Category Archives: Feminism

The Montreal Massacre

cover (14)Anne-Marie Edward was a John Abbott College student
who got into UdM’s prestigious engineering school,
École Polytechnique.

Though I was just fifteen,
I’ll never forget the day she was murdered:
December 6, 1989.

My enthusiasm for Pentecostalism was fading,
Susan and I were getting serious,
and I was already in trouble at Argyle Academy.

I had a black eye and two broken fingers
from an LD dance fistfight,
which I won.

I was lying on my bed when I got the news,
listening to U2’s “Drowning Man”
in my tropical Galt Street bedroom.

After letting the men go,
he told the women who remained:
“You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists.”

Fourteen young women died that day
—and, although it wasn’t immediately apparent,
something youthful and beautiful died in us too:

an innocence, a naïveté, a sweet faith
in the inherent goodness
of the world.

We became feminists on that day
—not in a showy-but-harmless,
politically-correct sense,

but in a quiet, dangerous, deeply-religious,
once-I-was-blind
-but-now-I-see sense,

the sense intended by the Psalmist
when he angrily declares:
“Ye that love the LORD, hate evil.”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Book of the Dead (2017)

In Defense of Black Lives Matter

LivesMichael Richter claims to be criticizing social justice activists for their inability to appreciate nuance or to allow for a spectrum of different experiences and opinions within larger umbrella movements, but the article comes across as rant which does the exact four things he is trying to call out:

1. Has a Holier than thou tone.
2. Focuses on differentiation by reducing the complicated concept of allyship to a distinction between critical thinkers and “useful idiots”.
3. Is a blatant expression of narcissism, by which the author passes judgment on a bunch of perspectives he is completely out of touch with.
4. Holds unrealistic expectations for how to be a well-behaved activist who doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

The article oversimplifies complex social movements and political perspectives, and pits “good” activists against “pointless” and “petty” activists, solely based on the author’s personal feelings when confronted with their arguments. It seems to me to be an awfully transparent attempt to discredit anyone trying to expose hypocrisy, laziness or oppression within mainstream, whitewashed, NGO-led social justice activism, all the while claiming to be above inter-movement squabbling.

There is nothing new in this person’s observations (yes, activists are going to disagree with one another over theory and tactics, and sometimes these disagreements will lead to hurt feelings), and it might be excusable that he repeats a bunch of old, tired arguments if his attitude and ignorance towards the movements he’s insulting wasn’t actually a BIG part of the problem. He clearly doesn’t understand the action that took place at Toronto Pride, yet he feels entitled to reprimand people trying to hold their own community accountable, all in a way that is entirely in the tradition of Pride.

Black Lives Matter Toronto is a movement largely led by queer and trans Black people. Not only do those same individuals belong at Pride, they have always been a big part of the LGBTQ activist communities fighting for the social and political changes that make the lives of queer people better. Pride is supposed to celebrate their accomplishments and highlight injustices that still need to be addressed. That is what Pride is: it started as riots by trans and queer people of colour who were fed up with police violence against their communities, and those voices are STILL relevant. It is normal that there are people who are upset with the fact that the only voices acceptable at Pride today are either people who will celebrate the “victory” of equality for LGBTQ people, or unrestrained corporate sponsorship and co-option.

There are two really problematic things that Michael Richter says that really discredit his “critique” of BLM Toronto:

1. The BLM activists who led the sit-in at Pride are not outsiders seeking more attention. It is pretty gross to pit one marginalized group against another that way. These individuals are a part of the LGBTQ community that the Pride Toronto organization is supposed to represent. (And yes, Michael Richter, wrongly assuming that these activists were hostile, trouble-making outsiders who for some reason don’t belong there IS a tad racist). There are many queer and trans people of colour who are saying that when Pride increases its police presence and involvement, they end up getting harassed, stopped and arrested more – at events that are supposed to be FOR them. And when Pride allows the Toronto police department to have a float in the parade, it pushes a narrative that the police are saviours to the LGBTQ community, protecting them from gay-basher and homophobes, where the reality is that many factions of the LGBTQ community (people of colour, sex workers, drag queens and other performers, poor queer people) still suffer more violence at the hands of police than anyone else. That is an important perspective that deserves to be heard. And that is literally what Pride is supposed to be about: making systematic and state oppression against members of the queer community less invisible. Seriously though, how dare someone claim that these people and their message don’t belong there?

2. Another misguided and dismissive claim that the author makes is that people of colour and gay people “have a similar shared history of oppression and violence.” Not only is this statement false, it is made here simply for the purpose of silencing a group who is declaring loud and clear that in fact they do NOT experience oppression in the same way as rich, white gay people. Of course they don’t. A black trans woman growing up in a rough part of Toronto may have a very different relationship with the police than a gay white man living in a mansion in Markham. An queer immigrant without status can not access police services in an emergency and cannot go to Pride because if they get detained (which is more likely to happen to them than a white person at the same event), they may end up being deported. There are larger issues of gentrification within gay villages across Canada that have the effect of excluding poor queer people from spaces that were created as safe community hangouts for queer people. The value that these different perspectives bring to the table, even if they are sometimes expressed with anger and resentment, is completely lost on Michael Richter. That is his own weakness, not a failure on the part of the activists raising these concerns. What I see is a person who is afraid and unwilling to engage in these tough conversations, and so he is instead dismissing a broad and diverse group of people advancing legitimate and valuable critiques as a bunch of “smug assholes,” based solely on his own emotional reaction to their criticism.

I think that the same points can be made about his annoyance towards “fragmented” feminist groups. He is literally complaining that the dialogue about what meaningful feminism is has progressed beyond the simple statement that women and men should be socially equal. It was easy to believe in feminism when all it meant is that every aspect of our society should stay the same, except women should also be allowed access to the same opportunities as men. The conversations that are a lot harder to have are the ones about that point out invisible and systematic sexism within political and educational institutions, within our legal system, within socially acceptable hierarchies in the workplace or in other organizations, within pop culture, etc. It has always been hard to point out things that we have been socialized to accept as normal, and this kind of criticism has always been met with defensiveness or dismissed as overly sensitive or divisive. Discussions about rape culture and culturally enforced gender binaries are incredibly emotional. Discussions about the harms caused by carceral feminism or certain expressions of white feminism that validate state violence towards minorities or that render women of colour invisible are always going to be difficult to have. But they are not the enemy of social progress and to treat them as such is ridiculous.

The most harmful thing about this article is that it justifies its laziness and ignorance with regard to extremely important and complex political ideas by falsely claiming that there is some big scary powerful “THEY” out there saying that the only way to be an ally is to become an uncritical and arrogant puppet. The challenge of trying to be an ally is not dogmatic or one-dimensional. It simply means that you strive to responsibly engage with a struggle for social justice that doesn’t directly affect you. It means that you understand that your experience on a particular matter is inherently limited because you will never experience that particular kind of violence or oppression. It does not mean that you turn your brain off and follow orders. The fact that this author sees the concept of allyship this way shows me how out of touch he is.

What I see is a trend for every generation to feel entitled to unilaterally decide that the goals for social justice movements have been set high enough, and that anyone attempting to push them further along the progressive path is being unrealistic and divisive. Anyone attempting to promote an intersectional approach to social inequality is in fact hurting their own cause. This is not true. It is also a very self-serving point of view that pretends to be rational and objective, which in my view, is an extremely pervasive and dangerous form of moral cowardice.

—Ally Hobson

I’m Nobody’s “Ally”

All over political movements, particularly on the left, there’s a call for “allies”, which is to say people who are not of the particular movement’s core demographic (blacks, say, or LGBTs, or natives or feminists or whatever) but who are onside with the cause, supportive of the activities of the group.

I am not one of these.

Causes

Yes, it is true that I’m a believer in many causes.  Most of them are “leftist” by American standards (but of course these days Francisco Franco would be “leftist” by American standards…).  I believe in racial equality, for example, and think the current situation with blacks in the USA (or natives in Canada (or Turks in Germany (or …))) is a scandal of epic proportions.  I believe in gender equality.  I believe in spreading the wealth around so that we don’t have 99.9% of the populace owning less than 10% of the wealth.  There are numerous causes that I’m sympathetic to, and again most of them are, I stress, “leftist”.

I am, and never will be, however, an “ally” to any of them.  You will never see me participating in slacktivist “awareness-raising” of any of these things.  You will never see me “signal boosting” anything from these camps.  You will never see me in a virtue-signalling dogpile on Twitter or Facebook.  My politics are, to those who can read, pretty clear if you take a look at my social media presence.  I’m not a member of anything, though.

Activist toxicity

There is, of course, a reason for this: the toxicity of these groups.  Even with the best of intentions, social activist groups will and do, over time, become venomous caricatures of themselves.  Any hope that these will accomplish anything positive then dies.

Before I go into my guess as to the reasons for this, allow me to show some examples.

Consider, for example, a left/right-neutral topic like atheism.  Atheism is a pretty simple concept: “I don’t believe in supernatural entities” (gods).  I have to stress a lot these days, however, that I’m a small-a atheist, not a big-A Atheist because atheism as a notion has been hijacked.  What started off as a pretty simple, basic concept (there are no gods) has become a hugely obnoxious movement of smug assholes who think by virtue of being infidels they are intrinsically more logical and smarter than those who believe.  (The fact that this belief is a perfect example of a non sequitur fallacy is the only redeeming feature of these twits, largely because I enjoy watching unintentional irony in action.)

For another example, look at various feminist groups.  Why “various”?  Because the movement has fragmented so quickly since the relatively simple statement that women and men should be socially equal that there is no longer a single meaningful definition for what a “feminist” is.  Seemingly every year I see another schism developing as feminists turn in on themselves and tear each other to shreds over minor differences instead of focusing on what they have in common in a huge battle they have yet to win.

Let’s talk social justice now.  A perfect example is the “Black Lives Matter” movement who recently, in Canada, disrupted a Gay Pride event because they felt they weren’t being given enough attention.  Twice.  Here are two groups that have a similar shared history of oppression and violence (at least in the USA) and instead of working together one of them grandstands at the expense of the other (and, naturally, calls anybody who thought it was in poor taste “racists”).

Even mostly civilized web sites like The Good Men Project are showing signs of this disease.  A web site that has the tagline “The Conversation No One Else is Having” has a recently-republished article that tells a huge swathe of society to, and I quote, “shut up”.  How, precisely, do they think you have meaningful conversations after you’ve told people to shut up?  Does anybody out there who isn’t a deranged jackass think that this is how conversations actually work?

The entire political activist world, on both the left and the right, is replete with this kind of pointless, poisonous poppycock and, in my opinion, it undermines any cause these people purport to promote.  I used to actually participate in these kinds of groups and movements, but stopped after observing that they always go bad, sometimes in astonishingly short times.

The reasons

There are several reasons for this inevitable trend toward rancor and spite, I think.  These include:

  1. Holier than thou.
  2. Differentiation.
  3. Narcissism.
  4. Unrealistic expectation.

Holier than thou

This is the obvious one.  Human beings, even those who consider themselves “enlightened” like most political activists (again, left or right!) do, are intensely competitive.  If I believe that women should be given a fair shake in society, inevitably someone else will have to prove they’re more pure in their politics than me and say that not only should women be given a fair shake, they should be given a boost because of past mistreatment.  Then another imbecile will up the stakes more and yet another will raise them again until we get to the bizarre fringes of feminism where people seriously postulate that men should be preemptively jailed because they commit 90% of crime.

Every movement seemingly undergoes this transition.  What starts off as a relatively moderate (and sane) movement with large membership gets more and more extreme (and insane) over time, shedding the “dead weight” that won’t play the one-upmanship games.  Eventually the movement becomes an echo chamber resistant to any external mitigating influence and then really starts going into the deep end.

Differentiation

Human beings are tribal primates.  We like, as a whole, belonging to things “bigger” than ourselves.  We also like to make it clear that the things we belong to are different from the things someone else belongs to.

Let’s say we have two groups of atheists.  Both groups are very similar in makeup and in beliefs.  They have, naturally, by virtue of being human institutions, minor differences between them.  One, for instance, believes that we should demonstrate the superiority of the atheist lifestyle by being good examples of it.  The other believes that religious people need to be actively guided to atheism.

With these two groups being so similar, and with humans being so tribal and seeking to differentiate, it is inevitable that a schism will arise between these two groups.  The one that believes in the superiority of the atheist lifestyle, for example, may choose to start harping on and on about how superior they are to the religious.  The other group will, in a bid to be seen as different, start employing ambush tactics to abuse the religious in a misguided attempt to get them to “see the light”.  Both get pushed into more extreme directions on the small areas of non-intersecting belief simply because of our need to be different.

Narcissism

This is where that BLM Canada thing against the Gay Pride parade falls into.  Aside from the fact that BLM Canada is an utterly ludicrous movement to begin with, they’re also incredibly narcissistic.  How dare anybody pay attention to any group other than them for a single day?  Of course they had to grandstand and ruin the parade.  That was the only way to make sure that eyes were on them instead of another group.

You can see similar things in groups ranging as far as Greenpeace or, from the other side of the political spectrum, the witless “War on Christmas” types, not to mention the Men’s Rights Weenies complaining that they actually have to treat women with dignity these days.

Unrealistic expectation

This is more a disease of youth than it is of political activism.  It’s just that the stridently political tend to be young so it shows up in the political world most visibly.  Unrealistic expectations of things like “all racial disharmony will vanish tomorrow because we did such a good job of raising awareness” turn into dismay and bitterness when tomorrow comes and not much has changed.

See in the real world cultures change very slowly.  We have this bizarre belief in the west that our culture is changing rapidly because superficial changes tend to dominate our thinking and our reportage.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because our technology is changing like crazy, and with it the way we communicate (or fail to) that our culture must be changing equally as rapidly.

Of course if you have a slightly broader perspective on life, you’ll note that there are elements of, say, Chinese culture which have remained largely unchanged since about 3000B.C.E.  Or if you visit Europe, where historic things that are over a thousand years old litter the landscape around you, you’ll see just how much sheer cultural inertia there is.

Most young people, however, lack this perspective and as a result, when faced with dispiriting lack of visible change in the society around them, turn to ever more extreme ways of expressing their political will.

(This is probably the part where I bring up that old canard about how the perfect is the enemy of the good.)

So what does this have to do with being an ally?

At issue is that most political activist groups don’t want allies.  They want useful idiots.  I see, for example, in Twitter, a lot of groups–LGBT to name one at random–who are constantly calling for non-member “allies” to “signal boost” their tweets.  These “allies” are welcome so long as they do absolutely nothing but pass along whatever message the “real“membership wants to transmit.

If, as an “ally” you dare to engage in conversation that isn’t purest “yes man” stuff, be prepared to be excoriated or even eviscerated for daring to “undermine” the movement.  You will be shouted down.  And if you refuse to be shouted down you will be shunned, demonized, and dogpiled upon.  You will, by refusing to be the useful idiot, be turned into the enemy.  You will be doxxed.  You will be harassed.  You will, eventually, be evicted from a movement you believe in because you dared, as a person who wasn’t a core member, to have an opinion of your own.  (You’ll be DOUBLY damned if you’re actually right!)

What do you do instead?

Me?  I work on individuals.  I find someone potentially receptive to a message like “you know, there’s no reason to think Muslims are Satan Incarnate”.  If it looks like the seeds are falling into fertile soil, I ramp it up a bit.  If it looks like the person is just not going to take up the message I move on.  If I see an activist group operating in the same place, I leave.  I leave because I know where it’s going to go (nowhere good) and I have better things to do with my time than to fight with deaf and/or illiterate zealots.

Yes, my work on these causes isn’t as splashy as the huge grandstanding efforts of the politically strident, but I allow myself the conceit that in the long term it’s more effective.  And I can look at myself in the mirror without wondering what I’ve become.

An ally’s life is simply not for me.

Guys Who Don’t Put It Down, Don’t Go Down

3090__the_war_of_the_roses_1989movie_SCARY PREDICTION: In 2019, the American Sociological Association’s prestigious Best Dissertation Award will go to a PhD dissertation entitled: “Guys Who Don’t Put It Down, Don’t Go Down: An Analysis of the High Correlation Between Men Who Refuse to Put the Toilet Seat Down After They Pee and Men Who Refuse to Perform Oral Sex After They Cum” (2019). An article summarizing the study’s findings will be published in the Spring 2020 edition of The Journal of Incredibly Obvious Results. Men’s rights organizations, like A Voice for Men, will immediately question the study’s methodology. Barbara Kay will claim in a National Post editorial that the very existence of this study is further proof of something she’s been saying for years: namely, that we live in a misandric society. Meanwhile, in Montreal, after hearing about the study’s findings on the clock-radio in his bedroom, our Prime Minister will smile, shake his head in agreement, and head south.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Jian etc.

The first time we meet it’s at the Ivanhoe on Main street, a bar where drug addicts and students mingle. Located by Vancouver’s bus depot which marks the border to the lower east side, it is the kind of place I would not go alone, although it is a popular enough place among my peers. Beer is cheap, two dollars a glass. I’m only 19 years old, but that’s old enough to know the beer here tastes like piss and the carpets smell the same. This is where I meet the guy who turns out to be my rapist, although I won’t know to call him by that word until much later.

Ivanhoe

After all, what is rape? It seems like something that should be relatively straight-forward in its definition, yet when you talk to people it is clearly not all that clear. What constitutes consent? What is the difference between date-rape and aggravated sexual assault? Do rapists who make an “honest mistake” get put in the same category as the armed cartoon-like stranger lurking in dark alleys?

Increasingly, popular discourse has been willing to entertain the idea that rape is not something done solely by masked criminals. Discussions of rape come in and out of public discourse with relative frequency, and the term “rape culture” which was coined by radical feminists in 1970s has received increasing attention with the spotlight now on Jian Ghomeshi.

claireAt 19, I had not heard of “rape culture”. However, my early experiences around sex were marked less by eroticism than by shame and power. My first sexual experience, when I was twelve, happened in the bedroom of a boyfriend who decided to take off my shirt and suck on my barely existent nipples. I did not object; I was too surprised. I was also too uncertain. Perhaps, I thought, this is normal. In hindsight, it was a ludicrous attempt at adult sexuality, but in truth it scarred me. What scarred me was not the act itself, which was only unpleasant, but my boyfriend’s retaliation when I broke up with him the next day. In what can only be described as a kind of public shaming ritual, he found me in the park, threw me on the ground by my hair and spat on me. He said something—slut or bitch, I can’t remember. Around me stood a circle of my peers– some of them my friends—who did nothing. Their silence was what I remember, and their lack of willingness to look at me.

I was so aware of the existence of rape culture before I actually heard the term, that when I finally did hear it, it was like discovering the name of a bird or a flower that you’ve, quite literally, seen since childhood. Nevertheless, there are plenty of women– from bell hooks to Camilia Paglia– who reject the concept.

On the Canadian scene, rape culture made its way into The National Post with commentator Barbara Kay last year. She claims that the term mischaracterizes male behavior and results in misandry: “You can produce any culture you like if you dumb deviancy down. If you change ‘against her will’ to ‘without her consent,’ as we have, that is a huge paradigm shift from what we used to think of as rape: i.e. forced sex. And if a drunk woman can’t give her consent, another moved goalpost, she is ipso facto raped.” Kay’s comments here—which claim a radical distinction between acts that are against someone’s will and without someone’s consent—advocate a return to the masked criminal definition of rape. More significant, Kay’s comments represent questions of the law as questions of cultural definition, which is interesting for those interested in the dialectic between culture and law, but fundamentally misleading. (For a more detailed look on the importance of consciousness and active consent see Supreme Court ruling here.) Kay’s thesis is unsurprising to those familiar with her conservative anti-feminism.

More surprising (at the time) was Jian Ghomeshi’s lack of comment last year during a debate that he organized between Lise Gotell and Heather McDonald around rape culture on his radio program Q. Ghomeshi’s reluctance to intervene when McDonald’s denial of rape culture quickly turned to rape victim-blaming shocked many of CBC’s faithful listeners.

Canadians were perhaps less surprised by Ghomeshi’s lack of comment on rape culture when he fell from grace after showing CBC producers a video of him appearing to sexually assault a woman. It wasn’t exactly the first time a celebrity’s reputation has been bemoiled by a sexual assault accusation, but it was a story that I followed obsessively unlike many of the others. Why? Because in this particular instance, the person in question was somebody I liked. Also, because it appeared that the issue was not whether there was consent; the stories seemed to suggest that absence of consent was precisely (and importantly) what turned him on.

A woman goes back to a celebrity’s house. A woman who is planning on having sex with him. Instead of kissing her, he slaps her, instead of seducing her, he degrades her. He then pretends like everything is normal. He might offer her a ride home. He might ask her if she will see him again for cocktails. For those who have read accounts of the women accusing Ghomeshi, the stories all sound strangely familiar. They follow a pattern of normalcy, bizarre and disorienting violence and then normalcy again. What makes him so successful in evading reprisal is that he is, otherwise, as a lover at any rate, so incredibly boring.

My rapist is also boring. He is the nephew of my English professor. It is my second semester at Langara College, and I love this professor. The last Friday of the semester, my professor invites our class to join him at the Ivanhoe. It must be winter, which in Vancouver means rain. Class gets out at dusk and the sky, which has been heavy all day, begins to fall.

Because I love this professor so much, I’ve come to the Ivanhoe even though it is a bar I do not like. I bring my friend, Mindy (not her real name), because we plan on partying later. Mindy is hot in the most conventional sense of the word. Six feet tall, blonde, her mother was a British model when she was young. Mindy looks like a Bond girl and has also done some modelling. But she isn’t available because she’s married to a tattooed drummer named Eli (also not his real name). My professor’s nephew, let’s call him Jason, wants to sleep with Mindy. He is trying to impress her, trying to be funny and/or clever. He keeps talking about the books he has read. He’s in grad school. He doesn’t know that Mindy doesn’t take his uncle’s class, that Mindy works as a waitress and that she is not interested in college.

Mindy is not impressed. “Who is the loser?” she asks, although not loud enough for him to hear. She doesn’t like the way Jason styles his hair, which is parted in the middle and in a sort of bob; it lays flat against his head. He reminds her of a goat.

Predictably, Jason starts hitting on me when he realizes Mindy is taken. I don’t mind his hair. I think he’s kind of cute.

“What are you girls up to after?” he asks.

“We’re thinking of getting some coke,” I say.

Jason wants to hang out, wants to pay for the drugs. We let him, but we get sick of him soon. He’s trying too hard. We do not care about how smart he is. We leave him on the street corner halfway through the night, jumping into a cab and telling him bye. We are mean to him. By this point, he already has my number.

Why do some men rape?

December 2012: a group of men gang-rape and kill a young woman in Delhi. This was not a date rape. It was a premeditated, clear-cut aggravated assault. A medical student, Jyoti Singh had been to a movie with her male friend. They thought they were getting on a bus, but it would prove to be a torture chamber, where she would be repeatedly raped and beaten for hours, finally dying from internal injuries sustained after her attackers decided to rape her with a rusty steel pipe. She and her companion were found at the side of the road barely breathing, thrown from the bus after her rapists were finally through with her. Rape is fairly common in India; however the violence of the crime, the level of planning that it required and the fact that it resulted in a virtuous woman’s death, left many people around the globe stunned. Why would anyone do such a thing?

In the early days after news of the Delhi attack spread Heather Timmons asked this question to psychologist David Lisak. Lisak lists biological, historical and cultural explanations for rape, but ultimately warns against seeing rape as motivated by something purely sexual: “I think sometimes the sexual element clouds our understanding of what rape is. Fundamentally, it is targeting a group of people they hold hate for.” In short, rape is a hate crime, motivated by a profound antipathy towards women and targeting that part of her anatomy that makes her female. But rape is also about entitlement and control. If a man feels that he is superior to a woman, then rape is a way of asserting that superiority, of proving to her and to himself that she is the weaker sex.

What happens when the victim doesn’t die? What happens when she doesn’t even act damaged? The date rape survivors who move on with their lives–we are harder to immortalize. We are easier to hate.

Jason calls me to see if I might like to come to Victoria to visit him. With Mindy’s negative impression of him out of the way, I say yes.

“Bring some work to do,” he says. “I have a paper to write that weekend, but I’d really like to see you.”

Jason is a graduate student at the university that I am thinking of applying to for my undergraduate degree. I am attracted to him. I want to see him. I know that I will probably have sex with him.

Saturday morning, I catch the ferry from Tsawwassen to Vancouver Island. It is a grey day. The sky is heavy. I feel nervous, knowing that I am going to the house of someone I do not know very well, but I don’t really worry too much. He is my professor’s nephew after all.

At the ferry terminal, Jason is waiting in a black Tercel. He waves to me, and I throw my bag in the back of his car. We give each other an awkward hug.

“Sorry about being rude to you that night,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says, “that was pretty lame.”

I don’t say anything. I know he’s right. The conversation shifts to innocuous subjects. He is casual, friendly. I feel that I have been forgiven, and notice that he has changed the style of his hair. I also notice that he is older than me, well-established in his twenties. His hand, clutching the steering wheel, looks bonier than my own hand which is still soft and girl like. The tendons stick out like ropes along his forearm.

Jason lives in the basement suite of a house. Glass doors lead onto a patio. The apartment is nice, sparse but well-lit with only one room, a bed in one corner next to the bathroom and a small screen which separates the bed from the desk. Immediately upon arrival, Jason gets into the shower. I am surprised by this, but I don’t say anything. Instead, I put down my bag and sit on his bed. I remove my hairpins and lay them on the bedside table. I wait.

A few minutes later he gets out of the shower. He comes to me on the bed and removes his towel. He has an erection which is level with my face. I think I laugh. I can’t remember. He then leans over and kisses me, but without tenderness. He is pressing my shoulders down on the bed. My feet are still on the floor, and I feel them lift as his weight settles on me. I am surprised, but I kiss him back. After all, this is why I am here. Then he is fumbling with my jeans. He pulls them down, pulls down my underpants, and thrusts his penis inside me.

“Wait,” I say. I am not ready, he is hurting me.

He says nothing. His eyes look into mine but they are not friendly. He does not try to kiss me again. His eyes are black, opaque, like drops of crude oil.

“Stop,” I say.

“Shut up,” he says. He is holding my hands on the bed, his arms weighted against my arms. I squirm but it only excites him.

He finishes, a short hard grunt. Then he gets up and dresses.

“Do you want to get something to eat?” he asks.

His face is now casual, friendly. I know that something important has happened but I don’t know what to call it.

According to the American Psychological Association, normal responses to sexual abuse include shock, fear and disbelief. However, these are short term responses and are often replaced by defense mechanisms that have more far-reaching effects. Of the various defense mechanisms which are a response to trauma, repression and denial are considered two of the worst, since they alter the nature of reality and can lead to maladaptive behaviors. Unlike repression, suppression, the conscious effort not to think about traumatic events, is actually quite adaptive. According to Harvard researcher George Vaillant, suppression is “the defensive style most closely associated with successful adaptation.” Humor is also thought to be one of these more adaptive defenses against trauma, as is sublimation—the use of art, writing, sports or other socially acceptable pursuits to channel the negative energy generated from a traumatic event.

In rape cases where a high-profile figure is the accused, public backlash against the accusers is almost a given. People like me, who watched events unfold in Ghomeshi’s case last year, were fascinated to see how this progressed. First one accusation, the predictable argument, the now cliche invocation of Fifty Shades of Grey, and finally the shattering of Ghomeshi’s defense with a slew of credible women all claiming to have been assaulted by him at one point. The backlash against these women was also predictable—why didn’t they come forward sooner? Why not press charges? I’m guessing that most of these women chose to forget about it. They chose to forget about it because it was something they could, more or less, forget about. Was the backlash against these women that they had not come forward, or was it because they weren’t damaged enough? The expectation that a woman be somehow destroyed by sexual assault, permanently damaged, incapable of moving on with her life is part of the same cultural attitude that permits rape and sees women as natural victims. And if Jian is allowed to be irrational and mercurial why can’t the same defense work for those he assaulted?

Objections are made when date-rape is discussed at the same time as rape’s more violent manifestations, but I think this objection is misplaced. No one is disputing that what happened to Jyoti Singh is worse than what happened to me or many other women who have been date raped, just as no one would dispute the distinction between petty theft and armed robbery. However, both are theft, and in the case of date-rape and aggravated sexual assault, both are rape. They follow a similar logic; they are both defended and supported by rape-culture.

claire againSunday morning I leave before dawn and take the bus to the ferry terminal. Jason is still sleeping and I make sure not to wake him. The air is damp and it plays lightly in my hair, which I now wear loose around my shoulders. In September, I will go to the university. I will see Jason around campus. I will chat with him. I see him around campus with his girlfriend. I store what has happened between us, a kernel for a future mind, an event that is so mysterious and so banal that it becomes archetypal. Or perhaps, an event that is so universal that it needs a symbol, something feminine and ordinary, like an egg or a lost hairpin.

—Claire Russell

*Originally published at Slattern. Republished with permission.

Untouchable

“Philosophy’s first and most general task, in the war against anger and fear, is to make things clear—to give the soul an understanding of its own situation and its possibilities. . . . the anxiety that gives rise to strife can be put to flight only by knowledge and self-knowledge . . . . Anxiety is the soul’s darkness, philosophy its light. . . . The triumph of philosophy, in short, is a triumph not through political action . . . but within each human soul in relation to itself—as the soul learns . . . to understand and accept the ways in which a human life is necessarily vulnerable and incomplete, to be willing to live as a soft body rather than an armed fortress.”—Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994)

Invisible-woman-artwork-20060626041749688_640w_1205023163_7756It is most likely a defense mechanism against extensive physical, verbal and emotional abuse in childhood that led me to believe that I was untouchable. Maybe it was some sort of ‘never again’ reaction but I just sort of naturally came to believe that if I thought myself untouchable I was untouchable: I couldn’t be abused, just wasn’t possible. This belief system was delusional on many levels. If I was nice to anyone who made fun of me or harassed me, then they were my friends and I remained untouched; if I scrutinized myself and offered up what I had done wrong and apologized to someone bullying me, then we were just having a disagreement and I had managed to resolve it, and so I remained untouchable; if something done to me was too bad, I would try to bury it – refusing to talk or think about it (although the inevitable period of obsessive rumination would lead me to justify burying the events to prevent others from seeing how deeply flawed I must be to provoke such violence) and so I was tenuously untouchable.

I had to appear untouchable because or else, I believed, everyone would see the fatal flaw of who I really was and join in, turn their backs on me and hurt me. I had to be untouchable because the cost of being touched was too high.

jalba13And so I never really addressed anything that happened to me. Just ran away from it – either physically through travel or mentally through books and a rich fantasy life of one day achieving something. Anything, really. Though I was so ‘nice and friendly’, I did everything alone. I travelled alone, I walked alone, I read alone, I wrote alone, I dreamed alone. The only thing I did not do alone was go out at night alone – too many sexual assaults led me to believe in all honesty that a woman should not go out alone at night. Never mind that none of that had happened while I had been out alone. It’s just that the only way I could cope with all that was by beating myself up about things like my blonde hair being ‘bad’, being too nice or not nice enough, the clothes that I wore, etc.. I stopped drinking for years because I wanted to better be able to gauge other’s behaviour; if I failed to do that the consequences were obviously my fault.

And yet through all this I really thought I was untouchable. It was completely delusional.

It took an extremely abusive ex-boyfriend to get me to confront the ways in which I enable abusers by constantly seeking compromise with them, refusing to judge them for their behaviour and placing full responsibility on me to control other’s behaviours. It’s delusional to think I can act in such a way that nothing bad will ever happen to me. Obviously, I still believe a person’s behaviour influences generally the kind of reactions they will get, but it does not control specific reactions. And while as a general rule my approach to life was extremely successful, in a narrow way there were pathological people that could pick-up on signals I was sending that I would do anything to refuse to acknowledge I was experiencing an instance or a sequence of abuse : that I was really a wet noodle with no spine. And even just with luck of the draw, as most women will definitely experience, a crazy random guy that just pinballs his way through life only knowing that I am the only one trying to be nice and understanding, and not telling him to shove off.

So I’ve been learning how to do fight instead of flight. The worst part is that that some people think suddenly I’m a bitch or that I’ve gone crazy, thinking that there are all these crazy men out there when surely it must be me. Trust me, I’ve gone over the possibility that I’m the person at fault about thirty-three thousand times already. I’m not perfect, but it’s not me. It’s just that I went from having blinders on and thinking abuse was something that exclusively happened to others to suddenly realizing, wow, there’s a real sense in which I do not know how to draw proper limits around myself.

In one case, I verbally expressed to a house guest that I was not in a good mood and wanted to be left alone. He became infuriated and screamed insults at me until I cried and he vaguely threatened about ‘really getting mad’ (his girlfriend made him leave). At this point, it might seem like it’s my fault but think about it : everyone has bad days and especially if someone verbalizes their needs, an emotionally adequate response is to give the person space, not attack them. The next day when I said good morning to his girl friend he was apparently still mad and came one inch away from my face screaming extremely personal insults; he was very much in my personal space and when someone does this in a threatening matter your gut reaction is to push the person – I knew if I did he would knock me unconscious and his girlfriend had locked herself in the bathroom when he entered the room, he was refusing to leave my house when I asked him 3 times, I informed him if he did not leave immediately I would call the cops, he left the room and sat on the couch still yelling insults so I called the cops. Oh man did I ever cry and beat myself up about this hair trigger reaction. I felt I had no right to remove him from my space and send him home. I was so mad at myself. Why didn’t I calmly walk away? Why wasn’t I the bigger person? The truth is he would likely have started again next time he saw me (since a day away had not calmed him down) and in even if he calmed down he would learn that he had the right to talk to me that way. I knew I had made the right choice – so why was I so sad?

I wasn’t untouchable.

In the other case, a man I had met through friends was just a text maniac. The day after meeting him, I took two hours for dinner and returned to 8 messages asking me why I wasn’t answering and what he had done. Plus to be honest half the things he messaged me sounded like straight up lies. I really did not like this person and I was having a hard time remaining patient. Still I wanted to be nice and not just ghost. So I told him I did not like to text, that I was extremely busy and that I was sorry but that maybe in a month if I had time I would let him know. Pretty obvious – but, yes, ever so slightly ambiguous. Well, he started calling (because I didn’t like texting). I never picked up. More texts. Like six in an hour. Never answered. Than he wrote me asking if I thought I was stalking him. I told him listen, you are a very nice guy, you are not a stalker but yes I was overwhelmed by his communication style and did not see this working. Responded that when I had more free time we should hang out. More calls. More texts. Now Facebook messages – ten of them(!) going from ‘hey how are you’ to angry ‘I do not like how you make it look like I’m chasing after you by not responding, I’ve made my intentions clear and I’d like you to make your intentions clear’. So I responded ‘I think I have. I’m confused’. 8 responses including ‘Oh I think you must have messaged the wrong person’. So I bite the bullet, tell him that I’m sorry for being harsh but I feel he will misinterpret anything else, that I have multiple times said I was not interested and that there were no mixed signals (that ‘you are not a stalker does not = I’m interested’ (!)) and that at this point I wanted absolutely no further contact with him. The messages just kept coming ‘I’m not done with you’, ‘I don’t want to talk your head off’, ‘the texts are psychological warfare’ at which point I tell him I’m considering blocking him. 6 messages later I block him. Then he starts texting me. At which point I tell him that this is why I’m blocking him and to please not turn into a weird cliché before I figure out how to block texts on Android 5.0. I know I did the right thing and was actually considerably patient with him… just not the kind of patient I used to be. Just not the kind of person that would figure out a way to make things OK for this guy at the expense of my time and energy. But also to avoid feeling, well, contaminated. If I ended things well and platonically with him than there was nothing to feel weird and exhausted about. It was in my control to decide if this ended though blocking or mutual agreement, right? It wasn’t delusional at all to think somehow I could control the behaviour of someone that I had met once amongst all the other factors contributing to how he chooses to communicate? Right?

Why else do I feel so sad? Why else do I only want to sleep? Why else do I not want to see anyone again? I admire people that medicate their anxiety with activity. Me, I just stare at the wall and ruminate all the ways this is my fault and what I could have done differently for this never to have happened so that I can be untouchable. Actually, it’s not that all the time, but it is that often enough that it always surprises me when people think I go out a lot and do, you know, stuff.

I don’t want people to know these are the kind of people that have been in my life this last month because what if they think that I must be attracting this kind of attention, that I love and crave drama, that I’m provoking otherwise normal people into odd patterns of behaviour, that somehow I’m beyond just manipulative and I actually have this power to make people behave in odd ways because I’m so abnormal and flawed that I would drive anyone to madness — much the way I’m driving myself to madness… But I’m driving myself mad trying to cope with a world in which I’ve had to experience some pretty horrible things at an age so young that my mind was not equipped to explain it. When the only ways I was taught to cope with these things was silence, shame, secrecy and self-reprimands. These tools worked as a delusional child who believed that you could just keep these things a secret and strive to be perfect and untouchable and that was the way the world worked. People that did not have horrible things happen to them were normal. I just wanted to be normal. But I was so abnormal I had to be stronger. I had to be untouchable. The times I have been manipulative almost exclusively are in times I sensed physical danger was imminent. Have you ever manipulated violence into love? I had to be delusional because reality was strangling me.

It’s cognitive dissonance in motion, but is this a ‘girl thing’? Surely a lot of women experience these frustrating stereotypes about women, strange double-binds and never-ending prescriptive demands and come out semi-normal? Is this a ‘child of abuse thing’? Surely it’s like some sort of Stockholm Syndrome where you identify with your aggressors more than with your own plight because, well, they have the power to end this nightmare, not you — so if you identify with them you have the illusion of power… Is this ‘my own special brand of weirdness’? God knows I’m convinced I’m weirder than I probably am because I just want to make myself interesting because that’s the kind of piece of shit I am that drives people so crazy. I don’t know. I really don’t know.

But now I know I’m not untouchable. I’ve cut the hippie karma krap and have started being bitchy and defensive sometimes. I do not do it because I enjoy it but because I want to truly and genuinely feel safe. People have hurt me and will continue to hurt me. But I have the right and the ability to defend myself and set limits for appropriate interactions. It will always hurt me to do so because it reminds me that I’m not untouchable. A limit I’m setting for appropriate interaction is you do not have the right to question the limits I set for behaviour I don’t feel comfortable handling. My limit might be lower than yours, or maybe my limit rebuffed someone you know and you think that makes me ‘too sensitive’ or ‘crazy’– well yes I’m too sensitive. I set a limit because the behaviour was more than I could handle. Even with the limit I’m the one sitting alone crying for a couple of days wondering what I did to deserve this. I set the limit so that it wouldn’t trigger a full-on depression. You questioning my limit in a mean-spirited manner or in a way in which you are trying to shift blame onto me is stepping on that limit. Maybe try understanding why I have a limit with the same care you are putting into understanding the behaviour of the person who went loco and contributed to me temporarily retreating from the world in fear tomorrow will bring just some other bullshit that I do not want in my life.

I’m extremely sensitive and have to be careful the people I allow into my life as I easily set myself aside to try and figure out how they can be happy. Yes, a certain happiness comes from casting aside one’s own ego – but I no longer believe trying to create a void in the self to suppress negative emotions about one’s self is ‘healthy’. I don’t know what the answer is but I’m in my own body and mind and I’m going to start by placing limits around me because I’m not untouchable.

—V. Lynn Therrien

Why I’m Voting NDP

“Thomas Mulcair is a smart man. When Stephen Harper decided to descend into the gutter by playing the niqab card (and when Gilles Duceppe decided to make himself into Harper’s objective ally by joining in), Mulcair had to know that taking a stand on principle would not be an electoral winner. He had to know that given the state of near-hysteria over the issue in his electoral stronghold in Quebec, he may be giving away the election by reminding us that Charter protections should be defended most strenuously when they apply to rights-protected acts that the majority dislikes. But stand on principle is what he has done (and let’s hope he continues to do so till the end). Whoever has ever accused him of being a political opportunist should now think long and hard about that accusation. True leadership is not about pandering. It is not about appealing to prejudices and bigotry. It is not about telling the majority that it is okay to hate. It is about holding us as a society to our higher values. Mulcair is a leader. He had the most to lose in this completely manufactured debate. It is good to know that there is at least one leader among the big parties who is not willing to go to any lengths to curry favour with voters.”
—Daniel Weinstock

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I want a Prime Minister who takes their job seriously. It seems like Thomas Mulcair takes his job seriously as leader of the opposition, so I am willing to give him a chance as leader of this country. I am mostly in line with the NDP party platform so I can get behind the party that he happens to be the leader of. Mulcair is a beast in question period. That’s what I like best about him. He asks straight questions and calls out people when they circle into double speak. He’s not sexy or appealing or charming or particularly personable. But I don’t need politicians to be those things, I have friends for that. Anyway, charismatic leaders are usually sociopaths.

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“He’s not sexy or appealing or charming or particularly personable. But I don’t need politicians to be those things, I have friends for that.”—Helen Simard

Thomas Mulcair is better than the Kitten Eater we have in power right now. I don’t like Elizabeth May and her judgmental views on abortion and her weird 1970s-style comments on essential femininity. Justin Trudeau and Gilles Duceppe are the leaders of parties that do not offer platforms I can get behind. I am also not voting for Mulcair, but for the NDP candidate in my riding who has represented our riding well for the past 4 years. And I am lucky to live in a place where most people vote NDP so I don’t have to worry about strategic voting.

I like Mulcair because to me he’s the best of the shit options we are being offered, a real lesser of evils. And that may seem cynical, but when evil is nice enough to give me a choice, I will always choose the lesser of evils.

—Helen Simard

Group Polarization

“The less you are contradicted, the stupider you become. The more powerful you become, the less you are contradicted.”—Aaron Haspel, Everything (2015)

Flock of sheep, New Zealand, PacificWhenever you get a group of people together who share certain basic assumptions, there’s a natural tendency for the group to gravitate toward the most uncompromising, extreme, strident, fundamentalist, hard-core positions. Social psychologists call this tendency Group Polarization. It happens on juries with some regularity. It explains why the Tea Party became so insane, so deeply out of touch with the needs and views of the average American voter. And it explains why the Bush Administration invaded Iraq without an exit strategy (they stopped inviting people who disagreed with their assumptions—people like Colin Powell—to the planning meetings).

That being said, don’t get me wrong, there’s no harm in group polarization if you’re just having fun, or brainstorming. But if you actually want to change the world, if you actually want to communicate and be relevant, it’s a tendency that must be actively resisted. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2013), psychologist Jonathan Haidt maintains that the best way to resist group polarization is to actively cultivate ideological diversity—viz., talk (and listen) to people who you disagree with on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them. But you should listen, bite your lip if you have to, and try to be as respectful as possible. Silencing people, shouting them down, resorting to name-calling prematurely (e.g. “you’re a racist!” or “you’re a misogynist!”)—these things just alienate people.

Here’s what happens if you succumb to group polarization: Before you know it, you wake up, look around, and find that everyone around you pretty much agrees with you. And that feels good. After all—I’ll be the first to admit it—preaching to the choir is fun. But it’s a dangerous kind of fun. Why? Because you start to get intellectually lazy. Because you start to speak in a specialized jargon that no one outside of your sacred circle can understand. Because you develop a contempt for everyone outside of your elite group of cool kids that frequently leads you to dehumanize “the unwashed masses.” Eventually, if you live in your little bubble long enough, you’ll become delusional, like the ill-clad emperor in the Hans Christian Andersen tale.

Surrounding yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear is toxic. Sweet as it sometimes sounds, the siren song of the doctrinaire must be resisted, lest ye be shipwrecked on the rocky coast of the Isle of Impotentia. Wanna change the world? Stop preaching to the 20% who agree with you and arguing with the 20% who disagree with you; focus, instead, on the 60% who aren’t sure. Wanna know the world? Stop preaching and arguing and persuading and listen.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Cooking and Patriarchy: Expectation and Practice

(For my inaugural post on Committing Sociology, I offer the proverbial oldie but goodie, a post from some months ago.)

I’m a guy. I like to cook. So people often say, hey, you must be a good cook! or something to that effect. (No, not really. I’m OK, but nothing like my old friend Richard Hepner, who’s a professional chef, working for lousy pay in very unglamourous venues most of his life while turning out, for instance, exquisite tapas or other Mediterranean cuisine, who has a feel for ingredients akin to a jazz musician’s ear for improv) It makes me vaguely uncomfortable that it’s even the slightest bit notable that I cook, that it’s even mildly something worth remarking upon. Continue reading Cooking and Patriarchy: Expectation and Practice

Witches and Bitches

“The truth is that were ‘redpill’ MRAs really in Keanu Reeves’s shoes they never would have made it out of The Matrix. Seriously, when have they ever believed a black man and a woman telling them their entire reality is an illusion?”—Dan Fincke

red-pill“The hunting and trying of witches was,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum maintains, “a common phenomenon throughout the seventeenth century, both in New England and in Europe.” Most of the accused were women. Most of the tortured were women. Most of the executed were women. But you knew that. The image of the most typical victim of a witch-hunt is—sadly, tragically—burned into our collective historical consciousness. What’s far less known is the identity of the accusers. Recent research has shed light on this: “The most typical sort of accuser—the witch’s alleged victim—was,” writes Nussbaum, in Liberty of Conscience (2008), “not a pubescent girl, although Salem has made this case famous. Far more common were accusations by young adult men just setting out in the world to make a life for themselves, and not yet married. (Marriage in New England tended to be late for men, whose fortunes had to be securely established first.) Young men were perhaps the most insecure group in Massachusetts and Connecticut society—expected to become financially secure, but not yet confident in their control over the necessary things in life. In their remarkable and detailed allegations of attacks by a witch, who is said to torment their bodies and control their actions, such young men externalize their own vulnerability. They are not insecure because life is hard: no, it is someone else’s fault, the doing of some stigmatized outsider. If only this person can be removed from the community, they will have the secure control they seek.”

RESPECTThere are some striking similarities between the type of dude who blamed all of his problems on witchcraft in the seventeenth century and the type of dude who blames all of his problems on feminism in the twenty-first century. In Unlocking the Iron Cage: The Men’s Movement, Gender Politics, and American Culture (1996), sociologist Michael Schwalbe maintains that the type of guy who gets into men’s rights activism is, well, a type: he’s a bit of a slacker, not terribly motivated, kind of passive, sort of lazy—and yet he’s always assumed that he’d do well in life. He’s always assumed that he’d come out on top, that things would just fall into place for him. But alas, he finds that he’s pushing 30—or, gasp, maybe even 40—and things still haven’t worked out for him. As one of my buddies put it last year (in all seriousness, after one too many beers): “Sometimes I look around at my life, and I think, fuck, dude, I’m almost 40: WHERE’S MY MONEY AND POWER?!”

Fullscreen capture 2014-04-14 61940 AMThe men’s rights movement is not a movement that comprises all types of men. Nor is it a movement that appeals to all men. You won’t find a representative cross-section of men at a typical men’s group meeting. Far from it. Very few men of color present. Very few working-class dudes. Very few recent immigrants. Very few gay dudes. Nope, your garden-variety men’s rights activist (MRA) looks, at least superficially, a whole lot like me: he’s white, middle-class, native-born, and downwardly-mobile. He isn’t doing as well as his parents, and he’s pissed.

There are plenty of plausible explanations for the MRA’s troubles. He could blame capitalism, the stagnant economy, the steep decline in real wages, or the widening gap between rich and poor. He could blame the government. He could blame globalization. All sorts of things really. But the kind of dude that gets off on the men’s rights movement isn’t interested in any of these explanations. Nope, he’d rather blame it all on a witch . . . or a bitch.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)