Friday, January 2, 2009

Christmas and the credit crunch: blame the women?

by Chris Moses

Even the birth of Christ didn’t eclipse our collapsed consumerist hangover. If the story of Jesus’ earthly arrival begins with Mary and David called to Bethlehem for the payment of taxes, our holiday celebration wanted only for tax breaks.

Be it bailouts or a few percent off at the register, a new deal from our newly elected king, emperor, president—whomever we might festoon into a man named Obama—seemed the only way to bring salvation and grace to those anthropomorphized measures of economic success: human-as-consumer well-being, confidence, satisfaction. Anything to avoid that worst-feared decree, ‘render unto Visa.’

Reverence for the virgin mother has become hope for the virgin swipe, instant purchase approval with buyers and sellers alike freed from that illegitimate message ‘transaction declined.’ But disappointment reigns; no immaculately conceived credit rescues the storehouse of goods lining stores’ shelves. Every wise man wants at least half off, and even then only spends what he has in cash.

Yet the failed power of purchase (or is it purchase of power?) leaves us with more than the ill feeling of a bankrupt holiday. Even within the anxiety lingering from my own adolescent angst over the capitalist corruption of genuine value and true meaning, I can’t seem to fathom the full extent of our current malaise.

Between cancelled holiday parties and paeans to those less fortunate than ourselves (during these troubled times) a spirit of generosity has been misplaced for an obligatory spirit of scarcity.

Only historical reckoning offers a surplus. The phrase ‘worst since’ brings a comparative catharsis—that we actually know how bad things are and why and, since decline means recovery, the past can surely spell out a future of improvement. ‘Greed on Wall Street’ will only stand so much longer as past perspective brings with it greater moral clarity. After all, the majority of us here on main street—we’re good people just trying to make a living.

Worry turns into a sort of pride that it might well get worse before it gets better—an economic outlook cum forecast of partly vacuous with the chance of occasional insincerity. In all optimism, maybe we’ll become the second greatest generation since the great depression. No other measure offers solace like this yardstick of yearning for when things were simpler.

Amidst such a maelstrom of meaningless rhetoric, I have only been able to discover one subtle, quietly hidden solution for understanding this capitalist catastrophe: blame the women.

It’s surprising that given how much shame we now feel for our overindulgent spending sprees there has been a paucity of jokes about shop-til-you-drop femininity. No more powerful trope exists for contrasting consumer behaviour: the sober and industrious worker-dad sits patiently in the store’s chair while wife and daughter burn through his hard-earned bounty. After all the devil wears Prada: sin, temptation and superficial signs of fashion subvert hard-earned, genuine male-made meaning. Shouldn’t the ladies be in homespun, making arts and crafts that have genuine meaning rather than sullying their purity with mean old market capitalism?

Whether it’s the gender of the gift in ‘simple’ societies or, in our own ‘complex’ economy, the female frugalista (the culpable always trying to cut back—but what addict can only have just one outfit?), consumption is one of the most sexually charged activities known to man. Why else do so many MasterCard moments begin with ever thought-provoking bikini beach babes?

Not surprisingly the media has vilified men in suits for their failing, but we all know that the media lives by blaming the victim. Indeed blame may be the best benefit in all this mess: you got us into it, and only you can get us out. For the little lady these processes too complicated to explain make only for damsels in distress. How many coying anchorwomen have you watched asking manly economic commentators to explain things for us? Those chiseled charts and hard figures… the scrawny geeks finally one-up the pectoral pecking order topped by all those Joe sixpacks! But in their equation-flexing exertion the egg-head economists don’t actually invert anything—they once again end up covering for the real players by cowering to do their overly hard homework.

So the robber barons continue to reign and ‘boys will be boys’ is the unspoken slogan for this bailout bonanza. Didn’t they all play football together somewhere? Or maybe it was lacrosse at Duke? It was a study done by a Princeton economist, after all, that helped us see that the playing field leads to a bigger payback from male alumni with a winning game.

Too cherished are our up-from-the-bootstraps values to point out the failure of our false-consciousness fantasy that free markets and self-reliant values will fix everything themselves. So quietly it’s back to other right-wing fantasies that will save our family values—the historical tour-de-force of 1950s domestic thrift that was the rescue and reward from the endlessly uttered Great-Depression as Great Comparison. Why should men suffer all those part time jobs that are only good enough for women when if the wives were in the home there might just be more auto manufacturing jobs for the men? Not for nothing ‘The Big Three’ does have a porno video ring to it.

So whether or not it’s right to blame the women—or the men—it would be nice if somewhere in this crisis we actually began to discuss what’s valued most and least and why. An honest discussion of the profoundly gendered reality of economics, the economy and its economist handmaidens would be one place to start, because more often than not our manias have less to do with money than with how we decide what matters. At the very least we can cash in on our self-deception.

Perhaps that’s why a holiday featuring a woman who made something from nothing couldn’t do the trick despite such miraculous growth potential (zero production costs!). Instead we saw it as no sex and still stuck with a child. Little wonder then it’s hard to find holiday cheer when we have to stop shopping and start praying that the conservative crusade to put the Christ back in Christmas—a backwards looking return to simpler truths—will bring fish and loaves a-plenty. Despite his motherly maker the boy’s got to steal the show: maybe by Easter we’ll have resurrected our credit.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Awful but essential

Nicholas Kristof's most recent column is horrifying:

Sina is Vietnamese but was kidnapped at the age of 13 and taken to Cambodia, where she was drugged. She said she woke up naked and bloody on a bed with a white man — she doesn’t know his nationality — who had purchased her virginity.

It doesn't get any prettier from there, but it's essential reading. Essential, awful, gut-wrenching reading.

On that unhappy note, Happy New Year, everyone!

Thanks to Cristina for the tip!

Reading and resolutions in 2009

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Sitting in front of my fire at home, I have been slowly progressing through Roberto Bolano's lengthy masterwork, 2666, a novel which was first published in 2003 and has only recently been translated into English. It's so long that the paperback version is published in a boxed set of three, but the book is actually divided into five sections, which contain similar plot threads but which Bolano originally intended to publish as five separate novels. I read the first three sections quickly - the story of five academics and a journalist who find themselves, for various reasons, in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, near the Mexico-Arizona border - but I have been stuck in the fourth section for over a week, reading several pages and then putting the book down.

This is because Santa Teresa, the city which becomes the novel's center of gravity, is a thinly veiled copy of Ciudad Juarez, a city on the Mexico-Texas border, where since 1993, hundreds of women have disappeared. Sometimes their bodies reappear, horribly violated, in the desert, but there is no pattern to their deaths, and the Juarez police seem unable (or unwilling) to find the killer, or killers. The fourth part of 2666, "The Part About the Crimes", is a 300-page account of the deaths, told in an eerie, journalistic style. The effect is intense and brutal - imagine being bludgeoned with hundreds of death reports like this one, interspersed with stories of the police's half-hearted attempts to stop the crimes:

"In the middle of November the body of another dead woman was discovered in the Podesta ravine. She had multiple fractures of the skull, with loss of brain matter. Some marks on the body indicated that she had put up a struggle. She was found with her pants down around her knees, by which it was assumed that she'd been raped, although after a vaginal swab was taken this hypothesis was discarded. Five days later the dead woman was identified. She was Luisa Cardona Pardo, thirty-four, from the state of Sinaloa, where she had worked as a prostitute from the age of seventeen. She had been living in Santa Teresa for four years and she was employed at the EMSA maquiladora."

The brilliance and brutality of Bolano's story comes from these deadpan descriptions, which are reminiscent of books like Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian in their unending violence. I hated Blood Meridian, but I am forcing myself through this section of 2666 not just because I think that Bolano is a better writer than McCarthy, but because this violence is horrifyingly real. Santa Teresa is an ugly, dirty city, and the senselessness of the murders is reflected in the fragmentation of Bolano's prose. All of the characters seem lost and hollow; they are faced with an evil which is beyond their control or comprehension. The vastness and horror of the Juarez murders is captured in this void, which Bolano isn't making up - he got most of his source material from lengthy conversations with Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, a journalist who extensively researched the Juarez murders, and wrote about it in his book, Huesos en el desierto. Both were fascinated and appalled by the ease with which brutality becomes mundane. The Juarez crimes no longer make the headlines in Mexico, and the women can't be avenged, because they are part of a greater system which makes violence ordinary, and life - especially women's lives - cheap.

"A malevolent person, like a serial killer, can unleash a kind of sweeping effect," Gonzalez Rodriguez says. This "normalization of barbarism," he argues, is the most serious problem facing Mexico and Latin America today, and can have effects which rival a totalitarian dictatorship. But the effects of this normalization can be seen worldwide. It's the beginning of a new year, and I want to finish this book because I want to remind myself that this kind of violence exists, all around me, even if it doesn't directly penetrate my life. Evil, in Bolano's novel, is endless and all-encompassing, but we need books like 2666 to give us nightmares, to make us walk through the cemetaries of the deserts around Juarez. Santa Teresa, Bolano suggests, is made a corrupt and empty place by its proximity to the United States, and by our unceasing exploitation of thousands of third-world cities. We need to listen to this book, and try to understand how we have contributed to a present in which evil is the norm, and women's lives are worth nothing.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Unicorns, Santa Claus and effective virginity pledges

This is old news, partly because WaPo reported it on Monday, but also because, well, tell us something we don't know, but virginity pledges don't work.
A new study by a researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and published in the scientific journal Pediatrics finds that:

Teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence and are significantly less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do.

CNN reports:
Five years after the initial survey the study subjects were aged 20 to 23. Eighty-two percent of pledge takers denied (or forgot) they had ever taken such a vow. Overall pledge takers were no different from non-pledge takers in terms of their premarital sex, anal and oral sexual practices, and their probability of having a sexually transmitted disease.

Both groups lost their virginity at an average age of 21, had about three lifetime partners, and had similar rates of STDs. "And the majority were having premarital sex, over 50 percent," says Rosenbaum. Overall, roughly 75 percent of pledgers and non-pledgers were sexually active, and about one in five was married.

So, there's more evidence that abstinence-until-marriage pledges don't work unless you're a born-again Christian growing up in a hyper-conservative environment, where you'd probably stay abstinent even if you didn't pledge.
If you're an average teenager receiving the abstinence-only sex education that is federally funded to the tune of $204 million a year, abstinence pledges don't make a difference in whether or not you practice abstinence.

Hate to sound like a teenager here, but, duh.

Thanks to Ilya for the tip!

Unpaid internships: worse than you thought?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

The hunt for summer internships has already interrupted my break, and reminded me of how irritating the process really is. I send out a series of groveling letters, begging to do menial work at the lowest rung of my field, practically promising to pay my prospective employer for the privilege of allowing me to do his or her filing. Some of these internships are more interesting than others, but the most frustrating part is the fact that they are almost guaranteed to be unpaid. Last summer, I worked forty-hour weeks for two months, but ended up broke by the end of August.

Obviously, these internships are necessary for college students who want to gain experience or try out a type of work. But the District of Columbia, a mecca for unpaid interns working in Congress, for NGOs and nonprofits, and in the financial sector, is suddenly a very intern-unfriendly place. Under the D.C. Human Rights Act, U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle ruled, interns cannot sue for sexual harassment - because they aren't paid.

This isn't really the judge's fault but rather a flaw in the statute, which defines an employer as a person "who, for compensation, employs an individual." So interns, because they aren't financially compensated, don't count. But really? Under the human rights act, interns are excluded because they aren't paid? As anyone who has interned (or anyone with half a brain) knows, there is absolutely no reason that they should not be given the same resources against sexual harassment; in some ways, interns are more vulnerable, because they are inexperienced and may not know what kinds of behavior is unacceptable. Interns can be coerced through the threat of a bad recommendation or the withholding of college credit, not just the threat of firing.

There is a great editorial in the December 29th edition of The Washington Post which goes into greater depth about the statute and lawsuit itself, but I was appalled both by the law and the ruling. What kind of human rights law is limited only to people who work for salaries? And just because I want a job after graduation does not mean that I am looking for a good time.

Thanks to Aku for the tip!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

2008: A "really bad year" for women?

by Chloe Angyal

Jim Cunningham of The Examiner has written a pretty depressing list called "The Top 1o Political Train Wrecks of 2008"*.

At number two, sandwiched right in between "A poke in the eye for gay rights" and "The end of John Edwards' political career" is "The hijacking of feminism." Cunningham takes the time to hit all the standard targets, like the tendency of Hillary supporters to blame her primary losses on sexism rather than on her badly-run campaign, and of course, the selection of Sarah Palin, who couldn't put together a coherent policy position (or sentence) but had one hell of a set of ovaries, as well as Hillary's supporters' claims that they would support the McCain-Palin ticket, "apparently willing to overlook all else to see a woman in the Executive Branch of government." He then concludes:

I may have a penis**, but even I know that Feminism is about rights and equality, and not something that should be used as a crutch, bludgeon, or marketing tool whenever it’s convenient. This year we saw a lot of opportunism dressed up as feminism. Ultimately, such things hurt the movement and I believe history will show that, for women, 2008 was a really bad year.

So if 2008 was a year of dressing up opportunism as feminism, does this mean that feminism has finally become palatable to the general public? If we've arrived at the point where more sinister motives are being disguised as feminism, wouldn't it suggest that feminism, and feminists, are considered admirable? If that's the case, then half of Equal Writes' work is done: "feminism" is no longer a dirty word. Far from it, a feminist is what you want people to think you are while you're actually being brazenly sexist by replacing one set of ovaries with another.

Unfortunately, while I think that Cunningham is absolutely right about opportunism in feminist clothing, I don't think that we've arrived at a place where feminism - equal rights, opportunities and access for both genders - has become palatable and admirable to the general public. Rather, I think that "feminism" been redefined so that any woman who's "strong-willed" and "confident" gets to call herself a feminist. Unfortunately, there are plenty of strong-willed and confident anti-feminists out there too (Phyllis Schlafly, anyone?), so it takes more than a strong will to make a woman a feminist. As for Palin, in the words of Feministing's Ann Friedman, a woman candidate is not the same as a women's candidate: if you're not going to stand up for the rights of women, you don't get to wear that label, no matter how strong-willed you might be.

Cunningham's conclusion is that 2008 was a bad year for women, but there were glimmers of (watch out, here comes the h-word) hope. Many women rejected Palin, with some viewing her selection for the ticket as an insult to their intelligence. Many women saw through her "folksy" charm to her anti-woman record.
And many women were intelligent enough to say to themselves, "if this candidate were named Sam Palin, he'd be laughed off the ticket for his complete lack of knowledge about politics, to say nothing of basic geography" (to any Sam Palins out there, no, Africa is not a country). In other words, while a lot of voters, male and female, were rightfully upset by the sometimes sexist treatment that both Clinton and Palin received at the hands of the media, they were intelligent enough to notice that politically, Palin was being held to a much lower standard than she would have been were she a male candidate. And feminism that is not: the idea that we should expect anything less from women than we expect from men, especially when they're running for the second most powerful position in the country, is straight up, no-two-ways-about-it sexism.

As 2008 showed us, women have come a long way, and we have a long way yet to go. But all is not lost. Despite a serious hijacking of feminism by people who wouldn't even rank women's wellbeing on their Top Ten list of priorities, people who put the idea of women's health in derisive air quotes, this year hasn't been all bad news. We don't have a President McCain or a Vice President Palin, and with any luck, we'll see a smooth transition into the administration of Barack Obama and into an effective, diplomacy-centered State Department headed by Hillary Clinton.

And, because it's possible that Cunningham is right, and that 2008 was indeed a really bad year for women, I'm making one very tall order of a wish this New Year's Eve:
My wish for 2009 is that this time next year, we can look back over a year full of more remarkable achievements and glass-ceiling shattering both here and abroad, in the public eye and in our everyday lives. I hope you'll continue to join us here at Equal Writes as we keep working toward that goal.

*Ugh, we're all so list-happy this time of year, it's like one big month-long episode of Letterman. I mean, honestly, it makes me want to write out all the things I hate about Top Ten lists, numbering each complaint in a way that indicates the descending severity with which I hate each item. Oh, wait...

**This kind of makes me want to start every sentence I write about men with the precursor, "I may have a vagina, but..." Just to clear up any ambiguity.

The porn myth

by Beverly Nwanna

The Porn Myth, an article written for New York Magazine in 2003 by Naomi Wolf, has been listed as the most read feature on the publication’s website just a few days ago – December 25, 2008.

Don’t ask me why.

But this is the sort of thing I love about the internet: nothing is ever truly “filed-away” or lost forever in a digital archive. Here’s what I think happened: the article came up in a search, went on the site’s “Recently Viewed” list, and then – likely due to its provocative title – managed to attract enough readers to land itself on the “Most Read” list. Et voilà, a five-year-old issue is dragged out into the light once more, a Christmas gift (I think) for me and my fellow Equal Writers!

But back to the subject at hand: in the article Wolf addresses the belief held by one “feminist warrior” (her words, not mine) that:

If we did not limit pornography…most men would come to objectify women as they objectified porn stars, and treat them accordingly. In a kind of domino theory…rape and other kinds of sexual mayhem would surely follow.

Wolf counters that far from “making men into raving beasts,”

The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as “porn-worthy.” Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.

One of the bad (and sometimes great) things about opinion articles is that one is often at liberty to ground their arguments in personal experience. I can accept this most of the time, but not in an article which ventures to make such generalities about the “deadening male libido” and further, to support this claim through interviews on college campuses (was this a focused study or just conversations?). One wonders why she went through the trouble at all when she’s not saying anything new – yes, women today must compete with porn stars… and apparently movie stars…and models…. In truth, her opinion is no more valid the “myth” she is arguing against – it is the same kind of “fluff” that women throw around in everyday conversation.

We have here two different schools of thought in the pornography debate: porn leads to the objectification of women and overly aggressive sexual behaviour, or porn leads to the diminishment of the male libido. And into this pool, I wish to throw in my own two cents and express an opinion one may not expect to find on a feminist blog: this is not entirely fair to men.

[Hetero] women couldn’t truly believe in either of these arguments. If all men were this shallow, if all men assigned greater value to the breasts on screen than real ones, if all men could be driven by mere images to “rape and other kinds of sexual mayhem,” how then could we still want them? I like to think that there’s a little more depth there, that men are capable of thinking for themselves, and judging from the diversity of couples that I see everyday, reality seems to reflect that. I believe this is something that I could reasonably generalize about: men, like women, are more than capable of having their own preferences.

Yes, there is a popular standard which competes with one’s individual tastes, and this exists for women too: personally, I wouldn’t mind if the men who approached me looked more like Taye Diggs or Clive Owen, but I don’t expect them to live up to this standard, and I’m not too broken about this either. I like to think that most men are capable of seeing things in the same way, and in saying this, I don’t feel that I’m being overly optimistic or naïve – I’m being realistic. Men are smarter than this.

The fact that Wolf is able to support her claims through interviews with college students is not a reflection of the real-life situation but the real-life perception. [Hetero] women want to know why they’re being rejected and, as I said earlier, porn is just another in a long list of reasons. Herein lies the problem with the media: Wolf is not so much confirming a fear as she is introducing one – stating her opinion in a language which posits it as fact, because in our constant search for negative reinforcement (honestly, why do we put up with such abuse?), we willingly take in these things, conveniently glossing over the fact that Wolf couldn’t have reasonably conducted a study of the libido of the college-aged male (make what you will of that last sentence). I believe that for the most part, it’s women who reinforce these beliefs – when was the last time you heard a man admit to preferring porn to the real-life experience?

Wolf talks about porn introducing new pressures into the arena of courtship.

…starlets in tabloids boast of learning to strip from professionals; the “cool girls” go with guys to the strip clubs, and even ask for lap dances; college girls are expected to tease guys at keg parties with lesbian kisses à la Britney and Madonna.

I don’t wish to judge the sexual choices of others, but I believe that these pressures only exist in the minds of certain personalities (both male and female) who should not be taken for the majority. I’ll offer an anecdote of my own: when out with a friend one night who was being pestered by a drunk, overly-persistent young man, we devised a plan to scare him away: we told him we were dating (yes, I know lying isn’t nice, and we don’t use this excuse anymore). Rather than leave my friend alone, however, the young man suggested a three-way, and what’s more, re-approached us several times throughout the night to see if we’d “reached a decision about it”, at one point even asking if he could “just watch” as he pleasured himself. What he was after, clearly, was a real-life porn experience. What he got, however, was notoriety among my friend group for being a creep. But the point here is not that this is normative thinking. The very fact that we have designated him as such should indicate what all women should (and likely do) understand: he is an anomaly, and most men would never have such an expectation (a desire, yes).

And if we’re going to discuss how porn gives guys unrealistic expectations about sex, we may need to discuss how movies and books give women unrealistic expectations about romance. We can’t all measure up to porn stars. And men can’t take us out on magic carpet rides. And both sides are, for the most part, reasonable enough to get over it.