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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Words from a perpetrator

Sorry I’ve been a little absent, all - just started law school on Monday and I’m trying to get my sea legs.  It’s gonna take a little while before I figure out where I am and what I’m doing with myself as a student again, but in the meantime, this particular item caught my eye.  Many thanks to Leah for sending it my direction.

Major Trigger Warning for that link: it’s a reddit from a convicted rapist, who answered anonymous questions about his perpetration.  If you have the stomach for it, the perpetrator says some pretty insightful things about why he perpetrated.  I thought this part was the most to-the-point:

Q: Why did you do it? Do you regret hurting them? (I mean, actually, not just “I regret going to jail for it”.)
A: It’s not very satisfying, but I did it because I wanted it. I wanted them, I wanted to do what I did to them. The sexual arousal was intense, but the desire to overpower them, to take control was even more so. It was an urge that built and built until I surrenered [sic] to it.

I’m still trying to figure out what I think about this in general, but it was interesting seeing a perpetrator echo what sexual violence prevention folks have been saying for a long time.  Dominance, control, power - these are the roots of rape, not sexual arousal or being horny.


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Posted by Dave on 09/01 • (1) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Yay Service Heroes!

Remember that Boston Service Hero contest? I won! Thanks for the votes! :) But what I really want to talk about is how all BARCC volunteers are service heroes.

BARCC started out in 1973 as a totally volunteer-run organization. We have staff now, but we still have 100-150 volunteers at any given time; those volunteers contribute enough time to make up 19 staffers, almost doubling BARCC’s service capacity, and that is *awesome*. We have such a tremendously dedicated bunch!

Both of the volunteers nominated for the ServiceHero contest were CAPS volunteers - but that’s just because Dave nominated me and I caught the Google Alert just in time to go “ha!” and nominate him right back! In reality, every single one of our volunteers deserves an award. In the coming weeks, I hope to highlight our hotline and medical advocacy programs as well.

This is a short post for a good reason: we have a new volunteer training happening down the hall right now! Twenty new volunteers and ten new interns are joining the BARCC family this week, and we’re thrilled to have them. Maybe one of them will win next year!

If you’re interested in volunteering with BARCC, hie thee to our website, because we have yet another volunteer training coming up in October! Join us! Fight rape culture! Perhaps win fabulous prizes! The world can be yours! And you’d be joining a group of wonderful, passionate, dedicated, fantastic people.

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Posted by Shira on 08/25 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Monday, August 23, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The Dominant Narrative

Good stormy morning all!  May the dark clouds congealed over our fair city not impede your day overly much!

I just got back from vacation and my brain is still mostly on the beach, and so this is a good time to write a movie review!  Yay movies!  Last night I got out to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, based on the comic series by Brian Lee O’Malley.  First thing to note: this is a fun movie.  It speaks pretty directly to the heart of the (male) gamer, and the number of asides, homages, and tributes to video games and gaming culture made it a jolly good time.  For someone like me who also has a weak spot for fight choreography, the movie’s also got a lot of fun glitzy wushu-esque fight scenes with lots of spinning jumping twirling rotating madness.  I do so enjoy my twirling madness.  All in all, it’s a hilarious, feel-good movie with great art direction, a solid sense of humor, and fun action sequences that both give action-movie addicts a little dose of the violence they need while also lampooning violence in video games.  I’ll probably buy it when it comes out.

My only disappointment with it is perhaps an unfair one.  I was hoping, really hard, that this wouldn’t be a romantic movie with the standard geek-boy plotline.  I kept my fingers crossed really hard that maybe, since this one had such an over-the-top tone, that it wouldn’t just be about an outrageously awkward mid-20’s guy who wins a token hot girl by doing something traditionally masculine that no one thought he could do.  You know, the plot of every romantic comedy ever that’s aimed at men?

I understand that movies need to use short-hand for describing emotional arcs.  Filmmakers don’t have enough time to detail how two characters fall in love, so they use lighting, slow-motion, close-up shots, etc, to give the audience the idea of what’s going on in the minds of the characters.  Except, in this type of film (the romantical comedyish film aimed at dudes), it’s usually only the dude who gets that treatment.  Ramona, Scott’s main squeeze in this film and the girl for whom he is willing to fight to the death seven times has as major personality traits…what, exactly?  She changes her hair color every couple of weeks!  She delivers packages for!  She…sometimes wears gloves when she’s inside!  We think she likes indie music (the type that Scott plays, perhaps) but we’re not entirely sure!  Mostly, the only thing we know about her is that Scott thinks she’s hot.  He was completely transfixed by her hotness, and he is now willing to put himself in mortal danger over and over and over (and over four more times) again because he presumably wants to sleep with her.  Who is she?  Why is she Scott’s dreamgirl, as he mentions?  Does his dreamgirl not possess any persona of her own?

Ramona probably isn’t quite quirky or sprightly enough to be considered a manic pixie dream girl, but a good chunk of the criteria for being one are present:

As the A.V. Club deftly notes, “Like the Magical Negro, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is largely defined by secondary status and lack of an inner life. She’s on hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums, not to pursue her own happiness.”

I never quite understood why Ramona was interested in Scott.  She never indicates that she thinks he’s hot.  She never really indicates that she likes his music.  They have awkward, stilted conversation, mostly about their exes.  She even tells him “we don’t really know much about each other, do we?”  It would have helped make her a better, more fully fleshed out character if we had at least one scene where she indicated, somehow, that she actually liked him, and why.  She does tell Scott a couple of times that he’s the “nicest” boy she’s dated.  Why?  He’s continually passive-aggressive, kind of surly, and awkward.  Why are we sympathizing with him?  He does pull a pretty badass 540 kick, but I wasn’t of the impression that that’s the only thing a dude needs to do to get into a lady’s heart.

So this movie, while having a really cool veneer and presentation, is pretty much the same story about boy falling for hot girl and then doing all sorts of things to win her, so he can have sex with her.  The female love object isn’t really a character; she’s a cypher, a symbol at best, for the male protagonist’s desires.  She is the other, the non-default.  We don’t see anything from her perspective.  Of course she can be won!  Of course our protagonist, once he learns the correct sequence of moves and/or actions, can will her to his side.  Does she want to be there?  Does she perhaps have some already existing interest in him?  It doesn’t matter because she’s not a real person with interests and desires.  She is, basically, not a human; she’s a plot device.

Just like telling men that women are children, telling men that women aren’t human isn’t going to help open up gender relations.  Why should men care about, listen to, or respect the boundaries of these strange creatures who so fascinate our libidos?  They are so strange and fickle and weird, but they certainly aren’t human.

Now, to be fair, this movie IS better than most in this genre - Wallace, Scott’s roommate, is openly gay and not particularly effeminate.  He sleeps around a lot and isn’t penalized for it or shown to be mentally messed up as a result (he’s actually much more normal than Scott).  Likewise, in an early scene, Ramona decides not to have sex with Scott and he respects her wishes.  That’s a good thing.  On the level most directly related to rape and sexual assault, this movie gets an A+ for respecting consent and boundaries.  I’m a fan of that.

I’ve mentioned media before and its ability to shape the social narratives that make up our lives.  This movie is a good example of the types of messages our culture is currently kicking out at us.  “Seriously,” a hypothetical reader might say, “are you nit-picking on a comic-book movie for not having progressive feminist undertones?  Really?  This is a cute story about a boy who falls in love!  And then fights bad guys by tiger uppercutting them.  That’s awesome and why are you so full of haterade?”  And that hypothetical reader would be completely correct - this story falls exactly in line with the cultural script for what young straight-boy love looks like.  But that’s the problem!  The social script for young straight-boy love doesn’t include a real woman!  If this is what we think of as a standard, if this is the typical story we tell both men and women, that makes everyone think of women as strange non-human beings who need to be won, like a video game.  Scott Pilgrim vs. The World joins a lengthy list of movies, many of which have been critical and commercial successes, like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Garden State, and Elizabethtown (maybe not so much the success on that last one) that have as a major plotline: boy loves girl, except that it’s really boy loves object.  Ramona is, for all intense and purposes in this movie, a macguffin with boobs.

None of this helps create a cultural narrative where we take women seriously, especially not the young men that this film targets.  As much as I like it (and again, I really did like this movie!) I keep wanting to see a film that has the sense of humor this one does, but also does open up the conversation a little bit more.  As bad as the movie itself was, one of my favorite films in this mildly subversive category was the Amanda Bynes film She’s the Man, a mostly goofy take on Twelfth Night.  The main protagonist is female, she tries to win over a boy, and the boy gets a (for a teen movie, anyway) reasonable inner life.  It’s not a good movie, but it’d be nice to see a couple more major media products start to move towards that idea of full personhood for female characters.

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Posted by Dave on 08/23 • (2) CommentsPermalink

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

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