Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

On Boobs, And Showing Them Or Not

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Via Conor F., a sad story about Canadian teen Amanda Todd, who was persuaded by an Internet suitor to flash her breasts during a video chat, then blackmailed by said suitor and subsequently bullied by peers when the photo was leaked. She killed herself last week:

Conor rightfully rails against the prevailing takeaway that teenage bullying + lack of web literacy are the major issues here.

As a parent I’ll warn my kids about the permanence of the Web, its perils and how to avoid them. I’ll particularly want any child of mine to understand the potential consequences of naked images of their bodies winding up online. It’s prudent to teach kids how to navigate prevailing social norms, whatever they may be. But don’t stories like this one demand something more from us than cautioning? When a child is bullied to the point of suicide partly because a photo of her breasts was circulated to her friends and family, shouldn’t we ask ourselves why the Anglosphere retains social norms wherein being seen topless is regarded as horrifying and shameful?

And he goes on to give a few more examples of our inanity regarding women’s breasts (Janet Jackson’s nip slip, the recently leaked topless photos of Princess Kate) and to stress how silly and detrimental these attitudes and reactions are. On all of that: I concur. But I’d just like to add a few sentences about why I think the western world stigmatizes naked female breasts so much. After all, men have breasts too. After all, they’re just lumps of fatty tissue, grafted on to the human female form to serve a very utilitarian purpose.

In some places, this seems to be recognized. I’m no expert on cross-cultural attitudes toward exposed female breasts, but it seems that in certain societies, most people recognize female breasts for what they are: A body part designed to allow mothers to nurse their young. Sans any codified cultural significance, they might as well be an ear or an asshole or thumb. They’re just a part of the average anatomy, evolved to do a particular thing.

The trouble started when — unlike the ear or asshole or thumb — this particular part of the female anatomy was deigned to be erotic. I don’t know how or when this happened, and I’m not inclined to look it up right now, because that’s not the point. Maybe erotic is the wrong word, even, because by virtue of being so closely connected to notions of motherhood (and motherhood so closely connected to sex), breasts are kind of inherently erotic, in the broader sense of the word. Sexualized, then? Or sexually desirable? Word quibbling aside, you of course know what I mean. At some point, and for some reason, female breasts — and the bigger the better — were deemed to be Hott. And when breasts started being Hott, and stopped being just a part of the body that spewed milk for offspring, we women lost our claim to them. Men desired female breasts, and thus female breasts became For Men.

When female breasts in general became For Men, it logically followed that any particular set of female breasts became for a man — a boyfriend, a husband, a future husband — and hence the taboo against showing them to just anyone. If breasts were something For Men, then of course the ‘owner’ of a particular set of female breasts would want to jealously guard them for himself. And any woman who exposed her breasts wouldn’t just be acting out of her own agency but acting in violation of her man and, therefore, clearly a wanton whore. If breasts were something men desired, then — by the logic of Puritanism or controlling female sexuality or what have you — they were something women needed to keep pure by keeping hidden.

Once the cultural taboo against ladies showing their breasts was established, the reasons they shouldn’t do so multiplied. Now well-meaning people could argue that women shouldn’t expose their breasts because of the cultural norm against doing so. Cultural taboos are self-perpetuating in this way. But while of course not all men think this way, and of course even those that do might not do so consciously, the taboo against naked female breasts persists today because men still think women’s breasts belong to or exist for them. No serious de-stigmatization of topless ladies will happen here until this changes.

The odds of it changing I find highly unlikely.

Not having any particular desire to receive attention (good or bad) from strangers, I generally adhere to social norms when it comes to breast exposure. But I take two exceptions:

1) As someone whose breasts are not pendulous*, I don’t need a bra for support, and thus very often go without, especially in the summer. Why? Because it’s hot outside, and bras make you hotter; or sometimes just because I forget to put one on. This means that the outline of my nipples are often visible. I can’t tell you how many times people have pointed this out to me and, upon learning that I am in fact aware of this fact, expressed surprise/dismay/concern that I’m not more concerned about people who may be offended by the sight of the outline of my nipples. It’s absurd. Why should I be physically uncomfortable just to keep up the illusion that I don’t have a body part we all have? If people are offended or put off by the revelation that I have nipples, it rather seems more their problem than mine, no?

2) I don’t understand why I should worry that someone may briefly see my boobs while changing clothes. Most of the time, I keep the blinds on my bedroom windows open. Most of the time, the amount of time it takes me to change shirts and/or bras is pretty brief (although the time frame is not so much the issue here). It seems silly to me to have to open and close my bedroom blinds every time I’m going to change tops, on the off chance that some passerby may be looking up at my second-story window and – heaven forbid – see my breasts. My boyfriend — who considers himself a feminist, bless his heart — takes exception to my open window policy, and will often go and close the blinds himself if he’s in the room. Which is mildly irritating but fine, I guess, if he’s so inclined to stop whatever he’s doing and go do that. And yet so perfectly illustrative of my above point …

Anyway, I bring both these things up not because I think I’m some sort of rebel for not giving a shit in said instances, but because I think the prevailing expectation that I should give a shit further illustrates our ridiculous assumptions about boobs, that’s all.

* For Grace M., with whom I have an ongoing quest to use the word “pendulous.”

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Written by Elizabeth

October 16, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Bloggingheads

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Diavlog: Conor & Elizabeth

I recorded a bloggingheads segment Monday with Conor Friedersdorf for his channel on bloggingheads.tv. I guess you call this “vlogging.” I have been vehemently opposed to vlogging (ask Rachel Steinberg) since 2006, because no one looks good in web-cam close-up. Also because a lot of bloggers are better writers than talkers, including me. But I talked to Conor for nearly an hour, about: men’s role in feminism, Hugo Schwyzer, James Poulos, women’s ‘privileged relationship’ to the natural world, subsidizing birth control, vasectomies, my partisan political apathy, Gary Johnson, what’s new in eating disorders, David Brooks, Phoebe Maltz-Bovy, ‘elites’ behaving like traditionalists, goat cheese and arugula, old-fashioned cocktails, Portland bartenders migrating to Los Angeles, the farmer’s markets of Indiana, D.C. media culture and the things you’re supposed to say on the Internet.

Anyway, here’s the test clip I sent Conor & my very first test vlogging attempt:

I swear I get a little better.

You can check out the whole thing here.

Written by Elizabeth

February 29, 2012 at 8:10 am

‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do

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I have probably written about Rihanna more than any other celebrity. Mostly because I don’t generally write about celebrities (though I also seem to write about Leann Rimes quite often …). But also because Rihanna’s whole weird S&M-princess-meets-Tammy-Wynette-thing fascinates me.

Last week on Blisstree I wrote about how Rihanna and ex-boyfriend, abuser and musical collaborator Chris Brown both grew up witnessing domestic violence. Rihanna’s dad abused her mother, and Brown’s stepdad abused his mother. I think that’s important to any musings on what’s up there. Also:

I think Amanda Dobbins at Vulture nails it here, with “The Argument You’re Having With Yourself About Rihanna and Chris Brown;” it’s also a nice summary of the argument the Internet is having about Rihanna and Chris Brown. Clearly, the publicity is good for both their albums (Perez Hilton’s post about it was pretty accurately titled “Rihanna & Chris Brown mind-fuck the world”). And who are we to say … yada yada yada. But in the end, what it keeps coming back to is: Maybe Rihanna is in an abusive relationship. Maybe Rihanna is ‘a very famous, very rich, very talented 24-year-old in an abusive relationship.’

So, that. Or maybe she’s not, you know? This is a woman who’s recorded songs about abusive relationships and whips and chains and talked about being sexually submissive in Rolling Stone magazine. In short: She’s no shrining violet.

Which is what makes this whole Rihanna and Chris Brown narrative so puzzling. When we saw pop divas of previous generations stay with men who abused them, the women were usually somehow dependent on their abusers. Think Tina Turner. Or even Whitney Houston. (Yes, she was already famous by the time she married Bobby Brown, but drugs are another kind of dependency—or, enabling someone can make them dependent on you). Rihanna, however … She’s the bigger celebrity. She’s in no way dependent on Chris Brown. And she seems to have her shit together. She seems to have her shit together and she chooses to work or be with a man who nearly killed her. And she’s kind of defiantly proud about that.

A few days ago, I read about how she tweeted a line from her 2009 song “Hard” in the midst of all the ‘open letter to Rihannaetc. etc. etc. hoopla and the rumors about her and Brown’s upcoming collaboration.

They can say whatever, Ima do whatever…No pain is forever<—–YUP! YOU KNOW THIS

The first thing I thought of was “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do,” the early female blues standard written by  Porter Grainger and most associated with Bessie Smith, who recorded the song in 1923 (it was also recorded by Billie Holiday and bunches of others). Here are a few lines:

Well, I’d rather my man would hit me / Than follow him to jump up and quit me / Ain’t nobody’s business if I do

I swear, I won’t call no copper / If I’m beat up by my papa / Ain’t nobody’s business if I do

A long time ago I wrote a paper I’ve long-since lost about early female blues singers. It turned me on to folks like Bessie Smith, Trixie Smith, Lucille Bogan and Ma Rainy. Pandora has since turned me on to many others. If you haven’t heard much classic female blues, you will probably be surprised by how dirty! it can get. Bogan in particular—whew. There’s also a wonderful playfulness, though, and an awesomely feminist bent. They challenged prevailing gender roles and ideas about sexuality and femininity. Rainy—billed ‘the Mother of the Blues’—was married to a man but slept with women. Here’s Rainy’s “Prove It On Me”:

I went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
It must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man

Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me.

Lesbians were fairly common on the classic blues circuit. Mike Rugan’s ‘Uncensored History of the Blues’ blog introduced me to Bogan’s B.D. Woman’s Blues (She recorded it under the name Bessie Jackson). B.D. stood for bull dyke (or bull dagger).

Comin’ a time, B.D. women they ain’t going to need no men
Comin’ a time, B.D. women they ain’t going to need no men
Cause they way treat us is a lowdown dirty sin

B.D. women, you sure can’t understand
B.D. women, you sure can’t understand
They got a head like a sweet angel and they walk just like a natural
man

And, just for fun, here’s “Shave ‘Em Dry,” a song recorded in 1935 by Bogan:

I got nipples on my titties
Big as the end of my thumb
I got somethin between my legs
That’ll make a dead-man come

So—lots of sex. Lots of lesbians. Also lots of honesty about what it was like to be a black woman at the beginning of last century. Some of the songs are camp. Some of the songs are heartbreaking. And “Tain’t Nobody’s Business” wasn’t the only song defending or celebrating an abusive lover. Not only was early female blues full of lesbians, it was full of women “repeatedly left, beaten, cheated on, and ignored, only to forgive their lover because of his sexual prowess. Here’s Trixie Smith’s “You’ve Got to Beat Me to Keep Me” (also written by Porter Grainger; clearly dude has some issues):

You’ve got to beat me to keep me, cause mama loves a hard boiled man
So don’t you let no man cheat me, if he’s got a good right hand.
Beat me up for breakfast, knock me down for tea,
Black my eye for supper, then you’re pleasing me.
You’ve got to beat me to keep me, cause mama loves a hard boiled man.

Here’s Ma Rainey’s “Sweet Rough Man:”

I woke up this mornin’, my head as sore as a boil
My man beat me last night with five feet of copper coil

… But the way he loves me, makes me soon forget

There are tons of fascinating things about early blues ladies I want to ramble on about, but! that is not the point here. The point is about Rihanna: She’s certainly not the first female singer to defend being with someone who beats her. She’s just the first in a while.

The point is also agency: They were reclaiming it.

So is Rihanna making a feminist statement in flaunting her friendliness with Chris Brown? I certainly wouldn’t be the first to point out that by being so publicly congenial to Brown, by defining the terms of their relationship, she could be trying to reclaim agency, to set herself up as not-a-victim, to show she was not afraid of him.

I also wouldn’t be the first to point out that no one’s sure whether they are friends, lovers or trying to stir up a lot of publicity for their new songs.

But Rihanna isn’t just friendly to Chris Brown. She doesn’t just project forgiveness. After (reluctantly) leaving Brown, she puts out a hot violent sex song with Eminem. She puts out her own song called “S&M.” She says things like:

“Sometimes whips and chains can be overly planned – you gotta stop, get the whip from the drawer downstairs. . . . I’d rather have him use his hands.”

Clearly she gets some level of enjoyment from being roughed up and being submissive.

… And she’s, like, not afraid to talk about it? Which is … cool. But also not cool because rough sex shouldn’t really have anything to do with actual violence, and people get easily confused.

But it doesn’t really matter. She’s not asking us to like her decisions—she’s just kind of making us acknowledge that she is making decisions. For personal or professional or whatever reasons, she is choosing what she’s choosing, and she believes in these choices. She believes that making them doesn’t disempower her.

Cause it ain’t nobody’s business if we do

And maybe that’s right. If we believe women are fully-autonomous people and all of that—well, we have to respect the choices they make, even when we don’t agree with them. Which doesn’t meant we can’t talk about them. If you collaborate with an ex who nearly killed you on two songs released the same day, you have made the discussion part of the pop culture public domain. And I do think issues like this are instructive. On the one hand, it’s pop gossip. On the other hand, the stories we tell about celebrities both reflect and resonate with the society who tells them. They become allegories. Rihanna and Chris Brown have no reasonable expectation of bloggers, entertainment TV hosts and kids on Twitter not talking about them. But!—

Maybe “not blaming the victim” isn’t the point. Maybe the best way to not take away a woman like Rihanna’s agency is to blame her fully—to acknowledge/accept that she has reasons for making the choices she’s making and doesn’t care if we approve or understand.

Just some thoughts …

Written by Elizabeth

February 26, 2012 at 10:16 am

truth in feminism.

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I only first read this morning about this battle re: Hugo Schwyzer & feminism. It’s the kind of thing that stirs me out of blogging apathy—though it helps that all I want to do this week is drink red wine, make vegan desserts and read & write about feminism, anyway; happy February!because it strikes at the root of what bothers me about web feminism à la mode. I’ll ramble on about that in a moment. But in short, I think the anti-Schwyzer sentiment is both ridiculous and sadly typical of the feminist blogosphere.

I don’t know a ton about Hugo. I’m dimly aware of having read him on various lady-feminist blogs. For a while I regularly read The Good Men Project, a site focused on exploring what it means to be a good man now, absent cultural scripts and yada yada yada. I liked the Good Men Project. It published good sex writing (male and female). Sometimes Amanda Marcotte (whom I also like) wrote there. It was heavy with personal-experience driven writing by Schwyzer and others on sex, marriage, masculinity, relationships, fatherhood, feminism.

An instructor in history and gender studies at Pasadena City College, Schwyzer is explicitly feminist. He writes in the language of contemporary feminism (i.e. “I haven’t been always been able to see how my writing reflects my privilege as a cisgender white male…“) and blogged at Jezebel, FeministeHealthy Is The New Skinny, the Good Men Project and elsewhere about gender issues, body image, rape prevention, why men like to cum on women’s faces and the “myth of male weakness.” He recently withdrew from The Good Men Project after founder Tom Matlack published a piece arguing men and women were fundamentally different, writing that it was no longer “ethically possible to remain silent” while the Good Men Project “took an increasingly anti-feminist stance.”

Schwyzer also wrote often about his past, as an alcoholic and druggie in the 90s (born in 1967, Schwyzer hugs the line between Gen X and boomer). He wrote about failed marriages, mental breakdowns, his Christian faith and having “consensual relationships with adult female students” in his early years teaching. It was that last part which provoked the ire of Feministe commenters and other feminist bloggers. Then someone pointed out a year-old post of Hugo’s in which he wrote about attempting to kill himself and his then-girlfriend by turning on the gas in their apartment. He was an alcoholic and addict. This preceded a stay in a mental hospital. But people called Schwyzer a sexual predator who should be excluded from the discourse on feminism (sample comment: Why is a confessed attempted murderer allowed to comment about feminism?). They made it about the role of men in feminism, a role which the feminist blogosphere is still all kinds of conflicted about.

This tendency of many feminist bloggers to be so self-consciously non-offensive gets tedious, though this just makes them boring. It’s the tendency of large segments of the feminist web to cluster and ostracize dissenters from feminism’s PC master narrative that makes them damaging, to the quote/unquote feminist project, anyway. A feminism that doesn’t allow for paradoxes and contradictions in the ideals versus lived experiences of its’ proponents is not terribly useful. And any modern conception of feminism needs not just to include men in the conversation but see men as integral to feminist issues. The movement’s history of sisterhood served it’s purpose, but for Gen Y women and men accustomed to the idea of gender equity, doesn’t we’re-all-in-this-together make more sense?

How to be an adult in an age of anomie is a question central to men, women, feminists and fundamentalists in America. And it’s a big project. I don’t know how many Gen X/Y articles I’ve read about marriage ages, fertility, dating, relationships, careers, unemployment, sex, technology, health that conclude we are all screwed. We’re all going to live into our 90s and our parents and grandparents are going into retirement broke and getting fat and getting dementia and it not only looks sad but how are you going to take care of them? How is anybody going to take care of them? That’s all we hear about is old age programs bankrupting the world. And home health care is one of the fastest growing U.S. industries, but it’s largest companies don’t even want to pay their (mostly female) employees the minimum wage. And a lot of people in the entertainment industry still think violence against women is pretty swell. Birth control is still something people are legitimately against. Women writers still can’t write about sex like Henry Miller. And for some reason people persist in publishing articles about who should pay the check on first dates. Plus, you know: The rest of the world.

I mean, I say, the more men the merrier! Let’s all talk about birth control and blow jobs and the difference between domestic violence and rape fantasies. Gender issues, marriage equality and the contradictions inherent in trying to be good men and good women in a culture with completely schizophrenic ideas about femininity and masculinity. These are problems for all us.

And there should be room in feminism for all of us to talk about them. For Schwyzer to be honest about his path to where he is now without facing this kind of hysterical backlash. For all of us “imperfect feminists” to be honest about where we fail to live up to ideals (and where ideals fail to live up to their usefulness in our lives). Freddie deBoer (who, um, full disclosure: is my boyfriend) has written about how feminism is general but relationships are specific. So are individual paths to feminist beliefs. You can comfortably call yourself a feminist even if you subscribe to less than total egalitarianism in your own relationship or sex life. You can be a feminist even if you were once so fucked up that you tried to kill yourself and your partner. You can have an imperfectly feminist past and be a feminist now. The underlying assumption between people should be respect, non-violence and equity, but people can negotiate different degrees of these amongst themselves. Besides which: The outside world, again. Sometimes it influences us. Sometimes we learn from it. Sometimes we are always getting better.

see, I like baking too. I know sites like Feministe and Feministing serve an important purpose in feminism’s mission. I never considered myself a feminist until I started reading them (along with Pandagon, Shakesville, Ilika Damen, others) back when I was 22. This year over Christmas break I ended up in a late-night bar crawl conversation with a 22-year-old female cousin who is dying to have babies and stay home with them. Until she recently began reading feminist blogs (the only one I remember her mentioning is The Feminist Breeder), she told me, she thought feminists wanted to take things like that from her. Now she’s all OMG I’m a feminist, duh. I’m a feminist and I like babies and crafts and women being treated like human beings. Awesome.

So that’s what these types of intro/activist feminist blogs do: They introduce young women and men to the idea that feminism doesn’t suck. That there are still lots of gender issues to consider and problems to solve. That feminism is relevant.

But as a feminist writer, Schwyzer has always been more essayist than activist. Both of his recent controversial posts were confession—not celebration—of past wrongs. This is what good memoirists and essayists do: They tell the truth about themselves, even when it makes them look bad. It’s in admitting to inconsistencies in their own ideals v. behavior that they have the best chance of finding something universal. Think “Mad Men.” Think Didion. It’s the space between the zeitgeist and convention that’s the most interesting.

For the feminist blogosphere to so consistently stifle voices from that space … I mean, it impedes on feminist discourse, sure. But it also tells writers that it’s not okay to be both honest and feminist. That part of being a publicly-feminist writer means a certain amount of activism, a certain amount of party-line PR. It’s a lot like how conservatism encourages its journalists and bloggers and TV reporters to be partisans first. It’s bad for the truth.

Written by Elizabeth

February 16, 2012 at 10:32 am

On Feminism, Neural Circuitry and Men Being ‘Rapey Enough’

with 7 comments

I just came into the TV show Weeds at the beginning of Season 5, and one of my favorite parts so far was when the Andy character explains to Mary Louise-Parker why it would never work out between them:

(Link) View more Weeds Quotes and Sound Clips and Andy Botwin Quotes and Sound Clips

A few days after watching that episode, my friend Greg said to me, “Dude! [Ed. note: That is really how he talks] Did you read about Rihanna talking about how she likes whips and chains?”

Actually, Rihanna does not like whips and chains, at least not most of the time, at least not if her quotes in Rolling Stone are to be taken at face value. Here is the passage in question:

“Being submissive in the bedroom is really fun,” she says. “You get to be a little lady, to have somebody be macho and in charge of your shit. That’s fun to me…I like to be spanked. Being tied up is fun. I like to keep it spontaneous. Sometimes whips and chains can be overly planned – you gotta stop, get the whip from the drawer downstairs. I’d rather have him use his hands.”

We could get into all the Oh My Oh My Oh My’s about this, in light of … but it all seems too obvious. And this is not a post dedicated to pointing out the obvious. I bring up the Weeds clip, and Rihanna – and while we’re at it, I’ll toss in this post by Jessica Grose at XX Factor about fashion moguls and the submissive ladies who love them – as a little pop cultural S&M appetizer before we get to our wonky, scientific main course: The Neural Circuitry of Dominance & Submission.

Writing on Psychology Today’s “Billion Wicked Thoughts” blog, Ogi Ogaswhose claim to fame seems to be “using cognitive techniques from his brain research to win half a million dollars on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and co-authoring a yet-to-be-released book called A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desiremuses on “why feminism is the anti-Viagra.

Link-baiting much?

But all right, all right, I’m biting; tell me, Ogi, why is feminism the anti-Viagra?

Gender equality inhibits arousal.

That’s a pretty bold statement there, Ogi. But you’ve got a PhD in this stuff; you must have done your research. What kind of hard-hitting evidence have ya got?

From classic romance The Flame and The Flower to classic erotica The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty to Twilight BDSM fan fiction, submission themes are immensely popular in cross-cultural female erotica.

[…] Romance heroes are almost always high status alpha males—billionaires, barons, surgeons, sheriffs. Avon Books and Ellora’s Cave feature no heroes who are kindergarten teachers, accountants, or plumbers. Even though there’s been a trend away from the conspicuously rapey bodice-rippers of the seventies and eighties, women still want strong, dominant men.

Huh. You’re starting to disappoint me a little bit here, sir (I decided I should drop the calling you by your first name; wouldn’t want to start inciting flacid penises left and right). I’m not a doubter about a lot of men and women having dominance/submission fantasies. But … romance novels and Twilight fan fic? It’s just not striking me as a representative sample of human sexual desire. Maybe we could get a little misguided interpretation of evolutionary psychology thrown in here?

“We’re portraying men the way feminist ideals say they should be—respectful and consensus-building,” muses erotic romance (EroRom) author Angela Knight. “Yet women like bad boys. I suspect that’s because our inner cavewoman knows Doormat Man would become Sabertooth Tiger Lunch in short order.”

Ah, there we go! But … then comes this:

One of the most startling findings from our desire research is this: men and women’s brains each come wired with the neural circuitry for both sexual dominance and sexual submission. When Nature builds our brains, it installs both the “male” and “female” subcortical circuits, but apparently only links one of these circuits to the arousal system. Scientists can trigger lordosis in male rats by activating their dormant submission circuitry, and can trigger masculine mounting in female rats by activating their dormant dominance circuitry.

In humans, the hormonal vagaries of prenatal development appear to cause a substantial portion of men to be born with active submissive circuitry. These men find sexual submission as arousing—or, quite often, far more arousing—than sexual dominance.

Wow. That is actually interesting. And seems to actually, scientifically, tell us something about the neural circuitry of dominance and submission. But in order to get to this – in order to get to this in a blog post on Psychology Today, not some lad magazine or MRA-site, mind you – we’ve had to sift through several rounds of feminist bashing, romance-novel-based evidence and bastardized ev-psych theorizing. On behalf of all folks (and feminists!) who truly are interested in the neural components of sexual arousal… it’s just insulting, Ogi.

Fortunately, Linda Young, also writing for Psychology Today, offers a much less sensationalistic (and idiotic) take:

To say “feminism” is causing loss of desire and damping male arousal is totally misleading. In fact, there is research that supports the opposite. Rudman and Phelan (1) found that men who had feminist partners reported being in more stable relationships and greater sexual satisfaction.” Brezsnyak & Whisman (2), showed that more egalitarian decision making was associated with elevated levels of sexual desire. Schwartz and Young summarized a number of studies showing a relationship between equitable couples and greater sexual satisfaction (3).

Feminism is about social, economic and political equity and is independent of what turns someone on in a bedroom or fantasy. Ogas, like lots of folks, finds it easier to parse people and ideologies into black and white polarities than to consider the complex grays that don’t fall neatly into categories. A feminist with cleavage in high heels who wants to be ravished in bed is not a contradiction!

And neither is a man who’ll smack you around one minute and beg to be tied up the next. I mean, so I’ve heard …

Written by Elizabeth

April 28, 2011 at 11:26 pm

Mediated sexuality

with one comment

I’m surprised I haven’t seen more blogosphere chatter about this Natasha Vargas-Cooper article on porn from the January issue of The Atlantic. It’s a fascinating read for the way it panders to no particular group or ideology. Social conservatives will find things to agree with here; “sex-positive” feminists and old-school anti-porn feminists will find things to agree with here; plain old porn fans will find things to agree with here. And all will likely find much to disagree with, too.

Vargas-Cooper starts by noting how the accessibility and sheer amount of Internet porn today has led to ample outlets dedicated to (and audiences for) the “outright bizarre.” But does this signify anything?

When a 13-year-old girl can sit in math class, hide her Hello Kitty smart phone behind her textbook, and pull up such an extreme video in less time than it would take her to text a vote for her favorite American Idol contestant, we’ve certainly reached some kind of new societal landmark. It’s important, however, to distinguish between what has changed and what hasn’t.

Porn’s new pervasiveness and influence on the culture at large haven’t necessarily introduced anything new into our sexual repertoire: humans, after all, have been having sex—weird, debased, and otherwise—for quite a while. But pervasive hard-core porn has allowed many people to flirt openly with practices that may have always been desired, but had been deeply buried under social restraint. Take anal sex: in a 1992 study that surveyed sexual behaviors, published by the University of Chicago, 20 percent of women ages 25 to 29 reported having anal sex. In a study published in October 2010 by the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University, the instances of anal sex reported by women in the same age cohort had more than doubled, to 46 percent. The practice has even made its way into the younger female demographic: the Indiana study shows 20 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds have had anal sex at least once.

One of the Indiana study’s co- authors, Debby Herbenick, believes that Internet porn now “plays a role in how many Americans perceive and become educated about sex.” How this influence actually works is speculative— no one can ever really know what other people do in their bedrooms or why. Some experts postulate a sort of monkey-see, monkey-do explanation, whereby both men and women are conforming to behaviors they witness on their browser media players. But in many ways this explanation doesn’t account for the subtle relationship between now-ubiquitous pornography and sexuality. To take anal sex again, porn doesn’t plant that idea in men’s minds; instead, porn puts the power of a mass medium behind ancient male desires. Anal sex as a run-of-the-mill practice, de rigueur pubic waxing for girls—and their mothers—and first-date doggy-style encounters (this is but a small sampling of rapidly shifting sexual mores) have been popularized and legitimized by porn. Which means that men now have a far easier time broaching subjects once considered off- putting—for instance, suburban dads can offhandedly suggest anal sex to their bethonged, waxed wives.

Now, I guess – depending upon your particular predilections and values – these development can be seen as good or bad. For some, this surely signifies our nation’s slide into depravity (or, as James Poulos would hastag it, #generationperv). Others may think, awesome, less repressive sexual mores! While others will routinely be compelled to question whether the bethonged, waxed wives really want to give anal a go or are, rather, being pressured by their porn-stimulated husbands.

But don’t blame pornography, Vargas-Cooper urges. The real culprit is “the reactionary political correctness of the 1990s” which focused on “sexual equality.” Take back the night rallies, women’s studies classes, all that business about boundaries … Poppycock! (pun intended), Vargas-Cooper says:

This is an intellectual swindle that leads women to misjudge male sexuality, which they do at their own emotional and physical peril. Male desire is not a malleable entity that can be constructed through politics, language, or media. Sexuality is not neutral. A warring dynamic based on power and subjugation has always existed between men and women, and the egalitarian view of sex, with its utopian pretensions, offers little insight into the typical male psyche. Internet porn, on the other hand, shows us an unvarnished (albeit partial) view of male sexuality as an often dark force streaked with aggression. The Internet has created a perfect market of buyers and sellers (with the sellers increasingly proffering their goods gratis) that provides what people—overwhelmingly males (who make up two-thirds of all porn viewers)—want to see or do.

I don’t think you can extrapolate a comprehensive view of Male Sexuality from the habits of Internet porn viewers (believe it or not, there are still men out there who don’t watch porn at all, and how would they skew the sample?). But, more or less, what Vargas-Cooper posits seems plausible.

When I was 18 years old, I remember declaring to people that “all good sex depended on a power struggle” or differential; perhaps my sexual neophyte self was wise beyond my years. But there were mitigating factors at work there, too. One, in your early sexual years, sex is largely performative (at least for many women), which leads to sex that’s more dramatic. Two, in your early sexual years, a lot of people have no idea what they’re doing, which leads to sex that’s either boring … or dramatic. As you get older, you can enjoy all sorts of subtleties. And you realize there’s room for all kinds of different sex. Or, as Vargas-Cooper puts it:

Hard-core porn, which is what Internet porn largely traffics in, is undoubtedly extreme. But how is sex, as a human experience, anything less than extreme? Not the kind of sex (or lack thereof) that occurs in marriages that double as domestic gulags. Or what 30-somethings do to each other in the second year of their “serious relationship.” But the sex that occurs in between relationships—or overlaps with relationships—where the buffers of intimacy or familiarity do not exist: the raw, unpracticed sort. If a woman thinks of the best sex she’s had in her life, she’s often thinking of this kind of sex, and while it may be the best sex in her life, it’s not the sex she wants to have throughout her life—or more accurately, it’s not the sex she’d have with the man with whom she’d like to spend her life.

It’s strange that she uses women as the example here – not because it’s not potentially true, but the cliche of this principle is the man who would never to do his wife or girlfriend the things he does to his mistress or OK Cupid lover. She quickly brings it back to men, though:

At the heart of human sexuality, at least human sexuality involving men, lies what Freud identified in Totem and Taboo as “emotional ambivalence”—the simultaneous love and hate of the object of one’s sexual affection. From that ambivalence springs the aggressive, hostile, and humiliating components of male sexual arousal.

[…] Pornography, with its garish view of male sexual desire, bares an uncomfortable truth that the women’s-liberation movement has successfully suppressed: men and women have conflicting sexual agendas.

Here is where Vargas-Cooper is perhaps contradicting herself, or at least stumbling over herself just a bit to fit her thesis about male sexuality.  Because this fails to take into account that variety of sexual experiences one can allow for once one gets older. Maybe some men and women have conflicting sexual agendas. But maybe some men who want to dominate find some women who want to submit. Maybe some men and some women prefer to engage in neither. Maybe some (I’d posit most?) are okay with aggressive, hostile sex some of the time, and gentle, loving sex at other times.

And that’s the crux of the problem with any  pornography-as-barometer-of-human-sexuality argument. While some couples enjoy porn together, most people watch porn when (oh my, there’s no delicate way to say this) they want to get themselves off. But sex, in the big-picture sense, isn’t all about getting off. Or not only about getting off, at least. In the non-digital realm, all sorts of things like “like” and “love” come into play. Perhaps the aggressive, the hostile, and even the “outright bizarre” are best suited for solo endeavors, but people’s preferences change when it comes to actual sex with someone actual that they care about. Or, as Tony Comstock put much more succintly in the article’s comments:

It’s a mistake to construe what aspects of human sexual experience that can be captured and distributed as a media product as a full-fledged proxy for human sexual experience.

Written by Elizabeth

February 2, 2011 at 8:33 am

Defending Betty Draper

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I didn’t know what was going on with LeBron James.

My college friends—mostly ex-Clevelanders now living in Chicago—were appalled. It was the night he was making his big announcement, and our friend Greg had canceled on dinner plans. “He probably just wanted to stay home and watch LeBron,” someone said. “What’s going on with LeBron?” I asked.

Embarrassed silence, dismay, horror spread throughout the room! I hoped never to have to meet with such abject group shaming any time soon—but it was not my night. Because later that evening, my tongue loosened from a little too much Malbec and some concoction my friend calls “Kari juice,” I let slip a far graver statement. What, you wonder, could beat the horror of telling a bunch of Cleveland kids that you, a former Ohioan yourself, have no idea what’s going on with LeBron James?

I admitted I liked Betty Draper.

With the Mad Men season four premiere this evening, the chattering classes and us that orbit them have once again begun fawning over the series, and though I know it’s not fashionable, though I know it’s downright heretical, I want to come clean once and for all: I don’t only like Betty; she is, in fact, my favorite female character on the show. I think she’s sexier than Joan. I think she’s more interesting than Peggy. Yes, we’re all supposed to admire Christina Hendrick’s brave curves, and Peggy’s ambition. And I do. But my heart belongs to Betty.

Yes, she’s  used to getting her way. Yes, she’s rich, and insular; cold, and certainly not the world’s greatest mother. Betty’s not perfect—but none of the character’s on Mad Men are. And yet none of the others seem to be met with the same audience scorn as Betty Draper. Why?

When I’ve admitted to friends, recently, my feelings about Betty, they asked me if I’d finished season 3 yet. I had not. Wait ’til you finish season three, multiple people told me. I bet you’ll change your mind.

But I finished season three last night, and I just don’t see where I’m supposed to start perceiving Betty as especially horrible. Sure, she’s leaving Don for another man, but Disney princesses get more action that Betts got during the lead-up to this affair. Meanwhile, Don has been screwing around on her since the beginning of their marriage, and hiding a secret life (which Betty finds out about at the same time as all this is happening). I’m not one to cast fidelity as the be-all end-all of marital commitment, but for what it’s worth, I think the point clearly goes to Betty here.

So what then—what is it about Betty that turns people off so? Is it that she was raised rich? That she’s pretty? That’s she’s a certain kind of pretty? That she’s not a bastion of maternal compassion? All of it together? What?

I began suspecting folks’ hatred of Betty Draper had less to do with what Betty was, and more to do with what she was not. And what she was not was behaving in the way we like our victimized mid-century housewives to behave. Justin Miller at the Atlantic just comes right out and says it:

Betty was “hazily presented as a stultified victim,” as Ben Schwarz wrote in The Atlantic last year. And victimhood requires a sort of innocence, which is destroyed when she cheats on Don with an anonymous man at a bar and sets up an affair between her married friend and another man. Betty is no longer a victim of infidelity, by the end of the second season, but a believer in it.

So when our lonely housewife heroine feels such so thoroughly isolated she can only speak candidly with an 8-year-old boy, that’s sympathetically adorable, but this sympathy is conditional on her remaining totally helpless?

Well, either that or getting all Betty Friedman on our asses! Miller continues to lament that

… Betty isn’t the agent of her own salvation. It’s another man that’s letting her escape the Draper name by seducing her, proposing to her, and convincing her to leave her family. Betty is hardly an epitome of 1960s feminism. After all, what sort of heroine needs a man?

Most heroines, I’d say, just like most heros need a leading lady. What exactly are Don’s numerous affairs but proof of his “need” of a woman?

As one commenter on Miller’s piece says:

I actually like the fact that Betty’s kind of a jerk. It would have been too easy and obvious a trope to have written her character as a more morally (and emotionally) advanced and perfect creature whose frustrations, limitations and heartbreaks have been foisted upon her by the other jerks in her life and/or by the inequities of the time.

Written by Elizabeth

July 25, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Fetishizing the Good Wife

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The problems start with the subhead: A new generation of female bloggers is championing the importance of being a good wife and partner.

Yes, a new generation of bloggers, eons removed from those paleolithic female bloggers of 2003 who, incidentally, aimed to be terrible wives and atrocious partners! But blah blah blah; people like to cover housewives. The green/locavore/whatever movement is providing a wonderful new hook for doing so.

What’s more interesting, I think, are things like this:

And then there’s Taryn Cox, who isn’t afraid to put it all out there, unabashedly writing about stereotypically uxorial topics ranging from themed baby showers and creating her own cocktail-style dresses to the art of ironing a newspaper and how to clean with vodka at a blog she has titled TarynCoxTheWife.com.

Cox’s posts showcase classic glamour and gorgeous parties as songs such as “Sunny Side of the Street” play in the background.

“I’ve always just been so completely fascinated by the idea of marriage and dedication,” says Cox, a trim 26-year-old with a penchant for pastels and an e-mail address that starts with “stepfordwife.”

No, she’s not married and she doesn’t have kids, but “this [blog] is for those dreams and fantasies. I believe my own vision. I believe there’s an art to being a good wife.”

Clearly, Taryn is taking things a little far. But I think for a certain subset of post-post-feminist (or whatever we are) Gen Y women—especially the particularly horrifying strain who perhaps read a lot of Sylvia Plath or worked in a vintage clothing shop in high school, who were raised by Republicans or Catholics but later got a lip ring or an ill-advised Kanji tattoo, and who appreciate a good cocktail, a man who will take out the garbage and the erotic possibilities of gender roles—well, it’s not too hard to get sucked into the ‘good wife’ allure. Not to the degree Taryn has, heavens no. Just a little bit.

Maybe it’s seriously all libido. Or maybe it’s just another facet of that grasping 20-something desire for some model for how to be Good at Life®.

The rest of the article—which ran in Sunday’s L.A. Times—is mostly a rehash of some book about being your husband’s “at home business partner” or something that came out a few years ago, sprinkled with a little bit of two-bloggers-as-Trend anecdotes. And of course there is the Angry Feminist response:

“They want to live in this perfectly art-directed world,” says Michele Kort, senior editor at Ms. “It’s an illusion that if you have all the right clothes and right accessories that your life will be perfect. This is a throwback to stuff like [Marabel Morgan’s 1974 self-help book] ‘The Total Woman’ … that a wife should be subservient and be all about making a man comfortable and having the perfect household … for the women of the ’50s, it wasn’t so happy-making.”
Which is one of those arguments that just seems silly, for anyone to endorse or for anyone to take as the standard belief of all feminists. To me, it seems that for some women of the 50s, it probably was “happy-marking,” to use Kort’s awkward phrasing. It’s possible that then, as now, there were some women who really did enjoy being completely dedicated wives and mothers. And that this being true in no way negates the fact that many women do not enjoy being full-time housewives, and that women should pursue whatever path makes them happiest. I mean, while I appreciate all the current research and publicity about how women who don’t work could be in for a lot of financial misery if their husbands dump them … at a certain point, god. All of our life paths are a gamble. If we really want to protect our young women’s financial futures, we should tell them not to become journalists, or actors, or major in sociology.

Written by Elizabeth

May 18, 2010 at 5:35 pm

Why Don’t More Women Propose?

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That’s what I found myself wondering after reading this Wall Street Journal article and this response on XX Factor. The WSJ article is an exploration/lament of the different way marriage proposals are negotiated today compared to 50 years ago.

Those romantic tales that get passed among friends and relatives—”One day he just showed up with a ring! I was completely surprised!”—are vestiges of the past. We’ve gone from popping the question to a long conversation, hammering out the details of when and how the engagement will happen.

Amanda Miller, a sociology professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, conducted a study about how proposals are made among cohabiting couples. The result, titled “Waiting to Be Asked,” found that couples not only work together as a team to set the date. Ms. Miller says some women script the proposal first, telling their boyfriend something like: “I’d always wanted to be proposed to on Christmas morning in front of family.”

Obviously, the upside to all this is that it’s a sign of how women now have more agency in deciding when and whom to marry. And perhaps it should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: that surprise proposal of the past that the article nostalgically clamors for is hardly a long-standing “tradition,” at least not when we take the whole of societal marriage negotiations for the past couple centuries into account.

But none of this is what I really want to talk about. What I want to know is, if women obviously have more agency in organizing marriage arrangements these days, and if a particular women (like these mentioned in the article) is comfortable enough in her relationship and desiring enough of and old man* to negotiate a proposal from her significant other …. why doesn’t she just propose herself? Why is that not even mentioned in the article as an option? Is it really that rare? Admittedly, I’ve never known any girl/woman/pick-your-poison who proposed to her man. Is it because most egalitarian-minded women would rather just  discuss the idea of getting married with their partner instead of re-purposing the proposal genre, which could be considered a “tool of the patriarchy?” So many questions! Stephanie Coontz, what say you?

* This is (with its mirror, the “old lady”), I think, the funniest term for a spouse, and one I heard used non-ironically quite a few times more than expected growing up in the Midwest …

Written by Elizabeth

April 27, 2010 at 11:07 am

Posted in Culture, Feminism, Sex/Love

Tagged with ,

Simone de Beauvoir Made Me Keep Chickens

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My goodness. When I first read this Amanda Marcotte post on Double XX about the New York Times article on upper-class housewife chicken keepers, I thought Marcotte was probably right about the gist but must be using her characteristic hyperization when she said it was “was yet another one of those expensive NY Times pieces about how some rich ladies found an out from the supposed demands of feminism, a space where they can stay at home without being so bored they have to subsist on Valium.”

But that is actually what the article explicitly says.

All of these gals — these chicks with chicks — are stay-at-home moms, highly educated women who left the work force to care for kith and kin. I don’t think that’s a coincidence: the omnivore’s dilemma has provided an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper. “Prior to this, I felt like my choices were either to break the glass ceiling or to accept the gilded cage,” says Shannon Hayes, a grass-fed-livestock farmer in upstate New York and author of “Radical Homemakers,” a manifesto for “tomato-canning feminists,” which was published last month.

Writer Peggy Orenstein goes on to actually call it “femivorism,” and asks, “who these days can’t wax poetic about compost?” Plenty of people, Peggy Orenstein!

I get that this is a style section article. I think she’s trying to be, shall we say, tongue-in-cheek. But still … She actually suggests that should a wife no longer be able to rely on her husband for financial support, homemaking and chicken-cooping skills may be better positioned to “provide a family’s basic needs” and “guard against job loss (and) catastrohpic illness” than a salary or savings.

Orenstein does end on a skeptical note, to be fair. And it’s not that the article itself is inherently uninteresting (Marcotte made pains to point out that she loves organic gardening and once considered keeping chickens; I’ve got a hallway full of seeds sprouting and a boyfriend who sells raw vegan nut pates around town). It’s just … why does everything women do – and I was going to say outside the realm of paid work, but really, it’s everything: working, not-working, part-time work, hobbies, etc. – have to be considered as a reaction to or against “feminism?” Why can’t we accept that there have, are and always will be myriad ways for arranging domestic, social and professional life, and the periodic, cyclical “discovery” of them by magazine or style section reporters says close to nothing about the state of gender relations, the nature of egalitarianism, feminism or the rejection thereof? *

* said with love, as one whose greatest ambition is secretly to write these types of articles.

Written by Elizabeth

March 15, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Eco-feminism

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From Bitch:

Admittedly, I don’t see much disconnect between environmental issues, feminism, and animal rights issues (not to be confused with animal welfare, which I’ll discuss in another post).

… In the next weeks, I’ll be looking at a variety of intersecting issues including the human cost of chocolate, the use of fur in northern climates and indigenous cultures, soy and soybean farming, nuclear power’s environmental effects, ideas for carbon-free transit, the links between racism and animal oppression, and how you can be a pro-choice vegan.

Aside from the pro-choice veganism issue, I don’t understand how any of these topics could be considered feminist issues. There are enough feminist issues. There are enough ecological issues. Outside of perhaps academic research, I don’t understand the imperative to conflate them …

Written by Elizabeth

January 26, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Eco-feminism?

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From Bitch:

Admittedly, I don’t see much disconnect between environmental issues, feminism, and animal rights issues (not to be confused with animal welfare, which I’ll discuss in another post).

… In the next weeks, I’ll be looking at a variety of intersecting issues including the human cost of chocolate, the use of fur in northern climates and indigenous cultures, soy and soybean farming, nuclear power’s environmental effects, ideas for carbon-free transit, the links between racism and animal oppression, and how you can be a pro-choice vegan.

Aside from the pro-choice veganism issue, I don’t understand how any of these topics could be considered feminist issues. There are enough feminist issues. There are enough ecological issues. Outside of perhaps academic research, I don’t understand the imperative to conflate them …

Written by Elizabeth

January 26, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Posted in Feminism

Tagged with

Communes!

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Would you share a farm with this girl?

(In Which I Declare What I Could Have Said A Lot Less Complicatedly As An 8th-Grader Who Idolized Hippies …)

It started with reading this Sandra Tsing Loh article in The Atlantic, I think.

Loh notes that today’s “creative class” mother – with her flexible, creative job; her city life; her egalitarian marriage and child-rearing ideals – actually has it worse than her previous-generation counterparts, because of the absence of a built-in family and community structure.

Working for the AARP, I come across a lot of things about multi-generational households, and I’m convinced that they offer a lot of benefit, for all parties involved; that our nuclear-family model of housing and living (which was, in so many ways, engineered in early- to mid-20th century America to push housing sales and create demand for railways and street cars)—our method of splintering off into smaller and smaller household units, of aging parents on their own back in Midwestern cities and suburbs, or shuttled off into nursing homes and retirement communities, of modern moms and dads raising kids in isolation—is all just a mess.

At this same time, I’ve been reading Laura Kipnis’ Against Love: A Polemic, which rails against the modern conception of marriage and monogamy on its own merits (or lack thereof). It’s a fascinating book that looks at what, exactly, is supposed to sustain marriages now that property ties and lineage concerns and gender roles aren’t all tied up with them; how marriage, as it stands, is a failing institution; how our conceptions that our spouse (or boyfriend/girlfriend/lover) is supposed to be everything —friend, lover, domestic and child-rearing partner, therapist, creative consultant, etc.—is ruining our lives.

Kipnis gets into this whole explanation of earlier revolts against marriage (or examinations of it, at least) in the U.S.—of the pamphlets and townhall meetings and intellectual discussions about the issue in 1800s America; of the transcendentalists and others who sought alternative forms of marriage or companionship and domestic life. These ideas used to be taken seriously, she writes, but the whole 1960s commune/free-love movement and the subsequent backlash and mockery that created have relegated any questioning of this sort into a hippie cliché.

Flash to last night, and I’m talking with my friend Morgan about yurts. Specifically, that her and her roommate, Sam, have been, for years now, looking into and researching and dreaming about getting a lot of friends together on a farm, out west, or in a college town, and living in yurts off a main house and practicing communal farming and living, etc.

And I laughed, because this is exactly the conversation that keeps playing out, over and over again, amongst me and my boyfriend and my friends in Brooklyn. We have a few friends who’ve actually started, who’ve left the cities (New York, Cincinnati) behind and ventured out to California, to Alaska, and started apprenticing at farms. We have other friends with family ties to maple farms in Scandinavia, avocado farms in SoCal. We’re tentatively and dreamily exploring our options. We’re starting with hallway gardens and kombucha brewing classes and volunteer sessions at the Greenpoint Rooftop Farms. We’re engaging in grand conversational fantasies with one another whenever we see things like a 15-room hotel for sale in upstate New York. We’re discussing these things with friends in other cities—like Morgan and Sam in Chicago; but also friends in Boston, friends in Cincinnati, friends out in California already. Everyone’s feeling this vibe.

From the yurt conversation, Morgan and I got on the topic of marriage, of children, of monogamy, spurred by the fact that the reason I’m visiting Chicago my best friend from college having a baby. She’s the first person Morgan or I are friends with —real friends, not high school friends, not the kind of friend who’s still in your home town and whose life bears no real connection or resemblance to your own—who has been married, and now, who’s having a child. Morgan and I were pondering the implications of this.

And then and there, I developed a philosophy on life and love and marriage and children and society (one that I didn’t even know I felt until I was espousing it to Morgan as if it was a long-held system of beliefs).

The only way, I realized, that all of this would work in my life is for it to take place within a multi-adult/couple/family communal living situation.

I’m not totally averse to monogamy, to marriage, to children even; but I also could never do it as part of a totally secluded nuclear family unit. I think a lot of people my age feel the same way. For whatever reasons, though, it’s not totally feasible or desirable to move back to our hometowns, to create multi-generational, communal households within our own extended families. But it may be feasible to do so amongst friends?

What if, as we age—as we reach that inevitable stage where people really do start wanting to pair off, to maybe make relationships legally and economically sanctioned, to start forming families—my friends and I all did it together? And combined it with our collective desire to be a part of the land, to create food and art together? How wonderful would it be to have those things—a life partner, children if you lean that way—without the confines of having to rely on the totally illogical goal of having one person meet all your needs in life? You could serve as each other’s companions, creative partners, domestic helpers, chefs, housemates, and friends. You would, of course, still get some of all of this from your primary partner. But you wouldn’t have to rely on them exclusively for all these things, and thereby diminish the primary love/sex bond you have with them.

I’ve pretty much decided in the past 12 hours that it’s the only possible way for me to live, create and grow old.

Written by Elizabeth

December 15, 2009 at 9:45 pm

All just a little bit of history repeating …

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One of my particular cultural irritants, as of late, has been what can be scapegoatedly pinned on Ayelet Waldman or more broadly described as the “bad mother” genre. What a strange symbol of our times, these women hemming and hawing over their perceived psychological transgressions against the pathos of motherhood, their defiant reclamation attempts in Oprah-friendly memoir form . How ridiculous; how tedious.

So I got a kick out of Sandra Tsing Loh’s December Atlantic article, “On Being a Bad Mother,” in which she reviews both Waldman’s Bad Mother and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch:

What better phrase to describe marriage among those of my own bewildered demographic slice—parents of the Creative Class? We start with the best of intentions. In her 20s, the Creative Class female carves out a cool Creative Class career, like Writer. She meets a man with an equally cool Creative Class job—say, Devoted Documentary Filmmaker of the Obama 10-Year African Kiva Water Project. In their 30s, the baby comes: the Creative Class mom is pitched into hormonal bliss (at least at first); the very same week—argh, the timing!—Gates Foundation money suddenly comes through for the Obama-kiva-water-project documentary. Clinking champagne glasses, both spouses agree that Dad must fly to Africa for two months to finish filming while Mom cares for the baby. (The last thing she wants is be a 1950s nag—and how rarely does Gates money come through, how important is drinking water for Africa?)

After kissing her husband goodbye, the Creative Class mother now begins to care for their baby, alone, in New York, or Los Angeles, or whatever cool city they’ve moved to. She’s isolated from her stem family—the grandma, aunts, and in-laws (who all love children!) have long been left behind in notoriously un-Creative Lompoc, Fort Lauderdale, or Ohio. She can barely maneuver the stroller down the four flights of stairs to get to Gymboree ($20 for 45 minutes, and you have to actually stay with your nine-month-old and drum). Result: the 21st-century Creative Class mom’s life is actually far worse than that of her 1950s counterpart. Her husband works as many hours (and travels more), but life is uncomfortable on his salary alone, and the isolated mom has no bingo-playing moms’ group to ease the unnatural, teeth-chattering stress of one-on-one care of her child.

But every time I read these sorts of things—this, or Tsing Loh’s last Atlantic article, about her affair and divorce; Elizabeth Weil’s New York Times Magazine article about working on her marriage, and all the bloggy disccusions around it; books like Against Love and A Vindication of Love, both railing against modern “companionate” marriages in their own way; all these late-boomer and Gen X women at once enchanted and neurotic and furious with our current exemplars of marriage or motherhood or monogamy—I am left wondering (and depressed) about what fights we Gen Y (and beyond) women will face in this realm. So much of the current angst seems to be a reaction to the 1970s woman’s reaction to the 1950s woman’s lifestyle/dilemna/ideal … it frustrates me. I’m tired of those battles; they seem silly and cliched and obvious.

But our battles are going to have to be a reaction to these. Or a backlash. And what will that look like? All I know, when I read these things, is that I don’t want to be any of the women in these essays. I don’t want their problems, don’t want their lives. I wonder how they possibly got there, and then can see myself getting there. I think the avoidance of all that will all be so simple, but then they, as women in the 70s and 80s, probably thought the same thing about that 1950s woman.

Written by Elizabeth

December 6, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Posted in Culture, Feminism

Tagged with , , , ,

My Feminine Perspective

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I could say a lot about Helen Rittlemeyer ‘s Doublethink piece on women’s Web sites and blogs, but I’m going to focus on her relatively minor criticism of gender skeptics and their lady-blogging:

… liberal feminists like Kerry Howley, Amanda Marcotte, and Tracy Clark-Flory are gender skeptics who don’t believe that a “feminine perspective” exists. (Which raises the question: If their brand of feminism is right and gender differences are really as superficial as eye color, why have a gendered blog?)

This seems like a cheap shot, a deliberate conflating of ideas for the purpose of a ‘gotcha, silly liberal feminists’ that falls apart with any examination.

Not believing that an inherent “feminine perspective” exists (which is the position of most gender skeptics I’ve read) in no way means that a) a learned gender perspective does not exist, b) there are not topics of concern to women which some may feel don’t receive enough play in mainstream or non-gendered press/blogs, and therefore require their own separate outlet, or c) it’s not beneficial for readership/branding/intellectual/whatever purposes to gather a bunch of women together to talk about women’s topics. I fail to see how any of those three things negate a belief that we aren’t born with preferences on football or the color pink.

My other serious contention with the piece is that Helen seems to take Double X and Broadsheet as representative of all women’s blogs. I know for brevity’s sake it’s necessary for a writer to focus on a few examples. But using only these two, similarly-constructed women’s blogs leaves out some important contrasting types, and makes me think Helen was being this selective only to avoid having to delve deeper than her core argument that women’s blogs are lazy, chatty and unintellectual.

One of the most popular women’s blogs, Feministe, often offers a much more intellectual approach to and long-form critiques of feminist issues. This isn’t always great; Jill is the only writer currently there that can pull it off interestingly.  I’ve stopped reading Feministe, for the most part, because there are only so many intro to queer theory essays I can handle. But it is a women’s blog with a slightly different approach.

It’s also a for-love endeavor, versus a for-profit endeavor (as Broadsheet and Double X are). Whether you’re a women’s blog, a sports site or CNN, page views do, somewhat, dictate content, something which Helen’s essay fails to address entirely. I don’t read Marie Claire and expect that that “editorial” content about the best new brand of lipstick was completely and solely the brainchild of some enterprising, lipstick loving reporter. Economic reasons for the creation, tone and content of any publication, women’s blogs included, is a major aspect to overlook.

Written by Elizabeth

December 1, 2009 at 9:48 am

RI Ends Legal Prostitution

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Ah, priorities:

Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri has signed legislation closing a loophole that made indoor prostitution legal and allowed more than 30 suspected brothels to operate around the state.

The bills signed Tuesday end Rhode Island’s status as the only state that allowed indoor prostitution statewide.

Rhode Island lawmakers inadvertently created the loophole in 1980 when they passed a law cracking down on prostitutes and their customers who operated in public. But it was silent on paid sex in private.

But in this economy, I’m sure it will be very easy for all the state’s brothel workers to find respectable employment elsewhere …

Written by Elizabeth

November 4, 2009 at 10:50 am

Posted in Culture, Feminism

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Women’s Studies

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Laura Vanderkam writes in USA Today about “the princess problem” and women in the workforce:

Some economists have predicted that women could surpass men as a proportion of payroll employment this year. A growing proportion of young women entering the workforce will need to support their whole families at some point. Yet there’s evidence that young women don’t think about this as they plan their careers — because, hey, someday that prince might come.

I wonder how much Vanderkam’s hypothesis applies to young women today—it seems to me more of an attitude belonging last to the boomer generation. But while girls today might not fall as easily prey to the princess trap in choosing a career, Salon’s Broadsheet recently pointed out:

… even as more women than ever are majoring in science and engineering, the traditionally female-oriented fields are becoming even more so — i.e., as more women major in those subjects, men start avoiding them. And as people who work in the “caring professions” have long known, the more a field becomes “feminized,” the less it’s valued.

I wanted to know why the traditionaly female-oriented fields were becoming more so, but neither the Broadsheet post nor the Inside Higher Ed article in links to offer much by way of explanation other than”as women go into some majors, men sometimes don’t want those majors anymore,” which seems to raise more questions than it answers.

Written by Elizabeth

August 12, 2009 at 1:48 pm

Posted in Feminism

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Men & Abortion

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Conor wrote last week about the role of men in abortion decisions.

A culture that tells men they shouldn’t have any part in decisions about abortion, as portrayed at the “abortion party,” inevitably discourages them from responding to a pregnant girlfriend by asking, “What should we do?” And the notion that at most men should signal mutual investment in the process, and graciously support whatever the woman decides, may sound wonderful to a lot of people, but is it really realistic? A societal norm that elevates the woman’s choice above all else can certainly safeguard widespread access to abortions. But I suspect that the same norm inevitably leads some men to ask — wrongly in my view, but understandably — if you think that abortion is ethically unproblematic, and whether to have one or not is your choice, why should I have to pay child support for 18 years if you decide against having one?”

Feministing reported this week on a proposed Ohio bill that would require a woman to get a man’s signature before obtaining an abortion:

Rep. John Adams, a Republican from Sidney, wants to change that and the legislation he introduced today, House Bill 252, would require the biological father’s consent before an abortion can be done. The bill would apply to any abortion and would require written consent before it can be done.

Let’s disregard the ridiculousness (it will never be passed with a Democratic governor, and doesn’t Ohio have more important things to be worrying about right now? (Yes)) and offensiveness of this bill even being introduced. But to juxtapose responses to the questions raised by the outrageous Ohio bill and by Conor’s more thoughtful question, it’s always just struck me as so obvious that:

a) we shouldn’t require a woman to carry a pregnancy to term, because it’s ultimately her body being required to support a fetus’ development, and therefore any laws requiring a biological father’s permission would be utterly absurd, but

b) there should be a way for a man to opt out of raising a child he’s conceived! Even if you’re anti-abortion, you can conceive a child and give it up for adoption. It does seem unfair to me to say to men, ‘you got a woman pregnant, she wants to have/raise the child and you don’t, now please support it for 21 years.’ I do think child support laws are unfair in this situation, and there should be a time period where it’s legal for a man to say, no, I do not want any responsibility for this child, legally, financially, etc., and I hereby sign away all legal rights to see/talk to/have any claim to this child or the child’s mother, and if the mother still wants to carry the child to term/not give it up for adoption knowing that, she will have no legal recourse for collecting support for the child. If a father signs away all rights/responsibility to/with the child, and at some point later changes his mind, then he’s out of luck unless both he and the mother legally agree that this arrangement can be changed.

Written by Elizabeth

July 22, 2009 at 10:05 pm

My Future-Wrinkly-Old-Biddy Manifesto

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LA Times ran an article by Lori Kozlowski on Monday asking, “Are We Worrying About Aging Too Young?”

I’ve noticed ever-younger women (often 10 years my junior) worrying about signs of aging — even before they’ve lost their baby fat. Girls at the counter point to their foreheads or the sides of their eyes and say: “See, there’s a wrinkle right there.” These women are trying to prevent wrinkles years ahead of when they might be expected to develop them. They’re slapping on eye cream at 18 and planning to pay for their first Botox treatment with coins they collect in their dorm rooms.

Alas!—it’s a phenomenon that extends far beyond LA. Back in Ohio, I remember hearing my then-roommate and a friend discussing anti-aging creams at a bar one night. I was 23 at the time; they were both 22. These were not beauty-queen, primadonna girls, either. My roommate was a hippie chick with a curly fro who didn’t shave her legs or armpits and now often models for Threadless. The other girl was a pale, beautiful writer-type who did sketch-comedy and had a mohawk in college. When I told them my “skin-care regimen” consisted of soap, water, and Burt’s Bees moisturizer in the winter months, they exchanged a gentle, knowing look before ever-so-politely explaining to me that if I did not get with it I was going to look like an old shrew by 25. I brushed off their admonitions, smug my clearly-more-advanced sense of self-confidence, my refusal to be a fool parting ways with hundreds of dollars a year on snake-oil beauty creams.

And then I began to worry. Just a little. But the fear had been planted: what if they were right?

When I came to DC, I made friends with a wonderful group of young women who were smart, funny, low-key. The kind of girls not afraid to leave the house without makeup on, or to consume a couple pints of cheap beer and a cheeseburger at a happy hour. Not girly-girls.

But I soon began to notice this bizarre aging-worry in them, too. While they would hardly criticize another woman or a celebrity’s relative level of attractiveness, or weight, they were quick to lambaste those who dared to look older. Celebs and non-celebs alike were often branded “old-lady face.” And old-lady-face was an anathema, a fate we must fight at all costs!

Sun was to be avoided, unless one was coated in 16-layers of sunscreen and sporting a sun hat the size of a sombrero. Expensive skin products and devices were purchased; mircroderm abrasion treatments indulged. Comments from co-workers or stangers about looking younger than one’s actual age were always shared with the group gleefully—and she thought I was 24! Like in a teen-movie where the proper response to the mean girl’s “I think I’m going on a diet” is always “no, but you’re so thin!,” there was only one way to respond to these stories: but you totally could be 24!

It irritated me (and still does). There is very little physical difference, overall, between 22-year-olds and 32-year-olds. Some people are always going to look a bit more youthful, some people a bit less, but there is not, really, a grand variance. Were someone to mistake me for 17, or 42, I might be concerned. But 27? 23? 31? What did it matter?

And yet, again, it all began to worry me. At 24 & 25, people began to mistake me for 28, 29, 30. It felt like an insult. Even though their reasons were often not about physical appearance. Even though I had plenty of 28-, 29- and 30-year-old friends who were beautiful, and not at all “old” looking. I wanted to “look my age,” or look younger than my age, for no tangible reason whatsoever. For no reason other than that, for years, from my friends, and from media, I had been absorbing this message that “youth” was the most important look to strive for, and this had, quite slowly, quite without my realizing it, wormed its way into my brain.

I have, thankfully, avoided the urge to shell out for eye serums, wrinkle soothers, fine-line-concealing creams. I began to wear sunscreen on my face daily, to moisturize a little more. But for the most part, I took a defiant attitude. We are too young for this! There will perhaps be time to worry, later in life (though perhaps not; perhaps this contrariness can carry). This focus on age should not stand, this number as a proxy for a woman’s beauty. Do you remember what you, or the girls you knew, looked like in high school and college? For the most part, ladies look much better at 27 than at 17 (I, for one, actually weigh less now than I did in high school, grew into my nose, and figured out how the hell to manage my thick, wavy hair. I’m also no longer totally awkward). Most women (and men) I know would agree. So why do we do this to each other? Because it is not men who do this to us, it is almost always women who do it to one another.

If the aging topic comes up, now, I am sometimes prone to telling people, ‘I plan to be a wrinkly old biddy when I grow up, and I am just fine with that.’ I will not cut my hair sensibly. I will stop dying it after 50 or 60. I will wear it long and gray, or white (I hope white), and I will be a beautiful old hippie woman, with fine, tan skin from enjoying things outdoors, and if there are lines around my eyes, etched across my forehead and around my lips—so be it.

Written by Elizabeth

July 15, 2009 at 11:19 am

Fashion Writing

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My friend Melanie is offended by my post on women journalists. She writes:

“Love Liz, but I find her response really condescending. Good fashion writing is not “fluff stuff.” Need proof? Washington Post Fashion Editor Robin Givhan won a Pulitzer for her work in 2006. While I agree fashion is not a “serious” issue, that doesn’t make it unimportant or render fashion writers second-class journalists. I follow politics, but I don’t have an interest in writing about it. My ability to grasp “‘real’ political issues, like military endeavors, campaigns, taxes, etc.” has nothing to do with it.”

So—for the record—I never meant to imply I think all fashion (or fitness or celebrity or beauty or relationship) writing is fluff (nor that all business or news writing is non-fluff, for that matter). But I think we can all agree “5 Ways to Get Beach Hair” or “14 Ways to Surprise Your Valentine Feb. 14” is. And that’s the kind of stuff there’s a bigger freelance market for than the type of fashion-writing that wins Pulitzers. That said, I also never meant to imply that it doesn’t take a certain skill to write even the fluff (sometimes writing short can be sooo much tougher than writing long), nor that the writers of said fluff were writing it because they weren’t capable of grasping more serious stuff. All I was saying is that because women journalists have the option of writing—and getting paid for—this stuff, less of them may tackle military endeavors, campaigns and taxes.

This conversation was somewhat spawned by Phoebe’s post here (“I still think there’s something to the idea that fashion-as-shallowness is a sexist construction”), and she’s on about fashion again today, asking ‘What makes good fashion writing?‘ Meanwhile, I just read today (via Joanne McNeil) that “1/3 of U.S. women recently surveyed by America’s Research Group said they plan no clothing purchases–none–in 2009.

Written by Elizabeth

February 2, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Posted in Culture, Feminism, Media

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