Thursday, November 11, 2010

...except that it is

So I recently put up a post on the BARCC website about consent, and I believe it. Check it out here. In terms of sexual assault and rape, when we talk about consent, we're not talking about a long-term on/off switch that we and our partners flip. It doesn't work that way.

But...I'm not sure I actually believe my own statement about consent not being complicated. I think it's exceptionally complicated. We talk about consent in the context of sexual assault in a way that we really don't talk about it in any other circumstance, with the possible exception of medical care. Perhaps we should be making more analogies to doctors in our work.

Here's the problem: how many times a day do we get to consent to something? If I'm hanging out with friends, maybe I'll have the chance to determine if we go to a certain place to get food, or maybe I'll have input into what board- or video-games we might play. Maybe. But that doesn't require a continuous checking-in, it doesn't require that I try to think in advance of what emotional needs my friends might have, and it doesn't really require a ton of assessment of the cultural factors that weigh down that decision. If I ask my roommates if they want to grab Anna's Tacqueria for dinner, they aren't labeled, socially positioned, or discriminated against because they say yes or no. So the way that I think about consent in most of my normal daily interactions doesn't really fit the same model of consent that we're asking people to use in the sexual sphere.

Secondly, how many things happen to us on a day-to-day basis where consent isn't even a concept we get to broach? I've got homework to do, and my options are either to do it and get a good grade, or not do it, get a lower grade or fail, and face some serious consequences. When I worked for the marketing firm I worked for right out of undergrad, when my boss asked me if I could stay late to finish up reports that our clients needed the next morning, I guess I could have said no, but then I would've gotten in a lot of trouble.

Time after time in the course of most of our daily experiences, forces outside our control interact with us and affect our lives, and rarely if ever do those forces ask if they can do so. I don't get to negotiate with my college about tuition; my options are either to pay it or get kicked out, or go to another school. I don't get to negotiate with my public transportation agency about when the bus comes; I can either get on the bus or I can decide not to. I don't get to (directly) decide what my taxes are going to be most of the time - I can either pay them, or I can get audited by the IRS and possibly arrested. The idea that, in sexual relations, we're not only allowed but expected to put wants and desires first, and to regularly make sure we're falling within the lines of those wants and desires with our partners is a big jump from almost every other part of my world. I'm not saying it's a BAD jump, or that I don't whole-heartedly believe in it; what I think is difficult is that I don't necessarily have a whole lot of models for it.

The reason this is important for this discussion of rape and sexual assault is simple in my mind: most of us do not have experience with consent in the way we talk about it in the context of sex. If I expected my law school to be as attentive to my needs as a sexual partner is expected to be (under this ideal standard), I'd be laughed out of school. If I expected an employer (god forbid a law firm, in the future) to be this attentive, I've be laughed out of the firm, fired, and blacklisted from other firms. Where was I supposed to get the tools, experience, and understanding of this progressive idea of consent, from the world I live in?

In my world, people who get to express their desires and wants on a moment-to-moment basis in any context outside of sex are FABULOUSLY more wealthy and powerful than me. I worry that without more comprehensive sexual education, a lot of kids in the US will start thinking of consent as a class-based privilege. You can talk about consent all you want, if you've got the power to back it up. If you don't though, then you sound entitled and foolish. Consent is bourgie. If we've never made it clear that comfort zones, personal boundaries, and consent have a place in our lives in any other context than sex, why would people believe those things have a role in sex, either?

I think that the best place we have to model the type of consent we want to see in sex is the medical industry. It's not perfect, for sure, but the way that good doctors interact with good patients, especially when discussing surgery or treatment options for longer-term care, might be the best alternative model we've got for consent. A good doctor is supposed to offer a number of possibilities, reasonably cover the risks, and make sure that the patient has a good understanding of what's going on and can make a decision fairly before proceeding with any one treatment option. That would be my hope for consent in the sex arena, too.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

More thoughts on non-traditional messaging

To follow-up on this post I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the power of non-traditional messaging, I had the opportunity last night to meet Dr. Riley Crane, of MIT's Media Lab at a Yelp event. Crane was discussing his lab's use of social networking sites to win the DARPA Network Challenge - a $40,000 competition to locate 10 red balloons scattered throughout the US using whatever means competitors wanted to use.

Crane's team was able to locate all 10 balloons, scattered around the entirety of the US, in just under 9 hours (8 hours and 52 minutes), by turning to the enormous expertise and observation of the internet. His lab offered a financial incentive to anyone who either found one of the red balloons directly, or led the team to someone else who found a balloon. On average, Dr. Crane said that for each of the red balloons, there was a chain of four people between the folks who saw the balloon and the MIT team.

Aside from how cool the story is on its surface, I am very excited about the potential for social networks to start flexing their muscles in other ways. Dr. Crane talked about the enormous potential for systems like these (and his team was primarily using Twitter, Facebook, email, and a couple of blogs and advertisements) to find missing persons.

I want to know what kind of impact networks like these can start having for groups like HollaBack - a site dedicated to exposing street harassers by sharing their photos online via the medium of camera phones. Could we create a nationwide database of harassers? Could an idiot on the street in Chicago get recognized as the idiot he is in New York, as well?

While some experts like Crane and his team are already doing work in this area, it also makes me wonder if we're fully tapping the web for more mundane issues, like city planning. In a previous life, I was a city planning student at Boston University's Metropolitan College, and one of the major conclusions I came to during my time there was that citizen participation was vital in city planning, not only for the ideological reasons of civil society and government by the masses, but also because involving a lot of people usually results in better planning decisions.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Fantasy of Equivalent Pain

I've got a new piece up over at the BARCC Blog, and it's not one of my better works. The post was inspired by a friend who shared a Dateline story with me about a young man who was emotionally abused and coerced by his abuser into killing her husband. Pretty much every aspect of the story is incredibly depressing, but also fairly typical for an abuser. The only thing that sets Ramos's story apart from our more "traditional" story of DV is that his abuser, Patty Presba, didn't smack him around the way we expect male perpetrators to smack around women.

Whenever I read a story like this, in addition to the depression and sadness that comes with it, I also feel a twinge of...victory? I'm not sure exactly how to describe it. When I hear news about a female perpetrator, my first thoughts are often almost gloating - "see, women can abuse too." My post today was sort of about this, although in much nicer language. Yes, it is important for me to understand that men can suffer from sexual and partner violence and abuse. Yes, it is important for me to understand that abuse is unreasonably common in all types of partnerships across the country, and that lesbians abuse, queer people abuse, women abuse.

There's a very valid concern in the world of violence prevention that survivors who don't fit the cultural script of who a survivor "should be" have a lot of obstacles to getting support. BARCC has run up against this problem with male survivors, who don't really report assaults, and with lesbian survivors too. I want to recognize that there are probably a lot of male survivors, or non-traditional survivors, who haven't reported or can't report because of hurdles placed in their path above and beyond what we already throw in front of straight white women who are survivors.

BUT - and here's where things get tangled in my own mind - it's really easy for me to slip into a fantasy where, because of all these obstacles that exist in the world, there are these huge masses of men being sexually abused or raped, and who never talk about it. I have this fantasy that abuse and violence are equivalent, and that it's not mostly people who look like me and identify like me that are causing all of this pain in the world.

That fantasy is complete bullshit. Yes, men can be and are survivors of assault, abuse, and violence. It is absolutely necessary to support survivors who are male, to ensure that they have the safe social space to seek support and help, and that they can do so without compromising their gender identity. Almost hoping, though, that as many men have been victimized as women (because it would make me feel better as a male-identified person myself) is a form of trying to claim ownership of an issue that isn't mine to claim.

It's like try to prove that rifles are as dangerous as handguns in gun-related violence. Sure, people do shoot each other with rifles in non-military situations in the US, and we should probably have good policy to prevent people from getting shot with them. But high-profile cases like the D.C. sniper aside, the relative levels of handgun violence versus rifle violence is so outrageously lopsided that any public health professional or gun-control activist would laugh at the idea that we need tremendous resources to prevent rifle-violence.

Likewise, even if I wish it weren't true, the rates of perpetration of domestic violence, incest, rape, and violent crime between men and women is so ridiculously lopsided that I can't in good conscience harp on female perpetrators. They do exist. They do hurt people. But if I'm trying to stop sexual violence, I'm going to do a lot more good focusing my work on other men than I will on women.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Pernicious Cultural Messages

The way that CNN pretty much pulled a 180 on Jaclyn Friedman is both ridiculous, but also strangely transparent in its urge to promote mainstream cultural conversations. Check out this post for the skinny on it.

The part that I find a little strange is that, for CNN, it sounds like they had a pretty good idea of what this segment they were running was going to sound like, well before they consulted any experts or talking heads. The mainstream culture already has a message for artists like Ke$ha and others who promote female wildness, and CNN was pretty intentional about making sure that message got promoted at the end of the day.

My question is why they decided they wanted to use Jaclyn Friedman to support that message. For a chunk of CNN readers, Jaclyn's name may not mean anything, and her being quoted out of context almost doesn't matter for those readers. Even our biggest Feminist names don't have quite the cultural penetration into popular cultural consciousness that, say, Ke$ha has, unfortunately. But Jaclyn's name is pretty big, especially in the world of rape prevention. For anyone who's heard of her even a little bit, they probably have an inkling that the quotes CNN published don't quite sound right, based on what else they may know of Jaclyn.

It feels almost like CNN either didn't know who Jaclyn is, or they deliberately set out to trash her reputation. This is not that much different than having CNN invite someone like, say, the late Dr. Howard Zinn to speak on history, and then misquoting him as saying that history is made by kings and presidents. It's not only not what he would say, it's the exact opposite of what he would say.

How pernicious must these cultural messages about drinking, sex, and gender roles be for CNN to pick not only someone who wouldn't really agree with the story they wanted to write, but who vehemently disagreed, and had spent most of her professional life opposing it? I don't know why they didn't just grab some random talking head who has no reputation for this segment.

Now Jaclyn has used her superpowers to call attention to the fact that CNN misquoted her, used her name and not her thoughts, and tried to stack a B.S. story on top of her credibility. I love that. It's awesome. But it's annoying that, instead of reporting on reality as it is, and actually allowing her the space to share her ideas for real, CNN tried to shoe-horn Jaclyn's points into the pre-determined shoebox they made for the story.

I'm not the biggest fan of the Freakonomics guys, but one thing I will certainly cede to them: once we look at real data in the real world that's based on reality, the social myths we constantly prop up and support (like, say that female drinking is responsible for rape) crumble around us. Conventional wisdom is pretty much always crap based on social power and not on facts and data. The more we can push up against them, and break them, the better off we'll all be because we'll have a world that actually respects real information. Hopefully.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The power of non-traditional messaging

Quick mini-post, not about gender at all: back to messaging and communication!

On Saturday, a main water pipe in Weston ruptured, leaving about 2 million members of Greater Boston without safe drinking water. Obama has since declared this a disaster emergency, paving way for Massachusetts to receive some federal funds to even out the cost of repairing the 10-foot pipe and testing the water quality.

The interesting part of this story for me was not the response of state or city agencies, although as far as I can tell, both were exemplary. The most unique part of this story is the way social messaging websites served in many ways as state proxies, distributing information about the water to a diverse series of social networks.

I didn't learn about the ruptured pipe from the Boston Globe (not because it didn't report it, but because I don't generally read the Globe or any other physical newspaper, for that matter). I didn't learn about it from the evening news or from the radio; I heard about it via text message from Boston University's Send Word Now alert system, developed after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2008.

Then, when I got home, I learned that I could boil my water to purify it for drinking, that it was safe to use for washing my hands (but not brushing my teeth!) and that it would be a few more days before we had reliable drinking water from a variety of friends on Facebook and Twitter.

I'm not going to wax too poetic about the social virtues of Twitter and Facebook; there are many other articles written about that. What I found interesting about this particular phenomenon was how quickly my friends (many of whom have worked for public agencies in the past, granted) took up the information they received from the Department of Public Health or Public Works, and spread it to their own social networks. It would seem to be the case that, when/if the public welfare is clear enough, most people are willing to cooperate with government to help educate each other.

It makes me wonder about things like Hurricane Katrina - how much different would the response have been, both of citizens in New Orleans, and the response effort, if Twitter and Facebook had been as big then as they are now. Would more citizens have been able to evacuate? Would more family members and friends have known ahead of time what type of hurricane was coming?

Once New Orleans lost power those networks would have been useless, of course, but would the state of Louisianna's message about evacuating have been carried further by individual social networks if we had the kind of technology in 2005 that we have in 2010? Would more people have been able to pool resources to leave, if they didn't have enough on their own?

I think the Boston water pipe aquapocalypse shows, in a small way, that government doesn't have to do all the necessary messaging itself: people will spread information, and reliably, too, if they have the mechanisms to do it.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

What is orientation, anyway?

(This is the first in a short series of posts about sexuality and gender)
I had the opportunity to enjoy a wonderful, long conversation with a new friend last night that covered a whole range of topics, from politics to feminism to grandparents. Beer was enjoyed by all. Much commiserating about life occurred. Many insights were shared.

One of the really interesting ones for me was actually something that I said, which is weird because I hadn't thought about it much before this particular conversation. Go privilege! We were talking about orientation, and I realized (as I was saying it) that I'm not really sure what orientation is.

I identify as straight - in common understanding, that would mean I'm attracted to women, right? But in muddied, complicated world of sexuality and gender, what does that really mean? Does it mean that I am attracted sexually only to people who are female-bodied? What if they identify as men, and look like boys or men? Body parts without context (or, say, the rest of a human attached to them) are not particularly interesting to me sexually, so my orientation isn't based solely on body parts and genitals.

Does my straightness mean that I am attracted to people who LOOK the way I've been socialized to assume women look? Am I attracted to a series of cosmetic and maybe clothing choices like long hair, skirts, certain hip/waist ratios? Male-bodied people can definitely choose to wear skirts if they want, and some male-bodied people will have similar hip/waist ratios as female bodied ones (probably fewer, but still enough).

Does my straightness mean that I am attracted to behavior? Am I looking for signs of traditional femininity in my partners? A certain passiveness, delicateness, and so on? So far, my actual life choices would indicate that I'm not the biggest fan of traditional femininity in behavioral terms - I tend to be interested in more aggressive partners.

So, if I can't pin down my orientation based on body type, presentation, or behavior, what the hell is it governed by? I have traditionally identified as straight both because I thought it was somehow objectively true for myself, but also because I didn't want to appropriate any marginalized sexualities to try and make myself look cooler or more interesting as a member of the gender justice world. I've never described myself as queer because I've never felt like I lived the non-standard sexuality (and subsequent marginalization) that the term implies. The society around me has more or less always supported my attractions and sexuality, even if it wasn't able to really provide a clear message about what that sexuality was (I mean, aside from NOT being gay, whatever that meant).

One of the messages the gender justice movement has been able to send to people pretty well is the idea that gender is not a binary: the world does not consist of men and women, who each evince certain personality traits and body types without any overlap. We recognize that there are many, many different genders. Many activists will describe gender on a continuum, but I don't even like that framework because I think it's still too narrow. Likewise, orientation falls the same way. I'm not attracted to all women. I'm not attracted to all female-bodied people. My orientation is some strange hybrid of genetic predisposition and socialization that drives my interests. Orientation, like gender, is more like a plot on a map than a place on a continuum, and it's CERTAINLY a lot more varied than a check box of straight, gay, or bi.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Feminism is not a pick-up line

So a little bit of background here - I wrote a post for the BARCC blog a couple of weeks ago about being an ally, and trying to deal with being a straight white dude in a variety of movements where I need to recognize my privilege with the quickness. Here is my favorite part of that post (is it weird to link to my own stuff?):

The real danger with the good guy mindset is that it gets real easy to make my feminism cosmetic only; to make it a button I wear at NOW meetings or an interesting piece of conversational material I can pull out at a party when I want an otherwise uninterested woman to think I’m cool, different, and “not like those other guys.” Seriously, though, “I’m a feminist!” isn’t a pick-up line.

A couple of weeks later, two of my favorite bloggers wrote pieces that, while not companions per se, certainly touch on an issue related to this. First, Holly over at the Pervocracy, and then Cuppy at her place, both write excellent posts about trying to both fit feminism into their lives, and still have lives in addition to that. I have often felt these things as well - feminism is really important to me, and a major source of my identity, but I also really like Led Zeppelin and soccer and martial arts and terrible action movies and God of War and Warhammer 40K. Some of those things don't really have any particular relation to feminism in general, some of them can be incorporated into my belief system (go Boston Breakers!) . Some of them are...harder to do that with (no women in the 41st millennium!) But feminism is a big pillar on which my sense of self rests. It generally informs the rest of what I do with my time and my life.

So. I want to represent myself honestly to the world. I want people who are interested in meeting me to have a rough sketch of the things we might have in common, and as a straight dude, I want potential female partners of mine to have a clue what makes me tick. Where does that desire to be honest, and to express myself, start becoming...exploitative, perhaps? I list a lot of my loves on things like Facebook...including feminism. It's on my OkCupid profile. I make no bones about being involved in the movement when I talk to people. And, to be fair, despite my post for the BARCC blog, that has gotten me a couple of dates with women. I don't think I mean for my involvement in this world to be self-promotion, but it sometimes feels like it's coming across that way. I sometimes feel like I'm name-checking my favorite band and insinuating that I know the lead singer when I talk about my feminism, even if I'm not trying to impress someone.

A lot of my own personal feminism is external to me (on a side note, I hate saying things like "my feminism" because it makes me think I'm in Konoha and Naruto is about to go into a lengthy four-episode flashback about "his ninja way!"). I'd like to think I do a lot of internal work, too, to start breaking down the walls of misogyny that built up like plaque in my system, but more of my feminism is directed towards the neighborhood I live in and the organizations I work with. I feel like having straight dudes who openly identify as feminists is important for the movement, and that's been where I live for the past couple of years. So I'm a little conflicted - I like being the straight guy who's a feminist, but I don't want to abuse it. For me, reconciling my life with my feminism is also reconciling my sexuality with my feminism. I'm not sure I've figured out how to do that completely yet.