Reblog: NWSA Executive Committee Letter on Pulse Nightclub Tragedy

The NWSA Executive Committee sent the following letter by email to its members earlier today. It does a good job (especially the third paragraph) of showing how different forms of violence and seemingly disparate attacks, though not to be conflated, are interconnected through broader cultural currents.

Dear NWSA members,

As members of the Executive Committee, we write to express our collective outrage over the attack at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub during its Latinx-themed night. We recognize this heinous act for the hate crime it is against LGBTQ people, people of color, and those who live at the intersection of these communities. In this difficult time, we urge our community of scholars, educators, and activists to draw on the insights of feminist/anti-racist/queer activists and thinkers to address hatred and violence, imagine alternatives to domination, and foster community.

We draw on an intersectional political framework to call for the collective liberation of all. Given that systemic racism, misogyny, ableism, colonialism, and homophobia are deeply interconnected, we condemn the Islamophobia that has emerged in the wake of the attack and urge you, our members, to find ways to contest the widespread culture of violence that surrounds us, including histories of violence against queer and trans people of color. This culture of domination is local and global, intimate and structural, and is pervasive. It includes: harassment and discrimination; gender violence, rape culture, and murder; the criminalization of divergent lives/bodies/loves and the violence of the carceral state; silencing, dispossession, and erasure; eugenic and genocidal practices; colonial gendered violence against Indigenous people; and militarization and war.

Diverse forms of brutality must be understood as distinct and yet interconnected. It is essential to think through how the Pulse nightclub shooting, the church shootings in Charleston, the murder of Indigenous women in Canada, and the murder of transgender sex workers in Brazil and elsewhere are interrelated without collapsing the important differences in each of these, and many other, contexts. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but one that should highlight the role we all can play in refusing and resisting a culture of violence wherever we find it.

In this time of mourning and remembrance, we call on you, our NWSA members, to confront domination, intolerance, and hatred—in the intimacies of everyday life and on a wider, macro-political scale. We also underscore the importance of supporting each other and being mindful of the impact of myriad violences on ourselves, each other, our students, and our scholarship. Though the work at hand may be difficult, our collective labors to understand how systems of oppression are interlaced and must be thought through and addressed together are pivotal and deeply relevant.

Sincerely,

Vivian M. May, President
Nana Osei-Kofi, Vice President
Diane Harriford, Treasurer
Carrie Baker, Secretary

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.”

“The ‘Process-Oriented’ Virgin”: a letter

Dear Mz Blank:

I am what you would call a “process-oriented virgin”, though I, myself, would reject that label. I was so angry reading through your essay “The Process-Oriented Virgin” as included in Yes Means Yes that I could barely finish it before reacting to it.

I’m not surprised that you (or anyone else) is or was at some point shocked at the notion that virginity is subjective and that “sexually active” human beings can decide for themselves at what point they are no longer “virginal”. I grew up in a very Christian town that still buys into the “scientific” definition of virginity as “loss of the hymen” (obviously men don’t have a hymen, therefore men need not bother with the concept of virginity). But I did not expect such a small-minded view of the subject from a fellow feminist. Then again, I have long refrained from calling myself “feminist” because so many people who label themselves as such are in fact objectifying, racist, classist, ableist, stereotyping, gender/heteronormative and hypersexualizing persons that I felt I had nothing in common with this so-called feminist movement. Compared with the content caliber of the others essays in Yes Means Yes, I’m a little disappointed that your 18th century perspective was included.

Here is why.

First is your label of the “process-oriented” virgin: it is inherently pejorative. Your diction makes it obvious that you find the notion of choice (“process orientation”) self-serving and revisionist– which you actually go on to admit to in your essay, even so far as to call it “arrogant”. Forgive us for desiring autonomy and agency over and within our sexual selves. Supposedly you’ve repented of your ignorance, but your choice of words shows that your are still ingrained in the Patriarchy. It would detract from the importance, credibility and necessity of recognizing virginity as subjective and that reclaiming one’s own sexuality begins with a reflective analysis of previous sexual activity (most people don’t reclaim their sexuality before they start having sex/engaging in sexual activity, unfortunately, which is why your so-called “process” is so necessarily healing and empowering). Moreover you put process-oriented in quotations: highlighting irony, or “using scare quotes advisedly”? Either way you are (consciously or unconsciously) denying credibility to the concept. You might have invented a cutesy, armchair, ironical name for it, but the concept is real.

You also refer to “the virgin” as “herself”: maybe you didn’t even catch that during your revision and editing process. This is so blatantly Patriarchal that I’m surprised you haven’t put out an apology note retracting this ugly use of gendered pronouns. Similarly: “Way to raise the bar, ladies.”?? Rather than congratulating a few women on doing something they have already taken for granted, perhaps you should recognize that you are late to jump on the bandwagon? Because you have, for most of your professional career, “unwittingly [?] bought into the patriarchal conceit…[which is] at least broadly congruent with the traditional (misogynist, patriarchal) definitions I had been studying and writing about for so long” [emphasis mine].  You blame “culturally-ingrained notions” for your ignorance. I’m here to tell you that that’s not good enough; accountability within the feminist community is key to the eradication of Patriarchy. Moreover, you are assuming that male-identified persons (and genderqueer persons, for that matter) are not participating in the same self-exploratory historical revision. That is profoundly “unfeminist” in my book.

To jab a flag into the Land of the Process-Oriented Virgin as the “potentially feminist act” you believe it to be is unwelcome and unwarranted. You would need permission from each individual that your “study” and “analysis” exploits to call their personal choices “feminist”; they might be completely offended by this label. Some of them would be offended because their (perhaps not yet or ever-to-be self-identified) feminist standards make yours look Victorian. It’s not your right to label someone else’s personal revolutions and realizations as Feminist or not. It’s theirs, if they choose to do so or not. You also assume that their sex history revision is “fundamentally derived from feminist sex-reform philosophy”, rather than the other way around. You put the cart before the horse, in other words. Which is why you say these persons were doing so “intuitively” seems nonsensical; are you saying they have an inherent sense of feminist philosophy? Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that their “intuition” and revolution about their own definitions and standards has informed feminism?

And finally, as to your ideas on why YOUR “‘process-oriented’ virginity” is not “the ultimate answer to the problem” of virginity: there may or may not be a “thing” called virginity, but that is for an individual to decide. Virginity and nonvirginity may be two states between which a person transitions back and forth. Perhaps some individuals never experience virginity or nonvirginity. And perhaps still others see it not as a two-point spectrum, but as a radial continuum, across, through, around, and within which we can navigate and exist. Your “emotional and interpersonal train wrecks” that supposedly derive from “substantial sexual experience” coupled with a “claim [of] virginity” (hysteria, what what?) seem to imply that women aren’t or perhaps more accurately should not be engaging in sex in which they are not emotionally invested. What about having sex with a mutually consenting partner which is not about emotional connection, but is just about feeling good? Well, that would just be manly and unfeminineunnatural, really. Further, you assume that people attribute some kind of qualitative moral status (“good”, “bad”) to virginity, versus the view that many persons merely think of it as a “thing” that is neither good nor bad, desirable or undesirable, right or wrong– but nevertheless important. And the idea that a person with complete self-direction and autonomous control of their sexuality (including the “virginity”, “nonvirginity”, or “avirginity” aspect(s) of it) would be any more likely than a “normal” person to have a “medical [or] infectious-disease mishap” is utterly misguided. Such a person would be far more likely, given the thought and analysis with which they’ve approach the subject of virginity, specifically, and sexuality, generally, to take seriously or place value on knowing a sexual partner’s history. They would also be much less likely to lie about their own “status”, being that they would find value in sharing their “revisionist history” in all its detail. These factors would greatly reduce the risk of a “mishap” resulting in an STI.

Your initial impression of “‘p-o’ virginity” was that it was self-serving revisionism. But that is also your last impression, according to the essay: if you really understood both the concept and the persons thinking critically about said concept, you wouldn’t have included this paragraph in your essay. I will reiterate what I said above: sexual transparency is more likely be of great value to a person questioning the concept of virginity in the aforementioned ways than to a “normal” person whose default assumption, if they are female, is to claim virginity for fear of stigma, or if male, to claim nonvirginity for the same reason. Either way these claims are lies and disguise the real nature of a person’s sexuality and sexual history. You also assume that the “process-oriented approach to virginity is…profoundly unconscious”. In fact, it is not unconscious/intuitive so much as that you are just trivializing the experience and intimate metamorphoses through which the persons you are analyzing are going. That is, you are objectifying them. And since you readily admit that your evidence is anecdotal, why not try listening to your “subjects” as real, live, decision-making persons, rather than bupkins who are so ignorant in the ways of your feminism that they couldn’t possibly have come up with this idea on their own, through their own experiences. There may be greater self-sought intellectual, psychic, academic, and emotional transformation and theorization happening than for which you give credit. I would claim this as a valid description of my own process of reconstructing and redefining body, sexuality, virginity, consent, among other concepts which are all intimately connected. And I didn’t require a degree in women’s studies to do it. For all your talk of “‘p-o’ virginity” as “arrogant”, you don’t seem to notice that as a reflection of yourself.

I will agree with you on one crucial point, however: “It would be a massive step in very much the right direction…if it became a cultural constant that “losing your virginity” was a subjective, not an objective, transition.” And that massive step starts with individuals, like you and me. I would tell you the title of the book I’m going to write about subjective virginity, but I wouldn’t want you to steal it.

So sorry if this email was a little hostile, but I do feel so much better now. Please consider it directed only partially at you, and more at the overarching Patriarchal hegemony which guides much of how most of the world thinks. Maybe we’re all getting swept along in it, but now that you know there’s an “it” which you’re “in”, you have the responsibility to pull yourself and others out.

Best,
Lee

After some more reflection, I think I figured out another, more deeply-rooted reason why Blank’s essay rubbed me the wrong way: it is intrinsically academically paternalistic. That is, her diction, tone, and anecdotes are strongly reminiscent of the Othering language used by historians, anthropologies, sociologists, psychologists, and others in academe to observe, analyze, describe, and summarize their “subjects”: take Malinowski and his islanders (or should I say savages?) as an example. In other words, Blank is the kid with the magnifying glass and we (or her subjects) are the ants… We couldn’t possibly comprehend the magnifying glass, let alone her bizarrely patriarchal feminism.