Rape Culture and the Complexity of Consent

November 16, 2017

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I have to believe all these news stories coming out about sexual harassment and abuse are triggering some deeply held trauma by millions of women. As we know from Kevin Spacey’s reign of terror, not all the victims are female. (Terry Crews recent disclosure is a powerful example.) But it’s mostly women. We know this. For every Harvey Weinstein and Judge Roy Moore, there are countless women who must shudder each time this expanding story is reported. (Al Franken? Really, dude?) For some it takes them right back to that moment. Listening to Beverly Nelson’s account of Moore’s assault is like listening to someone frozen in a moment for 40 years.

I asked my wife how she was hearing these stories. Like most women, she has her own experience of abuse. I was worried it was bringing up difficult memories. Her emotional response was anger; that this sexual abuse was so widespread and that the conspiracy of silence surrounding it has allowed even more women to become victims. I wonder if that’s as common a response as the feeling of emotionally crumbling yet again.

A few years ago I was giving a lecture on the under-reporting of rape to my criminology students at the University of Oregon. It was a giant classroom in McKenzie Hall and I was being very social scientific about the reasons sexual assaults are not reported to the police, including the finding that 78% of rapists are known to their victims. In the middle of me laying out all these horrible facts, a young woman in the front row burst into tears and ran out the classroom. I never gave that lecture the same way again. I know when I’m talking about sexual violence, there are going to be victims in the room. I know there are victims reading this.

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I’ve written plenty about rape culture in this blog. From fraternities to #metoo, and probably too many references to Game of Thrones. As a feminist, I’ve lectured for decades that the normality of rape reinforces patriarchal power. To men, it’s an invisible reality. But to a female, every time they are in a bar, or walking to their car, or watching the local news (or Game of Thrones), there is a constant reminder that they are a potential target. And there’s a good chance that it’s already happened. Every woman understands the “rape schedule.” Few men even know what it is.

That’s why this blog post is going to push some buttons.

The complex nature of consent

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In the early 1990s, universities across the country were finally having real conversations about the epidemic of “date” rape on college campuses. As a graduate student at Emory University, I made “Fraternities and Rape on Campus,” by Patricia Martin and Robert Hummer (1989) required reading for my students. The mantra came down from on high that, “if she’s too drunk to consent, it’s rape.” It didn’t end predatory males from pouring 100 proof hunch punch down young women’s throats, but it planted the seed that the rapist isn’t just the stranger in the parking lot.

But after that clear and important message, it can get confusing.

Female agency and sex-positive feminism

Sally and Biff both get shit-faced at a party and then hook up. Did Biff rape Sally? Or did Sally rape Biff? Or was there just drunken sex with no rape? And can I even ask this question without forfeiting my membership in the National Organization of Women?

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Another book I assigned to my students, in the early-2010s, was Shira Tarrant’s Men and Feminism (2009). Dr. Tarrant was in Portland, speaking about campus rape at Reed College, so my girlfriend and I headed down to catch her talk. Reed had had it’s own issues with sexual assault by male students so the main theme was the revisiting of the “if she’s too drunk, it’s rape” mantra. Again, it’s in important message to get to young college students but I was in the middle of a much different situation with a stalker who was using her femaleness as a defacto victim status to upend my life. (Think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987).) So, feeling like some complexity was needed, during the Q&A, I asked this question:

“My mom likes to tell the story of how my dad didn’t want kids. One night she cooked my dad a big dinner and opened a bottle of Chianti and got him drunk and that was the night I was conceived. My question is, am I the product of rape and should my mother have gone to prison?”

You could hear a pin drop and then you could hear heads explode. I should point out that this story isn’t exactly true (as far as I know), but the scenario introduces something debated in feminist circles, that women have their own sexual agency. I’ve had women tell me that they got drunk with guys as an excuse to have sex with them. “If it turns out bad, I can just blame it on being wasted.” I’ve had women tell me that they slept with their professors in college like it was a sport. “We all got points for bagging Dr. So-and-so in the English Department.” I’ve had many of these conversations but I didn’t want to share them with the audience at Reed College.

We took Professor Tarrant out for a beer afterwards and talked a little bit about my situation (and my question). She admitted that when talking to undergrads you really have to start at the beginning of the issue in an attempt to keep college women from becoming victims of date rape and the spiral of consequences that follow. The more nuanced stuff must come afterwards. I’m glad she’s out there on the front lines doing this work. I’m looking for the return of the sex-positive feminists to add to the discussion.

Assuming consent

Every time I kiss my wife, I’m assuming her consent in the matter. Am I wrong? Am I sexually harassing her? Does our marriage provided a “reasonable presumption of consent”? What about marital rape? Ivanka Trump alleged that her husband raped her. Was Donald just invoking a “reasonable presumption of consent” due to their marital status? In the wake of all the recent revelations, I’ve been think about this a lot. Deep in my heart I believe I’ve never been in a romantic or sexual situation that wasn’t completely consensual, but probably most of that was based on assumptions I made at the time. Was that wrong? I’ve been very explicit the last few weeks. “Dear, my I grab your ass?” All I manage to do is annoy her with the constant request for consent.

To be clear, the cases in the news are pretty clear, including the Al Franken case. These women clearly did not want this contact. The Lewis CK case is slightly more murky. And then there are lots of cases that might be put down to misread signals and honest mistakes. Those situations really need a closer look instead of the broad assumption that all men are abusers.

When the discussions about consent and date rape started hitting college campuses in the early-1990s there was, of course, some blowback. The “masculinists” were lining up to shut down feminists. I remember one “consent” document that hit the Emory campus that laid out each of the four sex bases and required a signature from each participant on each base before moving forward. “Do both parties consent to moving to second base? If so sign here.” Talk about taking the fun out of life, liberty and the pursuit of shama-lama-ding-dong. It looked like soulless feminists were out to ruin the joy of sex. Of course it turned out the form wasn’t from the university HR department, but some dudes in a frat. Well played, assholes.

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Human sexuality is incredibly complex. Some (male/female) people like to be aggressively taken and bent over the office desk. Some (male/female) people are gold diggers or just want to bed (male/female) people who are more powerful than they are. Some (male/female) people want to have sex with (male/female) people they admire and others prefer (male/female) people that repulse them. That’s called the Louis CK dynamic. If it’s consensual, who cares? Every relationship has power dynamics at work. (How many times do I have to say that?) Philosopher Michel Foucault wrote a great deal about how S&M mocks the power-dynamics in “normal” sexuality, but it’s easier to find a dominatrix than it is a dude to whip you. (Safe word: post-structuralism)

Keep your dick in your pants, just for a minute

This is in no way meant to delegitimize the deep trauma from years of abuse that has been brought into the light this fall. Harvey Weinstein needs to go to prison and Roy Moore and his creepy “evangelical” crowd needs to be shunned by the nation as a whole. (Please Neil Young, give us a new song about Alabama). And every man in this country needs to take a deep inventory of his past behavior to figure out if there some “me too” stories that are being told about him.

I know you dudes might feel emboldened. You’ve got a president that brags about grabbing women “by the pussy,” and alt-right Proud Boys who have declared open war on feminism, but here’s the secret I leaned along the way. Listen to women. Before you  unzip your pants and start masturbating in front of your dinner date, listen to women.

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Women seem so much better at reading the clues in intimate situations. Maybe it’s having to have their rape-threat radar on 24-7. But women are in the game that most men only think they are. I know it’s hard for men to ask for directions and shit, but just keep you dick in your pants for a minute and follow her lead. Try it. If she wants you to throw her up against the wall and go all 9 1/2 Weeks on her ass, she will make sure you know. It’s worth it, bro.

There was a moment in the 1990s when it felt like the third wave feminist movement was fully present. Power feminists, like Naomi Wolf, were taking “victim feminists” to task for negating female agency and erasing women’s sexuality. And Madonna gave them their soundtrack. (Ready to feel old? “Erotica” came out 25 years ago.) I think they hadn’t yet dealt with the intransigence of rape culture and the real rape (and rapist presidents) it has produced. Bill Clinton’s icky-ness might have given us an “opportunity” to talk about power dynamics but Donald Trump’s cult has no time for any of this “political correctness.” Maybe after we get through this new opportunity to cut the rapists and sexual harassesers off at the knees, we can at least again have this conversation.

 

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Baby Brain 3.0: The cognitive space between baby and baccalaureate

November 3, 2017

I’ve been on traveling way too much: Spokane, New York City, Atlanta, Birmingham, Oxford, Georgia and beautiful Lansing, Michigan. Each stop away from my family was an opportunity to remember how much I love them. But I have to admit that sleeping in a hotel bed without a three-year-old climbing under the covers at 4 AM was pretty nice. (If I look like I just rolled out of my bed for my CBS News interview in New York, it’s because I slept in to the last possible minute.) But upon each return, our daughter Cozy seemed like a completely new person.

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There are lots of moments when you realize that baby you swaddled is long gone. The other day Cozy climbed on the toilet all by herself, took a dump, and told us she didn’t need her kiddie potty anymore. (Yes, I wept.) A few weeks ago I was trying to get her to hurry up the steps of her preschool and she responded, “Whatever.”  She has numerous funny voices for different roles she plays. There’s her princess voice and her Hulk voice. We took her to Disney on Ice and she went as Elsa from Frozen and she was totally cool that there were a few thousand other Elsas there. Let it go. It was like she had found her tribe.

Childhood brain development is endlessly fascinating. Cozy seems to have sped through Freud’s anal phase and is almost a year early for the phallic phase. (More on that later.) In Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, she is firmly in the Pre-operational Stage. She is still egocentric, but learning how to see things from others’ perspective. She wants to know why sometimes Abigail pushes her. She’s started using similes. “I can run like a cheetah.” Her language skills are rapidly expanding and she relates most things to yoga poses. Her pre-school had an earthquake drill and the teacher told the kids to climb under their desks and pretend they were turtles in their shells. “Oh, that’s turtle pose,” Cozy said. Her teacher told me that in the middle of an earthquake Cozy had all her classmates doing yoga.

When I look at the characteristics of young preschoolers (age 3-4), some of it seems like old news around her.

  1. Beginning to count objects. (“I want seven quesadillas.”)
  2. Noticing properties of objects and able to sort them. (“Daddy, I put your dirty socks in the garbage.”)
  3. Problem-solving skills like planning and baking. (“Let’s go get ice cream before dinnertime.”)
  4. Interest in their bodies and other living things. (“The cat’s butthole is funny.”)
  5. Understanding the order of events of their day. (“You have to read two stories before I go to bed, not one.”)
  6. Ability to take items apart and attempt to put them back together. (Mom’s make-up kit has been disassembled numerous times.)

On a daily basis I’ll have a “How do you know that?” moment. We were carving our Halloween pumpkin and I was trying to cut a circle in the top so we could scoop out the guts and she said, “Dad, that’s a hexagon.” Seriously, WTF? It’s like the Great Leap Forward of cognitive development. It’s more than a window into what College Freshman Cozy will be like. Her personality seems pretty complete, although I know we’ve still got some work to do. She’s just now started recognizing gender. Yesterday she told me that there are two girls and one boy in our family. I can’t tell what that means other than the boy in the family is not interested in make up, but the two girls are. Cozy and her lip gloss, lordy.

I have to think staying at home with her these three years has helped her brain development. There’s lots of stimulation, between our hikes in Forest Park and trips to the OMSI science center (and okay, the occasional binge on Nature Cat on PBS). Studies have shown that abused three-year olds have significantly less brain mass and fewer cognitive connections. A healthy environment this early will have lifelong benefits. There are still plenty of issues (Please eat what I made for dinner. Please?), but suddenly there’s this third person living in our house who has plenty of opinions and doesn’t need your kiddie potty anymore.

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There was a moment when we were trick or treating that Cozy confidently walked up to a stranger’s door and knocked. Now the reward for that courageous action was a handful of candy but still, I felt like she was already off on her own and was going to be just fine. Baby brain bye bye.

The purpose of this blog post is to document where we is vis-à-vis Cozy’s noggin.

And Jill came tumbling after. Why? Purging sexist kids’ stories.

September 22, 3017

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My mother has always been on the verge of serious hoarding. “Don’t throw that away! It might be worth something someday!” I heard that a thousand times. When Cozy was born, I was grateful. Stuff my mom had held onto for 50 years started to come our way, including my 1960s Batman sweatshirt. And a ton of kids books. Each one zapped my brain backwards. I just have to open I Am Bunny, and I’m sitting on my mommy’s lap, fascinated by the artwork and stories. And my mom read to me a lot.

I was excited to introduce Cozy to my love of books (Thanks, Mom!), so I wasted no time reading to my daughter. I took about two seconds to realize that the message that this father was sending to his girl was dramatically different than the one that my mother had sent to her boy. On the one hand it was exciting to see these books sold for only 39 cents when I was little, but on the other side the messages about gender were heartbreaking. From the time when Donald “Dotard” Trump thought America was “great.”

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Many of the stories are a continuation of the fairytale traditions from Hans Christian Anderson where some damsel in distress or dainty princess has to be rescued by a dashing prince. So much of the classic Disney filmography is rooted in this sexist trope that has, thankfully, been exploded by Frozen and Moana. These two movies mean so much to Cozy and now I understand why. (Mulan had too much fighting. “I don’t like this, Daddy. Turn it off.”) More of these books followed the domestic dynamic of the mid-century model. There’s mom in the kitchen. A legion of my friends reminded me how messed up the Berenstain Bears books are when you read them through a gendered lens. The same is true for most of the books by Richard Scary and Dr. Seuss. (But I still have a soft spot for Cindy Lou Who.)

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Even more books are just male-driven stories. How can my daughter find herself in Where the Wild Things Are? The imbalance really hit me when I was reading Cozy a book called Jumping. It’s about how much boys love to jump. Seriously. I grew up reading the adventures of the Hardy Boys. Will Cozy be left with the Bobbsey Twins? Was Nancy Drew a feminist? Can we get a 21st Century reboot? I do not like green eggs and misogyny.

It became a real struggle to find a book in the boxes that were arriving that had a female character that was somehow equal to the males, let alone in the lead role. Cozy was getting that in her contemporary cartoons, like Disney’s Elena of Avalor and PBS’s Peg + Cat. It was time to update my girl’s library. So we took a walk up to Green Bean Books.

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Cozy loves any store that has a “kids’ section.” She appreciates any space that is carved out for “kids not people” (adults are “people” – we have to work on that one). Green Bean is all kids’ section and she loves the feeling that it’s all there for her. (Wait, I’m smelling the seeds of a generation gap.) When I asked for a storybook for a three year-old, the clerk had the perfect recommendation, The Princess in Black. Cozy set down her book about dinosaurs and grabbed the book, plopped down on the little sofa and pretended to start reading.

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The Princess in Black is a five-part series by Dean Hale and Shannon Hale. It follows the adventures of prim and proper Princess Magnolia who sneaks into her broom closet to become… The Princess in Black; a superhero who fights monsters. Cozy loves both princesses and superheroes. (Ask her to do her Spiderman imitation.) Seeing her respond to this book was fascinating. It’s 15 short chapters, cleverly crafted, that we’ve read pretty much every night since we got the book. She’s got the whole story memorized and has even picked up on hints that our superhero may get a sidekick in future volumes – the Goat Avenger (aka, the mild mannered Goat Boy).

It was almost like a shock to the system after all these books about male characters, including Richard Scary’s male bunnies, to have a female-driven story. It must have been like women 200 years ago reading a Jane Austen novel for the first time. (I’m not equating The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate to Pride and Prejudice, but I kind of am.) As a male, I could read all these male-driven kids’ stories to Cozy and not notice the impact of it all on her, as girls and women were pushed to the background (and draped in aprons). But three pages in to the PIB and I saw the shift. She has a place in the world of stories.

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Of course, there is a debate worth having that this place is in occupying the traditionally male-dominated world of superheroes, which often relies on violence to solve problems.  The Princes in Black does open a can of whoop ass on a big blue monster. Sparkle kick! This is at the heart of the debate between liberal and radical feminists. Does gender equality mean that females should want half of the world that patriarchy created. When 50% of serial killers are females can we raise a toast and say, “Equality!” Or are their other ways of organizing ourselves that don’t don’t involve trying to beat men at their own game? As a parent of an evolving girl, I wrestle with this question. A female version of Trump saying she is going to “totally destroy” a nation of millions of people would not be progress.

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For now, story time will be about a consistent messaging that Cozy will not be marginalized because she is a girl. Andrea has been reading her Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. My mother sent a new book about Frida Kahlo, Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales, that Cozy fell madly in love with. And I know that there are now tons of others out there. (Please feel free to make any recommendations.) Seeing how my daughter responded to this one book pierced a gaping hole in my male privilege bubble. It might be time to put The Cat in the Hat on the bottom of the stack. What would you do if your mother asked you?

“You’re gonna need a shotgun” Raising a daughter in a rape culture

September 7, 2017

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I was speaking at a civil rights conference in Michigan this week and over lunch I was having a conversation with a jovial guy who worked in law enforcement. Since it’s always a unifying topic, we began chatting about our children. I showed him a cute pic of Cozy milking a cow at the Oregon State Fair. “You’re gonna need a shotgun,” he said.

I wish it was the first time I’d heard that line. Even before Cozy was born, when friends, family, or strangers heard we were having a girl, the calls for “better get a shotgun” came from men of all ages.

I understand that these men are trying to be cute, but it always injects two thoughts into my head; 1) I don’t want a gun, and 2) thanks for reminding me that boys and men will try to rape my daughter.

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I mean, isn’t that what that line means? If Cozy is hanging out with a boy that she likes, it’s her time, her body, her choice. Right? It’s only if said boy crosses some boundary into nonconsensual douche-baggery that hero dad is supposed to rush in with his 12-gauge Remington to rescue his damsel in distress by threatening to blow this kid’s head clean off. “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

I’m not buying it.

What patriarchal vision has a father guarding his daughter’s window, weapon loaded, to make sure sex-crazed boys don’t rob her of her precious virginity? Cozy can arm herself with the wisdom to surround herself with the type of boys who can use the front door. I’m trying not to think too much about her inevitable transition into a sexual being, but my hope is she will own it responsibly without the anxiety of a father who wants her locked in a chastity belt, or who is lying in wait, with a Winchester across his lap.

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The cute line about shotguns is more an acknowledgement of the rape culture we must raise our daughters in. I can trust that Cozy will make good choices with the boys (and/or girls) in her life and know how to shut down any unwanted advances (and accept the wanted ones). We will load her up with lines from TLC (“I don’t want no scrub.”) and bell hooks (“There can be no love without justice, asshole.”) But the harsh reality is that there will probably be boys and men than blast right though those defenses.

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Self-report studies have found that one in four women in America will be raped in their lifetime, many numerous times. The numbers are even more bleak for the more broadly defined “sexual assault.” He may not force his penis into her, but “just” grabbing her breasts may be enough to demonstrate who is boss. The same research shows that only 22% of rapes are committed by strangers, the majority are men known to the victim. This might happen in a dormitory, on a date, at a family gathering, or all of the above. It could be a boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, or thinks-he’s-a-boyfriend, or all of the above. There is no place that girls and women are safe from the potential of unwanted sexual contact; not home, not work, not school. So I know this, and it kills me that Cozy will know this, too.

We’ve tried raise a generation of girls who can defend themselves. We’ve given them guns, pepper spray, German Shepherds, and rape whistles. We’ve taught them how to walk in groups, cover their drinks in bars, and trust their guts about guys who give off rapey vibes. But we haven’t done a very good job teaching boys and men not to rape. When their presidents and faux-medieval TV heroes do it, you can understand why they might think they are entitled to women and girls’ bodies. According to a 1998 study by the National Institute of Justice, 1 in 33 men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. A recent University of North Dakota survey found that 1 in 3 college males would rape a female if they knew that would not face any consequences. Boys will be boys, right?

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If there’s any good news it’s that the rates of rape and sexual assault have been falling (along with the violent crime rate in general). Rape victims coming out of the shadows and sharing their stories have surely been a part of that decline. Every man has at least one woman in his life who has experienced this horror. Maybe boys need to hear these stories as well, from their mothers, sisters, teachers, doctors, neighbors. It makes all that Game of Thrones rape a bit less entertaining. I do know the decline in what is still an epidemic of sexual violence has nothing with dads chasing aspiring rapists off with shotguns.

So here’s how that conversation is going to go next time:

“You’re daughter’s very cute. You’re gonna need a shotgun”

“Why?”

“Because she’s going to have boys all over her.”

“What if she wants boys all over her?”

“What if she doesn’t?”

“So, you’re saying she’ll have guys harassing her and trying to rape her.”

“It happens.”

“And she won’t be able to take care of it herself?”

“She might not be. I’m just saying you might need that gun.”

“How about you teach your boy not to rape her and we spend that gun money on something else?”

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Postscript: A friend pointed out that also coded in this is that only pretty/skinny/cute girls are targets of rape, as if rape was an act of sexual attraction. All types of girls and women are rape. It’s about power, not sex.

It’s all a part of asshole recovery

June 15, 2017

Other than Donald Trump, does anybody truly like the sound of their own voice? Mine makes me cringe when I hear recordings of it. I feel for the thousands of the students who have had to listen to me over the years. But I do love to talk and maybe my jabber has some value in the world. Those students got a lot of stories from my weird life to illustrate points, hopefully finding applications in their own stories. Maybe I should keep talking.

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The reason for talking is that I’m an asshole. But I’m trying to get better. I was featured in a front page interview in yesterday’s Oregonian newspaper. I casually chatted with the reporter about all things related to racism in Oregon. I assumed this was background research for a larger story, but it was an actual interview. I was trying to make the case that institutions are changing from the inside and said, “I’m the last person in the world that says human resource ladies are giving us hope in the world, but they are a reflection of how much institutional change has happened. Every HR department has an equity and diversity department now.”

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I was trying to make a joke about the stereotype of people who work in Human Resources offices and how they are, in fact, agents of change. In print it fell flat. I just looked like an asshole and the online commenters sunk their teeth into my quip. I could’ve gotten defensive, bleating, “It was just a joke!” but I’m in recovery and that means taking responsibility for my mistakes.

There are two types of people in the world, (I love it when people bisect humanity like that) assholes and people who know they are assholes and are trying to not be. I’m trying to be in the latter category and that requires more listening than talking. So why am I starting a podcast about my privilege? Shouldn’t I shut my privileged mouth up?

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Privilege is such a dirty word in our culture. Everybody’s “worked hard” for whatever they have. Try telling a white guy who is homeless that he has white privilege and male privilege. It might be a hard sell. But he does. Devah Pager’s profound 2003 study, “The Mark of the Criminal Record,” found that African-Americans without criminal records faced more job discrimination than whites with criminal records. For years I assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to my Intro Sociology students. (“1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”) Most of them were smart enough to get it. Having an unearned privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means the playing field that you walked on to is not even.

I had a trick that usually worked pretty well in the classroom. I’d ask the left-handed students to raise their hands. Then I’d have them testify to the multitude of advantages that right people have. Usually the right-handers would be a bit surprised. “Well, I never thought of that,” they’d grunt. Then I’d ask the righties how many had lefties in their life that they cared about. “Is it possible that there’s a similar dynamic with race or sexual orientation?” “Oh,” they’d grunt.

I’m right-handed.  And a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, male, middle-class homeowner. I’m pretty damn privileged. Some days it doesn’t feel like it, but even on those days I am. If I ignore it or, even worse, deny it, I’m officially an asshole. So I thought I’d make my own recovery a public one. Growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia (the birthplace of the modern KKK), I can recall some pretty racist moments in my life. I wrote a paper in high school titled, “If they have Black History Month, why can’t we have White History Month?” I was a product of my environment. Now I’m actively anti-racist, but I have to acknowledge there is racist residue (it’s sticky), and it is strongest when I deny my white privilege.

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So I’m kicking off my first podcast, Recovering Asshole. I’m going to talk to people who don’t have privileges I enjoy. Maybe they can help me (and you) be a little less of a privileged asshole. In the wake of the Portland Max stabbings, I thought we’d tackle immigration first. It made sense to talk to my fabulous wife, Andrea Barrios, about her boarder crossing. In the spirit of John & Yoko, we did the interview in bed. It gave me a deeper appreciation for what she went to just to be in this country. I won’t discuss what happened after the interview. (Maybe I should launch Recovering Asshole: After Dark as a paid subscription podcast.)

Recovering Asshole Episode 1: My Favorite Alien

We’re here on iTunes. Please subscribe. It’s free. And share. If you don’t have iTunes, you can find it on Soundcloud. Maybe we’ll get a sponsor. Maybe we’ll bring a bit of empathy into our lives. I know there are a ton of great conversations coming.

I’ve got lots of interviews lined up. We’re going to talk to Muslims, African-Americans, Trans people, gay parents, domestic violence survivors, and, yes, even left-handed people. I’m a podcast fan (Fabcast is my current favorite), so I think I know how to keep the listener engaged. My hope is that people who find Recovering Asshole with share it with their friends (especially the assholes) and it can grow into something that can have an impact.

We’re allowed to make mistakes on this journey. It’s not easy. I’m sorry if my comment about “HR ladies” came off as sexist. I’m using it as a moment of reflection. My tagline for the show is my tagline for life – We’re all works in progress, so let’s get to work.

PODCAST EPISODES ARCHIVED HERE

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Join the discussion on the Recovering Asshole Facebook page.

 

Chris Cornell taught me something about sex.

May 18, 2017

I’m not sure what compels me to write when my favorite musicians die. I think it began when Miles Davis died in 1991 and I put on In a Silent Way wrote an ode. When Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in 1994, a local weekly in Atlanta asked me to write a poem in tribute. I had already written it. In this blog I have marked the sociological significance of the passings of David Bowie and Chuck Berry. But waking up this morning to the news that Chris Cornell had hung himself was particularly rough.

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Soundgarden is/was in the middle of a tour and, this morning their singer was found dead in his Detroit hotel room. Chris was may age. I might be biased, but I tend to think people born in 1964 are special. It was such an epic year (The Beatles, Dylan, MLK, my birth). This spring, Soundgarden was a booked for a big reunion tour bringing much needed rock to the kids, or at least their parents. He seemed to be back on top.

Others will write about his life or the “Seattle sound.” I was cold on the grunge thing at first because we were trying to carve out our own musical identity in Atlanta at the time and didn’t need the competiton. I was invited to contribute some spoken word to a local compilation in 1991 and I wrote a rant against Seattle that contained the line, “Riding on Tad’s log, lame as Temple of the Dog.” About five minutes later, I was all about Seattle. Turns out I smelled like teen spirit, too.

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Others will also write about suicide. I’ve written about my own past with the issue here in this blog and how it unfolded in my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart. The follow up, The Dream Police, ends in a grand climax with the Soundgarden song, “Black Hole Sun” playing. I couldn’t think of a better song to accompany the end of the world, so it’s there as a musical epitaph.

I wanted to write a sex, or more specifically, how one night in Atlanta with Soundgarden pried open my brain about the fluidity of sexuality.

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It was March, 1989 and Soundgarden was touring in support of their first album, Ultramega OK.  Neighbors in my North High Ridge apartment (the fabled Treehouse) were probably sick of me blasting it (and extra notch up on “Smokestack Lightning”), but the punk era was over and I was growing my hair long. It was time for bass guitars to rattle the building. Aspersions of the Seattle hype aside, I loved their monster sound that was an alternative to the hair metal that was ruling MTV at the time. This was our music, not theirs. For those of us that grew up on Kiss and The Ramones.

In those days, I went out to see bands play almost every night. So when Soungarden had a gig at the Cotton Club on Peachtree Street of course I would be there. And when they opened with the song, “Gun,” and Kim Thayil’s exploding guitar riff, it was on. I was 25-years-old and pressed against the front of the stage, because that’s the only place to be when a band is splitting the universe open. They were inches away from us and it was one throbbing sea of sweat and hair.

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Chris Cornell was shirtless, screaming like a banshee, his long brown hair cascading over his shoulders as he leaned back in his Jesus Christ pose. (I think you might guess where this is going.) The music sounded great but I was just captured by him and his charisma. Like the most iconic of iconic rock stars. Like if Ozzy Osbourne looked like Calvin Klein model instead of a puppy dog who had been hit in the head with a ball peon hammer. He was… beautiful.

Let me back up a space and say, at this point, at age 25, I was hyper-hetero. From the first Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall to my questionable antics on the road with the band I was working with, it was never not about being in a “girl-crazy” frenzy. Never even a crack. Sure, Tom Cruise was “good looking,” but I wouldn’t say it without the quotes. I would joke about homoerotic elements of skinhead and fraternity culture and even the mosh pit, and was still working out my own homophobic training. Gay was fine. I loved my gay friends and music idols. It just never was about me.

Chris Cornell cracked that. The memory is as clear as day. I thought, “I’m straight but I think I might make an exception for this guy.” It was the strangest feeling in the middle of a blasting rock show. What was my sexuality? Is he the only guy on the planet I would make an allowance for? He was just so, perfect. Should I try to meet him?

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I didn’t go backstage. Or write him love letters. I kinda forgot about it (at least until the next time I saw Soundgarden play). But I began to question the idea that anybody is exclusively anything as far as sex goes. Around that time I began teaching undergraduate sociology at Emory University and would lecture on the Kinsey Scale. In 1948, the famed sex researcher published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. His findings identified that only about the 10% of the male population was either exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. The other 80% are somewhere in the middle (or asexual). I would joke to my students, “If you haven’t at least one gay thought, you will!” And then I’d make some crack about the repressed sexuality of “brothers” in the “Greek” system. Holla!

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During my tenure at Portland State University, I became immersed in Queer Theory. Queer Theory seeks to break down these arbitrary binaries we place ourselves in. Gender is fluid. How butch are you today? (After blasting Soundgarden all morning, I feel pretty macho, except the moments when I start to sob.) Sexual orientation is also fluid. A lot of dudes like to play this game. – If there’s one guy you HAD to have sex with, who would it be? It’s permission to flirt with Kinsey’s scale. In my PSU classes, I began to utilize Gender Gumby. Gender Gumby is an exercise that allows a person to plot where, in that moment, they fit on a scale of assigned sex (opening the discussion for people who are born inter-sexed), gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual orientation. The beauty of the exercise is that, where you map your gender today may be completely different tomorrow. I would map mine for the students. On sexual orientation, I would make mark pretty close to the “Attracted to females” end of the spectrum, but not at the very end of it. Because of Chris Cornell.

I’m so sad about his passing. I also loved those Audioslave records, and, after some time, came to appreciate the Temple of the Dog album. I saw him many times over the years. Soundgarden played the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The city fenced off an area downtown and forced people to pay to get in. I watched the show, precariously perched on a newspaper box so I could see over a fence. Soundgarden was onstage blasting their wall of sound into the city and Chris saw me straining to see the band. He said something to someone, who came over and let me in so I could watch from inside, safe and fully rocking.  We shared this generation together.

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Gender and sex are complex things, far from black and white. And sexuality is like magma looking for a way to the surface. Horrible things happen when you try to suppress it. (Google “Afghanistan” or “Mississippi.”) It’s not surprising that people are fearful of all that hot lava. Even the most “100% certain” person can be surprised by their own sexuality and where it might take them. I got a lesson about that in 1989 thanks to a killer Soundgarden show and got to let go of that certainty. Thanks, Chris. You were never not really hot. Lava hot.

An Interview with My Dad about Parenting and Gender

April 5, 2017

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Last week I took a Spring Break from this blog. My father was visiting us in Portland. He had just celebrated his 75th birthday in Hawaii and (for some reason) chose to leave a sunny beach for cold and rainy Oregon. I was happy because it had been over a year since we had seen him and Cozy really wanted to see her Grandpa. He took Cozy and I to see Moana (Cozy loved it, powering through the scary part, and I appreciated Disney utilizing a Goddess tale) and we had a belated birthday dinner at Portland City Grill. It was nice to catch up.

It’s an odd thing being around your parents when you’re a parent. You realize how like them you are, whether you want to be or not. I see so much of my dad in me. We even have similar mannerisms. It kinda freaks me out a bit. There are certainly qualities in this man I greatly admire, and a few I’ve worked to limit. How much like this person am I? I tend to think I turned out pretty good. I didn’t become a serial killer or a military contractor or a wife-beater or a guy who spends all his time playing fantasy football. I went to graduate school instead of Wall Street. Also, I like quiche. (There are a few kinks still to be worked out.) He did a pretty good job on the parenting front it seems.

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So I thought, while he was here, we’d sit down and I’d ask him what it was like to be a new father of a boy in the mid-1960s, when the world and gender roles were changing. What I got was a very honest conversation about his struggle to find balance between his home life and his work in sales that often took him away from home, a flash of insight into issues that led to my parents divorce when I was 17, and some useful wisdom about how to be a great parent to my daughter. We sat on the couch in my living room talking and I just wanted to ask good questions but as I transcribed our talk I got a greater appreciation for his own journey as a parent.

Randy: So I was born in February 1964. The world was a little different then. Did you know I was going to be a boy?

Dad: No. We talked about it before you were born, about whether we wanted a boy or a girl and we agreed it doesn’t matter the first time, especially the first child, as long as they’re healthy and have all the fingers and toes. It didn’t really matter to us. In fact, we decorated the nursery in yellow so that it didn’t matter whether it was a boy or girl. We changed the decor after it was born, but we were just happy to have a healthy child.

R: Would you have thought differently if I had been born a girl, knowing girls had fewer opportunities?

D: If it was a boy we would have raised it one way, and if it was a girl, we pretty much would have raised it the same way.

R: Did it help that mom had a job before she got pregnant? She didn’t really work after I was born.

D: She was woking in a business office and we agreed that when she was 6 months pregnant that she would stop working and stay home and make sure that she was healthy. We could live on one income and that’s what we did. The second income was nice but it wasn’t necessary. I was making enough money to take care of the family and I really didn’t want her to work. I wanted her to stay home with the baby. And she did.

R: Did she want to work?

D: Yeah, oh yeah. She was always wanting to help out and work and stay active but she found things to do at home and concentrating to getting to that baby to one year, at least.

R: The mid-60s was really the rise of the feminist movement and women discovering their life outside of the home. What did you think about “women’s lib”? Mom has said she was aware of it, but were you thinking it was a big change?

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D: I was open minded about it. If she wanted to work she could work. But we had to consider the babysitter situation. We had an elderly lady upstairs that was a good babysitter and she had some girlfriends that would come over and babysit after that year. But she stayed home for about a year before she went back to work. And she was really bored and anxious to get back to work. She wanted to do more than be just a mother.

R: What did you think about her going back to work then?

D: Back then I wanted her to stay at home and take care of the baby and make dinner and do the laundry and all the stuff that women did then. And I was happy just working and having her be the housewife. Now I think the mother should do whatever they feel comfortable doing. If they wanna work, they should work.

R: OK, lets talk about me. Or just raising a boy. I didn’t really turn out like a typical boy. I wasn’t too obsessed with violence or sports. I’d rather just read. When I was little, did you have a philosophy about how to raise a boy?

D: Like all couples with their first child we didn’t have a clue. We were flying by the seat of our pants. From a philosophy standpoint, we didn’t want you to be a soldier. We wanted you to have a happy childhood. That was really important to us. We tried to do things with you that you’d enjoy. We bought that canoe and we used to take you canoeing when you were little. We went on some camping trips and things like that. We involved you and let you see what the world was like but we didn’t have any ideas of the future of what you were going to be or were going to do. You were always such a good kid we didn’t have to go through the challenge of trying to raise you. You kind of took care of yourself.

R: Did you think boys should be raised differently that girls?

D: We just let you do your own thing. We would keep an eye on you and make sure you didn’t get into anything too violent. We moved from the rental home to a house in Parma Heights, a three bedroom ranch house and I can remember you had your own room. It was a fun place. The backyard was fenced in and it had a playground and swing and you used to go out there and have fun by yourself. We would kind of keep an eye from the house and make sure you were OK.

R: We like to think we’re not raising Cozy as a girl but as a person. She’s gonna have to know about the world and that there’s some inequality she’s going to have to wrestle with, but she’s a person first.

D: Even thought it was 50 years ago we did the same thing. We raised you the same way. We didn’t try to make you macho. You’re your own person. You have respect for both genders and that’s important and you still have that gentleness you had as a kid. You never lost that and that shows up in Cozy.

R: You traveled a lot when I was little. Do you think that impacted how I developed?

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D: I think I would have been able to more things with you and teach you more things. I tried when I was home to concentrate on teaching you the basic fundamentals and to get you involved in things, in sports, in life, in outdoors, and swimming. That was a big part of me. Then swim team. I tried to keep you involved. We started out with Indian Guides. You were Little Crow and I was Big Crow. We had a lot of fun with that. I tried to get you and your brother involved with things, but I tried to be there, included and supporting you. I think that created a problem with the marriage, actually, because when I was home I was so involved with you guys, I probably didn’t pay enough attention to Sandy (my mom). I think it created a lot of boredom on her part because a lot of the time she wasn’t working. She was at home taking care of you guys. There has to be a balance there and I didn’t recognize that balance. I was too intent on making as much money as I could so you guys could have a good life. You were always in neighborhoods and homes that were, um, “upscale.” You always had friends, it was safe, you could walk to church. I always tried to have the family in a place that was safe and fun.

R: OK, last question. What’s your general advice to being a parent to someone Cozy’s age.

D: You’ve gotta give them room to grow. Encourage them to do the right thing, of course. And push them in a direction they don’t want to go but pay attention and see what they enjoy and like to do and just kind of guide them in the direction to their future. They’ll tell you. They’ll let you know what they like. Cozy’s got a great start because she’s got an artist mom and a well-educated dad. You guys are in that period where you’re in a transition now. And when you find out what you want to do next it’s going to be good for you and good for the family. When you’re happy the rest of the family is happy.

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That’s certainly a good piece of truth. Talking to my dad reminded me of Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, and how my mom must have felt a bit stifled in that home in Parma Heights. Those were times when gender roles in middle class homes were really being re-examined. But it also made me think about how much free reign I had as a little boy, to explore the yard, the neighborhood streets, and the woods. That had to play a role in my sense of independence. And that’s what we’re doing with our daughter.  So my father will be a part of her independent spirit.

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Postscript: My mother just read this and thinks a lot of it is just wrong. She used words like “male chauvinist” and “doormat.” I’m gonna do a parallel interview with her about this period and get her side of the story. It’s funny how we (re) remember our own lives.