What a book! To sketch it out briefly: the book's structure is that of a main narrative following Anna, with her written notebooks interspersed as a sort of series of interwoven vignettes. Anna writes in many of the notebooks as a sort of alter-ego, Ella. Anna lived in (then) Rhodesia, was a communist in the early post-War era, becomes disaffected, and also writes a well-received book on an interracial relationship in Rhodesia in the context of nationalist, socialist freedom movements there. It's a story about post-Stalin communism, mental illness, relationships, writing, and much more. More than I can certainly do justice to.
In many (most?) ways, I found it a very painful book to read. Anna's/Ella's constant unhappiness, seeking selfhood, the struggle of the artist/writer, and attempts at finding happiness and selfhood in men is incredibly frustrating to read about. I wanted to put the book down a great many times, and it took me a couple weeks to read it (note: 600+ pages). Also, after reading it, I read a great many reviews of it. None professional, mostly just amateurs on Good Reads and Amazon. I was struck by how even though the novel is deeply mired in so many issues that are far-removed from present day white, middle class America, such as anti-colonialism, the Cold War, and the psychoanalyses themes, the book still seems profoundly relevant in its explorations of relationships and how society socializes men and women. Of course here, I'm speaking as a man, and not as an upper middle-class post-War British woman.
What was most striking was how she sketched out these horribly abusive relationships, and how her character so eagerly embraced them. I don't know that I've ever read a work of fiction (though Lessing writes that the book is strongly autobiographical) that so poignantly sketches so many different types of abusive relationships with the horrid fascination that makes you want to simultaneously look away and soldier onward. That aspect of the book -- the relationships between people -- most struck a cord with me, far more than the now-uncontroversial splinterings of the Western Communist Parties over the Soviet Union's atrocities in the wake of Stalin's death and Khrushchev's Secret Speech to the 20th Congress.
Perhaps it's how the notebooks are used to express the different voices, the different personalities we all have inside us, that makes these books so seminal and important. After all, in 1962, so few women's voices had ever been heard in literature, and rarer still with the complexity and multiplicities of thought that Lessing writes into Anna. But more than for its historical import, what I liked most about the book (though I hated reading it) was the process of the struggle that Anna goes through. For however mired in history and politics the work may be, women are still socialized to seek self and find strength in men. It was, however, exhausting to read. Every man Anna/Ella seems to meet is cut from the same mold, married, with children, preying on Anna as a "free woman" (unmarried), available for sex, and intriguing as an artist and well-read Communist.
In a lot of ways, the fixation on sex, the inability to form "true" relationships with men, struck me as almost juvenile. But that's of course coming from me and my perspective, as a man in the 21st century. The trope of "woman looking for love and finding it in the wrong places" is well-worn at this point, and was well-worn when the work was written. Anna is painfully self-aware of her self-destructive impulses, and the tropes she falls into, and that makes it far more poignant -- Anna's honesty and self-awareness of her struggle.
I suppose I'll end this rambling review of a book hailed by many feminists (though not Lessing herself) as a seminal feminist work with this: it is a painfully honest book. Its beauty, or its value, is not that it necessarily treads on ground that will be unfamiliar to a 21st century progressive reader, but that it deals with it so honestly.
I might be a tad late on this bandwagon, but a friend pointed this out to me (h/t to Lindsey!) and I had to write something.
So I have to disagree with Tom Matlock. Being a "dude" is not a good thing. Tom Matlock's article talks about a lot about being a dude, and being blamed for being a dude, and not liking it when women blame him for being a dude, but he never really says what a "dude" is. He claims he doesn't want to look at the "macro," but look to at the "micro" instead. He doesn't really look at either.
Well, listen here: I think we all know what a "dude" is. If Tom simply meant "dude" to mean "human who identifies as male" or "human whose sex is male," I suspect if he would have said so. But by using the term "dude" to describe men, he uses a word rich with meaning and one inextricably linked with the kyriarchy and it's very fucked up sense of gender.
Tom asks "why men are blamed for everything?" I'll give him two answers. Firstly, they're not. Plenty of things happen that are the fault of women. The world is replete with women who buy into all sorts of fucked up gender things, and willingly or not, perpetuate it. There's also plenty of women who quite knowingly advocate for policies that I think leads to all sorts of fucked up ideas about gender. So, I'm going to call shenanigans on the premise of the question. But secondly, on the other hand: let's really examine the premise of the question. Ultimately, who has had power in this nation (and in most of the world), since the beginning? Men. So if you think there's a problem in this country, chances are, a man made it. Did he make the problem because he's a man? Probably not. But a man he was, and a problem he made. I don't think "men are blamed for everything" because they're men; I think men can get blamed for a lot of things, because we made just about all the things.
Tom's theory is that men and women are "quite different," and that women want men to be more like them. Thus, men must be resigned to the fact that they are unacceptable at some level to a woman in their life.
Well, that's pretty fucked up, so let's unpack that. I, for one, don't believe men and women "are" different. I think we're socialized differently; I think we're taught very different norms and practices about what is acceptable for us to do, to think, to be; but I don't think we have profound and innate differences. Tom again eschews any sort of macro analysis that might lead to these conclusions and thus to doubt his own theory, again pointing out that men and women "think differently, [...] express emotion differently, [...] are motivated by differen things, [...] think about sex differently, and [...] use a very different vocabulary."
These are all things that are taught. The Good Men Project, and I will give them credit for it, does point out how so many of these things are socialized. There's certainly many articles about how men are taught that they can't express emotions, except base ones like rage and lust, certainly not sadness. And there's been many articles about how women and men are taught wildly different things about sex. What's puzzling is that underlying all of Tom's "theory" and his post is that whatever differences there are between men and women, and Tom does say that they are "basic instincts," women should pretty much just shut up and accept men for how they are.
And the fact is, they shouldn't. There's not a whole lot redeeming about the stereotypical way that a cis, het man is socialized. Cherishing fatherhood? Sure. Being a provider? That's okay. But oh, the challenges, the obstacles, the travesties we men heap on our sons, our brothers, our fathers, I want so little of that for myself, or my unborn sons, or my male friends. And I certainly wouldn't want to be with a woman who would accept those things in me.
So it might not shock anyone to know that I used to play a bunch of video games. Mostly lighter stuff: text based political simulations like NationStates and CyberNations, but every now and then (usually while waiting for jobs to start), I'd play a little WoW or something like that.
So a bit of background about these games, political or otherwise, is that they're role-playing games. You have to create a character and go play as it. Frequently, in the political games, people would create a person who just represented whatever their own political views are, which frankly, seems a bit boring to me. But some people would create entirely different personas, and others still might have multiple personas. And although these games are usually overwhelming populated by men, a lot of these guys woud choose to RP a female character and (perhaps unknowingly) engage in some genderplay.
A common "complaint" among other men playing these political games is that they would point to a woman who had some sort of political position, or power, or influence and say, "She only got that because she's using her femininity to take advantage of all the kids/young men in the game," or something to that effect. Whether or not most women were using some magic female tricks to lure men into giving them power, I couldn't say (protip: I could say: they weren't).
But what was most interesting was talking to people who created new character who were women, either for the purposes of spying or role-play or whatever, because they got harassed, stalked, and the cyber-equivalent of being cat-called. I always knew it happened. I wasn't one of those deniers who felt women only held power in these games because of their femininity, but it was so fascinating to watch some guys who did think that, having pointed out to all the apparent hay made of women's sexuality in these games, not realizing that so much of it was unwillingly foisted on these women. I recall a specific time one guy role-played a woman in order to spy on some other group in one of these political games, and he came back after a few weeks telling me that because he was performing as a girl, he got hit on constantly, cat-called, harassed, and that generally people just assumed that any benefit or position he'd achieved he had gotten solely by (mis)using his female sexuality. It was pretty eye-opening.
On another front, and perhaps more familiar to my readers than some niche political games is World of Warcraft. It's not hard to find lots of interesting commentary on being female in WoW. But what's interesting is how so many male players who have a female character (or "toon" as they're often called) on WoW will report being shocked at the sexism and harassment that goes on. When you go into any of the main towns in WoW, you'll find hundreds, perhaps thousands of characters. It's pretty hard to be a female toon in town and not have male characters blow kisses at you, try to hug you, flirt, or makes jokes. And I'd be remiss not to mention the gendered expectations in how well you fight, heal, or do whatever it is your character is supposed to do.
A friend of mine who had played WoW for a while remarked to me that he liked playing as female characters, but in order to avoid the harassment that would come with it, would pick a character of a race (for non-WoW people: "race" means "species") that was least human-like, and thus least attractive to our norms. That way he wouldn't get harassed or catcalled, because he wasn't playing as a "pretty" character. Similarly, since he wasn't playing as very "girly" character, the assumptions that female characters are played by women and are therefore less competent were reduced; it was assumed that women would choose the girlier of the female characters.
I bring all these things up, because I wonder, as I usually do, can these phenomena, of men experiencing a bit of femaleness by RPing a female character in the gaming world, someone be made into an educational tool? I'm always trying to wonder how we can bring an understanding or an acknowledgment of feminist issues to men who aren't on board with the movement. Has anyone else had similar experiences in the gaming world?
I've written about what I perceive to be some of the problems of sexual assault and the law before, but I haven't talked a whole lot about the media. Now we've got a trio of stories to discuss: the acquittal of two NYPD cops charged with sexual assault, the alleged sexual assault by Dominique Strass-Kahn, the Director of the IMF, and the news that my former Guhvahna, Arnold Schwarzenegger had an affair with a member of his household staff.
First, the acquittal. As I'm sure some readers of my this blog, two police officers allegedly, while bringing a drunk woman back to her apartment, sexually assaulted her while she was incapacitated. They were acquitted last Thursday. I don't think I need to rehash the story, except to note a few things: there was videotaped surveillance of the officers returning to her apartment after leaving and there wasn't any DNA evidence. I think those two facts speak to an interesting intersection of the difficulties of prosecuting a sexual assault case where the victim was drunk (in this to incapacitation) and what is called in legal circles the "CSI effect." In a sentence, the CSI effect is the tendency of criminal juries to demand high-tech forensic evidence and analyses in prosecution criminal cases. While the actual effects of the "CSI effect" are hotly debated within the legal and academic community, I wonder if this isn't anecdotal evidence of it. Here we have a sexual assault victim who is unable to remember much of the encounter, which is obviously not uncommon in sexual assault cases where the victim has been drinking are/or using other substances. We also have a perpetrator (according to the secretly taped phone call) using a condom, which if used effectively, would prevent the collection of semen samples using a SAFE kit (popularly called "rape kits"). So we have juries that are disinclined to believe circumstantial evidence such as the surveillance videos (even though as a legal matter, circumstantial evidence is equal to eyewitness evidence), no CSI type evidence, and a victim who in all likelihood does not remember everything.
Now scoot on over to the alleged assault by Dominique Strauss-Kahn of a maid in his hotel room in New York City. Legally, I don't think this is as interesting a case, as it more closely conforms to traditional expectations of sexual assault: a man assaulting a woman, with DNA evidence. No alcohol involved, which would lead to victim-blaming or a more clear "defense," such as in the NYC cop case. Something that I should be added are the racial issues involved, which don't seem to have been brought up in US media as much: the victim is reportedly Guinean and obviously Mr. Strauss-Kahn is white.
I'd like to contrast this to the Schwarzenegger news we've heard and note again the ethnicities involved. The woman with whom Mr. Schwarzenegger had an affair with was also of color and also a woman under his employ. I bring this up because both these two men engaged in relationships with people with whom they had an unequal power relationship, and though Arnold's relationship has been reported as consensual, I think, as a general matter, that things become much more murky when it involves relationships between employers and employees. But the coverage of Schwarzenegger's story is mostly centering on the affair, the divorce, the effect it would have had on politics, etc., etc., and not the sexual dynamics inherent in an unequal relationship like that.
I think crimes involving sex remain some of the most strangely covered events in our media. If there's a mugging, you don't blame the victims for have the audacity to be mugged. If there's a murder, you don't blame the victim for what they were wearing, doing, or where they were at night. If there's a murder and it involves people of different races/ethnicities, you bet it will be discussed heavily in the popular media, but if there's a sexual assault, the likelihood is much less, such as in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Is it because of our society's inability to accept sexuality and yet be fascinated by sex in the popular consciousness? Is it our unwillingness to accept a lot of the racialized aspects of crime and sex crimes in general? I don't know, but it's all food for thought.
To: Boners Everywhere
Re: You & Feminism
Hey there Boners. How you doing? I couldn't help but notice that Feministe has a blog post called "Feminism Makes Boners Sad," about an article by Doctors Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam in Psychology Today called "Why Feminism is the Anti-Viagra." I was concerned that you might be sad and getting misinformed by Psychology Today, so I wanted to give you a bit of straight talk:
Now, Boners, I get it: a Boner is a pretty self-centered thing. I can't say that I have a whole lot of intellectual control over my own. Sometimes it happens when I want it to; sometimes it doesn't when I do. I bring up that you're selfish to make this simple point: I understand Boners aren't intrinsically feminist. I'm pretty sure I can safely say that you don't ascribe to any ideology. So the Boner doesn't care if something that turns it on is feminist, or misogynist, or anything else. The Boner is undiscriminating. It takes all comers. It is an equal opportunity employer. I've written before about how I think feminism for men means that the sex will be better, but I've never really addressed my points to you specifically.
With that said, let us begin, Boners:
Anyone who got any semblance of sexual assault education probably knows this statistic: one in four women who attends college have been victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. So, Boners, I understand you're self-centered and well, unfeeling (emotionally speaking), so I'm going to talk to your baser instincts. Having sex with people who have been victims can be very hard. People often need a lot of help and support, professional and otherwise, to be comfortable with themselves sexually again. You know who you have to thank for that? Feminism.
I'm gong to shoot straight with you Boners, a lot of people in this country get some pretty effed up sexual education, where they end up ashamed of their sexuality, afraid to engage in their own pleasure, unwilling to try anything but the most vanilla things with the most vanilla frequently, and well, Boners, that kind of sucks (and not in the good way). But there's people out there Boners who want everyone to be comfortable with their sexuality, to do what turns them on safely and consensually, and well, give dudes Boners. That's Feminism there for you.
Now Boners, I don't mean to be a downer or deflate the otherwise happy note of this conversation, but as we all know, not every Boner has a happy ending. We all know that sometimes Boners can get all sorts of diseases from all sorts of places and things, but luckily, there's way to prevent that with prophylactics that can prevent the spread of STIs and HIV. You know who's out there spreading the word, distributing contraceptives to low-income people, and pushing for more progressive policies on family planning? Feminists.
Even though we all came from a Boner some time or another, from every Boner, a child is not made. But despite our best efforts, sometimes we have unplanned pregnancies, or planned pregnancies that don't progress the way they should. And the only reason that abortion is an option for women who need them is because of, well, you know who, Feminists.
Now, I know that the average lifespan of a Boner isn't very long, but if we can stretch our minds back a bit, we can probably remember times when we couldn't even talk about sex openly, when sex education was non-existent, or even to times when people believed that sexual activity for non-procreative purposes was sinful. I mean, I didn't count back then, but I think there were a lot fewer Boners in those days. It really sounds pretty shitty (and not the kind of shitty that's sometimes the byproduct of well ... a certain former Senator from Pennsylvania).
So Boners, I hope I've been able to get my point across. Feminism has done an awful lot of awesome stuff to gives lots of dudes Boners. And If really at the end of the day, you need some good ol' Victorian misogyny to get the blood flowing, well, there's all sorts of roleplay for that, which you know, is only really acceptable due to a lot of work by, well ... you know who.
Jeff & His Boner
Sexual Assault & the Law
A very unfortunate fact that ends up coloring many a man's perception of sexual assaults is how the legal system deals with sexual assaults. A man is most likely to hear about rape and sexual assault through the media, which frequently filters that through a lens of the law. If you ask a man about examples that came to mind, he'd probably mention Kobe Bryant, the Duke lacrosse case, Ben Roethlisberger, or maybe Julian Assange.
First, we have to face some things: our legal system is not designed to discover the truth behind every alleged crime. It is designed to take allegations of crimes that prosecutors believe they can prove in Court to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
Secondly, we have to deal with the matter of jury nullification. Jury nullification is an act that occurs when a jury acquits a defendant of a crime for reason that are not sanctioned in the legislation that makes the act a crime, or when they believe that the law is simply incorrect as applied in this case. Classic examples of American jury nullification are frequently racial in nature: in the antebellum North, juries frequently refused to acquit under the Fugitive Slave Act, and in the post-Reconstruction South, juries would frequently acquit a white man of murdering an African-American.
In sexual assault and rape cases, frequently you see jury nullification when a jury acquits for something contrary to what the law would demand. For instance, the victim may be drunk and is raped, which is still criminal rape, but a jury might acquit, citing the alcohol usage. There is nothing in the law, which permits a jury to acquit for such a reason. Similarly, juries might acquit a rapist when the woman is in a situation in which she "should have known better" and the like.
Most sexual assault cases have fact patterns that are incredibly difficult to prove in Court, usually due to the fact that only two parties witnesses the crime: the perpetrator and the victim. Similarly, many cases also have circumstances that juries are likely to use for jury nullification: the inebriation of one or both of the participants, their past sexual histories with each other and others, and the general circumstances such as time and place.
So when it comes down to it, and we hear about a case of sexual assault in the popular media, there's a lot at play when it comes down to the legal stuff. To look at the Rothelisberger case where allegations were made by a student at Georgia College & State University, the victim, though not recanting her allegations, asked the District Attorney not to move forward with the case, citing the intrusion into her privacy. There's a lot of factors at play -- the DA then decides not to prosecute the case, stating that he did not believe he could prove the case beyond a reasonable (which is absolutely the wrong standard by which you move forward on a case at that stage, but that's a whole different issue). Now, the DA may have had a point: with a now-uncooperative victim/witness, the evidence may have been too scant to prove in front of a jury in this community.
But that doesn't mean that the sexual assault or rape didn't happen, and sadly, that's usually the take-home message when you just observe how these things are portrayed in the popular media. And that's a radically wrong message to be sending to men.
As I talked a bit about in my post on talking to men about sexual assaults, men's experience with rape is from the media, and the media frequently portrays a rape that doesn't go forward as somehow "exonerating" the perpetrator. I'll repeat as I said in that post, rape and sexual assault has no greater rate of false allegations than any other crime, and when you see allegations made against celebrities, that's a population that is not representative of the general population. For the overwhelming majority of men, a woman has nothing to gain financially and a whole lot of privacy to lose and emotional and physical trauma to go through to make an allegation of rape or sexual assault.