sexism

Hillary, Rape Culture, and an Uneasy Agreement with Trump

The Trump campaign has, since the beginning, seemed a caricature of what conservative politics has turned into over the past two decades. Instead of hiding behind dog whistles, he’s blatantly, proudly blasted out sexist, racist, classist and xenophobic rhetoric like it’s going out of style. It’s working for him, which is more than a little unnerving.

His sexism, in particular, is beyond question. This is a man who told an employee she’d look pretty on her knees, who disparages women’s appearances instead of engaging with critique, who accuses media members of being on their period when they dare question him, who dismisses fellow conservative competitors for not being pretty enough to win, who — when running out of options — chooses to leap on his female opponent’s use of a bathroom.

He’s a misogynist asshole. Point blank.

Last week, in yet another chapter of absurdity, he claimed that women were yuge fans of his, and that stalwart feminist icon Hillary Clinton was anti-woman. Derision, side eye, and shade came down in an avalanche, and rightfully so. There is no world in which Trump could be considered a greater ally for women.

And yet…

Alright, stay with me for a minute. Set aside your fervent love of Clinton. Simmer your Sanders adoration. Acknowledge your intense fear and loathing of the GOP field, but don’t let it cloud your vision. Put down the pitchforks for a second, and please just listen.

Because I’m about to agree — in part — with Trump. And I might hate myself more for it than you do.

See, Trump’s criticism of Hillary’s record on women wasn’t just a random jab; it was connected to the philandering ways of Bill Clinton.

At first I snorted at the support he provided for the conjecture. Frankly, I don’t care who sleeps with who and who accepts it or doesn’t. The Clintons are ostensibly good with each other despite past dalliances, and since it’s really none of my business, it’s a non issue in my mind.

If that had been the extent of his attack, I’d have gone back to a Netflix binge and chalk it up to another transparent GOP smear attempt. But Trump wasn’t just talking about the consensual extramarital affairs. He was also making reference to the accusations of sexual harassment against Bill that have come to the forefront over the years, and Hillary’s role in those sagas.

Bill has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment or assault since his career began. Some of those accusations wound up in court. Some of them were settled outside of court. Some of them were shouted into obscurity. But they’re there, as are accounts of Hillary’s attempts to bury them with private investigators and bullying.

And this is where I get stuck as someone who tries very hard to be a good ally for survivors of sexual assault and an advocate against rape culture.

On face, I want to holler with the rest of my progressive friends about all the good Hillary’s done in her life for women, about what a positive role model she’s been. I want to say that those allegations were never proven and this is just another desperate Republican attempt to quash Hillary before she gets the nomination.

But I can’t. Because I get angry when people say that Cosby, despite numerous accusers and a record of out of court settlements, doesn’t deserve our disdain. I get frustrated when people say that Woody Allen marrying someone he’s accused of molesting excuses his gross abuse of power. I get sick when people shrug off player after player in the NFL for their assaults because the women accusing them are obviously just seeking attention. I get exasperated when people tell me to stave off judgment until a legal system (that has proven itself woefully inadequate) adjudicates another woman’s trauma, like their decision is the ultimate arbiter of reality.

And to look at Bill Clinton’s tattered history without the same critical lens because I think his wife is better than the horror show in the GOP presidential field would make me a massive hypocrite.

We can say that none of these cases were ever proven in court, but that’s a bullshit dodge. The legal system fails survivors of sexual assault early and often, starting with authorities questioning attire and prior relationships and ending with a he-said-she-said deflection.

We can choose to say fall back on the he-said-she-said excuse in general discussion of the topic, too, but that’s crap, as well. How many allies posted about how absurd it is that we discount the trauma of multiple women in order to defend the acceptance of one man’s denial when the Cosby travesty gained public notoriety once more last year? Bill has had multiple accusers, as well. He also had out of court settlements. Why does he get a pass?

We can roll our eyes and say he’s being targeted because he’s a prominent public figure. He certainly is, but that’s the exact reason why we should be willing to look at the situation critically. It is not easy for survivors to come forward under far less visible circumstances; it is infinitely harder to do so when being put under a public microscope and having your story and person torn to shreds is a certainty. Multiple women have been willing to face that level of scrutiny. That’s not something someone does for fun. And as the data shows, false accusations are exceedingly rare.

We can look the other way when considering Hillary’s behavior involving the accusations. And maybe, to some extent, that’s fair. Yes, there have been reports that she hired private investigators in order to bully accusers into silence, but a lot of those reports have also been circulated by notoriously unreliable conservative pundits and politicos. I’m willing to concede that those reports might not be true.

But those aren’t the only criticisms that can be made of Hillary on this note. Indeed, her response to Trump’s comments was problematic in and of itself. After being pressed on the subject at a New Hampshire event, Hillary replied:

I would say that everybody should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence.

It was a safe response, of course. Nothing wrong on the surface. But when you look at the history of the allegations against Bill and the way those cases were handled, the dismissal of the accusers was not a function of evidence; it was a function of politics. Hillary knows (or should know) about the infrequency of false allegations and how that information interacts with Bill’s track record, but instead of grappling with that, she’s buying whole hog into the fallacy with this comment.

And yes, we can talk about how she really doesn’t have any other pragmatic response. Evidence shows that her numbers surge during attacks like these; buying into them would be like refusing a gift horse. And the idea of having to grapple with such a disturbing reality in such a personal relationship is overwhelming, to say the least. I absolutely get that. 

But you know what’s even harder to deal with? The trauma of sexual assault. Political convenience is a crass and callous excuse here.

And while Hillary’s record is largely a positive one for women, she’s never been a particularly vocal advocate for sexual assault survivors. She’s apologized to other nations for rapes committed by American troops, but unlike her fellow female Democrats, she’s yet to call for reform in how the military handles rape cases internally. In fact, outside of rather soft rhetoric (as seen above), she’s stayed away from any substantive engagement of sexual violence issues.

Again, probably because it’s not real convenient.

And before it’s said that I’m targeting Hillary, let me make it clear that the Sanders response wasn’t a good one either. When asked about the ongoing feud between Hillary and Trump, Sanders said:

I think, you know, we have enormous problems facing this country and I think we got more things to worry about than Bill Clinton’s sexual life. I think — interestingly enough, maybe Donald Trump might want to focus attention on climate change, understand that climate change is not a hoax, as he believes that it is, that maybe Donald Trump should understand that we should raise the minimum wage in this country, which he opposes, and maybe we should not be giving huge tax breaks to fellow billionaires like Donald Trump.

So I think maybe he should focus on those things.

This is just as bad as Hillary’s deflection, if not worse. We’re not talking about “sex”; we’re talking about assault. And while I’m not going to deny that the other issues he references deserve attention, to argue that sexual assault is somehow unworthy of attention as well is an asshole move. It’s also a common move in positions of privilege to deflect conversations that are uncomfortable or politically perilous.

To be fair, I can’t let this critique discount Hillary or Sanders as candidates. Both have a lot of good to offer, and both are infinitely better candidates for president than anyone the GOP is offering. The stakes are too high to dismiss them out of hand. But being willing to accept the lesser of evils during such a time doesn’t mean we stay quiet about imperfections in the candidates we’re willing to consider. When we prioritize painting candidates as perfect over demanding they do better and be better, nothing changes, and we’re no better than the rabid GOP supporters who refuse to criticize their own party.

Listen, I hate having to give anything Trump says the time of day, but I cannot, in good conscience, just ignore this issue. And if you’re calling yourself an ally of sexual assault survivors, neither should you.

(Waits patiently for the tomatoes to start flying.)

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A Mother’s Lament

As a mother, I struggle. I look at my daughter – joyful, smart, strong-willed, independent, opinionated – and I am overcome with equal parts love, pride, and fear. I know other parents get it. You care about that kid so much that you want to give them the world… but then you remember what a scary place that world can be.

I struggle with how to teach my daughter to love her body and herself in a healthy manner.

I try to prioritize physical health and strength. I do my best to demonstrate love of my own body with all its stretchmarks, lumps, and bumps, choking back whispers of shame that stem from a world of photoshopped expectations. But there’s a line, right? How do I teach her to prioritize health without leaning on the language that has propped up those expectations for years?

I dream of a life for her where she feels empowered to own her own sexuality when the time comes, but I don’t want her to hide behind it instead of engaging in emotional connection. I’ve seen the damage associated with placing a high premium on sexual “purity,” and I’ve seen the self-inflicted pain of turning off feelings in the name of sexual expression for principle’s sake. How do I encourage her to embrace her sexuality in the face of headwinds that will push her to put up walls around her feelings for one extreme reason or another?

I want her to view her body as her own without caveat, but I know I need to teach her about the dangers that too often lurk behind a corner or a friendly face and their callous dismissal of that truth. How do I help keep her safe while refusing to plant the seeds of cultural victim blaming?

I worry that I’m teaching her the wrong things without saying a word. Does she notice the time I spend each morning, carefully cultivating the appearance required to precariously balance between professional, frumpy, bitchy, and woman? Is she learning to hold herself to the same standards?

I’m a single mother, and she doesn’t meet the men in my life. I promised myself a long time ago that my personal decisions would not impact her stability, and that she would never view having a man in her life as essential to being “complete.” But is the lack of healthy relationship modeling going to haunt her later?

I look at the statistics and the news reports and the lack of news reports and the bullshit legislation and the jaw dropping court decisions, and I am terrified by the trends that dehumanize my gender to the point that our organs are commodities subject to the regulation of men (and some women) who don’t understand how they work. I am heart-broken and tired. How do I help her to understand why these rights are important, the magnitude of the work that’s been done by those who came before us, and the challenges that are rising ahead of us when these feelings are the last thing I want for her and I don’t have the answers?

I see her fascinated by science, reveling in math, reading voraciously, and am buoyed by her love of learning. How do I encourage her to take pride in her mind and go after whatever her dreams may be, while preparing her for the discrimination and harassment she will face as she makes her way?

I hope to see her grow into a young woman who is unafraid to express herself. I don’t want her to dress or act in a certain way because it’s what’s expected by the world around her, but knowing how the world reacts to such audacious agency, I feel compelled to keep her safe from the cruelty. How can I possibly teach her not to run from herself when I know first hand the kind of pain that comes with running head first into a wall of public opinion?

But I don’t want to raise a self-centered daughter, either. I want her to understand what’s happening in the world around her, and be driven to make it a better place.

As the white mother to a white daughter, I don’t even know where to begin explaining the state of race relations in this country. I want her to understand the bloody sins of our past, the structural discrimination they generated, the state of inequity today, the extent to which we’ve turned a blind eye to the poisoned fruits of our stubborn refusal to acknowledge white privilege. I recently had to correct her when she came home proclaiming Columbus a hero. How in the hell do I undo the continuous whitewashing of American history our schools are designed to reinforce without getting her in trouble with standardized teachers, tests, and administrators?

As the straight mother to a daughter who has yet to express or really explore gender or sexuality (outside of her proclivity for playing the role of badass princess in “Let’s Pretend”), I want her to feel safe to define herself as she sees fit. She’s grown up with a cadre of gay and lesbian “aunts and uncles” from my circle of friends; she doesn’t see a different from their love and hetero love, and I’m grateful for that. But even with the legal system and public sentiment swaying in the direction of equality, there’s still a long road in front of us before people who are not straight and cis have equal footing. How do I send her out to walk her own path and be an ally for those she loves with such hateful battles raging on either side of her?

As someone who manages bipolar disorder on a daily basis, I know the strife and stigma associated with mental illness, and I work hard to break down the assumptions our culture broadcasts about those with diagnoses and not. I am pretty open about my illness with those in my life, though we don’t make a big deal out of it at our house. Mommy takes medication; I don’t hide that. When she asks questions, she’ll get answers. But how do I teach her to understand and empathize with the struggles someone with a mental illness faces when these battles are often buried under the burdens of privacy and shame? Given that she is statistically much more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder at some point, how do I steel her for the antiquated notions about mental health that still prevail as the norm? Hell, before we even get there, how do I prepare a little girl on the autism spectrum to filter the bile that an ignorant society spits out?

As an admittedly privileged mother to a surely privileged daughter, I stand unsure of how to explain privilege and its ramifications. I’ve known poverty, known gender related harassment and discrimination, and mental illness stigma, but I’m not arrogant enough to say I understand the experiences of those who reside at different points in the privilege spectrum, nor can I dismiss that my present circumstances require ongoing reflection to combat inherited privilege. I do my best to listen and learn and use my voice to make a difference when possible, but I am fallible, and sometimes I’m just as much a part of the problem as those I’m trying to reach. I struggle with how to advocate without assuming to speak for a group or hijacking the narrative. How do I teach her to be an ally when I’m not even sure what I’m doing?

As someone who has experienced one of the many possible intersections on the privilege spectrum, I’ve grown to understand that the infinite combinations of personal history and inherent traits create a complex network of unique experiences, all of which provide the context necessary to understand and combat the inequity present in the world around us. The experience of a wealthy or middle-class white woman is not the same as the experience of an impoverished white woman, nor is it the same as that of a black woman, or a Chinese immigrant woman, or a Latino male, or a Muslim practitioner, or a gay indigenous person… the list goes on. Navigating these distinctive experiences to better appreciate and address the culture they combine to create isn’t a simple task, particularly with a cacophony of privileged voices in the background demanding a linear explanation for the chaos they’re a part of sustaining. How do I show her how to see the world in prismatic fashion when black and white are still the trendy colors du jour?

As a mother, I struggle, and I will continue to struggle. None of these questions have easy answers, but one thing is clear: I have to continue to seek them out, because, if we want a less scary world for our kids, it is up to today’s parents to make sure we raise our children to be good, self-aware, socially conscientious people. I love my daughter, and I will gladly wade through the uncertainty and stress and mess of it all because I believe in her… and I know all of our futures depend on her and her peers setting right what we’ve done so wrong for too long.

But for today, I will find strength in her smile and her laugh and her 437,298.5 questions an hour, and find hope in the twinkle of her eye that says we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Confessions of a Privileged White Girl

People talk about privilege. I grew up swimming in it.

If you combined Elmore City, Stepford, Devil’s Kettle, Pleasantville, and Montrose, multiplied the fake factor by a hundred, and threw in a little bit of Puritan Massachusetts for good measure, you might come close to understanding the terrifying time capsule that is Wheaton, Illinois.

In Wheaton, there’s a church on every corner, a luxury car in most garages, and a ferocious dedication to maintaining the illusion of suburban utopia. Its sky-high home values come with a median income in the six figures and no shortage of classism. With a population that’s 83% white, diversity isn’t the town’s strong suit. In fact, for those who lived there, 83% might sound like a stretch… if only because of the way the city’s population has segregated.

The latest designer styles and smartphone models in hand, kids draw clique lines by pew lines and battle for congregation conversion against lockers after attending their first class public schools. When the movie Savedcame out, we were all convinced it was based on our hometown. I’m not kidding. There were conversations in the film that I’d seen play out word for word in the hallways.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s no shortage of sin in Wheaton; it just gets swept under rugs or placed so far down in the artificially constructed hierarchy of upper-middle class morality that they don’t have to worry about it while they lament the fall of traditional “American” (read: straight, white, Christian, cisgender, affluent) values. Wheaton expats, and even some of those who never quite got out, refer to this lovely town as “The Bubble.”

Wheaton is where I grew up. My family wasn’t wealthy by Wheaton standards per se, but we were comfortable. My dad worked, and my mom was able to stay at home with me and my three younger siblings. I was able to get an amazing education, participate in a wide array of after school activities, take advantage of rich cultural opportunities, and enjoy childhood in a relatively safe community. Going to college was never a question – just a fact of life. On top of all that, I was white, straight, cisgendered and able-bodied with a generally socially acceptable physique.

In other words, I was privileged. Really. Fucking. Privileged. As in, the kind of privilege you expect resting on the shoulders of a clueless caricature off the silver screen.

———-

There was a problem with that first class education of mine, though. Let’s see if you can spot it.

We learned about the Civil Rights Movement. The takeaway? Segregation was gone and racism was dead. We learned about suffrage and the bra burning feminists of the 60’s and 70’s. The conclusion? Women were in the workplace now and sexism was a thing of the past. Prayer had be relegated to before school circles around the flag pole, so clearly, religious tolerance had been achieved. We basked in the knowledge that we were living in an era of equality. We were blind to color and gender and class. The driving ideology tasted like a resurgent American dream: everyone has a fair shot, and anyone can achieve anything if they pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

This conditioning was omnipresent and well-intentioned, but ultimately little more than wishful thinking. The hope was that by raising a generation to reject discrimination as an artifice of the past, discrimination would cease to exist. Certainly aspirational. In some ways, maybe they thought that, with the way we’d been making progress, by the time we’d grown up, this carefully cultivated selective blindness would be without consequence because we’d have finally arrived at some state of social utopia. Whatever.

Instead, it masked the very real inequity faced by people in our society, compounding its impact and sending out ripples across public policy and discourse.

If I’m blind to difference, I have nothing to learn from the experiences of someone who is different from me. If choose to hear their narrative, I usually compartmentalize it as their individual experience, and not representative of the whole. It doesn’t matter how many narratives add up, because they are all individual experiences, and not representative of the whole.

And that assumes I’m willing to hear the narrative at all. If I’m blind to difference, if I am insistent that difference is irrelevant, I may dismiss those narratives out of hand. Because I never hear their narratives, I never humanize the experiences, which makes it easier to dismiss statistics that say there is a systemic problem as indicative of personal problems instead.

When someone dares to share that narrative anyway, I find ways to explain why it’s not inequality. Those ways usually involve telling the speaker that whatever they’ve suffered is their fault somehow.

See, if the problem isn’t the system, then the problem is the person.

If it’s the person, and that person isn’t you, it’s not your responsibility. If it’s the person, and that person isn’t you, you, as a person, are probably better than them in some way. You’re smarter or you work harder. We shame the person who never had a fair shot. We tell them it’s their fault.

So when black people have a higher unemployment rate, a lower median income, a higher rate of incarceration, or a lower graduation rate, that’s clearly their fault. When a woman is sexually assaulted outside of a bar, she shouldn’t have been wearing that skirt or drinking that drink, or maybe she should have been carrying a gun. When women make less than men year after year after year, maybe they shouldn’t have so many babies. When gay men are assaulted for kissing outside a bar, they shouldn’t have been flaunting it.

These thoughts aren’t always articulated, especially so directly, but it’s these kinds sentiments that fuel the defensiveness encountered when the idea of privilege gets raised. It’s an ego thing. The idea is that if the game was rigged from the start, our accomplishments or struggles are somehow discredited. So we personalize the narrative of someone less privileged into an attack, and default to the position that the system isn’t rigged and the person is the problem.

It’s certainly easier that way, isn’t it?

———-

To say college was a bit of a culture shock after growing up in Wheaton would be the understatement of the century, but I was lucky enough to be surrounded by intelligent, compassionate, patient people with the biggest hearts in the world. They were teachers, friends, and family all at once. There are more than a few of them who are deserving of their own posts, but we’ll save those stories for a different day.

My education regarding privilege is far from over, but I certainly hope that I honor those who taught me so much about race, gender, classism, and more as I try to be better today than I was the day before. Still, the past year has continuously highlighted how much more I have to grow.

I’m struggling with all of this. I’ve been struggling. I’ve been coming to terms with revelations that don’t fit comfortably on the frame of the self-image I’ve built for myself.

I know I’m not the only one who’s struggling. I know there are others who continue to avert their eyes to avoid the struggle as much as they can for as long as they can. I know there are others still who have a sucker punch waiting for them somewhere along the road.

So I thought to myself, why struggle alone? Why struggle in silence? Why leave others to do the same? Struggle needn’t be lonely. More to the point, we may find our struggles shorter if we face them together. Right?

I think about how often I have measured myself by the male gaze and I shudder, cringing at the thought that I may have already taught my daughter to mirror my behavior. I think about how I’ve shrugged off sexist behavior in a professional setting in an effort to keep the peace, and I feel ashamed. I think about how frequently I have excused misogynist behavior among my male friends because of how they treated me individually, and I am angry with myself. I think about how I’ve danced along to songs like “Blurred Lines,” and I’m inwardly sneering. I think about the unwarranted judgment I’ve cast on the decisions of other women, and all I want to do is tearfully beg their forgiveness, whether they were aware of my transgressions or not. I think about how I have been color blind myself, dismissive of the distinct, important experiences of women of color in feminist circles, and I fume over my own arrogance.

I have so far to go. I just want to keep listening and learning and improving.

But the only reason I can say that is because I’m privileged enough to do so comfortably. And that’s fucking bullshit. While way too many of us are busy learning about injustice in the abstract, way too many other people are busy living with it. We need to pick up the fucking pace.

———-

I wound up getting sucked into a conversation about privilege the other night with my siblings, Luke and Brittany. This is usually a cringe-worthy event in the Nelson family, and since we’d spent the afternoon and evening drinking at a barbeque, it was particularly dangerous territory. Brittany is very passionate about social justice issues, and can become especially emotionally charged on the subject of privilege. Luke, on the other hand, is what you might imagine a cartoonish representation of straight white male privilege to look like. He’s a good-looking, 6’4” former athlete who works in sales and may have overdosed on the Wheaton Koolaid growing up. When the two of them engage on the subject of privilege, Luke tends to take her criticisms as personal attacks. It probably doesn’t help when she says, “Well, you ARE part of the problem.”

Typically, I end up trying to play mediator in these scenarios. Maybe it was because I was still a little raw from the #YesAllWomen conversations, maybe it was the whiskey, but this time around, I didn’t bother attempting to keep the peace. When the conversation veered to the subject of male privilege, I weighed in.

“Luke,” I said, testing the waters. “Let’s start with this: I’ve never walked into a bar without having someone grope me.”

“What? No,” he said, shaking his head.

“Yes. Every single time.”

“How come you never told me? I’d have kicked his ass! Er, asses!”

“Because you’d have kicked his ass. And even if you wanted to, you don’t have enough time to beat up that many people. And even though you want to, you shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t need you to.”

The look on his face said things were starting to register. Brittany jumped in at this point, saying, “I tried one time to go for a run at night. There was a guy following me. I was so scared I went a couple blocks out of my way so I could be sure I’d lost him and he wouldn’t know where I lived.”

When Luke gave her a quizzical look, she replied, “It would never occur to you to do something like that. But it’s what we’ve been taught to do for our own protection.”

“That’s privilege,” I said. “At least, an example of it. It’s not that you, personally, necessarily did something terrible. It’s that your experience is dramatically different because of the lot you drew in life, and that’s not really fair. When we talk about privilege with you, we’re asking you to acknowledge that fact, reflect on how your decisions may unconsciously be impacting the experiences of those who are different from you, modify your behavior accordingly, and help us call out people who are being assholes. But before any of that, we’re just asking you to listen. Really listen.”

I teared up a little as he nodded his head. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything we’d said on the subject really click with him, and it meant the world to me. He’s still got a long way to go, but that was a huge moment.

And all I can think is that it sucks that it took the suffering of a woman in whom he could see himself for the shift to happen.

———-

Sometimes, I get overwhelmed by the scope of the work that needs to be done. Men I’ve always liked and respected will tell me they don’t believe me when I describe my experiences with sexism. Friends will insist that reverse racism exists. Some random jerk will holler obscenities at me out their car window while I’m walking with my daughter. I’ll get another email from a guy who is hell-bent on explaining why men have a harder time of it than women, or some anonymous troll screaming about how I’m destroying the world who sounds a little too much like Elliot Rodger for comfort, and all I want to do is stop caring. It’s too much. It’s too exhausting.

But there are too many people who don’t have that luxury.

I’m going to keep listening. I want to hear your stories if you want to tell them. But I’ve got to keep talking and I’ve got to keep writing because we can’t keep waiting for the right time to have the uncomfortable conversations we so desperately need. I’m going to fuck up. And I’m asking you to call me out when I do, even though you don’t owe me that courtesy.

One way or another, we’ve got to do better.