Feminism, sexuality & social justice. With a sense of humor.
Last week, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said it was better for children to have a parent at home. “To have one parent to stay closely connected and at home during those early years of education can be very very important,” he said. It’s not hard to imagine which parent he’s talking about.
Romney’s statement didn’t elicit much in the way of outrage, a sign that American women have one more hurdle to overcome on the way to equality: the sexism of mom-ism. It’s no longer enough that women love their children. To be a truly committed parent, women are expected to be mothers above all else—we’re “moms first.”
Michelle Obama says that despite all her accomplishments, her “most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief’.” Ann Romney told the crowd at the Republican National Convention that it’s mothers “who really hold this country together.”
“We’re the mothers, we’re the wives, we’re the grandmothers, we’re the big sisters, we’re the little sisters, we’re the daughters.”
The sentiment may seem innocuous, but there’s a danger in returning to an ideal where women’s most important identity is relational rather than individual. If we want equality, women with children would be better served calling themselves people first, moms second.
After all, this is not the first time American women have been down this road. “Republican motherhood”—a term coined to describe women’s roles around the American Revolution—encouraged women to be part of the political process by raising good citizens. Do we really want to go back to a time where women’s most important political contributions are caring for the children who will go on to make the real decisions, have the real power?
And this venerated new mom-ism is the very identity crisis that Betty Friedan skewered in The Feminine Mystique almost fifty years ago—a culture where women “answer the question ‘Who am I’ by saying ‘Tom’s wife…Mary’s mother.’”
What makes this “moms first” identification so insidious is that for parents, motherhood is a tremendous part of who we are. We love our kids more than anything and our relationships with them are our most treasured. Declaring that loudly and proudly seems like a given. And for those who have been historically undervalued as parents—women of color, in particular—seeing women like Michelle Obama calling attention to her motherhood can be a powerful moment.
But still, identifying as a mom first in a culture that pays lip service to parenthood without actually supporting it has consequences. It means that women are expected to be everything—and give up anything—for their children. Whatever women do that seems to separate them from “true” motherhood is seen as misguided, or at worst, selfish. If we formula-feed we’re not giving our babies the best start in life. If we work outside the home, we must do it with tremendous guilt and anxiety. Time away from our children in the form of an occasional movie or hobby is seen as a treat rather than an expected part of living a full life.
Accepting this role without argument or critique also reinforces political inequity, assuring the powers that be that women can be satiated with political table scraps. If raising children is “reward enough,” there’s no need for paid parental leave or subsidized child care. “Fulfillment” becomes a stand in for structural support, parental joy for actual change.
Even the attempted rollbacks of women’s reproductive rights—from debates over contraception to legislation that seeks to grant fetuses “personhood”—are linked to the cult of motherhood.
In an instructional publication for their supporters, the anti-abortion group National Right to Life writes that “women have to stop apologizing for the fact that they bear children.” If you believe that women’s natural and most important role is motherhood then it’s easy to justify limiting access to birth control and abortion—you’re just making sure women fulfill their true purpose. The strategic targeting of marginalized women for sterilization or long term birth control is based on dehumanization and the idea of a particular kind of perfect motherhood. And seeing women as mothers before people is what paves the way for legislation like last year’s ironically named Protect Life Act, which would have allowed hospitals to deny women abortions even if they needed one to save their life. Mothers first, remember?
It’s understandable that some women would embrace motherhood as their primary and most important identity. When you have little power, you take it where you can. Trumpeting the supremacy of motherhood and domesticity is instant access to cultural approval. But the veneer of importance is not power. How can any American mother truly believe that her work is valued when every policy, every mocking magazine cover, every pat-on-the-head Mother’s Day sentiment tells them different?
The truth is right in front of us. When Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan was at the Democratic National Convention, reporters asked about her possible run against Governor Pat Quinn. Specifically, they wanted to know whether she could be a good governor while raising her two young daughters. “Wow, does anybody ever ask that question?” she responded. Well, not to men.
Fathers are never expected to subsume their identity into parenthood the way that mothers are. If President Obama were to tell us that he is ’father-in-chief’ first, America would balk. How could a man be an effective president if he put the needs of his children above the needs of his country?
Yes, we are mothers and sisters and daughters and wives. We’re also much more. And declaring our individual importance as people and citizens does not diminish the depth of love we have for our children or the central role parenthood plays in our lives.
When we tout ourselves mothers first, women give those who would enshrine their dehumanization more firepower and assure that their domestic work will only ever be paid in thanks, not in policy or power. Until that changes, I’m a mother second.
For more of Jessica’s writing on parenthood, check out her new book, Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness.
And for more Nation coverage of gender politics, read Bryce Covert on the absence of women’s rights discussion in the Denver debate.
Rush Limbaugh is worried about penises. Specifically, he’s concerned that feminism (I’m sorry, ‘feminazis’) have contributed to decreasing penis size. Responding to an Italian study that reports penises are 10 percent smaller than they were fifty years ago, last week Limbaugh pointed to feminism, feminazis and “chickification” as the cause.
Ladies, the cat is out of the bag. Our cover of fighting for equal social, political and economic opportunities for women has been blown. The phallus has always been the centerpiece—and the target—of all feminist thought. The upside is that we can finally be open about our true agenda: A small dick on every man. (’Cause who likes a big one, amirite?!)
This isn’t the first time someone has caught on to feminism’s real goal, of course. The world has a long history of outfoxing Operation Chestnut.
Back in the day when our sisters-in-arms—witches—were being persecuted, the Malleus Maleficarum (kind of a witch-hunter’s guidebook) warned readers of the ways in which we could hide or steal penises. Sadly, feminists traded this important magical power to sea sirens who—to this day—use cold bodies of water to take their prey via shrinkage.
In more modern times, without our witchy powers to take the penis by force, feminists have been forced to use more secretive methods. There’s no reason to hide it anymore… the soybean is our current weapon of choice. You didn’t actually think the feminist/vegetarian link was a coincidence, did you?! I mean, tofu is disgusting—of course we had an ulterior motive there. One brave man figured us out—“Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality”—but we have the government on our side. So no worries, sisters!
Unfortunately, there are too many men who—despite their penchant for tattooed hipster girls—won’t submit to eating soybean products, so feminists have had to create an additional strategy: we are fucking the hard-ons right off of you. That’s right. You may not know it, but men’s penises actually wilt in the presence of a sexually independent woman. Laura Sessions Stepp gets it—nothing a turns a man off more than a lady who wants to sleep with him.
Rush Limbaugh may have let the world know what feminists are actually up to, but his truth-telling will not stop us. Because if our soy/sex plan doesn’t work out, we can always send our underground army of harpies. Don’t make us do it, guys.
For more Jessica Valenti, check out her skewering of Republican governor John Kasich.
At an event for Mitt Romney last night, Ohio Governor John Kasich did his best to pay tribute to women by talking about the difficulties of being a political spouse.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “You know, they’re at home, doing the laundry and doing so many things while we’re up here on stage.… [it’s hard] to put up with the travel schedule and have to be at home taking care of the kids.”
To tell the truth, I’m not outraged over Governor Kasich’s remarks. He was just complimenting women the only way he likely knows how—by acknowledging their domestic acumen. Given the outrageous remarks about women lately—from “legitimate rape” to slutty birth control users—suggesting that all political wives do is the laundry is the least offensive comment from a Republican in months.
Besides, to conservatives, recognizing women for their roles as wives and mothers—rather than as individuals unto themselves—is a fabulous compliment. It’s a pat on the head for all those ironed shirts. But this focus on women’s caretaking is more than just misguided attempt to woo female voters, it’s a disturbing window into the very limited way that Republicans view women.
After Ann Romney’s epic RNC “I love women” moment, MSNBC host and Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry noted how her speech focused on women “in their relational roles—women are mothers, women are widows, women are wives.”
“Actually women are lots of other things,” Harris-Perry said. But not in the Republican imagination, where women are happiest and home and most fulfilled by their husband’s accomplishments—not their own. Where being a leading lady means loving your supporting role.
It’s as if Republicans view wives as unpaid interns—expected to do grunt work just for the experience and joy of being part of someone else’s success. (At least the interns get something on their resume out of it.)
This isn’t to say that the care and domestic work that women do isn’t important—it is. In addition to the important task of raising children, domestic labor is what allows these politicians to do their public work. As Jill Filipovic has written, “Men who have stay-at-home wives literally have nothing other than work to worry about.”
They have someone who is raising their kids, cooking them dinner, cleaning the house, maintaining the social calendar, taking the kids to doctor’s appointments and after-school activities, getting the dry-cleaning, doing the laundry, buying groceries and on and on (or, in the case of 1% wives, someone who coordinates a staff to do many of those things). That model enables men to work longer hours and be more productive.
But if you’re going to value domestic work, really value it—don’t just give it a wink and a pinch on the butt. And that’s the problem with this constant veneration of women as wives and mothers—it’s all talk. It’s easy for male politicians to acknowledge their wives’s hard work when the expectation is that this is simply what women exist for—and even easier to vote for policies that assume the same. Because if we’re just wives and mothers—not individual people with their own desires—what do we need with pesky things like the right to bodily autonomy or equal pay? After all, we have laundry to do.
For more on gender politics, read Katha Pollitt’s take on Naomi Wolf’s new book.
As the “war on women” continues, my sole comfort has been watching dumbfounded Republicans try to explain away the misogyny that’s so foundational to their agenda.
In the midst of the fallout over Todd Akin’s comments claiming “legitimate” rape victims are unlikely to get pregnant, the science-whiz whined to Mike Huckabee in a radio interview that he “made a single error in one sentence.” He was frustrated that people “are upset over one word spoke in one day in one sentence.”
Bryan Fischer, a spokesperson from the American Family Association, complained about the Akin backlash, saying, “You talk about somebody being a victim of forcible assault, that would be Todd Akin.” Mitt Romney denounced Akin’s remarks as “insulting” and “inexcusable,” but accused the Obama campaign of trying to link Akin to the GOP as a whole, calling it “sad” and that the move stooped “to a low level.”
But what Romney, Akin, and their ilk don’t understand is that women’s anger isn’t about “one word” or one politician—it’s about an ethos, a Republican ideology steeped in misogyny and willful ignorance.
Akin’s remarks—a combination of cluelessness and sexism—were a reminder that it isn’t just disdain for women that directs the GOP agenda on all things female. Misogyny is part of it, but what’s more insidious than the clear-cut contempt embedded in qualifiers like “legitimate” or “forcible,” is the sly sexism of disinterest.
To Republicans, women exist parenthetically—pesky asides that occasionally require some lip service. It’s why Paul Ryan can describe rape as a “method of conception” without batting an eye, dismiss criticisms about the term “forcible rape” by saying it was “stock language,” or call a health exception to abortion legislation a “loophole.” It’s why Republican Senate candidate Tom Smith of Pennsylvania can say rape is “similar” to having a baby “out of wedlock.” It’s the thinking that led John McCain to put air quotes around “health of the mother” in a 2008 presidential debate with Obama, and why during a Republican primary debate earlier this year the candidates had a whole conversation about limiting birth control without even uttering the word “woman.”
Women simply don’t rate in the Republican imagination—our lives have been reduced to scare quotes and head pats.
It may sound hyperbolic to argue that Republicans deny women’s humanity, but there’s no exaggerating how their policies bear this out. Personhood initiatives, for example, legally give fertilized eggs more constitutional rights than women. As Lynn Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women has pointed out, “There’s no way to give embryos constitutional personhood without subtracting women from the community of constitutional persons.” Abortion legislation like the Republican sponsored HR 3 would have made it legal for hospitals to let women die rather than give them life-saving abortions. And how else do you justify demanding women get a paternal permission slip before obtaining an abortion if not to say that you don’t think her a full person capable of controlling her own life?
Republicans only bother to acknowledge women when they’re reasserting our status as second-class citizens. Sure, they occasionally feign outrage over supposed attacks on stay-at-home moms (while nary a word of paid parental leave is spoken) and they trot out their wives to assure us how much their hubby respects women. But we know the truth—that this “respect” is conditional. It’s not based on a belief that women are deserving of human rights, but on a very specific set of rules and roles we are expected to adhere by.
Republicans can spin all they like, but what they don’t understand is that women can recognize dehumanization from a mile away. We live it every day. We know what it is to talk to a person and suddenly realize they believe us stupid because of our gender. We listen while people mansplain topics we’re experts in. We watch media that presents us as little more than masturbation fodder and walk down the street feeling lecherous stares on our back. We know what you mean when you say “legitimate” rape. We know exactly what you’re thinking when you pretend to give a shit.
This weekend I went to a wedding where I sat next to a woman who was pregnant with her second child. Like me, her health and life were put at risk when she developed pre-eclampsia during her first pregnancy. She was livid. She could hardly contain her rage as she spoke about GOP policies on women’s health. She was fortunate—as I was—to have her wanted pregnancy go to term. But when Republicans mock the health exception, she told me, “they’re talking about me.”
“They’re saying it’s fine if I die.”
Women know exactly how little Republicans think of them. So please, guys, do us the favor of not acting so shocked when we call you on it.
Republicans: Do your friends make fun of you for your shameful lack of awareness on women’s issues? Have to vote on a bill that will legislate uteruses but not quite sure you know what that word means? Well, look no further—this quiz will help hone your lady-legislating skills with expert knowledge from your peers. Remember to use a number-two pencil, and no looking at your neighbor’s paper.
1. What is rape?
a. A “forcible” assault. Minors, incest victims and date-rape victims need not apply.
b. A figment of women’s imagination.
d. Something that happens to drunk sluts.
2. What do we know about pregnancy that occurs after a rape?
a. It’s a God-given gift. Enjoy!
b. No such thing. The vagina employs bio-bouncers that will “shut that whole thing down.”
c. Impossible, because “the juices don’t flow.”
d. Trick question. There’s no such thing as rape. Duh.
3. How does emergency contraception work?
a. Melts snowflake babies.
b. Turns women into wanton harlots. Proceed with caution.
d. The cause of teen sex cults—distribute widely!
4. How does the birth control pill work?
a. You take one every time you have sex. The more pills you take, the sluttier you are.
c. Enacts a protective shield around the genital area that only holy water and/or Burt Reynolds can penetrate.
d. You put it between your knees when you run out of aspirin.
5. What words are appropriate to use when describing a woman’s “down there”?
For correct answers please stop talking to, sleeping with and voting for Republicans.
For more from The Nation on the latest iteration of Republican ignorance on women's issues—that would be Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin saying that pregnancies don't result from "legitimate rape"—read Ilyse Hogue's The Danger of Laughing at Todd Akin.
I don’t cry very often. When the news you follow and the work you do is centered on injustice, there’s not much room for breakdowns; there’s always a new and more distressing story on the horizon. And besides, there’s work to be done.
So it took me by surprise that when a close relative approvingly shared this video on Facebook, I started to sob. It wasn’t about the video’s content—a “gotcha” compilation about contraception taken at an Obama rally where Sandra Fluke spoke. It was the heartbreaking realization that washes over you when you remember that the opposition to your deeply held values is not just a faceless, evil enemy—it’s family.
People like the ones who created this smirking video believe that women who want birth control covered by insurance are stupid. Maybe even whores. Conservatives have framed basic preventive healthcare as something seedy and contemptuous. (Perhaps because at the heart of it they find female sexuality seedy and contemptuous, but that’s a post for another day.) We should “keep our legs closed,” put “an aspirin between our knees” or if we want to “be paid to have sex” we should “post the videos online so [people can] watch.” This video isn’t just a “joke,” it’s a clear-as-day statement about how ludicrous the right finds women.
It’s easy to deal with this kind of hateful sentiment when it comes from a world away—people you wouldn’t want to know anyway, assholes in your inbox and talking heads on Fox News. But when the people you love the most have politics that believe you are at best naïve and at worst maybe even evil… well, there’s no ignoring that.
The truth is, I have it fairly easy on the family and politics front. My parents are old hippies who are beyond thrilled that I’m a feminist. Most of my extended relatives are supportive.
I look at letter like this one—from a father disowning his gay son—and I cannot imagine the soul-crushing agony that occurs when your dad tells you he will never speak to you again and, “if you choose not to attend my funeral, my friends and family will understand.” It’s unfathomable.
In part, I think this simple shared Facebook item was a jolt back to reality. There’s something about the Internet that makes it easier to take hate in stride—or at least, convince ourselves that we’re doing so. The fast pace helps; if you’re not stopping too long on any one thing, it’s easier to forget what people are actually saying. So much of current political discourse has become about sarcasm and quick hits—a pithy swipe that’s easily tweet-able, a one-sentence link to a cruel meme—that brushing off our shoulders is now standard.
But living in this ocean of shrugs and “likes” means that when we do stop for a moment to consider the enormity of something like a loved one’s expressing unfettered contempt for you and everything you believe, it can be stop-in-the-middle-of-the-room-and-cry heartbreaking.
It makes me wonder if the cousins who babysat me as a toddler—who tucked me in and brushed my hair—think that I’m someone who supports killing babies. Could they actually look at me and believe that? Because that’s what they’re saying when they vote “pro-life” or share something about abortion from a hateful conservative website.
It might also be that the hurt we feel when family doesn’t get it—or gets it and hates us, anyway—is a hint at the broader pain we experience from living in a country that feels the same way as our cousin, or our father. For me it was as if the tremendous disdain for feminists and women—a hate that I usually manage to set aside—was all of a sudden next to me, and I couldn't move it.
Sometimes, it’s best to ignore hate—whether it’s coming from your mom or your Representative. There’s no changing some people’s minds and talking to a brick wall can be a waste of precious activist energy. But sometimes—when we take a chance and believe the best about people—taking the time to reach out to someone can make a difference.
Another letter went viral recently, in which a gay son wrote to his father asked his father to vote for President Obama after seeing him “like” Mitt Romney on Facebook. The son wrote:
I’m almost forty. Both of my younger brothers are married, enjoying all the rights and responsibilities of that government-issued status. Do you want that for me? Do you believe I should have someone beside me on life’s journey, legally recognized as my spouse, able to visit me in the hospital, able to make my end-of-life decisions, with whom I’m able to build a financially interdependent life? I have to believe you do. I have to believe you’re too good a man not to. Because if you don’t… If, like the candidate you’re supporting, you believe marriage should only be between one man and one woman, I feel sorry for us both: you, because it means you’re on the wrong side of history and your own son’s happiness and me, because it means my father does believe I’m “less than.”
In any other election, given any other choice, I’d stay quiet…. But this isn’t any other election. This election presents a clear choice between two people whose policy beliefs directly affect the course of my life. Let me be clear: A vote for Mitt Romney is a vote against me.
His father replied, “I will honor your request because you are my son and I love you.” Maybe blood can be thicker than politics.
Nadia Ilse, a bullied 14-year-old, recently received $40,000 in free cosmetic surgery from the Little Baby Face Foundation, an organization that helps children with facial deformities. It sounds like a quite a nice story until you hear what Ilse’s “deformity” was: Her ears stuck out a bit.
The Georgia teen’s supposedly corrective surgery included having her ears pinned back, a nose job and a chin reshaping. This is our culture now: teen girls thinking that the slightest perceived imperfection—any deviation from what they see in magazines—is tantamount to deformity and in need of surgical correction.
There are plenty of culprits to point to—misogyny, pop culture and the plastic surgery industry, for starters. But there’s also a more insidious problem: the notion of self-esteem as a cure-all for girls.
I'm sure Ilse’s mother—who sought out the charity that subsidized her daughter’s surgery—meant well. Her kid was being taunted and she wanted her to feel good about herself. And indeed, Ilse’s reaction after the surgery seemed to indicate that it helped. “I look beautiful, this is exactly what I wanted, I love it,” she said.
Of course Ilse feels better about herself—the world is cruel and conforming to traditional beauty standards can ease teenage suffering, if just for a bit. But this is the problem with teaching young women that the key to happiness and success is self-esteem.
If our end goal for girls is simply to have them feel “confident”—especially about their looks—then we create a trap where anything that makes a girl feel better about her appearance, no matter how harmful, is a reasonable solution. (How many times has plastic surgery been preceded by a “I’m doing it for me!” explanation?)
There may be a bit of head-shaking over young girls going to drastic measures to feel beautiful, but we never seem to question the idea that feeling beautiful is a worthy goal in the first place. We should tell girls the truth: “Beautiful” is bullshit, a standard created to make women into good consumers, too busy wallowing in self-loathing to notice that we’re second class citizens.
Girls don't need more self-esteem or feel-good mantras about loving themselves—what they need is a serious dose of righteous anger. But instead of teaching young women to recognize and utilize their very justifiable rage, we tell them to smile and love themselves.
When I was younger I begged my parents to let me get a nose job. Like Ilse, I was taunted at school and hated my nose so thoroughly I was sure my face was an affront to the people around me. My parents, to their credit, never considered letting me have surgery. They simply assured me I was beautiful the way I was. But here’s the thing: I knew that wasn’t true. I was a smart kid, and I realized that compared to what was considered beautiful, I was absolutely awkward-looking.
As my friend writer Jaclyn Friedman once said to me, the problem isn’t that girls don’t know their worth—it’s that they absolutely do know their value in society. Young women know exactly how ugly the culture believes them to be. So when we teach girls to simply “love themselves”, we’re implicitly telling them to accept the world as it is. We’re saying that being beautiful is something worth having when we should be telling them a culture that demands as much is toxic.
In a lot of ways I’m glad I was considered unattractive as a kid—there is an upside to ugly. I developed a sharp sense of humor, a defense against the taunts. I thought more deeply about how good and bad people can be. I started writing. I found feminism.
There’s nothing wrong with embracing ugly. It’s okay to feel inferior—we don’t feel ugly or less than because of some deficit in our confidence, we feel that way because we’re systematically trained to believe it. Because society depends on it. Self esteem won’t change that—shifting the culture will.
As an adult, I can look back and know that like a lot of kids, it just took me a while to grow into my face. I look how I’m supposed to look. But more importantly, I know that anger and action can be more fulfilling than being beautiful.
People who promote self-esteem in girls have their best interest at heart. And self-love and self-care are certainly worthy goals—but not on their own. Because what makes us feel better about ourselves is not always what's best for us or others in the long run. Life shouldn’t be a feel-good campaign.
This is a fucked-up country to grow up in, especially as a girl. And we all want to give young women the tools necessary to succeed. So let’s teach girls to survive a misogynist culture with a fist, not a smile.
In one of my favorite feminist movies—the 1996 flick Girls Town—a group of fed-up young women write the names of the men who raped them on their high school’s bathroom wall. Other students join in, listing their attackers from schoolmates to teachers—warning other women and reclaiming public space.
Today, a Kentucky teen is facing jail time for doing much the same thing: naming her rapists on Twitter. Seventeen-year-old Savannah Dietrich was sexually assaulted by two acquaintances while unconscious—her attackers took pictures and sent them to friends. After the young men pleaded guilty to the attack and agreed to a plea of felony sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism, the judge ordered that no one speak about the court proceedings or the attack itself.
“I was crying as she was reading that,” Dietrich told a local paper. “They got off very easy…and they tell me to be quiet, just silencing me at the end.”
Dietrich ignored the order and tweeted their names. “There you go, lock me up,” she wrote. “I’m not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell.” Deitrich now says she ready to go to jail to stand up for the right to speak out. As Amanda Hess at Slate writes, “The criminal justice process can also rob the victim of control over her own narrative.”
Hess also points out that Deitrich is not the first young woman to use social media to out rapists:
In 2010, 19-year-old American University student Chloe Rubenstein took to Facebook and Twitter to out two men on campus she said had victimized several of her friends (“ATTENTION WOMEN,” she wrote. “They are predators and will show no remorse for anyone.”) In 2007, a group of women at Portland’s Lewis & Clark College, led by sophomore Helen Hunter, created a Facebook group calling one of their classmates a “Piece of Shit Rapist.” When the administration caught wind, it suspended the man for just a semester. But five years later? Google his name, and the online rape allegations still register as the fourth hit.
Thanks to a widespread culture of victim-blaming and rape apologism, attackers usually have it pretty cushy. Victims are still not likely to report the assault and when they do they’re very likely to be blamed for it—an awful reality that re-traumatizes the victim and paves the way for future rapes.
So making the world more uncomfortable for rapists—letting them know that there will be consequences that include public shaming—is something I’m entirely at ease with. Especially considering how often women are silenced around issues of sexual assault. Sometimes that silence is enforced through a culture that makes women afraid to come forward, but sometimes that silencing is explicit.
In 2007, for example, a Nebraska woman and her attorneys were banned from using the words “rape,” “victim,” “sexual assault”—even “sexual assault kit” in a rape trial lest they prejudice the jury. From Dahlia Lithwick:
The result is that the defense and the prosecution are both left to use the same word—sex—to describe either forcible sexual assault, or benign consensual intercourse. As for the jurors, they’ll just have to read the witnesses’ eyebrows to sort out the difference.
Something tells me mugging victims have never been ordered not use the word “rob” when recounting the crime committed against them—but when it comes to sexual assault, logic and human decency always seem to go out the window.
We live in a country where a videotaped gang rape can result in a hung jury, where jokes about raping a woman are still considered hilarious and where the seriousness of sexual assault is so minimized that writing a research paper on rape is actually considered a reasonable punishment for attackers.
Rape survivors know that there’s a world of shame and stigma that awaits them should they speak up. In this kind of environment talking about sexual assault—let alone reporting it—is not just difficult, it’s straight up heroic.
Preventing victims from naming their attackers—or in this case, even acknowledging the assault—sends the message that rapists’ reputations are more important than a victim’s right to speak up. Savannah Dietrich refused to be silenced. Supporting victims’ voices should be a no-brainer—whether they’re on Twitter, in a courtroom or scrawled across a bathroom wall.
Read more from Jessica Valenti: Anatomy of a Successful Rape Joke.
Believe it or not, jokes about rape can be funny. (Yes, even feminists think so.) But Daniel Tosh’s hotly debated “joke” aimed at a female heckler was far from humorous—in fact, it was a perfect example of how not to joke about rape.
Tosh has come under fire this week after a woman blogged about her experience seeing Tosh at a comedy club. According to her, Tosh was talking about how rape jokes were always “hilarious.” She called out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”
After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”
Her post has since gone viral, prompting Tosh to write a tepid apology on his Twitter account:
all the out of context misquotes aside, i’d like to sincerely apologize j.mp/PJ8bNs
— daniel tosh (@danieltosh) July 10, 2012
Elissa Bassist at The Daily Beast gets to the heart of why what Tosh said wasn’t funny—in fact, why it wasn’t a joke at all.
Tosh says he was joking. Comedians make rape jokes every day, so why is this one getting so much attention? Because Tosh was more than “just kidding.” He was angry. His “joke” was reactive to the so-called heckler who called him out in front of an audience. He used humor to cut her down, to remind her of own vulnerability, to emphasize who was in control. The “joke” ignited a backlash because it was not a joke; it was vastly different from other jokes about rape.
Jokes about rape that work—those that subvert rather than terrify—do exist. Sarah Silverman has one about being raped by a doctor: “…so bittersweet for a Jewish girl,” she says. And Wanda Sykes has an amazing routine (you can watch the video at the bottom of this post) about having a “detachable pussy.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our pussies were detachable? Just think about it. You get home from work, it’s getting a little dark outside, and you’re like, ‘I’d like to go for a jog…but it’s getting too dark, oh! I’ll just leave it at home!’… [There’s] just so much freedom—you could do anything. You could go visit a professional ball player’s hotel room at two in the morning. Sex? My pussy’s not even in the building!
George Carlin actually explained quite well why jokes about rape can be funny:
Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd. See, hey why do you think they call him “Porky,” eh? I know what you’re going to say. “Elmer was asking for it. Elmer was coming on to Porky. Porky couldn’t help himself, he got a hard-on, he got horny, he lost control, he went out of his mind.” A lot of men talk like that. A lot of men think that way. They think it’s the woman’s fault. They like to blame the rape on the woman. Say, “she had it coming, she was wearing a short skirt.” These guys think women ought to go to prison for being cock teasers. Don’t seem fair to me.
These jokes point out absurdity, they shed light on what’s wrong with rape—what they don’t do is threaten. And that’s what Tosh did. Just because it was uttered by a comedian doesn’t make it any less of a verbal assault.
Indeed, that’s exactly how this woman felt:
[H]aving to basically flee while Tosh was enthusing about how hilarious it would be if I was gang-raped in that small, claustrophic [sic] room was pretty viscerally terrifying and threatening all the same, even if the actual scenario was unlikely to take place. The suggestion of it is violent enough and was meant to put me in my place.
Those supporting Tosh are outraged that anyone would dare tell a comedian how to be funny. (There’s also been a lot of “if you can’t take the heat” sentiment aimed at this woman, given that she heckled Tosh.) Many of his defenders insist that his joke—and other jokes about rape—are simply edgy and controversial, which is what a comedian is supposed to be.
But here’s the thing: threatening women with rape, making light of rape, and suggesting that women who speak up be raped is not edgy or controversial. It’s the norm. This is what women deal with every day. Maintaining the status quo around violence against women isn’t exactly revolutionary.
It’s also telling that the vast majority of people defending Tosh’s comments are men—and that they’re being incredibly sexist in their responses to boot. I’d ask these guys why it is they’re so virulently fighting for the right to tell rape jokes. Why is it so important to them that Tosh be able to “joke” about a woman who loudly criticized him being gang raped? (Video blogger Jay Smooth asked a similar question about Gwyneth Paltrow’s using the “n-word.”)
If you are this attached to jokes about raping women—if they mean this much to you—it’s time to look inward and think about why that is.
Because at the end of the day, the misogynist fervor behind the defense of Tosh doesn’t isn’t an impassioned debate over free speech or the nature of humor. It’s men who feel entitled to say whatever they want—no matter how violent—to women, and who are angry to have that long standing privilege challenged. I guess they don’t find that funny. Well, neither do I.
As the GOP’s “War on Women” has intensified and states have passed ever more onerous restrictions on abortion access, feminist activists have shown again and again that they have the energy and organizing prowess to forcefully take on any adversary—from the once-popular Susan G. Komen Foundation to Rush Limbaugh to legions of anti-choice lawmakers.
Meanwhile, when the reaction to Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent article inThe Atlantic proved that the question "can women have it all?" still hits a nerve, the varying responses from feminist writers made one thing clear: in order to solve the problems facing working women, we need more feminism, not less.
As with any dynamic movement, the future outlets for this energy are all but certain. What direction (or directions) is feminist activism heading? What organizing will we see in years to come?
On Thursday July 5, at 2 pm EST, Nation readers are invited to participate in a live chat on the future of feminist activism with Feministing.com co-founder and Nation blogger Jessica Valenti. Jessica will be joined by writer and editor Anna Holmes, the founding editor of Jezebel.com; and reproductive justice activist Aimee Thorne-Thomsen, vice president for strategic partnership at Advocates for Youth and former executive director of the Pro-Choice Public Education Project.
Of course, the “future of feminist activism” is a broad topic that encompasses countless important questions. To narrow things down a bit, we’re asking you—our readers—to get us started with suggestions for issues and questions you’d like to see discussed. Post your thoughts in the comment section below and be sure to join us on Thursday, July 5, at 2 pm for a lively conversation!
Note: Readers can replay the chat in the box below or access an edited transcript here.