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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gender Performance and Rape Survivors

I love RuPaul’s Drag Race. This puzzled my husband at first - “Since when have you been interested in drag queens?” Well, since about always; my first published story has a drag queen in it. As time has gone by, I’ve been looking at why the world of drag fascinates me so, so that I can explain it better, and I think that, for me, it’s about gender performance.

So a little bit about gender performance, by which I mean that gender is indeed a thing that we choose to perform. We are taught how to perform gender from a very young age. I started ballet classes when I was four. I was doing department-store runway modeling in third grade. I had long blonde impeccably styled hair; I remember brushing it backstage before a recital sometime in elementary school and knowing that it had to be perfect. I did not own jeans; I was the only person in my fifth-grade class picture in a dress and kneesocks. My parents were very, very invested in coding me as female, with all of the cultural implications involved.

My adolescent rebellion was visually interesting. Lots of trenchcoats, combat boots, deliberately unflattering haircuts. I grunged myself up quite deliberately.

What happened?

Well. Adolescent rebellion is generally ‘nuff said. But also, sexual assault.

RuPaul has a new show; it’s called RuPaul’s Drag U, and in it, previous Drag Race contestants perform dragtastic makeovers on what they call biological women. (Nod to the fact that science is more complicated than that; I am using the show’s terminology because I’m talking about the show). Unrelated to anything else: the opening credits of this show look like the Lisa Frank folders I had in elementary school came to life. I want to go to Drag U and frolic with rainbow unicorns. I’m just saying.

On the very first episode, “Tomboy Meets Girl”, one of the contestants was a rape survivor. She used to dress girly, but after her rape, she switched to baggy jeans, oversized t-shirts, no makeup; she desexualized herself as much as possible.

This should sound familiar to anyone who went to high school with me.

There are many reactions to rape; no one reaction is universal or right or wrong. But this is a common one, and I bet it’s not the last time it shows up on Drag U. It’s a common one because of what society tells us about gender and sexual assault. In brief:

1. Rape is something that happens to women.
2. Rape is not something that happens to men or people who look like men.

Both of these things, of course, are totally wrong. Yes, rape happens to women more than it happens to men, but visually coding yourself as more masculine is no cure. Rape is not a thing that happens exclusively to pretty or gender-conforming people.

But it can feel safer to hide your body. Temporarily. Even though it does not actually make you any less likely to be raped. Society tells you it is safer, and we are so hardwired to obey society.

So I spent years deliberately coding myself as less female. I’m genderqueer to begin with, so this was not a huge mental shift. I went from bad haircuts and sullen glares to Oxford shirts and vests to jeans and T-shirts. And eventually, after many years, I got back to skirts and dresses. I’m equally comfortable now in menswear or a Trashy Diva dress. It depends on my mood. It depends what gender I’m choosing to perform that day.

And as someone who is aware that she is choosing to perform gender, I am fascinated by drag queens. They do the ultimate gender performance - most drag queens are cisgendered gay men, so the genderqueer element isn’t generally there. This is a group of men looking at our society’s set of standards for gender performance and saying “What is feminine?”

And they come up with so many different answers, from Nina Flowers’ severe androgyny to Jujubee’s va-va-voom to the queens who do their best to look naturally female.

What is feminine? What does a woman look like?

The women on Drag U are not going to do stage drag in their real lives, most likely. But what they take from the experience is that question: What does it mean to be female? And the answer: It’s up to you.


As Dave mentioned Monday, we are up for an award! If you like our volunteer work, click here and vote for Dave or Shira!

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Posted by Shira on 08/18 • (1) CommentsPermalink

Monday, August 16, 2010


I’m on vacation this week, so I’m spending a lot of my mental energies thinking about clam chowder and beach judo.  Beach judo is pretty sweet by the way, if you happen to have some spare judo uniforms, which of course my brother and I do.  Much has been the flipping and throwing action.

I’m really excited because Shira and I are nominated for a Service Nation Hero award here in Boston, a project of Be the Change Inc., which is seeking to strengthen American democracy through service collaboration.  It’s a cool honor, and we could win burritos!  Seriously, you should vote for us, and all of your other favorite community change leaders and good samaritans on their voting page.

I’m writing about this here because nominating my mentors and friends, and getting nominated, has helped me continue some of my thinking about service, and what it means (it’s also a good way for me to shamelessly self-promote).  In my junior or senior year of high school (I’m a little hazy on the timeline), a soup kitchen opened up on the street behind my dad’s office in New Haven.  About once every two weeks or so for about six months, I joined a couple of other friends and we went to help out at the soup kitchen on a Thursday or Friday night, preparing food for the evening meal.  I’d get there at around 2 or 3 p.m., and hang around until probably 5:30 or 6 making the food and getting it ready, and then we’d rotate out for the next crop of volunteers who came in to actually serve the food and interact with the patrons.  It worked well for me because I could keep a change of clothes at dad’s office, and because I could still get home by 6ish to do my homework.

I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time volunteering for what I felt were social change organizations and vehicles, because I liked working with ideas and trying to build something that would last long enough to challenge our current system.  I worked with a middle school education program for a while, and was drawn to work at BARCC and NOMAS-Boston because I felt like they all worked to create a new platform for either education or survivors or gender relations that could reform the broken and rotten parts of society.  I could devote an awful lot of time to those types of causes, but I’ve never equalled my time at the soup kitchen since with any other direct service volunteering.

The really good thing about that type of volunteering was that it let me do something immediate and direct.  Someone would eat better, for one night at least, as a result of the food that kitchen made, and I’d had a hand in making it the nights I was there.  I could devote an evening of my week to doing that, and it wasn’t an all-consuming life passion, it didn’t take a huge amount of my time, and it didn’t require that I knew a ton about the economics of food preparation and distribution.  In essence, the cost of getting involved in that work at the soup kitchen was really low: I needed to show up and be enthusiastic and willing to help.

One of the seemingly intractable problems of pushing back our epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the US is the fact that rape is so intimately tied to so many other aspects of our culture: to gender, to sex, to power, to the criminal justice system.  To fight this one issue, we’re really taking on a much bigger picture than that - it’s like trying to take out a weed in your backyard and realizing that it belongs to a redwood.  In my case, fighting for a more just society without the threat of sexual violence (or at least AS MUCH sexual violence) gets intensely frustrating because I never get enough time or opportunity to talk to groups or people about all of these other issues that are tied into rape.  And, while I might be able to get most people to agree with me that rape is bad and we should prevent it, I’ll lose some of those folks when I start to talk about changing gender roles.  I’ll lose more of them when I start to talk about power issues.  Eventually, I’ll just be hanging out with a small group of people who are already on my side.  In fact, they’ve been doing the same things I have, saying many of the same things, and seeing many of the same glazed-over eyes and losing more and more of their audience as they get deeper in the rabbit hole of issues that rape touches.  If I want to keep doing culture change, I need to stay up on current research, I need to learn new mechanisms for reaching people who don’t share my cultural backgrounds, and I need to learn how to deal with constant defeat, rejection of my ideas, and slow, slow, slow progress.  In many cases, the cost of culture change work is really high.  We ask activists and visionaries to give up a LOT of time, energy, emotional balance, and personal life for difficult fights and little visible progress.  That’s not all that appealing to a lot of folks.

The individuals who create, manage, and run things like soup kitchens, Community Servings, and other similar direct service programs face the same problems, with the added burden of not getting the recognition they deserve.  In general, though (with the exception of BARCC!), direct service organizations have done a way better job of making volunteering easy and fun and available than culture change organizations.  Sexual violence, much like hunger, won’t be eradicated by the work of an organization: it will be reduced and eventually eliminated because of the elbow grease of millions of volunteers.  The more sustainable that service is, the less it requires people to completely change their lives to do it and the more people you can bring into the work because the costs of doing that type of work aren’t as high.  This is not at all true for the people doing the higher-level work in direct service organizations, of course, and many organizations have dual-missions (including BARCC).

I’m probably not going to stop throwing myself into culture change work full-force because this is what I want to do for my career, and for my life.  I am recognizing now, though, that I’m probably be spending a lot of my time with a small knot of people who think the same things that I do.  If I want to truly expand the movement to end sexual violence, I need to find ways to enlist friends, associates - my community - to help me do the basic, low-level work of making our world better.  I can’t ask every one to “stop rape.” Even the small, committed group of social-change revolutionaries can’t.  Asking the rest of the population to stop rape is going to turn them off and push them further away from our movement and our goals.

Can we pitch smaller things though, smaller actions and activities as service?  Most of us already have an experience like mine at the soup kitchen - many of us already volunteer and do so because we like it.  Asking friends to do something that makes them feel good and is quick to do - that’s going to build the movement.  Asking them to walk in the BARCC walk, or donate $5, or to just not call their female friends sluts, or to start practicing really low-level enthusiastic consent is fast, simple, and makes people feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves, and in many ways, we already have a model for talking about this low-level society changing work in the form of volunteering and service.  I’m going to try it out and see if I can’t start making some small but essential changes and bring some additional people into this movement that way.

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Posted by Dave on 08/16 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Monday, August 09, 2010

More Gender Branding

Here’s an exercise that the CAPS volunteers did in past peer supervision meeting to get us thinking about alcohol consumption and risk-reduction messages.  I liked it most for its ability to show us our social stereotypes clearly.  What are the first words you think of when you hear the phrase “drunk girl?”  Did you come up with a list like: trashy, sloppy, stupid, irresponsible, slutty, available, easy?  What about “drunk boy?”  Was your list something like: violent, belligerent, stupid, frat-party, or horny?  For those of you who’ve been progressive for a really long time and didn’t have lists like that, you can use a Google search for both phrases and get a pretty clear indication of what the rest of the world thinks of these two different hypothetical people.  For women, it’s all moralizing and titillation; for men, it’s all violence and wacky antics.

I’ve written before about gender branding - how all of us are labeled with social symbols based on how we identify, and how those symbols are an obstacle to ending rape.  This is on my mind this morning because of a case I heard about recently (it’s a few weeks old, but I’m only hearing about it now): a woman in St. Louis lost a lawsuit against soft-porn peddlers Girls Gone Wild when a judge determined that she implicitly consented to baring her breasts for the camera, even though she explicitly did not.

A Missouri jury has gone wild in a case of involuntary nudity, finding that a woman consented to appearing topless in a “Girls Gone Wild” video by playing to the camera before another person pulled her top down.

The woman, identified only as Jane Doe, had no expectation of privacy, the St. Louis Circuit Court jury declared last week, even though she said “no” when a “Girls Gone Wild” crew asked her to bare her breasts as they were filming at a St. Louis bar in September 2005 and never signed a release allowing any use of her likeness in a video.

...Doe sued Mantra in 2008 for negligence, invasion of privacy and misappropriation of her likeness after a friend of her husband told him he had seen her in the video “Girls Gone Wild Sorority Orgy.” She was seeking at least $2.4 million in damages for post-traumatic stress and psychological injuries.

But the jury, which deliberated only 90 minutes, bought what was in effect a “blame the victim” defense - that Doe consented to being filmed topless by being in the Rum Jungle bar and dancing for the cameraman. Another patron grabbed the shoulder straps of her tank top and pulled them off her shoulders, causing the top to fall down and expose her breasts.

“Through her actions, she gave implied consent,” jury foreman Patrick O’Brien told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “She was really playing to the camera. She knew what she was doing.”

The 26-year-old mother of two said she was “flirting with the camera” but “never, ever planned on crossing the line of being exposed in a sexual manner or being on this DVD. I didn’t show my boobs. They did.”

Implied consent is consent that is not formally expressed but can be “manifested by signs, actions or facts, or by inaction or silence which creates an inference that consent has been given.” Most states no longer allow implied consent as a defense in sexual assault cases. (emphasis mine)

To review what I know of this case:

  1. A woman was dancing in a bar.
  2. Girls Gone Wild was also filming in the bar, but she didn’t know that.
  3. A member of the GGW staff asked her to take her top off; she said no.  Explicit non-consent.
  4. Someone else in the crowd pulled her shirt off against her will.  This is sexual assault, and a pretty well-known form of it.
  5. GGW filmed that, put it in a video, and sold it for what the defendant believed was about $1.5 million.
  6. The woman never signed a consent form, never indicated written permission to be in the video, and received no compensation for appearing in it.
  7. Judge in Missouri finds that she gave “implied consent” to be filmed, to be filmed topless, and to be distributed nationally because…well, she’s a woman, right?  They never say what they mean.

That the jury only took 90 minutes to deliberate is a pretty good indication of how branded gender is, and how much we all buy into it.  This woman explicitly said she would not strip for the camera, but her use of actual English words with specific denotations didn’t matter in this case - this was as clear a “no means yes” situation as I’ve found.  Even if she was giving the camera all sorts of sex-eyes and gyrating all kinds of hypnotic on film; she said no.  I’m not a lawyer (yet!), but I can’t understand how explicit, verbal, recorded non-consent can somehow be magically translated to consent during trial.

One of the major aspects of gender-branding for women is that women are coy; women are indirect, women say no when they mean yes.  I’d like to think that in reality, most reasonable people understand that these associations we have with women are wildly untrue, but stories like this one make me wonder how reasonable people really are.  Because women have been branded as fickle, deceitful, and manipulative, it’s depressing but not surprising that so many folks can handle the double-think necessary to assume that a woman can say “no” and really, deep-down, mean yes.  As I wrote earlier, it’s really hard to fight for good criminal justice procedures for crimes like rape and sexual assault with this type of branding hanging over every legal interaction a survivor faces.  Every report he or she makes gets extra implied meaning attached to it, and those extra ideas generally water-down or hurt the survivor’s chances of getting to trial.

The other reason this is in my head this morning: Judge Walker’s decision on Prop 8 in California.  I know I already waxed ecstatic about it last week, but I can’t help but feel positive about the future with his decision, and not just for the future of LGBT civil rights.  Walker’s decision was one based on fact, not on the branding of gays or lesbians; in fact, he and his clerk specifically point out that the stereotypes of gays and lesbians had long been an obstacle to justice.  Judge Walker, in my mind, seems to have staged a judicial war on the harmful social view of the LGBT population using reason, facts, and research as his ammunition.

And this is what we need in the fight for more reasonable rape and sexual assault policies, too.  As long as idiots believe they knew what a survivor really meant when she said “no,” we’ll have a hard time getting survivors justice.

On a side note, for more fun with gender-branding, check out Leah of Not a Dirty Word and her awesome post on “How to Hang On to Your Lady,” a hilarious reversal of all the dating/sex guidelines we give women about how to trap/keep a man.  I’m really trying to think of good things to add to her list.  We’ll see if I can come up with anything interesting.

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Posted by Dave on 08/09 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Prop 8 Overturned!

Woo-hoo!  Today is a good day!  For those of you who haven’t read it already, Federal Judge Vaughn R. Walker struck down California’s Proposition 8 as discriminatory in the Perry vs. Schwarzenegger case.  From the New York Times article:

“Proposition 8 cannot withstand any level of scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause,” wrote Judge Walker. “Excluding same-sex couples from marriage is simply not rationally related to a legitimate state interest.”

This is very exciting!  This is a day when our legal system has functioned correctly, to uphold the civil and human rights of our citizens, and bring the light of reasoned law against bigotry and hatred.  Decisions like this are what the law is for, in my mind: to make sure that all citizens are equal; that they all receive the same rights in front of the government, and that outrage based on lies and falsehoods are struck down.

What’s remarkable about Judge Walker’s decision (based on blogs written by lawyers who know these things better than I do) is that he presents a very, very, very lengthy account of the facts in this case.  Thomas over at the Yes Means Yes blog did a great job of pulling out Judge Walker’s findings of fact (as opposed to law).  This is important for two reasons: first, it’s a lot harder for the Supreme Court to overturn a decision on the facts - while it can make the determination that Walker just completely got all the facts WRONG, it would be hard to do that in this case because his decision is well put together and quite long (136 pages, with citations).  This means that if Perry vs. Schwarzenegger does go to the Supreme Court, they will have the same set of facts to investigate.  They might determine that Walker’s application of the law was wrong, but they’d be hard pressed to do that with the facts he compiled.

The reason this case is so exciting to me, aside from that it takes a grand blow against the idea that the LGBT population is a little less human than everyone else and therefore entitled to less rights, is that Walker heard a lot of testimony from actual experts on issues like child development.  The facts (again, as summarized by Thomas) that he laid out in his decision are not at all “new” or “surprising;” they are what any LGBT person or ally knew already: humans are humans, being gay isn’t being broken, and children aren’t harmed by gays and lesbians.  A selection of the facts that all of us already knew, but are nice to see on paper in a legal decision (these are from the decision itself, minus the many, many supporting paragraphs of citations and expert witness testimony):

46. Individuals do not generally choose their sexual orientation. No credible evidence supports a finding that an individual may, through conscious decision, therapeutic intervention or any other method, change his or her sexual orientation.

48. Same-sex couples are identical to opposite-sex couples in the characteristics relevant to the ability to form successful marital unions. Like opposite-sex couples, same-sex couples have happy, satisfying relationships and form deep emotional bonds and strong commitments to their partners. Standardized measures of relationship satisfaction, relationship adjustment and love do not differ depending on whether a couple is same-sex or opposite-sex.

55. Permitting same-sex couples to marry will not affect the number of opposite-sex couples who marry, divorce, cohabit, have children outside of marriage or otherwise affect the stability of opposite-sex marriages.

62. Proposition 8 does not affect the First Amendment rights of those opposed to marriage for same-sex couples. Prior to Proposition 8, no religious group was required to recognize marriage for same-sex couples.

69. The factors that affect whether a child is well-adjusted are: (1) the quality of a child’s relationship with his or her parents; (2) the quality of the relationship between a child’s parents or significant adults in the child’s life; and (3) the availability of economic and social resources. Tr 1010:13- 1011:13 (Lamb).

70. The gender of a child’s parent is not a factor in a child’s adjustment. The sexual orientation of an individual does not determine whether that individual can be a good parent. Children raised by gay or lesbian parents are as likely as children raised by heterosexual parents to be healthy, successful and well-adjusted. The research supporting this conclusion is accepted beyond serious debate in the field of developmental psychology.

71. Children do not need to be raised by a male parent and a female parent to be well-adjusted, and having both a male and a female parent does not increase the likelihood that a child will be well-adjusted. Tr 1014:25-1015:19; 1038:23-1040:17 (Lamb).

72. The genetic relationship between a parent and a child is not related to a child’s adjustment outcomes. Tr 1040:22-1042:10 (Lamb).

76. Well-known stereotypes about gay men and lesbians include a belief that gays and lesbians are affluent, self-absorbed and incapable of forming long-term intimate relationships. Other stereotypes imagine gay men and lesbians as disease vectors or as child molesters who recruit young children into homosexuality. No evidence supports these stereotypes.

80. The campaign to pass Proposition 8 relied on stereotypes to show that same-sex relationships are inferior to opposite-sex relationships.  Emphasis mine.

I like Pam Spaulding’s take on why Prop 8 was overturned:

In the courts, you must defend your position. And in the long run, you couldn’t. Or rather many of you wouldn’t. Again, the specters of gay bogeymen were invoked as your leaders spun false images of avenging hordes for their reluctance to be questioned in the courts about the unprovoked lies they said in pulpits, in speeches, and on commercials.

This time, it didn’t work. The court saw through the phony claims and realized something, which I hope that many of you now do - you have no logical reason to either deny us the right to love or to deny us the ability to protect the ones whom we love.

I’m trying to calm down and to look at this from a more nuanced and distanced perspective.  This decision did not grant federal marriage rights to the LGBT world; it may not even stand up to a SCOTUS review.  But it was a strong blow for equality.  Even more than that, though, it was a strong blow for reason, and that’s why I’m writing about it here (aside from that I’m really excited and just want to write about it everywhere).

Judge Walker’s decision was, once again, based on actual facts.  It was based on the objective reality that scientists studied and codified.  I’m not saying that scientists are without their own biases as individuals, or that all science is great at measuring reality (there’s a lot of really bad science out in the world), but in general, this was a legal decision informed by truth.  Gays and lesbians are not child molesters, pedophiles, or any less capable of love and marriage than straights.  The stereotypes of what the LGBT population is like are hard to budge, culturally, but major legal victories like this can help dramatically.  We now have, in a very formal legal document that collects a lot of valuable research, a refutation of pretty much all of those social stereotypes and bigotry that homophobes have tried to use to prevent LGBT people from gaining access to equal rights.  Their bigotry was exposed for what it is - completely unfounded, not based on any objective reality, and full of haterade.

How will this decision send ripples through other anti-oppression work fighting the same sort of bigotry, bigotry that’s been accepted as social truth for so long that even acres of research proving it false won’t make it go away?  For the purposes of BARCC in particular: how many of the cultural messages that we get about rape (and which we have tons of evidence to disprove) might we be able to weaken or destroy if we had something comparable to this decision?  I don’t know, and I’m not even sure what form that would take in the court system, but Walker’s decision gives me a little bit of hope.  Clearly, there are people all over the country who are willing to fight back against stereotypes, falsehood, and policies based on them.  If we can do this with Prop 8, maybe we can start to apply the same sort of thinking to rape culture.  Then, maybe, we can get some support for policies that will actually help prevent rape (because they are based on reality and not crap), and stop hearing stories like this.

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Posted by Dave on 08/05 • (1) CommentsPermalink

Monday, August 02, 2010

Rape and Sex

Good morning, good friends!  Despite the fact that it’s Monday morning, I have many reasons to be happy this morning.  Let me recount a few of them briefly:

  1. My fabulous co-blogger Shira raised some crazy moneybucks for BARCC with her blogathon!  I also won a cool pendant-thing in her auction that I’ll probably give to my mom!  So Mom, if you don’t get a cool pendant-thing from me soon, it’s because I decided to keep it for myself instead!
  2. My men’s group NOMAS-Boston had a really successful “Dating While Feminist” event on Thursday night last week!  We had some great speakers, cool discussions, and I got to wear ridiculous nametags!
  4. After not being at Fenway for like six years, I’ll have gone to three Sox games in a weekend!  Let’s hear it for visiting friends from out of town who are obsessed with the Sox and who have unreasonable good luck with scalpers.

So in general, it’s a better Monday morning than most.  What I’m thinking about today, though, is sex: sex and its relationship to rape, or more precisely, how we think about its relationship to rape.

How many of you have heard the oft-used anti-rape line/slogan “rape is not sex” at some point?  How many folks agree with that idea?  I generally do.  Now, let’s take this a bit further - how many of you have heard the line “rape has nothing to do with sex?”  I have, a couple of times, and I cannot agree with it, and I think that trying to see rape as completely separate from sex wildly hinders our ability to do good work to stop rape.  At its core, we need to fix the way we think about sex to undercut support for rape.

Amongst our speakers at Dating While Feminist was Jaclyn Friedman, one of my feminist heroes and co-author of the book Yes Means Yes, which both Shira and I have mentioned before.  Jaclyn writes all over the place, but she was doing a guest stint over at Feministe recently and she put up a powerful piece about taking control over her sexuality.  Her piece helped continue my thinking about sex.  Sex is really cool.  Sex is good, for those folks who want to have it.  Sex is a basic and intrinsic part of my experience of the world.

A corollary to that: sex is powerful, because my sexuality is a huge, massive part of how I see myself.  My gender presentation, for example, is heavily based on what I think I need to look, sound, and act like in order to make women interested in me as a sexual partner.  I dress, act, and behave in a pattern that I think indicates, based on social symbols, that I am what society (mostly) expects a man to be.  Who I want to sleep with, and how I try to get them to want to sleep with me is a pretty damn fundamental piece of who I am, overall.

And wow, have we used that fundamental nature of sexuality to control, manipulate, abuse, and dominate society or what.  We use sex to sell products, to push social conformity, to scare populations into submission.  There are very real social sanctions for not at least paying lip service to the social models we’re supposed to emulate to attract a mate.  I will buy any product, act in any way, and generally chase whatever expectations society tells me I need to chase in order to be considered a sexual being and make it possible for me to find sexual partners.  Holly has, as usual, explained this better than me:

Man, there’s not much of a slot in the gender spectrum for being butch, female, and straight. Maybe in San Francisco? If it were a viable, non-social-life-killing option I’d take it. I used to be a lot manlier, used to have super-short hair and dress like a dude, and it just didn’t work out. I loved how it felt, but people’s reactions sucked: strangers would be jerks about it and guys told me they really weren’t attracted. Now that I’ve got long lovely red hair and wear skirts and push-up bras and shit, life is better. I still love my flannel and my steel-toe boots and my power tools, but I don’t have the patience or drive (or the she’d-be-hot-in-anything bone structure) to swim against the current on this. Part of attracting boys is wearing the “I’m attracted to boys” uniform, and, well, I know it’s weak but I’d rather have the boys than be a Gender Revolutionary. emphasis mine


And of course, we’re all told that by and large, there is one “I’m attracted to boys” uniform, and to a lesser extent that there’s one “I’m attracted to girls” uniform.  There isn’t any space in that uniform for non-gender conforming people.  There isn’t any space in that uniform for more genuine desires.  There isn’t a lot of space in that pre-fabricated notion of sex that we’re sold to express something as complex and interesting as human sexuality.

Telling people “you can’t have sex unless…” is a powerful force for social control.  You can’t have sex unless you make a certain amount of money.  You can’t have sex unless you pluck and wax yourself into oblivion.  You can’t have sex unless you act passive and demure.  You can’t have sex unless you’re gender-conforming.  You can’t have sex unless you wear a thong or drive a porsche or do something ridiculously specific and of course TOTALLY natural that will make people that you are interested in fall in love or lust with you forever.  Are shaved legs in any intrinsic way more attractive than non-shaven ones?  I mean, really?  What purpose does it serve to tell women (especially straight women), that a pre-condition of having men interested in them is to remove a natural-growing part of their bodies?  It takes a lot of time and hassle to do it, and it can be expensive.

Oh, right - it’s because Gillette can make a lot of money by selling sexual insecurity to women, which again, is fundamental insecurity.  If women are spending money buying razors, and time to shave themselves, then they don’t have as much money or time to push back against a system that tells them their natural bodies aren’t attractive and that they need to be constantly altered and changed in order to be acceptable.  If they aren’t attractive, then they aren’t women.  For someone who identifies as a woman, getting this social message is pretty much being told “you are bad at being yourself.

These messages about what we have to do to have sex are manufactured for the purpose of pushing either products, or maintaining a certain type of status quo in the world.  These messages become true over time, too, as Holly recognized above.  I wish I could tell all my female friends that they shouldn’t pluck or wax or shave, because they are awesome and men and women would want to have sex with them no matter what, but I’d probably be wrong - not making those displays of body modification would probably hurt their chances at finding (especially) male partners.  I wish I could shake my own conditioning that makes me both look for those displays of social conformity in my partners.

So, what have we learned?  First, that sexuality is a pretty fundamental part of human identity.  Second, that sex is coded in our culture as controllable: this is something that can be manipulated, because it is so fundamental.  It can be packaged and sold to us in a very specific box, and most of us will scurry around trying to squeeze our sexuality into that box.  Third, it can be manipulated in ridiculous ways that are arbitrary to the benefit of corporations or individuals.

Back to “rape is not sex:” It’s not.  Rape is a crime of control and dominance.  Manipulating our individual identities for profit or the social status quo is also control and dominance.  I’m not trying to say that a woman shaving her legs because she feels like she has to in order to experience being a sexual human is being victimized like a survivor of rape or sexual assault, but I am thinking that they exist on the same continuum.  One is about social control and dominance, and the other is about individual control and dominance.  Rape is all about sex, because society has done such a good job showing us that sex can be used for control and oppression, and because none of us (even the asexual population) is without a gender and orientation.  Rape seems to be the most extreme example of what society is already doing to us in regards to sex and sexuality: limiting our options and controlling our bodies and forcing us to do things we don’t want to do.  Sex (and race) is the venue where society forces on most of us an image of who we are, what we’re supposed to be FOR, and how we don’t live up.

And this is why articles like Jaclyn’s are so powerful, and so important.  Social control over sex is not completely overwhelming, at least not all the time.  Individual people find ways to push back against a system that tells them how to look, how to act, how to behave, and how to live in order to experience a very basic aspect of being human, and every time someone who’s done that finds a way to talk about it, it puts a little dent in the steel picture of what we’re all supposed to look like.  Every time someone calls bullshit on beauty standards, gender expectations, and the gender binary, sex as a pre-packaged concept that we’re all sold loses some value to dominate us.  The less controllable sex is, the less it can be used as a tool to constrain people, the less rapists will be able to apply it to control survivors. 

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Posted by Dave on 08/02 • (4) CommentsPermalink

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