Lakota Sioux women’s shelter needs help

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.

All text from the Pretty Bird Woman House blog.

In May of this year, the progressive netroots pulled together to save a tiny women’s shelter on a Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Thanks to over 680 strangers who donated a combined $27,000, Pretty Bird Woman House was able to keep its doors open for the duration and provide emergency shelter for 188 women and 132 children.

But just last month thieves broke into Pretty Bird Woman House – literally smashing holes through the walls. They stole the computers, the television, clothing, toiletries – all donated. Then arsonists set fire to the building.

Pretty Bird Woman House remains open, without a house, in an unheated, donated office. The tribal council has done all it can afford to do. Without a house, this sanctuary will die.

Pretty Bird Woman House needs another netroots miracle to survive. There is so much in the world we are powerless over. For Pretty Bird Woman House you can make a difference, make the world a better place, right here, right now, today.

Origins of Pretty Bird Woman House
In October of 2001 a monster in the body of a fifteen-year-old boy stalked the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota. Since his tenth birthday he had racked up twenty-five separate criminal charges, included among them was torturing a kitten to death. Another incident involved his shattering a beer bottle over the head of an eight year old. Thirty one year old Ivy Archambault had the misfortune of being home asleep when he broke into her house intent on burglary. Before the night ended he kidnapped, raped and beat her to death. In the six years since this crime was committed, he has never been charged with the murder despite eyewitnesses willing to testify, thanks to a nightmarish maze of confusing tribal, federal, state and local jurisdictions and laws. (Sources: Indian Country News, Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, Citizen’s Equal Rights Alliance)

Ivy Archambault’s murder might well have passed from memory without any impact. But Jackie Brown Otter, her sister, had other ideas; she envisioned a shelter, a place where threatened women could go. A base for the fight to prevent these crimes and when they occur, seek justice on behalf of the victim. She wanted to name this place with her sister’s Lakota name: Pretty Bird Woman. Over the course of three years she and a small group of women struggled to make this happen. Then, in late 2004, the South Dakota Coalition Against Domestic Violence came through with a grant and hired Georgia Little Shield, a nurse with ten years experience in the domestic violence as Director of Pretty Bird Woman House.

Georgia Little Shield knows a little about domestic violence:

I’m a survivor. I was abused as a child. It was real bad. I almost succeeded in committing suicide – you see, back then, the only place I had to go was to die. There was nothing, no shelter, no counseling on the reservation, nowhere I could turn. There was no help for me and I just wanted to die. No woman should have to go through that. No woman should feel that way…

Nobody’s going to talk for these women but us. We have to help them. We have to let them know, there is help. We don’t have to tolerate it no more. We have rights.

Georgia started in October 2005. The local tribal district government donated office space and on January 5th, 2006, Pretty Bird Woman House opened for business and has not closed since despite a constant struggle to survive.

Scope of the Problem
Standing Rock Reservation is not particularly friendly to women. According to the Amnesty International report Maze of Injustice – The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA:

High levels of sexual violence on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation take place in a context of high rates of poverty and crime. South Dakota has the highest poverty rate for Native American women in the USA with 45.3 per cent living in poverty. The unemployment rate on the Reservation is 71 per cent. Crime rates on the Reservation often exceed those of its surrounding areas. According to FBI figures, in 2005 South Dakota had the fourth highest rate of “forcible rapes” of women of any US state.

Amnesty International was told of five rapes which took place over one week in September 2005. Many survivors reported that they had experienced sexual violence several times in their lives and by different perpetrators. There were also several reports of gang rapes. One survivor and activist told Amnesty International that people have become desensitized to acts of sexual violence. A common response to such crimes is blame, but directed at the survivor rather than the perpetrator.

Making things worse, Standing Rock Reservation has a tiny police force to patrol all 2.3 million acres. At the time of the murder of Pretty Bird Woman, Standing Rock had only one police officer on duty during the night shift. As a result, it took over a day for anyone to even come out to start to investigate the disappearance. Since then the night patrol has doubled in size… 2 officers for 2.3 million acres each night.

Further compounding the problem, Amnesty reports on the legal nightmare facing the victims, their advocates and the police:

Tribal and federal authorities have concurrent jurisdiction on all Standing Rock Sioux Reservation lands over crimes where the suspected perpetrator is American Indian. In instances in which the suspected perpetrator is non-Indian, federal officials have exclusive jurisdiction. Neither North nor South Dakota state police have jurisdiction over sexual violence against Native American women on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. State police do, however, have jurisdiction over crimes of sexual violence committed on tribal land in instances where the victim and the perpetrator are both non-Indian.

This legal mess has produced three distinct and uniquely horrifying results.

Police agencies often work at cross purposes when it comes to investigating and prosecuting the crime.

“When an emergency call comes in, the sheriff will say ‘but this is Indian land.’ Tribal police will show up and say the reverse. Then, they just bicker and don’t do the job. Many times, this is what occurs. And it doesn’t always get resolved, which means no rape [sexual assault evidence] kit, etc.”
-Juskwa Burnett, support worker for Native American survivors of sexual violence, May 2005

Georgia Little Shield told me that when her daughter was beaten by her husband, the husband, remorseful after hitting her daughter, took her daughter to the hospital and asked to be arrested. As emergency workers rebuilt her daughter’s shattered nose the police argued over who was responsible for handling the crime. Finally, the city police gave the husband – who was still wearing the t-shirt covered in his wife’s blood – his car keys and told him to just go home, nothing was going to happen. And nothing has.

The next result is the predictable outcome of this legal mess – women do not report rapes and domestic violence because when they do, they will suffer victimization by the system. Georgia Little Shield told me: Women don’t report because not a darn thing will be done for them. The Amnesty International report bears this assertion out:

Amnesty International’s interviews with survivors, activists and support workers across the USA suggest that available statistics greatly underestimate the severity of the problem. In the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, for example, many of the women who agreed to be interviewed could not think of any Native women within their community who had not been subjected to sexual violence.

So this is the battlefield on which Georgia Little Shield and her tiny team fights. She tells me that there are police officers there who want to help and want to prosecute but cannot do so. So essentially, the three women who work for Pretty Bird Woman House work alone.

Services Offered by Pretty Bird Woman House
What can Pretty Bird Woman House do against all of this injustice? Small miracles, one day at a time. In the first ten months of 2007 Pretty Bird Woman House accomplished the following:

– answered 397 crisis calls

– gave emergency shelter to 188 women and 132 children

– helped 23 women obtain restraining orders, 10 get divorces, and 16 get medical assistance

– provided court advocacy support for 28 women

– conducted community education programs for 360 women.

These impressive achievements achieve a new stature when put into the context of what happened to Pretty Bird Woman House during the exact same time frame. In April, the grant from the South Dakota Coalition Against Domestic Violence ran out. Georgia Little Shield’s salary ended as did the phone service (including crisis line). Pretty Bird Woman House had a staff of three, Georgia Little Shield and at that time, one part time advocate and one volunteer advocate. They were waiting, hoping for a Federal grant to come through at the time they ran out of funding. By the complex rules of the grants, that should have ended Pretty Bird Woman House right there because they could not have provided the services (the crisis line) required to receive the Federal grant. Georgia Little Shield prepared to continue work without pay, realizing that she would not even have the gas money to drive into town many times.

Pretty Bird Woman House needed over $25,000 to make it until September when the Federal grant might kick in. Raising that kind of money on Standing Rock seemed an impossibility. Tribal government remained supportive of the shelter but had no further resources to share after donating a small building at the end of 2006. Further compounding the problem, the three staff members of Pretty Bird Woman House needed to spend their time helping women, not scavenging for non-existent funds.

The Progressive Netroots Miracle
At this time this situation came to the attention of Daily Kos user nbier(I’m not clear how) and he created a chip in page for the effort and followed up with a series of diaries trying to raise funds. And then a miracle happened. Other Daily Kos members diaried about this: flautist, sarac, njgoldfinch and frontpager Devilstower jumped in. From Daily Kos the news spread virally and Christy Hardin-Smith at Firedoglake, mole333 at Culture Kitchen, DB at Queen of Pentacles, William Neuheisel at Creative Evolution…. and many more I have missed kept the torch lit.

The result? Over 680 strangers donated $27,500…

This money functioned as the operating funds for the shelter from May through September of 2007. The Progressive Netroots paid for crisis phone lines, Georgia Little Shield’s salary, a financial advocate for the shelter, court costs, operating expenses, food, clothing, toiletries and other incidental expenses. This money literally saved the lives of women on the Standing Rock shelter:

I just got off the phone with Georgia Little Shield, Director and Advocate at the Pretty Bird Woman House. Over the weekend, the shelter received a call from a woman who needed to be evacuated. If this had happened on Thursday, the shelter would not have been able to do much more than take the call. But because of your efforts, Georgia was able to tell this woman: “Don’t worry about the money–we have money coming. Just get out and come in.”

In late September the Federal grant was awarded, paying the salaries for Georgia Little Shield and two more full time shelter staff/advocates. The future of Pretty Bird Woman House seemed assured. With the support of the Tribal Government, a shelter to house women in danger and the federal grant the pieces had finally come together and the women of Standing Rock had a permanent sanctuary.

This security proved illusory.

Losing the House
Georgia Little Shield described the abandoned building donated to Pretty Bird Woman House by the Bear Soldier District government in late 2006 as being able to house one family and two single women at a time with room for office space on the bottom floor. While not luxurious by any means, it had all the necessities; running water, electricity, telephone lines, a small amount of storage and shelter from South Dakota’s harsh winter. The biggest drawback lay in the fact that the building’s remote location made it difficult for the small police force to quickly respond.

The first signs of danger came when Pretty Bird Woman House offered shelter to a woman whose batter had a record of extreme violence. Fearing for her safety, they transferred her to a shelter off of the reservation. The next day someone cut the shelter’s phone lines. Police did not have the manpower to come out and see the cut phone lines and eventually the phone company fixed them.

Shortly after this unknown men entered an adjoining abandoned building. They kicked and tore a hole through the drywall wide enough to walk through and looted the shelter of anything they could carry: televisions, computers, clothing, toiletries (all donated or purchased with donations) – literally anything that could be carried. This happened in broad daylight while the shelter was empty – the staff were all absent transporting women to court or other shelters. Clearly the perpetrators watched the shelter for such an opportunity.

After a second break in, local government and Pretty Bird Woman House realized that the shelter could not function safely. The staff moved out and returned to the unheated donated office space. The day after they moved out the crisis line got a telephone call:

Lady, your shelter is on fire, they are burning down your shelter.

Arsonists had thrown some kind of molotov cocktail through a basement window, setting fire to the building.

This blow dealt a terrible setback to Pretty Bird Woman House. Some of the grants they depend on require that they provide shelter to battered women and their children. All the advantages they gained – not having to make three and four hour trips transporting women to neighboring shelters (assuming those shelters had room), having a stable base of operations, having the extra time not spent driving, or calling to place women doing grant writing – all of these advantages vanished.

While Georgia Little Shield maintains a stoic resolve that Pretty Bird Woman House will survive regardless, others wonder if the shelter can make it. Some feel the shelter has been targeted (sorry for the “some say” construction – anonymity is a real concern for these people) for destruction.

Fears and Hopes for the Future
Georgia Little Shield has modest dreams for Pretty Bird Woman House:

I want to have a shelter and four paid advocates. Two advocates would focus on sexual assualt – currently we must travel 120 miles to get rape kit. We need two advocates for domestic violence as well. Domestic violence calls make up most of our crisis calls, but sexual assault requires a lot of resources. I want to be able to teach women’s safety classes, parenting classes, offer assistance in getting GED’s, have a place for women to look for jobs on line. These are the kind of support services I want to offer.

She has not forgotten the men who batter either:

I want to offer them classes to help them stop being violent. Anger management and things like that. Hopefully it would make a difference.

Georgia Little Shield hopes these things can happen but the most important goal for her:

Pretty Bird Woman House must be self sufficient. I have chronic heart problems and diabetes… my health is real bad. I just want to make sure Pretty Bird Woman House will be able to continue without me.

What Your Donation Buys

Pretty Bird Woman House already has two potential replacement houses in mind. Both offer significantly more space than the previous building. Georgia described how they both had full basements, storage room and would house more than double the families and women than their previous building. Both buildings have yards which means possible playgrounds for children.

One house has a major advantage in location – a police station across the street.

Because of difficulties obtaining loans (banks are allergic to both Native Americans and poverty) the best solution lies in purchasing the house outright. The Tribal Council could hold the mortgage but coming up with the mortgage payments every month creates an ongoing problem. Since both houses are on the market, they could be gone anytime. Depressed property values on Standing Rock mean that $60,000 gets the house. An additional $10,000 is required to make them secure, with proper fencing, video cameras, reinforced doors and other measures. Neither house is in great shape, but both offer shelter and that remains the bottom line for the survival of Pretty Bird Woman House.

This is urgent for many reasons:
– Pretty Bird Woman House cannot serve the women who need help now – if neighboring shelters are full battered women and rape victims needing a place to go have nowhere at all.

– the lack of a shelter disqualifies Pretty Bird Woman House from many grants

– the situation requires Pretty Bird Woman House to stretch its resources to the breaking point – it cannot be sustained.

Once Pretty Bird Woman House has a permanent home, the future looks much brighter. Again, they will meet the criteria for grants. The permanency of a home opens many doors for them and makes a huge impact on the future of the shelter. Beyond this, a permanent women’s shelter on Standing Rock creates an infrastructure to begin to tackle the nightmares detailed above. That infrastructure will function to erode the resistance to change. In a very real sense a women’s shelter is the foundation upon which progress can take place.

In short, if we meet this goal, Pretty Bird Woman House should not need constant fundraisers by the progressive blogosphere.

Please: DONATE NOW. Pretty Bird Woman House is a 501 (c) 3 charitable organization.

What Else Can We Do?
Material donations
If you have clothing, toiletries or other goods (or checks if you don’t donate online) donations you can send them via USPS to:
Pretty Bird Woman House
P.O. Box 596
McLaughlin, SD 57642

If you use FedEx, UPS or DHL ship to:
Pretty Bird Woman House
302 Sale Barn Rd.
McLaughlin SD 57642

If you have ideas for helping, please join the Yahoo Group.

Perhaps most importantly, BLOG. Spread the word. Make it go viral. That is the genius, the magic, of the netroots – our amazing power. No one of us has to do this all on their own. We do this as community. Pass this on throughout the community. Feel free to take anything from my diaries or from the Pretty Bird Woman Blog for this purpose. That’s what it is there for. Please, if nothing else, do this.

Anything you do for this effort is appreciated. You are helping make the Bird in Pretty Bird Woman House into a Phoenix – literally rising from the flames. Please take a second to tell us in comments what you did so we may thank you – and maybe your comments will inspire someone else to give as well.

Georgia Little Shield said:

Someone has to hear these women. Someone has to listen to them.

Let’s make sure someone can be there to listen. Thank you so very much.

Friends of Pretty Bird Woman House Yahoo Group
Pretty Bird Woman House Blog
Amnesty International Report-Maze of Injustice: The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA

"Prostitute" does not mean "worthless"

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.

Jeffrey McKee was convicted of raping two women, but received a lighter prison sentence because his victims were prostitutes.

Luckily, there are people in the Washington state judicial system who aren’t total fuckwits.

Read the article for the full story, but here are a few notable quotes that illustrate the persistent sexism and victim-blaming in public attitudes towards sexual violence. Sure, society says, we’ll protect the victims of rape – but only if you’re the right kind of victim.

Superior Court Judge Douglas McBroom said the sex acts were against the victims’ will only because they didn’t get paid,

“Only because they didn’t get paid” and they didn’t want to. Payment may be a necessary part of consent for sex workers to engage in sex, but it is by no means the only part. If you insist on equating sex workers with any other kind of worker (without regard to the social context in which they perform this work), then you must also acknowledge that a worker who is kidnapped and held at gunpoint while robbed is the victim of more than simple robbery.

and prostitutes were “a far cry from the innocent rape victim” that lawmakers envisioned when deciding the severe penalties for the crime.

Ah, yes, the “perfect victim” idea. As if the so-called “innocence” of a person determines the nature and extent of the crime. Funny, I thought the behavior of the perpetrator determined that.

In its ruling Monday, the appeals court called the judge’s reasoning behind the sentencing “a reflection of his personal opinion and subjective belief that raping a prostitute is not as brutal as raping a woman who ‘did not willingly start off ready to perform a sex act.'”

Scary, isn’t it? If you are – perhaps, if you ever have been – “ready to perform a sex act,” that makes you less of a victim, in the eyes of Judge Douglas McBroom. Ready to have vaginal sex, but your partner forces anal sex on you? Not a victim. Ready to have sex with one guy, but he calls in his buddies and they force themselves on you? Not a victim. Experience pain or discomfort during sex, but your partner doesn’t stop? Nope, not a victim.

The three-judge panel also rejected many of McKee’s claims, including an assertion that his crimes were more like robbery than rape, and that prostitutes are not as traumatized by rape as other victims.

So the perpetrator attempts to belittle his crime by attacking the victims again … Yeah, that’s an indication that you want to give this man a shorter prison sentence and unleash him upon society sooner. *eyeroll*

The fact that this ignorant, sexist decision was overruled by the appeals court is heartening – as is the fact that the news article itself is written intelligently. Here are the names of people worth listening to, and worth supporting – in elections, with donations, what have you.

Appeals Court Judge William Baker, the man who threw out the inadequate prison sentence, says that, The fact that the women “may have been willing to have sex for money does not trivialize the trauma of being raped at gunpoint.” It’s sad how rare it is that you actually hear public officials say something that makes so much sense.

Eboni Colbert, co-executive director of Communities Against Rape and Abuse, says, “It’s kind of scary to think that who I might be as a victim will impact how the criminal justice system chooses to punish the perpetrator.” CARA, if you haven’t heard of it, is a wonderful local anti-abuse organization, and I’m glad they were highlighted in the article.

The article (whose author is Tracy Johnson), also noted that prostitutes are often seen as disposable and deserving of whatever happens to them — even though abuse or other desperate circumstances may have led them into selling sex in the first place.

“Everyone deserves the protection of our laws,” Deputy Prosecutor Andrea Vitalich said. “The failure to protect the most vulnerable in our society is a failure to protect everyone.”

That’s really all you need to know in relation to sexual violence against prostitutes. Regardless of how you feel about sex work – whether you think it’s empowering, oppressive, or somewhere in between – it makes absolutely no difference as to whether a person was raped or not, nor how much of a criminal the rapist is. I’m not sure why there’s even a question on this issue – except, of course, that I know we still labor under the malicious lie that a woman who’s sexual is fair game for sexual exploitation.

I’m sending emails to the author of the article and the editor of the newspaper, to let them know that their intelligence regarding this crime is much appreciated, especially in light of the shameless misogyny of Judge McBroom. I’d encourage other people to do the same.

Preventative measures against violence [Women and Violence, Part 9]

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.
[This is the final part of my series on Women and Violence, which I wrote as a project for a Women Studies course I took this quarter. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

I realize that a quarter-long series of articles about violence against women can be depressing, and I’d like to end this on an optimistic note.

Unfortunately, I don’t have The Solution to violence against women. Even I don’t have delusions of being that wise. 😉 But – and here I’m engaging in a bit of hubris – I believe in the power of language to educate and agitate for change. That’s one of the reasons I chose to undertake this project, and why I choose to blog in general. Writing and dialoguing is important. It’s powerful. It’s consciousness raising in cyberspace.

The weakness of dialogue is that people can simply choose not to listen. Words are just words and, by themselves, can’t stop something physical like violence. But, you know? Physical intervention isn’t necessarily what stops violence, either. The kind of violence I’ve been writing about is more than a single, contained instance of extreme violence that can be thwarted by knocking out an individual perpetrator.

Instances of violence such as the ones I’ve written about don’t spring up, fully formed and self-contained, out of vacuums. They come from someone ‘who was always such a nice guy, but …” They happen when factors that are already there ‘just get out of hand.’ They don’t disappear once they’ve occurred – they leave traces. So what makes us think there aren’t any traces before they happen? And those traces, being small and unremarkable, can also be changed by our small and unremarkable efforts.

Changing our definitions

First and foremost is the need to revise our understanding of what ‘violence’ is. Whether that means making the debatable move of classifying cosmetic surgery as violence, or the obvious and necessary recognition of marital rape as a form of rape, we need to make it clear that certain practices that society accepts without question are, indeed, harmful or violent.

It seems strange to say that we might be unaware of violence – that something so damaging could escape our notice – but in cases like marital rape, it’s true. Women might be hurt or angered by their experiences, but if the surrounding society denies that they have experienced violence – if they are told that they are simply fulfilling their ‘wifely duty’ of providing sex for their husbands, whether they want it or not – they might have a difficult time articulating their suffering as being an instance of violence.

And without the label of violence, our ability to combat things like marital rape is hampered. Because then it’s easy to dismiss it as a ‘misunderstanding,’ a ‘mistake,’ or just a ‘bad experience’ – unfortunate, but not worth action. Perhaps, in the case of marital rape, a bad husband – but certainly not a systemic problem that implicates our understanding of heterosexual relations. But with the language of ‘violence’ at our disposal, we can emphasize the harm and wrongness of these actions, and join our struggle to those against other forms of violence.

Changing our language

I’ve already talked about aspects of our language use that perpetuate violence against women. The way we talk about things – everything from the words that are ‘normal’ to use, to what is ‘normal’ to talk about at all – shapes how we think about practices of violence.

One aspect of our language that I want to highlight is our use of the virgin/whore binary. Our understanding of rape and sexual assault involves a dichotomy between women who are innocent, virginal victims of rape, and women who are promiscuous – and therefore can’t be raped. This division is obvious in the ways that female rape victims are treated, as we scrutinize a victim’s history to see: Did she ever have sex? Did she have sex with many men? Did she have sex with the alleged rapist? Did she have sex with him many times? Each ‘yes’ is one more blow against the victim’s case, one more reason that she’s a whore and not a virgin, and therefore not a ‘real’ victim.

One way we can fight against this discursive bias against women is to end slut-shaming. Stop making that division between women whom we like/who are like us and have ‘enough’ sex, and women whom we don’t like/who aren’t like us and have ‘too much’ sex (or too ‘dirty’ sex, or sex with ‘too many’ partners). Stop creating that artificial line which women must not cross, lest their ability to refuse sex no longer be respected. Stop buying into the idea that there even is an amount of sex that a woman can have that invalidates her ability to refuse sex.

And stop, stop, stop using ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ as an insult for women, even in non-sexual contexts, because it just reinforces the idea that this is a label we can use to punish women for doing what they’re not ‘supposed’ to.

The influence of language doesn’t stop here, of course. There’s also the way we talk about violence against women, as something that women passively experience rather than men actively perpetrate against them. There are the ways we talk about women’s emotions (especially anger) as opposed to men’s as less valid, less rational. There’s the way we talk about sex in general, as an aggressive activity that involves one party dominating another, and therefore automatically predisposed towards violence.

Changing our language means changing our understanding. And that means how violence is responded to, and how – if – violence happens at all.

Changing our ideas of women and men

In the previous entry I explored the ways in which women are socialized into keeping silent about violence against them. That’s one of the many ways in which standard ideas about what ‘women’ should be work to perpetuate violence against women – supplemented by standard ideas about what ‘men’ should be that grant them impunity to commit violence.

Just like altering our language is a small but crucial step to altering our conceptions of violence, so is attacking the rigid gender roles that allow men to hurt women. For example, to counter the forced silence of women, we need to encourage women’s assertiveness, from childhood onward. Stop telling little girls to quiet down, especially if we allow boys to be louder without censure. Stop telling girls that being ‘ladylike’ means not complaining, not making noise, not drawing attention to themselves. Stop shaming women who call attention to sexual harassment for ‘making waves’ in the workplace. Stop calling women ‘bitchy’ for being assertive – and if they’re being overly aggressive, criticize them the same way we criticize overly aggressive men, rather than reserving gendered insults for them. Stop assuming that only mothers have to decide if they’ll sacrifice work to be a stay-at-home parent. Stop judging mothers who aren’t stay-at-home parents. Never, ever assume that a woman ‘should’ have sex with anybody, for any reason.

This change won’t stop violence. It will make violence less easy, less expected, less unremarkable. So would other, similar changes, such as eradicating our expectations/ideals of women as passive, thin, delicate, gentle, sexy-but-not-too-sexy, self-sacrificing caretakers, emotional, irrational. Hand-in-hand with this change would be the end of expecting and encouraging men to be aggressive, dominating, emotionless, sex-obsessed, and violent.

These changes, while vast in scope, are not difficult to start. This is what we can do. It’s well within our capabilities. Anyone who says that they can’t stop violence against women is lying, either to themselves or others.

Keep thinking, observing, talking, writing, fighting.

Voice and silence [Women and Violence, Part 8]

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.
[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

In “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde writes the following description of her thought process when faced with a potential diagnosis of cancer:

[…] and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.

I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” (41)

The first time I read these words, it was like a finger had been pointed with uncomfortable precision, straight at my heart. I know what it means to be silent, out of fear, out of the desire to hide – out of the hope that, if I keep quiet, I won’t be the next target.

Silence isn’t always just about fear, of course. I know I have to pick my battles, and sometimes I know that taking on this instance of privilege will win me more headache and heartache than progress. Sometimes I honestly know that there’s no way that my voice will be heard. But along with those feelings comes the hope that silence will provide some sort of safety, like if I don’t call out the oppression around me, I somehow won’t be harmed by it.

It’s a false refuge, I know. Silence is where ignorance flourishes, and that is what allows the structures of oppression to continue to operate unchallenged. More than malice or greed, it’s ignorance of inequality that keeps us from dismantling white supremacy or patriarchy. And that ignorance requires collective action to change it – but of course, collective action requires individuals with the courage to participate.

But silence is a tricky issue for women, and women of color. Hell, if even Audre Lorde fell prey to it, that’s got to mean that silence isn’t easy to resist.

There are two other problematic aspects of silence that I want to explore, which are more complex than simply the fear of negative reaction, and which are tied specifically to issues of race and gender.

We just don’t know how to say ‘no’

Okay, that subtitle is somewhat sarcastic. I don’t mean that women don’t have the ability to actually say speak up for themselves, as if we lacked the courage or awareness. But there are ways that women are – sabotaged, we could say – in their ability to speak up for their own desires, especially when it comes to refusing other people – and especially when it comes to refusing men.

I have been in conversations with women in heterosexual relationships that revealed that they had trouble saying no to sex – either out of the assumption that it’s perfectly normal for a couple to have sex when the woman doesn’t really want to, or because they knew they could say ‘no,’ but felt bad doing it. I’ve had conversations about the origins of this difficulty, too – which reveals that just because women know they ought to be more straightforward, doesn’t mean they can be. There’s still that discomfort, fear, worry about causing trouble for the man. Even if that man is supportive! There’s the nagging concern that somehow we’re asking for too much by asserting our desires when it inconveniences our male partner.

Rather than assuming women just have some sort of biological imperative to have trouble saying ‘no,’ let’s look at these excerpts from Kathleen V. Cairns’ “‘Femininity’ and women’s silence in response to sexual harassment and coercion”:

This pattern may be particularly prevalent in established male/female relstaionships, where women often feel that their consent is, ‘constrained by [a] felt duty to be cooperative, to meet the man’s needs, not to be “inconsistent”, or accept a sexual duty towards a man whom [they are] having a close personal relationship’ [Cairns 1993a: 205]. (104)


Self-assertion or strength in purpose is generally reframed in women as selfishness, and as damaging to the well-being of men and children, since women’s obligations and responsibilities for other are expected to override self-interest. (101)

Tie these factors in to the way in which women are taught that we aren’t ‘supposed’ to have sexual desire, and you get this:

‘Struggling not to know or feel her own desire [and knowing] that she “should” say no, [she may] end up having sex “happen” to her’ [Tolman 1991: 65]. […] The experience of male persistence and coercion is complex for women. They experience strong ambivalence and undertainty about refusing male advances. […] Confronted with sexual harassment or coercion, women educated about their bodies through patriarchy are likely to have difficulty experiencing their bodies as their own, even after being ‘told’ through education that they have the ‘right’ of ownership. (100-1)

Women aren’t born feeling this way: we’re taught to. Consider these facts from “Marital Rape: History, Research, and Practice” by Jennifer A. Bennice and Patricia A. Resick: marital rape was codified into British and U.S. law through the “Hale doctrine,” a 1736 piece of writing by Sir Matthew Hale that stated, “But the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.”

Hale wasn’t the only guy who thought this way, of course; his written idea was supported by society-wide cultural assumptions about women, marriage, and sex. And these ideas do not die easily, as we can see by the fact that the Federal Sexual Abuse Act, which made marital rape into a crime on federal lands, passed in 1986. Marital rape was not illegal in all 50 of the United States until 1993. Even now, it is granted more exemptions than other forms of rape – making it clear that, under the law, women lose partial control over their bodies just by virtue of getting married.

Oh, but lest we forget – the principle behind the Hale doctrine can still be seen to rear its ugly head in non-marital rape cases.

So when women are faced with societal opposition to this extent, is it any wonder why we feel ambivalent about our ability to say ‘no’? And what other ways do we undermine women’s rights to assert their own desires, outside of sex and heterosexual relationships?

Silence out of defiance

There are, of course, instances in which we use silence with a purpose. One of my favorite descriptions of this comes from Mira Jacob’s “My Brown Face,” an essay in the anthology, Body Outlaws. An Indian American woman, she talks about her mother’s deadly use of silence to express her refusal or disapproval. It’s a use of silence that I, as an Asian American woman, am used to. I use it myself all the time – usually accompanied with a glare of death. 😉

Sadly, silence doesn’t always convey the message it’s intended to. Whether the gulf of understanding originates from racial or gender privilege, as Jacob describes, white men can misread her silence into something befitting the ‘Oriental girl’ stereotype:

[C]ontrary to my hasty logic (mute girl = bored guy), my silence only perpetuated the enigma, adding the brute element of interpretation. ‘I think you’re avoiding me,’ I heard at parties, often only hours after being introduced to a guy. ‘You’re scared of our connection, right? I know you can feel it. I felt it the minute I laid eyes on you.’ And here it was again, the bond, the miracle, the connection associated with my face, the need to be led into whatever temple I had available. I saw desire thrown back to me in fragments of Taj Mahal, Kamasutra, womanly wiles. I felt my body turn into a dark country, my silence permission to colonize. (10)

Of course, the use of silence is not common to all Asian women, nor is it limited to them. It can be used by women in any number of situations, when silence is the best – or perhaps only – method of refusal. Unfortunately, it’s too easy for men – socialized into entitlement to women’s consent – to be deaf to its meaning.

I hate to give up the tool of silence, which is (to me) one of the clearest ways I can convey my displeasure. Speaking often ends up being messy, my words tripping over one another and failing to convey my point. But in situations like this when it can be mistaken for compliance – and in a cultural context which, as described above, assumes women’s compliance – speaking up in dissent can be necessary.

Women’s words and women’s consent have been misused and abused to facilitate violence, whether in the form of verbal harassment or sexual assault. We need to recognize how silence has been forced upon us, so that we cannot refuse; or twisted, so that our silent refusal is ignored. Recognition can lead us to reclamation of both our voices and our silences.

Policing women through violence [Women and Violence, Part 7]

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.
[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

In an article titled “‘Femininity’ and women’s silence in response to sexual harassment and coercion,” Kathleen V. Cairns describes how harassment of women functions as a method of social control over women’s behavior:

[O]vert practices include the public, ritual shaming of women in the form of catcalls, lewd remarks and so on which serves to demonstrate the fact that ‘any man or group of men feels entitled not only to pass judgement on any woman walking along minding her own business, but also to announce it to her‘ [Kotzin 1993: 167] […]

In patriarchy, women are taught to accept that their femaleness, their simple presence, are responsible for men’s behavior towards them […] It becomes women’s responsibility to police themselves, to keep their dress, comportment and presence within approved limits to avoid ‘provoking’ harassment. (96-7).

This dynamic – of men acting with impunity to judge women, and women shouldering the blame for men’s actions towards them – can be applied to other forms of gender violence as well. What it comes down to is the way that negative reactions from men – or even the anticipation of those reactions – function to police women in everything from their appearance to their behavior.

Men policing women

Let’s start with the practice Cairns herself describes, of public sexual harassment. I know few, if any, women who have not experienced this in some form or another. Often this takes the form of men talking at women about their appearance or sexual appeal. This is distinguishable from actual flirting, because flirting is supposed to be a mutually consensual act, whereas harassment is just about a man making sure a woman knows his opinion of her, without caring about her participation in the interaction. (Anyone who’s been both harassed and flirted with/complimented can tell you the difference.) Harassment can also be quieter – lewd or invasive staring, muttered comments, or actual touching.

This practice polices women by imposing men’s opinions onto women about their physical attractiveness – whether the women are heterosexual or not, in a relationship and not looking for outside opinions, or just not in the mood. It reinforces the idea that the male gaze is upon a woman, that her appearance is not just for herself or a chosen few, but open to consumption and judgment by any man who sees her. Even if the judgment is ‘positive’ (“nice ass” as opposed to “ugly bitch”), it reinforces the authority of random men to inflict that judgment.

On the other hand, harassment can also be about punishment. Consider the recent study by University of Toronto professor Jennifer Berdahl, which found that, “The more women deviated from traditional gender roles – by occupying a ‘man’s’ job or having a ‘masculine’ personality – the more they were targeted.”

Women can be punished for things besides being ‘unfeminine,’ of course – as tekanji points out, men harass women for speaking up about gender issues, or just for being female. The ultimate result is the silencing or suppression of women, because we get afraid, frustrated, or just plain angry.

Violent policing

We can also look at tekanji’s examples and see how harassment quickly transforms from ‘only’ insults into actual threats of violence. These threats are almost uniformly sexual in nature, expressing that sexual assault will be used to punish deviant women, or even improve them (by causing a woman to ‘lighten up,’ etc.). How many of us (particularly feminists) have experienced or witnessed similar threats, about how we ‘need to get fucked’ in order to ‘get some sense’ or ‘learn our place’?

Of course these threats are verbal, and the one’s in tekanji’s post were communicated online. These men are not immediately and physically threatening women, and it would be safe to say that few of them actually want to rape the targets of their harassment (though I don’t trust any of them to be intelligent or worthwhile allies against sexual violence). One might be tempted to just blow this off as empty words, online aggression that doesn’t mean anything. Many people do blow it off.

But what does it mean when some men’s anger against women is expressed through threats of sexual violence, even in non-sexual contexts? And rape is a gendered form of violence, undoubtedly – women are the vast majority of victims, men are the vast majority of perpetrators, and when men are victims of rape by other men, there is the threat of the male victim being made ‘gay’ or ‘like a woman.’ All of this makes rape threats a gender-specific way of terrorizing women, above and beyond general physical threats against men or mixed-gender groups.

The effect of this type of threat is to police women’s behavior. Online, it can mean silencing a blogger, defaming her name for potential schools or employers, or driving her from a forum, community, or other space. Threats can teach women not to air certain opinions; or to do so only in private, regulated spaces; or to hide their gender identity; or to avoid sites that otherwise interest her; or to play along like ‘one of the guys’ in order to fit in.

Offline, the threat is more immediately physical, and the policing far, far more extensive. It determines who we talk to in public, the way we talk, the way we dress, the places we go, the times we go out, the amount of alcohol we drink, the people we associate with, the way we arrange our transportation … I’m sure you can think of more.

I am afraid to go out by myself at night. I don’t like being afraid, but I am. And the fear doesn’t really come from the threat of being assaulted – statistically, of course, I am far more likely to be sexually or physically assaulted by the men who are my friends and acquaintances than by a stranger jumping me in the dark.

See, I’m afraid because I have regularly been harassed when I’m walking by myself at night. It’s when I’m walking from my house to the bus stop. It’s not that late, just sometime in the evening after it’s gotten dark. I’m not dressed ‘provocatively’ (because we all know that’s an excuse, right?). But I get screamed at, by groups of guys from the safety of their own cars – loud, incoherent noises, meant to scare me or get some other reaction.

This doesn’t happen in the daytime. This doesn’t happen when I’m walking with my boyfriend. (He, by the way, walks by himself plenty of nights, and doesn’t seem to have this problem.) Sure, I’ve been harassed in broad daylight, but that’s been guys yelling in a sexual way, meant to offend (or perhaps ‘compliment’) me. This? The aggressive screaming? This is meant to police me. To let me know that I’m somewhere that I don’t belong, doing something that I shouldn’t be doing, and to let me know that these guys have the right to punish me for it by bullying me.

This policing works. I find ways to avoid walking alone at night, even when I want to go out – even though I know this isn’t right, and that I’m as entitled to be out there as any man, I can’t always convince myself to take the risk. I hate it, but I obey, because I don’t want the harassment. I’ve learned my lesson.

Women self-policing

Women police themselves in plenty of different ways. Not all of them are like my example above, where I was aware of the power dynamic. We internalize patriarchal disapproval or punishment in a myriad of ways, to the point where they become indistinguishable from our own reactions to ourselves.

Consider these excerpts Tomi-Ann Roberts and Jennifer Y. Gettman’s study, “Mere Exposure: Gender Differences in the Negative Effects of Priming a State of Self-Objectification,” which explores self-policing in the context of body image:

Although only a minority of women in the United States are actually overweight […] the majority report feeling fat and express this as a personal failure, which has been shown to lead to feelings of shame [Crandall, 1994]. Feminist theorists have described this as a cycle where the dominant culture constructs the ideal body and encourages women to monitor their own bodies as objects, and, as a result, women feel shame when they do not live up to these standards [McKinley, 1998].


Disgust can play a positive role in the development of a civilized society by internalizing norms for cleanliness, restraint, and reserve [Miller, 1997]. Unfortunately, it can also become a negative reaction to violations of these predetermined social standards. Insofar as many women experience a discrepancy between their actual body size and their ideal body size [Fallon & Rozin, 1985], women may become disgusted with their own bodies because they have violated a social standard by being unattractive or overweight, and hence “gross.” […] Indeed, it may be argued that the higher standards of cleanliness, hairlessness, odorlessness, and beauty held for women in our culture are a reflection of the greater burden placed upon women to “civilize” their bodies lest they be seen as “disgusting” by others [Roberts, Goldenberg, Power, & Pyszcynski, 2002]. (18-9)

It is also worth noting that the authors cite a study in which both men and women try on swimwear, and women “reported feeling more disgust, distaste, and revulsion than did men, who, in contrast, reported more lighthearted self-conscious feelings of awkwardness, silliness, and foolishness” (19).

Of course, there is always the possibility that women’s opinions of their own bodies are based on their own individual preferences. But why the strikingly gendered difference, between who feels “silly” and who feels “revulsion” about themselves? Why do women’s preferences about their bodies tie in so neatly to sexism, by keeping them spending their time, energy, and money on practices that make them smaller instead of larger and stronger?

And what is the role of male policing in all of this? How many of us have had husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, and friends imply to us, tell us, tease us, or threaten us about our appearance? weight? body hair? dress?

How much do negative reactions from men influence our behavior? And how much do we blame ourselves for limiting our actions, rather than those who impose those limitations upon us?

The obligatory FGC post [Women and Violence, Part 6]

[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

Yesterday some of my classmates gave a presentation about female genital cutting (though the terminology they used, and which is probably more familiar to people, is “female genital mutilation” – a difference which I’ll address later on). It’s an important, worthwhile issue, and I’m glad our class is addressing it.

Still, every time the topic comes up in conversation I cringe inwardly.

I didn’t always have this reaction. An explanation of why I do now lies in this quote by Sherene Razack, from her (fantastic) book Looking White People in the Eye:

[I]n many legal texts, both feminist and non-feminist scholars have actively participated in reproducing the binary of the civilized and liberated Western woman and her oppressed Third World sister […] One has only to think of the energy so many scholars and legal activists have poured into the legal proscription of FGM in North America (in comparison with the energy directed to antiracist strategies) to recognize a preoccupation with scripts of cultural inferiority and an affirmation of white female superiority. (6)

The binary that Razack describes is not limited to discussions of FGC, of course; but it is this tendency to divide “First World” and “Third World” women that causes my discomfort when such discussions arise among Western feminists.

This binary is inaccurate and misleading. There is no sharp division between us civilized, non-sexist Westerners and those barbaric, woman-hating brown people over there. The cultural beliefs and gender divisions that foster FGC in certain African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries are not so different from the ones in non-FGC countries, including the U.S. and Europe. I touched on this topic for last year’s Blog Against Heteronormativity day – policing and mutilating women’s bodies, even their sexual organs, is not an alien concept to the West. And yet, the similarities between the two practices – the spectrum of body modification that spans so-called “advanced” and “backwards” societies – is rarely touched upon. Instead, much of the energy in discussions about FGC center on the horrific things that those people do.

The results of such an imbalance in discussion are multiple, and troubling. As Razack points out, how much of that time could be spent on anti-racism? I don’t want to engage in “my activism is more worthwhile than your activism” hierarchies; I mean, rather, that excessive attention to FGC can actually harm other activism against racism. In other words, those who engage in Western condemnation of non-Western FGC (note the emphasis) do more than take time away from anti-racism, and can actually compound the problems of racism and imperialism by perpetuating the false civilized/uncivilized dichotomy.

This imbalance can also obscure the problems that Western women face, in terms of cosmetic surgery and related pressures, in a “mote in thy brother’s eye” kind of way. This is, of course, unhelpful for Western women’s goals. By relegating “Third World” countries to the “bad” group, it also alienates the women from those countries who could be valuable members of transnational feminist alliances. Condemning a woman’s country as primitive and ignorant and more-sexist-than-us is no way to build coalitions.

All these risks from Western discourse about FGC fueled my decision to use “female genital cutting” as opposed to “female genital mutilation.” It’s not that I believe the practice to not be mutilating, but rather, I don’t think it ought to be singled out as the mutilating practice, when there are so many (Western) practices that also fit the term. If it confuses people who are used to hearing “female genital mutilation,” then at least I get the opportunity to explain my reasons and bring their attention to the hidden racist/imperialist risks of the Western discourse.

“Female genital cutting” also connects the experiences of Western and non-Western women, because labiaplasty is included just as easily as infibulation. By doing so, I hope to highlight how both groups of women can succumb to pressures about their bodies, and how they both can be victimized into coerced surgeries. Western women are not totally liberated from patriarchy, and struggle against oppression just as non-Western women do. At the same time, Western women do not want to see themselves as passive victims – so by connecting these two groups of women, I want to draw attention to non-Western women as active agents, as well.

Recognizing the agency of women in societies that practice FGC means one, very significant thing: debunking the false dichotomy between paternalistically controlling FGC-practicing societies in order to end FGC, or leaving them alone and abandoning the women victimized by FGC. As I said in my earlier post on tradition, there is always the option to support the women who are helping themselves.

There is one other factor playing into Western discourse on FGC that I want to mention, and it’s the idea of “the gaze.” This is not exactly an official theoretical term, I think, but it’s a common idea in writings on racism and imperialism, as well as a central feature of Looking White People in the Eye. Writings about the gaze, or similar concepts, focus on who gets to look, to be the one who observes and judges. This is the party who has power to see, authority to make true judgments. As David Roediger says in the introduction to Black on White:

White writers have long been positioned as the leading and most dispassionate investigators of the lives, values, and abilities of people of color. White writing about whiteness is rarer, with discussions of what it means to be human standing in for considerations of how racial identity influences white lives. Writers of color, and most notably African-American writers, are cast as providing insight, often presumed to be highly subjective, of what it is like to be “a minority. Lost in this destructive shuffle is the fact that from folktales onward African Americans have been among the nation’s keenest students of white consciousness and white behavior. (4)

So white people have held authority over knowledge about people of color. On the other hand, people of color have not held authority over knowledge about white people. White people hold that authority – though they don’t often use it to record knowledge about themselves. Roediger continues:

What bell hooks describes as the fantastic white ability to imagine “that black people cannot see them” constitutes a white illusion at once durable, powerful, and fragile. It exists alongside a profound fear of actually being seen by people of color […] From the beatings of house slaves who knew too much to the lynchings of African Americans thought to look too long, [African Americans’] safety has often turned not just on being unseen, but also on being perceived as unseeing […] Discounting and suppressing the knowledge of whiteness held by people of color was not just a byproduct of white supremacy but an imperative of racial domination. (6)

To be powerful means to be the one who sees, not the one who is seen. I think this understanding of power fuels the Western treatment of FGC, which is so skewed towards viewing the Other (societies who practice FGC) and not being seen (for similar practices such as labiaplasty).

According to Razack, in April 1995 CNN “showed an FGM in progress, and did so throughout an entire day” (124). The fact that someone even considered that this was okay to do relies on certain ideas of who is the object of the gaze, and who the rightful gazer. One of these ideas was the objectification of women in general; our bodies are always to be gazed upon. Yet the treatment of the racial Other as an object was also necessary for the decision to broadcast such intimate images for sensationalist purposes. I can’t imagine the U.S. being comfortable with another country broadcasting, say, a labiaplasty in progress in order to show how “barbaric” we were.

So perhaps some of the inordinate amount of attention that Western feminists have centered around FGC draws from this need to be the gazer. We have a discomfort with being the object of the gaze, either by others or by ourselves.

This is not to say that Western feminists ought to ignore FGC, or never examine patriarchal tendencies in societies outside of our own. This is not to say that all examinations of FGC by Western feminists are innately imperialist. What I am saying is that we ought to be very careful of the judgments we make in the name of feminism, when that feminism can be used to obscure our own complicity in imperialism.

To return once again to Razack, she quotes from Isabelle Gunning to list some basic necessities for feminist analyses of international human rights: “1) seeing oneself in historical context; 2) seeing oneself as the “other” might see you; and 3) seeing the “other” within her own cultural context” (97). These steps do not give us a complete guide on how to avoid perpetuating imperialism through our feminism – but they’re a start.

The violence beneath 'beauty' [Women and Violence, Part 5]

[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

Next week I’m giving a presentation in class on cosmetic surgery in regards to women of color. Now, cosmetic surgery does not readily fall under most common definitions of ‘violence,’ and I find myself hesitant to categorically label it as such.

On the one hand, while cosmetic surgery does involve bloody alterations on a person’s body, so does surgery in general, and we generally don’t label that as violent – especially when voluntarily consented to by the patient. The fact that cosmetic surgery is often (though not always) agreed to by an autonomous individual does mitigate the physical damage it brings.

Of course, we are all aware that ‘consent’ is a sticky issue, and that we can’t ignore the pressures that can constrain a person’s ability to make a choice – particularly in the case of women facing pressures to be ‘beautiful’ in a certain way.

Furthermore, the same level of physical damage can be construed as ‘violent’ or ‘non-violent’ depending on the context. Full-contact sports can be performed just as ferociously as a street brawl, yet not be uncontrolled and violent. What’s more, a session of safe, sane, and consensual BDSM can be non-violent, while the quietest rape perpetrated under clearly communicated threat is clearly not.

Still, I find it difficult to attach the label of ‘violent’ to cosmetic surgery in its entirety. There is still a risk of compromising the agency of the woman who elects to have that surgery. This risk is exacerbated by the fact that ‘cosmetic surgery’ is a difficult category for me to define, because its borders blur with what is considered ‘reconstructive surgery,’ as well as decorative body modifications.

So all I have right now are the beginnings of an analysis of the level of violence within cosmetic surgery. One of the most important pieces that I have so far comes out of my study of women of color. While researching for my presentation, I ran across a book by Margaret L. Hunter called Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone. While her object of analysis is colorism, or racial prejudice based on skin color, she examines the connection between the creation of beauty standards and the exploitation of women of color’s bodies in a way that I find useful for contextualizing cosmetic surgery.

Consider this passage on the construction of blackness:

“African-ness” came to be known as evil and “whiteness” came to be known as virtuous. These abstract concepts, however, quickly manifest themselves in the actual phenotypic characteristics of the racial groups […] Blackness and whiteness were no longer merely abstract concepts. Actual physical traits associated with each racial group began to take on these ideological meanings. Dark brown skin, kinky hair, and broad noses started to represent barbarism and ugliness. Similarly, straight blonde hair and white skin began to represent civility and beauty. (Hunter 20-1)

For women of color, this racist pressure is combined with a sexist one: for instance, Latina women are faced with the history of imagery that constructed dark-skinned Mexican American women as not only inferior, but as whores, while light-skinned and therefore favored women were tied to the Madonna (Hunter 31). Thus even the light-skinned and white women who are seen as ‘good’ are subjected to the same overarching system that judges and degrades women based on their physical appearance. Or, as Hunter puts it, “The racist action of the beauty queue seems obvious, but the fact that there is a queue at all is the less obvious but equally damaging effect. So the beauty queue is racist in its hierarchy of women by color and misogynist in its function to objectify all women” (28).

Physicality, and physical beauty, are not just about the body, but are intimately tied with ideas of social and sexual worth. This is, of course, true for more people than just women of color – women of all races are judged on how attractive they are to heterosexual men, people with disabilities are judged as less intelligent or capable or worthwhile than able-bodied people.

From value judgments, it is a frighteningly easy transition to actual violence. Consider the dark-skinned Latina ‘whore’ who is denied the sexual innocence of the ‘Madonna.’ When such a woman is raped, her violation is minimized in the same way that all violations of the sexually deviant are minimized – with excuses that she was ‘asking for it,’ or that it doesn’t matter because she’s already ‘used.’ How many other racialized constructions can we think of that justify sexual violence based on a woman’s appearance as non-white – the oversexed Black woman, the Oriental geisha girl, the Indian squaw?

And now we can change some of those features that identify us as ethnic minority women. Eyelid surgeries add creases to Asian people’s eyelids, making them look more similar to white people. Rhinoplasty is used to alter the noses of members of various races, bringing them more in line with the longer and narrower Anglo nose (Hunter 56).

Are women of color who choose such surgeries aware of the violence that has historically plagued women who look different from the (white) standard? Certainly not all of them are. But can we honestly say that such women are completely unaffected by the continuing judgments leveled upon the worth of women of color, which are based in such a history?

So what Hunter provides for me is the possibility that the violence of cosmetic surgery lies not in the practice itself, but in the history that shapes the parameters of that practice: what is performed, why it is performed, and how women are pressured into participating in this practice.

This conclusion, half-formed as it is, still leaves open the question of whether or not cosmetic surgery is violent in and of itself, or whether it is just surrounded by violence. I’m still working that one out.

Tradition and the obscuring of gender violence [Women and Violence, Part 4]

[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

One of the most insidious ways of normalizing and justifying gendered violence is by tying it to tradition. By portraying perpetrators as if they were enacting the accepted practices of a culture, those in power position victims of violence not only against their victimizer, but also against the weight of a culture’s history. Additionally, “tradition” is a popular buzzword that protects a practice from interrogation, hiding it behind a shield of maintaining history or honoring ancestors.

Examples of this kind of use of tradition can be found in Niamh Reilly’s book Without Reservation: The Beijing Tribunal on Accountability for Women’s Human Rights, in which a number of women from all over the world provide accounts of gendered violence against women. A woman named Ruth Manorama writes about Dalit women in India, describing how “the ideology of caste, which classifies people as unclean and untouchable, has become an instrument to legitimize power and privilege in a hierarchical and unjust social order” (118). The result is a devaluation of Dalit women, which legitimizes their physical and sexual abuse by members of upper castes. The “tradition” of economic and social stratification within the caste system (already problematic by itself) becomes twisted into a justification for all forms of gendered violence.

In another account from the same book, Sultana Kamal tells the story of Nurjahan, a Bangladeshi woman who was driven to suicide “because of a fatwaa – a decree issued by an illegal and self-appointed village court” (129). The local imam, furious at his marriage offer being rejected by Nurjahan’s family, charged the woman with an illegal marriage and sentenced her to death by stoning. Kamal notes that “This was not a normal or customary punishment in the village or in Bangladesh” (130). Nurjahan did not have the chance to be inflicted with this punishment; she committed suicide out of the dishonor faced by her and her family from this spurious charge – a dishonor constructed out of the imam’s manipulation of authority, which allowed him to bring the power of tradition into the service of his own misogynistic desires.

Traditions don’t need to be respected in order to be used in the service of gendered violence, though. Even traditions that are dismissed as “backwards” or “exotic” can obscure the practice of gendered violence by relegating it to the domain of the Other – in fact, the weirder the better. It mean the perpetrators are freaks, uncivilized people who aren’t like us. As a result, we forgo any analysis of our own, “normal” violence against women, because we think it’s only caused by people “over there.”

Consider the case of Ciudad Juárez, a city in Mexico just across the border from El Paso, Texas, which has been the site of a series of disappearances of young women for over a dozen years. These women are often found murdered and sexually assaulted. Lourdes Portillo’s 2001 documentary, Señorita Extraviada, details both the pattern of the murders and the various responses by officials in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, and abroad. These “responses” have been notoriously unhelpful, and have done little if anything to halt the murders.

There are many noteworthy aspects of the Juárez murders and the responses to them in connection to an analysis of gendered violence, but for now I’m interested in a particular, though brief, bit of the documentary. At some point, several years after the murders began, investigators recovered a body with strange, deliberate wounds in a scene with other evidence of some sort of ritual. When news of this broke, there was fear and horror in the public’s reaction – a fear and horror which were conspicuously missing when the murders began, and the numbers of missing women added up. The possibility of “crazy devil worshippers” got the attention, while the possibility of normal, local people causing the deaths of hundreds of women did not.

In an article titled, “Girls and War Zones: Troubling Questions,” Carolyn Nordstrom describes the pervasive victimization of girl children both in and out of war. In the early 1990s, a series of disappearances of children from Maputo, Mozambique raised media attention. The media claimed that the origin of these disappearances was tied to feiticeiria, “indigenous medicine used to cause harm and to gain power at the expense of others. Body parts, often of children, are claimed to be the ingredients in the more powerful and dangerous medicines of feiticeiria” (68).

This was not actually the case, of course; the purpose behind the kidnappings was a child trafficking industry that sold children into domestic slave labor in white South African homes, or into prostitution. However, “while the fanciful stories of selling ‘body parts’ in the pursuit of sorcery were widely circulated in the media, the actual selling of living children was not” (69).

My examples have come from non-U.S. countries, but of course the United States and other Western powers are not immune from this manipulation of tradition. We have our own insidious ways of perpetuating gender bias, from the tradition of making women take their husband’s last name to the idealization of the private sphere, which sets up the nuclear family as the domain of the head of the household (read: men). The latter tradition directly influences the practice of gendered violence, as it has historically been one of the biggest obstacles to feminist attempts to raise awareness and resistance to domestic violence. And of course, none of these traditions are immovable barriers – they can be resisted, but to do so would mean resisting the cultural weight of society alongside the individual people directly involved.

However, relatively little attention is given to Western traditions that enable gendered violence, even when we identify traditions from other cultures that are harmful to women. We hear all about misogynistic laws in Middle Eastern countries that punish women for being raped, or machismo among Latino cultures. Then we can give ourselves a feel-good pat on the back for being concerned about women – all the while ignoring the women who are victims of violence in our own backyard, and maintaining the racist belief in the superiority of enlightened Western civilization.

But then, you may protest, does that mean we should just ignore the sexist traditions in other countries and cultures? Should we let sexism go because we don’t want to be racist?

But the question is a false one, one which serves both misogynist and white supremacist interests by trying to make us choose between one oppression or the other. The real answer is evident in the examples I gave, particularly from Reilly’s book. That is, we ought to listen to the women who are, at this moment, fighting against the patriarchy within their respective cultures. We don’t need to stick our hands in their business and try to solve their problems our way; nor do we need to lay off completely and ignore their plight.

Listening to the women and giving them support (rather than exerting control) would mean acknowledging their agency as an oppositional force to their own oppressions. It would also result in more culturally viable solutions to practices of patriarchy that draw upon the needs and desires of a people, rather than what would serve our own interests – not to mention a real understanding of the culture’s traditions that recognizes which practices are authentic, which are constructed, and how they need to be changed.

Discursive patterns regarding sexual violence [Women and Violence, Part 3]

[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

A couple of disclaimers, to start:

-First, this is not about me being angry at, or blaming, any particular individuals. This is also not about placing the responsibility for a society-wide problem on these particular individuals.

-Second, this entry is for everyone to read, even though I refer to a specific example in which only a few people were involved. The point of this entry is, again, not to pin the responsibility on anyone. The point is to raise awareness of a common, problematic pattern that we all engage in.

The other day I posted this rant to my journal concerning an incident at work. I was disturbed and angry about what seems to me an instance of sexual harassment (not because it was necessarily aimed at women, but because it was sexual and it was harassment). I was also aware of the ways in which sexism played into my reaction: my first instinct was to minimize my own discomfort and stay quiet about it, though in the end I realized what I was doing and spoke up.

Several people commented on that entry (though I have since screened the comments – again, so that attention or blame is not focused on one or two people). Here is the layout of the comments as of today, April 14:

-One short thread (one person’s comment and my reply) expressing sympathy about my experience.
-One long thread that begins with a person expressing sympathy, then suggesting an alternate explanation that would excuse the anonymous man’s actions as being something other than sexual harassment. The thread continues with two other people joining in to support the idea of an alternate explanation, and the topic of my distress leaves the conversation.

Why did the conversation end up like this?

Let me tell you a short anecdote, to provide a bit of perspective: About a year and a half ago, I hurt my back and walking was painful and difficult for a few months. During this time, while I was crossing a crowded crosswalk on campus, a man walking in the opposite direction bumped into me with enough force that, in my normal physical state, I would have stumbled backwards. As it was, I exerted effort to not fall over. The man said nothing, and as I turned around to glare at him I saw him walking blithely away, talking to someone next to him. When I found some friends I ranted about what had happened, in much the same state as I was in when I wrote the abovementioned entry. A guy had run into me, I told them, and didn’t care enough to apologize or see if I was all right.

Every single person I talked to asked if I was okay. Not a single person attempted to second-guess my account by asking, “But what if he didn’t notice? What if he said ‘sorry’ but you didn’t hear him?”

These are, of course, possible alternate explanations. Not hugely likely, but possible. And yet no one seemed to consider it important to bring them up.

I bring up this example not to say that we should never look for alternate explanations of harmful or harassing behavior, or to say that this reaction was Right and the one to my recent post was Wrong. I bring it up to show that the way the conversation that ensued on my post was not automatic or natural. My anecdote shows how it could have gone another way – how it did not have to end up with the majority of the emphasis on finding ways to excuse the anonymous man’s actions.

What’s the difference between these two cases? It certainly isn’t that the commenters on my blog are ruder or dumber than the people I talked to after I got bumped into. It isn’t that they intended to minimize my feelings and discredit me in favor of the anonymous man. It wasn’t even about any single person or comment turning a perfectly-good conversation into a perfectly-bad one. What bothers me was not the mere mention of an alternate explanation, but rather the way the conversation progressed; the cumulative effect was a prioritizing of the anonymous man’s need for a fair ‘trial’ at the expense of neglecting my distress. It was the replication of a pattern that occurs time and time again when it comes to sexual violence and harassment, particularly when perpetrated by men against women.

In cases of sexual violence against women, the conversation is not always about comforting and believing the victim. It should be, but unfortunately there are many, many places – the legal system, the media, the community, the victim’s peers or family – where the conversation is skewed into being about the perpetrator’s credibility instead of the victim’s need for justice. Excuses are given for the perpetrator. The victim’s reliability is questioned. The conversation is made up of statements such as, “But he’s such a nice guy,” “I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt you,” “He’s so attractive he wouldn’t need to rape a woman.” To complement these sentiments is the questioning of the woman, in ways such as, “She must have been mistaken,” “She’s just overreacting,” “She was flirting and sending the wrong messages,” “Did she make it clear she didn’t want to have sex?” And, of course, the old standard of, “She’s just making it up.”

Most of all, this isn’t recognized as an unfair or misogynistic in mainstream circles. It is seen as normal. The discursive shift, from treating the victim as credible and rational to manipulative/misinformed/deceitful, occurs seemlessly. It isn’t seen as remarkable. It certainly isn’t seen as being biased toward the perpetrator.

Obviously my experience was not nearly this severe. I wasn’t outright accused of being uncredible, or criticized as vindictive, or told I was somehow to blame for what happened. I didn’t experience a great trauma. I bring up my example because it represents the same pattern, though to a much smaller degree. I want people to see what happened here and understand how we can participate in this pattern without realizing it, and without intending to be unfair to women who experience sexual violence. Because these kinds of situations are a training ground for the more extreme and damaging variety, where victims of greater forms of violence are belittled and dismissed, letting those who commit violence off the hook and leaving them free to victimize again.

That lesser-degree discursive shift is the precursor to things like the current mistreatment of Kathy Sierra, whose account of being viciously harassed and stalked is being minimized and dismissed, while Sierra herself is accused of overreacting and being unreliable. Because, much as I hate to admit it, the people who are engaging in the discrediting of Sierra’s story are not excessively ignorant or hateful people. They simply fail to examine how they are buying into the same violence-excusing, victim-blaming discourse that allows for such rampant victimization of women to be disregarded, and their voices to be silenced. The ones who are crying foul over this treatment of Sierra are feminist bloggers, who are most familiar with this insidious discourse and its effects.

It is a seductive discourse, though, and not least because it’s so common. When regular, intelligent people engage in the same thought processes, it’s hard to recognize them as biased (though of course we could say that about privilege in general). There’s also a comfort gleaned from engaging in this discourse, because by denying the plausibility of sexual violence we can continue to deny how prevalent it is – especially for women who are assailed with terror tactics based on this issue all the time, and especially in cases of victims who are uncomfortably ‘just like us.’

The key, I think, to eliminating this discursive pattern is to ask ourselves, What are we assuming:

About the victim’s credibility or motives? Do we start off believing that she must be mistaken, that her version of things is incorrect? Do we assume that she’s lying? Do we assume that she must have been ’emotional’ or ‘overreacting’?
About the perpetrator? Do we assume that he must not have intended to hurt anyone? Do we assume that he has an excuse? Do we assume that his past good behavior indicates that he is innocent now?
About the likelihood of sexual violence? Do we assume that it ‘just doesn’t happen around here’? Do we assume that sexual violence is the least likely explanation?
About what is most important? The victim’s comfort, or the possibility of proving her wrong, and making ourselves feel comforted?

It’s tough to question ourselves like this, and it can be discomfiting. There’s still the risk that we’ll mess up anyway and wrong a victim. But at the very least, we must remember that these questions can and should be asked, so that the discursive pattern that harms victims of sexual violence can be interrupted.

Denying responsibility for sexism [Women and Violence, Part 2]

[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

One of the first readings assigned for this class has been Albert Bandura’s “Selective Activation and Disengagement of Moral Control,” published in volume 46, number 1 of Journal of Social Issues. The purpose of the article is to examine how, in normal and everyday circumstances, people can commit actions that they typically consider immoral. Most of the time, barring deviant individuals, we keep ourselves in check. We decide not to commit immoral actions according to what we understand as ‘moral,’ without needing other people to force us to do so.

According to Bandura, we regulate ourselves through the use of “self-sanctions.” I guess it’s like the superego, but without dealing with issues of the unconscious. For a psychological layperson like me, it’s useful just to think of it as a conscience. Basically it means that we watch and judge ourselves, and that is what determines our behavior. So if those judgments are somehow deactivated, then we can engage in behavior that we would normally consider wrong, but without making ourselves feel shame.

This is a pretty useful concept for a class on gendered violence, because it helps explain why something normally heinous (violence, particularly sexual violence) has become so common against women. I also find it useful for wider discussions about sexism in general – why something as awful-sounding as discriminating against people based on their sex is nonetheless such a widespread part of our societies. Not by a few of the absolute worst people. Not by the people who mean to do it. But by everybody.

That’s what Bandura’s article is about – how normal, good people do bad things. For the purposes of a feminist discussion, the article explains how Nice Guys can engage in sexism. Because there aren’t enough horribly evil and sadistic and devious men out there to be responsible for all of patriarchy. The bulk of the responsibility lies in the collective, relatively minor abuses of regular guys – guys who are usually nice, but sometimes deactivate their self-sanctions in ways that let them justify sexism.

“But look at how sexist they are in China!”

Whenever events occur or are presented contiguously, the first one colors how the second one is perceived and judged. By exploiting the contrast principle, moral judgments of conduct can be influenced by expedient structuring of the comparison. Thus, self-deplored acts can be made righteous by contrasting them with flagrant inhumanities. The more outrageous the contrasted actions, the more likely it is that one’s own destructive conduct will appear trifling or even benevolent. (Bandura 32-3)

Everyone knows this one, right? The one where someone interrupts a feminist conversation by raising a comparison to some Other: if we’re discussing the United States, we’ll get comparisons to places like China or the Middle East; if we’re discussing states in the Northwest or New England, we’ll get comparisons to places like the South; if we’re discussing the behavior of predominantly white populations, we’ll get comparisons to people of color. Hell, it can even come down to comparisons between the speaker and another person in the conversation, that other guy who’s “so much more sexist than me.”

Not only is this behavior problematic because of its tendency toward racism – or really, any bias that makes some group into the Other, and therefore a potential scapegoat – it also lowers the speaker’s opposition to sexism that hits closer to home. If a guy is spending all of his time bemoaning how sexist they are over there, it lets him pretend that he’s really a good guy who gets outraged about sexism. He can believe that he’s a good guy, or even a feminist guy. But he isn’t helping our cause over here by calling it (relatively) unimportant – and he sure as hell isn’t helping the Other when he demonizes them like that. All he’s doing is giving himself a pat on the back for not being the worst sexist around, which means that he’s far less likely to examine his own male privilege.

“I don’t have enough power to be an oppressor!”

Self-sanctions are activated most strongly when personal agency for detrimental effects is unambiguous. Another set of disengagement practices operates by obscuring or distorting the relationship between actions and the effects they cause. […] Under conditions of displaced responsibility, people view their actions as springing from the dictates of authorities rather than from their own personal responsibility. Since they feel they are not the actual agent of their actions, they are spared self-prohibiting reactions. (Bandura 34)

The pseudo-nice guy who uses this strategy isn’t the one who’s responsible for patriarchy – he just plays along with (and benefits from) it, all the while denying that his inaction translates into implicit consent to the status quo, which then supports its continued existence. In an extreme form, this can be the guy who watches but doesn’t stop a gang rape; on a more common basis, it’s the guy who lets other guys use sexist epithets, and perhaps uses them himself. He’ll deny that he’s doing anything wrong – after all, he isn’t the one who instigated the behavior – so how can he be to blame?

This is a strategic adoption of powerlessness that is used to make a person seem less culpable. The man who uses this strategy minimizes the impact of his actions, so that they couldn’t possibly be blamed for the eventual negative results on women. He’ll deny his own power and pass the buck on to others – large structures such as the government, individual men with economic or political power, or the peer pressure of his social group – to excuse his own sexist behaviors. Or he’ll insist that his lack of social power elsewhere, as a poor man or a man of color, means that his own actions are ineffectual. They made me or I can’t stop this is the general sentiment. That way, he doesn’t have to feel bad about his lack of courage or reliability.

Of course, regardless of who’s ultimately responsible for a sexist action, that action still has the same sexist effects. When a million different guys talk like this, and a million different guys thus fail to speak up against misogynistic behavior, sexism gets that many more passive supporters. And female feminists – who do appreciate all the true allies they can get – are left with that many more Nice Guys who fail to step up when they’re really needed.

“But feminists kicked my puppy!”

Imputing blame to one’s antagonists or to environmental circumstances is still another expedient that can serve self-exonerative purposes. In this process, people view themselves as faultless victims and see their detrimental conduct as compelled by forcible provocation. Detrimental interactions usually involve a series of reciprocally escalating actions, in which the antagonists are rarely faultless. One can always select from the chain of events an instance of the adversary’s defensive behavior and consider it as the original instigation. One’s own injurious conduct thus becomes a justifiable defensive reaction to belligerent provocations. Those who are victimized are not entirely faultless because, by their own behavior, they usually contribute at least partly to their own plight. Victims can therefore be blamed for bringing suffering on themselves […] By blaming others or circumstances, not only are one’s own actions made excusable, but one can even feel self-righteous in the process. (41)

I like to call this the Feminists Kicked My Puppy approach because men who engage in it portray themselves as the hapless victims of feminist cruelty. They assert that they can’t/don’t want to be feminists because some feminist, somewhere in the past, was mean to them – and, well, they can’t be expected to help people who are rude to them, right? The man himself becomes the target of victimization, rather than the women whom he’s abandoning through his self-pity.

This behavior isn’t always enacted by the poor, sad victim type. The same justification is behind the wannabe rebels who think being anti-feminist is cool and edgy, who think they’re fighting back against “those castrating bitches” who just have so much power over men – usually because they’ve seen a handful of instances in which a woman was in a position to exert authority over a man (without taking into account intersecting hierarchies of race, gender, or sexuality), and took that to be the defining model of gender power relations.

Of course feminists are not all perfectly kind and discerning people who never wrongfully judge men or abuse their authority. No doubt there have been feminists who have actually been, y’know, mean to a dude. Yet note how a single feminist (or a few feminists) is taken to represent all feminists, anywhere; and how individual instances of rudeness are portrayed as equal to or greater than women’s suffering under patriarchy.

“You’re being rude to me? Fine, you deserve to suffer under sexism!” If that’s not an example of male privilege, I don’t know what is.

This is only a handful of the various justifications used to make men feel better about being sexist. The common thread among these behaviors is the attitude that being not-the-worst somehow excuses any sexist actions. As long as there’s some sexism, somewhere, that’s worse than you, that makes what you’re doing okay. All the censure is deflected onto someone else, and the Nice Guys avoid having to face up to the consequences of their behaviors.