Feminism, Porn, and SlutWalk: part one of a conversation with Meghan Murphy

One of the many benefits of being involved with the SlutWalk phenomenon has come in the form of new allies. But it’s not just allies I’ve met in real life and online. I’ve also had some vigorous discussions with folks who disagree with the very premise of the SlutWalk movement. Some of these conversations have revealed more heat than light. But some have been good, and I’m particularly pleased to have had the chance to meet Meghan Murphy, a graduate student in gender studies at Simon Fraser University who blogs with British Columbia’s F-Word Media Collective. Meghan also hosts the F Word Show on Vancouver’s Co-Op Radio, airing Mondays at noon Pacific time.

Meghan’s written a series of posts taking on SlutWalk, particularly around the willingness of some SlutWalks to form alliances with sex workers without a concomitant criticism of the sex industry itself. My views on SlutWalk are clear, and I’m currently developing a project in conjunction with sex worker advocates.

So in the interest of cutting through some of the rhetoric, Meghan and I decided to have a frank but civil exchange of views. She’d ask me five questions, and I’d respond; I’d ask her five questions, and she’d respond. What appears below the cut are her five questions to me and my responses. Jointly posted here and at the F-Word Blog, this will be followed on Wednesday with my questions and Meghan’s answers. Continue reading

Risk, Reputation and being Judged by Our Enemies

As we come to the end of the first quarter of 2011, I note it’s been a personally challenging start to the year. I’ve had a series of health difficulties, mostly revolving around a respiratory infection that has lingered for the better part of two months. Last week, I popped out a rib while coughing; it popped right back but the pain was excruciating. Middle age is certainly upon me.

It’s also been a terrific three months in terms of reaching new audiences. In late January, I was hired as a featured columnist at the Good Men Project, and my pieces there are regularly syndicated at Alternet, the Huffington Post, and The Frisky. We’re putting the finishing touches on Beauty, Disrupted: The Carré Otis Story, a memoir on which I was privileged to serve as collaborator. I’ve been doing some more speaking. And next month, this website will undergo a dramatic transformation to reflect those changes.

And with the good fortune of becoming ever more public, the criticism grows harsher. The hate mail has increased exponentially in the past three months. I won’t link to them, but google my name with the search term “mangina” and you’ll find plenty of men’s rights advocates (MRAs) working themselves into venomous fits. Most of what’s out there is laughable, a little of it is disturbing, and all of it is is par for the course.

Last week, however, one well-known MRA posted a Youtube video about me. It’s a typical rant of the sort I’ve heard countless times before: veiled accusations of sexual impropriety, cheap psychoanalysis, and misogyny. What was different was that this MRA put up a sort of slide show during his ten-minute talk, mostly using photos of me and my friends that I’ve put up on Facebook. In two instances, he included pictures of me with young feminists, including a group shot taken and reposted widely as part of Feminist Coming Out Day. (Strangely, he didn’t include the pictures of me dressed as a White Swan, which I would have thought would have been a source of great delight to that crowd.)

Two of the students who were in those pictures contacted me (it was one of the ways I first found out about the MRA video). They were horrified and creeped out by what was said in the rant, as well as by seeing themselves on the screen in this way. “Why are people so hateful”? one asked.

I reminded my students that activism comes with a price. Sometimes, college campuses can seem like sanctuaries; we need to remember that in the outside world, progressive ideas are still regarded with contempt and suspicion. There is a small but vocal group of men who regard feminism as the single most destructive ideological force in the modern world. Frequently hiding behind pseudonyms, these guys will say truly hateful , hurtful things. The goal is to shame, the goal is to silence, the goal is to use a heckler’s veto to derail thoughtful discussion. And sadly, I know that it sometimes works. Some young activists will reconsider a life of public advocacy when they see what can happen. And while it’s easy to tell people to grow a thicker skin, it’s heartbreaking that some folks will and do decide it’s simply too high a price to pay.

I’m lucky. The MRAs can’t threaten my job. (My division dean tells me the college gets regular calls and letters complaining about me, but they’re always anonymous and never from my own students, so they get ignored.) Most people who do this work don’t have tenure, don’t have the security I have as well as the steadfast support of an entire community. When an indignant anti-feminist reads about my curriculum, he can say “I’m going to complain to your college”, and I’ll happily help him by providing him with the address. That’s a privilege others don’t enjoy. Threats to someone’s livelihood can be very, very real.

The MRAs do work tirelessly to threaten my reputation. I’ve made it clear time and again that I’ve been sober for nearly 13 years and that I haven’t slept with one of my students since that time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: accuse me of something that happened before June 27, 1998, and it’s probably true. (I’ve forgotten a great deal, and remember other details all too well. One thing I will say is that my relationships with students, as unethical as they were, were with chronological peers, slightly younger or older. I wasn’t exactly a middle-aged lech chasing teens.) But while I am not perfect, I can proudly answer for my sexual boundaries since that date. Still, folks insinuate that I’m a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” yet (a common charge thrown at male feminists). And while that tired old charge doesn’t bother me, it does impact people around me.

One of my female mentees sent me a FB message yesterday. She asked if she should stop visiting my office hours so regularly. She’d seen the hate video, and though she wasn’t in it, had picked up on the cheesy intimation of sexual impropriety. She wrote:

You know I think you’re safe. I KNOW you’re safe. But I’m worried about your reputation and mine if I visit you so often. People see me coming into your office, or they see us walking to the Pass (where they sell sodas on campus). I worry that they’re talking about us and will think something is going on that isn’t. I still want to see you but I don’t want to damage your reputation. I also hate it that people might think something is going on that isn’t. I don’t want to be judged! What should I do?

I told her that of course she could continue to come. I also told her that if she’d rather talk more on email, that was fine too — she needed to assess her own comfort level. But it left me sad and angry, angry not at her but at the success this particular nasty tactic had had in rattling a young person.

If no one hates you, you’re not doing your job. I first heard that truism from the late Senator Alan Cranston, of all people, though the sentiment is millenia old. I’ve always been proud to have the friends I have — and proud to have the enemies I do as well. We judge people by the company they keep, and by those who won’t keep their company. By that calculus, I’m blessed.

Feminist Coming Out Day

I’ll have a permalink to my appearance today on Hay House Radio with Michelle Phillips when it becomes available. And if you, like me, are a Los Angeles resident and voting in tomorrow’s municipal election, you might take the excellent recommendations of the LA Progressive website.

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, and it’s also Feminist Coming Out Day. Originally started at Harvard University in 2010, FCOD has gone nationwide this year. But of all the campuses doing official Feminist Coming Out Day projects, there’s only one two-year school formally participating: Pasadena City College. As an adviser to the college Feminist Club, I’m very proud of my students. I’m particularly proud that the club hosted an inspirational visit last month from Lena Chen, a Feminist Coming Out Day founder and celebrated columnist. Chen — who first emerged as a courageous sex blogger during her undergraduate years — is a marvelous role model to my students. We’re so pleased to be part of this extraordinary project she helped found.

I’ll be one of many panelists for a Feminist Coming Out Day Event tomorrow evening from 6-8PM in the Circadian Lounge in the Campus Center at PCC. The public is welcome, and you can check out our Facebook event page here. And if you twitter, use the hashtag #afeministlookslike.

Feminism isn’t just an ideology to me. It isn’t just what I “do” professionally, though I am blessed to make a living as a feminist professor and writer. Feminism is a movement for global and personal transformation, the single best vehicle for bringing about a more just and compassionate world that I have ever encountered. Feminism connected me to my humanity, reminded me that my biology was never my destiny nor my limitation. Feminism liberated me to see myself as a complete human being, and it forced me to do the hard but glorious work of growing up and taking full responsibility for my actions and my life.

After nearly twenty years of teaching women’s studies, I’ve watched how feminist scholarship and activism has empowered and reshaped the lives of countless students, men and women alike. I’ve watched in awe as young (and not so young) women found their voices, found their passion, found their anger and found their purpose in feminist work. I’ve watched with pride as young (and not so young) men have come to reconsider their relationships with mothers, sisters, wives and lovers as a result of beginning a feminist journey. I am convinced to my core that feminism is a force for political, social, sexual, economic and even spiritual liberation in the lives of men and women.

I am proud to call myself a feminist.

A mea culpa

I wrote last week about Young Feminists Speak Out, an event I attended in Santa Monica. Though it was an important and interesting discussion, I noted that I was taken aback by what I interpreted as an ageist slight at “older feminists.” I mentioned posing for a Facebook photo with my colleague and friend Shira Tarrant, each of us with our middle fingers raised; the picture was captioned “middle-aged feminists flipping off ageism.” I posted it on Facebook within seconds, while the speakers were still speaking and the event was ongoing. Furthermore, while I tweeted my annoyance, I didn’t bring it up in the Q&A that followed, and I left the event early to have dinner with friends.

I’m fortunate to have thousands of Facebook friends, including a great many people in the feminist community and many, many former students. The photo ended up in everyone’s newsfeed on Facebook, and attracted many comments and much discussion. And the impression it left was that Shira and I, as “professional” feminists and professors in our forties, weren’t spending a lot of effort on connecting with the young people who were speaking. We had constricted around a couple of unfortunate remarks, and my choice to post the photo reinforced the notion that ageism had been the great theme of the event. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Writing at Feminist Fatale today, Miranda Petersen takes issue, rightly so, with how I interpreted the evening. Miranda writes:

The truth is age discrimination goes both ways. It’s funny; we addressed the topic of the “generational divide” to help break down some of those assumptions. Instead, we experienced first hand the lack of respect many young feminists are confronted with: either we are cast as ignorant or naive (e.g., “they’ve got so much to learn…”), or our integrity and motives are questioned (e.g., our justification for using “young feminists” in the title). There is certainly much learning to do on our part, and the distinction between age vs. ideological divides is worth some serious discussion. But how are we supposed to do better if we aren’t taken seriously to begin with?

Emphasis in the original.

Miranda’s right. I take full responsibility for posting a photo that was inappropriate and got a tremendous amount of attention. For the record, the picture was taken with my camera and was my idea; it was an impulsive and frankly juvenile decision to post it. I chose to do at the workshop what I try never to do with my students, and indeed warn against — taking one inflammatory remark out of context and focusing on it to the exclusion of everything else. For someone who considers himself a role model as well as an advocate for egalitarianism and social justice, for someone who works with these young people day in and day out, that was disappointing and inappropriate and I am genuinely, publicly sorry. I was wrong.

Ageism is a real issue. It does go both ways. And the annoyance at being falsely characterized as technologically incompetent hardly justifies tuning out the excellent points made by the many wonderful young speakers at last Thursday’s event.

I look forward to participating with enthusiasm and sincerity (and my twittering thumbs) at another such event soon. I will be participating with my colleagues and friends, for that they are, regardless of age.

Young — and not so — feminists speak out in Santa Monica

Last night, I went with some friends to the Young Feminists Speak Out event in Santa Monica, co-sponsored by Ms Magazine and other progressive organizations. I knew several of the organizers through Ms and the Feminist Majority (the offices of which are walking distance from my house).

The gathering was at a fun and funky clothing store. Boys with long hair were jamming on guitars when I walked in and made my way to the “bar” for a diet Coke in a plastic cup. I joked to my friend Monica that it was like going to progressive events in the Eighties: the same music, the same plastic cups, the same sorts of flyers on tables. I had a flashback to Berkeley, circa 1985: back then the flyers at feminist gatherings decried militarism and encouraged organizing to support the Sandinistas and divesting from South Africa; today, they decry militarism and demand withdrawal from Afghanistan and the closing of Guantanamo. It’s a mighty over-used cliché, but plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

But the speakers were terrific, including Melanie Klein (of Feminist Fatale and a fellow community college women’s studies prof); Morgane Richardson, Brie from Revolution of Real Women and Miranda Petersen and Myra Duran, both from Feminist Majority. (I’m sure I’m leaving someone out.) I got to meet some great folks whose work I admire, like Pia Guerrero, the founder of Adios Barbie. We had many of the heavy hitters of SoCal feminist activism all together, and that was wonderful.

Events like these, as several people pointed out, are less common in Los Angeles than they are in San Francisco or New York. Angelenos famously have a reputation for refusing to drive long distances for events on weeknights, though that’s more a stereotype than reality. I had students who came from the northern San Fernando Valley and from east of Pasadena, spending more than an hour on freeways to get to the event on Lincoln Avenue. Whatever the reason, gatherings like this are rarer than they probably ought to be.

The discussion got off to an awkward start, as the older folks in the room picked up on what we know was unintentional ageism. One panelist in her twenties said that an “older generation of feminists had fliers, we have Twitter.” My forty three year-old self looked at my dear friend and collaborator Shira Tarrant, who was standing with me in the back of the room. Shira and I are old enough to be the parents of most of the speakers – and we were the ones with our iPhones and Blackberrries in hand, tweeting live updates. (Check the hashtag #femla.) It was an innocent but annoying mistake that we hear a lot: the speaker had confused the kind of tools we used for organizing when we were their age with the kind of tools we use for organizing now. At least in my circle of activists, some of the most social-media savvy feminists (the ones with heavy Facebook, blogging, and Twitter presences) are old enough to remember Watergate. We don’t stop learning new tricks when we turn 40, people!

Shira and I posed for a photo, playfully flipping off the camera, and giving the bird to ageism. I put it on my Facebook, and a healthy conversation about feminism and ageism promptly ensued. (And I’m happy to accept FB friend requests from readers, btw.)

Intergenerational conflict in feminist activism is famously oversold. The use of the term “waves” to describe different generations of the movement is also clumsy. Sometimes, young feminists cluster “older” Second Wavers together, so that everyone born between 1920 and 1980 gets thrown into the same category. Shira and I are old enough to be the parents of most of last night’s speakers — but young enough to be Gloria Steinem’s children, and Betty Friedan’s grandkids. To the extent that generational conflict exists, it does so in complicated and not easily reducible ways. Young people do tend, at times, to imagine that they are the first to have certain concerns, the first to do battle over what they see as new issues. Some of the time, they’re right: old problems do get solved, new challenges do arise. But when those new challenges arise, they often arise for the “old” as well as the young. We may all be of different ages, as I remind my students, but we often face the same problems. (For example, the idea that eating disorders and body dysmorphia don’t happen in the lives of women over forty is a commonly held misconception by the young. Wishful thinking or myopia, it just ain’t so.)

In the great scheme of things, we are contemporaries. And kids, take note: your teachers sometimes tweet more than you do.

But to reduce the discussion down to that one problem would be unfortunate and unfair. There was much in the presentation that was good and valuable. I was heartened to hear not only the commitment to intersectionality (meaning the insistence on connecting violence against women to a larger culture of racial, economic, and cultural oppression), but also to hear speakers like Brie and Melanie make the case that body image and self-esteem matter politically. Far too often, there’s a tendency on both the left and the right to be dismissive of eating disorders and body dysmorphia as serious, even central issues that deserve to be on the front-burner. The far left, stuck in a Marxist analysis, tends to think of these concerns as “bourgeois navel-gazing”; the right tends to think of them as questions of individual concern that don’t require a collective response. But as was pointed out last night, and as all of us who do this work with young women know well, self-esteem is always political. Young women who aren’t happy with their bodies, who feel overwhelmed by the pressure to pursue an unattainable ideal, are suffering. That suffering is real, and it’s not something that they can be dismissively told to “get over”. And if feminism is concerned with anything, it’s concerned with ameliorating — and ultimately ending — suffering.

I’m deeply appreciative of the young activists who organized this event, and I look forward to many more.

“In essentials, unity…” answering a 16 year-old’s question about what feminism really is

I get a lot of emails, both from my own students and from blog readers, that sound like this one which came in yesterday from “Annabella”:

I’m 16, and I’ve called myself a feminist since the 6th grade. But lately I feel as though I’ve been identifying with a movement that I don’t actually share views with. people say that all that being a feminist means is that you believe in women’s equality, but people (online, as that’s the only contact with feminists I have) act like it truly requires much more than that. The other day I saw a link for a letter which said, among other things, that prisons were so corrupted that we should abolish them all together, and that strengthening anti-domestic violence laws was selfish or something because of how it would affect the black community. I understand that there is racism, but abolishing prisons seems to me to be insane. What would we replace it with? People also act like getting married is anti-feminist, and that it disrespects gay people. They say that heterosexual couples should not get married until gay people should get married. I really do wish gay people could get married, but why can’t I exercise that right if I wish? Not getting married won’t change anything. People also say disparaging things about religious people, specifically Christians. Some of the blogs are painful to read, as a Catholic. I understand the church has made a lot of mistakes, and that it is very sexist, but is that my fault, and does it make me stupid that I’m not an atheist? I don’t think it does.

I try to remind myself of all the sexism in our society, but every time I do I come across someone saying something like “make-up is a demonstration of patriarchy’s pyramid of oppression and it’s wrong for women to wear it.” And I think that’s just their brand of feminism, but I can’t help but be reminded of the conservative’s claim that feminism has gone too far. It seems like a good point to me. What do you think?

Am I a feminist?

Yes, Annabella, you are a feminist. And do let me recommend the marvelous Feminism 101 blog for more help.

Two things are important to remember. First, there is no agency that credentials feminists. No one — not a blogger, not a professor, not a politician — has the final say on who is and isn’t a feminist. Second, there are certain things that unite all feminists, chiefly a commitment to the struggle to bring about enduring equality between men and women. To be a feminist, you need to be committed to equality — but within the feminist movement, there have always been and will continue to be disagreements about what equality ought to entail.

For example, I belong to the “liberal” (rather than radical) feminist tradition. In the liberal tradition, we are particularly concerned with issues of personal choice, and with expanding access to choices. For many liberals, choice is a very high good; in other words, to some of us in the feminist camp, we care more about your freedom to choose than what it is you are choosing. For example, Annabella, taking a husband’s last name. Liberal feminists may take a dim view of a woman taking her husband’s last name following a heterosexual marriage, but they still believe it is a choice a feminist could make. Liberal feminists would be concerned with ensuring that the choice to take the name was made based on desire rather than duress. Not every action need be subjected to an incapacitating level of analysis!

As for the issue of make-up, radicals do tend to see the focus on beauty as inherently oppressive. Other feminists are less sure. The position that many liberal feminists take is that beauty and fashion are more complex than our radical friends imagine; what can be oppressive can also be redemptive. Many of us feel that wanting to be attractive and wanting to look good are normal human wants, and that the feminist approach to fashion should be to broaden the spectrum of what is considered beautiful rather than seeing the pursuit of beauty as invariably anti-feminist.

These arguments rage in the blogosphere over things like make-up, or waxing, or the burqa, and even over heterosexual intercourse. The same divide shows up each time. One camp (usually the radical camp) says that the thing itself (make-up, vagina-over-penis sex, waxing) is inherently oppressive. The other side generally says, “Gosh, that’s not always true: what a woman does usually matters less than why she’s doing it, and how it makes her feel.” When it gets nasty, the radicals accuse the liberals of bourgeois navel gazing, and we liberals accuse the radicals of a crude essentialism that ignores the freedom of the individual. And so it goes on and on. Continue reading

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Ten firsts for women in 2010

Continuing a tradition from the last two Decembers, let me offer a list of ten “firsts” for women this year.

In 2010:

Kathryn Bigelow becomes the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar for “Hurt Locker”

Sgt. Sherri Gallagher becomes the first woman ever to win the US Army’s celebrated “Best Warrior” award

Brazil, a future superpower, elected its first woman president, Dilma Rousseff

Costa Rica elected its first woman president, Laura Chinchilla (how much do we love the name?)

Carolyn Bertozzi becomes the first woman to win the Lemelson-MIT prize, given to mid-career inventors and one of the most prestigious awards in American science

16 year-old Elena Myers became the first woman ever to win an AMA (American Motorcycle Association) racing event when she won a supersport race in Sonoma.

Kelly Kulick becomes the first women ever to win a Professional Bowling Association event in January, when she wins the Las Vegas Tournament of Champions.

Switzerland, one of the last countries in Europe to grant women suffrage, now has for the first time a governing cabinet in which women are the majority.

The US Supreme Court, for the first time, now has three women (Elena Kagan joining Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor)

New Mexico and South Carolina elected the first two women-of-color ever to hold governorships

Progress, not perfection.

Add other firsts in the comments if you like.

The challenge of confrontation: dismantling rape culture one conversation at a time

Clarisse Thorn wrote a Thanksgiving post, in which she raises an all-too-familiar problem:

One very intense, very important issue I grappled with this week was having a friend email me to inform me that another friend — someone I like and admire a lot — has been credibly accused of sexual assault by a person who will never press charges. This has come up before in my life; every time it’s a little different, and yet so many things are the same: a person is assaulted, the news gets out among friends, the survivor doesn’t press charges, there is confusion among the friends about how to act, eventually things die down, and I feel as though I should have done more.

Clarisse wrote to an ex of hers for his take, and he replied:

Nobody is composed of unmixed goodness or evil, no matter how much of a paragon/fiend 1) they seem to be or 2) their principles require. People we respect and love are not forces of nature or avatars of their cause of choice, no matter how thoroughly they embody it to us… I can’t see how it could ever be good to allow things like this to just slide. Honestly, I’m not sure what else you can do but (as you suggest in one of your messages) politely ask your friend about their take on the story. If nothing else, it will demonstrate that people are paying attention to this thing…

I agree with Clarisse’s ex, both about the necessity of confrontation in some form and the wisdom of acknowledging that those around us are never entirely what they seem. (This doesn’t mean that most people are fraudulent, merely that we tend to see blacks and whites more clearly than we see shades of gray.) And I think this willingness to raise hard questions is particularly important for men.

I’ve often made the case that the true measure of a man’s commitment to gender justice doesn’t just lie in how he treats women, but how he interacts with other men when there are no women around. Most young women have had the utterly infuriating experience of having a male buddy, boyfriend, or brother who is sweet and sensitive when she’s alone with him — but who turns into a troglodytic jerk when other men are around. That sudden shift from kindness to doltishness can be chalked up to the homosocial pressure to be “one of the guys”, a pressure that tends to trump everything else in young men’s lives. And so I repeat the message that I learned a long time ago: part of being a good male ally lies in challenging the sexism of other men even when there are no women around. Actually, if there is a litmus test that distinguishes a boy from a man, that might be it: the courage to stand up to other men and to endure the homophobic insults that will surely come when he challenges the attitudes and actions of his “bros.”

Feminists often talk about “rape culture.” Rape culture doesn’t just mean a culture in which rape happens — it means a culture in which sexual assault is condoned, or excused, or minimized, or even actively facilitated. For example, fraternity parties to which young women are invited and encouraged to binge drink are part of rape culture, as they involve the use of alcohol and social pressure to undermine young women’s capacity to give or deny meaningful consent to sex. Rape jokes are part of rape culture, as is the loathsome use of “rape”idiomatically to refer to any action of domination or success. (An example I overheard in the hall last week: “Dude, I totally raped that test.”) But nothing — nothing — sustains rape culture like silence. And given that men are raised to be homosocial (meaning they place intense value on the opinion of their male peers), and given that it is men who are doing almost all of the raping, it is the reluctance of the so-called “good guys” to challenge other men that allows rape culture to survive.

A true story:

As I’ve written many, many times, I had a series of consensual sexual relationships with my adult students when I was first a professor at PCC. The fact that most of these students were my chronological peers (one or two were even older than I), and that the relationships were often initiated by those students does nothing to mitigate the unethical and irresponsible nature of what I did. It was an abuse of power, and all sexualized abuses of power fall on what might be called a “rape spectrum.” What I did wasn’t rape in that it didn’t violate the consent of the adult women with whom I was having sex — but it was on that spectrum nonetheless because the power imbalance may have had at least some impact on the capacity of these women to give meaningful consent. (I acknowledge agency, but also acknowledge the social and cultural pressures that can undermine agency.) Continue reading

The kids are all right: on awareness, sex-positivity, and political activism

Academics are famous for their tendency to see the wrong more clearly than they see the right. Trained as we are in graduate school seminars to be critics, encouraged to elevate suspicion to the cardinal virtue, we’re often much more articulate in explaining the problems than in proposing workable solutions. And we often tend to forget to celebrate what’s right and what’s good.

After my flurry of recent posts on sexualization, my friend Elyse wrote me and suggested, tactfully, that while I had made a pretty good case for the negative impact contemporary culture is having on young women, I ought to focus as well on what’s exciting and good. Last Wednesday’s post on webcams and privacy was inspired by a query from a student about what changes I’d witnessed in my years of teaching. And it certainly isn’t the only major change I’ve seen.

So, three bits of good news about college students from my perspective.

1. Now in my eighteenth year of community college teaching, I’m excited by the way in which my students in recent years have embraced the Internet to become much more savvy about feminism and gender justice. In my introductory women’s studies course, I still get plenty of students who have no idea what feminism is or why it matters. It was always so. But each semester, the number of young people who enroll already possessed of a feminist foundation grows. Some already read Jessica Valenti and Courtney Martin years ago, or have been visiting feminist websites — famous and obscure — since ninth grade. When I started teaching, radical notions about women’s equality were confined to college campuses and specialty bookstores; they were largely inaccessible to, say, the daughters of immigrants going to high school in the San Gabriel Valley. Now, thanks to the ‘net, those ideas are widely disseminated, often presented in ways that click with a multi-cultural and economically challenged population of young women. By the time they hit my classroom, many of my newest students already have been given a thorough primer in gender justice. That’s a novel and exciting development, and it bodes well.

2. My students today are much more comfortable talking about sexuality than were students just fifteen years ago. In class discussions as well as in their journals, the young women I’m working with are far more willing to talk about issues like masturbation, birth control, enthusiastic consent, and exploring same-sex attraction than were the students I taught when I first came to PCC. (To be fair, I’m a much better teacher today than I was then, and a much safer presence. But I hear similar things from feminist colleagues who’ve been at this gig as long as I have, so I don’t think this new openness has much to do with my particular personality or teaching style.) For example, as recently as a decade ago, I very rarely had female students argue passionately in defense of pornography. When they did take that stance, they invariably took it on First Amendment grounds; today’s students, many of whom have explored visual erotica since the onset of puberty if not before, tend to take a much more positive view of the liberating potential of cybersexuality.

“Sex-positivity” among young women isn’t just an over-hyped media creation, it’s a real and growing trend in the lives of this particular generation of college students. This is the flip side to the Paris Paradox, the equally real problem of being “sexy” but not “sexual”. This is a generation of young women who’ve been able to buy vibrators online from sites like Babeland, and a generation that’s used the same Internet to get the truth about sex education concealed from them by noxious and stultifying abstinence-only campaigns. (Scarleteen is the indispensable source for detailed and authentically empowering information.) This generation of girls grew up more bombarded than ever with confusing messages about what it means to be a young woman — but they also grew up with more tools to decide the question for themselves than any generation before them. I’m excited for them, and excited for what they’ll do in the world. And I’m very excited to meet their younger siblings.

3. There’s been a huge upswing in political activism. I spent my adolescence as a lonely progressive in the early Reagan Era, surrounded by high school classmates who saw apathy as a virtue. The situation was not much better when I started at PCC, in the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Between 1995 and 2006, I served as an advisor to no fewer than six different feminist-themed clubs. Time and again, I tried to interest my students in gender justice activism. Time and again, a club would get started by a few wonderful young people — and then the club would collapse as soon as those leaders graduated. There was no sustained interest in having a presence on campus dedicated to exploring issues around sexuality, feminism, reproductive rights and so forth. But in 2007, with the help of Feminist Majority, we got another club — the seventh since I’ve been here — up and running. And for three years now, it’s thrived.

The club was active in the 2008 election, and when the inevitable hangover came, I worried that many young people would lose interest in feminist work. Instead, I saw the club grow in 2009, galvanized in particular by the assassination of George Tiller and by the campaign to end the disaster of abstinence-only education. In talking with feminist organizers from groups like Planned Parenthood and Feminist Majority, I discovered that our happy experience at PCC was being replicated across the country. We’ve seen a renaissance of feminist political activism on college campuses, a rebirth heavily assisted by social networking. (I have no idea how we’d put a Feminist Club meeting together on this campus without Facebook.) The confluence of these new social networking technologies with a more anxious and politicized era has given birth to a new generation of young women activists. The issues are largely the same as when I started teaching: economic justice, body image, violence prevention, reproductive freedom, the right to pleasure. But the percentage of students involved in the struggle has risen exponentially, and the tools they use to connect to fellow activists are astonishingly effective. There is much reason to hope, and much reason to rejoice.

Gather ye rosebuds: the Onion spoofs the good man crisis

A couple of people sent me the link last week to this hilarious Onion News Network video: Obama Releases 500,000 men from the National Strategic Bachelor Reserve. (You’ll need to watch a very short ad first before the two-minute spoof starts. There is mild profanity within the video as well.) The report speaks of an “Eligible Male Task Force” designed to combat the critical shortage of “Men who are Looking for Something Serious,” and the graphics are splendid. (There’s even a subtle jab at Henry Waxman, my splendid congressman). Watch it all twice.

It’s been nearly a quarter-century since the “man shortage” became a topic of national media hype. The genesis of the scare was a single Newsweek article from June 1986: Too Late for Prince Charming?

The traumatic news came buried in an arid demographic study titled, innocently enough, “Marriage Patterns in the United States.” But the dire statistics confirmed what everybody suspected all along: that many women who seem to have it all—good looks and good jobs, advanced degrees and high salaries—will never have mates. According to the report, white, college-educated women born in the mid-’50s who are still single at 30 have only a 20 percent chance of marrying. By the age of 35 the odds drop to 5 percent. Forty-year-olds are more likely to be killed by a terrorist: they have a minuscule 2.6 percent probability of tying the knot.

That whopping bit of hyperbole in bold (as if there’s ever been a 2.6% chance of being killed by a terrorist) became the “killer quote” that drove the whole discussion. Even when the report (as well as the rhetorical overkill about it) was debunked, the fears that the Elaine Salholz article aroused remained. Nearly 25 years later, I still occasionally hear people use that “greater chance of being killed by a terrorist than meeting a good guy” trope.

The most savvy exploiters of the fears the Salholz piece aroused were social conservatives, who saw the chance to blame feminism for the “problem.” Women, right-wingers argued, needed to honor immutable biological truths, starting with the fact that both their fertility and their desirability peak in their late teens and early twenties. Rather than being misled by feminists into focusing on education and career, young women should leverage their sexual and reproductive power when it is at its maximum, while they can still “land a good man.” (Robert Herrick, call your office.) The conservative message was simple: focusing on career and personal fulfillment when you’re young in the expectation of easily finding a man when you’re ready to settle down was a recipe for heartache and loneliness. The feminists are lying to you, the far right said; we’re telling you the truth. Look at the facts.

Except the facts didn’t turn out to be true, as countless follow-up reports on the “marriage crunch” demonstrated. The marriage crunch, if it exists as a problem at all, is found among those least likely to go to college. Those who have most successfully made use of feminism’s promise are more likely to wed (and have children after marriage rather than before) than their poorer sisters. Even the social conservatives have changed their tune, pointing out that the marriage culture is thriving among urban liberal “elites” while it falls apart among the white and non-white urban and rural working classes. (This time, it’s feminism’s fault for making working-class men without college educations feel useless and unappreciated. The villain always remains the same.) Continue reading