Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Authenticity, writing, and regret

Regret has been my go-to emotion these days.

The times in my life I most regret are the times when I have succumbed to inauthenticity. When I have not been my authentic self. When I have turned away from myself in order to turn towards something else, and then that something else ended up being really bad.

I can’t go back to any of those times and wake myself up. I can’t enter those key moments and decide to listen to myself, decide to take myself more seriously, decide that I am worth facing challenges for.

I can’t go back. That’s the whole point. That’s the one rule in all of this. I only have now and in the future.

This recent wave of regret has been triggered by something that feels rather silly in the context of all this existential reflection. But still, it is real and it matters and it’s bringing up some really strong feelings for me. It’s that Feministing contest.

Many of you were so overwhelmingly supportive and enthusiastic when I made it into the final round of the Feministing.com “So You Think You Can Blog” contest. I got the email on a Tuesday afternoon at work—I had arrived at work late after spending the morning presenting a lecture on adolescent sexuality at a Boston College class on Positive Youth Development and then getting lunch with the professor (at Inna’s Kitchen!). I was totally amped about the lecture and discussion and the prospect of more teaching about sex and sexuality.

Then I got the email that I was selected as a finalist, and I couldn’t stop shaking in disbelief. In fact, I didn’t stop shaking until I got the email three weeks later that I wasn’t selected as a winner.

And I just think—I can’t help but feel—my understanding of my own situation is that it was that very disbelief, that very shaking, that very frozen-in-time, this-can’t-be-happening feeling that pulled me out of myself and threw me into a state of inauthenticity bordering on emotional paralysis—and now remembering that state of being is at the core of my current regret. I regret that I didn’t slow down enough in order to enter the last round of the contest as myself. From the minute I got the email, I was thinking about how to fit into their club—how to write the way they wanted me to write and write about the topics they wanted me to write about—I wasn’t thinking about how to be myself and be true to myself. I ended up writing blog posts that I thought were smart and well-written, but I personally wasn’t anywhere in those posts. They could have been written by anyone.

My biggest challenge was the one instruction they gave us—to be timely. When I blog, it’s always timely, but to me, to my timeline. I’m blogging about the one thing that I’ve been stuck on recently, the one piece of my life, past or present, that is eating away at me and that I want to come to understand by communicating it to others. I don’t tend to discuss current events or pop culture, and I’d never written a post on-demand before. And instead of slowing down and considering how I would proceed were I to actually win the contest and become a more scheduled, more public blogger, I plowed forward without reflection. I was plowing forward without myself, because I wasn’t giving myself time to catch up.

I don’t know if any of this is making sense to you. I can only get it to make sense to me part of the time. But it’s really at the core of what I’ve been feeling and thinking about these days, and it seemed to be more honest and authentic than the “why I hate competitions” or the “what does this mean about my professional identity and career goals” posts that I was considering writing as another form of reflection on the Feministing contest. Maybe those will be important posts for me to write at some point in the future, but today I needed to write about regret. Because noticing this regret about the times when I haven’t slowed down to address myself, to try to be true to myself, to attend to my own feelings and boundaries and goals—noticing all of that regret regarding the blog posts I wrote made me notice all the other regrets I have, too: regrets about times when I turned away from myself in ways that had much worse consequences than losing a contest.

Feministing Contest Final Round

I got the email on Tuesday, October 9: I was selected as one of six finalists for the Feministing.com "So You Think You Can Blog" contest. The winners of the contest would become regular contributors to the site. The final round was simple: we each selected a four-hour shift the following week in which we would write three posts for the main page.

Although I did not win the contest, I worked carefully on these entries before posting them on Monday, October 15. Here are the links, for prosperity.

Four responses to how Martha Raddatz posed the abortion question

Unconventional sex ed lessons from 50 Shades of Grey

In August, I entered the Feministing.com "So You Think You Can Blog" contest. Two blog posts were required for the first round: I submitted a revised version of my post from June on queer identity, and I wrote the post below on 50 Shades of Grey. Enjoy!
When I read 50 Shades of Grey last week, I expected to be disappointed and dismayed. However, I was pleasantly surprised. I found the book to be quite a welcome interruption of the dominant script for sex and romance that I see in the media: boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy gets girl to have sex with him without ever discussing sex as an activity or checking for her enthusiastic verbal consent. There are many reasons this dominant script is problematic.
I like 50 Shades of Grey because they actually talk about sex. They talk about sex before, during, and after they have sex. As a sex educator, when I sit with a group of teenagers and encourage them to talk before, during, and after sexual activity, they protest. Why? Maybe because that’s not how they see it happening in the media. Ever. So, thank you E.L. James for providing us with this opportunity to explore these all-too-unconventional sex ed lessons:
Spoiler alert: I will speak specifically about the sexual and romantic relationship between Ana and Grey as portrayed in the first book, but I will not give away any major plot details.
  1. Consent. Except for that first kiss, Grey checks in with Ana before they have sex. Sometimes he does it by telling her exactly what he plans on doing. Sometimes he simply asks, “Trust me?” His words and actions clearly demonstrate that he cares whether or not he has her enthusiastic consent to be sexual with her. And when she says no, he stops.
  2. Safewords. Used in kinksafewords can be helpful to all kinds of sexual partners for the maintenance of sexual consent. Grey suggests two safewords: yellow (“I’m reaching my limit”) and red (“I need you to stop now no questions asked”). By using these safewords, Ana can effectively withdraw her consent, and Grey will stop. The implementation of safewords demonstrates that consent is an ongoing process. Even if a person consents to sex at the beginning of a sexual encounter, that person ALWAYS has a right to withdraw consent at any time.
  3. Toys. All kinds of sexual toys and props can be found to enhance all kinds of sexual pleasure. Check out some feminist toy stores like Good Vibrations and Babeland. While they used toys within a BDSM framework, toys can add pleasure and fun to lots of sexual scenarios.
  4. Protection. They talk about preventing unwanted pregnancy, and they also talk about avoiding the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. All sexual partners should discuss these issues (when relevant). I wish that television and movies gave more of their precious screen time to modeling different ways to navigate and negotiate protection.
  5. Power. I particularly appreciate that the book was originally developed as Twilight fan fiction. In Twilight, we see a man with exceptional power (for example, he’s a super-rich vampire and has lived for over a century). He falls for a clumsy, quiet teenage girl and overpowers her. In contrast, Grey is much closer in age to Ana (27 and 22, respectively) although he has similar “stalker tendencies” (as Ana dubs them) and is also extremely wealthy. Here’s the key difference: Grey knows he has these advantages over Ana. He cannot get rid of them and does not want to. But he writes up a contract, explains specifically what he wants, and asks Ana for her feedback. Then, he acknowledges that his responsibility is to attend to what she wants. He is not perfect. He does not do it perfectly. But the fact that Grey and Ana are directly negotiating power is important. Other couples with complex power dynamics may find other ways to negotiate that power and maintain a healthy relationship. The key lesson is the need to acknowledge the potential for abuse of power and to follow through with a plan regarding how to manage the power dynamics.
  6. Honesty. As Grey says, “This isn’t going to work unless we are honest with each other.” And he doesn’t just say it, either. He actively prioritizes honest and open communication. He pays attention to what helps Ana be the most honest and what does not. And Ana, in turn, pushes him to be more honest with her, as well. They hold each other accountable.
  7. Relationship diversity. What’s the difference between a friend, a girlfriend, and a sex slave? No, that’s not a setup for a bad joke (sounds pretty offensive, if it is). But it is a question that gets raised by this book. Sexual and romantic relationships are more diverse than we can give them credit for if we’re just trying to figure out whether someone is a girlfriend or a boyfriend or not. In this book, we get to see Grey and Ana exploring the terms of their relationship, both what it means between the two of them and what they communicate to others.
  8. Emotions. Ugh, so messy. No matter what the relationship label, when two people are involved with each other sexually and/or romantically, their emotions matter. While Grey demonstrates attentiveness and responsiveness to Ana’s feelings, he falls short of consistently communicating his own feelings. Ana senses that his moods impact their interactions. If Grey could check in about his own emotional state, Ana wouldn’t be left guessing, and it could feel better and be safer for both of them.
  9. Female sexual desire. Ana wants him. The substance of her desire has physical, genital, mental, and emotional components. She wants kisses. She wants touch. She wants sex. There are other people who want her, but she doesn’t want them, so she turns them down. But she wants sex with Grey, and she knows it, and she’s not afraid to show it.
  10. Female sexual pleasure. I wonder how many people are reading this book and learning about their own capacity for pleasure in a new way. The explicit sex scenes include many different ways of stimulating the female body—nipples, clitoris, vagina—different ways to please her, to make her “wet” and thus more physically prepared for penetration, different ways for her to climax, to orgasm. Vivid descriptions of her inner experience while being aroused, stimulated, while climaxing. The emotions and exhaustion that flows through her after her orgasms. More, please! More popular fiction that shows different ways for females to experience different kinds of sexual pleasure. And more diverse depictions, please!
I don’t think this book shows a perfect model of sexual health, by any means. And I don’t mean to suggest as such. I could write another list of ten moments or themes I found totally problematic from a feminist perspective. However, I think it’s valuable, in this cultural moment, to start a conversation about what we can learn from this book. Ask your friend what they thought about Grey and Ana’s communication. Share with your friend how Ana’s description of sexual desire and sexual pleasure relates or fails to relate to your own experience. Ask teenager in your life if they’ve heard of safewords before. And then go search for more novels and other media that show positive examples of sexuality and relationships, and let me know what you find!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Transformative Sex Ed in Action: The Ethical Sexuality Retreat

The Sex Ed Team at the Moishe Kavod House in Brookline, MA had our first ever (first annual?) team retreat ten day ago. We wanted to spend a whole day talking together about sex, sexuality, and relationships in our lives and in our communities so that we could create a safe space in which to really dive into the trickier, stickier, more complex questions that came up during our workshops this past year.

We had 18 people in attendance, including people who had been integrally involved in the team for the past year or more as well as people for whom the retreat was their first team event. Many people wanted to join us but couldn’t make it, so I thought I’d provide here a little taste of the questions we asked each other:

*How does your Judaism [religion, spirituality] impact your sexuality? How does your sexuality impact your Judaism [religion, spirituality]?

*What happens when I don’t fit into the question you’re asking?

*What are the two most salient pieces of your identity? How do these identities make you feel powerful, powerless, or both at different times throughout your life?

*Do your sexual ethics change in different relationships?

*What personal needs does sex ed meet for you? What personal needs could sex ed meet for you in the future?

*How can we broaden and deepen our impact on the world through sex ed?

We also had three small groups break out for an hour in the afternoon. Their discussions focused on three different themes: jealousy, asexuality, and body image.

By the end of the day, I could feel that the people in the room were very excited and ready to take on leadership of the team in the coming year and get some great work done. We want to do a thorough revision of our six-part curriculum, paying special attention to issues of power, privilege, and identity in framing the activities and informing the discussions, as well as working to integrate Judaism and Jewish learning in a variety of ways. We will also continue to make space for structured and unstructured conversations in our community about relevant topics related to sex, sexuality, and relationships. In addition, we will explore the process of building power so that we can engage in outreach work, take action, and have an impact on the world at large.

If you want to hear more about our work or maybe get involved, feel free to contact me directly or email our team leaders at EthicalSexuality (at) kavodhouse (dot) com.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Safe Space REMIX: Ground Rules for Dance Parties

In sex education, we use ground rules to build safe space during structured conversations. A lot of these safe space rules can be useful guidelines in everyday life, as well. In response to certain experiences from this past weekend, I’ve decided to remix these ground rules to apply to a specific situation in which groups of people come together to make themselves vulnerable: dance parties. What are some simple guidelines that we can use if we want to build a safe space in which to dance together for an evening?

Please tell me what you think, and add your own ideas to this list, in the comments.

1. Consent.
·      Check for enthusiastic consent before dancing with someone.
·      When someone says “no” to dancing with you, you say “okay, thanks.”
·      Note that consent is specific: Yes to dancing is a yes to dancing, not to anything else. You need to ask again if you want something else. And they may or may not say yes again.

2. Respect.
·      Respect other people: their bodies, their dance moves, their clothes, their choices…
·      Respect the physical space: help keep it clean, watch where you put your things, clean up after yourself…

3. Sharing space.
·      Step out of the center of the dance floor to give other people and other circles a chance to fill it.
·      Watch where you fall and flail so you don’t hurt other people.
·      Be aware of which spaces are getting too crowded, and where there is more space available.

4. Drink responsibly (or not at all).
·      Know that “I’m drunk” is no excuse for violating any of the other safe space guidelines.
·      Stop drinking before you get sloppy.
·      Or on second thought, maybe “no drinking” is another option.

5. Sex-positivity.
·      Enjoy the ways in which dancing connects you to your own body; respect the ways in which other people are enjoying their own bodies.
·      Limit (or avoid) explicitly sexual behavior, for example, dance-floor make-out sessions.

6. Confidentiality.
·      The dance floor is a communal space and is not for public display.
·      Ask for consent before taking or posting pictures.
·      Avoid gossiping about people’s dance-floor behaviors after the party is over.

7. Self-care.
·      Go where you need to be: Dance alone when it feels good; dance with a dance partner when it feels good; join a group when it feels good.
·      Ask for help when you need it.
·      Speak up if someone hurts you or makes you uncomfortable, even if you think it’s by accident.

8. Accountability.
·      Building safe space is an ongoing process; be open to feedback about your behavior.
·      Be sensitive to and aware of other people’s boundaries and comfort levels.
·      Avoid making assumptions about other people.

9. Love your DJ.
·      Show appreciation that the DJ is an artist bringing you a gift.
·      Do not touch the DJ’s equipment.
·      Make meaningful requests that you think your fellow dancers would enjoy, too.

10. Celebrate.
·      Make your body feel good; make yourself feel good.
·      Include everyone in the celebration.
·      Encourage everyone to express themselves through dance.

My hope is that these guidelines would help people create a space together in which they could all really let loose and personally get the most out of their dancing experience while also connecting with each other through the process of dancing.

These are just my ideas, and I’m just getting started. I look forward to getting your feedback and working through this draft to produce something that can really be useful in future dance party situations. Please tell me what works for you, what feels unreasonable, what seems off, what you think is missing, etc. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Queer Identity: More Questions than Answers

I didn’t realize it would be so hard to be queer after I got married. Seems like it should have been obvious to me, right? Marry a heterosexual cis-man, turn in queer club card, do not pass go, still collect hundreds of dollars of apparently-straight privilege. Is that how it has to be?

I had a boyfriend in college who once told a friend I was bisexual. His friend asked, “Is she actively bisexual?” Actively? What does that mean? At this very moment? My boyfriend told me this story in order to laugh at that friend’s ignorance. Silly friend, he must think that being bisexual requires actively pursuing multiple partners at the same time. Clearly, us enlightened folks knew I could be bisexual and just have a boyfriend and no other partners. No problem with that, right?

At the time, I feel a problem with that at all. My sexual orientation was about my identity, and it was about my past and my future as much as my present. I never even really identified as bisexual. Mostly, I identified as queer, which allowed me to position myself as “not heterosexual” while not succumbing to a word with the prefix “bi,” referring to a binary conception of gender in which I do not believe.

Actually, it wasn’t until deep into my current relationship that I started identifying as bisexual sometimes. “Bisexual” seems like a more specific identity than “queer,” staking a claim in the queer community that can more easily be reconciled with my current relationship status. But the truth is, it’s not like I walk around with a “bisexual” sticker on my forehead, and not a lot of people ask me how I identify. So it only seems to come up when I bring it up.

I’ve been partnered with a cismale for four years, and last year we publicly committed to each other through that complicated ritual commonly known as a wedding. Our relationship is monogamous, so I am not “actively” bisexual, since I am not pursuing sexual liaisons with anyone besides my partner. Given my current situation, what would it mean for me to be somehow “meaningfully” queer/bisexual? In my last relationship, my sexual orientation signified the diversity of my past and my future liasons. But I have no plans to pursue other relationships now or in the future. Without opening up our relationship or engaging in some form of non-monogamy, what would it mean for me to have a meaningful queer identity in the present?

The Klein scale has seven categories for assessing sexual orientation: attraction, sexual behavior, sexual fantasies, emotional preference, social preference, lifestyle preference, and self-identification. It is only in the “sexual behavior” category that change has occurred for me. So my identity inside really hasn’t change much, but the most visible marker that communicates my identity to other people has certainly changed. What I’m trying to figure out is, what effect does this have on my life, and on my membership in queer community?

I want to take a minute to discuss privilege, which, not so coincidentally, I also wrote about privilege last year on pride weekend. As David Levy wrote recently, the Pride Parade is a celebration as well as a political action. Since I benefit from all kinds of heterosexual privilege in my life, in what ways is this protest/celebration my parade, and in what ways is it not? I try to keep myself from taking up too much space, and I try to stay sensitive to the times when I should step back and take a position as an ally rather than claiming queer celebration as my own. But maybe I’m wrong, because it feels wrong when I do that, because queer is my own.

I’ve met a few people recently at queer events whom I really liked, and I might have vaguely led them to believe I’m queer, simply through context and association, and maybe also discussion of our life histories. It isn’t actually leading them on, since I am queer. But then later, they find out about my current situation. Do they still believe me that I’m queer? Do they feel I lied to them or led them on? Did I somehow owe it to them to be super-clear and upfront about my orientation and relationship status, even though they didn’t ask? Am I doing something wrong? Or not? Or should I just drop all this self-doubt and get over it?

Bisexual invisibility is a very tricky issue, because it is a privilege and a pain at the same time. I benefit from an extraordinary amount of material and cultural hetero-privilege. At the same time, I feel invisible within my queer community because I don’t know if people think I’m legit, or if I can ever be legit, or if I am taking up too much space, or if I’m needlessly shooting myself down with internalized biphobia or some other crap. It’s all very confusing and complicated. I have a feeling that there really aren’t clear answers, but I have a bunch of questions, and I would love to know what you think.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

State your name and pronoun: Framing and Phrasing

This post is a follow-up to this one, which I wrote earlier this week.

At the beginning of this month, I again found myself at a retreat center working to make space with a group of progressive Jews together for the weekend. As we sat in a circle to introduce ourselves to each other on Friday night, we were asked to share our name and pronoun, in addition to answering an icebreaker question. As happened to me my first time, the ritual was not explained in detail before we did it. But afterwards, I had multiple conversations about it. I took it as a sign of progress, though, that the concerns raised in these conversations were not “why are we doing this in the first place?” but rather, they were, “why are we focusing on pronouns and not just asking people to share their gender identity?” And, “wouldn’t this exercise be really hard for some people, who may or may not want to out themselves right away?”

Great questions! While I definitely have my own answers to these questions, I also want to create a communal understanding of the answers. The biggest lesson I learned from these conversations is that as we continue to engage in this ritual, we need to use a more clear framing for why we invite people to share their name and pronoun.

Here’s a starting point. In working to create guidelines for our facilitators of Sex Ed Workshops for Young Adults, Joanna Ware helped craft the following example of how to frame this ritual:

"Let's go around and say our names and, if you feel comfortable, your preferred pronouns. These are the pronouns you'd like other people to use to talk about you, for example I use _________. We share preferred pronouns so that we all know how to refer to one another respectfully, and because our pronouns aren't necessarily self-evident. There is much more to gender identity than pronoun preference, and we ask for pronouns just so we can refer to each other respectfully throughout this conversation today."

This framing addresses the above questions in a few ways. First, it clarifies that we share pronouns because we will be building community together and thus necessarily, at some point, talking about each other and thus perhaps using pronouns. This exercise is quite utilitarian. We say specifically “there is much more to gender identity than pronoun preference,” so that people understand we are not using pronouns as a stand-in for self-definition. The purpose of this ritual is to clarify something that we know we will need (pronouns) and that we know in many situations we will not get correct by simply guessing haphazardly.  

Here are some pronoun options that I have commonly heard people choose. If you know more, please add them in the comments!

  • No pronoun—just use my name, please, and it repeat my name as needed
  • No preference—use whatever pronouns you want
  • They/them/theirs
  • Zie/hir/hirs
  • She/her/hers
  • He/him/his

I’m hoping that a better framing of why we ask for preferred pronouns and what we do or do not take them to signify will help us work together to build a safer space, to complicate the gender binary, and to stand in solidarity with trans and gender variant people in our community and who have yet to join our community.

And, as a new friend said to me last night, we do it just to be good people. To do something nice.

What do you think? I would be open to publishing guest posts on the topic from anyone who identifies as transgender, genderqueer, and/or gender variant, or anyone else who has worried about being mis-pronouned. I openly invite feedback on the reflections and concerns I shared in this post, and I would love to discuss it further both on and offline.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

My name is Mimi, and you can use “she” and “her” to refer to me

The first time I was asked to share my name and pronoun, I felt pretty upset. Why make gender so primary, right here at the beginning of this event, as we introduce ourselves to each other? I was in the woods with a bunch of Jewish activists, trying to escape the gender binary and fight the patriarchy. So I said something like this: “My name is Mimi, and you can use ‘she’ to refer to me, as long as you understand that doesn’t say anything about who I am and what I’m capable of.”

I was at a point in my life where priming gender was really hard for me. “Priming” refers to the idea that simply bringing up a social category, such as gender, results in psychologically (and maybe subconsciously) bringing up the stereotypes associated with that social category, such that the pressure associated with those stereotypes has a stronger effect. I felt that identifying myself along the gender binary meant making myself vulnerable to expectations based on gender. Just because I didn’t think twice when people refer to me as “she” didn’t mean I was totally comfortable with everything in the category of “woman.”

Five years later, having learned a lot about my own and other people’s experiences of gender, and having more access to multiple means of both escaping the gender binary and fighting the patriarchy, I came around. Friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators at Keshet taught me many valuable lessons about how to be an ally to transgender, genderqueer, and gender variant people. I came to see my own privilege in the fact that when a person is left to their own devices to guess what pronoun is best to use when referring to me, that person will always choose “she.” At least, people always have, and I my guess is that they always will. So I never have to fear being “mis-pronoun-ed” (someone using the wrong pronoun to refer to me). In addition, I don’t have to endure any uncomfortable or tense moments when I first meet someone, as they figure out what pronoun to use. In fact, I’d never actually thought about what pronoun I use until that moment in the woods with the fruity Jews.

Now, opening a space by inviting everyone to share their name and their preferred pronoun has a lot of meaning for me, on multiple levels.
  • We get to make our space safer for trans and gender variant people: We directly address the fear/discomfort of being mispronounced by establishing preferences at the beginning of the event
  • We get to complicate gender: Through this ritual, we demonstrate our belief that gender is not always binary and is not always obvious by looking at someone.
  • We get to stand in solidarity: People always have referred to me using my preferred pronoun without me having to say anything. But by saying something anyway, I am putting myself in alliance with people who need to specify their preferred pronoun in order for other people to know what to say.
For these reasons, I have come to value sharing names and pronouns as an important ritual for setting the space of a community event or retreat. In my next post, I share some questions that have come up in introducing this ritual to my current community.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Jackson Katz responded to my email (and here's what I wrote back)

Hi Dr. Katz,

I deeply appreciate your taking the time to respond to my email. I am going to take another opportunity to express my concerns with more detail and clarity, in response to the issues you raised in our personal correspondence.

In terms of not serving queer folk:
I agree that MVP does great work to address harassment that targets sexual minority and gender variant individuals. As I want to emphasize, I think MVP is in a very powerful position to impact violence perpetrated by and through heteronormative masculinity. In contrast, one of my major concerns, as I will explain further in a moment, is about the experiences of transgender and gender variant folks who might actually be in the room during an MVP workshop. Another major concern is that people who have or will have same-sex relationships will not realize in MVP that sexual and relationship violence can happen between two women or between two men, as well. Such work may not be within the goals of MVP as a program, but I do think there are steps that MVP can take to address and support these needs.

In terms of silencing survivors in the room:
This point is tricky. As a sex educator myself, I struggle with the ability to provide a space in which survivors can receive strong support without identifying themselves, and, in addition, to make space in which survivors can choose to identify themselves and use the power of identification to push back against the silencing and shaming cultural norms in our society. It’s about actively structuring my teaching based on the assumption that in any given group, there will be people in the room who are survivors of various forms of violence. Addressing people who are survivors only as potential bystanders can be guilt-inducing and embarrassing. To be a male ally to women who have experienced sexual violence requires a trauma-informed curriculum and approach.

In terms of reinforcing the gender binary:
I completely agree with you that gender neutrality is counter-productive. To talk about sexual violence, we need to analyze gendered power dynamics in history, society, and in our lives. And I appreciate that the MVP policy is to allow people to self-identify, as in, if someone identifies as a man, he can go to the men-only break-out group, and if someone identifies as a woman, she can go to the woman-only breakout group. But I'm wondering, what about someone who doesn't identify as either a man or a woman? Or someone who identifies as both? Such people exist, and they matter. But I do not see them within the MVP curriculum, and that scares me. I don't know what to do about it, either. I have a lot of ideas, and I also recognize the complexity. So at this point I am working to name what I'm seeing. To render visible what is now invisible.

In terms of the need for more comprehensive sexual violence prevention:
Here is my question for you: What does MVP do to "set the stage" for an expansion of comprehensive programs? I can see all the fabulous ways in which MVP is a strong program to start the conversation, to address the most resistant leaders and to start building social norms that would facilitate further sexual violence prevention work. However, in reality, I picture schools and colleges saying "well, we do MVP, that's our sexual violence thing." Thus, in practice, MVP could very well be the sole source of sexual violence education in many communities. That's why I'm voicing my concerns. My question is, what can MVP do to be a better ally? When MVP does work with mixed-gender groups, the people in the room who aren't the hetero/masculine men (who were the original target group of MVP) are not being prioritized in the conversation. Interestingly, these are the very same people (women, queer folk, gender variant folk) who are not being prioritized in society at large. So what is MVP as an organization doing to directly link schools and campuses with programs that will address the needs of women, people who have same-sex relationships, and people who are transgender or gender variant?

The broader question I'm getting at is: What does it take to be an ally? What is the imperative on those of us with power to truly open spaces in which we can directly hand over power to those who need more of it in order to be safe, in order to speak up, and in order to exist? How can I be a better ally to others? How can I ask you to be a better ally to me?

Friday, June 1, 2012

How do we prevent men's violence against women without recreating the sexism we are trying to end?

"How do we have men and women working together on preventing men's violence against women without recreating the sexism we are trying to end?" 
--Jackson Katz, at the Mentors in Violence Prevention Bystander Intervention Conference at Northeastern University, May 31, 2012

Dear Jackson Katz,

Great question.

Here’s my short answer: Currently, you are indeed recreating the sexism you are trying to end.

Here’s my long answer: Thank you for having the wherewithal to recognize the complexity and challenge in being a person with privilege taking leadership on issues of systemic oppression and violence. Thank you for your leadership, thank you for your decades of work, and thank you for continuing to ask yourself how you can be a better ally.

What I say in this blog post may be read as a criticism, and I want you to know that I am criticizing you because we are on the same team. We have the same mission. As we work towards this mutual goal, I believe I have a perspective that you need to hear. So, let’s get coffee (or the internet equivalent, if you’re back in Cali by now).

Yesterday I was at the MVP Bystander Intervention Conference, and I’ve also participated in the MVP Institute training program as well as taught several workshops myself in the (distant) past. I have a lot of respect and affection for the work done by MVP. I personally have gained so much from your organization, including some of my favorite workshop activities addressing gender and systemic violence, and that’s why I am so invested in seeing it do good work now and in the future.

For my readers: Jackson Katz founded MVP in 1993, to recruit male student athletes as leaders in ending men’s violence against women. Yes, just men’s violence against women. Not all sexual violence, not all gender-based violence. That’s fine. No one can do everything, maybe. The MVP approach is to address men as potential active bystanders—to talk to men about why stand up as a bystander, and possible ways to intervene in sexist and violent behavior. Calling other men to understand men's violence against women as a fundamental social justice issue (see The Macho Paradox), Katz and MVP have brought their work to sports teams, fraternities, and the military.

Back to Dr. Katz: I’m grateful that you recognize the role that masculine role models can play in reshaping masculinity and addressing men’s violence. I can’t walk into hockey team locker rooms and talk to them about sexual assault. The NFL isn’t inviting me to speak with their players about rape. You are getting into those spaces and opening up conversation, and I’m impressed and grateful.

That said, Bystander Intervention training is NOT a comprehensive sexual violence prevention program. Bystander Intervention should NOT be promoted in mainstream spaces as a priority over actual skill-building that addresses actual people of all genders as people with bodies, people with intimate relationships, people with the capacity for sex and for love. Where are those people in Bystander Intervention training? I understand the importance of getting your foot in the door by addressing everyone as potential Bystanders so participants aren’t as defensive. But your approach is actively silencing those people in the room who may be more than potential bystanders—they may be victims and survivors of sexual or relational violence. Where are those people able to express their lived experiences in your workshops?

Furthermore, when you split up the participants into groups of “men/boys” and “women/girls,” to talk specifically about “men’s” violence against “women,” you are erasing the existence of trans* and genderqueer people. Erasing them. There is not room for people with non-binary gendered experiences and identities within the curriculum you use. What are you going to do about that? That is a major problem. It’s a problem that is the Achilles heel of your intervention. You cannot expand so much. You cannot be everyone’s solution.

When MVP comes to “mainstream” spaces and coed spaces—spaces that are not these hyper-masculine communities that were the original location of this Bystander Intervention—then you recreate the sexism you are trying to end by silencing the voice of survivors and by rendering invisible those living outside the gender binary.

 What are you going to do about that?

From your ally,
Mimi Arbeit

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Striving for thinness, and the toll it can take

Last week, I saw lots of uproar over news about brides-to-be taking on extreme measures to lose weight, the most recent of which includes putting a feeding tube through one’s nose for 10 days while refraining from eating anything through one’s mouth.

Ridiculous, right? Crazy, like, who would do that, besides the most vain, shallow people looking to throw money down the tube (no pun intended)?

To avoid blaming the victims, let’s look at the culture and at the industry. The wedding industry is set up under the assumption that brides will want to lose weight for their wedding—no matter what their present weight actually is. I had one friend who told me that a salesperson had actually encouraged her to purchase a dress that was too small because “obviously” she would be losing weight before her wedding day.

A few months after I got engaged, I was visiting an old friend of mine at her parents’ house. They were ordering pizza and her mom offered me a slice. When I turned it down she said immediately, “Oh! Of course! You have a dress you need to fit into.” Wait, what?

When I started looking for wedding dresses, I very quickly recognized the game of “does this dress make me look fat” and “does this one emphasize my small parts in all the right ways.” Personally, I was more interested in “does this dress make me look like myself” and “does this dress let me hug and dance and jump in all the right ways,” but such questions seemed secondary to those trying to sell me their products.

What does this industry-wide focus on bridal thinness teach young girls about love and romance?

The industry of bridal thinness is part of a culture conflating thinness with goodness and desirability. Young girls are taught to dream of the perfect marriage as the height of their personal accomplishments—and in a culture in which weight is a sign of a woman’s success or failure, weight becomes a key aspect of her success or failure at being a bride. Furthermore, as the wedding industry—and the brides themselves—play into the idea that a bride’s weight is of utter relevance on her wedding day, the sexualization of women becomes reinforced. By “sexualization” here I mean the reduction of a woman to the value of her body as a sexual object. Another meaning of sexualization includes reducing a body to specific body parts, and in many of the articles I see references to a stomach that is flat enough, thighs that aren’t too wide, and biceps that aren’t too flabby. It’s not just about the size of the body, but the “perfection” of the pieces. Women are taught to pick themselves apart. Aren’t there so many other ways in which women could eagerly prepare for marriage?

How do dieting and sexualization set up a bride to participate as an equal partner in a healthy relationship?

Um, that might be a trick question. Well, I will offer five brief thoughts on how it hurts her and holds her back from her partnership and her other close relationships:

1. Sexualization—Being sexy for someone else is different from being sexy with someone else. Does she need to feel thin enough in order to feel worthy of receiving and enjoying sexual pleasure? Studies have found a connection between self-objectification (which includes dieting behaviors) and lower sexual agency and sexual assertion. If her focus is being diverted towards being sexy for someone else, is that diverting or otherwise compromising her focus on her desires and what she deserves?

2. Inauthenticity—How does this pressure to diet and be thin affect her ability to advocate for her own needs and desires not just in her sexual relationship, but in all her relationships? Planning a wedding is a complex process of negotiating a lot of different people’s values and opinions. A bride being pressured to turn away from her natural appetites and instincts may also learn to turn away from her needs and instincts in other contexts, thus compromising her ability to be present and genuine in already tense relationships, including with her partner and with close friends and family.

3. Energy drain—Food provides energy. Calories=energy. A person needs calories to think, to get things done, to move around and make decisions and be assertive. Reduced calories means reduced energy means reduced action. Not to mention the spiritual drain that guilt and shame around weight and eating can take on a person.

4. Performance—I didn’t like to think about how many people would be looking at me throughout my wedding day. Seeing me; viewing me; thinking about how I appeared. I made an intentional decision that I didn’t want my wedding day to be about performing for others. Instead, I wanted it to be about my experience of my own life, joy, friends and family. And I think this choice needs to be made every day, and it starts at home before we leave the door. Do I consider myself and my body as something that performs for others and is viewed by others, or do I get to embody myself through my own experiences throughout the day?

5. Beauty as power—the princess/queen for a day fantasy. In the wedding industry it’s about looking like a princess. In Jewish tradition, brides are to be treated as queens for the day. So if the bride’s job is to be thin, what does this say about women entering positions of power? Is power only earned through the achievement of thinness? Are only thin women worthy of power? Or maybe it’s simpler. Maybe it’s thin=powerful. Except that directly contradicts #4, above, reduced calories=reduced energy. So what is it? Maybe women are pressured to be thin in order to divert their power from that of a true leader to that of a figurehead. A bride may be the face of the wedding, the body front-and-center in all the photo opportunities, but where is her true power? And for what can she use her power, on that day and in the future?

I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions and tensions.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why am I still crying over my registry?

I thought I could be everything that other people needed me to be, but I can’t. There’s no way I can.

So why am I still crying over my wedding registry?
a) Because I didn’t originally want to make a registry at all
b) Because I worked so hard to make my registry look right to others that I didn’t make it right for me
c) Because I feel it’s my responsibility, even though it’s really our responsibility
d) Because I had assumed I could make the right decisions in the right moments, and then I didn’t
e) All of the above

In my series analyzing the role of capitalism, patriarchy, and materialism in the process of wedding planning, how could I overlook this one ever-so-obvious element: the wedding registry? Well, when I was blogging in the month leading up to our wedding, I actually wasn’t thinking about the registry at all. Sure, I was enjoying our beautiful gifts—some of which I certainly remembered choosing myself—but I wasn’t facing head-on my experience with the registry process. No, the registry process began far earlier, more than a year before the wedding itself.
And now that we’re approaching our first anniversary, I’m learning that the registry is also an element of wedding planning that lasts long after the event itself. (At some point I’ll also share my thoughts on the wedding photos…)

What is the registry really about? No, scratch that, what is a wedding present really about? Is it about the couple and their wants and needs? Is it about the friends and family and what they want to get for the couple? Is it about the wedding-industrial-complex playing off the insecurity of couple and guests alike, creating and exaggerating need and want on all sides?
And what about the narrative of “you may not think you need it now but you will love having it later”? In all fairness, I don’t know that this narrative is definitely false, but it seems suspect. It seems all about creating need where there is none. If I have something that I’m not using, I will return it, give it away, or create a need for it so that I can start using it. But that doesn’t mean I actually needed it—or wanted it—in the first place.

I hesitate to rant and rave too much because I am so grateful for the loving, generous support of the many people who helped me put together my registry. After all, they were truly trying to help. And I am so grateful for the loving, generous gifts I received from friends and family, both gifts from my registry and off-registry surprises. And while I am nitpicking a few specific decisions that I probably would do differently if I had another chance, I totally understand the practical nature of producing a registry during a year when you expect lots of people to want to buy things for you. However, the nature of the market is not simply practical. In my first round of registry-producing, I tried to really focus on things we needed (e.g., pots and pans, plates and bowls, cutlery) and things we wanted (e.g., games, electronics). But then people told me that it wasn’t enough. I simply didn’t have enough items on the registry, enough things for people to choose from, enough nice things. The registry wasn’t fancy enough, apparently, and people would want to buy us “nice” things whether we wanted them or not. Things we really needed, like an iron and ironing board, we still don’t have. And a lot of people went off registry—maybe that would have happened anyway, or maybe indeed they were not satisfied with the range of items on our registry. I don’t know. There seem to be many different forces at play in these dynamics, but too many of these forces feel like they are working against me/us and what we really want.

A note on gender dynamics. As I’ve written about, I am a female who married a male, and while in our partnership we commit ourselves to addressing structures of power both at home and in the world, we certainly got to experience some of the workings of the patriarchy first-hand through the process of wedding planning. When it came to the registry, he had the privilege of not having an opinion. Not wanting to decide. What made this even more complicated at the beginning is that he is the one that does all the cooking. So when I made the first pass at registering for pots and pans, it seriously made no sense. He did come to Crate and Barrel with me one day to use the zapper, and we sat down together to create our Amazon registry. But when it came to the border-line calls, the hardest elements, and the pressure from friends and family—those decisions felt like they fell on me, because he would look at me with “BORED” written all over his face, honestly not knowing even how to try to have an opinion, and let me make the decision on my own.

And you know what? I LET HIM. He was actually the one to point this out in a recent conversation: “Mimi,” he said, “Sometimes, you need to tell me that I need to have an opinion. Just shake me until I engage.” He recognized the ways in which male privilege gave him the space to back away, leaving me with the burden of decision and diplomacy. And he honored me with this invitation to call him out in such future occasions—to say no to his boredom, to tell him that I need him as a full partner. I needed to tell him to go figure out how to have an opinion, how to think with me. I wonder what was going on in my psyche when I didn’t do this last year: was I protecting him? Did I so dislike the task of registry management that I thought I might as well deal with it on my own, leaving him free of that one source of stress? Of the many things I learned from wedding planning, I think one of the lessons I learned is not to “put up with” stress that seems unfair. I had the right to ask for him to be a partner on my side; I had the right to say “no” to tasks I didn’t want and didn’t value; we have the right to try to do our life our way, even when it means we can’t be what other people think they need us to be.

I thought I could be everything that other people needed me to be, but I can’t. There’s no way I can. So now, I’m trying to be what I need me to be. And that’s hard enough as it is.