Feminism, sexuality & social justice. With a sense of humor.
Failed senatorial candidate and SBA beneficiary Todd Akin. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
A few years back, a women’s organization with a bad record engaging with young feminists decided to add on an event to their annual conference. It was a forum specifically for younger women, launched with painfully constructed slang: “We’ll be headin’ to Albany and hangin’ at the Crowne Plaza!” The tagline was even written in a graffiti-type font.
Anti-choice organizations’ efforts to present themselves as “pro-woman” give me a similar feeling of second-hand embarrassment—you wish someone would tell them how foolish they sound. But unlike the aforementioned well-meaning organization—who despite cringe-worthy language, works hard to improve women’s lot in life—anti-choice groups use feminist language to push an agenda that puts women’s health and lives in danger. It’s like if your mom tried to prove how cool she was to your friends by punching them in the face.
Leading the “pro-woman,” anti-choice charge is the Susan B. Anthony List—an organization that seeks to elect anti-choice men and women to office. Think of them as the bizarro EMILY’s List. Like its cohorts the Independent Women’s Forum and Feminists for Life, SBA List tries to shroud its radically conservative ideology in pro-woman rhetoric. Hence its name (though there’s no evidence that suffragist Susan B. Anthony was in favor of criminalizing abortion) and mission to prove that access to abortion is actually bad for women.
But a comprehensive report just released by NARAL Pro-Choice America shows just how thinly veiled the SBA List’s anti-feminism really is—no matter how many women-friendly slogans they use.
The organization stood by Todd Akin after his “legitimate rape” comments suggesting that women can’t get pregnant after rape, and said they “couldn’t agree more” with Richard Mourdouck, the GOP candidate for the Indiana Senate who said pregnancy from rape is “something that God intended to happen.” The organization also supported Rick Santorum’s presidential run with over half a million dollars—the man who said pregnancy after rape was a gift from God and that victims should just “make the best out of a bad situation.”
The SBA List, clearly expecting more anti-woman comments from their candidates, even organized a training program for politicians to help them avoid sounding crass and ignorant—even if their policies are just that.
It’s not just the people they support who are out of touch—the SBA List’s leadership is similarly retrograde. Marilyn Musgrave, the organization’s vice president of government affairs, voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act while serving in the Colorado Legislature and has said that legalizing same sex marriage would lead to “group marriage.” She even opposed adoption by same sex couples.
SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, who tried to convince women that Virginia’s widely mocked ultrasound mandate was just “a matter of giving a woman more information,” strangely says that the abortion rate increases the more women use birth control. She’s also said, “the bottom line is that to lose the connection between sex and having children leads to problems.”
This “bottom line” epitomizes how out of touch and antiquated the SBA List is. Ensuring that sex doesn’t always result in children is one of feminism’s greatest wins. Reliable birth control has freed women in a way that arguably no other modern invention has, but to SBA List, that’s too much freedom.
So maybe the SBA List and other conservative women’s organizations are pro-woman in a way—they’re just pro a version of womanhood that most of us left behind a long time ago. And even if they gussy it up in modern garb (the Suzy B blog!) it’s a version of “woman” that modern women are simply not willing to return to.
What happened to LGBT inclusion in comprehensive immigration reform? Read Aura Bogado’s take.
Contraceptives at a pharmacy in Toronto. (Flickr/Cory Doctorow)
Yesterday, the FDA announced that it will make Plan B—also known as emergency contraception (EC) or the morning after pill—available over the counter to women older than 15 years old who can prove their age. This decision comes less than a week before the end of a thirty-day deadline imposed by a federal judge mandating EC be available without a prescription to women of all ages. So despite the FDA’s announcement, the Obama administration still needs to appeal the judge’s decision or request a stay by Monday.
Some heralded the FDA’s decision as a victory—Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards called it “an important step forward.” But Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights—whose lawsuit against the FDA sparked the federal ruling—called the restriction “arbitrary.”
“Lowering the age restriction to 15 for over-the-counter access to Plan B One-Step may reduce delays for some young women—but it does nothing to address the significant barriers that far too many women of all ages will still find if they arrive at the drugstore without identification or after the pharmacy gates have been closed for the night or weekend.”
Indeed, it’s hard to see how most 15-year-olds would be able to access the drug, given that they need to prove their age in the form of a driver’s license, passport or birth certificate. As Sarah Kliff at The Washington Post points out, most states won’t allow teens to apply for a driver’s license until they are 16 years old, and in 2010, only 28 percent of 16-year-olds even had licenses.
Teens who don’t have access to a government ID would not have any easier a time procuring a passport or birth certificate. If a girl had either of those documents, it’s most likely that her parents would have them filed away. And if a teenage girl wanted to obtain a passport or birth certificate herself, there is no way she could do so in the seventy-two hours needed to ensure that Plan B is effective. There’s also a socioeconomic factor to who has licenses and who doesn’t, making the proof-of-age restriction even more burdensome to marginalized communities, especially young women who are undocumented.
Even 15-year-olds with an acceptable form of identification are not out of the woods. A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics showed that many pharmacists don’t understand the law as it pertains to Plan B. The study found that because of pervasive misinformation, nearly 20 percent of 17-year-olds would be denied the drug. And now we’re not even talking about pharmacists—but cashiers, who are more likely to be younger and untrained in protocol surrounding Plan B.
The larger question, however, is why should there be an age restriction at all. The reason a judge ruled Plan B should be available to women and girls of all ages is because it’s safe for all ages. And seriously, if we believe a 14-year-old is too immature to know how to take a pill, do we really think she’s adult enough to handle an unwanted pregnancy?
The truth is that the age restriction is completely arbitrary, tied only to our puritanical comfort levels. And listen, I get it; I think it’s fair to say that most people are uncomfortable with the idea of a 14-year-old having sex. But here’s the thing—access to Plan B isn’t about keeping a 14-year-old from having sex—by the time she gets to the pharmacy, that ship has sailed—it’s about keeping a 14-year-old who has already had sex from getting pregnant. And despite what urban legend (or past embarrassing FDA memos) may tell you, making emergency contraception more available is not more likely to make young teens have sex—it will just make them less likely to end up pregnant.
We can’t let our discomfort with teen sex trump young people’s right to sexual and reproductive health and we can’t continue to let politics trump science. If we care about young women’s health and bodily autonomy and integrity, we’ll drop all age restrictions from emergency contraception. Anything less isn’t just illogical—it’s immoral.
Jill Abramson. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini)
Feminists put up with a lot: the mainstream media constantly announcing the movement’s death, mansplainers, stereotypes about Birkenstocks. The whole pervasive political and cultural sexism thing is no picnic, either. But there’s one thorn in this particular feminist’s side that beats all others—the inability of some men to believe and trust women when they say something is sexist.
Dylan Byers is a perfect example. Early this week, Byers wrote a Politico piece alleging that New York Times editor Jill Abramson was “on the verge of losing the support of the newsroom.” Using anonymous sources, Byers claimed Abramson was “condescending,” “difficult to work with,” “unreasonable” and “uncaring.” Staffers, Byers writes, “question whether she has the temperament to lead the paper.”
Critics pointed out that a similar piece would probably not have been written about a male editor, given that the qualities described as problematic in Abramson are almost always seen as a positive or unremarkable in men. After all, is it really news that a boss can be bossy?
It didn’t help that Byers included a reporter’s description of Abramson’s voice as a “nasal car honk”—shades of calling Hillary Clinton’s voice shrill or cackling—and wrote that a male editor driving his fist through a wall was looked upon “fondly,” while Abramson telling a staffer to leave a meeting to work is somehow monstrous.
Byers responded today to critics in much the same way that some of my more whiny sexist Twitter followers do—defensively and without much new to add. He seems to believe those who thought the piece was sexist simply can’t stomach criticizing a woman: “The idea that women who shatter the glass ceiling should be immune to criticism of their leadership style is itself a dubious double standard.”
No one—especially not the editor of The New York Times—should be beyond critique. But the characterizations of Abramson weren’t criticisms, they were complaints. There hasn’t been a spate of firings or high=profile departures to link Abramson to, and the paper just won four Pulitzers; without any substance to back up Byers’s claims, the piece comes as a well-worn caricature of the bitchy boss.
Byers also writes today that he “did not see it as fitting to interject gender into a story that was, as I saw it, not about gender.” He says because his sources assured him their grievances were not about Abramson’s being a female boss, the article couldn’t possibly be sexist. Leaving that head-scratcher aside—even if the hurt fee fees over Abramson’s “brusqueness” aren’t about her gender, the only reason this handful of complaints constitutes news is precisely because of her gender. As Emily Bell at The Guardian wrote, “When was the last time the approachability of a male editor made for copy?”
Here’s the thing. I understand not giving a ton of weight to the opinion of randoms on the Internet, I really do. But when your peers, writers who specialize in gender issues and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists are all telling you the same thing, perhaps you should momentarily take you fingers out of your ears. And maybe, just maybe, these people are better judges of what is sexist than someone who seems to have a penchant for writing questionable pieces on prominent women.
I imagine that like me, the other women who criticized Byers’s piece are exhausted by all of this. We spend so much time explaining over and over to people why something is sexist that we barely have time to actually fight said sexism. So to all the well-meaning men out there, please consider giving women the benefit of the doubt. We know sexism when we see it better than you do. Do us a favor and trust us.
A national campaign to educate students on Title IX rights is hitting the ground this spring. Read more about how you can help at StudentNation.
The talk of marriage these last few weeks—whether about same sex marriage, young marriage or, most hilariously, Ivy League marriage—reminds me of a fight I had with a high school boyfriend. We had just gotten back together after a brief break up, during which time we both saw other people. He felt very strongly that I had done something wrong by dating someone else. He, of course, was in the clear.
When I pointed out the double standard, he explained his position thusly: If both women and men went around hooking up and having sex, society would be besieged by sexually transmitted diseases. It was up to women to be monogamous and sexually conservative in order to ensure that this wouldn’t happen. (Apparently men are incapable of such a feat.) The health of society, he argued, was dependent on women’s sexual decisions and relationship trends. No readers, I did not date Ross Douthat.
His teen boy logic—as baffling as it was—is actually not far off from conservative culture’s last grasp at saving marriage as they imagine it. And the core of these death throe attempts to hold onto a version of marriage that never really existed is the idea of women—chaste women—as a stabilizing force in society.
Take Focus on the Family’s “talking points” on marriage. Under the headline, “Marriage is Essential to a Thriving Society,” the organizations says straight marriage is necessary because it “socializes men.”
A society’s most serious problem is the unattached male, and marriage links men to women who help channel male sexuality and aggression in socially productive ways. Marriage and parenthood socialize men to care for and respect their wives, other women and children.
See, ladies? We need to be married so that men won’t go raping and pillaging. And let’s not even get into how single moms are told they’re a scourge on society—as if their relationship choices (or non-choices) determine the wellness of the country.
But marriage isn’t just for men’s and society’s benefit of course—if women don’t want to be sad and alone, we’ll hurry up and get a husband as soon as humanly possible. After all, there’s nothing more important a woman can do than be a good traditional wife. Even if you are a literal rocket scientist, the lede of your life will be about your commitment to your husband or your beef stroganoff recipe.
If traditional marriage benefited everyone—not just men and their pesky unsocialized ways—there wouldn’t need to be quite so much cajoling women about how fabulous it all is. (I will never forget the laugh I had when David Brooks assured women that “power is in the kitchen.”) The truth is that this desperate nostalgia for traditional marriage and antiquated gender roles will never be stronger than women’s will to be free from constraining norms.
Conservatives need to understand that what they’re pushing for is an impossible sell: Women’s subservience to the domestic as a cultural grounding force, while men get to work and explore and create? No thank you. We don’t want the good of society on our relationships’ shoulders.
There will always be wistful, wishful-thinking articles hoping to turn the tide on women’s sexuality and partnerships. But there will also always be more women thinking, “good riddance.”
Immigration reform is—or can be—good for women. Pramila Jayapal explains.
Kris Kitko leads chants of protest at an abortion-rights rally at the state Capitol in Bismarck, North Dakota, March 25, 2013. (AP Photo/James MacPherson)
According to a recent United Nations report, North Dakota is torturing women. Seriously. Juan Méndez, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on torture, has included lack of access to abortion in his yearly report on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Considering North Dakota’s new law which bans abortion after six weeks, it stands to reason that the state is torturing its female citizens.
I’m not trying to be trite—I do believe, as Méndez does, that forcing women to carry pregnancies they don’t want is cruel:
International and regional human rights bodies have begun to recognize that abuse and mistreatment of women seeking reproductive health services can cause tremendous and lasting physical and emotional suffering, inflicted on the basis of gender. Examples of such violations include abusive treatment and humiliation in institutional settings; involuntary sterilization; denial of legally available health services such as abortion and post-abortion care.
But if you believe abortion is a “convenience,” rather than a human right, saying as much is controversial. To the American anti-choice movement, it’s even laughable.
But how else would you describe laws that are meant to punish women for being sexually active? Sure, anti-choice legislation and activism prides itself on showy pro-woman rhetoric. Women’s Right To Know! Women Deserve Better Than Abortion! But at the end of the day, forced pregnancy is less about protecting women or “life” than it is about punishment and humiliation.
Rape exceptions are the clearest example. While I agree that forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy that is the result of rape is an even further assault on women’s bodily integrity, the foundation of a rape exception is that some women “deserve” abortions and some don’t. The underlying message is pretty clear—a woman who has been forced to have sex has done nothing wrong, a woman who had consensual sex has. (Bill Napoli’s now-infamous example of a “sodomized virgin” comes to mind.”)
Other restrictions and attempted limits on abortion access prove just as transparent. In 2007, for example, legislators in Ohio pushed a bill that would have mandated women get a written not from the father of the fetus before being able to obtain an abortion. If they didn’t know who the father was, they would not be allowed to access the procedure. This is about humiliating women and making the decision to have an abortion as difficult as possible.
A report from the Center for Reproductive Rights, Reproductive Rights Violations as Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: A Critical Human Rights Analysis, points out that degrading treatment is defined as an act “aimed at humiliating the victim, regardless of whether severe pain was inﬂicted.” Anti-choice legislation seems to be written with that exact goal in mind.
Ultrasound laws—frequently called women’s “right to know” laws—are pushed under the guise of making sure women fully understand what they’re about to do. As if women are so stupid that they don’t realize what getting an abortion is. One Rhode Island doctor said a bill mandating ultrasounds before abortions “turned the ultrasound into a torture machine.” And for women whose wanted pregnancies are ending, these laws are beyond cruel. One woman in Texas who was forced to have three sonograms in one day and listen to a doctor describe her doomed fetus in detail called the experience a “superfluous layer of torment” and recalled sobbing throughout the procedure.
Can anyone really argue that Savita Halappanavar was not tortured in Ireland? Despite excruciating pain and the fact that her pregnancy was ending, Savita was denied an abortion because doctors wanted to wait for her fetus’s heartbeat to stop. She died in pain asking for help. It’s the same fate Republicans would have for American women—don’t forget the ironically named “Protect Life Act” that would have allowed hospitals to deny dying women life-saving abortions.
Americans are catching on. The majority of people in the U.S. consider themselves “pro-choice,” and though most support some sort of limits on access, many are wary of punitive legislation like ultrasound laws and laws that allow health care providers or pharmacists to deny procedures or medications. And the more people find out what these restrictions are really about—as they did with ultrasound mandates thanks to media and social media—the more likely, I believe, they’ll be to oppose them.
So perhaps there is progress being made. But the fight won’t end until all women—whether they’re in North Dakota, Ireland or anywhere else—can access abortion without shame, fear, humiliation or government interference. Anything else is cruel—and yes, torture.
Believe that marriage rests on love and compassion? As Tom Tomorrow quips, that makes you a pervert.
Trent Mays, left, and Ma’lik Richmond sit in juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio, March 15, 2013. (Reuters/Keith Srakocic)
Feminists breathed a sigh of relief on Sunday when two young men in Steubenville, Ohio, Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, were found guilty of raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl. In a case where social media, texts and video painted a clear-as-day picture of the horrors that happened that night, anything other than a guilty verdict was unthinkable.
But the trial outcome doesn’t change the fact that these two men, along with a party of onlookers, didn’t think anything was wrong—or even out of the ordinary—about sexually violating someone. And as the media and public response to the trial demonstrated, it’s not just the rapists who believe penetrating an unconscious girl is little more than teenage party hijinks. The truth is that for all of our cultural bluster surrounding rape—how awful it is, how it must be stopped—we’re still a country that treats sexual assault as a joke.
On the night of the assault, the rapists and their friends were so sure they were doing nothing wrong that they broadcast their crimes on social networks and kept photographic momentos. Mays and Richmond joked about the rape, sending pictures to friends and sending texts peppered with “LOLs.” Mays even texted a friend that “she was naked the whole time but she was like dead.” Bystanders at the party similarly looked at the assault and humiliation of this unconscious girl not as rape or something to worry about, but as typical party fare.
One teen who testified took a cell phone video of Mays digitally penetrating the victim in a car, and also saw Mays try to get the girl to perform a sex act on him but “she didn’t really respond to it.” Another witness walked in on the girl being raped by Richmond, did nothing and left the party. When asked why he didn’t stop the assault, he said he didn’t realize it was rape: “It wasn’t violent… I thought [rape] was forcing yourself on someone.” This same teen has taken keys away from a drunk friend earlier in the night. He knew that driving drunk was dangerous, but not that there was anything wrong with penetrating an unconscious girl.
Even in the days after the rape, text messages show that the seriousness of the assault—or the idea that it was an assault at all—was lost on Mays. He wrote to a friend, “I shoulda raped her since everyone thinks I did.” Mays even texted the victim that she should have thanked him for taking care of her.
This attitude wasn’t limited to students—text messages also indicate that football coach Reno Saccoccia led the young men to believe what happened wasn’t a big deal: “Like, he was joking about it, so I’m not worried.”
Even once the defendants were found guilty, the fact that they had committed rape still seemed to escape them—Mays apologized for taking pictures of the assault, not for the assault itself.
Since the verdict, the teenage victim has been attacked on social media—she has been faulted for drinking too much, for agreeing to get into a car with boys and for “ruining” the lives of her rapists by bringing charges. The harassment has gotten so bad that two women were just charged with threatening the victim on Facebook and Twitter.
CNN’s coverage of the verdict—which consisted largely of bemoaning the lost “promising” lives of the rapists—was so outrageous it bordered on parody. (Literally: a much-criticized segment sounded suspiciously like this Onion video.)
This kind of response, sadly, has come to be expected. It’s a continuation of the same old story—a narrative that started long before Steubenville. A story that says everyone is overreacting, this isn’t a big deal, this is PC-ness run amok. It’s a common story in a country that doesn’t have a real understanding of what rape really is.
Decades of feminist work on rape awareness may have changed policy, but it has done little to change the culture. In fact, the legislative progress we’ve made on sexual assault often provides a rhetorical shield for those who don’t want to admit we live in a rape culture: How can that be possible?! Rape is illegal! No one condones it!
But are we really that surprised that these two young men didn’t think their actions were wrong?
Videos of young men running up to women they don’t know just to grab their ass or stomach and run away are played for laughs on shows like Tosh.0. (The show is run by a comedian who garnered tremendous support after he “joked” about a woman in his audience being gang raped.) A “funny” montage of women’s breasts shown at the Oscars included rape scenes. We have handfuls of qualifiers—date, legitimate, forcible, gray—that we throw in front of “rape” because we want to know if an assault was a “real” rape or one of those non-rapes Republican politicians keep talking about.
And it’s not just rape that’s the joke—it’s women. Our very existence is presented to young men as fodder for sex and laughs, our humiliation and pain as goalposts for their masculinity. Basically, we’re anything other than people deserving of respect and humanity. While mainstream culture fools itself into thinking that Americans take rape seriously, most women know better. We get the joke. We’re just tired of being the punchline.
Unless jock culture changes drastically, Steubenville-type incidents aren’t going away anytime soon, Dave Zirin writes.
Activists protest the cover-up in the Steubenville rape case at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio. (AP Photo/Steubenville Herald-Star, Michael D. McElwain)
Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman are the editors of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.
Editor's Note: The two Steubenville, Ohio, teenagers charged with raping a 16-year-old girl this summer were found guilty on Sunday. We'll have more on the case in the coming week. In the mean time, read Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman's take on what we can learn about consent and rape culture from the case, below.
If a woman doesn’t say “no” to sex—is that the same thing as saying “yes”? That’s the question at the center of the Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial that began this week. The defense for two high school football players accused of raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl will focus on issues of consent, specifically what “consent” really means. To defense attorney Walter Madison, who is representing one of the accused men, consent is not an affirmative “yes.” He told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that what happened wasn’t rape because the young woman “didn’t affirmatively say no.”
But the absence of a “no” is not the same thing as the presence of a “yes.” And until American culture and law frames sexual consent as proactively, enthusiastically given, there will be no justice for rape victims. It’s time for the US to lose the “ ‘no’ means no” model for understanding sexual assault and focus on “only ‘yes’ means yes” instead.
It’s already true, under most state laws, that a woman doesn’t need to say “no” in order for her assault to be considered a rape. But our cultural understanding of rape is so muddled with “only ‘no’ means no” doctrine that lawyers often only need to suggest to juries that the victim didn’t object, or didn’t object loudly enough, in order to secure a not-guilty verdict.
When the University of Montana football player Jordan Johnson was acquitted this month, for example, an alternate juror told the press that the victim had given “mixed messages and comments to friends” about the assault. The young woman had admitted she didn’t scream during the alleged rape, and wrote a note to a friend expressing guilt that she didn’t fight back hard enough. The jury interpreted her lack of a clear “no”—here linked to common signs of trauma—as evidence she could have wanted to have sex.
But this kind of logic doesn’t fly in real life sexual interactions. Are all women really to be considered willing sexual participants unless otherwise stated? If we flirt with someone, or even kiss them, does that give them permission to do whatever else they want to our bodies until we strenuously object? Is this the kind world we want for women—or for sex, for that matter?
The only way to know that sex is consensual is if there’s a freely and clearly given “yes.” This may sound radical to the uninitiated, but don’t we all want to make sure we’re only having sex with people who are actually interested? Ensuring enthusiastic consent requires only the most basic respect we all owe our partners in the first place: paying attention to how they’re doing, and asking them if we can’t tell.
It’s not that difficult. But even if it were, it’s the only way to ensure a genuinely equal world in which women’s bodies aren’t presumed to be available to men until otherwise stated. Without an affirmative consent model, rapists will continue to go free based on outrageous arguments about whether or not their victim didn’t want it enough. Current research demonstrates that most rapists already know they don’t have consent. It’s the rest of us who are confused. Affirmative consent removes this confusion.
Late last year, the Connecticut State Supreme Court overturned a sexual assault conviction for a man who attacked a woman with severe cerebral palsy, who according to court documents has the “intellectual functional equivalent of a 3-year-old.” Because of the way consent is defined in state law around rape and physical incapacitation, the court said because the woman was capable of “biting, kicking, scratching, screeching, groaning or gesturing,” she could have communicated a lack of consent. But why should she have to? Is her body considered free property unless she bites hard enough? In the absence of a law built on affirmative consent, her rapist remains free to strike again.
Similarly, the Steubenville defense attorneys say the teenage girl in this case was not “substantially impaired,” the Ohio standard for being unable to consent to sex. Despite widely circulated pictures of the young woman’s limp body being dragged by the two accused, the defense insists she was conscious enough to say “no” because after the alleged assault she was able to give someone a passcode to unlock her phone. Remembering a habitually used four-digit number is not a “yes.”
But in a culture that insists women prove they didn’t want to have sex, anything becomes “yes.” A passcode. The fact that the young woman got into a car with a group of boys willingly. Even the victim’s silence becomes a “yes”; Madison told the press, “The person who is the accuser here is silent just as she was that night, and that’s because there was consent.”
There is something seriously broken with our system and our culture when a teenage girl who is so incapacitated that her peers mocked her as a “dead girl” could actually be considered—even for a moment—able to consent to sex.
We’ve already made strides in reframing the way we think—and prosecute—sexual assault. It was just last year—after many years of work by activists—that the FBI changed its archaic definition of rape from “forcible” assault of a woman to penetration (of any gender) without consent. It may take some doing on all our parts to make this next shift, but if we’re serious about preventing the next Steubenville, it’s time to get serious about affirmative consent. Only a “yes” can mean yes.
The Occidental College administration broke its promise on reporting sexual assault cases—and students are speaking out. Read more in this week’s “Dispatches from the US Student Movement.”
Zerlina Maxwell. (Fox News)
Of all the feminist ideas that draw ire, one would think that “don’t rape” is a fairly noncontroversial statement. It seems not.
Last week, Zerlina Maxwell, political commentator and writer, went on Fox News’ Hannity to talk about the myth that gun ownership can prevent rape. Maxwell made the apt point that the onus should not be on women to have to arm themselves but on men not to rape them:
I don’t think that we should be telling women anything. I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there…You’re talking about this as if it’s some faceless, nameless criminal, when a lot of times it’s someone you know and trust…If you train men not to grow up to become rapists, you prevent rape.
And with that, the floodgates of misogyny opened. Right-wing media outlets like TheBlaze oversimplified Maxwell’s comments, writing that her call to teach men not to rape was “bizarre.” Online, Maxwell started receiving racist and misogynist threats—including, ironically enough, threats of rape.
The reaction to Maxwell’s comments, while horrific, are not entirely surprising. Women who speak their mind—especially women of color—are often targets of harassment and threats. But what I find most telling is the incredulousness people are expressing over the notion that we teach men not to rape. Crazy talk!
Here’s the thing—when you argue that it’s impossible to teach men not to rape, you are saying that rape is natural for men. That this is just something men do. Well I’m sorry, but I think more highly of men than that. (And if you are a man who is making this argument, you’ll forgive me if I don’t ever want to be in a room alone with you.)
And when you insist that the only way to prevent rape is for women to change their behavior—whether it’s recommending that they carry a weapon or not wear certain kinds of clothing—you are not only giving out false information, you are arguing that misogyny is a given. That the world will continue to be a dangerous and unfair place for women and we should just get used to the fact. It’s a pessimistic and, frankly, lazy view on life. Because when you argue that this is “just the way things are,” what you are really saying is, I don’t care enough to do anything about it.
Do people making this argument really want to live in a world where we just shrug our shoulders at epidemic-levels of sexual violence and expect every woman to be armed? (And little girls, do we give them guns too?)
The truth is that focusing on ways women can prevent rape will always backfire. Not only because it’s ineffective—what a woman wears or what she drinks has nothing to do with whether or not she’ll be attacked—but because it creates a culture in which women are responsible for men’s actions. Because when you say there are things women can do to prevent someone from raping them—owning a gun, not walking in a certain neighborhood—you are ensuring that rape victims who don’t take these steps will be blamed.
Rape can be prevented by focusing on men and misogyny. All rapes, ever? No. But creating a world with less sexual violence starts with abandoning the awful idea that rape is an inevitable part of life. That’s not naivete—it’s hope and it’s action. And that’s better than complacency any day.
What does Oz the Great and Powerful owe to turn-of-the-century radical feminism? Read Michelle Dean’s take.
Pro-choice activists stand outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization Inc., Mississippi’s only remaining commercial abortion clinic. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Feminists got two great pieces of news on the violence against women front this week. First, the Violence Against Women Act was passed—and not the watered-down Republican one either! This version of VAWA contained protections for the LGBT community and allows Native American courts to prosecute non-Native perpetrators on tribal land.
Then we learned that Girls Gone Wild—the exploitative porn empire that targets young intoxicated women—filed for bankruptcy. As I said on Twitter, I’m pretty sure a feminist angel got her wings as proprietor Joe Francis signed on the dotted line.
But in the same week we got this great news, a rape survivor at the University of North Carolina was threatened with expulsion for “intimidating” her rapist by becoming an anti-rape activist, there was another attack on Planned Parenthood, a Kansas bill moved forward that would allow doctors to lie to pregnant women in an effort to prevent them for getting abortions and a 9-year-old girl of color—a child—was called a “c*nt.” One step forward, twenty steps back.
It reminds me of a question I get asked a lot when I speak to younger feminists: How do you continue to do this work when it’s just so depressing?
Every day, there’s another piece of bad news. A lawmaker says something egregious about rape. A sexist law passes. A movie or television show or viral video promotes an awful stereotype about women and sexuality. That doesn’t even get into the outrageous number of women across the United States who will be sexually assaulted or had violence done to them by their partners. (And that’s just in this country!)
On top of dealing with the sheer awfulness of the way misogyny operates in the world, those of us who do feminist work—from writers and nonprofit workers to everyday activists—have to deal with the people around us insisting that we’re imagining the whole thing! Lindy West at Jezebel calls it “sexism fatigue”:
I am tired of being called a shrieking harridan for pointing out inequalities so tangible and blatant that they are regularly codified into law. I am tired of being told to provide documentation of inequality in the comments sections of a website where a staff of smart women documents inequality as fast as our fingers can move. Like, you might as well write me a note on a banana peel demanding that I prove to you that bananas exist. I am tired of being asked to “cite sources” proving that sexism is real (that RAPE is real, even!), because there is no way to concisely cite decades and decades of rigorous academia.
I want to be able to tell younger feminists that it gets better, that you don’t mind the emotional exhaustion, the anger and the sadness that can come from doing this work. But I can’t. So this is what I tell them:
Try to feel grateful for the feminist fatigue. A lot of people do this work out of sheer survival—the ability to notice your exhaustion and anger and sadness means you have space in your day and in your head, a privilege not afforded to many. So shift your thinking, and consider how lucky we are to be having this conversation.
Embrace the anger. It’s fine to be pissed off—too often we’re so busy trying to shirk the angry feminist stereotype that we forget how being passionately mad can light a fire under your ass. No one does this better than the inimitable Staceyann Chin in a spoken word piece that should be every online feminist’s manifesto: “Tweet This, You Small-Minded Motherfucker.”
Embrace the joy and find community. The truth is that feminists are some of the most fun people I know. They play drinking games, dance like they mean it, speak satire to power and build communities that will support you when no one else does. This is a movement of bad-asses, and—like me—you may find some of your best friends here.
Spend energy wisely. You already know that your activist energy—be it physical, mental or emotional—is a precious resource. Don’t waste it by talking to brick walls. This will frustrate you and change nothing. Consider doing your work in terms of specific goals. Maybe you can’t take down the patriarchy, but you can change a school policy on sexual assault, get a local pharmacy to carry Plan B, or help a friend. Feminist work is a lot more manageable in small pieces—it allows you “wins” that energize, and chips away at broader structures.
Create something. A blog, a tweet, a zine, a T-shirt, a march—have something tangible to scrawl your energy across.
Above all, don’t forget that this work isn’t just important, it’s necessary. So take care of yourself, acknowledge it’s hard and then get back to it. We need you.
This year’s Oscars were an object study in sexism (and more). Read Michelle Dean’s take.
Oscar Pistorius is led from the Boschkop police station east of Pretoria en route to court for his bail hearing as a suspect in the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. (AP Photo)
Here we go again. Another woman shot dead by her partner, another round of media coverage fawning over the killer. Just over two months ago, it was Jovan Belcher—he was called a “family man” after shooting and killing Kasandra Perkins, his girlfriend and mother of his newborn daughter. Today its South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius, who has been charged with the murder of his 29-year-old girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
Just one day after shooting Steenkamp four times, Pistorius has been called “calm and positive” and “inspirational.” (Steenkamp? She’s been called “a leggy blonde.”)
One reporter at The New York Times who spent a week with the double-amputee athlete, wrote that Pistorius was “not as cautious as he always should be…but I didn’t see anger in him.” The headline is “The Adrenaline-Fueled Life of Oscar Pistorius.” He was just an impulsive guy!
Give me a break.
Early media reports speculated that Pistorius shot Steenkamp mistakenly, believing she was a burglar. But prosecutors don't share that view. After all, the police had been called to his home multiple times in the past for domestic altercations. We’ve seen this happen before—many, many times before—yet still we insist on lying to ourselves. This murder may have happened in South Africa, but the misogynist response to the crime has become a familiar theme here in the United States.
The national conversation around domestic violence murders is not a discourse as much as it is a fairy tale—a narrative we create to make sense of the madness. After all, it’s more comforting to believe that Belcher had brain damage than it is to admit that someone people so admired was a controlling, violent abuser. It’s easier to think that Pistorius accidentally shot Steenkamp than realize the murder is a foreseeable end to a violent relationship.
It’s why we blame dead women for the unthinkable violence done against them—mostly because of misogyny, but also because it provides a false sense of safety. In the days after her murder, Perkins was criticized for staying out late (the nerve!), accused of trying to leave him and “take his money.” Given the sexualized descriptions of Steenkamp, I’m sure it won’t be long before someone suggests she somehow brought this on herself—she was making him jealous or flirted too much. We need to believe that these women did something to cause the violence, because then it means the same thing would never happen to us. (We’re not like “those girls!”)
Our culture is so attached to this myth making that some are willing to forgo all logic and ignore all facts. In the wake of Perkins’ murder, and now after Steenkamp’s, conservatives and gun enthusiasts insist that if these women were armed, they would still be alive. Never mind that both women lived in a house where guns were available, and yet they still died.
When I was a volunteer emergency room advocate for victims of rape and domestic violence, the first question we were trained to ask women who had been abused by their partners was whether or not there was a gun in the home. Because we knew that women whose partners had access to a gun were seven times more likely to be killed. In fact, women who are killed by their partners are more likely to be murdered by a gun than all other means combined.
Despite this tower of evidence, people will continue to insist that these women could have somehow stopped the violence. (Inaccuracies aside, the idea that women have a responsibility to keep someone from killing them rather than an abuser not to commit murder is baffling.)
The more we tell ourselves and others these lies, the more cover we give to those would do violence against women. We create a narrative where victims are to blame and abusers heroized. And perhaps worst of all, we create a culture where we fool ourselves into thinking these murders are something that just happens—unforeseeable tragedies rather than preventable violence.
The reality of domestic violence murders is stark and scary—but it is still the reality. And no amount of story-telling will stop the killings. Only the truth can do that.
A global movement to end violence against women, One Billion Rising, is taking off. Read Laura Flanders’s primer.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story reported that Pistorius claimed he had mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar. In fact, early media reports speculated that, not Pistorius himself. The story has been corrected.