Saturday, March 22, 2014

Protests and free speech on campus.

I've been thinking today about the Silent No More protest that happened on campus. For those unfamiliar with it, it is a pro-life event where people who regret their abortions share their stories. I am and will always be pro-choice, but I am not opposed to these people sharing their feelings. What bothers me is the way in which it was done - they held their event in a major outdoor space on campus, through which students must pass to travel between regularly used buildings, and they told their stories using megaphones, so that those in the vicinity had no choice but to listen. This is just a step down from last year's Genocide Awareness Project, which displayed photos of aborted fetuses alongside photos of genocide victims, trying to build a parallel between the two. On the days they were on campus, I walked with trepidation through Convocation Mall where the display was held, and removed my glasses so as not to see it, because images of violence upset me on a good day, and trigger me on a bad day. This year, I was able to avoid the area entirely.

It is unsurprising that students have called for banning this event, only to be met by other students, some of whom are pro-choice as well, insisting that free speech means it should be allowed to take place on campus. I vehemently disagree. As they are currently conceived, Silent No More and the Genocide Awareness Project overstep a boundary; there are ways to talk about controversial issues without this extent of pain. Indeed, Silent No More likely alienates some of the very students it aims to reach.

For a parallel, in November Out on Campus hosted an event for Trans Day of Remembrance, to recognize violence and recognize trans people who have been murdered. In consideration for fellow students who might not be in an emotional space to hear about violence, we placed signs at each end of the memorial display to let students know that it would be something difficult. There were absolutely no graphic images - we shared pictures of people when they were living, as much as we could - and no loud speakers, nothing that would prevent a student from walking by without engaging with the display. And a safe space was provided with resources for people who found it troubling. 

Of course, transphobic violence and abortion are not equivalents, but this is the closest example I could think of for something that was well-executed on campus and pertained to a troubling issue. Any event has some potential to be triggering; if someone were triggered by or afraid of dogs, for instance, the "Puppy Therapy" events preceding exams could be difficult. However, they are meant to calm students, not to stress them out. The dogs are contained in a circle of responsible humans, carefully trained, and well controlled, and one can easily look the other direction. By using sound, these anti-abortion events create a barrier that students cannot get around, and that is not fair.

What if rape survivors shared our stories through megaphones, detail after detail, in protest? Shared photos of the aftermath, puffy eyes with a haunting stillness, shredded body parts, caked blood under fingernails, pink spit from so many tears? Free speech says this is our right, too, like that of the women who regret their abortions. It is their right to speak, but it is mine not to be forced to listen, to hear stories that share experience of such violence, pain, fear, and sorrow when I have my own to shoulder. We have students who have survived many forms of trauma, and it is cruel to protest violence--and I don't doubt that many of the the Silent No More speakers experienced their abortions as violent--with further violence. 

Another student likened this amplification of their protest to finding loud music triggering - should we ban that as well? Perhaps it was meant to be a straw man argument, but indeed I feel that blasting music on campus is inappropriate. Yes, we should restrict events from playing music that distracts students who are hard at work, and also brings about more visceral responses from those in our community who have experienced violence. When the beat shakes you as you sit in the library, the soundtrack of an event outside echoing that of a painful day, or the jarring bass in syncopation with your heartbeat as it races, this is not conducive to education. There is a threshold where decibels feel violent to those already in pain. We need not be wrapped in quilts in padded rooms, but for students who have survived trauma, coming to campus can be difficult enough. Congenial and educational initiatives, rather than alienating protests, would spare us so much grief.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fuck you; I'm not Irish

I have come to dread going outside on St Patrick's Day. Red hair brings out the grossest part of drunk men; a few years ago some guys tried to kiss my twin sister and throw her in a river; luckily she got away, but lost a shoe and had to shuffle home barefoot in the melting snow. Usually I get cat-called more than on any other day of the year; "kiss me" stops being friendly and starts being bothersome pretty quickly.

Today on the bus home a man felt me up. Rather than scream or fight I rhymed words in my head until he got off. In case anybody jumps to conclusions, this was not likely somebody from the poor neighbourhood I pass through on my way home, but someone who seemed to be en route to a bar in a gentrifying area nearby.

Lily Allen provided a useful scaffold for my profane rhyming.

Keep your hands
Keep your hands to yourself
Before I ignite and fight you.
Your touch fills me with hate that will not abate.
I'm not here to delight you.

So you say,
"You're so pretty today"
Say to kiss me is lucky
But I doubt that St. Patrick
Would condone such an edict
And it makes me feel sucky.

Fuck you
Fuck you very, very much
'Cause I hate what you do
And I want to punch you
But I'm paralyzed by your touch.

Fuck you
Fuck you very, very much
'Cause my hair's kinda red
But my body has fled
And I am not yours to touch.

Do you get
Do you get a little kick out of being an asshole?
Take your hand off my breast;
I am far from impressed,
But I'm far from a damsel.

Do you
Do you really enjoy feeling up girls who hate you?
'Cause there's a hole where your soul should be
You're losing control of it and I want to castrate you.

Fuck you
Fuck you very, very much
You're invading my space
And the look on my face
Says I am not yours to touch.

Fuck you
Fuck you very, very much
'Cause I hate what you do
And I want to punch you
But I'm paralyzed by your touch.

Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,
Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,
Fuck you

You say, you think we ought to have a date
This is not how to win one.
Don't tell me I'm pretty;
You make me feel shitty.
No one wants your opinion

Fuck you
Fuck you very, very much
'Cause my hair's kinda red
But my body has fled
And I am not yours to touch.

Fuck you
Fuck you very, very much
'Cause I hate what you do
And I want to punch you
But I'm paralyzed by your touch.

Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you
Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you

Friday, March 14, 2014

What were you wearing?

 This article came up on my Facebook yesterday:

Sexual Survivors Answer "What Were You Wearing?" on Buzzfeed (may be triggering - mostly descriptions of outfits and age at which survivors were assaulted; not graphic, but certainly overwhelming)

There are apparently problems with privacy and agency and a range of things in Buzzfeed publishing this piece. I gather this from reading Twitter but it is hard to follow the trajectory of how this was published and the conflict behind it. As I don't know the nuances of it I am hoping that linking to this isn't perpetuating something I wouldn't be on board with. As well, as a friend of mine pointed out when I linked to this on Facebook, this still creates a dichotomy of types of victims based on clothes - note that none of the folks whose tweets are compiled here were dressed to go clubbing necessarily, or wearing something that would be stereotyped as "immodest," so we have a binary of young women wearing pyjamas, work clothes, and so forth, contrasted with the women who are invisible here who are wearing clothes that many people would code as "asking for it." So this is more complicated than it seems at face value, and as my friend said, reinforces myths at the same time as it challenges them.

I've realized that on the rare occasions when I answer this sort of question, I always include a disclaimer. I was in just my underwear at the time, but I was always quick to point out to whoever asked that I was in my underwear because I was changing after gym class - as in, not in a situation that should have been compromising. But I think the trauma could be much the same if I were wearing underwear in an already sexually charged situation - still violent, still a breach of trust. I'm now trying to puzzle out how to tell my story without unconsciously reinforcing this idea that because I wasn't "asking for it" that someone else must have been, how to avoid inserting cues that signify my position as one of virginal innocence. Because while I was what a Law and Order episode might consider the "perfect victim" if I were to try pressing charges, that should not be as relevant as our social tropes make it.

And to also respond to a provocative photo (also linked on Facebook, but I forget from what source), truly nobody asks what HE was wearing. And that complicates things, because he was hardly the gnarly stranger in a back alleyway. He was wearing a school uniform, identical to the one I was about to change into, at the end of the day a boy rather than a man. Those uniforms were imposed in my urban public school as a way of equalizing students across class, and undermining gang activity, and that's a dynamic that I wonder and worry about: if I'd reported it, I now don't doubt that he'd have been charged. I was a white girl, upper middle class, in an elite academic program at the school, and the sort of kid who could get away with skipping class or accessorizing my uniform because I looked innocent enough for the administration. He was mixed race, taking less academic classes, in detention every time he was late or forgot his uniform. But what if the roles were reversed? Or if racial dynamics were less significant at my high school? As a historian I don't like thinking through "what if" counterfactual analyses such as this, but I doubt a black girl would have the same personal narrative, the same responses.

So with those caveats, a poem that I wrote in response. As always, may be triggering.


I could say I was naked
but for the tethers of undergarments
in the first seconds of struggle.
But that would not be true,
would bury my wardrobe of
armour, creeping to enclose my skin,
not quite reptilian like his eyes
staring but never meeting mine.

I could say I was naked
but I always had my skin.

Monday, March 10, 2014

"It Is Usually Too Late"

The first time I heard a rape joke, I laughed.

Pertinent coordinates: Summer, when I was 12, most likely. A red Toyota Corolla, bumping westbound on highway 40, likely in traffic between the Quebec border and Kingston, Ontario. Leaving Montreal that morning with my mother and twin sister, my grandmother gave each of us a perfumed kiss; my grandpa, a sturdy hug; and my uncle passed us two CDs of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann's "At the Drop of a Hat" and its sequel, fittingly titled "At the Drop of Another Hat." These were Cold War era British comedic sketches in song, and a staple of my mother's and uncles' adolescences.

At the point in our car trip where the radio had crackled into rural oblivion and my mother vetoed any suggestion of pre-teen Broadway singalong entertainment, we rigged up our archaic adapter to connect the first Flanders and Swann CD to our tape deck. Amidst zoological gems such as "The Gnu Song" and "The Hippopotamus Song" was "Songs for Our Time," introduced and followed by commentary too middle-aged-academic for my middle-school tastes. One of these short ditties recounts an image - not the only one I now find a problematic colonial representation - of a young man's dream to travel to "Tonga," where "Oh-le-ma-kitty-looka-chee-chee-cheeee" apparently meant "no." Flanders and Swann sing, with appropriate dramatic pauses, that by the time a Tongan maiden says this on a date, "it is usually too late." Cue laughter from the live studio audience, echoed by that of my sister and me, trying to look like we got the joke. Luckily, the Hippopotamus Song entered our musical world a few tracks later, with its "mud, mud, glorious mud" better appealing to my not-quite-adolescent humour.

A decade and a half later, I gleefully sing along to the Gnu and the Hippopotamus, but fast-forward through the Tongan maiden. The soundtrack in my head has filled in the blanks, leaving her just as shadowy, but far less neutral, just one in a chain of exploited women whose pain is the butt of male comedians' jokes. In their day, to speak of the rape of a white woman was unseemly, but that of a Tongan? perfectly normal, really, and the fault of her culture, at that. Cue further studio-audience laughter, now a mockery I can still hear. I've stopped laughing.

A generation later, we have come far and yet gone nowhere: "no" is a joke on even privileged women's bodies (ignoring, of course, the interplay of race and class on the bodies for whom this joke is a reality). Rape culture today is discussed on university campuses and in mass media as a new phenomenon, catalyzed by Facebook and the interplay of sexualities, not as an insidious and slippery element of history that shifts out of grasp. "Songs for Our Time" built a time that was then, that is now. By the time the audience stops chortling, for a woman around the corner or across town, around the world or across the hall, reflected in a mirror or captured in a photograph, whether "no" is a staccato whisper or a siren-like scream, it is usually too late.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Too many metaphors in a single poem

If I were critiquing my own writing, I know I'd object to it being stuffed with mixed metaphors. But fuck it, this is my own blog.

"I'm going to change in a stall.
She looks like a dyke."
A necklace of words, twirling barbs
around the maypole
thrust into the very centre
of the nesting dolls I have tucked
onto my bookshelves
Voodoo finds the smallest,
youngest doll
not hollow
but full, like a cyst
of rotting words
radiating outward
- if the streaks stretch
toward your heart
or feel warm, return to the doctor -
outward through layers
of years, of clouds of words
matted into a blanket.
The largest doll squeaks gratingly
when opened.