Did Lena Dunham Sexually Abuse Her Sister?

[Content note: child sexual abuse]*

My Daily Dot piece about Lena Dunham went up yesterday, but I was out walking 14 miles of Manhattan so I didn’t have time to link it here. This was published before Dunham released her statement, which partially (but not nearly entirely) addresses some of my concerns.

Lena Dunham’s recently released memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, has stirred up a lot of controversy, and probably not the controversy that Dunham hoped to stir up.

Several passages in the book detail the Girls creator and actress’ childhood sexual experimentation with her sister, Grace, who is six years younger. After a conservative writer quoted the passages and accused Dunham of sexual abuse, the internet exploded.

The passages describe Lena Dunham playing with her sister’s vagina when Dunham was seven and her sister was one year old. She also writes about bribing her sister with candy so that she could kiss her on the lips and masturbating in bed next to her. Their mother was aware of at least some of the behavior, but apparently didn’t think much of it. “My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina,” she writes. “This was within the spectrum of things I did.”

Not all of Dunham’s critics have been conservative columnists, however. Many women, especially women of color, have been active on Twitter, discussing the passages and how they exemplify the abuse that others have faced in childhood. These critics have started a hashtag called #DropDunham, calling on Planned Parenthood to end its partnership with her:

Meanwhile, others think there’s nothing wrong with Dunham’s actions:

 

[…]Did Lena Dunham abuse her sister? That depends on a lot of things, some of which we may not know without getting more information. However, there are a number of things about Dunham’s behavior as she describes it herself that bring up red flags.

Read the rest here.

~~~

*Although I personally avoided definitively labeling Lena Dunham’s actions as child sexual abuse, I included this content note out of respect for those who consider it such and find it triggering.

#AlterConf Sessions Are Awesome and You Should Go

Alterconf Sessions logoThis weekend I attended something called AlterConf, which I hadn’t even heard about until a friend mentioned it, but was very glad I did.

AlterConf is basically a series of local events that feature short talks about diversity in tech and gaming, by people who are actually members of the communities they speak about. The project was started by Ashe Dryden, a programmer, organizer, and consultant who speaks and writes a lot about diversity and marginalization in tech.

Obviously, I am not a programmer or a game developer or any of that other stuff, but I play games (I don’t like to use the word “gamer”) and am a pretty huge tech nerd. (How huge? Doesn’t matter. I’m tired of getting into those pissing contests with guys.) I am also a woman, and someone who cares a lot about inclusion and diversity, and someone who has been watching the Diversity In Nerdom War for a while.

Despite my lack of technical knowledge and serious involvement, I really enjoyed the session and learned a lot because it mostly concerned the experiences of marginalized people in tech/gaming and some of the efforts they are making to create community and inclusion. I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know before, such as the fact that some people claim that there are no tech professionals in/from the Bronx (there were at least two speaking) and that cochlear implants only allow you to hear a rather poor representation of the actual sound, which is just one of the reasons many Deaf people don’t necessarily think they’re that great.

What also stuck out to me, though, was just how well the event was run in terms of inclusivity and accessibility. For instance:

  • Eight of the ten speakers were people of color, and five were women. One of the speakers was deaf, and one spoke about having chronic pain and mental illness.
  • The speakers were paid.
  • Although tickets cost money, the Eventbrite page also had an option to choose a free ticket if you could not attend the event otherwise.
  • When attendees checked in, they were instructed to make a name tag that included their preferred gender pronouns.
  • The event had an ASL interpreter, as well as someone who was making accurate live captions appear on the screen (?!) as the speakers talked. Ashe invited any audience members who needed ASL to let her know, so that she could make sure the interpreter was signing at them.
  • There were healthy food and snacks, including vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and Kosher options.
  • The venue had plenty of physical space for the audience size, and the chairs were arranged in a way that made it easy for people to get out of and into their seats with minimal tripping over others.
  • The venue had free wifi, the details of which were written prominently on a whiteboard.
  • Before the talks began, Ashe let the audience know that there would be one talk with a content warning, and that in general people should free to get up and leave at any time if they needed to. She repeated the content warning before the talk that it applied to, in case anyone missed it or forgot.
  • The event had a comprehensive code of conduct (although I don’t remember if this was actually discussed at the event, which would be important).
  • For the most part, speakers were audible, slides were visible, and Ashe made sure that people stuck to their time limits and had time for questions.
  • Ashe let the audience know that the speakers had all explicitly consented to being photographed, videotaped, and/or livetweeted, and also asked the audience to keep context in mind when doing so.
  • The talks were recorded and will apparently be posted online.
  • Ashe invited attendees to come see her after the event if they needed help with transportation or if they wanted to be paired up with another attendee for safety reasons.

I include all this here because the level of professionalism and attention to detail I saw at this event was pretty much unparalleled at other conferences and events I’ve gone to. To be fair, Ashe Dryden is a professional organizer, so it’s probably a pretty high bar for student/volunteer organizers to reach. (Also, I don’t know how the event was funded besides ticket sales, but maybe she had a lot more money to work with than most organizers can get through fundraising alone.)

Regardless, it’s definitely something to think about for those of us who plan events, whether they last an hour or an entire weekend.

As far as the talks themselves go, I was also very impressed. Some of the speakers were very new to speaking (one said it was her first talk, and everyone cheered and applauded); others have spoken at many conferences before. The speakers were clearly chosen very intentionally, as they covered a wide variety of topics and issues in just nine talks. Some of my favorites:

  • David Peter spoke about deafness, the medical and social models of disability, Deaf culture, and how to make tech/gaming communities more welcoming to Deaf people.
  • Catt Small, a friend of mine who runs approximately fifty thousand projects, spoke about one of those projects, Code Liberation, which teaches women to code through classes and game jams. It’s so incredibly important to hear from people actually doing work like this if you want to understand why women and minorities are underrepresented in tech and how to change that.
  • Manuel Marcano spoke about stereotypes of Native Americans in games and how they perpetuate oppression.
  • Senongo Akpem gave an overview of the tech/games industry in Nigeria, shattering what I’m guessing are many misconceptions and stereotypes that people have.
  • Shawn Alexander Allen spoke about how crowdfunding can help games with diverse characters get made, and how it also allows backers and fans to hold developers more accountable in terms of diversity.
  • Aly Ferguson was amazing and discussed research on how video games can be used to help people dealing with mental illness, chronic pain, and disability.

Here are some highlights, or at least the ones I was able to tweet fast enough:

Of course, that can only paint a very small picture of what the event was like and why it was so awesome. I was told that recordings of the talks will be posted online at some point, so follow my Twitter or the #alterconf hashtag if you want to see them.

One small thing is that I wish gender identity and sexual orientation had been discussed more–or at all, really. That was one topic that seemed oddly missing from the entire event. There are certainly game developers out there addressing these issues explicitly, and it would’ve been really cool to hear some of them speak. But, obviously, there were only 10 speakers and four hours and so many important things to cover that got covered–race, gender, ability, class–and so I really can’t hold this against the event. For all I know, it has been discussed or will be discussed at other sessions.

On that note, AlterConf sessions are being planned for a bunch of other cities (so far they’ve happened in Boston and NYC), such as San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, DC, and others. If there’s one near you at some point, I highly recommend going, even if you’re only tangentially knowledgeable/involved in this stuff, like I am. If all these recent debates within communities like atheism, skepticism, science (and science writing), video games, comics, and sci-fi/fantasy have taught us anything, it’s that very few of these issues are specific to any particular community. Even if you don’t care much about games or technology, I think you’ll learn a lot from AlterConf.

Flipping the Social Justice Script

Read enough opinion pieces and you’ll quickly begin to notice the tactic of script flipping. This is when someone takes a term or a type of language used by someone they disagree with and flip it to serve their own political agenda. They may appropriate terms directly and subtly shift their definitions, such as Christians who claim to have lost “religious freedom” when another group is gaining theirs. Or, they may create new terms that parallel others, such as “creep shaming” and “offense culture.”

Script flipping is a way to capitalize on the popularity of certain ways of analyzing particular issues in order to be taken more seriously or to provoke an emotional reaction in readers or listeners. For instance, “rape culture” has become a powerful way to express the complex tangle of factors that lead to high rates of sexual assault among disadvantaged groups. So, people who want to talk about something totally unrelated to rape culture (and probably not even real) may simply append “-culture” to the thing they’re criticizing, presumably hoping that that might cause more people to take it seriously.

The problem with script flipping isn’t necessarily the lack of originality, though some might take issue with that too. The problem is that the script flippers often don’t understand the original script very well, so they flip it in a direction that makes no sense, sometimes for the purpose of ridiculing the original script. As I’ll discuss, people who use terms like “female privilege” and “creep shaming” in earnest don’t seem to understand what is meant by “privilege” or what is meant by “creep” or “shaming.” The analysis falls flat, and everyone who hears the flipped script before understanding the original one ends up with a shallow conception of what people were trying to say in the first place.

The other problem is that it’s simply a bad argument most of the time. It’s an appeal to emotion, whether meant to irritate and hurt the creators of the original script, or to horrify and galvanize the target audience. What if I told you that free speech is being severely threatened on the internet, or that a particular religious group is being steadily denied the freedom to practice their religion in America? That sounds pretty bad. Well, what if I told you that the threat to free speech is bloggers moderating their comments, or that the religious group being denied freedom is Christians who are upset that classroom holiday celebrations must now mention Chanukah and Kwanzaa in addition to Christmas? Sounds a lot less dire now.

Social justice terms seem especially likely to be targeted by script flippers, perhaps because they can be difficult to understand (especially to those with the motivation to avoid understanding), they may sound silly to those unfamiliar with them, and, well, many people oppose social justice ideals.

These are just a few examples of script flipping:

[Read more…]

If Public Breastfeeding Offends You, Don’t Look

My newest post at the Daily Dot is about public breastfeeding and the controversy surrounding Karlesha Thurman.

Like pretty much everything surrounding mothers and childrearing, breastfeeding is a politically charged topic. In some ways, mothers are encouraged, even demanded, to breastfeed their babies because of the potential health benefits that breastfeeding provides.

In New York City, a municipal program called Latch On NYC required hospitals to stop giving out formula to new mothers unless specifically requested, in which case a nurse has to record a medical justification for providing the formula. Mothers who are unable or unwilling to breastfeed for whatever reason face stigma—what sort of mom wouldn’t want to do absolutely everything she can to ensure her baby’s health? So the reasoning goes.

At the same time, women are also shamed for breastfeeding in public, even though it’s legal throughout the United States. Public breastfeeding, we are told, is “indecent” and “disgusting,” and mothers should “think of the children” before “whipping it out” in public. (Presumably, they should think about children besides their own, who are hungry and need to be fed.)

Instead, they should find a private place such as a restroom (unhygienic, and most don’t have comfortable seating for a mother to breastfeed), bring formula (not as good for the baby as breast milk), or pump their milk beforehand (and carry it around in a cooler in the summer heat, presumably). Breast pumps and formula aren’t even affordable for all women, and some babies refuse to drink formula.

All this has recently come up in online discussion once again after Karlesha Thurman, a mother and recent college graduate, posted a photo of herself breastfeeding at her graduation from California State University Long Beach. The photo went viral and spawned all of the usual blowback, except this time with an extra side of “She’s ruining the sanctity of the college graduation ceremony!” and probably a generous helping of racism. (Thurman is Black, andseveral commentators pointed out that the harsh response she is now facing ties into a long history of analyzing, judging, and regulating Black women’s bodies and what they do with them.)

Thurman originally posted the photo to the Facebook page of a group called Black Women Do Breastfeed, which aims to encourage and support Black mothers who are breastfeeding and who feel that their experiences are not well-represented in narratives of motherhood.

Thurman has since removed the photo from the group, explaining in interviews that the reactions she received personally, including from the other graduates, had all been supportive, but that people elsewhere online were being “very harsh.” She added, “I did it to show it’s natural, it’s normal, there’s nothing wrong with it. I didn’t even know there was a big controversy about breast-feeding in public until all of this happened.”

Read the rest here.

Disagreeing Without Delegitimizing: On That Racist Colbert Tweet and Reactions Thereto

[Content note: racist language, sexual harassment]

It has all the makings of a social media firestorm: at some point last week, Stephen Colbert made a joke on his show in which he implicitly criticized Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for refusing to change the team’s racist name. The @ColbertReport Twitter account tweeted part of the joke out-of-context. Now-deleted, the tweet read, “I’m willing to show the #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Screenshot via Suey Park

Screenshot via Suey Park

Folks thought Colbert had tweeted it and didn’t realize that it was part of a larger satirical bit that was actually criticizing racism against Native Americans, because nothing in the way the tweet was made suggested that it was a quote from the show. And even knowing the context, many would argue (and have argued) that that context doesn’t excuse racist language against another group, and that said language is still harmful.

Some Twitter users, including Suey Park, criticized the tweet using the hashtag #CancelColbert. Although the hashtag’s mostly a useless mess now, Suey’s Twitter account is currently a great collection of her thoughts and retweets of others’ opinions about the situation. For the record, I don’t personally think Colbert Report should be canceled over this, but that doesn’t mean I can’t agree with the criticisms being made. And also, I’m not even sure that everyone tweeting in support of the hashtag also literally wants the show canceled; it’s an alliterative and snappy hashtag that gets attention, and in a medium like Twitter, sometimes that’s what you need. But maybe they do. I respect that view despite disagreeing with it, and it’s unfortunate that in many settings this has become a conversation about whether or not they should cancel the show, and not about what’s wrong with this whole situation.

So naturally, there was a swift counter-response, including many of Colbert’s liberal fans, who claimed that the critics were “too sensitive” and “don’t get satire” (because there’s no way someone could possibly disagree with you unless they just “don’t get” the topic at hand). There was smug condescension about stupid Twitter social justice warriors who “took the tweet out of context” and “didn’t bother researching the actual facts.” There was, in other words, all the usual smarm and dog doodoo.

First of all, to understand what happened, let’s go back to an amazing recent article by author Kameron Hurley called “Rage Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum, or: Understanding the Complex Continuum of Internet Butt-Hurt.” There’s a long parable here, but bear with it, because it’s instructive.

I once stood at a bus stop in Durban while two young, drunk men murmured sexually explicit threats and promises to a young woman standing next to me. It was just the four of us – the woman being threatened, me, and the two perpetrators.

South Africa is not the world’s safest place, though with how often folks pull out guns to solve disagreements in the US – legally! – now, I’d argue it’s not so safe here, either. In any event, I kept my mouth shut. After all, they weren’t threatening her with an actual weapon. They were just talking about all the sexual things they wanted to do to her.

It didn’t concern me.

I didn’t want to get knifed, or attacked, or threatened in kind. Who wants that?

But after a few minutes, when they didn’t seem to tire of their threats, but instead kept at it, I finally lost my shit.

It was a fantastic losing-of-the-shit, because I’d spent the last six months hurrying back to my flat before dark, being told by every well-meaning person I knew that there were evil men waiting to rape, mutilate and murder me – maybe not even in that order! – even in broad daylight. I had one guy in a car slow down once on a sunny Sunday afternoon on the hill just outside the university where I was walking alone, who told me I best not walk alone, and best get inside, because people were likely to jump out of the woods and haul me off to the terrible fate all young white girls traveling abroad are assumed to inhabit, eventually.

I’d spent some time getting cat-called, yelled at, and solicited, though most folks in Durban were in fact quite lovely. In truth, I was to receive far more direct threats and harassment as a young woman living in Chicago than I did in Durban.

But that’s a post for another time.

To an outsider seeing my screaming meltdown at these two men, in which I raved and shouted and told them how they were utter assholes for harassing us, and they should fuck off, and who the fuck did they think they were, this might have seemed like the raving of some unhinged person. After all, from afar, all you see is two guys at a bus stop talking to a woman who seems deeply uncomfortable. But my rage, my “sudden” outburst was actually the result of the venting of six full months of increasing dread and terror inflicted on me not even so much by actual bad people, but people ostensibly concerned for my safety, whose admonitions that I “stay inside” and watch my back, and be careful, and who would then go on to talk about who’d been raped, shot, stabbed or mugged that week, had really started to get to me. It was a rage at the entire situation, at being expected to shut the fuck up and go inside all the time because I was a young woman. It was rage at the idea that the threat of violence so clearly worked to keep people in line.

After I raged for a few minutes, the guys milled about for a bit, confused, and finally wandered off. When they did, the young woman next to me breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Thank you so much. I was afraid to say something, because I was afraid they’d knife me or something.”

When the internet loses its shit over what, to many, looks like a single, insignificant incident unrelated to anything else, it’s easy to say they’re fucking nuts. They’re raging over some perceived slight that’s been blown waaaaay out of proportion. That, in truth, is the easier narrative.

[…] Internet rage is almost never a one-off. It happens in a continuum. It’s seen as one more event in a long line of connected events.

Colbert is funny. I like him. But he has a history of using humor in bigoted ways. I don’t have room here to discuss them all at length, but here’s an example. And no, it doesn’t matter if it’s “ironic.” People’s anger and hurt over the tweet has to be viewed in context, and that context is 1) lifetimes of racist abuse and 2) lots of racism from Colbert and his writers in particular.

It is extremely ironic that Colbert’s defenders demand that the tweet be viewed “in context” while refusing to view anger over the tweet in context.

As it turned out, Colbert didn’t write the tweet and neither did anybody on his staff. The Twitter account is run by Comedy Central and Colbert does not know who made the tweet. However, you would be forgiven for believing that a verified Twitter account named after a TV show is run by someone involved with that actual TV show, and I don’t understand why people are treating those who thought this was Colbert’s tweet as though they just believed one of those emails from a Nigerian prince offering you $10,000,000. Comedy Central should not be running an account that’s dedicated to a particular one of their shows, and they especially shouldn’t be tweeting jokes out of context that look really really bad when presented out of context. That’s basic fucking PR. And as for Twitter’s role in this, the entire point of verified accounts is that they’re supposed to be run by the person or group named in them. (Of course, that person might have staff tweeting for them, but at least it’s someone employed by the celebrity.) I don’t know how or why Twitter verified an account called “Colbert Report” that is not run by anyone associated with the Colbert Report, but that’s on them, not on Twitter users.

But anyway, I don’t actually want to argue about whether or not the tweet was racist or offensive or in bad taste or whatever. The meat of my point is this:

  • If you defend Colbert’s attempt to attack racism by condescendingly sneering that his detractors just “don’t get” satire, calling them “idiots,” and generally acting like there is no conceivable reason anybody in their right mind could’ve disliked this tweet, you are part of the problem and I don’t think you care about racism as much as you claim to care about racism. I think you care about Stephen Colbert.
  • Relatedly, if you accuse people of “derailing” the conversation about the Washington Redskins to discuss what they perceive as Colbert’s anti-Asian racism, something tells me you’re not actually that concerned about racism. Because you can be racist against one group while trying to fight racism against another, or you can just try to be anti-racist and do something perceived by some as racist. You can also care both about the racism of the Redskins’ name and the racism of Colbert’s joke. You can care equally about these two things. Shit gets complicated.
  • It’s insulting and inaccurate to assume that anyone who feels differently than you do about an issue just “doesn’t understand” it. Perhaps they simply have a different understanding. As Crommunist tweeted, “It is emphatically the case that PoC have more familiarity with satire than white people do with racism.”
  • You can disagree that the tweet was hurtful without disagreeing that people have a good reason to be hurt by it. Actually, I fall into that category. I don’t think it’s hurtful. But, I’m not Asian or Asian American. So of course I’m not hurt. If you are white, it’s not your place to say that the tweet is categorically Not Hurtful.
  • The existence of people of color (and, in fact, of Asians or Asian Americans) who have no problem with the tweet does not invalidate the claims of those people who do have a problem with the tweet. Analogously, the fact that some women don’t “mind” catcalling doesn’t invalidate those of us who do mind it.
  • Blaming people for not realizing the tweet had a context to it is asinine. There were no quotation marks around the quote. Many comedians use Twitter to write one-liners that have no context. Even if someone suspects that it came from the show, nobody has the time to watch every single recent Colbert episode to try to find the bit. Even if you know the context, you may still find the racial language hurtful and jarring, and you may still think the entire original joke was pointless and fell flat.
  • You can lecture people about not getting upset about “out-of-context tweets,” or you can lecture comedians and others about using Twitter effectively. Which group you choose to lecture says something about your priorities.

These are risks you take with humor, especially satire. I’m tired of seeing people blame those who don’t find a particular joke funny for “not getting satire” or “not being able to take a joke” or “being too sensitive.” Look, some people will laugh at a joke and others won’t. Some will think the joke’s great and others will find that it hits way too close to home. Some people like to consume their comedy with nothing but laughs, and others like to point out how humor can be used to promote faulty and harmful thinking.

And it’s quite possible to love and understand satire but still feel that a particular joke goes too far. Many people felt this way about The Onion‘s tweet calling 9-year-old Black actor Quvenzhané Wallis a cunt, many people who were otherwise huge fans of the satire site. In fact, The Onion, which presumably is a fan of itself and also “gets” satire, eventually agreed with them and published a heartfelt apology that would serve as a great model to Stephen Colbert or whoever the hell wrote that tweet.

You can disagree that the joke was hurtful or bad or unfunny without being an asshole to the people who think it was hurtful or bad or unfunny.

Just like I can say, “I love New York but I can see why you don’t like it.” Or “I like Colbert’s style of humor but it’s not everyone’s thing.”

Or, you know, I haven’t spent my entire life dealing with the effects of structural racism, whereas you have, so our perspectives are going to be different.

~~~

Out of respect to the important issue originally raised by Colbert, I’ll close with some links to more about the Redskins controversy and why the team should be renamed. I also welcome a discussion about this in the comments even though it wasn’t the focus of this piece.

Against Role Models

Whenever a famous person does something of which the general public disapproves, much is often made of that person’s status as a “role model” and how it influences the public’s judgment of their behavior, and whether or not it is time to revoke that status.

It seems that celebrities cannot escape being seen as “role models” no matter what made them famous. We expect an athlete or a singer or an actor to be good at not just sports or singing or acting, but at upstanding, ethical behavior, too. The assumption is that children should look up to these figures not just because they represent talent and achievement that (supposedly) comes from lots of hard work and sacrifice, but because their behavior in the rest of their lives is something to emulate, too.

This makes sense to an extent. We know that children learn by modeling the behavior of adults, and we want them to have adults whose behavior they can model. While a parent is normally the one expected to serve that function, most parents hope for their children to achieve more than they (the parents) have been able to in their own lives. Choosing and fixating upon a random successful but unknown doctor or lawyer or scientist or writer seems odd, but famous people already serve the role of entertaining the public simply by existing. So, perhaps some parents hope that celebrities can be good role models for their children and inspire them to both professional and personal success.

In fact, there is absolutely no reason why someone’s success at sports or music should be taken to mean that that person’s treatment of others is just as admirable. There’s no reason why being a great actor means you keep your promises to your partners and respect the law. There’s no reason why being in a famous band means you are very careful about your health and avoid dangerous drugs. Expecting celebrities to be able to model these types of “good behavior” makes no sense.

And even when we try to see someone as a role model in a specific domain only, it never seems to quite work. We fall victim to black-and-white thinking–people are either “good” or “bad,” and if a talented, successful athlete cheats on his wife, he goes from “good” to “bad” very quickly. Even though many people cheat, and even though occasional bad behavior doesn’t necessarily mean someone is a “bad person.”

The expectation of being a role model places undue pressures on celebrities, especially women. Tracy Moore writes:

Critiquing famous (or any) women’s behavior in terms of whether what they do is good for the girls or not is a sticky trap. It prevents them from being complicated, actual people working themselves out — you know, individuals? The thing we want women to be seen as? It keeps us in an endless loop of chasing after this One Correct Way for Women to Conduct Themselves. It’s exhausting, and I refuse to buy into it, and I don’t want to help christen it.

I also think it insults girls, who are more individual, and already far more developed as people than we give them credit for by treating them like blank slates who will copy and absorb every thing they ever see on command. That may be true for fashion, and I’m not disputing that teens copy famous people’s behavior too (and yes I’m staring down a princess phase with a toddler), but that doesn’t mean they instantly absorb the values and ideology of everyone they admire.

What I want is for women to be seen as human, which means, flawed, misguided, shitty, awesome, talented, cool, all of the above. In order to be treated like equal people, we have to have the latitude to have the same range of profound greatness and disturbing awfulness as men. We have to be ordinary, boring, fascinating, idiotic and brilliant.

Moore notes that female celebrities seem to bear a greater burden for Making Sure Our Children Turn Out Okay than male ones do, and male celebrities do seem to have an easier time recovering from Scandals with their popularity mostly intact (see: Bill Clinton, Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, R. Kelly).

And what about non-celebrities? What happens when they’re expected to be role models?

I don’t know how this plays out in other professions or contexts, but within social work and mental healthcare, there is an immense amount of pressure put on professionals to be role models. We’ve talked about this in my social work classes.

People look to social workers and mental health professionals for more than just “help me fix my brain bugs.” They also look to them as examples of how to live well, and they often expect them to be wearing the same professional “face” even if they encounter them randomly outside of the office.

Our professors ask us what we would do if we encountered a client, say, at a bar or on public transit or even at a party. How would we manage their expectations of us with our desire to behave as we usually would at a bar or on the subway or at a party? Would it harm our relationships with our clients if they saw us acting like, well, normal people?

It’s true that if our clients think that we’re always the way we are in a session–calm, empathic, curious, mature, “wise”–it might disturb them to see us drinking at a bar or kissing a significant other in public or dancing at a party. They might wonder if we’re “faking” when we’re in a session with them. They might wonder who we “really” are.

For some professionals, this seems to be enough of a reason to significantly alter their behavior if they see a client out in public, or leave a bar or party where a client happens to be. They might even consider whether or not doing things like going to bars and parties after hours is even compatible with who they are as professionals.

When we discussed this in class, I was glad that most of my classmates reacted with minor indignation. Why should we be expected to be professional 24/7? Why does everyone else get to take off their work persona when they leave the office, but we don’t? Why is it our fault if our clients judge us as immature or irresponsible just because we go to bars on the weekends?

I think there are two reasons why expecting therapists to act like therapists 24/7 is harmful. One is that, on the individual level, it’s stressful and takes a toll on one’s mental health and freedom to live life the way they want to. Deciding to be a therapist should not be a life sentence to never behave like a normal person outside of work again. That’s too much of a burden for someone whose work is already very stressful and difficult.

Second, part of our role as mental health professionals is encouraging clients to think rationally, accurately, and adaptively about other people and their relationships with them. “This person is drinking at a bar therefore they are immature and I can’t trust them as my therapist” is not a rational, accurate, or adaptive thought. (Well, it could be accurate, but you’d need more evidence to come to that conclusion.) Neither is, “This person is behaving differently after hours than they are at work, and therefore the way they behave at work is totally fake and they’re just lying to me.”

But speaking as someone who’s been on both sides of that relationship, I have to say that we are really, really patronizing our clients if we think that they are incapable of realizing that we have selves outside of the office. We are treating them like children if we presume that they need to be carefully prevented from seeing any part of our non-therapist persona, including kissing a partner in public or getting tipsy at a bar.

But it’s possible that some clients might be confused or bothered by seeing a therapist acting non-therapisty out in public. I think that the best course of action then is to discuss that in therapy, not laboriously alter one’s public behavior so that such an issue never comes up to begin with.

Because our classes are mostly discussion-based and there’s little in the social work code of ethics about situations like this (dual relationships, though, are a different matter), my professor never gave a definitive answer on whether or not we should endeavor to be role models to our clients no matter where we encounter them. His intent, I think, was mostly to spark discussion and let us know that this is something to consider.

The examples of celebrities and mental health professionals are two very different examples, but my conclusion is largely the same for each: being expected to be a “role model” in every context, at work and outside of it, in one’s chosen domain (be it sports or entertaining or counseling) and in every other domain in which it’s possible to judge a person’s behavior, is too much.

A final reason holding people up as “role models” is harmful: the criteria by which we judge them are largely based on social norms, which can be a very poor barometer for determining how ethical an action is. That’s why, when Miley Cyrus was vilified for her performance at the VMAs and reprimanded by many commentators for not being a good enough “role model,” the focus of most of the criticism was not the racism inherent in her performance, but the fact that she dressed revealingly and shook her ass. And she shook it…at a married man! How dare she. The married man, by the way, made a clear show of enjoying it, and he’s the one who’s married. And the one who sings a song about “blurred lines.”

It’s also why, when Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson (to whom she was not married) with Rupert Sanders (who is married), it was Stewart on whom the majority of the public opprobrium fell, and who was finally compelled to publicly apologize. (A hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: I think breaking a promise to a partner is wrong, but I also wish people didn’t make promises they couldn’t keep in the first place, and I don’t think cheating is the worst thing a person could do and I don’t think a person who cheats owes an apology to anyone but the person they cheated on.)

And women of color in particular are held to impossibly high standards as “role models,” as public reactions to Beyonce and Rihanna attest.

Sometimes the intersections between the expectation of role model behavior and various types of prejudice affect people’s livelihoods in really crappy ways. To return to the example of therapists, I’ve been reading this blog by a woman who is studying to be a therapist and also works as a stripper. The faculty of her program are pressuring her to either quit sex work or leave the program, because doing both is necessarily an ethical violation. They also told her that being a stripper “contributes to further injustice in the world,”  and is therefore incompatible with her other role as a therapist.

That’s a slightly different type of role model that she’s being expected to perform, but that demand that therapists be perfect in every aspect of their lives is still there. The role of therapist is supposed to take precedence over everything else she may want to do in her life, including making enough money to get by and finish her education. And in this case, these expectations are intersecting with stigma and prejudice against sex workers.

So, whether you’re a celebrity or just a regular person trying to make the world better, it’s rarely a neutral expectation that one be a “role model.” Like all social expectations do, it comes along with lots of baggage. And it’s incredible how often, for women, being a “role model” means having no sexuality.

Children may need adults to look up to and clients may need therapists to learn from, but that’s not a good enough reason, in my opinion, to expect or demand perfection from people.

I think a more realistic view is that almost everyone can teach us something, and almost everyone has done things we probably shouldn’t emulate*.

~~~

*And to be clear, wearing revealing clothing and/or being a sex worker are not the sorts of things I’m particularly desperate to discourage.

[guest post] Japan’s Not Doing Sex! An Intersection of Racism and Sexism

Here’s a guest post from my friend Mike about the recent news stories on Japanese sexuality.

I remember as a kid laughing at the clownish stereotypes of characters like Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles” and Toshiro Takashi in “Revenge of the Nerds”. What I didn’t realize at the time was how I, as a Korean-American boy, was internalizing a host of images desexualizing men of East Asian descent. Add to that, the hypersexualized imagery of Kim in “Miss Saigon” and Ling Woo in “Ally McBeal”, it came as no surprise to me last week when a story about “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” became such a viral hit on the Internet and mainstream media. Shall we say, I had even expected it at least over a year ago.

Everyone from the Guardian to Bill Maher had their say about those nerdy Japanese men and apparently dissatisfied women. After the story spread for quite some time, there came the derisive counters to this obviously poorly conceived and factually dubious headline. Since the story was predicated on the declining birth rate in Japan (a reasonable story to look into) the critics of sensationalist media noted how quick those propagating this shoddy journalism were to jump to conclusions. Mostly lost in the backlash to this story was how much of what was happening fit not only a narrative of cultural insensitivity and racial stereotyping, but how that stereotyping fit a long historical narrative of desexualizing Asian men and hypersexualizing Asian women for the benefit of the white heterosexist image of power.

Where does this narrative come from?

Throughout Western contact with Asian cultures, there has been this need to assume the sexual proclivities of the inhabitants of these “mysterious” lands, establishing a moral superiority. For Asian men, it was the dichotomy of dangerous predator and effeminate asexual, and for Asian women, the Dragon Lady and the Lotus Flower.

In the 19th century, Chinese immigration became something to fear and despise to the mostly white settlers in the West of the United States. The addition of such cheap labor brought out the very worst of the insecurities in Americans, especially when faced with the emerging hype surrounding opium use. Diana L. Ahmad’s article “Opium Smoking, Anti-Chinese Attitudes, and the American Medical Community, 1850-1890” describes the belief that opium produced the “feminine” characteristics of “introspection, indifference, defeatism, and silence.” Yet, despite coupling opium use with the grotesque patriarchal notions of femininity, the moral panic around the drug and the scarcity of Chinese women in the early immigrant waves contributed to the ultimate of fears: interracial coupling! This ties in very nicely with Victorian religiously motivated sexual policing and temperance. Ahmad continues:

It was difficult enough for the elite classes to consider the idea of women having extra-marital relations or experiment with sex with Anglo-American men; however, Anglo-American women having intimate relations with unknown Chinese laborers and members of the underworld might have been considered unthinkable.

Despite this being specific to certain members of the Chinese diaspora, keep in mind that we live in a society where I’m routinely asked if I’m Chinese, Japanese or Korean (that last one only seems to have appeared on the list after the ’90s). In the U.S., Asian as an ethnicity basically includes a hugely diverse grouping from the Indian subcontinent to the Pacific islands. While lumping all of us together has its uses, it also means dealing with grossly pernicious generalizations.

As time marched on, Hollywood films depicted the outlandishly dressed, inscrutable male villains (usually white actors in yellow face) and the either deceitful social climbers or virginal damsels in the distress to the mostly white audiences in the cinema. Television shows, comic books, and now the news media seem intent on preserving at least some of these shameful notions even to this day. For every Glenn from “The Walking Dead” or Sun from “Lost”, both characters that address and escape from some of these sexist and racist tropes, there are a ton more of a Raj Koothrapali, a character who LITERALLY couldn’t speak around women for six seasons unless drinking and consistently made the butt of gay jokes, on “The Big Bang Theory”, or a Veronica, an Asian girlfriend cajoled into wearing a schoolgirl outfit to “impress” an Asian businessman, on “Dads”.

What is the harm?

In terms of sexuality, there’s a term that covers the problem for both Asian men and women: “yellow fever”, or Asian fetish. The colloquialism is exclusionary to some South Asian, Central Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities, but it’s an unfortunately popular bit of shorthand (a complicated issue when dealing with such a sweeping term as “Asian”). The concept regards non-Asian men fetishizing Asian women, and why this subject is so problematic has to do with the aforementioned history of racial stereotyping. While I certainly take no issue with aesthetic sexual preferences, this form of fetish takes on a dimension of sexism and racism that certainly sets off alarm bells, as Audrey Zao of Xojane states:

The definition of sexual fetishes tend to relate to situations or objects causing a person arousal. When an entire race of women have become fetishes, it’s an extreme case of objectification.

Basically, a good example of this is that horrific, so-called music video “Asian Girlz”. This form of white privilege also assumes, automatically, that Asian men aren’t in the picture at all when it comes to heterosexual partnering. It’s not a leap to suggest that the litany of stereotyping in media informs this type of objectification, as the fetish in turn reinforces the media’s desire to sensationalize it, making an interesting story about the political, economic and social realities of a declining birthrate into a ridiculing and lurid story about asexual “otaku” and women uninterested in their only partnering option (implying a lack of alternatives such as same-sex relationships or, I guess, no white guys being around).

Additionally, such stereotyping prevents people from actually addressing the damaging nature of patriarchy in both the West and the East. The story of Asian sexual activity is reduced to heteronormative relationships within the gender binary and based within the narrow definitions of monogamy and procreation (not enough babies!), while simultaneously ignoring the economic and social realities such relationships face in a country like Japan.

It demonizes asexuality itself by equating it to being abnormal and a symptom of prolonged pre-adolescence (see: Otaku).

It demonizes other women, particularly white women, for having the gall to take advantage of feminist advances, well described by Jonathan Guarana of Thought Catalog:

The impact of the crumbling hyper-masculine identity from a white man’s perspective is disheartening. Therefore, where can he turn to regain this hegemonic masculine identity of power, control, and dominance? First, by hating white women and then specifically transitioning to ethnic groups where women are seen to still be submissive, passive, and obedient to men: Asian women.

It internalizes racism in its victims to such an extent that some Asian women parrot the same damaging messages that promote bigotry, and some Asian men begin to believe the rhetoric within themselves. Worse than that, some Asian men become resentful, resorting to using this as an excuse to indulge in their own misogyny and racism.

It excuses the patriarchal norms in many Asian societies with the implicit support from some white men in their preference for “submissive” women, and when the privileged white West is called to the carpet about its own issues with misogyny, it’s all too easy for apologists to turn around and use Asian cultures as a comparative prop to deflect from their own pervasively misogynistic cultures as Jenny Lee at Hyphen Magazine writes regarding her own experience with a rape apologist’s reading of the UN’s eye-opening report about sexual assault in Asian countries:

So it’s contemptible and oh-so-hypocritical when some Americans misuse news like the UN report in order to blame “Other” men — lately, Asian men — to feel better about themselves while willfully refusing to take a long, hard look at our own backyard

And finally, the tropes also negatively affect interracial partners who pursue caring, mutually respectful relationships. Christine Tam at Diaspora @chinaSmack reveals:

When I started feeling attracted to the man who is now my boyfriend, I hesitated for a long time before acting on my feelings. He was a wonderful man who respected me and made me laugh, but I had reservations about joining the interracial relationship cliché. Another white guy with an Asian girl, I thought. No!

When the culture is so heavily saturated with this form of sexual/racial politics, it may be confusing to assess how many of your choices are really your own. Guilt and outside pressure, such as being labeled as someone who has “white fever”, makes dealing with it on a personal level a terrific mess. Or for the less acutely self-aware, it can lead to lashing out against critics of the current paradigm.

It would do well for those who call themselves journalists to take a beat or two and ACTUALLY THINK about the story they intend on posting when it comes to drawing wild conclusions about different cultures, especially in the implications of what it means historically. It’s also important for those of us saturated in an institutionally racist society to be self-aware when consuming media, to combat as many of these damage-dealing tropes and stereotypes as possible. As much as it’s fun to entertain the notion, K-Pop likely won’t fix the problem on its own.

Mike Nam is a writer, and editor from New Jersey, a volunteer with CFI-New York, and the organizer of the Secular Asian Community on Facebook. His biggest professional thrill is still the time he received fan letters for a video game cheats newsletter he wrote a decade-and-a-half ago. While an unabashed nerd, he’s been known to indulge in sports and outdoor activities from time to time. He also occasionally blogs at humanstellstories.wordpress.com.


The opinions in this piece are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Center for Inquiry or the Secular Asian Community.

What We Write About When We Write About Hookups

Every few months the New York Times (or another similarly-positioned publication) prints an article about how Women These Days Are Having Casual Sex And It’s Ruining Things. The articles are often framed just progressively enough to get progressives to eagerly share them over social media because anything about casual sex that’s not from Fox News must be interesting, right?

No. It’s the same story over and over, and it misrepresents what casual sex is really like.

First of all, only a certain type of woman is ever interviewed. The newest offering from the NYT starts out: “At 11 on a weeknight earlier this year, her work finished, a slim, pretty junior–”

Stop right there. Why are they always “slim” and “pretty”? Why are they always middle-/upper-class? Why are they always white? In fact, why are these stories only ever written about women, and not about men? How do men feel about casual sex? (You might think the answer is obvious, but that’s just because you haven’t talked to enough men.)

In fact, interviewing a more diverse group of people might provide insights about hookups that are more profound than “sometimes skinny hot girls have casual sex.” For instance, Black and Latina women are sexualized–presumed to be “overly” sexual–based on their race. How do they view casual sex? Asian and Indian American women are desexualized–presumed to have little independent sexuality–based on their race. How do they view casual sex?

Poor women are sometimes sexualized, too, and they also face more challenges if their hookups lead to STIs, pregnancy, or sexual assault. How do they view casual sex?

Disabled women are presumed to have no sex drive, but they do. How do they view casual sex? How do they overcome the stereotypes that people have about them?

Fat women are stigmatized by many people, and also fetishized by some. They’re expected to be “grateful” for any sex they can get. How do they view casual sex?

Older women who still want casual sex are looked down upon because this is something that “kids these days” do. They’re expected to be married with children already. How do they view casual sex?

Queer women are often considered either promiscuous or sexless, depending on how people have categorized them. Asexual women, when they are even recognized to exist, are assumed not to want any sex ever for any reason. Do some of them have casual sex? How do they experience it? Trans* women face a unique set of challenges when it comes to finding partners. Do they feel pressure to out themselves to potential partners? Do their partners ever view them as not “really” women?

Polyamorous women may have only casual sex, but they may also have a committed partner, too. They may have several committed partners. They may have a committed partner and a few friends that they hook up with. What’s casual sex like when you get to come home to your spouse afterward?

Isn’t this all a lot more interesting, relevant, and important than interviewing the same types of women over and over?

One might argue that there are separate articles written about sex from the perspective of these types of women. But how come, when we talk about “hookups” in general, we’re always talking about straight/white/thin/attractive/well-off/able-bodied women? Why are women who don’t fit into these categories relegated to other articles, ones that don’t get published in places like the NYT and the Atlantic?

Furthermore, these articles generally present the same narrative about how and why people have casual sex. From the one linked above:

Ask her why she hasn’t had a relationship at Penn, and she won’t complain about the death of courtship or men who won’t commit. Instead, she’ll talk about “cost-benefit” analyses and the “low risk and low investment costs” of hooking up.

“I positioned myself in college in such a way that I can’t have a meaningful romantic relationship, because I’m always busy and the people that I am interested in are always busy, too,” she said.

“And I know everyone says, ‘Make time, make time,’ ” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity but agreed to be identified by her middle initial, which is A. “But there are so many other things going on in my life that I find so important that I just, like, can’t make time, and I don’t want to make time.”

I absolutely do not doubt that some people, perhaps including this “A,” really do conduct a “cost-benefit analysis” to determine what types of relationships to have. However, based on everything I know about the way we make decisions, I’ll say that that’s not usually how it works. Usually, we make decisions based on emotions, and then we come up with post-hoc rationalizations for those decisions. Often this happens subconsciously.

A previous NYT trend piece on casual sex, meanwhile, blamed hookup culture on the fact that people just don’t know how to do anything different:

Many students today have never been on a traditional date, said Donna Freitas, who has taught religion and gender studies at Boston University and Hofstra and is the author of the forthcoming book, “The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy.”

Hookups may be fine for college students, but what about after, when they start to build an adult life? The problem is that “young people today don’t know how to get out of hookup culture,” Ms. Freitas said. In interviews with students, many graduating seniors did not know the first thing about the basic mechanics of a traditional date. “They’re wondering, ‘If you like someone, how would you walk up to them? What would you say? What words would you use?’ ” Ms. Freitas said.

Predictably, that piece also blames technology:

Online dating services, which have gained mainstream acceptance, reinforce the hyper-casual approach by greatly expanding the number of potential dates. Faced with a never-ending stream of singles to choose from, many feel a sense of “FOMO” (fear of missing out), so they opt for a speed-dating approach — cycle through lots of suitors quickly.

That also means that suitors need to keep dates cheap and casual. A fancy dinner? You’re lucky to get a drink.

So, young people have casual sex because their cost-benefit analyses have told them that it’s more optimal than relationships. Or because they don’t know how to not have casual sex. Or because the evil technology makes them.

What’s missing from this picture?

Many people have casual sex because that’s what they want to do.

This is a story you never seem to find in the NYT. You’ll have to go to blogs for it, probably because it wouldn’t play well to the NYT’s audience. One of my favorite pieces along this vein is from xoJane and it’s called “I Used To Give Out Sex Like Gold Star Stickers (And I’m Glad I Did).” While I’m a little weirded out by the metaphor of “giving” sex like some sort of reward (different strokes for different folks, though), I can really relate to the basic message of the piece. For instance:

Several years ago, on a long walk through the English countryside, Lucy and I were struggling to define our sexual standards. We weren’t wait-until-marriage types, or even wait-until-exclusivity. Yet neither of us would say we did much in the way of soulless jolly-grinding.

We were somewhere in between: we had sex with friends we liked and trusted, almost as a prize for being awesome. It was our seal of approval: “You’re an attractive and accomplished person, and I admire you. Congratulations! Gold star for you.”

Gold Star Sticker Sex is the opposite of no-strings-attached. It’s shared in the same way you might have shared a deep, dark secret in high school…or one of those BE FRI/ST ENDS necklaces in 2nd grade. It’s not a romantic commitment, but nevertheless, it comes from a loving place — a desire to enhance intimacy.

You will never find this type of sex in the NYT trend pieces. There, sex is of only two kinds: Meaningful and Committed, or Meaningless and Casual. But why can’t casual sex be meaningful, affectionate, intimate? Why does casual sex need to be with someone you don’t like “in person, sober,” as A says in the latest piece? Why can’t it be with someone you’re close with and adore, but just don’t want a serious relationship with for any number of reasons?

I think I know why these pieces always interview women. They think they’re reporting on some new and edgy phenomenon (they’re not) or writing about it in a new and edgy way (they’re not), but they’re actually repeating the same tired narrative about women and sex.

Namely, women don’t really want casual sex. They do it because those stupid shallow guys don’t want anything else. They do it because they don’t know what’s good for them. They do it because they’re too tragically busy for meaningful human connections. They do it because they have conducted a cost-benefit analysis, the results of which have determined that a relationship would not be optimal at this time; the marginal utility of casual sex is greater than the marginal utility of a relationship. They do it because they don’t know how to do anything different.

But they don’t really, really want it.

Casual sex is meaningless. Casual sex makes you feel empty inside. Casual sex makes you forget how to have a Real Relationship. Casual sex leads to rape. Casual sex is unfulfilling. Casual sex is cold and calculating (see: cost-benefit analysis). Casual sex is no way for a woman to live.

If you think this is an original idea, you’re quite wrong.

I’m not sure that these reporters deliberately set out to write this story over and over like so many Sisyphuses with their boulders. I’m not a professional journalist, but I spent a year studying to be one, and I remember what it’s like to try to collect interviews and assemble them into a coherent narrative. To be specific: the interviews that felt out of place, that couldn’t be woven into that narrative, were left out.

A college woman telling you that she’s had opportunities for relationships but turned them down because casual sex is just too fun and fulfilling would not “fit in.” A 40-year-old woman telling you that her loving husband doesn’t care if she’s out hooking up with someone else a few nights a week would not “fit in.” And, for that matter, a young man telling you that he’s having casual sex not because HORMONES but because he’d like to figure out what he’s looking for in a partner wouldn’t fit in either, because men are only supposed to have casual sex because their penishormones make them.

We need to change the way we talk about casual sex. It needs to be more inclusive, both of people and of narratives. Writing the exact same story again isn’t just boring; it’s bad journalism.

~~~

Further reading:

I Am Not Trayvon Martin

When Trayvon Martin was murdered last year, I remember seeing many people post things like “I am Trayvon Martin” online, sometimes accompanied by photos of themselves in hoodies. At first I thought it was something people of color were doing as a sign of solidarity and as a reminder that they, too, face the same prejudice and danger that Trayvon did, but then I noticed lots of white folks doing it. This sort of bothered me.

Now that the awful verdict has appeared, I’ve been seeing it again, but I’ve also been seeing plenty of thoughtful responses to it. For instance, this Tumblr, simply titled “We Are Not Trayvon Martin.”

The Tumblr is full of posts from people who submit their photos along with a note about why they are not Trayvon–that is, how they benefit from privilege. Here’s one:

I am a young white woman.  Last night, I attended a JusticeforTrayvon rally in East LA.  As I walked up the block toward the main square, I passed a line of (all white) cops.

“Are you going to the rally?” one asked.

“Yes,”  I replied.

“Behave yourself,” he said with a wink.

I gave a short laugh.  “I will”  (I really wanted to say, “You, too.”)

He gave me a big, friendly smile and pointed me toward the square.

I am not Trayvon Martin.

Another one:

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am a white, 30-year-old woman living with my husband and young son in the Midwest. We live two doors down from a black family that includes teenage sons. I have never met them, never introduced myself, never made an effort to show that I am happy we are neighbors, that they are safe in their neighborhood and respected by their neighbors. I do not fear them as black men; it’s more that I’m a shy person, afraid of the awkwardness of reaching out to anyone. But fear of any kind prevents community, breeds suspicion, and can lead to isolation and violence.

Will my white son wonder, one day, why we don’t know these neighbors? I repent of my fear; I promise to start being a true neighbor.

And another:

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am an African American stay at home wife and mother of three sweet girls. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and though I am not Trayvon Martin. I know many Trayvons. As a former educator I witnessed a system that allowed some of our most brilliant children to fall through the proverbial cracks. As a college educated, lighter hued, African American woman who has always lived a comfortable middle class existence, I know my privilege. Though I have been racialized, and I know what it is like to be a woman in a society that attenuates women consistently, I will NEVER know what it is like to be a black man in Amerikkka. I do not know what it is to be viewed as a menace to society. I am not Trayvon Martin.

It’s not as palatable a message as the stream of “I am Trayvon Martin” posts and hoodie photos. But it rings much more true.

I understand the importance and the appeal of solidarity, so I can sympathize with the sentiments of these posts. But I feel that they are misguided. We (white folks) are not Trayvon. We will never in our lifetimes be Trayvon, except perhaps by some fluke (which then by definition is not the same, because what happened to Trayvon was not a fluke at all).

And even if that happens, our faces will be all over the media with teary reporters talking about what good students we were and how kind we were to our friends, families, and neighbors. They will talk about how we could’ve gone on to write a bestselling novel or start a business or develop a new vaccine, but our lives were tragically cut short by a Bad Person who will soon face the full force of justice.

Sometimes—often, really—it’s more useful to think about our differences than our similarities. This won’t play well to those who claim that “we are all human” and we must “overcome these artificial divides.” Yes, we are, and we must. But before we do so, we must consider the tremendous impact these divides, however artificial, have had on our lives and societies.

You can’t wish this shit away. The familiar refrain of We Are All Human and We Must Look Beyond Our Differences can’t undo Trayvon’s murder and his murderer’s acquittal, and it won’t make this tragedy stop repeating itself. In fact, I would even argue that the more we sing this refrain, the less likely the tragedies are to ever end, because this overplayed song always plays much louder than the uncomfortable but truer songs: the ones about how everyone “sees race,” cops and judges and jurors included, and how the Supreme Court has institutionalized racism into our criminal justice system and on and on.

Before we can do what it takes to make sure that there will never be any more Trayvons ever again, we have to stop singing this song.

We are not Trayvon because we’ve created a world in which some people are Trayvon and some are not. Wishing really really hard that we hadn’t done so will not undo it.

~~~

If you only read one (other) thing about Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman verdict, make sure it’s this.

“But I’m a man and I don’t feel like I have any privilege.”

Another one inspired by the comment thread of doom.

The hardest thing about explaining privilege to members of dominant groups is that, usually, the fact that you’re advantaged in certain ways doesn’t mean you’re not disadvantaged in many other ways. So when we’re talking about gender and a man is told that he’s privileged–or when we’re talking about race and a white person is told that they’re privileged, or whatever–their immediate response is often, “What privilege? Look at all the ways my life has been unfair!”

To be clear, this argument is not always made in good faith*. However, for the sake of this post, I’m going to pretend that it is, because there are important points to be made about this.

Privilege is best understood as a system of interacting benefits (or disadvantages). When people in a feminist space talk about “privilege,” they often just mean male privilege. All other things being equal–this is the important part–if you are a man, you are at an advantage relative to a woman.

Of course, that’s only useful theoretically. In practice, gender isn’t the only thing that matters. Race, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, (dis)ability, religion, skin color (within race), class, weight, attractiveness, immigration status–all these things make a difference. (This is what feminists refer to as “intersectionality.”)

Say you’re a man but you lack privilege in another area–say you’re a man of color. Are you more privileged than a white, upper-class, straight, able-bodied, Christian woman? Probably not. Are you more privileged than a lower-middle-class, queer Latina woman? Probably. And your being male is only one of many ways in which you are more privileged than this hypothetical woman.

Many men have trouble understanding or accepting the concept of privilege because they do not feel that they have much of it. On one hand, this is true–men can be poor, men can be disabled, men can be non-white, men can be queer. On the other hand, privilege often remains unchallenged because it is invisible. If you are white, you don’t spend much time thinking about the fact that you never (or almost never) get stopped by the cops for absolutely no reason, searched, and subjected to harsh questions. If you are a man of color, this is something that’s almost certainly happened to you, and a problem of which you are very much aware. Likewise, if you’re a man–unless you’re very visibly gender-nonconforming–you don’t have to worry every time you go out alone at night that someone will harass you, that someone will rub up against you on the subway platform and make disgusting sounds, that someone will follow you down the street yelling at you to come back to him. All of these things have happened to me and most other women.

But this probably isn’t something you think about all the time. It’s natural that you’d think more about the ways your life can be challenging, not about how lucky you are to not get followed down the street by strange men all the time. The injustices in your life are probably more salient to you than all the myriad ways in which things work as they should. So it would make sense that, overall, you feel like you lack privilege rather than feeling like you have it.

Another way of looking at it is that a man can very much have a really difficult life that’s almost devoid of any privileges. But if, hypothetically, this same man with these same circumstances had instead been born a woman, her life would be even more difficult and even more devoid of privilege.

This is why privilege is best used as a theoretical concept and not taken too literally. It’s impossible to “measure” it. It’s impossible to know, for instance, whether a hypothetical man necessarily has more total privilege than me, or whether I have more than him.

This is also why, when discussing privilege with folks who aren’t very familiar with intersectionality, it’s best to be as specific as possible. “You just don’t get this because you’re privileged” or “Check your privilege” is never going to work if the person you’re talking to actually lacks privilege along every axis other than the one you’re talking about (well, or if they don’t know what the hell privilege even means). If I–a white, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class woman–yell at a poor, queer man of color to “check his privilege” because he said something sexist, he would (and should) laugh in my face. Because he’ll probably immediately think of his class, race, and sexual orientation and wonder how, exactly, he’s so privileged.

When this comes up, it’s vital to remind people that the disadvantages they face in life are not a product of the fact that they’re male (or white, or whatever). If I tell you that being a woman means I have to worry about people harassing me on the street and you tell me that, well, being a queer man means you get harassed on the street too, you’re missing the point a little. It’s not being a man that gets you harassed. It’s being queer, because we have a society that’s unjust toward queer people.

Some have tried to get around this hurdle when educating about privilege by creating metaphors in which you get a certain number of “points” in different domains. If you’re white, you get more “points” than if you’re not white. If you’re male, you get more points than if you’re not male. If you’re straight…you get the idea. Then the total points you have is your privilege, and you can see that getting few points in one category doesn’t mean you can’t get many points in another category. (John Scalzi made a similar metaphor brilliantly here.)

Such metaphors are fraught with complications (should being male give you more points than being white?), they’re useful for showing that you can’t just look at one axis. It’s not just about being male. It’s not just about being white. It’s everything.

Privilege is a theory, a framework that can be used to explain how our social world works. Like all theories, it has weaknesses and blind spots. Some try to make up for these by continually inventing new forms of privilege–vanilla privilege and couple privilege are a few that I’ve heard relatively recently–but in reality, the problem with taking privilege too literally is that there are just too damn many variables that shape our circumstances and what we are able to achieve. It is completely possible to be a straight white cis able-bodied middle-class Christian mentally/physically healthy English-speaking American plain-ol-vanilla-white-bread man and still have your life completely destroyed and fucked over by circumstances beyond your control.

That does not mean that you do not have privilege.

All it means is that privilege is just a theory, useful for explaining many but not all things, and that you, my friend, were really unlucky and that legitimately sucks.

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*Examples: “Male privilege? But women never answer my OkCupid messages!” and “White privilege? But [insert story about how you got rejected from a job/college because some Totally Unqualified Black Person got it instead].”