “It didn’t look as if she minded? And being a fictional account I don’t think anyone playing with a full deck would somehow misunderstand the message. Sex sells and we’d be tilting at windmills to try and stop it.”

This comment demonstrates two of the most popular flaws in thinking, first about sexual assault, and the second about the media’s impact on our consciousness.

So, the first comment: “it didn’t look as if she minded,” is an incredibly common response to an unexpected and non-consensual sexual interaction that is generally considered minor, such as a kiss. Lots of people in this internet discussion echoed that sentiment. The first issue with this comment is that consent can’t be given retroactively. That’s not how consent works. “Go for it, if s/he likes it then it was consensual,” is not an acceptable way to approach sexual contact. You’re rolling the dice that the girl you’re assaulting is into that kind of thing. And that’s just backwards thinking. The bigger issue with this comment is that he is himself forgetting his second statement, that this is a constructed fictional account. Of course she didn’t mind, she was scripted not to mind because we’re being fed a scenario in which the assailant’s behavior is lauded as “brave.” If she didn’t smile, it wouldn’t be a good ad.

The second half of his argument is that “being a fictional account I don’t think anyone playing with a full deck would somehow misunderstand the message,” and that “Sex sells and we’d be tilting at windmills to try and stop it.” He’s right about that second half, but what he’s not considering is what kind of sex is being sold here.

What he’s trying to argue, that anyone “playing with a full deck,” should supposedly be able to see, is that this is a kid with low self-esteem who just got to kiss the prom queen. You can kiss the prom queen too, if you drive an Audi. That simple. But advertising is not that simple. Rooms full of people spend lots of time and money planning and scripting these ads. There’s a reason that the prom queen didn’t approach him as he got out of his car, saying “Nice car, wanna fuck?” That would still be selling sex, and the nerd would still get to kiss the prom queen, but the message would be completely different.

The message Audi wants to sell us is that this kid is brave. And being brave, he is defiant. He takes things that don’t belong to him. That includes the principal’s parking space, and the prom queen – even when he gets punched in the eye by the person that prom queen belongs to, it was worth it, because he was brave.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Audi is trying to make the boys of America into rapists. I’m not calling them malicious. I’m saying that this is a culturally acceptable message to send, and by including it in their ad, they are keeping it alive while organizations like SlutWalk are trying so hard to kill it and replace it with consent culture.

While people like the Facebook commenter want us to believe that commercials are no big deal, that anyone “playing with a full deck” can see that it’s just fiction, the problem is that most people (him included) don’t put this much thought into the media they consume. I’d guess most people saw this commercial and thought “that’s so sweet, the nerd got the girl.” They thought, yeah, he is brave. Go you, boy in the Audi. They did NOT think, for a second, hey maybe that prom queen is a person. Maybe taking a kiss from the prom queen isn’t the same as taking the principal’s parking space. Maybe there’s something wrong here.

Popular culture and entertainment media feed each other in an endless loop, and accepting unacceptable behaviors in media representation makes the jobs of feminism, racial equity, consent culture, or any other group trying to prevent their own marginalization, so much harder. So, maybe it is “just a commercial,” but there are millions out there like it, and they keep getting made because people keep buying into their messages.