March, 2011

Duke Nukem jumps the shark

duke nukem

There’s long been a back and forth over whether or not violent video games lead kids to violence. But what else might children be picking up from video games? If they play Duke Nukem, they might internalize the idea that women are objects and can be smacked around if they don’t behave.

It’s been leaked that the upcoming Duke Nukem Forever game (which, admittedly, has been “upcoming” since 1997) has a multiplayer mode, and one of the activities in this mode is a game called “Capture the Babe.” As the name might suggest, it’s capture the flag where the “flag” is a woman. But it’s not enough that women be picked up and thrown around literally like a toy. If she “freaks out” (and what woman wouldn’t when a random man decides to sling you over his shoulder), the game’s solution is to have the player give her a smack.

I used to be a huge Duke Nukem fan when it first came out as a computer game where a Hulk Hogan-esque character had to shoot up all the invading aliens. Sure, it was a bit silly, but the point of the game was to defeat the invading Dr. Proton and no babes were involved. How far we’ve come from such simple times. It appears that consequent versions have gotten more and more over the top – one of the sequels for Playstation is called Duke Nukem: Land of the Babes. It’s veered away from a simple man vs. bad guys game to one that relies on sexist tropes. In fact, the goal of this game is to save women from being raped by invading aliens. It isn’t enough to pit Duke against aliens; rape as a weapon of war is co-opted as a motivator to go get the bad guy. The Mary Sue claims that the game sees itself as “over the top in every way” and “something that considers itself satire,” and this may be true (I haven’t tried it out since the days of dial up modems). But satire can still go too far.

What “Capture the Babe” and the rest of the game shows is just how pervasive the acceptance of forcing things violently upon women is in our culture. Duke Nukem is just one shoot-em-up game, but if something like this can pop up without much fanfare, it’s clear how insidious it is. The reviewer of the game that reveals this new function, Eurogamer, isn’t even phased by it. Boys playing it aren’t going to go out and start hoisting random women and smacking them into line. But if they see these things taking place and aren’t asked to interrogate whether or not it’s okay, it becomes normalized. Women are but pawns used for the entertainment of men. Their agency over their bodies is suppressed for the sake of a game.

May I suggest a level of Angry Birds instead?

Charlie Sheen: A Small Feminist Victory?

Confession: I am hooked on any and all news and stories related to Charlie Sheen. I can’t help it. As a moth is drawn to the light and then subsequently zapped to death, so am I strangely drawn to celebrity shenanigans, and Charlie Sheen’s meltdown is to me, well, the World’s Largest Lamp, which Google tells me is an actual thing. Anyways, I’ve genuinely reading tweets and updates about tiger blood and winning and warlocks and other vaguely fantastical references that could only originate from a man who is clearly so wired on cocaine and ego as to combine the imagery inspired by a 13-year-old boy’s gaming collection with an overtly zealous political candidate’s rhetoric (“My violent torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not an Option”…what?). That said, when Trisha asked me to cover Mr. Sheen for WIYL, I was a little confused. Charlie Sheen’s downward spiral is a feminist issue? Should I not be following this man’s downward spiral? Is it wrong for me to enjoy his interviews and rants? Feeling guilty and dirty about my apparent feminist sins, I did some deep, deep soul-searching (okay, I watched a few episodes of Gilmore Girls), and realized that The Sheening, Bruce Springsheen, and any other Sheen-related pun you find appropriate, is not a feminist issue. It’s a feminist victory.

That said, the pleasure I derived from Keeping Up With the Kardasheenan was actually a healthy dose of schadenfreude. Charlie Sheen is a character. He’s unintentionally hilarious. He’s also a total asshole. Sheen has allegedly threatened to kill five women, has shot at and strangled his girlfriends, and once beat a woman for not having sex with him. It’s darkly enjoyable to see a man who has abused so many women in the past now be openly mocked by the public, and to witness his breakdown and consequent firing from Two and a Half Men. What goes around, comes around, Justsheen Timberlake.

Similarly, the public reaction to Sheen’s actions- the domestic abuse, the coke binges, the bevy of porn stars for hire- has given feminists reason to celebrate. Firstly, Sheen’s history of violence against women shows this true, misogynistic colors, but his actions alone do not a feminist issue make; it is society’s reaction to these happenings that should provoke our response. In this case, while Sheen faced no legal trouble, his violent acts have been publicly decried; tiger blood references may be ubiquitous, but no one is celebrating or giving Sheen a free pass for abusing these women. Also noticeably lacking in the media coverage of Sheengate is slut-shaming. Bloggers and commentators have often remarked how male celebrities continue to find work and slip fairly quietly under the radar when they find themselves in the midst of drug abuse and generally reckless behavior, while female celebrities are collectively scolded and reprimanded; the classic example given here is Robert Downey Jr. v. Lindsay Lohan. The Last of the Mosheencans isn’t exactly how I pictured arriving gender equality, but I’ll take what I can get. Charlie Sheen’s latest escapade, the one that put him in this media mess, involved too much cocaine, and a house full of porn stars that were paid for their services. Surprisingly, there has been limited slut-shaming involved in this affair; the general reaction has been one of “I can’t believe Charlie Sheen hired a bunch of hookers, that perv, what was he thinking?” and less of “I can’t believe those porn stars had sex with Charlie Sheen for money! The nerve of those wenches!” While there has been some fascination and speculation about these women, particularly about Kacey Jordan, who claimed she was promised a Bentley in the throes of passion (which isn’t “slutty” at all, just gullible), the focus has not been on their consensual choice of occupation, but on the legally questionable pastimes of one Charlie Sheen.

Granted, these signs of progress of depiction and treatment of women, and violence against women, in the media are small victories. It’s encouraging to see that people are laughing at Charlie Sheen, not with him, as he holds a knife to his girlfriend’s neck and holds a prostitute hostage in a bathroom. To quote Mr. Sheen, we may very well be on our way to, duh, winning.

Badass-Activist Friday presents AIMEE THORNE-THOMSEN of Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice

It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire culture change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.

Feminism is an wide-ranging movement, and we at WIYL feel it’s so important to include activists working to broaden our perspectives and work in negotiating the complexity of intersectional oppressions, making the voices of marginalised groups heard. For this mini-series, we’ll be focusing on men and women who critique the gender hierarchy across all boundaries – cultures, race, age and medium.

So, without further ado…

Our first activist in this series is the admirable Aimee Thorne-Thomsen of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice and previously of The Pro-Choice Public Education Project!

ARTT photo

Aimee Thorne-Thomsen brings her passion and extensive experience in coalition-building, leadership development and communications to the reproductive justice movement. Currently
she serves as the Interim Executive Director for the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, dedicated to supporting LGBTI organizations around the world working for racial, economic and social justice. Before that, Aimée was the Executive Director of the Pro-Choice Public Education Project (PEP), where her work focused on creating spaces for and elevating the voices of young women, transgender and gender non-confirming young people in sexual and reproductive health and rights. Under her leadership, PEP completed 2 ground-breaking research reports on young women of color on sexual and reproductive health and rights. She has spoken around the country these issues, their impact on young women, and women of color.

The Pro-Choice Public Education Project is dedicated to building an inclusive reproductive justice movement by raising the voices of young women, transgender, and gender non-conforming young people – something incredibly admirable and necessary if the movement is going to have longevity in the future. Can you talk about why you think there are certain groups of women whose voices are less audible, and if the feminist movement is doing enough to ensure they are heard?

I think ultimately it’s about power and oppression. Young women, especially young women of color and LBTQ folks, are often left out of discussions, organizing and movement work because they are seen as having little-to-no power. And that is based on oppression – racism, ageism, classism, homophobia, ableism, etc. I can’t speak for the feminist movement as a whole, because I think there are multiple feminist movements. That said, I don’t think any of the feminist movements that I am aware of do enough to lift the voices of young people, especially more marginalized communities of young people.

How has technology helped with your activism? Considering the use of technology is an economic privilege, to some extent, do you think the online activism that has been lauded as being far-reaching in fact necessary marginalises certain groups, particularly of youth?

Technology in its broadest sense, has indeed broadened the reach of reproductive justice ideas, the framework and therefore, the movement as a whole. There is a certain economic privilege in accessing technology, and yet certain technology (like cell phones) are ubiquitous. A lot of research has shown that cell phones is the main way that young people, especially people of color, access the internet.

Can you talk a little more about your experiences as a woman of colour and an activist? Was there a time where you felt your issues were being overlooked by the greater majority, and how your identity and personal experiences play into your activism?

My personal life and my multiple identities are the basis of all my activism. My earliest activist experiences sprung out of my experiences with multiple oppressions, especially around class, gender and race. As I’ve grown older, I am much more aware of my own privilege. I have tried to build bridges across to other movements where I can be an ally (such as immigrants’ rights and LGBTQ liberation) and link issues across movements

Reproductive justice seems to be one of the fights that we keep having to repeat, and I feel we have to constantly assert our right to ownership over our own bodies because politicians exploit this particular women’s issue as a tool to other ends. Can you tell us your views on the recent Planned Parenthood fiasco? How do you think we can keep moving ahead with reproductive justice despite the setbacks that keep appearing?

The fight for reproductive justice is ongoing, just as the struggle for human rights is ongoing. What I mean by that, is we should not believe that we will one day win this fight, and we’ll never have to go back and reinforce the achievement of these basic rights. Despite the tremendous strides of the Civil Rights Movement in the US, we still are working through the implementation of and protection of those rights. Reproductive health, rights and justice should be seen through a similar prism. The struggle for reproductive justice is not just about bodily autonomy; it’s also about our rights to create our families of our own choosing, our ability to express our gender(s) and sexuality freely and free from violence. For me, reproductive justice is ultimately about reclaiming power and transforming that power so that all women, men and children have the access to the resources they need to lead healthy lives.

In order to advance reproductive justice, we need people who are focused on short-term fights and a long-term vision. Our political opponents are well-funded and have a long-established infrastructure. We don’t have that. What we do have is our communities. Reproductive Justice comes out of the lived experiences of our families and our communities, and it is an affirming, positive vision for the future. We need secure the funding and develop the infrastructure in order to lift up the perspectives of our communities in terms of identifying the problems and the solutions.

As for Planned Parenthood, I am not surprised by the attacks on them. This has been coming for a long time. I am pleased, however, that so many people in different spheres have come out and affirmed the need for Planned Parenthood and the work they do. I stand with Planned Parenthood and am glad that so many others do too.

The Pro-Choice Public Education Project is one of the greatest resources for reproductive justice and includes legal information – do you think this is particularly important? Why?

Because of oppression and educational access (along with other factors), many young people don’t know that they do have rights. Many women, especially immigrant women, don’t know that abortion is legal in this country, for example. It’s important that we reach out and share this information who have not traditionally had access to it.

You work with a great variety of youth and activists from all perspectives – does this make it difficult to negotiate goals? How can we best locate common target areas and foster understanding?

I’ve never thought of it that way, to be honest. Our work at PEP was to locate the voices of young women, particularly young women of color, queer youth, and gender-non-conforming in the sexual and reproductive health and rights arenas. Sometimes that meant sharing multiple points of view around an issue, such as abortion. We wanted to enlarge the conversations around reproductive justice to not only include young people, but also to acknowledge them as experts and leaders in the work as well. That didn’t always lend itself to establishing simple, clear goals. In fact, sometimes our work was to make things messier and to not sacrifice the voices of some young people to advance the voices of others.

I’ve done most of my reproductive justice work in coalition. The most successful partnerships have been those where all the people impacted by the issues were included in the conversation. When it comes to youth and young people, it’s often older adults who are talking about young people, and more often than not, problematizing and stigmatizing their behavior. A better option is to have young people at the table, setting the agenda, leading the conversation and developing solutions to the problem. In other words, we need young people involved at every stage of the reproductive justice movement in multiple roles and speaking for themselves from their own experiences.

Identifying common goals and fostering understanding requires trust.
And trust requires clear, respectful communication and some sense of a mutual vision.

How do you think we, as young activists and students can best make a difference in terms of inclusivity and reproductive justice?

I am not sure what you mean by inclusivity. I’ve been in situations where I was included and still not heard or respected. So I don’t think in terms of inclusivity. My goal is transforming power and locating young people at the center of the struggle for reproductive justice. There are many avenues for young people to engage in this fight, and I think they should find the ones that resonate most for them. Whether its creating awareness through online media, campus and community events, tools or organizing for community resources, comprehensive sex education or a piece of legislation, we need the voices and skills of young people EVERYWHERE.

Everyone can do something. Talk to your friends and family about these issues. Volunteer at an organization like Choice USA, Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum and others. Use Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and other social media platforms to educate yourself and others about the issues, AND add your perspective to the discussions so that young people’s voices are heard. Write to your representative about legislation (both good and bad). Vote. Start your own collective, network or organization. In other words, do whatever you need to do to make yourself heard!!!

When victim-blaming gets desperate

There are rare instances where a rape case gains national notoriety not for a high profile defendant, but the slanted and unscrupulous media coverage surrounding it.  Small town Cleveland, Texas has thus entered the national spotlight, thanks in part to a sloppy story by the New York Times.  The bizarrely desperate victim-blaming that’s inundated both media coverage and a community’s response to violence has helped crystallize some disturbing aspects of American rape culture.

Earlier this month, the Times reported on the small town’s reactions to a police investigation of 18 young men and teenage boys (13 adults and 5 juveniles), all of them charged with participating in a vicious gang rape of an 11 year old girl.  The very same day, online news forums and popular blogs immediately began protesting the article and its author, James C. McKinley Jr., demonstrating that the insensitive and regressive ways in which our culture talks about rape are often more revealing than any crime statistic.

In the first place, McKinley Jr. used passive voice to transfer agency from the alleged perpetrators to the child.  The men did not allegedly gang rape a little girl — “the girl had been forced to have sex with several men.”  See what he did there?  Clearly this is a tragic case of a middle-schooler getting herself raped.  Passive voice distracts readers from the act of gang rape as (1) a choice (2) made by grown men who (3) should know better.  Instead, rape is figured as a pit into which little girls will trip and fall: unfortunate but ultimately just an accident.  It’s a subtle but classic form of victim-blaming in rape case reporting, and there’s no justification for it.

Secondly, McKinley Jr. supplied ample sympathy for the alleged perpetrators through the myopic views of local rape apologists while failing to interview a single person who sympathized with the actual victim.  Nor did he confirm or deny the obvious conclusion that there is in fact something in the water that’s turned everyone in Cleveland, Texas into sadistic monsters.

Finally, in the most insidious instance of victim-blaming I’ve ever seen, McKinley details anonymous and entirely irrelevant accounts of the child’s behavior, suggesting that wearing makeup and “dressing older” than one’s age somehow explains how 18 men and boys could be “drawn into such an act,” as McKinley so underhandedly phrased it.  Frankly, the Times may as well have reported that the little girl ate a peanut butter sandwich the day those men chose to rape her for all the difference it makes.  A victim’s behavior has absolutely no bearing on a person’s decision to commit rape. The fact that one of our country’s most reputable news organization would entertain accusations against even a middle school-aged victim speaks volumes to our culture’s inability to place culpability where it really belongs.  It’s also very interesting that McKinley chose not to point out that, despite what the townspeople apparently think, the age of consent in Texas is 17 — what happened to that little girl is most definitely rape, there’s no question about it.

In response to a flood of outraged letters to the editor, a Times spokesperson released a statement arguing (predictably) that Mr. McKinley was merely reporting his findings of a community affected by a horrible crime.  But that argument doesn’t pass muster when you consider the fact that the article doesn’t provide any context for the Cleveland community’s vitriol by consulting a victim’s rights expert for an alternative view.  On a basic level, it is disturbing that any editor would publish a story documenting a town apparently populated by child rapist sympathizers without somewhere stipulating that sympathizing with child rapists is, well, really fucking immoral.

While almost 50,000 people have signed a petition demanding an apology from the New York Times, the article under question is just a drop in the bucket compared to how routinely victim-blaming is employed in popular discourse about sexual violence.  Even Florida Republican Representative Kathleen Passidomo has caught the victim-blaming bug in this case.  During a subcommittee hearing for an otherwise innocuous school dress code bill last week, Passidomo inexplicably announced,

There was an article about an 11 year old girl who was gang raped in Texas by 18 young men because she was dressed up like a 21-year-old prostitute. And her parents let her attend school like that. And I think it’s incumbent upon us to create some areas where students can be safe in school and show up in proper attire so what happened in Texas doesn’t happen to our students.

Yeah.  She went there.  This is what happens when you publish a story suggesting that a child is responsible for being gang raped, New York Times. It’s not rocket science, you assholes.

So clearly East Texas doesn’t have a corner on crazy: even state legislators think people will stop raping little girls if little girls just stop “dressing like prostitutes.”  But wait – shouldn’t that tell us something about the climate in which 18 boys and men came together in one room to gang rape a small child, a climate where not one of them said Stop This Is Obviously Really Wrong, a climate where countless classmates saw a “viral” video recording of the gang rape… but only one came forward to report it?  Instead of wasting all our time and energy policing the behaviors of potential victims, maybe we should consider the role that normalizing sexual violence plays in facilitating crimes like this in the first place.

At The Root, Kellee Terrell wrote about the divisive role of race in the victim-blaming surrounding this case.  All of the alleged rapists are black men and boys, which was evidence enough for Quanell X, leader of Houston’s New Black Panther Party, to cast doubt on the validity of the charges at a rally in Cleveland.  While it is a truly, well, discriminating anti-oppression activist who speaks out for the humanity of men and boys at the expense of a little girl, Terrell points out that the anti-racism movement has a history of rape apologism as an effort to counteract the myth of the sexually savage black man that fueled widespread lynchings.

And while, in 2011, African Americans no longer worry about public lynchings, we are consumed with fear about the prison industrial complex and an unfair American legal system. In the minds of some black folks, speaking out about rape means handing over our men to the oppressive “system.” Therefore we make a conscious (or unconscious) decision to sacrifice women’s well-being for the freedom of men.

The vitriol surrounding this rape case is a testament to our culture’s continued refusal to call systematic violence against women and girls a pervasive and preventable social problem.  Oppression is not possible without violence. When we stand up for survivors of violence and speak out against violence in all its forms, we take a step to dismantle oppression on behalf of all its victims.  When we respect each other enough to expect better from men, we remind ourselves that violence is a vestige of oppression, not a component of masculinity.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. That is the road to social change.  It starts everywhere, including your community.

Reducing Sexual Abuse in Prison: A Moral and Fiscal Crisis

prison

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker may have used a state budget shortfall as an excuse to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights, but 44 states and DC are also facing a budget crisis. While they try to pinch every penny, prison reform is showing up on the table among Republicans and Democrats alike. Right alongside the issue should be the problem of prison rape, an epidemic in our system. With so much taxpayer money spent, addressing our astronomical rates of sexual abuse and the paltry options available for victims should be part of what we pay for. Until it is, sexual assault will continue to be seen as something that “just happens” to some people.

The United States prison population stands at over 2 million people, with the highest incarceration rate in the world – 743 per 100,000 of the national population. The costs of this system are dramatic. In 2006, governments at the federal, state and local level spent an estimated $68 billion on corrections. What happens to many of the people living behind bars is perhaps even more dramatic. In the New York Review of Books, David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow expose the current state of abuse in the incarceration system (it’s definitely worth reading the whole article). Recent numbers published by the Justice Department found that more than 216,600 people were abused in 2008 – that’s almost 25 people an hour. These numbers are still likely lower than the real rates, the authors point out, because it’s hard to eliminate barriers to reporting – the shame some victims feel or the fear of relation from their attackers. Meanwhile, the numbers only count people who were abused, not the instances of abuse, which is far higher. The article notes, “Between half and two thirds of those who claim sexual abuse in adult facilities say it happened more than once; previous BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics] studies suggest that victims endure an average of three to five attacks each per year.”

And while Law & Order: SVU may make it sound like most of this abuse is at the hands of fellow inmates (and disgustingly as if jailed people “deserve” such treatment), the reality is that most victims are abused by staff. As the authors point out, these are “agents of our government, paid with our taxes, whose job it is to keep inmates safe.” There is something extremely wrong with a system that uses so many tax dollars to pay such a great number of people who sexually assault those under their supervision.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Preventing abuse is a moral issue, but it also makes monetary sense. The Justice Department has come up with a very conservative value for preventing it, assigning only $375 to preventing an adult from experiencing “abusive sexual contact” and $500 for a juvenile. But in fact, Kaiser and Stannow point out that this is only one-fifth of the generally accepted benefit of preventing rape by force. It also leaves out the costs of spending on public assistance, like welfare, disability benefits, housing vouchers, and food stamps, to sexual assault victims who are unable to reenter society and maintain employment because of their long-term trauma – something the department acknowledges happens without quantifying what this means. It also neglects to factor in the savings incurred from reducing the recidivism rate, which it in fact notes “could potentially save society and government tens of millions of dollars per year by avoiding the economic and human costs of crime, the cost of investigating a prosecuting crimes, and the considerable cost of incarceration itself.” Reducing the rate of abuse in prison is likely to reduce the recidivism rate at the same time.

While a draft of standards to reduce abuse to be reviewed and implemented by Attorney General Eric Holder aims to reduce it by 3%, Kaiser and Stannow point out that this is a meager goal and one that could easily be ratcheted up. They suggest targeting the average rate of abuse in the top half of facilities that have already begun attempts at addressing rape – this would “give us an estimate of possible gains that was both realistic and conservative, based on what has already been accomplished across the country,” and far more could be done with explicitly stated standards. Meanwhile, achieving better rates doesn’t have to break the bank. They note:

The department could do much more than it is now proposing while remaining fiscally responsible. Many of its proposals can be improved at minimal cost. Other necessary measures will carry a significant price, but we do not believe they will be nearly as expensive as the department has estimated.

As we look to address our overcrowded prison system, it’s clear that much can be done to improve costs, sentencing, and other practices. With this must come a consideration of how we can keep a population literally trapped in its situation from being tormented by exposure to abuse. Letting our government – and the general population – turn a blind eye to the crisis of sexual assault on prisoners only serves to normalize rape in our society and enhance the idea that anyone could “deserve it.” Prisoners don’t deserve to be raped and anything that can be done to stop it from happening must be put into action. And it doesn’t just make moral sense; it also makes fiscal sense. The time for action is now.

Badass-Activist Friday presents: HEATHER CORINNA, of Scarleteen, and all-around Goddess

It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire culture change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.

So without further ado…

Here’s Heather Corinna, all around Goddess and Founder and Executive Director of Scarleteen.

hcorinna

Heather Corinna is my personal heroine! She is a queer, feminist activist, writer, photographer, artist, educator and Internet publisher and community organizer. She has been considered a pioneer of both women’s and young adult sexuality online, having brought inclusive, informative, feminist, original, creative and radical sexuality content to the web since 1997. She is the author of S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College. Currently, she directs CONNECT, a local sex-ed outreach program around Seattle that primarily serves homeless and transient youth. She is also also currently a board member for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, on the editorial board of the American Journal of Sexuality Education and is a contributing writer and editor for the forthcoming edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves.


Scarleteen
is one of the most informative and accessible resources about sex and sexuality and covers a broad range of topics without being condescending – can you tell us a bit about how it got started?

Thanks! The short version of the long story is that it got started when I was running a different website about adult women’s sexuality, and young people started emailing me their questions. I looked for somewhere to refer them to online, but there really wasn’t anything (this was in 1998), so given that I had a background in youth education anyway (I was a classroom teacher at the time), and wanted them to be able to get their questions answered, I just went ahead and started answering them, first building a very small version of the site with some of those questions and answers.

…which brought more questions, and more answers, so it kept just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Big enough that within a few years, I needed to make it my full-time job and let other projects go. While it’s not something I ever actively sought out to do full-time, I’m glad it worked out that way. It’s been a great way for all my skills and talents and the things I care most about to work together in a way that works well for me and also benefits millions of people every year, which is seriously awesome. When I left classroom teaching to work in sexuality, I thought I had to choose between them, and as it turns out, I wound up getting to do both.

How has technology helped with your activism? Are there any downsides?

“Above all else, it’s provided me a very effective, efficient and affordable venue to do what I do internationally and much more accessibly than other media, like print publishing. With sexuality work in particular, online technology affords people an anonymity that is exceptionally helpful: concerns about privacy are one of the biggest barriers for people when it comes to seeking help with sexuality and talking about sexual concerns and issues.”

There are some downsides. For instance, online and related tech is certainly very accessible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s accessible to everyone. For instance, I do some work with street youth here in Seattle and unless they’re in a shelter which allows them online access, those youth don’t have access to the net. Often the people who have no access to the net or the least access are those who also have the least agency and resources when it comes to their sex lives and sexual health, so the folks who probably need the most help of anyone are the people that, working this way, I often cannot provide help for. As well, while many people feel more comfortable talking about sexuality without being face-to-face, there are times when it’s clear someone really could use in-person support, or even just to have their hand held, get a hug, or have someone there to bring them a tissue when they’re upset.

You’re very open about your personal experiences and how they’ve affected your life and feminism – how does this play into your work at Scarleteen/ your activism?

“In a lot of ways, though often not the ways people expect. I didn’t have a terrible sex life in my teens and twenties. I didn’t have horrible outcomes in being sexually active, in being queer, even in being somewhat off the bell curve sexually when it came to where most of my peers were at, but mostly very positive outcomes. On the whole I had really wonderful experiences with my sexuality and with sexual partnership and exploration that helped me get through some of what, for me, was far more challenging and difficult in my life. I stayed very healthy and usually very happy. I had a good time, which sometimes meant a silly-party good time, but other times meant a good time that was very rich and deep. I usually felt great about my sexual self, and in a whole lot of ways, sexuality was a big place of liberation and healing for me.

It’s certainly not the only way to feel liberated or the only place to find healing like that. But sex and sexuality have that capacity, and having it be something that is about liberation and feeling whole rather than something painful, scary, limiting or fragmenting, something that makes you sick or totally derails your life isn’t rocket science. When you have some basics of healthy sexuality down, when you have access to good care and information, and when you’re given venues of support and encouragement in taking care of yourself and others well, and in aiming to be who you uniquely are in sexuality, as in anything else, it’s just not that hard for it to be something wonderful, whether someone chooses to be sexual with others or chooses not to. Of course, so many people — so many people — don’t have those things, aren’t afforded them or are purposefully kept from them.

The biggest influence from my own personal life in this work isn’t about trying to make things different for young people than they were for me, which is what I more often hear colleagues working with young people express, but to try and give them what will usually make it more likely for them to have positive experiences like I did.

At the same time, not everyone around me in my life was so lucky, and some areas of my own life around sexuality, my body and relationships — most certainly having been assaulted and abused — were not positive, and I didn’t get what I needed at all. I didn’t even have, nor was I given, language for what happened to me when I was first assaulted. I didn’t have anyone to talk to or any help in taking care of myself. Some of the time, my own instincts did a good job, while other times, they really really didn’t. So, there are certainly some ways in which my aim is to try and provide what I didn’t have and needed.

Were there times when you felt useless/ unable to help and how did you deal with that frustration?

There still are those times. Sometimes I have them a couple times a week, sometimes I have them a few times in a day. But what I try and do is remind myself that my desire and intention to help, all by itself, makes me anything but useless. The fact that I want to help, all by itself, also always makes me able to help, even at times when I can’t help as much as I’d like or the ways that I think would be more ideal.

So often, when people want help what they want most of all in that is support. We can’t always help someone get out of an abusive relationship, get an abortion when they want one, or even make choices we’re very sure would be better for them, even if we walk them through step-by-step and talk to them every day for years. But what we can always do is to simply be there for them to listen, to share supportive, kind words and do whatever it is that we can, to the best of our ability. And I have to believe that doing whatever my very best is is always enough, because it’s all I’ve ever got and it’d be impossible for me to keep doing what I do every day, every year, if I didn’t believe that.

What do you think is the most difficult thing nowadays in terms of moving ahead with the fight for consent and realistic sexual education?

How incredibly institutionalized nonconsent and sexual ignorance are. Because even when we can change the messaging in one area, there are always more other people and places folks are going to get unhealthy, inaccurate or just plain limited messaging. It’s very hard sometimes to have to recognize that if and when you’re the one voice that’s making things clear like that real consent and real sexual empowerment is possible, you have to know that very often, you’re the minority voice and it’s always challenging and even tiring to try and make what you’re saying weigh more than what someone is hearing at school, from their government, from their church, from their friends, from partners, from parents, on television, in magazines.

At the same time, our minority voice in this has become less of a minority even in just the 13 years I’ve been working in sexuality now, which is a very small period of time. Positive messaging is certainly way more pervasive than it was 30 years ago. The conversation has clearly changed and grown. This kind of change, with such big stuff, is always going to be slow, is always going to be difficult, but it’s also clearly been something that has been improving over time. Sure, there have been some backsteps and backlash, some times we seemed to move forward then move a little back again, but on the whole I think it’s accurate to say that there has been, and there remains, some constant forward momentum and ever-increasing positive change.

Why do you think American media is so obssessed with “hook-up culture”. Do you think this exists currently, or do you think this existed before and has changed over the years?

I know this existed before: I’ve watched it happen now, I watched it ten years ago, I watched it 25 years ago when I was a teenager myself and my parents dealt with it, too. “Hookup culture” is the current term and manifestation of a fixation on sex outside of certain culturally or religiously sanctioned contexts that’s nothing close to exclusive to the current time.

Why? It’s complex and not everyone focused on it always has the same reasons. For some people, it’s about not thinking sex outside marriage is okay. For others, it’s about thinking sex that doesn’t have a clear exchange value — as in, sex is earned or paid for with marriage, with some other kind of commitment, what have you — isn’t okay. For others still, they clearly feel threatened by people feeling freer in sex than they do or have, or than they think anyone should feel. others still are concerned about the way they see or perceive people going about casual sex in terms of health or emotional outcomes. Since “hooking up” — whether you call it that or call it any of the other things it’s been called over the years — is not exclusive to young people, but often more visible and prevalent with young people, some of the reaction to it is a reaction with young sexuality, period. Let’s also be frank, when we’re talking about media, rather than individuals, it’s a very easy way to get people to read or view something, because it’s salacious and provocative. It’s an easy cheat: even if someone is saying something very trite, redundant or totally unoriginal about it, people will tend to look anyway.

Those are just some of the many why’s: there are more, and sometimes it’s a combination of more than one reason. But one of the biggest common denominators is one we see as pervasive in address and attitudes about sexuality, period, which is that sexuality is this big, scary thing, bigger than us, and something that needs to be controlled — not just personally, but externally and institutionally — lest it control us. That’s obviously an issue that as people, we’ve all been trying to work out for thousands of years and are still trying to work out.

How do you think we, as young activists and students can best make a difference?

Value your own voices and experiences where they are right now and get them out there, ideally to a larger audience that just the people who you’re working with. I often hear young people who feel that there’s no point in them speaking up and out because older people won’t care or some peers won’t care. However, even for those who won’t care — and whose adultism is their problem and bias — plenty do care, and more to the point, your peers do care and they need to see and hear you to help them feel and be more empowered.

Everyone also needs all of you to speak to where you have been and where you are, rather than trying to speak from a place that isn’t yours, or is a place you’re not at yet, but think you need to be at to have authority or earn respect. Not only do you not need to be anywhere but where you are, giving your own experiences and the you-of-right-now the weight they deserve, and YOU giving them authority is incredibly powerful. Not just for you, but for other people who, by virtue of age, gender, of having been victimized, who are of color, who are in any way oppressed and silenced by someone else. Doing that models that authenticity is more powerful than conformity and that oppression is something we have the capacity to change, even when we’re the ones oppressed, and we do that not by making ourselves people we aren’t and more like those who are oppressing us, but by refusing to be anything other than ourselves.

South Africa Government Hears Out LGBT Activists On Corrective Rape

There is perhaps no phenomena so inexplicable as “corrective rape.”

A common practice in South Africa, corrective rape is an act of violence where lesbians are raped in order to “fix” them, because, you know, if we haven’t met the right dude yet, maybe it’s jut because the right one hasn’t raped us! (Same-sex marriage in South Africa has been legal since 2006, proving once again that marriage equality is unfortunately not synonymous with equal rights.) The practice was called out by human rights groups in 2009:

A report by the international NGO ActionAid, backed by the South African Human Rights Commission, said the horrific crimes against lesbians were going unrecognised by the state and unpunished by the legal system.

The report called for South Africa’s criminal justice system to recognise the rapes as hate crimes in an attempt to force police to take action over the rising tide of violence.

The ferocity of the attack became clear in April last year when Eudy Simelane, former star of South Africa’s national female football squad, became one of the victims. Miss Simelane, and equality rights campaigner and one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian, was gang-raped and brutally beaten before being stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs.

But scores more women have been deliberately targeted for rape, the Guardian reports.

Now, as charming as that sounds, it is clearly time to wave goodbye to that trend. Gay and lesbian activists have been lobbying in South Africa for corrective rape to be labeled a hate crime agree. They have been tireless in their efforts to not only spark conversation on the tragic practice of corrective rape, but to hear their government speak out against it with them.

In Cape Town, government officials have finally met with a group of those activists. This marks the first time the government has acknowledged the discussions surrounding corrective rape in the region.

The activists gathered outside of Parliament to spotlight the practice, and call out the perpetrators for targeting lesbian women based on their sexual orientation. Members of the group met with the Justice and Constitutional Development Minister (sounds fancy, right?) Jeff Radebe today – and they were ready. The activists’ demands were clear: for Radebe’s department to research, develop, and implement an action plan for the nation to tackle hate crimes and even other acts of homophobic violence.

Activists had circulated a petition calling him to take action; it was signed by over 170,000 people from 163 countries within 100 days. (The petition was one of the most popular / successful on change.org of all time.)

There’s no word yet on the outcome of the meeting; it may be too much to hope that all activists’ demands were met. But it’s not too much to hope that with the government finally meeting with LGBT activists, the road may be paved for further efforts to stop corrective rape and diminish its commonality.

This article was initially posted on Autostraddle and republished with the permission of the author.

“Glee:” The Most Confusing Show on Television

Praising Glee doesn’t come naturally to me, at least not anymore. Attaining cultural juggernaut status after its first nine darkly comedic episodes was the worst thing that could happen to Glee quality-wise, and it’s been an unfortunate mess of morals and misplaced “edginess” ever since. The worst thing about current Glee, though, is the fact that there are still some brilliant moments hidden amongst all the chaos…and they usually air right after I’ve said something along the lines of, “NEVER AGAIN!! ME AND GLEE ARE FINISHED!!!” Go figure.

But my love-hate relationship with Glee has never been tested more than with last week’s episode, “Sexy.” When I heard Gwyneth Paltrow’s Hip to Your Jive Holly Holliday would be back as a sex ed teacher to educate the glee club, I assumed the worst—and for the most part, I got it. There were a few well-played jokes about the horrific state of sex education in the U.S. today (the reactions to Brittany seeing a stork outside her window and assuming she was pregnant were priceless), but the actual “education” presented in the episode was…problematic.

Sexalicious Tumbleweed Holly and Pristine Virgin Guidance Counselor Emma spent the episode pitted against each other Black Swan style, each pushing forward their respective sex education agendas while managing to teach nothing at all. While Holly gave out condoms and writhed on chairs to the tune of Joan Jett, the writers decided that Emma needed to backslide into her first season intimacy issues. What’s more, the episode ends as Emma’s marriage does. In other words: what a frigid prude, ammirite?!

Any effectiveness Emma’s fear of sex and subsequent pressuring her students to abstain might have had was undermined by the fact that Glee decided instead to make her look completely foolish. Holly may have been onto something with her, “expecting teenagers not to have sex is unrealistic” stance, but the fumbled handling of Emma’s storyline was enough to muddle the overall message. By the episode’s end with all the glee kids sitting in Celibacy Club, I actually had no idea what the episode was trying to tell me about sex education. That it happens, unless it doesn’t? Who even knows.

BUT: the other half of “Sexy” was handled beautifully. Kurt’s dad gave his son a sex talk that was both compassionate and realistic, ending with this:

“Kurt, when you’re ready, I want you to be able to … do everything. But when you’re ready, I want you to use it as a way to connect to another person. Don’t throw yourself around like you don’t matter. ‘Cause you matter, Kurt.”

The inclusion of “I want you to be able to do everything” made this speech not one about discounting Kurt engaging in more casual hookups, but one about him assessing himself and what he wants. It was also refreshing to have a sex talk specifically about safe gay sex, which is usually only vaguely addressed. Sex talks on TV also tend to be depressingly black and white, so this kind of nuanced discussion was a pleasant surprise.

But the hands-down winner of “Sexy” was one Ms. Santana Lopez. Santana and her best friend Brittany’s physically intimate relationship has been played for laughs since day one. “They’re not attracted to each other,” the show seemed to be saying, “they’re just promiscuous.”  And that was true: Brittany and Santana were the male characters’ go-to hookups, and both girls seemed to readily accept these roles.

But something funny happened along the way: it became clear that Brittany and Santana’s friendship is perhaps the strongest, deepest one there is on Glee. I didn’t have high hopes for the show itself realizing this, since its creator Ryan Murphy told a reporter asking about the Brittany/Santana relationship that Glee wasn’t “that kind of show.” What kind of show was it, I thought, that Kurt’s storyline could be so prominent while a potential queer women storyline languished in the background? Disappointed, I moved on.

Enter Santana Lopez in “Sexy”. While Holly and Emma faced off as two-dimensional female tropes of sexuality, Santana came to the stunning realization that she was in love with her female best friend, and she tackled it head on. She absorbed it, she steeled herself, she went up to Brittany and she laid it all on the line:

What I’ve realized is why I’m such a bitch all the time—I’m a bitch because I’m angry. I’m angry because I have all of these feelings, feelings for you, that I’m afraid of dealing with…because I’m afraid of dealing with the consequences….I want to be with you. But I’m afraid of the talks, and the looks….I’m so afraid of what everyone will say behind my back. Still, I have to accept that I love you. I love you, and I don’t want Sam or Finn or any of those guys. I just want you. Please say you love me back.”

Never in a million years did I think Glee would give this storyline this kind of gravity. I had accepted that Glee would continue to champion its gay boy storylines while its clearly queer women languished in Gimmickland, but wow, did this episode change things. I was especially surprised when Santana responded to Rachel applauding her and Brittany’s “sapphic” relationship by insisting on not having her sexuality labeled; there just aren’t that many TV characters who insist that they are neither gay nor straight, but just who they are. To have queerness addressed in a serious way on a show as high-profile as Glee is a huge deal.

So where does Glee stand? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. Every week brings such a mixed bag of insightful and disappointing that predicting how the show will treat a storyline is to pretty much throw caution to the winds. I can only hope that Glee will remember its more effective, three-dimensional moments, and strive to repeat those rather than the shallow female stereotypes that almost made me quit.

(For a fantastic discussion of Santana and her queerness, check out Autostraddle’s recap of “Sexy” here.)

Badass-Activist Friday presents: DR LOGAN LEVKOFF, Sexologist, Relationship Expert, Author

It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire culture change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.

One quick note – if you haven’t checked out Nancy’s new film xoxosms, about digital intimacy and Love 2.0  – you should! Pledge support now!

So without further ado…

Here’s brainy and beautiful Dr. Logan Levkoff, sexuality educator, Sexologist, and author, committed to a future of sex-positive education and healthy relationships.

Dr. Levkoff encourages honest conversation about sexuality and the role it plays in American culture. She makes it clear that sex and sexuality are not “dirty” words; she works to create an environment where people feel comfortable asking (and getting answers to) their most personal questions. Dr Levkoff empowers children, adolescents, and adults to embrace their sexuality and challenge the impractical, and often unhealthy, messages that they are exposed to.

Dr. Levkoff is the author of Third Base Ain’t What it Used to Be: What Your Kids are Learning About Sex Today and How to Teach Them to Become Sexually Healthy Adults (NAL/Penguin, October 2007), which helps parents to understand the role sexuality plays in their children’s lives and empowers parents to become better at-home sexuality educators.

How did you first get involved in sex-education? Did it begin in college, or high school, and how did your personal experiences play into your decision?

I started as a peer hiv and AIDS educator in the 10th grade. My parents enrolled me in our town’s first program. So, technically, my foray into sex education wasn’t of my own doing, but it couldn’t have been a better fit for me. As a fifteen year old who hadsn’t had sex of any kind, it was easy for me to talk about sex and sexuality. When I finally did have “sex” for the first time, I was surprised that it was even easier for me to talk about sex. Instead of feeling insecure about my own decisions, I embraced them. By the time I got to college, though, I found myself and my girlfriends (smart, sophisticated women) making stupid decisions about sex. And I don’t mean not having safer sex. We were all using physical protection, but we weren’t emotionally protected. We were in these one-sided relationships where we weren’t getting pleasure, reciprocation and sex felt like a chore – a means of avoiding an argument rather than an act between mutually respectful partners. It was that fine line between emotional abuse and having a generally shitty partner. It was the that I knew I had a mission. I wanted to help women find their voice – to speak up for their emotional and physical pleasure and protection.

You’ve done a lot of work in accessible media, particularly television. That’s interesting to me considering the consistently poor representations of teen sexuality and fear-mongering about sex – is this part of your strategy to get a sex-positive message out? Can you talk a little bit more about how media is especially important to your work?

There is no question that media messages about sex and sexuality are often inaccurate, biased, or exploitative. But I have found that in my own small way, I try to make a difference in that medium. Yes, media is essential to my work. I am privileged to get the opportunity to be on television so I am committed to getting a sex-positive and sexually healthy message across no matter where I am appearing (and yes, I will play in the lion’s den – I love debating on Fox News. It is a thrill and a pleasure, albeit totally frustrating.) But the media is important for me because it allows me to educate far beyond my classroom. I chose this profession so that I could speak out for issues and people that don’t always have a voice. And because I have a certain set of credentials and I look a certain way (and you can’t see my tattoos on television), I get an opportunity to be in public eye. I’m not saying that it’s right, it’s pretty damn pathetic, but I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge it. That being said, I will always use that privilege to do what’s right. And I will always take one for the team.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about young people and sex? Do you thing the sex panic of the older generation is legitimate? What do you think it stems from?

The biggest? Young people aren’t entitled to sex. Exploring your sexuality (regardless of whether or not you engage in any sex behaviors) is an essential part of adolescence. It’s as if adults have forgotten what that time was line. Sure, sex comes with responsibilities. But if you give teens the tools to make good decisions, they will use those tools.

Do you think there’s a connection between ‘hook-up’ culture and teen domestic/dating violence? How can this be remedied in a sex-positive way?

In my opinion, the sexual double standard and parent’s perpetuation of it (ie. suggesting that boys are only after one thing, omitting girl’s desire from the discussion, encouraging male experimentation but being overprotective of girls, suggesting to boys – again by omission- that they can’t be emotionally connected to someone else) creates an environment where girls believe that someone else “makes” them sexual – that they aren’t innately sexual. From there, it is easy to understand why there are so many unhealthy relationships. Girls are rarely taught to proudly own their decisions about sex, to speak up, or to have a voice regarding their sexuality. (They’ve never been told they even have a sexuality). If we don’t speak up, we don’t get the pleasure or protection we need and we certainly don’t get equality, respect and reciprocation in our relationships.

What are your hopes for Obama’s administration regarding attitudes towards sex-education? Where do you think it will go and what do you think are potential problems?

I am fearful still for the future of sex education. The house’s unconscionable vote to defund planned parenthood is a perfect example of how women’s health, sexuality and respect for all persons is not a priority for our government.

There’s been a lot of talk on our blog about sex-positivity being a mere ‘fantasy’ because of the intersections of sexuality with other oppressions such as race, motherhood etc, and the fact that sex seems so imbued in sexist views of male dominance and female submission. Can you talk a little bit about how you feel sex-positive activism is working, where it’s going and how effective it is?

Sex positivity isn’t a fantasy. For those of us who perpetuate it, it is very very real. That doesn’t mean that it is challenge-free, but nothing worth fighting for is. But we need to keep raising awareness, educating, challenging unequal message, and hopefully our youth will then feel empowered to challenge the beliefs of the generations before them. Look, I’m realistic. The battle isnt’ going to end any time soon. But while I’m here, I’m committed to fighting it.

A Letter: looking back on booties, International Women’s Day, reminders

Dear DC Twitter Community,

I couldn’t help but notice that you have managed to make #bootyappreciationday a trending topic (link: http://twitter.com/#search?q=%23bootyappreciationday). This is fine- booties are nice, I guess- but while you are reveling in the beauty of the female anatomy, I would like to bring to your attention another holiday occurring today: International Women’s Day.

Now, I know that your heart is in the right place; you mean no harm by celebrating asses around the world, and at the end of the day, I’d rather have my butt appreciated than not appreciated. I am also very much aware of the fact that support from Twitter users does not an official holiday make, and that perhaps I am being petty, and am not choosing my battles as wisely as I could or should. As lilliputian of an issue as a trending topic may be, it is one that reflects cultural attitudes and instantly reveals the collective thinking of a group.

You see, it’s been a rough couple of months for women, specifically in the United States. These past few months have seen the mishandled sexual assault case and subsequent suicide of Lizzy Seeberg , the atrocious attempts of Congress to redefine rape, and the approval by the House of a bill that would eliminate all federal finding for Planned Parenthood. The message we are receiving time and time again is that our bodies are not our own; there is a blatant lack of respect for women and our control over our own physicality and sexuality.

However trivial it may be, one cannot deny the sting disappointment when people ignore International Women’s Day for Booty Appreciation Day; this emphasis of women’s bodies over their thoughts, intellect, and opinions is exactly the sort of mentality against which we have been fighting. It feels like a digital catcall.

International Women’s Day serves to celebrate the strength, ambition, and worth of women around the world, not their bodies. Twitter can be nothing more than a social networking outlet, but it can also be used to fuel activism, as we have seen with the #DearJohn campaign. Why not celebrate #consentappreciationday, or #reproductiverightsappreciationday, or smartambitiousfemaleappreciationday? Okay, that one is a little long, but you get the gist. The point is, if you respect women, you appreciate the whole woman, not just the curves behind her.

Sincerely,

@sarahhaack

All Posts from March, 2011