Advice to Young Women Applying to College

On news related internet sites, I keep reading about the subject of sexual assault and colleges. One subject keeps popping up, fraternities and how they foster certain attitudes about sex and women. “Stepford Sororities,” by Maya Richard Craven, talked about how the writer’s acquaintances changed after they joined sororities. More recently, UVA suspended fraternities after a gang rape was reported in Rolling Stone magazine. There seems to be a new story everyday. This situation is not new, however.

I’ve gotten to an age and I can now look back and I can say which decisions I made were right and which ones were wrong. One of the right decisions was that I chose to only look at schools where fraternities and sororities were not a major part of the social life. Most of the schools I considered had none. I wasn’t thinking about rape and sexual assault. I simply found the entire atmosphere associated with fraternities to be not to my taste. I had been bullied a little bit in middle school, before I was able to turn the situation around and managed to actually become popular. One thing this incident had taught me about myself is that I am an iconoclast. Conforming to larger social groups is not the route to a happy life for me. I do best when I go my own way and do what I want to do, when I function from the assumption that my friendship has value. This was my route out of a bad school situation. You dress however you want. You do whatever past times you like. Listen to the music you prefer. Maintain your own opinions on books and movies. Most importantly, associate with the friends you like most and date the boys you want without worrying whether or not other people approve.

It is inherent in the nature of fraternities that the individual is subsumed by the group. You become part of a mob, and the mentality that goes with it. I know some people will argue that their own fraternity was not like the ones that are raping women, and I’m sure that’s true. Still, the repression of individuality is an inevitable part of fraternities. Gang rapes are a symptom of a larger sickness, a sickness that asks its victims to abandon their conscience to that of the mob, to curry favor with the group, to behave in ways that will get group approval. Colleges should be nurturing the individual conscience and intellect, not encouraging mob behavior.

This doesn’t mean that going to a school that has no fraternities will mean that you will never be assaulted. As a small person who has been physically assaulted on multiple occasions, both sexual and not, there exist people in the world who will watch for a vulnerability and attack when they see one. However, it is far less likely to be done by a mob, and, even more importantly, if it does occur, you will not be subject to the social pressures of that very same mob.

If you’re getting accepted to the University of Virginia, in all likelihood you have choices. It’s a fine school and one I might have considered myself if they didn’t have fraternities and sororities. In the end, I went to a small liberal arts school. A lack of frats didn’t mean we had no wild parties. What we didn’t have was social exclusion. Twice a year we had weekend long parties. The cool kids, the poets, the theatre freaks, the coke sluts, the dykes, the queers, the science nerds, those people who hung out in the basement and played D and D, we all got drunk as hell, stripped off our clothes and danced in the moonlight. If we consumed more beer than we had the year before, we thought we’d done an admirable job. So, do know that when I’m railing against fraternities I’m not arguing against fun or partying.

Despite what you see in the movies, all schools don’t have frats. Mine didn’t. My sister’s school didn’t. Many of them are very good schools. Gang rapes are a symptom of a larger problem. Go to a school without fraternities.

Addition: After rereading what I wrote, it occurred to me that it is also good advice for young men. Further more, when I wrote, “a sickness that asks its victims to abandon their conscience,” I actually was seeing the men as victims as well.

Dispirited About Politics

Well, I see I haven’t written a post in over a week. I’ve started a few, and yet I can’t seem to push myself to finish one. So, I’m just going to sit here with my coffee and not do anything else until I hit that button that says publish.

It’s not for lack of ideas. I wish I could explain. I just feel so impotent when it comes to expressing them, and I feel so buffeted one way, and then another, flitting from subject to subject.

Since the last election I’ve felt so dispirited. All along, I believed that the extreme radical right wing couldn’t ever get very far. That doesn’t mean that I thought that we were headed towards an endless stream of progressive victories. Still, the far, far right, the anti-science, indeed, I would say anti-American, right, couldn’t succeed outside of a few small areas. With 435 voting members in the U.S. House of Representatives you’d expect a handful to be a bit extreme. It’s more surprising from Senators. Yet the recent election leaves me feeling like I ought to do something but not actually wanting to do anything.

A year ago, I met an Australian woman who was going on over lunch about Sarah Palin. She was saying how awful and stupid she was. I found myself getting a little hot under the collar, although I didn’t say anything, because the clear implication was that Americans must be awful and stupid themselves if she was campaigning for Vice President. Then the Australian woman paused and said, “Whatever happened to her?”

I said, “She wasn’t elected.” The Australian woman didn’t really understand that Palin doesn’t have wide support.

Really, I thought these extreme right wing figures were like Sarah Palin, public clowns with no real constituency, put forward by the media because they result in a lot of page views and clicks.

Meanwhile, Libertarians like Glenn Greenwald have the left sitting home pouting over the NSA. Russell Brand tells people not to vote and to meditate their way to a revolution. The far left has been smacking Obama at every turn. They seem to be unaware of the larger context in which the President functions.

I have not doubt that Obama is much more of a centrist than I am. There are a great many issues on which I wish he had been more aggressive, economic policies favorable to the working class being chiefly among them. Yet I’m under no illusion that he had a free hand. I was reading an article on Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy and came across the following statement:

I support the president. I think the president has been right. I mean, look at the numbers, look at the job growth, sustained job growth—the greatest in American history. The. Greatest. In. American. History. Why didn’t people run on that? So you know that a bunch of political people say, ‘Well, it is not deep enough, and some people are hurting.’

Despite the fact that I like to think that I’m reasonably aware of politics, I wasn’t aware that the job growth has been that good. I knew the economy had supposedly recovered, but I also kept reading about a recovery in which only the rich had benefited. Canada didn’t play fast and easy with their banking laws and the crash didn’t hit them in the first place. However, it hit Europe. After the 2008 crash, we got a stimulus while much of Europe got austerity. Yes, I follow Paul Krugman and I’m very aware that the stimulus was not as large as many people recommended. But don’t think for a moment that the pressures that pushed many European countries towards austerity weren’t working to push the United States in the same direction, a direction which would have been disastrous according to this article in the Atlantic Monthly from 2012:

Euro zone unemployment just hit a 15-year. German unemployment just hit a 15-year. What can those of us across the Atlantic glean from this seemingly bipolar state of affairs? That austerity, every economic conservative’s favorite prescription for an ailing economy — the medicine Republicans here in the United States are pushing hard — is an utter disaster.

A disaster that the Democrats kept the United States from sharing.

It’s no secret that in the past few years the far right has widened its attacks on women’s reproductive autonomy from an opposition to abortion to objection to contraception. In the past, I’ve toyed with the idea of having a tubal ligation, but now with menopause approaching that seems like overkill. Now, with the recent elections it feels like everything we have worked for for years is up in the air. Yet, who didn’t vote? Young people! And it’s not just a women’s issue, damn it. I have a young cousin that got married and joined the army at eighteen when his girlfriend got pregnant. What, do you boys think that it’s only the girls you don’t care about that get knocked up? I hate to tell you, but it’s your steady girlfriends too. We don’t hear about that much because once a year or two has passed no one wants to admit that they didn’t want their kids and that they only married their spouse due to pregnancy. Meanwhile, the unwed mother is a walking billboard. Anyway, I want to say, “What the fuck do I care, now. It’s your life. Why am I fighting when you don’t care.”

And that’s kind of how I’m feeling about everything.

Connecting Ideas About Wifely Submission

As everybody can probably guess, I just love love love Dan Savage. I’ve definitely disagreed with him on occasion, but he’s right far more often than he’s wrong. More than anything, I grew up in a culture that was not ashamed of sex, where I was told that sexual pleasure was normal, natural and good, and I love that Dan Savage unapologetically continues advocating for that when so many other people have become mealy-mouthed on the subject.

My mother very much wanted to raise strong, independent minded women who were not ashamed of their bodies or normal sexual desires. Needless to say, she wasn’t anything like Michelle Duggar. We didn’t have “rules”, just advice and suggestions.

No one is going to put my mother on the cover of any magazines soon because her opinions on sex are highly commonplace for women of her generation. As the old saw goes, Dog Bites Man is not news, Man Bites Dog is news, and the Duggars are better than twenty-one men biting twenty-one dogs in tutus and tiaras. Consequently, Michelle Duggar, with her highly unusual opinions about women’s sexual behavior gets her own tv show and magazine covers announcing “Our Rules for Sex and Love.”

Really, you almost have to feel bad for Dan Savage, sitting in a barber shop, having the two eldest Duggar daughters smiling at him over that come hither headline. The man has made a career out of being a bold advice columnist writing primarily about relationships and sex and here are two young women, living in a religious cult version of Plato’s cave, talking about their parents’ rules for sex and love. It’s almost like a provocation.

(Note to Dan Savage’s barber: Get better reading material.)

As Savage notes in his column, the Duggars are not just a few individuals with quirky ideas. They are a politically active family that would like to remake the rest of us in their image.

One of the rules for marriage they are promoting is that a woman can never say no to sex. Via Savage:

And once a Duggar girl is married, says Mom, she is never allowed to say no to sex. “Duggar women don’t get headaches,” Michelle told Us. “You always need to be available when he calls.” And if you’re not always available—if you do get a headache, or you’re just not in the mood one night, or if turns out that your husband prefers Dad’s auditions—then you’re to blame when your husband cheats on you.

Sometimes, I am under the impression that we in the United States are a little bit naive. We have lived in a modern society for so long that it really doesn’t register in our minds what the full impact of these ideas might be. Michelle Duggar is not horrifying to us because we know that she lives in the U.S. and if she wanted to leave Jim Bob Duggar she could. There is little preventing her legally, or in society as a whole.

Shortly after reading Savage’s opinion of the Duggars, I came across a blog post that put Michelle Duggar’s comment about how she must always be sexually available for her husband in context. It was an email from a woman who lives in a culture where wifely submission is the norm. It was written to Pakistani-Canadian illustrator and blogger, Eiynah who writes about sexuality on her website Nice Mangos. In this email, the writer, who lives in Pakistan, says that she’s sharing her story because “so that other women may speak up if this is happening to them.”

The writer, who reports being intimidated by her husband, was in labor with her second child. Her husband went to a friend’s party while she went to the hospital alone. Eventually, however, he showed up.

Immediately after the birth of my child he spoke to the hospital staff, stating that our first born was still a toddler, and that I was needed at home because of that. I was discharged within 6 hours.

I don’t know what is the norm, but it is clear that she was discharged according to his needs, not hers. Afterwards, she was in excruciating pain from the episiotomy.

As soon as I got home, I was expected to care for all my in laws, cook and clean for them as well as look after my two children. An impossible feat when one can barely stand. The first days after child-birth, you need pampering, as any new mother will tell you. You need to be looked after and you need to recover. You need all the help you can get. And to have two children under four, is extremely exhausting. To be expected to cook and clean and wait on people as soon as you enter the house, borders on some sort of abuse. It is abuse actually, now that I look back on it. I don’t know how I managed. But somehow I did, because I had no choice. I was expected to take over the house work, because I was the ‘daughter-in-law’ and that was my role. If I refused the consequences could have been worse. I got through it somehow, but I would never wish it upon anyone.

Then we see the result of a society in which women are not allowed to ever refuse sex to their husbands.

On the third day after my delivery my husband tried to initiate intercourse and I told him (hesitantly) that I had stitches, and that the doctor had told us to refrain for 40 days as well. Then he got mad (as he often did) and I was terrified of him going elsewhere to satisfy his sexual needs so I decided to just let him do what he wanted. He said he ‘needed’ it, and that nothing would happen.

He said that I shouldn’t refuse him sex because then he would have to go elsewhere for it. He could tell that I was in pain and he continued anyway, my body had tensed up, I told him that I was worried my stitches would tear, and he told me it would be ok, because he would be careful.

After that experience I was bleeding excessively and had to continue doing the housework for the whole household including waiting on my in-laws. At my next doctors visit, I told my doctor that we had had sex on the third day and she was very shocked and upset. She told me that we had to refrain. But even after that we continued having sex every four or five days (not my choice). I have never refused my husband sex, ever. Its just not an option. I was raised to keep the peace and please my husband.

She concludes:

Many years later, we obviously don’t have a great relationship. But I continue to do what I need to, to keep my marriage going.

Even in cultures where men are clearly dominant in a relationship, there are kind, caring men who would never dream of behaving in this way. However, if someone has the misfortune to be married to someone who is not, she has no recourse. The ethos the Duggars are promoting can only seem benign the context of the United States where we know that the wider society does not enforce these beliefs, but let’s not kid ourselves about what this would mean for some women if it were widely embraced. We have moved away from these attitudes because over the decades women have agitated to change them.


Ex-Muslims Will Not Be Silenced

As many people may know, I take a fairly extreme position as far as freedom of speech is concerned, opposing hate speech laws. Of course, in privately owned spaces people can have whatever rules they like. The Guardian is a privately owned newspaper and accompanying website and they can take down whatever items they like. However, since as a newspaper they are in a position of trust regarding information, it would be nice to know what their policies are regarding moderation of comments. Indeed, they have a page explaining their community standards.

Recently, they took down a comment by someone representing the ExMuslims Forum (h/t Ophelia Benson). Before it was taken down, Ophelia Benson had reproduced the comment because she thought it excellent. I am reproducing it here because it has been taken down. ExMuslims are hardly a “privileged” group and they are silenced in many spaces. I’m copying it from Benson’s site. (I’ll save my own thoughts for below.)

As Exmuslims, we critique Islam because there are many aspects of Islam that need to be critiqued. In particular, we seek to oppose Islam’s apostasy codes, which are oppressive and lead to persecution.

We have found it is quite difficult to get some people to listen to our stories because they fear that acknowledging these issues will contribute to a critical view towards Islam.

The idea is that particularly reactionary teachings and aspects of belief that lead to critical judgements of Islam are in and of themselves prejudiced. The resulting logic of this is that Islam should have special privileges, in as much as basic human conscience and ethical critical judgement of people living in a secular culture should not apply, or be expressed, towards Islam.

The fact that criticism exists, is the offence.

Effectively, this is to propose a kind of proxy blasphemy code and apostasy code, wherein the liberal secular space defers to Islamic taboos. Dissenting Muslims and Exmuslims have to conform to these proxy codes too. Everyone else is free to critique their own religion, and other faiths and ideas too. But Islam must be protected.

However, Muslims are free to critique all religions, belief systems and moralities, because evangelising Islam, and proffering critique and judgement is not only a divine prerogative, but the closing down of ethical, critical judgement towards Islam is also a divine right.

As we can see, this is an ethical and moral mess.

This is an aspect of liberal relativism that is morally flawed and unsustainable without damaging basic principles of liberal secularism. It also means that aspects of Islam that need to be criticised, like Islam’s apostasy codes, remain unexamined, and with that authority unquestioned, their capacity to hurt people and cause harm increases.

Another fear is that being critical of aspects of Islam manifests in prejudice towards Muslims, and this is an understandable response given how parts of the far-right do project generalising narratives of communal responsibility on Muslims. As Exmuslims, we understand this, because being from ethnic minorities ourselves (apart from growing numbers of former white converts) we are also prone to be in the targets of bigots who project their hostility onto anyone who ‘looks’ Muslim, whatever that is supposed to be.

The key to dealing with this is for the Left to take ownership of the issues that need to be critiqued, and do so through the prism of liberal secular values, so that they cannot be co-opted by the nationalist right, who have agendas that are not tolerant.

Sadly the instinct of relativism too often prevents this reckoning from occurring. The silencing of Exmuslims voices is the norm, although we are trying to change this.

There are three main layers of silencing of apostates voices. The first layer is the hardcore religious silencing, which includes notions that we deserve to be killed and harmed. Under that is a second layer of some Muslims who may not agree we should be persecuted, but don’t want to have these problematic aspects or religion talked about, because of feelings of embarassment, fear of the consequences, or cognitive dissonance regarding apostasy / blasphemy codes. The third layer underneath this is the relativism of white liberals who are often in concordance with silencing instincts over these issues, including silencing of Exmuslims, for the reasons we outlined earlier. Often, relativist liberals simply pretend we don’t exist.

But silencing never works, and it only increases the problems.

It is important to understand that anti-Muslim bigotry is real. At the same time, the reality of the need for Islam to be critiqued has to be acknowledged by the Left, and by Muslims who live in liberal secular democracies too.

epilogue: Some of these issues were touched on by a Pakistani-Canadian Exmuslim called Eiynah, in a response to the recent heated debate over Ben Affleck’s appearance on Bill Maher’s show. You can read it here. Please do check it out.

The comment was posted after an article by Andrew Brown. The content of the article is almost entirely summed up by the title and subtitle, “Why I don’t believe people who say they loathe Islam but not Muslims: It is psychologically unnatural to claim that you hate an ideology without hating the people in whose lives it is expressed.” I don’t know about you, but I for one am getting sick of people declaring something to be “natural”, or in this case “unnatural”, just because it suits their own preconceived notions. Does he cite any studies?

Here’s a first hand case of disliking a religion while liking individual. It is one that I expect a great many people will relate to.

I really adored my maternal grandmother. I know it’s commonplace to go on about how much a person liked his or her grandmother, but I had two grandmothers and I liked one much better than the other. She was very pretty, and a little bit vain. She was very athletic, a competitive speed skater. She smoked like a chimney, and was constantly nervous. She was funny and loud, but also very sweet and kind, one of the kindest people you could want to meet. However, what she was not was especially intellectual. When things would go wrong, she would clutch her medals and mutter, “Dieve mano,” quietly to herself. In a family of atheists and agnostics, she continued to believe.

Now, I think the Catholic Church is one of the most dangerous and damaging institutions on the planet. We only need to look at the recent revelations by retiring Cardinal Francis George to realize what a negative effect this organization has had. The dramatic, criminal actions are only the tip of a very destructive iceberg. That doesn’t begin to account for the emotional and psychological damage the Catholic Church does to almost all its adherents by telling them that sex is inherently sinful and shameful, or the physical toll endless, unwanted childbearing has on women. I just recently read that in Ireland caesarean section were avoided in favor of symphysiotomy, a dangerous procedure in which a woman’s pelvis is broken, because that’s what the Catholic Church wanted.

I am very much opposed to the ideology promoted by the Catholic Church, yet this had no effect on my feelings for my grandmother, a believing Catholic. I feel very confident that a great many people can make similar statements.

Similarly, I had a wonderful boyfriend in high school who was a Mormon. Mormonism was founded by the convicted con man Joseph Smith. I find it hard to believe that any sensible person could truly believe in that faith. Yet, my boyfriend was fabulous. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have married him, that’s how wonderful he was. Adorable, smart, sensitive, kind, sweet, and a practicing Mormon.

This experience is so commonplace, I’m a bit flabbergasted that Andrew Brown could make such a statement claiming that this is “unnatural.” If that is the case, my family is comprised of nothing but “psychologically unnatural” people, including my brother-in-law, a confirmed atheist whose parents were highly active in the Methodist Church and whose brother was a Presbyterian minister.

And what should I make of my acquaintances who are Libertarians or Marxists?

My mother has a friend, a practicing Jew, whose son converted and now works for Pat Robertson, of all people. They have conflicts, but she never stopped loving her son. She hates her son’s politics and religiously motivated ideology, but she does not hate her son.

Anyone living in a pluralistic society knows dozens of stories like this. I could go on indefinitely. A Jewish friend who I have heard complain very loudly of Christian privilege who fell in love with, and married, a Christian man. They must be going on over twenty years of marriage together. The more I think of it, the more people who come to mind.

ExMuslims, who find Islamic beliefs about apostasy directly threatening and oppressive, must have family members whom they have not stopped loving just because they stopped believing.

Why did The Guardian delete this comment? I think they should give this regularly silenced group a clearer indication of which of their community standards were violated.

While I’m discussing this atrocious article, which Jerry Coyne has deemed “click bait,” I might as well take a moment to defend Sam Harris. I’m hardly a Sam Harris fan, so you know that I writer is basically spouting lies when he pushes me to defending Harris. Andrew Brown says, ‘Stalin and Mao would have enthusiastically endorsed Sam Harris (above) when he wrote that “there are some beliefs so terrible that we are justified in killing people just for holding them”.’ This is taken so far out of context as to be deceitful. This quote comes from Harris’ book, The End of Faith. A couple of lines later, in the same paragraph, he writes, “There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense.”

I don’t have a copy of The End of Faith at hand. When I read it years ago, I recall thinking that many of his arguments were sloppy and this may very well be one of them. Still, it is quite a stretch to call him genocidal, as Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald have done.

The left has a problem with ExMuslims, and this is a problem we need to confront. Simply silencing ExMuslims and deleting their comments will not allow us to consider some of the inherent contradictions in our beliefs and how to reconcile them.

Who the Hell Designed That?

Something just struck my eye. In an article on the Daily Beast website about the “Christian Right” there is an illustration accompanying it which shows a pair of hands, palms together, clasping what I believe is a rosary, superimposed over a map of the United States. While I have to give some credit to the Daily Beast for actually commissioning illustrations rather than simply using stock photos, the fact of the matter is that the article mostly names “evangelicals”, a group who generally do not pray using rosaries. I know diddly about religion, and even I know that.


Maybe I’m Not That Into You

It seems that certain themes hit the internet in waves. Perhaps a news story triggers it, or perhaps an event in someone’s life. Then there’s a blog post, then another. Next thing you know, it seems like everyone has to let the world know their opinion on the subject. For the past week and a half, perhaps two weeks, street harassment seems to be the theme. Specifically, the subject has been catcalling. I can’t say that I like it and I agree with most of the evaluations that feminists have said about it. On the other hand, as someone who has been groped on multiple occasions, who has had high school teachers come onto me, who has been told that I couldn’t do certain things, like math, because I had the wrong genitalia, who has received career counseling in which I’ve been given advice based on my gender, who’s constantly being told that I don’t have the sexual feelings I do have, and who knows on the global scale of things I’ve had it pretty easy, catcalling falls pretty low on my list of priorities.

However, I was looking at all the responses about catcalling and I do have to say one thing stood out. Regarding a video that came out showing a woman being catcalled as she walked down the street, a guest on CNN, Steve Santagati, said, “The bottom line is this, ladies, you would not care if all these guys were hot.” Actually, he has a point. Now, he blew it after that statement by going a little too far in trying to explain how women think. He continued, “They would be bolstering your self-esteem, bolstering your ego. There is nothing more that a woman loves to hear than how pretty she is.”

I don’t know about how other women feel, but there are a lot of things I love more than hearing how pretty I am. For instance, having a really hot guy on top of me, thrusting in and out, is definitely something I love more than hearing how pretty I am. In fact, if I like hearing a hot guy tell me how pretty I am, it’s probably because the possibility of having the hot guy thrusting in and out some time in the near future has just increased.

Now, the thing that I, as a woman, have never really understood about catcalling is why men do it. Exactly what are they trying to accomplish? My own suspicion, and since I’m not a guy it’s just a guess, is that they are trying to get a woman’s attention because it’s a cheap thrill. Now, to be frank about it, I have no problems with cheap thrills when I’m the one enjoying them. The other day, I wore a plunging neckline and I caught a very nice looking man’s eyes looking at my breasts. He didn’t say anything and the glance was brief enough to remain well within the bounds of socially acceptable behavior. It didn’t “bolster my ego.” It gave me sexual thoughts and a not unpleasant feeling between my thighs. Now, I walked by quite a few other men that day, and many of them glanced at my cleavage. For better or worse, it was only when “hot guys” looked at me that I had a sexual response.

Now, no one said anything, and if they had it would have suddenly turned from a light, cheap thrill to something uncomfortable. I’m sure if I had said anything, the men would have felt uncomfortable, too. For better or worse, there are social codes about when you are, or are not allowed to say anything, how long you are allowed to look at someone before we call it staring, how much eye contact is acceptable. This is all culturally embedded and varies from one culture to another. It’s something that we internalized and act on it in a nearly subconscious fashion.

In another cleavage related story, on New Year’s Eve there was this absolutely adorable bartender. He had a cute face, and every time he turned around I couldn’t help noticing that he had an even cuter ass. Really, I’m not an ass woman, but this was one that even I could appreciate. I was wearing a dress with a deep v-neck. At one point, the adorable bartender was pouring cheap bubbly directly from the bottle into my mouth. A bit ran down my chin, then dropped onto my chest and rolled down my breast. The bartender’s eyes followed the droplet. I wanted to make a comment about how maybe he’d like to lick it off. Despite the vulgar things running through my head, I said nothing because, after all, he was at work and just as an attractive female bartender is not sexually available to every guy who comes into a bar, neither are male bartenders. So, I had my cheap little thrill, which would have been a little less thrilling if the bartender was less handsome. I can only speculate that it might have been more of a thrill for him if I had been closer to his age rather than nearly old enough to be his mother.

Part of the skill of flirting, when it’s done right, is that the level of engagement is slowly escalated, leaving the other person the opportunity to end the situation gracefully, without a conflict or hurt feelings. The right type of smile or a raised eyebrow, and perhaps I would have made my lewd comment to the bartender. Even still, I’d have to be aware that I would have been running the risk of a cold response. And I think we’ve all made the occasional misjudgement and we should be forgiving about honest miscues.

So, it’s an itty bitty thrill when we get a bit of attention from a member of our preferred gender, and it’s a little disappointment when we find someone attractive and he or she does not reciprocate our attention. It’s perfectly normal to walk down the street and have sexual feelings when you see an attractive person. At some point, however, when you become aware that you’re making the other person uncomfortable, you just have to back off. But I think maybe the best way to get men to be less verbally aggressive on the street is to frankly acknowledge that it has to do with whether or not we find the man in question sexually appealing. If a you’re man on the street and you tell a woman she’s beautiful and she doesn’t even acknowledge the compliment with a smile, well, maybe she’s not that into you.

The Nobel Prize, Islam and China

This is just a quick post to share a bit of info I just came across and thought was interesting.

A while back Richard Dawkins stirred up a bit of controversy when he tweeted, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” I originally tried to address that with a bit of humor.

I came across a bit of information, ooh, about five minutes ago, that reminded me of that little brouhaha.

No one, after 12 years of Chinese education, has any chance to receive a Nobel prize, even if he or she went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge for college…. Out of the one billion people who have been educated in Mainland China since 1949, there has been no Nobel prize winner…. This forcefully testifies [to] the power of education in destroying creativity on behalf of the [Chinese] society.

Diane Ravitch quoted Yong Zhao quoting Zheng Yefu in an article currently on the New York Review of Books website, “The Myth of Chinese Super Schools.”

Now, I’m off to visit the Musée de l’Institute du Monde Arab, entirely by coincidence, so I’ll have to leave the editorializing to you.

Victim Blaming

I just read something that irritated me. The basic thrust of the article, “There’s a Reason Why Your Waiter Hates You,” by Jedediah Purdy, is speculative:

More jobs involve what social theorists call “affective labor,” meaning emotional work—setting up micro-relationships that make customers feel good. It’s true of retail and sales. It’s true of customer service. It’s true of the caregiving professions, such as nursing and home health care. These sectors are growing because they’re hard to mechanize or offshore, unlike doing paperwork and making things, which we mostly leave to algorithms, machines, and faraway people.

He continues:

We’re human, so of course we sometimes want and need to connect, and we can’t always be sincere. The problem comes in when unequal economic power extorts emotional work. There is something indecent in asking people to fake a feeling to make a living.

We are, he says, becoming a nation of phonies, which is especially odd because, according to Purdy, people in the U.S. value authenticity.

In fact, the intrusion is so subtle and so pervasive that it is possible to lose track of whether you’re faking it or not. A job becomes a training, now just in how to be, but in who to be. If it’s indecent to ask employees to fake a feeling, it’s worse to ask them to cultivate a false self.

I’ve worked a lot of those low-level service jobs, and I’m inclined to agree with much of what he says. I do have a few disagreements:

  1.  I worked most of those jobs over twenty years ago, so I’m not sure that this is the new phenomenon he says it is.
  2. He contrasts this “emotional work” with rudeness. There’s quite a range of behavior in between fake friendliness and rudeness, and much service work takes place in a polite, but distant, manner.
  3. The requirement that people lower on a power hierarchy cater to the emotional needs of people higher on the hierarchy, (Put more plainly, you need to dance around the whims of your boss.) occurs very frequently in non-service jobs.
  4. This seems to underestimate how authentic friendliness is in situations among peers.

Overall, though, I agree that the requirement to be someone you are not in a job situation can definitely rise to the level of feeling oppressive. At the same time, I have to say, that I believe this oppressiveness is most objectionable to college graduates who have grown up in a middle class environment who suddenly find themselves working service jobs and occupying a position in the social hierarchy to which they are extremely unaccustomed. Faking friendliness may feel inauthentic to everyone sometimes, but for the progeny of the middle class it can also feel like a slap in the face. They were raised to question authority, not to be obsequious.

However, these are smaller quibbles. I do really feel the need to highlight what’s wrong with the example he uses to introduce the subject: sexual harassment of waitresses.

Ninety percent of women waiters get harassed sexually, according to a recent study. Why is the number so high? Partly because waitstaff depends on tips to raise their wages above the federal minimum wage of $2.13 an hour for “tipped employees.” That means a waiter needs to establish a relationship with each customer: Serving food and drinks isn’t just a job, but a micro-flirtation on very unequal terms. The wage structure of waiting tables is a sexual-harassment machine. (my emphasis)

I take a great exception to this statement. I was sexually harassed as a waitress. I did not flirt with anyone, micro or otherwise. For someone claims to see the negative effects of power differences created by capitalism, Jedidiah Purdy writes about sexual harassment from a surprisingly privileged perspective.

In my last post, I wrote about my experiences dating a radical lesbian feminist separatist. Although, I eventually found their views to be too narrow for me to feel comfortable within that movement, and that eventually lead me to question the ideas on which it was based, I was hanging out with that group in the first place because I was a fairly radical feminist myself. This time included a lot of upheaval in my personal life. I tried dating men again. Got pregnant. Had an abortion. Dropped out of college. All of this happened with the span of perhaps a year. I found myself living with my parents, with my mother thinking the best way of getting me back into college was to be as mean and cold to me as possible. For a time I had my head shaved off on one side and shoulder length on the other. This was considered highly unattractive at that time. I wore loose-fitting jeans with Converse high top sneakers, or loose, baggy, shapeless skirts that came almost to my ankles. Most of my shirts came from second-hand stores. The weirder the better. They amused me for some reason at the time, but when I look back at old photos I can’t remember why. Eventually, I got a crew cut. If the stereotype of the moody alt-chick had existed at the time, I’m sure I would have been put in that box, which probably would have only made me mad and driven me to even more bizarre outfits in a futile attempt to express my “authentic” self.

This was far from the proudest time of my life, in fact it was miserable in every way and everything I did to try to be happy seemed only to make my life worse, but it’s safe to say that, by the time I got a job as a waitress, I was not the sort of person inclined to flirt for a paycheck, nor would most people have looked at me and thought that I was.

So there I was, nineteen years old, reading want ads in the newspaper, with nothing on my resume except baby sitting. In college, I posed for art classes to earn money, but I think I never put that down. Hmmm… wonder why that is? I was qualified to do pretty much nothing. I saw an ad for waitresses at a pancake house a few minutes away. So I went.

I started a couple of days later with five other young women. That the place had such a high turnover rate should have been a warning sign to me, however I was too inexperienced to recognize that fact. The boss said that we could expect men to come onto us. Then he looked at me. “Well, not you,” and he laughed. What he intended as an insult, came to me as a relief. Then he looked at a young woman a couple of inches taller than average with long hair lightened to blond and a push-up bra. “I expect you’re going to have a lot of problems,” he said in a tone that was a problem in and of itself. She didn’t appear to appreciate his concern.

There were some class tensions swirling around me as well because they assumed, with some reason, that I had grown up in a higher class background than they had. A cook intentionally burned me. There were a great many verbal jabs, mostly from the men. The women overall were kind. I lasted only one night.

A couple of men came in at one point. They were the only all male table that night since it was a restaurant that catered to families. They tried to make small talk, but I wasn’t interested. When I brought them the check, they had laid out what looked to be an inappropriately large tip on the table. One of them looked at me and gave me a cocky smile, “What time do you get off?” I put the checked down on the table and walked away. When I returned to wipe off the table shortly after they were gone, so was the “tip” and they had left none at all. If you don’t know, waiters and waitress in the U.S. earn only a very small “base pay.” Most of their income comes from tips. Tipping is not considered optional. It is required. Waiters are taxed with the presumption they are receiving tips and most of that “base pay” is withheld as taxes.

When the night was over, I walked to my car. I found myself feeling weirdly nervous. I was very aware of the fact that I was walking alone in an empty parking lot to my car, which was parked in a far corner as was required of employees, where the light didn’t quite reach. It was my nervousness walking to my car that made me decide it was not worth it. It’s one thing to say that a person should just let comments roll off their back, but they have an effect. You can say, as my psychiatrist and my mother always do, that these people have no credence and what they say should not effect my sense of self. But it does. In duration of one shift, my entire sense of self had changed. It was the weird vulnerability I felt walking to my car, and I didn’t want to feel that scared again and I never went back.

Anecdata, you may say. Just because I didn’t flirt for a tip and was treated poorly anyway doesn’t mean that Purdy is wrong, perhaps other waitresses do open themselves up to sexual harassment by flirting for money. The way his article is phrased, it is unclear, when he quotes the figure that ninety percent of women waiters report sexual harassment and asks “Why is the number so high?” and answers that question by saying that “micro-flirtation” is part of the job, whether that is the conclusion of the study being quoted or his own speculation. The link he provides leads to a New York Times article, “When Living on Tips Means Putting Up With Harassment,” an article with a very different focus. In fact, the article makes no mention of flirting, micro or otherwise.

Ashley Ogogor, a 29-year-old waitress who has lived in the city for a few years and who has become a spokeswoman for the movement, told me that especially in hotel restaurants, where she had once worked and where heavy drinking was commonplace, she had learned to ignore lewd or inappropriate comments because she was so dependent on gratuities. One summer night she had clocked out of a particular restaurant, changed into her regular clothes and was waiting for a meal to take home. While she was doing so she made a phone call to her boyfriend. A customer approached her, grabbed her phone and then started hugging and whispering to her.

The report on which much of the Times article, The Glass Floor: Sexual harassment in the Restaurant Industry, draws is very much focused on the effect of the sub-minimum wage received by restaurant workers and their dependence on tipping. There are a couple mentions of flirting in that report, but they are in the context of managers telling servers to flirt with customers (16% of women) and customers wanting the servers to flirt. Both actions are considered examples of sexual harassment in the report. This does not mean that waitresses never flirt with the hopes of getting larger tips, but it does seem that Purdy’s assertion is unsourced.

This is not a small matter since many times when women complain about sexual harassment or sexual violence it is claimed that they wanted or encouraged such behavior. Also, what the report calls “pressure for dates”, I personally perceived as an offer of money in return for sexual favors, in other words, the suggestion that I prostitute myself.

Purdy is wrong when he says “Americans tend not to talk about the economy as a system of power.” That is exactly what the report is focusing on in its emphasis on the role that tipping and the sub-minimum wage play in sexual harassment. They note that harassment is less severe in states where there is only one minimum wage. The report connects working for tips to economic insecurity and the consequent tendency to put up with sexual harassment in order to not suffer economic consequences. Although women working in the industry reported more harassment from co-workers, they said they felt less bothered by that. As one worker put it:

The one thing that really bothers me, though, is not necessarily co-workers; [in] that interaction I have more freedom to be like, ‘okay, stop it’. But when a guest does it, then I feel a lot more powerless. That’s when I’m like, man, that’s where my money’s coming from…

As the Times phrased it, “the economic structure that turns customers into shadow employers, leaving servers — so often women — vulnerable to the predations anyone picking up the bill might feel entitled to exercise.”

The link in that last quote from the Times takes one to the site of The Gothamist, to the article “A NYC Bartender’s Powerful Open Letter To The Hedge Funder Who Allegedly Grabbed Her Ass.” In New York State, groping someone without his or her consent is a crime. We see the direct relation between tipping and sexual harassment in this story.

Laura Ramadei, an actor who tends bar at Lucky Strike on Grand Street, says that when she asked customer Brian Lederman what he’d like, he immediately groped her. And after she made it clear she wasn’t enamored by his charms, he left her with a shabby tip.

In Ramadei’s own account she adds:

We were in a family-friendly restaurant, around 6:30pm, and I was wearing a loose-fitting, long sleeve shirt, jeans, and no makeup…so I’m not sure where the confusion arose as to what kind of service you were being provided.

Brian Lederman would seem to be bragging about being a serial offender when he says, “I’ve grabbed plenty of girls’ asses in my life.” I hope the next time he grabs someone’s ass, that person calls a cop, or perhaps files a hostile work environment suit. This is criminal behavior. Men who do this in the subway get arrested.

After reading the report The Glass Floor, I understood why I was scared walking to my car that night.

The documented prevalence of sexual harassment is not attributable to a simple desire for sex; rather, it reflects an abuse of power and a structural issue where women’s and trans bodies are viewed as expendable commodities that exist merely for someone else’s pleasure. By devaluing individual human worth and dignity, and by reinforcing a financial power dynamic that renders workers vulnerable, sexual harassment, and the environment that supports it, opens the door to the sexual violence that some workers reported experiencing.

Another low-level job I had that involved being nice to people when I didn’t feel like being nice was when I worked as a receptionist in the Wall Street area, at a company that served the banking industry. One of the firm’s clients made me uncomfortable with propositions. In a notable contrast to the restaurant only a few months earlier, I told my boss and he said he would talk to him about it. It never came up again, so I assume he did. Although I understand much of what Purdy is talking about regarding the need to be falsely ingratiating in many service jobs and I do agree it can be a negative thing, there is a qualitative difference between that and the sort of sexual harassment endured by restaurant workers because the culture of tipping and it helps no one to confuse the two.

As a final note, I was not entirely comfortable with The Glass Floor’s treatment of male victims of sexual harassment, which was a little too cursory. Certainly gender roles do affect sexual harassment, so it is hard to discuss it in a purely gender neutral way, and since women are the primary victims it is not unexpected that more space would be given to their experiences. It was heartening that they did consider the experiences of transgender individuals, but a bit more discussion of experiences of male victims of sexual harassment would have made for a stronger report.

Why I Am Not a Dyke

I just finished reading a great, long article, on BuzzFeed of all places, “Inconspicuous Consumption“, about tuberculosis. The highbrow side of me feels like I should write something about the importance of public health measures in combating diseases, or something other thing of that ilk. I have a couple of pages about the low rate of vaccination in France open in a couple of browser tags. However, that, ahem, not so highbrow side of me couldn’t resist some of the click bait more typical of BuzzFeed, so, instead of following up the article with my original thought of tracking down that article I read a couple of weeks ago saying that the difference between the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the SARS outbreak in Asia a decade ago had to do with the effectiveness of the government response, I found myself reading “70 Thoughts You Have When You Realize You’re a Stereotypical Lesbian.” It reminded me of why I am not a lesbian.

Many, many moons ago, when I was just an adorable little wisp of a thing, a little artsy-fartsy barely twenty-something trying to survive in New York City on crummy low-level, hourly wage, no benefits, no vacation jobs, I landed a steady job at a call center. The company had goals that no caller should wait longer than a certain length of time, perhaps one or two minutes. This policy meant that the floor was well staffed and there was, for periods during the day, plenty of time to converse with the other employees between calls. I found myself regularly sitting down next a slightly younger man recently arrived in New York City to live out his dream of writing the great American novel. We rapidly bonded over what I thought was a shared love of literature.

One day, as usual, I sat down next to him. He was on a call. I plugged in my headset, logged into the computer system and settled in for the morning shift.

He finished his call, then spun around in his chair to face me. “Admit it, you’re a dyke.”


“Come on. Why do you even bother trying to hide it?”

“I’m not trying to hide anything. I’m not a dyke.”

“Look, I’m gay. You can tell me.”

“Why are you insisting? What makes you think I’m a lesbian?”

“All of my female friends are lesbians. In fact, all of my closest friends are lesbians. Actually, I kind of wish I got along with gay men better. Maybe I’d get a date. Anyway, you and I get along far, far too well. I’ve never gotten along with a straight person as well. ‘Fess up! Have you ever slept with a woman.”

“Well, yeah.”

“See! I knew it! I’m never wrong.”

“Your ‘gaydar’….” I said, sarcastically rolling my eyes. “Well, my only real girlfriend always claimed to have perfect gaydar and she was certain I was straight.”

“Aha! Girlfriend! So this was more than a passing experiment.”

“Well, if it makes you feel better you can say I’m bisexual.”

“Bisexuals don’t exist!” He said. My ex girlfriend had said the same thing to me. “It’s just a stage on the way to admitting you’re gay.” At least that was a more open-minded response than my ex girlfriend had. Traitor. Nympho. Wolf in sheep’s clothing.

I had read some of his autobiographical short stories based on his youthful experimentation with other boys. I tried to explain to him that dykes weren’t like fags. They weren’t distinguished mainly by their sexual desire for women. I described to him the radical lesbian feminist separatists I knew in college.

“You,” he said authoritatively, “need to meet some lipstick lesbians.”

Actually, I wouldn’t hear that term in the media for at least another year or two. Today, with the internet, a term like that wouldn’t linger in a subculture quite as long before becoming mainstream. However, this really marked a major change in lesbian culture in the U.S. The women he introduced me to were only a few years younger than I was, but they were growing up in a different world. Many of them were still in college, most of them at NYU. I felt slightly awkward, like an adult among a group of teenagers, which I essentially was. There was a pretty blond girl at a party in Brooklyn who I thought was flirting with me. At one point in the evening, we wound up lounging in a corner on a cluster of cushions on the floor. She said she was seventeen and still in high school. Suddenly, I felt really weird. If she had been a heterosexual boy who was certain he wanted to sleep with me, I would have had no qualms about taking him home with me. She said she wasn’t certain if she was gay or straight, but she wanted to try sleeping with a woman. If we had been peers, I would have had no qualms about it, either. I’ve never quite understand why it didn’t feel right, but it didn’t, and I left the party alone. I would go to a few more of those parties, but I always felt a bit on the outside, even though few were as young as that girl and none were younger. I looked young for my age, at the time. Teenagers were always walking up to me thinking I was one of them. So, the fact that I felt out-of-place was probably me. Maybe working, rather than being in school, puts you in a different place in your life. In terms of how they dressed, the music they listened to, what they did in their free time, they were far more like me than the lesbians I had known in school.

Mostly, though, while I’ve gotten along with individual lesbians, I’ve rarely ever gotten along with a group. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m fighting or arguing, just that I’m not interested in the things they’re interested in and I wind up drifting away.

So, when I saw the admittedly silly BuzzFeed list, I felt slightly irked. Not rage filled, or even mildly angry at being excluded. More like resigned, and I thought to myself, eh, yeah, I guess that’s why I’m not a dyke.

I don’t own a single flannel shirt. I suppose I could date a woman who owned one, provided she didn’t wear it often. I don’t get the fascination with softball. Why softball? Actually, I don’t like sports. I liked horseback riding when I was younger, but isn’t that a classic straight girl obsession. I wasn’t even obsessed by it. Hiking’s nice. Actually, long walks outdoors are nice. I call it hiking to make myself sound sportier. Honestly, I was the artsy type, you know, the kind who’s coordinated enough to dance, but not to play sports.

I didn’t go to a women’s college. My older sister, who is very straight did. She probably has had more lesbian friends that I have.

I’ve had my hair short more than I’ve had it long, on the other hand, until I took up the keyboard recently, I had very long nails. Men were always asking me to scratch their backs.

As far as wearing men’s clothes goes, I like a lot of men’s clothes, but I don’t really have the body for them. Too much ass. (Hey, maybe I should say “too little waist!”) The list also mentioned something called “snapbacks.” I’m not really sure what that is.

Anyway, I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. I know it was a stupid list, but I just read it and felt like “groan, groan, groan.” At least gay men have a multiple stereotypes, although that might not be much of a consolation. My writer buddy at work never really did fit in to any of them.

It might be counterintuitive, but ultimately I found the straight world, or at least a world in which straight people were a majority, to be far more welcoming than women oriented social milieus.

Movie Review: Samba

I’ll go see Omar Sy in just about anything, so it’s a good thing he carries this movie. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s spotty, inconsistent, and it drags at times. It’s a social drama/romantic comedy, or rather a social comedy/romantic drama, and it might have been better if the filmmakers had chosen one or another because the parts did not combine well this time.

When I’m in France, I usually grab the opportunity to take in a movie that is unlikely to make it across the Atlantic. This one might on the strength of the directors’ previous international hit, also starring Sy. On the other hand, it doesn’t have any of the stereotypical images of France that usually guarantee a hit in the U.S. That isn’t inherently a negative for me. In my mind, Un Coeur en hiver is the exactly the sort of French film Americans eat up, and not one I personally liked. (When I’m in a playful mood and I encounter I snobby Francophile, I introduce the subject of French film – and then start waxing poetic about Luc Besson. This usually makes them turn all sorts of fascinating colors.)

The movie centers around the title character, Samba, played by Sy, an undocumented immigrant from Senegal who wants to regularize his situation and stay in France. He encounters Charlotte Gainsbourg. She says that she is a former high-powered executive who got burned out and is suffering from insomnia. She looked believably fatigued. Outside of seeming tired and depressed, there was nothing else believable about her character. I’m not really sure if I should blame the writer, the directors or Gainsbourg herself, whom I’ve liked in the past, but I suspect the blame could be divided among all of them. One necessary ingredient to make the story work was that the two leads had to have sufficient interest in one another to overcome gaps in both culture and social class. It might be understandable that a depressed, bored woman might be interested in Sy’s energetic character, but why anyone would be interested in Gainsbourg’s character is beyond me. She seems like even more of a drag than your average depressed person. (Charlotte, never go full burn out.) It’s hard to believe that she was ever an executive of any importance. Furthermore, although France might be different, you can’t just take a year off and expect to return to having the authority you did when you left, as Gainsbourg appears to do at the end of the movie. Her character barely seems capable of standing up, let alone leaning in. She wears the same black turtleneck and baggy brown overcoat seemingly everyday. When she finally returns to her work and she walks in her office and all these very Gallic looking men in business suits quickly put away their cell phones, it just looked so contrived.

It was such a let down from the opening which began with a wedding and had what appeared to be one long shot from the fancy reception, through the various levels of the kitchen until we encounter Samba working in the back as a dishwasher. While the movie’s portrayal of low-level jobs seemed to me to be, with the exception of the window washer scene, realistic, their notion of how white-collar jobs function seemed to me to be off.

It’s too bad the window washer scene didn’t seem to fit in because it was cute. Some of the funniest moments were with Tahir Rahim, who plays a Moroccan immigrant pretending to be Brazilian, so he can appear sexier. While working as a window washer in La Defense, he does a strip tease in front of a crowd of admiring office workers. I couldn’t help thinking that it was too bad that he and Sy didn’t star in a mad cap comedy about two undocumented immigrants trying to make their way in France. As it was, many of his scenes, while thoroughly entertaining, felt like they came from a different movie.

Similarly, Youngar Fall does a wonderful job as Samba’s uncle, yet those scenes feel lifted from a serious drama.

Sometimes, a movie can draw from different genres and it works. This time it didn’t. It’s not a bad movie, just an okay one. However, for Americans, it might be interesting to see because you get to see a side of French society we don’t usually bother to look at.