Sunday, June 28, 2009

Would You Like Some Perspective With That?

Last night, I was having a free-wheeling philosophical discussion with a couple of colleagues from my math program. Most of us were standard-issue social liberals. But there was one fellow who was chauvinist to the core, and was giving us an earful about it.

Now, to be honest, I felt a little sorry for this guy--let's call him J. His views were whacky, inconsistent, and in some cases, morally reprehensible. But he was surrounded by people who were doing their utmost to rip his worldview to shreds, and that can't have been fun. To be honest, I think we baited him a little; I'm not sure everything he said was a perfect reflection of what he believes in his heart of hearts.

Nonetheless, he said some things that would be thoroughly outrageous in any context. And when we called him on it, he refused to back down. The worst, I think was this: he referred to unfaithful wives as committing "the male form of rape." A cheating wife, according to J., is equivalent to a wife who rapes her husband.

Did Somebody Seriously Say That?

Unforutnately, yes. And if you don't think that's a problem, read on!

The analogy he was drawing, more or less, was that both husbands of cheating wives and rape victims are sometimes coerced into raising a child they do not want: a cuckold may end up raising the other man's baby, knowingly or otherwise, while a rape survivor may bear the rapist's child.

Now, I understand the point this fellow was trying to make, but his argument was thoroughly out of line, for several reasons.

First of all, as I politely pointed out last night, the "male form of rape" is what happens when men get raped. It still shocks me that I have to explain this to people, but male rape is surprisingly common. About 10% of rape survivors are male; and about fifteen percent of male rape victims are raped by a woman. To call wifely infidelity "the male form of rape" means denying the experience of millions of men. It means implying either that the suffering of male rape victims doesn't count, or that being raped destroys a man's masculinity.

On another level, J.'s statement glosses over the incredible physical and emotional trauma that many rape survivors experience. By equating rape with one of its many possible consequences--the conception of an unwanted child--J. is reducing female rape survivors to their reproductive capacity. The emotional suffering of rape survivors, the damage to their minds, their bodies, their sexuality, doesn't count. Rape only matters if the rapist manages to hijack his victim's all-important womb. A more dehumanizing view of women is difficult to imagine.

Finally, let's do a quick analysis of J.'s views of the relationship between man and wife. If a married woman has a sexual liaison with another man, then she has "raped" her husband. What does that really mean? It sounds like J. is saying that a married woman's sexuality is an extension of that of her husband. How else could committing adultery with the wife be equivalent to non-consensual sex with the husband? J. is implying that a married woman forfeits her right to own her sexuality--to have her own needs, her own desires, her own boundaries. Infidelity--however a particular couple defines that--is wrong. Breaking a promise of monogamy is clearly unethical. But that doesn't mean that a married woman shouldn't still be viewed as an autonomous sexual being--even after she choses to enter an exclusive sexual relationship.

The analogy between "male rape" and female infidelity is clearly inopportune, and ghastly in its implications. But even if the analogy were genuinely illuminating in some way, it would still be a reprehensible thing to say. Here's why.

Only Rape is Rape

I don't often here this stated explicitly, but I think it underlies a lot of feminist discussions. Most of the time, it is just not okay to use rape as a metaphor. It doesn't matter if their are some interesting qualitative similarities between a given situation and rape. Because what matters isn't the specific nature of a rape survivor's suffering; it is the magnitude. There are times when a rape analogy is appropriate, because it's being used to describe some atrocity. The rape of Nanking comes to mind. But those occasions are few and far between. In general, rape should never be used as an analogy for some lesser evil, (hear that, Meme Roth?).

This is not about censorship; it's not about circumscribing free speech. I'm not saying that trivializing rape should be banned by law. But I am saying that it shouldn't be recognized as a legitimate tactic in rational discourse, any more than spitting in your opponent's face should be considered a legitimate rhetorical strategy. It is just too hurtful to anyone who has been sexually assaulted, too disrespectful. It is--pun very much intended--below the belt.

Okay, So That Guy Was A Jerk--Who Cares?

Well, I care, because I have to live with him for seven more weeks. But the reason I've expended so much life force on crafting a response to this fellow's statements is more complicated than that.

I'm used to spending time with people who are more-or-less socially liberal, and more-or-less feminist. That's wonderful, and I'm glad I have such a supportive community. But the danger of surrounding oneself with like-minded people is that it's easy to forget how far we, as a society, still have to go. If everyone you interact with views women as human beings, feminism can start to seem obsolete. Why should we worry about the politics of eyebrow waxes, when their are starving children in Africa?

Talking with J. served to remind me that feminism is still necessary. J. is intelligent. He is thoughtful. He is, in many ways, a good man. And his deeply misogynistic ideas didn't come from a vacuum. He didn't invent rape culture, or slut shaming, or chauvinism. These ideas still exist, and there are still smart, successful people to whom they seem tremendously compelling.

As feminists, we've got our work cut out for us.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ideals and Varieties

Many feminists are critical of America's standards of beauty, and with good reason.  American beauty ideals are bizarrely restrictive, bound by arbitrary rules that have little to do with aesthetic value or genuine sex appeal.  Our society is incredibly intolerant of women with an ounce of extra flesh.  We're no kinder to the very thin; slender women are belittled as weak and anorexic, and reviled by their peers as "skinny bitches."  And while the Nordic ideal has lost ground in recent decades, our beauty standards remain hopelessly ethnocentric.  

America's unhealthy obsession with beauty has damaging consequences, for women and men alike.  We live in a culture that equates beauty with virtue, sexual desirability, and personal worth, and then sets the bar for physical "beauty" impossibly high.  The result?  A lot of unnecessary misery.  While concerns about physical appearance may seem petty to some, they can have a major impact on an individual's quality of life.  Body dysmorphia, an intense preoccupation with one's perceived physical flaws, is associated with a higher completed suicide rate than that which accompanies major depression.

It's tempting to blame our culture's obsession with physical appearance on our beauty icons: on fashion models, pop stars, and anime babes.  Those icons, and the ideals they represent, are certainly problematic.  Teen modeling, for instance, is a perversely terrifying industry.  Many celebrities maintain workout routines that would be life-destroying for most of us.  But while the stars may embody an absurd and destructive standard of beauty, I don't think that's what's really undercutting American women's self-esteem.

What's the Real Problem?

The problem that is that when it comes to beauty, we compare ourselves to the stars.  This isn't something most of us do in other arenas.  I don't care that Michael Phelps gets all kinds of media attention, because I understand that I don't have to live up to his example.  My thirty-minute workouts  are no less rewarding, simply because they seem paltry compared to the exploits of olympic athletes.  In a similar vein, I don't feel the need to measure my  intellectual achievements against those of Einstein or Gauss.  We all understand, at a fundamental level, that there's no shame in being imperfect.

Except, that is, when it comes to beauty.  Many of us, particularly young women and girls, compare ourselves to people for whom beauty is more-or-less a full-time job.  We do this at least in part because the media encourages us to do so.  We're told to imitate celebrities' hair and make-up, to be disgusted by Jennifer Love Hewit's negligible cellulite--and by extension, our own bodies.  And that's insane.

The problem, as I see it, isn't just that our culture idolizes a certain kind of beauty.  Yes, there are problems with that ideal. It's genuinely troubling, for example, that our conception of beauty is overwhelmingly White. That needs to change. But that doesn't mean that its necessary or even realistic to eliminate the concept of ideal beauty. Every culture has its own ideals, its own values. The mere existence of beauty ideals is, perhaps, an inevitable feature of any society. And ideals, by their very nature, are unattainable for the majority of the population.

The trouble is that we view any deviation from the beauty ideal as some kind of terrible flaw. We're almost never presented with positive media representations of women who fall outside the range of what's conventionally attractive.  It's problematic that fashion models are all rail-thin.  But it's perhaps more damaging that a restrictive standard of beauty holds for actresses in movies and on television, even those who nominally play ordinary women.  The message, here, is that any imperfection makes a woman unworthy to be seen.

What Can We Do?

 I don't think the answer is simply to lambast the mainstream media--as satisfying as that might be.  We won't bring about the revolution by demonizing barbie, or Miss America, or Brittany Spears.  Instead, perhaps we should focus on creating and popularizing positive representations of women who fall outside the norms of conventional attractiveness.  It's all very well to say that we shouldn't slavishly adhere to an artificial beauty ideal.  But that statement is only meaningful when we have a real alternative: when we can envision a healthier, more inclusive definition of  beauty.  

That's why I get really excited about sites like (NSFW).  Yes, these are pictures of fat women, and they may not appeal to everyone.  But the photographer clearly strives to portray her subjects as beautiful, strong, and empowered.  And for me, the images work.  Sure, America may idolize thin women.  But the women in these photographs refuse to be bound by those narrow ideals.  They are beautiful in their own way, on their own terms. 

I think we need to find ways to re-imagine what it means to be beautiful--regardless of size, shape, skin color, or clothing budget.  We need to recognize that everyone has physical "imperfections," and that that's okay.  Each of us is beautiful enough.

P.S. A major shout-out to any of you who caught the math pun in the title.  Commutative algebra has colonized my brain this week.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Hello, and welcome to Notes from a Feminist Rebellion.  I'm your host, Simone Lovelace, a rising senior at Scripps College.   Here, you will find my musings and rants about feminist issues, from women in the workplace, to abortion rights, to bikini waxes.

My goal is to provide a thought-provoking, off-beat analysis of the way gender roles operate in our culture.  I hope to encourage people of all beliefs, backgrounds, political affiliations to question their assumptions about gender and sexuality.  

This is not a feminism 101 site.   If you're looking for a comprehensive introduction to feminism, I highly recommend these resources: 

In addition, this is not a source for up-to-the-minute feminist analysis of either popular culture or current events. If that's what you're craving, check out the links below.

The opinions expressed on this blog are entirely my own.  I am not a spokeswoman for the feminist movement.  I'm a bright, thinking woman, who was taken some women's studies courses, and done a lot of reading.  If you agree what I have to say, great!  If you don't, leave me a comment, and tell me why.  I would love to hear your thoughts.   

I want this to be a safe, welcoming space for discussion, so please be courteous.  Keep the comments respectful and the language clean.

Notes for a Feminist Rebellion updates once a week, homework permitting.