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Reading Suggestions?

August 17, 2011

I feel like my brain is turning to mush these days, with too much TV, fiction books, and work work work. I need some awesome sociological or other academic-y books to read. Any ideas?


Slut Walk

August 15, 2011

In January of this year, a member of Toronto’s police force made a comment blaming women who dress like “sluts” for putting themselves at risk of rape. This is an old sentiment, and a damaging one. It places the blame for the crime on the victim instead of the criminal, it turns women’s clothing choice into a public safety concern, and it isn’t even vaguely based in the truth. We should all know this by now but I’ll trot it out again – most rapes are not of the “stranger danger” type –  they are committed by people the victims know, usually in an environment where the victim feels safe. And you know what? Most of that is irrelevant anyway. Even if dressing promiscuously was HIGHLY correlated with being the victim of a rape, the blame is still on the rapist! Women of colour are far more likely to be victims of rape than non-minority women – is it right to blame them for being Black or Aboriginal? Of course not. (I am not analogizing that ethnicity and choice of style are equivalent, I am illustrating that the blame for the crime must fall on the person who commits it).

That’s your feminism 101 primer for today, folks. Now let’s talk about the Slut Walk.

In response to the thoughtless comment by the Toronto police officer, women have come together all over North America to stage SlutWalks. They dress in their sluttiest gear, or in the clothes they were wearing when they were raped (often pyjamas) or just in whatever they want to wear, and they march through town together. I’ll let the Toronto organizers speak for themselves:

Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation. Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. “Slut” is being re-appropriated.

We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.

It’s a worthwhile cause, and an action that clearly resonates with many people. It is not without controversy, however. Feminist Frequency’s great round-up of critiques is a fantastic place to start. Peopleofcolourorganize! has an excellent post on the privilege and whiteness of Slutwalk.

For my own comment, I am going to crosspost something I said in the online community Metafilter (relevant thread) as I said it more succinctly there than I ever would here:

I’m on the board of directors of a local politically-active, lefty, feminist women’s organization and my group (at the urging of myself and a couple other members) has decided that we will not hold a slut walk. I admire the intent of Slut Walk and I think that it is engendering some really great discussion, but I’m not of the camp that finds it useful to reclaim the word slut. As a lesbian, too much of my identity has been forced to be about my sexuality, I don’t want to be reduced even further. I don’t find that reclaiming words in general is very useful, and I have problems with feminism/women’s issues only getting attention when it can be illustrated with female nudity. Also, I’m fat. Women’s events that involve showing off how hot and sexy and in control of our own sexuality we all are leaves me feeling excluded.

That said, the great thing about everyone having different experiences and perspectives is that it leads us to focus our efforts on different facets of the problem. We can’t (nor should we) all be focusing on the same thing in the same way – diversity is strength after all. If another group wanted to hold a Slut Walk, I would respect and celebrate their right to do it, even as I would not participate myself. Meanwhile, I’ll be fundraising to send our group’s rep to Ottawa to speak to Parliament. We all do what we can.

One more thing I’d like to add is that if you take the SlutWalk, remove the “slut” part of it, what you have left is Take Back the Night – an established action declaring that women should have the right to be safe from violence, that we should be able to walk sans escort without being at risk, that our relationships should be violence free, and that we can stand up for ourselves and demand our rights. This is a movement with a history, that does not exclude women from marginalized communities. Sure, it does not directly target the Toronto Police, but really, that shitty comment was one sign of a larger social illness. Focusing on the word slut too much distracts from the bigger purpose. Take Back the Night is all about the bigger purpose. It might be happening in your town in September!

So, I’m not a defender of the SlutWalk, but like a good advocate of freedom of speech I support the right of those for whom it does resonate to organize and participate as they will. I kind of hope this movement burns bright and fast and is over soon though, so that one which does not reinforce the focus on women’s sexuality, their slim white bodies, and reclaiming words that should really just be trashed, can take it’s place.

Back to that Metafilter thread I mentioned: a subsequent commenter mentioned that the word we should reclaim is “Feminist.” Now THAT, I’m on board with.

The Woman’s Perspective?

January 16, 2011

I was listening to CBC Radio the other day on my way to work, and the topic was gender parity in business. Both panelists agreed that parity was to be sought after, but disagreed on the methods – legislating parity vs (I don’t know, I got to work and had to get out of the car). How to achieve parity is, of course, a worthy and interesting topic, but I was sidetracked by a related but tangential comment from one of the panelists. In setting up his argument, one of the speakers said that achieving parity is important, because corporations will benefit by having a woman’s perspective on their boards.

My first instinct was “Give me a break, a woman’s perspective? As though all women think differently than all men, all women have the same perspective, that women bring peace and nurturing motherhood to whatever they do, and that this injection of femininity is what companies need to stay innovative and relevant?”

I held myself back though, and tried to look at the question as though it were the first time I had heard it: Is there a woman’s perspective?

On the “No” side are all the reasons I just mentioned. One of the major criticisms of second wave feminism was that it treated the experiences of middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual, white women as the generic experiences of All Women – paying little attention to the fact that some women are multiply-barriered, and that the experiences, challenges, and -yes, perspectives- of women vary greatly based on their specific life circumstances. There could be no real “Women’s Perspective,” only the perspective of each woman.

However, there is a potential “Yes” side. There are things that women have to think about, and in very personal ways, that men for the most part do not. Reproductive freedom is a different issue for women than it is for men, as is sexual violence, maternity/parental leave, equal pay, and many other things, I’m sure. Even though women all have different experiences (see above), there are some things that women tend to have in common. Men can and do think about these issues, but as the issues affect men and women differently, it could be that argued people of both genders are required on boards and committees to make sure that  everyone’s interests are represented.

Here’s the flaw in that argument: there is no guarantee that just because someone has lady-bits, she will always work for the best interests of women (see: Margaret Thatcher). Really though, she shouldn’t have to. She should be able to work for the benefit of all her constituents in the best way she can, just as male board members and politicians are free to do.

Also, the constraints of the position may prevent her from being able to work on behalf. Institutions have their own gendered logic, and workers have to conform to that logic in order to succeed in the position. To be promoted to senior positions, workers have to be assertive, able to work long hours, able to fit within social organization (the “old-boys club, as it were), willing to prioritize work over family, not needing time off for parenting (female workers of childbearing age are often seen as unreliable due the fact that they might go on maternity leave at some point), and able to make decisions based on the demands of the numerical majority. Women who are promotable according to those rules, are not likely the same women would advocate on behalf of vulnerable populations or take unpopular positions on controversial issues. They would be square pegs, not very different from the male square pegs who would be their colleagues.

Regardless of whether or not there is a Woman’s Perspective, I don’t think that is an appropriate reason to call for gender parity in top management anyway. Think about it in analogy: We should open up boardrooms to members of ethnic minorities, because we really need to have a Black (Chinese, Aboriginal, Hispanic) perspective at the top of major corporations. Doesn’t sound quite right, does it? Having ethnic perspectives has nothing to do with why the overwhelming whiteness of boardrooms is problematic.

The problem is that there are qualified, interested, motivated people who want those positions and work hard to achieve them, but who are obstructed based on their gender. I don’t want to be promoted because I am a woman, I want to be promoted because I deserve the job – I just don’t want to be *not* promoted because I’m a woman.

As long as the only promotable women (and men) are square pegs, companies and society will not benefit from gender parity on boards anyway. The individual women who have worked their asses off, though, and been held back by their gender – they will benefit. And maybe, maybe, if more women get jobs in higher positions, the attitude about women in business will change and women won’t have to become desexed in order to be promoted.

Homeless Man Has a Talent. Film at 11.

January 7, 2011

And suddenly, everyone in Canada and the United States cares about homelessness. About one homeless person anyway. Well, everyone cares about this guy.

You’ve probably seen Ted Williams on the news or on the youtubes, and you probably said to yourself “He really does have a golden radio voice!” and to others “Come listen to this homeless guy talk!” And then you probably said to anyone who would listen “It’s a good thing that homelessness is such a simple problem with easy solutions! Someone give this guy a job and we can all feel charitable in the New Year.”

Oh, you didn’t say that last part? Are you sure? Really? I’m confused, because someone must be saying it. Otherwise why the hell else are job offers flooding in? Why is he being interviewed on every morning show in the nation (EVERY ONE, I checked)? Did I miss something, like that his radio voice cures cancer, or he’s the last surviving WW1 vet, or he’s undercover homeless trying to track down the ninjas that killed his family, or he’s releasing an audio cookbook of 101 Recipes Your Kids Will Love?

Of course not. None of that is necessary for a homeless person to be newsworthy. Like old, ugly, or fat people, homeless people just need to be entertaining in order to merit our attention. It’s as if our cultural expectations of certain groups of people are so low that they only need to prove they can do one thing competently for us to re-evaluate their status as sub-human. Remember Susan Boyle? Just like that. And just like it, the media and other corporations have been quick to cash in.

Now, I don’t know Mr. Williams. I do not know his specific struggles, his history, his resources. I also do not fault him at all for taking advantage of any positive opportunity that comes his way as a result of his media attention.

What I do know, however, is what every Housing First advocate, community development professional, poverty advocate, or person with a reasonable social conscience knows: homelessness is not about lacking a home. Homelessness is a complicated phenomenon that very frequently intersects with abuse and violence, mental illness or injury, physical illness or injury, drug and alcohol dependency, intergenerational cycles of poverty, and poor social support regarding any of the above. As such, homelessness is not solved just by getting people into apartments. They have probably all had their own places at one time or another, and lost them for one reason or another. When housing caseworkers place an individual in housing, they have to follow up with months of job skills training, dependency treatment, financial literacy training, and a whole constellation of related services, and still many individuals are not able to maintain that housing. There are reasons why people are h0meless, and these reasons will keep them homeless unless they are addressed.

So it irritates me that this media frenzy is all about how amazing it is that this one person is good at something. First, it implies that most homeless people have no redeeming qualities (just like describing Obama as an articulate Black man implies that most Black men are gibbering morons), and second, it implies that we only need to care about homelessness when the person involved is talented, charismatic, drug-free (Mr. Williams has apparently been clean for most of a year), and media-friendly. Who cares about all the homeless drug addicts? We can’t give them haircuts and put them on morning shows expecting them to draw sympathy and sponsorship, so they might as well stay on the street.

I wish Mr. Williams the best, and hope that along with the attention and job offers he gets some broader social support. I hope that this lucky strike turns out to be a net positive for him, bringing him closer to a life that comforts and fulfills him.

I also hope that a few people with jobs and homes are inspired by Mr. Williams’ story to give some time or money to their local homeless shelter or low-income housing advocacy group.

On New Year’s Resolutions

January 3, 2011

My wife, who has a tendency towards iconoclasm, hates the making of New Year’s Resolutions. Oh, she’ll make resolutions, but they will be for the “real” new year (beginning of September), or just when she deems resolving necessary. This is all well and good, but I happen to like New Year’s Resolutions and I guess that I feel I need justfication.

Sure, January 1st is an arbitrary date to restart the calendar, and what is so special about a new calendar anyway? There are countless arguments anyone could make for when the “real” new year is, based on their lives and habits. As a gardener in the Northern hemisphere maybe my New Year’s Day is in April, when the ground starts to soften and I think about what I am going to plant this year. As a student, which I no longer am, I always felt that the new year was September 1st-ish. Most often, I mark time based on how many years AB and I have been together – this past July 24th was 11 – and so the new year starts then. Strangely, I often make resolutions on our anniversary.

Regardless of my own personal ways for counting the years, my culture collectively agrees that there is something about the First of January that is special. On December 31st we tell all our friends “See you next year!” and laugh at the cheesiness and technical truth of it. Then, at midnight (an arbitrary time for the changing of the day?) the year portion of our date stamps, the piece that has sat unmoving throughout the previous 365 (354 on leap years) days, has it’s moment to turn, and BANG – it is now 2011 instead of 2010. We can look at everything marked 2010 as not only “this past year,” but now “last year.” Then we all get drunk, if we aren’t already, and spend the next day ritually hungover.

Commemorating the new year is a ritual, a ceremony. It may be one of the few widely celebrated, secular ceremonies we share in my culture. At least one of the few not originated by greeting card companies, anyway. Coming so soon after Christmas, it allows those of us for whom that holiday is a celebration of family instead of salvation and renewal, to also have a moment to reflect on our past actions and our future hopes. At the close of the year, cultural commentators release their favourite albums and movies, journalists talk about the global events that shaped our world, and we reflect on our personal lives.

My 2010 was weighted down by a miscarriage I suffered on Christmas day of 2009, and the subsequent loss of our sperm donor (he’s fine, just not our donor anymore). On the other hand, AB and I both completed our Master’s degrees and convocated; we moved out of a bad living situation into a good one; I have worked at my professional job for a year, and have been quite successful at it; I was approached to instruct at the university and subsequently taught my very first course; and I reconnected with a childhood friend and some family I hadn’t realized I had.

Many other things, both good and bad, come to mind and it is good and important that I remember these. Whatever happened, it was the year that was, and I’ll never return to it except in my memory. If this life is all that is, I cannot afford to let a year go by unexamined. If every year can last longer than itself, I can live longer – or at least pack more living into my life.

New Year’s Resolutions are the next step. Reflection is more than nostalgia only when it leads to plans for action. Based on last year, what am I going to do to make this year even better? What parts of my life am I going to recognize as my responsibility, and am I going to get off my ass to work on? Little things, big things, any things: what am I going to decide to take control over (or perhaps to relinquish control over), and how am I going to put myself at the top of my priorities? This is empowering stuff, done thoughtfully.

So, what are my New Year’s Resolutions?

None of your damn business.

Post script: If you have not ever listened to the song “Odessa” by Caribou, go listen to it now. If you don’t like it, listen to it a few more times. If you still don’t like it, I am sorry for you.

Post post script: Thank you reader-who-emailed-me-recently-but-who-I-have-not-asked-permission-to-share-your-name for your incredible email full of words that were not only wonderfully complimentary but also well-chosen and grammatically-correct (sigh).  I had not realized how much I wanted to resurrect this blog until you inspired me to put some thought into it. Thank you.

Anti-Vaxxers I Know and Love

November 14, 2009

This H1N1 stuff has brought out the angry, grumpy, argumentative, (shall we say, militant-leaning?) skeptic in me. The part of me that wants to call people nasty names. The part that wants to wish bad things on people. The part that wants to make snarky status updates on Facebook (oh yeah, I am THAT angry!).

The part that wants to immediately have a bunch of kids just so I can take them all to get vaccinated. All of them. “Why are you getting your children vaccinated today, ma’am?” the nurse would say. And I would respond “Why? Because I love my children and don’t want them to die. Also, I don’t want people with compromised immune systems to get infected because I weakened the herd immunity. Also, because I can use my critical faculties to judge the evidence and recognize that vaccines don’t cause autism or cancer or H1N1 or whatever the conspiracy theorists are saying today. Also, because modern medicine has meant that none of my children have died from polio, tuberculosis, rickets, rotavirus, cholera, or a host of other illnesses that children in Canada used to die from and children in developing countries still do.” That’s what I would say. And then the nurse and I would high-five.

But I don’t call people names (not outside of my head anyways), and it wouldn’t matter if I wished ill on people because wishes don’t come true without purposive action, and I don’t have a bunch of children to belligerently vaccinate. So what do I do?

I rail on the internet about those anti-vaxxers whom I don’t know – Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey, the Australian Vaccination Network (?, that Canadian lady Mary Rosco or something?), etc – but a more delicate touch is needed when actually talking to a friend or family member who buys into the pseudoscience. After all, I care about their health, but I also care that they continue liking me.

Not that it’s easy staying calm and friendly when you hear reasons for refusing vaccinations like “Since so many people believe vaccines cause autism, it’s just seems safer not to vaccinate,” or “Someone I knew years ago had a vaccination and three weeks later died of a brain infection/got the flu/etc” or “I just don’t think they’ve been tested enough in Canada.” (Answer key: many many people have been wrong before and they are this time, the ONE study that showed a connection between vaccines and autism turned out to be faked; that was really terribly unfortunate timing, a coincidence, say it with me kids “Correlation is not causation” and; the reason vaccines come out later in Canada than they do in the US is that whatever testing they do? We do more. Also, with the SOLE exception of the active virus, EVERYTHING ELSE in the vaccine is the exact same stuff as every other year.)

It’s frustrating to see the misinformation propagated by the anti-vax celebrities and organizations trickling down and being repeated by people I care about, and it can be tempting just to decide to avoid the subject entirely. After all, how many times has Jenny McCarthy or the AVN been confronted about their lies, and they never change their minds? There is no point arguing with True Believers, they don’t care about evidence, so evidence will never convince them.

That’s a little… condescending though, isn’t it? I don’t know about your friends, but I suspect mine deserve a little better than to be given up on as irrational ideologues. I suggest we take advice from the great Carl Sagan and consider that people who believe in pseudoscience are people who are really interested in science, they just have never been given the tools to help them distinguish between the good stuff and the bad. Give them some tools! Sure, they should have learned basic science literacy when they were kids, but they obviously didn’t. It isn’t too late. After all, if I had been given up as a lost hope, I might still be Christian or Pagan. I learned, why should I expect less of anyone else?

Don’t get too excited though, opinions rarely change dramatically over the course of one conversation. You may deliver all the best evidence with your finest rhetorical strategy and still be met with “Well, maybe that’s true, but I still don’t think I would vaccinate.” Don’t despair! People believe things for reasons other than rational, and those emotional reservations can be the most difficult to penetrate. This is the point in the conversation where you say “Sure!” and change the subject. You aren’t giving up. You are being respectful, and you are recognizing that you have done your part in planting a seed. Maybe the subject will come up again and you can water that seed. Maybe someone else unwittingly will, in another conversation. Maybe your friend, having been introduced to the idea, will refilter some of what they already believe or at least filter differently what information they now consume.

Whatever you do, don’t forget to tell them when you go for your vaccination, and make sure they know you are fine afterward. Don’t make a big deal about it.

Also, keep quiet when you steal their children away to belligerently vaccinate them. (JUST KIDDING, DON’T DO THIS.)

Jump Right In

November 9, 2009

It seems a little obvious, but the only way to get back into blogging is to start posting, isn’t it? Everything has to start somewhere, and when it stops due to boredom and other commitments, if it is to start again, it has to restart somewhere too? No?

Here’s an ending that will hopefully be a beginning: I’m not a grad student any more. I wrote my thesis, defended it, revised it, and submitted it. Yes, you can call me Master. Some of you can call me Mistress (you know who you are).

Here’s the part they never tell you about finishing a grad program: it’s damn depressing. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but once the excitement and thrill of writing what is essentially a book, defending it against an onslaught of slavering academics, and jumping through the spiked and flaming hoops (yes, spiked AND flaming) of bureaucracy, once all that wore off, what I felt left with was a void. Now that I have no lit review, stats, interviews, citations, or meetings looming over my head, why should I get up in the morning? What the hell do I do now?

What I have done is play an awful lot of Morrowind and Final Fantasy 13, submitted a billion resumes and cover letters, complained online and off, and done my level best to avoid all mention of or work relating to my thesis. Oh man, thinking of it makes my stomach hurt. If I ever see that thing again I…

Well, I had better start looking at it again. The tragedy of Master’s work is that you put so much into it and only you and your committee will ever read it, unless you get some publications out of it. So I guess I’m not done with my thesis yet. I suppose publications are the next step.


1) Start writing a journal article or a book proposal;

2) Bring resume to McDonalds;

3) ????

4) Profit

I am aware that is one more step than traditional. What can I say, I am a nontraditional gal. Hopefully I can find a more personally satisfying alternative to step 2 (Wendy’s? Burger King? Pizza Hut?), and come up with some ideas for the mysterious and elusive step 3. Will I go back to grad school for a PhD? Move back up north and make some money? Get my TOEFL and teach English overseas? Get a work visa and move to Australia?

I guess the difference between a void and an opportunity is perspective. Also, energy. An income might help.