Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Success is not sexy

I often play the game "Would you rather?" with friends. It's a simple game, where you give the players two options to choose from and hopefully you learn something funny or scandalous about them. In a recent game played, I asked a male friend "Would you rather date Lana Lang or ....." before I could even finish the sentence he stopped me and said, "Rory Gilmore!" I was shocked by this. Growing up watching both shows I would have never imagined someone, let alone a guy, making the comparison. Lana Lang is a character of Smallville, or better known as the high school sweetheart of Superman. In the show she is the beautiful, popular girl at school whom all the boys can't seem to stop fighting over. She is petite, sweet, innocent, and always needs someone, in most cases the young Superman, to save her. Rory Gilmore, on the other hand, is a character in the Gilmore girls. She is a little more "plain looking," and although she too has had many male suitors fight over her, she is known for her brains and her wit. Growing up I appreciated both characters. However, most guys I knew didn't. I couldn't get a guy to watch the Gilmore Girls with me if my life depended on it. And since most of my guy friends already watched Smallville, I couldn't get them to stop talking about how "hot" Lana Lang was if my life depended on it. Needless to say, I was shocked by the recent comparison between the two characters.

My first question, "Do you NOT think Lana is pretty... is she just not your type?" His response, "She is beautiful. Of course, she is my type. She is every one's type." My second question, "So why Rory?" His response, "She goes to Yale. She is smart. She can take care of herself, and that means she can probably take care of me." Clearly, he didn't mean take care of him in the "traditional" sense, which includes cooking, cleaning, and raising the children, but he meant someone who could support him, in every way, including financially. I guess this shouldn't shock me. Talking to many men in the legal field or on in law school, I've heard many of them say they want to marry an equal, someone they can talk to and respect, and someone who appreciates higher education and or ambition. But I never heard of any of them say that they want to be taken care of. This was a refreshing first?

Walking away from this "would you rather" game, I thought to myself: Are we now moving to the direction where men want and expect to be taken care of financially? Sure, I have heard of sugar mamas, which often refers to distinguished older women taking care of younger less distinguished men. But are men, who are equally distinguished and equal in age, looking for a woman to support them?

In a recent NY Times article, Keeping the Romance Alive in the Age of Female Empowerment, Katrin Behold explored the recent development of women taking on high powered positions and its effects on romance. Despite the "liberal-minded" trend that seems to be taking over my male friends, it seems that men are still afraid of a powerful woman and want to hang on to, at least to the appearance of, traditional gender roles.
Sexual attraction in the 21st century, it seems, still feeds on the 20th-century stereotypes. Now, as more women match and take over men in education and the labor market, they are also turning traditional gender roles on their head, with some profound consequences for relationship dynamics.
As the author notes, it is getting harder for successful women to find a mate and if they have already found one they must keep up a facade of traditional gender roles. For example, Anne-Laure Kiechel, an investment banker in Paris, who makes fives times more than her boyfriend, pays for all the major expenses, including vacations. Nevertheless, her boyfriend, insists that he pay for things in public to avoid looking like a "gigolo." Timothy Eustis,a proud stay-at-home dad, says that he and his wife, who is a senior manager at the French lingerie brand Etam, "both" cherish "those little traditions" to keep the romantic spark alive.

While it is understandable that one would have a feeling of inadequacy when comparing one's self to friends or family members who seem to be more successful then you (a college roommate recently announced she is engaged and I immediately started thinking of my failure to even have a boyfriend) it is interesting to note how sensitive the male ego seems to be,
It is amazing how even many liberal-minded men end up having sexual and emotional difficulties being with more obviously successful women... The male ego can be a more fragile thing than the female ego, which is used to a regular battering and has hence developed a sense of humor!
Bernard Prieur, a psychoanalyst and author of "Money in Couples," suggest that men who earn less are insecure. They feel socially vulnerable, going against millennia of beliefs and stereotypes, and personally vulnerable, as failures.

How are women who want success and romance suppose to deal with these insecure men? Ms. Domscheit-Berg, of the European Women's Management Development International Network, suggests: 1) leave your nice car at home on the first date, 2) find your life partner in your 20s, before you become too successful, and 3) go after men who draw their confidence from sources other than money, like academics and artists.

For my own sake as well as the sake of all my female friends in law or whom have a successful and bright future ahead of them, I really hope that the trend is moving to more liberal-minded men, like my friend in my "would you rather"game. I hope the 21st century is ready for the 21st century woman, because whether men like it or not they will have to deal with women who can support themselves, and if they want, support you.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The final cut

In the past decade I have noticed that the number of cosmetic plastic surgery procedures have grown exponentially. In fact, it seems that every few years a new procedure is the must-have surgery. I have seen people in my neighborhood get everything from breast implants to eyelash implants. The most recent trend seems to be female genital cosmetic surgery. One type of these procedures is known as labiaplasty, which reduces the size of the labia. The labiaplatsy procedure was traditionally used for patients that had damage to the labia as a result of natural childbirth. However, this procedure is now being marketed to women under the guise of “vaginal rejuvenation,” a way of tightening the vagina.

Another procedure that has gained much popularity is hymenoplasty, which is also known as hymen reconstruction surgery. This procedure creates a “hymen replacement.” To my knowledge, I was not able to find a single health-related reason for this operation.

So what is the motivation behind these surgeries?

As with most cosmetic procedures, there can be many underlying reasons that are both personal and private, which can often times make any analysis on this topic very difficult. However, in a recent interview with Women’s eNews, two top surgeons suggested that negative comments from male partners are the number one reason women request these surgeries.

Why am I not surprised? Throughout history, in an effort to maintain control and dominance over women, men have created a multitude of justifications for their subordination of women. But why do we allow men to create such fiction? We cannot stand by and allow women to resort to such procedures to remedy a feeling of imperfection that is truly “man”-made. In fact, in some countries where males have placed a high value on a woman’s virginity, women are forced to secretly get hymenoplasty performed just to stay alive. I find this disgusting. We need to create awareness and find support through stronger solidarity among all women.

Women Wednesday - final edition

During the course of this class, we have discussed the intersection between feminism and the law. For the last edition of Women Wednesday, I wanted to call attention to a special organization which has been affecting feminism through the law for the past decade: the Tahirih Justice Center.

The Tahirih Justice Center works to provide free legal representation to women and girls to protect them from gender-based violance and abuse in cases of domestic violence, rape, genital mutilation, human sex trafficking, and more. Tahirih uses pro bono resources to assist immigrant women seeking justice in the United States with a combination of legal services, advocacy, and public education programs. Tahirih also provides holistic social and medical service referrals to help these women become self-sufficient.

Since the start of this organization in 1997, through direct services and referrals, Tahirih has assisted over 9,000 women and children flee abuse with a 99% success record. Financial donations will enable the Tahirih Justice Center to continue protecting and providing care for vulnerable immigrant women and girls. You can make donations here.

For more information please visit:

Or watch a youtube account of victim's speaking out about how this organization helped them:

Friday, December 3, 2010

(De)Parting Words

After reading this tragic story and not knowing how to convey my sadness and disgust in words, I would like to share with all of you the words of man who says what I cannot.

I can only hope that the justice system adapts to help women like her.

A choose your own gender adventure

When I say "Choose your own gender," it probably brings to mind thoughts about transgender people, other gender benders, and hopefully the Choose Your Own Adventure novels of some of our childhoods. Despite the implied suggestions of the title, this post is not about transgender people specifically. Instead, I want to encourage the application of "Choose your own gender" to people of all genders, with special encouragement to people who have not transitioned among genders and who may not think this statement applies to them.

In dissecting feminist legal theory in class, we have read from viewpoints supporting widely diverse standpoints on the origin of gender roles, gender or gender typed behavior. Some feminists believe gender results from a cumulative experience of one's many intersecting identities, others argue that gender exists only as inequalities in a dominant power structure. Many academics and law makers view gender as inherent from birth or socially inherent from the contexts of the environments in which people are raised.

The relevance of the origin of gender roles is important and necessary to the consciousness raising process of analyzing the intersections of gender and feminism. I would like to use a transgender lens to emphasize how the matter of choice is often undermined because of the overwhelming social and academic focus on origin.

Transgender and other gender non-conforming persons, as living examples that gender is neither a result of birth assignment, body nor of socialization, help bring attention to the implications of choice in gender. Transgender people recognize that some gender role or gender they have been told should fit them, does not actually fit how they feel or personally identify and they exercise choice to change this. For most folks, this is a big life process (a transition). The application of this same kind of intention and choice can be applied to all people however, regardless of gender and to much smaller and more everyday degrees than entire gender transitions.

Cisgender men and women can ask themselves everyday "Am I doing this male-gender-roled behavior because I think I have to" or "Am I just responding this way because that's how I think women should respond?" Each time a person asks them self where a behavior originates from personally, they create the power within themselves to set intention behind that behavior and reclaim it for themselves, or discard it entirely. We all choose what kind of men we are, what kind of women we are or what kind of transperson we are, and so on. Those choices affect the social fabric around us. For example, if I choose to be the kind of man who does not stand up against sexism amongst my male peers, then that continues to perpetuate the social cycles of misogyny around me.

Exercising active choice around one's gender and how to express it is a subversive act. It is subversive because it takes power and control over an identity away from the dominant social power and returns it to the individual. The more personalized and intentional all our gender narratives become, the more likely it is that our laws will eventually develop towards recognizing such diversity.

Australia is well on its way, becoming the first country to issue a gender neutral birth certificate. This was a huge leap for intersex and transgender communities, as well as all folks who will benefit from less stringent social gender controls. This also speaks to the abilities of the law to evolve alongside the social evolutions of the community it represents.

I hope that as this semester ends, more of my classmates will call themselves feminists and that all of us will approach our genders with little more intention, analyzing and personalization. Despite all the differences among the many kinds of feminism, I think the world needs more feminists of all genders; feminist women (feminist women blog list), feminist men (feminist men's groups), feminist queer and trans folks, and most importantly, feminist children (feminist kids books list).

Thursday, December 2, 2010 say "feminist" like it's a bad thing

Expanding on Betty's awesome "Feminism 101 is not class" post where she mentioned people's general discomfort with the term "feminist", I have to say I've gotten some pretty ridiculous reactions when I mention I'm taking this class.

"So you basically blame guys for everything?"


"A feminist class?! Isn't that super extreme?"

or my personal favorite:

"It's like women's studies? So they teach you to bake cakes, right?" (Everyone is a comedian)

Basically any feminist stereotype they have ever heard.

So, of course, I have to explain (sigh). That no, it's not about hating men, it's about gender equality. Equal pay for the same job. Not bashing "traditional values", but offering women meaningful choices in how they want to live their lives. Sharing childrearing responsibility. Etc.


Suddenly, their attitude changes. They might not agree with every type of legislative action various feminists propose, but "feminism" is no longer this "extremist" label to them. Instead, they are willing to have a mature discussion about these important issues.

I don't understand why people have this gut reaction that feminism itself is one"extreme viewpoint." There are a broad spectrum of feminist beliefs just as there are a broad range of democratic/republican viewpoints.

Regardless, I am grateful for everything I've learned in this class and look forward to changing people's perception of what feminist theory is, one bad cooking joke at a time.

Beauty standards and victim blaming

Women put huge amounts of efforts into our appearance. We pluck, wax, shave, paint, polish, shop, exercise, starve, puke, pore over fashion magazines, and go under the knife to achieve the “perfect” body and style. Debate has raged for years among feminists, in women’s magazines, and in the media over how much of this is women’s choice and how much of this is women’s response to the pressures of a sexist culture.

However, I am more interested in how and to whom it matters if women are responding to the pressure of sexism rather than their own individual choices. I argue that the criticism of women who give in to sexist beauty standards is simply another form of victim blaming, which women already experience too much of.

Virtually all of us, male or female, feminist or not, are influenced by our culture when choosing how to present ourselves. When we choose to put on a suit rather than sweats, a thawb rather than a sari, a keffiyah rather than a tzitzit, normal clothes rather than bubbles or a carousel, we are influenced, usually without even thinking about it, by what is an acceptable appearance in our culture.

Very few people would judge an Emirati man for not bucking cultural norms and showing up at work in a sari. In fact, they would judge him if he did so.

However, women are judged for not bucking cultural norms, for worrying about their weight or obsessing over style, for being girly, shallow, a tool of the patriarchy. On the other hand, women are also judged even more for bucking cultural norms, for refusing to shave or diet or wear make-up, for being fat, lesbian, a man-hating feminist. Women are put in a double bind- don’t conform and be judged, conform and be judged anyway.

This double bind is not restricted to beauty and is in fact characteristic of the double binds women face. Work outside the home and you’re a bad mother; work inside the home and you don’t have a “real” job. Have sex and you’re a slut; don’t have sex and you’re a prude.

Underlying these double binds is an inability to distinguish between the situation and the character of the situated. (Judith Baer Our Lives Before the Law 63-67 (1999)) Baer identified the confusion between the situation and the situated in the context of violence against women- men abuse women, therefore women are weak or wish to be abused. (Id.) However, it also applies in the context of beauty pressures on women- women are expected to be beautiful, therefore women are shallow. A woman’s decision to wear make-up, buy nice clothes, diet, or get plastic surgery is taken as a sign of her character (her shallowness), rather than her situation (a culture which favors attractive women.)

Also underlying these double binds is a tendency for responsibility to flow downhill. (Id. at 6-8). Responsibility for preventing rape flows downhill from the men who commit it to the women who must evade it. (Id. at 8) Responsibility for defective breast implants flows downhill from the companies who produced and marketed them to the women who bought them. (Id. at 64). Responsibility for fighting sexist beauty standards flows downhill from the corporations that put millions into promoting it and the individuals who shame or criticize women’s appearance, to the women who are responding to those pressures.

None of this means that women do not make choices about how to present themselves- it is just that these choices are structured. (Joan Williams Unbending Gender 37-39 (2000)) Society pressures women overtly and covertly to take care of their looks, through magazines, television shows, and movies that glamorize the process of the makeover and show primarily skinny, beautiful women and through family, friends, and strangers who express “concern” about women’s weight or hairy legs. Women make choices but they make them with a (conscious of unconscious) awareness of the rewards and punishments society attaches to them.

Some women choose to drop out of the beauty game, age naturally, and wear what they wish- and we should support their choices. Other women genuinely love pretty clothes and would choose them even without societal pressure- and we should support their choices too. Some women wish they could drop out but reluctantly choose to comply with female beauty standards to escape censure- and we should support their choices too, without blaming them for the accommodations they have made or pretending their choices are entirely free. The blame should be placed where it belongs- on those who restrict women’s choices in the first place.

5 reasons why sex worker’s rights matter for all of us

Feminists having conflicting views on sex work, ranging from the positive attitude of the feminist sex workers who pithily titled their anthology “Whores and Other Feminists” to the negative attitude of Andrea Dworkin who described her experience with prostitution as “gang rape punctuated by a money exchange.” However, feminists generally agree on sex worker’s right to be free from rape, physical violence, and harassment. In this post, I want to discuss why sex worker’s rights matter for all of us, whether or not we or our loved ones have ever been involved in sex work.

1. Because no one should be treated the way sex workers are treated
This is the most fundamental reason sex worker’s rights matter. No one should be gang raped at gun point and then told by a judge that what they suffered was merely “theft of services.” No one should hear a judge say that he would be "hard put" to give somebody a life sentence for picking them up, taking them to the woods, sexually assaulting them, and killing them. (Molly Ivins, Molly Ivins Can't Say That Can She? 79 (1992))*. No one should be an easy target for rape and murder because society doesn’t care or thinks they deserve it.

*This judge was actually explaining his light sentence in a homophobic murder case, but apparently saw a golden opportunity to take a swipe at sex workers as well.

2. Because of the risk of being accused of being a sex worker
The risk of being seriously accused of being a sex worker is rare for most women but does exist. It is a particular issue for women who are trans or black or both; black trans women frequently find themselves harassed by police as potential prostitutes for simply “walking while trans.” However, any women who violates female norms by going out too late at night (scroll to “curlygirl26”’s post) or carrying too many condoms may be targeted.

More common is the metaphorical accusation of being a sex worker. Women who dress the way they want, love sex too much, or marry someone “too” much older or wealthier than them risk having the “whore” label thrown at them. The stigmatization of sex workers becomes a useful tool for policing all women’s behavior.

3. Because of the risk of becoming a sex worker
Although pro and anti-sex work feminists disagree over whether forced and coerced prostitution is the norm or the exception, both sides agree that at least some sex workers do not voluntarily enter the profession. Sex workers may be trafficking victims or runaways from abusive homes desperate for a place to sleep or eat. Some may simply be people who cannot find other jobs due to sexism which pays women less and places the primary burden of raising and supporting children on them or due to transphobia, racism, sexism, classism, or ableism that makes finding and keeping jobs difficult. Whatever the reasons, as long as a significant number of sex workers aren’t in the job voluntarily, none of us can be confident that sex worker’s rights will not personally affect us or our loved ones.

4. Because our governments are complicit in the exploitation and abuse of sex workers
It’s fairly well known that the Japanese government during World War II set up brothels of Chinese and Korean “comfort women”, who the government had forcibly trafficked into prostitution. It’s less well known that the U.S. “liberators” also used "comfort women" supplied by Japan after its defeat and that the U.S. military and South Korean governments have continued to exploit Asian and Eastern European prostitutes in South Korea into the present day.

Less overtly, government efforts to prevent prostitution often simply end up harming the safety and health of prostitutes instead. Cambodia has recently come under fire from Human Rights Watch for arbitrarily arresting, beating, and raping prostitutes. Unfortunately, this type of police abuse of prostitutes is hardly restricted to Cambodia, as reports by sex workers and LGBT rights organizations in the U.S. attest.

Even when the law is applied “correctly”, without corruption, it can pressure prostitutes into remaining in prostitution when they do not wish to do so. Many prostitutes struggle to escape prostitution because they are dogged by their criminal record. This includes prostitutes who were actually trafficking victims- laws permitting such victims to erase their records are relatively recent and not universal. Then there are cases like Sara Kruzen, who was jailed for killing the man who trafficked her into child prostitution. Trafficking victims who try to escape must weigh the danger of remaining in prostitution against the danger of landing in jail, which carries its own risk of physical abuse and sexual assault.

5. Because discrimination against one group of women puts all of us at risk
Underlying the abuse of sex workers are the same sexist stereotypes that are used to justify abuse against all women. She’s had sex with men for money before, she must have consented to do so this time. She wasn’t raped, she’s just mad she didn’t get paid. It’s too bad she was raped, but what did she expect standing on a street corner all night/going to a hotel with a man/soliciting for men on Craig’s list.

Twist these justifications just a little and they easily apply to non-sex workers. She’s had consensual sex with dates before, she must have consented to sex this time. She wasn’t raped, she’s just mad he didn’t call her back. It’s too bad she was raped, but what did she expect going to that part of town/going out that late at night/letting him into her apartment/going on a date with someone she barely knew.

Justifications for abusing sex workers presume that once women cross some line of “correct” behavior, they are acceptable targets, and that line can move. As long as it is acceptable to abuse some women, all women are at risk.

Who can resist a man who sings like a woman?

The New York Times (“NYT”) Sunday Magazine recently published an article entitled “Who Can Resist a Man Who Sings Like a Woman?” The article profiles Philippe Jaroussky, a French opera singer who has gathered a dedicated following because he is a fully-grown man who possesses a beautiful, “female” singing voice. Below is a video of Jaroussky singing a Handel piece.

Jaroussky sings in a countertenorial voice, a voice that is “a high girlish tone produced by using the outer edges of the vocal cords” that “continually teeter[s] on the knife edge between creepy and sublime.” Jarrousky himself has stated that the voice carries an “element of repulsion.” Though understandable, I was disappointed by the subtextual gender-normative value judgments in the NYT piece. In this blog post I will try to move beyond a gender-normative perspective by discussing the historical and present significance of the countertenorial voice through a feminist analysis.

First, I’d like to tie this topic back to a previous blog post topic that I have made about how the progenitors of glam rock during the 1960s and 1970s used music (and its presentation) to push the boundaries of gender stereotypes. I think that Jarrousky’s music does the same thing. He has stated that it is potentially ridiculous for a grown man to be singing in a countertenorial voice. On the one hand, his statement could be understood from a biological standpoint. When men go through puberty, their voices become deeper, and in this sense, it may be "ridiculous" for a grown man to sing like a girl or a choirboy because of the biological improbability that a man would be able to do so.

However, I also think that Jarrousky meant that a man singing in the countertenorial voice was ridiculous when judged by societal values. In this sense, Jarrousky is pushing gender boundaries much like male glam rockers who flirted w/ female clothing, imagery, and make-up also seemed ridiculous by greater societal standards. Interestingly, the “ridiculous” juxtaposition of the grown male body and the pristine female voice in present times seems to have embodied certain societal values in older European cultures. The NYT article states that much pre-19th-century opera and Shakespearean comedy is based on the premise that women find as desirable boys who may or may not be girls. In this context, I think that the countertenorial voice is commendable for both its historic and modern gender-boundary-pushing capabilities.

The historical popularity of the countertenorial voice, however, came at a price for those who wished to master its gloried status. The history of the countertenor is shocking because of the sexual discrimination and oppression that its predecessors faced for the sake of art. According to the NYT, the countertenor has its roots in the castrato – a male singer who was castrated before he reached puberty for the purpose of preserving his pure, high voice. This practice supposedly originated from St. Paul’s edict in the Corinthians that “women should be silent in church.” Moreover, castrati often came from impoverished families who sold them like slaves. They were not allowed to marry but were objectified by women as non-reproductive lovers. Once they lost the quality of the countertenorial voice, their lives were ruined.

Sexually oppressive and violent practices premised on societal values of beauty and aesthetics are nothing new. For example, footbinding was practiced in China for over one thousand years, possibly for a number of reasons, but all for the sake of an idealization of female beauty. In the modern globalized culture, tall and thin models are held as the standard of female beauty. This may result in bulimic or anorexic syndromes for models who perpetuate the standard, as well as for people in the general population who wish to achieve this standard.

The sexual oppression that castrati faced, however, is striking because of the role-reversal of men as the objects of oppression by both men and women. One writer has stated that castrati, like women, were simply objects in a world defined by hegemonic male power. I think this is an apt insight, and the metaphor of the gilded cage symbolizing female captivity also seems to apply to castrati. The gilded bars may be beautiful and ornate, and the castrati may be placed on an elevated pedestal in high culture, but if we step back and view the bars in totality, we see that the castrati are nevertheless constrained by a cage both on a personal and on a societal/structural level.

Relating this back to the modern-day popularity of the countertenor, I think knowing the foundation of the countertenor is useful for explaining the historical reasons why some may find the idea of a grown man singing with a girlish voice jarring, to say the least. Hopefully, however, the countertenor will not be constrained by the more disturbing aspects of its past, and by applying feminist perspectives to the countertenorial voice, we can appreciate the beauty and quality of the voice without resorting to a gender-normative framework.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Temporary wives and the consequences

I came across another example of legal double- standards between men and women.

In Iran, men and women can enter into a "temporary marriage" for an agreed period of time if some money is paid to the woman. Men can have up to four legal wives under Islamic law plus an unlimited number of these “temporary” wives, but women can only be married to one man at a time.

This is a story of one of those "temporary wives" and the consequences of this double- standard.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Women and the solution to the AIDS epidemic

One of my major points of disagreement with the otherwise much beloved John Paul II concerned his rejection of using condoms to curb the AIDS epidemic. This dogmatic move completely ignored the realities of human sexuality, of which the Church should be acutely aware, at least if the priests are not completely asleep in the confessional. But recently, Pope Benedict XVI stated in his book, that "where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, condoms can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality." This came about 18 months after he, too, disparaged condoms as ineffective in prevention of infection by HIV, or may make matters even worse. (Where he got the idea that distributing condoms may aggravate the pandemic, I do not know, but it seemed to highlight the Holy Father's tragic miseducation on the proper use of condoms as prophylactic tools, i.e., that they are supposed to be applied before every intercourse.)  

At any rate, the Holy See's mild change of heart came a little too late for the millions of Africans who were infected with the disease while the Church preached abstinence. (22.4 million adults and children were living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa at the end of 2008.)  As parents of teenagers know quite well, abstinence as the only prophylactic method is a dangerous, ineffective, and incomplete proposition. People are practicing abstinence only until temptation overtakes them, and leaving them without an alternative to protect themselves is irresponsible teaching. But, from a feminist perspective, the major problem with the Church's position on AIDS prevention is that it ignores how little a woman may succeed in practicing abstinence, or control the faithfulness of her partner.

As Michel SidibĂ©, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS said, the AIDS epidemic unfortunately remains an epidemic of women. 16 million women across world are infected with the disease, while another 850,000 die of it every year. It is easy to understand why: The AIDS epidemic has had a unique impact on women, which has been exacerbated by their role within society, and their biological vulnerability to HIV infection. As to women's role in society: in most developing countries today, women do not choose their sexual partners. Their parents choose with whom they are allowed to have sexual relationship, and, when married, their husband controls all the details of their sexual relationship, i.e., the frequency of intercourse, whether she may decline his sexual advances, whether she may use prophylactic, etc. And last but not least, their husband controls whether he has any sexual relations with women other than his wife, while women are enormously constrained in investigating his fidelity. 

Of course, there is an elephant in the room: we also need to get a grip on the population of this planet. The biblical mandate to "go forth and multiply" has been fulfilled splendidly: we populated this planet to the hilt. Nevertheless, the Church will probably continue to deny that there is a real need in our world to increase our responsibility in caring for our existing populations, and to raise the next generations well, with as much love and care as we should.  And preventing our existing population's disease and hunger should be now our primary concern.

For centuries, the Church's preaching for monogamous catholic family life has proved ineffective.  Facing a deadly pandemic is not the best time to engage in more of the same wishful thinking.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Diversity on the bench

Women scored some major victories regarding diversity on the bench lately. With the confirmation of minority Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the United States Supreme Court, and with our new Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court Tani Cantil-Sakauye, it is undeniably a historic time not only for the judiciary, but also for the state and nation.

In the background, with the recent confirmations of two minority judges, Jacqueline Nguyen and Dolly Gee to the Central District of California, we have more minority women serving as Article III federal judges than in any time prior.

What factors may have contributed to the improvement of diversity on the bench in California helping to pave the way for our first female Chief Justice? Perhaps that over the past 20 years law school populations have become more diverse. Additionally, about 20 years ago, the California Judicial Council made a formal commitment to promoting diversity. To give you an idea of the kind of progress that has been made towards a more diverse bench, in 2009 women now constitute 28.8 percent of the bench, and in terms of ethnicity the number of non-whites has increased to 22.1 percent of the judiciary.

Politics also plays a role in who gets to sit on the bench. Some of the recent improvements in diversity may have more to do with Governor Schwarzenegger’s choice of his appointment secretary, Sharon Majors-Lewis. She was the first woman, and first African-American, to hold that post. Due to concerns over the lack of judicial diversity, she revised the judicial application form to include questions regarding non-trial experiences, skill sets such as mediation, administrative and family law. As a result, the governor’s more recent appointments reflect a more diverse bench. Women now account for approximately 33.6 percent of Schwarzenegger’s appointments, and about 23.6 percent have been minorities.

But even with these recent successes at the state and nation level, the diversity of judges lags behind the diversity of the general population.

In a 2009 empirical study, conducted over a twenty year period, called “Myth of the Color-Blind Judge” by Professor Pat Chew and Robert Kelley of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and Carnegie Mellon, out of 805 active judges in the federal courts, judges of color constituted only about 19% of the bench. Merely 11% of judges were African Americans, 7% were Hispanic and less than 1% were Asian Americans.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law did a study regarding improving judicial diversity, looking at the magnitude of the problem and how courts are trying to become more effective at appointing women and racial minorities. Some of the findings with regard to gender are as follows:

  • Although women make up approximately 50% of the population, state judiciaries are predominantly male at almost every level.
  • Only about 26% of state court judges are women.
  • White males are overrepresented on state appellate benches by a margin of nearly two-to-one.

Some research suggests that, with the demise of Affirmative Action programs, the situation for African-Americans have worsened. For example, enrollment of African-American students in law school has decreased. Additionally, the number of African-American judges has decreased because they are retiring at a rate quicker than they are being appointed.

Diversity is important for the bench, not only because there is -- or sould be -- a moral imperative to include people of different genders, ages, sexual orientations, races, and economic and professional backgrounds. We also need judges that do not have a homogenized or predetermined view of the world. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience. That is the reason why female and/or minority judges may reach a better result in more of the cases.

So, while we celebrate the historic event of the first female Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court Cantil- Sakauye, let us also be reminded that there is still much work to be done.

Distorting the women's rights movement

This article is extremely disheartening because it represents the ease with which people can co-opt the women's rights movement and distort everything it stands for with just a little revisionist history.

Friday, November 26, 2010

When a "Hello" is not just a "Hello"

The effect of patriarchy on one's life varies greatly depending on race, class, ability, gender identity, and other personal identities, realities and privileges. Even though misogyny affects everyone, the ways in which misogyny plays out in our lives are as diverse as our personal narratives. One oppression that reaches into the lives of all of us though, at least all of us who participate in the public world, is gender based street harassment.

I bet every person that reads this has either experienced gender based street harassment or, has witnessed it happen to someone they know or a stranger near by them, at least once in their lives if not on multiple occasions. For many women, it is multiple occasions every week, or every time they go outside their home at all. If you don't know what I mean by street harassment, this comic in an article about street harassment in Sociological Images gives a good image of the varieties of verbal harassment that women face on a regular basis.

Gender based street harassment also happens to gender non conforming people who don't identify as women but who are still experiencing misogynist violence. For example, when I get fag bashed in public, I get harassed because I am appearing too feminine or markedly queer while being a man. This is a form of gender based harassment that evolves from misogynist values about what a man should be, should look like, and so on. Men and other persons who may not experience gender based street harassment themselves directly are subject to the effects of being witness to the street harassment of those around them. It really does touch the lives of everyone.

For an oppression so widespread, there exists little legal remedy for street harassment. Multiple studies from all over the world show that often the majority of participants (if not 100%!) had experienced street harassment ranging from annoying but benign commentary to physical assault. Despite its overwhelming prevalence in daily life, the legal avenues of accountability for street harassment are limited. Unless the encounter meets the definition of lewd public behavior (which many quite offensive and threatening street harassment encounters don't fall within) or is violent enough to be considered assault or battery, there usually will be no legal avenue to hold perpetrators of the street harassment accountable.

This lack of legal accountability is especially frustrating considering the strength of the sexual harassment accountability movement in the workplace and schools. Anti-sexual harassment legislation in the public spheres of work and school became the Federal norm in 1964 and 1972, respectively, with the passing of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX. More than 40 years later there is no equivalent for street harassment, nor do I believe there will be any time soon.

A recent example in New York City brought up the tensions of why legislating against street harassment has such a tense and unsuccessful history. The City Council heard from an organized group of activists proposing new city regulations attempting to create accountability for street harassment. As addressed in this New York Post article about the meeting, the most common concerns of opponents of street harassment legislation are the practical realities of enforcement and the possibility of First Amendment violations.

Personally, I also have concerns about enforceability. My concerns are that this would be another tool for police to oppress otherwise already marginalized and targeted classes, like men of color and homeless persons. I also struggle to ever limit free speech (the First Amendment concern). I don't consider street harassment to be protected free speech however; street harassment borders more on assault where words become acts. If a person is making a repeated unwanted statement and coming closer and closer to my body, and I am afraid they will touch my body, this is usually getting closer the legal situation for assault, not an expression of someone's right to free speech. Where does the perpetrator's right to free speech end and womens' right to be free of unwanted harassment in public space begin? Further, how do you address the subtleties of street harassment, like how to define when a "hello" is not just a "hello"?

While the mainstream legal remedies lag behind, there is much that can be done personally to address the street harassment that is around us all most of the time. Grassroots projects like Hollaback! provide victims of street harassment with a venue for voicing their anger, their responses, their strength and for receiving solidarity and support. Similar grassroots anti-street harassment projects and maps have been developing all over the world. Activist's like those at Stop Street Harassment are creating ideas for accountability for cities to implement, like the proposed No-Harassment zones in NYC.

One thing we can all do everyday to address street harassment, is to stand up for those around us who are being harassed. The silence of social shame is one of the reasons this kind of behavior continues to thrive. If the (mostly) men who perpetrate street harassment are protected by free speech, then we should all be using our free speech protected voices to protect the bodies of those being harassed. This violence marks all our lives but we all have the power to create immediate accountability while it is happening. Even the youngest among us can create this change. I will end this post with this video made in conjunction with Stop Street Harassment project by a young artistic fellow who understands that his voice, even as a kid, is a powerful tool for addressing misogyny in the streets.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Women Wednesday

I was browsing the web this weekend and came across an interesting quote by Canadian singer-songwriter, Alanis Morissette. I thought it would be a great quote to share because it would stimulate a great discussion. Please feel free to share you thoughts, feelings and impression.

“I see my body as an instrument, rather than an ornament.” ~ Alanis Morissette

The problem with the double standard is this: that it exists, period.

My mother constantly lectures me on the fact that she believes I’m not “ladylike” enough and is afraid I’ll repel men with my “manly” attitude. Double standard, much? I admittedly am somewhat of an abrasive person – while I love wearing heels, jewelry, and have an unhealthy penchant for dresses (especially ones with pockets – love!), my attitude rings different from my preference for a more arguably “feminine” attire. I curse like a sailor at times, I am loud, I am too verbose for my own good at times, and often the things I say come out completely and entirely unfiltered, which has caused problems for me in the past, especially in a more professional setting. This somewhat aggressive behavior of mine also reminds me of an instance where I’d gotten into a rather frustrating fight with my younger brother – it escalated to the point of me shoving him in the chest, and him letting me throw a few light punches at his shoulders before he stormed out of the room.

I learned later on that my brother was fairly distraught about the fact that our fight had gotten physical. While he had no desire to actually place a hand on me, he was upset about the fact that I “took advantage” of the situation, because I was a female and it was viewed as more socially acceptable for me to hit him rather than vice versa. I would never intentionally hurt anyone in my family, and while I could justify my actions and chalk them up to just something that occurred in the heat of the moment, I had to think long and hard about this incident and ask myself if I maybe I was still in the wrong? In that same vein, it was acceptable of me to throw a fit and to react the way I did – a little dramatically and for the purposes of being cathartic, but if my brother were to do so, my parents would have probably just told him to “man up” and to not be a baby.

The list runs miles long for each gender if we want to trade stories and experiences where one respective group has felt like they were being held to a double standard. To build off Bijorn Turock’s earlier post introducing the issue of the double standards the media portrays, I’d like to address and probe further into the deep-seated issues that come from following double standards.

I’m assuming that on the feminist side of the fight, a constant goal of ours is to squelch whatever we are held victim of: all the seemingly negative double standards that are out there – the discussion we had a few class sessions ago about falling into certain gender roles in a heterosexual marriage comes to mind. Another to consider is the age-old notion of only the female being promiscuous and “slutty” if she engages in sex too often, while a male would more likely be praised by other his male colleagues. Others that we’ve encountered and discussed in the class range from issues like the fact that a woman is expected to be thin as a standard of beauty while men not so much, the fact that women are expected to know less about topics of politics, law, and business than men, and the fact that women are restricted from combat engagement, while men would be serving their country in doing so.

On the other end of the spectrum, though, and recently sparked by remembering that specific fight with my brother - is it right for us to claim oppression from certain double standards, while honing others as okay, just because they happen to instill privilege in us while possibly oppressing others? I don’t remotely intend to claim that we are not deserving of privilege – such as doors being opened for us and to be physically abused (or, well, at all, of course), but it is rather contradictory, purely based on principle at least, to not acknowledge that men face similar issues of being held to a different set of standards when it comes to certain things. Like my brother in this instance in feeling somewhat victimized as I immaturely tried to attack him physically. Another issue men face that women are unfamiliar with is feeling emasculated just because of their more obvious preference for things as basic and simple as hygiene.

I’m not making the statement that men fall victim to the double standard, as well, I am making the statement that the double standard is problematic, period. Despite being unable to come to terms with whether or not I’m completely comfortable with preferential treatment and specific privilege as a female, I am very much aware and affected by the wonderful men in my life and in order to stray away from the very stereotypical “man-hating” view that comes with the feminist stereotype, I think a better focus would be, simply put: equality.

The first rule of the first date: break it.

As a modern-day, twenty-something year old female who grew up in the metropolitan, I’ve done my fair share of dating in the past decade or so. Just over the span of those few years alone, there has been a fairly vast progress made in the world of romantic relationships. While stigmas are still very much unfortunately attached to ideas embedded in the dating world such as online dating, the female approaching the male (in a heterosexual relationship), open relationships, gay relationships, and etc, I personally believe that they have slowly begun to thaw and loosen a bit. And, if a direction were to be chosen in terms of these less traditional means, it would be toward the norm more so than the taboo sector or as being considered unacceptable.

With that said, I’ve still noticed that what has yet to remain alarmingly and seemingly archaic and traditional is the first date. Yes, the first date. My very progressive, liberal, and seemingly-feminist guy friends, if out on (again, heterosexual) dates will always be the ones to pick the girl up, showing up at her door with a gift (expectedly) – maybe flowers or chocolate, will open all doors, pull out all chairs, and pay for everything on the an outing – even if it’s one that they both mutually agreed upon. Furthermore, my girlfriends – my fairly contemporary and progressive girlfriends at that, on the “receiving” end of things have come to expect this equation themselves.

While I myself don’t fall entirely into the bulk of that group, I do admittedly expect this on some level, still. I have no qualms or issues with splitting the dinner check - I have my own money, and I'll spend it how I want to - thanks. I also don’t mind if my date doesn’t show up with a gift or if we both meet up separately - I don't care for flowers, anyway, and I do enjoy driving. Also, as a fairly liberal person when it comes to sex, I don’t think it speaks entirely of one person’s character if the physical interactions go beyond just a peck at the door and I don't mind if they do, either. While I am comfortable with not engaging in an old-fashioned traditional date, obviously, I admittedly still kind-of-sort-of . . . shamefully expect it, myself. Yes, I'll 'fess up - I can easily type out right now, as a removed person from the situation currently, that I don’t mind if I have to pay or drive myself. But would I prefer to? I can’t fully stand behind the fact that I don't, unfortunately.

In an attempt to unpack exactly why that is, I pose the question of whether or not it’s simply based on the fact that the first date is usually the first formal impression that’s made in the course of a romantic relationship, and if two strangers who are initially bound together through a first date had to use any uniform testing procedure to assess the situation, it would obviously be the most traditional, archaic, most set-in-place one. The formula and standard that’s the easiest to memorize and apply, since we can't gauge the other's personality and quirks based on what little we are able to gather during merely an hour-long dinner and awkward movie watching session. Because the traditional first date is one that has been instilled in place for decades, if not centuries, through societal expectations, media portrayals, and personal encouragement from one’s peers – it seems to be the only one that’s withheld the test of time when stood up against any other version of a first date.

Now that I’ve realized this unfair expectation that I have instilled me, and as a fairly modern-day, liberally progressive person, I’m eager to change this. If society has come to the point where we can meet the love of our lives over the Internet and where a relationship doesn’t necessarily need to involve only two people, then we should be able to get past the fact that the male has to play the role of the dominant-male character who provides for the dainty female as a means of treating her well and ultimately impressing her enough. There is something entirely too animalistic and old school about that when we’ve come so far.

I can only speak, if at all, for heterosexual relationships, however, being a heterosexual female myself. So, while rather unfamiliar with struggles and realm of gay, lesbian, or transgender dating, I do think that at the very least, the world of heterosexual dating needs to change their game already.

There's a new Chief in town...

Last week, I had the honor of being in the audience as newly-confirmed Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye spoke to our Judicial Process class. Our teacher, Judge Lawrence Brown, introduced her as "one of those people who needs no introduction" but emphasized that she is well-known for being a down to earth and "decent" individual. Not only can you tell from the way Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauya presents herself that this is true, but many others that know her have said the same, including Professor Clayton Tanaka and Justice George Nicholson. She gives lawyers a good name, and is a shining example to others in the legal profession.

She spoke about her legal career, the challenges of being a woman and trying to advance in her legal career, and how she has dealt with these challenges. Below are a couple of the topics she discussed.

Justice Cantil-Sakauye's career began at the Sacramento District Attorney's Office as a prosecutor. She then moved on to become a Deputy Legal Affairs Secretary to Governor George Duekmejian, where she worked under the governor's advisor, now Justice Vance Raye. There, whenever people called to talk to Raye, they would reach her first, but did not wish to speak to her. Thus, she could not do her job. When she conveyed this to Raye, he told her to let these callers know that he REFUSED to talk to them, thus EMPOWERING her to do her job.

She was then appointed by the governor as a judge at the Sacramento Municipal Court at the young age of 31. She realized there that she was treated differently than a male judge would be. The way she dealt with this was to remind herself that this treatment was unintentional. She considered this treatment to be a product of our society and culture, and not directed personally at her, and that "made all the difference in the world." She was confident in her capabilities and knew she was a prepared and fair judge. I feel that adopting this outlook was a wise decision and career move in that it probably kept her from over-analyzing the actions and intentions of people in her court room, and kept her from doubting herself.

Now that she has been nominated and confirmed as Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, many have criticized her as being nominated based solely on her minority status as a woman and a person of color. How does she respond to this? She believes that this criticism is very uninformed, as she had to go through an intense investigative process in order to be found as qualified. In fact, she received the highest rating from the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation: “exceptionally well-qualified.” She had to build a new reputation every time she changed positions and had an excellent reputation throughout her career. In addition, she has broad experience from being one of the few lawyers to dabble in the legislative branch, as well as being a prosecutor, a judge, and a justice. "I like to be underestimated," she says. To those that take the time to look beyond her race and gender, they will see that she is truly brilliant and will without a doubt do great things for our state and justice system.

As a student of King Hall, I think I speak for all of us when I say we are so proud to come from this excellent school and to stand among such accomplished graduates as California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye!

An open letter to the Victims' Rights Movement

To all who masquerade through the political sphere as "tough on crime," "law and order," "victims' rights advocates": We are tired of how you ignore the cries of rape victims.

As this article in U.S. News discusses, a large number of rape kits are still unexamined for DNA evidence because of lack of funds. The report states that New York City had, at one time, 16,000 unexamined rape kits sitting on warehouse shelves.  Houston had 4,000 untested kits, Birmingham 2,000, and Phoenix 4,100. Detroit also had 16,000 untested kits, which led to closing the lab there and turning all the evidence over to the already-swamped state facility.

Famously, Rudy Giuliani announced in September of 2000 that New York City would be the first jurisdiction in the country to fund the outsourcing of untested kits. It was part of his wide-spread crime-elimination strategy, whereby he attacked wisely those crimes where a small investment of funds and energy would yield big results. (A chapter of SuperFreakonomics, which I referred to in this blog post, details the phenomenon of "small fixes." Testing rape kits is one of the small fixes: as most rape aggressors are also often aggressors of other violent crimes, such as murder, by examining these kits, more such criminals could be reprimanded. Furthermore, rape aggressors usually commit multiple rapes before they get caught. The U.S. News report writes:
The rape evidence collection kit backlog is a national tragedy. The federal [DNA] databank now has more than eight million DNA profiles, each genetic fingerprint capable of identifying a violent criminal. Every dust-covered kit that sits untested in storage holds the key to solving scores of old cases—these assailants are believed to commit eleven rapes for every one to which they are formally linked. Even more powerful is the fact that by finally matching offenders to the old evidence and taking them to trial, crimes like rape and murder can be prevented.
The National Center for Victims of Crime has a DNA information website, where they offer a quiz about DNA myths and reality, and provide the latest news on the forensic DNA testing. Attorney General Eric Holder said that "DNA evidence is one of the most powerful tools available to the criminal justice system." At the same time, politicians on the left and right side of the aisle voice their concerns for victims' rights. The victims rights movement, however, mostly comprises of three elements: victims' participation in the proceedings; ensuring financial compensation of victims; and efforts to secure more certain and harsher punishment for perpetrators. While the examination of rape kits fits into the third prong, it is almost never mentioned in the political debates over which candidates have a better record of being "tough on crime." Even candidates on the left ignore rape victims when running for office.  For example, listening to an NPR interview with Kamala Harris, this aspect of being a tough prosecutor was notably missing from Ms. Harris' arguments, although comments on NPR's blog indicate that listeners were indeed interested in hearing about where her spending priorities would lie as Attorney General for California. One commenter said:
Steve Cooley has squandered millions of L.A. County dollars by prosecuting death penalty sentences rather than going for life without parole. That money could have been used for more homicide investigators, to run the warehouse of untested DNA rape kits, or other programs that would actually make the public SAFER.
While feminists are routinely accused of viewing women as victims, in the case of rape, the victims are mostly women. If you, Gentle Reader, are a candidate for elected office, please take heed.  Women are listening.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sexual pleasure and the Third-Wave

I have been blogging about violence against women the duration of the semester. And although it is a painful and depressing topic, it is something I am both deeply familiar with and deeply passionate about. But it is time to discuss one of the joyful sides of womanhood - sexual pleasure and sexual self- awareness, risky as it might be.

Third- wave feminists advocate for girls and women taking charge of their own sexual fulfillment. In her essay, Lusting for Freedom, Rebecca Walker discusses the need for sex education for girls. She says:

The question is not whether young women are going to have sex, for this is far beyond any parental or societal control. The question is rather, what do young women need to make sex a dynamic, affirming, safe and pleasurable part of our lives?

Third-wave feminism recognizes that sexual pleasure is a central part of women’s lives and doesn’t hate on women who know how to achieve it without guilt or regret.

This is in stark contrast to feminists like Catharine MacKinnon who see women as sexual victims of men. She describes sexuality as something that happens to women, not something that women are genuinely capable of embracing for their own personal fulfillment. For me, there is something that fundamentally does not resonate with me about her interpretation. I will admit that with the right person and one that is skillful, I am more than capable of embracing my sexuality and enjoy sexual pleasure. I am not alone in this thinking, even as a mature woman.

MacKinnon would be critical of women like me. She would question the extent to which my desires are authentic:

All women live in sexual objectification the way fish live in water . . .Women seem to cope with sexual abuse principally by denial of fear . . .Women who are compromised, cajoled, pressured, tricked, blackmailed,or outright forced into sex (or pornography) often respond to theunspeakable humiliation, coupled with a sense of having lost some irreplaceable integrity, by claiming that sexuality as their own. Faced with no alternatives, the strategy to acquire self-respect and pride is: I chose it.

In stark contrast, men and women describe their personal experiences of a "new feminism" in a collection of essays called To Be Real: Telling the Truth about the Changing Face of Feminism. Rebecca Walker, who edited the essays, claims this is:

... like a welcome sign to my generation of young women, allowing us toat once differentiate ourselves from our feminist mothers and at the same time achieve mainstream power in our careers and love lives. It allows us the self-righteousness of being political activists without the economic sacrifice or social marginalization that has so often come along with that role. It is a feminism no longer on the defensive, without a fun, playful aesthetic that acknowledges the erotic and narcissistic pleasure women receive from beautifying themselves, a pleasure not to be denied.

Our new generation of feminism embraces beauty and the power of women's sexuality. Sexual pleasure is a human right. By challenging the forms of sexuality and sexual pleasure that reinforce masculinity, it should be possible to imagine sexual rights that are based on sexual equality. We third-wave feminists, advocate for women's equality with men, but at the same time we also celebrate women's differences from men.

I can honestly say that women’s needs for sexual pleasure and sexual self-awareness evolve as we pass through different ages and mature. The bad news is a University of Chicago study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, said half of sexually active Americans aged 57-85—male and female—reported bothersome sexual problems. Not surprising, the biggest issue for women was the lack of an able partner, because of death, divorce or erectile dysfunction (in spite of Viagra).

Scientists once thought men and women experienced sex identically. There was a straight line from desire to arousal to orgasm. Now they see female sexual progression as a circle, with many interrelated factors—emotional intimacy, arousal, emotional and physical satisfaction and desire. Men can take a pill to stay aroused and enjoy sex as they get older, but women's responses are far more complex.

Now the good news: those same University of Chicago researchers found that women over 50 who were sexually active had intercourse about as often as much younger women. So to all my younger female law buddies my advice is this: in a decade or two, you should ignore all the cultural messages and advertising that say you have to look like you are 20 in order to be sexy. Actress Helen Mirren is my personal role model. She is 65 and proud of it. She is fabulously sexy and still rocks a bikini.