Review: The True Cost

The True Cost: A Review.

Industrialized clothing production has always been problematic, but those problems have become intensified and have much more far-reaching consequences in recent decades. This is due in large part to a phenomenon known as “fast fashion.” In the not-so-distant past, the fashion world had two, at most three “seasons” of new clothing. However, global capitalist markets and industrialization have sped up production, shipping, and other processes that bring new styles to market, so much so that new fashions can hit shelves practically weekly. Hence, “fast fashion,” which encourages consumers to treat clothing as disposable.

The True Cost (2015) is an exploration of the causes and consequences of fast fashion in particular, and global capitalism in general. The film’s creators journeyed from Texas to the UK, from Bangladesh to Cambodia, from China to Haiti, and other places around the world. The film features interviews with experts from a multitude of fields, including ecofeminist Vandana Shiva, Free Market Institute director Benjamin Powell, physician Pritpal Singh, and animal rights activist and fashion designer Stella McCartney.

Perhaps most importantly, the film prominently features individuals struggling against the systemic problems associated with global capitalism in their own niches. Though they may be less famous in Western contexts, their stories are no less important. They help to shed light on the day-to-day consequences of the capitalist system, the ways in which seemingly disparate sectors are intrinsically connected within this system, and what individuals can do about it. Bangladeshi union leader Shima Akhter, American organic cotton farmer LaRhea Pepper, and Cambodian parliamentarian Mu Sochua are among these voices.

The True Cost takes a wide-lens view of the garment industry and the various economic pockets tied to it. I’ll discuss a few of the major themes that are the focus of this film here.

Agriculture

The huge growth seen in the fashion industry would not be possible without accompanying intensive industrialization of agriculture. As infrequently as we ponder the impact on garment workers as we shop for clothes, much less frequently do we think about farmers, who are one more step ‘removed’ from the final product. These industries appear disconnected to most of us, yet our constant consumption of “disposable clothing” would not be possible without industrialized agriculture. The industrialization of agriculture includes the mass use of herbicides, pesticides, and other agrochemicals that are not only dangerous for the natural world but also to human beings.

When her husband died of brain cancer, Texan LaRhea Pepper realized that organic farming isn’t just important, it is “imperative.” While she doesn’t have “a smoking gun” that directly connects the agrochemicals used on the farms surrounding her community to the many farmers she personally knows who have died from cancer, she has more than enough evidence to know that there is a dire need for organic farming techniques. She echoes ecofeminist Vandana Shiva’s sentiment that nature is the original economy, and when the land and waters suffers, humans suffer. Pepper says that we must “respect the life that’s in the land,” a lesson passed down to her in her farming family.

For farmers around the world, ‘modern’ agricultural products and techniques are tempting, despite the harm they can do to people and the environment. Yet it is a hard trap to escape from once signed onto, especially for farmers in “developing” countries, such as India. GMO cotton and other patented seeds have proven to be “ecological narcotics,” as Shiva calls them, because they require ever more chemicals (e.g. pesticides) to maintain their productivity. This in turn creates a dependency on GMO-patenting companies like Monsanto—which are the same companies producing agricultural chemicals. Even more disturbingly, Shiva asserts that the corporations selling carcinogenic farming chemicals are also investing in the development of cancer treatments and pharmaceuticals. In other words, these corporations benefit from causing, as well as treating, human ailments. It is easy to see that there is little incentive for this system to change itself, particularly when it prioritizes profit over human well-being.

Marketing

We think of propaganda “as a foreign thing,” says Mark Miller, professor of media studies at NYU, “but it’s actually as American as apple pie.” Advertising is essentially a form of propaganda that encourages us to buy stuff. Psychologist Tim Kasser has found that increases in materialistic values are associated with increases in anxiety and depression. After reviewing research on marketing, this is perhaps a predictable outcome of advertising that is designed to makes us feel insecure, incomplete, and incompetent—problems that can be ‘solved’ through the constant consumption of new products. Modern day marketing has become the art and science of what 19th century advertising copywriter Samuel Strausser called “consumptionism.” Miller explains that the logic of consumerism wants people “to treat the things we use as the things we use up.” This model is plainly unsustainable, but as economist Richard Wolff points out, American capitalism is treated as above criticism, regularly getting “a free pass” on its dysfunction.

Waste

Most of the waste we produce is non-biodegradable. In recent decades, a growing proportion of that waste is clothing. Increasingly, people think of fashion “as a disposable product,” according to journalist and True Cost producer Lucy Siegle. Many of us try to be more conscious of this, and believe we are doing good when we donate clothing to charity. But the “journey of a t-shirt donated to charity is unpalatable in itself,” says fashion designer Orsola de Castro. For example, almost 90% of the clothing we donate to local charities actually gets shipped to “developing” countries, such as Haiti. The unintended consequence of this is that it puts Haitian clothing manufacturers out of business, so there is less home-grown business and less local capital.

Consumer Capitalism as a Worldview

The True Cost creators interviewed Kate Ball-Young, a former sourcing manager for retail chain Joe Fresh, and in many ways her worldview neatly encapsulates the abstracted beliefs about globalization and capitalism held by most Americans today. Of garment factory workers, Ball-Young asserts that “they could be doing something much worse,” like coal-mining or something. She clearly has no idea just how hazardous garment manufacturing in countries like Cambodia, China, and Bangladesh truly is, both in the short and long-term. “There’s nothing intrinsically dangerous with selling clothes,” she says with a laugh. Perhaps that is true, but she appears to be disconnecting her own work from the very industry that provides her with a source of income in the first place. Ball-Young is emblematic of a Western mindset that as long as we can’t see where a thing came from, then we don’t need to ask hard ethical questions of ourselves, even when we sell or consume that thing.

For me, one of the most serious problems with this mindset is that we are not just cultivating an ignorance of where things come from, but indulging in a fantasy that real people did not create those things. Whether it is clothing or cars or food, we would much rather purchase and enjoy the end product guilt-free than contemplate the journey from field or mine to factory to storefront that a product must take. In doing so, we can overlook the human element of global capitalism—especially human suffering. Maybe we take it a step further by patting ourselves on the back for ‘supporting livelihoods’ overseas. Accompanying this belief is the attitude of TINA: “There Is No Alternative.” When we as consumers choose to believe that “there is no alternative” for the people producing our goods, we can excuse human rights violations, environmental devastation, and other associated problems because—well duh, what other choice do those people have? But what happens when we confront someone who believes this with, Well, aren’t we complicit in a system that has eliminated alternatives? We can’t abstract ourselves as individuals from these complex and interconnected systems in which we participate—and, frequently, which we benefit from. We must acknowledge that our choices as consumers has the power to perpetuate or alter these systems.

Some Criticism

As can be seen from this brief overview of a few of these major themes, the scope of the film is daunting. In its attempt to be accessible by not getting too deep with any one topic, The True Cost touches upon a variety of interconnected issues only superficially. This ends up becoming a core critique from film reviewers, such as Vanessa Friedman. In her New York Times review, she wrote of The True Cost’s director Andrew Morgan, “it’s hard not to feel in the end that he was overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. In trying to do everything, he skirted a lot of things, including acknowledging the shades of gray in this subject.”

Another shortcoming of this film is that it is not explicit enough in stating the disproportionate effect of exploitative industries like fast fashion on people of colour, most of all people of colour in the ‘Global South.’ To put it into perspective, (particularly white) Western consumers are exempt of accountability for their part in exploiting the time, health, and labor of people of colour in ‘distant lands.’ So while I commend the film for putting women of colour’s voices and experiences front and center, it cheats its own argument by shying away from the ways in which gender, race, and nationality play into global capitalism’s systemic violence. The film also does not in any way note how global capitalism is in part an expression of Western colonialism and imperialism, and how people of colour (especially women) continue to suffer the greatest burden of this legacy.

Finally, although there is some discussion of disability and mental health throughout the documentary, this is done without exploration of the experiences of people who are multiply marginalized. That is, the film’s creators do not flesh out the ramifications of living and working within an oppressive system that contributes to mental and physical disabilities disproportionately in communities of colour and in the ‘Global South.’ And where women of colour are place front and center to tell their own stories in their own voices, disabled people are not afforded this treatment. Rather, they are featured more as props backgrounding the ‘horrible’ stories of environmental contamination explicated by the director/narrator.

The Bottom Line

Nevertheless, for people who have never met a garment factory worker (let alone are friends with any), The True Cost may bring the human element of exploitative industries, like fast fashion, to the fore of their consciousness. Maybe they will start to pay more attention to workers’ struggles around the globe, including in places like Cambodia and Bangladesh. Maybe it will start to sink in how these systems do much for the West at the expense of the Global South, especially women of colour. Maybe they will start to see how our decision-making processes impact the direction industries take, and thus how we need to take responsibility for those decisions and their effects on our fellow Earthlings.

This documentary is best for people with limited knowledge of the themes it discusses, as it provides some solid, entry-level information. It’s a great starting point for getting a big-picture grasp of the abusive nature of global capitalism. From there, hopefully viewers will continue to more deeply educate themselves on these issues.

Here is some literature that might prove helpful for such continuing education on global capitalism, the interconnectedness of its systems, and how this impacts all of us:

And for those specifically interested in “buying better,” check out this page on the film’s site.

 

 

Rape, and love.

I’ve been reading a lot about rape, as I try to finish my thesis, which deals with sexual violence as well as institutional violence. I’ve listened to and read a lot of survivors’ accounts of these types of violence. It’s too much at times, because this is how I spend my academic life, my intellectual life, but it’s also on the news all the time. It’s in songs, in movies, on TV, in teen fiction, in casual jokes and everyday conversation, in political discussions.

There was a time not so long ago (2008, 2009) where I would’ve been astounded and pleased to see nation-wide media discussions about sexual violence. So much changed in the time I was gone. It still blows my mind that we are including things like bystander intervention training in college freshman orientations, or that the FBI updated its definition of consent to condemn sexual acts against an unconscious or drugged person as rape. This seems like massive progressive. Seems like we’re headed in the right direction. Then why the fuck am I filled with anxiety, why am I drawn tight like a bowstring whenever sexual violence arises as a topic of conversation, a court case, a news story, a song lyric, a painted subject. Is it just because I’ve experienced it? Is it just PTSD, blah-dee-blah? Something tells me otherwise.

At certain times in the history of feminist theory and activism, some feminists have voiced the opinion that rape is a crime of violence, only, not a crime of sex. Susan Brownmiller has been cited as supporting a view of rape as a being about violence, not sex (see Cahill 2001, 16-28). While I was a SAC advocate and crisis counselor at the Listening Ear, I shared this view of rape. “It’s not about sex,” so the line goes, “it’s about power and domination.” Of course, this is coming from people who either cannot fathom an association between power, domination, violence, and sexual arousal, or who cannot admit to themselves that for many people, such a connection exists.

There are many people who associate violence, sex, and power. Sometimes this is enjoyable, and sometimes it is born of traumatic experience—undoubtedly sometimes it’s both. Many kinksters who associate pain and pleasure, and who derive enjoyment and arousal from playing with power dynamics. However, kinky sex is not rape, due to the fact that communication, consent, and mutual enjoyment are the central tenets of BDSM and fetish practitioners. Rape happens when genuine consent is absent, whether when a person says no, when a person is silent, or when a person feels that they cannot say no (e.g. because they are being coerced, threatened with the end of a relationship, etc.).

Something that strikes me is that among all these discussions of the relationship between violence, rape, and sex, something that never seems to come is the subject of love. Now, we know that the vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by people known to their victims. In fact, they are often the closest people to us. They are our friends, our parents, our pastors, our teachers, our siblings, our neighbors, our lovers, our partners. They are people for whom we often feel a great deal of trust…and love. This doesn’t strike me as coincidental. It is the people whom we love the most that can often get away with doing the worst kinds of things to us, because we cannot admit to ourselves, let alone anyone else (e.g. a court of law), that they would do something to us that contradicts our understanding of their love for us. This seems to cross boundaries of all kinds of love. The love felt between parents and children, teachers and students, spouses, siblings, and so on—these are all very different kinds of love. But it seems to me that all of these kinds of love (perhaps all kinds of love) are founded upon trust.

This is what makes rape so devastating. It is a violation of bodily autonomy, it is a violation of the mind, and it is a violation of trust and love. Even where trust is broke, even again and again, love remains… Maybe it gets chipped away, maybe it wears like beaches shaped by waves, maybe it erodes into nothing, over time. But when it comes to the people we love most, we will suffer the worst kinds of betrayals, even more than once. We tell ourselves whatever is necessary to endure this kind of abuse: we put the people we love before ourselves, that is what true love is; we keep faith in them even when they fuck up, because love conquers all, and through love they will change and improve; love doesn’t always come easy, sometimes it requires work, maybe it even requires sacrifice; we can’t betray love, even when the people we love betray us.

I feel compelled to say something that I have suspected before, that makes my stomach turn and that I know the thought of which makes many people feel ill. Rape and love are connected. I won’t claim to understand their relationship. Either rape and love are connected (hence why it is most often the people we love who perpetrate our rapes), or we do not yet understand rape, or love. Quite possibly I think it is both. I suspect that until we better understand both rape and love, sexual violence will always be a normative aspect of our culture. Even as we say, “Rape has nothing to do with sex, rape has nothing to do with love,” we lie to ourselves that our rapists—our parents, our pastors, our best friends, our partners—love us. Maybe it is not a lie… Maybe they do love us. Maybe we do love them. Then we’ve got it wrong… Rape and love have something to do with each other. It seems fucked up, it seems unimaginable. But we also say that rape, itself, seems unimaginable. We say bizarre things about rape: “I’d rather die than be raped”; “I’d kill anyone who raped you/me.” We say sensical things about rape: “I can’t believe that person committed rape”; “I don’t understand how that person could have rape their best friend/spouse/child/classmate.” All of these utterances seem to me to indicate a serious lack of understanding about rape, but also love.

Something that we fail to talk about and to really seek to understand are the motivations of rapists. We pass them off as deviants, as psychos, as one-offs, as aberrations, as monsters under the bed, as strangers in the shadows. When it’s the people we love who fit this description, it’s like they become unknown, unknowable to us. It stops making sense. Our relationship stops making sense. Love stops making sense. Our bodies stop making sense. Our will stops making sense. It’s unfathomable, it goes against everything our culture has taught us about love, it goes against everything we feel and understand about love, about relationships, about ourselves, about the people we love. This isn’t how it’s supposed to work, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s incoherent, it’s like living in a horrific faerieland where nothing makes sense, nothing ever coheres.

It makes no sense to me whatsoever that a person whom I love and trusted very much raped me repeatedly. They made me feel like I was wrong for refusing them. They made me feel that I was saying “I don’t love you” whenever I said no. They made me feel that I was hurting them by saying no. They made me feel that they had a right to my body—more than that, they had a right to my bodymind and they had a right to believe I enjoyed it. Eventually I ran away from them because I felt like I was going to die—on some level I believed that it was me, or the relationship. One of us was going to end. I had come to believe that it was my destiny to kill myself, and that I wasn’t deserving of love, and I believed everyone who made me feel that my partner was ‘putting up with me’ and that I was abusing them. Probably most of those people had no idea what my partner did to me for more than two years. Sure, a lot of them knew that that person had jerked me around and gone out on me, had manipulated me and lied to me and so on and so forth. All part of the game that is college relationships, I suppose. But they didn’t know that my partner would touch me against my wishes, even in public places, like work. My partner wasn’t afraid of consequences, I think; I suspect that they felt they were in the right. They made me afraid to be alone at work with them. They made me afraid to walk up the stairs first. Eventually I couldn’t let anyone walk up a flight upstairs behind me, because I’d start having a panic attack. Of course, I wouldn’t figure out for a long time that that’s what they were.

Despite all this, I loved my partner so much, I couldn’t imagine my life without them. They were so smart and considerate and creative and funny and good-looking, they were going places, they had a good head on their shoulders, they were kind, everyone said so. Many people said I was lucky to be with them. I believed this. But in order to keep my partner happy, I had to do what they asked. If that was holding hands, or kissing, or letting them touch me, or having sex, then that’s what had to happen. It took almost four years for me to figure out that all of that was wrong, was not my fault, and the sex we had wasn’t ‘sex’, it was rape.

The part that is now very difficult for me to get my head around is that that person thinks they didn’t do anything wrong. No, scratch that, I can get my head around that. We live in a culture that tells some groups of people they’re better than other groups, that they are entitled to things from groups which are beneath them. Shrug. I can understand that. I read books and shit. What I can’t understand is how that person can live with themself, because they work in a place that is directly involved in people’s sexual health. What makes them think that they have even a modicum of understanding about sexual health? They made me feel that there was something wrong with me, with my body, when I didn’t enjoy having sex with them. Having sex you don’t enjoy over and over again—this is the opposite of healthy.

Writing helps… I’m feeling a bit better for having written this. Writing is a Lens of Clarity in faerieland. Maybe now I can get back to my thesis…

Crazy Is as Crazy Does

I’ve been wanting to write on here about neoliberalism for while. This post should most likely be preceded by a post devoted solely to neoliberalism, as a concept: where it comes from, what it entails, how it shapes our lives and worldviews.

But this particular post feels more pressing. Maybe it will even help clarify things for me later when I try to write other posts about neoliberalism.

I want to talk about mental health. It needs to be talked about in a different way than the mainstream tends to talk about it, and I want to attempt that, aided by against-the-stream or on-the-edges-of-the-stream perspectives from those I’ve read, those I know personally, those who have spoken to me and others about it.

Mental health is something that most people would rather put on the backburner as far as topics of conversation go. Mental illness is one that most people would rather avoid altogether. It is, admittedly, uncomfortable for speakers and listeners, those who have been diagnosed or treated for it, those who haven’t but feel or fear that they should be, and those who never have and never wish to be.

I wonder what this says, if anything, about the sorts of people who end up in fields and disciplines connected to the study and treatment of mental illness. Are they more compassionate, maybe? Trying to do people and society a favor? Are they ‘atypical’, themselves, perhaps trying to understand their own behavior or suffering? Are they just morbidly curious? (Friends and relations of mine who work in such fields, know that whatever we agree or disagree upon, I am not passing a judgment, but rather posing some earnest questions about the nature of these fields– if anything from a cultural, not moral, position of questioning.)

Whatever their motivations, there is frequently a common thread running through mainstream study, prevention, and treatment of mental illness. This might be hinted at by the very term ‘mental illness’. If it is an illness, it arises within a single person; it is an individual, not collective phenomenon. The same ‘illness’– schizophrenia, OCD, or manic depression, for instance– can present in many individuals, but it is nevertheless an affliction of individuals, not of society. As such, it must be studied, treated, and prevented at the level of the individual.

I recently discovered that there is a thing called dermatillomania— a ‘condition’, I suppose, also called Skin-Picking Disorder (SPD)**. People ‘afflicted’ with this condition pick at their skin: face, arms, legs, backs, scalp. Lips. Cuticles. It is cataloged in the DSM-V under Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Those with a related condition, trichotillomania***, pull out their hair, strand by strand. Eyelashes. Eyebrows. These disorders are also considered to be Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs), and is sometimes seen as a symptom or manifestation of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).

If you followed any of the above links, you may have been struck by a commonality among several of the treatments offered: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Habit-Reversal Training (HRT), and Mindfulness training and practices are by and large focused entirely on the individual. They encourage patients to think about what they can do to change their environments, their routines, themselves in order to change their ‘habits’. Habits which, while they may be harmful in various ways to that individual, are most like to disturb, embarrass or repulse others– that is, society.

I want to preface the rest of this by saying that I do not believe that we as individuals should not in some way be responsible for our own mental health, treatment or improvement of well-being. To the contrary, I think that such participation can be an empowering and transformative experience. However, we should note a few disturbing observations about this schema.

To begin with, such treatments begin from the presumption that illness like dermatillomania are problems of the individual: that is, they are disorders of single and separate minds. For instance, we might acknowledge that two different people who are each suffering from schizophrenia are experiencing a similar phenomenon, but we wouldn’t suggest that the experiences of those two individuals are in any way correlated– this person is not suffering from schizophrenia because of that person. They might be suffering from schizophrenia due to similar psychologies or circumstances, but this person’s illness is not the direct cause of that person’s illness. As such, being an illness of an individual person, it is up to that individual, or up to us on behalf of that individual, to take some measures to treat it. In any case, it’s the individual that requires treatment.

Now, in all fairness, many people who work on treatments for mental illness acknowledge that it is often the product of exterior factors or circumstances. A person close to you dying might cause severe depression, intimate partner violence might produce anxiety attacks, wartime violence and near-death experiences can cause PTSD. There is also a recognition that many circumstances cannot be changed: we can’t reverse the loss of a loved one, domestic violence can be difficult or impossible to escape, the violence of war may reside in the mind long after the war ends. Keeping this in mind, let’s look again at illnesses like schizophrenia, manic depression, OCD, borderline personality disorder.

Is it possible that the majority of responsibility for mental illness should rest on our sociocultural surroundings? What if, instead of beginning with the individual, we began with society as the place from where illness arises? What if we assumed that it is possible that society– the sociocultural structures by which we are all bound, though in different ways– needs to change in order to ‘cure’ mental illness, not the individual? I’m not suggesting that all mental illness could be solved merely by finding the most ideal sociocultural circumstances, but it isn’t a coincidence that some societies have higher rates of certain types of mental illness and suicide than others; varying societal factors must have a major impact on definition, prevention, and treatment of mental illness. I’m quite ignorant here, and many posts could be devoted solely to this topic, but among ‘modern’, ‘industrialized’, and ‘developed’ countries, there has come to be a very particular way of approaching mental illness, and that is by focusing on the level of the individual.

I want to suggest that this a symptom of the neoliberal worldview. Neoliberalism focuses almost entirely on the level of the individual, even when talking about phenomena like globalization and transnationalism. States, corporations, and organizations are compartmentalized and atomized into individual units: citizens, consumers, employees, members. As members of a neoliberal culture, we see ourselves as part of organizations and states, but at the same time as self-contained, discreet Selves, part of and yet apart. Those who feel their identity to be part of a common or collective consciousness, who ‘lose’ their individuality, must have joined some sort of cult.

Mental illness is often talked about in terms of individual shortcoming, weakness, or failure. Those who kill themselves or attempt to are considered selfish, short-sighted, making excuses and lacking accountability or self-control. Solutions for individuals include being mindful, focused more the present, utilizing coping skills, and so forth. All of these are individual behavior and attitude changes; society is not required to change its behaviors or attitudes. Basically, by trying harder, individuals can work towards greater self-reliance, independence, responsibility and strength. The idea is, after all, that healthy individuals do not or should not have need of a therapist and do not excessively burden those close to them with the side effects of their mental illness or mental health needs. Well, and the therapist exists for that very purpose: to unburden those around us, which contributes to the notion that mental illness is a private and shameful matter. Yet the person who kills themselves for the very purpose of permanently unburdening those around them (and they are likely thinking of the individuals whom they love, not their school or company or country) is considered selfish. We need to have personal accountability to ourselves and others regarding our mental well-being– society is not accountable to us. As such, society should be right to fear, berate and institutionalize the mentally ill individual. Music, TV shows and movies often reflect neoliberal ideals, perhaps unconsciously and unselfcritically.

Briefly returning to dermatillomania: the websites referenced above readily admit that researchers are unsure of the causes of dermatillomania. In spite of this, treatments are still focused upon the individual. Why should this be, if we can’t even be sure the individual is necessarily able to stop these behaviors?

I want us to thing about new and different ways of looking at the treatment of individuals with mental illness. Is it so outrageous to imagine accommodating certain aspects of mental illness? Or better yet, to change sociocultural structures that might be catalyzing mental illness in the first place?

More thoughts to come… In the meantime, what are yours?

**I am wary of any group (bureaucratic agencies, NGOs, academic disciplines, whoever) who are overly fond of acronyms. Fuck, acronyms are annoying.

***How interesting, the insertion of “non-cosmetic” into their definition.

Telling as Woman

Most of my choice to not self-identify as trans* has resulted from what I now know to be clinically-derived and perhaps unfairly “psychological” conditions (or, according to psychology, “symptoms”), primarily gender dysmorphia, which by most people’s definition usually includes body dysmorphia. I will not claim to never experience ‘dysmorphia’: I have, at various times, been uncomfortable with and even resentful of aspects of my gendered self, particularly my physical self, including my breasts and much more frequently my hips, butt and thighs. No, male-identifying friends, your comments that my figure is womanly, that I have a nice butt, that it is only natural for a woman to have hips [like mine?], that certain clothes are flattering in a feminine way, etc. do not improve my self-image or make me feel better about my body. Feel me? Female-identifying friends who assure me I’m not fat, I know you mean well, but we are trapped in this constant-body-analysis thing together, the thing where we worry about our bodies more for how they translate in the eyes of others than for our own Selves. And it’s because we are trapped in this together that leads me to my next reason for not self-identifying as trans*.

By being myself but also associating my Self with that category Woman, I think I (and others like me) are consciously doing two things: 1) we are decisively stating that Woman is not something to fear, resent, or despise. ‘Woman’,  whatever that is (and I’ll get to that) deserves recognition, deserves to be loved and embodied. Woman is not Lesser Than, Woman should not be shied away from. Woman should be confronted, thought about, challenged, forwarded. 2) We are demonstrating, with our bodies, minds and spirits, that there are many ways to do Woman, many ways to be It. There are so many ways to do and be It that one must wonder what the necessity is of having the category Man, at all. All of those things which can be done, embodied in Man can be also be done in Woman. Maybe Woman/Man are too essentialist, universalist, generalized, specified to be useful anymore. Maybe we need a different way of understanding, thinking about, talking about and being human. These categories feel spent, outdated and inaccurate.

Yet. They still shape our realities in unwelcome and harmful ways. So while we are working towards a new conceptualization of Human, I will choose to associate my Self with Woman. This is not to say that I do not value trans*; I consider Trans* extremely important. Trans* is transcendent. But let me clarify my feelings about Woman.

Culture is not finished shaming and hating Woman. I think a huge difference between Woman and Trans* is that the latter is much more Self-aware, much more politically conscious, and much more active in terms of that consciousness. Their ball is picking up speed fast. Woman’s ball, however, will sometimes gain momentum and then be kicked in a different direction, hit walls, keep going, roll to a stop. Women who self-identify as such (as Woman) are still invested in hating and confining Woman. Woman hates ItSelf, and unlike Trans* does not understand why this does not need to be.

Thus it is a conscious decision for me to associate myself with Woman. Do I self-identify as female? Not particularly. Do I call myself cisgender? Absolutely not. But is an embrace of Woman necessary to end Its Self-hatred? I believe so.

I realized this at the same time I realized I do not clinically want to be seen as trans*; I do not want to feel shame and hatred towards my body, I do not want to look at my body and say it is Not Woman (because I will not look at it and say it is Man– or Not Man). This is the only body I’ve got; culture has attempted, as it will, to shape it in terms of its conception of binary sex/gender, but I have moved beyond this. Culture’s binary sex/gender construct is inadequate for describing me and other people I know (and others I don’t know). I do not need to alter my body to more closely align with this construct, or even to move away from it (eg towards Trans*).

The body is a terrific, awesome vessel for transversing this reality. It holds my Me-ness, in many ways it is my Me-ness. Without it, I couldn’t fathom my Self, and probably neither could anyone else. We are living in a very interesting and pivotal time in which binary sex is being confronted and it cannot withstand the pressure of this. Gender is all kinds of confused. Yet we’ve not thus far reached a point where we can even begin to dream of calling our culture ‘postgender’. Gender is still very relevant and meaningful. Can I do both: can I stand inside of Woman but also self-identify as not a woman (or as a man, or as trans*)?

I think we can, and in fact I think they compliment each other. We can simultaneously embody something that we feel is other-than-Woman, but we can also tell our Selves as Woman. If you self-identify as a man and have a penis and have never had a period, will you suddenly, by telling your Self as Woman, know what it feels like to shed the lining of your non-existent uterus every month? Will you suddenly know how it is to carry a baby to term, or to be fired from a job because you are pregnant? Standing within Woman is not the same as being Woman. I will never carry a baby to term and when I dress as a boy I am relieve of being sexually harassed on the street, but I can and do choose to stand within Woman. Many women do not have breasts or uteri or ‘typical’ levels of estrogen or even xx chromosomes, yet they self-identify as women and culturally ‘read’ as women. And I promise you, if you read as male but tell others you’re Woman (are Woman, as a distinction from ‘are a woman’), you will know not only know some of the feelings of being Woman, but also some of the feelings of being Trans*.

Why is this good, or useful? I believe empathy is a powerful tool, an element which is not just human but which shapes Human at its core. Maybe we are interesting, naked social hominids who we need empathy to survive within human culture, and to survive, at all. Let’s take empathy and extend it beyond survival, into cultural transformation.

Addendum: This ‘Statement‘ was recently brought to my attention, and it illumined another aspect of ‘standing inside of Woman’, for me. I take it as further evidence of the validity of Woman as a subversive, radical and activist identity in that trans* people are also firmly included inside this ‘category’. Self-identifying trans* women and men can both comfortably assume a place within Woman, should they choose to. I imagine there are those who are concerned with this conception of Woman: how generalized can it become before it loses all meaning? I would argue that I am not attempting to broaden or generalize Woman out of existence, in fact I am not broadening Woman in an unproductive way. The way in which Woman has traditionally been used within whitestream feminisms implies a unity and universality that is pure fiction, and (as pointed out in the aforementioned ‘Statement’) remains incredibly transphobic and queer-phobic. Such a category has long been discussed, forwarded and reconstructed always within the Binary and ever in opposition to Man. How subversive is it to critique, deconstruct, reconstruct inside the Binary? We are always operating on the Binary’s terms if we continue to determine eligibility for entrance into Woman based solely on a traditional, whitestream, or oppositional view of Woman. Thus, I am more interested in the capacity of Woman to turn the criteria for eligibility on its head, and through this, to expand our gendered consciousness beyond Binary thinking, (perhaps idealistically) gendered and otherwise. In the same vein of the Statement, I question the stability of the identity known as “woman”, and wondered what new paradigm awaits us as our consciousness transforms.

Humanity has reached an incredible and transformative period in its life, one in which those of us who question, reject or simply do not “qualify” for membership in the oppositional Binary (or even Binary spectrum) are feeling the pushback of those who are invested in its maintenance and propagation– or should I say survival? Some of this pushback has even come from my fellow feminists (“feminists”? [Feminism only serves to aid women?]*). Some feminists seem to be highly invested in Binary (e.g. sex binary, race binary, etc.) for its ability to distinguish between oppressed/oppressor, but as intersectional feminists like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins have argued, identity is not simply black/white, literally or figuratively. If we really want to make progress on issues that matter before it’s too late, we are going to need to overcome the false sense of security and comfort we derive from the Binary, and one stepping stone along the many paths to accomplishing this is a rethink of Woman.

*One might also argue that investment in the Binary has long appeared in a seemingly unlikely place: parts of the trans* community.

How We Read

Today at work, while I was running the register, a girl of about 6 or 7 wondered aloud to her mother, “Is that a boy or a girrrrrl…?” Since this has happened to me about a million times (to be fair, Cambodia about tripled my score in this count), I was neither offended nor caught off guard, but I did do something a bit different than I have usually done. Before her mother could scold/shush her, before she could apologize to me, I smiled slyly and said, “What do you think?”

“Ummm…” said the girl.

“It’s okay, you can take a guess.”

“Ummmm…. A girrrrrrl?” posed the girl.

“Close enough,” I said, “It’s not that important, really.”

The girl, whose named turned out to be Moon (it wasn’t actually, but to protect her identity I’ve swapped it out for something equally celestial), seemed quite delighted and gratified. What surprised me, though, was her mother’s reaction. She was neither embarrassed nor angry, not awkward, not anxious. She seemed perhaps relieved, or even glad. She said, only mildly apologetically, “When she wants to know something, she just asks!”

I praised Moon for her bravery in asking questions, and encouraged her not to be afraid to be curious. They went off to have their breakfast.

Later on, while making coffee, I got to have another short conversation with Moon and her mom. I said I liked her name, it was quite unique, and mentioned that I coincidentally had a friend named Sky, which really got her excited. She confided loudly that there was a boy at her school named Creek (also not his real name, but similarly earthy), and that he liked her and wrote her love letters. But she didn’t like these love letters, she exclaimed! She always threw them away, but he wrote her persistently, anyway.

“You don’t have to put up with that, Moon,” I assured her. She assured me that she could stand up for herself. I believe she can. Remarkably, through most of the conversation, Moon’s mother let her talk for herself, occasionally contributing but never overriding or trumping Moon’s voice.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t mind ambiguity; in many ways, I despise it. But in reading the works of feminists like Gloria Anzaldúa, Donna Haraway, and Riki Wilchins, I am more and more interested in the power of ambiguity to disrupt and confuse our cultural tendency towards binary thinking, dichotomous worldviews. Dichotomies relieve the frequently awkward, at-times painful tension of ambiguity; much of our modern-day logic wouldn’t function without what Patricia Hill Collins calls “either/or thinking”. Everything in our world should generally be called one thing, or another, but it must be one or the other and it certainly cannot be both.

Every human being must be male, or female, but they cannot be both and of course cannot be something else entirely. Why are we so utterly disturbed by this notion? Why is any transcendence of the binary sex construct considered heretical, perverse, unnatural?

Why are children more easily able to cope with this ambiguity? I didn’t give Moon an answer; I let her think what she wanted to think, which could have included not making up her mind, or not caring. For most adults, not making up our minds or not caring are quite implausible in regards to sex/gender: we need to know, we need certainty. A lack thereof, the presence of ambiguity is weird, disconcerting, frightening, even angering.

I’m not going to suggest that ambiguity in all situations is positive or appropriate, but I will say that most cultures could do with a higher tolerance for it. After all, the notion of the ‘false dichotomy’ is sort of redundant in the sense that most dichotomies are false, perhaps the most pervasive of those being ‘male/female’ and ‘black/white’. For Moon, I fell into enough of a grey area that it prompted her curiosity; her reaction was neutral, or maybe even positive by some views, but unusual, regardless. What if more of us were curious about the grey area? What if more of us embraced living in the grey area? How might that begin to affect the currently [harmful] dichotomous worldview we insist on passing down to future generations?

Feminism and Spiritual Ecology

100_3038Lately I’ve been exploring the connections between feminism and deep ecology, also sometimes called spiritual ecology. Sometimes these connections are obvious, like the notion that the Earth is a Mother and humanity’s wasteful and thoughtless destruction of her “resources” and inhabitants is equivalent to matricide, or rape. Sometimes the overlap of these philosophies surprises me, as when I saw nexus where feminism’s agency and autonomy concepts meet deep ecology’s unity and lifeforce concepts. (Probably more to articulate on that later.)

Ecofeminism explores the connections in these two subject areas more explicitly, and some of the contributions to the book Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth are what I would consider feminist philosophy. Below are links to some readings from that book which seemed especially relevant to me, both to feminism and ecology and to the more pressing matter of our treatment of Earth. If you read and have feedback, ideas, critiques or questions, please feel free to comment on this post!

Revelation at Laikipia, Kenya100_3043
Chief Tamale Bwoya
(Scroll down the above linked page for article.)

Listening to Natural Law
Chief Oren Lyons (Here: lyons-oren-essay)
(Also, a video here.)

The Koan of the Earth
Susan Murphy
(Scroll down the above linked page for article.)

Creation as the Body of God
Fr. Richard Rohr

Spiritual Ecology is a great starter read for anyone interested in feminist-related and deep ecology.

This isn’t an excerpt from Spiritual Ecology, but this blog has some appreciable, and fun, insights (and also a really cool banner).

100_3039Much literature within the deep ecology movement echoes feminist themes regarding the harm of hyperindividuality and patriarchy, particularly our disconnection from the Earth and our environment (and from each other) as well as the devaluation of the ‘Feminine’. ‘Western’ (and some ‘Eastern’) philosophies have long seen the Earth as a wilderness waiting to be dominated, its forests, mountains, sands, waters, and living things waiting to be harvested and recreated into materials more useful to [white, hetero, cis] capitalist patriarchy. Capitalist patriarchy devalues the ‘feminine’ wild in its natural state, thus othering the natural world (the anima mundi) and creating the illusion of human superiority over it which justifies our domination of all other living things. At the same time, capitalist patriarchy encourages our egoistic arrogance and our delusion that, not only are we separate and different from the Earth and its lifeforce, we are so important as individuals that we are also separate from each other. A lot of deep ecology talks about the fostering of human community in conjunction with reconnecting to land, weather, water, and living things.

More readings and resources on feminism + deep ecology are likely forthcoming. Also, if you have suggestions of your own, please send me a message or post them below!

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!

 

How (Not) to Deal

The past couple weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships. About my past relationships, potential future relationships. I’ve been thinking about why the ones in the past went wrong (not all of them did, but most of them), whose “fault” it was, and about why I have a fairly cynical attitude towards future ones. I also hear other women talking about their feelings on similar notions: I don’t want to “settle”, I’d rather be alone; I can’t seem to find a guy that I’m on the same page with; It shouldn’t require so much effort/compromise; When it doesn’t work out, I feel like it’s my fault; and other such sentiments.

There have been some videos circulating recently, about guys as well as girls (not really sure what to think about the “bossy” video, haven’t made up my mind, but that’s another story), that I have felt are really connected to this, but at first wasn’t sure how.

There have also been all these articles lately decrying, or simply commenting on, our depraved and rampant hookup culture in the States, (oddly enough?) pinning most of the blame on women. (Tangent: Doesn’t this tell us something about what happens to decent newspapers when they become private? Give me a break, WP…) Their quotes of women explaining why they would rather hook up in short, apparently meaningless relationships certainly makes the situation look very shallow: “cost-benefit analysis”, really? Seems like we’re in a sorry state.

Rosin talks about this in The End of Men, where hookup culture comes from and why women, in general, are tending to avoid committed relationships more and more often. But her portrayal of women’s side of the story tends to pin the blame on men: they [meaning most men] simply have not caught up to where social gender norms are today. Things have changed very quickly, but [most] men have not changed with the times.

I tend to agree with that, but I think she doesn’t bring the argument full circle: [most] men are able to carry on with their antiquated worldview because we are still raising them to believe in it. Meaning, their fathers and their mothers (and schools, religious institutions, sports organizations and so on).

This is the female version of the men’s activist crowd’s gripe, where they complain about being subject to military draft and losing custody battles, yet refuse to acknowledge their views of masculinity (gender, more broadly) as harmful. Women complain about not being able to find an “emotionally available” man who is willing to commit, yet continue raising their sons with the self-entitlement, masculinity complex and heteronormative ideologies that deprive them of what they’re looking for. Both lines of thinking want to keep their cake and eat it too.

I get it. I feel scared when I have my worldview rattled, too. I feel stupid and ashamed, at times, when that happens. Sometimes it means giving up some power, which is also scary. But paradigm shifts can also be liberating, and transcendental. I mean, wow, they can feel really good! And it is often they case that they can work out for a win-win situation.

Well, what does this mean for me. What do I have to do. I guess it first means taking a long look at my own short-comings, some of which are the result of my [patriarchal] cultural upbringing. As a for instance, I was twenty-one years old when I finally learned how to talk about my feelings. As in, “I feel sad.” “I feel angry.” Sound strange? To be fair, most American girls/women don’t suffer terribly from an inability to label or express their feelings, because they are told being emotional is feminine and they embrace their emotions as a way to embrace their femininity. I didn’t like the idea of femininity, however, didn’t see myself as feminine, and even deplored it, to a degree. [Patriarchal] American mainstream culture also tells us that that which is deemed feminine is lesser, kind of vapid, a little bit pathetic. So while it was how I was “supposed” to behave, I very much rejected it and modeled myself after male role models.

vincent_van_gogh_woman_head_hands

Many (most?) of the boys/men around me would go through the following succession when confronted with strong negative feelings: 1. Humor: Make them laugh, laugh it off, make light of the situation. Especially good if you can laugh at them so they will not feel safe bringing up negative feelings around you in the future (but you can also laugh at yourself, too). If they persist, try 2. Anger: Lash out, put it back on them, make them feel guilty for bringing up negative feelings, generally yell or get pissed until they stop. Good for multiple uses because it also acts as a deterrent to people bringing up negative feelings around you in the future. If this fails, phase 3: Shutting down: Just stop talking. Stop blinking. Maybe even stop breathing. Don’t respond in any way, shape, or form. Eventually they will feel too stupid/hurt/embarrassed/guilty to continue and will go away. It’s like the No Talking game: whoever can out-silence the other person the longest wins. Now, should this not work, you will need to resort to phase 4…: Running away: That’s right. Literally flee the room. Probably they won’t pursue you, but if they do, get to a place where they can’t find you. You could even get in your car and drive away (later you can pass this off as “blowing off steam” so that you still look like you’re in Phase 3 and will save some masculine face, feel me?). It works via Internet too. Are you having a skype conversation that suddenly turns all negatively feely? Slam! Close the lid, problem solved. :D …Right?

It seemed a fairly successful model. For example, it resulted in me not crying for a span of nearly two years, excepting the occasion of my grandfather’s funeral. I got very good at expressing all my negative feelings as just one: anger.

This all sounds pretty emotionally immature, eh? Agreed. This treatment of emotions stunts one’s ability to label and own emotions, to empathize with others, even to feel. But when it is your cultural worldview, it sure seems like the right/good thing to do. And so I did, for years and years, until I felt bad enough to want to Exit Stage Left. Fortunately, fortuitously for me, I fell into a good crowd, and I literally began to have this value set untrained from me. It was rough. It still is rough. But I am fairly certain I treat people a lot better now, and I absolutely feel better off, myself.

Cambodian mainstream culture has only convinced me further that this way of dealing with emotions is harmful, to individuals, relationships, and communities. I see people here go through a similar set of phases when confronted with strong negative feelings, but in the extreme: when jokes and anger don’t work, violence is an all-too-easy method of next resort. A man fired off his assault rifle at a wedding when folks wouldn’t turn the music back on for him. This admiration of hypermasculine values is hardly an American thing, and it doesn’t just hurt women.

I don’t believe this is the Answer to Everything, but I think this could be a really good jumping-off point for addressing harmful patriarchal values on an individual level. It’s something we can do in our own homes. It can be as simple as not laughing at or mocking someone who is crying– be they male or female. You are probably doing so because it is making you feel uncomfortable, perhaps because you don’t have a clue of what to do– because your culture has utterly deprived you of any tools to deal with strong negative feelings, be they your own or someone else’s.

I am a firm believer that empathy can be learned, but just as important as taking on a new value set is eradicating the old one.

Thoughts on this?

Open Letter to My Rapist

 

My rapist.

It’s strange to use that possessive pronoun with a word like ‘rapist’, but that’s what you are. Perhaps you’re someone else’s rapist, too, but that doesn’t change the fact that I can still claim ownership over you– for something no one wants, which is still mine.

I listen to a cheerful song as I write this, so I don’t tear the skin off my lips in anxious anger (yet I still do). As I reflect on our relationship, which I have rarely done in the past three years, I realize there are really only two things which I will always hold against you. There are other things for which I hate you, but I imagine some day I’ll get over them. All things save two.

We had Spanish together my junior year, your senior year. It wasn’t planned, it just ended up like that. Inevitably at some point we were put in a group together for a project, which thrilled me at the time. I was also excited about the project, itself– creating a Spanish menu– because it involved creativity and the chance to draw, which you knew I liked. But when we distributed the workload, you alloted yourself nearly all the artwork. When I expressed that I wanted to draw, too, you told me I wasn’t as good as you, and because I foolishly worshiped you, a stone idol, I agreed. On the day we were to submit our projects, I felt a bit resentful; I saw your sketches of paella and tortilla de papas, and thought I could have done as well. I was always small to you. I was never as good as you.

Then came the day, not long after the Spanish project, that we were watching a movie in the basement of my house. My home. My parents were outside, in the barn or the garden, maybe. Giving us mistrustful privacy.

For months you had been telling me that we should have sex, because “people who love each other should give everything to each other” and, well, we were going to get married anyway, weren’t we? Yet I steadfastly resisted: my position was that sex was reserved for marriage, which at the time I was resolutely convinced was God’s Will– a god, as it turns out, who does not exist.

On this day you were going on about something like that, we should share everything with each other, don’t you love me, if you loved me you’d have sex with me, blah blah blah. I wasn’t really listening because I already knew what my answer was. I already felt a terrible anxiety about the state of my virginity (how much could you kiss someone before you lost your virginity? Did making out count as sex? What about hand jobs?), so it was easy, simple, for me to say “no”. I couldn’t believe you’d even consider it– weren’t you worried that we were already going to hell?

You said, then, that you wanted to know “what it feels like”, meaning my vagina. You said you wanted to touch it. I lost my patience. If we weren’t already fallen from God’s grace, we surely were now. Or at least you were. I got up to leave, exasperated.

I never could have guessed, would have allowed myself to believe, what you would do next.

You grabbed my arm, which didn’t immediately alarm me until I tried to pull away. When you didn’t let go, I felt a deep, primal urge to dig my nails into your face, your eyes, but I rationally resisted the impulse: why would I do such a thing to someone I loved? But you did not let go. Your hand was like a vice grip, likely the outcome of all that baseball you played, all that sculpting of clay you did. You pulled me down to the carpet and knelt on top of me in one smooth, swift movement, almost as if it was practiced. As I look back at myself then, I appear as a small animal, a young child, pathetically weak, with huge, round eyes brimming with the realizations of fear. My little animal brain hadn’t caught up to reality yet, not even as you forced your hand down the front of my jeans (How did you do that? I pondered vaguely; I had thought the waistband of my jeans would prevent such a thing from happening, it was much too tight, wasn’t it?), and your digits into my vagina. Strange pain. Blink, blink. It must have been less than ten seconds, but I remember thinking then that it had lasted much longer. I finally registered how strong you were and felt shocked that you’d used it against me, and how heavy your knees were as they pinned my arms down, like a straight jacket. Then you were talking about me, about my body, as you still had your fingers inside me, like a scientist describing matter-of-factly a newly discovered landscape (words like “soft” and an exclamation of “Wow!”, when remembered still make me want to throw up). You felt around in me as though I were an inanimate object, a garbage disposal into which something had fallen and caused a jam. I noticed how itchy the carpet was.

And then you got off me. I just laid there at first, my arms still at my sides. I felt nothing, I couldn’t describe how I felt. You noticed my blank face and suddenly all your joy was gone. You seemed instantly, intensely apologetic– “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’ll never do that again”– but in retrospect I imagine you were terrified I’d tell someone. I got up and your I’m-sorry-so-sorrys followed me to the stairs where, one step ahead of you, I turned around and looked down at you and I said– I don’t fucking remember what I said, something like “You will never do that again,” something which I would not say now.

So let me tell you what I would say now.

What you did to me the State of Michigan defines as Criminal Sexual Misconduct of the First Degree according to Chapter 76 (Rape), Section 750.520b. Being that you used force, and that your actions resulted in physical pain and mental anguish, it was a felony.

But let’s face it. Even had I filed a police report, and even if that report had been examined by the DA and taken to court, you would have easily escaped punishment. Rich all-star travel team white Christian boys do not go to jail for sticking their hands where they don’t belong.

So what I’m left with is this.

That to you, I was a gutter clogged with rain-soggy, rotting leaves. A skinny, dirty glass in the sink, that you can’t quite reach the bottom of with a sponge. A pencil that has rolled off the table and under a couch, and now you’re on your knees reaching, reaching for it.

You talked about me in the third person. “Hello, I’M RIGHT FUCKING HERE. I can hear you,” I should have said. You talked about me in the fucking third person, like you were having a nice little chat with yourself. Let me try that for a moment:

“He is a despicable, abhorrent, perverse, loathesome creature.” “A violator, to be sure. A fascist, a betrayer of human rights.” “He must have turned out like his dad.”

Do I find it as satisfying as you did? You thought me cold all those years you tried to talk to me, and I wrote you back with words of venom. You forfeited your right to my kindness when you assumed your desires trumped my bodily autonomy.

You are a violator of space. You put your hands where they didn’t belong. You did things which you can’t take back. Maybe there are people in the world who love you and deeply care about you. That is entirely inconsequential to me, whom you betrayed, in my own home. My home. You will always be a selfish, pathetic 19 year old jerk, in my mind.

Understand this: I will never forget, and you best hope you never meet me on the street, for I will greet you loudly and clearly with your most enduring title:

“Hello, rapist.”

Who Writes the Rules

Who decides what the rules are when it comes to gender and sex?

The short answer is, the People at the Top. You may not be surprised to discovered that, in patriarchal cultures (which describes most cultures), this is men. We can be more specific, however: bottom-to-top position in this hierarchy is determined by many things, and the closer one gets to the top, the richer, more educated, and lighter-skinned these men get. Upon discovering that the People at the Top are predominantly wealthy, white, Western males, understanding gendered rules and expectations becomes a lot easier. Patriarchal hierarchies of dominance vary from place to place (and even time to time), but the patterns of wealth, education, skin colour, ability, age, sexual orientation, and so on are fairly consistent.

As many people have discussed, not only in terms of gender but also in terms of race and other categories, the People at the Top do not actively and consciously determine and define gendered rules, necessarily; rather, it is largely through their mere existence as Normal and Best (or Default, as some say– I like that) that definitions of other persons are shaped relative to them. Male equals normal, female equals abnormal or deviant; male equals default, female equals Other.

That’s the short answer, but it’s not whole answer. The more accurate, complete, and much longer answer is: everybody. We all decide what gendered rules and expectations will be, by following them. And perhaps even more importantly, by punishing those who deviate. It comes so naturally to us it seems biologically innate to call the boy in your eighth grade class who was caught wearing toe nail polish a fag. Hatred and fear of deviance, however, is not innate; it is learned. We are taught early and often that deviation is bad, most appreciably by being punished, ourselves. Normal/good little boys do not play with dolls; they pretend to shoot each other. Normal/good little girls do not pretend to shoot each other; they sweetly and passively care for their dolls. Full-grown men do not cry. Full-grown women do not have double mastectomies. Et cetera. This is reinforced to us all our lives. We witness what happens to those who deviate, and we learn to participate in their persecution, be it in the comments section of Youtube or NPR, or on sports teams, or in ballet class, or in our classrooms, or within our own families (this is often referred to as gender policing). If you are not doing the persecuting, chances are you might be persecuted– so which side would you want to be on? This is the question faced by every single person who lives within the confines of patriarchal culture.

The next time you hear someone tell a young man “boys don’t cry” (or “you throw like a girl”, or whatever), call to mind the question: Who decides what the rules are when it comes to gender and sex? You do. Either through your inaction or by validating that young man’s feelings, you are helping to decide what the rules are.

In order to contemplate the rules and think about how you’d like them defined, they first have to be recognizable. For most people, gender rules are normative and it would never occur to them to question them. Those who do are said to be “challenging Nature” and pushing “unnatural ideas”. Challenging our conceptions of “natural” is a good place to start.