Talking About Gender and Violence in the Middle East

April 19, 2018

How do you talk people out of becoming terrorists? I’ve spent this week in the United Arab Emirates at a workshop on the role of gender in countering violent extremism. The three day conference in Abu Dhabi was sponsored by the UN and Hedayah, a UAE group that works on counter-terrorism issues. My role was to brief the global participants on the state of right-wing extremism in Trump’s America, something I’ve been talking a lot about lately.

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It was a pretty amazing gathering at the Bab al Qasr Hotel, right across the street from the Emirates Palace. Three days of intense conversations with people doing work in Kosovo, Lebanon, Uganda, and the rest of the world afflicted by violence done by both men and women who have been sucked into the rabbit hole of extremism. I made friends and colleagues that will last a long time, but more importantly we saw how much of our work overlapped. My work studying white supremacists sounded a lot like the reports on ISIS and Boko Haram.

Extremists of any stripe, including right-wingers and jihadists, are often guilty of dehumanizing the targets of their anger. Similarly, we are often guilty of dehumanizing them, casting them as “animals” or “savages.” In reality, they are products of their environment on a path we rarely get to see. They often have real life grievances. It may be the evaporation of the livable wage in the U.S., or the death of family members in Iraq under U.S. bombs. Someone gives them a devil to blame and an action plan to address their emotional rage and you have a freshman terrorist.

In this context, it’s not a stretch to see a young person, who has been been bombarded online with images of real world horrors and persistent recruitment by radicals framing the horrors as the product of a vast conspiracy, heading off to join ISIS in Syria or walking into a black church in Charleston with a loaded gun.

The gender factor is clear, these calls to violence are targeted at young males looking to perform some heroic act of masculinity to defend their race or religion. While there are occasionally women warriors in both the Aryan and jihadist movements, it’s typically the guy with the gun defending “his” women. Women (in heaven or on Earth) are often used as lures like they are in college fraternities. ISIS fighters are promised wives, sex-slaves and 72 virgins in paradise. White nationalists are liberating “their” women from feminists, homosexuals, black rapists, work, and whatever else conspires to keep them out of the kitchen making sandwiches.

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The three-dray conference in Abu Dhabi was a chance to share stories from across the globe about what might work in developing strategies to rescue men and women, and boys and girls from violet extremism. Former jihadists and academic researchers worked together brainstorming on action items that would translate into UN policy proposals. We dined together and then shared more stories and refined the plan to craft a message that was more than the trope that mothers should stop their sons from becoming terrorists.

Over the course of the workshop, I thought about my own daughter on the other side of the planet missing her daddy. If she was a girl living in Cameroon or Albania, her life could be so much different. Married off as a war bride or convinced to rebel against her circumstances by being talked into strapping a bomb to her chest. The way extremism affects girls like Cozy around the world adds yet another level of external trauma the daughters of this world consumed with hyper-masculine violence face.

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I could not be more proud to do this work countering violent extremism. It makes sense to be doing in the middle east, but it should be done everywhere. The UAE, stuck between the war zones of Iraq and Yemen, has demonstrated how it is possible for a population not to go down that path. Each morning I looked out my window, past the Persian Gulf, to the cradle of civilization. This was the world of the goddess where the weapons of war were absent for 4000 years. Committed people are working to find our road back.

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Masculinity Isn’t Toxic. Toxic Masculinity Is

March 9, 2018

I first started writing about toxic masculinity five years ago. I presented a research paper entitled, “Two Hours Without My Game Face: Inmates Discuss Prison Visitation and Toxic Masculinity” at the annual convention of the Pacific Sociological Association in lovely Reno, Nevada. The term was new and mostly academic. In the wake of the Parkland, Florida mass shooting, suddenly everyone is talking about toxic masculinity and that’s a good thing. Toxic masculinity is about the corrosive effects of the performance of a certain type of male role. It’s not about all men. But trying to explain that gender is a performance makes some people’s heads explode.

Just like the blowback from those who don’t understand the concepts of white privilege or implicit bias (Mike Pence, I’m looking at you), the howls from the right have been predictable. “Masculinity is not toxic!” “It’s open season on men!” “Toxic masculinity is a myth!” Blah, blah, blah. Fragile masculinity at work. I hope these snowflakey blokes don’t own AR-15’s.

The work on toxic masculinity comes out of the research on the experience of men in correctional facilities, most notably by Terry A. Kupers (and later, my own work). Kupers highlights the seven characteristics of toxic masculinity:

  • Extreme competition and greed
  • Insensitivity to others
  • Strong need to dominate and control others
  • Incapacity to nurture
  • Dread of dependency
  • Readiness to resort to violence
  • Stigmatization of women, gays, and men who exhibit feminine characteristics

These characteristics are common among men who are incarcerated. The predatory environment of prison encourages men to be on-guard and ready to fight 24-7. If you are not victimizing someone, you are more likely to be victimized by others. I noticed it among my interview subjects who would put on their emotional armor before reentering the prison population where they never let their guard down or unclenched their fists, even while they slept. It’s emotionally taxing but requires an emotionless willingness to be viscously violent at a moment’s notice.

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These same characteristics are now being used to describe the hyper-masculinity of school shooters. No, their violence was not caused by violent video games, but their obsession with violent media, including video games, is a symptom of this obsession with carnage, devoid of empathy. There are a number of red flags for the boys and men who become mass shooters and all are represented by Kupers’ characteristics of toxic masculinity. Nobody has ever accused a man or boy who has shot up his workplace or school of being a “nurturing” individual.

Most boys learn some version of toxic masculinity the minute they are told not to cry “like a girl,” or throw “like a girl,” or do anything “like a girl.” The devaluing of all things feminine sets boys up on a path of increasingly alienating choices. We encourage girls to be more like boys because that is seen as a path to empowerment but it might also be a path to suppressing what females have to offer, only to have it erupt in the same wanton violence males commit. (When 50% of school shooters are female, will that be heralded as “equality”?)

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Contrastingly, any boy who even starts to “act like a girl” is castigated as a sissy. “Don’t tell me about your feelings, tell me whose ass you want to kick.” “What? You want to be a ballet dancer? Quick! Buy this boy a gun!” Given the fact that women, on average, live seven years longer than men, maybe we should encourage our boys to act more like girls. I mean, if we love them.

Fortunately, there are other masculinities besides toxic masculinity. This includes peacemaking masculinity, integral masculinity, and queer masculinity. Boys don’t have to become cartoon characters of unfeeling macho men, solving problems with their fists. The easiest example is the difference between bourgeois masculinities (“Tennis, anyone?”) and working class ones. And not all working class masculinities are brutish thugs, screaming “Stella!” (Just think of Dan Conner on the sitcom Roseanne, returning to a TV near you.)

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We men have a lot to learn from women who are more relational and less self-repressing. Women suffering from mental distress don’t go on killing sprees. Research shows that women tend to be better problem solvers, facilitating team resources as opposed to men who declare, “I got this!” and then walk off a cliff. Women listen while men are talking out of their asses. Michael Kimmel, in his vitally important book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, urges parents to, instead of raising young males as “just boys,” raise just boys; boys whose masculinity is defined by their concern for social justice.

This country is turning a corner. The #metoo movement will drive out our rapist president and his “bros before hos” alt-right henchmen. The antifeminist Proud Boys with their “We venerate the housewife” bullshit will cave in from their own toxicity. Patriarchy still has plenty of sexual harassers and school shooters to offer, but the more we can raise our boys to think and act like girls, the healthier everyone will be, especially the people who won’t be dead because they weren’t shot by some boy or man having an emotional meltdown because their dad once told them not to cry “like a girl.”

My Conversation with Gloria Steinem

March 2, 2018

New York City is always filled with unexpected moments and celebrity sitings. This week my wife saw Robert DeNiro walking down MacDougal Street in the Village while was I was staring at my phone, texting a friend. My moment was when feminist godmother Gloria Steinmem walked into an event that I was scheduled to speak at on Tuesday and suddenly this woman, whose pictures I had pasted into PowerPoint slides and classroom handouts on feminist history, was standing in a room with me. There are few people, living or dead, who are more associated with the modern American feminist movement than Ms. Steinem.

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We were in the Big Apple to help launch Michael Kimmel’s new book called Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into-And Out of-Violent Extremism. Kimmel is one of the leading scholars on the pitfalls and promises of masculinity. His 2008 bestseller, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, was required reading for my Social Theory students at Portland State. Healing From Hate follows the story of men who have left the hate movement and it recognizes that it wasn’t hate that brought them in but a deep pain associated with a crisis in their gendered expectations of how the world should be. The event was held at the downtown campus of Fordham University, which is part of Lincoln Center. There was wine and spanakopita, and Gloria Steinem.

I ran into the auditorium to tell Andrea who was in the house. “Go talk to her!” she said. “And get a picture.” It turns out she’s friend of Michael Kimmel’s and came to support him at his event. “Did you see Gloria Steinem is here?” he asked me. I just made some sounds that were not actual words and then, not wanting to wait until she was mobbed made a beeline to talk to her.

“Hi Gloria, I’m on the panel tonight and I just wanted to say hello.” I said something about being a feminist criminologist and I wasn’t nervous about speaking that night until I saw her arrive. She said something to the effect of “thank you for your service” and that we’re here to support each other and that I shouldn’t be nervous. I immediately relaxed and just noticed how, at almost 84, perfectly she had aged from the young firebrand infiltrating the Playboy club, to the founder of Ms. Magazine, to now, the elder states-person of American feminism. So I blathered on a bit about how I fell into feminist theory through my research on racist skinheads and now study the toxic masculinity in prisons. Then I thought, Holy shit, I’m talking to Gloria Steinem. I need to ask her a question.

“Okay, since this is rare opportunity for me. I have to ask you, what the hell is going on in this country. What’s your take on the whole Trump thing?” And then she laid this goddess wisdom at my feet.

“You know when a women is at most risk of being killed by her abuser is the moment she tries to escape him. When the battered wife tries to leave, that’s when he is his most violent. That’s where we are. We are finally escaping our abuser and he is violently attacking us. But we can do it. We can finally break free.”

Bam.

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That said it all in one elegant but ugly analogy. When Trump was elected Steinem’s sister in the struggle, Angela Davis, called the shocking election the “last gasp of dying white male supremacy.” Trump and his bullies want to drag us back to before Gloria and the feminists upset the applecart. He says he is not a feminist but is the “greatest supporter” of women and even claimed to break the glass ceiling “for” women. The man does not know what feminism is and the past year of Trump policies have been a executive version of a drunk husband in his “wife beater” telling the Mrs. to get back in the kitchen. The Alt Right shock troops and their president excusing domestic abusers (“He’s a great guy!”) are all connected. Hell, Trump would have raced into that school shooting even without a gun. He’s THAT macho. America is great again! Now make me a sandwich.

So we talked a bit more about her hopefulness and I added that the kids in Florida are the indicator of where we are headed and that I had a theory about the fourth wave of feminism.

“Oh, I don’t buy any of that stuff about waves. It’s all just one wave,” said the Second Wave poster child.

“Okay, then I guess I shouldn’t tell you my theory.”

“No please, go ahead,” she said nicely, as if I could offer any insight on feminism to the woman who wrote the book.

I told her the next step was what our friend Michael Kimmel was doing, to encourage men to embrace feminism and see it as not only an act of social justice but a way to liberate themselves from the limitations of patriarchy.

“Men, have been doing that since the sixties,” she said, alluding to the men’s groups that pioneered consciousness raising but remained fairly isolated on college campuses and places where white men had the resources to “dialogue” in “rap sessions.” My campaign to expand that discussion to young and diverse men got a positive nod.

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“This generation of boys is really different,” I said, explaining how I often go to high schools to talk to classes about these issues. “I love to tell young men about how when I was their age  someone started telling us that ‘Real men don’t eat quiche,’ which I hated because I loved quiche. I tell them real men go to the store to buy tampons for the woman in their lives. Half of the teenage boys squirm and respond in horror but the other half say, ‘I already do that!'”

She laughed and told me about how her date that evening had written a piece in the early 70s about how different things would be if men could menstruate (which she rewrote for Ms. in 1978). I felt like I was carrying her torch. That we were parallel lines and it was cool as hell. We got a few pictures together, which I immediately uploaded to Facebook. Even though taking my wife to New York for a few days was an epic treat, that picture will go up on the mantle.

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The event itself was incredible. Michael discussed his book and how racist men don’t stop being racist because someone told them their racism was stupid. An excerpt from an upcoming film about the topic by documentarian Peter Hutchison was shown. I’m in it so I wasn’t sure how to react when my face appeared up on the big screen. And then an assembled panel of former racists, representing the organization Life After Hate, and researchers spoke. The two researchers were myself and Kathleen Blee, who has done some amazing work on women in organized racist movements, including the Ku Klux Klan. Gloria sat in the front row and every time I tried to bring the conversation back to gender I’d look at her as if to say, “You’re the reason I’m talking about this.”

I know things like this happen in New York all the time, but there can be magical moments when you connect with someone, human to human, who has inspired you. I’ll always hope I didn’t come off as an annoying fanboy and I’ll sit with the fantasy that maybe she was actually inspired by something I said that night in Manhattan.

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America is eating its young. Maybe it’s time to get the hell out.

February 15, 2018

As parent, my gut instinct is to get my family out of America as soon as possible. There are lots of places this doesn’t happen. This country is fundamentally broken. If we didn’t address American males’ obsession with gun violence and the “right” to own weapons of mass carnage after the Sandy Hook massacre, we never will. That 2012 Connecticut shooting left 20 six and seven-year olds dead. Is my three-year-old safe in daycare today, or will find out on the news that some boy or man exercised his 2nd Amendment right by blowing her and her little classmates heads off?

Yesterday’s carnage in Lakeland, Florida is just the latest. Seventeen dead. People are offering the “thoughts and prayers” (accomplishes nothing) and #GunReformNow is trending on Twitter (accomplishes nothing). Pundits and presidents talk about how the shooter was “deranged” (accomplishes nothing) and it will be open season on anyone with a mental health issue (accomplishes oppression, because people suffering from mental health issues are actually less violent than the general population.) It’s the same circle jerk that will dominate the news cycle until the next “big story.” Stormy Daniels? Trump’s tweet? Another shooting? Does anybody remember the Las Vegas shooting? 2017? Hello?

When my co-authored book about suburban delinquency and gun violence, Teenage Renegades, Suburban Outlaws, came out in 2001 we were (like now) picking up the pieces of young gun casualties. The book addressed the lessons learned from the cluster of school shootings at the turn of the century that peaked with the 1999 slaughter at Columbine (13 killed). I was honored to be a part of the national discussion about toxic masculinity, bullying, and the easy availability of high powered weapons. We licked our wounds and went to work and school shootings declined.

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The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School yesterday dwarfed Columbine, something young males have been promising for 19 years. We’ve averaged about one of these events a week in 2018. (I wonder how bad next week’s shooting will be.) That this teenage shooter was linked to a white supremacist group also connects the body count to the elevated racist climate in Donald Trump’s alt-right America, where violent white males have become emboldened (God, I’m sick of using that word). But while we focus on the race of the shooter, we will miss the more important discussion about the gender of the shooter.

All these mass shootings are committed by males. There was a school shooting earlier this month in Los Angeles by a 12-year-girl but it was ruled unintentional. Except for the Brenda “I don’t like Mondays” Spencer case in 1979 (2 dead), girls don’t go on shooting sprees. I’ve written endlessly about the connection between masculinity and gun violence, including in this blog. Let me bring the message home.

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The same toxic masculinity that allows a boy or man to take an AR-15 to school and vent his rage at the world on some “soft targets” is displayed by our elected officials who think they are defending something by allowing that boy or man access to an AR-15 in the first place. There is a reason that women (and female politicians) are at the front of the sensible gun law cause. Women don’t need AR-15’s to make their dicks hard. Women, and men not suffering from EPE (Extreme Penis Envy), want sensible gun laws to reduce (not eliminate) the regularity of this horror. When it was black children being shot in America’s cities, their solution was just to lock everyone up (for anything possible) and put them to work in the prison labor industry. When the juvenile shooter demographic flipped to white, well, they must be crazy and you can’t really do anything about that. Do not expect men to fix this gun problem. Do not. It will be women who get this done.  But they have a mountain of patriarchal bull to remove first.

I’m sick of the gun “debate.”

I’m sick of hearing about “deranged individuals.”

As parent, I’m thinking it might be time to get out while we still can. America is sinking under the weight of its own testosterone. Our male politicians, funded by the gun lobby, have gerrymandered political boundaries to such an extreme that there is no longer much hope of compromise. Districts are permanently Republican or Democratic and moderates are jumping ship. We’re in permeant deadlock with a president who only cares about his ratings and applause from his sub-moronic base. Welcome to Idiocracy. You can pick up your kid after school at the morgue.

On the bright side, the contentious Baby Boom generation is dying off. If the Millennials can put down their phones (and their guns) long enough, this country might survive to its tricentennial. Your “thoughts and prayers” make me sick, but your action plans have my full attention. In the meantime, I’m exploring my options.

“America when will we end the human war?” – Allen Ginsberg (1956).

HOW TO TALK RATIONALLY ABOUT GUN CONTROL

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER MASS SHOOTING IN AMERICA

 

 

Gender – Nature vs. Nurture 7: Baby – Toddler – Girl

January 25, 2018

It’s a common refrain around here – “Where did the baby go?” She’s just grown up so fast (said pretty much every family ever). Besides becoming a full on person, somewhere this past year, she became a full on girl. As a sociologist, for decades I’ve harped on the mantra that we are products of our environment and that gender is social construct. So I’m not quite sure how this happened. Is it my fault?

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We really worked on the gender neutral thing from day one, including dressing her in “boy” clothes, but the girl just loves all things pink. She’s had her stay-at-home dad as her primary caretaker but she’d still rather put on make-up with mom. And it’s not that her working mom is the most girly-girl. (Mexican women seem to have a bad-ass streak woven into them, but you didn’t hear that from me.) All our plans to dominate her nurture seem to have been thwarted by her nature.

Or have they?

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I’ve said it before. You don’t raise children in a vacuum. Cozy is not a lab project. She has countless influences outside of mom and dad, including little friends, teachers, grandmas and tias, and, of course, the media. All play a part in the nurturing of her gender cues. I blame Minnie Mouse. I think that was her first role model. Minnie, who just got her star on Hollywood Boulevard last week (40 years after Mickey), is not exactly an action hero. She’s come a long way, baby, but she still plays her cute card. Just watch where her knees go (in) compared to Mickey’s (out). Is Minnie a virgin to Mickey’s playa? We love Minnie Mouse around here but I’m betting that rodent has her own #metoo story. (I’m looking at you, Harvey Weinstein.)

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Cozy’s moved off Disney (maybe because we lost our Disney Channel connection) and on to the Paw Patrol. I don’t quite know what to make of this cartoon that has been mass marketed beyond belief. (Yes, she is wearing Paw Patrol undies today.) I like the positive go get ‘em attitude – “No job is too big, no pup is too small! – but it’s not like they are taking all that canine energy to improve access to the treehouse for dogs with disabilities or out defending the Paw Pussy Cats from being grabbed by the evil Drumpf. The gang is mostly male but there are two females (don’t call them bitches) named Skye and Everest. And Cozy is obsessed with them. She named her cat Skye and she has Everest socks. The patrol is led by a male (Chase), so we’re going to have to have a little Paw Patrol talk. “Wouldn’t the Patrol get more done if Skye took over?”

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She recently discovered the Little Einstein cartoon series. It’s another gang led by a (white) boy. These four kids fly around in their rocket, and have adventures based in famous works of art and classical music. It’s pretty cool, actually. There’s an episode based on on Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz” and Warhol’s Fish painting. My kid is humming Bizet and talking about Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Her favorite character is June, the dancer, and Cozy will dance to some Edvard Grieg like she was auditioning for the Bolshoi. I love my classical music-loving kid!

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I think seeing the Nutcracker last month was a turning point in her gendered idea of herself. It wasn’t the Nutcracker, or the Rat King that ignited her. It was the Sugar Plum Fairy. She just started glowing when the SPF tiptoed onto the stage. It reminded me of when I saw Elvis Presley in concert at age 9. “That looks like a good job,” I remember thinking. Cozy got to meet the ballerina who performed the role after the show and she was hooked. Now she is constantly dancing in her own ballet for one in a way that’s making us think she might actually be a natural at this. It’s feminine and flowing. How did this happen and how much are ballet lessons? And can she be a ballet dancer and community organizer at the same time?

I recently asked Cozy if she thought there was a difference between boys and girls. She told me that girls can jump higher and then started talking about the difference between kids and grown-ups. I think that’s still the main binary in her head. She still mixes up “she” and “he,” and I purposely don’t correct her. She’s “gender-fluid” on her own but suddenly really cares about being “beautiful.” Maybe it’s just a phase and by this summer she’ll want to be a basketball player. But at the moment, there is very pretty ballerina dancing in our living room.

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Dad Love 10: We Become Gendered

GENDER – Nature vs. Nurture 6: Fierce Fashionistia in a Fiercer World

GENDER – Nature vs. Nurture 5: Elmo is queer

GENDER – Nature vs. Nurture 4: She’s gotta be free

GENDER – Nature vs. Nurture 3: How babies queer gender

GENDER – Nature vs. Nurture 2: Ain’t I a black girl?

GENDER – Nature vs. Nurture: Round 1

Let’s End Duality: Make America Grey Again

January 4, 2018

To start off 2018, I’d like to take us back to a moment in 2004 when Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama said these words:

“The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”

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It seemed like a shift away a from the Bush-era divisiveness and surely played a role in Obama’s election in 2008. It’s worth pointing out that 14 percent of registered Republicans voted for a black Democrat in that election. It seems unimaginable now as we tweet and post from our red and blue state fortresses, rejecting anything that requires acknowledging the complexity of these issues. Remember Donald Trump in February saying,  “Nobody knew that healed care could be this complicated.” Oh, they knew.

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Queer Theory has been instrumental in helping people break through their binary thinking. When we are young we are taught that the sexes are “opposite.”  We are brainwashed in gender attributes that are mirror reflections. Boys are strong, girls are weak. Boys are stoic, girls are emotional. Boys are active, girls are passive. And on and on. It continues into adulthood. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Men care about foreign policy and women care about education. Most adults figure out that we have more in common that in opposition. “You have a pancreas? So do I!” Gender is not black and white. It’s many shades of grey. (A little bird told me that Vice President Mike Pence wears frilly pink panties and Donald Trump actually has a mangina.)

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I was thinking about the persistence of this bullshit dichotomy over the holidays when I read my old pal Bono kavetching that today’s music was “very girly;” that there wasn’t enough loud rock ’n’ roll like when he was a teenage boy. I flashed to the moment that a local Atlanta rock star I worked with in 1981 described the first U2 album as “whiney.” He should try saying music is too girly to Joan Jett’s face. Bono might turn off the Taylor Swift and check out bands like Savages, Diet Cig, Daddy Issues, and War on Women. There’s an explosion of women in rock right now. When I was 13-years-old I thought Kiss rocked and then I heard The Runaways’ Queens of Noise album. I’d put “Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin” against any of U2’s “guitar rock” without hesitation. If that’s girly music, give me more. The girls I know love the loud guitar. I’m a huge U2 fan but Bono is stuck in an antiquated binary.

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We don’t live a black and white world of evil doers and God’s pious peeps. We’re all sinners. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. Context matters. The yin-yang symbol makes for a cool tattoo, but Buddhism does not reduce the world into a simple duality. Taoism is based on the paradox of simultaneous duality and unity. God vs. man? The Gnostic Texts excised from the Christian Bible, make the case that Christ ends that duality. The kingdom of heaven is within you. But you don’t get that message from the Christian Church. Man keeps constructing boundaries. Here’s how you get through heaven’s gate…

Duality makes sense in the abstract world of Boolean algebra, but here in reality things are rarely occurring in opposites. It’s only freaking Thursday?? And yet it’s 2018 already! Time can move fast and slow simultaneously. Even the distinction between life and death is a blurry line at best. We let those man-made boundaries define us. A person can be born with a penis, see themselves as a female identified person, AND be attracted to women. And maybe men occasionally.

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The issue of gender queer persons makes binary thinkers’ heads explode. You have to fit into a nice socially constructed category. It’s either/or not whatever. You have a penis? You belong in the heterosexual male box. Anything else is a “transgression” against nature, or God, or that old Oxford English dictionary your grandmother gave you for your ninth birthday. Those boys and men who stray into the pink zone must be punished. You’re watching The Crown instead of the Sugar Bowl? Smear the queer! I remember it well.

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The same is true with race. You’ve got a box to fit in and that’s who you are. You are either white or non-white. Again, reality has other plans. In the 2010 U.S. Census, 2 percent of Americans identified as two or more races. That’s 9 million people. In fact, multiple-race Americans grew at a faster pace than single-race Americans (32% vs. 9.2%). More and more Americans do not fit nicely into a demographic box. Is my half-Mexican daughter “white” or “brown”? Well, when she is applying for college scholarships, she’s gonna be “Latina” when it helps. But her light skin will privilege her the majority of her “white” life.

But here we are are, in a world where the President of the United States tells transgender Americans they are not allowed to serve in the military. (Another of his many failures in 2017.) Lower-level dualistic simple thinking rules the day. Either you are with us or against us. America, love it (our way) or leave it.  Sorry, simple people; it’s just not that simple.

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The reason this is the first post of the year is that I’ve noticed a creeping problem in 2017. Both sides are stuck in a binary deadlock. If you are a conservative, anyone who identifies themselves as liberal is just a “libtard” and anything they say will be dismissed out of hand. The other side is not much better. “You voted for Trump? You must be a complete moron and incapable of rational thought.”

Americans are not red or blue. They are mostly purple. Numerous surveys show that, despite political polarization, most Americans hold both liberal AND conservative opinions about things. Not only is it a scale, it’s a sliding scale. I imagine people get more conservative as April 15th approaches and more liberal over the holidays. Some people are socially liberal and economically conservative or vice versa. Some may change their political position after a good movie or a bad arrest. I spent much of my college years hanging out with Marxists, but I don’t want to live anywhere that looks like North Korea. I think capitalism is inherently corrosive but I appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit of my local Portland businesses. I even bought something in a Wal-Mart last year. (Long story.) Am I a hypocrite or just a complex person? Most people are complex. People who voted for Obama also voted for Trump and might vote for Elizabeth Warren in 2020. My dad likes to say he’s a “Republicrat.” Make your case. He’ll listen.

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I’ve written about the need for political civility in this blog. But this is something bigger. This is about breaking away from the us vs. them lie that’s been fed to us. I’m a post-modernist. I want to destroy these artificial barriers that confine us politically, sexually, spiritually, and any other way. We are trapped in our dogmatic partisan perspectives, fearful of the natural complexity of things. This is nothing new in this country. Our founders divided themselves into federalist and anti-federalist camps. Surprise, surprise – the best reality was somewhere in the middle.

There are things we can do to break through this artificial dichotomy. Ask questions of people making opposing arguments. Find the shades of grey you can work with. Keep an eye out for polarizing language. I tell anyone who uses the word “libtard” in a Facebook debate that there is no point to engage after that. Others should do the same when I use the word “moron.” Don’t make assumptions about people in different camps. You probably have more in common than you know. Instead of trying to “beat” them, help them to understand your position. Break out of your bubble. Diversity is good for plant life and party conversations. Don’t be afraid of encountering strong arguments that undermine the position you’ve taken. Don’t be afraid.

2018 is going to be a hell year. Perhaps the most important mid-term election in this nation’s history is only eleven months away. It’s going to be emotional and people are going to be combative, defensive, and needlessly inflammatory. We could divide ourselves into two opposing factions, a new civil war. Or we could reject the red and blue traps we’ve created for ourselves and make America fully human for the first time. “Hi, I’m Ying Yang, Yeah, it’s complicated. Get to know me.”

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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.