1 is 2 Many: A Step in the Right Direction

In the early 1990s, then-senator Joe Biden and a grassroots coalition of anti-rape advocates scripted the original Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was signed by Clinton in 1994. Despite significant Republican opposition (nothing changes, eh?), VAWA was reauthorized in 2013.

VAWA is significant in terms of the protection it offers sexual assault survivors. That’s right, our legal system is so messed up that sexual assault survivors need extra protection from it. :D The 2013 reauthorization also made special effort to extend protection to the queer community, Native Americans on reservations, and undocumented immigrants. This kind of legislation is essential to protecting survivors, but ultimately we also need to be working towards the prevention of sexual assault, as well.

The White House’s new PSA, 1 is 2 Many, is a step in the right direction in terms of prevention. Featuring Benecio Del Toro, Dulé Hill, Daniel Craig, Steve Carell, Seth Meyers, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama, the PSA discusses consent, victim blaming, and supporting survivors. They even daringly use the word ‘rape’. Pretty cool stuff, right?

Okay, you knew I was gonna be a downer… So here it is. The glaring issue with this PSA is the “if I saw it happening” part. This language makes sexual assault seem like something that we see others doing, not something that we do, ourselves. This has always been the problem with defining consent and talking about rape. It is not a surprise that people– men– are uncomfortable analyzing their behavior. They do not want to see themselves as rapists. They do not see their behavior as rape. Therefore, they do not want to define consent in a way that potentially frames them as rapists.

I can see a lot of people, a lot of boys and men, watching this PSA and pumping their fists and chest-bumping and being like “Yeah! I’m part of the solution!” and not stopping to think about what it means to hear a partner tell them no, or not be able to tell them no due to drug or alcohol consumption. Being told no is not often something for which we prepare men and boys, yet is an important part of consent in sexual relationships.

Also. Obviously a high proportion of rapes are committed by men, against women, but this does not exclude girls and women from taking responsibility in their own sexual relationships. Everyone needs to get consent from their partners. It should go without saying. The more I listen to girls and women talk about sex, the more I realize that a lot of them do not know what consent is or how to get it, either. Keep in mind that VAWA protects male survivors just as it does LGBTQ and female-identifying survivors.

All that being said, this PSA is still pretty bad-a and definitely a huge step in the right direction. Way to go, Joe Biden.

p.s. Tim Walberg and your fellow Republicans, you do not represent me and you do not deserve to hold your office!

 

A Blog of Ire and Spite

There are many reasons why ‘feminism’ is a dirty word, not the least of which is when certain people who personify feminism’s opposition call themselves feminists (e.g. racist Camille Paglia, victim-blaming Naomi Wolf, etc.) Now George R.R. Martin, author of the wildly popular Song of Fire and Ice medieval fantasy books-turned-HBO-series, joins the ranks of pop feminists. He kindly defines for us what his feminism is:

“To me being a feminist is about treating men and women the same,” Martin is quoted as saying in this Telegraph article. “I regard men and women as all human – yes there are differences, but many of those differences are created by the culture that we live in, whether it’s the medieval culture of Westeros, or 21st century western culture.”

Of course, I am dissatisfied by so many definitions of feminism nowadays, so I shouldn’t be too harsh. But by his own definition, Martin’s literary works are surely not feminist.

While Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice female characters are arguably more three-dimensional than most other fantasy of the same ilk, I find their stereotyped natures tiring. Cersei is the seductive slut; Arya is the tomboy; Catelyn Stark is the steadfast mother and wife; Sansa is the sweet and innocent princess in need of rescue; blah blah blah. Predictable, and therefore reliable. To some degree this can’t be avoided, right? Fiction, especially fantasy, functions at least partially on the familiar, shared assumptions (read: stereotypes) about kinds of people to anchor us while guiding us through a fantastic and impossible story. Besides, not all of Martin’s female characters have been created from drab stereotypes (Brienne of Tarth, for example).

No, what truly bothers me about Martin’s comment about feminism, and the serious slack cut him by supposedly feminist bloggers, is his constant depiction of rape, domestic violence, and other forms of sexual violence as attractive, arousing, enjoyable. This is where Martin gives himself away: a feminist does not depict rape as sexy and enjoyable.

Why stop at sexual violence. Martin glorifies battle and the taking of lives throughout the series, a huge portion of which is devoted to high-def, graphic scenes of beheadings, disembowelments, torture, and other “glorious” aspects of war and the violent societies in which the story takes place. The content is patriarchal, and is consumed largely by a patriarchal audience (men and women alike). War is cool, rape is sexy, same old, same old. To his credit (?), Martin makes lame attempts to suggest that war isn’t all cool: look, you could get your sword hand cut off, and then no one will want to fuck you– least of all your sister. Wow, is that the best he can do? Can we drop the feminist act now?

And besides, there is a whole realm of racism in A Song of Fire and Ice that we haven’t even touched on yet. Highly illuminating read on that topic here!

Whatever the case, I (mostly) enjoyed reading these books. I even (mostly) enjoyed the one or two episodes of the HBO series I’ve seen. I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying works of fiction that are inherently racist, sexist, classist, and so on (unless it’s for those aspects that we enjoy it, of course)– but that we like or enjoy something should not stop us from critiquing it. Or from calling out its makers when they say shit like, “Ima feminist LOL.”

Fantasy doesn’t have to show rape as sexy, or war and killing as glorious. It doesn’t have to paint all the people white or all the heroes male, though it is true that you will sell more novels if you do these things. But if you choose to do so, as an author, then you have forfeited the right to call yourself feminist. As readers, we have the right to read what we enjoy, but I think we also have a responsibility to question that literature, even literature we praise. When useful criticism like this happens, valuable conversations can take place about issues that matter IRL (that’s IN REAL LIFE for you non-nerds out there, though sometimes I think nerds forget IRL exists).

Let’s also not forget that there is really great fantasy and science fiction out there which questions, analyzes, deconstructs, and parodies gender, race, class, age, ability, and so on, and dreams up whole new ways of conceptualizing these things. A Song of Fire and Ice is not the end-all, be-all of fantasy literature, and even if it were, that shouldn’t stop us from questioning it, taking it apart, and assessing it from different points of view.

Now I’d better get a head start on the Martin fans; I hear them trying to break down the door as I write!

Fresh Bites

Awesome (sadly universal) anecdote on sexual harrassment from Ann Friedman. Are you on The Island?

Gender discrimination presides and athletes keep their mouths shut so as not to seem “negative and moaning”; the Wheel keeps turnin’.

Interesting, having just seen the Agent Orange (dioxin) exhibit at the  War Remnants Museum here in Ho Chi Minh.

Feminist lit is on a roll! Can’t wait to get a copy of Liza Mundy’s book.

And, Islam and feminisms compatible? Sure, why not?

Better Late Than Never

The media seems to have taken more of an interest (pinterest?) in women lately. And not in the usual fashion, so to speak, but quite a bit more seriously. You know, as if we’re…people. Maybe that’s because much of this media is being produced by women of consciousness, but it has to get through their mostly male bosses at the end of the day– but not at Foreign Policy magazine. I want to take a minute and applaud FP for their May/June issue, The Sex Issue. They are talking about pertinent issues which other media outlets seemed hellbent on ignoring, despite the fact that they impact half the world’s population.

The Sex Issue features 9 illuminating posts, many of them written or co-written by women journalists, covering issues from sex-selective abortion to the dire lack of women in politics to state (and state-sanctioned) violence against women.

Is that soldier about to stomp on that person…? Why, yes, I do believe he is.

The cover story is Mona Eltahawy’s “Why Do They Hate Us?”, which discusses in detail the “real” war on women taking place in the “Middle East”. I’m not one to belittle the plight of rape survivors in the “West” as not as serious as Saudi Arabian women’s inability to drive, or the rape of Egyptian women by security forces during Egypt’s revolutions (as Eltahawy was), but despite the overly simplistic subtitle, I very much appreciate Mona’s starkly honest article. No one can ignore the severely oppressive state to which many Arab women are subjected after she details examples of human rights abuses against women in Egypt, Saudi Arabi, Yemen, and other countries. But it is not so much the social, political, religious, and physical abuses that really got to me… Female oppression extends into, or more likely stems from, an all-pervasive psychological oppression.

“Saudi women far outnumber their male counterparts on university campuses but are reduced to watching men far less qualified control every aspect of their lives.”

That entire populations of women live in a virtual slave state, and that no one bothers to do anything about it, freaks me out. Revolution has brought freedom to Libya and Egypt…for individuals with testicles. We talk about the Muslim Brotherhood as if it is a legitimate political entity, and they conduct their human rights violations (such as female genital cutting as a means to maintain female piety) under the banner of Culture. For so long “Culture” has ruled. It’s time to tear the throne of Culture down, or as Mona sums,

“Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips.”

Articles, indeed entire magazine issues, of this nature are long overdue. I sort of involuntarily rolled my eyes when I saw this issue in a local bookstore, thinking, “Way to jump on the bandwagon, people…” But then I caught myself. There really isn’t a bandwagon. It’s still basically unfashionable to complain about the subhuman status of half the Earth’s humans in 2012. But this will not always be so, and so better late than never or not, I say to FP: thank you, and keep them coming.

Take Back the Night 2012, Koh Kong!

Only two weeks in, and already June has been an eventful month. The first weekend was the national commune elections, and I was happy to see the political hubbub finally die down. But the very next weekend (after a week of my being sick) was the event which has been months in planning.

Click the link below to open up the full post and see photos of the event! ^_^

Continue reading

Patriarchy: How Everyone Suffers

I’m fond of using the word Patriarchy (especially capitalized). Lots of people are. It’s a catchy, encompassing term. The problem is, Normal People tend to associate it (and thus its most ardent users, feminists) with crackpot conspiracy theory.

Can we take a minute and dissect this concept?

A few definitions of Patriarchy I have stumbled across recently are:

from Wikipedia: “Patriarchy is a social system in which the males, especially fathers, have central roles of political leadership, moral authority, and property. Many patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage. The female equivalent is matriarchy.”

from blogger ballgame: “Patriarchy is a system of rigid rules and expectations around gender that unjustly overvalues certain qualities and undervalues others. Typically, dominant males are overvalued, and the average woman’s macropolitical agency is significantly constrained. (Patriarchal societies also frequently devalue the average man’s emotional value and possibly his micropolitical agency, though I don’t know whether this is necessarily a hallmark of patriarchy like devaluing the average woman’s political agency is).”

from Kamla Bhasin: “[The concept of Patriarchy] is a tool to help us understand our realities.” She continues, “The word patriarchy literally means the rule of the father or the the ‘patriarch’, and originally it was used to describe a specific type of ‘male-dominated family’– the large household of the patriarch which included women, junior men, children, slaves and domestic servants all under the rule of this dominant male. Now it is used more generally to refer to male domination, to the power relationships by which men dominate women, and to characterise a system whereby women are kept subordinate in a number of ways. In South Asia, for example, it is called pitrasatta in Hindi, pidarshahi in Urdu and pitratonto in Bangla.” She also adds that Patriarchy assumes different forms in different times, places, and cultures.

(Also, interesting essay here.) 

Parts and conceptual sums of these definitions, among others, have shaped my [working] concept of Patriarchy. I guess I don’t have a simple definition, but this is generally what I mean when I say it…:

Patriarchy is both a system and a way of thinking which holds certain values that benefit some peoples and individuals and necessarily discriminates against others. Although these values and their manifestations vary by culture, location, and time, a general pattern can be identified: value for competition; value for strength, power/authority, and domination; value for role conformity; value for hierarchical structure; value for masculinity. Patriarchy also devalues femininity, weakness, subordination, and deviation. The forms these values take are necessarily shaped and expressed by culture, by which ‘masculinity’, ‘femininity’, gender roles/norms/expectations are defined, and the specific values of a culture in terms of race, age, sexual orientation, etc. Hierarchy within Patriarchy is multifaceted; multiple hierarchies may exist which are interconnected or interdependent and function around concepts not only of gender but also race, age, sexual orientation, and so on.

Thus can it be that “progressive” America (in which women can vote, run for office, work outside the home, have sex with other women, and so on) is a Patriarchal society and “backwards” Afghanistan is a Patriarchal society, as well.

The BBC just had an article on Men’s Rights activists. The reason why I am so irritated by this movement is not because I want to subjugate men, don’t believe in their rights, etc. Obviously not (see my definition of feminism). What is so utterly bothersome is that these proponents are either a) complete ignorant of their victim-agent status within Patriarchy (and sometimes Patriarchy, itself), or b) want to have their cake and eat it too. That is, they want all the benefits and privileges of their Western White Wealthy Phallocentric Patriarchy without any of the consequences. Well, I’m sorry people, but if you subscribe to hierarchy (and even if you don’t), you had better know there are drawbacks for those who are not at the top.

Some of those consequences/drawbacks are nicely illustrated by the article. I will go through some of them. Please note the irony of blaming feminism for these “ills upon men” (nevermind their Patriarchal origin).

As described in the article, David Benatar’s new book addresses the various ills of men which include: being conscripted into the army, being victims of violence, losing custody of their children, and taking their own lives.

1. Conscription into the army. Last time I checked, there was a lot of hesitation (confusion?), even disgust, about women joining the army in “the West”. Yes, they can do so in a lot of countries. Yes, publicly they are praised as patriotic for their service. But American women are still not allowed into combat. Hatred of women by the military apparatus, itself, manifests as [tolerated] violence against their own. And the Ideal Soldier will never, ever be recreated as feminine or female in the eyes of the Patriarchy. Fighting for one’s country is a classic Patriarchal value in America and much of Europe, not to mention elsewhere. Blood-letting is considered masculine and unfeminine, and unfeminine women are often portrayed as “butch” and repulsive. But ultimately, allowing for the conscription of women into the army would not reduce Patriarchy, at all: the very purpose of the war machine as a tool of domination is both a manifestation of and means of perpetuating Patriarchy, regardless of whether the fighting puppets have penises or not. (Personally, I don’t think anyone should be conscripted into the army. But I’m radical like that.)

2. Victims of Violence. It’s true that men are more likely to experience and die of violent crime than women (excepting rape).  It’s also true that men are more likely to commit violent crime than women. This probably has little to do with the inherent nature of men or women as more or less violence-prone, and more to do with our socialization within a Patriarchal society. Patriarchy often dictates that men are naturally (and should be) assertive, aggressive, even forceful if that is necessary to get what one wants. Women, on the other hand, should not be aggressive, or are “naturally” more nurturing, passive, and empathetic. Men who display these attributes are labeled emasculated, effeminate, even gay (oh god, not that!) the world over, from the States to Cambodia. Women who are assertive, aggressive, or forceful are abnormal, unnatural– “bitches”, reallly. All this masculine-identified aggression is partly responsible for violence in all forms. This is not to say that women aren’t violent– of course they are, but statistically they are far less likely to be physically violent– perhaps because the Patriarchy has many recourses to put them back in their subordinated place. The other aspect of this is risk-taking; both as perpetrators and victims, men are encouraged to do more risk-taking than women. The leading cause of death for young men is accidents, and more men die of accidents than women, generally. Women are encouraged to adopt “safer” lifestyles than men. They are child-bearers and raisers, after all.

3. Losing custody of the kids. Alas, the Woman as Nurturer motif has finally come back to bite men in the ass. Patriarchy, of course, doesn’t only discriminate against women in its sometimes ironic functioning. Discrimination has long worked in apparent favor of women in this regard: women are Mothers and innate Nurturers; men are (or should be) distant, emotionally-detached Providers. You can’t rightly expect a Provider to properly raise babies, now, can you? But also, the realm of babies and children is a necessarily feminine one, for babies and children are weak, just as women are. This is why women and children need the Protector/Provider male, and why single motherhood equates to child abuse.

4. Suicide. Higher rates of suicide among men can be partly explained by the methods men employ as differentiated from women. Suicidal men statistically resort to more violent means than women, which results in higher rates of success. Although women attempt suicide more often (and have higher rates of self-harm), men actually succeed in killing themselves more often. It has been suggested that men are not only encouraged to seek out more violent means to commit suicide, but also are able to attain those means more easily (such as acquiring and using a gun). Mental illness is a major (if not the major) factor leading to suicide, and men are less likely than women to seek help over mental health issues. This tendency is also founded in normative masculinity: “real men” don’t show weakness, don’t cry, and don’t talk about their feelings. [Interesting side note: the suicide rate is actually higher for women than men in China. Between that and female infanticide, the future sure looks grim for Chinese women.]

Other points mentioned:

5. 90% of prison inmates are male. This ties in with much of the above. Value of male aggression and even violent competition are at the root of this issue, but it should also be pointed out that the majority of prison inmates are people of colour. The systems within the System are not simply based on gender, but privilege or disadvantage is based on a myriad of other factors, as well– including ethnicity and social class. Many styles of Patriarchy love White Wealthy Westerners, hence one reason why you don’t see a whole lot of them in prison. And class is of course derived from our status within the system of capitalism. Let me tell you, Patriarchy loves Capitalism. (Hehe.) They are old friends, although Patriarchy is a lot older. Capitalism has a lot going on that Patriarchy adores: cutthroat competition, domination, winners and losers, and so on. But as a way of life, Capitalism sets up a situation which almost ensures that some groups of people are going to be underrepresented in the upper classes and overrepresented as the bottomfeeders or criminals; Patriarchy helps shape how those groups are defined (as by colour, religion, etc.). As a fortune cookie once told me, “Society prepares the crime; the criminal commits it.” It should have added, “And Patriarchy unfairly molds certain groups of people into the criminal role.” If you’re about to say, “Crime is an individual’s choice,” say no more Dickensian nonsense; crime as an individual choice complete removes both the crime and the individual from the context of culture and thus makes it into a moral dilemma-scenario in a philosophy book. In other words, completely detached from reality.

6. Men are invisible victims. An American web designer in Ohio is setting up a domestic violence shelter for men. I think this is an absolutely pro idea. A lot of people, though, are probably going to laugh their heads off at this. Why? Because MEN HIT WOMEN NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND, DUH LOL. Well, that is certainly what Patriarchy wants us to believe. And, more often than not, that is the reality; most perpetrators of violence are men, most survivors and victims women and children. But not all. And an increasing number of women are becoming perpetrators (which, by the way, women have long perpetrated violence against children, no surprise there) as the physical and psychological moorings of Patriarchy continue to shift. Women are Patriarchs, too, after all. Anyhow, this shelter: it directly points to how Patriarchy does not simply function on gender, but is multidimensional. Hence why white middle class American men should think again about their fervent support of Patriarchy, for when they becomes its victims, who is left to turn to? Suddenly the marginalizers have become the marginalized. Men are supposed to be the aggressors, not the victims. Am I being redundant? Is a pattern emerging here?

7. Men’s body image. Pressure and negativity surrounding male body image has grown steadily from an almost-neutral standpoint in the industrial era of “the West”, to a nigh-obsession today. Women have experienced this since…well, who knows when, and that’s not to say male beauty standards have not also been prioritized for a long time. But for modern men, I can see why these changes should come as a shock; they’re not the fair sex, after all– women should be the ones worrying about their appearance, dammit! A man can and should be able to fuck anyone he wants regardless of how he looks, and to be loved by anyone without them caring about his appearance. My, how the times have changed. Vanity and beauty are suddenly no longer so, well, feminine. Does this mean we are now going to admit to the subjectivity of beauty and toss out antiquated “ideals” and norms that control people’s lifestyles and cognitions? Somehow I doubt it…

There are a lot of other points mentioned in the article that should be addressed within a conceptual framework that accounts for Patriarchy. Maybe I’ll get to them later, but I don’t want to bore you… The point is, Patriarchy is shit. It’s not just bad for women. It’s bad for men. It’s bad for black people. It’s bad for Cambodians. It’s bad for Canadians. It’s bad for the elderly. It’s bad for kids. It’s really really bad for young, black, poor single moms, and it’s the least bad for White Wealthy Western males. This is not just about sex. This is not just about colour or class. And no, Men’s Rights Activists, you cannot have your cake and eat it, too.

Pornography in the Kingdom

Between my WordPress site stats and Google’s webmaster tools, I get a pretty good idea of where most of the traffic to my blog comes from. Interestingly– sadly?– many people stumble onto my blog while they are searching for porn.

Recent search terms have included: “naked asian babes”, “video sex khmer 2012”, “cambodian whore”, “world of warcraft porn”, “girls licking boobs”, “khmer sexy”, and “sexy khmer”. And the poor sots ended up at my blog. Haha. (Those last two, by the way, were probably the same Khmer guy who forgot and then remembered that adjectives precede nouns in English.)

The sexual fetishization of women and thus porn seem universal. Cambodia is no exception, even though pornography is supposedly illegal here (or so they say, I have yet to find the laws on that). To the contrary, porn is so cheap and readily available here that between 40-60% of minors (under 18, average age 14) have seen hardcore pornography in video and/or picture form. This is true both of village children and urban children. It is also possible that the real number of children watching porn is much higher, since studies have indicated that a child is reluctant to admit that they, themselves, have watched porn, but will readily admit that they know many of their peers watch porn.

Supposedly it is fairly easy to access VCD porn even in villages, being sold by some local “entrepreneur” or distributed through village networks– all of which is done in partial or total secrecy because of the (at least perceived) illegal nature of pornography. I’ve never seen or heard of anyone in my neighborhood distributing/selling porn in any form, nor did I ever notice it in the villages (in Kampong Cham and Kampot), but I was not seeking it out. I asked some guys my age whether they’d ever gone “outside” to get pornography; one of them told me that he and his friends used to travel to the nearby provincial town to view pornography at coffee shops when they were about 16; they also said this particular coffee shop had closed down long ago.

About ten years ago, this would have been one of the only ways to access pornography: at local coffee or TV shops (which serve snacks and drinks) that have viewings of pornography “in secret” (you can’t tell me the police didn’t know this was happening– they were probably there, themselves…), wherein each viewer pays a small fee (about 25 cents/hour in some cases) to sit and watch porn with other viewers. Sort of like going to a small movie house…only it’s porn.

There is no need in today’s Cambodia to go to a large town or to seek out shops with porn viewings in order to access porn. Thanks to a serious lack of copyright laws, improved AV equipment, and the Internet, both homemade Cambodian porn and international porn can be easily acquired and are often free.

One source of new, free pornography which quite honestly shocked me is the wats (pagodas)– Buddhist religious complexes which are ubiquitous throughout the Kingdom. Because wats are a free place for boys and young (unmarried) men to stay when they are not at home (especially those coming to the city from the provinces), it perhaps is not so surprising that wats act as a hub for free pornography distribution. I was still surprised, naively I admit, to hear that monks watch and distribute porn, too.

The form of porn, itself, has also changed. Computers, smart phones, and other Internet-accessing or digital storage devices have made VCDs and books virtually obsolete. Downloading, distributing, and exchanging porn via ipods, cell phones, and computers has made accessing the most recent porn simple and free.

So what effect does this have on children? Is easy access to hardcore pornography (which frequently includes rape and sex with animals) partially responsible for Cambodia’s gang rape epidemic (balk) and rape of minors? How is pornography connected to regional issues of prostitution and human trafficking? And how does readily-accessible porn affect the overall status of women and girls in Cambodia?

The studies I reference above try to answer these questions, but the last question receives the least amount of attention. It’s a question that feminists worldwide have been struggling with for decades, and the debate rages on. Some have taken an oppositional stance (which resulted in their being labeled “sex-negative”), some have proposed that opposing porn is opposing free speech, and others have tried to say that porn can be designed in a feminist fashion (sometimes called the “pro-sex” feminists)– and therefore would be for consumption by any gender, rather than being centered on male pleasure.

I have gone back and forth on this issue, myself. But I find it deeply affecting that studies have correlated pornography to sexual violence and gang behaviors. It is a tired and tiring argument to say “not everyone who watches porn is going to rape someone”; instead I am seeking a deeper understanding of an individual’s personal motivations for watching porn, what determines the particular kinds of porn they seek out, how it affects their overall views of sex, how it modifies their experience of sexual pleasure (if at all), and how it affects or interferes with their intimate relationships. After speaking with a variety of people of different ages and backgrounds about their experience of pornography, it is obvious to me that pornography does not have a single, generic impact on humans. It is complicated and subjective… I guess I would like to know, is the overall impact and outcome more negative or positive?

Finally, it can’t be ignored that pornography is a totem of male privilege. Many men I have talked to about pornography, whether they watch it regularly, seldom, or not at all, all seem to feel that it is their right to access pornography if they so wish. I’ve rarely heard women talk about it in the same self-entitled fashion. Very “liberal” (whatever that means) men have told me, “Well I don’t really watch it, but I don’t see what’s wrong with it.” “Freedom of speech! Enough said.” “As long as it’s not rape porn, what’s the problem? It’s not real, anyway.” “A lot of porn is funny, you know.” “I don’t see how it degrades women. You know women get off on watching porn, too?” And so on. Whereas women, by comparison, seem averse to, even repulsed by porn, or they are confused, or they want to respect “freedom of speech” but seem wary of the deeper implications “freedom of porn” has…

Denial of the way porn shapes the human sexual consciousness is very simplistic, and overlooks the ways in which porn affects real intimate relationships. Those effects may be long-lasting or even permanent… They cannot be shut out or forgotten just by closing a magazine or web browser. I am scared to think that a reason why many young, liberal men are so dismissive of theories which question the creation and use of hardcore pornography is because they feel they are entitled to whatever gets them off. Even if it is superficial, even if it is degrading, even if it is harmful.

To quote Weezer, “say it ain’t so,” somebody.

The Means of Reproduction (a review)

This is a review of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World by Michelle Goldberg (2009).

Reading The Means was a lesson in self-discipline. At times, I was filled with elation and I wanted to run around and jump up and down for the energy it gave me. At other times, I was so frustrated or angry that it was all I could do not to launch the book (which I’d borrowed) across the room at the far wall; “Just take a breath and set the book down…” I would tell this part of myself, and give myself a minute to do something detached. For as sharp and lucid as Goldberg’s writing was a certain parts that could induce such feelings, the overall message of her book put those parts into a deeper, broader, more meaningful context. To that end, she’s a great, readable writer and even if you’re not deeply invested in the “big ideas” of the book, I’d still recommend it if you’re into well-crafted non-fiction prose.

What are the big ideas of this book, anyhow? (From this point on, there will probably be some “plot spoilers”, just to warn you.) That somewhat anthropocentric part of the subtitle, “the Future of the World”, nicely sums one recurring theme: human population on Earth. Perhaps it would be better to say “the Future of the World as We Know It”, but the discussion of population and demography is one which Goldberg examines and dismantles from every angle, from the ironically “anti-imperialist” far right of religious and political America and their far left counterparts, to the Cold War-era voices of Malthusian pushers of the “population bomb” theory.

Another major focus of Goldberg’s admirably well-researched work is the history and development of women’s rights and feminism in the global scheme. I admit to being woefully ignorant of women’s movements in places outside of my immediate experience (i.e. “the West”); Goldberg’s deep research and firsthand accounts of conversations with the major players in the international women’s movement is a crash course in the evolution of perspectives and strategies within that movement.

Another crucial motif is Goldberg’s analysis of “culture versus human rights”. This is an issue with which I have struggled for some time, especially coming out of school with a degree in anthropology (cultural relativism lalala). How can one objectively view the contentious, often incompatible relationship between the relativity of cultural views/values and the fundamental rights of the individual? I felt betrayed when it at first appeared that Goldberg was lending credit to the notion of culture trumping human rights– but that is why one must read this book from beginning to end. The careful examination Goldberg gives to all sides of this argument is edifying and elucidating.

Perhaps the most important theme is that which sums the elements of the subtitle; many, many aspects of this book come down to control, particularly control of female bodies. When put that way, it may sound horrific (what are women– cattle for breeding? Indeed, perhaps…), but the implications go far beyond an individual’s choice to have children, to control of our own persons. The author slowly but clearly builds on this picture, awakening us to the very real and imminent connections between our persons and our collective sustainability within our environments. She manifests some realizations that are impossible to ignore, my favourite of which is this: empowering women (i.e. recognizing women’s rights as human rights) is good for everybody– is good for Earth. (I’m tempted to plot-spoil on this, because it’s such a fantastic point, but because the entirety of Goldberg’s research gradually unfolds this point, I won’t ruin the pleasure of discovering her profound conclusion– you will just have to read it for yourself!)

The struggle between the religious right and more secular liberals is one that overwhelms much of this book (indeed, I think at the loss of including other perspectives on women’s rights, including environmentalists’ thoughts on the matter). As they are the major shapers of rights and policies which directly impact people’s lives, it makes sense that she makes this conflict a central focus. In that sense, we get to see the very irritating, very hypocritical ideology of the religious right at work in international politics: their arguments against women’s reproductive rights often assert that the liberalists’ agenda is merely neocolonialism in disguise, motivated purely by the desire to control the “under-developed” world. They frequently voice their concerns that liberal international (human rights) policies disrespect and undermine a culture’s autonomy– which certainly looks like imperialism. What those same religious bodies never admit is that their colonialism has been attempting to alter and “purify” cultures for millennia (Christian missionaries, Islamic jihad, say what?). Is their denial of the neocolonialism within their own agenda willful ignorance, or do they simply define “culture” and “colonialism” in ways that best suit their own (patriarchal) interests?

Going all with this, something that makes The Means very difficult to digest is that Goldberg pulls no punches when analyzing all sides of an argument. That means we have to hear some hurtful, angering, at times shocking “logic” from some truly misogynist, racist, or nationalistic individuals and organizations. Whether you believe in hearing all sides of a debate because you believe in critical thinking or simply because you want to “know thy enemy”, this aspect of the book often clouds impartiality as it strikes powerful emotional nerves (not Goldberg’s fault, but the partiality of the reader). Take, for instance, the Uganda parliamentary representative who wanted to deny a spouse’s right to not have sex: “Refusing to have sex is the most violent thing a spouse can do” (p. 10). I still haven’t wrapped my head around that one. Or the fact that the world still takes seriously people like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who supports spousal abuse and execution of sodomites, though as to the former, “men should beat their wives lightly, and only as a last resort” (p.164). Or take the blatant 1970s sexism of American employers: “You’ll just work with us for a year or two and then you’ll go and have babies” (p. 69)– for, as we all know, maternity and careers are mutually exclusive. Or, in examination of women’s rights in northern India, “To be frank, [a woman] is never consulted whether she will go to bed with [a] man. So there is no freedom of decision” (p. 191). The Means is full of perspectives that are difficult to digest, but they also give a pluralistic view of how humanity sees women– the “point” of women, especially.

That “purpose”, actually, does lend hope in the end. This aspect of Goldberg’s work is neatly summed in this, one of my favourite quotes: “Such religious rivalries, however, masked an equally important polarization, both inside of countries and among them, between secular, liberalizing cultures and traditional, patriarchal ones. One saw women as ends in themselves, human beings with dignity and autonomy. The other treated them as the means of group cohesion and identity whose primary value lay in their relation to men” (p. 169).

A hard-to-swallow issue that, unsurprisingly, surfaces constantly in this book is female participation in and acceptance and perpetuation of hierarchy in general and Patriarchy in specific. Whether it manifests as promotion of female genital cutting (or, as some prefer to call it, female genital mutilation) as initiation into matriarchy (which is only endowed with authority through its position in the larger system of Patriarchy), or the devaluation of female life as seen in many Hindu women’s choices to terminate female pregnancy (sex selective abortion). Why is it necessary to cut off one’s clitoris (or more) in order to gain respect and a measure of autonomy? Why should one accept condemnation because one cannot “produce” a son (which, it is the sperm, by the way, that determines “sex”)? But more generally, why do we acknowledge and abide by the authority of these automatons when they directly violate our rights as individuals? As individuals we function inside of a larger collective, that which most people label as “our culture”, but why does that equate to the forfeit of personal agency? Why should we not actively, consciously seek to transform culture in ways that reflect on, examine, recognize, promote, and celebrate human rights– holistically and collectively?

For me, this book comes down to two things, which are intrinsically connected: the dismantlement of hierarchy, and the prioritizing of human rights over culture. What is manifest again and again in The Means is that hierarchy hurts the vast majority of the world’s people, whether it comes in the form of Patriarchy, the caste system, or capitalist economic dominance (and truly they are all very much interconnected), true fulfillment of human rights is simply impossible within a hierarchical context (unless, of course, one rejects equality as a fundamental, indeed prerequisite, element of human rights).

The dawning realization is that “culture and tradition is not a monolith” (p. 195); culture, as anthropologists have long droned, is dynamic. It is forever changing, evolving moment to moment, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically, at times subconsciously and at other times with human imperatives hugely present. This issue, in my opinion, is one that has been growing more and more salient on the world stage. Maybe the major question every human individual needs to decide is “when culture and human rights collide, which should prevail, and who gets to decide?” (p.104). Traditionalists often cite identity, autonomy, and sheer reverence as reasons for the reactionary approach to culture, but to do so is to maintain harmful systems of hierarchy. That is one reason why I so appreciate the perspective of Agnes Pareyio, whom Goldberg interviews at length: “[Pareyio] wants Masai culture to change to embrace strong, educated girls” (p. 147). Pareyio’s ideas can and should be debated by individuals and groups of people, and globalization has made this somewhat unavoidable anyhow. This is an idea which the themes in Goldberg’s book foreground not only through her analysis of worldwide trends, but also through the relation of individuals’ experiences. It is time for humanity to move out of the age of the Cultural Mandate, and for each of us as individuals to engage in the study, shaping, and reshaping of culture, beginning with a collective redefining of cultural values.

Happy International Women’s Day– made happier by pushing the boundaries of gender discourse!

Happy International Women’s Day!

In preparing to write this special post for IWD, I found it difficult to choose a single topic on which to focus. Without a doubt I knew I wanted to spotlight one of the many sociocultural issues in my current home of Cambodia, there being a dire necessity to raise awareness and promote dialogue about gender and human rights issues, especially among Cambodians.

But which issue? Both fortunately and unfortunately, there are many from which to choose, and trying to narrow it down to a “most important” issue is simply impossible for me.

When in doubt, I take the advice of many writers (including my favourite author Ursula K. LeGuin, many of whose works center on issues of race and gender): “Write what you know.”

Which directs me to immediate, grassroots goings-on that are affecting and involving people right around me.

Many gender issues in Cambodia are intrinsically connected to this concept of “Development”. Now, it cannot be denied that I have some major hang-ups with “Development” (in any country). While the aims of Development may be noble in and of themselves, the ideologies and methodologies frequently employed to achieve those aims remain embedded in racist, classist, and sexist contexts which ultimately undermine their success, purpose, and effectiveness. I have found this to be very much the case in Cambodia.

Though it’s tempting to concentrate on these more negative aspects of Development, in honor of IWD and Gender Across Border’s special theme, I would like to draw attention to the positive. (I’m sure my more regular readers are quite astounded, but hey– I’m not always a cynic when it comes to gender!)

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a serious yet seriously under-discussed problem here in the Kingdom of Wonder, especially when that violence is occurring within a familial context. There are two complimentary Khmer proverbs which describe the larger sociocultural attitude towards familial violence: “Don’t bring the fire into the house,” which means to discourage people from bringing “outside problems” into their home (i.e. if it’s not our problem, it’s none of our business); and “Don’t take the fire outside of the house,” which seeks to discourage people from discussing “internal” or family issues with people outside of the family. In other words, there is a lot of silence surrounding issues of familial violence in Cambodia.

There are people who are talking about “the fire”, though, and are doing it loudly and in ways that involve those directly affected by it.

Eileen McCormick and Hannah East are two such activists who are, shall we say, fighting fire with fire.

Both McCormick and East are volunteers living in Cambodia with Khmer families, McCormick at the village level and East at the provincial level. They have been here for just over a year and a half, researching, working with locals, and organizing grassroots projects on various issues; both have a special interest in gender, to which they devote a significant amount of time and energy.

Photography credit to Eileen McCormick, republished with permission!

Recently their time and energy culminated in a workshop on domestic violence. The workshop, which was hosted by the local office of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kampong Chhnang Province, sponsored participants from fields which come into direct contact (usually through provision of services) with domestic violence survivors. More than 120 health center staff members, police officers, and village and commune government representatives attended the workshop sessions, which were co-hosted by local Cambodian NGOs and MOWA.

In spite of many obstacles, including resistance from their own superiors, McCormick and East were determined to bring attention to a subject which mainstream Cambodian culture wants to ignore. Most appreciatively, they sought to do so by educating and empowering the all-female staff of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, who led the workshop in conjunction with local NGOs in spite of not having an prior leadership experience. This is especially positive because McCormick and East recognize that Development and change are only as effective as the efforts made by sustainable sources– namely, local peoples.

 

Opening dialogue about issues directly impacting women and girls in Cambodia is a necessary first step to affecting successful change in behaviors and attitudes concerning gender. It has been my experience that Cambodian girls and women want to discuss these issues, but there are very few safe and open contexts in which they can do so. Perhaps this is one benefit of etic forces (such as McCormick and East), who can encourage women to actively create and participate in those contexts with significantly less stigmatization. I do not deny that this is the product of racist and classist privilege which have been projected onto volunteers like McCormick and East. Yet rather than partaking of and enjoying those privileges for themselves, these two young women push the boundaries of privilege into the realm of risk-taking in order to raise consciousness about gender and human rights within their local communities. By expanding the territory of “acceptable” dialogue, volunteers both etic and emic empower women and girls at all levels to talk about the issues that they face every day.

2.52%

la la la

You will probably be disturbed and irritated at me for writing this… “Lee, why you always gotta be such a downer?” Well, don’t blame me for being down, blame the Patriarchal world we live in for getting me down. It is not possible to cover our ears, shut our eyes, and run our mouths about human rights all at the same time, monkeys.

This week in news (Cambodian Daily-style)…:

Tuesday: Training Aims to Protect Children From Predators: British experts in Phnom Penh are training about 160 teachers, police, government workers and childcare professionals on how to better protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation as part of a three-day workshop that began only yesterday. …British Ambassador Mark Gooding said the training was necessary because of “the growth of Internet use in Cambodia, especially among young people.” According to… the country director for anti-pedophile NGO Action Pour les Enfants, there are clear signs that online sexual predators are beginning to have a presence in Cambodia. “We have observed a few cases where children were groomed online by traveling sex offenders, and that means it will be a great concern in the future.” (by Lauren Crothers)

The growth of the internet has produced many learning opportunities for kids in Cambodia, but the downside is that it also increases their risk of encountering predators who use this anonymous technology to seek out victims. Kids, especially boys, can use the internet in towns and cities (and, increasingly, larger villages) completely unmonitored. These days this is how young boys are more often exposed to porn; they can pay less than 50 cents for 30 minutes to an hour of unrestricted access to any site on the web, and many of them go with friends to watch pornography at public internet cafes. Even when shop owners and others know this is going on, there is little or no stigma attached to boys (even very young boys) viewing porn. For all children, though, “playing chat” on the web is the new “big thing”; my impression from my students is that there is a certain prestige to having foreign friends on Facebook and Skype– I can imagine how easy it would be for a foreign pedophile to arrange a meeting with a child in Cambodia via the internet. Cambodian nationals will probably catch on to the internet as a way of hunting victims, too, as their access to the web increases; probably they have already, but there are very few statistics on crimes organized using the internet here.

Court Charges Man with Raping 8-Year-Old Girl: The Kandal Provincial Court yesterday charged a 31-year-old man with raping an 8-year-old girl in her home…on Sunday. The suspect was drunk at the time of the attack and had gone looking for the victim’s 16 year-old sister…”But he did not find her and met with the victim,” said police chief Mean Samnang. (by Khy Sovuthy)

Um… I don’t really have anything to say about this. I think it speaks for itself. But if your first thought was, “It would have been better if he’d found the 16-year-old instead,” I hope you ask yourself why.

Wednesday: Girl Detained, Drugged and Raped Over Two-Week Span: Girl was allegedly given sleeping pills by suspect, fed little in order to keep her in a weakened state.

The Ratanakkiri Provincial Court on Monday charged a teenager with rape, after he allegedly detained a 17-year-old girl at his home, drugged her and raped her over a two-week period, court officials and police said yesterday. The suspect, 17, was arrested on Friday after his uncle discovered the girl locked in his wooden house in Banlung City… After being questioned by police, the suspect confessed to raping the girl– who was his neighbor and knew him well– giving her sleeping pills and barely feeding her so that she would be sleepy, weakened, and unable to cry for help, [police chief] Vun said. “The girl was detained and locked in the room. The suspect had given her medicine that we assume must have been sleeping tablets,” Mr. Vun said. “He confessed that he raped her seven or eight times, but says it was because he loves her.” ..”After seven days, we were hopeless. We thought she had died, and we lit incense and put out offerings for her,” the victim’s mother said. (by Chhorn Chansy)

It is unlikely they will do a follow-up story here, but it is quite possible that the survivor will be mistreated (or disowned) by her family for “allowing” the rape to occur, or even worse she might be forced to marry her rapist. Well, he does love her after all.

Horrific? Toahmadah in the Kingdom of Wonder– normal, that is. If you talk to young adults, especially pre-teen and teenaged boys, in Cambodia, you will find that they have very unhealthy conceptions about “love”, “relationships”, “boyfriends/girlfriends”, and what constitutes “romantic”. A friend of mine had it from her teacher that the first time he had sex with his girlfriend, he had to hold her down and force his penis inside of her as she said “no no no” while physically resisting him. This girl later became his wife. Most people can look at this scenario and say, “This is rape.” But many people see this is “what must be done”, since it is culturally unacceptable for a girl to say “yes” to sex; if a girl says “no”, the default assumption can be that she wants to have sex, but cannot consent to it without looking like a whore. So the young man in the article above may have thought he was doing his “love” a favor by drugging her and locking her in a shed– maybe he really believed she wanted to have sex with him, but “could not consent”.

Friday: Violence Continues to Go Unpunished, Adhoc Says: Domestic violence continues to go virtually unpunished, authorities appear unable or unwilling to arrest sex traffickers, and rape of minors is “exceedingly numerous,” according to Adhoc’s annual report on the state of women and children in Cambodia… Deep-seated cultural obstacles are part of the problem of combating the violence, noted [Adhoc’s] report. “Domestic violence is seen as the norm and women themselves do not think it is criminal but a regular part of married life,” the report states. …Impunity also plays a role in the punishment of rapists. Courts handle only 2.52 percent of rape cases, and 11.34 percent are mediated by local authorities. …Last year was the first year in which rapes did not increase, but 72 percent of rape victims were children under 18, “which is extremely concerning” [the report says]. …Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said the fact that figures remained “stable” was a positive sign. “It’s better than increasing,” he said. Asked about Adhoc’s focus on impunity, Mr. Sopheak said: “Oh, we don’t have an impunity culture. That is what people say, but the government does not have an impunity culture.”

Of course the Ministry of Interior is not going to just come out and say, “Hellz yeah we’re corrupt! LOLZ”. But Sopheak’s delusional observation of Cambodian rape statistics as positive because they are “stable” is insufferable. “It’s better than increasing”…? If you say dumb shit like that in the U.S., you lose your job (or you should, at least). Again, toahmadah. Whatever. Highly-ranked public “servants” can openly deny corruption and dismiss horrific rape stats in the same breath here with absolutely no consequences. If you live here, you’re thinking, “Well, duh. It’s not like this is a democracy.” And I agree. It still completely blows all my circuits though– I simply cannot comprehend it. I want to reinforce this point so that you understand how completely normative, pervasive, and acceptable rape culture is in this country. It is my personal belief that all of human society operates inside of rape culture, but it is more powerful and functions in greater degrees in some countries than in others. It is not just the lack of punishment and accountability of rapists that perpetuates rape culture in the Kingdom of Wonder, but the deeply-ingrained effects of enculturating people of all genders here with profoundly violent and misogynist behaviors and attitudes and acceptance of those behaviors and attitudes. Like the teacher I mentioned above: this is a teacher, a respected member of his community who wants to educate poor villagers for free and start a non-profit jobs training program and all kinds of stuff– Nice Guy™. He’s still a rapist, people. If a “nice guy” like him believes that you have to force sex on a woman the first two or three times you want to have sex with her, we can’t be surprised to see articles like the one about the 17-year-old who kidnapped and raped the love of his life, or the 31-year-old who raped his 8-year-old neighbor ’cause her older sister wasn’t “available”.

About the article… “But Lee, isn’t it positive that the statistics aren’t increasing?” The statistics, unfortunately, only take into account those rapes that Adhoc heard about in some way, shape or form. Most rapes are never reported to any official entity, let alone dealt with by the police. It is extremely common for rapists to simply pay off families of victims to maintain silence, and in some cases to marry the victim to the rapist in order to save face (especially if the victim becomes pregnant). If only around 13% of reported rapes were dealt with by some kind of official entity (courts, commune and village chiefs, etc.), then that means almost 87% of cases (again, of reported rapes) are being handled privately. Which means virtually no repercussions for the rapist. Who will then be free to rape again. And again. Well, you get the idea.

p.s. That 2.52% are case that are “handled” by the courts NOT cases in which the perpetrator is sentenced, let alone serves that sentence. The 31-year-old who raped his 8-year-old neighbor was charged, but that does not equate to being sentenced or going to jail, or even paying a fine (though he can, and probably will, pay a bribe to be cleared of charges). Are we getting the picture here? Really? (For a laugh, you could compare these stats with those from American courts and you’ll see that they are more similar that you might think. Ha. Ha.)

I’ve mentioned this in other posts, but the reason why I am so sickened by these statistics is because they don’t account for all rapes, but only a portion– how large of a portion? We can’t know, but remember that rape victims are extremely stigmatized here. If you knew you were going to be blamed, badgered, laughed at, possibly married to your rapist, and ultimately told to shut up, and your rapist would almost certainly walk free, would you tell anyone that you were raped, or would you keep it to yourself? I look around at my neighbors, students, friends, even my Khmer family and wonder how many of them have experienced violence, including sexual violence, and are stoically keeping their mouths closed about it. Actually, many of them would probably never label rape if it did happen to them, which is no surprise consider that Cambodian law excludes many forms of rape in its legal definition. I also look around at the same people and wonder how many of them have raped or are raping someone and they will never even call it that. It saddens me very, very deeply.

When I talk about things like this with my (most often American) family, friends, acquaintances, whoever… They express a good deal of discomfort, try to change the subject, attempt to “lighten the mood” by making jokes, and so on.

Am I getting you down?

I don’t care.

Perhaps this is the 2012 “new me”, but I intend to unapologetically disperse information to as many people as I can about the Situation we find ourselves is as often as I possible can. I will ignore your discomfort, I will refocus the subject, and I will carefully dismantle your jokes with psychosocial and cultural analysis so you see how joking about This perpetuates rape, the function of Patriarchy, and so on.

I am going to be SO POPULAR. :D