Tuesday, April 4, 2017

On Sexual Assault and Harassment

Things that are not shocking: I’ve been sexually assaulted and harassed, in real ways, more times than you can imagine.  

I won't even give you the details about the male babysitter that tickled me and then touched me inappropriately when I was 4, cause I didn't even really fully remember that noise until I was in my early 20s.  But there was that.  That not withstanding:

The first time it happened I was in high school, working for a photography studio. The male photographer told me that he wanted to put body paint on my body and photograph me.  I was 16.  He pursued me for weeks until I had to quit the job; no one cared when I reached out to my employers to say that I was scared, that he was terrifying to me.  He was 27.  I was told to get over it.

My high school boyfriend punched me in the eye; it turned black and I lied to my parents about it.  One of my best male college friends threw me up against the wall in my dorm room, twisted my arm, and bruised my back.  I ordered him the fuck out of my room.  Neither of these incidents even makes it into what follows.

The second time it happened, I was in college, and my French professor put his hand on my knee.  The third time it happened, I took a guy to a dance, and he tried to rape me.  I can't say more about this except that he didn't succeed.

Then he told his friends that I was a tease.  Yeah, that kind of nonsense.  It happened, in 1989.

The fourth time, I was still in college, and my English professor, after giving me a shot of whiskey, asked if I wanted to take a shower with him.  I didn’t really, but I did anyway, because I was 19 and he was 37, and I’d thought he was cute.  He stalked me for year afterwards, driving through the apartment complex where I lived while I hid, hyperventilating in the bathroom, in the hope that he couldn’t see me, sitting in the shower, below the window.  He told me that my rejection of him sent him to the hospital with an ulcer.  He called my parents’ house over the summer and hung up whenever one of them answered.

My mother told me that she’d always thought I’d date an older man.  That’s what this meant to her.  Not to me.  To me, it meant that I had played him, that I amazed myself at how easy it was to seduce someone so much older, in such a position of privilege and authority.  It was both shocking and boring, and if you’re a guy reading this at such a long remove, it’s still shockingly boring for the young woman who seduces you without incident or effort (because for us it’s always effortless), who then looks back at the whole thing and finds you repulsive, because we do, you know, find you abhorrent, find you desperate, find you nauseating in your desperation and need.

The fifth time it happened, I was getting an MA at East Carolina University, and the fiction writer, the guy who wrote (of all things) about golf, wrote me a letter – typed it out and gave it to me.  I still have it, by the way, if you’d like to deny it, but I think you died and that now there’s a scholarship or some such named after you.  I’d never had a class with him, never even knew him, and yet he wanted me to go to Boston with him; we could have separate rooms, he said, although he hoped that I wouldn’t want that.

I wrote for the paper at the time, and I outed him in an editorial.  You can see that I’m getting braver with age.  He showed up at the paper and called me out, panicked and afraid.  I said, “you wrote what you wanted in a letter, and I just shared that material.  I don’t know you, and you didn’t know me.  Now you do.”  I was a fucking hero among the women in the English Department who had seen these guys do this shit over and over and over.  But the men, the men turned on me. But that’s hardly surprising.

The sixth time was the worst so far, when I was hired as a lecturer by an assistant Department Head who then proceeded to try to grope me every time that he was around me. I went to see a therapist about it, because, by this point, I thought maybe it was some personality trait that I possessed that drew these reprobates to me, men with whom I worked or studied, who decided that it was ok to turn me into some stupid blow up doll onto or into which they could aim their ridiculous misguided sexually aggression.  My therapist told me that it wasn’t me, that these were predators. And she was right.

He called me when I missed a day from work.  He wanted to bring me soup or ginger ale.  I never answered.  Like third time guy, he would drive past my apartment, slowly, and look in the window.

Have you ever sat, your back pressed up against the wall of your apartment, all the lights off, and not breathing, hoping that he’ll just drive away?  Cause I have.  And more than once.

The sixth time guy contacted me over the years, after I was gone, to tell me what he missed me.  To tell me about his son’s suicide.  To try to guilt me into writing back. Think I’m a heartless bitch for not responding?  Well, he lured me out on numerous occasions, telling me that his family would be there, only for me to discover that I’d been trapped by him, alone with him, his hands on my body, me too afraid to tell him to stop. 

In 2012, I contacted a friend who knew #6 and asked for her advice about whether I should confront him.  She never wrote back, and there is a special place in hell for women who do not have the backs of other women.  I am still without resolve, still without closure. 

More tomorrow; I’m too upset to keep writing.  And yet, there is more.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sometimes it's ok to throw rocks at girls

As a South African literature specialist, discussions of the diamond industry often make their way into my classes. DeBeers, the diamond company founded by Cecil Rhodes in South Africa in 1888 is known for an advertising campaign that it started in 1938: “It dreamed up the notion that a diamond ring should be an essential display of love and status, its gift a rite of passage. In the ensuing decades De Beers and its marketers penned slogans—memorably, ‘a diamond is forever’—and invented social rules, urging men to spend two months’ pay on a gift for their affianced. That benchmark not only permitted high margins, but suppressed the second-hand market—to the benefit of both the firm and its customers, who could be reassured their investment would hold its value.”[1]  Basically, DeBeers created a market for diamonds that hadn’t existed prior, and the company did so by inflating demand for a limited commodity.  By the end of the 20th century, 80 percent of all brides received a diamond ring as a symbol of engagement.

Of course, these diamonds were mined by black South Africans who were effectively enslaved by the colonial policies of people like Rhodes and then under the auspices of apartheid.  And so-called conflict diamonds, the products of the labor by enslaved adults and children, continue to make their way into the U.S. Even when the diamonds are certified “conflict free,” the gemstone industry remains steeped in its legacy of colonial exploitation of indigenous labor and its simultaneous commodification of women as consumer goods to be purchased with expensive rocks. And that’s what allows the consistent and increasingly sexist billboard propaganda of Spicer Greene Jewelers in Asheville to perpetuate the marketing myth and women must have diamonds, that men are required to buy them for us, that, most recently, “sometimes it’s ok to throw rocks at girls.”

Her it is.

In various parts of the world, women are still stoned to death for marital infractions, most often on presumption that they have committed adultery. The fear that women might transgress the mandate that is offered by the “diamonds are forever” slogan (even if that transgression occurs because the woman is raped) incurs a sentence where men throw rocks at women and girls until they are dead.[2] 

Not in the US, you say. We don’t stone women to death, here. Well, men kill women all the time, but not generally with actual stones. In a 2016 report by the Associated Press, FBI and state cime data showed that 6,875 people were fatally shot by romantic partners during the period from 2006 to 2014, and of those, 80 percent were women: “On average, that works out to 554 annual fatal shootings of an American woman by a current or former romantic partner during the nine years examined, or one every 16 hours. Of the female victims in the AP’s study period, 3,100 — or roughly 56 percent of the total women killed — were shot by husbands, ex-husbands, or common-law husbands. Another 1,953 women were killed by their boyfriends.”[3] A google news search for “man kills wife” on March 23, 2017 pulls up numerous stories with headlines such as these: “Pennsylvania man Kills Pregnant wife with Sword,” “Man Kills wife with Hatchet” (Florida), “Man shoots, kills wife, injures sister-in-law in Pasadena Restaurant.” The list goes on and on. And on.

In other words, many of these women were sporting a “rock” that had been “thrown” at them by a suitor. 

Spicer Greene’s billboard on I240, of course, is meant to be funny.  But it isn’t, not in a country where women are still conditioned to be objects purchased with gemstones that carry with them a history of the enslavement of millions of people, not in a society where men feel entitled to murder women whose bodies and minds to which, in one way or another, they feel that have an unquestionable right, and not in a society that has just seen the most explicitly misogynist election in our nation’s history, one where it was seemingly ok for people like Trump adviser Al Baldasaroto to say things like “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot.”

Gemstones are pretty.  They sparkle.  But the history of how they made their way from the mine to the hand of the blushing bride, how they are implicated in a racist and sexist legacy that’s all about commodification and property is worth knowing. And I hope that Spicer Greene’s billboard and the marketing strategy behind it is more reprehensible to you for knowing it.


[2] The most recent coverage of such an instance was last week:

Saturday, January 28, 2017

On Rex Tillerson and Scott Pruitt: A Letter and Video to the House and Senate

Dear Honorable Members of the House and Senate,

First video ever.  I hate it. But desperate times...

My name is Laura, and I am a professor at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. You may remember North Carolina for, in the past, having one of the most stellar public university systems in the nation, and, more recently, as that state that was purchased by the Koch Brothers and then managed by Art Pope and his puppet governor, Pat McCrory, who signed into law some of the most racist, sexist, homophobic legislature in the state’s history. And most recently, even though he lost the election, McCrory and our republican legislature enacted policies to limit the power of our incoming governor Roy Cooper.

Anyway, I thought about simply writing you a letter, but I thought that maybe you’d like to see me, to recognize (possibly) that despite the fact that it’s become clear that in many of your eyes I’m just a woman whose body you fear without cause and whose rights you are actively working to abolish, I’m also a citizen of your country, a constituent to whom you owe your time, your concern, and your service. You are, after all, public servants. 

I am a registered democrat, and I voted for Hillary Clinton. Until you repeal the 19th amendment (and at this point, I feel that as long as you are rolling over for the Nazi who is advising our president, my right to vote might just go poof along with my right to have an abortion, to obtain health care, to be protected if I’m abused by a man), I will remain a democrat. That said, if you are a republican, my life, my rights, and my livelihood are nonetheless in your care. You have a responsibility to represent all Americans, not just the ones in your party.

And I mean this with the most sincerity imaginable: at this point in history – and particular at this point in our nation’s history – it’s imperative that we stop thinking in terms of the binary oppositions that do nothing more than place us at odds with one another: we are not just republicans or democrats, conservatives or liberals, men or women, native born citizens or immigrants. We are all human beings. We have a lot more in common than not. We owe an ethical obligation to one another, and the divisiveness of party affiliations works only to undermine that fact.  Focusing only on our differences gets in the way of our ability to recognize our commonalities.

Ok, so now that I’ve got us all holding hands and singing kumbaya, let me get to why I’m writing.  I’ll try to be brief, but I have a lot to say, and I hope that you will hear me out.

I am an educator, an English professor.  Despite these things, I’m not really contacting you about Betsy DeVos’s nomination to serve as Secretary of Education or about the fact that there’s talk of eliminating both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, something I hear excites Paul Ryan to no end.  All of these things are horrific; DeVos is wildly unqualified – but that doesn’t really distinguish her from any of the rest of our president’s cabinet picks, and the attention being placed upon her possible appointment is simply a well-orchestrated distraction to take the focus off of something much, much more terrifying.

I’ll get to that in a minute.  A bit more about me, since you don’t know me and I know lots about many of you: I’m a 46-year-old long distance runner.  I don’t eat meat; I don’t smoke.  I’m one of the healthiest people you’re likely to meet.  In 2013, however, I had a massive heart attack and nearly died; I had to be airlifted from the rural campus where I teach to the cardiac hospital 50 miles away.  I had the heart attack they call the widow maker, and dollars to donuts it would have felled every single man still listening to me. I was definitively diagnosed with Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) a year later by Dr. Sharonne Hayes at the Mayo Clinic.  SCAD is genetic and has nothing to do with lifestyle.  It primarily affects otherwise healthy women who have no risk factors and no history of heart disease.  It’s likely to happen again, by the way, and the next time it happens (if it happens), I probably won’t survive it.

Thank gods that I had health insurance, by the way.  Thank gods that there was funding for medical research.  But as is the case with DeVos et al, I’m not really here to beg for you not to repeal the ACA because it’s clear that you really want to show that black guy who implemented it who’s boss now.  How dare he want to provide the citizens – your constituents – with health care?  He’s a black man!  How uppity of him!  And Steve Bannon, the aforementioned Nazi, says you gotta put that black man in his place, so because you seem to be rolling over and doing whatever he says anyway, you’ll do what you’re going to do.

And I’m not really here to beg you not to cut funding for Planned Parenthood or beg that instead that you tell your constituents that abortion is not subsidized by government funds in the first place, because, just like the uppity black man (I know what you call him, so go ahead and insert the N word in place of “black man” if you want), you gotta put us terrifying women in our place.  Cut the funding for PP, and you will show us for real how much you don’t care about whether we live or die.

As an aside, access to abortion has been a cause of mine for a very long time.  Full disclosure: I’ve never had an abortion, never been placed in the position of having to make such a decision, and for that I’m thankful.  For many women who haven’t had to make that decision, PP has likely played a role, providing affordable contraception, education, and resources.  But you know that already, and many of you don’t care. So whatever, cut funding.  Let our incompetent president and his Nazi advisor give us a supreme court justice that will give Pence, Ryan, and the rest of you so-called “pro-life” men the chance you’ve been waiting for to overturn Roe v. Wade.  Go ahead.

Because right now, I can’t be distracted by this noise either.

But to be clear: around 5 million people marched for women’s rights the day after the election. About 1 in 100 Americans marched.  The women who marched and the men who marched with them are your constituents.  Ignore them if you want, but I wouldn’t if I were you.  And here’s why.

As I said already, I almost died in 2013.  I actually almost died twice, once from the heart attack and then again after surgery when I nearly bled out through the incision in my femoral artery.  And I’m not afraid to die. I’m really not. And I imagine that that’s probably a good thing because if anyone actually watches this video, in addition to being trolled by any number of people who will tell me how ugly I am, I’ll also told that I should get raped and murdered, that I should have died from that heart attack, that, well, any number of other horrors that can be hurled at me because I’m a woman and daring to say something.  The threats to women who say things are getting worse and worse, enabled, certainly, by the rhetoric of our president.

I’m not afraid, and neither are a lot of other people. What you are doing by enabling policies that disenfranchise your citizens is creating an ever growing populace that will feel more and more that it has nothing to lose.  And people with nothing to lose are dangerous. I am not saying this as a threat; I am as concerned for what happens when you’ve enabled the creation of a rogue populace as I am of anything that your policies will do to that populace.

I’m not afraid.  Can you imagine what that would feel like, Paul Ryan?  Do you know that someone edited the Wikipedia entry on invertebrates to include a picture of you?  Do you know what it would be like, Marco Rubio, not to be afraid?  I hear that Greenpeace showed up and presented you with an actual spine.  And, I’m sorry to say this, but John McCain and Lindsey Graham, even though I respect you both immensely, where are your backbones with regard to the appointment of Rex Tillerson? He and Scott Pruitt are the reason for this message.

I would not be afraid to place my body in harm’s way if I thought for one single second that doing so might stop you from allowing the appointment of Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State and Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. 

My fear for a long time has been that all of you are owned by the oil industry.  And thanks to that Koch Industries shill from Utah, It’s clear that there’s a move afoot to eliminate the Bureau of Land Management and the forest service and sell off PUBLIC LANDS so that some of the richest men in the country can get even richer.  Do Charles and David really need more money?  If so, can someone please tell me why?  What are they giving you guys in return? 

The White House has scrubbed climate change information, has put a gags on government agencies, and has given the all clear to complete the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines.  Native peoples be damned!  Tillerson and Pruitt are deniers of human made climate change, which effectively means that despite the fact that they know that human beings are causing the planet to warm by continuing to depend on fossil fuels, they don’t care about whether the citizens of the US and the rest of the world die as a result of that warming, as long as a few already rich white men can be made richer.

If you do not resist these appointments, if you allow our president to move forward with the implementation of policies that turn public lands over to private ownership, you are complicit in the destruction of our planet. And, if that doesn’t matter to you, maybe this might: you will be complicit in the largest, most all-encompassing act of genocide in the history of our species. It will happen slowly enough at first that you’ll be able to deny that it’s happening, at least for a while. 

But it’s already taking lives; look at the recent tornados that killed people in the south. You can pretend all you want that those had nothing to do with a warming planet, but you would be wrong – and you know it.  The genocide that you will enable by doing nothing to stop it will first harm the poor. Never mind that you are also responsible for the poor, but it will eventually harm everyone else. 

Appoint DeVos, defund Planned Parenthood.  Hell, build that stupid wall at the expense of tax payers (and at the expense of the 100s of endangered species that will die when they can no longer migrate).  Do anyway with funding for the arts and the humanities. Bring it on.

But do not appoint these men to these posts. I am not being hyperbolic when I say that the entire world and our entire species are counting you not being afraid to stand up and do what’s right.  Do not be afraid.  I’ll be right here with you.

Thank you,

Laura Wright