Peeping Thomas

Tucked in the back of the Philadelphia Art Museum‘s modern galleries is a peculiar, enigmatic piece by Marcel Duchamp. Etant donnes was the artist’s final work*: he spent the final two decades of his life working on the piece after telling the world that he had retired from art-making. Upon his death, the work was discovered and, as per the stipulations of Duchamp’s will, installed at the PMA never to be moved or lent out to other sites.

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Avert Your Eyes

I lead a strange sort of double-life when it comes to things popular and pop-culture-like. On the one hand, I feel as if I live my life on the “geek culture” fringe — as evidenced, I’m sure, by past references to Comic-Con staples like Joss Whedon, True Blood and Game of Thrones. There’s lots of big “mainstream” hits and trends — Survivor, American Idol, Real Housewives all spring to mind — which have in their own time and place saturated the airwaves, and yet which I have never ever seen. Quite frankly, sometimes my monastic schedule, with its endless cycle of work, write, study, sleep, even keeps me from staying up-to-date on geek culture. (This many weeks later, and I still haven’t seen Guardians of the Galaxy. Guess that’s another membership card I’ll be handing in…)

On the other hand, my continued engagement with mainstream morning news (GMA) and print journalism (Entertainment Weekly) means I have a pretty good sense of what the pop culture trends and happenings are, moment to moment.

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Letting the Genie Out of the Bottle

Some days I think I’m such a bad feminist that someone’s going to knock on the door and ask me to turn in my membership card.*

nailpolish_by_rainbow_colourToday is definitely one of those days, because I am rather out of step with the wave of outrage against the new roofie-detecting nail polish that’s been all over the news.

Before I prove all the ways I am limited as a feminist, I do want to acknowledge the ways that I share many of the concerns I’ve seen expressed in the media blitz about “Undercover Colors.” ThinkProgress quotes Tracey Vitchers of Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER): “I think we need to think critically about why we keep placing the responsibility for preventing sexual assault on young women.” Damn straight. Some day soon I might just tell the story about the time I nearly lost my shit at Elizabeth Vargas and tried to take exactly that ideological stand (alas, in a woefully inarticulate, limited, and ultimately ineffective, way).

The ThinkProgress article goes on to talk about the kinds of efforts they (and their interviewees) would recommend be publicly highlighted:

So, rather than targeting efforts at helping women identify roofies in their drinks, it would likely be more effective to focus on larger efforts to tackle the cultural assumptions at the root of the campus sexual assault crisis, like the idea that it’s okay to take advantage of people when they’re drunk. There’s a lot of student-led activism on college campuses around these themes, as well as some college administrations agreeing to implement more comprehensive consent education and bystander intervention training programs. The advocates who spoke to ThinkProgress said they wish more of those campaigns would start making headlines.

Again, I’m in agreement. I even think Jessica Valenti of The Guardian (or her editors) pretty much hit the nail on the head when she/they titled her article on this topic: Why is it easier to invent anti-rape nail polish than to find a way to stop rapists?

So I agree that there are huge problematics with rape culture — the victim-blaming, the way women are expected to carry the responsibility for “rape prevention,” the way those two things fuel a world in which women’s freedoms are endlessly constrained. And I think the media firestorm around this “life-saving nail polish”** is hugely symptomatic of rape culture, and adds to the ongoing perpetuation of same.

And yet. (Here’s where I’m about to lose my feminist credentials.)***

I don’t really have that much of a problem with the product itself. Because when I think about the primary objections I’ve seen voiced against the product as its own thing, they don’t entirely ring true for my understanding of the world.

1. This product will create more victim-blaming. Is that even possible? When I look around me, it seems like victim-blaming is already up to 11. Yeah, I’m sure that this nail polish will be added as a new flavor to the victim-blaming soup but it doesn’t sense to me like it would actually, objectively increase the quantity of victim-blaming or the likelihood that victim-blaming will occur. ‘Cos, as far as I can tell, the unfortunate truth is that you’ll be blamed for whatever you do or don’t do — if you didn’t wear this nail polish, you’ll be blamed for that, but if you were to wear it, you’d still be blamed just as strongly, only for some other bullshit excuse.

2. It’s wrong for a team of college men to be profiting (or trying to profit) off a crime predominantly commuted against women. I’m not really loving the fact that the R&D team for this is all guys. Still, this line of reasoning feels uncomfortably reductive to me: casting all men into the mold of sexual predator — which is similarly problematic to the societal mythology that casts all women into the mold of sexual object.

Besides, the company founders are hitting a lot of good notes in their public statements. From the Facebook page:

We are taking just one angle among many to combat this problem. Organizations across the country need your support in raising awareness, fundraising, and education. Among the ones we recommend are:

Men Can Stop Rape
InterAct (locally in Raleigh)

Please consider following these campaigns and finding new ways to fight this crime in your communities around the world.

And, yes, it’s possible these words are insincere and manipulative. It’s also possible they’re completely sincere, and I want to give these guys the benefit of the doubt until I see more definitive evidence that they’re being unethically opportunistic.

3. This product will create a false sense of security (in this big unsafe predator-filled world), and also at the same time Women shouldn’t have to police their behavior or work so hard to protect themselves (the world should be a safer place). I’ve grouped these last two together, because I’ve been so deeply fascinated by the ways they’re often invoked together despite their contradictory undertones.

Part of the “false sense of security” narrative is based in the statistical reality that only about 2.4% of  campus rapes are suspected to be linked to roofies or other such substances. As such, someone electing to use that product may feel like they’re protecting themselves from danger when in actuality they might have made themselves less aware and more careless about all the real dangers that are out there in the world.

[SIDEBAR] I am very curious to see if that statistical fact — only 2.4% of sexual assaults involve roofies — is the thing that finally tanks the business model for Undercover Colors. I’m not convinced there’s that much of a market here. But I still don’t think it’s wrong for anyone to be exploring that question. It’s the circle of product development: prototype something to see if it can be created, then do further market research to see if there’s enough of a desire for that newly-created thing to warrant further development and scaling up. [/SIDEBAR]

And, somehow, simultaneous with the reasoning that this product is a Bad Thing because it won’t guard against the real dangers out there, stands also the reasoning that it is a Bad Thing because it’s not fair that women need to put in the extra effort to negotiate an unsafe world. Which brings me back to Valenti:

As former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir said after a cabinet member suggested that women be given a curfew to curb a spate of sexual assaults: “But it’s the men who are attacking the women. If there’s to be a curfew, let the men stay home, not the women.”

And to ThinkProgress, quoting Rebecca Nagle, co-director of the activist group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture:

“The problem isn’t that women don’t know when there are roofies in their drink; the problem is people putting roofies in their drink in the first place.”

And, quite honestly, this brings me back to a place of partial agreement. Because, yes, I believe — I know — that the ultimate necessity here is to dismantle rape culture, to stop rapists from raping, all of that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the patriarchy needs to die in a fire, like now.

Except “like now” isn’t really how it’s gonna go. Cultural transformation takes time, and until we’re on the other side of that transition, I can’t help but have empathy and compassion for anyone choosing to use whatever techniques they choose to feel a little bit safer and (in a statistical “playing the odds” kind of way) maybe even to be a little bit safer.

And yes, it sucks that those sorts of calculations can so strongly restrict women’s freedom. And we should live in a world where freedoms aren’t restricted like that. But we’re not there yet.

I kept an army knife in my bedroom for a number of years in Philly. Would it have been potentially useful if I’d been attacked? Perhaps. Was it a foolproof method of self-defense? No way. Would I have been “to blame” for being attacked if that knife wasn’t effective self-defense? No fucking way. Was it symptomatic of our fucked-up rape culture that I felt the need to have this knife? Absolutely. Was it an expression of personal weakness that I wanted that object to help me feel/be safer? I’m betting yes.

Do I blame myself, current and past, for making that adaptive choice to help myself get through the days, and to achieve some level of freedom from hyper-vigilant insomnia during the nights? Not on your life.

And as with my old army knife, so with someone else’s chemically reactive nail polish.

* I’m not giving back my free toaster, though…

** Don’t you just love marketing hyperbole?!?

*** Though, hey! I’m still thinking through all these different threads of meaning and feeling. It’s possible I’m onto some level of personal truth. It’s possible I’m talking out of my ass. I’ma just keeping on writing and watching, and I’ll see if I refine this line of thinking or if my ongoing study leads me to a different place, when all is said and done.


Image credit: “nailpolish” by rainbow-colour, shareable via a Creative Commons License (retrieved from )

Either George Will or He Won’t

[Trigger warning: discussion of rape and other sexual assaults; quotations that show profound misogyny, slut-shaming and victim-blaming; and rebuttals that share stats and stories about rape and rape culture, and yeah, with a lot of profanity. A LOT of profanity.]

causes-of-rapeI am totally cheating tonight. The Day 7 prompt for Writing 101 is about creating a sense of contrast: “Focus today’s post on the contrast between two things. The twist? Write the post in the form of a dialogue.

But I am currently so enraged and stabby-feeling over George Will’s latest exercise in newspaper-subsidized misogyny that it was inevitably going to be my topic tonight, no matter what I had to do to shoe-horn it into the Writing 101 structure. (Honestly, as far as ideological contrast goes, we have that in abundance. As far as dialogue is concerned? That’s more of a stretch.)


Women, Higher Education, and Sexual Assault: a Point-Counterpoint Between George Will and Mezzo Sherri

Colleges and universities are . . . learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.

Dude, even though it didn’t exist by the same name, the conceptual underpinning for our current understanding of microaggression has been around since at least 1905, when Freud first theorized about the sublimated violence/victimization cycle in so much of modern humor. And even if your current status as rich, urbane, white male — sort of the royal flush of the privilege poker hands — makes it hard for you to perceive microagressions with “an untutored eye,” here’s a tip from Charles Davis at VICE: “You don’t need a reference manual to not make people feel bad; you just need to listen every once in a while, learn a thing or two, and try to be more considerate, particularly around people you just met. Since when did stopping to think before you open your stupid mouth become such a bad thing?”

And excuse me? Being the target of sexual violence is a “coveted status”? In whose bizarro world is that true? After all, the rest of your column just oozes compassion and acceptance for those individuals who have experienced sexual assault. Oh wait: the rest of your column is actually “contributing to a society that is utterly dismissive of their experiences.” (PolicyMic)

Consider the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. “sexual assault.”

1. Here’s some basic set theory for you: all rapes are indeed sexual assaults, but not all sexual assault is rapes.  (Or, to break it down even further, here’s how I used to explain that concept to my SAT students back in the day: All of my bracelets are jewelry, but not all of my jewelry is bracelets.) I point this out just because if you’re going to use irony quotes to make fun of a term, it might be best to actually understand the term you’re mocking, and oh, maybe to check in and see if your mockery actually functions as humor or instead just shows your own woeful ignorance about a topic. (Also see above, re: microaggressions.)

2. Supposed epidemic? Really? I know you’re gonna quibble with this statistic later on below the fold, but let me just lay it out there anyhow. The CDC reports that 19% of undergraduate women had experienced “attempted or completed sexual assault” since entering college. Now this is a statistic you’ll see reproduced by lots of advocacy and service organizations (sometimes rounded up to the “1 in 5” phraseology we’ll be discussing soon), but please note I did not go to a partisan or activist source here. I went to the C-D-motherfucking-C. 19% of undergraduate women experience some sort of sexual assault, and 37% of female rape survivors are first raped between the ages of 18-24. And yes, that final age range admittedly extends beyond the usual age window for undergraduate students, but still. How much more of an epidemic do you need?! How many women need to suffer before you can get up a compassion boner for them?!?

Herewith, a Philadelphia magazine report about Swarthmore College, where in 2013 a student “was in her room with a guy with whom she’d been hooking up for three months”

Slut-shaming at its finest. Because of course, once you’ve said yes at one time in one context that means automatic consent for all future times in all future contexts. And by the way, just emphasize how foul your perspective is:

“They’d now decided — mutually, she thought — just to be friends. When he ended up falling asleep on her bed, she changed into pajamas and climbed in next to him. Soon, he was putting his arm around her and taking off her clothes. ‘I basically said, “No, I don’t want to have sex with you.” And then he said, “OK, that’s fine” and stopped.. . . And then he started again a few minutes later, taking off my panties, taking off his boxers. I just kind of laid there and didn’t do anything — I had already said no. I was just tired and wanted to go to bed. I let him finish. I pulled my panties back on and went to sleep.’”

Six weeks later, the woman reported that she had been raped.

Well, she reported having been raped because that’s actually the legal definition applicable to the events as described here. But hey, why should an insignificant thing like factuality matter between friends?

Now you’ve been nice enough not to state the most evil of your assumptions outright, but they’re palpably there, oozed between the lines of suggestion and innuendo.

Why didn’t she fight harder after saying the first “no”? Because we’ve been trained (over and over again) NOT to do so! Even if it’s slightly off the subject, perhaps this video will help explain the level of understood threat that might cause a young woman to decide against “fighting back.”

I had a friend in college who was date-raped sophomore year. (I know: I must be lying about this, and this event couldn’t actually have really occurred because George Will has decreed that college sexual assault is merely a “so-called epidemic.”) She carried some guilt for a while about not having “struggled more” — and I remember her sharing the moment of insight that emerged during a session with her therapist where my friend realized that she had, to the best of her ability in the midst of this awful experience, made a threat assessment and consciously concluded that if she didn’t stop struggling that she would be killed, or at least seriously, seriously wounded. It is perfectly understandable that someone may make a decision to stop resisting, wether because of cultural programming, threat assessment, or some other reason(s). That choice to cease actively fighting back in no way excuses a rapist from the legal and moral responsibility of having committed such a harmful act against another human being.

(This is also, by the way, why affirmative consent standards are so necessary. Yes means yes!)

Why did she wait so long to report this crime?* Maybe because she knew that jerk faces like you would blame her or doubt her. Maybe because even the most “casual look at our criminal justice system, military justice system and the academic disciplinary system under scrutiny right now reveals that each tend to punish survivors, not reward them.” (Salon, emphasis added.)

I could find story after story that demonstrates the ways women reporting sexual assault get interrogated about their clothes, alcohol use, sexual history, and general behavior/decorum, but to save us all some time, here’s a photo gallery that both captures many of these victim-blaming attitudes but also wonderfully eviscerates them.

(I’m skipping ahead a few paragraphs because I only have enough patience to dialogue with one last passage.)

The statistics are: One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, and only 12 percent of assaults are reported. Simple arithmetic demonstrates that if the 12 percent reporting rate is correct, the 20 percent assault rate is preposterous. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute notes, for example, that in the four years 2009 to 2012 there were 98 reported sexual assaults at Ohio State. That would be 12 percent of 817 total out of a female student population of approximately 28,000, for a sexual assault rate of approximately 2.9 percent — too high but nowhere near 20 percent.

Oh, I see what you did there: it’s like SAT algebra all over again! (98 over x equals 12 over 100; and then once you solve for x put that number over the total population number to get your percentage…)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: CDC. The 19% assault rate has been confirmed by the C-D-motherfuckin’-C.** So rather than taking the 12% report rate as the hard-and-true fact and using that to invalidate the CDC’s confirmed statistic, why not try this idea on for size: maybe the 12% number is wrong! And that notion is even kind of awfully plausible, since this figure can only ever be “an inferred estimate, because there is no directly measured number of unreported assaults.” (Pharyngula.)

Oh, and by the way? If a 2.9% rate of sexual assault is “too high” by your assertion, and considering the fact that the actual assault rate of 19% has been confirmed by the C-D-motherfuckin’-C, do you want to go back and rethink any of your prior statements about a “so-called” epidemic?

Just wondering.

* I almost put the word crime in those mocking irony quotes (as I assume George  would have done), but I just couldn’t do it.

** I swear, if I ever go back to writing anything based on my dissertation research, I am working this phrase in there somehow.


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