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

The Friendship Binary

December 15, 2011 By: Mel Category: Core, Sex, Stratification

My friend Graham sent me the below video where a guy goes around asking people if men and women can be just friends. All the guys he asks say they cannot. All the girls he asks say they can, but then admit that they think their guy friends would hook up with them if they had the opportunity. So the dude who produced the video claims that he has proven that men and women cannot be friends.

Dear Graham – my friend who I do not think wants to hook up with me –  my requested response is below the video.

The first problem with the whole premise is the assumption that all people are straight. Lots of my guy friends are gay and most certainly have no interest in having sex with me. Or as my friend Lance gasped when someone told us we were a cute couple, “OMG! That’s my sister!”

So can straight women be friends with gay men? Can lesbians be friends with straight men? Do bisexual people not get to have any friends? And WTF do we even begin to talk about with people who identify as genderqueer. I mean if you don’t pick a gender our whole world may fall apart here.

Secondly, how are we defining “just friends?” Maybe some of the women who said that men and women can be friends are defining friendship differently. Why does sexual attraction, or even having sex, have to move you out of the friend category? As it turns out, there are a whole lot of different kinds of friends with benefits relationships out there.

Perhaps what the women mean is that they can have a relationship with someone, even including sex, that does not include romantic love or thoughts of weddings and white picket fences. Or perhaps those women aren’t sleeping with their friends but would be if they didn’t grow up in a place where people wear purity rings. Maybe they are sleeping with them and just don’t want to admit it because of all the baggage that comes with open acknowledgement of having sex with people you don’t want to marry.

And what about age? The Harold and Maude scenario isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence. Actually, any kind of relationship across generations seems to be kind of unusual. But they do occur. And I can attest to the fact that the dynamic is a lot different when you are friends with someone who is old enough to be your grandfather or young enough to be your kid.

I think most, maybe all, friendships involve attraction. That includes the friendships that mostly straight people have with people of their own gender. That doesn’t mean I want to have sex with all my girlfriends, hot as you all are. Then again, we women are more likely to admit to being gay or bisexual and are apparently turned on by a much wider range of things than you dudes are. As Mary Roach wrote in Bonk,

A series of studies by Meredith Chivers and colleagues at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto showed that men are more discriminating than women when it comes to how they respond to pornographic images. Women, both gay and straight, will show immediate genital arousal…in response to films of sexual activity, regardless of who is engaging in it – male, female, gay, straight, good hair or bad. Men, contrary to stereotype, tend to respond in a limited manner; they are aroused only by footage that fits their sexual orientation and interests…To test the limits of the phenomenon, Chivers gamely ran a follow-up study in which men and women viewed, in addition to the usual gamut of human sexual scenarios, footage of bonobos mating. Here again, the women’s genitals responded – though not as strongly as they did to images of human beings – and the men’s did not.

Uh oh. Guess no friendships for any of us. Possibly no pets either.

Where does this bullshit come from? It comes from a strict gender binary. It comes from thinking sexuality is rigid rather than a spectrum that can change over time. It comes from a very narrow range of relationship options, where women are only supposed to have sex with people they love and all relationships are supposed to end in monogamous marriage.

It comes from too many dudes who don’t see women as human beings, or as one charming commenter on the YouTube video put it,

there’s this girl who wanted to be “just friends with” me, meaning no sex…i told her “hell no” my friendship comes with certain sexual requirements…either that or take the highway girl…point being, a straight male can’t be just friends, even with a semi good-looking chick, so long as she has a hole to dip it into

I think its pretty clear that if you see women as “a hole to dip into,” then you probably can’t be friends with them. Thankfully, not all guys are as douchey as you.

The video focused on presumably single, young people. But the bfriend had a similar conversation to this at his work a while back. Of all the coupled people, only the non-heterosexual and him thought that men and women could be friends. Mostly, there was a lot of “my husband would never let me be friends with a man” blah blah blah.

What is that about? Do people think that love equals possession? Do men think they are conquistadors and their dick is a flag? Do women think their men are just walking hard ons who have to be kept in the house? Is everyone so insecure? If your relationship is so fragile that a friendship can break it, you already had problems.

My bfriend has a lot of women friends. One of the things I love most about him is that he actually likes women. He doesn’t just like to have sex with women. He likes to hang out with us. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I wouldn’t be with him if he couldn’t be friends with women. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been one or two occasions where I might have had a twinge of jealousy. But that was my insecurities, not his behavior.

Let me just end by saying that life is about relationships. It is one thing to make the very reasonable decision that you want to have a monogamous, sexual relationship. But if you cut the person you supposedly love off from having even non-sexual relationships with at least half the population, then you cut them off from life. And if you really think that sexual attraction means you can’t be friends, you are cheating yourself and probably lying to yourself about how attracted you are to the friends you have now – of whatever gender.

Whose Fault Is It?

June 23, 2011 By: Mel Category: Sex, Stratification

The Dilbert guy is being hateful and thick again. He wrote a post on the recent spate of men caught “tweeting, raping, cheating” and had this to say.

The part that interests me is that society is organized in such a way that the natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal while the natural instincts of women are mostly legal and acceptable. In other words, men are born as round pegs in a society full of square holes. Whose fault is that? Do you blame the baby who didn’t ask to be born male?

According to him, if not for society’s (read women’s) controls on them, men would all be “unrestrained horny animals.” In his world it is women against men. If men get to be their true selves, then women lose.

It is hard to even know how to begin responding to all the wrong that permeates his post. Let’s start with conflating tweeting pics of your dick with rape. Far as I know, the women who received pics of Weiner’s weiner were not complaining about it. I have no idea if he and his wife are monogamous. I don’t know what they consider cheating if they are. It’s really none of my business. What I do know is that Weiner’s behavior and DSK raping a maid are not even slightly comparable.

I seriously doubt that Adams believes that tweeting pics and rape are the same thing. But he does seem to think that both those things fall into a range of “natural” male behavior. Clearly, if it were up to men, you would all be sitting around fires, eating raw meat, and taking the pussy like Pepe.  Right?

I am so tired of the people who make all men out to be rapists. Even if you believe that men want sex more than women, that doesn’t mean that all men would rape if it were not for the minuscule chance that they might go to jail for a couple years. It doesn’t mean that men can’t understand that women are people and that coercing people into doing things they don’t want to do is wrong. It doesn’t mean that men can’t understand that, just because you want to do something, it doesn’t mean you are entitled to do it. Men are human too, you know.

Besides, rape is not about sex, at least not just about sex. People rape because they can get away with it. They rape the weak. They rape to exert their power. They rape to punish. They rape to defile. To colonize. To scar.

Of course, I don’t actually believe that men want sex more than women. At least, I don’t think it is that simple. First of all, gender is not so neat. According to that crazy lefty magazine The Economist, “at least 1.7% of people are born with one of several dozen possible intersexual conditions.” So how are we supposed to make blanket statements about gender? Where do gay people fit into his little male vs. female world? And how are we supposed to separate out what is attributable to innate tendencies and what is attributable to all the head trips put on us and our sexuality?

As Holly so eloquently put it in her post a while back, men should be encouraging sluttiness. Instead we get a lot of bullshit about the kind of girl you marry and the kind of girl you don’t. Instead we get ridiculous calculations about how many dates you have to go on before you can jump the guy you want and not have him disappear because you were too easy. (Really ladies, why the hell would you want a guy who thinks like that anyway?) That doesn’t even begin to look at all the women who are suffering through really bad sex.

And let me just add one more glaring omission. A major source of all our sexual dysfunction and head trips is religion. When was the last time you saw women running a major religion? As I have written about before, the Catholic Church (arguably the most influential religious institution ever) specifically formed in opposition to women. If you are pissed about the sorry lack of good sex in the world, why not take aim at the pope? He is more responsible than any woman.

Let me not go on and on about that. You have heard it all before. I’m bringing this up with you because I got into a twittersation with my friend @jeremy6d about the post. He thought that Adams was getting at the same thing that Marty Klein was getting at in that post I shared with you on Tuesday. I had a hard time seeing that. Where Klein was talking about sexual dysfunction for everyone, Adams was blaming women.

But if i try to set aside Adams obvious dislike of women. If I can manage to set aside his feeling that men have no respect for other human beings. If I can manage to set aside his strict construction of gender. If I can manage to set aside his total lack of power analysis. If I can manage to set aside his “domestication of males” theory (as Jeremy so perfectly worded it).  Is there anything else there?


I believe that Adams feels stifled by social controls. I believe it because I feel that way. I have felt that way since I was a tween. But where Adams can only see his own feelings and has decided to blame women for his unhappiness, I recognize that social control is coming at us from all directions. It comes from parents, schools, churches, government, media…everything.

While those that have more power have to take more responsibility for how fucked up our society is, we all are part of this society. We all create this society together. That means that we all have to take responsibility for our role in perpetuating the systems, institutions, and beliefs that keep us in our little boxes. It means we need to do our part to reformulate society in a way that isn’t so damned oppressive for all of us. It means recognizing that it isn’t a zero sum game, that our liberations are connected.

So Adams, and people like him, need to pull their head out of their ass. I imagine it’s damned hard to see or hear clearly from in there. And it is probably stinky as hell. No wonder he is so cranky.

Feminism or the Highway?

December 02, 2010 By: Mel Category: Stratification

Is feminism the only banner under which people can fight patriarchy, or better yet, kyriarchy?*

Is any act performed with the goal of ending gender oppression automatically feminist? Even if the people doing it don’t identify with feminism?  Even if feminism has consistently slapped them in the face?

I’ve been asked to explain why I don’t identify as feminist and I think I need to start with trying to answer those questions.  Because it seems to me that many feminists think that feminism is the only path to confronting oppression. That belief (I would say arrogance) is one of the primary reasons that I do not identify as feminist.

If feminism is the only path to confronting oppression, then what about Womanism? Are we to erase the experiences of black women who have very consciously chosen not to identify with feminism?  What about other marginalized people who have, after much consideration, chosen not to use the feminist label?

Read Women and Social Movements in Latin America and you will find a very ambivalent relationship between women’s movements and feminism.  Sometimes women don’t call themselves feminists because they see it as a movement of privileged white women. Sometimes, like in the case of the Bentia Galeana Women’s Council in Mexico, they don’t adopt the term because they cant come to any consensus about what feminism means.

Who can blame them for not being able to figure out what it means?  Some people say feminism is just about equality between the sexes.  Others say that it is about crushing patriarchy. Still others say that it is about confronting all forms of oppression.  There is liberal feminism, eco-feminism, radical feminism, anarcha-feminism, black feminism, Marxist feminism, sex positive feminism, and even conservative feminism (a la Ms. Palin). And the fights between the different feminists – who all have ideas about what is essential to feminism – are as bad as the fights between Anarchists and Marxists.  Or Anarcho-capitalists and Anarcho-communists.  Or…  You get the picture.

Now if you believe, as I do, that there are ways to fight oppression outside of the feminist label then the question becomes, does that label provide any added value?  Is it meaningful to me?  When I asked that question, the answer I came up with was no.  On the contrary. I think that when you adopt a label or belief system, you have to be willing to own up to all the things done in the name of that label.  And I am not prepared to accept the baggage of feminism.  I’ve got my hands full with anarchism.  Thank you very much.

If you want to read about the baggage of feminism, there are plenty of people who have written about it.  Read Jessica Valenti on gender essentialism.  Read Kimberle Crenshaw and Eve Ensler on feminists who ignored Hilary Clinton’s politics and supported her simply because she didn’t have a penis.  Read Monica Roberts on the long history of feminist transphobia.  Read about the battles between feminists and womanists.  Read about the experiences of sex workers:

we’re having to deal with the tremendous harms and human rights violations that have been done in the name of “feminism,” perpetrated against us to prove some theoretical point. When I started to work on the street in Montreal in 2001, for example, a number of feminist groups decided that they were going to go on the anti-prostitution rampage, and allied with right-wing people and religious groups to do so, which is not a strange combination. We have seen it in the United States when the powerful alliance between right-wing Christian groups, religious fundamentalists, and a number of mainstream feminist groups [cooperated] to pass aid restrictions to limit HIV funding to sex workers groups, at a tremendous cost to sex workers lives all over the world.

Now I know that some of you are thinking – Sure feminism has problems, but you should get in there and help fix it.

Why should I?

Some time back, one of the people I follow on twitter made the following comment, “Answering a situation of male exclusivity with female exclusivity is almost like celebrating your marginalization instead of fighting it.”  I suspect that it may have been in response to my talking about a conference for anti-authoritarian women.  (The conference was inspired by the sausage fest of an event that Libertopia was clearly going to be).

I never actually responded, but if I had I would have said the same basic thing I say to people who think I should help fix feminism.  I would rather build something that reflects my values.  I don’t have any desire or obligation to spend my precious time fixing your shit.  I have other shit I’d rather be fixing.  What’s more, are we really going to ask the most marginalized people to go in and fix feminism?  Are you going to tell a trans woman, who is in the line of fire every time she steps out of her house, to get closer to the shooter?  Who the hell are any of us to ask that?

While we are on the subject of responses to my non-feminism, let me tackle a few more things that will inevitably come up.

No.  I have not been brainwashed by the anti-feminist culture.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  I have been surrounded my whole life by feminists.  I once worked for the former president of the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women.  I would get waaaaay less shit if I would just cave and call myself a feminist.  My opinions on feminism do not come from listening to its detractors, they come from witnessing the actions of its proponents.

Which brings me to a more valid criticism, that I am judging feminism by liberal feminists. Well, yes.  I am.  Most of the feminists I have known in my life are liberal feminists who do not question the power structure, but merely want more women at the top of it.  It is true that anarcha-feminists do not fall into the same traps as liberals, but most feminists are not anarchists.  The idea that I should judge feminism by the margins is absurd.  Usually, we talk about how movements shouldn’t be judged by the extremes, but with feminists I’m supposed to turn that on its head and not judge the movement by the mushy center?

Truth be told, I thought about identifying as anarcha-feminist for half a second.  But it just didn’t make any sense.  If feminism is defined as being against all forms of oppression, then adding feminist to anarchist just seems redundant.  If it is about being against patriarchy and gender oppression, then it would seem to preference one type of oppression over another.  Cindy Milstein, at a recent event in Baltimore, described it in less negative terms. She said that the anarcho-adjectives symbolized not preference, but passion.  That’s fine.  If you are extra passionate about injustice related to gender oppression, more power to you. But I am not.  I may identify more when I hear about the injustices and abuses faced by women, but I am not more passionate about doing something about those injustices than I am about injustices due to race or class or disability or anything else.

None of this means that I am anti-feminist.  I can appreciate the accomplishments of feminists without being a feminist.  Just like I can appreciate the accomplishments of the Southern Christian Leadership Council without being a Christian.  I can appreciate feminist writings, philosophy and discourse without being a feminist.  Just like I can appreciate the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh or John Paul Sartre without being a Buddhist or an existentialist.

I get that identifying as feminist is meaningful to many people.  And if you want to inundate me with suggested reading that you think will change my mind about the whole thing, knock yourself out.  I keep an open mind.  Just don’t be so arrogant as to think that, because it holds such meaning for you, the rest of us have to agree or we are BAD.  Don’t forget that the movement you are so attached to has shit on a lot of people along the way. And don’t continue that tradition by disrespecting all the amazing women out there who are confronting oppression without the feminist label.


* Since I posted this I have been enlightened on some of the more troubling aspects of the term kyriarchy.  You can read a very good post about it here (HT @QueerCoup).  I’m usually more careful with my language.  Had I done more 101, I might not have used the term.

That said, I don’t think it effects the crux of my arguments and I still stand by all the rest of it.

Are all Johns (and Janes) the Same?

November 18, 2010 By: Mel Category: Sex, Stratification

Last Tuesday I linked to an article that really bugged me, but I hadn’t quite put my finger on all the reasons why.  It was about a brothel for women that is opening in New Zealand.  The author of the article was predicting that the brothel would be a failure because women “have to be paid to have sex with strangers.”

At first I thought what was bothering me about the article was that same old tired trope about women wanting relationships while men just want to get off.  There is no way to know for sure what women would or would not want if we lived in a society where women having sex with multiple partners (or any kind of sex) didn’t come with such massive social disapproval.  There is no way to know for sure what men would or would not want if we lived in a society that didn’t hold up James Bond as their emblem for promiscuous, manly virility.

Even in our present culture, surveys show that the number of sexual partners that men have and women have aren’t very far off.  And in some of the surveys, where the numbers are farther apart, the respondents who reported high numbers admitted to lying.  Not to mention all the societies that have had much different ideas about sex. Jesuit missionaries from France were shocked by the sexual freedom that Montagnais-Naskapi Indian women had.*

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that wasn’t what was really bugging me about the article. What was bugging me was the portrait this woman was painting of who would go to a prostitute and why.  She didn’t go so far as to claim that every guy who goes to a prostitute is some emotionally stunted pervert who just wants to get off without having to treat the other party like a human being (as so many people do).  But she did infer that the only reason someone would go to a prostitute was because they wanted to have anonymous sex with strangers.  And she implied that they prefered that anonymous sex to other options that they had.   But what were the other options?

Mike Jones is the gay male escort who outed Ted Haggard.  He wrote a book about his life called I Had to Say Something.  In it, he describes some of his experiences with clients.  He wrote about a client who had diabetes and lost both of his legs, about a client who was ninety and just wanted someone to touch him, about clients who were filled with shame because they lived in a society where their desires – for men, for cross-dressing – were considered vile.  In other words, a lot of his clients were people who had serious challenges to having sexual relationships. Surely it isn’t only men that face those challenges.  Should they be ashamed? Vilified? Criminalized? Abstinent?

There is something really disturbing to me about someone who refuses to see whole groups of people as human. And that goes for people who may be participating in something that is problematic in a lot of ways.  There are serious issues related to the sex industry – trafficking, violence, economic exploitation – but the people who vilify all the Johns and victimize all the sex workers are being just as dehumanizing as they claim the people in the industry are.

Isn’t it possible to understand that human beings have complex reasons for the things that they do?  Isn’t it possible to recognize the humanity of people who do things that you may not agree with, while still being honest about how they may be contributing to a problematic system?  Can’t we hold two thoughts in our head at the same time?

* From Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage

Where are the Men Do-Gooders?

August 05, 2010 By: Mel Category: Seeking

I signed up to be a literacy tutor with an organization here in DC.  The program requires a half day training class.  Looking around at the other trainees, I noticed a huge gender imbalance.  Sure enough, the trainer soon confirmed that, while 55% of the learners are male, only 22% of the tutors are.

There are similar discrepancies in my day job.  Ever since I switched from for-profit to non-profit work, I have been surrounded by mostly women.  (Of course, there has almost always been an old white guy running the place, but that’s a subject for another post.)  This isn’t just a fluke of my experience.  Seventy percent of nonprofit workers are women.

Then last week I read this article about volunteer vacations.  Apparently, about 70% of volunteer vacationers are women too.  So I did a little snooping on volunteer rates overall.  Nationwide, about 10 million more women than men volunteer.  And they put in 4.6 billion hours to men’s 3.5.

An even bigger discrepancy is in what kinds of volunteer work men and women do.  While 20% of our volunteer time goes to tutoring and teaching, teaching doesn’t even show up in the top volunteer categories for men.  Instead, almost 19% of men volunteers are volunteering in the “professional/management” category, a category that doesn’t break the top spots for women.

Workforce participation can’t completely explain it.  While it is true that men have a higher workforce participation rate,  most of that difference is with women who are married or separated and most likely have children and all the work that goes with them.  And studies show that women who both work and have kids do more housework and get less sleep while their men get more free time.  Besides, none of that would explain the massive discrepancies in the nonprofit field or certain types of volunteer work.

This is particularly interesting to me because I have found my life has become oddly gendered.  In my day job and my volunteer work, I am surrounded by women.  But in my interactions with other anarchists and atheists, I am surrounded by men.  That is particularly true whenever something involves theoretical masturbation or high profile, confrontational actions.

So what gives men?  If you’re a man, do you volunteer?  Doing what?  Any theories on why men are so much less likely to do unglorified, unpaid/low-paid, but imminently necessary tasks in life?  (Note:  I am highly prejudiced toward nurture over nature, so if you try to make a nature claim, back it up with some studies please.)

Clothing Mandatory, From Burqas to Bandanas

July 23, 2009 By: Mel Category: Religion, Stratification

We have too many damn laws, rules, regulations and customs dictating what people can and cannot wear.

Schools require kids to wear uniforms. Work – from military personnel to the nearly identical suits most desk sitters wear – requires uniforms. Clubs have dress codes. Restaurants have dress codes. Cities and even countries have laws governing what their citizens can and cannot wear in public. Why?

Admittedly, it’s easier to pick out a cop if she is wearing a uniform. And you could probably make a case for health issues when it comes to wearing some kind of covering in a restaurant kitchen. But mostly, clothing rules are about social control. We want to be able to identify people. We want to know whether or not they subscribe to the dominant culture’s attitudes, prejudices, gender roles, and power structure.

Schools support school uniforms for the same reason the military requires them, because uniforms denote obedience and conformity. Clubs have dress codes to enforce dominance by class and race, from country clubs that require a suit and tie to dive bars like Kokoamos (sued for refusing entry to people with dreadlocks).

Cities also get in on the action. Riviera Beach, Florida is arresting people for baggy pants. Other cities have ordinances against your underwear showing. In New York, you can get arrested for covering your face during a protest. Why? Because minorities wear baggy pants. Because political dissidents cover their faces during protests.

Of course, the most stringent codes and social norms relate to gender. It starts with the first pink or blue onesie someone gives you at the baby shower. For the rest of your life, what you can wear safely in public is determined largely by whether or not you were born with a penis.

School uniforms are uniform only by gender. One school in South Carolina has said a girl will not be able to graduate if she wears pants to her graduation. Prom means wearing a dress for girls or a suit for boys. Transgressors will be denied.

And while most (if not all) laws against cross-dressing have been taken off the books, that doesn’t stop harassment. One man is suing the New Orleans police department for threatening to arrest him for wearing a kilt in public. (Note to self: Naked breasts strewn with plastic beads, no problem; wearing traditional and mildly gender-bending Scottish garb, not so much.)

Transgender people cross the gender line and face discrimination at every turn. Most workplaces in the U.S. can legally discriminate against transgendered people, as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act does not protect them. Far worse, at least one transgender person is murdered on average each month of the year. And the murders of transgender people all too often remain unsolved.

Most cisgender women have a little more leeway in the choice between pants and skirts. (Although, Conservative Christian group Focus on the Family just started allowing women to wear pants this year.) But women have to worry about “modesty.” Women must walk that fine line between whore and oppressed. Wear too little material on your body and people will say you are asking to be attacked. Wear too much clothing on your body, a burqa for instance, and people will say you are oppressed.

Islam isn’t the only religion to dictate dress. Orthodox Jewish women must cover their elbows, knees and head in the name of modesty. Sometimes they wear scarves. Other times they cover up their hair with wigs. Meanwhile, Hasidic Jewish men, in 90 degree Miami heat, dress in wool outfits meant for winter in the Polish ghetto.

Monks and nuns wear robes not very different from a burqa. Certainly, they are equally desexualizing. True, nuns no longer wear the restrictive habits of the middle ages, some even wear no habits at all. The Catholic Church; however, isn’t happy about that and is reportedly conducting an investigation into nuns’ lapses.

How are any of these regulations legitimate?

The idea that women must dress modestly holds women responsible for mens’ behavior, as though men are wild animals who can’t be expected to have self control. Assigning clothing by gender is only an attempt to clearly delineate who gets what privilege in society. Forcing minority groups to dress like the majority is just the majority exerting its dominance. And requiring protesters to be identifiable just makes it easier for authorities to find and intimidate them.

During the holocaust, Jews were forced to wear yellow stars and homosexuals forced to wear pink triangles. Slaves in the United States wore tags. Indigenous people in colonial Guatemala wore intricate patterns that told Spaniards what village they came from (clothing used in the civil war of the 80s to identify “subversives”). In Iran today, women are forced to wear headscarves, but Laila Al-Marayati and Semeen Issa, of the Muslim Women’s League, remind us that in 1979 veils were prohibited in Iran.

Whether the society is marking people for oppression or forcing them to conform, it all amounts to coercion. And coercion is wrong.

Dominant groups often make claims that their rules are for some higher purpose. French President Sarkozy says the burqa is a symbol of oppression and a barrier which makes women “prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.” He claims that his burqa ban is about the rights of women, despite the fact that many women who wear the burqa say that it is a personal choice.

But does Sarkozy’s claim hold up to closer inspection?

Are not burqa wearing French women still French women with all the rights of French women. Isn’t it the job of the French government to make sure their citizens know their rights and are able to exercise those rights?

Sarkozy would be more believable if he started a campaign to advise all French women of their rights. According to Amnesty International, France falls far short when it comes to protecting the rights of domestic violence victims. If Sarkozy is so interested in protecting women, wouldn’t making sure French women know their rights (and fully funding programs for victims of domestic the violence) be a more appropriate priority?

The burqa ban is not about the rights of women, any more than forcing women to wear skirts at work is about the rights of women. It is about symbolism. The French government does not like the symbolism of a people setting themselves apart. Many feminists do not like the symbolism of the burqa. But if we are going to start banning symbolism, we can’t stop just there. How about banning $60,000 French couture dresses – symbol of the criminal disparities in wealth in this world.

There may be some cases where requirements about what people put on their bodies are necessary. But life and death cases are few and far between. Anyone trying to impose their will on others better have much better reasons than the ones they’ve come up with so far.

What’s Curious About Benjamin Button is Who Takes Care of Him

February 19, 2009 By: Mel Category: Art, Stratification, Work

Benjamin Button lived free and died young, very young. Here I am less interested in the young than in the free. He worked out on the ocean, traveling from port to port. Later, he hopped on a motorcycle and traveled the world.

The movie makes a point of showing that it is not money that prevents people from being able to do that. Button leaves Daisy all of his money before he takes off on his bike. What the movie does not look at is how an individual is able to pursue their interests so freely when the world is full of people (young and old) requiring care.

As a child, Benjamin’s father walked away from his responsibility to his son. It was a woman who took him in and brought him up. When Benjamin had his own child, he left that child to another woman (the child’s mother) to be cared for. When Benjamin ages, it is Daisy who takes care of him until his death. When Daisy dies in the hospital, it is her daughter and a female nurse that take care of her until her death.

Art imitates life.

Somewhere between 59% and 75% of all family caregivers are women. Even where men are providing family care, it is generally for less time than women. And the women who provide this care often have to juggle work with caring for children and aging parents.

Rich women have the option of pawning off this responsibility to poorer women, women like Queenie. Not only did Queenie take care of Benjamin, she took care of a house full of elderly people. Many of those people never had so much as a visit from their families. Rich women have options for taking care of their children as well. They can hire a nanny or fly in an Au Pair. They can afford expensive daycare.

And while the cost of daycare for a child or the cost of a home health care worker for an aging parent is astronomical, the workers themselves don’t make a living wage. The average nanny or daycare worker makes about $24,000 a year. The median wage of a home health care worker is $9.62 an hour and nearly half are far enough below the poverty line to be eligible for medicaid. Even worse, home health care workers are exempt from basic wage and overtime laws.

I wonder who is taking care of poor people’s children and elderly while they take care of everyone else?

Feminism and Work: Where Things Went Wrong

February 03, 2009 By: Mel Category: Stratification, Work

The 1950s ideal was a nuclear family where the father worked, the mother stayed home to take care of the kids, and everything looked like Leave it to Beaver. Many people still hold onto that ideal and there may even be people who live it and love it.

For others that ideal was anything but idyllic. Women who craved intellectual pursuits felt stunted. Those who worked, out of desire or necessity, were relegated to the least interesting jobs at half the pay. Women were dependent on men and sometimes financially trapped in abusive situations.

But women’s lack of opportunities for employment, financial freedom, intellectual stimulation, and positions of prestige were not the only problem with that system. And in their zeal to correct the injustices that women were experiencing, many feminists do not appear to have taken the time to examine the bigger picture.

The system was flawed in fundamental ways for men as well. Men were expected to be providers. They were valued for their purchasing power alone. They were, and often still are, treated like automatons with no ability to fulfill emotional needs.

Having worked for many years for divorce attorneys, I saw first hand how these societal roles played out in the worst situations. Yes, I saw women who gave twenty years of their lives to husband and family and then got dumped for a younger woman. And I saw deadbeat dads who refused to pay child support and flitted around the world living like kings while their ex wives waited tables to pay the rent.

I also saw cases where men were assumed to be of little value in child rearing and where the wife received preferential treatment in deciding where the kids would live. And I saw many wives keep children away from their fathers out of spite.

But the problem was more fundamental than how people were stunted by the gender rolls they were playing. What women should have been doing is questioning the hierarchy that we are all serving. They should have been questioning the assumption that only paid work is deserving of admiration. They should have been questioning how much of ourselves we are giving to our employers and how much is left over for ourselves.

A middle class family could once support itself on the wages of one decently paid man. Now most families have two wage earners and struggle. That isn’t news to anyone. Rarely, however, do I hear that issue couched in terms of how many family hours we are giving to someone else. If a family used to give 40 hours a week to the company and is now giving 80, 100, or more, we went terribly wrong somewhere.

In fairness, we should have split that working week with men. We could have had some of that intellectual stimulation and income, and they could have become more a part of the emotional lives of their children and the civic lives of their communities. Even more importantly, we would not be relying on poor women to clean the homes and take care of the children of the more privileged.

The people who have benefited the most from the gender wars are our employers. They have been able to get more and more out of us and we have received less and less in return. It’s time we stopped battling each other and started working together to bring that family work contribution back down to forty hours.

Then men and women can go back to fighting over who is going to do the dishes.

Would You Rather Have Balls or Heart?

June 27, 2008 By: Mel Category: Stratification

Since I used my last post to rant against feminists, I think I’ll use this post to target something decidedly more masculine. I’d like to talk about balls for a moment.

How tough are balls really?

Having balls (or cojones in Spanish) is equated with being tough, strong, and fearless. The irony is that balls aren’t tough at all. They are actually one of the most vulnerable parts of the human body. The first thing a girl learns when she is growing up is to kick a guy in the balls if she gets attacked. Balls are so fragile, boys had to invent special apparatuses to protect their balls while they are out playing games. A bit of cold air or water and balls just shrink up and hide away.

We respect people with balls. Conversely, people without balls are weak, unworthy of respect, pussies. But whereas balls are constantly in need of protection from the tiniest threat, a pussy can withstand to be ripped in half by a 10 pound kid and then bounce right back. Try that with some balls. It goes without saying that our ideas of balls being tough and pussies being weak are all about our ideas of men and women. Although I might also point out that being a dick is not considered a complement. Dick’s are heartless, inconsiderate, and mean (insert Dick Cheney joke here).

The Meaning of Heart

When we say someone has balls, we put a veneer of toughness over something ridiculously vulnerable, but what about when we say someone has heart? The heart comes encased in a protective cage of bone that takes incredible force to break through. It is pliable and precise, yet strong enough to power an entire body. A heart is essential for life. Everyone has a heart.

Asking someone to have a heart is asking them to be compassionate, empathetic, and sensitive. Yet having heart is not weak. When a basketball player plays with heart, it means he is emotionally as well as physically tough. The player with heart is not respected for the fearless bravado of someone with balls. The player with heart is respected for strength, skill, intelligence, dedication, and teamwork.

Of course there are negative expressions associated with the heart, being a “bleeding heart liberal” for example. But even that expression just reinforces the strength and importance of the heart. It isn’t a healthy heart that’s a problem. It’s a malfunctioning, bleeding heart. In the grand scheme of things, do you want to be gawked at as someone who has the balls to dive at something thoughtlessly and recklessly in order to camouflage inherent weakness. Or would you rather be someone who has the quieter, essential, steady, life-affirming strength of a heart?

Tags: ,

Hillary Clinton and the Meaning of Feminism

June 26, 2008 By: Mel Category: Politics, Stratification

Hillary Clinton has often been called divisive. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the effect her presidential candidacy had on women. Conflicts bubbling under the surface for years came gushing out in a torrent of articles, blogs, and commentary.

The Reasons Women Gave for Voting for Hillary

I’ve never spoken to a female Hillary supporter who didn’t say that Hillary’s gender was one of their primary reasons for voting for her. This was generally followed by some excuses for her vote on the war and a sad attempt to convince me that her repugnant behavior should be forgiven because she is a woman and she “had to” behave that way or risk being seen as too soft.

Experience was the other top reason provided for a Hillary vote. Whenever I dared to suggest that being first lady should not automatically count for experience, people were up in arms about it. Surely these people don’t think Laura Bush is now qualified to be president? I also heard all about how Hillary fought for health care, but nothing about what a horrible failure her fight was or how undemocratically she behaved in the process.

Another, often unstated reason, was sympathy. It seemed like every time some pig would make nasty comments about Clinton, she would get a bump in the polls. I recall one debate when Hillary spoke about the tough times she has survived, and everyone just knew she was talking about her cheating spouse and all the mean boys who made fun of her legs. The more of a victim she was, the more women rallied to her defense.

The Old Guard Feminist Defense of Hillary

Then there was the official feminist response to Hillary’s candidacy. The National Organization for Women endorsed her, saying “she has a long history of support for women’s empowerment, and her public record is a testimony to her leadership on issues important to women in the U.S. and around the globe.” Funny, I thought ending violence was important to women around the globe. I mean, right on the NOW website is a link to their campaign to end violence against women, yet the fact that their candidate had supported violence against men and women in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran (a country whose people she she wanted to “obliterate” completely) didn’t seem bother them at all.

The NOW endorsement came while Hillary was still the front-runner. Later her candidacy began to falter. She didn’t just swoop in and skate through the nominating process. She, her husband, and her supporters started alienating African Americans with their hints about Obama’s drug use and comparisons to Jesse Jackson. Her campaign, unprepared for a real competition, began to fight amongst themselves. The candidate who ran as the person who would fix our economy buried herself under a mountain of debt. Obama’s campaign picked up steam and feminists began crying foul.

First came Gloria Steinem’s article in the New York Times titled Women are Never Front-Runners. Conveniently forgetting that Clinton had been the front-runner just a few short months before, Steinem claimed that, had Barack Obama been a woman, he would never have been elected to the senate much less become a presidential candidate with a shot to win. Steinem claimed that gender is “the most restrictive force in American life.” And while she said she was “not advocating a competition for who has it toughest” she claimed that black men receiving the right to vote before women demonstrates that gender is more restrictive. (She apparently never heard of poll taxes, and lynchings, and a little something called The Voting Rights Act.)

Then along came Geraldine Ferraro, completing the job that Steinem had started. While Steinem claimed merely that race was less restrictive than gender, Ferraro claimed that Obama’s race actually helped him, saying “if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.” When people were understandably outraged by her cluelessness, she started calling Obama sexist and said she was thinking about voting for McCain. And she wasn’t the only one making that threat. There were countless other articles about the sexism that hurt Hillary’s campaign and the angry women who were going to vote for McCain because of it.

Progressive Feminists Weigh in on Hillary

Just when I was about to lose all faith in my gender, more rational minds began to weigh in on the controversy. Kimberle Crenshaw and Eve Ensler published an article on the Huffington Post called Feminist Ultimatums: Not in Our Name in which they criticize the feminists who turned the “undeniable misogyny of the media into an imperative to vote for Clinton” and blast the women who try to pit sexism against racism, doing no service to the fight against either.

Alice Walker also weighed in with Lest We Forget: An open letter to my sisters who are brave. In her letter, Walker takes a more personal approach. She describes her childhood when white children (male and female) rode off to go to a school she was not allowed to attend. In Walker’s experience “white women have copied, all too often, the behavior of their fathers and their brothers.”

Barbara Ehrenreich, for her part, gives a scathing critique of Hillary’s behavior in her article Hillary Revealed That Women Can Be Nasty, Deceptive Candidates Too. Her article criticizes Hillary’s race baiting, hawkishness, exaggerations of foreign policy experience, and statements inferring that McCain was a better candidate than Obama. Ehrenreich writes that “Hillary Clinton smashed the myth of innate female moral superiority in the worst possible way — by demonstrating female moral inferiority.”

Clinton v. Obama Supporters Generational and Philosophical Differences

Clinton had strong support among older women. My mother, who voted for Clinton, genuinely seems to believe that men and women are so inherently different that a woman will rule differently just because she is a woman. (I think she might have missed the Margaret Thatcher years.) Other women, the ones who said she had to compromise herself to get ahead, were often women who were also “climbing the ladder” and perhaps had made a few shameful compromises along the way.

Younger women I spoke to, even ones who had initially been somewhat supportive of Clinton, were eventually appalled at her behavior. Many were still angry about her vote for the Iraq war. I for one was furious about her staunch support of Israel during the war with Lebanon. As the campaign progressed and she began her fear-inducing 3:00 a.m. phone call commercials the disgust grew.

Older women often claimed that younger women did not understand the struggles they went through. They believed we were not voting for Clinton because we took for granted all the things our predecessors struggled for. Perhaps I do take for granted the opportunities I have, but I have a fundamental philosophical difference with these women. They want to see more women rulers. I want a world without rulers. Power corrupts and I won’t make excuses for the corrupted regardless of which gender they are. Obama was less corrupted (for now) and therefore received my vote.

Is the Term Feminism Still Useful?

After the election, Linda Hirshman wrote an article in the Washington Post called Looking to the Future, Feminism Has to Focus. The gist of her article is that women are half the population, but the “movement” hasn’t brought us together because we are split off into different groups by “race, class, and age.” For her, adding concerns about racism, war, environmentalism, or prison issues into the mix have just distracted the “movement” from addressing what she feels are the real feminist issues.

Where Hirshman sees a lack of focus for a “movement” that isn’t moving, I see the inherent problem with the term feminism. What the hell does it even mean? Are you a second wave feminist? A third wave feminist? An anti-racist, post modern, anarcho, enviro feminist? Women like Hirshman want feminism to be a nice neat category containing the issues meaningful to some middle class, white women – women who want success on the terms already defined by men and within the current systems we have.

Meanwhile, women like Kimberle Crenshaw and Eve Ensler “see feminism as something other than a ‘me too’ bid for power (and) not separate from the struggle against violence, war, racism and economic injustice.” If feminism means so many things to so many people, if it is a term that requires a page of qualifiers in front of it, what’s the point? Can’t we all just explain what it is that we believe? Is arguing over semantics or creating largely artificial divisions and separation really going to get us anywhere? By pitting men and against women, black against white, etc., aren’t we just buying into the very mechanisms used to perpetuate the injustices we are supposed to be against?