Homelessness, Abercrombie, and Social Media

Posted by : Ari | Thursday, May 16, 2013 | Published in

As everybody has probably already heard, Abercrombie & Fitch is a horrible company, and their CEO is an exemplar of their shitty-ass corporate ethics. But in case you haven’t seen it, this statement was made:
“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids … we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."
So an over-priced clothing company whose brand is built on catering exclusively to image-obsessed, brand-conscious middle class white kids so they can fashion themselves out as “the cool kids,” is… in fact, exactly about that image. Uhm, I’m not sure I get the sudden outrage, but okay. (Also, his statements aren’t just fatphobic, they’re also blatantly racist when your definition of “All-American Kid” is always and only ever white. But nevermind.)

So an LA writer, Greg Karber, responded.

greg karber mad

In the video, Karber launches a new campaign entitled “Fitch the Homeless,” where he goes to Goodwill in search of used Abercrombie & Fitch clothing to then donate to homeless people on the street. The video has since then been picked up by UpWorthy and gone viral with the hashtag #FitchTheHomeless.

Some thoughts on this: I actually think most of what is wrong with this “movement” is evident just by looking at the video. In the video, Karber has difficulty finding A&F clothes at first, so he asks the sales clerk,“Where is like—the, the douchebag section?” This is to find clothes to “help” people who are in need, folks.

He goes on to say, “At first, people were reluctant to except the clothes..." You know, as he proceeds to approach random strangers on LA’s “Skid Row” who he thinks look homeless to offer them whatever castoffs he could find at Goodwill, never mind any questions about their sizes or tastes. And keep in mind, a main catalyst here is that A&F refuses to sell diverse sizes.

“Perhaps they were afraid of being perceived as narcissistic date rapists.” Oh.

“But pretty soon, they embraced it whole-heartedly,” says the voiceover, as Karber in the video basically just thrusts clothes at people, some of whom flinch away from him or simply look perplexed by it. At one point, he simply leaves it on a pile in front of a person sitting motionless.

He thus declares his “expedition” (into the wild, uncharted territory of LA?) “a huge success.”

There’s nothing more progressive than putting unwanted brand name clothes on the backs of homeless people in order to embarrass the CEO of the company! Wait a minute. Isn’t that just using homeless people as a prop in order to ruin the marketability of a brand name of a company you already think is horrible anyway? (As Karber says at the very beginning of the video.) Oh, no no. You see, it’s really helping homeless people because they get free clothes. Don’t bother yourself with even asking if clothing is actually what they need—They’re homeless! Of course they want free stuff!

I’m not alone in my utter disgust at this campaign:

Forcing Your Old Abercrombie and Fitch Clothes on People is a Bad Idea
 Why Fitch the Homeless is a Really Bad Idea
Help or Harm? Power, Intent & Objectification #FitchTheHomeless
Check Your Privilege Alert: #FitchTheHomeless
Six reasons the #FitchtheHomeless campaign is problematic (Apologies for the use of the word “problematic,” lol.)
Please don’t #FitchtheHomeless

As others have pointed out, there’s no discussion in the film of whether anyone besides Karber actually consented to being filmed, and there’s no acknowledgment that the camera lens itself can act as a coercive force. Putting someone on camera immediately sets up a power dynamic where you get to control how they are represented, while they are made immediately aware that their behavior is being watched. This functions as a policing influence, and it limits how much agency people have to consent to what is done to them.

There already exists a social norm in society—blatantly and cruelly demonstrated by supporters of the Fitch the Homeless campaign that homeless people shouldn’t care or be choosy about the clothes they’re given—that says being impoverished and “needy” means you can’t turn down offers of charity. Because, after all, you’re the one asking for hand-outs, right? Who are you to turn down free stuff when you have nothing anyway? How many people, then, knowing that society will view them as uppity and ungrateful if they refuse, are really going to say no when they’re offered free clothing by the helping-white-guy while a camera is pointed at them?

Note: This point has nothing to do with whether some people would welcome the clothes and feel grateful for them. I don't/can't speak for any homeless people about how they would actually feel about the campaign. Some people undoubtedly will appreciate it. But the problems with this campaign aren't washed away if they do. A fucked up campaign doesn’t become unfucked up just because some people aren’t immediately offended by it. That’s not how it works.

The people who are the target of this campaign are, obviously, capable of interpreting it in their own ways and can feel however they want about it—that doesn’t stop it from being exploitative. Sure, many homeless people may be genuinely grateful for any assistance and acknowledgment anyone is willing to offer—but they’re not obligated to feel that way, and defending Fitch the Homeless on the basis that “they’ll be grateful for anything” “because they’re homeless” is disgusting. Homeless people, like anyone else, have a right to control when and where and how they accept assistance from other people.

It's also worth pointing out that when your day to day existance is full of: people walking past you as if you're invisible, or treating you as the unwanted, unwashed scum of the earth; shop owners refusing to let you use their rest rooms or even to just sit inside for a few miniutes to warm up because they're fearful you'll chase away their customers; or city governments' efforts to "clean up the streets" effectively legislating you into obscurity; which is how many homeless people I've met describe their experiences... Any act of kindness can be appreciated simply as an acknowledgement of your humanity, and not necessarily because the offer really adequately addresses your needs.

Alex Iwashyna discusses this issue of consent and the right of refusal in regards to charity in her post here and a related post over hers about trying to give a sandwich to a homeless man.

To me, as I wrote on twitter, this “Fitch the Homeless” reminds me a lot of the #Kony2012 campaign—but without the exporting of imperialism abroad part. This is again mainly targeting people in relative privilege, to do some baseless performance of “doing good” that in reality is totally disconnected from the actual needs and problems of the people it’s supposed to help. Sure, Fitch the Homeless is not asking you to give money to a potentially shady non-profit org? It's largely asking you to donate clothes you already have (but presumably don’t need, because we’re all wealthy enough to just have closets full of clothes we don’t wear, amirite?), or at worst, go buy them from second hand shops and donate them away. (Although, what is the point of buying donated clothes to donate them away exactly?)

Thankfully(?), Karber is now advocating that you NOT approach random people on the street to thrust clothing at them.

like some people

Also, admittedly, the end of the video suggests donating to shelters, not just copying the video. (Though that raises the question, why make the video that way then?)

shelters are better equipped

Oh. About that.

First of all, it’s worth looking at whether clothing donations actually go to people in need in the first place. Elizabeth L. Cline wrote an entire book called Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion exposing the underside of the fashion industry, where all those donated clothes really go. You know, the clothes that you feel so good about giving up so you can free up space in your closet for new fashion. Here is an excerpt I found:
Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes. They started to look for other solutions. A wiping rag industry sprang up to turn unsellable clothing into rags for industrial purposes. Still, anything left over went into the landfill.
There are thousands of secondhand textile processors in the United States today, mostly small family businesses, many of them several generations old. Without textile recyclers, charities would be totally beleaguered and forced to throw away everything that couldn’t be sold. Charities might even have to turn us away.
Now, I shop at second hand stores a lot, because I am poor in the way most college students I know are poor. Almost all of my kitchen utensils are from a thrift store, and that suits me just fine. I have also found some reasonable jeans—and also, at times, been forced to buy jeans that I hated because I didn’t have anything that fit. Anyway. I'm not saying don't donate-- I am saying though, that donating entirely for the sake of making yourself feel good to relieve your own over consumption is a very low form of "charity."

You might point out (pedantically), that the Fitch campaign wants you to donate to shelters, not to second-hand shops. Surely, this will better help to directly benefit homeless people? Before you troop off to your nearest homeless shelter with trash bags full of stuff though, ask yourself, how much time and energy is required to sort through and process, let alone the storage room necessary to hold onto, bags and bags of used clothing? And, what kind of resources do most homeless shelters have at their disposal?

This morning I went in search of an answer to this. I searched for homeless shelters in Madison, Wisconsin and looked for their guidelines to donating used goods. I found several online wish lists specifically for this purpose, and I also called one shelter to ask.

Salvation Army of Madison and Dane County: In-Kind donations (Note, the top of this list says "Please, New Items Only.)
The Road Home: Basic Needs Wish-List
Porchlight's list of Client Needs
YWCA Madison's Wish List

The most needed items tended to be toiletries, shampoos and soaps, feminine hygeine items and also cooking and cleaning supplies. Only SA specifically asked for clothing, and they ask for sizes M-XXL, unused. One shelter that I talked to over the phone told me specifically, "we don't have the capacity" to take in donations of clothing, because it takes up too much room. However, the person on the phone did direct me to a separate local organization that they refer people to all the time, who they told me is able to accept large item and bulk clothing donations:

Community Action Coalition of South Centural Wisconsin's Wish List I was told that this organization does not resell their donations, that it all goes straight to people truly in need. So that was a really great find, in case you are looking for a place to donate clothes to!

Most shelters are small, almost all are underfunded, but some are run by larger organizations, like the Salvation Army, who also run a who.e number of other programs that make them more capable of dealing with bulk donations. (A word about Salvation Army though: they have a very long history of anti-LGBTQ politics, including denying LGBTQ individuals access to shelters.) Some thrift shops meanwhile, like St. Vincent's, are run by organizations that also run food parties and provide other assistance programs as well. It's not that donated clothes can't help the needy, but you can't just show up anywhere with your used clothes and expect them to be grateful.

Most organizations serving marginalized communities have specific needs, and they will gladly tell you what you can do to help. There are many more needs than just clothes. There's also a general over-abundance of unwanted second-hand clothes on the market in part created by our consumer culture, and many shelters aren't going to be able to handle a sudden influx of clothes when that isn't even their most needed item.

Other needs/services for homeless folks in Madison:

Luke House Community Meal Program
Bethel Lutheran Church -- Homeless Ministries runs some support services, a spiritual support group, and a book club
Operation Welcome Home is a homeless-lead group and their advocates working to find solutions in Madison
Madison Homelessness Initiative supports Project Bubbles, an effort to help homeless people access laundry facilities to wash their clothes.
First United Methodist Church runs a Food Ministry that stocks a food pantry and also provides meals. They also coordinate with MHI to support Shower Power, a project to help homeless people access regular showers.

When I asked around a bit to other people in the Madison area where to look for programs assisting with homelessness and poverty, @BrendaKonkel reminded me that the shelters in the area only serve people 30 - 90 days out of the year-- the rest of that time, they have to look beyond the shelters to these other programs for assistance.

So in the end, what is the #FitchTheHomeless campaign even about? Is it about helping poor and homeless people? Because if so, it fails pretty miserably to engage at all with any particular community to assess what their needs are and how to address them.

On the other hand, is it about reforming a brand that carries serious leverage within the fashion industry to shape unrealistic, fat-shaming and unhealthy beauty standards that harm women? Is it about how only carrying size 0 while putting the cut-off at size 10 works into the pressure on women to starve themselves in order to feel valued?

As the Business Insider article I linked to at the very beginning of this post points out the kind of image A&F are looking to cultivate is already being directly challenged by the push to create more diverse clothing for all kinds of bodies. It’s not perfect, there’s a long way yet to go, and it’s been a hard battle just to get “plus sized” models (for all the problems that exist with that category) even recognized. We need more, better designed clothing for all sizes and shapes, for all kinds of fashion tastes, that aren’t manufactured in horrible low-wage exploitative conditions. But let’s not kid ourselves—A&F suddenly expanding to XL and XXL women’s? Not even a drop in the bucket.

If you want to do a boycott-- do a boycott. Be loud and aggressive with the message that A&F's business practices--ALL OF THEM--are atrocious and untenable, and make sure every other company knows they're not off the hook either. (Looking at you, American Apparel.) Pressure every magazine and media source to refuse to carry or print their ads. Make sure everyone knows that wearing A&F is about declaring you're a douchebag. But don't turn around and throw your cast-offs, now that you've realized how awful they are, onto homeless people because either a) you want to use homeless people as a way to "get back" at the company, or b) you figure "well they're homeless, they'll take anything." That's gross.

Or maybe it's just about venting some outrage at a company we all know is outrageous, so we can feel good out our righteous anger, without any consideration for who is hurt in the process. ... Oh.

Edited to Add: Two things! First, I forgot to mention Suspended Coffees which is a cool program that recently spread to Madison also.

Second, I found this post from Jan Wilberg taking issue with the "exploitation" point of criticisms of the campaign. I think she makes some solid points, and I think it's a valid counter to some of my argument. I'm not sure that it makes the video itself not exploitative, and I think I do a good job of dealing with the "people need stuff" angle of it all, but I agree with her point that it's wrong to view homeless folks as uniformly weak and downtrodden. Yes! Lots of people are their own advocates and are capable of refusing gifts, services and shelter that doesn't work for them. They're not just liftless blobs unable to reject used clothing gifts, Obviously. Although, if you're donating to shelters, it's the staff that you're going to be interacting with (and potentially overwhelming), and that's a different problem. I think it's a good read, and I wanted to post it especially because it doesn't uniformly agree with me.

How can we possibly know when discrimination happens?!

Posted by : Ari | Wednesday, May 1, 2013 | Published in

Hoo boy…

So, North Carolina considering legislation that would make it illegal for doctors to perform abortions on the basis of sex of the fetus. Specifically, HB 716 would ban doctors from:

“knowingly or recklessly perform[ing] or attempt[ing] to perform an abortion upon a woman in this State with knowledge, or an objective reason to know, that a significant factor in the pregnant woman seeking the abortion is related to the sex of the unborn child.”

The bill would also make doctors and other health care providers open to being sued by interest groups and other third parties for monetary damages if they believe the provider had reason to believe that sex discrimination was a factor. HB 716 passed out of the House Committee and will go to the House floor. (It would still have to pass through the NC Senate and be signed by the governor to become law.)

North Carolina is certainly not alone—several other states are also considering legislation attempting to ban sex- or race-selective abortions, although few have successfully passed any. In particular, race-baiting by anti-abortion activists has a long and disgusting history. The National Women’s Law Center maintains that race and sex selection abortion bans open the door for racially profiling abortion patients. Commenting on the issue, Milan Pham, president of the Asian-American and Pacific Women’s Association, said the proposal “discriminates specifically against Asian-American women,” who already face cultural and language barriers to health care.

In defending the bill, Representative Ruth Samuelson (R-Charlotte) argued,

"“We say there’s sex discrimination in education and in the workforce,” Samuelson told the Charlotte Observer when introducing the bill. “How can we say there’s not sex discrimination in abortions?”"

Well, Rep. Samuelson, there's this thing called research, and the funny thing about it is, it's capable of investigating a LOT of questions! So, one way to go about this is very simple: ask patients who have had abortions what their reasons were! I know this is a radical suggestion! (Hey! This is data that already exists! Ask the Guttmacher Institute.)

You can even do population surveys to ask people whether they would be likely to abort (an otherwise desired) pregnancy, once they discovered that the sex of the baby wasn't their preference. Although social desirability bias can influence the results of this kind of data, but it’s a good place to start!

Of course, this kind of research requires that you actually trust the abortion patients and are willing to listen to them, as opposed to imposing your own interpretations onto their lives.

You could also do cross-cultural research on the countries that DO already have data where sex discrimination in abortions actually happens, to determine the kind of cultural attitudes about gender and social arrangements that are most likely to contribute to why certain people feel sex-selective abortions are necessary. Then you could compare that data to cultural attitudes and arrangements in the U.S., where you are actually a legislator, to determine whether there is an environment that would encourage sex-selective abortions. (Spoiler alert: There isn’t.)

While we’re on the topic of cross-cultural research, you could look at the wealth of research on the cultural factors explaining why certain kinds of gender and racial discrimination practices happen at all, and realize that all kinds of discrimination happen within culturally specific situations—and that “gender discrimination” means different things in different contexts.

Of course, there is a pervasive system of discrimination based on sex and race in this country—but this bill can’t possibly do anything about that, because it doesn’t get at the root problem of discrimination in the first place. You can’t just take the fact that girls are stereotyped out of STEM fields, are less likely to be supported pursuing sports, get lower pay and/or are less likely to get promoted—things that are often the product of unrecognized biases, and conclude that people are also going to make the deliberate decision to end an otherwise desired pregnancy because they don’t want girl babies. In fact, the unconscious aspect of many of these biases, coupled with the fact that many people ardently insist that there isn’t a wage gap, actually works directly counter to the idea that many people in the U.S. are going to suddenly make the conscious and deliberate decision to selectively abort a fetus based on sex.

Or maybe you could just look at the CDC’s data on the birth rates by gender to see that, nope, statistics do not indicate the US has a problem with sex-selective abortions, nor do they indicate an increasing gender discrepancy—in fact, just the opposite. The number of baby boys born per 1,000 baby girls — has actually been decreasing slightly but steadily over the last 30 years.

In fact! If you’re really, really concerned about figuring out whether there is the possibility of sex- or race-selective abortions happening in the United States, why don’t you set aside some research grant money, and I would be happy to come to North Carolina to work on this research project.


(TW) The Moral of a Rape Case

Posted by : Ari | Tuesday, March 19, 2013 | Published in

I didn’t really think I would be writing a blog post about the Steubenville, OH rape case. For one, I didn’t make a focused effort to watch the specifics of the case in great detail as they rolled out. It was impossible to not know about, just by virtue of my social media talking about it. But I chose not to closely follow the proceedings, for my own mental health.

Secondly, there’s a certain sense of, there’s already enough—too much, really—commentary piled onto the lives of the people in the eye of the storm, the center of the story. And most of it awful. CNN’s coverage from Sunday being a case in point on the side of the horrifyingly awful spectrum.

But some of what hasn’t been awful has been insightful, to which my own thoughts are likely to add very little. A couple noteworthy articles to come up in the aftermath:

Steubenville: Humiliation Was The Point of the Exercise from the Yes means Yes! blog

On Rape, Cages, and the Steubenville Verdict by Mia McKenzie on Black Girl Dangerous

To these observations, what can I really add? Is it worth it? Given that rape culture is so pervasive and often functions invisibly, I believe it is necessary for even ardent feminists to think carefully about the implications of what they’re saying. And I have a number of reactions, that I haven’t necessarily taken the time to thoroughly interrogate to see where they go, so I’m not entirely certain about them… So here are some free-floating thoughts that have come to mind for me:

What is rape about? We, and when I say we I mean society in general but also feminists, seem to waffle between various “explanations” of what exactly the point and purpose of rape is. I’m not sure whether it was Dworkin or someone else, who originally made the argument that Rape is about Power, not sex. Or maybe it’s just about “mixed signals”, “grey areas” and “misunderstandings” about what constitutes consent. Maybe if we just clarified what consent is, rape wouldn’t happen.

…And so it goes, this all seems to become a confusing muddle rather quickly.

I think, though, that rape is not about any one thing all the time in every scenario. Any given rape may be about one or many of the following:

  • Power: demonstrating it, exerting it,
  • Domination, or Punishment: to “put someone back in their place”
  • Humiliation
  • Performance: closely related to power, but clearly, when someone goes to great lengths to take photos and even video-tape an entire sequence of violation as Thomas’ piece on Yes means Yes!, there is an element of performing a certain gendered rendition of through the reduction of another human being into an object, a play-thing. This performativity of power is not unique to rape, it happens in many spectacles of violence.
  • Sexual Entitlement: Sometimes rape really is about a strongly held belief that one is entitled to the use of another’s body for one’s own pleasure
  • Toxic Masculinity

Are most of the above closely related? Yes. Are they all implicated in all rapes? I don’t think so. I think that rape happens in multiple scenarios, and the particular constellation of motives or thought processes that occur may be different. Some rapes, I suspect, really are about someone being motivated entirely by a desire for sexual fulfillment, and enabled by a disinterest in or deliberate refusal to acknowledge the other person’s lack of consent. Others I think really are clearly about power and control.

Of course I’m annoyed and disgusted with rape apologists and people who clearly don’t understand (or openly doubt the existence of!) rape culture. But I’m also kind of frustrated with anti-rape allies that want to boil this story down to a simple argument about how "we need to teach men to not rape.” My response to that is basically,

The way Thomas describes Gang Rapes, makes them essentially an intentional spectacle for staging a humiliation “tableau” for the enjoyment of the rapists (or perhaps just the ring-leader…) The desire to perform power functions in other ways as well. For trying to reclaim a lost sense of self—the man who sees himself loosing out in a battle of the sexes in a slumping job market while women surge ahead… For reasserting a male right to dominate, and even torture, women and other marginalized groups.

Some of these motives will produce rapists that are so far from being interested in whether or not their victim says (or can say) “no.” Some will be explicitly spurred on by the struggles and resistance of their victims. To be sure, this is pathological sadism. Which is why, this goes so much farther than teaching boys “no means no” and “teaching men not to rape.”

We cannot allow ourselves to focus exclusively on the idea that it’s just about “not understanding” what consent means—that being too drunk to give meaningful consent is a thing—which seems to have become essentially the stock-feminist response/retort to rape apologizing and victim blaming. Because yes, those are true things that do happen, but the problem with this monopoly of focus is that it allows us to get distracted from the equally troubling scenario, where the perpetrator clearly recognizes that the victim is not consenting, and willfully ignores, manipulates and attempts to distort this fact for their own desires or goals. (I think this is the article discussing predator rapists that clarifies this point.)

The real “moral,” if there can be such a thing, is that fully dismantling rape culture requires radically transforming the arrangement of power in society, in how people conceptualize power and access to it. Eradicating rape requires more than just the elimination of overt sexism and misogyny—it requires the dismantling of the idea of dominating force (with or without physical harm) as the primary means to get access to respect and resources, economic and emotional resources alike. It requires dismantling the Militarization of the State and Police, the Prison Industrial Complex, smashing racism and neo-colonial excuses for the pillaging of the developing world, and all the other institutional structures that reinforce hierarchical, exploitative power.

Meanwhile, the judge in the case and much of the media have stalled at the level of blaming alcohol and the dangers of social media… which is absolutely pathetic, and also absolutely predictable. As if not taking pictures of violent crimes would stop them from happening, rather than simply making it harder to prosecute. As if alcohol caused the desire to assert power over another person, that expresses itself through systemic sexual violence as only one of many forms of domination.

But in truth, I think trying to deduce some sort of “moral” out of one exceptional case where the verdict actually came back guilty while the vast majority never will, is not only not a set up for producing useful conclusions about the ultimate “justice” against rapists… It is that, but also, trying to use one 16 year old girl’s traumatic experience of violation, just to satisfy a desire for narratives that have meaningful lessons built into them for our benefit, is a fairly disgusting, heartless and cold exercise in the first place.

So maybe let’s just not.

I'm alive!

Posted by : Ari | Saturday, March 16, 2013 | Published in

I'm just writing to let everyone know (that's, all three of you that actually follow this blog, I suppose) that I am not, in fact, dead and pushing up daisies.

It's been a long time since I posted anything here. My tumblr's have gone pretty quiet as well. My use of twitter has dwindled considerably. My online presence simply isn't what it was.

Alas, being a college student eventually requires paying full attention to classes, if you want to actually graduate. Most of my life is going through some pretty dramatic restructuring (not in the neo-liberal capitalist business sense of "Restructuring", mind) and I simply haven't had time to write anything coherent to post. I have a whole folder overflowing with half-started drafts, but they've probably all gone stale by now.

Also, apparently, about a month ago all my posts got spammed with, well, spam, about porn-- which absolutely nobody who reads this blog even at all should be even remotely surprised about. It's cleaned up now though.

I'm hoping to start scheduling (!scheduling! can you imagine?!) time to return to writing for myself again, soon.

Soon, okay?

My Cunt Is Not

Posted by : Ari | Wednesday, June 27, 2012 | Published in

a hollow space image
cavernous depth
waiting for ful-fill-ment,

any more than a mouth
could be rendered useless
without food.

my slick body-being
fleshy, softness not
an invitation for violence

a folded pattern,
as unique as a fingerprint,
it’s joy can unmake me
but never my integrity.

political, my cunt is
an emotional compass
a spiritual guide buried in a place
with an entrance, but no end.

Wide wings embracing many
all who come away anointed
by her sacred, blessed.

I wanted to write this poem about cunts, and the relationship women have with them in part because there is such a sadness and disconnect between them. We as a culture are awash with images and words celebrating the phallus but the female cunt is left adrift in a dark and treacherous sea of dirty, shameful or dangerous euphemisms.  There is a scene in the movie, After Sex, where Nikki is asking her lesbian friend what pussy tastes like. Nikki explains that she just assumed that it would be gross because, it’s “a moist cavity between your legs… and sometimes it gets sweaty so it smells…” Dark, wet and mysterious places being of course more likely to inspire images of bacteria and slime, the kind of place more reminiscent of Gollum’s cave than the slippery sweetness inside of an oyster shell.

In a culture where rape is prevalent at epidemic levels, and where the masculine is constantly constructed as hyper-aggressive, the possession of a vagina as a soft and easily invade-able space is seen as making one naturally more vulnerable. Whether it’s masculine fears of the unknown, or hetero-normative constrictions over the proper uses of a cunt, more often than not the vagina is relegated only to the role of receptacle. In a countercultural reaction intended to be liberating, more often than not the insistence that only sexual activities that avoid penis-penetration-styled sexual activities counts as feminist and liberation, the radfeminist prescription against PIV or aggressively-pro-lesbianism ends up policing the body in the same political manner it’s trying to resist. And it's not only cis women for whom this construction is a problem, trans men who possess vulvas and trans women who don't, or whose genitals are seen as "unnatural" experience particular violence because of their perceived deviations.

Even though I write these words and understand the sources and influences of all these anxieties, it is not as though I am completely free of them either. Our bodies are vessels, but cages too, a long time spent in one doesn't necessarily produce acceptance. Fears of smells, in particular are a persistent burden—women’s bodies are supposed to be pure and clean at all times, and if they smell, it’s only to be in an intentional, perfumed way. Taste never really bothers me, appearance sometimes but smell, with it’s unique and insidious ability to go before you and after you, informing people without your consent makes it like a creepy invisible gossip-monger.

For me, I can’t say that my whole life’s work is about freeing cunts. But I would dearly love to have a hand in building a world where all the cunts were safe, happy, and free.

Existential Feminist Crisis

Posted by : Ari | Sunday, June 24, 2012 | Published in

I've been pre-occupied for the past week or so, with a lot of conflicted feelings about feminism as a movement and radical feminism as a distinct philosophical branch in particular.

I've been debating with myself why this even bothers me so much, and why it's not simply a matter of noting, "Well I am this kind of feminist, those ideas about trans* people and pornography and sex work I simply don't agree with" and getting on with it.

I've also been wondering about the ethics of my discomfort, and whether my concern for a feminist theory that is able to be radical yet inclusive of trans women is really just another cis woman trying to theorize about the bodies and lives of trans* people so that I can feel better. A lot of cisgender people have spent untold amounts of time (decades, centuries?) theorizing about trans* people's bodies, sexualities, identities, socialization, psychological features, etc., because of "what trans* people will mean for us politically," instead of a sincere concern for trans* people as people. Perpetuating that activity just to assuage a certain level of guilt about being a white middle-class feminist would be wrong, and the makings of a pretty shitty ally. But it's also true that I can't just ignore the conflict between theory and lived experiences. Theory should be bowing to lived experience, adapted and changed to make room for actual people's lives to take precedence over "theoretical people." And, I mean, theory is a thing that's important to me.

I think there are two basic reasons why this occupies so much of my brain...

White House PSA on Domestic Violence

Posted by : Ari | Saturday, June 23, 2012 | Published in

I don’t know how I feel about this PSA from WhiteHouse.gov

Transcript: Hey Everybody Listen up, listen up guys, listen up. No one should ever hit a woman. Not their wife, not their girlfriend, not their date. No woman should have to fear violence. Especially not from someone they know and trust. But that’s the reality for too many women. We have to change it. It’s up to each of us because even 1 is too many. Violence against women hurts all of us. Growing up I was ashamed and afraid of my father when he abused my mom. The worst abuse of power is when a man raises his hand to hurt a woman. We all have to take responsibility. So if you see someone threatening a woman step up, speak out, and get help. Dating violence hurts all of us so step up and help out because 1 is too many. One is too many. One is too many. One is too many. End the violence because it’s wrong. Because one, one is too many.

whitehouse.gov explains the motivations for creating this PSA campaign:

“Last year, Vice President Biden launched the 1is2Many initiative to focus on a troubling fact—women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rates of relationship violence. […] He asked the Administration to focus on how we can engage young women and young men in preventing dating violence and sexual assault at their schools, where they work, where they hang out, and where they live….

… young people who said that solving the problem of this violence will require us to reshape cultural views about what it means to “be a man” and who has the responsibility to help stop abuse. […] Respecting women should not be a threat to masculinity, but rather a fulfillment of true manhood.” We couldn’t agree more.

… we thought the best way to get the truth out was to make sure young men hear from other men they respect. We thought about male role models we know, like former Yankees manager Joe Torre, who grew up in a home where his dad abused his mom and who talks movingly about how devastating witnessing the abuse as a boy was for him. We talked to professional athletes who epitomize strength and physical achievement who agree that this violence is wrong and that men must help end it by speaking out. A number of them have now joined the President and the Vice President in a public service announcement that will air this summer on the ESPN Networks, the FOX Sports Networks, MLB Network and NFL Network.

In this PSA, David Beckham, Jeremy Lin, Evan Longoria, Eli Manning, Jimmy Rollins, Joe Torre and Andy Katz ask all men to step up, talk about how wrong it is, and help end the violence.”

It has that feeling of, “Oh you’re so close but I’m just not… uhm…” On the one hand, ending violence by centering the focus on men who perpetrate violence against women and thinking about reshaping masculinity so that respecting women is not a challenge to masculinity is a great position to start from. On the other hand is… well first of all my general skepticism about the real impact of PSAs produced by, uh, the President have much real influence on culture and images of masculinity.

Then second, there seems to be a refusal to acknowledge just how much of the mythos of hegemonic masculinity is devoted to domination and violence, whether physical, emotional, economic or otherwise. How much of the structure embodied by our governmental system is built on domination and violence, for that matter. Think about the hierarchies and the images of “success” necessary to achieve higher office and then tell me again how a PSA from the President and some athletes is going to end violence against women. Tell me how a PSA from the President is going to address widespread cultural images sexualizing women as weak and vulnerable and sexualizing violence and absolute power over others.

So yeah. I just don’t know how to feel.

Feminism is an Isolating Experience

Posted by : Ari | Friday, June 22, 2012 | Published in

Feminism is an isolating experience. I don’t know whether this is by necessity or by circumstance. Cynically I might call it a function of Patriarchy to isolate feminist ideas from support and sunlight so that they die.

I am learning to admit that my feminism has gotten more aggressive over the last couple of years, and by aggressive I mean “visible and unapologetic” but also deeper, as well. And that doing so can present some problems. … That is, problems for interacting with the world at large that doesn’t accept as a basic premise that feminism is important, I suppose. I loved my theory class from the past semester, I would love to do moremoremore of this theorizing business, but it’s generally a very… ahem, stuffy and high-minded position, at times.

I have been thinking a lot—obsessing to unhealthy lengths, really, recently about what Radical Feminism means, what it means for me and for a forward-looking feminist movement. Whether there is any place for me in Radical Feminism at all (whether radical feminism can ever be trans*, gender and sexuality inclusive) and what it means to consider theories intriguing and thought provoking without subscribing to them whole-heartedly.

Feminism is an isolating experience. In part, because feminism is not an “inclusive” movement. Is “movement” really the word here? I might say, instead, “discipline.” Bitter acrimonious fighting goes on between different sects of feminist theories, as well as with other philosophically related leftist branches, and sometimes it’s anachrofeminism versus socialist feminism as much as anarchist theory versus Marxist theory. Academic feminism has a lot of value, in my opinion, but it’s also a very rough terrain. It’s often a harsh mistress for newcomers trying to get a handle on these debates, without yet having an in-depth background in a long list of “major” feminist writers (although I question the hierarchical authority inherent to the idea of “major” feminist writers.)

Other parts of the isolation come from the ways in which I can no longer, or find it much harder, to move through the mainstream world—a world which is built on sexism, misogyny and racism—without constantly making compromises as to whether it’s useful to point out these foundations or brush them aside. As much as I find the pressure against women to be “friendly, tame, accommodating, don’t rock the boat” annoying and distasteful, there’s a reality where having relationships fundamentally means making accommodations for other peoples feelings. Otherwise… isolation.

Clashing with friends and lovers (or ex-lovers and ex-friends) over politics is never easy, but I find that there’s another layer added whenever it becomes “about feminism.” More accurately, it’s about “women things.” … I cannot begin to satisfactorily express my annoyance at the circumscribing of “feminism” as just “women things,” alas.

As an aside: I find the notion of “the women’s movement has little interest in attending to men” equally frustrating—and pervasive in radical feminism. As if writing off the other half of the population (that regularly writes off us, for the record) AND the percentage of women for whom simply writing off or ignoring their relationships with men in their lives is wholly impractical, will somehow produce something which could be said to be productive. I find this hard to fathom, and likewise the notion that this is a failing on my part to adequately reorient myself as “woman-identified” and deprogram myself of internalized patriarchy rather… patronizing.

But anyway, back to clashing with friends over “women things.” I could be over-generalizing based on a limited sample of clear-cut cases where I came to a head with someone, but that would be ignoring the constant subtext in everyday interactions, that I think a lot of women are familiar with, that says, “Don’t bring up feminist things. Don’t talk about sexism. You can talk about ‘equality’ in gender neutral language, maybe…” I suspect that POCs find this kind of silencing in a white supremacist society also, when the word “race” is viewed so dangerously by white people. “Stop making this about race!” And it doesn’t automatically get better in “feminist spaces,” either, because I cannot assume that “feminist” is synonymous with “shares my politics,” or is even friendly to them.

The truth, I think, is that self-identifying as a feminist woman, therefore outing yourself as an “outspoken woman” with politics on her/hir mind (even if you’re not actually all that “outspoken” or “loud” or “uppity” or whatever to fit into this stereotype, you know…) means dealing with a lot of shit. And frankly, I can’t blame a lot of women for not wanting to deal with that shit. Even though the shit is based on a caricature of “feminist” or “uppity woman” or whatever.

It’s a lot of shit, and it’s isolating, and I don’t blame you for not wanting to do either of those things. Because sometimes it really wears me down too.

“My Body, My Choice”– Violations of Autonomy is About More Than Bodies

Posted by : Ari | Wednesday, June 20, 2012 | Published in

Abortion rights language declares, “My Body, My Choice” constantly. It’s my body and it’s up to me to determine how to use it. A lot of rape prevention language does the same thing, “no means no,” it’s my body, not yours, you don’t have a right to use it however you want. I always have the right to say no, and demand that no be respected.

Both of these things are true of course. No one has the right to force my body be used as a fetal incubator, and no one has the right to demand use of my body for their own pleasure and ego validation without my consent.

… All of this language, however, focuses entirely on bodies. It suggests that our rights reside in our bodies, as the only space that is really ours. This is actually a very conservative (literal definition) view of rights and autonomy, in that, if nothing else, at least my body is mine. But what does that say about our time, our personal space outside of our bodies, our homes, our lives?

Does this language mistakenly imply that if our choices aren’t directly related to our bodies, that they’re less valid? For instance, if I don’t want to talk to someone, but it doesn’t seem evident that any bodily harm is likely, it’s just my time that they’re going to be taking up—is that choice less valid?

Part of the Schrödinger’s Rapist concept is the idea that a lot of women’s cautious behavior and resistance to interact with strangers (who think of themselves as nice guys), is based on being unable to tell who on the street is actually someone who might do us harm or not. Therefore, we have to be suspicious of everyone.

So if you speak to a woman who is otherwise occupied, you’re sending a subtle message. It is that your desire to interact trumps her right to be left alone. If you pursue a conversation when she’s tried to cut it off, you send a message. It is that your desire to speak trumps her right to be left alone. And each of those messages indicates that you believe your desires are a legitimate reason to override her rights.

For women, who are watching you very closely to determine how much of a threat you are, this is an important piece of data.

This assumes that the motive is only about safety of the body, and yields entirely the potential to say: You don’t have a right to demand my time any more than you have a right to my body.

Intention: The Privilege of Being an Ally

Posted by : Ari | | Published in

I am not trans. I am not a person of color. I am not a sex worker. I am not a lesbian, or a gay man (I am queer.) I have been poor, but I grew up in middle class stability. I do not have a history of sexual assault, but I have been emotionally abused.

There are  identities that we can recognize, validate and support through allyship, recognition, and speaking out when others marginalize, belittle or try to invalidate their perspectives.

My intention when speaking up about trans issues, race issues, sex workers rights, asexual issues, among others… is to both support and make space for others voices. When someone I know might be hurt by things that are said by others, I want to speak up when they aren’t there to defend themselves, just like I hope that my friends speak up against biphobia, prejudice against poly folk, slut-shaming, etc. when I'm not around. (Sometimes that hope is misplaced, sadly...)

When I am in a room dominated by white people, I want to make sure that the one person of color does not get tokenized, is not constantly relied upon to represent all issues on race as if the rest of us have none. When there are no people of color in the room, I want to make sure that the voices I have heard get life and space when others would trample over them.

I want to support trans* identified and gender variant people so that they are not alone in challenging cissexism and gender policing, or suffering bullying in silence.

Sometimes this means talking about perspectives and experiences that aren’t my own, and there is a really delicate balance between challenging racism, sexism, homophobia, transmisogyny, etc., and stealing other people’s voices.

There is also a danger of taking up too much space, when allies should be making room for members of a marginalized group to speak for themselves, not presenting other peoples stories as their own.
This can be really challenging, and I suspect that I eff it up way more than anybody actually calls me out on. My intention is never to suggest that I can tell your stories, trans* people, people of color, sex workers, asexuals, etc., either that it’s my job or my right to do so.

Please call me out when I eff up. Let me know when I’m not being a good ally, when my “well meaning,” really isn’t. I want to know. Please let me know if there’s anything you want me to do (not do, do differently) to better support you, or to be more explicitly inclusive, or to just tell me that I fucked up and said something that was hurtful, regardless of how I “meant” it.

Toward a Definition of Gender, Part 2

Posted by : Ari | Tuesday, June 19, 2012 | Published in

I have thus previously attempted to review radfems claims about about gender, for the purposes of creating a workable definition.

To the best of my ability, I thus determine that radfems define gender as the social structures of inequality, otherwise known as “gender roles” or “sex roles,” that create social inequality and unequal distribution of resources, gender discrimination, sexism, misogyny, gender-based violence, etc. Radfems appear to believe that there are only two possible gender categories: “the dominator” and “the dominated,” because gender categories are about naturalizing dominance, and these roles appear to be absolute, and either “on” or “off.” This definition of gender assumes that gender is entirely socially constructed externally to the subject, who has no participation of creating their own gender as it is imposed entirely externally. Likewise, either no one forms meaningful self-identities around their imposed gender, or that any identities that are formed are a false consciousness or reinforcing the Patriarchy.

There seems to be an assumption among radfems that sex is not a socially constructed category, that it is concrete and absolute. It is yet unclear to me why this should be assumed to be the case. It seems that, while desiring a theory that explains “gender roles” are oppressive—because there is no biological connection between the observed sex differences and the socialized roles that men and women are ascribed to—this necessitated the idea that sex is the natural category or else the concept of women’s-only organizing threatens to become obsolete.

However, the theory behind why “gender roles” came to be seems to assume that it was necessitated by men’s desire to dominate women, which comes about the odd way of say that men’s behavior is biologically determined, but women’s is not.

Toward a Definition of Gender, Part 1

Posted by : Ari | Monday, June 18, 2012 | Published in

There is a considerable amount of (frankly, imo, silly) debate regarding how to define gender and what those definitions mean for trans* people as well as feminists regarding gender liberation. What the transgender existence “means” from the perspective of some radical feminists’ acclaimed desire to eradicate gender is generally the flash point of most disagreements (which then almost always devolve extremely quickly into heated debates about forcing penises onto lesbians, for… some strange reason that I do not quite understand.)

To somehow attempt to disentangle this mess, for the purposes of finding a radical feminism that is  continually useful and meaningful (if only for me, I suppose?) rather than hatefully trans-exclusive and biological essentialist, I need to articulate an answer to this conflict. First though I need to wrap my brain around what it is that radfems actually think gender is. … Because honestly it’s not very clear. This is going to be a long endeavor (and post.)