Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Feminist responses to the mainstream appropriation of BDSM: Part 1

Now that E.L. James’ novel Fifty Shades of Grey has been released as a major motion picture, feminist perspectives on BDSM sexual practices have gained a renewed importance. BDSM stands for bondage/discipline, domination/submission, and sadism/masochism. (For a general overview, visit this page.) The popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy is largely due to this type of sexual content. Recently, BDSM has been commercialized and appropriated by the mainstream culture more than ever before. The fact that Target and other national chain stores are selling Fifty Shades-branded products illustrates this. Obviously, there is concern that any structural inequalities reproduced within BDSM relationships are being overlooked by the average American. The possible harm resulting from this is currently a point of debate among feminists and other voices in the media.

Sex-negative and anti-BDSM feminists posit that we cannot disregard the presence of inequality and the “false consciousness” described by Catherine MacKinnon, and BDSM encounters are often not any more consensual than regular ones. However, sex-positive feminists think that an awareness of BDSM aids in discussing consent, recognizing non-heteronormative lifestyles, and breaking rigid gender roles. Those who label themselves sex-critical attempt to reconcile both views within a nuanced framework, while accepting the idea that more research is needed. Although one can understand why individuals within the three theoretical camps choose to either protect or reject BDSM practices, it can be difficult to take a stance on the issue.
One of the difficulties in forming an opinion is predicting how BDSM will evolve. The entertainment industry has chosen to promote one of the more harmful variations of a BDSM lifestyle. Fifty Shades of Grey adheres to traditional, gendered constructions of sexuality. It shows only the submissive female/dominant male coupling. The male character has wealth, power, and experience, while the female character is a student and a virgin. At times, the plot points seem to involve stalking. In fact, the plot was originally a Twilight fanfiction, and Twilight has been criticized for romanticizing a predatory relationship. Furthermore, a sex contract is used in Fifty Shades as a stand-in for consent. Some people seem content with this pop culture version of BDSM without further educating themselves on actual practices and domestic violence. However, several BDSM communities have denounced this inaccurate portrayal of BDSM and its careless treatment of consent. Some anti-pornography and domestic violence groups think that selective appropriation of BDSM practices and terminology can be used to conceal sexual and physical abuse.

The current uncertain legal status of BDSM divides opinions as well. Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi attempted to diffuse accusations that he assaulted several women by framing the assaults as BDSM encounters. Most people did not buy this excuse, and he was forced to leave his show. Although some have taken this as evidence that BDSM will not suffice to cover sexual violence, the law rarely offers all women the protection they expect. Contrast the Ghomeshi scandal with Canada's treatment of a female judge whose nude photos were released without her permission. There have been many low-profile BDSM cases in which the woman was allegedly assaulted, but the courts chose to gloss over consent issues. BDSM itself violates laws in several states, but participants and feminists could probably agree that many states complicate the matter by not updating their codes or protecting sexual expression enough. Some think that sex contracts will not be enforced by courts, and cannot be, due to inherent power imbalances that cannot be removed from them. For Harvard Law Review's article on sex contracts, visit their site.

Within BDSM communities, many individuals communicate requests clearly, and obtain verbal or written consent for each act precisely because the law is unpredictable about sexual expression. Sex-positive feminists think BDSM is a good model for consent. Please see this earlier post in our blog. Many LGBT and gender queer groups support BDSM because it broadens views on gender. However, it does not eliminate them. In part two, I will discuss whether radical feminists are correct to be concerned about sexism and gender issues in BDSM communities.

Finally, here are two extra resources before we move onto part two: if you want to read several interesting studies on pornography, visit this site. To learn about individuals who do not experience sexual attraction, visit the Asexual Visibility and Education Network.

What is reasonable: current issues in campus sexual assault policy

In Jamil Smith’s piece in the New Republic, she discusses ways in which social figures are proposing we address sexual assault on campus. He highlights two different responses to combatting sexual assault: (1) enacting a “reasonable person” standard to determining whether an act should be considered sexual assault, and (2) enacting conceal-and-carry policies on college campuses as a reasonable way to prevent sexual assault. While both proposals are prone to their own dangers, Smith highlights a fundamental schism in the debate around sexual assault on college campuses: we have no idea what is reasonable.

For example, gun-rights advocates are pushing to legalize firearms on college campuses as a way to prevent sexual assault. Similar bills have been proposed in ten states, and as stated by Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, the logic goes as follows:
“If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them. The sexual assaults that are occurring would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in their head.”
All this argument does is make the victim responsible for preventing their own assault, while refusing to address the patriarchal culture and underlying causes of sexual assault in the first place. Additionally, this argument completely overlooks the fact that if enacted assailants will also get guns, which would even further perpetrate a culture of violence, both sexual and otherwise, on campus.

Additionally, the New York Times piece that discusses these proposals in depth also points to the fact that proponents claim conceal-and-carry laws will prevent school shootings similar to that of Virginia Tech, because faculty and students will also be able to carry. This argument also does not sit well. If more people are carry guns, that seems to only lead to even more gun-related accidents, especially given the culture of excessive alcohol and substance consumption that leads to poor choices among many college kids.

How does arming the entire student body do anything to address endemic sexual assault apart from creating a culture of campus violence? How is this a reasonable response? 

Smith also discusses another proposal recently put forth by a New York Times op-ed – to use a “reasonable person” standard when determining whether one is culpable. That is whether a “reasonable person” would consider the accused innocent or guilty.

Given the extreme differences in responses to sexual assault (see conceal-and-carry above), how would there be any consensus on what is a “reasonable person”? Katie Rose Pryal, an attorney interviewed by Smith, stated “The reasonable-person standard kept our legal system oblivious to women and people of color since at least the 1700s.” This captures the idea that there will be no universal reasonable person, and the “reasonable person” standard used often comes from a place of power. The perspective of a reasonable person is going to be different from that of a reasonable woman; from that of reasonable male; from that of a reasonable firearm-carrying, white, college-aged student – and all these individual perspectives will further differ based on race and socio-economic status. As author Jessica Valenti stated in an interview with Smith,
“We’re not very reasonable when it comes to rape. As a society, we don’t have a reasonable understanding of what rape is, we don’t have reasonable responses—we’re still a culture that overwhelmingly victim-blames. When Steubenville happened, the kid who walked in on the assault said he didn’t know that was rape. Teenagers have gotten the message that you shouldn’t drive drunk, but not that penetrating an unconscious girl is rape.”

Thus as wide-array of campus sexual assault solutions and responses gain media attention, it is even more crucial that a feminist lens is used to analyze sexual violence that disproportionately and endemically affects women nationwide. And considering one in five women are on college campuses are either sexually assaulted or experience an attempted sexual assault, this is first and foremost a women’s issue.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Feminist writers and the cruel internet

A few weeks ago, Professor Lisa Pruitt mentioned that the comments section on this blog is open only to those with an invitation to contribute to the blog. This restriction on comments was placed for good reason. Many feminist activists and bloggers receive backlash and abuse from internet commenters, causing many of them to pull back from writing about feminism online.

For example, Jessica Valenti is a columnist for the Guardian, author of four books on feminism, and founder of the blog Feministing.com. Her feminist writing exposes her to constant harassment from internet users. In 2014, she asked a seemingly harmless question on Twitter about women's health: "Twitter friends: Anyone know a country where tampons are free or somehow subsidized?" This question was met with a barrage of abusive answers from Twitter users, such as:
@JessicaValenti here's a thought: get married. Then your husband can pay for it. As long as your putting out.... 
@chelsea_elisa @lizzyf620 @JessicaValenti Yeah, it's called the Middle East where they sew your vagina shut for being a loud mouth.
Valenti admits that if she had the chance to start over, she might prefer to write anonymously, not only because of the "physical safety concerns, but [also] the emotional ramifications" of the non-stop abuse from anti-feminist internet users.

Lindy West, another feminist and a former writer for Jezebel, wrote an article asserting that many male comedians are "careless" with the subject of rape. She too received ample backlash from an internet community that left several obscene and sexually violent comments on her article, punishing her for daring to criticize males and announcing that West deserves to be raped for publishing the article. West stated, "[b]eing insulted and threatened online is part of my job, which is not to say it doesn't hurt. It does. It feels -- well, exactly like you would imagine it would feel to have someone call you a fat cunt every day of your life."

Jaclyn Munson and Lauren Rankin, both pro-choice activists and writers, have stopped writing online altogether, each stating that she feels exhausted from the constant, vicious internet abuse.  Lauren Bruce -- creator of the blog Feministe.us -- is another feminist blogger that has completely pulled back from sharing her feminist ideas on the web, leaving others to run the feminist blog she created.

Although the internet and social media have given feminists new forums in which to discuss such issues as gender and sex equality and female advancement, the internet is also a means by which feminist bloggers are publicly abused, humiliated, and targeted, and their ideas are shot down and demonized.  Because commenting on the internet is often a collaborative effort (in that people can comment on each others' comments) and because comments are posted instantaneously, feminist writers today are more exposed and likely burn out more quickly.  In the past, people needed to send hate-mail through the post -- a slower, less public process.  Feminist writers were not met with multitudes of hateful and abusive messages in a matter of seconds when snail-mail was the only form of communication with the author of the offending article.  Moreover, there was not a gold-mine of personal information available through social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, all of which may include the author's picture and other identifying information.  The internet also potentially allows stalkers and hackers to access writers' more sensitive personal information -- such as banking and social security information, telephone numbers, and addresses.

In an age where men and women alike pay lip-service to gender and sex equality, why does feminist blogging spark such hateful responses among internet users?  Does the anonymity provided by communicating online simply allow people to voice what they're "really" thinking?  Or does the collaborative environment of internet commenting result in internet users "egging" each other on to see who can make the most inflammatory comment?  Do internet users really hate feminists this much, or do they simply make these offensive comments for shock value?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but I am curious to see your thoughts.  While it kills me to see these feminist writers backing down in response to internet harassment, I understand the emotional vulnerability that results from nonstop internet abuse, and I can't blame them for protecting themselves by disengaging.  This appears to reinforce the wisdom behind restricting comments on feminist blogs, and/or encouraging feminist writers to write anonymously.  That way, feminists can keep writing without fear of being personally targeted and without exposing their articles, ideas, and selves to endless internet harassment.

For further perspectives on "hate speech" against feminist writers online, read this post.  For a discussion of the potential benefits feminist blogging has on our culture, read this post

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Feminism, memes and Ryan Gosling

Although I have identified as a feminist throughout my entire adult life, I had balked at studying feminist theory in depth. Sadly enough, the extent of my exposure to feminist theorists had primarily been the occasional stumbling upon the viral “Feminist Ryan Gosling” memes of years past.

Feminist Ryan Gosling was a satirical blog created and managed by then-gender studies graduate student Danielle Henderson in 2011. Each blog post consisted of (1) a photo of actor Ryan Gosling paired with (2) text that jokingly attributes a quote to the actor. Invariably, the quote would begin with the greeting “Hey girl…” followed by a short message implicating that Gosling was gender equality advocate… as well as perhaps romantically interested in the viewer. Henderson ultimately published a book of such memes with Running Press in 2012 before moving on to other projects.

(Clickable image link to feministryangosling.tumblr.com)

Surprisingly, last month, there was a resurgence of interest in the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme following the emergence a summer 2014 conference paper by three University of Saskatchewan psychology students (1 PhD student, 1 master's student, and 1 undergraduate student). Their research (albeit on an extremely small sample) linked these memes with a higher endorsement of “socialist” and “radical” feminist principles among men. Their study was more concerned with the power of memes than it was with feminism, or any other type of –ism, but the viral nature of the memes represent educational moments for countless people who may have not otherwise sought out philosophical feminist statements or read feminist theorists.

Exposure to the meme didn’t, however, significantly affect self-identification as a feminist, nor did it significantly increase female endorsement of feminist beliefs. Furthermore, the male subjects were not significantly more supportive of Conservatism, Liberal Feminism, Cultural Feminism and Women of Color Feminism. Nevertheless, the paper concluded that the results “provide initial support for [the] notion that popular Internet memes may also serve as [a] persuasive device for relaying ideological information.”

The study’s methodology certainly doesn’t meet the most rigorous scientific standards, but the findings are interesting nonetheless. Many online reports were relatively conservative (e.g., Pacific Standard’s “Can Feminist Ryan Gosling really make men more Feminist?”), but others opted for a more sensationalist approach (e.g., Glamour Magazine’s “Ryan Gosling is officially good for feminism.”) What does Henderson – Feminist Ryan Gosling’s creator – think?

I don't know if these memes make people more feminist, but at least they're getting a dose of feminism whether they realize it or not.
And, for many, that is good enough. However, it hasn’t escaped notice that the “dose” of feminism is being paired with a young, attractive, white, male romantic lead actor who – as far as I know – hasn’t endorsed any of the feminist beliefs associated with the meme. On her blog’s FAQ page, Henderson explains:
As a black woman who has lived every moment of my black life as a black person in a country that never lets me forget that I’m black (and who has an academic focus on intersectionality, representations of race, and examining the feminist relationship to racism), this is not lost on me. It’s actually quite intentional. That. Is. ALSO. Part. Of. The. Joke.
And the memes clearly are jokes that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Originally, they were little more than humorous derivatives of the Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling Tumblr page. The study by the three Saskatchewan students was similarly begun in jest. So why do the memes seem to be effective in making men more accepting of feminist ideas?

One possible answer is that memes are inherently persuasive tools for indoctrination or education. If so, why are these memes effective on men, but not women? One explanation is that men are simply more receptive to feminism when it comes from other men. That doesn’t sound particularly feminist, but it may be true. The study’s authors have hypothesized that Ryan Gosling may be a particularly effective spokesperson primarily because men tend to perceive him as being successful with women. This perception thereby creates incentives for other heterosexual men to emulate him. Which, to be fair, has already been going on ever since the film The Notebook was released.

So is the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme good for feminism? Is it bad for feminism? The conclusions from the study may offer a mixed bag. To some extent, the memes seem to help “authorize” the female perspective. Furthermore, the memes have certainly increased exposure to feminist beliefs through social media channels. On the other hand, the implicit source of authorization is a man’s endorsement. A pragmatist may not care about the means necessary to the ends she desires, but its unclear to what extent the male test subjects truly internalized the beliefs they claim to accept.

Lastly, though somewhat off-topic, the meme reminded me of a recent CollegeHumor YouTube sketch: "Hate cat calling? Try Blow Up Boyfriend!" The joke commercial advertises a "Blow Up Boyfriend" product with which a woman would receive guaranteed respectful treatment... so long as she carries around an inflatable "man." Cat callers are deterred from harassing women out of their respect for the fake man, as opposed to the real woman. The sketch is embedded above for your enjoyment. Or displeasure.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The deinstitutionalization of marriage

In response to this recent blog post’s critical look at the purpose of marriage, and many in class discussions regarding women’s role as caregiver in heterosexual relationships (and subsequent blog posts on related topics here, here, and here), I thought it would be useful to highlight another approach to addressing women’s role as caregiver that abandons the traditional, antiquated concept of marriage.

In Martha Fineman’s The Neutered Mother, the Sexual Family, and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies, she discusses the role of dominant institutions, such as marriage, as being to blame for gender subordination. Fineman says marriage, as a dominant social institution, fails to support caregiving activities historically associated with women. Instead, caregiving has been privatized to culturally normalize the nuclear family, so that the predominant patterns of gender subordination, such as caregiving, become the responsibility of women. 

Fineman’s solutions to these problems include both re-educating public institutions so they acknowledge the burden of caregiving, and also restructuring the family dyad through the deinstitutionalization of marriage. In terms of restructuring the family dyad, she argues family, through marriage, is structured around the sexual dyad, so that a sexual union between two adult individuals is used to define the family. She instead argues to conceptualize the family unit by restructuring it around a caregiver-dependent dyad—for example, mother-child dyad or any other caregiver-dependent dyad. Fineman claims marriage should be eliminated as a state institution, and the state’s interest should be in the unit of social work that most needs supporting – giving state benefits to caregiving relationships rather than sexual relationships.

This type of deinstitutionalization of marriage is not unfamiliar to political theorists or feminist scholars. Tamara Metz, citing Fineman, succinctly describes a model for the deinstitutionalization of marriage in which the state would neither confer marital status, nor use 'marriage' as a category for dispersing benefits. Legitimate public welfare goals currently treated through marriage would be addressed through an intimate caregiving union status.

Additionally, abandoning the state’s role in regulating marriage and dispersing benefits to caregiving dyads would also prove beneficial in “queering” the concept of family. This would give more legitimacy to unconventional, non-nuclear families common among the LGBT community who had been previously excluded from traditional family structures. This would also protect other types of unconventional family bonds in which members of extended family, as well as non-blood kin, participate in childcare and family responsibilities. Currently, the institution of marriage does not value this kind of non-marital parenting, but rather protects the integrity of heterosexual marriage, by disregarding unconventional family bonds.

Child Cost (Part 2): Parental Leave

As great as the system of maternity leave is to me, I think it is not yet fully satisfying and it could be improved by a parental leave system.

A parental (paid) leave is a certain amount of time that parents choose to allocate between them after the birth of a child. One of the downsides, but also one of the strengths of the parental leave is precisely that it will be based on the choice of the parents. The mother, the father, or both, can take the leave, simultaneously or not. They only have to allocate a certain amount of time between each other. For instance, if there is a parental leave of 6 months, the mother and the father can take 3 months each. They also can decide that the mother will take 5 months and the father one month or that only one of them will stay with the baby during the entire leave.

Considering single mothers, this measure does not affect their right to take the whole leave. And families that want to live in a traditional way can still do it.

There are mainly two reasons for me advocating in establishing such a parental leave.

First of all, women are still doing much more than men in the matter of household chores in the family. However, young couples seem to have a more egalitarian distribution of the tasks; a lot of things change at the arrival of a baby. By establishing a link between father and children as soon as possible, the father will be involved naturally in the raising and child caring.

As women have all the burden of child caring, we could find some more radical means to make men involved in it (for instance, a mandatory paternity leave). Parental leave is actually not one of these radical means, because it is a soft measure. More and more men nowadays want to be involved in the education of their children. Parental leave, which is not based on a mandatory basis, will simply let the possibility for some fathers to access that.

The second point I want to talk about is linked to a specificity of women. But before I go on, let me say that “Cultural Feminism” does not convince me, simply because most of the time, as I am reading characteristics that women are supposed to have, I do not see them in my own personality, or better, I find them in lot of male friends’ personalities. Neither I think that biology has such a huge impact in every aspects of life. However, some biological characteristics should be taken into account, and the recovering need of the body after delivery is one of them.

A friend of mine, graduated from medical school, told me about his experience as a volunteer in Guinea. After having given birth, women, there, have to rest. They focus in feeding the baby and resting in order for their body to recover. Other members of the family (generally mother, grandmother, sisters) assume most part of the cares given to the children, except feeding. In our occidental society, the presence of other members of the family is more seldom nowadays. But physical tiredness still exists. In this sense, and in order to compensate the absence of other members of the family, the involvement of the father could really help during the first days following birth, which could be a stressful and difficult period, even when there is no post partum depression or.

I also found an important amount of articles mentioning researches that demonstrate the benefits of the mother-newborn relationship at the beginning of their lives. I am pretty sure that the father-child relationship has some great benefits too, at least the one to build a strong link between them, that will lead to more implication of fathers in matters of child caring.

However the support of the father could be important in the first days after birth, most of the couples will try to optimize their leave. They will generally not take the leave in the same time, in order for the child to spend longer time with one of the parent.

Moreover, the choice of the parents will actually not be a true one, because it is linked with other aspects. Indeed, money will be most of the time a decisive factor. As women’s salaries are still not equal to men’s salaries everything else being equal, neither the assessment of “typically” feminine jobs, the decision will probably be made by the couple relatively to the higher salary. So it may not help as well as a more coercive measure, but it will at least let men who consider paternity as something important and valuable to be a part of it.

A parental leave may be considered as a formal equality, in the sense that the law will show that there is no reason to treat men and women in a different way. As a measure that can be considered as tending to formal equality, it could be addressed the same reproach than previously, namely that women are fighting for men to benefit from some advantages which only women had. But from my point of view, it will benefit women and children, also, even if it’s in an indirect way.

Moreover, I can’t help it. I find it deeply fair that men have the same right as women to take care of their children, because as most of the feminists, my goal is to reach equality among human beings. At the end, everybody wins from this improvement, children, men and women. And I hope that at the time of a pregnancy, my family could benefit from such a system.