BroadSnark

Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, anarchist, atheist who likes the letter A
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Sex, Age, Consent, and Power

January 05, 2012 By: Mel Category: Inequality, Sex, Violence

Mel at SixteenJust after I turned sixteen, I met this guy who would end up being my boyfriend for about a year. He was twenty-two. He didn’t think I was that young at first. I never lied to him, mind you. He just didn’t ask me the night we met. I regularly passed for older in clubs, buying cigarettes, whatever. That’s me at sixteen in the pic. I have a bag full of snacks, several packs of cigs, and a jug of rum. (Clearly, my hobbies haven’t changed much. Except I mostly drink vodka now.)

By about a year and a half after that pic was taken I will have been kicked out of school, kicked out of my house, working two jobs, and taking care of myself. Which is to say that I wasn’t a particularly young sixteen. And my boyfriend wasn’t a particularly old twenty-two. He was just coasting, living with his brother, and figuring out what to do since a motorcycle accident ended his army gig.

I was not the only one of my friends who dated guys quite a bit older than them. In fact, I’m having a hard time remembering people any of us dated who weren’t quite a bit older than we were. Some of my friends were passing as 21 when they were 15. If they had dated guys their age, they would have looked like pedophiles.

Not surprisingly, my parents were not pleased with my choice of boyfriend. My father found his phone number one day and called him. To this day I do not know exactly what he said. My boyfriend, ironically, was always trying to get me to repair the relationship with my parents. Whatever my father said to him was something that he thought would have set me off. So I can only assume that my father threatened him. He moved to Chicago soon after.

Now you may be thinking that my parents were just worried for my well-being. They weren’t monsters. I’m sure they were concerned. But I am also sure that they did not think for one minute that I was being taken advantage of. While most kid’s parents were always on the lookout for “the bad influence” (including my parents when it came to my sister), my parents knew that I was too strong-willed for that. The year before they said to me, “We know nobody makes you do anything you don’t want to do.” True then. True now.

So when I read about people being prosecuted for statutory rape, or just vilified for having relationships with people much younger than they are, I take a personal interest. My first reaction is often, “I wonder what the supposed victim has to say about all this.” Lately, I’ve come across a ton of stories that involve people with big age differences.

Let’s start with this guy. A twenty-two year old man was friended on Facebook by someone pretending to be a fourteen-year-old girl in order to get information about the guy’s brother. He arranged to meet the fake fourteen-year-old for sex. The police were waiting for him. He’s going to jail for three years. Now, even though I suspect the guy is probably a cretin, I still don’t think he should be going to jail. I’m not cool with prison, but especially not sending someone to prison for a crime they wanted to commit. And we can’t even judge the maturity of the “victim” since there wasn’t any.

What about this woman? She was a high school teacher. She had sex with one of her soon-to-be-former students on prom night. He was a week away from his eighteenth birthday. She is going to spend five years in prison for that. Are we really saying that the boy had no free will? A week later he would have been eligible to enlist in the military. That is just mindbogglingly outrageous to me.

Then there is this woman. She had sex with three of her daughter’s tween friends and is now facing eighty years behind bars. I think what this woman did was wrong, not least because her daughter is going to need some serious therapy. This woman needs some therapy too. But eighty years behind bars? And when you compare that with say, the police officers who were acquitted of rape charges in New York…

That is not to say I don’t get seriously repulsed by some of the stories I read. Why would a forty-nine-year-old man be getting a thirteen-year-old fucked up so that he could grope her? What kind of fifty-two-year-old would be trying to get with a fourteen-year-old? What about thirty-four and thirteen? And I have no words for this cop who molested an eight-year-old autistic girl.

When exactly does someone cross over from being a child, incapable of consent, to an almost adult with possibly poor judgment but the ability to make decisions for themselves? For me, the pivotal age was fourteen. Everything changed for me that year. For other people it will have been different.

Clearly, a bigger age difference matters. But it matters less and less as people get older. We might raise an eyebrow at the celebrity couples with huge age differences, but we don’t generally assume that they are criminal. We might think they are damaged. We might think they are immature, having a crisis, in denial about their age, or incapable of having a healthy relationship. But I would hope that we wouldn’t come to definitive conclusions based on a picture and a couple birth dates.

I’m thirty-eight and can hardly imagine being attracted to a twenty-year-old, much less a tween. But my inability to comprehend how someone my age would do that hasn’t erased the clear memory of how powerless and angry I was at being dismissed and coerced as a teen. My parents abused their power to force me into not doing something they didn’t want me to do. To me, it is essentially no different than parents who force their teen daughters into marrying someone they don’t want to marry.

What this really comes down to is power and consent. In some situations, there is a power imbalance regardless of age. A teacher has power over a student. A cop has power over pretty much everyone. A boss has power over their employee. A guard has power over their prisoner.  As someone who believes that the ideal is for all relationships to be relationships of equals, I think we should be aiming to get rid of power imbalances. Instead, we usually end up restricting relationships in order to preserve positions of power. That seems a little back assward.

But we also have to confront the fact that things like age and physical strength also involve imbalances of power. And imbalances of power make consent a very tricky thing. Sadly, as I’ve written about before, most of us are pretty bad at consent in even the best of situations. Which means there are no easy answers. But people don’t like ambiguity, especially when it comes to sex or young people.

So I guess my question to you all is – How do we prevent abuses of power, both by the kinds of adults who molest children and by the kind of adults who dis-empower and coerce young people?

Does Culture Disappear?

April 26, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc, Religion

I often hear people express fear of losing their culture.  Sometimes, I sympathize with them.  I sympathize with indigenous people who are fighting for their dying languages.  I sympathize with the French farmer who led a revolt against McDonalds.  And I sympathize with Jews who – after surviving inquisitors, pogroms, and the holocaust – fear losing their culture to secularism and intermarriage.

But more often, the people who fear losing their culture don’t invoke much sympathy in me at all.  I have little sympathy for those who see immigration as a threat to their culture.  I have little sympathy for those who want to hang confederate flags to celebrate their culture.  I have little sympathy for people who defend misogynist, homophobic, racist or other hateful practices in the name of culture.

When I ponder the question of whether or not culture can disappear, my first response is – damn, I hope so.  I hope the culture of racism disappears.  I hope the culture of patriarchy disappears.  Rape culture, homophobic culture, materialistic culture…I hope all of it disappears. Of course, pondering those cultural relics just goes to show how difficult culture is to get rid of.  Culture, good and bad, is pernicious.

Culture mutates like a virus.  And it is that infinite mutability of culture that makes arguments about protecting culture completely nonsensical.  The fear that people have of losing their culture depends upon the belief that culture is isolated and stagnant.  It depends upon a belief that what you practice as your culture today is what it was yesterday and what it should be tomorrow.

Not true.

What is Jewish culture?  To my mother it means having Friday night dinner and celebrating the high holidays.  To my friend it means making obligatory visits to the holocaust museums and eating lox at kosher delis.  But to Hasidim on Miami Beach it means wearing the same clothes Jews wore in the Eastern European ghetto.  They have decided that preserving their culture means freezing it in a moment in time.  Why that moment?  Jesus was a Jew.  Why not wear loose robes?  It would make a lot more sense in Miami.  I mean wool in 90 degrees, oy vey.

What is authentic culture?  Is pizza authentically Italian when tomatoes are indigenous to the Americas?  Is apple pie authentically American when apples are indigenous to Central Asia?  Is the horse culture of the Plains Indians authentic, even though they only had horses after the Spanish brought them?

When I visited the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, our guide felt the need to explain to us why the pueblo houses had modern looking windows and doors on some of them.  “We shop at Home Depot too,” she said.  Clearly, some previous visitors had been disappointed that the Acoma people were unwilling to forgo modern conveniences so tourists could have an “authentic” experience.

When people try to hang on to culture, they are trying to hang on to culture caught in a moment in time, as interpreted through their memories or imaginations.  It isn’t real.  It isn’t possible. It isn’t desirable.

Don’t get me wrong.  It saddens me when I hear about lost cultures.  It saddens me to know that people in Tierra del Fuego only have a few native speakers left and that their language is dying.  But what is sad about lost culture is not that it is lost, per say.  What is sad is that, all too often, culture is lost because of force.  When the Navajo adopted the horse and changed their culture of their own volition, it was not sad.  When the Navajo were sent to schools to beat the Navajo out of them, that was not just sad, it was criminal.

The difference is force.  It is power.

Each individual must be free to chose which cultural things they think are useful and which they don’t think are useful.  If the things you are hanging on to are seen to be valuable by others, they will stick around.  Otherwise you just have to accept that not everyone shares your loves and values.  It’s a difficult thing to accept, but what else can you do?  Force acceptance down the barrel of a gun?

Of course, when people talk about losing their culture, what they often mean is they fear losing their identity.  They fear losing a label.  They fear losing a connection to a group and history that makes them special.  I can understand that fear.  But who you are is not so fragile.  Culture is not so fragile.

Here is the truth.  Many of the things that you cherish today will not be cherished, or even remembered, by future generations.  Many of the beliefs that people hold today will someday seem as strange and archaic as believing the world is flat.  You cannot stop that process.  That’s just life.  New cultural beliefs will form and their production will require cultural destruction.

But culture often survives in some small way despite itself.  In Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, there are many families descended from Spanish conversos.  There are Northern Mexicans who have been lighting candles on Friday nights for years, unawares that their tradition has roots in their Jewish heritage. And some of these people are rediscovering that heritage.  Hundreds of years of oppression and silence and yet a little flame remained.

Culture is stubborn.

Are Anarchists Naive?

November 02, 2009 By: Mel Category: Anarchism

Once people find out I’m an anarchist (and get over the shock that I am not a fifteen year old punk rock white boy who likes to smash windows), they want to know what anarchy is (if not violence and mayhem).  I explain to them that anarchy means “without rulers” and that I am against all forms of domination.

Now, of course, they want to know how we are going to live without domination.  They tell me that, without police, we will have no protection from violent criminals.  They tell me that, without bosses, nobody would do anything and we’d all starve.  They tell me that, without coercion, people would just argue forever and nothing would ever get resolved.  They tell me that, if you remove coercive institutions tomorrow, someone would just go about trying to recreate them.

They think anarchy is a utopian dream.

They’re right.  It is a utopian dream.  And there is nothing wrong with utopian dreams.  Whenever humans have made progress, it has been because of people who had seemingly unrealistic dreams about human possibility.  Mother Jones, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King had utopian visions for the world.  Their visions may not have been fully realized, but they changed things radically for the better.

I don’t believe I will ever see a society that is completely free of coercion and violence.  But that doesn’t mean that I’m just going to roll over and accept coercion and violence.  I don’t believe I will ever see a society where hierarchies don’t exist.  But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to roll over and accept man over woman, white over black, straight over gay, rich over poor, owner over worker.

When they tell me that, without police, we will have no protection from violent criminals; I tell them that half the people who are languishing in prison are not violent criminals.  I tell them that “17.6 % of women in the United States have survived a completed or attempted rape.”  I tell them that most rapes go unreported and most rapists unpunished.  I tell them that, in many cases, the police are the rapists and not protecting us at all.  I tell them that I don’t think I’m protected now.

When they tell me that, without bosses, nobody would do anything and we’d all starve; I tell them that people are starving now.  I tell them that “almost one person in six does not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life.” And I tell them that there are alternatives to hierarchy.  I tell them about the FASINPAT in Argentina and Arizmendi bakeries in California.  I tell them about AK Press and Mondragon (soon coming to a U.S. town near you).

When they tell me that, without coercion, people would just argue forever and nothing would ever get resolved; I tell them that ordinary people, working together, can come up with solutions on their own.  And if they don’t believe me, they can ask nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom.

I don’t disagree that there will always be people trying to rebuild the coercive institutions that we manage to tear down.  There are people out there who long for the antebellum south.  There are people who would like to bring back ruling monarchies.  And obscene amounts of people supported McCarthyism and the Patriot Act and every other rollback of civil rights some butthead has proposed.  That’s not an argument against anarchy.

I’m not naive.  I understand the challenges.  I understand how imperfect we all are.  But I also see the possibilities.  I see anarchy happening in little (and not so little) ways all over the world.  And I know that the people are wrong who think obtaining power, and using that power over others, is the only way to accomplish anything.  It isn’t the only way.  It isn’t the right way.

I do not believe that the world will ever be all peace, love, and cotton candy.  I do believe that the more people adopt anarchist principles, the better off we will be.

Love it or Leave It

October 07, 2009 By: Mel Category: Inequality

None of us has control over the place or time of our birth.  We come into this world subject to the rules, whims, inequities, and injustices that those who came before us imposed by force.  Is it truly a democratic society if you are compelled to obey rules you never agreed to?

I objected to the idea that we are compelled to follow those rules in response to a blog post by Doctor Biobrain.  The doctor’s response was that my parents had actually agreed to the rules on my behalf and that, by staying here past my eighteenth birthday, I too was agreeing to them.

I objected to having to abide by the decisions of corrupt representatives in a fixed system.  The response was that, by staying here, I had agreed to abide by whatever they decided.   Any objection I made – about corruption, about non-inclusion – was met with the same answer.  If I don’t like it, I can leave.

Love it or leave it.  Or, at least, deal with it or leave it.

Where exactly are we supposed to go?  Is there anywhere on earth that is outside the grasp of the Eurocentric, racist, patriarchal system that has used violence to exclude most of us for hundreds of years? More importantly, are people really so unquestioning of violence and coercion?  Dr. Biobrain says,

so it’s part of the agreement that anyone who breaks the agreement can be severely punished. And anyone who seriously attempts to permanently end the agreement can be put to death. And again, this is all in the agreement. And if you choose not to follow the agreement, yet don’t want to face punishment, you have only one option: Leave.

Over and over Doctor Biobrain insisted that it was my choice to live here, as though everyone on this earth has equal opportunities to go anywhere they want.  As though everyone has the resources to start over.  As though everyone is free of attachments.  As though immigration laws in countries around the world weren’t written by classists and white supremacists too.

And when exactly did this love it or leave it rule begin to apply?  Does it only apply for rules made after women and minorities received the right to vote?  Or are we really saying that rules imposed by a tiny faction are sacred?  Are we really saying that our only recourse is a corrupted election system – a system complete with gerrymandering, felon disenfranchisement, corporate media, and impossible financial barriers?

Love it or leave it is a cop-out.  It’s a way for people to avoid the fact that the system was designed for the benefit of a few at the expense of the many.  Love it or leave it is a lie.   It is a pretense of freedom where little exists.

But the sad fact is that Doctor Biobrain is not wrong about how our “democracy” works.  He is exactly right.

Where Doctor Biobrain is wrong is in suggesting that it is the best we can do.  The doctor is wrong in accepting that “might makes right,”  wrong in saying that our system is “EXTREMELY fair,”  and wrong in believing that what we have is truly a democracy.

Dr. Biobrain is wrong, but not alone.  In fact, I would argue that the central conflicts in our society aren’t between democrats and republicans or between conservatives and liberals.  The central conflicts are between those who feel the system was meant for them and works for them and those that don’t.

Those of us for whom the system does not work, and wasn’t meant to work for, cannot accept “love it or leave it.”