Friday, May 11, 2007

What Makes Sarah Cry: Part 2

It's somewhat ironic, given the content of this post, that the whole reason I had to split this into two was that I can't figure out how to use hide things behind a cut on blogger. Nonetheless, on I go.

The second thing that made me cry was that I finally came across a major blog with several posts on this issue and absolutely no comments that inferred that this broadcast (discussed in previous post) described anything other than rape. The blogger put a warning above the audio clip that it was extremely offensive, then went on to discuss the content behind the fold. That discussion included details on how the radio comments could never be "funny" to someone who was nearly "fucked to death" herself, and a horrifying, graphic description of the violent rape that she experienced at 16. When I first clicked on the audio, I did so with lots of warning that it was offensive, and I chose to do it anyway, fully aware of the probable content. I made that decision because I, personally, don't tend to find fantasy descriptions designed mainly to cause controversy to be triggering--they make me feel like vomiting, they make me cry or want to cry, and they make me angry, but they don't make me fearful and bring back actual memories. Others have different reactions, which is why the warnings are there on the audio links, and we each have to make our choices about the limits of what we can handle listening to and reading at a given time. Graphic descriptions of real stories are sometimes past my limits, and they were this morning, and I clicked through to the rest of the post expecting commentary on the offensive hypothetical, but not even remotely anticipating what was there and the feelings it brought up in me. Maybe that was naive, and maybe I'm asking people to be over-cautious about the nuances of reactions to discussions of sexual violence.

I posted a comment requesting that another trigger warning be put up before the cut. The response I got was that such a warning would be like saying she should be "ashamed of her experiences". I don't think it's like that at all, especially if it's worded as a "trigger warning" and not "potentially offensive content". I said in my comment that I have immense respect for her willingness to share that story and to relate it directly back to the kind of bullshit contained in that clip, because it relates, and people who don't think it does need to be told, possibly graphically, how wrong they are. I don't think she should refrain from posting it, nor that she should feel that she has to hide it from the world because she has something to be ashamed of. But I don't think it's respectful to other people who have experienced rape to leave them unprepared for the feelings that may come up. I think that's very different from attempting to shame her, and while I'm sure she wasn't accusing me of having those reasons, since I was very clear in my comment, I can't help but feel that my request was being equated with that intention. I'll read personal stories of sexual violence a lot of the time, and I really think that these personal stories are a vital part of raising awareness, and sometimes I choose to read them when it turns out that I'm not as prepared as I thought I might be, or end up reading one that is way too much like my own stories for me not to be triggered. But I make the decision of what I can handle on a day-to-day basis, and there are many days when that line is somewhere between "news and media portrayals of rape" and "personal experiences", and I appreciate the kinds of warnings that generally accompany these posts.

So I didn't actually cry when I first read the post. I shut down. I didn't stay that way for long because I hate feeling that way, and I'm familiar enough with my own patterns and needs to pull myself up to a place I'm more comfortable with. Then I submitted the request, which wasn't easy. Getting the response is what made me cry, because I feel like I should be ashamed of having these reactions to what I read, and that I'm part of the problem by thinking that we shouldn't have to hear about this stuff if we don't want to--the reality is this woman shouldn't have had to experience it, and my having to read it is on a different planet of impact.

As I said, maybe I am placing overly high expectations on others to consider a variety of feelings. Maybe I actually am part of the problem when sometimes I want to stick my head at least a little ways into the sand about what rape looks like, and I'm silencing this woman with this request. Maybe I have to rethink all that. But as it stands, the choice I'm making now is to stop reading that blog, which sucks, because it was one that I liked for a lot of reasons. If I don't know what to expect, I can't decide when I'm up for what I'll see--I've done this same with television shows, but this is the first time I've felt ashamed of myself for doing it.

What Makes Sarah Cry: Part 1

Well, two things, right now; split into two posts because I'm not tech-savvy enough to follow blogger's directions on how to post with a "read more", and I know I'm too wordy. Not so long ago, I wrote a livejournal post on the UWO "spoof" article. What I see as the most important point of that post is this:
What really makes me want to cry is that the Maclean's article says not once, but twice, that the spoof article "made no mention of rape". Made. No. Mention. Of. Rape. "Police Chief Murray Faulkner stopped greasing his nightstick and intervened. He grabbed the loudspeaker from Ostrich's wild vagina and took it into a dark alley to teach it a lesson. To Ostrich's dismay, the vagina followed, giggling as it said 'I love it when a man in uniform takes control'". For fuck's sake, I could write a dissertation on the layers of offensiveness in that. But, um: Maclean's? The most widely read and respected Canadian newsmagazine there is? Can you get your head out of your ass long enough to realize that what those sentences describe, right there? Is rape. Unquestionably, not-even-that-well-hidden, rape. Back alley rape, even, so it's the kind you should recognize. Does a guy have to say "I'm going to rape you now" for it to be rape? Because that's pretty much the message I'm getting regarding what you would consider a description or "mention of rape". And did any of the commenters pick up on this? Nope. At least not in the first twenty-five comments or so, and I don't think it's expecting too much of Maclean's readers to think they should notice.
Apparently, we do, in fact, have to hear the word "rape" in order for a situation to become unacceptable. The latest story on "rape jokes" is from an XM radio station clip in which "Homeless Charlie" is egged on to say, among other things, that he would enjoy seeing the look of terror on Condoleezza Rice's face as he "fucked her to death". If you can stomach the clip and a comment thread full of nothing but references to stupid, repressed, anti-free speech liberals, as well as the unquestioned assumption that this is not a description of rape, follow this link. But it's on the Feministing thread that someone actually answers my question (emphasis mine):
I agree that what they said is really offensive, but in no way did they threaten anyone. A threat would have required them to say "we are going to rape you." However they were only speculating on how nice it would be to have sex with Rice, not using the threat of sex in any way.

Yes it sounds ignorant and mean, etc. Still in no way is there a threat or mention of rape. They don't say that the sex would be against the will of either Rice or Bush.

Is sex automatically rape now? Did I miss something?

Now, legally, this commenter may be right that the statements do not constitute a "threat" and therefore cross over beyond what is "protected speech", however vile, and an actual, illegal act--a threat. But that's not all he says. He says there is no mention of rape. He uses genteel academic language like "speculating" and acts like these guys are really talking about how "nice" it would be to have sex with this woman. Nice. To "fuck her to death". He's equating those of us who see it as rape when a woman is threatened with death and held down by a man who clearly hates her with the mythological feminist beasts who think that even the nicest, roses and romantic music love-making is rape. On a blog called "Feministing".

In a world where people who have experienced sexual violence are constantly having to argue that what happened was actually rape, minimizing the validity of their experiences because they weren't beaten/he didn't use a weapon/they were drinking/they may have encouraged him, and where naming a rape for what it was remains one of the earliest and biggest hurdles to recovery, this kind of interpretation of a hypothetical does matter. A guy who regularly reads a feminist blog doesn't think that people who say they would enjoy watching a woman fear for her life as they hold her down and "fuck" her are describing a violent, hateful, misogynistic rape. And seeing it, over and over, finally made me cry. It's beyond anger, it's grief and a fear that this fight is hopeless.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Rhetorical Question

As I suggested in an earlier post, and have been saying regularly for a while now, I think the most frustrating aspect of any of the political issues I'm reading about has to be the rhetoric. Every single "discussion" is being framed in overly simplistic terms or entirely inflammatory ones, and as soon as certain buzz words are used in one context, it defines who is allowed to comment in that space and who is not.

An article on "The Thinkery" deals with frustration from liberal Christians with fundamentalism from both the atheist and Christian side. One side says we can't be "true believers" because we don't meet [x] requirement, while the other says we are irrational for believing in God in the first place, thereby immediately dismissing our ability to present a rational and cogent position. I have some great conversations with atheists and spiritual believers alike who are listening, but the alternative happens often enough that my frustration is there.

But online discussions of US Supreme Court decision on partial-birth abortion and a few other issues have been characterized by one phrase: "It's that simple". That phrase says one thing, regardless of what comes before it--"Stop talking. I'm not changing my mind, there is no chance I can increase my understanding here, and anybody who thinks there's more to understand is just delusional. Stop. Talking." In the case of the abortion ban, I've seen it used to flat-out dismiss and dehumanize sexually active women: "Don't have sex and you won't have any babies to kill. It's that simple" and I've seen it used in cases where it's completely factually incorrect: "This law prevents all second trimester abortions. It prevents women from deciding when they're 5 months pregnant that they just don't want to be pregnant anymore. It's that simple".

For the most part, those who have agitated against the ban or spoken out since have been much less inclined to oversimplify, probably because they're the ones with their backs against the wall being caricatured to death, and they know their strongest argument against that image is to show the many, many complicated situations in which a woman may choose or require an intact D&E. Many of them continue hoping against hope that the people who misunderstand the law in the way of the latter commenter can hear them when they back up their statements with links to what the law really says. But I've seen some bloggers who have gotten to the point of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" frustration with respect to rhetoric, using terms like "the forced childbirth movement". I'm right, you're wrong, it's that simple, stop talking, I'm not listening anyway, your perspective doesn't count here.

Dancing the dance of being heard in both feminist and Christian circles means I choose my words very carefully (that I'm long-winded is unquestionable, but that's my personal battle against "it's that simple"). Oversimplifications like "pro-life" vs "pro-choice" make me uncomfortable. I don't know how to refuse to let someone define me as "anti-life", and I certainly have no intention of dismissing the nuances of the positions of others with terms like "forced childbirth". My best friend and I have had some heated debates over the issue of abortion over the years, and she doesn't much like being portrayed as "anti-choice" either, though she acknowledges that "anti-life" and even "pro-death" sounds a hell of a lot worse. The competing echo chamber aspect of contemporary politics is pretty well-understood, and yet all we're saying is "it's that simple". Go away--if you're Christian, you can't be rational, if you're atheist, you hate Jesus and those who stand for Him.

The linguist in me understands that not only is it politically vital to get control of the terms of the debate, it's also cognitively natural to label. I need simple basics if I'm going to describe someone to someone else, and one-word titles will do that. I need to know whether certain topics are going to be controversial and where we might have common ground when I meet someone. And dichotomous options are the easiest. But it's never that simple. Smart people, even most people, know this, but they still choose their short-phrase summaries of people and positions: Fundies. Anti-choice. Islamofascists. Tree hugging dirt munching hippies. Maybe they'll acknowledge that people can fit into multiple boxes--though in my experience, feminist Christian is a tough combination for many to reconcile--and maybe they'll understand that the boxes are bigger than they might think, but they still need boxes.

Kristofferson got that: He's a poet. He's a picker. He's a prophet. He's a pusher. He's a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he's stoned. He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.

It's never that simple. It's that simple.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Amnesty report on sexual assault among U.S. indignous women

(x-posted from my livejournal, as part of hoping for a better forum for more serious writing and the ongoing battle to figure out why I started this blog in the first place)

One of the most depressing factors in reading lots and lots of blogs has been reading the writing of people of colour who regularly point out that the mainstream white feminist community is just not speaking in a way that really includes them. There are certain news stories, certain posts, certain concepts that lead to racism being mentioned, and for the most part, that mainstream group is putting some effort towards increasing the number of those posts, challenging racist ideas as well as sexist ones, and increasing the profile of the voices of non-white feminists. But the basic framework for the discussions are coming from entirely different places on a number of these issues.

What shook me out of thinking I wasn't up to posting was this report from Amnesty International on sexual violence among U.S. aboriginal women*. There was a report with similar findings on Canadian indigenous women in 2004. Being reminded of this got me thinking again about the reading I was doing a few years ago and some conversations I had with the Dene women on the Cold Lake reserve in Alberta. At one point, I was really interested in the portrayal of sexual violence in literature [hey, maybe there's a Hathor books post in there] and started seeking out examples of works that dealt with that topic. I was looking only at literature written relatively recently, and only in North America, but I found examples from both white authors and authors from minority communities (mainly African American in the U.S., all First Nations authors in Canada). It didn't take me long to notice a pattern of difference in the works--where white authors** were writing in a way designed to raise awareness of just how frequently sexual violence occurs, they wrote about it as a tragic, life-shattering experience that should not ever happen (which of course is true). They wrote about overcoming shame and silencing, they wrote about anger and violation, and they wrote about stopping this kind of violence from continuing. Female authors of colour wrote about it as the status quo. They wrote about is as the default condition, with the assumption that women in their community had experienced sexual violence almost without exception. There was certainly an element of wanting their stories to be heard, but where white characters had to reveal their "victim" status to their peers, getting responses both positive and negative, but all based on the idea that the experience was a shock, the First Nations and African American characters spoke to other women in the community as though there was no revelation, and certainly no surprise.

Two things were scary about this difference, to me: the first was just how hopeless it felt. The Amnesty reports show aspects of this. While white feminists in Canada are working to improve the system so that rape victims who seek medical care and legal action are treated fairly and to reduce the culture of slut-shaming and victim-blaming that would allow us to wear low-cut shirts without fear or discomfort, North American indigenous populations are trying to work to build a system that provides adequate health care and legal resources at all. In Canada (as well as the U.S., from what I can tell), First Nations people live as political footballs in arguments about who is responsible for each and every thing most of us take for granted--health care is generally provincially funded, but reserves are federal space administered by the anachronistically named Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs; the political climate means that every medical need faced by someone living on a reserve is subject to scrutiny, not to mention the racist public perception of "lazy Indians" sucking off of the government welfare teat and never paying taxes. The AI report mentions the technicalities of jurisdiction that prevent prosecution of crimes that occur on U.S. reservations based on whether the perpetrator is or is not an aboriginal person, and such is the reality of living in limbo between two systems that constantly overlap based on simple geographic and economic practicality, not to mention that the system theoretically designed to meet the specific needs of those on the reserves is chronically deprived of the resources necessary for basic functioning. My ranting about the stories I've heard and personally experienced of doctors, police officers, media outlets and acquaintances who question women on how much they had to drink or what they were wearing or whether they led the guy on, my attempts to raise awareness on the impact of sexual violence, my accompanying women to the hospital or police station and talking to them when they are in crisis and not sure if they can make it through the night--all vital. But when the woman isn't even sure she can access standard medical and legal resources, not to mention faces race-based judgments that don't even get to the point of asking what she was wearing before dismissing her as entirely without value, what I'm saying is not even in the same book as what she's dealing with.

The second is that, though the realization came to me through literary examples, it forced me to see that the same difference had pervaded many conversations I had had. One of the byproducts of volunteering at sexual assault centres is that I very quickly became a safe person to whom to disclose past experiences, for both friends and people I had literally just met. I'm grateful for that, because I've been in a position to support more people in that way than I ever could if I waited for all of them to walk through the doors or call the crisis line. Since during my Master's, I did some of my research on a reserve and worked on some indigenous language development courses, I ended up having quite a few of these conversations with First Nations women. Many were old enough to have gone through the insanity of residential schooling, a few were younger. They talked about the sexual abuse as just another aspect of the systemic violence designed to eradicate their self-worth and the value of their entire nation. It was horrifying, they had been damaged in their relationships and in their understanding of personal autonomy, just like me, but unlike me and unlike the highly educated, middle class white women like me that I've spoken to, they never described it as the most horrible thing that had ever happened to them. It was rarely a revelation, it was an assumption. Recovery was being presented not just as something unique and personal, but as something needed within the entire community, since the abuse of the residential school system and the current policies have been perpetrated on First Nations peoples as entire communities. Since I met most of these people in the context of language revitalization efforts, that probably biases that perspective, because you can't talk about that without talking about the impact of being beaten into forgetting how to speak your native language. But when I talk about rape and abuse, I still talk about it as a revelation, as the worst thing I've ever experienced. I talk and write a hell of a lot about the attitudes toward women that make people refuse to recognize rape for what it is, and therefore make it acceptable. But I forget how ongoing colonialism brings in all these competing aspects of horrible, and how the attitudes towards First Nations people make many refuse to recognize them as people at all, and therefore make rape practically inevitable. The hopelessness comes from the sense that in those cases, there's just no time and energy to deal with rape in and of itself, because it's part of a picture that's just so much larger than that. And I don't know how to bridge the gap of talking about it in a way that it becomes relatable to people living with all of those circumstances, so that I'm not continuing to add to the problem of privileging my own experiences as normative.

I should note that now, I tend to default to the assumption that any woman to whom I'm speaking has experienced sexual violence. That may seem cynical or depressing, but first of all, the percentage of women in all corners of Canadian society who have been raped is too high to do otherwise, and second, I've yet to meet anyone among the remaining women who hasn't experienced some form of sexualized behaviour that has made her feel, at minimum, uncomfortable. And that helps me in a number of ways: I don't get to be "poor me" about my own experiences, I'm less likely to accidentally say something that may come off as dismissive or start another iteration of the "suffering Olympics", and I'm prepared enough for a disclosure that I don't react with the kind of shock and horror that I've personally found condescending or insulting in the past. But I still end up feeling shaken by the way I hear it being talked about by First Nations women, and I still feel paralyzed by the magnitude of the interrelated problems being talked about in those two Amnesty International reports, which of course I still forget about the bulk of the time I'm talking about sexual violence from inside my white feminist bubble, where it's the most horrible thing that's ever happened to me. And I'm not entirely sure how to talk about it in a way that's remotely approachable from outside that bubble. I'm not looking for a gold star just for asking the question, I'm seriously trying to figure out how to break through the walls that are in place just based on the basic differences in discourse on the subject that I'm noticing in the above paragraphs. But at that point, I find myself feeling hopeless and just figuring I need to detach from the world of issues encapsulated by the internet, or moving on to thinking about the next source of outrage that everybody else is talking about as well.

*Note: I don't really know what the dynamic is in the U.S. with regard to this terminology. I see the demographic term "American Indian and Alaska Native" persons in academic literature, including the AI report, but I still personally balk a little at anything using the word "Indian" for North American indigenous peoples because of the way that term is viewed in Canada. I'm assuming some acceptance of the terms "aboriginal" and "indigenous" based on the fact that those are the terms being used in a neutral (rather than sarcastically pejorative) manner on the few blogs I can find written by U.S. aboriginal persons. When referring to Canadian communities, I'm more comfortable using the term "First Nations", except when it's unclear whether the studies/examples include M├ętis and Inuit people as well, because the political implications change--and don't think I don't hate that in and of itself. Basically, this is my apology for the reality that I don't have a clue about the equivalent implications in U.S. policy or common discourse.

**Both the white authors and those of colour were predominantly female