Musings of an Inappropriate Woman

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What is “fourth-wave feminism”?

"Fourth-wave feminism isn’t a religion with a holy book, or a club with a pledge of allegiance…"
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Financial Times

There’s been a lot of talk about “fourth-wave” feminism in media over the past few months, especially in the British press, but what defines it? I think:

1/ No single voice or icon. So much fourth-wave feminist dialogue takes place on the internet, and the internet is home to multitudes of voices, all colliding with one another, debating, and pursuing different causes. This means that while our generation may produce great ideas, we are unlikely to produce a Steinem, a Wolf, or a Greer: a single iconic voice that stands for our movement and our generation.

2/ Intersectionality. Being a woman is not a single experience. Feminism is not just for white women, or for middle class professional women, and it should not just deal with its concern. In terms of our generation’s political/theoretical contribution thus far, I feel like fourth wave feminism is pretty much defined by intersectionality.

In a lot of the articles I read about “fourth-wave feminism,” though, it seems to boil down to: third-wave feminism, but with added internet! Or: zero change in what comprises feminism, but oh gosh, isn’t it great that people are finally talking about it again?

Thoughts? I’d love to hear them. Head over to my Facebook page to share what you think fourth-wave feminism is (and if you think it exists at all).

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.

“Were you dressed provocatively?” Thoughts on dealing with street harassment.

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A few days after I moved to New York, I went down to my local deli to buy myself some lunch. As I waited for my food to be prepared, the man standing beside me in the queue turned to stare, his eyes fixed on my breasts as he made a strange chewing noise that made me think of Hannibal Lecter. He had no food in his mouth.

I shot him a nasty look, and shifted uncomfortably on my feet, stepping backwards so as to remove myself from his line of sight. But he continued staring, and as I waited for what now felt like an eternity for my wrap to be placed on the counter, I wavered between wanting to tell him to rack off, and wanting to vanish into thin air, cursing myself for having the temerity to appear in public as a person with breasts.

It is when I come to this part of any story along these lines that I feel the urge to tell you what I was wearing. It shouldn’t matter, of course. Women should be able to go outside wearing anything we like and not be subject to encounters that make us feel less than human.

But people do care. Last year, my feminist discussion group in London held an event on men and feminism, which at one point turned into a kind of consciousness raising session in which the women in the group shared the daily incursions sexism had in their lives with the men. I told a story about a time I had been sitting in a park, minding my own business, and an older man I had never spoken before had come up and tried to kiss me. “Were you dressed provocatively?” one of the men in our group asked me. “Yes. I was dressed very provocatively,” I replied. (It was France. In September. I had been wearing a coat. But would it have been any more warranted if I had been wearing a tank top?)

I also feel the urge to share what I was wearing when I have been subject to this kind of public harassment because it highlights the ridiculousness of the situation. The degree to which it doesn’t matter what you are wearing. The extent to which there is nothing you can wear, no way you can present yourself, and be exempt from these incursions as a person with a female body.

And yet here I am, getting through this story without telling you what I was wearing. Bravo!

Because the real point of this story is not what I was wearing, but how the experience made me want to sink into the earth and be swallowed up completely. How it made me question if I should dress differently; if there was a way I could attire myself that would allow me to walk through my neighbourhood without people staring at me or commenting on my appearance, whether positively or negatively. How it made me wish that I was stronger. That instead of being ashamed of my body for attracting this kind of attention, I could be the kind of woman who does more than deliver a withering stare. That I could be the kind of woman who tells men who treat me that way to fuck off. That I might be a better feminist

It turns out I’m not the only woman who has these kinds of thoughts when I encounter street harassment. Last week I went to HOLLA::Revolution, a one day conference on street harassment run by the international feminist group Hollaback. I was hoping to learn some skills that would help me to respond to street harassment with more strength in the future. There had to be something more empowering than just stepping out of your harasser’s line of sight. Than pretending to be invisible. Than sinking into the floor beneath you (in your own mind, if not in reality).

But perhaps “strength” was the wrong was to think of it. I was surprised to hear Hollaback co-founder Emily May talk about how her own experiences with street harassment had chipped away at her. How like me, she had thought that maybe if she was stronger (yes, she used that word too), it wouldn’t happen to her so much.  It turns out that street harassment makes all kinds of people feel smaller and more afraid. Because that is what it’s designed to do.

And like many things at the intersection of the personal and the political, it turns out that fighting street harassment isn’t so much about how sassy your retorts are, but about what we can do to create a culture where street harassment is not acceptable.

Which is precisely what Hollaback is designed to do. Users aren’t just encouraged to share their experiences with the site because it is cathartic to do so; but because sharing reminds us that we are not alone, offers a window into how other people have dealt with similar situations, and en masse, demonstrates how widespread and habitualized the problem is. In some cities, the organization is partnering with local bars and restaurants to implement policies that will allow all patrons to feel safe from harassment. Soon Hollaback will be going into schools to train teachers and students on how to address street harassment. And they are producing research and reports like this one, which looks at how street harassment impacts people differently depending on their race, class, sexuality or gender identity.

More tips on how to respond to street harassment here and here.

Related: Back in my day, sexual harassment was another way of saying hi.
We’re all bad feminists, really.

Elsewhere: Hollaback!
Stop Street Harassment
An open letter to all my male friends 
(The Guardian)

COMPLIMENTS THAT AREN’T ABOUT PHYSICAL APPEARANCE

1) You’re empowering.
2) I like your voice.
3) You’re strong.
4) I think your ideas/beliefs matter.
5) I’m so happy you exist.
6) More people should be listening to what you have to say.
7) You’re a very warm hearted person.
8) It’s nice seeing such kindness.
9) You’re very down to earth.
10) You have a beautiful soul.
11) You inspire me to become a better person.
12) Our conversations bring me a lot of joy.
13) It’s good to see someone care so much.
14) You’re so understanding.
15) You matter a lot to me.
16) You’re important even if you don’t think so.
17) You’re intelligent.
18) Your passion is contagious.
19) Your confidence is refreshing.
20) You restore my faith in humanity.
21) You’re great at being creative.
22) You’re so talented at ____.
23) I don’t get tired of you the way I get tired of other people.
24) You have great taste in ___.
25) I’m happy I stayed alive long enough to meet you.
26) I wish more people were like you.
27) You’re so good at loving people.

Dream TED talk comments. (via expresswithsilence)

(via sexgenderbody)

CALLING SMALL TOWN GIRLS
My friend Elize Strydom grew up in a small town in northern New South Wales, Australia, where she busied herself with school, sport, friends - the regular things - all while wondering what was ‘out there’ and plotting her escape to the big city. 
Over the past two years, she has immersed herself in the lives of nine teenage girls in places as diverse as Australia’s Broken Hill and Bryon Bay, and regional Oregon and Ohio in the United States, documenting their experiences for her Small Town Girl project - “a journey of remembering and discovery” that seeks to answer the question what’s it like to grow up in a small town?

Elize will be returning to the United States in June for the next leg of the project. She writes:
"This time, I’d like to find out what it’s like to grow big in a small town if you’re African American, if you’re Native American or if you’re of Hispanic origin. I’m looking for 13-18 year old girls of diverse cultural backgrounds who live in towns with a population of 20,000 or less. I’ll live with you and your family/friends for a week and follow you around, taking fly-on-the-wall style photos that will form a body of work to be exhibited in galleries in Australia and the US.”

Sound like something you - or someone you know - might be into? Email Elize for more details at elizestrydom@live.com.au. And please, share this post on Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and any of your other networks to help spread the word about this great project. 

CALLING SMALL TOWN GIRLS

My friend Elize Strydom grew up in a small town in northern New South Wales, Australia, where she busied herself with school, sport, friends - the regular things - all while wondering what was ‘out there’ and plotting her escape to the big city. 

Over the past two years, she has immersed herself in the lives of nine teenage girls in places as diverse as Australia’s Broken Hill and Bryon Bay, and regional Oregon and Ohio in the United States, documenting their experiences for her Small Town Girl project - “a journey of remembering and discovery” that seeks to answer the question what’s it like to grow up in a small town?

Elize will be returning to the United States in June for the next leg of the project. She writes:

"This time, I’d like to find out what it’s like to grow big in a small town if you’re African American, if you’re Native American or if you’re of Hispanic origin. I’m looking for 13-18 year old girls of diverse cultural backgrounds who live in towns with a population of 20,000 or less. I’ll live with you and your family/friends for a week and follow you around, taking fly-on-the-wall style photos that will form a body of work to be exhibited in galleries in Australia and the US.”

Sound like something you - or someone you know - might be into? Email Elize for more details at elizestrydom@live.com.au. And please, share this post on Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and any of your other networks to help spread the word about this great project.