Musings of an Inappropriate Woman

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In the winter break of my final year of university, I told my friends I planned to write an essay that would “say the unsayable.” I titled the piece “Fragments of a Bulimic Headcase,” and published it a few months later under a pseudonym in my campus’s annual women’s publication, sent from a fake email address created specifically for the purposes of the submission.

If my friends ever read the essay, they didn’t know that I wrote it. At that point, bulimia was the most shameful secret I had: the corporeal evidence that the person I purported to be — fun, feminist, and effortlessly thin — was a lie. Among the smart, culturally savvy women and men I hung out with, bulimia was a subject of derision; an affliction of, as one girl I knew described it, vain cheerleaders, attention-seekers, and seriously disturbed individuals.

Bulimia comes out of the closet - and so do I - today at NYMag.com’s The Cut.

The best of the rest of the internet

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Bringing back an old blog feature after a two year break, because links are good. Some things I’ve read and loved over the past couple of weeks.

"Maybe ‘not illegal’ is not the best way to think about the range of things it is acceptable to do." (The New Inquiry)

"We totally match." On Louis C.K. and assortive mating. (Sociological Images)

"Fast food is disparaged for being cheap and disposable. Its workers are hired because they are seen as the same." Amazing long-form reporting by Sarah Kendzior. (Medium)

Want to write and sell a book? Here’s everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the American publishing industry. (Vanity Fair)

"Sometimes, you cry in a stranger’s arms precisely because they are a stranger." (Danielle LaPorte) And, related: On Secret and Whisper … a lot of what’s posted are expressions of emotions that aren’t sinful so much as hard to say in other places.” (New York Times)

A bar for geeks in San Francisco.

A sneak peek at Emily Gould’s forthcoming novel, Friendship. (Book Keeping)

I made this for dinner on Wednesday. It was good. (How Sweet It Is)

Image via Richard Calmes.

Rape culture is/Rape culture isn’t

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When I hear people say that rape culture isn’t real, I often wonder if it’s because they don’t know what it means.

Skeptics of the term seem to imagine that feminists are describing a world in which rape is not just common but ubiquitous, and in which the public is indifferent to – even endorses – sexual assault.

Plainly, these things are not true - at least, not to those extremes. As conservative commentator and rape culture dissenter Caroline Kitchens argued in a recent article for TIME, “Rape is a horrific crime and rapists are despised.” Or as Jaclyn Friedman put it in an article responding to (and rebutting) Kitchens: “What we really despise is the idea of rapists: a terrifying monster lurking in the bushes, waiting to pounce on an innocent girl as she walks by.”

But when feminists talk about “rape culture,” we’re not saying that every woman experiences rape, or that every man is a rapist (most are not). We are saying that as much as our culture professes to be disgusted by rape, there are a series of entrenched beliefs about women, men, sex, and consent in our society that serve not only to make non-consensual sex more likely, but to make us less likely to believe people, men or women, who speak out about their experiences with sexual assault. And we are drawing attention to the chasm between our response to the imagined rapist boogeymen described by Friedman, and the more complex rapists who exist in the real world: rapists who are also friends, beloved family members, sports stars, political heroes and so on.

Here is what we are talking about, when we talk about rape culture.

A culture that puts the onus on women to say no, rather than on men to establish a yes.

A culture that doesn’t take women’s “no”s seriously. That assumes that a “no” is just the first step in a negotiation, rather than a statement of resolve.

A culture that doesn’t consider the possibility that men might say “no” to sex at all.

A culture that says that some forms of sexual violence are reprehensible – the aforementioned monsters lurking in the bushes – and others are a matter of debate.

A culture that determines the “legitimacy” of a sexual assault based on the character of the victim. What was she wearing? Was she drinking? Did he have an erection? Had she had sex with that person before? Had she had sex with anyone ever before? Why was she being so chatty earlier in the night if she didn’t want to have sex?

A culture that determines the “legitimacy” of a sexual assault based on the character of the accused. Is he from a “good family”? Is she good looking? Does he deserve to have his future derailed because of this one indiscretion?

A culture that teaches boys that girls need to be persuaded to have sex, and will resist at first as a matter of course, to play hard to get or to maintain their “purity.”

A culture where friends and family of survivors ask them what they might have done to lead their attacker on.

More than anything, what feminist arguments about rape culture contend is that rape is not an aberration, committed by unlikable sadists who cannot be reasoned with. (Some rapists fit this bill, but many are people you might otherwise know and like.) It is a crime that is embedded in – and excused by – everyday social interactions.

It’s easy to understand why this concept is confronting; why some people might take the idea of “rape culture” very personally. It’s not nice, after all, to think that you are part of a system that enables violence. It’s even less nice to think that you might have personally done something that might be read as violence by another person.

But ultimately, I think the concept of rape culture is empowering. Because if sexual assault is a product of culture, that means that by changing our culture, we can change the frequency of sexual assault. Not all sexual assaults can be eliminated by tackling rape culture, sure – some rapes are committed by the violent psychopaths who dominate our imaginations (just like some murders are committed by strangers, but most are committed by people the victim knows very well). But lots of them can.

"Rape culture" isn’t a distraction, or a figment of an overactive feminist imagination. It’s an articulation of how most sexual assaults really happen.

Ask Rachel: Life is not determined by who is “winning” at 19.

Georgia writes: Hi Rachel, I was wondering if you could give me some advice? You interviewed me two ago for The Sex Myth. Now I’m 19 and studying journalism at uni. But I’m struggling. It seems like my classmates all command attention while I shrink away into a corner. I don’t think they are necessarily better than me, but I constantly worry that I’m not good enough. I just feel like I’m not achieving enough. My marks are average and I feel like my writing skills are too. It’s just really plaguing my mind with all this self-doubt, and I worry that I won’t be able to survive in such a competitive industry. I know I’m young and uni is a different environment, but I was hoping you had some words of wisdom or something? Thanks for taking the time to read this.

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Hi Georgia. If I could tell you one thing, it would be this: the trajectory of your life is not determined by who is “winning” at 19. It’s not determined by who is best at 25, 30 or 50 either, because the truth is that being “the best” is an illusive and temporary state. But it is especially not determined by where you are when you are 19.

When I was 19, I was shy enough that I had a crush on a guy for a year and managed to speak about fifteen words to him in that time. I didn’t know how to write a cover letter, because no one in my family had ever had the kind of job that had required them to write one. I wasn’t totally hopeless: I got good grades, started conversations with strangers in lecture theatres (I’m still friends with several people I tried that with to this day), and was just starting to strike up the courage to put myself forward for the things I wanted to do. But I don’t think most people would have looked at me and said, “That girl over there is going to be a shining success.”

It takes most people time to figure things out. And at 19, you’ve got plenty of time to do that.

So here’s my thought. Use this time you have at university to figure out what you like and what you’re good at. Stick your hand up for things. Get involved in clubs and societies. Start writing for - or running - the student paper. Apply to do work experience everywhere, and keep showing up after your tenure has ended if you have to (that’s how a couple of my uni friends got their jobs in TV). Make a podcast. Volunteer for a cause you care about. Contact someone who is running an event that interests you and offer to help them organise it. Force yourself to speak in public, even if it terrifies you, because if you do it enough, someday it won’t scare you anymore. Start talking to the kids in your class who intimidate you and realise they’re just as confused as you are. Even if they’re really good at pretending they’re not.

I say all this because the only way I have ever known to reliably build confidence is to throw myself into the deep end, and realise each time to my surprise I do in fact know how to swim. Confidence isn’t about believing that you can do everything already. It’s about trusting that even when you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll have the wits to figure it out.

And another thought: sometimes it’s nice to be in an environment where you’re average. It doesn’t have to mean that you are failing, it can just mean that you are surrounded by bright, capable people who are doing interesting things. I feel pretty “average” compared to some of the writers my age in New York, but I find that exciting, not intimidating. It doesn’t make me bad. To the contrary: it forces me to be better.

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