“Yes means yes” and other California laws

TW: Mild discussion of sexual assault

Dear Dad,

California’s laws have been in the news a lot lately (though maybe it’s just because I live here). In addition to Governor Jerry Brown signing a plastic bag ban, a “Yes means yes” law, and a ban on “gay panic” as a defense in court, the state’s 3-feet rule for avoiding cyclists has gone into effect. And let me tell you, this law has been controversial. Columnists and letter-to-the-editor writers alike have been complaining that not only is the law difficult to enforce and inconvenient, but also that cyclists should be better at obeying the rules of the road if they want “respect.”

Now, aside from the fact that everyone deserves basic safety regardless of whether or not we respect them, this bicycle law has got me thinking a lot about the laws we put into effect and how they change our lives.

See, opponents of California’s “Yes means yes” law argue that it’s hard to enforce, will make partners over-think their sexual encounters and will generally take all the fun out of boning. Cathy Young over at Time says that it “implicitly criminalizes most human sexual interaction.”

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But this law is not about making sexual partners into criminals (never mind that this isn’t a criminal statute, but a law about obtaining state funding for schools). This law is about changing, and hopefully improving, the way people approach sex. Now, the emphasis is placed not on simply going along with a partner, but expressing clear, enthusiastic consent, a willingness and will to engage in sexual activity. How can that be bad? Don’t we all want our partners to desire us? To really want to engage with us? Who wants to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with them? Cathy Young worries that this law will make rapists out of “clueless” guys. But if you do try to have sex with someone who doesn’t really want to, you’re already a rapist. This law doesn’t change that. It just means that if reported, your university has a carrot-stick situation to punish you, instead of trying to sweep it under the rug.

Laws like “Yes means yes” will help defend victims like Emma Sulkowicz, the artist behind “Carry That Weight,” whose alleged rapist remains on campus. It will help educate these guys that Young worries are “clueless” and innocent. And it will help with the feminist effort to change the way we talk about sex. Feminists have been pushing for years to make safe, consensual sex a part of sex education classes. This law elevates that discussion to a national level. And hopefully that discussion will mean that more people see how easily and wonderfully enthusiastic consent can be incorporated into a person’s daily sex life.

But what does this have to do with drivers giving cyclists 3 feet of space on the road? Well, people have been complaining about that too. It’s hard to enforce, they say. It’s inconvenient. Cyclists should learn to stop at every stop sign if they want drivers to give them some safety. Regardless of how you feel about the law, though, I have noticed one thing in the last couple weeks since it went into effect: Cars have been giving cyclists plenty of space. Vehicles have been more aware of alternative forms of transportation on the road. This law is already changing the way we think about driving. And everyone is a little bit safer. And that’s a good thing.

“Yes means yes” can change the way we think about sex. And that’s a good thing, too.

Love,

Victoria

A sexist’s chance in Hell(s Kitchen)

Dear Dad,

I just finished watching Hell’s Kitchen season 7. If you know anything about the show, you’ll realize it’s in season 13 now, but it’s free on Hulu, so whatever. I’ve been sort of lazily watching episodes when I get off stressful days at work so I can relax by watching other people stress.

The show format is simple: Bunch of cooks all compete for an executive chef job while Gordon Ramsay cusses at them. This season had a first, though, as a romance developed between two competitors, Holli and Jay. At one point in the confessional, Jay says, “I have two goals in Hell’s Kitchen, and one is to sleep with Holli.” The other is to win.

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The romance isn’t all that surprising. I was honestly more surprised that there hadn’t been much flirtation in previous seasons. It’s reality TV!

What was odd, for me, was watching two of the male competitors, Jay and Ben, discussing their rivals, and each other. Jay frankly tells Ben that he likes Holli, but he doesn’t believe she’s competition. Over the course of several episodes, the two men size each other up as rivals, and Holli, and another woman, Autumn, are written off as “not passionate” or skilled enough, despite Holli’s frequent challenge wins and praise from Chef Ramsay.

“I’m a better cook than Holli and Autumn, I know it. And I’m the only person that can compete with Jay,” Ben says in a confessional.

After Holli wins a challenge, Ben and Jay tear down the women in private.

“If I lost to Holli, I’d be really angry, but if I lost to Autumn, I would be suicidal,” Jay says. Then, the kicker: “I know I can beat Holli, but I don’t know if I want to just beat Holli. I think I want to go out, like I want to lose to someone good.”

“Even if I don’t win, and she wins, I’ll still be further than her in three years,” Ben says.

“Oh, of course, dude,” Jay agrees.

It’s obvious that the men here see themselves as serious competitors, real chefs, with enormous egos to match. The women are just cooks who would rather be partying or getting dolled up, they say, as if beauty and brains can’t exist in the same person.

After watching the finale, I told my boyfriend about the way the men wrote Holli off.

“It was so odd,” I said.

“Oh, it’s not odd,” he told me.

I thought about it for a minute. What was odd about the show was not the ideas, really, so much as hearing them aloud. It’s the kind of thing, as a woman or marginalized group, that you always suspect is happening but can’t necessarily prove. I worked with a man once who talked to all the men like colleagues, but seemed to talk to the women like his inferiors, even though I had been at the business far longer than he had. But there was no way, aside from impressions, that I could prove he looked down on me as a woman.

And that’s the thing about sexism, Dad. It’s subtle, it’s insidious, it’s little suspicions and impressions. And often, I think, the person perpetuating these prejudices doesn’t even realize they are. So many misogynists insist that they “love women,” that they appreciate our bodies or our delicate touch. Jay would probably say that he likes Holli, he does say she’s “good looking,” but it’s clear from his attitude toward her that he doesn’t respect her. He just thinks she’s attractive.

It might be the most important, real thing I’ve ever seen on reality TV.

Love and respect,
Victoria

How to date a feminist

Dear Dad,

One of the things that comes up a lot in discussing feminism, and critique of feminism, is how women can have healthy relationships with men. On the extreme, you have Pat Robertson saying feminism turns women into lesbians, but in much more moderate discourse, many people talk about feminism weakening relationships between men and women, or upending healthy family structures. I know we’ve clashed some on the role of men in a relationship.

As women’s rights and feminism are experiencing a new spotlight, more attention is being given to the role of feminism in dating. I came across this interesting article about asking men on Tinder whether they’re feminists, for instance.

Now, throughout this discourse, the idea that feminism ruins male-female relationships is repeated again and again. You have men saying they lose power, and Women Against Feminism saying they need their husbands to open jars for them.

But I’m lucky enough to have started dating a feminist earlier this year, and it’s changed my whole perspective on relationships, so I thought I’d share with you how:

1. Consent is supreme. This started even before we were dating, when my now-partner asked if it was okay to flirt with me. He said he valued my friendship and didn’t want to make me uncomfortable. I’d come off of a string of guys who never asked what I wanted, so his straightforwardness stunned me at first. I dodged the question, and he told me flat-out that if I didn’t tell him I wanted him to flirt, he wouldn’t. It took me a day to respond, but I did decide I wanted his attention. Maybe this doesn’t sound the most romantic, but it totally was. And it’s created a foundation of trust and communication in our relationship that endures. Men such as Rush Limbaugh will have you believe consent takes the seduction out of a relationship, but it is really so much more romantic when you get to say “yes.”

2. Equality. The bf says, “It changes the way you do everything.” This doesn’t mean he can’t help me with a jar, should I need it. But it also means I can help him open jars (and I’m better at opening jars anyway). The roles we fill in the relationship aren’t dictated by our gender, but by our strengths and passions. So if I want to take him out for dinner and a movie, that’s not threatening (and believe me, I have dated guys who felt really insecure when I offered to pay for dinner). And he loves to cook dinner for me when we stay in.

3. Independence. He loves who I am as a person. He supports my freedom. My boyfriend also encourages me to spend time away from him, with my friends. He knows I am my own person and doesn’t want my other relationships to suffer because of my relationship with him. I’ve had women tell me they love when their boyfriend is jealous because it “shows he cares.” To me, it shows he’s possessive and insecure. I’ve been in jealous relationships, and they’re unhealthy. But in a relationship where the partners recognize each other’s independence, jealousy is unnecessary. He trusts me, and that means I am not afraid to be myself.

4. Shared values. This is true of any romantic relationship: Shared values are essential. With my partner, this means that he feels as passionately as I do about social justice. He loves the work I do on my blog and supports me in speaking out against gender inequality. Likewise, he is vocal in the fight against racism, for instance. We both care deeply about equality for everyone. I couldn’t be committed to a person who slighted my efforts, or didn’t believe that there is still work to be done.

So there you have it: Dating a feminist hasn’t ruined my love life. I haven’t emasculated my boyfriend and he hasn’t forgotten how to romance me. Instead, it’s given me the most loving, honest, healthy relationship of my life.

Love ya!
Victoria

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Lovin’ my new curves

Dear Dad,

I am the fattest I have ever been, and I totally love it.

What’s happened? Well, in addition to reaching that age where my teenage girl body has fully morphed into my grown woman body (which means becoming generally squishier in the thighs, butt, breasts, etc.), I am also in a fulfilling and healthy relationship, and have learned to (mostly) ignore media messages about being Barbie thin.

It hasn’t been easy. Our society idolizes thinness. Look at Rosario Dawson reflecting on how many compliments she received when she starved herself to play a drug addict. Or the teen and preteen models getting fired for gaining two pounds in the documentary “Girl Model.” And then there’s the quintessential icon of feminine beauty, Barbie.

I got a little junk in my trunk, and I’m not ashamed to flaunt it.

I didn’t have many Barbies growing up, and I didn’t consider myself weight-obsessed, but when I started to gain weight after high school, when my stomach stopped being naturally flat, I started to worry. I felt self-conscious and like everyone was staring at me. My self-esteem took a hit.

But since I began my journey down Feminist Lane, I’ve encountered much discussion of body positivity and fat positivity. What does this mean? It means taking a healthy approach toward our bodies. Not everyone is going to be a rail thin model. Some people are naturally very skinny (an extremely small portion of the population). Other people weigh more, have chubby tummies, and can still be healthy. Look at Prince Fielder’s great naked shoot for ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue! Guy’s got a gut, but he’s also a professional athlete!

I am not a professional athlete. But I am also no longer embarrassed to say I’ve gone up a pant size. I like my new curves and I’m comfortable with my body, which I think is the most healthy thing of all.

Love,
Victoria

Abuse victims need our love and support, not blame

TW: discussion of domestic abuse

Dear Dad,

Sigh. I didn’t think it needed to be said, but apparently it needs to be said. I know I don’t need to say it to you. Your classes and experience in counseling have taught you that. But if the Internet is any indication, plenty of people don’t understand that the victim of domestic violence is not at fault.

That is, if you look at the responses to Janay Rice’s statements about her assault. I have seen Janay called a “gold digger” and “stupid.” And that’s just in the first two comments on an article about her. I didn’t have the stomach to go any deeper.

Your work has taught you that leaving an abusive relationship is anything but simple. The abusive partner is controlling, and manipulative. Abusers use tenderness from time to time to hold their partner in the relationship, while at the same time taking away the victim’s ties to friends and family and cutting them down emotionally so they don’t have the confidence to leave. Abusers convince their victims that they are ugly and unlovable, lucky to be in a relationship at all. They create a power structure where the victim is more afraid to leave than to stay.

It’s a terrifying combination of fear, affection and reliance. Small violent outbursts are quickly followed by apologies and promises to never do it again, but those outbursts grow over time.

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I don’t know much about Janay’s relationship with Ray Rice, but it’s possible he used these same tactics, and that when he punched her in that elevator, it was not the first time.

Now, as to the victim blaming that is inevitably taking over the Internet: This is one of the most harmful responses to a person in an abusive relationship. I’m sure you know, Dad, that it is hard for a victim to leave their abuser. Part of that is because the abuser isolates them from their family, friends and anyone who could offer them support. By shaming a woman who has been abused, we prove to her that she doesn’t have the safety or support she needs to leave a man who could kill her.

Janay Rice is not stupid. She is not a gold digger. She is a victim in a terrible relationship, and right now, more than ever, she needs our support.

If you know someone in an abusive relationship, they need your support. If you know someone who decides to leave an abusive relationship, they need your support. Support victims of abuse, period. End of story.

With all my love,
Victoria

P.S. Readers, if you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, you may be struggling with how to find support. Here are some resources:
U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s page on helping abuse victims
The Red Flag Campaign
Band Back Together

Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. I’m here for you, and so are thousands of other people who care.

Telling diverse stories

Dear Dad,

Last weekend, the boyfriend and I went out and had the nicest date. There was live jazz music, there was wine, there was in-depth discussion of the international politics of World War II. (I know, we’re romantics.)

The bf’s a history buff, and he talked about how England’s version of events, the version that most of world talks about, plays down the French role in fighting Germany. Most notably, he described the Siege of Lille, where French soldiers held the German army off for five days to buy their English allies time to escape at Dunkirk. These are the same French we deride for always surrendering in the face of a fight.

I told him about my time in France in high school, and how my class had studied World War I and II. I told him about the monuments in every tiny village, about how an entire generation had been killed in World War I, and about how, naturally, the French developed a very strong pacifist movement, which contributed in part to Hitler’s rise, but doesn’t make them weak or cowardly as a people.

“Okay, cool history,” you might be saying, Dad, “but what does this have to do with feminism?”

Well, I’ve been noticing a strong anti-non-American current on Facebook lately, Dad. I saw one friend I admired go on a tear about “illegals” while another friend derided a writer’s validity because they weren’t an American citizen. There seems to be a tendency to disrespect or distrust people who aren’t American, and in some cases, to even go so far as denying them basic human rights in this country. (Think of the way we’ve been treating all the child refugees from Central America. We’re in a humanitarian crisis and we just want to ship them back? Because it’s inconvenient for us to be compassionate?)

My belief is that feminism is not just about equality of sexes. Certainly, as a woman, that piqued my interest in feminism. But feminism, good feminism, is about fighting for all people, making sure that every human being has a shake at life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, safety, a voice. As someone who has faced oppression because of my gender, I hate to see anyone be derided or discriminated against.

And after all, I’ve been an immigrant. I was a stranger in a strange land where I had to learn the language and the customs. I was an exchange student, so I was welcomed with open arms, but not all people receive that treatment. In France, for instance, where people delighted in my desire to learn the language, black people are called names and routinely stopped and searched by police. One of my host mothers even believed that all black people are polygamists.

My time in France, though, didn’t teach me to discriminate against foreigners. Instead, it showed me the humanity in all people, that different races, cultures, languages and histories all have something wonderful to offer. I learned that human history is not always as simple or straightforward as what I learned in an American classroom. I discovered that stories have many sides, just as our history of World War II differs from that of the French.

I made friendships with people from every corner of the world, learned a little bit about their cultures and their languages, and learned that differences aren’t insurmountable barriers.

If I could, I’d make every American do a year of exchange the way I did, to get to know another country and culture intimately, and to realize that there are many sides to a story.

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When we all start to tell our stories, and when we begin to listen and cooperate together, beautiful things happen. Misunderstanding, suspicion and intolerance are destroyed,and we can start working together to create solutions to the real problems that our prejudice distracts us from, such as poverty, sexual violence and war.

We create better communities, and we lift everyone a little bit higher.

Love,
Victoria

Dress codes redux

Hey Dad,

Did you see that story in the news about the 15-year-old who was forced to wear a “shame suit” at school because her outfit was deemed to violate school dress code? The story is absolutely disgusting, and I almost cried when reading it.

It’s just another example of dress codes being used to target women and shame them for having the bodies they have. If her outfit was truly deemed to be distracting (and that’s the excuse schools give for making dress codes) then how does an ostentatious outfit advertising her rule breaking create a productive study environment?

The fact is, it doesn’t. It’s not about helping kids learn. It’s about remind women and girls that their bodies do not belong to them in public spaces, that they are always on display, and that they should be ashamed.

Until next time,
Victoria