20-Something Swag

(forever young, sometimes broke, and always snarky)

First Comes Love…

landscape_nrm_nrm_1421438324-485205323

Getty

Tonight, during my usual catching up on current events time, I read the headline, “Single Women Are Now the Most Potent Political Force in America.” And that’s awesome (a word I don’t use lightly). Considering it’s been less than a century since white women won the right to vote in federal election, I’m pretty stoked that single women, who don’t necessarily have a double income backing them, carry so much power to make changes in one of the most influential countries in the world. It’s kind of a big deal. I love that people are arguing over whether I’m going to vote for Bernie or Hillary, even though we all know I have a big huge crush on Elizabeth Warren. People telling you who they want you to vote for is a symptom of relevance—of POWER—and a little holdover from when the men in our lives really did vote “for us,” but OK.

But after that brief moment of reveling in my status as an important demographic, I remember one thing: I’m getting married. No, I don’t mean I’m hoping someday that some guy ~hint~ ~hint~ will ask me to marry him, nor do I write letters to a hypothetical ideal husband, assuming that I will get married at all. I mean, I’m going to marry my partner, who I’m dating right now. We’re getting each other engagement rings and everything, and we’ll do that whole “engagement” thing sometime soon. The thing is, I don’t believe in marriage—which is why I’m doing it.

Why am I not just OK with but actually doing something I don’t believe in? Here’s the deal. I don’t mind a legal contract telling me that I can’t separate from someone without documentation. I kind of like that. My friend Cressa said something to me as we window-shopped in SoHo last year that was a game-changer: Marriage means that we’re making an intentional commitment that we have to be intentional about undoing. So, if it turns out we want to split, we have to really want it, or need it. It would take effort to make this commitment unhappen, which seems right, since it takes effort to keep it healthy in the first place.

What I really hate about marriage is this idea that I will no longer be a “potent political force” once I switch over from Kohleun Adamson (singleton) to Kohleun Adamson (married person). What? Did you think I would change my name? It didn’t take reading a recent headline to know what’s at risk here. When I was in my early twenties (almost ten years ago), an older gentleman patted my face and told me that someday I would find a man to marry who I would “want to submit to.” I hope when I said, “Fuck, no” that it was silently, in my mind, but I’m not sure.

I like to say that of course that will never happen. My partner loves that I’m a cynical firecracker who yells at bros in traffic and writes emails to CEOs. He digs that I have a speech prepared in case I ever meet San Diego’s own homophobic millionaire real estate tycoon at one of his work events. But the fear is still there, right? Just because I have a supportive male partner, doesn’t mean I won’t lose social power when I turn in my “Single Ladies” card. I have power because I pay my own bills and clean my own apartment and hold down a great job. I know that.

But my power also lies in the fact that I have help. Let’s be real here. I gave up on busing my bags around months ago. I have groceries in my fridge because my partner drives me to Trader Joe’s on the weekends in his car while I save up for my own. I am able to send in tax forms and hardcopy cranky letters to CEOs because my partner prints them for me. My IKEA table is a table and not plywood because, you guessed it, my partner assembled it for me. And I’m still only partly OK with the fact that said partner takes care of such basic adult tasks for me, even though I am immensely grateful.

I’m not getting married—we’re not getting married—because of any delusions that it won’t be difficult or that we can double-handedly change an institution. We’re getting married because we love each other and we’re a damn good team and we’re committed, and to hell with anyone who says we can’t make that intentional, long-ass commitment be anything other than what we want it to be.

PS: If you leave a comment saying, “You say this now, but you’ll change,” I will kick you in the face. Just kidding, but my heart will kick your heart in the face…in my imagination.

 

Advertisements

Concering Rachel Dolezal (An Open Letter)

Dear Ms. Dolezal:

I would like to have a word with you. WTF, lady?

For context, I was adopted and I grew up in a family that didn’t look like me, which shapes my point of view. I’m not white, but I grew up knowing what white privilege has to offer and I admit, in many ways I benefit from it by association. I am also a firm believer that people ought to be able to identify with the communities that they find a home in—communities that know and accept them for who they are—and I understand that you were raised with black siblings in an otherwise white home.

I’ve got to cut right to the chase, Ms. Dolezal. You may have spent the last several years looking like a fair black woman, and you may feel most comfortable in an African American community, but you don’t get to call yourself black. Besides the obvious reason (hello, lady, you’re white), you don’t get to be black, because you have been lying to your black friends about your race. Even though you have served the black community in your area tirelessly, you lower your practice of respect for them by lying to them.

This cat is not a peacock.

This cat is not a peacock.

The fact that you “became black” as an adult and could “de-black” yourself means that you don’t fully know what it feels like to actually be a woman of color. Let me explain. Both of my biological parents are Korean, like Asian-looking Korean, not white people born in Korea. And although cosmetic surgery is all the rage in the Republic, there is nothing I can do to erase the experiences I have had as an Asian woman. Some of these I share with women of other races as well, including white women, so I will try to distill this for you.

Women of color are fetishes. When some people see me, I represent a terrible passive, over-sexualized stereotypical fetish, and I get harassed for it. Black women live with a more sassy, domineering stereotype, but it is present nonetheless, and affects their employment and their relationships profoundly. Latin women are considered a hot, oversexed commodity, too, which you can probably guess pisses me off.

Our hard work and talents are often undermined. There is this thing called Affirmative Action and it is greatly misunderstood. But let me set the record straight. I have never stolen a man’s job, or a white person’s job. I work hard. I live in a beautiful city in a small apartment that isn’t fancy or even “nice,” but I’m making it a home. You could say I’m lucky to lead the life I lead, and on many counts, I am. I love my job, my coworkers, my family, my partner, and my friends. And I love having hardwood floors and indoor plumbing, if we’re making a list. But the constant grumbling about stealing what I don’t deserve wears on me and on other women who work their asses off to provide for themselves and their families and to advance in their careers with integrity.

We are not realistically represented in any major industry. One token Asian in broadcast journalism doesn’t count, just as the sitcom token black friend who talks “black” doesn’t count. And you know what really burns my buns? I don’t know the “right” way to do my eye makeup, because a) Asian women are sparse in American mass media, so I don’t have makeup role models, and b) the images I find of Korean women in Asia have usually had their faces altered to look more Anglo. Little things, as petty as they might seem, matter. How am I supposed to apply eyeshadow? The hell should I know!

Black people don’t get to choose to be black. Did you know, Ms. Dolezal, that being a person of color can be really great? I mean, my hair holds a curl for days. Also, my body absorbs vitamin D seamlessly. Did you also know that being a person of color can really suck? I’m sure you are well-versed in the anti-black racism that still permeates our society. It’s a shit show. And who the hell do you think you are, pretending to be “black” when at any moment you can—and have—resumed your privileged place in society? The fact that you sued Howard University for not admitting you because you’re white is the icing on your “You don’t understand what it’s like to be part of a minority” Johnnycake. For centuries, people of color—especially women of color—had no fair representation under the law. And you think you can just trade your fake brown for your inherited privilege whenever it suits you? Get out.

The black community needs advocates, not posers. I’m just shooting from the hip on this one, since I’ve never pretended to be black. So please, allow me this parallelism. I try to be an advocate for the LGBTQ community. I’ve never joined a committee, but I make noise and make space where I can, and sometimes I screw up, because nuance abounds. But let me say, I have never had repeated fake sex with a woman or ever told anyone I’m gay to make queer friends. Yeah, I took it there, Ms. Dolezal.

The really great thing is that we can be advocates and parts of communities that we don’t look like. We don’t have to share black people’s experiences to be able to say, your life matters; tell me about it. On the same token, though, we have to remember that sometimes we must humbly defer our understanding of race to our neighbors who experience discrimination and oppression. We can still say, I don’t know what it’s like to be you, but it hurts me when other people treat you unjustly. When you lie about your race and wield your privilege to make being a minority person better for yourself, you’re being a douchebag and a horrible advocate. So, try harder, Dolezal, try harder.

Sincerely,

Kohleun

Wanderlust and Other Reasons I’d Make an Awful Christian Wife

There’s this really revealing article floating around the Internets, describing the 10 Women Christian Men Should Not Marry. Maybe you’ve read it. I know plenty of wives of Christian men who aren’t up to standards, and their husbands love those qualities about them, so I’m thinking this is the thinking of a particularly fundamentalist pastor-web-personality-guy-thing. A loud one at that. Of course my most obvious strike out with that list happens before you reach number one, since I am a staunch universalist religious inclusivist. I’m not an anti-believer; I just believe that a lot of beliefs are valid. So, I’m okay with not making the list, truly. I’m also a feminist, career-focused, I believe in preventing pregnancy until a person is ready to be a parent AND ALSO THAT ADOPTION IS A VERY ETHICAL AND SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE FORM OF FAMILY PLANNING, and I wear deep V necklines and miniskirts sometimes too.

But here’s my sinking ship: I am a Wander-Luster. I don’t love moving as much as I have had to move–Oregon, Arizona, New York, Arizona, and I hope California–in the time frame of the last year. But I move a lot, and I love to travel–not just touristy travel, but like, to visit dear friends on other continents or to go to school in other countries and learn foreign languages in my spare time. It’s an enlightening and resilience-boosting pastime, I assure you. It’s a pretty attractive quality in my book, too, which makes the Wander-Luster’s slot on NYCpastor.com’s list a little surprising. In another recent article, Beth McDonough Woolsey supplies the reasons why a good conservative fella might want to avoid the Wander-Luster, and it’s not because of the word “lust” inside:

It is easier, of course, to keep women contained. To squash the wanderlust that takes us physically away and the wanderlust of our hearts which lets us dream. It’s easier to keep us only home. To keep us feeling guilty when our entire fulfillment isn’t found in being a wife and a mother. Because when we women are set free to be fully who Love intended us to be, we are a force. WE ARE A FORCE to be reckoned with, and there are men and women in this world who are unwilling to do the reckoning.

Okay, that makes sense. Keep the woman down, literally. Keep those feet rooted in one place and the attention focused on God and country. I mean God and home. But you know why else I think wanderlust is so dangerous to the conservation of any fundamentalist belief system? Because wanderlust is the symptom of desire for something more, something different, something other than right here and right now. Wanderlust isn’t just about the incurable itch to circle the globe. It’s about tasting new foods, feeling warmer winds when you’re used to arctic blasts, meeting people with different beliefs and experiences, hearing “I love you” or “I’m hungry” in other languages. Getting dirty in someone else’s dirt. Wanderlust is the incurable happenstance of being an open individual. Which is exactly the kind of person an evangelical movement needs, but that’s just the opinion of an old maid talking.

To My Hypothetical Imaginary Future Daughter: Live of Curiosity

Dear tiny person:

You don’t exist, and may never exist, so you are hypothetical. And my limited mind, I’m sure, cannot begin to build more than a foggy idea of who you could be. But here is my letter to you. I know that lots of women do this, and I have never fully gotten on board with that, writing to someone who may never exist and investing hope in them. Like teens who are encouraged to write letters to their future husbands. Meghan Trainor’s song to that effect shows what a shallow, shifting train wreck such letters like that can become. But I’m writing, daughter, because I’ve got to tell you sometime so very exciting: today, Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with fellow children’s rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi. And, well, that gives me so much hope for your life. Malala is seventeen and a survivor of Taliban assassination attempts, because she stood up for herself and for other girls and women’s rights to education. (We’ll talk about what assassination and Taliban mean later.)

In many places around the world, folks don’t believe girls should learn about the world and ideas and important parts of culture, history, or power. They say it’s useless and dumb to educate girls. But really, it’s dangerous, and they’re scared. Malala said, “Extremists have shown what frightens them most: a girl with a book.” Because girls in cultures around the world know what it’s like to be discounted. We know what it feels like to have all our needs met and still have to fight to survive. We know what it’s like not to have all our needs met even when we work hard. We know what it’s like to have people who have never inhabited a female body limit our access to life-saving medical care and health education. We know what it’s like to work just as hard and just as long as our male counterparts and make less money. And we know, my love, what it feels like to be used. So. You have my permission right now to be dangerous, to endanger every bit of all of that. I want you to be dangerous.

With education–whatever that entails–people have the potential to build their lives, to dialogue with empathy with others, and to create things that can help humankind heal ourselves. I don’t mean you have to go to college or graduate school, though you know that would thrill me. But in everything, be curious. Ask the tough questions. And keep asking until you find answers or find that there is no definitive answer. We can work on those problems when we reach them. I will help you.

Learn all the words you can so you can read books. Write books. Scribble out comics. Be a story teller. Adopt a group of neighborhood busybodies and tell them what’s up; nobody needs gossip. Write poems. Oh, dear god, I hope you write poems. Make things. Paper airplanes with secret codes folded inside. Dresses and slouchy trousers. Shortcakes with creme. Model engines that could become bigger engines. Taste a lot of things prepared many different ways; you might not like German potato salad (I have no idea why not), but you might love a good English jacket potato with beans and cheese. Wear French and Italian perfume. Spritz your wrists at a street market in Morocco. When I was little, I stirred cinnamon in vanilla extract and dabbed it all over. Float mint leaves in your bath. Experience the feeling of wearing the world weightlessly.

Let yourself be surprised by what you learn, what you can’t live without, and by who you love. But whomever you love, please choose someone who encourages you to learn and to be brave. I don’t care if you love someone who has never eaten felafel or sipped an Italian cappuccino, or who believes some different things from me. You may even love someone who has never read The Bluest Eye. As long as they love you when you’re thinking dangerously and walking bravely, or feeling like you’re failing at both, I promise to learn to love them too.

I want you to travel. I mean, if you have any inclination to do. That is its own form of education. My mum, your grandma, told me before I took off for six months in six brand new (to me) countries, that traveling to South American as a young adult taught her something very important: people are people everywhere. We are all people. And in a world where some folks still believe anyone different from them is less of a person, that is vitally important to remember. Please, please remember.

And when you have seen all the places you can see, and have read all the words, smelled all the spices, tasted all the foods, and sipped all the teas, come back to tell me all about it. Even if I’ve been there, done that. I want to know the way you’ve seen it.

 

– Me

We Need to Talk about Acquaintance Abuse: It’s My Turn

I don’t like talking about this. And I don’t like reading about it either. Because it has happened to me, and to thousands of other people. But many women have been coming out, sharing their experiences of acquaintance sexual abuse, and we need to support each other. We’ve just gotta.

As I write this, I can think of a very long list of reasons why I don’t want to be doing this. I mean, I have resumes to submit and dresses to sew, really truly-awful pop songs to critique, and my weekly day-off-soak-away-the-world bath to take. But I’ve realized that the list of reasons not to write about acquaintance abuse is the same as the Why I Must Write About Acquaintance Abuse list.

Before I start, let me lay some ground rules. I’m not seeking to mudsling and my “agenda” is to further this conversation and to challenge notions about sex, consent, and intimacy. Nothing more. No “steamy” details here, because that’s the point: sexual abuse isn’t steamy. This is really hard to write about, and this is also not a self-counseling, still-in-process, session. Even still, I don’t want to debate abstract issues, as much as share my story and help to explain what I’ve learned about myself, and the ways my empathy has grown because of it.

Reason One: It is still stupidly shameful for a woman to admit someone took advantage of her sexually.

I am the captain of my own castle. Or some mixed metaphor like that. My body is my own. I respect myself and take care of myself. I am employed, and I have creative hobbies to keep my mind sharp. I’m well educated about consent, healthy relationships, and the vast history of sexual politics. Heck, my master’s thesis was on contemporary portrayals of young women’s sexual agency. So it’s easy to think that maybe when that guy who used to be my friend touched me in ways I didn’t want to be touched and kissed me and verbally and physically pressured me for sex, that I was the one with poor judgment, and therefore still the captain of that situation.

But that’s not true. Because I said no. Saying no should always be enough, as should the absence of a yes. And guess what: the question, “What was she wearing?” is entirely superfluous in sexual abuse situations. As if a woman wearing a miniskirt could have prevented her attack by wearing a muumuu instead. I was wearing a long, baggy, high-neckline, ugly but cozy nightshirt.

Here’s the clincher. Things happened, and technically in scenarios like these, we let things happen. If by “let” you mean “didn’t shoot the douchebag or call the cops.” But let me tell you why. Read closely. When you’re in that situation, you are completely vulnerable. Maybe you still have clothes on; maybe they have manipulated you out of every last physical barrier. Whatever the case, you just hope that each thing they ask or demand of you is the last, and that if you do it, they will stop and not try to hurt you. That’s why many of us go along with things we don’t want to do. It’s not because we want to give this person what they want. It’s because we want to survive.

That ex-friend said to me, “I’ve always had a crush on you and I feel like you’ve been teasing me with your sexuality. Won’t you just give [sex] to me, as a gift? It’s not like I’m going to rape you.”

So glad for that clarification, because at the time, the prognosis was bleak. And if “teasing with sexuality” were a thing one could do without explicitly verbally offering and then withholding sex, maybe he would have a toe to stand on. I told him, “Fuck no, you dumb cunt. Sex isn’t a gift to give away.”

A while later he tried again, “Oh, come on. This has to be doing something for you. Or am I repulsive to you?”

He finally touched me for the last time in a year now when I said, “Okay, so it’s not like I don’t ever want my boobs to be touched in the great span of time between now and eternity, but you are on the really long Short List of people who I actively do not want to touch my boobs. Ever.”

Reason Two: I can’t and don’t want to press charges, so what’s the point?

The point, dear readers, is that gray coercive situations are still coercive situations and talking about them can help us come to a more concrete understanding of how this crime affects people. I do believe that sexual abusers should face consequences for their actions, but unfortunately a so-called friend manipulating you into something you didn’t call the police about has little traction in court. No one hit me or explicitly threatened me with a deadly weapon. Instead, my right to consent or not consent was abused; it was smashed. He did whittle away at my sense of security, and that, too, should be seen as a crime. You see, as long as that acquaintance can use their relationship with us to get a coercive edge and make it sound like we wanted this to happen, then it’s really, really difficult to be taken seriously. And that’s not okay.

In all honesty, that guy has nothing lasting of mine (insert pregnancy/STD one-liner here?). My value is neither increased nor depleted by the number of people whom I have or have not made out with or even had sex with. He didn’t steal a moment or anything special from me, because I choose when and with whom to invest emotional significance. There are people who carry a piece of me with them, and that has nothing to do with sex, absolutely nothing. The people with whom I have shared myself are family members and dear friends, including significant others—people who carry my heart. And those people carry my heart when others try to take things from me. Like a roommate who confronted the jerk, friends who have listened to my stories over meals, male friends who respect my boundaries, a partner who has said of my numerous harassers, “I hate the world when I hear about people harassing you. I want people to be better than that.” I want people to be better than that, too.

Reason Three: I want to move on.

I’ve moved a lot. In the past 9 years, I have lived in 14 different residences in 3 different countries. And I still think moving is one of the hardest things I have ever done. Besides all the material and logistical mess of moving, there is the emotional bundle that comes with it, like “free” Internet when you sign up for unlimited data. And like I said from the beginning, I don’t want a debate. And I certainly don’t want to initiate communication or legal proceedings with the guy. And yes, I have cried about that night at surprising times, not because it was emotionally traumatic at the time but because I hate feeling powerless, and when I am feeling particularly vulnerable I remember that moment and how I never want to be in that situation again. So I haven’t shared this story when, on a few occasions, I’ve felt like I should.

But truly moving on from something like acquaintance abuse entails helping our culture to move on. To be done with it. To get out of this cycle. Because too many women and men are being disrespected and hurt and disregarded by people close to them. One person equals too many. So, for others who aren’t comfortable sharing their story of acquaintance abuse, here’s mine.

Skinny Bitches & Fat Cows: Let’s Just Stop Already

Confession: every once in a while I go on a pop music binge and catch up on all that’s so hot right now. Because sometimes my best friends get tired of “No Diggity” on heavy rotation with Ingrid Michaelson and The Spice Girls. Whatever. So, this morning I finally listened to “How We Do,” by Katy Perry, Taylor Swifts’s “Shake It Off,” and “All About that Bass,” Meghan Trainor’s new hit. All of these songs have been propped for their upbeat “don’t hate” lyrics, and all three have also been criticized by multiple sources for using women of color to represent a booty bouncing, super sexualized category of womanhood. But wait, I’ve got even more to say to Meghan Trainor:

                                      A Joke, Yes. Helpful, No.

A Joke, Yes. Helpful, No.

Don’t call me a Skinny Bitch. I don’t call you a Fat Cow. Can we just stop with the barnyard name-calling? We’re better than that.

It’s a good thing I don’t evaluate my body on how much a man wants to grab it at night. Otherwise, you’d make me feel like shit.

I am a size 2. And I like my ass, which a friend once described as “small, but shapely.”

Just because I’m thin, doesn’t mean I’ve had work done. This ain’t the body of a silicone Barbie Doll. I’m a real woman.

If I wanna call myself a bitch, I will, because sometimes I am.

Dude, bass is hot– the upright, guitar, drum, voice, whatever. Are you metaphorically equating the bass range with body size? Because I’m not sure how that works.

Have you ever considered the fact that I’m financially independent and I have had periods of time when my financial priorities can’t always include more food than I need to live on?

I currently have a physically active job, and I try to go to the weight room a couple times a week. Cuz, health. But also, I’m tired of having to justify healthy habits. I’m not gonna justify my caffeine or cupcake intakes either.

Appreciating plumper bodies does not mean we have to degrade thinner bodies and vice versa.

That thin girl you just bashed might have a body dysmorphic disorder, or that’s just what her body looks like and you just mocked her. So, great, now we can all be self-discructive.

Every inch of me IS perfect. I might have fewer inches than you, and I’m actually not perfect, but every single inch of me is good enough. 

Thin women are held to the same unrealistic body image standards as fuller figured women. We’re still painfully insecure until we have been able to do some serious inner work to love ourselves, and even then, self-value is an ongoing process.

Being thin is not a privilege. Sure, I rarely get fat jokes leveled at me, but I am often on the receiving end of skinny jokes and have been told to “hush, tiny one,” while communicating my insecurities in conversations about body image. And you know what, that is very hurtful. On top of that garbage, I am regularly harassed by strangers: from drive-by cat calls and immature insults to people following me down the street demanding that I stop what I’m doing and do what they want me to do. To people saying, “What, am I too ugly for you?” when I say I don’t want to stop for them. Plump women are also the recipients of daily harassment and their bodies are criticized and scrutinized too. Let’s all agree that none of that is okay together. 

I am sorry for all the hurtful ways that plumper, even obese, people are treated. I hate that women especially, and men too, are held to body image standards that would require unhealthy behaviors to attain. I am sorry for the shame and the self-hatred with which this smothers people. And I’m sorry if I ever seem to judge people based on their size, body type, or weight.

This is a systemic problem in addition to being deeply personal, a shifting cultural expectation that serves to make women hate and envy each other, to center our self-worth on how much men desire us sexually (how hetero-centric is that?), and to keep us dissatisfied and feeling like we do not have physical worth, without which we are less confident of our contributions in physical occupations. This is every body’s problem and we all have to work together, rather than divide ourselves, to fix it.

And dear Meghan Trainor, this size 2 booty does in fact love shaking it to your new song.

Stop Joking about Domestic Violence

First of all, if you’re reading this and you are a daily survivor of domestic violence, please find an advocate. If you can, please borrow a phone, get to a pay phone, or have a friend call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 | 1-800-787-3224, or reach out to someone who can be mindful of your safety.

It’s been blasted all over popular news and cultural criticism sites for nearly a week: MMA fighter Jon Koppenhaver brutally attacked his ex-girlfriend Christy Mack and another person who was in her apartment, and Koppenhaver wonders why he’s the villain, stating “I only wish that man hadn’t been there and that Christy and i would be happily engaged,” since he was reportedly bearing an engagement ring to propose. Online journalism sites are all abuzz with this story and the added detail of Dog, the reality TV bounty hunter, committing to catching Koppenhaver. Comment threads on Gawker, for example, expose a sickening trivialization of this incident. When Gawker, a media company I follow daily, announced Dog’s threat of pursuit, the comment thread became a long line of jokes and snark about Dog and the woman standing with him in the featured image. One person even wrote simply, “Needed a laugh. Thank you.”

Another reader snidely commented on an earlier article on Gawker about Koppenhaver and Mack, “Surely there’s some famous saying about dating a braindead psychopath cage fighter that we can use here. I think the saying goes, “don’t do that.” And another: “I mean, you fall in love with a porn star, and she behaves like a sex addict. You fall in love with a MMA fighter, and he behaves like a psychopath. Who knew?” Someone felt it relevant to bring up the fact that Mack, who was no longer dating Koppenhaver, was possibly seeing someone else, and accused her of “cheating,” as if that makes abuse okay. And further still, when one reader posted a thoughtful comment suggesting that Koppenhaver is expressing actions congruent with hegemonic “brutish” masculinity or past abuse, they were attacked with replies like, “Are you done manstruating yet, bruh?” and, “Whatever. Dude, you make Chaz Bono look like. I dunno. A guy.” And on Global News’s blog, reporting Koppenhaver’s arrest warrant, one reader commented, “Hopefully he will get raped over and over in jail. LOL GOOF,” while others gave the MMA fighter tips on reducing his sentence time or blamed steroid use.

Think those are the attitudes held only by Internet trolls? Think again. Other mild-mannered real life people respond similarly.

“[This Company] takes domestic violence very seriously. If we hear about any abuse reports, you’re out. So don’t beat your wife. Don’t beat your girlfriend, or your boyfriend, or your husband. Just don’t do it.”

Those words were spoken during security officer training with a national security company. And as I listened to the instructor, his statement did make me feel secure. Of course, a security company has to protect their relationship with the Department of Public Safety, but I like that this company says up front that if you are abusive, you can’t work for us, no matter what. I was discouraged, however, when I heard a couple of the men in the room snicker when the instructor said not to abuse one’s male partner.

We need to talk about this. Because nothing about this is okay.

I think we all know that domestic violence is bad. I think we all know that violence against women is still astronomically more common than violence against men, making it an institution in addition to a personal threat. And with staggering statistics, we have come to expect abuse to happen and have resources available to its survivors. But we can’t ever accept it. We can’t categorize Christy Mack’s abuse as entertainment news, or think that abuse of a male partner is somehow a less severe issue. Here are some statistics I found from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:

One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.

An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.

85% of domestic violence victims are women.

Historically, females have been most often victimized by someone they knew.

Females who are 20-24 years of age are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence.

Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police.

With statistics like these, we have come to expect domestic violence to happen. Because it does. A lot. But with attitudes like those expressed by the men who scoff at male abuse and assholes like Koppenhaver who justify their violence by saying they wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for someone infringing on their relational bliss, we are seem to have, at some social level, accepted it. And that’s got to stop. Right now.

I know that eradicating the world of these abuse-perpretuating ideals and behaviors is not simple, and I admit that I am neither a psychologist nor a social worker. I studied gender theory in the context of literature and popular media, so I can’t offer the types of solutions I wish I could. But, the fact that I am a person who has gender, like everyone else, and who is a vigilant consumer and critic of contemporary culture, I can say this.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IS A SIGN THAT MANY THINGS HAVE BROKEN. IT IS NOT A LAUGHING MATTER.

“Real Men” Discourse Needs a Swift Exit

I know that means we’ll also have to give up hashtags like #realmentakeoutthegarbage or ideas about “real men” being good financial providers and protectors. And even Justin Timberlake holding a sign that reads, “Real Men don’t buy girls.” But that doesn’t mean men have to stop doing or supporting these things. It does mean we need desperately to reassess the origins of our expectations. When I have had male housemates, I have really appreciated when they take the trash out. But I also have taken my fair share of trips out to the apartment complex’s dumpster, because it just needs to get done. It’s a human need and there is no reason why my roommate was more able to take out the trash than I was. And if I were ever in need of my partner to provide for me financially, then that would be an important factor in our relationship for as long as that was a need–whether temporary or permanent–but not because I am a woman and he is a man. Sometimes in relationships that’s what commitment looks like.

The more I research partner abuse, the more I learn that the same mindset that makes men laugh at the thought of men being the recipients of abuse feeds a cultural environment that does lead to the abuse of more women than men, in addition to increasing the abuse of men. I made a new friend the other day, a PhD. candidate studying developmental psychology in male youth. She suggests that the constant messages boys hear to “toughen up,” be “real men,” “never let anyone push them around” are forms of abuse in their own right, which can lead men to abuse those they perceive to threaten their masculinity and, essentially, their personal validity. It’s all connected, a tragic network of violence and shame. Likewise, Firestone writes in an article for Psychology Today:

Expectations that men should be strong, masculine, and more powerful than women can be very destructive to a man at risk for becoming violent. The shame triggered by the idea that they are appearing weak or unmanly can trigger some men to become enraged or to act on violent impulses. (2012)

There’s a trend trying to undo violence against women by countering with taglines like “Real Men don’t hit women,” or “Real Men respect women,” “Real Men don’t buy girls,” etc. And I think, okay, that’s encouraging men not to do bad things. But it’s still based on a fear that they won’t be complete Men if they don’t follow whatever the current Real Man requirements are. And what if that changes? What if we focus Real Manliness on something else? We can’t depend on that to make things better. People need to feel secure in their identity apart from vacillating gender ideals, and apart from their partner’s ability to live up to those ideals.

Let’s Call a Spade a Spade

Domestic violence is the ultimate betrayal of trust. When a person abuses his or her partner, they are hurting a person whom (I assume) they have committed to care for. Abuse isn’t funny, not even when famous people do it. Not even EVEN when those famous people are a porn actor and an MMA fighter pursued by a television bounty hunter with a mullet. Not even when a grown woman hits a man twice her size. Not even when it’s “just” the undermining of a person’s sense of self-worth. Abuse isn’t a springboard issue for us to blame things like steroids usage or the pornography industry either.

Media journalists such as Gawker and Global News are not responsible for the attitudes of their readers. Their readers are responsible for their own attitudes. And that’s us, right? We have a lot of work to do. So, I challenge myself and all of you, be aware and observant. Push hard against the detrimental ideals with which we live, but be gentle and respectful of people who might come to you for advocacy. And let’s be honest. I don’t know how to “save” someone from violence, but I can listen to them and seek help without trivializing their situation or their choices. Because whoever is involved, abuse is still the infliction of harm on one human being by another human being.

How 50 Shades of Grey Screws Real Conversations about Sexual Politics

This blog post is about exactly what you think it’s about. If you don’t want to read my take on 50 Shades of Grey and relationships and sexuality, you should navigate away. If you want me to give you steamy excerpts from the book, you can navigate away again, because I don’t think male-controled relationships are desirable, or even healthy expressions of kink. So, please, if you choose to leave, grab a cookie on your way out, and don’t say I didn’t warn you if you stay.

I have a confession: I have never read E.L. James’s popular 2011 erotica novel. But this is what I’ve heard and seen, and I could be wrong on the details, but bear with me. This will at least be entertaining. The plot is centered on a young woman named Anastasia Steele, who goes to interview a wealthy magnate named Christian Grey for a story. Now, Anastasia is a mousy naive journalism student, I gather, as writers are. Apparently. And, can you believe that a wealthy, enigmatic man whose veneer no one else has been able to penetrate just can’t get enough of Anastasia. Then, like his fanfic inspiration, Edward of Twilight, Christian warns Anastasia that he’s attracted to her, but she doesn’t want to get mixed up with his peculiar sexual preferences and his lack of desire for an emotionally involved relationship. When Anastasia says to “enlighten” her anyway, thus begins her sexual education and introduction to kinky sex and Christian’s inner battle, since he doesn’t want commitment, yet he doesn’t want anyone else to have Anastasia and beats other people up who are interested in her.

Wow. Let’s unpack just that super speedy rundown. If that is true of the novel 50 Shades of Grey, I have serious issues with it. Here’s my list of reasons why.

1) The extreme contrast between Anastasia’s naiveté and Christian’s supposed sexual prowess portrays a man as responsible for and more knowledgable about sex and his female partner’s sexuality than she is.

This is problematic for many reasons. Okay, so some women know less about sexuality than some men, but the same is true if you reverse the gendered pronouns. Some people don’t know a lot about sexuality or sex, and some people know a lot. Regardless of gender. And yes, I admit, those folks in the latter group can be intimidating and enigmatic, but that doesn’t mean they should get to take charge in all the decision making. Which brings us to the reason I really truly despise this portrayal of gender difference. I think a difference in knowledge and experience can be a non-issue for a relationship, but if one person is more “in the know,” it’s still not okay for that person to call the shots or to feel responsible for their partner’s sexuality. That can lead to the less experienced person feeling intimidated and silenced and not willing to try new things, and it could lead the more experienced partner to manipulate their partner into doing things they aren’t comfortable with.

When a woman says “go ahead” when a man vaguely warns her he’s unconventional, it appears to give him a free pass, rather than clearly communicating specific preferences and activities and letting a woman veto or green-light things before she’s blindfolded and whipped. And I think that warnings like those of Christian Grey and Edward Vampire are cop-outs. They violate the other persons’ boundaries and ability to say yes as well as no, and these cop-outs get people in the habit of not making their own decisions or trusting their own instincts. Not okay. MAKING YOUR OWN DECISIONS IS GOOD. BEING IN CONTROL OF YOUR OWN BODY IS A RIGHT AND PRIVILEGE. Sure, Anastasia might like the way Christian makes her body feel, but she can get laid after the appropriate lines of communication have been laid.

2) The novel features characters expressing BDSM and kink in the context of a relationship that already has some serious control and knowledge/power issues, which is not a healthy origin for experimenting with extreme power dynamics.

I’m not gonna knock unconventional expressions of sexuality in general, like BDSM, fetishes, or kinks. I am totally calling out–right here, right now–James’s blatant misunderstanding of what makes healthy relationships (or even casual encounters) work, and what can actually be abuse. Christian Grey is possessive. That’s gross, people. Oh, yeah, I’ve heard some women say they just want someone to want them that much, you know. Like, all the time, and without letting anyone else spend time with them or be interested in them. LISTEN SISTER, YOU DON’T WANT THAT. That kind of person doesn’t want you. They want to be in control. They want power. They may even want whatever you can contribute to helping them gain power and control in other areas of their life. Or, you could be their compensation for feeling like they have no other power. YOU’RE BETTER THAN THAT, SERIOUSLY. If you feel like you don’t deserve someone who wants you to be a whole, independent human, please reach out to someone who can help you.

When you start with a relationship that has a controlling partner and a passive partner or unresolved aggressions, BDSM should wait until another time. Kink can be a good way to work out tensions and issues that do not originate in anger or general possessiveness towards or of one’s partner. It can be a healthy way to experiment with boundaries and power dynamics. But, E.L. James has done humanity a great disservice by trying to convince us that controlling is a desirable quality, and that dominance/submission sex within an already unbalanced relationship is unequivocally okay. Maybe it is, right? Maybe in some possible universe this controlling guy, who has not yet proven himself to be otherwise not domineering, will not use sex as an outlet for his own unresolved power and control issues. Maybe he won’t continue to be possessive and emotionally abusive. That possible universe might also have pancakes that never get soggy, but I find both of those propositions implausible.

3) The portrayal of Christian Grey perpetuates the cultural expectations that men have insatiable appetites for rough sex and find emotional attachment, commitment, and intimacy confounding.

This is a lie. A stereotype that has, over the course of history, evolved into an ugly monster. And I don’t think the kinky sex part is the ugly part. Men are not animals. Search and destroy or consume might be the goal of many because we’re taught that men must be Men, capital M in bold. And that to be a Man, one must be able to do the following: 1) provide for and control his environment, 2) be physically intimidating or strong, 3) be emotionally unreachable and tough (real men don’t cry), 4) fear or be bad at commitment, and 5) be awesome at sex with women (or a woman, for the traditionalists amongst us). But the fact that real human men and their cultural archetypes often struggle with their emotions is a sign that men actually have emotions and feelings and they have not been adequately equipped or allowed to process and express them in a healthy manner.

If the Casanova you’re dating lets his feelings show, that doesn’t mean you’ve fixed him. Sorry. It’s not you, it’s him, actually. They’re his feelings and always have been. And, get ready, a newly discovered emotional center can open a whole can of worms that romanticized ideals can’t deal with. Rather than repeatedly romanticizing conflicted male characters who don’t know how to have emotions, let’s try taking steps towards broadening our understanding of manhood and masculinities. And intimacy and commitment for that matter. If commitment means one person is solely responsible for the material upkeep of a relationship and the other person is solely responsible for the emotional upkeep, count me out. I’m not committing to that.

 I have a slew of ideological reasons not to be over the moon for this book or its sequel, but at the end of the day, I especially don’t want to further the existence of  poorly written detrimental representations of sex and relationships. The fact that “50 Shades” was published despite its flawed prose is a sad sign to me, and a very curious one. Is it true, as mentioned above, that women are simply looking for that all-consuming relationship in which they are hungered for, or is our society ready to start talking about sexual politics around the water cooler? If this is how that conversation is going to pick up tread, I fear for us. But I’m hopeful for the open door.

All I Have to Offer Are Stories: Thinking about Gaza

My kid brother is in his early twenties and he has a job that involves driving eight hours a day, which means lots of time for talk radio. He confessed to me last night that he doesn’t know what to think about Hamas and Israel and Gaza, and if anyone can offer a solution–something he can do to stop the aggression on both sides–he wants in. I was first reminded of how much I love my brother, and how grateful I am that he’s listening to the polarized talking heads and feeling frustrated and confused. That is an appropriate response. His question got everyone in the room talking, as it does. People debating the political/religious viewpoints and bible stuff, and making inappropriate parallels with the Holocaust and the Jews’ alleged ability to defend themselves against Nazis if they had just banded together. At the end of half an hour of man-splaining, which I admit I participated in too, my brother was still frustrated.

Many of us are frustrated, and angry and broken-hearted and confused and torn and vindicated and feeling helpless. Because we want the killing to stop. We want peace, lasting peace. But I honestly don’t think there is an ideological solution except for everyone involved to decide to stop. All together. All at once. To give up the centuries’ old score board that no one reads anyway. And there is nothing I can do to bring that about, not directly. I can’t convince religious extremists that their faith can be lived out quietly and peacefully and coexist alongside other faith traditions. I can’t convince Israel that recent history does not afford them many Palestinian sympathies on a nationalistic level. Those are things I say from the outside. From my heart, which is not a Gazan heart or an Israeli heart, but just a human heart.

I’ve given up on the statistics and quantifiable data. Not because the numbers are meaningless; they are not. But they are staggering. I don’t know what any of us can “do” about Gaza. As humans clamor to hillsides overlooking the Gaza Strip as other humans without documentation to leave are bombed, I don’t care who fired first or who’s firing next. And it doesn’t matter if I care, frankly, not pragmatically. Or protest, or write to the president. Been there, done that. I wrote letters to George W. Bush and Barrack Obama, pleading with them to be more responsible and careful in funding international allies like Israel. And did they listen to me? Hell, no. Did a human being even bother to read what I wrote? I doubt it. And my writing style is fucking delightful.

Without the numbers, what do I have left to offer? Because I feel like I do have a responsibility to do or be or say something. Well, I have the stories, my own stories of encountering others’ humanity, and the stories Muslims, Jews, and Arab Christians have shared with me. I have carried them around the world in my belly where they rumble, as Naomi Shihab Nye would say. And I need to be open to more. I told my brother last night: “I think what we can do right now is listen and see.” If I were a Gazan or Israeli sister, I would want people in the U.S. to be aware of my loss and my fear and my inheritance of anger. I would want someone far away, who has the documentation to travel and the freedom to speak, to listen to me and to share my story. I would want them to recognize that I am human and I am not being seen with the dignity I inherently possess, and I don’t have the resources to change that for myself. I don’t get to stand up and protest or leave. What a luxury.

So, here you have it.

I saw children on the news missing skin. Skin. I’m obsessed with having healthy skin. It’s our largest organ and our stronghold in this world. But it’s vulnerable. And children were missing some. Their skin was peeled back at their shoulders and the remains of their tiny faces.

A young Muslim man slept curled up between the benches in a Christian church, because that was the nearest Sanctuary.

I have friends–real, human, personal friends–who fall asleep to the sounds of rockets.

And I met a Palestinian man in a silver shop in Bethlehem who had been in a near-fatal car accident. Israeli paramedics were not required to treat him, but one did. An Israeli man held the Palestinian man’s gashed neck together for over an hour while they waited and transported him to safety. He said to me, “And now I believe that we are all people. Palestinian, Israeli, Christian, Muslim, Jew. And we have got to love each other.”

 

When Writers Date (Other Writers, Or in General)

In a college book group, I read Donald Hall’s collection Without, a poem cycle chronicling his wife Jane Kenyon’s battle with Leukemia and his first steps into mourning. The way they spent their days, quietly, Kenyon writing her poems downstairs and Hall writing his upstairs before sleeping together in the same bed, touched me. I remarked to my professor and fellow writer, “I think being with another writer would be fascinating.” She was not so sure, and reminded me how cranky we wordsmiths can be when our words just aren’t smithing, or when there are major social disasters that stir our hearts, or when our coffee is just too damn weak. Well, it happened. Is happening. I’m a writer, dating a writer. In the way of Buzzfeed’s numbered lists that are all the rage, here’s a list of what you can expect when writers date writers.

1. Flirting is hard.
Just ask Neil Gaiman, who has tried to help us, the bookish, get a little action. We’re too used to analyzing words to “just go with” a pick-up line, and too deep within the rain forests of our minds to recognize when someone is flirting with us. Or even likes us. We might be kings and queens of Show, Don’t Tell, but sometimes we just have to be told.

2. Important conversations can take place via text messaging or e-mails.
I know that having super-serious-talks should generally be reserved for face-to-face conversation, but when that’s not available, writers are already conscious of how wonky words can be, and therefore might be more careful and clear than the average texter. With these limits in mind, we’re also ever-ready to say, “Screw this, I’m just gonna call you.” This also has a tendency to lead to overly long text messages, but Verizon can handle it.

3. The best revenge is a hidden copy of The Chicago Manual of Style.
Just don’t hide it too well. You might need to borrow it later.

4. A successful date can include absolutely no talking.
When I say, “Hey, let’s go on a reading date,” we grab our books and hit a coffee shop. And read. I even pack headphones to drown out obnoxious music. Then, when we’ve reached good stopping points, we sigh, “Okay, I’m done.” And we pack up and walk quietly home.

5. Everyone’s a critic.
Really. My boyfriend will probably assess this blog post, pointing out its strengths and weaknesses, and we’ll have a conversation about which points are most true in our relationship. Writers are used to people ripping into to them, with love. So, if you’re not up for it, you gotta say so. We’re a bunch of well intentioned sharks.

6. Your fan club knows what’s up.
That said, even though your significant other could tear your life’s work apart, they probably won’t unless it’s really, truly, deeply awful and you need a dose of tough love that you won’t get from Grammy. It’s more likely that your partner actually likes and even respects your work. Imagine being in a relationship with someone whose work you couldn’t stand behind. So when that writer who I happen to have a serious crush on likes what I write, he’s specific and knowledgable, and that’s nice.

7. Passive-agressive Post-It notes are always well proofread.
Unless he’s just trying to piss you off that much more.

8. You don’t actually want to have a character based on you.
Or to inspire a poem. Trust me.

9. When he says, “I’m killing my darlings,”
you know he’s probably not coming for you next. It’s a figure of speech, a melodramatic way to say, “Hey, I’m editing and cutting out content I’m emotionally attached to. I need a hug and maybe a cookie. Later, after the massacre.”

10. You’re cynical about relationships and tell it like it is, while in love.
He might text that he’s writing in a cafe when a well-to-do middle-aged CEO walks in with, presumably, a mail-order Thai bride. And you (aka I), having watched numerous documentaries on this phenomenon, might reply that he shouldn’t be so harsh: “They are super in love. There’s no way their relationship is held together by mutual racial fetishes, his bank account, collagen, and Viagra. I would never say that. I love you!”

11. Those love letters.
Goddamn.