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.


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.


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.


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.



I know, I know: you’re trained to hate women, right? (a review)

As I started reading David Wong’s article “5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women”, I found myself startled by the (male) author’s willingness to identify and discredit certain misogynist attitudes and behaviors. Wow, what a thoughtful, self-reflective writer, one might be tempted to think. Then I got to the paragraph where he identifies himself as the author of John Dies at the End, and everything started making more sense. I started thinking over Wong’s novel again, this time with his article in mind.

In John Dies at the End, Wong (which is the author’s pen name, by the way) conforms almost exactly to what he says are five misogynist concepts that society has ingrained into “modern men”: #5, Wong (also the name of the protagonist of JDatE) not only gets “the girl”, but he gets a few, even though he, himself, admits that he’s basically a “loser” and demonstrates childish self-entitlement about sex throughout the novel, sadly without irony. #4, all the female characters in the novel are ancillary, and even those which qualify as main characters serve basically the same function that “hot babes who can also wield a sword” serve in video games like the Final Fantasy series. Once in a while a female character in the story will make some comment about how she doesn’t like being objectified or this and that, but this is for comedic purposes, obviously, as she is dismissed and then– you guessed it– sexually objectified. Wong clearly wrote this for what he thought would be an all-male audience; I probably would have ended up a devoted fan had the story not been so cholk-full of predictable, boring sexism. *yawn* Anyway, #3, this one sort of goes hand-in-hand with #4 in that during crucial moments in the action of JDatE, Wong’s sex drive kicks in and he makes random sexual comments even when he and his friends are in imminent peril. If Wong’s real goal was to reinforce every possible stereotype of how “guys think with their dicks”, he did an excellent job. #2, it seems to me that the entire purpose of both the author’s writing this noveland the protagonist’s journey in the story was to regain some kind of “lost” or “diminished” manhood. The character Wong at times expounds on ways he’s been emasculated by society (or more specifically by “girls”) in a very Chuch Palahniuk-esque way; what better way to regain one’s masculinity than by chasing monsters and getting the girl. Or several. And that plays nicely into #1, the powerlessness Wong ultimately claims the Modern Man feels, and which the protagonists of his story experience again and again in the course of the novel– but eventually overcome. You know, the whole “conquering your fears” motif. I haven’t read the sequel. (Notice I didn’t say “yet”.)

Back to the article, itself, specifically #3. I think Wong’s insights into the demonization of women as penile conspirators are quite poignant. It’s the philosophy underlying the classic victim-blaming strategies of rapists who say “she was asking for it” (i.e. “my penis made me do it”?), and which also bolsters arguments I have heard men close to me put forth: “If she didn’t always talk back/defend her ideas, I wouldn’t have to yell at her, call her names, and threaten to leave her.” (In that sense, #3 also goes hand-in-hand with the whole “endangered manhood” argument of #2.) So men hate women for being merely a pair of boobs, but when those boobs suddenly grow lips which voice ideas men hate that even more. Unfortunately, Wong lays all this out as if he’s “telling it like it is”. He, like misguided pseudofeminists who seek to subordinate the male gender on the basis of female moral superiority, reduces men to an organ– and it isn’t their brain. (Well, he does cite that supposedly comedic line which calls the penis a man’s “little brain”.) Perhaps he’s just basing this (as he did the entire JDatE novel) on his personal gendered experience, but at the end of the day all he’s doing is reinforcing ugly stereotypes. Worse, he seems to be using them as a justification, too.

I’ll skip to #1. It’s more reducing-men-to-penises, but he also reduces women to their vaginas. Well, first he reduces them to food, which is nothing new. In this analogy, sex-starved men perceive all women as literal pieces of meat. Again, Wong doesn’t say, “This is messed up,” or “Men are more than their dicks,” or “We should reject this view of sexuality that portrays women as fuck objects”, etc. More or less he seems to accept it. I did appreciate his assessment of George R.R. Martin’s writing of female characters (wherein their breasts are the sum of their parts), but if he really thought this was messed up or wrong, why would he repeat the pattern in his own novel? Oh, because he feels a distinct self-entitlement to portray the stereotypical male fantasy because it’s his book? Classic Nice Guy™.

The final blow is when he (without bothering to connect this idea to the former except to say “Do you see what I’m getting at?” as if it should be self-evident) insults our intelligence by stating that all of civilization was created “with [women] in mind”. Or, more accurately, with fucking women in mind.

See, the sad thing is that all of this is intended to be funny and ironic. But in that Wong fails, because through his writing he embodies the kind of misogyny he’s describing. Sorry, Wong, but I just don’t find sexual objectification all that amusing (which is maybe why my eyes started to glaze over during the second half of JDatE, in particular), and the only irony is that maybe on some level you see this article as actually supportive of women being treated like human beings while it excuses men from doing the opposite of that.

Everybody’s Doing It: KONY 2012

Yesterday I watched “Kony 2012”, the short film which has “gone viral” (to quote BBC and NPR, which frankly they’ve taken all the joy out of that expression with their overuse of it) on the web this past week. Created by the same filmmakers (headed by Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell) who produced the hour-long original “Invisible Children” film and started the awareness-raising campaign of the same name, the video has been seen several million times and has almost quadrupled the number of followers they have on [insert disparaging adjective here] facebook. Almost immediately after watching it, I turned on the radio to hear BBC discussing their opinions of “Kony 2012”.

The title of the film is meant to remind you of a candidate in a political campaign (Bush 2004, Obama 2008), but Joseph Kony isn’t running for any kind of office (well, not in the near-future anyway, but who knows?); actually, Kony is rather obscure despite (what he would call) his accomplishments. The folks from Invisible Children chose the name because they want him to become one of the most famous people in the world this year– or more accurately, the most notorious. He is one of the Ugandan warlords who abducts children, rapes them, tortures them, forces them to kill their own parents, and ultimately turns them into child soldiers and sex slaves. “Kony 2012” is the campaign to make Kony and his crimes against humanity so well-known that world powers will have no choice but to act and get this guy charged and on trial at the International Criminal Court. According to Jason Russell, who is also the film’s narrator, all this has to happen this year, because…er, for reasons unbeknownst to us. Their “deadline” is never actually explained to viewers. (Maybe because the possibility exists that Obama won’t be president, and there’s not a chance in hell that a Republican president will give a #%$ about atrocities in Africa?)

Since yesterday afternoon, I have been thinking quite a lot about this…short-film-meets-documentary-meets-visual-personal-essay. My initial reaction upon watching it was very similar to how I felt after watching the original “Invisible Children” film in college: deep sadness, empathy, anger. Which is how the filmmakers want you to feel after viewing either film. The difference between the two films is that “IC” was more of an educational, awareness-raising piece, whereas “Kony 2012” has an actual, spelled-out political agenda. And what they appear to be banking on is that you will either forget the nidus which produced these films, or you will already be on their side so it doesn’t matter if you know, anyway. If that sounds enigmatic, let me explain…:

When I first saw the original “Invisible Children”, I was sitting in a church. I had been invited by a number of acquaintances from a student group on campus, Spartan Christian Fellowship. No one had told me what the movie was about (before I watched it I was actually under the impression it was a fictional story), and most of the few dozen people who came also seemed oblivious to its content. So I was quite surprised when it turned out to be a homemade documentary about the plight of child soldiers in Uganda (and also a fund-raising program).

I recall that during and after the film, we (the “Christian fellowship”) were deeply touched; many of us cried. At that time I was also a professed and somewhat outspoken Christian, though I had little in common with the ultraconservatives who attended this particular group. What we did agree on, however, was that it was our Christian duty to bring God’s love and justice to the people in Uganda– love for the child soldiers and justice for their torturers. Then we sang some songs, had a group prayer session, and went home.

As the next few weeks passed, I was struck by how suddenly everyone seemed to have Invisible Children apparel, bracelets, DVDs, stickers, and so forth. Even now, I see IC’s scheme to bring to light the suffering of a voiceless, marginalized group of people as a more or less positive: people who had never heard of child soldiers (or of Uganda, for that matter) were suddenly deeply, almost personally invested in helping them. The commercialized, commodified treatment of the plight of child soldiers did nag at me, however. I didn’t buy any shirts nor did I choose to donate money to the IC (if only because I didn’t have any).

This is not the most widely circulated critique of the video. The BBC’s main complaint about “Kony 2012” is that it is reductionist, oversimplifying what is in reality an extremely complex conflict. Their point is well-taken: “Kony 2012” makes understanding the “main bullet points” of the Kony dilemma so simple that even a five year old can understand them. Literally. Gavin, the film director’s (I’m guessing five year old?) son, is given a very boiled-down, easy-to-understand lecture on who Kony is and what he does, wherein their family friend Jacob (one of the children featured in the original “IC”) is positioned as the “good guy” and Kony is positioned as the “bad guy”. It is the film’s way of presenting and explaining this Ugandan conflict.

Is this an insult to the average adult’s intelligence? I think most people would probably say so, but then again most people who are watching this film aren’t, in fact, adults. This film has mostly “gone viral” with young adults, teens, pre-teens. What the film sets out to do is not to give people an in-depth (or even broad) understanding of Ugandan politics of conflict; indeed, we hardly even learn anything about Kony, whom the film is supposedly about. IC was also one of the organizations criticized by Foreign Affairs for “manipulat[ing] facts for strategic purposes.” The purpose of the film, in my opinion, is to create some hype and appeal to people’s emotions in order to further the agenda of the IC.

Before I get into what I believe that agenda might include, let’s look into this “emotional appeal” aspect of “Kony 2012”. There is a scene in the film that is actually taken from the first “IC” film, in which creator Jason Russell is talking with the young Jacob. Jacob has just described how he would rather die than continue his present existence, which Russell seems astounded to hear. Jacob explains that it would be better to meet his brother in heaven than to live in constant fear of being abducted and killed– a reality that hits too close to home for Jacob, whose older brother was murdered when he tried to run away from LRA soldiers. Jacob breaks down and cries; it becomes clear that perhaps he does not truly wish to die– he just wants a respite from the terror and agony he feels every day. Watch this part of the film and tell me you don’t get choked up, and I’ll call you a heartless bastard. Like I said, this film does an aces job at striking an emotional nerve.

This is where the film takes a pivotal turn. Russell, perhaps in a desperate bid to ease his own helplessness, tells Jacob, “I promise you we are going to stop them.” He repeats this promise over and over, asking Jacob, “Do you hear me?” Jacob nods and says yes, but seems entirely unconvinced. Actually, he looks even more hopeless than before he shared the story of his brother.

The crisis counselor and the feminist in me at this point exchanged glances. “Well he certainly botched that, didn’t he?” they said with a sad shake of the head.

Crisis counselor: “Well, he probably thought he was making Jacob feel better by trying to ‘fix the problem’. Unfortunately, Jacob reacts to this by stopping crying and receding– we see him almost physically withdraw, into himself, away from all those feelings he just put out there. It was a huge, brave risk Jacob took, sharing those deep, vulnerable parts of himself, but he didn’t receive any empathy, support, or validation. Instead, Russell tries to make Jacob ‘feel better’– in reality he’s probably just trying to make himself feel better, suppressing his own strong emotions– by promising to solve the problem. This is problematic in multiple ways. First off, there is simply no way to fix ‘the problem’ of Jacob’s brother’s death. It is an unsolvable situation. Secondly, it’s both unempathetic and counterproductive to try to ‘solve’ another person’s problems; we only disempower them to help themselves, and even possibly create a situation in which they keep coming back to us to fix their problems. Lastly, possibly most importantly, we should never presume to know how to fix another’s problems…Whose to say that we won’t exacerbate the situation? It’s awfully arrogant to take such a presumptuous position as ‘problem solver’.” Okay, let’s have the feminist weigh in on this: “Agreed, it is not only presumptuous, but also white-savior-masculinist. Assuming the role of ‘problem solver’, even– especially!– in the face of an unsolvable issue, is a classic patriarchal reaction. Talking about emotions, even revealing emotions, is counterproductive to the masculist: what good does talking about feelings do if it doesn’t fix the problem? Moreover, sharing feelings earnestly is a ‘symptom’ of the feminine: weak, pathetic, deplorable. Contrast this with the stereotypical associations with the masculine: strong, assertive, corrective. ‘Boys don’t cry’, after all, but women cry and complain, and what good does that do them? Russell’s declaration that ‘we are going to stop them’ is also neocolonialist; the white Westerner needs to intervene in the “chaos” of Africa in order to set things straight. His racist moral high ground figures the ‘we’ he refers to not as himself and Jacob, but as himself and others like him. He is not talking with Jacob, but at him.”

Those two can sometimes get a little reductionist, themselves, not to mention they have a bit of a superiority complex, but their points are well-taken in examining the underlying sociocultural motives at work.

I want to consider these points as we expand our investigation to include not just the IC films but the organization of IC, itself. IC posts its finances on its website for all to see, so we know how the money is used, but where does it come from? Purportedly a large number of IC’s donations (not to mention moral support) come from their Christian following. Considering the context in which I was first exposed to IC, I am not surprised. But what are the ramifications of this?

Between now and May, there will be IC film screenings at over 150 Christian churches all over America (average of about 3 screenings a day). That’s a lot of support coming from a single sector, which doesn’t include screenings at Christian-affiliated schools, colleges, or other institutions. Clearly there is a bit of hype about IC among Christian Americans. Even if it is not IC’s explicit directive to portray their organization or their mission as Christian, the Christians are doing it for them. At the events I attended during college, it was made clear that we had a divine imperative to “save” these folks (mainly the Ugandan children) because of our God-given duties as Christians and Americans. For it is not for Americans alone to enjoy the glory of Jesus, but we cannot rest until “every ear has heard”. (But quite frankly, my impression of the people participating in these events/film screenings/etc. was mostly that it was just “a cool thing to do”.)

In that vein, I take issue with how IC’s media-oriented strategy seems to focus on and portray only two groups of people: victimized, powerless Ugandans and salvation-carrying, white, largely Christian Americans. (And I’m not the only one whose irritated by this portrayal.) It appears as a retelling of the old classic, the Great White West moves in to save the primitive savages. IC’s activist campaigns and photographs of the movement (which can be seen on their websites) are full of young, fist-pumping white folks, often wearing IC apparel. There is even a section where these folks are called “The Rescue”; perhaps they romantically believe they really are just “helping”, but any time you get together a bunch of people and put them in uniform, you should really question whether or not the participants truly understand the various levels of ideology at work. Another interesting feature of the website are the photographs and descriptions of all their staff. IC staff is strikingly gender-balanced, and is also equally proportionate in the number of Americans and Ugandans, though the Americans are almost entirely white. For some reason the Board of IC is listed last: it is comprised entirely of white American men.

“But Lee, what are you saying, that white Americans can’t or shouldn’t help Africans?” I’m so glad you asked. Why, not at all, but to unquestioningly and uncritically accept the fantasy of the GWW “saving” Africa is to ignore deeper, perhaps not-so-entirely altruistic motives subjacent to the movement we see on the surface. I would never say helping another person is bad, in and of itself, regardless of either person’s position in the Universe (e.g. as racialized, genderfied, etc. entities). However, would you accept the help of a person who not only desires to “help” you, but also to fulfill what they perceive as a mandate of their god? Would you accept the help of a person who is primarily helping you because they see you, consciously or unconsciously, as inferior? Would you accept the help of a person who does not see themselves as helping you, an individual, but as helping “correct” a system– a system which perhaps is the culture you live in? These aren’t questions with simple answers, and that’s entirely the point. To reiterate the BBC, “It’s a bit more complicated than the IC films make it out to be.” And simply put, I do not believe this is so simple as some white travelers to Africa trying to make themselves feel better about what they’ve seen there.

I’ll shut up now, but p.s. IC is calling on your (American) government to deploy forces to aid Uganda’s army in capturing Kony, and they’ve already been partly successful. But the Ugandan army has been called out by human rights groups as being guilty of war crimes, themselves, including the mass rapes of women and murders of refugees, not to mention the Ugandan government has also violated the human rights of their people.

p.s.s. For other people’s critical perspectives on IC, check out Visible Children, who links to some other resources of information.

Two Views of the River

Mark Twain struck a chord with me in high school when our American Lit teacher made his essay “Two Views of the River” required reading. The students moaned and groaned about it, including me; I had little appreciation for nonfiction at that time, especially essays.

Yet what I read changed my perception of reality both profoundly and subtly.

“Two Views” is about seeing versus knowing, grasping intuitively versus logically. Twain grew up with the Mississippi, and it features in many of his works, both fiction and nonfiction. In his essay, recognizes that his initial view is romantic, uninformed, and unshaped (unwarped?) by Knowledge. He is held rapt by it. But when he becomes the pilot of a riverboat, the River loses its mystery, and as a consequence some of its beauty. Perhaps the greatest loss, though, is that he loses some of his original Knowing of the River. As a child and a young man, he knew the River in such a way that he will never get back after he has “learned” it; learned its hazards, its turns and bends, its sandbars and eddies and hidden dangers.

In the same way, I have lost my original Knowing of Cambodia: the more I learn, the less I remember of my first impressions. The more I learn, the more the romanticism and beauty wear away. This is not to say I “know” or “understand” Cambodia, in some larger or more profound sense; I can only compare these Two Views between my younger Self and my current Self. And they are different.

I do feel this as a loss, just as I feel the loss of my original Perception. Everyone experiences this, I imagine– perhaps this is a sign that one has “grown up”? Slowly but surely, our original Knowing transforms and transforms again, and maybe what was once Known can never be known again.


[Potentially triggering material.] 

People are capable of committing crimes even when they’re not aware that what they’re doing is criminal. I think this is often the case with rape. Because our baseline for understanding rape as a crime starts with extremes (e.g. blood, violence, force, use of a weapon, threats of harm or even death), there is so much that falls into a so-called grey area of what Latoya Peterson calls “not-rape”.

“Not-rape was being pressured into losing your virginity in a swimming pool pump room to keep your older boyfriend happy.

Not rape was waking up in the middle of the night to find a trusted family friend in bed with you– and having nightmares about something that you can’t remember during daylight hours.

Not-rape was having your mother’s boyfriends ask you for sexual favors.” (from “The Not -Rape Epidemic”, as included in Yes Means Yes {2008}).

Which is probably why Brad Perry, whose essay in Yes Means Yes appears directly before Peterson’s, wasn’t able to label his own behavior as rape. I suspect that perhaps, in the course of studying feminism or rape theory or, at the very least, laws concerning sexual assault, he at some point came across some definition which revealed the illegal nature of his past behavior. Maybe that’s partially why he became an anti-rape activist, in the first place. Yet in spite of the fact that he educates young people on “healthy sexuality”, he trivializes the seriousness of his own behavior.

In “Hooking Up with Healthy Sexuality: The Lessons Boys Learn (and Don’t Learn) About Sexuality, and Why a Sex-Positive Rape Prevention Paradigm Can Benefit Everyone Involved”, he recounts an experience from when he was thirteen. A brief summary is as follows: he and a few other 13-year-old male friends wanted to “get some” (his ironical phrasing) from their female peers, and so invited three girls out to an empty construction site to drink beer. (“All rape is premeditated”…?) After “his girl”, Janice, had had three beers, Brad (on the advice of a friend’s older brother) decided this was the time to “make his move”, beginning by putting an arm around her. When she didn’t seem averse, he then touched her breast. Janice “sat up straight as soon as I did it, but kept talking with me as if everything was okay,” which he “interpreted…to mean, Go for it!” And he put his hand under the waistband of her pants and underwear.

Janice, evidently, was very averse and immediately took his hand out of her pants. When he tried to do it again, she removed his hand again. Finally Brad got the hint and stopped.

Now, 13-year-old Brad could have had no idea that (in my state and many others) you can go to jail for said behavior. Obviously for minors the sentencing is less severe, but the act is no less criminal. But the 30-something Brad who wrote this piece calls what he did “uninvited touching” and believes that “Janice didn’t seem to hold [it] against [him]”.

There are a couple of points that really stand out to me: the first and most obvious is that he minimizes his own actions as merely “uninvited touching” (recall my definition of rape, “Any unwanted sexual touch”, and you can start to see why I find this problematic). I can hear him, upon confrontation, defending himself, “Hey man, I was thirteen, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” That’s true, but your 30-year-old self has every clue as to what your past self did.

The next stand-out point is actually what’s missing: Janice’s interpretation of the experience. Of course, most girls (and not just boys like Brad) are socialized to believe that this kind of “uninvited touching” is normal and expected and you just have to giggle and take someone’s hand out of your pants (even if you are REALLY uncomfortable or even shocked and humiliated), but it’s in no way, shape, or form equated with rape. So perhaps Janice took this as a mundane part of the world she grew up in and put it out of her mind.

On the other hand, maybe this early sexual experience changed the way she was to look at boys and sex and touching and consent. Or maybe it warped her image of her own body or damaged her self-esteem. Maybe she would no longer be as trusting of all male friends in the future, even though not all of them were/are abusers. We really can’t know, because her tale is not told. Brad’s is.

And according to Brad, we can call him “badly-behaved”, “misguided”, “self-centered”, and even “a dick”, but we shouldn’t call him an abuser. Or a rapist, for that matter.

Can I blame him? Of course not. Who the hell wants to self-identify as a rapist? Or an abuser? Or even call something that they did, say, sexual harrassment? Even though most people have at some point done some behavior that was sexually abusive, harrassing, demeaning, coercive, or manipulative.

I can understand that. It is difficult. It has taken me a long time to acknowledge that I have used coercion and manipulation to “get” or try to “get some”. This has included pressuring (asking again and again), testing established boundaries (“I know you said no, but are you sure?”) and pouting (reacting coldly and distancing myself after being told no)… THAT SHIT IS FUCKED UP!

There’s another side to that coin, too, which is also wrong: when you are not the one trying to “get some”, but the one from whom another person is trying to “get some”. This could look like teasing– for instance, knowing when another person desires your sexual touch, and deliberately convincing them that you might give it to them but withholding it for the sake of obtaining and exercising power over them. It might also look like laughing at– humiliating– another person’s sexual desire. “Hah, you want me and I don’t want you, haha!” Also really really messed up.

So, I get it… Owning up to our own revolting, messed-up, sickening sexual behavior and past acts of violation is not easy. It’s hard, really really hard. But necessary. If we’re not honest with ourselves, we certainly can’t expect those people who view this behavior as normative and culturally-acceptable to change. Anti-rape activism and transforming the rape culture begins with activists and supporters, themselves.

It’s hard to blame a 13-year-old kid for the manifestations of culturally-engrained behaviors and attitudes. But it is a very different story when his 30-year-old self refuses to take on the full weight of those prior actions once it has become understood. In order for him to be the most effective anti-rape activist that he can be will require a change of mindset within himself before he tries to instill that change in others. Especially children.