I’m a naturally critical person. Present me with any argument, any man-made object, any work of art and one of my first instincts is to poke at it trying to find the weaknesses. Generally, being critical of a point someone makes, or part of their argument, does not imply that I disagree with everything, or even most. However, publicly, meaning on this blog since that’s my only real public forum, there are people of whom I tend to not be critical because I want to avoid potentially undermining people with whom I more or less agree. The most prominent of these groups, or at least the ones that make me bite my tongue most often, are atheists and feminists. So, with that elaborate introduction, please consider that what follows is in no way intended to be interpreted as invalidating what Jinan Younis has to say.
It’s not a coincidence that “sex” is the first word in my tag line. The sexual revolution may have happened decades ago, but there are times when it feels that sexual liberation for women is still in its infancy. One of the reasons I started this blog was to talk about sex. I have had acquaintances refer to me as a “sex-positive feminist” and in the near future I will talk about why I don’t embrace that term, but for the moment I would just like to point out that I frequently express view that causes people to put me in that category. I’ve started writing down my memories partly because I feel that I can’t speak for anyone else and, also, because concepts of sex and sexuality are so laden with stereotypes the only way to combat those stereotypes is to be highly specific, sometimes graphically so.
In “What happened when I started a feminist society at school,” Younis, recounting her reasons, says:
…I started to notice how much the girls at my school suffer because of the pressures associated with our gender. Many of the girls have eating disorders, some have had peers heavily pressure them into sexual acts, others suffer in emotionally abusive relationships where they are constantly told they are worthless.
However, she does not name denying oneself sexual pleasure as something which causes girls to suffer. Feminism’s message, that I could enjoy sex, that I didn’t have to say, “No,” when I wanted to say, “Yes,” was an integral part of its appeal for me. Admittedly, the list of how a male dominated society can harm women could be a long list and some things in a one sentence explanation will be omitted. Still, in a series of photographs of women holding a whiteboard reading, “I need feminism because…,” several of the pictures reinforce gender stereotypes regarding sexuality and, disappointingly, not one counters them.
“Groping is not okay.”
“A woman should have the power and confidence to say, ‘No.'”
“I refuse to live in a world where my ‘holes’ are considered as ‘goals.'”
Ironically, this week’s installment of my memories is tentatively entitled “Groping in the Dark.” Of course, the groping in my story was entirely consensual, and done with a boy my own age, I might add, while the groping mentioned on the sign is, I presume, non-consensual. Once, around the age of twenty-six, while crossing the street wearing an outfit k.d. lang could comfortably borrow, three men passed me in the cross walk. One grabbed me from behind, slipping his arms under my armpits, effectively rendering my arms useless and involuntarily arching my back. Another grabbed my breasts with both hands and squeezed rapidly several times. Then they let me go, they giggled stupidly and ran off. That episode stands out as one of the weirdest because it happened in broad daylight, crossing a busy intersection, with a sizable crowd watching, most of whom seemed as surprised as I was. There have been enough other episodes of this nature in my life, that I understand them to not be a isolated incidents, but a pattern of behavior which, over time, has the result of making women feel insecure. Depending on the locale where you live, this is not “groping.” It is sexual assault, albeit of a comparatively mild kind. I suppose “Non-consensual sexual contact, no matter how brief, should be recognized as being illegal and, despite the probable difficulty in prosecuting any given incident, immoral and anti-social” wouldn’t fit on the whiteboard.
Now you may, very reasonably argue that sexual assault is a more important, and more urgent, issue than feeling good about one’s sexual desire. However, I need to disagree because I see cultural attitudes as a network of connected memes, bits of received wisdom and assumptions. The dominant narrative, if I may use a phrase that makes me cringe, is: “Men want sex while women want relationships. Men have a high sex drive and value women primarily for their looks; women have a low sex drive and value men for their ability as providers. It’s acceptable for men to do whatever it takes to have sex and avoid relationships. Women will do whatever it takes to have a relationship and avoid sex.” Feminists would like men to understand that “No means no.” However, that can only be the case if one presumes that women will say, “yes,” when they mean yes.
Similarly, the woman who talks about “holes” and “goals” probably doesn’t expect, or even want to, live in a world where no men want put their penises in women’s mouths, vaginas or anuses. We understand the message on her whiteboard, or think we do, only because we bring to it a necessary set of assumptions about sexual behavior, assumptions that men seek sex while women deny it, therefore, when heterosexual intercourse occurs, the man has won, and in many circumstances the woman is viewed as having lost, especially if a relationship does not result.
The whiteboard that makes me the most sad, however, is the one that says, “I need feminism because my boyfriend thinks women are inferior.” If you are in an abusive relationship, I am probably not the friend you want, but I am the friend you need. This young woman needs a friend to tell her exactly how awful this is in no uncertain terms, probably impolite ones.
Thinking about some of the emotions and psychology that might lie behind that terribly sad sign brings me to some of the difficulties the young women are having on social media. As I found myself saying to Holly a few days ago, women are taught that their bodies have value and their affections do not. Boys are taught the opposite. As long as everyone agrees on these complementary facts, men and boys will continue to believe, as a general rule, that they have the upper hand in social media. They believe that their approbation, or lack thereof, is important. Like the existence of Tinkerbell, it’s only true as long as everyone believes in it. Speaking to the young women in question: If you think your affections, your esteem, your friendship and your company are of value, then you need to withdraw them from people who are undeserving of it. I could say the same thing to young boys as well. If you have value, then your friendship has value and you should not be friends, even Facebook friends, with people who undermine your well-being. We all know, because we’re taught by overly paranoid adults, about self-destructive behaviors regarding drinking, promiscuous sex and drugs. Befriending people who treat you poorly is also self-destructive, probably a more common form of self-destructive behavior than any of the more obvious “vices.” Nota bene: If you have confidence in yourself, other people will seek your approval. It took me a bit of being beaten up and ostracized in school to learn that one. If I can pass that on to anyone without them having to suffer the blows, I’d like to.
As someone who has called herself a feminist since the age of thirteen or fourteen, I’m gladdened to see that Younis has started a feminist group at school. I know that there’s nothing as tiring as an older person saying, “Been there; done that.” However, if I can give you a bit of hard-won advice, hold your head up! Yes, sometimes it can be hard to weather the storm, but it will pass. If you give in, the bullies will taste blood and the response will be worse the next time.
Younis wrote the article not because of the harassment online, but because of the fact that the response of her school was to suggest that the students should take down the offending photos. The rationale? For their own protection. I won’t sugar coat the situation. Standing out will draw hostile responses. However, so will standing out in any way, by being too pretty, or too ugly. Too smart or too talented. Too successful. Too feminine. Too masculine. I hardly think your school would like all of you to try for perfectly robotic averageness. Well, I originally came across the article via Shattersnipe, who handles that part better than I can.