My mom went to college in Ilsa Vista. We heard stories of how beautiful Santa Barbara was all through our growing up. The town is a romantic part of our family mythology.
Yesterday’s shooting didn’t leave me as shaken as it should have, like other shooting that happened have. Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Aurora. Those haunt me in their very senselessness. The mystery of why. They’re unforgettable because the motives are unknowable.
Yesterday’s shooting made perfect sense.
I think that’s more frightening than anything else could have been — watching the video made by the shooter and hearing his “nice guy” whine about being “friendzoned” and suddenly I was back in the car, listening to my date rant about his frustration, and telling myself to be calm so I didn’t lose control of the situation. Alone. In the dark. In an empty parking garage. With a dead cell phone.
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” — Margaret Atwood
After my divorce, one of the things I heard a lot from older (usually white) men was “We’re not all like that! Don’t hate men because of him.” Even my grandfather emailed me to share this little nugget.
Of course I know that all men aren’t like that. But you never know which ones are like that until you cross them, and then it’s usually too late. That’s why after my date with #2, I changed my work schedule and I blocked his number when he texted me a couple days later to ask for a second date. He might not be “like that,” but I sure as hell don’t want to find out by experience if I’m wrong.
“Not all men are like that,” and I’m sure it’s safe to say that most of the dads at Clare’s prom didn’t look at her inappropriately. But someone complained, and she can’t know who, and she and I both know that homeschool dads watching you usually means you’re about to get in trouble for something they feel entitled to control.
Not all men are like that, but yes, all women have encountered men who are like that.
Gun control, mental health care reform — these are important, but they are easier to fix than male entitlement and misogyny.
Take a few minutes today and go read the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter in honor of the victims. And if you are a man, know that it’s not your place to comment or respond to this, but please observe our stories with respect and silence.
Not all men are like that, but all men need to hear our stories.
I think the biggest confusion in this whole my-sister-is-a-viral-blogger-after-her-first-post thing (besides the part where everyone is assuming her surname is Ettinger — it isn’t, and she’s a minor. So, my parents have requested anyone using her real name please redact it for her privacy), was about why Clare cared about the modesty guidelines more than getting kicked out of prom.
Everyone is reacting along the lines of “oh how HORRIBLE that she got kicked out of this momentous life event!” or “she’s being a drama queen and just wants attention because she didn’t get her prom night.” Neither are true.
While I won’t deny that Clare is an extrovert with a Just Plain Fancy sort of joie-de-vivre about her, she is not a drama queen out for attention. She didn’t write her post because she was upset about missing her prom. And she didn’t lie about what happened — my sister has always had a fierce sense of justice and I’d encourage everyone to actually read her original post rather than just the news articles or petty reactions by her peers. (I’m sorry your prom got so much heat. No one, least of all me and Clare, expected this would generate so much attention.)
For those who aren’t familiar with our background or what going to a homeschool prom like this one implies, let me give you a bit of context.
1) It was a big deal for Clare to be allowed to go to prom. I wasn’t allowed to go to a prom (though there was one and many of my friends went). The homeschool scene in Richmond is rich in cultural appreciation, and some awesome ballroom cotillion groups exist for extracurriculars. But my dad and I had lots of fights throughout high school because he would not permit me to participate in any of their Friday night dances, out of moral objections. Obviously, this standard has now changed, which is pretty awesome for Clare.
2) Our family was part of a cult group (see here for coverage of a sex offender’s trial that shows how the pastors in this cult have been exposed for covering up sexual abuse and pedophilia) and if you’re confused about what that kind of childhood looks like, go read my piece for Cracked.com about growing up in this culture. More details on this stuff and how it related to sexuality and autonomy can be found in my Immodesty Rail series. And a great response to the parental angle in all of this, written by my friend Ashley, can be found here.
3) HOWEVER, that prom (while it was held in a church), wasn’t explicitly Christian. That said, homeschool culture is predominately conservative Christians and the majority of people at that prom were probably your good old-fashioned family values voters who chose to homeschool their kids because they wanted to keep their children away from corrupting influences in the public schools — sex, drugs, gays, abortion, global warming, mini skirts. (I jest. Partly.) But that’s why it was convenient for the parents to hold it in a church rather than another facility, and that’s why modesty standards were imposed on attendees (this year the rules were actually a lot less stringent than in years past).
4) Modesty standards do not hold the same social weight as your average dress code. Which is why a homeschool dad would feel himself legitimately entitled to comment on a girl’s outfit at such an event.
Point #4 there is really the crux of all this, and it’s why Clare originally called the people who shamed her for her dress “rape culture activists.” I’m going to follow up on this with a post later this week, but for now, I’m going to let Clare speak for herself once more. And this time, she made you a video. Enjoy!
Please do not harass the coordinator for the prom. Her info can be found online, but I am deleting comments containing that because she does not deserve the ire of internet trolls in her inbox. The coordinator herself was not involved in the decision made. Please leave her alone.
Clare is studying for finals, so I’m taking the mic here. She is really encouraged by the outpouring of support from all sides, and I think this whole experience as felt really empowering for her.
I would like to ask that everyone commenting on the race issue would lay that aside, on the request of Clare’s boyfriend. He asked me pass this message on to you:
I don’t feel race played a part in all that happened Saturday night. I strongly believe they did not know we were together until the situation had already escalated.
Thank you for understanding. Attempts to revive that discussion in the comments will be moderated.
The Richmond Prom Facebook moderators (we’re not sure who they were) deleted all the comments that Clare and others left on their page. Homeschoolers Anonymous screencapped some of the comments before they got deleted. Late last night they deleted the Facebook page altogether. No statement has been made by the administration, no one has contacted Clare or me, and the rest of the group has yet to receive refunds. Her boyfriend did eventually get one, but that was after he negotiated privately with someone involved. No further comments were made by Mrs. D or the woman organizing the event.
Clare’s graduation is coming up very soon, and we’re hoping these same people won’t cause any trouble for her there.
Any discussion of using Matthew 18 in this situation is out of line and will not be entertained. This event was not explicitly a “Christian” event and this was not sponsored by a church. Clare did attempt to appeal to the leadership privately and was denied that opportunity, so even if Matthew 18 was appropriate, she still followed that course of action as much as the adults involved would have allowed.
For those who find Bible verses inspiring, you may enjoy the one that has come to mind frequently about this whole situation:
Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. — Luke 12: 1-3
And I’ll end with this little treasure from Anne Lamott:
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Thanks again, everyone. We’ll keep you updated if anything more transpires.
p.s. If you want to support Clare’s college aspirations, any donations via PayPal on the side designated for her will go into a fund for her textbooks for this coming fall.
Another week, another story of everyday sexism. My sister (a different one — she’s 17 and doing dual enrollment at the local community college to finish up her last year of high school via homeschooling and will start college on the east coast this coming fall) was supposed to go to prom this past weekend, but everything went terribly wrong. When I saw her Facebook status about it (which used the particularly perfect phrase “rape culture activists”), I asked if she wanted to share her story with you here, and she took a little time this evening to write up this fantastic post for you all. This story is actually pretty common — things like this happened a lot in the homeschool ballroom dance + grassroots theater circles in Richmond. But I’ll let her speak for herself. I’m so proud of her.
So, I’m a high school senior, a homeschooler, and a girl, and something really awful happened to me last night, and it made me really mad. Not so much because it was something that did permanent damage to me, but because it is something I have seen happen over, and over and over to people I love and care for very much, and on what better day then mother’s day could I make a stand for the mothers, and the sisters, and the daughters and the friends who have been victims of this painful, traumatizing evil. So here is my story.
Last night was my senior prom. I live in Richmond, VA and several weeks ago my boyfriend got our tickets to the Richmond Homeschool Prom. The theme was “Twilight in Paris.” I got my dress, my shoes, we got our flowers and we waited eagerly for Saturday to arrive. My dress was gorgeous, silver, and sparkly and I got it at Macy’s and was very excited to find it after searching over 6 stores for this dress. The only dress code specified on the registration form was that “Ladies, please keep your dresses fingertip length or longer.” Like a good little homeschooler, I made sure that the dress was fingertip length on me; I even tried it on with my shoes, just to be sure. It was fingertip length, I was ecstatic, and I laid down several weeks worth of tip money I had been saving up to buy it.
Fast forward to prom night. I’m all dolled up, channeling my inner Marilyn Monroe with my blonde hair and bright red lipstick. I’m a tall and fairly curvy girl and you know something? I looked hot. Not trashy, but you definitely would look twice when I walked through a doorway.
And you know what happened? I got kicked out of prom because of it. Stay with me, I’ll explain. I showed up at prom with my boyfriend, and I was wearing the really cute silver dress that was fingertip length on me, and on my way in Mrs. D (one of the two ladies organizing the prom this year) stopped me and said, “honey, that dress is too short.” I said, “what is the rule?” she said, “fingertip length” and I put my arms down by my sides and showed her that it was fingertip length. After which she made a face at me and was like, “well make sure it stays pulled down, it’s too short.” I want you to know that she is a very short woman, and I assumed that she probably just didn’t understand that when you’re 5’9″ and leggy, everything looks shorter on you then it would on anyone else, even if it’s still inside the dress code. So, I tried to help her understand by saying, “I just have long legs, everything looks short on me, but it is fingertip length I just showed you.” To which she responded begrudgingly “Okay but you need to be careful and just keep pulling it down, but not too far!” I was annoyed with her pettiness, especially because I had so carefully complied to their rules, but I said “Yes ma’am,” and went into the ballroom.
When I got into the ballroom I laughed, because I was surrounded by girls in much shorter dresses then me, albeit they were shorter, and therefore stood out less in the crowd, but it was still frustrating. I joined my group of friends, (there were six of us), and told them what happened, they were all appalled, especially considering we’ve been attending this prom all four years of high school and usually wore much shorter dresses then we chose this year. We were also a little grossed out by all the dads on the balcony above the dance floor, ogling and talking amongst themselves. We weren’t dancing, but swaying with the music and talking and enjoying ourselves, when Mrs. D again approached me, and gestured me off the dance floor. She took me into a corner in the hall way, with another woman, (who I’m assuming was a parent/chaperone) and told me that some of the dads who were chaperoning had complained that my dancing was too provocative, and that I was going to cause the young men at the prom to think impure thoughts. At this point I said to her that I hadn’t been dancing at all! Much less seductively, and that even if I had been being inappropriate, they should issue a warning instead of just kicking me out.
Then she proceeded to reiterate that my dress was too short and I that I was going to have to leave. I again showed her and the lady with her that the dress met dress code standards, the only thing the dress code said was it had to be fingertip length, and they never had us sign any sort of agreement to abide by that rule in the first place, and second of all my dress was in compliance with the one rule. Mrs. D said again “The dress is too short” and I asked the chaperone standing next to her what the rule was and she reiterated that it had to be fingertip length, I showed her my fingers and said ” Is this fingertip length?” and she said “yes, but I can’t make that call it’s on Mrs. D.” Then I told them I was trying to understand what they were kicking me out for since my dress complied with dress code and everyone I had been standing with would vouch that I hadn’t been dancing inappropriately. (At this point one of the girls in my group came back and said that she’d been by my side the whole 15 minutes we’d been there and I hadn’t even danced more then 2 seconds and it was completely appropriate.)
At which point they told her that she wasn’t welcome in the conversation and when I protested and asked that she be able to stay to verify what they were saying to me they got very rude and said if she didn’t leave they would kick her out too. Then she went and told my date what was going on and he got very upset , and came over and was respectfully asking them to explain to him the situation, and they told him that it was none of his business and they were kicking me out and he needed to leave. At which point he said “That’s fine, she wasn’t doing anything wrong but if you’re kicking her out then the group that she came with is leaving too and you’ll need to refund all of our tickets.” And Mrs. D said “No, we will refund Clare’s ticket but nobody else’s” And then my date got very angry (but was still being respectful not raising his voice or anything). And he explained that we all drove together and if I had to leave everyone else would be forced to leave with me and therefore they needed to refund everyone. I want to reiterate that my date was being very respectful, but he was also obviously frustrated with her for refusing to communicate with us in a mature or respectful way. Then she got very rude, repeatedly saying “I will not debate with you about this,” when my date was simply asking questions to help him understand the situation, and Mrs. D sent the chaperone to get security at which point both my date and I respectfully demanded to speak with the lady in charge of prom, and Mrs. D refused to let us.
Security came and my group went to get their stuff, I was crying and I asked the security guy if my dress was compliant with the dress code and if he had noticed any inappropriateness in my behavior and he said he didn’t think I did anything to get kicked out but it wasn’t his call. He helped me get my stuff and walked me to the front door, my date was still talking to Mrs. D and demanding our groups refund. She said, “Ok, I’ll give you all your refund if you go to the front and leave now,” and so the group walked to the front where I was, and only I was given my refund ($25). The group I was with got very upset because they had been promised their refund since we had all come together and if I was leaving they had to leave too, at which point we were told that the leadership would converse and make sure we all got our refunds, later that night when one of the girls in our groups mom called and asked how they were going to refund her, they stated “We aren’t going to do refunds.”
When we walked out of the prom, frustrated and angry and feeling very disrespected and violated, some of the people in my group shouted profanities at the security guards, and I personally flipped them off. I putting this part in the story because I want everyone who reads this to know that we shouldn’t have reacted so immaturely to their unfair and disrespectful actions, and we’re all adult enough to admit that. But what I want to know is if the people involved in this situation at the Richmond Homeschool Prom are adult enough to own up to their wrong actions as well. And refund my group as they verbally promised to do, and issue an apology for kicking me out of my senior prom because their husbands felt as though my body was something they had a right to control.
What happened last night was so wrong for so many different reasons:
- I was told that the way I dressed and moved my body was causing men to think inappropriately about me, implying that it is my responsibility to control other people’s thoughts and drives.
- I was talked to disrespectfully, ganged up on and treated as less then a person by people in authority, and when I requested to have one of my peers present to validate later what was said in this “meeting” I was denied that right and my friends were threatened for sticking up for me.
- We were verbally promised a full refund for our group, we received only a refund for my ticket, they need to refund 5 more tickets for our group.
- I felt violated by the sheer number of male parents that were assigned to do nothing for five hours other then watch girls in short dresses and heels dance to upbeat music. I think that it is sick and wrong that they assigned them to sit on a balcony above us and look down on us and single us out for our clothes or dancing.
- I never signed any documentation agreeing to adhere to any sort of dress code, and the dress code that was verbally communicated to me was followed to the letter, and yet I was still kicked out.
- I was informed by more then one friend who stayed at the prom throughout the course of the evening that there was some truly dirty dancing, and that there were several couples making out and grinding on the dance floor, and yet out of a group of 500 people, only one person, (me) got thrown out for inappropriate dancing.
The whole situation made me feel violated, walked over and ostracized. My group of five people had to leave the prom because I stuck out, I have long legs and I was wearing a sparkly dress, I didn’t look like most of the 13-15 year old girls there, I looked like a woman. And goddamn it, I am so tired of people who abuse their power to make women feel violated and ashamed because she has an ass, or has breasts, or has long legs.
This is a message to the women who understand that sometimes, it doesn’t matter how much you pin a dress, you’re still going to have cleavage show when you bend over. This is a message to girls built like me, who can’t find jeans that fit because your ass is just too damn big! The girls with long legs, who are forced to prove that their dresses fit the dress code, just because they have more leg showing then most girls.
This is what I want to say. You are beautiful, no matter how you are built, no matter how you chose to dress or dance or what words you chose to say in the heat of the moment. And even more important then knowing that the fact that your looks, and your body and how you dress doesn’t get to define whether or not you’re beautiful, you have to know, that people are responsible for their own thoughts, desires and actions, and it doesn’t fucking matter if you’re just swaying along with music, or if you’re grinding up on your date, or not even dancing. You are a person, with a soul, and with potential and with purpose, and the way that other people treat you, should never be based on how you dance, or dress or talk. You are a person, I am a person, is it really too much to ask that we be treated like people? Talked to as equals? As responsible adults who get to have opinions and likes and dislikes too? How is it that what I look like and how I dress constitutes the level of respect you give me? How is it that you refused to refund me when I asked for it, but when my male date asked for it, you agreed to refund my ticket to him? I’m only 17, but I can see there’s something wrong about this, please, please tell me I’m not the only one who think it doesn’t matter how people are dressed or how they move their bodies, we should still treat them with respect and decency. And enough with the slut shaming. Please. Goddamn I’m not responsible for some perverted 45 year old dad lusting after me because I have a sparkly dress on and a big ass for a teenager. And if you think I am, then maybe you’re part of the problem.
Clare is doing well and is supported by a good group of friends. She will respond to comments as she can, but this week is her finals week and she may not be readily available.
This week is the 10th anniversary of Mean Girls.
This week a girl in my sister’s school beat her up, hitting her face and head into a locker and giving her a concussion.
This week I raged and cried over beer with a friend after work because I’m nearly 3,000 miles away from home and can’t be there with her. Instead, I have to call her late at night (her time) during my 15 minute break at work to find out that these same girls filmed the fight, put it on Instagram, and then took to ask.fm where they verbally abused her and tagged her by her Twitter handle.
The Urban Institute did a study on cyber bullying and teen dating last year, and the results may shock you. They should.
…more than a quarter (26 percent) of youth in a relationship said they experienced some form of cyber dating abuse victimization in the prior year. Females were twice as likely as males to report being a victim of sexual cyber dating abuse in the prior year. More than a tenth (12 percent) of youth in a relationship said they had perpetrated cyber dating abuse in the prior year. Females reported greater levels of non-sexual cyber dating abuse perpetration than males.
(Technology, Teen Dating Violence and Abuse, and Bullying. Zweig, Dank, Lachman, and Yahner, 2013)
I detailed more of the background on what happened to my sister on Twitter, and Storified it here. I may repeat myself some here, but this is the story:
My sister started the school year with a couple guys interested in dating her, she turned them down, they both start dating other girls. The boys reach out to my sister behind their girlfriends’ backs, my sister shuts them down and asks them to stop contacting her. The girlfriends find out, start threatening my sister, waiting for her in bathrooms, at the bus stop, and sending her threatening messages. My sister shows a teacher, and the one girl gets suspended (she’d already been in trouble for fighting). The suspended girl is the queen bee of a clique, and in retaliation, the girls in the clique start threatening my sister further, and the queen bee eggs them on.
One girl takes it further, threatening my sister in the hall at school. My sister’s boyfriend stands in her way, but the girl ducks around him and punches my sister (who has her back to the lockers) in the face repeatedly. And then they took to social media afterwards, because now the second girl is suspended for fighting.
I saw the video. 25 hearts for my sister getting punched in the face.
My parents are pursuing legal recourse, my sister’s resting at home, and she’ll recover. Hopefully this will stop soon and everyone will be able to move on with life.
Here’s the thing that gets me: Mean Girls is 10 years old, and this is still going on.
These girls beat my sister up, yes. But they’re victims just as much as my sister is, and I’ll tell you why.
They’re perpetuating the system established by patriarchy where men are sexual creatures who do not bear the consequences for their the waves left in their wake. They act, women clean up. They expand themselves socially, we cover for them and accommodate. The boys aren’t satisfied with their girlfriends? Their girlfriends don’t challenge them or break up with them out of self-respect; they attack my sister, because they see her as a threat.
They see her as a threat because we have been socialized to see other women as competition for men, not comrades at arms in the struggle for respect, equality, and autonomy.
I’ll step aside here and let one of my new favorite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie take the mic on this point.
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.” (The Danger of A Single Story. TED Talk, 2009)
As you know, I help run a YouTube channel where we talk about YA literature with a heavy dose of feminist critique. One of the reasons I chose to start this project with Gretchen is that I was sick of seeing female protagonists in fiction (or film or pick-your-media-of-choice) whose narrative arcs are centered solely on their relationships to men, and I was tired of seeing female friendships in media that were fake.
Fake because they didn’t relate over anything except for men. Fake because they are either flat stereotypes who giggle and “support” each other in romantic escapades, or are pitted against each other in competition for a man. There’s not much in between, because without a romantic male interest, the media gatekeepers don’t seem to think there’s much of a story worth telling. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard new novelists say that their editor love their ideas, but wanted them to “up the tension” by adding a romantic interest. A female-centered story without a romantic interest, apparently, won’t sell. And realistic depictions of female friendship is worth sacrificing for the sake of male-centered sexual tension.
Did you know that if a movie has a sex scene where a man is receiving oral sex, the film’s rating is going to be either PG-13 or R, but if a woman’s receiving oral sex, the rating hits NC-17? A woman receiving sexual pleasure from a man is apparently more dangerous to society than the other way around.* Did you know that we’ll get a movie with a raccoon and a tree as superhero leads before we’ll get one with Black Widow or Wonder Woman? Did you notice that The Hunger Games books opened and closed on relational plot points rather than action plot points? (I didn’t notice that myself, but I can’t re-find the source on that observation now–help anyone? ::edit:: Gretchen pointed it out, thanks to her reading of Swati Avasthi) Did you notice that Katniss and Tris don’t have any female friends, not really? Did you know that conservative leaders are still saying we don’t need feminism anymore?
But Mean Girls is 10 years old, and my sister has a concussion.
* ::edit:: This deserves some clarification–Black Swan was originally rated NC-17 and they dropped it down to R after an appeal. The reason this is remarkable is that girl-on-girl sex scenes are generally performed as if for the male gaze, and are there for a “curiosity” item of sorts, and not aimed at female viewers. Therefore it’s less “offensive,” apparently, than a woman getting pleasure from a man — something that is rarely done in film because it’s not for the male gaze and has to be all about her sexual satisfaction.
Starting The YA Wallpaper with Gretchen has been a lot of fun. We’re just getting going and I think we’re doing something different from what anyone else is doing when they engage the genre. We’re taking it on its own terms: YA is a serious genre taking on serious issues and expects more of its readers than most people expect when they hear the words “Young Adult Fiction.”
Our ethic isn’t just to review books, to give them stars or tell you what to read. We’re not a book club-style review vlog. Our review ethic is to assume that these writers are good craftsmen/women, skilled at storytelling. We believe that reading these books will be a good time in the story department and we gladly throw ourselves into wholehearted suspension of disbelief and enter the adventures of fictional worlds.
But we also assume that these authors are thoughtful people, writing to say something, hopefully not just writing to meet a book deal obligation. And we assume that authorial intent stops when the book hits the shelves and the author is responsible for what they’ve written, not what they meant to write.
We’re writers, too. This is painful to accept and so we expect everyone, including ourselves, to be thoughtful and respectful about this. We’re learning the ropes and we’re responsible for our words, too. Hold us to that.
But here’s the thing: young readers are significantly impacted by this genre. I remember being thirteen and earnestly believing that Anne Shirley’s love life actually represented a fraction of reality. I remember positioning myself socially as if I was Jo March, and I remember mentally breaking out of the cycle of gaslighting in my church because of Fahrenheit 451 and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Most authors aren’t Ray Bradbury or Margaret Atwood, I get it. One reason I love YA is because it’s not the constipated social world of NYC literati. But if YA is “a thing” now and if it’s going to be taken seriously and if it’s more than just a marketing label, then it’s appropriate to level serious literary criticism at the bestselling YA works and see how they stand up to the ideas they seem to espouse (namely, feminism and intersectionality).
The YA Wallpaper isn’t about singling out an author or a book. We still love a good story. None of our criticism is intended as a personal attack against any author.
Instead, it’s about taking account of the state of the genre and asking the questions we’d want to be asked if our fiction was published. The genre has turned a corner and has blossomed and matured in remarkable ways in the last few years, and we feel that not only is it ready to handle our questions, but it would be disrespectful to the craft and to the genre as a whole if we checked our critic’s hats at the front page.
So, let’s talk tropes. Let’s talk feminism. Let’s talk social norms. Let’s ask hard questions about the genre, since, after all, the genre is certainly daring to ask hard questions about its audience and its world. And we’re pretty excited about that.
I’m pretty sarcastic and snarly at the patriarchy most days, but I’ve recently gotten more fed up than usual and we need to talk.
Sit down. Pour a cuppa or a finger of whiskey or a beer or whatever you need to get through this. It’s going to be a little long. And I’m scared to publish this, which means I need to.
Clarification up front: I don’t hate men. (And I don’t plan on writing about dating experiences as a rule.)
But the fact that I feel the need to tell these stories and feel obligated to give that disclaimer at all makes me really tired and angry.
This is not how humans should relate to each other.
This is the story of two boys. Two “prospects.” Two evenings of deliberate vulnerability. And no second dates.
Both evenings ended the same: me driving home alone, feeling raw, and maybe crying at stoplights.
But these two dates were very, very different.
The first date was one of those dates where you’re not sure if it’s a date, or just hanging out in a somewhat intense and prolonged fashion and you happen to be alone with each other for the duration.
I barely knew this guy, but he had something about him that piqued my interest, and I liked him. I am/was also kinda not into commitment (and heard from a mutual friend that he wasn’t into commitment either), and so the idea of undefined hanging out with the possibility of more and little pressure was also pretty attractive.
I mean, let’s be honest, I haven’t been divorced that long and I’m totally learning how to date for the first time since ever, thanks to being raised in a culty subculture where a “healthy” relationship meant barely talking, never being alone, and having a three month engagement because you have to wait to have sex until you’re married and everyone knows that normal people can’t wait that long, so you just speed everything else up super fast.
So, handsome, smart, and no pressure. This looked good. And we hung out, and had a great time, and then I drove home. Everything went well.
Except I liked him a little more than he liked me, and I was “on the hook” for a couple weeks, waiting around, sending hesitant little texts, emailing him links, suggesting he join me for outings I’d planned with groups of friends, etc. He never responded negatively to any of this, but he never responded enthusiastically either, and eventually I just moved on.
Not a big deal. But here’s the thing to note: I had commitment issues. So did he. But because I knew he had commitment issues, I held back and was never very aggressive about my interest. I played it casual, I was vague and hesitant, and I was unsure of myself enough that I never really told him “hey, I like you, let’s hang out more.” I should have, though. It wasn’t like I wanted any sort of commitment from him; it would have just been an honest expression of interest.
But I never did that because I felt like I was supposed to be sensitive to his (presumed) commitment issues and take things at whatever speed he wanted to take it at, so as not to let him get overwhelmed or uncomfortable. I felt obligated to conform to his comfort zone and to let him initiate if he wanted more.
Honestly, it was poor form all around. I shouldn’t have felt like I needed to protect him, and I should have respected him as an equal, as an adult able to take care of his own emotional needs. I should have been up front and not played these culturally acceptable girl mind games.
Part of that was my own unlearning of codependent relationship habits. But a bigger part of that was fear of the patriarchy, of his social power and standing as a man: I have been acculturated to accommodate the man’s preferences and let his comfort zone be the hard lines around which I am taught to mold myself. My lack of confidence is the result of my own internalized misogyny.
Now, before I tell you about boy #2, I want to tell you a story about my sister.
She’s a freshman in high school—the first of my siblings to attend. She’s making me proud with how she’s transitioning to that environment, and she’s making choices that show a healthy sense of autonomy, boundaries, and self-respect. She’s emotionally and socially mature in ways I wasn’t until I was almost 21, just because she’s been exposed to more and is deliberate about respecting herself.
But earlier this year she called me up in a panic, because she had two female classmates threatening to beat her up, and waiting for her on the bus or at her bus stop or around school to catch her and hurt her.
Why? Because: before either girl started dating their current boyfriends, these boyfriends both expressed interest in my sister and got turned down. Fast forward a few weeks, and the new girls discover that their boyfriends are still in contact with my sister (these boys are stupidly flirty and my sister kept her same position and was ignoring them), and decide to punish my sister for being a “slut.”
Not the boys. My sister. Who has consistently told these guys to leave her alone.
These girls were afraid to confront their shameless and immature boyfriends, and instead chose to take out their insecurities and fear on my sister.
No wonder everyone still assumes that guys and girls can’t be friends. And no wonder there are so few depictions of healthy female friendship in popular media.
Hold that thought, and let’s move on to the story of boy #2.
This date started very differently. Meeting him was movie-style electric—he asked me out after one of those across-a-crowded-room eye contact moments. I said yes, he said he was making reservations at a nice restaurant, and he’d pick me up that evening.
I was nervously excited, dolled myself up, and off we went. Dinner was perfect, he was flattering and attentive, and the view from our table was breathtaking. The conversation was easy and interesting and skipped around to cover all sorts of things that I loved to talk about.
We went to a scenic spot afterwards, climbed some rocks and talked and kissed. The moonlight and the moment was storybook-perfect. I held my breath a little and memorized it all, and decided that this was awesome, but scary (vulnerability!) and I wanted to take it slowly.
Remember: commitment issues! And he knew about them, too. We’d covered that part of my emotional resume at dinner, and I’m usually really nervous to bring up that part of my story, especially on a first date. But it had been okay, and he hadn’t made me feel uncomfortable about it. So, I thought: good. This is nice. This could be good.
Then he drove me to my car—I’d parked in a parking structure and had a way to go before I got home—and it was 1 a.m. and the moon was magic and we kissed a bit more before I was ready to go.
And then it happened: he asked to come home with me.
Now, please don’t get stuck on this, because that request is not what went wrong.
But I wasn’t ready for that, and I told him so. And I told him nicely.
That aside: he was more into me than I was into him, and I wanted to take things slowly. I’d been burned before, and it seemed like he hadn’t been on the cynic’s end of a breakup yet. If I was going to keep seeing someone as enthusiastic about the idea of falling love as he was, I wanted to ease into it.
There is nothing wrong with his request (although it wasn’t the smoothest move to make), and there is nothing wrong with really wanting to fall in love.
But what happened next was frightening. He was visibly upset, and I asked him what was wrong, and he decided to tell me.
Clarification here: I’m not telling this story to punish him, I’m not telling this story because he was wrong to feel what he felt, and I’m genuinely don’t think he was responsible for feeling the way he did. But patriarchy fucks over dudes a lot and they don’t see it because they’re usually on the power side of it, and this was one of those blind spots.
What he told me was this: He was upset that the evening wasn’t ending like he’d hoped it would. He really wanted to fall in love, and he wasn’t getting much of a commitment from me after a beautiful date like that. He was hurt that he’d opened up to me and wasn’t getting rewarded with an assurance that I wouldn’t see other guys after our date. He was disappointed that sex wasn’t happening, and that dating is hard and unpredictable and he hadn’t met “the one” yet.
Very human emotions, all. But each emotion was underlined with an unspoken assumption, caused by how our patriarchy-driven culture treats love and sex.
- The assumption that a girl owes a guy anything (usually sexual intimacy) after being wined and dined. If he picks her and the tab up, if he opens doors, if he says nice things about her eyes…he should get a little something in return.
- The assumption that being slow to commit is a reflection on how much someone respects someone (as in: if she’s slow to commit to him, she doesn’t take him seriously).
- The assumption that taking something slowly is a sign of rejection (and by “slowly” I mean: without premature commitment and letting trust grow organically and in a non-codependent manner).
- The assumption that sex and love are limited resources, going out of style tomorrow—that you can use up all your love by spreading it around too thin.
- The assumption that you either fall head over heels and it all works out, or you get your heart totally broken (this is the “it’s better to love and lose than to not try at all” mindset taken to an unbalanced all-or-nothing extreme).
- The idea that a woman shouldn’t make her own choices based on experience and experimentation because then some good guy is getting the shit end of the stick. (This is basically an indirect version of slut shaming.)
His refrain was: “it’s not fair!” and he ended it by saying “I should have just had my way with you” because (in his mind) it would have been better to have “loved and lost” than to have had a nice romantic evening without sexual fulfillment or emotional commitment. Having sex with me at all costs and then losing me totally was (apparently) easier to deal with than continuing to hang out with me and the post-divorce commitment question mark on my forehead.
That comment (“I should have just had my way with you…”) was scary and sounded very rapey. And we were alone in an empty parking garage at 1 a.m. I sat up and looked at him then, and decided that I needed to wake him up out of his sad good-guy pity party (thanks to patriarchal entitlement blindness) and let him know how that all sounded to me, what it implied.
I knew I was not in any danger of being raped—he was much more sad and vulnerable and confused than scary and threatening, and he’d been a totally gallant, gentlemanly sort of date up to that point—but I also know that the more confused a guy like that gets, the more resentful they become, and I couldn’t just let a speech like that slide.
So, the romance ruined, I spoke frankly. I told him that those comments made me feel unsafe, that no girl is going to be able to respect and trust him if he talked like that, and that he absolutely had to stop treating love like a commodity that could be used up, or yeah, maybe he will die alone. Sex and love aren’t prizes, I am not a catch, and there is no way he’s going to ever be happy in a relationship if he can’t see women as independent and autonomous and whole creatures. And falling in love is a sham unless you are willing to let the other person be fully human and accept them the way they are, not the way you want them to be.
To his credit, he really did seem to hear me and take all that seriously. He apologized, and I left.
But I still felt really shaken up by the experience and not just because he said something so utterly insensitive and frightening, or because I had to quickly respond so and with a feminist rant that required a lot of vulnerability and frankness.
What upsets me is the assumptions. What upsets me is the same thing that upsets me about what happened with my sister and the high school kids. It’s the same thing that upset me when, a few weeks back, I went to a favorite bar for mac and cheese, an amber ale, and some time to sort out my thoughts in a notebook. Once I got settled in, an old man (who was pretty drunk) sat next to me and leaned onto the bar and watched me eat with a rapt expression on his face. I was helpless to get him to stop, I couldn’t find another seat to move to, and the bartender acted like nothing was wrong. I ended up leaving because I was so uncomfortable.
The assumption common to these situations is this: the needs of men are fixed points and the comfort zones of women are not.
Men have desires, needs, comfort zones, and women are to bend and mold themselves to meet them. The problem is not that the old guy was being a pervert, or that the boyfriends were slutty, or that the one guy was bad at communication, or that the other was presumptuous and rude.
The problem is that I was the one who was supposed to defend my personal space, that the girlfriends assumed it was my sister who was the problem, that I was uncomfortable voicing my own emotions, that I had to explain sexual ethics to a guy and be responsible for being the only one attentive to my own commitment issues.
This should not be. Women are people too (which is the oddly radical definition of feminism), and the common courtesy we women are acculturated to show everyone should be something we ought to be able to expect to receive in return. Instead, women are trained to make up for the social slack that men are never made to learn, and it pits women against each other to compete for men, and it puts undue responsibility on women to keep relationships together and the communication flowing.
And then we continue to perpetuate these things and say that dudes are bad at expressing their emotions, that women are more naturally nurturing, that dudes can’t be expected to know what we’re thinking, that we should not expect much emotional attention from them.
We are constantly building our own gender role prisons. And I’m tired of seeing emotional and relational codependency and false gender roles treated like they are healthy benchmarks of normal relationships.
I should not have to apologize for my comfort zones, my needs, my feelings, or my preferences. And if that is what “normal” looks like, it needs to change.
I’m going to be giving the Immodesty Rail series a rest for now and turn to something else that’s been making me excited lately.
Sometimes I rant about books on Twitter. Sometimes I write stupid posts about books that annoy me. And I always I grumble about bad writing with my inner feminist curmudgeon.
But now, you can hear me yelling about young adult fiction (YA) on YouTube, too!
Buckle your seat belts, grab a coffee, and join my friend Gretchen and me as we kick off our new channel, The YA Wallpaper.
One of the things that has been a constant struggle for me, as a woman leaving the world of Christian patriarchy, has been reconciling reality to my learned “right” responses. I have to be gutsy and take charge of my life and heed my personality type and my needs and make sure I’m living in a way that works best for who I am. But it’s hard to learn to do this, because I grew up considering myself strongest when deferring to other’s needs and wants, most godly when negating my desires, and most strong and female when abandoning my preferences to respond and absorb the desires and choices of others.
The term I’ve heard used for this is “learned helplessness” and it’s frequently a gendered problem, but I think it’s not just an issue for women. It’s also an issue for everyone in the “new reformed” circles of young Calvinists.
This is, of course, at the root, a face of that age-old “predestination vs. free will” discussion, but I’m going to lift it from those over-simplified terms because I find that they are useless in the face of reality, where I see a good deal of both/and going on in terms of one’s ability to choose freely and one’s inability to change circumstances. I’d like to lay it aside with the understanding that I think the two concepts probably coexist, and I’m not sure exactly how. Paradox, yes. It’s beyond me just now.
So, first, as a woman dealing with The Most Unpredictable Year Of Her Life Ever!, I’m finding that I have to unlearn a lot of places in my personal character where I’d relaxed into patriarchal norms just because I could when I was married. Things like changing my oil, moving boxes on my own, driving across the country alone, booking a hotel room, getting a credit card, de-icing my car before work, etc. — these were things I had to take on and own for myself. Some of that is just general cultural gender role stuff. Other things are more Christian patriarchy-related, like realizing that the church search was up to me, if I was going to find one out here in LA, realizing that I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to live my life, or that I don’t need to call anyone to tell them when I’m coming home.
But as I’m talking to other girls trying to take on adult decisions outside of the meet-a-man-and-follow-him-forever Christian patriarchy narrative for women (say, as a woman ends up out of her parents’ house and not yet married, or 30 and living at home without “prospects”), I hear from them over and over again statements such as: “I don’t even know what I like!” Outside of the girl-to-woman-to-wife-to-mother narrative of patriarchy, they don’t know what who they are, why they want to do what they want to do, or how to make decisions without leaning overmuch on the advice of peers and elders, because they never learned to listen to themselves. Women in Christian patriarchy exist as negative space, conforming to the solid definitions of the men in their lives. And I’m still shaking off stray pieces of that mindset. It’s like sand and children: you’re always finding particles in weird places months after you’ve left the beach.
Similar to this is the “sovereignty of God” talk from the new Calvinists. I’ve been doing a linguistic experiment for the past year or so: every time I feel the impulse to thank God for something or claim his foreknowledge or sovereignty for something, I check myself to see if I’m just talking about an element of my life that’s because of social privilege. If I am, then I don’t do God-talk about it, because that’s just disrespectful to people who love God and live rightly, but still suffer because they’re lacking good things due to privilege. An example: a college graduate might thank God on Facebook for getting her through a private Christian school with good friends and a job offer ready for her in June. The impulse is nice, but it’s infuriating to someone who maybe didn’t have parents who could afford to pay for college, was marginalized socially and had trouble making friends, or got the short end of the stick with the economy and can’t find good work after graduation. It’s not wrong, but does it feels unfair to thank God for something you worked for and earned, or something that was handed down to you by genetics. It feels like it makes light of the hard work you did, or the hard work that less-privileged others put in to try to achieve the same ends.
On the other side of this mindset is the reaction to horrific live events with emotionally numbed reactions: cancer? God’s sovereign plan. divorce? it’s okay, God’s still good. grief? lack of faith in God’s sovereignty. I don’t think this sort of response is meant to be flippant or numbly blasé, but that’s how it comes across. It doesn’t allow for the full range of human emotions to be expressed in normal reactions to traumatic events, but instead cauterizes the emotions with shaming for lack of faith.
Agency is a funny thing. I don’t like that I feel more uncomfortable having agency than I do with feeling helpless. Between the God-is-sovereign catch-all explanation for anything hard or anything good and the patriarchy’s gender roles, the way I thought of myself I was not as an actor in my own life, but a pawn on a chessboard. Things happened to me instead of me making choices.
I don’t think God meant us to half-live our lives. I don’t think he meant for us to wait for life to happen. I don’t think a life of faith is lived in absence of risk or owning one’s full potential or full emotion or choice. I don’t think God wants us to constantly be yammering about how good he is when it’s not something that showcases his kindness in an honest way. It’s a waste of breath. There’s a difference between feeling genuine appreciation for quotidian graces and clanging a cymbal about how awesome God was to give you privilege.
The tension between brash American self-made bootstraps man mindset (which is also unhealthy) and the self-imposed helplessness of Christian patriarchy and new Calvinism is appropriate, I think, and should be embraced. There’s a glorious dignity to being human, and it should be embraced along with a peaceful awareness of one’s size in the face of the universe. These are not things to be taken lightly.