Monday, November 30, 2009

The Pragmatic vs. the Political

I've been sitting on this post for awhile, ruffling and unruffling my feathers and trying to think about what I want to say. The right "moment" has probably already passed--but I'll give it a shot anyway.

It's been a season of feminist blogger backlash against the advice columns. It started with restless rumbling against Lucinda Rosenfeld's harsh critique of a young woman left in the street, drunk, by her so-called friends. Right on the stilettos of this one came Hess vs. Garner regarding Eva, who had been raped (but was reconsidering calling it that) by her boss, was raising the child that resulted from that assault, and wanted help winning back her ex-husband, who left her when she chose not to terminate the pregnancy.

But the bs really hit the fan, so to speak, the day after Thanksgiving, when Amy Dickinson advised a college student who was sexually assaulted at a frat party.

The key points of Amy's response were:
1) Making the decision to drink to the point where judgement and inhibitions are impaired is never wise--and that's something you can choose to control
2) According to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, no matter what state either of you were in, if you did not consent to have sex, and it happened anyway, that's rape
3) You must seek physical treatment and emotional support immediately through the resources available at your university.
4) Find a way to tell this dude that someone is onto him, and that whether his behavior is deliberately, violently malicious or terrifyingly, alcoholically ignorant, it's not going to fly under the radar anymore.

The bloggers went to town on this one (among them, Hortense at, meloukhia of This Ain't Livin', Amanda Hess at The Sexist, and ginmar at A View From a Broad, henceforth, "the bloggers"), all of them generally re-stating Amy's response this way:

Yeah. That’s right. You stupid slut, you made your bed, now go lie in it. Everyone knows that going to parties at frat houses will result in rape, or sex that you will regret, and no self-respecting lady would ever attend such a party, for this very reason." (that's meloukhia)

Arrrrrrrrrgh. OK.

I think the advice columns are a fantastic source for social activists of any kind to identify the problems that burden our society. And rape on college campuses is certainly one one of them. I'm all for re-purposing these columns, pushing them out there to raise awareness, to be sure that men, women, parents, and children know that this is happening, and must change. There's a social and political cause here, for sure.

But I maintain that for the advice columnists, the pragmatic comes before the political.

Amy is pretty cutthroat, no doubt. I agree with the bloggers that her first line, "Were you a victim? Yes. First, you were a victim of your own awful judgment," probably did not make "Victim(?) in Virginia" feel much better. That's her style--she's not a coddler. Carolyn Hax might have started the column with, "I'm so sorry for what you've been through, and the pain and uncertainty you're struggling with." But guess what? I suspect she would have followed it up with very similar advice.

Frankly, I'm not sure Amy is in a position to say, "yes, you were raped. " In any case, it's clear she didn't feel she was in a position to say it. She's not a doctor, a lawyer, or a psychologist. She's never met or spoken to Victim, or heard more about what happened than,
"he quickly proceeded to go against what he 'promised,'" which doesn't give a lot of medical or legal information. It doesn't help that the whole thing is clouded by (possibly illegal) consumption of alcohol (possibly by both parties).

This is so often the case, and I think must be the hardest part of being an advice columnist: rarely, if ever, can they safely diagnose. They can't confirm that your spouse is cheating, they can't tell you to definitely have that baby, they can't help you get a girlfriend, and they don't know whether you were raped. What they can do, and what most of them are quite good at (in different ways) is break down an overwhelming event into comprehensible chunks, and make recommendations for moving forward.

Another harsh truth of advice columns is that they can only advise the person who wrote to them. It does no good to say "Your mother-in-law sounds like a real bitch, she shouldn't treat you that way" or "This criminal needs to stop raping people." The mother-in-law and the criminal don't care. All the columnist can offer is perspective and choices for the person who wrote.

So bloggers, use these columns to your heart's content! Please draw notice to the fact that even in this day and age, a young woman can be sexually assualted, and the only place she can think to turn is a stranger, a face she's seen in the newspaper. People need to know that. And we need to fix it. But keep in mind when you do that that face in the newspaper is trying to provide useful, accurate, honest guidance to an unknown person, on a terrible, delicate situation about which she has only 2 paragraphs of vague information--and about the same amount of space to respond.

You can expand upon, repurpose, and even totally disagree with what the columnist says, while respecting the fact that your audiences and purposes are very different ones. You can take a different tack, make something more of a column that you thought was fundamentally weak, without calling the original writer "one part incredible bitch and one part cover-your-ass scold" (that was ginmar).

For the record--I think Amanda Hess does that really well this time. She's clearly disgusted by Amy's response, but her commentary is nevertheless precise, logical and nuanced.

The trouble is, when you get so worked up about criminalizing the columnist, you force yourself to make everything black and white, to disparage everything she says for the sake of being right. For example, meloukhia is affronted that Amy didn't "provide [the victim] with any resources beyond a tepid recommendation to go to the college health clinic." Ok...the college health clinic is free, it's on campus, they're trained in dealing with students, and they could refer her to local doctors, hospitals, or rape crisis centers with much greater expertise than Amy could. What's wrong with this recommendation, and how is a directive to go there "tepid"? I don't get it.

And finally.....(drumroll).....I admit it: I don't think Amy's reinforcing rape culture by agreeing with Victim that her choices weren't good ones. I believe (subtlety again, look out!) that there's a difference between, "this probably could have been avoided" and "you deserved what you got, you hussy."

I don't believe that anything you do or don't do, say or don't say, wear or don't wear, means you deserve or are asking to be assualted. I do believe that there are choices that make it more likely to happen.

Let me be clear: I am not saying women should wear habits, keep a 9 p.m. curfew, and avoid direct eye contact with men, lest the men be aroused beyond their control. I am saying that everything we do, and everywhere we go, falls somewhere on the spectrum of risk to our well-being: we could be hit by a car, we could get food poisoning in the cafeteria, we could meet a stranger in a dark alley--or an untrustworthy charmer at a party. The answer, of course, is not to cower under our beds (after all, the roof could cave in). But the responsibility to calculate those risks, and choose to take them on, or not, with a clear mind, lies with each of us alone.

Women have fought for autonomy, on college campuses and off, for years. Female college students have insisted, rightfully of course, that parents, house moms, dates, RAs, and older brothers have no place dictating, or even knowing, where we go, what we do, and when, even though just a few decades ago that wasn't the case. But the corollary is that the responsibility for those choices is ours and ours alone. Being the victim of sexual assault is absolutely not any woman's fault or rightful punishment. But choosing whether to isolate herself, while incapacitated, with a stranger in a strange place is in her hands, and no one else's.

The trick of the advice column is that it has practical merit only if it's directed specifically at what Victim can control. Unfortunately, that inevitably puts the focus on her choices and options, not his unacceptable behavior. Whoever this guy is, he obviously should never have lied to Victim, and then attacked her as soon as he got her alone. But Victim wasn't able to stop him from doing it, and Amy certainly can't do anything about it now, from her column. Victim just wants permission to call herself, well, a victim. Amy could give it to her--but what good would that do? What would she do next? Instead, she focuses on a plan of action, encouraging Victim to seek treatment, help, and closure, to reclaim the agency and control that she lost in this terrible episode.

To a wide audience of parents, students, feminists, voters, etc., "This should never have happened! Our society is broken!" is a powerful rallying cry. But to one woman to whom it already did happen...well, it's not so helpful. We need both the political and the pragmatic, the activist and the advice columnist. What we don't need is the ranting and the name calling.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Grandma on Guard

Dear Annie:

I had the same problem as "Not So Rich Mom," whose grown, well-off children expect her to treat them to dinner all the time.

Here's how I handle it: If someone says, "Let's go out for dinner," I say, "Are we splitting the bill, or are you treating everyone?" If I make the invitation, I offer to pay and will choose the restaurant, but I inform my kids that they will have a separate bar tab because I don't drink and they love expensive bottles of wine. If they want to pick the restaurant, the deal is off. I also announce that I am not paying for a week's worth of doggie bags, so they should order only what they plan to eat.

This discussion must happen before getting into the car. Too many older folks get suckered into picking up expensive tabs out of habit or because no one else offers to pull out their credit card. A clear conversation can solve the awkwardness and unpleasant feelings. — California Nana

Dear Nana: Laying all the cards out on the table in advance certainly makes life much simpler.

Sure does....but at this point, who wants to go out to eat with you? (and who are you going out to eat with, that this is necessary for every outing?) Yikes. It's certainly no fun if every time you see your family and friends you wind up spending a fortune, but this "the deal is off!" approach sure doesn't seem to make this nana very, um, approachable.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

When bad neighbors mean no fences

Prudence (whose Thursday column must have come out early because of the holiday--more reasons to be thankful!) responds to a query that, sadly, comes up in the columns more often than any of us would like: a reader who is almost certainly a witness to domestic abuse wants to know if/how to intervene, without further endangering the victim, or themselves.

Prudie's response is right, I think, giving the writer, who is clearly disturbed by what's going on, an extra kick in the pants to make the necessary phone call. But there's one thing in her response that stands out as odd to me. See if you can find it:

Dear Prudence,
I am concerned about an ongoing situation involving my next-door neighbors. My wife and I moved into our apartment about six months ago. Not long after moving in, we were alarmed to hear our next-door neighbors, a married couple with whom we share a wall, shouting very loudly at each other during a heated fight. Since then, the arguments have continued with great frequency, and the language from him is so loud and abusive that we are now starting to feel as if we should call the police, especially because they have a baby, and we sometimes hear crashing sounds. But if we call the police, they will know that it was either we who called or their other next-door neighbors (there are only a few apartments in the building), and I don't want that lunatic coming after us. When is it time to call in help?

—Next-Door Nightmare

Dear Next-Door,
Now is the time to call. Once, years ago, I lived below a similarly abusive husband, who regularly screamed vile things. One day, I heard the wife come home, cry out, and fall to the floor, which was followed by her hysterical sobs. I feared she had been attacked by an intruder, so I called the police. They came and left, and when I called the station to find out what happened, I was told: "It was nothing. Just a domestic." The couple went on to have a baby and move away, and I've sometimes wondered about that miserable little family. Fortunately, today there's a different attitude about "Just a domestic." Your call doesn't mean he'll stop, or that she'll leave him, but it does put them in the system and him on notice. You can call anonymously. And if you later feel in any way threatened by him, immediately make a follow-up call to the police.


Do you see it? "I feared she had been attacked by an intruder, so I called the police." Really, Prudence? After hearing this going on above you for weeks, months, whatever, when the screaming escalated to violence, your first thought was, "Must be a robber"? I don't buy it. Which makes me wonder why she felt compelled to say that. It sounds like she's trying to justify her decision to call the police (if she'd known there was no intruder, she wouldn't have called?), which is odd, since the point of her response is to convince the ambivalent writer to make the call, not let it go. Weird.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

You're Kidding, Right?

Oh come ON!

Dear Prudence,
Every year my fiance's family takes a portrait together and mails it out as their holiday card. His parents included their new son-in-law when their daughter got married. This is the first holiday since my fiance and I got engaged, and they have already commented on needing a bigger lens to fit everyone in this year. However, I have no interest in being in their picture this year or any year. They sign the card "The Smiths," but I have no plans to change my name and don't feel this last name would be mine. I plan to decline to be in the photo since I have always looked forward to having my own family and sending our own pictures to family and friends. How can I gently say to my husband's family, "Time to cut the umbilical cord" and let your children start their own holiday family traditions? The thought of the upcoming family photo is making me sick and filling me with anger.

—Won't Say "Cheese"

Dear Won't,
It used to be said that when certain hunter-gatherer tribes were first exposed to photography, they believed that if a picture was taken of them, it would steal their soul. You're probably aware, however, that a photograph of you with your future in-laws will not forever capture your image and make it impossible for you to send a photograph of yourself for your own holiday card. Speaking of which, your fiance's family is going to conclude that you're quite the card when you tell them you're not going to be in their picture, you will never consider yourself to be part of the "Smith" family, and that you believe your future mother- and father-in-law are infantilizing their grown children. Everyone will be filled with seasonal joy that you'll be around for the holidays for the rest of their lives. There are two approaches you could take here. One would be to vent the rage you are feeling over your fiance's family wanting to include you in their tradition. That might solve everyone's long-term problem by making you a short-timer. (However, if your fiance hasn't figured out by now that you have some issues, he must have issues of his own.) Or you could spend some time figuring out why a gracious and inclusive gesture from your in-laws-to-be makes you act like a petulant baby and work on growing up yourself.


For real??

I'm newly married, on the fence about really-officially-for-realsies changing my name, and also looking forward to establishing my own family traditions with my husband and cat-children. I also don't like large group photos and making everyone gather around and pose. I tend to think it takes way longer than it should and get annoyed.

So if anyone can see where this woman is coming from, it's probably me. And I think she's flippin' crazy.

As Prudence points out, absolutely none of her protestations is actually affected in any way by the fact that her in-laws want to take a picture and send it out. This doesn't prevent her from going by her own name, nor does it prevent her from sending out her own card. Their card doesn't supercede hers, especially since there probably won't even be very much overlap between the recipients of these cards. They sign the card "The Smiths" because the card is FROM the Smiths--not because it is the official, legal, sole holiday mail to be sent out by everyone in the photo, who must by extension be a Smith. The fact that she's in the photo doesn't make her a Smith any more than a photo featuring the kids with Mickey Mouse suggests that Mickey is their dad.

No, being in the holiday photo doesn't bind her to these people, something she seems to dread. But, um, marrying their son does. Why does she fear the commitment of a photograph more than the commitment of a lifetime?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Blogger Blasts British in Cultural, Contextual Clash

Sorry for being totally absent's been a busy few weeks: I started a new job full time at the library, just in time to help out with the logistics of a conference hosted there. To make up for it, this will be more-than-just-your-average post. Indeed, it's perhaps my most "meta" post yet, featuring my response to an email about a blog post about an advice column (whew!)

It all started last Friday, when I got a message from AR over at the Undomestic Goddess asking, "What do you think of this?"

This turned out to be a blog post by Amanda Hess of The Sexist: Sex and Gender in the District. The post was a scathing indictment (to take a phrase from my undergraduate English department) of Daily Telegraph advice columnist Lesley Garner. The post's title tells you basically all you need to know about Hess's take on the column, if not what Garner actually said: "Advice Columnist Tells Victim She Wasn’t Actually Raped, And Should Have Aborted Her Not-Rape Baby."

What do I think? I guess I think it's too bad that
Hess felt the need to trash--and misrepresent--Garner, because in the end, they're on the same side. They want the same result, but they're just focusing on different things. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We need to start with the original letter:

Dear Lesley,

I am going to write down some facts about my situation but I'm not sure if I will have a question to ask at the end. I was with my husband for four years. I came home from a work trip abroad and told him that I had been raped but that I didn't want to report the incident because of the disruption it would bring into our lives. I liked my job, and my husband was in the middle of building a business. I wasn't going to tell him at all, but he noticed my strange mood.

After a difficult two months of medical tests and all-night talks, I told him I was pregnant from the rape and wanted an abortion. He drove me to a clinic for a consultation and waited outside in the car because he "didn't want to hear me talk about conception dates". Then we had to wait a couple more weeks for my appointment for surgery. During that time I changed my mind, and my whole world fell apart.

My baby was born healthy despite all the stress, and my decree nisi came through a few months later. That was seven years ago, and now I have a beautiful boy who surprises me every day with his curiosity and intelligence. But I am so lonely. I have changed jobs many times and I miss my ex-husband terribly. His business finished, and I know he is alone like me. I text him occasionally and he always replies. We've talked about meeting, and we almost did in January this year.

He has kept the same mobile number all these years. Is there a chance, even a small chance, that we could get back together? I know my boy would melt his heart if they met but could so much hurt ever be completely healed?

It seems like it all happened in a previous life, but we were so good together. I've never been happier than I was with him. My boy needs a father, and I have dated a few guys but none has worked out.

Why is my ex still alone? Is he waiting for me to make the first move? I'm sure we could be happy again. He and my son have so much in common. They are both geeks who like sports. They could watch rugby and Dr Who together. He can play chess – my ex would love that.

If we do meet, and if he wants to talk about what happened, should I keep to my old story or should I tell him the truth? What happened on that trip wasn't quite rape but I wasn't exactly willing either. The man was my boss and he was very drunk and forceful. I tried to push him away without upsetting him, but he was too strong and I didn't fight him. Maybe it is too late and too complicated.


Oy. There's a lot here for anyone to wrap their head around, and it doesn't help that "Eva" isn't being particularly consistent or straightforward.

Hess, as is her right (perhaps even her duty, as a politically minded gender blogger), wants to focus on Eva's inability to admit that what happened to her was rape. That is a serious problem, one worthy of discussion, and indeed perhaps indicative of unacceptable cultural norms at work. This is a legitimate issue to for Hess to bring to the attention of her audience: look, this problem is still not solved! Look what happens when we aren't able to call a spade a spade and a rape a rape!

But she (unnecessarily, in my opinion) absolutely blasts Garner for not taking the exact same approach--and I think that in doing so, she misreads what Garner is trying to say. Sigh...I'm trying to make this not too wordy and she-said, she-saidy, and I just can't. So bear with me.

Hess accuses Garner of saying that Eva's story about being raped "wasn't even true" and that by choosing not to have an abortion, she wasn't considering her husband's feelings.

But I don't read this as Garner's comment on the rape itself, or on what Eva should or shouldn't have done seven years ago. Garner is instead addressing the question Eva asked, which is, essentially, how can I get back together with my ex-husband--the one who left me after I was raped and impregnated by my boss?

Garner isn't saying, as Hess suggests, "this wasn't a rape, but a 'situation' that was entirely your own fault" She's saying, "Listen to yourself. Wake up. You think that if you tell your ex, who left you when he thought you were raped, that in fact you weren't raped after all, and that you want him to come back and raise your boss's cute child, he will. You're crazy for believing this, and you're wrong for making this your goal."

To be fair, I don't think Garner wrote this very clearly. She does (as Hess points out) say that Eva isn't considering her husband's feelings, and that she's focusing only on her own needs. But in fact, this is true--we just first have to strip the terms "feelings" and "needs" of the baggage we often assign to them.

What I mean is, Hess (understandably) reads this as Garner sympathizing with the husband and accusing Eva of being selfish. But, in fact, we know that the ex has feelings about this situation: he wants nothing to do with it. And, indeed, Eva's need for companionship is clouding her ability to consider these feelings. It's not about Garner being sympathetic to the ex, it's about Eva being oblivious to reality.

Garner is not saying that Eva should have had an abortion to keep her husband. She's saying, this guy already proved that he can't and won't be at your side through this, and that he does not want to raise this child. You're deluding yourself and asking for heartbreak to expect otherwise.

Hess writes, "Perhaps we just gently tell Eva that, really, the problem is not in her decision to carry a pregnancy to term, but rather the decision to continue to allow this fucking guy to have any sway over her child, her happiness, or her life."

Correct if I'm wrong but in a (perhaps roundabout, very English) way, that's precisely what Garner did.

I wonder how much of this is about subtle cultural differences. The British advice columnist says, basically, this guy can never make you or your son happy. Focus on moving forward and seeking stability and happiness on your own terms, rather than rationalizing and fantasizing about the past. The American blogger won't be satisfied until the rape--and don't get me wrong, I agree that it was--has been acknowledged, announced, processed, and named as such.

The British columnist suggests that any normal man would find it incredibly difficult to lovingly raise the child of his wife's rapist as his own. The American blogger insists that this makes such a man a "dickwad." As a hot-blooded American woman, my gut reaction is to agree with her....but I also think that Garner's rational and realistic admission is probably pretty accurate.

In the end, Hess and Garner agree that Eva needs to let go of this guy and focus on her own health, and on providing a stable and loving environment for her son. The rest of what they have to say depends on their goals and audience (giving one woman concrete advice, or rallying a generation of feminists?) and their respective personal and cultural values (charismatic activist, or stiff upper lip?)

In any case, I think it's too bad that Hess felt the need to paint Garner as her enemy...since in general women hating on women is the last thing we need more of.