Avoiding the zero-sum game: on feminist publishing, citing, and using Jessica Valenti and Andrea Smith together

I’m taking a break from packing for our spring break trip to offer a Sunday afternoon post. We’re off tomorrow to the place where ‘Canes roam, where Democratic delegates wait in limbo this spring, and where dear old Gianni Versace breathed his last. It’s a region I love visiting every year, but gosh, I’m always as happy to leave as I am to arrive. It doesn’t help that I love the sun and the sun doesn’t love me. (My friend Joe and I used to run shirtless together; Joe, an ER physician, always called me a “melanoma farm.”) And I’m eager for the warm waters of the Atlantic.

Later today or tonight, I’m going to close comments I have closed comments on this post regarding the Amanda Marcotte, feminists-of-color, plagiarism/appropriation/attribution fight that happened across our corner of the blogosphere this week. I don’t regret having taken the tack I did in the original post, but I do appreciate the many and disparate voices that weighed in here. The general rule that threads rarely stay productive after the 200th comment may not have applied, but better not to push it. Two other threads with good discussions of this issue were at Feministe and Amptoons. I remain convinced of two things: first, that Amanda did nothing to deserve the opprobrium directed her way; two, that the mainstream, predominantly white feminist blogosphere (of which I am most decidedly a part) has more to do in terms of both listening and crediting what we hear.

When we were gathered in Cambridge two weeks ago for the Women, Action, and Media conference, I chose not to go to the panel on women–of-color bloggers. I missed out on the chance to meet the likes of Blackamazon, Brownfemipower, and Sudy. And I’ll be honest: I weighed whether to go up until the last minute. I talked to a few people at WAM whom I trust, and who were familiar with the often bitter and bewildering exchanges I had with many of those same bloggers in last year’s long and exhausting Full Frontal Feminism fiasco. (Do a search in my archives or in the archives of half the feminist blogosphere — first in May, and then around Thanksgiving, things got heated.) These friends told me that while there was some potential for good, it might be best if I didn’t go to the Women of Color panel. That was my gut intuition as well. Perhaps I flatter myself unduly, but I wondered if, in the aftermath of all that had happened, my presence would be a noticeable irritant. It would be hard — given that I was just about the only man over forty at the entire conference, and the only one in a bright pink shirt — for me to be unobtrusive. So I didn’t go. Continue reading

If it’s “stealing”, you’d better prove it: on Amanda Marcotte, BFP, and RH Reality Check

The part of me that likes to avoid conflict wants to stay quiet. That part of me is not on display this morning.

Certain radical women of color bloggers (RWOC) are accusing Amanda Marcotte of “stealing” her ideas for this RH Reality Check piece: Can a Person Be Illegal, from this speech by Brownfemipower at WAM. The speech was given March 29 in Cambridge; the Reality Check article was published on Wednesday, April 2 (and republished by Alternet five days later). Here is Brownfemipower’s post, and Sudy’s,and Sylvia’s, and Rebecca’s.

Amanda has explained, in comments on various blogs, that she had already outlined the Reality Check article in an editorial meeting well before she, Brownfemipower, and all the rest of us were gathered for WAM. Brownfemipower has not acknowledged that claim, and has chosen not to name Amanda, changing her name to an “X” in her comments section.

Radical women of color have rightly suggested that “mainstream”, predominantly white feminist bloggers need to do more to cover broader issues of social concern. Amanda, who has been writing about a wide spectrum of justice issues for years, chose to tackle the immigration/language issue in her Alternet piece because, as she says, immigration is a vital contemporary issue, much in the “zeitgeist.” And inevitably, when people who share the same progressive concerns start focusing on an issue, the chance that they will independently come to similar conclusions is pretty high.

Perhaps the Reality Check article ought to have had more links within it; I don’t know what Alternet’s particular policy is to citations. But the accusation of “stealing” — a charge now being repeated on multiple blogs today in regards to Amanda — is very serious indeed. It’s also a charge that requires far more proof than has been offered, and if that proof cannot be found, it’s a charge that ought to be withdrawn. It’s one thing to be frustrated, as many women of color bloggers are, that radical ideas are not getting published. It’s another thing altogether to accuse a fellow feminist of theft when she does take on, in eloquent and thoughtful terms, the very issue you’ve been demanding that mainstream white feminists address.

Certain words are matters of perspective and opinion. You can call me elitist and pompous; you can call me a clueless, self-serving asshole; you can call me a self-loathing fuckwit. (I’ve had all of these thrown my way in the past year.) It’s not a crime to be pompous; I can’t be sued for being a fuckwit. But to accuse someone who makes their living with words of stealing is a very, very serious charge — one that is normally subject to civil litigation or severe academic discipline. To make that charge without compelling evidence is to damage a writer’s reputation in perhaps the most serious way possible. No amount of frustration or anger justifies it.

There are larger issues here that may be driving some of the anger towards Amanda. Her new book (which I reviewed here) has just been published by Seal Press. Representatives of Seal Press got into a nasty exchange with some women of color bloggers at WAM. The community of “radical women of color bloggers” has suggested that Seal needs to do more to publish serious works by non-white feminists; Amanda’s article in RH, repeated on Alternet, coming so soon after both the publication of her book and the conflict with Seal, is understandably exasperating. Why some folks get book deals and others don’t, why some folks get articles published and others don’t — these are issues worth discussing.

Here’s what’s not okay: assuming that if Amanda Marcotte writes an intelligent and interesting piece about immigration right at the same time that Brownfemipower makes similar points at a conference, then somehow the former has “stolen” from the latter. The struggle for justice for undocumented migrants is an important one. Those who come late to the issue ought indeed inform themselves by listening to those who have been publicizing the struggle for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that the right to publish on the subject is limited to those who were writing about it first.

The charge of theft against Amanda has spread fairly widely, despite her clear statement that she had designed the article well in advance of the WAM conference. BFP’s powerful speech, read side-by-side with Amanda’s article, in no way constitutes a “smoking gun”, proving that Marcotte’s piece was plagiarized. Amanda seems caught between a rock and a hard place: if she doesn’t write about issues like immigration, she’s ignoring an issue of vital concern to women of color. When she does produce an intelligent, provocative piece on the subject, she’s accused of having stolen the idea.

There are some charges for which there are no proofs or disproofs: “clueless”, “racist”, “elitist.” But theft can be proven, and if you’re going to use the language of theft, you need a hell of a lot more evidence than you have so far produced.

UPDATE: The links to Brownfemipower are defunct, at least from my blog. If you don’t go through me but through one of the other links listed above, you can apparently still access the post. I don’t want to link where I’ve been explicitly asked not to do so any longer (Chris Clarke’s Faultline), but since this post is already up for discussion and receiving many hits, I did want to explain the difficulty folks might have in obtaining access.

Paying for pleasure: some preliminary thoughts — with links — on sex work, pleasure, and touch

The struggle over sex workers and their rights has been much on my mind since the WAM conference ended just over a week ago. As I wrote in this post, I went to Audacia Ray’s presentation on representations of sex work and sex workers in the media. As a Christian feminist deeply troubled by sex work, I came largely to find a way to alter my vocabulary: I wanted a way to speak about sex work and sex workers that was less paternalistic and stigmatizing. But I found many of my assumptions being challenged by Audacia and others in the workshop, including my fellow blogger Amber Rhea.

The model to which I am still attached is one that sees the act of paying for sex to be fundamentally at odds with feminist ideals. This is more grounded in intuition about the unique nature of sex itself than it is in an actual consistency. After all, my wife and I employ women to clean our home. We make sure we pay them above the prevailing wage, we make sure that they have comfortable conditions, we avoid agencies and deal with contractors directly. But we have no trouble renting, if you will, a woman’s hands to scrub our toilets. We also are fortunate enough to be able to afford visits to the spa once in a while. I have no trouble these days paying a woman to massage my shoulders and back, though it took me a while to get accustomed to being touched by a stranger.

The line between sex work and massage is a clear one, except it isn’t: in both cases, a consumer pays for physical pleasure that is delivered via the body of a working person. I don’t have a problem renting the hands, muscles, and elbows of a skilled masseuse: the idea of renting the vagina of a woman seems an utterly different thing. I’m troubled by surrogacy, as I don’t like “renting wombs”, but I’m willing to hire women to clean chinchilla cages and rub out my knots. Feel-good slogans like “Women’s bodies are not for rent” run into a whole host of problems and exceptions.

Even when I lack the power to describe it, I think sex is qualitatively different from all other activities. My acculturation leads me to maintain that there is something unique about the power of sex, particularly intercourse, to bind two people together emotionally. But is that really true? Or is just my heterosexist cultural programming that has taught me this? When I think about it, I’ve had intercourse that was lousy and distant. On the other hand, I had a massage a couple of years ago where the masseur who was rubbing me seemed to be pouring love into me. I felt hot light coming in wherever his hands were, and I wanted him to keep close to me forever. I didn’t know his last name, but, for sixty minutes, I loved him because I felt that for that precious hour, he loved me. I’ve had sex that was a hell of a lot less intimate! He was $150 an hour, this fellow, and worth every penny. Bottom line: learning to be massaged has taught me that radical physical intimacy is not always sexual, just as my colorful past taught me that sex is not always intimate. And radical physical intimacy that you pay for can be really, really good.

There’s an implication for sex work in all this.

I recommend this post that Amber linked to: Reaching the Media, Sex Workers Against Rape posted by Jill Brennemann at the work-safe “Bound, Not Gagged.” It’s got me thinking.

On male-female mentoring and the wisdom of openly disavowing sexual interest: UPDATED

Another issue that came up in Saturday’s WAM session on “breaking the hold of the Old Boys Club” was that of mentoring. Ann Friedman brought up the often-problematic, often-rewarding experience of being mentored by older men. In her field, journalism, the majority of senior writers and editors are male; it simply wouldn’t be possible for her to seek out only women as mentors, as there aren’t enough of them around yet. Though the topic came up only briefly, several of the women on the panel talked about being hit on by “creepy” older men, but also about having had very kind, safe, nurturing older fellows play a welcome and vital role in their professional growth.

One of the things Ann said, before we moved on to other subjects, was something like “It’s difficult for a man, as a mentor, to send the right signal about his willingness to mentor a younger woman. Should he come right out and say ‘I’m not hitting on you, but I am interested in working with you’, or should he leave it alone? That’s a hard one.” Everyone else agreed, and since the topic of the workshop was not “how can older men safely mentor younger women”, we moved on to other things. After all, I was the only man over 25 in the whole auditorium.

I divide my mentoring work into multiple categories. In various church settings, I’ve worked with teens and young adults as a volunteer youth pastor. Here at the college, I’ve mentored students and, increasingly, junior colleagues. The mentoring with students is both academic and personal. Because I teach gender studies, and offer courses on emotionally charged, sensitive subjects like sexuality, GLBTQ history, and “the body”, I have an obligation to be present for students as they work through the various issues that these classes can bring up inside of them. Any given semester, I would guess that I’m actively mentoring around a dozen current students, as well as current and former youth group kids. Some come to my office hours, I meet others — when I can — for coffee and lunch.

Off the top of my head, I’d say two-thirds of the people I mentor are women. Pasadena City College is already 56% female, and my gender studies courses — from whose ranks most of my mentees come — are 70-90% female. Add in the cultural forces that make it more likely for women to ask for help when they need it, and it makes good sense that the majority of my mentees would be female. Most of my mentees are, these days, young enough to be my children. The students I am working closest with this year were born between 1986-89, the years in which I was a college student. Continue reading

Refusing membership in the Boys’ Club: an answer to Derek about what feminist men can do

The first session I went to at the WAM conference on Saturday afternoon was a panel discussion, chaired by the sublime Ann Friedman of Feministing, on women journalists confronting the “old boy’s network.” There weren’t many men in the session, but during the Q&A portion of the workshop, one young man asked an excellent question of the panelists: “What can male feminists do, especially those in the media, to confront the Old Boy’s Network?” It was a variation on the classic question that all well-intentioned men in the feminist movement ought to ask: “What is the most helpful thing I — as a man — can do?” The panelists gave some excellent answers about supporting female colleagues and introducing feminist themes into one’s own writing, but they left out, understandably, what I see as the single most important thing that any feminist man in a male-dominated field can do.

After the session, I went up to the young man and introduced myself. He’s Derek Warwick, an undergraduate women’s studies major from the University of Alberta in Edmonton (where my father taught, many years ago). Derek blogs at DoingFeminism. (I’ve been saying his name in my head, trying not to confuse him with the poet Derek Walcott.) I told Derek how delighted I was he asked the question, and told him that I hoped he would forgive the presumptuousness, but as an older male feminist, I thought there was one thing he really needed to hear in answer to his excellent query.

Male feminists must support women, of course. In the journalism world (which was the arena up for discussion on Saturday), that means standing in solidarity with women colleagues and fighting for the inclusion of feminist perspectives in all aspects of reporting. But I’m convinced that the single most important thing that feminist men can do to dismantle the Old Boys’ Network is both far more simple and far more difficult: refuse to join it.

Particularly for young white men working for older white men, the pressure to join the the Network can be both immense and subtle. All of us, as we age and climb whatever ladder it is we are climbing, look to mentor younger folks. The desire for a protege is a common one, and the classic model in the Network is for an older man to look for a younger version of himself — which in journalism, or academia, or law, may mean a middle or upper-middle class white guy in his twenties. Even those male supervisors who are ideologically sympathetic to feminism may find themselves more likely to support and nurture a young man with whom they feel that emotional affinity, that sense of themselves at a younger age. Resisting the “unearned privilege of the protege” is a very difficult thing to do. Continue reading

WAM 2008, and a chance to meet heroes and friends

I’ve been a small part of the feminist blogosphere for some four years now, but haven’t met very many of the amazing folks who do what we do. That’s going to change early next spring, as I’m signing up for the Women, Action, and the Media conference to be held in late March in Cambridge, MA. Of course, I made the decision to go much too late, and thus missed the deadline for panel proposals. But I’ll be there as a fan, as a blogger, as a teacher, eager to connect with and learn from an all-star cast that includes most of the luminaries of our blogging world: Amanda Marcotte, Jessica Valenti, Brownfemipower, Garance Franke-Ruta, Lisa Jervis, Courtney Martin and many, many others. And with veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas offering the keynote, it should be a terrific and exciting event. I’ve been to a lot of academic conferences in my day, but never to anything like what this promises to be. I’m excited.

Sign up and join me there!