Tag Archives: Kat Kelley

To Glenn Beck, Stu Burguiere and all who dissect sexual assault statistics

29 May

by Kat Kelley

Glenn Beck, a conservative television and radio host, revealed his family history of rape and abuse today, on his network, The Blaze. This revelation, however, was not intended to demonstrate solidarity with or validate the experiences of survivors. Rather, it comes in response to criticism he has received after Stu Burguiere claimed that college sexual assault statistics are inflated and mocked scenarios representing sexual coercion and assault, on Wonderful World of Stu, a show on Beck’s own network.

Beck told the “Left-Wing Sites” who demonstrated outrage at the clip “Don’t you ever preach to me about what I can say and cannot say about rape,” and defends the segment by saying that the supposed inflation of sexual assault statistics “cheapens the horror of real rape.”

Yes, “real rape” – we can add that to the list with Congressman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) “forcible rape” or former Congressman Todd Akin’s (R- MO) “legitimate rape.”

Beck continued on to say that the inflation was intended to make “every college-age male into Genghis Khan.” And while I’m not sure whether we’re referring to Khan as violent or sexually prolific, regardless, I’m unimpressed by another person more concerned about the rare men who are falsely accused of perpetrating sexual assault, rather than the inordinate and wholly unacceptable number of survivors.

The skit is absolutely deplorable and demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the reality of sexual assault. In light of the Isla Vista shooting and the proliferation of literature on the effect of misogyny, and the Pick Up Artist (PUA) and Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) movements on the perpetrator, Elliot Rodgers, I can’t help but wonder how this video would be perceived by PUAs and MRAs alike. The invalidation of survivors’ experiences, the complete denial of evidence, the notion that the feminist movement is a threat to men- a video like this is exactly the type of ‘proof’ PUAs and MRAs use to justify their beliefs and behaviors.

My first issue with the video is the intended ‘debunking’ of sexual assault statistics; my second, is the mockery made of sexual coercion and assault ‘scenarios.’

A range of studies have been done on sexual assault, and while I haven’t scoured the methodology sections of the two surveys with which Burguiere takes umbrage, the data consistently shows that at least 15% of college-aged women experience completed or attempted sexual assault. The most comprehensive survey of 3,187 women on 32 college campuses indicated that the rate is 25%, with 84% being assaulted by someone known to the survivor, or what we call “acquaintance sexual assault.”

It is easy to get caught up in the numbers. As a Sexual Assault Peer Educator at Georgetown University, I was often asked how our statistics compare to the national average, assessing the severity of the issue on the basis of whether we were doing ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than other schools. However, as Nora West, feminist activist and a fellow Peer Educator says:

“Those numbers are huge and they are scary, but quite frankly I don’t care about those numbers, and you shouldn’t either. What I see in those numbers is that assault happens on Georgetown’s campus. It happens here.”

One is too many, however, people love to dissect the numbers, it is a defense mechanism, it is a way deny the reality of our rape culture and the epidemic of sexual assault in America and on our college campuses.

Burguiere takes issue with the wording of the questions on these surveys- he believes it is too inclusive. One question states “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had sex with you,” which Burguiere finds misleading because drunk sex happens all the time (!?!) and haven’t you ever seen a beer commercial that includes drinking and the “strong insinuation” of an impending hookup?!? Yes, Burguiere, drunk sex happens, and is not necessarily rape, that’s why the question explicitly asks the respondent if they were unable to consent.

Burguiere then challenges six phrases used in these surveys to ascertain if the respondent has been sexually assaulted, intending to ‘prove’ how inflated the stats are, intending to show how these scenarios are totally not sexual assault. He finds it absurd that “pressuring someone to have sex with you by telling them lies,” “making promises about the future you know are untrue to get sex,” “threatening to end your relationship to get sex,” “threatening to spread rumors to get sex,” “repeatedly asking for sex to get sex,” and “acting sad to get sex” are all considered to be forms of sexual assault.

First and foremost, Burguiere didn’t do his research. The study included these questions but did not count the affirmative responses as cases of rape but rather sexual coercion.

What Burguiere also doesn’t understand is that these scenarios don’t just involve a disappointed man and a traumatized woman [my use of “man” and “woman” are merely intended to reflect his use of a man and a woman as characters in these scenarios]. Burguiere does not recognize that these tactics involve coercion and often explicit threats. Survivors often recount being told “no one will believe you.” In other cases, when either the perpetrator or victim is in a committed, monogamous relationship, the perpetrator will threaten to tell everyone that they had sex, that it was consensual, and that the victim is a slut, whore, or home wrecker. Burguiere also clearly does not understand consent. Consent isn’t a lack of “no,” but rather an affirmative “yes.” “Maybe” isn’t consent. If you have to convince someone to have sex with you, it isn’t consensual. And consent is definitely not coercive.

The questions on these surveys may seem complicated, but that is because survivors may not classify their experiences as “sexual assault.” Burguiere finds this preposterous, claiming “the President is saying these women were raped, and these women are saying they weren’t.” However, if we actually used the definition of sexual assault – unwanted sexual touching – then nearly one hundred percent of women would be survivors.

There are a multitude of reasons survivors may not consider their experience(s) “sexual assault.” For some, it is a defense mechanism- it is easier to believe that everything is okay, that it was consensual. Calling it sexual assault means acknowledging the reality of our sexual assault epidemic, recognizing that it can happen to me. Many survivors go into what we call “survivor mode.” Survivor mode is a defense mechanism as well- doing and believing whatever you have to in order to survivor or cope with the incident. Survivors may ask the perpetrator to use a condom, they may not fight back, they may continue or start to date the perpetrator after the incident. It is not our place to judge how survivors cope.

Many female survivors don’t classify the incident(s) as sexual assault because they don’t feel entitled to the term. We are taught that sexual assault is committed by a deranged stranger who corners an innocent woman in a dark alley. We aren’t taught that sexual assault can be perpetrated by a classmate, a friend, or a partner. We aren’t taught that it can happen when we previously consented to making out with the perpetrator, or when we consented to returning to the perpetrator’s residence. We are taught that if we dress or behave a certain way, we are “asking for it,” and that by wearing that sequined mini skirt, we have no right to call it sexual assault. We are taught that our bodies are not our own, that men and the media are entitled to examine, comment on, even touch our bodies.

While I recognize the validity of Beck’s experiences, his experience does not entitle him to define the experiences of others. Having experienced sexual assault either first hand, as a witness, bystander, or ally does not give one the authority to tell survivors what is and isn’t “real rape.”

I Would Probably Have An Abortion

28 Apr

by Kat Kelley

If you are anti-choice, this article is not for you. I am not writing to add to the plethora of content on the importance of reproductive rights. Rather, I am writing to ask more from the pro-choice community, and specifically, the pro-choice community at Georgetown University.

I’m pro-choice, but I would never have an abortion.

There was a time in my life when I had the audacity to make such a baseless statement. But then someone in my life, someone I respect and admire told me that they had had an abortion, and my adolescent naivety was shattered.

I’m pro-choice, but I would never have an abortion.

How many times have you heard this? Have you as well had the audacity to say it?

1 in 3 American women will have an abortion. Between 1973 and 2011, nearly 53 million legal abortions occurred in the U.S.

I’m pro-choice, but I would never have an abortion.

I’m sure most of the women who say that really believe it, and I’m sure many of them really would not ever have an abortion, but I’m also quite certain that no one can relate to the experiences of 50 million women.

Guttmacher_Roe

I am in a supportive relationship, I have a supportive family, I attend a university supportive of mothers, and despite that context of support, if I were to become pregnant, I would still probably have an abortion.

Why is that so hard to say? Why does the abortion stigma remain within the pro-choice community?

Is it because we go to a Catholic school? Is it a desire to assimilate, or at least avoid alienation from the WASPy roots of our university? Is it a fear of acknowledging our womanhood, of owning our bodies? We take the fight out of our own feminism, acting as though the only feminism we need is “leaning in.”

Or is it an issue of validation? We fail to recognize our own needs as women and as members of a movement or activists in a field that has been historically undervalued in society. Our culture-bound norms of success and worth tell us that our human rights are merely “women’s issues” and we forget that our bodies and our autonomy are on the front lines.

Or is it the stigma? We are Hoyas, we juggle classes and internships and extracurricular, we do not make colossal “irresponsible” “mistakes” or “accidents.” We can say “I’d never have an abortion” because we can’t fathom that we’d ever have to make that choice.

I’m pro-choice, but I would never have an abortion.

Maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe, if you became pregnant tomorrow, you definitely would not have an abortion. But the context in which you would make that choice, whether to have an abortion or to carry the pregnancy to term, is unique, entirely distinct from the context in which over 50 million women have had to make that choice.

Every pro-choice Hoya has at least one form of privilege- the privilege of going to university supportive of mothers, which would enable them to carry the pregnancy to term. And many Hoyas have other forms of privilege, including race or class-based identities or emotionally and mentally supportive families and friends.

I’m pro-choice, but I would never have an abortion.

Regardless of the tone and the way in which you preface the statement, there remains the implication that there is something innately wrong with the decision to have an abortion. We need to stop treating abortion like a last resort right, and acknowledge that for many women facing an unintended pregnancy, abortion is a first resort. In saying “I would never have an abortion” we are telling women that abortion is acceptable, but that they should definitely avoid it at all costs, they should definitely feel guilty about it, or that getting abortion should be a lesson to be more responsible next time.

In conversations around sexual assault, we often encourage people to assume there is a survivor in the room. 1 in 4 college-aged women experience sexual assault, and thus, in any group setting, we should be cognizant of the impact of our words on survivors. I think we should assume the same with abortion.

If you knew that someone in your group project, on your team, on your dorm floor had had an abortion, would you say “I would never have an abortion,” aware of the judgment you are passing upon their decision? Would you knowingly reinforce norms about which type of women have abortions or the morality of the choice to have an abortion?

I’m pro-choice and I would probably have an abortion.

 

Are Allies Entitled to a Voice? To Self-Care?

24 Feb

by Kat Kelley

Despite the oppression I face as a woman, I derive privilege from many of my identities- I am white, a member of the Georgetown community, and- on the spectrums / in the spheres of gender identity and sexual orientation- I pretty much identify and present as cisgendered and heterosexual.

I’m also pretty good at being a feminist, within my communities, but I’m pretty subpar at intersectionality. I have struggled to find my voice as an ‘ally’ on issues that affect marginalized identities that do not define me.

Thus, I’ve made an effort to shut up and education myself, two leading pieces of advice on allyship from Mia McKenzie, founding editor and editor-in-chief of Black Girl Dangerous. McKenzie argues that ally is not a valid title or identity but a “practice,” an “active thing.” She continues on to say that it is ‘exhausting’ and that it “ought to” be, “because the people who experience racism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia, transphobia, classism, etc. are exhausted. So, why shouldn’t their ‘allies’ be?”

This piece both challenged and rejuvenated my constant regular but inconsistent attempts at allyship. I absolutely agree that I am not entitled to the term ‘ally,’ and actually prefer McKenzie’s interpretation. I fuck up at social justice all the time and often ‘retreat’ into my privilege in the name of self-care. I feel fraudulent as an ‘ally’ every time I ‘pick my battles,’ every time I decide to ignore racist, ableist, heteronormative, or gendernormative microagressions.

I certainly do not want to misrepresent McKenzie’s words; she did not explicitly say that allies are not entitled to a voice or to self-care. I did, however, interpret her words to imply that the role for allies’ voices is limited, and that self-care is a privilege for individuals not experiencing a particular kind of oppression, and that instead of seeking self-care we should resign ourselves to exhaustion.

After reading her article, I immediately felt discomfort at her words, in large part due to the fact that my approach to social justice began in 2009, when I became a sexual assault crisis counselor, speaking to survivors of sexual assault on a 24-hour crisis hotline- a position in which self-care is vital. However, being called out on your privilege is uncomfortable, and often elicits a defensive response. I thought that I may just be reacting negatively to her words because of that privilege, because of how convenient it is to retreat into my privilege when I’m exhausted, or trying to maintain a relationship, or trying to study for a midterm or when I’m trying to cope with my own experiences of oppression.

Ultimately, I think we –members of social justice movements – should recognize that for the sustainability, mainstream acceptance (which is unfortunately a pretty valuable thing), and growth of our movements, we need to make a space for part-time allies. I don’t mean that we should validate the allyship of anyone who shares the HRC equality sign on their facebook page, but if someone listens to call-outs when they fuck up, if they strive to be better allies, if they don’t actively perpetuate privilege and oppression, I want them on my team.

Why? People of privileged identities are not entitled to the safe spaces of people of marginalized identities, and they certainly aren’t entitled to a voice in those spaces. However, social justice work is complex and the roles within a given movement are diverse. We need bridge people just as much as we need radical voices that won’t budge. We need people who can do ‘translation’ work, and leverage their privilege and reach the spaces in which they are accepted due to their seemingly-less radical beliefs.

This is coming from someone who six months ago was drunk-crying to her best friend soul mate, partner in feminism, utter idol and inspiration, Erin Riordan, saying “I’m not radical enough.” But ultimately, the Erins of the world could not uproot the patriarchy alone any more than the Kats could. While Erin is unapologetic and uncompromising (weirdly enough those words, just like ‘radical’ don’t always have a positive connotation; to me they are the highest compliments I can give), I could spend hours talking to a misogynist, meeting them where they are, facilitating their break down and challenging of their own biases. While my beliefs are ‘radical’ my approaches are more mainstream, more socially palatable.

We need the Erins of the world to call out HRC for sucking at incorporating trans rights and justice into their work, and we need the HRC equality sign all over Facebook to ensure that LGBTQ-youth know that a portion of their friends support (some of) their rights, so that bigots know that they can’t get away with saying ‘faggot’ in front of many of their peers. The invalidating oversimplification of these roles would be to label them as ‘prinicpled’ vs. ‘pragmatic,’ but ultimately no movement can succeed if they forget those most marginalized or if they alienate the mainstream members of their community.

We need casual allies, we need bridge people, not to speak ‘on behalf’ of people of marginalized identities, but to work within their communities, and encourage people of their privileged identities to recognize, check, and dismantle those privileges.

While I love intra-feminist dialogue, it can be frustrating to talk with individuals who don’t self-identify as feminists and whom need convincing that feminism is relevant, who invalidate the microaggressions I regularly experience as a woman. Allies have an invaluable role to play in validating the experiences of people of marginalized identities to people of privileged identities. I don’t need a man to tell me that my experiences are valid, but other men may respond well to their peers acknowledging that my experiences are valid and that I’m not just sensitive / overreacting / hyperaware.

Finally, self-care is vital to the sustainability of a movement, or of an individual’s work within a movement. Radicalism is more ‘popular’ or tenable in youth because burnout is real. Nonprofits that don’t enable and encourage their employees to practice self-care see debilitating levels of employee turnover.

It’s okay to turn off your feminist lens for 30 minutes to watch TV produced in our rape culture. It’s okay to not call your uncle out for racial microaggressions because you want to enjoy Thanksgiving. It’s okay to prioritize you over ‘the’ movement every now and then. Self-care isn’t selfish, self-care is sustainable.

Audre Lorde selfcare

‘Mail Order Brides’ Are Not Always Victims

28 Oct

by Kat Kelley

This post originally appeared on Kat’s blog, and the soundtrack to the post can be found here. 

Sitting in a booth at TGI Fridays is a young Filipina, sipping a mango smoothie through a red straw, hands in her lap. Across from her is an American man, with a receding hair line, thinning and turning dull, in the way that only light brown hair does. She is startlingly thin, in deep blue skinny jeans, a tight black top, and flip flops. He wears an oversized white tee shirt, just hinting at a belly, and olive green shorts, as he leans in towards her. She looks sixteen, but could pass for up to nineteen; he looks sixty, but could pass for as young as fifty.

I clench and unclench my jaw, making eye contact with my friend Lydia. We shake our heads and return to the menu, debating Filipino vs. American portions, shrimp quesadillas vs. mac and cheese.

We return to the menu, because despite our discomfort, our borderline disgust, we are not phased. This is nothing new. We learned that this is just the way it is when visiting a sports bar geared towards expats, which apparently means middle aged Western, and primarily white, men. The bar was full of these pairings. No age gap between the Western men and their respective Filipinas was less than a decade, and most were more than two. We are reminded that this is just the way it isevery time we step out of our apartments. The vast majority of Westerners we see are middle aged men, and the vast majority of them walk arm in arm with much younger Filipinas.

Initially, in my attempts to learn more, I broached the subject with colleagues, and even the occasional taxi driver, and while my assessments were reinforced, I felt uncomfortable discussing the ‘plight’ of Filipina women with Canadians, Romanians, and other Americans.

The conversations followed scripts with which I am quite comfortable. We discussed ‘power dynamics,’ free and coerced choices, and the patriarchy (well, my conversations with taxi drivers were bereft of such academic feminist jargon). Consistently, these Filipina women were positioned as victims, subject to the whims of fathers and foreign men, in need of a savior in the form of first world feminism.

These conversations- with intellectuals, many of whom self-identify as feminists, who have traveled extensively, who are immersed in the field of public health- took the agency away from these Filipina brides.

Because of course these beautiful young Filipinas don’t want to marry old white men! They are clearly being coerced by their fathers, maybe even their brothers, really just the general patriarchy. Even if they choose to enter these marriages, it isn’t really a choice; they’ve been indoctrinated to want this.

Which is all valid. However, these women aren’t just brainwashed by the patriarchy, and they aren’t just indoctrinated to want to marry old white men. These women want more for themselves and for their families.

These conversations with colleagues have come from places of privilege. As WHO personnel, if we did not come from backgrounds of privilege, we have since attained the privilege of excellent educations and promising job prospects. We have the privilege of security and comfort, which allows us to seek love above all us in marriage.

For these women, security and comfort are exactly what they have to gain in marriage. These women want financial security and stability for themselves and for their families, and they want men who were raised in cultures where women are seen and treated as equals (relatively).

This is not unique to Filipinas, and this is an internal struggle I myself have had. Regardless of how a man treats me as a partner, I know that I would struggle to marry a man from a culture where women are not regarded as (once again, relatively) equal as they are in the United States. As is, I already struggle to find men within the Georgetown community who don’t see my raging feminism as problematic. I’ve consistently been involved with men who feel uncomfortable with how vocal I am. They find themselves infatuated with who they think I am, seeing my feminism as a “pet project” in order tohandle it.*

However, I am privileged enough to not need a man, and I am privileged enough to hold out for someone who is right for me. I am privileged enough to prioritize love.

When these women look for partners, they have much bigger concerns.

In a perfect, post-patriarchy society, these women will be able to prioritize love and they won’t have to endure encouragement or even coercion from relatives to marry for money. In the meantime, who are we to take the agency away from the narratives of resilient women wanting more for themselves and their families than merely love?

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*The personal reflection piece here is primarily based on a conglomeration of experiences I’ve had. For those who know me personally, please do not make any assumptions regarding which men these experiences are or are not based on. No one with whom I am currently involved is guilty of this.

Fighting Rape Culture is a Healthy Part of Capitalism

18 Sep

by Kat Kelley

Whenever some high profile figure makes an insensitive comment about sexual violence- whether it be the dismissive “legitimate rape” of former Representative Todd Akin (R-MO), Daniel Tosh’s rape joke in which he targeted a specific audience member, or a lyric off of Kanye West’s Yeezus, the blogosphere erupts with related content.

However, despite the proliferation of tweets and blogs, there is rarely any actual dialogue. In the case of sexual violence, self-identified feminists read, write, and share content discussing rape culture, while the rape apologists and freedom fighters of the internet read, write, and share content highlighting the ‘rights’ of comedians, DJs, musicians, et al. to offend whomever they damn well please.

While it is quite American to value individual rights above all, including the betterment of society or the wellbeing of other individuals, it is a wholly irrelevant argument. As far as I’m aware, no (well-respected) thought leader has ever called on Congress to make rape jokes, lyrics, or commentary illegal. No one is calling for government censorship. Rather, these journalists, bloggers, or anyone with a social media account, are just acting as socially conscious consumers. They are just playing their role in the machine that is capitalism.

We are all consumers. Corporations are constantly making money off of us, and not just when we purchase an album or tickets to a show. Every time you log into Facebook, read an article online, or listen to the radio, someone is paying for advertisement space.

Thus, while comedians certainly have the ‘right’ to tell a rape joke, as a consumer of their product, you have the ‘right’ to your opinion of the joke, and providing consumer feedback is a healthy part of capitalism.

As consumers, we have the power. A public figure has the ‘right’ to brand themselves as they choose, but they are not exempt from the consequences. It is their prerogative to decide whether to appease or forfeit their consumers. However, it is not just the public figure who must be aware of their brand. Media outlets, concert halls or comedy clubs, record companies, and advertisers have brands to be conscious of as well, and it is their prerogative whether or not they want to be responsible for at worst, promoting, and at best, tolerating, rape culture.

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Want to hear more? You can find Kat Kelley’s piece “Why Rape Jokes Are Never Funny” here.

Learning to Own My Trauma

9 Sep

by Kat Kelley

**Trigger Warning**

It has taken me one year to write this.

I write all of the time. I open Untitled google docs, I scribble in the margins of everything from syllabi to take-out menus, I have countless notebooks and post-its (digital and print), I write and write as my mind threatens explosion. My head races and if I don’t write, it circles the track, lap after lap, thoughts and musings, demanding that I reflect, express, and act.

Yet, it has taken me one year to write this.

First, I entered a period of denial. I flourished in denial. I looked back on my summer in India fondly. I remembered the curried shrimp of Goa, teaching Ubuntu-At-Work’s female employees to use a power saw, clambering atop an elephant in Mysore.

But then there was the man who told me I was beautiful and asked me for change every single time I entered the CVS on Dupont Circle. And for a second I would cringe, but I was in power now. I was in power, here, in my city. My blazer, my Georgetown education, my assured and effortless gait gave me power over this homeless man. I did not have to give him change. And he certainly did not get to call me beautiful.

I did this so many times, it became routine. Until one day I realized that every time I walked into that CVS I was in survival mode. I was tense. I was not engaging. I became cold to a homeless man, merely because he called me beautiful. I became cold to a beggar, merely because I was triggered. I used classism and my confident stride to assert my power over a homeless man because he had the audacity to call me beautiful.

No, I am not a survivor, I told myself. I am not a survivor. A survivor is someone who experiences, well, realsexual assault. I catch myself again. This is absurd. All sexual assault is real. And in working with survivors of sexual assault, I frequently aim to validate their emotions, remind them that what they experienced is realsexual assault, and that their reactions are normal, perfectly acceptable.

No, I am not a survivor, I told myself. Survivors must self-identify as such. Survivors have had their power taken away from them, their control, their bodily autonomy.

But my power was taken from me. Time and again. The male gaze, my god. For 10 weeks I felt unsafe, objectified, sexualized. I felt the stares, the leers, I felt nearly every man in my path take my power away from me. He knew, that in his culture, he was entitled to my body. He was entitled to look, to enjoy, to imagine. He had the power, and no matter how I did or did not respond, he still had the power.

My power was taken from me on a bus. When the man next to me slyly stuck his hand down my dress. He cupped my breasts and when I told him to remove his hand, he informed me, “It is okay. I do this. No problem,” in punctuated, broken english. And I pushed his hand away, as his other hand found its way onto my thigh and I pleaded with him to leave me alone. I pleaded until I could take no more. I stood up, and climbed over him, cursing myself for choosing the window seat. I felt his hands attempt to explore further as I climbed over him, and I stood in the aisle, where I had to inch away, through the crowded aisle, from another set of wandering hands.

My power was taken from me by a child. He was maybe 7 or 8. He showed me his homework. This boy was learning English in school, and he showed me his neat cursive. I smiled broadly, signaling that I was impressed, despite the language barrier. He noticed my necklace and touched it lightly, murmuring “ahni” or “elephant.” His hand moved from my elephant pendant down my shirt, and lightly squeezed. I stood up abruptly and shouted at him. He stared blankly and I pointed at the door, he ran to the door, feigning confusion, but then he leered, that leer I had yet to see on such a young face, as he walked through the door frame. He was merely 7 or 8, and yet for a moment, just for a moment, he challenged my bodily autonomy, he took my power from me. He knew, at the age of just 7 or 8, that his Y chromosome gave him an irrefutable power over me.

My power was taken from me, just like this, countless times every day, every week. Hands, stares, caresses, squeezes, all inescapable.

Yet, I was not a survivor. No. What happened to me was not sexual assault.

If everyone woman who was groped, who felt fingers slide deep down their pants, who were held up against a wall, were all survivors of sexual assault, then literally 100% of women would be survivors.

One in four women experience sexual assault. It seems that statistic is a bit limited in scope.

I could not own what happened to me.

I could not admit that someone had taken my power from me. I could not acknowledge my loss of power because I was afraid. I was afraid- not of another hand, another caress, but of myself. I was afraid, because in acknowledging the countless experiences of sexual harassment and assault that I had experienced, I had to admit that I was not always in control.

And I was afraid of my own judgement, my own disgust with this rampant aspect of Indian life. Was I racist? Was I judgmental? Maybe I just needed a good dose of cultural relativism. I was so used to telling myself to see things in the context of their own culture, to not passing judgement upon another culture, that I was unwilling to call my experiences what they were: sexual harassment and assault.

It has taken me one year to write this. I write this on a plane to Manila, as I swallow an itsy white anti-anxiety pill. I feel my chest grow taut, I feel like there is something pushing on my chest. I feel the panic coming on, as it has ebbed and flowed over the past week. The pill is so tiny that I imagine it sliding straight into my stomach, but I know it will take at least 30 minutes to help. I breathe slowly, staving off hyperventilation.

And I am forced to acknowledge my trauma.

I breathe slowly and remind myself I am not returning to India.

The land of nearly one billion people- who am I to feel traumatized? Who am I to feel so terrified and disgusted?

My assault, my harassment, my trauma and yet I feel guilty.

The Philippines is not India, I remind myself. You love traveling, you love exploration, you love being challenged as you discover new landscapes, new cultures.

And yet it seems that everything threatens to trigger my trauma, my fear, my loss of power and control.

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To hear more from Kat Kelley while she’s abroad, visit Reclaiming Vagabond.

De-gendering Our Language

24 Jul

by Kat Kelley, Erin Riordan, and Mark Joseph Stern

This is an edited transcript of a discussion between Kat, Erin, and Mark on the topic of how gender is used in our language. The conversation began after a Facebook debate about whether or not “you guys” could be used in a gender-neutral context. 

Erin:  ‪Let’s talk gender, shall we?

Mark:  Yes please! I live to talk gender. ‪If I recall correctly, this conversation was sparked by a Facebook status in which Kat addressed her Facebook friends as “guys,” but noted she meant it in a gender-neutral way. ‪I, being a jerk, commented that I was skeptical that “guys” is ever truly gender neutral. Several courteous comment clashes later, here we are. So Kat—what exactly is your position on this topic?

Kat:  ‪Honestly, I reached out to Erin and was interested in hearing more from you, because I realize that language both creates and is created by our culture, and I want to learn to use language that creates a better culture. I want to learn to use culture that doesn’t oppress people based on their gender identity, but I am wholly ignorant on the topic. My “position” would be that I’m ignorant. And I want to be able to change the way I speak, but at the same time, not speak in a way that alienates certain people from willingness to engage or listen.

Mark:  ‪An admirable goal! There are really two separate issues, I think, when it comes to the “you guys” issue, and they need to be considered independently. One, which isn’t really that fraught, is that our language lacks a second-person plural address—our vosotros, if you will. That leaves various dialects to pick up the slack, hence “y’all” and “you guys.” ‪But “guys” of course was traditionally used to describe men. Which leads to the second issue. How comfortable are we repurposing a word like “guys” in this manner? I’d posit that it’s unique from words like “actor” or “poet,” which were once gender-dichotomized but for which we now use the once-male form for everyone.

Erin:  ‪Yes. I think as much as guys is used in “gender-neutral” contexts, it is still a very gendered term and reasserts “male” and “men” as the gender dominant norm.

Mark:  ‪I would tend to agree.

Kat:  ‪That makes sense. And also it isn’t a title/position the way actor/poet is. It doesn’t tell us anything but the gender of the population. So the repurposing would be more transformative.

Mark:  ‪It’s worth asking at this point, though, why transforming a word like “guys” to mean “everybody” reinforces male norms. I have a gut feeling that it does, but I find it a little tricky to articulate.

Erin:  ‪It seems related to the idea of referring to people as “cis men” and “cis women” rather than “men” and “women.” Using cis de-centers gender norms and gender assumptions, and I think trying to transform “guys” to gender neutral still has issues with re-centering men and cis men as the gender norm.

Mark:  ‪Does our language need a gender norm?

Kat:  ‪I don’t believe it does, however I’m not sure how deep we’d have to go to remove a gender norm.

Erin:  ‪Our language should be more inclusive of all identities, which involves reexamining language and assumptions and norms reinforced by language.

Kat:  ‪I mean, we’d have to refashion the connotations of just ‪about everything. Although there are plenty of intermediary steps before we are achieving that. ‪I mean I think our entire society needs to be de-gendered. We think of everything in terms of gender. And that creates an inherent dichotomy, an inherent inequality between genders and sexes.

Erin:  ‪That said, I think there is a balance between de-gendering society and finding other solutions, because ultimately, gender, like race and class and anything else, exists.

Mark:  ‪Right. Even if the stereotypes we attribute to it are fabricated.

Erin:  ‪Pretending that we can de-gender or de-racialize society also invalidates the fact that these things are all parts of our identities and experiences.

Kat:  ‪However, there are lots of aspects of our lives when gender doesn’t need to be relevant. And yet it is present everywhere.

Erin:  ‪So that is what I struggle with actually. I think that gender is a huge part of our identities and to pretend it is just a social construct is also really problematic.

Mark:  ‪So is it okay to just start with the obvious, and work our way down?  ‪Or will effective change need to be more subtle and comprehensive?

Kat:  ‪Re: Mark- I think we need to do both. We need to have the “radical” side of it (I use radical in quotes because I don’t think that wanting things like equality should be considered radical) to ‪chip away at the underlying causes. But we also need to make ambitious immediate change, and that requires working our way down.

Mark:  ‪Kat, I agree, but I wonder if taking some relatively simple steps—gender-neutral pronouns, non-gendered normative nouns—might not be a more radical move than we realize. It seems to me that a lot of the language that ends up reinforcing gender norms (and more perniciously gender stereotypes) could be very easily screened out with a little awareness.

Kat:  ‪Sure seems pretty radical every time I try to speak English hah.

Mark:  ‪I’m a strong believer in the ground rule ‪that we shouldn’t specify gender unless it’s apposite to context. The example I use is, “My friends and I went to the bar,” vs. “My male friends don’t like Christine Quinn, probably because they’re sexist.” Unnecessary gendering is actually really common.

Erin:  ‪It is in almost every conversation and almost every part of our language.

Mark:  ‪Indeed. I think that after all the theory and abstractions we produce on this topic, we still need to have a rule, an ask, for the general population. And I think that ask should be that we only ever mention gender when it’s relevant to context.

Kat:  ‪Okay, so how can we, and ideally everyone, make the change? And how do we literally get people to care, and to be able to develop that awareness? I mean this is the most literal sense- like do we need fact sheets on examples of gendered language?

Erin: I think just using the appropriate language ourselves creates a fair amount of awareness, and challenging people in safe contexts when relevant.

Mark:  ‪I agree—the first and best thing you can do is change the way you yourself speak. If it’s a cause I believe in, I can also bring up the practice with friends and encourage them to do the same.

Erin: I think in the times when I make conscious efforts to change my language or to introduce myself and my preferred gender pronouns I usually explain myself afterwards since there is a fair amount of confusion. My own practice ends up leading to some level of raised awareness and education.

Mark:  ‪I think the conversation should be based around modeling your own de-gendered language. If someone asks you why you don’t say “you guys,” or request a preferred gender pronoun, explain away! It’s not pedantic. And if your friends don’t ask, explain anyway. They’re your friends. They signed up to hear your views.

Erin:  Yeah, most people who are my friends know what they’ve gotten into.

Mark:  ‪I try to explain from both a personal and a philosophical angle. In practice, it’s not toooo different from teaching people proper grammar. You use language a certain way, you encourage others to as well. This just happens to be infinitely more important than lay vs. lie.

Erin:  ‪And I think doing it in a way that isn’t blame-y, because a lot of people are sensitive to being told their language is oppressive.

Mark:  ‪It’s not something anybody likes to be told.

Kat:  ‪Yeah. I mean even if people are defensive, they are still learning. You are still planting seeds. But there is a lot of resistance.

Erin:  ‪And I think we too in examining gender and language need to be very ready and willing to be corrected and to reexamine our assumptions.

Kat:  ‪Admitting you fuck up, that it isn’t easy, that you are working on it. Not like “get on my level, oppressor.”

Erin:  Exactly. ‪I think it’s the response of acknowledging the mistake, apologizing, reflecting on it and making an effort to be more conscious in the future. And that we all fuck up both by nature of being human and by nature of the world we live in.

Mark:  ‪Agreed entirely. Okay, so have we reached a consensus?

Erin:  ‪I consent.

Mark:  ‪I consent, and hereby swear to reach out to my friends in an effort to further remove gender-reinforcing norms from my language. Kat?

Kat:  ‪I consent. Enthusiastically.

Mark:  ‪Excellent!