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Friday, October 29, 2010

Stay Classy!

In my last post, I exhorted you to vote for BARCC in the Classy Awards - I’m happy to report that we won in all three categories! We’ve now progressed to the national awards, and we need your help more than ever. We’re going up against some big charities here, and the stakes are high - $25,000 in one category and $10,000 in another.

Why should you vote for BARCC?

Specifically, why should you vote for BARCC if you don’t live in Boston? Because I know you Bostonians know how great BARCC is, and you know about all of the great services we offer. But if you’re in Chicago or Memphis - why vote for BARCC?

Because a vote for BARCC is not just a vote for BARCC. True, it gives us more money to do outreach, to do legal and legislative advocacy; it provides more coverage on the hotline, in the hospital, more counseling, more case management. But, hypothetical nonBostonian, how does that affect you?

Look. Rape and sexual assault are not a fun topic. Frankly, people would rather talk about food banks and soup kitchens, building homes and creating services for the disabled. And all of those are great and worthy causes. But if we win this, dear reader - that is attention to the issue of sexual violence on a national level. Our goal is not just to win the awards, but to start the conversation.

To that end, we’ve partnered with the other nominated rape crisis center, Peace Over Violence. Because it’s not just about us - it’s about fighting sexual violence.

So please go forth and vote for BARCC for Charity of the Year and Most Innovative Use of Social Media, and vote for Peace Over Violence for Most Effective Awareness Campaign! That money and that national recognition would be amazing things for the rape crisis center movement, and it costs you only a few seconds to click. Help us continue to fight sexual violence nationwide!

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Posted by Shira on 10/29 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Friday, October 22, 2010

Being a straight guy doesn’t make any sense

When was the last time you got two messages that contradicted each other, and you weren’t sure which one was right?  I’m talking seriously at-odds messages, like “don’t run out into the middle of a four lane road, you’ll get hit by a car!” on one hand, and “the E line stops right in the middle of a four lane road and I need to get on it!” level confused.  Both messages seem pretty reasonable - it’s generally a bad idea to run into the street where you can, in one glorious moment, be hit by a train, car, and bike all at once.  On the other hand, an entire public transportation line was set up to stop in the middle of a four lane road, and clearly people get on and off of it all the time.  What do you do?  How do you act?  How do you decide which message you’re going to listen to? 

My tradition is usually to watch other people and try to figure out what “most” folks do.  After a while I learned that, especially on the E line, you pretty much had to fling yourself out into the middle of Huntington Avenue around Mission Hill and just hope that the drivers didn’t crush you to death.  After getting some experience with this, I learned that because ‘‘m tall, I can throw my hands in front of traffic and drivers will usually stop.  I adapted the message to my particular life circumstances, and ignored the parts that I learned through experience and observation weren’t important. 

This strategy only works, though, if we have some sort of consistent behavior to observe.  What happens when we get two conflicting messages, and we can’t reconcile or evaluate them, because everyone else is just as confused as we are?  What if someone like me looks out into the world and is trying to figure out what to do about the content of these messages, and sees no clear model or sensible behavior?  What model does that person create for themselves?

We put women in double-binds like this all the time.  It’s one of the most devastatingly effective ways to keep an entire class of people confused and disorganized.  But I want to look at a double-bind for straight men today, since that’s what I consider myself to be, and because I think it’s a pivotal point in sexual violence.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a straight dude.  Now, because of gender branding, in contemporary America saying that I’m a “straight dude” means a relatively specific set of things socially, mentally, and culturally.  Regular readers have probably recognized that I come down solidly on the ‘nurture’ side of the nature vs. nurture debate, and that’s why I think so many straight men seem to have so much in common - because we’ve been trained to be a certain way.  I’m not so in the tank for nurture, though, that I can completely ignore biology.  The impetus to reproduce is a damn strong one, and sex is a powerful motivating force in my life.  I can recognize that at least a component of that motivation is biological, and would exist even if I weren’t being socially trained.

Social messages love to emphasize this biological motivation.  I’m digging around some fraught issues here, especially when it comes to things like objectification and beauty standards, but I think I’m on pretty safe ground when I say that a primary component of what the advertisement below is saying is that straight men want women’s bodies - that sex is awesome, sex with women is awesome, and that it is natural and fair to desire women.  The second, third, etc. parts of this message are helping to create a narrow cultural view of what women are, but that isn’t the scope of this particular post.  The basic message: women’s bodies are so beautiful, so enjoyable to look at and exert so powerful a hold on the straight male mind because even god had the same desires we did.  To be fair: these same ideas are also targeted to anyone who is attracted to women’s bodies, not just people who identify as men, but I’d argue that the majority of advertising especially is geared towards the male gaze, and that outlets that cater specifically to lesbians or the queer community use different strategies.

This particular ad is a stand-in for my biological desires.  It’s well recognized in this culture that I, as a straight man who is biologically male, am both allowed and expected to want the female body.  I don’t generally have a problem with social messages that allow people to have the feelings they do; as long as those message don’t go beyond encouraging people to own their emotions.  I am allowed to lust the crap out of anyone I want, as long as that social freedom stops the moment it goes beyond my brain.  What I think and feel internally are all mine, and I don’t have to tell a damn person about it.  Once it moves from beyond my brain into the world of physical reality, though - that’s when it’s not my social right anymore to do with as I please. 

It’s good to own my lust.  I like it, because I identify as a sexual person.  I like looking at women, and I enjoy as a part of my identity that this enjoyment is a part of me.  I also know it’s my job to make sure that doesn’t affect anyone else who doesn’t expressly tell me that want to be affected by it.  So far, so good - I get social messages that tell me, as a straight man, that my biological urges are generally OK; that wanting women’s bodies is not only something I’m allowed to do, but that a lot of other people feel the same way I do.  I learn from comedies like The Hangover that it’s not particularly unusual for straight men to spend a lot of time thinking about or engineering ways to be with women sexually, or to experience women’s sexuality, and insofar as all of that activity is consensual and non-coerced, I’m ok with that.  I learn through this category of messages that it’s reasonable to expect that this lust for women’s bodies is going to, at times in my life, be exceptionally powerful.

If that were the main message that straight men got about our sexuality…wow, this would be a much better world, with probably a lot more good sex, too.  We’d still have a lot of problems - teaching young straight boys that women are people, and not just boobs, would still be necessary.  At least this message on its own isn’t so damn toxic, though.

The problem is that this is not the only message I’m given about my sexuality and specifically, about my relationship to women.  Alongside the acceptance for my desire for women is another message.

What is this ad telling me, as a man who is attracted to women?  There’s probably a thousand different general ideas we could get out of this, but I think a pretty basic one is: don’t do anything that women do.  If you are a man, if you do anything that is associated with women (like wearing heels), then you will need karate lessons either to fight off the other dudes who will kick the crap out of you, or you need karate lessons to make you a man again.  Doing things that women do, or like, or participate in, will corrupt you.  It will steal your man-ness!  Stay away from them! 

Girls and women are weak.  They are contagious.  They can infect me, the noble straight man, and rob me of my vitality and my masculinity and my power.  Strangely enough, we can use The Hangover to look at both messages: yes, it’‘s normal for guys to lust after women’s bodies and experience desire, but the moment you form a bond with a woman, you are an emasculated, pussy-whipped bitch with no backbone.  That fact that even the terms we use to describe a lack of strength are gendered is a pretty good indication of what culture thinks of women’s strength.  The site Sociological Images is a great place to check out a (depressingly) large number of other major media products that help emphasize these ideas; from t-shirts to print ads to movie trailers, the idea that men should hate women for being weak and contagious is not limited to a small niche of current American culture.

Here’s what I’m facing then, as a young straight man in the world: I am biologically driven to be sexually interested in women, and there’s a lot of social messages that support that this desire is legitimate, shared, and experienced broadly, but I’m not supposed to like or even really tolerate women.  Their bodies have power, but they themselves do not.  Also, I’m not supposed to want to do anything that women like, so how does that whole ‘consent-and-sex’ thing work?  If I like having sex with women, and they are vocal about also wanting to have sex with me, does that mean I’m losing my power?  Sadly, a lot of men, a very very sizable portion of men, who absolutely do not know how to reconcile these two competing ideas and never learn that they are allowed to reject the second message.
A few weeks ago, Thomas posted some disturbing, but unfortunately not uncommon rants of some Men’s Rights Activists (for serious trigger warning).  You can see the thought pattern, just beneath the words (or sometimes, directly in them).  It goes something like this:

“I HATE women.  They are so much…LESS than me.  How do they have this sexual power over me?  I am told every morning pretty much upon waking up and looking at those stupid-ass Stella Artois commercials that women are literally not my equals as SENTIENT BEINGS, but they have these BODIES that I want SO BADLY.  And you’re telling me that somehow these weak, confused THINGS have the ability to deny their bodies to me?  Seriously?  If women are weak and I hate them, why do I want them so much?  THAT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE.” 

It doesn’t make any sense.  It’s completely senseless, completely confusing, and totally alienating.  These messages also run deep.  It takes a long, long time to get away from them, if that’s even possible.  But it’s work we’ve got to do.  We have got to find ways to start chopping away at that second message, or make it a lot clearer in real life that no one follows it or care about it.  If men are the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence, the only way to substantially affect sexual violence in this country is to get men to a place where they realize that they don’t hate women, and that it’s possible for them to reject messages them tell them that they should. 

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Posted by Dave on 10/22 • (2) CommentsPermalink

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Patriarchy City Planning

Get ready for an unreasonably long post!  This is what law school does to my brain!

National Coming Out Day was this Monday.  The rash of suicides among LGBT youth in 2010 made this particularly poignant this year.  Aside from the anger I felt about the bigotry and madness of the people who pushed those kids into suicide, Coming Out Day also reminded me partly why homophobia is so rampant and why it’s connected with the big ideas of oppression that also direct my sexual violence prevention work.

All systems of oppression privilege certain groups in society over others.  In patriarchy, we’re generally talking about privileging men over women: how much money each group gets to acquire, how much power they can amass, how they can go about their lives in the world.  Since these systems of oppression become foundational aspects of the ways we organize the entirety of society, let’s do a thought experiment.  I want you to assume that you are the patriarchy for a moment (mmm…tastes so…oppressiony).  You, as the patriarchy, are acting like a city planner, and here’s your task: make sure that men get more power than women, in your planned town.  You’ve got a lot of problems to work out with that directive, aside from being a system of oppression.

How do you do that?  You could take a biological approach, and flat out decide that anyone with a penis wins the status, and anyone with a vagina gets screwed.  If you did that, though, how would you know for sure who gets what?  Again, we’re thinking roughly like (evil) city planners here: how would we KNOW if someone has a vagina or not?  Genitals aren’t really visible if people are wearing clothing, right?  And people are smart - if they realize that only the be-penised get social power and status, they’ll start stuffing socks and zucchinis in their pants or skirts or utili-kilts to make it LOOK like they have penises, and then where would you be?  On top of all that, what would you do with people who have ambiguous genitalia?  What if they have something like Androgyne Insensitivity Syndrome, and so might be chromosonally male, but don’t have penises?  Where do you put them on the male/female dichotomy?

In this case, you’d probably end up not giving the power you want to a lot of men, and accidentally giving a lot of power you don’t want to give to women.  Unacceptable, patriarchy.  You’re not performing like a diligent system of oppression would.  Clearly, this strict genital technique alone isn’t going to work, if we really want to make sure our (evil) planned city is going to get its oppression on the way we want it to.

Let’s look at some other options.  We could try to do a modified biological approach, where we look at ranges of things aside from genitals alone to determine who gets to be a male or female.  You could look at height, or body weight, or maybe muscle mass.  You could look at facial hair growth and maybe overall hair growth.  These things are a lot easier to see, on the surface, than genitals are, so we solve that “what genitals do you have?” question, but this technique still suffers from a lot of problems.  People of all genders overlap in these areas.  Some men are really tall and really thin and some women are really tall and thin, and if you have a decent enough sample size, you’ll probably start to see that weight, height, BMI, etc., are only very vague indicators of what sex someone is.  And, these techniques do nothing to get around that issue of how you distribute power to those people who have ambiguous sex.     

In this case, we might solve that one issue of genital confusion by making height and weight and general body type a proxy measure of what genitals someone has, but you’re still going to end up giving a lot of that power you’re supposed to be giving to men to women who just happen to fit into the distribution curve for what you’ve decided equals “man.” You are not being efficient enough in your oppression, patriarchy!  The other oppressions are nervous about your job performance.

Now, both of these ideas so far are very much in the realm of the physical, and not as much in the social (although of course social factors affect things like height).  But by and large, these two approaches above exist in the realm of what people are, not what they do.  I happen to be tall - my bones and muscle structure made me a large person, and I didn’t really have any conscious control over that.  As we can see so far, limiting our oppression to what people are physiologically doesn’t really let you satisfy your evil city planner system of oppression job requirements because physiology is tricky stuff to determine at a glance.  We’re going to need to get into something a little more amorphous to truly get our inspired oppression on - we’re going to need to modify what people do.

Here, our planning team of evil oppressionville is thinking a little bit differently.  How can we take those ideas above (the biological stuff), and make those proxy variables a lot more reliable?  How can we find easily identifiable ways to categorize people so that we can efficiently extend either unwarranted social privilege or sanctions against them?  We know that things like height and weight aren’t really enough. 

But what if we provide a whole bunch of messages over time about what people are supposed to look like, and how they are supposed to act?  And what if we point those messages at a really core biological drive, like say reproduction?  Let’s tell everybody in evil oppressionville that women, in order to attractive enough to find men who want to have sex with them, or to be worthy of love and/or companionship, need to have a) certain physical traits, b) certain types of clothing, and c) specific mannerisms, attitudes, and ways of interacting with men.  Likewise, let’s tell men something very different, but in the same categories.  And, even better, let’s make sure that the content of what we tell women in each of those categories makes them dependent on men.  Let’s make sure that everything we tell the women is more onerous, dangerous, or expensive than what we tell men.  Let’s make sure that we tell men that women are worthless.

Ok, now we’re cooking.  While we’re still not perfectly efficient because we can’t stop everyone at the door and check their genitals, we’ve got a new set of proxy variables that are a lot more effective than height or weight by which to make the assumption about someone’s sex (and therefore, how much power they should get).  Someone who is wearing a skirt, high heels, and has long hair isn’t guaranteed to be a woman, but those are much better indicators to our evil patriarchy planning team that the person is probably a woman than her height or weight.

This is good, for our evil oppression team.  Things are working out much better now, in that we are able to oppress very efficiently.  The more these social messages get entrenched, the harder they will be to fight.  Here, we’ve swapped trying to oppress people by finding out who they are by oppressing them based on what they do.  If we can keep the stories going for long enough, people might even start to confuse the distinction between the two, and assume that what they do is who they are.  If we’re lucky, the people then will start to perpetuate these ideas on their own, and we won’t need to use major tools like the media or law to push the messages.  They’ll get absorbed into people’s cultures and identities.  People will assume that the differences in behavior are natural, and they might even start mostly crap academic disciplines like evolutionary psychology to pretend to explain them.  The women we’re oppressing will generally know that the deck is stacked against them, and some of them will fight that, but most of the men probably won’t.  In fact, a chunk of them will invest a substantial portion of their identity and work in trying to keep things the way they are, in either support of “tradition” or “family” or some other term that means “status quo.”  The women who do fight against the system will, if our patriarchy planning team entrenched the messages deep enough, have to fight against not only us, but all of the rest of society, too.  We’re looking pretty good right now - we’ve got a self-perpetuating system that tells men and women how to act.  That serves our dual purpose of making it easy for us to identify who’s who, and therefore pay out social and economic and legal rewards appropriately, and also helps to make sure women don’t have the ability to easily fight back because they don’t want to lose the few social privileges they have right now.  Just in case, though, we might want to push some messages that women aren’t full people, just so that the men will help do our work for us by keeping the women from getting too out of control with the whole questioning of the system thing. 

BUT WAIT!  You aren’t out of the forest yet, evil patriarchy city planner!  You thought you had it all wrapped up, too, didn’t you?  We have a nice, self-perpetuating system that would let us continue to inequally divide social resources and power amongst the genders to keep men on top, and it might not even take a whole lot more work from us.  A couple of good toxic messages, a couple of generations of reinforcement, and we’re good to go.  Of course that’s not gonna work, though.  People are unpredictable!

You remember those people we had problems figuring out what to do with before?  The ones who had ambiguous genitalia, or an unusual condition?  You still haven’t accounted for them, and some of them are following the messages we told men to follow!  They are gaming the system we set out to efficiently oppress people!

Furthermore, there’s this other group - they seem to be sexually attracted to people of their own gender.  Our self-perpetuating system doesn’t seem to work quite as well on them.  They know they are in a minority; most people are straight, and they seem to push the boundaries of our system a little more.  If these women, these lesbians don’t care as much about what they need to do and look like in order to attract a man, because they DON’T WANT A MAN, then they are less vulnerable to our proxy variables!  They might not act like other women!  They might even sometimes do things that we tell MEN to do.  And if they do that, then maybe other women will realize that women can act like men, at least some of the time!  And the gay men!  They might make other men think that some of the things we tell men to do are ridiculous!  In both cases, they also show the rest of society that the messages we gave them about finding love and passion and sex are mostly untrue!  This is completely unacceptable!

These people don’t want to buy into our system completely.  Their existence threatens the stability of our oppression.  These GAY people, these TRANS people, they are a threat to the way we have organized the power in our society.  They put the lie to the social messages we’ve spread to everyone else.  They might help to show the rest of society that we’ve been misleading people about the difference between who you are and what you do.  That distinction, and blurring it, is what makes our proxy oppression variables work - we can’t allow that to happen. 

In order to silence this threat, we need to take drastic measures.  We need to find a way to get the rest of society not to listen to them.  Here’s what you should do, evil patriarchy city planner: tell everyone that this subset of the culture is a disease.  Tell everyone that the LGBT population can infect others.  Tell the society that anyone who steps over those boundaries of acceptable gendered behavior will never get laid again ever in their lives ever ever (ever!), they might also ‘catch’ gayness and be permanently ostracized.  This will help keep the majority in line, and it might be solidify those rules we gave them, because now they’re not only acting on our groundrules because they want love, attention and respect, they’ll also do it out of fear.  The more we can get the majority to fear this smaller group, the less they will tolerate them, too.

And make sure you repeatedly tell this LGBT group that they are stupid, worthless, unusual and freakish.  Then, we can let social isolation and the fear we’ve already installed in everyone else help silence them!  Then the world will go on as before, with only a token group of people who resist our oppression on the margins. 

Because if the patriarchy didn’t tell everyone to hate and fear the LGBT population, then maybe they’d see that you can be a lot of different things, and still find people who like, love, and welcome you, and that our rules for behavior are mostly gendered and mostly crap.  They might help to show the rest of the world that the completely bullshit distribution of power between the genders has nothing to do with reality, nothing to do with “nature,” and everything to do with oppression and limited people.

Homophobia is the self-defense mechanism of the patriarchy for dealing with a substantial threat, just like rape is the enforcement tool of patriarchy to keep women afraid of men and in line (and following those behavioral codes).  If you fend off the tools (homophobia and rape), you weaken the system of oppression.  And hopefully, our patriarchy city planner gets hir ass fired and replaced by a group that knows how to lay out a society based on reason and fairness.  Hopefully.

A little bit of activism to go along with your blogging.  October 20th is being pushed as Spirit Day, and a remembrance of the LGBT youth suicides.  Wear purple if you got it.

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Posted by Dave on 10/14 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Exciting times at BARCC!

BARCC has been up to so much lately - which has unfortunately led to less blogging! But we’re trying to get on track. Here’s some of the excitement!

We just launched a new website! SurviveRape.Org is a guide to forensics for survivors. It has a tremendous amount of resources to help survivors make their decisions regarding medical treatment, evidence collection, and reporting to the police. Do go check it out even if you’re not a recent survivor - there’s so much information there to learn, and knowing it can help you support the survivors in your life!

We’ve been nominated for three Stay Classy awards! Our categories are Charity of the Year, Most Effective Awareness Campaign (for our Save/Support SANE efforts), and Most Innovative Use of Social Media! Please vote for us today, and tell all your friends. If you’re on Facebook, you can invite them to this event.

We’re having a party! Well, a fundraising gala. But we’ll all be in our best dresses and suits. You should join us. BARCC’s Champions for Change Gala will be held at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge on October 28. Great cause, great company, great food, and an amazing auction with some fabulous prizes. The Gala is one of our biggest fundraisers, and it’s a great chance to meet all of our staff and volunteers. Join us!

And we’re also running our fourth volunteer training of the year. Welcome to BARCC, new volunteers! Our next training will be in February 2011, but it’s not too early to apply.

So go check out our new forensics site, vote for us, and buy your ticket to the Gala! As always, thank you so much for your support. :)

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Posted by Shira on 10/12 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Make It Better

A number of you have probably already heard of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project, a series of video clips from gays and lesbians and their straight friends and family from across the country to let young LGBT youth know that bullying in middle and high school does eventually get better.  From Savage’s Savage Love column:

I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.
But gay adults aren’t allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don’t bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay - or from ever coming out - by depriving them of information, resources, and positive role models.
Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don’t have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better. We can reach these kids.

So I love everything about this project (with the exception that it was necessary in the first place).  I love the Savage is encouraging people to use our technology to reach others they never would have seen before.  I like the idea of providing hope to young people who don’t necessarily have a whole lot of it.  I like the call to allies, who are in this case privileged straight people, to jump into the issue and do some damn work.  But what I like the MOST about the project is that other activists have taken it and run with it.

The Make It Better Project, started in response to Savage’s call, is a collection of grassroots LGBT activists and organizers who are getting the word out about ways to stop LGBT bullying.  Let’s be clear - IGBP is a good start, but we want to stop this type of bullying from ever happening, period.  They’ve got a couple of really basic, really good action items on the site:

  1. Start a Gay/Straight alliance in your school, college
  2. Find out what local LGBT-friendly laws, or anti-bullying laws are up for a vote in your town.  Places like a local NOW chapter or GLAD can probably help with that.
  3. Start or join an event with the Week of Action, October 5th - October 11th (national Coming Out day).

I urge any and all of our readers to get involved in SOMETHING.  I’m still working on getting my own video up for IGBP, and figuring out what my men’s group can do in support of the Week of Action.  The more people we can get involved in the Make It Better Project, the better it’ll get for young people who think that there is no support in the world for them.

Since Savage started his campaign two weeks ago or so, there’ve been a spate of new LGBT youth who have committed suicide as a result of anti-gay bullying.  There isn’t a much clearer line from social pressures on gender presentation to damage than this.  Young men and women who are trying to exist as they are - as the natural personas they ought to be free to be, are being told by their friends, neighbors, family, and everywhere else that society does not allow them to be that way.  Sure, they can live, but only if they play by the majority’s rules, and the majority’s rules don’t allow for non-patriarchal, non-traditional gender conforming ways.

There wasn’t (as far as I know) much sexual violence involved in these teens’ suicides, but the background cause of the anti-gay bullying comes from pretty much the same place as rape apologism.  If you have the chance, check out Suzanne Phar’s book Homophobia: a Weapon of Sexism (it’s short and you can download it for free now).  If we can first of all, get the practical tools in place to prevent anti-gay bullying, like local school ordinances, then we can gradually start to phase it out of our world.  As homophobia gets weakened, the pillars on which it rests, like gender essentialism and hetero-normativity, also start to sway.

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Posted by Dave on 10/06 • (1) CommentsPermalink

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