The Language of Sluts, Street Harassment and Sexual Violence

Language is powerful. Sometimes I don’t know what I think until I talk about it, y’know? No? Well, I can’t say I blame you. I’m hoping the process of writing this blog post will help me sort out some thoughts I have on a couple of really awesome, kick-ass feminism happening in Ottawa.

I’m planning to participate in Ottawa’s version of SlutWalk this weekend. For those of you unfamiliar with it, SlutWalk invites people to walk in support of taking back the word “slut”. The word slut has traditionally been a negative way to describe a woman who has sex with what is perceived to be (too) many partners, either for pleasure of for money. What SlutWalk does is crystallize the sentiment that women’s sexuality is a positive thing and says ‘no, thank you’ to those who would presume to dictate just how much sexuality is too much for women.

This is an important front in the battle to end rape culture. We all know (OK, only some of us know) how slut-shaming and victim-blaming is used across the spectrum of sexual abuse and assault, permitting and/or making excuses for everything from child molestation and statutory rape to failing to stop the rampage of one Robert William Pickton, who chose his sex worker victims on the basis of how little worth was placed on their lives. Let’s not forget so-called “corrective rape” and female genital mutilation: two practices that also rest on the premise that women’s sexuality is something to be monitored, judged and ultimately, controlled.

Before I continue, let me state for the record that I am fully aware that not only women and girls are victims of sexual violence. As a mother of two boys, I know too well that they could be victimized at any time and I am ever-vigilant. That being said, sexual violence remains a highly gendered phenomenon, with females bearing the overwhelming proportion of its burden.

Another front in this battle is the Hollaback movement to end street harassment for both women and LGBTTQ folks. Most people, women included, may not realize the level of victimization that comes with cat-calls, whistling and unabashed stares. Remember what I said about sexuality as something to be monitored? Street harassment falls squarely into that category. Those who indulge in this behaviour stand on the slippery slope that tips quickly into slut-shaming and all the gender-based violence slinking insidiously behind it.

I’ll say it again: Robert Fucking Pickton.

Ottawa Hollaback allows people to document their experience of street harassment by uploading it to the Hollaback website. You can enter the actual place where the harassment happened. And if you happen to take a photo of the jerk that harassed you, you can upload it to the website.

How many times have I seethed over being harassed because of my gender and have had no recourse? How much of my stomach lining has been eaten away as I obsessed over what I would have liked to say to the jerk all those times, had I only been given a chance? How often have I felt genuinely frightened because I knew the real danger that lurked behind the comments? Most frustratingly, how much have I mourned the ultimate loss of control and personal agency that each incidence of street harassment represented for me? All those times I’ve mourned the (temporary) loss of my voice.

The people behind Hollaback understand this. They give voice to me and to all who endure or have endured street harassment. I love that Hollaback exists. I love even more that it has officially come to Ottawa. As a mechanism to raise awareness and begin to end street harassment, it is da bomb.

However…

Ending rape culture for once and for all will rely heavily on the need for men to understand the issue. As we move forward with our messaging we cannot afford to alienate men. My fear is that by posting photos of street harassers, we are not doing much to educate them. I also fear that we risk making all men feel that we see them all as perpetrators. It feels a little like we become judge, jury and executioner. I’m not comfortable with that.

At the same time, all men who fall on the rape culture spectrum need to be made aware of the monster they have been  feeding.

Damn it. I’m still not sure what to think.

But I’d love to hear what you think.

Is language powerful enough to stop street harassment or do we need more? Does posting photos of harassers qualify as “shaming”? And if so, are you OK with that? Am I over-thinking this? Does my ass look fat in these pants?

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Vote, Woman, Vote or Don’t Make Me Come Over There!

Until May 2nd, I’m going to harass the hell out of my two lovely nieces who live in Ottawa and I want you to do the same. OK, so not exactly the same. Get your own nieces.

I want you to identify two young women in your life; two young women who are of voting age and I want you to do everything in your power to get them to vote.

I don’t even care who they vote for.

OK, so we all know that’s a lie.

But what matters is that they vote, that they pay attention, that they participate.

Some of you may accuse me of being one of those ageing feminists who constantly bemoan the lack of engagement and commitment and awareness of young women today. Something like…oh, I don’t know… (fade out on wavy screen)

In my day we didn’t have voting booths. We gave one shoe to the candidate we wanted and we liked it! All walkin’ around with one shoe for the next year, one foot always cold and dirty, wearing out our socks and developing a limp ‘cause we believed in democracy. That’s how it was and we liked it!

That Dana Carvy…so funny. I also miss Church Lady. She would’ve voted Conservative, for sure.

But where was I? Oh yeah, I was in feminist curmudgeon mode…

So be it. Think that if you like. The fact remains that fewer and fewer people- fewer and fewer women- are exercising their right to vote in this country and that leads to bad government, no matter what political stripe you wear.

Imagine if a full 51% of eligible voters cast their ballot on the basis of what mattered to them: childcare, pay equity, affordable housing, education, hunger, violence, same-sex marriage, indigenous rights and yes, abortion, to name but a smattering (and not to say that all women place equal weight on all of these issues). Imagine the message we would send to our leaders.

We would tell them that they ignore women at their political peril.

Whose voice will you encourage this election?

Contempt For Us All

No one seems to care that our government, the government of Canada…ahem! You, there! Pay attention, please- that’s government of the people, by the people and for the people- has been found in contempt of Parliament. For more on the Contempt charge and the ruling itself, read here and *here.

That’s contempt. C-O-N-T-E-M-P-T. Of Parliament. For the first time in our country’s history! At the risk of sounding condescending…DOES NOBODY HAVE THE FAINTEST CLUE WHAT THIS MEANS?!!!

WE are Parliament. We, the people of this flawed, beautiful, wonderful country. Every man, woman and child. From sea to sea to sea (props to the Beaufort!). WE are the people the Harper government holds in contempt.

WE elect the Members of Parliament who sit in the House of Commons and THEY represent us. They speak on OUR behalf. They would not be there if not for US and the power of our vote. That is what Parliament is.

Parliament is us and we are Parliament.

And they hold Parliament- they hold US- in contempt. That means they have no more regard for our rights as citizens than if we were head lice. OK, maybe not head lice, but you know what I mean. We are merely incidental to the power they hold and cling to with increasing desperation. We are a means to an end.

Effectively, this government has declared that the voting public is stupid and hasn’t got the will or the voting power to hold this or any other government to account.

Sadly, despite the contempt ruling and what it means, I have every reason to believe that the Conservative Party of Canada will win a majority in the coming election. They will then proceed to usher in a new day that fulfills the most ardent wishes of the religious right to whom they owe their power: to strip away the rights of women in this country, beginning with hard-won sexual and reproductive freedom.

I don’t know what it will take for my fellow Canadians to wake up to the dangerous path we’re on in this country. Our rights are being systematically chipped away, with wording buried deep within legislation that the other Parliamentarians can’t be bothered to read, let alone debate effectively or vote on in an informed way.

All the while, and perhaps not surprisingly, the voting public continues to disengage as we creep (or careen, depending on your level of pessimism) towards a benevolent dictatorship.

And no one seems to care.

Prove me wrong. Please.

*Thanks to @roseneath_rd for her pointing me in the right direction

Lived Experience of Gendered Poverty

I hear a lot of talk in Canada that women have achieved equality. Heck, even our Supreme Anointed Leader Prime Minister says so. Oh, really?

Let’s talk about starting points and about getting ahead in life. Let’s talk about whether or not being born a girl in Canada impacts how far you can get from that starting point. I can’t speak for all women in this country and all the communities they represent, so let me talk about me and mine.

I grew up as a member of one of the three marginalized groups in the province of Nova Scotia. Linguistically, culturally and geographically we were set apart. Think of it this way: if life is a road race and communities are the runners, I and other members of my community would be starting near the very back of the pack. As a female member of that community, I was at the back of the back of the pack.

I may not have had money or a penis, but I did have brains. I went away to university and became a teacher (no time/money to linger and explore what may have actually interested me) and accumulated huge debt. But hey, university education gives you a huge edge, right? In theory.

In practice, repaying huge accumulated debt claws back at said advantage pretty significantly. Not to mention winding up in the wrong career because you had to complete your studies in as timely and cheaply a manner as possible. Repaying that debt impacted my timing in career shift, in starting a family, in buying a first home.

Eventually I did start that family, once the debt was paid off. Smart, eh? Finally, we’re getting somewhere.

Meh.

Staying at/returning to my home community was not a viable option. Employment opportunities are slim to nil, and most often seasonal. So my husband and I live far from home and from family supports.

One career change later, I’m well behind the pack. Earning power is compromised. My industry counterparts have five years on me and likely had less debt to begin with.

I fall behind.

Baby number one = one-year *maternity leave. One year of earning power gone. One year of work experience gone.

I fall behind.

Another kid and another maternity leave. Career and earning power are further compromised.

I fall behind.

Two wonderful kiddies. Kiddies get sick (some kiddies get really sick, but that’s another blog post). There are no grand-parents or aunties and uncles nearby to look after the kids when they can’t go to school or daycare.

Because I live far from home and family. Because I had to leave. Because I started from behind.

I miss work. My dependability as an employee is questioned. My career suffers.

I fall behind.

Meanwhile, father unit has not taken parental leave and his career has flourished. I earn about 60 cents for every dollar he earns despite having a higher level of education than he has. Given his salary, his job is more or less accepted as being more important than mine and sacrifices are made in keeping with that. All else being equal, I will be the one to take time off for kiddies’ medical appointments, parent-teacher interviews and other progeny-related obligations.

I fall behind.

So much for equality.

*I can hear the howls of protests now- “there’s legislated full-year parental leave AND fathers (in the case of heterosexual partnerships) have the option of taking leave now, too. The women’s movement fought for those things and won.” Indeed, it did. But those gains merely begin to level the playing field. And don’t even get me started about what parents are paid while on leave depending on whether they’re “topped up” or not

Confessions of a Reformed (Anti-Choice) Hypocrite

I know a lot about hypocrisy. As a young woman in her teens, I would have told you that I was pro-life, that abortion was murder and that women who had abortions did so because they were selfish, cold and uncaring. At the same time, I would have also called myself a defender of women’s rights, all the while saying that abortion had nothing to do with women and equality. *groans with embarrassment*

I also knew beyond any shadow of a doubt- and here’s where the hypocrisy comes in- that if I faced an unintended pregnancy- not an unlikely prospect given the fact I was sexually active at 16- I would seek an abortion in the blink of an eye. (For the record, I did feel that victims of rape and incest were exempt- they got a free pass, so to speak. Not once did I ever follow that line of thought to its logical pro-choice conclusion. Ugh. Did I mention I was still pretty young?)

Abortion was wrong except for rape, incest and ME.

In short, *heavy sigh* I was a big, fat, raving, self-righteous, piece-of-crap hypocrite.

But here’s where I make amends.

I feel my history of hypocrisy puts my in a unique position to be judgmental to make certain pithy observations. Today when I face anti-choice individuals, young and old alike, I’ve got their number. I have the inside scoop on why they would deny a woman control over her own body.

It comes down to control, ironically enough. A lot of spewing about the ‘other’ having no self-control, when you’re really projecting the lack of control you feel in your own life.

It comes down to being judgmental. Of having the luxury to stand safely where you are without regard for the life and circumstances of another person.

It comes down to believing that, for everyone but you (and those you love, of course), life and its decisions are black and white; that choices are easy and that they can be viewed in isolation of everything else, in a vacuum.

It also comes down to that ugly desire to feel superior to another person. Surely if a woman is pregnant and doesn’t want to be, she must have done something wrong- she neglected something. I would never be that stupid. I have done everything right. I have seen to all my responsibilities and have the empty womb to prove it.

I hereby decree that she must face the consequences, become a mother and muddle through, goddamnit! Why? Well, because I say so, that’s why. Because it’s the right thing to do. And I get to decide what ‘right’ is, by the way.

So says the hypocrite. So said that girl I once was. Ah, but then…

…hypocrisy, if you’re lucky, has a funny tendency to come crashing down around you. If that happens, it’ll hurt. But when the dust settles, you have a choice. Some will choose to bury their heads even deeper into that black and white sand rather than face their own bullshit.

While others…well, others begin to find their truth. They will finally begin to embrace the fact that they don’t have all the answers and that ultimately, control is an illusion.

And that that’s OK.

The Gender Politics of…Elementary School Homework?

I don’t have a lot of time so I’ll be keeping this brief. After all, this blog-post is about how I don’t have a lot of time.

I work. My husband works. Both of us full-time, nine to five, while living in Ottawa with our two sons. One of our sons is in grade two. This means that last year he was in grade one. Pedantic? Sorry. Still with me? Good.

Grade one began and we as a family were buried with a huge nightly homework load for our then-six-year-old. Six-year-old! Although the official word from the school was, and is, that we shouldn’t be spending more than 20 minutes per night (every night, by the way) on the homework, the reality was much more like 45-60 minutes per night, at best. At worst, it was 45 minutes of whining, coaxing, weeping, procrastinating and deflecting followed by another 45 minutes of actual work. We get home at 6pm. We then cook supper. Then we eat supper. By the time homework ends, we’re 90 minutes in, the dishes may or may not be done and it’s time to get ready for bed.

Quality time? That’s for under-achievers, I guess, or for those organized enough to structure some unstructured together-time. Sports? Well, we jam that into some more organized, uber-structured and expensive weekend activities. Cuddles? Scheduled for precisely seldom. Time to for connectedness to your kids? That’s what the homework is for!

The school also dictates strongly recommends that one parent sit with the child and help with/be involved in/reinforce importance of/be ultimately accountable for the homework assigned and its successful completion. How thoughtful of them, no? I mean, honestly…when would we ever connect with our kids if not mandated to do so by strangers who have no clue whatsoever? Sheesh.

Look, I used to be a high-school teacher. I understand better than most how important homework can be to reinforcing concepts learned during class-time. What I don’t understand is why it has to be imposed at such a young age. Nor do I understand how the so-called modern family is expected to have the time for both homework and ummm…SANITY. Or do I? You see, a balanced and healthy family life does have room for homework, small children and their parents…as long as one of those parents does not work outside the home.

If I were a stay-at-home mom, I could pick up the kids at 3pm, run an errand or two, stop for a coffee and still have time to make it home in time to help the boys with their schoolwork and cook a nice supper. At which point, husband would come home and we’d eat a leisurely meal together relaxed in the knowledge that the remaining two hours or so before bed-time have been cleared of stress-provoking and sometimes argument-causing homework. There’d be time for a bike-ride; a walk, maybe. Even- dare I say it- some good old lazing about. Damn that selfish compulsion of mine for self-realization! If not for that, we could ALL just relax.

Yes, the responsibility for our son’s successful completion of homework- and by extension his success in academics- and our cohesion as a family, it seems, lies squarely with me- his mother. Or at least that’s what the homework expectations seem to dictate.

If we’ve established that the homework situation I’ve described is untenable unless one parent stays at home; and if we know that the mother- by leaps and bounds- is most likely to be that parent, then we cannot escape the implied expectation: that mothers- that I– must sacrifice my fulfillment for that of my child.

Can someone please help me understand why we can’t BOTH be fulfilled?

I’ll wait right here for you answer.