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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.

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

Girl-on-girl Crime.

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I’ll admit that I live in a bit of a feminist bubble. Many of my close friends are self-identified, active feminists; I kill an absurd amount of time reading feminist blogs; I’ve interned and volunteered for organizations focused on women’s issues. Although it is a bit of a myopic perspective, I’ve come to see most issues as feminist vs. virulent misogynists; Gloria Steinem cited at press conference in November 2009 that “more women self-identify as feminist than Republican,” but I’ve encountered a shocking number of sexist females in the past few months abroad.

The worst part about this particular brand of sexism is that it isn’t sexism in the strictest and most dangerous sense of the word, but more of a self-defeating attitude and acceptance of rigid gender roles. I’ve heard comments ranging from “The skiers were really good, even the women” to “He should get the last piece, he’s a boy.” The most common anti-female attitudes from females, however, are about acceptable careers for men and women. My Belgian friend told me over coffee and quiche one day (Sweden is delicious) that she felt torn between male and female aspirations. “How so?” She responded that she loved “women things,” like cooking, cleaning, decorating, and, one day, raising a family, but was “like a man” in that she went to business school, studied hard every day in the library, and aspired to be a bigwig at a financial corporation one day. Her ambition was commendable, but did it have to be framed as a “man thing?” Can’t it just be a thing?

Her thoughts, however, are more likely to reflect a reaction to stereotypes than sexism; a bit of the response could have been lost in translation as well. More antagonistic to the aims of feminism is the “one of the boys” mentality. Being told that you’re “like a guy” is often used as a compliment, one that many women strive to receive. If masculinity is praised, where does that leave femininity? An article on Jezebel, “Dudeliness is Next to Godliness,” put it perfectly:

The disturbing implication of considering logic, being fun, and having a sense of humor to be in the realm of dude-dom is that what’s left for ladies is the dreary opposite. If men are logical, then women must be illogical. If men are carefree and exciting, then women must be boring. If men are hilarious, then women must be perennial wet blankets who hate laughing and fun. If having masculine qualities is a positive, then is possessing feminine qualities a negative, and is anyone who is acting wack therefore performing ladyhood? To make matters worse, I know more than one woman who wears her “I’m not like those other girls; I’m just like one of the guys!” badge with pride, who agrees with the public consensus that girls are just terrible and they’re ideal. They’re special and superior, like a man. They use the “I’m a dude” excuse to exempt themselves from any number of standards to which women are subjected- they use their guy-ness to avoid being slut-shamed, to explain why they aren’t overdramatic or overemotional.

While saying that one is following a “male” career path did create a gender dichotomy, it did so without claiming that one aspect is “good” while the other is “bad.” The pedestal upon which male qualities are placed as girls declare proudly that they “hate girls” and can hang with the bros, places a normative quality to the issue. Besides, what does it mean to be “one of the guys?” As Morning Gloria states in her article, “There are subsets of every population that are insufferable. Women aren’t insufferable as a population and neither are men; people are across-the-board flawed and collectively a pain in the ass. Bitches aren’t crazy; human beings are crazy.

This insidious, underlying yet ubiquitous female sexism raises several important obstacles in the struggle of shaking misogyny from society. First and foremost, there needs to be greater solidarity among women if we ever hope to make progress. If women themselves shirk away from feminism, vehemently declaring that they believe in equal rights, but that they aren’t- gasp!-feminists, how do we stand a chance in convincing more antagonistic groups that misogyny exists in today’s culture, and that it needs to be eradicated? As Tina Fey quips in Mean Girls, “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.” Claiming to “hate girls” and striving for masculinity only validates harmful attitudes towards women, particularly in the fight for issues of consent.

Secondly, this form of sexism creates a paradox in which women are held to certain gender roles- the aforementioned cooking, homemaking, etc.- while they are simultaneously expected to pursue a certain level of masculinity, to be “one of the guys.” Worst of all, this ideal is often perpetuated by women themselves. Invoking the genius of Tina Fey once again, the situation reminds of me the 30 Rock episode “Sandwich Day,” in which Liz Lemon, chasing her ex-boyfriend through an airport in hopes of emotional closure and perhaps romantic reconnection, is stopped at security, and can only pass if she throws away her sandwich, a sandwich she has been waiting all day, and year, to enjoy. She frantically shoves the sandwich into her mouth, explaining whilst maniacally chewing that, “I can do it! I can have it all!” When forced to choose between traditional feminine and masculine goals, the boyfriend and the sandwich, a symbol for her career and personal fulfillment, she opts for both. How many times have we found ourselves at this hypothetical airport? I know I have scarfed down the proverbial sandwich many times. But can we have it all? Can we follow dreams that have traditionally been reserved for men while retaining our femininity, whatever that means to us personally? Can we shatter the glass ceiling with a pair of stilettos? I think so. It will just take a bit of solidarity.

Keep Speaking Up! (A Note On Reclaiming Public Space)

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I’m currently studying abroad in Sweden, and I had planned on returning to WIYL with a lengthy analysis of Swedish and European attitudes on feminism, and how my experiences with both sexual harassment and the opinions on it differed from those in the States; tonight’s events, however, caught me completely off guard, and with few active feminists to whom I can turn here (more on that later), I now look to this strong, empowered community with a consoling nod of empathy and a bit of advice.

A few of my female friends and I went to the student bar tonight, and for the most part, it was your ordinary night out in Sweden: great people, expensive drinks, and questionable house music. At some point, one person in our group noticed an older man who had been leering at her for quite some time. Sure enough, as we moved from tables to booths to the dance floor, he would move as well, always standing alone with his drink, staring at her. Now, I understand that a bar is a social environment, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with someone checking you out, finding you attractive, striking up a conversation, and either moving forward or moving on. This man chose instead just to stare, to asses, from a distance; as the night continued, she became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of someone using her fun night out, her body and her dancing, as a show, an object, a spectacle. As the offender moved even closer, she finally confronted him about his creepy gaze and uncanny movements that shifted as she attempted to move out of his line of sight. I didn’t hear their conversation, but whatever words were exchanged must have been a denial, an insult, or a threatening come-on, because she immediately grabbed her jacket and purse, and hurriedly marched out of the bar.

To see my friend, a self-identified feminist who is usually the first to rally against these same harassers and occurrences, this disarmed and derailed was entirely upsetting. Her night out was completely ruined by one man who believed he had to right, the privilege, to leer at his pleasure, but unapologetically refused to acknowledge the validity of her protests to what felt like nonconsensual voyeurism to her. As I sat there alone at the bar, I frantically looked around the room for the offender, wanting to confront him about his harassment. I realized then, though, that there was little I could do. My friend has attempted to verbally defuse the situation with little success; a larger, louder effort would only cause a scene, and I realized that my defense, “he was staring at my friend,” sounded inane to those who hadn’t been involved in the situation; yes, we were at a club, but is there any difference between that scenario, and an unknown man following you and watching you on the street, or in any other public space? I became increasingly furious as I realized that we were trapped in a situation in which our comfort zones, our personal space and safety, could easily be invaded, and that any objection to this intrusion could be laughed off, making us feel powerless in controlling situations regarding our bodies and ourselves.

My other friend put it quite succinctly as I was hunting down the harasser: “What are you going to do, punch him?” Very often, in discussions and experiences regarding consent and sexual harassment, we find ourselves backed into a corner, ridiculed and patronized for speaking out against unwanted advances and misogynistic actions and attitudes; it is easy, as we experienced in the bar tonight, to feel voiceless. I wish I had a neat conclusion, a revelation, or a tidy solution to eliminating these instances where a woman is made to feel so uncomfortable in her skin and in her environment that she sees no other option but to leave; I do know, though, that WIYL is an undeniably powerful force in uprooting a male-privileged society and in promoting consent not just within the confines of sex itself, but in all instances regarding one’s sexuality and sense of self. It’s good to be back, ladies; we’ve got a lot of work cut out for us.

Mad Men and Rape

Photo via AMC TV.

Confession: I have hopped aboard the A-line skirt and Gimlet bandwagon and am completely addicted to Mad Men. More specifically, though, Christina Hendricks, who plays fiery secretary Joan Holloway, is a solid source of intrigue. The curves! The sass! I find the way that character carries herself and flaunts her confidence sexy and enviable, and Hendricks is also the focus of one of the most resonating and powerful scenes in the show: the episode where Joan is raped.

In this episode, Joan’s fiance drops by the office after hours to visit her. Upon his suggestion, she reluctantly takes him on a tour of her boss’s office, where he begins to kiss her. Joan hesitates, playfully pushing him away, telling him that she doesn’t want to have sex. His advances become stronger (as does her resistance)- until he finally pushes her on the ground, violently hikes up her skirt, and renders Joan’s attempts to stop him into resigned passivity. She lies on her back, emptily staring into the middle distance.

At first I was upset, shocked, and frustrated that the writers completely dropped the rape subplot. But Joan’s silence, and her unwillingness to fault her fiance for his actions (they eventually wed), reflect the stories of thousands of survivors and tell a larger story about women and sexuality.

Christina Hendricks, in an interview for British GQ, described her favorite scene from Mad Men. She mentioned the scene in which Joan, while conducting a focus group for lipsticks, uses a two-way mirror to reveal just as much of her body to the onlooking men on the other side as she chooses. “She’s controlling the women – she has more knowledge than them – and she’s also manipulating the men at the same time,” Hendricks said. While Joan is hardly a feminist, she has a deliberateness to her sexuality. Though she is working within the misogynistic confines of the office, she still finds a way to be treated with respect by the men inside of it, conveying an unstoppable strength as she struts from desk to desk. She is also a proudly sexual being, comfortable with her body and okay with having flings with coworkers because she wants to. But when she doesn’t want to, as we see in the scene with her fiance, that power that she holds becomes her downfall. The look in her eyes as she is pinned to the office floor perfectly conveys that sense of betrayal.

Women today are still in Joan’s office. We are often told that our worth stems only from our bodies, our beauty,  and our willingness to be sexual objects. We often try to reach, against our better judgement, the ideals of our society- and they are thrown back in our faces when we are raped or sexually assaulted. Our outfits, demeanor, and looks are often used to justify our worst experiences.

Joan’s rape, and the context surrounding it, is no different from what we experience, and must fight against, today.

‘Hey Baby’ Could Be A Strong Starting Point

Catcalling and street harassment is a popular topic on WIYL, and with good reason; a 2008 study by Holly Kearl revealed that 99% of women have faced unwanted verbal come-ons, some more lewd and violating than others.

I live in a more industrial part of Brooklyn, across from a junkyard (complete with “Beware of Dog” sign) and a block down from a recycling collection center, where workers, mostly 25-50 year old men, sort bottles and cans from surise to sunset. Every day I walk by this operation on the way to the subway, and every day, without fail, I encounter some form of advancements or catcalling. There is something so frustrating and violating about being hit on during your unavoidable walk to work at 9 AM, harassed only because you are a young female walking by yourself. I never leave my apartment anymore without sunglasses and headphones, as to avoid eye contact and be able politely eschew all advances by feigning ignorance of them even happening, coping mechanisms that I am ashamed of having to take as a feminist and strong, empowered woman. “Powerless” is the only word to describe the options presented when harassed on the street; you can either walk by silently, or confront the perpertrator, risking physical escalation and conflict.

As Kearl said in a Huffington Post article about street harassment:

Street harassment is not a joke about construction workers; it is a problem that touches every woman’s life at some level and prevents women on a whole from achieving equality. More research needs to be conducted to better track its prevalence and to uncover the root causes, and in the meantime, let’s make it illegal. While laws do not solve problems, they can help change social attitudes, deter the undesired behavior, and provide affected persons with options for recourse.

This no-win scenario is the main idea behind the video game Hey Baby, a first-person shooter in which you get to gun down street harassers, and the sleazeballs are replaced with headstones engraved with their catcalls. The game may seem a bit extreme, murdering those who just want to tell you you’re “gorgeous” (my favorite response to which is, “I know I am, thanks for the reminder, ASSHOLE”); the come-ons, however, are sometimes just as extreme, with men approaching you to to inform you that you’re asking to be raped. The game is an intriguing concept in and of itself, but the commentary from male gamers has also proved englightening. Says Kieron Gillen of Rock, Paper, Shotgun:

The game’s rubbish, of course. But the one thing it does well is show how what you may think is an innocuous compliment feels in the context of a woman’s life. You approaching a woman in the street and being what you think is politely flirty is a different thing when, down the street, someone’s suggested that maybe you’d like to suck my dick and you’re a fucking bitch if you don’t.

From her perspective, it’s a culture of harassment she has to either politely deal with or ignore.

From your perspective, you’re just showing how you feel.

That your passing desire means you get to derail a woman’s life whenever you feel like it is the absolute definition of male privilege.

If you’re a man, and you’ve acted like this, the woman you do it to, beneath the polite smile she has to offer, has probably fantasised about you dying.

Seth Sciesel of New York Times pointed out that in the game, the attackers are relentless, and there is no end in sight to the harassment. Our point exactly, Schiesel. Hey Baby has no score, no levelling up, and no end goal. The game is painfully realistic in that way; you are trapped in a situation in which you question wearing your tank top or shorts before leaving the house, where you take an alternate route to avoid facing certain areas you know are rife with street harassers. I’ve found that it is difficult to get men to join in on conversations about consent and sexual harassment, and sexual assault, but perhaps Hey Baby is a good place to start.

Opined Schiesel:

Just as I have never been sexually harassed, I have never accosted a strange woman on the street. After playing Hey Baby, I’m certainly not about to start.

Where I Feel SAFE.

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The issue of consent, and our respective lines, came up fairly early in mine and my partner’s relationship. The morning after a night of heavy drinking, he asked if we had had sex that night. I replied that we hadn’t:  he was much too drunk, and I didn’t want to take advantage of him. He didn’t seem to find a problem with sex in such a state of inebriation, explaining that “having sex is something we would have done drunk or sober.”

My partner and I have very different views on what constitutes consent. For him, the green light is given at the beginning of the relationship, while I feel safer granting permission, be it verbally or nonverbally, each time, and staying in full control of my body and the situation. These kinds of boundaries must be reconciled and respected in order for any relationship to work.

I made it very clear at that point that if I am drunk- repeating conversations; blacked out; falling asleep in an alcohol-induced slumber- or otherwise too under the influence to make a conscious, responsible decision about whether or not I want to have sex, then I am to be left alone to pass out in peace. Even more unpleasant than a hangover is the feeling of being violated.

There is no gesture sexier, more attractive, more moving, or more conveying of respect, than waking up to find yourself still in last night’s clothes, curled into the same fetal position in which you fell asleep (with a blanket protectively draped over you), and turning over to see your partner fully clothed as well, surrounded by obvious signs of sexless evening. For me, that strict observance of my boundaries and respect for my line, my sense of safety, is more romantic than any traditional display of affection; consent is the modern woman’s jewelry and flowers and chocolates and white horses and chivalrous brouhaha.

How one defines safety in a sexual situation is difficult, as it is a concept that is subjective, often circular in its logic, and privy to changing at a moment’s notice. For me, however, safety is as simple as being with someone with whom saying “yes” is just as easy as saying “no.”

I’d Tell You: Just Ask!

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Hello, everyone! My name is Sarah Haack, and I am part of the new crop of bloggers here at Where Is Your Line?

Originally from Richmond, Virginia, I now attend American University in Washington, DC (along with the fabulous Carmen Rios, fellow Vagina Monologues cast member and she-ro) as an Environmental Studies major. I will be studying Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden next year, but in the meantime, I am living in New York City, interning with the Girl Scouts of the USA, and learning the finer points of navigating bureaucracy, planning potlucks, and empowering women and girls.

I toured AU during the April of my senior year in high school, taking in the campus one last time before sending in my acceptance letter, and vividly remember the painted t-shirts strung throughout the student center in preparation for Take Back the Night, part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. One statistic struck me in particular: that one in three women are sexually assaulted. Still in high school and rather naive, this number resonated as tragic, but hollow, sympathetic but not empathetic. Two years later, I found myself standing on the before those t-shirts as a survivor. It is selfish, I admit, to not really take up a cause until it affects oneself directly, but when I was puff-painting my own statistic on that white v-neck after a realization that took a full year, I finally understood the impact of today’s hookup culture and its implications, and how important it is to open the lines of communication not just about sexual assault, but about sex itself. The perceived “gray area” of sexual assault needs to be eliminated, and replaced with standards where a YES! is just as important as a no.
I was drawn to Where Is Your Line? by its sex-positive attitude and celebration of sexuality. Consent is more than knowing when to say no, but also knowing you can say yes; it’s feeling safe enough to enjoy sex that meets your standards, whether it be with a long-term partner or a total stranger, and being strong enough to draw a line that is either non-negotiable or ever-changing. The pervasive rape culture in which we find ourselves dictates that our demeanor, our alcohol consumption, and even our outfits, are all indicators of our willingness to be sexual- and can be interpreted as such without any discussion. And yes, my miniskirt and five-inch heels are an expression of my sexuality, but that does not (necessarily) mean I want to share that with you. Believe me, if I did, you’d know it. I’d tell you. Just ask.

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