Thursday, October 12, 2017

Squeezing into sexism?

In my most recent post, I alluded to classical ballet’s flirtation with feminism in the form of Isadora Duncan, a 19th Century American dancer, refusing to wear a restrictive whale-boned corset while performing, and instead opted for a loose-fitting Grecian tunic. While this defiant outfit change may garner a “so what?” reaction from some, her intrepid move inspired me to reflect upon the corset as a symbol so deeply enshrined in history as an instrument of female oppression, but also as a possible symbol of female emancipation.

The “progressive” intellectual and social reformer Havelock Ellis once wrote that the evolution from “horizontality to verticality” was more difficult for females than males, and also that a “woman might be physiologically truer toherself if she went always on all fours”. The blatant comparison drawn between women and base four-legged animals aside, the opinion of such an “expert” instilled a grotesque image of women as feeble, spineless creatures into society from the Middle Ages to the Mid Twentieth Century. It’s no wonder that at the pinnacle of their popularity in the Victorian era, the garb of a ‘respectable’ and ‘decently dressed’ lady demanded a corset, with anything less only insinuating loose morals.

So what did the traditional corset represent? The entire design of corsets with their cinched waists that are quite literally breath-taking, aimed to fabricate the ‘ideal’ hourglass figure in order to satiate the mainstream male sexual desires of the hay day. A slim waist with accentuated hips and breasts subliminally equals to fertility which in turn equals to childbearing capacity, apparently. Men made up the vast majority of corset makers, with Louis XIV of France reported to have ordered a guild of female dressmakers to make all the clothes for women in French court, apart from riding habits and corsets, which were left exclusively in the domain of men. So while male appetites defined the silhouette of the woman, male hands too contributed to their caging.

While the artist Manet once remarked “the satin corset may be the new nude of our era”, when referring to his infamous painting ‘Nana’, the inherent sexuality of the corset has and will always continue to ooze. The popularity of corsetry had fluctuated and nearly fizzled out since Manet’s time, yet we have Madonna to thank for so kindly reviving the draconian garment during her 1990 Blonde Ambition Tour, in which she collaborated with Jean-Paul Gaultier to produce the iconicpink cone bra corset. Riding the wave of sex-positive feminism, Madonna’s corset was a distinctly different creature from the antiquity all had grown accustomed to, adding fuel to the flames of the Underwear as Outerwear movement.

This concept that underwear should be worn over clothes, not under them, or even by itself (why not?), bolsters the arguments of sex-positive feminism that have been bubbling over since the early ‘80s. Despite the centuries of tight-laced terror inflicted upon women, somehow the corset has come to embody this in full. We need only look to the 2017 Spring/Summer collections of countless couturiers for our proof. Along with printed tees proclaiming “we should all be feminists”, Christian Dior’s first female creative director Maria Grazia-Chiuri, showcased the emerging trend with a subtle nod to their boned brethren. Isabel Marant, Les Copains, Stella McCartney,MISBHV, Fenty x Puma, to name but a few, point to the plethora of designers rooting for the revival of corsetry, albeit in a deconstructed sense.

Somehow in the tumultuous lifespan of this garment, the Kardashians enter the fray. Their iconic pedalling of waist trainers as exercise and weight loss aids serve only to remind us that the corset in any shape or form is repugnant to feminist ideals. Kim, Khlo√© and Kylie being the most flagrant offenders, attempt to reinforce this idea of centuries past that the hourglass figure equates to beauty by pawning it off as “body positivity”. Unfortunately for the rest of us lacking in surgically endowed curves, waist trainers won’t give us anything other than indigestion and a sense of inferiority.

Women’s bodies have never been good enough, a fact that has repeatedly reasserted itself throughout history, and corsetry hasn’t been alone in highlighting this. From foot binding to fad diets, there has never really been an acceptance of the uniqueness and individuality of the female form. Although sex-positive feminism and the Underwear as Outerwear movement have characterised modern day corsetry as being a distinct choice that women have control over as opposed to a mandatory imposition, in light of what the corset originally and still fundamentally embodies, it’s safe to say no amount of Madonna’s or Kim Kardashian’s will ever squeeze me back into this form of sexism.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Lancet article on distance to abortion providers spawns some urbancentric headlines

The Lancet Public Health, the prestigious medical journal, published an article yesterday about the distances women in the U.S. have to travel for abortion care, and lots of mainstream media outlets picked up the story.  What initially struck me about several stories was the focus on this fact:  1 in 5 U.S. women must travel more than 43 miles to get to an abortion provider.  This is a factoid that would have the average rural woman thinking, "no big deal," because rural residents travel distances like that for everyday activities--like getting to work.  What burdens many rural women, you see, are much greater distances.

An opening line of the Guttmacher Institute's press release about the article does acknowledge some other key data points:
Nationally, half of all women of reproductive age lived within 11 miles of the nearest abortion clinic in 2014.  However, a substantial minority of women, particularly those in rural areas, lived significantly farther away.  (emphasis added)
The article was written by three Guttmacher Institute researchers, including lead author Jonathan Bearak.  The map accompanying the article shows a big swath running north to south through the middle of America as the most vast abortion desert.

NPR's coverage did a better job of highlighting what I would say is the more salient fact regarding rural women.  Their headline was "For Many Women, the Nearest Abortion Provider is Hundreds of Miles Away." Sarah McCammon's story features a woman in Sioux Falls, South Dakota who elected to drive 4 hours to Minneapolis for an abortion because the State of Minnesota does not impose a 72-hour waiting period like South Dakota does.

Here's another excerpt from Guttmacher's press release, which quotes Bearak:

Women and abortion clinics are both concentrated in urban areas, so it is not surprising that most women live relatively close to an abortion clinic.  However, distance may be a significant barrier to accessing abortion care for the substantial minority who live farther away, and especially for economically disadvantaged women, who make up the majority of abortion patients.
The title of The Lancet article is "Disparities and Change Over Time in Distance Needed to Travel to Access an Abortion in the U.S.:  A Spatial Analysis."  One of the "over time" findings is that between 2011 and 2014, distances to clinics remained the same in 34 states, while they increased in 7.  Needless to say, the states where the distances have increased include states like Wisconsin, Texas, and Alabama, all of which have passed so-called TRAP laws, Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, the constitutionality of which have been litigated in recent years.

CNN's coverage of the article featured a more appropriate headline that pleased me for its focus on the extreme distances facing some women.  The headline is "Some US women travel hundreds of miles for abortions, analysis finds."  That story included this additional information, the first line of which states what should be obvious:
"How far a woman has to travel for an abortion is a key measure of access," Bearak said. Other measures include restrictive laws and financial constraints.

To analyze how far women travel to terminate a pregnancy across the nation, the researchers began with data on the location of abortion providers and women. The information on women was based on census block groups, Bearak said: "That is the smallest publicly available geographic unit." Within states are counties, within counties are census tracts, and within tracts are block groups.
This analysis sounds very similar to what researchers did to quantify abortion availability in Texas following the different stages of implementation of House Bill 2, which was ultimately struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt in 2016. 

My extensive writing about distance, travel, and abortion access is herehere, and here, along with many posts under the "abortion" label on the Legal Ruralism blog.

In other abortion news, don't miss this story of abortion hypocrisy.

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Is Catherine MacKinnon "over the top" about prostitution?

Recently in class we considered some of the work of radical feminist, Catherine MacKinnon. I had come across MacKinnon before, and like many people, I initially regarded her views as 'over the top.' Why on earth, I used to think, do we need Catherine MacKinnon to give talks at Universities explaining why prostitution, for example, is wrong? We know that already and, certainly, in the Western World, no one these days would seriously try to defend prostitution as a way of life (in public at least), any more than they would seek to defend rape or paedophilia.

How wrong I was. With a quick bit of research, I discovered that former Playboy model, Kendra Wilkinson, had, in TMZ news in 2014, publicly called on the United States to legalize prostitution on the grounds that the sex is consensual. On foot of this, TMZ news undertook a poll of its readers on legalizing prostitution. The New York Daily News also carried an article in 2012 arguing that prostitution is a choice and legalization would help eliminate abuse of non-adult prostitutes and poor women. In 2013, Ole Martin Moen, Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Oslo presented a scholarly critique in the Journal of Medical Ethics which maintained that "prostitution is no more harmful than a long line of occupations that we commonly accept without hesitation."

Time, then, to stand with Catherine MacKinnon. Whatever anyone thinks of her, the stark reality is that the vast majority of people who work as prostitutes are women - an estimated 90% in most countries. If, therefore, prostitution is a choice, and is as harmless as ethical scholars like Ole Martin Moen submit, then why aren't more men doing it?

Catherine MacKinnon has the answer. It is because prostitution is widely recognised as a form of sexual exploitation that violates fundamental human rights. It is because specialist international studies (e.g. Farley 2003) shows that most prostitutes suffer severe violence, including sexual assault and rape – often on a repeat basis. It is because in Europe, for instance, at least 1 in 7 prostitutes are victims of trafficking. It is because a large proportion (68%) of prostitutes suffer from PTSD, with a level of severity comparable to that experienced by Vietnam War veterans, as well as psychological dissociation (Farley, 2003). It is also because, for most women, prostitution is entered into as a last resort and is such a negative experience that they would prefer to escape it if they could (Farley 2003).

Given these findings, only a fool or a fraud could seriously argue that legalisation would help eliminate abuse of non-adults and women. But then again, how do we answer the Kendra Wilkinsons of this world who believe that prostitution should be seen as a consensual activity? Yet again, the bulk of the evidence supports the Catherine MacKinnon position. Case after case and independent study after independent study (Orr 2001, Farley 2003, Brennan 2004) reveals that most sex workers enter the industry as a survival strategy.

In short, rather than consenting, it seems that the bulk of women are forced to prostitute themselves out of desperation. Hence, it is difficult to disagree with the Catherine McKinnon view that "the money coerces the consent, rather than guaranteeing it". It therefore genuinely does represent, as she argues, a practice, by-in-large, of "serial rape."

MacKinnon has attracted an abundance of criticism for her radical feminist stances on issues like prostitution. Yet the more I look around, and the more I research the subject, the more I realise that voiceless and exploited women and prostitutes really need people like her. They need her and people to persistently challenge the public defenders of the 'money for sex industry'. They need people like her to remind us how much prostitution reduces women to merchandise to be bought, sold and abused. Therefore, legalising it would reinforce their oppression by male-dominated societies and present a clear affront to the concept of gender equality. So, if viewing prostitution as a symbol of the disempowerment of women in a patriarchal society now makes me 'over the top', then I’ll take it.


Thursday, September 28, 2017

My family, simultaneously feminist and not

Recently during one of our class discussions the conversation turned to the topic of our own family figures and family history. This led to me to a moment of self-reflection where I noticed the strange ways that my family is simultaneously "feminist" and "traditional/non-feminist." I continue to reflect on this even now, weeks since the class. I wonder whether outsiders would view my family as more feminist than non-feminist or vice versa. I will leave that for you to decide as I share a few facts about my family.

I will begin with my grandparents. My maternal grandparents were very much a traditional Mexican couple. My grandfather focused on tending to the farm, handling the animals, and bringing in the money while my grandmother focused on cleaning, cooking, and making sure everything in the house ran smoothly. One experience I shared in class involved my first ever trip to Mexico to visit my grandparents. I am not sure exactly how old I was but I know I was still a child, not even a teenager yet. Every morning my job was to accompany my grandpa and cousins to the farm to tend to the cows and other animals. I enjoyed it the experience but after a few days I was no longer thrilled about it. One day I decided I would much rather sleep in and help my grandmother around the house instead of accompanying my grandfather. My grandparents were okay with it; instead of accompanying my grandpa I stayed back and helped my grandma clean the house. When my mother found out she was very upset. She asked me why I rather stay in and work like a woman instead of going out with the men. Not only did this upset me, it confused me. I did not understand why it was considered improper for me to help my grandmother instead of my grandfather. When I looked back on this experience later in life I realized that my mother had simply grown up in a very traditional family where traditional gender roles were very much the norm.

My paternal grandparents were a bit different from my maternal grandparents. They were still very traditional; my grandma was extremely religious and probably would have been a nun if she had not married and had kids my grandpa. My paternal grandparents, however, ran the family quite differently from my maternal grandparents. On my father's side, it was quite clear that my grandmother ran the show. She certainly seemed like the head decision maker. My grandmother also worked outside of the home. There are a few things that I believe explain this. For starters, my paternal grandparents moved to the United States before I was born. My grandmother worked out of necessity. Additionally, my grandfather battled many demons throughout his life which caused him to be absent. This forced my grandmother to step into the role of head of household. While my grandma was a very strong female leading a large family, often on her own, she was still held very traditional beliefs about modesty and gender roles.

Moving on towards my parents, they are an even more perplexing mix of feminist and non-feminist. My mother is a business owner. Her and my godmother have owned and operated their own hair salon for almost my entire life. My mother is a dance instructor, she teaches Zumba lessons at various places throughout the week. My mother partakes in various workout classes that require her to leave the house daily around 5 a.m. My mother is a very powerful authority figure in our family, she makes makes important decisions for the family on a daily basis. When my father lost his job, and had to wait nearly two years to find quality work again, my mother continued to work as much as she could to keep the family afloat. On the flip side, my mother is still typically the one who cooks for the family every day. My mother does all the laundry, cleans the house, usually washes the dishes, and still believes that certain tasks are meant for women while other are meant for men. This does not mean that my father, brother, and I are not expected to clean, wash dishes, etc. but I believe that she sees these kinds of tasks as predominantly her and my sister's responsibilities.

Much like my mother, my father also exists in ways that are outside of traditional gender roles. My father often cooks for the family, including big holiday meals. My father does plenty of household chores around the house every day. My father defers to my mother on many important family matters. At the same time, my father has always believed that outdoor work is for the men to take care of. I know this because on many weekends I was forced to help my dad with all sorts of outdoor tasks for hours on end. To this day whenever we have people coming over I am assigned to clean up the backyard and do all the outdoor work while my mom and sister cook and clean inside. Both of my parents certainly empowered my sister to stay in school and become a professional like they did with me and like they are doing with my younger brother. At the same time, they have often treated my sister differently from how they have treated my brother and I. While both of my siblings and I were pestered about eating healthy, exercising, and not being lazy, my sister certainly received the most criticism. She was especially expected to be slim and not eat too much fattening food. She receives certain criticisms about being unladylike that my brother and I never received. It feels like my parents have different expectations of my sister than they do of my brother and I.

Three of my grandparents have passed away. I never got the chance to ask them about feminism. I also have not asked my remaining living grandmother about what she thinks of feminism or gender. Surprisingly, I also have not had conversations directly on the matter with my mother or sister either. While I have not had these conversations, I have never once heard any of them mention a connection to any larger feminist movement or philosophy. I have never heard any of these women in my life say they do things which objectively seem "feminist" because it makes them feel empowered. I also have never heard my grandfathers or father say they consciously break gender stereotypes because they believe they are wrong or because they believe in empowering women. I do not want to attribute beliefs to them which are inaccurate and based on assumptions; I do not know why anyone in my family acts the way that they do. I simply find it fascinating that many of the women and men in my family, perhaps subconsciously, do not conform to traditional gender roles in a way that could be described as "feminist." Certainly, many of the gender roles that my family does subscribe to were socialized into them but what about the feminist ideas that they seemingly unknowingly follow? I highly doubt my grandmothers or mother studied feminism in school or read feminist theory, yet they exist in many ways that can be classified as feminist. Ultimately the question I am most curious about is how the decisions were made and lines were drawn regarding what traditional gender ideas these women were okay with and which ones they tossed out the window. Perhaps these were conscious decisions, perhaps they were fueled by necessity, or perhaps this is all simply one big coincidence.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

MacKinnon: From Sexual Agency to Desire

After reading excerpts from Catherine MacKinnon’s works, I wonder: do we enjoy sexual agency? MacKinnon’s dominance framework suggests that women do not because their sexual agency is an illusion that furthers their subjugation within our patriarchal state. In other words, women’s sexual agency is a form of false consciousness that conceals how women’s sexuality within heterosexual relations benefits men.

I don’t wholly agree with MacKinnon, but I do agree with her milder proposition that sexual agency is constrained. Indeed, not only is sexual agency constrained along gender, sexual orientation, and erotic lines, it’s also constrained by numerous institutions, fields, and practices emanating from and operating within our patriarchal state. For example, until recently, the medical field constrained sexual agency by medicalizing certain sexual practices, including some fetishisms and BDSMYet, MacKinnon elides over how our patriarchal state may also constrain men’s sexual agency. Our justice system, for example, used to constrain men’s sexual agency by criminalizing same-sex sexual conduct among men through the selective application of sodomy laws. Thus, if MacKinnon is correct and heterosexuality buttresses our patriarchal state, then clearly gay cis-men do not enjoy the same degree of sexual agency that straight cis-men do. 

I do not agree, however, with MacKinnon’s implication that because women’s sexual agency is constrained women therefore lack sexual agency. Instead, all individuals face constraints within which they exercise their sexual agency. And, in turn, individuals use whatever sexual agency they possess to negotiate the boundaries of those constraints, which are effectively in flux. Take the protagonist Ana Steele in the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. At first, her sexual agency is constrained by her libido: her pronounced sexual attraction to Christian Grey, and her quest for sexual pleasure. This prompts her to coyly negotiate a detailed BDSM-contract with Grey that outlines the sexual practices he’s allowed to perform on her. And though neither character tendered consideration to seal the deal, Ana had a voice during negotiations: she rejected the use of tape during bondage play. As silly as the scene may be, it illustrates that Ana had some sexual agency even if patriarchy loomed in the background. But I am sure that MacKinnon knew that much, so there must be more to her argument of sexual agency than meets the eye.

I think MacKinnon’s work raises a more provocative question: is a woman’s sexual desire her own? Or, more generally, are our sexual desires our own? This is a more provocative question because desire, being psychological in nature, may precede and shape individuals’ sexual agency. Further, it is difficult to imagine sexual desire as existing outside what is socially and sexually intelligible, and thus socially and sexually possible. But as dominance theory implies, it is our patriarchal state that moderates what is intelligible. If this is so, then Ana Steele didn’t have bargaining power at the table. Instead, she was a slave to her patriarchally moderated desires. But couldn’t the same be said of Christian Grey?

The numerous questions and responses that MacKinnon’s structuralist analysis elicits confirm the value of her work. Does MacKinnon’s dominance theory explain gender relations? Only partly. Does her theory elide over how our patriarchal state also subjugates men? Yes. Nevertheless, MacKinnon’s dominance theory provides a nice segue into more nuanced analyses of gender, sexuality, and erotic practices. Indeed, MacKinnon’s suggestion that our patriarchal state delimits what is socially and sexually possible (for women), is reminiscent of Judith Butler’s “matrix of intelligibility,” which is what allows for (gender) identities to be socially viable.


Thank you MacKinnon for pushing me to question my sexual agency, and desires!