Brock Turner, Hillary Clinton, and the Need for Representation

A little less than four months ago, when Michigan had its primary and I cast my absentee ballot, I indicated that I was not going to publicly indicate who I endorsed at that time, although I indicated that I supported a Democrat and I previously indicated that I would be Uniting Blue.  Tonight, Hillary Clinton will become the presumed Democratic Nominee, the first woman ever to win the presidential nomination in a major party primary, and I’d like to tell you about my support for her.

Hillary-Clinton-Foreign-Speech2

This is what a President looks like.

Since February, and even before that, I have rarely, if ever, posted articles in favor of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, although I have posted many articles in support of progressive principles and the Democratic Party. Reading the tea leaves on my comments, you might suspect that I support Ms. Cinton. And I do. Now. In February, I cast my ballot for Mr. Sanders. That choice was difficult for me, because I admired (and admire) both candidates deeply, but I was swayed by the level of enthusiasm I saw in young people and people who normally perceive themselves as disenfranchised. As an aside, this is what truly won me over for Mr. Obama eight years ago – a story I have told several times, seeing African American elders waiting for the bus in Hyde Park and Kenwood, with Obama tees over their dresses, I fell in love with them immediately, and Mr. Obama by extension. Although I support Mr. Sanders’ positions on many, if not almost all topics, this is really the way that I personally “felt the Bern.”

Fast forward a few months. Tonight, Ms. Clinton will win the nomination, and she will be beset by attacks on her clothes, her voice, her experience, her qualifications. The system that put her in that position, by dint of a sizable majority of voters in Democratic primaries, will be cast as rigged. There is little appearance that her nomination, at this phase, will be met with any grace by most supporters of Mr. Sanders. In fact, my Facebook timeline is full of people commenting on how they “don’t know a single person who wants Hillary to be president.”

Well, I’m one, even though I voted for Mr. Sanders. Why? Because she is perhaps the most experienced, qualified candidate ever to run for the office, especially in foreign policy. Because she has devoted her life to helping children and families, something you all know I’m incredibly passionate about. Because she’s a unifying force within the Democratic Party and she will work effectively with teammates in the House and Senate to, yes, “get stuff done.”* Because she will build on Mr. Obama’s gains of the past eight years, and she will lift up progressive candidates, including women, who will change the dialogue in Congress. And yes, because she’s a woman, and I don’t find that insignificant in a country that’s never had a woman President.

So what does this have to do with Brock Turner?

brockturner

This is what a rapist looks like.

Although Brock’s violent rape of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, a crime in the process of which he was caught by passing cyclists, who had to restrain him until the police arrived**, happened some time ago, it burst onto the national conscience, just in the last couple of days. From the judge’s absurdly lenient sentencing (leading now to a recall campaign against him), to the remarkably callous and indifferent excuses given by his friends and father, to the deeply sexist, racist, and classist way in which this entire situation was treated***, this particular rapist’s case is unique only in that, due to the courageous voice of his victim, people are taking notice. The truth is, this happens every day. Most victims of rapists like Brock don’t even get their day in court. And when they do, they generally face the male gaze – from the judge, from the jurors, and from the media. And, just like with Brock Turner, their rapists are too often made into heroes while they are vilified for being women.

So, yeah, we get it, Brock is an asshole rapist, and the deck is stacked in favor of asshole rapists. But how do these stories come together?

Today, California will hand Ms. Clinton the right to campaign as the first woman nominee of a major political party for President. This will be the first time in more than 200 years that a woman had even a shot at being President of the United States. As clear as that message is that we are reaching a new phase in the empowerment of women, that same week, that same state, California, through the bench of Judge Persky, sent women an unequivocal, equally inescapable message, that our histories will not be trusted, our experiences will not be validated, and that justice will not be ours. It’s hard for me to ignore the simultaneity of the presence of these events in my consciousness.

There are many things that must happen to end what feminists collectively call Rape Culture****. Men must act – rape is almost entirely committed by cis men, and thus it is men and not women who must stop raping. The issue of unprocessed rape kits (and women sometimes being forced to pay for their own rape kits) needs to be addressed. There are many, many other things that continue to need to be done in changing the way we teach consent, empowering the voices of victims and survivors, and making sure that they have access to the services they need.

But we also need representation. Let’s be clear. For all the male allies we have, the hegemonic culture of men still does not take rape seriously. Like, at all. A woman presiding over Turner’s case might have produced an equally lenient sentence, but it’s hard to imagine a woman trivializing the situation to the extent that Judge Persky did*****. Not all women consider rape a hate crime, but most of the people who see it this way are women. As long as the bench rarely looks like us, as long as the legislature rarely looks like us, as long as the Oval Office has never looked like us, we are fooling ourselves if we think that men will carry the torch in its entirety to hold rapists accountable. We are fooling ourselves to think that rape victims will see justice in a system run almost entirely by men.

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Emerge Michigan’s own 2016 class of women preparing to storm all levels of government.

This is where it’s not really about Ms. Clinton. Don’t support her? Fine, although think carefully about what could happen if Mr. Trump were elected. Think it’s not just about putting one woman in one office? You’re absolutely right. But we must support putting women in positions of governance and power. This moment, which is just one of many more that have already come and must keep coming, was not brought to us by magic. This moment was brought to us by decades of hard work. Before Hillary Clinton, there was Shirley Chisholm. Organizations like Emily’s List, the PAC that supports pro-choice, progressive women in critical races, need our support. Organizations like Emerge America and its state affiliates, who are grooming future generations of women to run for office and win elections, need our support. The fact that we, as women who support Ms. Clinton, are dismissed as “vagina voters” covers over the fact that men simply cannot be trusted to create a world that is fair to women, by themselves.

This also goes beyond women and beyond rape. For very similar reasons, we need more Black and Latino/Hispanic voices in our legislatures and on our benches. We need more queer people. We need more disabled people, more people with lived history of mental illness, more in short of everyone who has experienced marginalization. Where we are those people, we should step up and look for opportunities to engage – locally, at the state level, or even nationally. We should consider more critically the need that we fill the progressive bench. Whether or not we can do that, the organizations and groups working to make these things happen need our support. Support as many of them as you can, support the one you like the best, but support them.

Whatever your feelings, and whatever your healing process needs to be, if you’re a supporter of Mr. Sanders who isn’t ready to unite, yet, or even if you never do come to support Ms. Clinton’s bid for the presidency, get engaged in some kind of activity that increases representation of people who are “othered” in governance. Even if you can’t see yourself living in a world with Hillary, get engaged in making sure that, someday, we might live in a world with no more Brocks.

* Bitches (yes, I said bitches, and I’m proud to be a bitch) get stuff done.

** Just in case you thought I’d be content describing it as “twenty minutes of action” … yeah, … no.

*** Particularly when compared to the equally absurd sentence (but in the opposite direction) Jasmine Richards of Black Lives Matter received for “felony lynching,” let alone the sea of mostly brown and black faces serving long prison terms for non-violent drug crimes.

**** Although the term is admittedly cissexist, some feminists, often including myself, choose the alternate term, Dick Culture, that emphasizes the hegemonic nature of the cis white man (and his dick), and which emphasizes that rape is one terrible consequence of a system of hegemony that causes many, many ills to society.

***** And it’s no coincidence that a woman is leading the recall campaign.

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My Evolving Attitudes to Rape (and Women)

One really hard thing to do, I think for a lot of writers, is to go back and see what one said years ago. I want to do just that. I wrote this piece…

Michigan Review Summer Issue Article

What was on my mind the Summer of 1996, which was my Junior year at Michigan.

…just a hair less than twenty years ago. Half my lifetime. I suppose I could wait until it actually turns 20 to critique it, but it’s on my mind tonight, because we finally have the time to watch The Hunting Ground, an important recent documentary about #RapeCulture. And this is what I was thinking about, just as I was old enough to legally drink, while I walked the streets of one of the college campuses discussed in the film, and if I was “lucky” not to have been a victim, this was the world I lived in, nonetheless.

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It needs to be watched. It needs to be shared.

A lot of things change in twenty years. I don’t want to put myself on trial. I just want to be honest with myself – and to get a better idea of how my thinking has evolved over time. So, I dug in and read what I had to say, back then.

Going back and reading something I wrote, particularly on a topic like sexual violence, sounded (and was, to some extent), cringeworthy. The backstory is that, at the time, I was briefly the Editor-in-Chief of a libertarian news magazine. Four years earlier, I had done one of my high school volunteering projects supporting Bill Clinton’s campaign. But my position was Libertarian, at that time.

I defend elsewhere, ironically the last time I went and found something I wrote twenty years ago, why I had and in some sense still have a relationship with libertarian philosophy. But I mentioned that I was briefly Editor-in-Chief. My tenure was very short, precisely because of the huge divide between classical liberals and social conservatives, and the fact that the paper was losing all its classical liberals, one by one, and all the replacements showing up were social conservatives. I have never – even in those days – liked social conservatism, although then and now, I am friends with social conservatives. Anyway, I continued to be liked and actually supported in not being a social conservative. I wasn’t kicked out. I stepped aside graciously in recognition that they had a groundswell and “we” did not.

I was actually relieved. I was not a total jackass in those days. Although I continue to emphasize my statement that men needed to be included in the movement to stop rape, I understand this in a much more nuanced way, today, and now I get the need both for safe spaces and that far from being an “anti-male” issue, men needed to be included precisely because we women need them to, well, clean their shit up. I will have to own some internalized misogyny – I was not then the female chauvinist I am now. I hadn’t been ready to acknowledge the obviousness of marriage equality. Although I was aware of the issue, and in a backhanded sort of way, I applauded them for talking about sexual violence inside the LGBT community, I wasn’t a supporter of marriage equality, yet, in those days. That did change, obviously. So I will have to admit to some internalized queerphobia, too. I am proud that I was beginning to understand intersectionally – I was paying particular attention to conversations on the intersections between race and poverty and sexual violence. And at a much more basic level, when sisters were saying that rape was a violent crime (in those days, there were a lot more people who thought about it in a primarily sexual way), I was paying attention. I am embarrassed, however, that I thought in those days that the Contract with America or any of the other GOP proposals to “reform welfare” had anything to do with addressing the issue of poverty.

And these days, although I am functionally somewhere in between Christian and “spiritual but not religious,” I probably would be way more likely to lead a prayer to Artemis than object to it. Because, you know, I love my female role models.

I will have to settle for not having been a total jerk.

Flash forward to today, and I am sure I am still fairly full of internalized misogyny. There is work, yet to be done. I hope that I am a better listener to women who’ve had experiences different than mine. I hope I advocate alongside them in a better, more trusting, and more supportive way.

And of course, twenty years later, rape on campus has not been addressed. Take Back the Night has emphatically not lost its relevance. And, in my imperfect way, I will continue to bear witness. I will help these stories get known, help these experiences get talked about, and help these changes get made.

In Search of Sexually Empowering Feminism

Okay, you guys, I swear this is not an XO Jane Unpopular Opinion piece, but I am not a sex-positive feminist.

This idea Marilyn was talking about, the difference between being sexy and being objectified - t's really deep.

This idea Marilyn was talking about, the difference between being sexy and being objectified – it’s really deep.

Oh, I like sex. I like being sexy. I like it when my fiancé calls me sexy*. But I don’t like being reduced to the role of an object, even if I play object roles. And I don’t like being a tool, especially not of the patriarchy. And I am not a sex-positive feminist.

It wasn’t a typo.

So I gave a local training to a family health center, today, and the idea of sex-positive messaging came up, unfortunately advocated for, blindly, by a university nursing professor. Her advocacy of this issue is wrong for one of the most basic reasons I oppose sex-positive feminism – because her embrace of it is uncritical. No feminist – no woman – no person – should be uncritical. Not about sex, and honestly, not about anything. It isn’t safe. Not in a world of criss-crossing power structures and systems of oppression. To make blanket assumptions that sexuality is safe in the sense of its relationship with power has deadly consequences, particularly for women, every day.

This is a question we ask critically, not an assumption we make. And sex being free doesn't mean free for (men to do the) taking. Source: Hiphoptumblr

This is a question we ask critically, not an assumption we make. And sex being free doesn’t mean free for (men to do the) taking. Source: Hiphoptumblr

I want to outline the reasons why I am a sexually empowering feminist, but I am not a sex-positive feminist. I’m not the first one to talk about something like this. In 2012, a feminist from the UK, Lisa Downing (Prof. LD) coined the idea of sex critical feminism. She was writing in response to Fifty Shades of Grey, which many revile as terrible writing, but far more importantly, many feminists and others call out as being not about lust but about sexual victimization (the BDSM community took exception, also). Downing wasn’t the only one. Whether they banded behind the sex critical term** or not, these authors talked about some major themes – how sex positivity feels to them as victims of sexual violence, because it is uncritical, and because it pits women against each other. And yes, XO Jane Unpopular Opinion got on the bandwagon, too***.

  1. Sex is at the very root of sexism. Sex and things related to sex, like pregnancy, abortion, rape, victimization, trafficking, are, of all the spaces in which we fight, the space in which we are most literally fighting over a woman’s body, whether we are feminists who are there to help her stand tall, or tools of the system that are there to violate her. To consider sexuality in an “empowering” way that does not recognize that sex has deep intersections with power structures and systems of coercion that keep the Patriarchy in place is unacceptably ignorant. Now, there’s that much ballyhooed over-simplification of second wave feminism, right? All sex is rape? What was really going on in the Second Wave that is important for us not to forget is that feminists were asking radical questions about how sex could be ethical. They did not blindly assume sex was ethical – rather, one of their most radical questions of all was to ask, “What if it isn’t and cannot ever be?” These questions inform conversations like the question of how living in the gender binary can be ethical, and they remain very relevant today, as exemplified by news like Bill Cosby’s serial raping, women being criminalized for miscarriage, the absurdism of “legitimate rape.” Sex positivity just forgets or washes over all of this. Sure, it recognizes that rape is an act of violence. Sure, it advocates for explicit consent. But again, the idea that men not raping anybody and asking for explicit consent before having sex, just those two things, makes sex ethical, is completely ridiculous.

    I don't mean to call out this radio program, and I just found this doing a Google search, but this is a good example of how the messaging of the

    I don’t mean to call out this radio program, and I just found this doing a Google search, but this is a good example of how the messaging of the “sex positive” movement is often objectifying to women (Source: CKUT)

  2. Sex-positivity all too often sells sexual messaging that is masculocentric. Now this gets into bones of contention among feminists, and I disagree with some women I respect mightily. But for most women, we cannot be truly sexually empowered if we are pretending to be men. And yet, too often, sex-positive messaging is like the “shrink it and pink it” of athletic wear. So sex-positivity forces us to talk a masculine game. If a woman stomps her fist and demands orgasm, that’s increasingly cool, and some very visible women are doing that – Amy Schemer, Nicki Minaj, and others, and this conversation is increasingly going global. That’s cool – I applaud that. But, if a woman – even a woman who has and enjoys many orgasms – says that her enjoyment of sex isn’t centered on orgasm, she is immediately viewed with suspicion, and admonished to demand orgasm from men like these model women. She is never asked: “Okay, then, orgasm isn’t the be all and end all for you. Cool. So how can I make sex more pleasurable for you? What gives you value in sex?” Why isn’t she? Why don’t we believe, in this era of sex positivity, and sex positivity that is supposedly feminist, that a woman could have a viewpoint on her own sexuality? But just like past eras of sexuality where it was a liberating idea that a woman could be on top in heterosex****, all it does is take a man’s conception of what sex should be and put it on women. That isn’t empowering to me.

    It really is entirely too much fifty shades of rape. Source: Women's Aid and Refuge 24H Helpline

    It really is entirely too much fifty shades of rape. Source: Women’s Aid and Refuge 24H Helpline

  3. If you’d been traumatized, you might feel differently. Sex positive messaging also has a tendency to celebrate sexuality in a way that is deeply inconsiderate of trauma survivors. Worse yet, sex positivity and the demands to conform to this view that the “movement” places on women place sexually empowered women like me at odds with survivors who do not feel safe with sexuality, when in reality we are sisters and we need to be lifting each other up.
  4. Why doesn’t anyone think about the aces & aros? Sex-positive messaging (and I’ve made this mistake, too, although I do know better, and I need to knock it off) does not recognize that there are some people – including some, but not all asexual and aromantic people, who may not want to have sex, and who may not need to enjoy sex. Sex positivity not only doesn’t recognize that not all people are sexual, it writes over the narratives of the marginalized with the majority’s narrative. That’s so not cool.
  5. The Sexual Revolution All Over Again. And here’s the rub that women know all too well. The sexual revolution was this proclaimed attempt to free our sexualities. But what it did for heterosexual women is primarily create a set of rules to maximize our bodies’ availability***** to men. While the sexual revolution seemed appealing to many women at the time, in the long term, it was deeply problematic for us, and it leaves us a legacy yet today. Look at online dating and “hookup culture” – Tindr was created by two guys (and from the looks of it, not nice guys). The idea that women can either be sidelined by some other woman who is more willing than they are, or they can play the man’s game on the man’s rulebook, is a fool’s choice. Even for women who do legitimately find value or meaning in hookup culture, it’s vital that we understand that we are participating in a game that plays by rules that are deeply patriarchal in their design.

* And Teri is quite the Prince when it comes to tolerating the dissonance between the fact that I love my sexuality yet question its ethicality.

** Notice I used “sexually empowering” instead of sex critical. This is not because I don’t respect Downing’s work – I do, immensely. Rather, I think the name sex critical is problematic. Unlike some of our most radical sisters of the second wave, I see sexuality as something that fulfills a deep, human need for many (but not all) people. Being sex critical to me implies that doubt of the second wave that sexuality can even be ethical. I’m committed to the idea that we can make it more ethical, and I’m committed to the idea that anyone can be sexually empowered, whether they are sexual or not, whether they have sex or not.

*** I kid, I kid, I love XO Jane, I totally click through and read all the articles. And although I disagree sometimes, I love the idea that women can have opinions different than mine.

**** Straight people and their sexual practices are so quaint.

***** I was going to say, our sexual availability, but the reality is that it wasn’t and too often isn’t ours, and it’s not us but our bodies that society wants – this is ultimately the entire concern critically conscious women, even women like me who love sex, have about sex positivity.