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Our campuses, our selves?

From the essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” by Laura Kipnis, writing for The Chronicle Review:

I don’t quite know how to characterize the willingness of my supposed feminist colleagues to hand over the rights of faculty—women as well as men—to administrators and attorneys in the name of protection from unwanted sexual advances,” he said. “I suppose the word would be ‘zeal.’” His own view was that the existing sexual-harassment policy already protected students from coercion and a hostile environment; the new rules infantilized students and presumed the guilt of professors.

Quote from a member of the Faculty Senate, answering the question as to whether there’d been any pushback in response to a new “consensual-relations” policy. What’s noteworthy about this faculty member’s reply is that it asks persons concerned with the prevalence of sexual assault, harassment, and prejudice on campus to consider the potential problems with empowering university administrators to investigate and adjudicate sex crimes. This blogger takes the view that for all the talk of college being a “learning community”, the reality is that these institutions resemble corporations far more than communities. Institutional priorities are evaluated in terms of liability control (rather than the protection of community members) and a favorable public image (rather than an actualizing and authentic community culture). Where this is true, we might hesitate to task unelected, unaccountable administrators with the work that, in our actual civic community, we assign to employees of the public service: professionals who are committed — by regulation and public expectation, if not explicit pledge — to uphold the common good for all members of the community.

The unnamed faculty member raises a prudent question: Are we foolish to so zealously entrust the college bureaucracy with ersatz police and judicial powers? Are such institutions capable of accepting and reciprocating our trust in such matters?

The government, we’re told is of, by, for the people; in that regard (and this is admittedly an idealizing view) we are protecting ourselves when laws are passed to protect against sexual abuse and exploitation, when police investigate such abuses, and when cases are brought to trial. Who are we asking to safeguard our campus learning community, when we ask a college to shoulder this responsibility? Is this not something we can do ourselves, through the institutional powers we already have a stake in, each of us, as residents in the civic community? What do we stand to lose, what do they stand to gain?

Patriarchal culture, being a  saprophytic parasite of a social complex, already saps so much of the strength of the people living under its influence. How then can we not be skeptical of the suggestion that the best way to build a safer campus culture is to trade in a system we collectively own, for a system wholly conducted by provosts, vice-presidents, trustees, and other officers of the alma mater?

Cui bono? Let us know what you think, below.

A fairy tale study that asks about feminism

Hoochie, being affiliated with a university, from time to time likes to dip into the waters of scholarship to see what the wonks and academic types are getting up to. Today, we take a look at the latest issue of the journal Children’s Literature in Education, wherein we find this interesting title in the table of contents: “Letting Down Rapunzel: Feminism’s Effects on Fairy Tales.”

In her article, scholar Angela Smith considers the influence that the stereotypes and gender notions prevailing in a particular cultural moment have upon the versions of fairy tales published at that point in time. Her target for study: the tale of Rapunzel. Her conclusion: versions of the story published in 1968 and 1993 do indeed reflect the influence of their context culture. The perhaps surprising take-away: “… the Ladybird version from 1993 acts as a cautionary tale against second-wave feminism in its strengthening of traditional gender stereotypes rather than engaging with the more positive approaches found in other retellings from this time.” (Emphasis added.)

One would have thought, if one subscribes to the notion that feminism and gender equality has been unfailingly progressive and cumulative, that a more recent edition would have more thoroughly cast-off the vestiges of historical traditional gender stereotypes. Smith suggests this isn’t so. Is her observation, in its small way, part of the case that feminist progress has reached its end-stage? Food for thought.

To give you a fuller sense of the piece, here’s the abstract in full:

The importance of stories written for young readers is undisputed, and in particular the central place of the fairy story in popular culture is clearly recognized. Whilst most of these stories are centuries old, they have been adapted by the cultures of the tellers to be more compatible with the ideological views of the audience. This article will explore how feminism has influenced two versions of the same story, published by the same publisher for comparable age groups through an exploration of the Ladybird versions of Rapunzel as published in 1968 and 1993. It will show how there are subtle changes in the text which do not affect the overall narrative structure but can offer an insight into the ways in which society has ideologically positioned men and women. Fairclough’s critical discourse analysis (CDA) will be used to show how a close linguistic analysis of the text can reveal the impact of feminism on the adaptation of children’s books.

The full paper can be access through the journal’s homepage on the Springer website, or through your academic or municipal library portal. About the author: “Angela Smith is Reader in Language and Culture at the University of Sunderland. She has published widely in the area of media discourse and gender studies. She is co-editor of the I.B. Tauris International Library of Gender in Popular Culture.

Illustration of punk Rapunzel by CurlyJul on DeviantArt.

Let’s talk about dry sex in Africa (and about exotification

Wendy Syfret has a piece over at Vice titled “‘Dry Sex’ Is the African Sexual Health Issue No One’s Talking About.

Dry sex“, Syfret writes, is a disturbing genital trend gaining ground in some African countries. It has apparently been a thing for some time (see, inter alia, “The practice and prevalence of dry sex among men and women in South Africa: a risk factor for sexually transmitted infections?” in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections, 1999).

In order to achieve properly dry sex, women insert dessicating substances — absorbent sponges, bleach, dust, ground-up vegetable matter, sand — into their vagina. This is done with the hope that the resulting dryness will provide their male partners with a ‘tighter’ sexual experience.

Sand. In. The. Vagina. This ghastly practice exposes women to increased risk of infection, and is acutely uncomfortable to boot. It’s also grounded in false ideas of sexual biology, not to mention unjust conceptions of sexual equality. Are men in Lilongwe or Joburg sacrificing their penile comfort in order to deliver a happier sexual experience to their female partners? (A quick Google search turned up no evidence that this is so.)

Syfret got in touch with Dr. Marlene Wasserman, widely known a sex health advocate and radio host in South Africa. She explains the spread of self-sacrificing sexual practices like dry sex as a differential in cultural attitudes regarding the sexuality of the two genders: “We can talk about penises and circumcision, which we do all the time, and the government puts policies into place. But dare we talk about vaginas? I’ve been doing radio for 20 years and the only time I’ve been reported to the broadcasting commission was when I referred to vaginas.”

Ugh; the social consequences of body-shaming male squeamishness. What a tragic mash-up of miseducation and misogyny, and stating clearly that I hope educators, advocates, and public figures like Dr. Wasserman can help make it a short-lived fad. I was glad to read that Wasserman recently helped the World Association of Sexual Health launch a declaration of sexual rights articulating the “right to pleasure.” As she tells Syfret: “Women are surprised that’s one of their rights. We know 33 percent of women have and tolerate painful penetration. That becomes part of what they expect from sex.” Let’s change those expectations.


There’s a consideration that comes to mind when I hear reports of bizarre practices like dry sex: the need to balance respectful and open empathy with an awareness of how journalism purporting to be foreign affairs cultural coverage might be a front for the age-old traffic in stereotypes. Given the distances — geographic, historical, economic, cultural, and linguistic — that separate readers in the US from the lives lived in the nations of Africa, it’s very easy for misconception and prejudice to mix in among the facts. In that context, it can be hard to distinguish rumor from reporting.

See if you can separate fact from fiction in a few representative samples:

  1. “Throughout Africa, we’re seeing teenage thugs getting high a concoction of sewage and kerosene called jenkem.”
  2. “We’re receiving reports of HIV-positive men in South Africa attempting to ward off the symptoms of AIDS by forcing themselves on pre-teen virgins?”
  3. “In certain regions of East Africa, albinos leave in fear of being kidnapped and dismantled for sale as traditional folk medicine?”
  4. “Women in Ghana, eager to keep their men interested and happy at home, are paying up to US$1,500 for laser treatments designed to reverse age-related vagina atrophy.”

Which of these chunks of reportage reflect true facts, and which are just the same old gods — fetishism, blood libel, various flavors of misogyny — poured into in new, Upworthy-ready bottles? (Disclosure: the last report, about vaginal atrophy laser treatment, is true, but it isn’t happening in Africa, and it is actually good news for cancer patients.)

Further reading:

Two Replies to the Problem of Misandry

Feminists hear it all that time: What about sexism against men? It comes in different forms: “Well, you know, men face discrimination to.” “You’re not really interested in equality, since you want women to gain an advantage and don’t care that some men are disadvantaged…” and on and on in endless variations, each of which presumes, firstly, that misandry is a thing, and secondly, that the existence of disadvantages somehow undermines the need to advocate for gender equality.

This morning, a male poster on a mailing list I belong to sent out the following question:

What are your thoughts on comments on sexism that’s focused at men?

I’d like to share my response to his question, here out of its original context, as a conversation starter. I’d love your feedback:

When I see this question, my genuine response is to wonder how in the world this question could seem, to a person (not necessarily you) writing in the United States, at this moment in history, like an urgent question to ask. It is not a non-problem; but if you’re in a position to be aware of the prejudice directed against people of color, against people of non-majority ethnic or national status, against women, against LGQBT people… how does does the question of discrimination against men seem like a question that needs addressing first?

The response that comes not long after that initial incredulity is, I think, a little more useful. I’d say that the lion’s share of prejudice directed against men is part and parcel of the same cultural attitudes that manifest against women as misogyny. (I could explain what I mean, if you don’t see my point.)

This entanglement is an issue I think of a lot of critics of feminism would be helped by understanding. When you raise half your society to behave as if the other half is enfeebled by lesser intelligence, crippled by irrationality and sentimentality, and designed to use deceit and wiles to capture a spouse’s attention, virility, and well-being for their own personal benefit — that’s a corruption that poisons everyone’s water.

In other words: the misandry that I see in the world seems mostly to be just another expression of misogyny. Which means that the response you sometimes see to misandry — which is itself a reactionary, defensive, aggressively anti-feminist backlash — has the ironic effect of strengthening the cultural conditions that foster that particular form of prejudice.

Feminists are the best advocates I know for men’s rights, though I know many people identifying as MRAs would not agree.

Ugh, it’s hard to look at my “low-stakes” writing later on. Got to learn the power of concision! Less is more, Zak.

*    *    *

And here’s a response to the same question sent out by another (female-identifying) member of the list:

Sexism directed at men is like racism directed at white people: it may exist, but because white people and men occupy positions of power in society, they suffer many fewer disadvantages due to prejudice than do members of minority groups.

Additionally, I feel that a lot of what men perceive as “sexism” against them is really just the problems of the patriarchy seen from a male perspective. For example, women are often granted custody of children in a divorce, rather than men. This is because of the patriarchal view that women are more ‘nurturing’ and are somehow natural caregivers. That stereotype hurts women by holding us back from obtaining high-level jobs due to widespread prejudicial worry that we might quit or take time off to go have babies.

That stereotype ALSO hurts men by making it more difficult for them to be equal participants in raising their children if they separate from their partners. It’s the same problematic system hurting everyone, really. This concept is sometimes referred to as the “kyriarchy.” That is, all of the current systems of power are designed to keep everyone in their place, and people are raised to believe that some places are better than others. Men are raised to believe that women should be the ones raising children, so they may silence their own desires for parenthood, or may spend more time toiling away at work because they think that the best way to be a ‘provider’ is to make money. That belief hurts women by holding them back at work, or by causing people to have negative views of women without children. But it hurts men by brainwashing them into having particular desires or suppressing desires, too.

TL;DR, if you want less sexism against men, be a feminist.

So, what do you think? Did our replies to the question make the most out of a teachable moment? How would you have responded?

Lord balks at gender-neutral language

Pepper... and Salt
Pictured: "Pepper... and Salt" cartoon, Wall Street Journal, 1/9/14

Over at The Chronicle Review, Geoffrey Pullman (of the Language Log, etc.) has a "Lingua Franca" column dealing with the objection of certain parties in the British House of Lords to the proposal to use gender-neutral language in the framing of future laws. He writes:

Lord Scott defended what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls “purportedly sex-neutral he”: the old-fashioned notion that saying “anyone who thinks he deserves it” doesn’t exclude females. (Of course it does. There’s a reason why it sounds silly to say “You can bring either your father or your mother if he wants to come”—he simply cannot be understood as covering your mom.) [...]

The debate cried out for the professionals to be called in. And to my delight, as I read on in the Hansard record of the debate, I saw that they had one: Lord Quirk of Bloomsbury, a distinguished scholar of English grammar and usage, and a former vice chancellor of the University of London, was next to speak. [...]

Of purportedly sex-neutral he, “the convention that masculine pronouns are deemed to include feminine reference,” he said:

If it ever worked, that convention no longer does, and there have been convincing psycholinguistic experiments showing that sentences such as “Anyone parking his car here will be prosecuted” predominantly call up images of a man doing the illicit parking.

And he further noted a shockingly strong tendency in certain legislative amendments to stick entirely to purportedly sex-neutral he whenever the pronoun referred to a judge. (The high-level judiciary in Britain is almost entirely male.) [...]

A final stinger: Pullum notes in his last graf that each one of the "grammatically ignorant old sexist fools" who spoke in the debate was.... male.

Inset image from The Wall Street Journal 1/9/14. 

December 4th lecture at BU: “And the Colored Girls Go…

Full title: “African American Women Vocalists and the Sound of Race, Gender, and Authenticity in Rock and Roll”

A lecture by Maureen Mahon, New York University

Wednesday, December 4, 2013
5:00–6:30 p.m. in College of Arts & Sciences Room 203
725 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

ImageThis talk will reference the experiences and musical style of African American women such as P. P. Arnold, Ava Cherry, Merry Clayton, Venetta Fields, Gloria Jones, Clydie King, Claudia Lennear, and Doris Troy who brought their gospel-trained voices to hard rock during the late 1960s and 1970s as they recorded and performed in concert with artists such as David Bowie, Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, Humble Pie, Elton John, Lynryd Skynrd, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, the Small Faces, Steely Dan, T-Rex, and Neil Young. By putting these black background singers into the foreground and exploring the interracial, cross-gender collaborations in which they were engaged, I will demonstrate the ways they helped create the “authentic” sound sought by the white artists with whom they collaborated. This consideration of the sonic presence of African American women in rock highlights the intersection of race, gender, and authenticity in the music of the classic rock era, a context in which romanticized notions of “black sound” and black identity fueled the attraction (among artists and fans) to the sound these women provided. An additional goal is to draw attention to an underacknowledged aspect of black women’s cultural production.

Light reception immediately following talk. Sponsored by the Graduate Music Society at Boston University, the student organization of the Department of Musicology & Ethnomusicology.

Women at Harvard Law: an exhibition, and an anecdote

The Harvard Law School Library has just announced their newest exhibit, titled “Women at HLS: 60 Years of Transformation.”

From the announcement:

Since women were first admitted to HLS in 1950, they have transformed the Law School, the legal profession, and public life. A special library exhibit, Women at HLS — coinciding with the upcoming Celebration 60 Reunion of women at Harvard Law School — explores themes such as enrollment, campus life, and the impact of student organizations such as the Women’s Law Association (WLA). It draws on Historical & Special Collections’ Student Photographs collection and the recently processed Red Set Ephemera collection. Jane Kelly and Margaret Peachy curated Women at HLS, which will be on view in the Caspersen Room, Langdell Hall, Monday-Friday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM through December 13, 2013.

All members of the public are invited to visit the exhibition in Cambridge.

* * *

While on the topic of female graduates from Harvard Law, file this one under “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby”…

Raya Dreben was among the earliest of the women to graduate from Harvard Law School. She had a distinguished career, culminating in her appointment to the Massachusetts Appeals Court. At one point she was hired by the very traditional but excellent law firm of Palmer & Dodge (now Edwards, Wildman, Palmer).

Here’s the thing: the firm insisted that she have her own letterhead. Her name did not appear on the firm’s standard letterhead which named all the (male) partners and associates.

(Source: Sarah Baldwin, on the EXLIBRIS mailing list.)

Holy Mountain Monks Say: No Girls Allowed

From the Wikipedia entry on Mount Athos, home to a number of Eastern Orthodox monasteries and known by Greeks as the “Holy Mountain”:

There is a prohibition on entry for women… to make living in celibacy easier for those who have chosen to do so. Monks feel that the presence of women alters the social dynamics of the community and therefore slows their path towards spiritual enlightenment.

In the 14th century, Tsar Stefan Uroš IV Dušan brought his wife, Helena of Bulgaria, to Mount Athos to protect her from the plague, but she did not touch the ground during her entire visit, as she was carried in the hand carriage all the time.

French writer Maryse Choisy entered Mount Athos in the 1920s disguised as a sailor, and later wrote about her escapade in Un mois chez les hommes (“A Month With Men”).[18]

There was an incident in the 1930s regarding Aliki Diplarakou, the first Greek beauty pageant contestant to win the Miss Europe title, who shocked the world when she dressed up as a man and sneaked into Mount Athos. Her escapade was discussed in the 13 July 1953, Time magazine article entitled “The Climax of Sin”.

In 1953, Cora Miller, an American Fulbright Program teacher from Athens, Ohio, landed briefly along with two other women, stirring up a controversy among the local monks.

A 2003 resolution of the European Parliament requested lifting the ban for violating “the universally recognised principle of gender equality”.

On 26 May 2008, five Moldovans illegally entered Greece by way of Turkey, ending up on Athos; four of the migrants were women. The monks forgave them for trespassing and informed them that the area was forbidden to females.

Men are banned from the mystical island of Themyscira, too, but being as it is a fictional place perhaps that case doesn’t do much to balance the scales.

Is this the most misconstrued male-written feminist essay ever?

I submit to you, the latest contribution to feminist-inflected introspection by Andy Hines. Over at Double XX, Hines writes:

I’m a stay-at-home dad to twin 4-year-old girls who are already smarter than me, and my wife is a brilliant doctor who kicks ass and saves lives every day. I grew up with big sisters and a mom whose authority was unbreachable. I celebrate every inroad that women make into business, technology, science, politics, comedy, you name it, and I get angry about “slut-shaming” or “stereotype threat” or whatever is the affront du jour. And yet, in the caveman recesses of my imagination, I objectify women in ways that make Hooters look like a breakout session at a NOW conference.

The breakdown: Hines experiences fleeting erotic images and fantasies when he encounters women in his daily life. The purpose of his essay is to explore the conflict between this (ostensibly spontaneous) behavior, and his felt commitment to feminism and to resisting the objectification of women by culture. He talks with some experts, he cites a Louie CK routine, and doesn’t make any philosophical breakthrough more profound than to acknowledge that a passing thought it less problematic than an objectifying action. It’s a piece of low ambition, but high (I’d argue) usefulness, insofar as many male readers will be able to easily identify with this internal tension between psychology and ethics.

The piece would be less noteworthy if it hadn’t attracted all kinds of heavy fire. See the responses, ranging from scathing to incendiary, at Slate, NYMag, and/or Jezebel.

Aside from being misplaced — and it is, it certainly is — all this vitriol is also counterproductive. In the interest of raising awareness, increasing participation, and promoting honest self-assessment, we should be encouraging the kind of introspective Hinds puts on display in his article. We need not laud the author for being in possession of objectifying thoughts nor for being gently self-flagellating about those thoughts, but we should applaud him for making his thought process about these issues public.