On bad flirting

Dear Dad,

You know what I hate?

The impression that I’m lying, or exaggerating, or taking things too seriously when I speak out against street harassment. The most common response from people (usually men) who doubt me, is that I just don’t understanding flirting.

This response is more revealing of them than me, though. Because while my naysayers would like to believe that I, and women like me, are upset over some friendly flirtation, street harassment is a reality of cruelty, verbal and physical violence, fear and degradation.

One example? My friend and I were waiting to cross the street when a car whipped by and the driver leaned out his window to scream “SLUTS!” Why? Because we were standing on a street corner? Waiting to cross the street and go out for dinner with our friends? Because we were women in public? As a reminder that we can never be in public simply as people? Whatever the reason, it wasn’t flirting.

Of course, this example is mundane compared to the street harassment that escalates into violence, such as the 14-year-old girl who was run over for refusing to prostitute herself. Or the woman who was stabbed for refusing to respond to a harasser.

Harassment that doesn’t escalate into violence, and the defense of it as “harmless flirting,” serves to create a framework for this violence to occur. How am I supposed to know that the man who followed me down the street won’t pull a knife or gun on me if I don’t smile at him? As feminist Soraya Chemaly wrote, “If your way of flirting scares and repulses people, then you need to stop and find a new way of flirting.”

Either the naysayers are in denial that this is an issue, or they’re looking for an excuse to continue harassing and dehumanizing women.

I suspect it might be both.



On Stonewall, and standing with all women

Dear Dad,

This Saturday marks a very important anniversary. You know what it is?

The 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the event largely regarded as the starting point for the modern LGBT movement. Maybe you remember seeing something about them in the news?

The riots started at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, one of the few places where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals could be themselves. Unfortunately, police would routinely raid gay bars, looking for people who didn’t appear to dress in alignment with their sex or exhibited gay behaviors. On June 28, 1969, however, the customers at Stonewall refused to comply, rioting against police abuse and catalyzing a movement. Today, the Stonewall Riots are remembered yearly as Pride celebrations throughout the country. That’s why most Pride events fall in June.

At the center of the riots were transgender women, notably and most vocally Sylvia Rivera, an outspoken advocate for queer and transgender rights until her death. Unfortunately, as gay and lesbian rights made vast strides into the mainstream, transgender individuals remained pushed to the side, facing discrimination and violence.

Transgender women of color face extremely high rates of violence and murder compared to other queer individuals, Dad, and it seems almost every week another story of a murdered transgender woman is in the news. Last week, the body of Yaz’min Shancez was found burned and dumped behind a trash can. The death of Islan Nettles in the fall inspired massive protests, but still transgender women face widespread hate and fear for their lives.

As a feminist, I believe that all women deserve to feel safe and happy, and this includes transgender women. So this Saturday, when the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is observed, I’ll be thinking of Yaz’min, and Islan, and Sylvia, and honoring them, and trying to find more ways to help and protect transgender people moving forward.



On sexualizing girls

Hey Dad,

Oh boy. Are we really going to disagree on this one.

Because you know what I think is messed up? Dress codes. Treating girls’ bodies like something obscene or titillating. The constant pressure on young women to be modest, to cover up, to hide themselves because boys and men for some reason can’t control themselves.

Girls are being sent home from school in tears, or kicked out of their own prom. The argument is that “inappropriate” attire is distracting to male students, and disruptive.

But I have three problems with how dress code is handled:

First, it reinforces the idea that boys (and men) can’t control themselves. And this reinforces the idea that if a woman is assaulted and she was wearing a short skirt, she brought it upon herself. Which prevents rapists from getting prosecuted and convicted. And last I checked, guys think about sex all the time anyway, and can get erections from something as unsexy math. (Literally, math. Maybe they like the curves on number 8?) Shouldn’t the onus be on boys and men to control their impulses, Dad?

Second, it sexualizes children. Because that’s who we’re targeting with dress codes at schools. Some girls start developing in the fourth grade, long before they reach any sort of sexual maturity, and are shamed for having breasts, hips and thighs that look womanly. When we start singling girls out because their bodies are considered too sexual, we are reinforcing that women are bodies first, not people; that breasts are sexual organs, not food-producers; that butts are for ogling, not sitting. This is the same mentality that led to an adult catcalling me at age 15, and a man in his 40s propositioning me, even though he knew full well I was a child. I believed for years that I was at fault for both incidents. The problem here is NOT the girl. It is the society that sexualizes her.

A poster about dress code saying

Girls’ bodies are not to blame here.

The fabulous blogger at Controlled Chaos recently wrote about the first time she was called a slut, in the sixth grade, for being a cheerleader. She was shamed by her teacher for participating in sports, and told that she shouldn’t be “that girl.” The experience taught her that she is to blame for being sexualized:

That’s when I learned that it’s always going to be my fault. When a boy grabs my ass in between classes in eighth grade, it’s my fault for wearing tight pants. When a 40-year old man keeps circling my block on my walk home because he gets off on calling a fourteen year old sexy, it’s my fault for having boobs at a young age. When some dude shoves his hand up my dress in college, it’s my fault for not knowing that you shouldn’t wear dresses to a club. And when some douchebag asshole sexually assaults me, it’s my fault for being drunk.

Finally, which is more disruptive to an education, shorts or being dismissed from school for the day? On the one hand, a handful of boys who never learned to control themselves because they weren’t taught to have to deal with the arousal they feel dozens of times a day whether they’re looking at classmates or an art textbook. On the other hand, a girl is kicked out of school for the day and denied an education because she’s been objectified by her culture and school administrators. She can never get that day back.

Seems like the punishment is a little hypocritical.

As someone who has frequently been shamed for her body, regardless of my attire, I can get behind students protesting dress codes as misogynistic.

How about you?



On trigger warnings

Dear Dad,

Have you been following this debate on implementing trigger warnings in colleges and universities? What are your thoughts on it?

My guess is, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, that you think it’s another example of liberal over-sensitivity? You wouldn’t be alone. Critics of the suggestion to add trigger warnings even liken it to censorship.

Unfortunately, the problem with the whole debate on trigger warnings is that it directs the discussion away from trauma to vague accusations of “hypersensitivity.” Opponents believe trigger warnings will impede teachers’ ability to instruct and give students an excuse to opt out of class work. But this is a puffed up strawman of the trigger warning request that directs focus away from students’ well-being toward a dark slippery slope of a future educational system.

Trigger warnings, which simply tell people that upcoming content could trigger previous traumas, have their origin in blogs and feminist websites, but the college debate started at UCSB, when student Bailey Loverin, herself a victim of sexual assault, witnessed potentially triggering content in a class and requested an academic senate resolution asking teachers to implement trigger warnings for the benefit of students who have experienced trauma (and with rampant sexual assault in colleges, there are many).

Let me put this in very personal terms:

Remember when I was 15, and that adult man very close to our family hit on me?  And how for years I couldn’t be touched by men, or be alone with them, or stand too near to them? Maybe you didn’t notice, but I couldn’t even stand to sit next to you on the couch to watch a movie. You, who were not the man who hurt me.

Mostly, I’ve recovered and dealt with that phobia. But last week I got into an elevator and an overly friendly older man got in after me, and planned to get off on the same floor. The thought of being alone with him in a small, slow-moving elevator for four floors terrified me. I started to panic, ducked out of the elevator and ran up the stairs. It took me a half hour to relax fully, and I cried later that evening.

This is a mild example, and obviously there is not trigger warning for men in elevators. But my point is that past trauma can be dredged up unexpectedly, and when it is, it can be extremely painful and disruptive to one’s life.

A request for trigger warnings is not a demand that teachers censor their syllabus, or stop teaching certain materials. It is instead a plea to allow students to adequately prepare for their lessons. A warning that a book contains graphic sexual content could allow a rape victim to mentally prepare herself for the passage; a note that a movie contains graphic physical violence could allow an abuse victim to emotionally prepare himself for the scene. Or, if necessary, the student could skip over a portion of the work, at their own discretion.

But they won’t be triggered into a panic attack, or be left with anxiety that could follow them for the rest of the day, week, month, or semester. Trigger warnings aren’t about censorship. They’re about making campuses more welcoming to all students. They’re about prioritizing a student’s education instead of a professor’s right to make their students uncomfortable.

In my French literature class, (trigger warning: sexual assault) we had to read a book in which the main character was sexually assaulted by a stranger. At first, she told him no but didn’t resist when he pulled her into a building. He then pinned her against a wall and forced her to touch him. My professor insisted that the assault was “ambiguous,” that it wasn’t clear whether or not she was a willing participant. His prodding in class was deliberately meant to make us uncomfortable, and a class that was supposed to be about modern French literature instead became a class in which I was constantly uncomfortable and afraid of my professor, who didn’t understand consent. This was disruptive to my education, and marred my experience of French novels.

Education should be about learning, not fear. And that’s why I support trigger warnings.



On categories

Dear followers,

I’m working on organizing the blog, and categorizing posts to make them easy to search and navigate. Up until now I’ve kept them all “Uncategorized” for the sake of ease, but I’d like to divvy them up by topic, so I’m soliciting your input!

Right now, the three topics I’m considering are “Media Critique,” “History,” and “Personal,” but some posts aren’t included in those categories, such as posts in response to my father’s response blog, or posts about body image and sexual harassment.

So I’m welcoming feedback. How would you like to see the blog organized? What categories would you like?

Thanks for the support!


On predators at the bar

Dear Dad,

You know what’s cool about this blog? I’ve had men telling me about times they’ve noticed systems of oppression working against women since they read my posts and started paying attention.

My friend Eric texted me this weekend to tell me about how he DD’d recently for a group of female friends of his. Outside the bar, as they were leaving, he saw one very intoxicated woman. Her friend was caring for her, but there was a man who obviously saw the drunk woman as a target, and was trying to hit on her as easy prey.

Though her friend shooed the man off, Eric told me how sad and scary it was that women have to have other women present to protect each other because some men see them as nothing but easy conquests, not human beings who happen to be at that time incapable of consent.

It might be easy to wave this off as, “Guys and girls get drunk and they get horny. They make mistakes.” And certainly the prevailing wisdom is that young people drink and hook up indiscriminately.

But a recent study showed that most men who hit on women in bars aren’t intoxicated. And they’re more likely to target women the more drunk the women are. It’s not about sex, or sloppy mistakes. It’s about men who see drunk women as easy prey. It’s about power and ego and dehumanizing an entire group of people. And while when a woman comes forward as having been sexually assaulted, people are apt to ask if she’d been drinking, people rarely ask if the man who assaulted her was intoxicated, or if he took advantage of her.

As someone who has been out to bars with a group of women to go dancing, I know firsthand how prevalent this is. Every night, my friends and I would have to shoo off several unwanted interlopers. They would watch our group for a little while, then try to dance their way in, touching me or one of my friends.

But the fact that we have to travel as a pack, have to constantly have vigilant buddies while we look out for our own friends, and that this defensive behavior is so normalized because these creeps are so unavoidable, is tragic. This is rape culture, Dad, and it’s common and terrifying.

Rape culture, as a refresher, is a combination of cultural influences that teaches women “don’t get raped” instead of teaching men not to rape, as one definition goes. It’s the normalization of violence against women and normalization of men as predators who can’t control their urges. It’s the guy at the bar who uses the loud music and dark lights as an excuse to feel my butt when he walks past me.

It’s what feminists are fighting to end.

And if there’s one good thing out of this whole story, it’s that there are a few more people noticing it and speaking out against it. Maybe the tides are starting to turn.



On my feminist lenses

Dear Dad,

A couple of years ago, I stumbled on a couple feminist blogs. Though I’d never considered myself a feminist, and indeed believed that feminism was a bunch of women whining for equal rights when that had already been achieved, something funny happened: I related to what they were saying.

Suddenly, other women were describing my own experiences, only they were their experiences. Suddenly, incidents I’d passed off as uncomfortable and aberrant were not just unhappy blips in my day; they were part of a pattern of harassment. Suddenly, the shame and embarrassment and confusion I felt in certain situations as a woman was not my fault; it was a part of a greater culture.

Dad, you wrote about “isms,” or perceptions, ways of seeing the world. Be “cognizant,” you advised, “of the ideological framework of feminism.”

I am cognizant, enormously so, because feminism has brought so much sense to my life. Why must I wear shirts from age 5 but my brothers were free to run around in their boxers? Why was I massaged by a high school teacher in the middle of class despite my telling him firmly to stop? And why did I blame myself when he didn’t? Why do strange men feel the need to stop me and tell me that I would look prettier if I smiled? Why are the heroes of movies, shows and video games overwhelmingly men, while women play secondary characters (if they’re lucky) and love interest prizes? Why did I find myself apologizing every time I dared to stand up for myself or disagree?

Feminism gave me answers, helped me feel more confident, strong, proud to be who I am. And at the end of the day, if my speaking out can help a few more women and girls get that strength too, then I’ve done a good thing.

A close up shot of the face of a white girl with thick bangs and very large glasses that take up half her face.

Plus, the feminist glasses are so cute!

When I finally took a women and gender studies class in college, the first essay we read was a talk by Adrienne Rich, an outspoken feminist and poet. The piece was called “Claiming an Education,” and it brought me to tears. I’ve quoted my favorite part here, without comment, because how could I ever follow up on Adrienne Rich?

Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions: predigested books and ideas, weekend encounters guaranteed to change your life, taking “gut” courses instead of ones you know will challenge you, bluffing at school and life instead of doing solid work, marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short, simply to avoid conflict and confrontation. And this, in turn, means resisting the forces in society which say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others, and stay in the places assigned to us. It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different”; not to be continuously available to others when we need time for ourselves and our work; to be able to demand of others–parents, friends, roommates, teachers, lovers, husbands, children–that they respect our sense of purpose and our integrity as persons. Women everywhere are finding the courage to do this, more and more, and we are finding that courage both in our study of women in the past who possessed it, and in each other as we look to other women for comradeship, community, and challenge. The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference.