Friday, September 25, 2009

Corona commercials and female stereotypes

by Nick Cox

Watching TV commercials is a very good way to get a feel for what the cultural status quo is at any given moment. This is especially the case for current attitudes toward and feelings about gender, probably because the goal of a TV commercial is generally to stir up some form of erotic desire in the viewer, and to make the product being advertised the object of that desire. When the assumed viewer is a man, the commercial will try to imbue the product, or at least associate it, with qualities that men in their focus groups found appealing. All things considered, advertisers probably know more about gender than even the savviest gender theorists, although they use their knowledge for what some might consider dishonorable ends.

I saw this Corona commercial (embedded above) Wednesday night on ESPN, during a baseball game. A beer commercial screened during a sporting event: obviously it was aimed squarely at men. So let's look at what happens: A man and a woman—presumably boyfriend and girlfriend—are sitting on the beach in matching beach chairs, facing the surf with their backs to the camera. They are both sitting motionless and looking straight ahead, which is kind of weird. Between them is a table holding two Coronas with the customary slices of lime protruding from the necks. A fetching blonde in a white bikini walks by, and the man looks up at her and follows her with his gaze. After the blonde has left and the man has resumed looking straight ahead, the woman—without moving her head at all—reaches her left hand out to daintily pluck the lime out of the man's Corona and squirt the juice in his face, making him flinch slightly. She puts the lime slice back in the bottle and returns her hand to her lap, he wipes his face a bit, and the commercial ends with the message "Relax Responsibly."

Now, if this blog were devoted to evaluating the artistic merits of TV commercials, I would give this one nothing but unqualified praise. With its minimalist composition, its deadpan humor and its flawless comic timing, it is everything a beer commercial should be. I laughed, and I'm sure millions of other guys laughed as well. But as much as I appreciated it, I also noted that, from a feminist standpoint, it has some problems—or rather, it reveals some problems that are present in society at large. Commercials are engineered to appeal to their target audience as much as possible, so in general it is fair to say that anything problematic about a commercial is merely a reflection of a broader cultural problem.

The commercial has three characters: the guy (who is the protagonist), his girlfriend, and the woman in the white bikini. The latter is a timeless cultural archetype that feminists have already chewed through thousands of times: the Blonde Temptress who makes all the guys heads turn. The interesting person here is the girlfriend, who represents just as much of an archetype as the blonde does. The Uptight Girlfriend also appeared in The Hangover (which was aimed squarely at guys), in the person of Ed Helms' character's kiss-withholding girlfriend. In that movie her venomous uptightness was pushed to absurd extremes, but the underlying character is the same. For what it's worth, both the girlfriend in The Hangover and the one in the commercial are brunettes who wear their hair in ponytails; and the stripper that Ed Helms' character eventually falls for is, like the woman in the white bikini, a blonde who wears her hair down.

Feminists are more or less unanimous in their hatred of the Blonde Temptress, but the Uptight Girlfriend may be an even more worthy target of criticism. The reason is that it represents a superficial concession to feminism while remaining just as harmful under the surface. It would be easy for a feminist to watch the commercial and, without thinking about it very hard, say "I like this, because the woman asserts herself when the man does something objectionable." While this is true, it fails to acknowledge some important things. First, the woman does assert herself, but she does so in the most petty, impotent way imaginable; she even puts the lime back his beer after squirting him with it. Second, the thing that the woman objects to—her boyfriend looking a bit too long at someone else—is a pathetically small thing to get upset over. So the woman might get her revenge, but ultimately she is still the weak one. In The Hangover, remember, boyfriend ends up breaking up with the girlfriend.

Between the Blonde Temptress and the Uptight Girlfriend, neither is any sort of a desirable archetype from a feminist perspective. But what would be? I will say things: when the guy was gazing at the blonde, I was expecting that the girlfriend would steal his beer. That would be a woman who uses the man's weaknesses to her advantage instead of punishing him for them. The Woman-as-Trickster is not very prevalent in our culture right now but I think it is due for a revival.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cross-generational discussions can be difficult - but we need to have them

by Molly Borowitz

I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t thrill at the prospect of spending time with extended family. But during a recent trip to Chicago—to move my little sister into college (!)—I think “family time” hit an all-time low. We’ve always known that older people have different perspectives on issues like women’s rights and sexual assault, but this weekend I learned just how short-sighted and narrow-minded our parents’ generation—i.e., the generation running our country—can be.

We were having dinner at a charming downtown bistro when somehow, toward the end of the main course, I ended up arguing with my aunt and uncle about sexual assault and famous people. At first, we were just talking rather generally about Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, and the ways that high-profile sexual-assault cases often played out. Then my aunt stated that most of the women who accused these famous men of rape probably hadn’t actually been assaulted; no, they were just out for money.

In my naïveté, I kind of thought she was kidding. I pointed out that the women who leveled such accusations were subsequently subjected to an enormous amount of media scrutiny and public abuse, practically tortured by rabid fans and turned into complete social pariahs. Is it actually worth a few thousand dollars, I asked, to go through that kind of ordeal? Aside from the Bryant and Roethlisberger cases, I told my aunt, there’s also Chris Brown: even though he confessed to having abused his girlfriend—even though it was an established fact—people continued to insist that he should not be punished in any way, continued to slander and harass Rihanna, continued to declare that she had deserved to be beaten, that it was her fault, that she’d brought it upon herself. These men are famous; they have both the media and the public automatically on their side. It is almost impossible to accuse a celebrity of sexual assault without having your life destroyed. As such, I told my aunt, I’m not sure you can say that most of these people are out for money: it’s just not worth it.

My aunt doesn’t really read the news, and she didn’t follow the Bryant, Roethlisberger, or Brown cases—she confessed as much—but she decided that my arguments were invalid because (for one thing) I’m a kid and (for another) “these people” are apparently wacked-out money-grubbing whores. “Maybe for a normal, nice person, it would be a deterrent,” she told me, “all that media coverage and stuff. But for these crazy sick women, it doesn’t matter—twenty, thirty thousand dollars? Of course that’s worth it!” But hang on, I said—I don’t know much about the legal system, but what’s the likelihood of a woman actually winning a case that she’d invented out of thin air? “That’s a ridiculous question,” she said. “These guys, they’ll just pay the women off, even though the accusation’s not true, because they don’t want it damaging their reputations.”

Now, I don’t want you to think I’m being partisan here: my aunt is a staunchly liberal, Democratic-voting woman with a post-graduate education. Nor do I want to portray her too unflatteringly—after all, she’s family. We had both had two glasses of wine, we were both tired, and the conversation was getting pretty heated. But when I continued to disagree with my aunt, she got uncomfortable. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Molly,” she snapped at me. “I was a lawyer.”

I had to dig my fingernails into my skin to keep myself from screaming across the table at her, “YOU don’t know what YOU’RE talking about! I WAS ASSAULTED!”

But I didn’t. Why not? Because I never told anyone in my family, not even my parents. And I never told them because I was afraid. Afraid either that they wouldn’t believe me, or that they would tell me it was my own fault. Afraid that their attitudes toward victims of sexual assault would be exactly the one that my aunt demonstrated to me this weekend: inherently skeptical, disdainful, dismissive.

Guess I was right.

As the conversation drew to a close, I said to my aunt, “I think it’s incredibly disturbing that you would believe a woman was lying through her teeth to get some money before you’d believe she was raped. Rape is the most underreported crime in our country, and I think I just learned why.”

I don’t think she got it. The moment passed. My aunt let it go. But a tight, searing knot of anger continued to burn in the pit of my stomach for the rest of the night, and I wondered—what kind of nation is their generation trying to build? One where people who have never been assaulted can claim that they have, and be rewarded with vast sums of money? So that, in turn, people who have been assaulted are afraid and ashamed to speak out about it, for fear that they’ll be hounded, harassed, blamed, and disbelieved? There may be a lot of crazy people out there, but I think it’s lazy and cowardly to blame the state of sexual-assault litigation on them. The fault lies with the system that my aunt’s and previous generations have created, and especially with their unwillingness to talk about “uncomfortable” subjects like rape over the dinner table.

Equal Writes is an amazing forum of intellectual exchange and development, a space for young feminists to discuss contemporary women’s issues like sexual assault. But most of our readership (and readers, we love you!) is young like us; our parents, aunts, and uncles—the ones whose worldviews we most need to alter—aren’t very likely to visit our site. Instead, I’m realizing, we have to force their generation to talk about issues like sexual assault. We have to dismantle their preconceptions, disrupt their complacency about the world they’re handing to us; we can’t let them push these things under the rug anymore. And even if their generation hasn’t wanted to talk about it, hasn’t wanted to fix it, fine. We will.

Is murdered anti-choice activist a martyr?

by Thúy-Lan Võ Lite

I have a few updates on the case of slain anti-abortion activist James Pouillon, who was killed in front of a school on September 11 in Owassa, Michigan.

A brief post on Jezebel informed me that two Congressmen – Reps. Dave Camp and Dale Kildee – from Pouillon’s home state introduced a resolution to honor the late protestor: House Resolution 759 (available on Camp’s website), after noting that “Jim Pouillon is mourned by his family, friends, community, and fellow defenders of the First Amendment and the unborn,” offers condolences to the victim’s family and recognizes the importance of free speech.

The resolution has been introduced amid an ongoing debate over Pouillon’s posthumous martyrization. Anti-choice leaders note that he was killed on the job, or “gunned down as he stood for life” (Operation Rescue), but it’s misleading to conclude that his victimization was a direct result of his ideology. According to Flint News, “[a]uthorities have said Harlan Drake, 33, of Owosso had a grudge against Pouillon and didn't think that children should have to look at graphic pictures of abortion on their way to school.”

The article continues: “Shiawassee County Prosecutor Randy Colbry says he doesn't have any information that the abortion issue was the motivation for the slaying, saying that it is not his impression that the shooting was a hate crime or politically motivated.” Keep in mind that Drake had killed another man earlier in the day based on a completely unrelated “grudge.”

Dr. James M. Pouillon – the late activist’s son – had some interesting opinions of his own, which he wrote in a blog post (via Flint) a few days after the murder. Asserting that his father “really didn’t care about aborton (sic),” he noted that “He did this [protesting] to stalk, harass, terrorize, scream at, threaten, frighten, and verbally abuse women. He had a pathologic hatred of women: his mom, my mom, everyone.”

But whether or not Pouillon, Sr. was killed for his stance or for his persistent, disrespectful methods remains up in the air; it’s definitely too soon for anti-choice leaders to galvanize support in his name.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hey baby: living with catcalls in NYC

by Jordan Kisner

I’ve been living in New York City for two months now, and I think I’m about to break down and join a gym. Not because I want to lose weight (though the availability and affordability of New York pizza hasn’t done me any favors there) but because I need an outlet for blowing off some steam: several times a week, I arrive home from my daily commute (2 different subways and several city blocks) ready to scream.

When I moved here I was not prepared for the catcalling.

Men of all shapes and sizes, men of all ages, races and avocations are getting their daily jollies catcalling at any and every woman they see walking down the street. “Hey baby,” “How you doing, sweet thing,” “Can I get your number,” are well worn pages in the book of street-side pervert tricks, and I personally dealt with three or four of these stunners this afternoon. Truthfully, I find these a welcome alternative to the experience of a man boldly undressing you with his eyes as you walk down the street, his tongue out and his head bobbing. This has happened to me four times so far this week. This evening, two men on the subway today got in a loud argument about my ass.

Never has my body felt less my own. Never have I felt more physically powerless.

I’m not alone here. A friend recently rounded on a man in the street who made a rude gesture at her and asked for her number, yelling “Has any woman ever given you her number? If so, I want HER number.” My roommate was followed and harassed by a man for several blocks. I myself have taken to fantasizing about punching these men in the face. The rage that these encounters inspire is so much a reaction to feeling helpless, a futile attempt to mitigate the feeling that your body has been turned into a commodity of the lewdest kind without your consent.

Not surprisingly, none of the men who engage in this kind of behavior lead lives of much power or importance themselves. They are the kind of men who sit on the street corner in the middle of the day, or deliver freight, or sweep steps. (Note: I am NOT making an argument that men of only a certain income or class harass and demean women. We all know this is not true. I am pointing only to the pattern I’ve seen in men who catcall on the streets or subways of New York City.) These men, who have little substantive influence and –apparently—lots of time on their hands, can seize a modicum of power by exercising verbal and sexual dominance over any woman unlucky enough to walk in their sights. Conversely, the most empowered, successful, influential women in New York suffer the risk of being reduced to a sexual fantasy on every street corner.

The women of New York City, like the women of Cairo, are ready for a change.

Quick hit: Polish newspaper fined for abortion-related slur

The NYT reported today that a Polish court has ordered a Catholic magazine to pay a fine and apologize for calling a woman who tried to obtain an abortion a killer, and likening the practice as a whole to genocidal acts committed during the Holocaust. This is part of a heated and ongoing debate about abortion in Poland, a primarily Roman Catholic country where abortion is mostly illegal. The woman in question, Alicja Tysiac, attempted to obtain an abortion when it became clear that giving birth would significantly damage her eyesight. After challenging Poland's abortion ban with the European Court of Human Rights, Tysiac was awarded around $37,000 in damages because after childbirth, she was declared significantly disabled due to retinal hemorrhage.

The Catholic magazine, Gosc Niedzielny (Sunday Visitor), wrote: ''We live in a world where a mother receives an award for very much wanting to kill her child, but not being allowed to do so.'' He then compared abortion to genocidal crimes committed at Auschwitz, saying, "'They had become accustomed to the murders being carried out behind the fence of the camp. And what is the case today? Different, but just as terrible." The magazine is now claiming that the ruling is a freedom of speech violation.

This whole situation, to me, is just terribly, terribly sad - I can't imagine that being awarded damages from the Polish government, unless it can restore her eyesight, will help Tysiac significantly, and I also wonder what pursuing this in court is doing to her family. The fact is that she should have been allowed to obtain an abortion when she discovered that giving birth would impair her health, and being publicly libeled in addition to being disabled is really horrifying - this magazine should be reprimanded, but I'm also not sure whether the discourse on abortion is going to improve because of the court's intervention.

Thoughts? Also, does anyone know about the situation with birth control availability in Poland?

More on women and (un)happiness

by Jillian Hewitt

I’m not the first to talk about it this week (see Gracie's post from Monday), but I also want to address the issue of women’s happiness in light of recent media attention. Marcus Buckingham, who himself has written a book titled Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently, wrote an article that appeared in the Huffington Post this week discussing the phenomenon of female unhappiness. Indeed, from 1972 to 2006 women became increasingly unhappy—and in the same time frame, came to enjoy many of the benefits of the feminist movement. As Buckingham puts it, “greater educational, political, and employment opportunities have corresponded to decreases in life happiness for women, as compared to men.” In fact, men’s happiness has steadily increased since 1972.

So what’s the deal? Would most women really rather go back to a time when society assured them that their sole calling was to be a mother and housewife? I’m sure some would, and I won’t pretend to speak for them. I’m also not going to pretend that I have any answers as to why this is the case; I just want to touch on some thoughts I have about the subject. It’s important for us to have an open discussion about this topic, especially when it may be seen as extremely damaging to the feminist movement. Because, you know, what’s the point having all these rights and opportunities and stuff if we were happier being Mrs. Cleaver? So let’s open up and take a look not only at why we might be less happy, but why (and whether) it matters that we are less happy. To be clear, there are thousands of issues I won’t address in this post, not the least of which are the possible reasons for increasing male happiness.

First, I’m going to assume that the data is accurate: Buckingham sites the United States General Social Survey but also notes that six recent, major studies from around the world have produced similar findings. So in 1972, the average woman rated her happiness as a 2.24; in 2006 she rated her happiness as a 2.17 on a scale from 1-3. But is it possible that the factors on which women based their happiness ratings have changed in the past forty years? In 1972, how many women evaluated their happiness with regards to whether they had a husband, children, and a stable income? To me it seems quite possible that women may have evaluated themselves as happy without ever really feeling fulfilled. Is it possible that the list of factors contributing to our happiness has been greatly expanded, and thus women have more awareness as to what might be “missing” from their lives?

I’d like to relate this question to a study I read this week for a class on developing countries that analyzed the results of a Gallup World Poll regarding life satisfaction. In the analysis, the author (Angus Deaton) discusses a phenomenon—that often times, those who are the worst off do not perceive their situation as it objectively is. He asserts that “People do not necessarily perceive the constraints caused by their lack of freedom; the child who is potentially a great musician but never has a chance to find out will not express a lack of life satisfaction.” I wouldn’t dare suggest that the situation of American women in 1972 is nearly as dire as the situation of the poorest of this world, but the analogy seems to hold: that often people do not fully perceive their lack of freedom, and thus do not have strong feelings of unhappiness.

But even if happiness was overstated in 1972, why hasn’t greater opportunity and freedom for women led us to have at least the same levels of happiness? Perhaps there’s something to be said for the fact that with greater opportunities, higher standards of living, etc. come more opportunities for problems: problems with our jobs, problems funding our education, problems with relationships, problems balancing motherhood and a career,…the list goes on. Maybe we just need to face up to the fact that there are simply more things to be unhappy about. But even if we are more unhappy, I would argue that we still have reason to feel more fulfilled. Even if we fail—fail to get into the school we want, fail to get the job we want, fail to find the man or woman of our dreams—we can still be grateful that we had the opportunity to do so.

This reminds me of a scene in Garden State (see it if you haven’t already) when Zach Braff’s character decides to go off his depression medication and confronts his father about their relationship. He concludes that “We may not be as happy as you always dreamed we would be, but for the first time let’s just allow ourselves to be whatever it is we are and that will be better.” So maybe we need to think about the trade-off between self-assessed, numerical “happiness” and a sense of true being—a sense of being that allows us to be unhappy for reasons that we couldn’t even have dreamt about forty years ago.

The final point I want to make is actually drawn off of a quote used by Gracie earlier in the week. She quotes Betsey Stevenson, who explains that “Across the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children…Yet I know very few people who would tell me they wish they hadn’t had kids or who would tell me they feel their kids were the destroyer of their happiness.” And I think the same logic applies in light of this situation, too: maybe it’s true that our “greater educational, political, and employment opportunities” have made us less happy. But those opportunities aren’t ones that I’m willing to give back.

Who are the people in your life who make you happier? What do you have to be grateful for today?

Gossip Girl: New Jersey edition

by Kelly Roache

This week, the NYT reported that Millburn High School, well known in New Jersey for its academic and extracurricular excellence, was the center of a particularly ugly hazing of incoming freshmen – that is, ugly enough to cause such a small town to make New York Times headlines. Allegedly, a group of Millburn senior girls wrote a “slut list” rife with vulgar details containing the names of incoming freshmen, passing them out by the hundreds. School authorities claim that the list targeted “pretty and popular incoming ninth graders,” accompanied by senior athletes pushing the girls into lockers and blowing whistles in their faces. A slew of anonymous parent and student comments alike echoed the same sentiment: the girls felt both unsafe and unwelcome in their new school environment.

The recent events at Millburn hardly constitute an isolated incident; the token girl-on-girl hazing story is covered every year during sorority rush and the start of the fall athletic season. Yet some encounters are much more pernicious, with the number of 10- to 17-year-old girls arrested for aggravated assault doubling from twenty years ago. For instance, in one highly publicized case in 2007, in New York a 13-year-old girl was attacked and beaten by three female classmates, who recorded and posted the assault on YouTube – that is, they were proud of their “accomplishment.”

The rise of girl-on-girl violence is not only despicable for its direct consequences, but problematic for feminism in general. Our movement is judged – however fairly or unfairly – by the way women treat each other. Incidents such as these provide fodder for those hostile to and looking to discredit the feminist cause, perpetuating stereotypes of girls and women as boy-crazed (the 13-year-old’s beating was spurred by a catfight over a guy) and emotional to the point of irrational behavior – both of which I have toiled to debunk in my own experience. Even if their usage to give feminism a bad name is unjust, these cases paint the end for which so many women have fought for equal rights as petty, manipulative, mean-spirited, and hypocritical. Until this behavior is addressed, it will always seem to some as if we don’t have a leg on which to stand, and when it comes to our critics, perception is often, sadly, reality in the roadblock it poses for us.

This point aside – and worse yet – is the question of the source of this disturbing and violent trend among girls. For instance, the oldest assailant in the New York case was just 14; these girls are learning this somewhere. Certainly there has always been a fair amount of cattiness and angst as girls become young women struggling to define and explore their place in the social quagmire that is high school. But when did the drama get so far out of hand? Perhaps the most disturbing point was broached by Millburn’s principal regarding the infamous “slut list”: “We’ve had girls — which is one of the bad things — obsessed that their names are on it, and girls who were upset that they didn’t make the list.” Other freshman shrugged off the significance of the hazing as “all in good fun,” saying of those who wouldn’t participate, “Then you’ll be the loser.” One senior described her involvement in the hazing as, “Not more than anyone else.” So how did we stray so far from the progress of the past century?

At the risk of sounding like my father spewing it’s-that-darn-MTV diatribe, I blame Gossip Girl. Not exclusively of course –a farrago of social factors bears some share of responsibility, not to mention GG’s equally inane and lesser-famous equivalents – but this show makes asinine bitchery into an art. The insipid behavior of the main female characters, Blair and Serena, has been lionized for reasons that continue to surpass my understanding. Bitch is the new black, and “whore” is just another name for your best friend when you’re angry with her. None of this would be particularly problematic were the show not so popular, even and especially disturbingly so among friends who consider themselves active feminists. Try as I might to view it as escapism, I can’t quite justify a “guilty pleasure” that contains such witty exchanges between ex-best girlfriends fighting over a tangled web of men as, “Brown doesn’t offer degrees in ‘slut’” (ah, my favorite word again).

Maybe I’m particularly fired up because the Millburn hazings hit a little close to home – I spent quite a bit of time there in high school at academic competitions, and got to know some of the students fairly well. Maybe it’s because it wasn’t all that long ago that I was a freshman, or that my little sister is one now. Or maybe I’m just taking a pop culture phenomenon that’s supposed to be “fun” too seriously. But I doubt it. I used to laugh at Tina Fey’s Mean Girls when Lindsay Lohan’s character daydreamed about high school as jungle where girls physically wrestled like animals over boys and shoes, or when she slipped the most popular girl in school protein bars to make her unwittingly gain weight. But more and more, this seems less and less like a joke, while we anxiously await Serena and Blair’s next vapid moves in the coming weeks’ episodes.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Thoughts on the "hookup culture"

[The author of this piece has chosen to remain anonymous]

I wrote this shortly before the school year began:

From what I’ve seen and experienced, hooking up can be a fun, great, exciting experience, but for some people, it can also seem empty and meaningless.

I don’t hook up anymore. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was uncomfortable with the reality of one-night stands. When presented with the opportunity, I wanted to get to know the person, and that just doesn’t lend itself well to alcohol-fueled, physical encounters. But that’s just me. I know plenty of people who enjoy the hook up scene precisely because there are no strings attached.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I had a hook-up that followed up. It didn’t work out. My closest male friend also has an unsuccessful tendency to pursue his hook-ups. This is not the norm, but it does color my perceptions.

There are people in this school that are looking for real relationships, and they’re not all members of the Anscombe Society. If you suspect that you’re one of them, I would stay away from the hook up scene, or experiment just enough to find out.

Having said that, I don’t regret finding out.

Just a few weeks later, I feel that I can’t stand behind these words, because I did hook up again despite telling myself that I wouldn’t. Why would I do such a thing?

Well, alcohol played a role, but alcohol is no excuse. I guess it was a matter of opportunity. The right boy was there at the right time, and yes, I knew him, and yes, I had feelings for him, and when the emotion is there already, having a little bit of casual fun doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

I’m not saying that hook-ups are a bad idea. They are different for everyone, and affect everyone differently. Some of my best friends hook up on a regular basis while others believe in abstinence until marriage. To each her own.

However, I am saying that my thoughts on pre-marital sex, and by extension, on the hook-up culture, were heavily influenced by my thoughts on feminism, prior to having actually experienced hook-ups. By this, I mean that I was under the mistaken impression that feminism meant sexual liberation which meant that just following the urges of your body was enough, and plenty of women could separate sex and emotion, so why couldn’t I? This was my thought process when I encountered my first hook-up.

I’m not here to talk about nonsense like oxytocin, or even discuss morality and ethics. But I am here to say there is some truth in the assumption that women (and men, actually) can get hurt by the hook-up culture. I’ve seen people get hurt and I’ve been hurt by it, too. For me, at least, it’s not as fun and carefree as some people make it out to be. As a result of my experiences, I can honestly say that I never want to have sex outside of a relationship ever again.

And yeah, for a while, I did blame my feminist views on causing me so much pain. Maybe men and women do process things differently? Maybe women are prone to emotion, or maybe women do need to be taken care of, shielded from such things? I mean, how could I hurt so much when I had walked into the situation thinking that it was a one-night stand, trying my hardest not to care, and trying to enjoy my body for the sake of enjoyment?

But maybe it’s just me.

Intellectually, I know that there are women who enjoy the hook-up scene. Yeah, women enjoy sex too, guys, even casual sex sometimes. But these women, unlike me, have frameworks that make this a comfortable experience for them. Maybe they can distance themselves from the situation, or maybe they’re just not inclined to bond as quickly. Who knows? They should be able to express their sexuality as they see fit without fearing being called a slut or a whore.

Hell, I’m still a sex-positive feminist in that I don’t judge others for their actions. I’m just saying that after my experimentation, I know that I have to follow the traditional pattern—yes, I do want dinner dates and a kiss at the third date—to be emotionally comfortable. This pattern is pretty incompatible with the dating/relationship scene at Princeton. C’est la vie. But I think I’ll be ok.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Unbelievably shaming anti-sex website debuts today

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Sometimes I believe in synchronicity. I was about to start writing a short plug for Let's Talk Sex, the campus group founded last semester by yours truly, dedicated to spreading open and healthy conversations about sex throughout the Princeton community, when I went to Feministing and saw Jessica's post on the Clare Booth Luce Institute's new site. For those of you who are not up on your insane anti-feminist organizations, the CBLI tried to shut down The Vagina Monologues (full disclosure: I am sitting on my couch in my 2008 Vagina Monologues cast t-shirt), claiming that the $30 million that the V-Day Campaign raises annually doesn't really stop violence against women.

Now, they have launched a website called "Sense & Sexuality" that is one of the worst sources of information on sex that I have ever seen. Its section called "The Facts" is full of horrifying lies designed to shame and frighten young women into locking themselves into chastity belts. The information on the site claims to be "pure medical science," but it is actually a load of bulls**t mostly culled from Miriam Grossman's book. The whole site seems to be a vehicle for Grossman (in the "activism" section, college students are told to bring Grossman to speak on their campus - and if you want to have more resources, why not just buy her book? God forbid that you should want another source of information!). I am literally dumbstruck, poking through the site, so I think I'll let it speak for itself.

From the "Facts" section:

Because clearly this website would be nothing without a mention of oxytocin: "When it comes to sex, oxytocin, like alcohol, turns red lights green. It plays a major role in what's called "the biochemistry of attachment." Because of it, you could develop feelings for a guy whose last intention is to bond with you. You might think of him all day, but he can't remember your name."

Did you know? All college guys have syphilis! "One reason genital infections are so common in young women is because so many young men unknowingly carry them. The best course is to delay sexual activity, and eventually commit to someone who also waited."

They have a section on beer goggles. Seriously. "Enjoy a glass of wine or a couple of beers at a party, and the guy hitting on you begins to look better than when you arrived. It works the other way too: guys will find your face prettier after they've had a few."

For this one, you really just need to read the section title. "The rectum is an exit, not an entrance."

A study at PRINCETON apparently confirms that 91% of women feel "used" after hooking up (Google reveals nothing about this survey's origin. And what the hell does a "hookup" mean, anyway?

And of course, the obligatory mandate to get married and pop out lots of kids: "Remember that motherhood doesn't always happen when the time is right for you; there's a window of opportunity, then the window closes."

The scariest part, though, is in the blog. A post from this morning claims that the HPV vaccine carries life-threatening side effects, and may be "forced" upon poor innocent girls if we go ahead with health care reform (just to get a nice little jab about "socialized medicine" in there). Reports that the HPV vaccine is unusually dangerous are untrue. And it is preposterous, and dangerous, to say that only "promiscuous" women should get the vaccine. What are they trying to say - good girls don't get cervical cancer?

If this hasn't convinced you to come to the Let's Talk Sex open house tomorrow night (8 pm in the Mathey College Common Room), nothing will. Websites like this only spread fear and guilt - they do nothing to help women and men own their sexuality and decide when and if they want to engage in sexual activity. Lying, inevitably, will get these people nowhere. But in the meantime, it is deeply frightening to me that this site is being presented as a source of accurate information.

In memory of Patrick Swayze, some thoughts on "Dirty Dancing"

by Laura Smith-Gary

Earlier this week I re-watched Dirty Dancing in memory of Patrick Swayze. It’s a film that is near and dear to the hearts of many feminists, both for its treatment of serious themes like back-alley abortion, classism, and impending cultural revolution, and because even humorless “sexual Nazis”* like myself can appreciate shirtless Patrick Swayze. If you haven’t already, go read Melissa McEwan's piece on the movie right now -- she describes beautifully how the film has introduced young women like her to feminist themes.

Now, I love Dirty Dancing. I love Baby/Frances, who’s brave and intelligent and idealistic and unabashedly sexual. I love Johnny, who's tough and vulnerable and willing to change his mind. I love that despite the restrictions and limitations on Baby and Johnny, they fight for each other fiercely and dance Kellerman’s stodgy camp into the ‘60s.

But my heart always goes back to Penny, Johnny’s professional dance partner. As a teenager, I envied Penny's dance talent but vaguely despised her character -- she was slim, beautiful, blond, and, I thought in all my seventeen-year-old arrogance, fundamentally weak. She clung to Johnny while Baby required no protection, she believed the lies of Robby the Creep while Baby rejected his copy of The Fountainhead and dumped a pitched of ice water on his pants, and she quickly sank into tears and panic -- and again, dependence -- when she hit an obstacle, while Baby reacted with determination and optimism. I sympathized with Penny's plight, but I found myself wanting to bombard her with instructions. "Learn marketable skills for when you can't dance any longer! Be optimistic! Don't put up with men treating you badly! Stand up for yourself! Don't have sex without contraception! Don't be mean to Baby, she's trying to help!" I was obnoxious and self-righteous when I was seventeen.**

When I watched Dirty Dancing from a (slightly!) more grown-up perspective, I saw a whole new narrative, grimly lurking below the optimistic central storyline -- Penny's story. Though part of her job is portraying a high-society image, glamorous and carefree and flirtatious, Penny comes from a much lower socioeconomic class than all the guests (and the "upper" staff, the Ivy League waiters like awful Robby). She exists at the intersection of gender and class oppression, and Dirty Dancing makes this painfully clear.

Penny and Baby both face discrimination as women, but because of her class Penny is fundamentally vulnerable. She has no safety net. Many of the things that I love about Baby -- her idealism, her bravery, her assurance that life can always get better -- are aspects of her personality, but are nurtured and allowed to flourish by her class privilege. She can go to Mount Holyoke. She can turn down boring, pompous Neil Kellerman without fear of reprisals. If she's desperate -- for any reason -- she can ask her father for $250 and he'll give it to her. I don't mean to say her class privilege eliminates the fact that she is treated differently because she is female. Baby is condescended to and called by a diminutive nickname instead of Frances, she's not allowed to go to an all-male university, her lifestyle does depend entirely upon her father, and her parents desperately want her to fit into an asexual "good girl" model.

Penny, however, has not had the opportunity to go to school or develop a variety of skills, since her mother threw her out of the house when she was sixteen and she's been dancing for her supper ever since. She has no social or economic power, which makes her vulnerable to sexual pressure -- would she be able to refuse Neil's advances, or the advances of a guest, without losing her job? On the other side of the same coin, she could easily be fired if she did give into a guest's advances and was found out. Despite Penny's "glamorous" job that Baby wistfully says she envies, she spends every day and night catering to the desires of Kellerman's guests. She can't even take a short break without the management snarling -- she must be constantly available for the guests' enjoyment, and her badly needed salary is dependent on her body being constantly lithe and able and her sexy, feminine charm being constantly lavished on all comers.

Of course, because of his class status Johnny is subject to some of the same pressures. He too has no financial safety net and no apparent family support, and some of the female guests feel free to demand his sexual favors -- and take revenge when he refuses. "I'm balancing on shit and as quick as that I could be back there again," Johnny tells Baby, and it's true for both him and Penny, as it is for so many of those who live paycheck to paycheck -- or go without paychecks entirely.

However, Penny's vulnerability has a gendered dimension. She's balancing not only on the edge of hunger and unemployment, but also sexualized "ruin." If Johnny lost his job he could probably pick one up in construction, moving, or other seasonal work that employs able-bodied men. Penny might be able to work in a factory or as a maid or waitress, or she could become a sex worker. While many sex workers enjoy what they do and have chosen their work, becoming a sex worker out of desperation is not something to wish on anyone. In addition, sex workers are stigmatized by huge swathes of society, and Penny's obvious desire to be "respectable" would be shattered. And sadly, in any one of the jobs she could get as a poor, uneducated, pretty woman she could well be expected to make her body available to customers or coworkers.

Penny also has a significant liability Johnny has not -- she can get pregnant. In 1963, it wasn't even legal for married couples to use contraception (that Supreme Court decision came in 1965), and abortion wouldn't be legal for another ten years. For Penny, sex or rape hold the constant risk of disaster (additional disaster, in the case of rape). And not only is Penny subject to sexual pressure because of her sex and class, she also does not have anything to fall back on if she does become pregnant. This circumstance becomes the central plot point of Dirty Dancing. When Penny does get pregnant, she has no resources -- no power to demand anything of Robby, who impregnated her (and who sneers "Some people count, some people don't"), no legal way to terminate the pregnancy, no money for an illegal abortion, no way to take time out of working to get an appointment, no legal or medical recourse when the "doctor" botches the abortion. No way to carry the pregnancy to term without losing her job and being labeled a "fallen woman." No obvious way to support another person. No one to help her raise a baby, except perhaps her friend and dance partner. Little hope for the "respectable" marriage and family she seems to crave. While adoption could be an option, she would have to go without employment as a dancer for several months as well as paying medical expenses, which she can't do. Penny can't keep the pregnancy and she can't end it. She's utterly dependent on Robby, Johnny, Baby, the evil fake doctor, and Baby's father Dr. Houseman, who saves her after the botched abortion. (If you are under the impression legalized abortion solved this problem, stay tuned -- next week I'll discuss how abortion is still a privilege in the United States.)

If I were in her position, I would be crying hysterically in the kitchen in about five seconds, and hoping against hope that a bathtub of hot water and gin actually works. Being a woman who is poor and "low-class" gives her next to no options and simultaneously makes her body one of her only resources and liability.***

After she is saved by Dr. Houseman and Baby and Johnny's romance starts heating up, Penny fades quickly from the story. I can't help but wonder if it is because the writer and director couldn't see an optimistic, inspirational path for her -- being alive and still fertile was the best they could do. As Dirty Dancing draws to a close, guests and staff at Kellerman's are all dancing together, joyous and excited for the future. Baby is off to study Economics of Underdeveloped Countries, Johnny has found courage and purpose, and Awful Robby has been exposed and glared at by Dr. Houseman. Penny, displaced from her one shining, happy role as Johnny's partner, has the fact that she's alive, she's pretty, she can dance, and she can still have children one day.

*I was so called, in the Equal Writes comment section this week! By a fellow who has also told me that due to the female “hive mind,” I speak for all Anglo-American feminists.

**I still am, but now I pause for upwards of three seconds before I start pelting people with advice.

***It's important to mention that although Penny’s options are seriously limited by her gender and class status, she is privileged in a number of ways -- she’s white, she speaks English as a first language, albeit with a slight “low-class” accent, she’s a documented citizen, she’s straight, she’s cissexual and cisgendered (she identifies with the sex and gender she was assigned at birth), she’s thin and conventionally attractive, and she’s temporarily able for most of the movie. Were she not to have even one of those privileges, her options would again dramatically contract. She certainly wouldn’t be a centerpiece at Kellerman’s.

Rest in peace, Patrick Swayze.

"Gendered" differences in the brain aren't so clear cut

by Brenda Jin

Have you ever heard the theory that men and women behave differently, because they simply think differently? Their biology is different, their brains are different, and their neurological hard-wiring can explain gendered behavioral differences.

However, in a recent article in Scientific American, Lise Eliot explores the surprising recent findings on social cognition and interpersonal judgment by a team of researchers at the University of Iowa. Interestingly, this group of researches has added two crucial elements to their study which throw into question the idea that our brains have been “biologically” set up to make females more sympathetic or understanding—age and a “psychological” gender test (in addition to the conventional standard of biological sex). They discovered that not only does the area of the brain responsible for social cognition and interpersonal judgment—known as the “SG” for “straight gyrus”—change during puberty; the section is larger in prepubescent boys than in prepubescent girls! Furthermore, the “SG” is correspondingly larger in individuals determined to be more “psychologically” female.

Therefore, although a common assumption associated as well with the so-called “evolutionary” reason that women have developed an ability to empathize and understand others better (because they have historically been care-givers of children), research reveals that it is actually unclear whether certain behavioral differences are hard-wired, given the extreme malleability of the brain, which also begs the question: are we asking the questions backwards? Does society simply associate “social cognition” with gender so strongly that those who are supposedly more socially aware are also determined to be more “psychologically feminine”?

One thing is for sure: experience changes the brain, and this research reveals that there is a huge grey area in determining which behaviors are socially learned and assigned by society versus those that have been with us from birth. A new understanding of nature vs. nurture as seen by how the brain changes before and after puberty and the relationship of brain function to social function might show us that nurture plays a larger role than previously though in defining so-called “gendered” behavior.

Maureen Dowd on happiness discrepancies

by Gracie Remington

I am not ordinarily a fan of Maureen Dowd, the New York Times' opinion columnist most known for her flippant overviews of political developments, and her column this Sunday did little to change my mind, although it certainly made me think more than her previous pieces have succeeded in doing. Discussing the current disparity in happiness between men and women, Dowd does not fail to employ her trademark impertinence (opening her column with a back-and-forth between herself and a male friend, who explains away the happiness imbalance by saying that it's " 'Because you care' " and because " 'you have feelings' "), but brings up some interesting points along the way.

Results from the General Social Survey, which has studied Americans' moods since 1972, and five other major studies from elsewhere in the world indicate that women's happiness is lessening as men's happiness is increasing. In her column, Dowd outlined various explanations for the happiness inequality, dismissing some in favor of others. The fact that women have more responsibilities in the home, or during the "second shift," seems to be a poor indicator of increased female unhappiness, as men have moved into the domestic realm and the division of labor is becoming increasingly even between the sexes in regards to domestic work, minimizing the stress and unhappiness that would be disproportionately felt by women as a result of being overburdened by household obligations. Children are brought up as potential mood deflators, and Dowd quotes Betsey Stevenson, the co-author of a paper titled "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," who says, "Across the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children. It's true whether you're wealthy or poor, if you have kids late or kids early. Yet I know very few people who would tell me they wish they hadn't had kids or who would tell me they feel their kids were the destroyer of their happiness." The global culture's obsession with youth is brought up as well, along with various other lifestyle choices that seem to both liberate women while potentially making them sadder.

Dowd closes her column by saying, "Stevenson looks on the bright side of the dark trend, suggesting that happiness is beside the point. We're happy to have our newfound abundance of choices, she said, even if those choices end up making us unhappier. A paradox, indeed." How is it that this abundance of choices leaves women less satisfied and more unhappy than their male counterparts, who clearly share many of the same opportunities? How can we as women balance these "choices" in a healthy way that leaves us satisfied and happy? The column in and of itself is noteworthy in that it brings to light an intriguing subject; it does not even begin to answer these types of questions. But perhaps it is something worth thinking about, and talking about: given the choices that we now have, how can we use our newfound opportunities in a way that ultimately makes us happy? Why is that question so difficult to answer?

Any thoughts?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sarah Haskins on "rock stares" and "blingitude"

Love this woman. So much.

A subway car apart

by Shannon Mercer

Earlier in the summer I wrote a post about my experiences as a woman in Cairo. Equal Writes readers will remember my less than favorable description of constant cat calls and ardent stares of affection. I feel like it’s time to rehash my Egyptian experiences and talk about something else that we take for granted here in America: sexually integrated subway cars.

The Egyptian Metro has recently undergone a facelift but the majority of its cars still sport their own unique brand of third world charm. During rush hour the non-air-conditioned cars are crowded with city dwellers cramped into spaces too small for comfort and too sweat soaked for hygiene. Tacked onto the end of these cars filled with sweaty men are a set of women’s only cars designated by a pink stripe above their sliding doors.

This was the scenery that I was thrust into on my way back downtown from a tutoring job in Heliopolis. I was walked to the metro station by a particularly chivalrous representative from the teaching NGO, and then promptly instructed to ride the woman’s car – for my safety. I located the pink stripe and rushed into the car expecting the Manhattan –every-man-for-yourself iPod impersonality. Instead I was greeted with stares from all corners of the car.; from the veiled and unveiled. Even with my sunglasses on I couldn’t pass for an Egyptian and I, a foreigner, had just trespassed into their sanctuary. A good look around me revealed several women fully covered, numerous women sporting various styles of hijab and many uncovered Muslims and Copts. The car was silent and everyone maintained their personal space with surprising vigilance.

The doors closed, shutting me in for the duration of the 30 minute ride, and I remember thinking, “Ah, this’ll be ok. I’m not being shoved around! This is the way subway rides SHOULD be” when out from the front of the car came deep grunts and laughter. The windows between cars were left open and several young men were taking full advantage of that, staring and teasing.

From this point on I find it hard to articulate just how acutely painful the sensation of separation was: separation from the western world; separation from my personal reality; separation from the environment I’d gotten so used to and the cultural norms that I was raised with. The subway car wasn’t the first time I’d felt this way but symbolic strength of these men, fighting for positions near this open window to gawk at and harass us, hit me with such force. Here it was, something truly foreign.