Tag Archives: Privilege

What’s the Difference Between Immigrants & Expats?

3 Jun

immigrant(Image by Charles LeBlanc used under CC 2.0 via)

 

The past month has seen some deeply depressing images of what cruelty humans are capable of when they fear large numbers of people from across the border. From the now scandalous policy of a “hostile environment” for suspected undocumented immigrants in the U.K. to the separation of children from their parents at the U.S. borders to the report that only 10 percent of Hungarians feel “totally comfortable” being friends with an immigrant, xenophobia has a lot to celebrate.

“I don’t mean you.” It’s a phrase I often hear when I point out my status to someone going on about foreigners here in Germany. In one of the most painful exchanges I’ve ever sat through, a man specifically told me Germany should be doing more to allow nice, hard-working, honest people like me into the country instead of opening the door to “all those dirt people.”  

I wish I had asked him what exactly separates me from them. Even though I could likely guess the answer, it’s an important question to ask. Did he see me as nice and honest because he’d met me twice before, unlike those constituting the faceless mobs? Or by nice and honest did he mean expat instead of immigrant? What’s the difference? Legally none. Both groups have to get their visas from the same immigration office.   

Expats are generally less feared than immigrants and I postulate the biggest reason is because expat is implicitly understood to mean more likely to be in the middle- to upper income brackets and have a college education. Expats are generally defined as foreigners brought to their new home not just in search of employment but by their employer, who is almost always a multinational company, a university, an embassy, or an international research organization. Their employer is likely to ensure that their stay is temporary, so expats usually replace each other, rather than accumulating.

There is of course another type of expat that is slightly more likely to permanently immigrate. Western countries have long produced wandering artists, scholars, and backpackers who seek inspiration and happiness far from home. Technically they are in search of work when they land in their new country, just like immigrants. But they are viewed as expats and not immigrants if their economic background ensures that they will be able to maintain a middle class (or upper class) level of financial security no matter what happens. If things go really bad, Mom or Dad or someone else back home will ensure that they never risk tumbling into true poverty.

I came to Berlin 13 years ago this month fresh out of college and looking for work just as many of my classmates were doing in cities across the United States. I chose Berlin not because it offered great opportunities—it rather infamously did not—but because I had fallen in love with the city while studying here. I had made friends—all fellow students—and they and their families welcomed me warmly. Obtaining my work visa was in no way easy, but it was far easier than the ordeal faced by the people from Asia, Africa, Oceania and Latin America who sat next to me in the waiting room at the immigration office.

When there was a long delay in the application process, family and friends loaned me the money to cover my rent. When I was told I needed more offers of employment than I had presented, a professor I knew from a past translation project offered me a position as one of his research assistants. Another got me in touch with her colleague who was looking for a nanny. All these connections had been made during my college years and they helped keep me legally safe and financially secure as I struggled for the right to stay in Germany. It would be dishonest to pretend I did it all myself and that diligence and determination are all anyone really needs. Nothing shapes your life experience quite like the social network you belong to and the average income of that network. A black friend whose family is middle class and immigrated from The Gambia told me he hears “I don’t mean you” from xenophobic voters fairly often, too.

Class differences create hierarchies of immigrants that promulgate dangerous myths about superior and inferior cultures. Immigrants to the United States from China and India, for example, are stereotyped as “the model minority” because they are two of the few ethnic groups to earn more on average than white Americans. Pundits of all political stripes have insisted that the stereotype of hard-working, high-earning Chinese and Indian immigrants versus uneducated, low-wage Latin American and Caribbean immigrants can be simplified down to a matter of having the right values. This ignores the realities of the visa system, outlined best by Prof. Janelle S. Wong at NBC.com. She points out that in the U.S. , 50% of all immigrants from China and 70% of all immigrants from India have a bachelor’s degree, while only 5% of the people living in China and 15% of the people living in India do.

This is due to changes in immigration laws that occurred in the second half of the 20th century. Prior to that, most Chinese immigrants such as those that built the U.S. railroad did not have college degrees and were stereotyped in the harshest possible ways, which culminated in The Chinese Exclusion Act. The parallels to U.S. policy proposals aimed at Mexican immigrants today are emphasized in a new PBS documentary named for the act. Sometimes stealthily, sometimes brazenly, societies treat those with a higher education very differently than those without.

But the advantages I have here in Germany over other immigrants are not only economic or education-based. Once I was harassed on the street for speaking English with my partner because “this is Germany and we speak German here! You’re hurting my ears!” But I’ve never had the police stop me on the street and demand to see my German residency permit, unlike a friend from Jamaica. When I plan a vacation, I’m free to move around Europe and most of the world without a travel visa, unlike friends from China and Côté d’Ivoire. I’ve stood near skinheads here in Berlin and been horrified, but I’ve never once felt threatened. That’s what being simultaneously white and Western gets you. No matter how much money you have in the bank or where you went to school.

Mawuna Remarque Koutonin argued years ago in The Guardian that the only difference between expats and immigrants is racist thinking and it has to go. As we have seen, she is right that the distinction can be profoundly offensive. In these xenophobic times, solidarity among foreigners (and humans) of all sorts is crucial. But any expat who claims to face the same probability of persecution as an immigrant is also problematic, ignorant of the very real and systemic privileges bestowed upon some but not others. Naming the different realities faced by the different people lining up at the immigration office is important because if you name it, you can talk about it.

And we absolutely must talk about it because too many nationalist voters across the Western world don’t want to. They don’t like to talk about the ramifications of class background or the power of racism. They don’t like to talk about why they fear foreign poor people more than local poor people, and they don’t like to talk about local poor people either. They like to talk about cultural differences being insurmountable, about having good values and bad values, good people and bad people. And that’s where the problem starts.

 

 

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When It Comes To Health, Who Should Minorities Trust?

12 Apr

Medication diet squircle(Image by Barry used under CC.20 via)

 

At the beginning of this year, I underwent orthopedic surgery and rare complications immediately arose from it, causing me to take three months of sick leave. In that time, both my country of origin and my country of residence experienced outbreaks of measles that have set the Internet ablaze with raging arguments about medicine, personal choice and the greater good. While the critics of Big Pharma have plenty of good points, recent studies of Big Herba—which is unregulated in the U.S.—have debunked an array of flaws that can be deadly. Glossing over the vitriol, at the crux of the matter lies a very reasonable question: When it comes to health, who should you trust?

“Trust to your doctor” sounds simple enough until we consider the many instances throughout history when medical professionals have abused this trust, particularly in regard to minorities. Health organizations around the world classified gay people as mentally ill as late as 2001. A panelist on Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show last month cited the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, which treated African-American men like lab rates from 1932 to 1972, as the basis for his overarching distrust of government health organizations. Investigations recently revealed that the U.S. Public Health Service committed similar crimes against mental patients and inmates in Guatemala in the 1940s. The polio vaccine, which has saved millions of lives globally, was first tested on physically and mentally disabled children living in asylums and orphanages. Researchers advocated the forced sterilization of trans people and ethnic minorities as recently as 2012. And of course there were the Nazis and the many, many scientists before them who passionately promoted eugenics. ITV recently rebroadcast a documentary hosted by Warwick Davis detailing Dr. Mengele’s horrific experiments on dwarfs at Auschwitz.

In other words, minorities don’t have to dig too deep to come up with plenty of reasons to be wary of scientists and doctors. Regulation, transparency and a never-ending, highly public debate on bio-ethics and human rights are necessary to prevent such crimes from happening again.

But an ideological opposition to all doctors based on such abuses ignores the myriad successes. A Slate article appearing last fall, “Why Are You Not Dead Yet?” catalogs the thousands of reasons so many of us are living so much longer than our ancestors did—from appendectomies to EpiPens to everyday medications—which we so often overlook because we have come to take the enormous medical advances of the past 200 years for granted.

And yet, as so many scientists are only too ready to admit, science does not know everything. Almost no medical procedure can be guaranteed to be risk-free, and many people base their distrust of doctors on this fact. My current post-surgical complications were just cited to me by an acquaintance as reason enough for why I never should have had the operation at all and instead gone to a TCM healer.  

In my 33 years I have undergone 14 surgeries, physical therapy, hydrotherapy, occupational therapy, electro-muscular stimulation therapy, and the list of medications I’ve taken undoubtedly exceeds a hundred. I have also been treated with reiki, shiatsu, osteopathy, acupuncture, massage, prayer, and herbal remedies based on macrobiotic, homeopathic and detox theories. Some of these treatments I chose as an adult, and some of them were chosen for me by adults when I was a child and a teen. Some of the medical treatments worked, some didn’t, and some caused new problems. Some of the alternative treatments rid me of lingering pain, and some were a complete waste of time, money and energy as my condition worsened. I won’t ever advocate any specific treatment on this blog because my readership is undoubtedly diverse and the risk of making inaccurate generalizations is too great.

Indeed, a grave problem in the public debate on health is the frequent failure to acknowledge human diversity. Most health advice found online, in the media, at the gym or a healing center is geared not at minorities but physiotypical people, who are seeking the best way to lower their risk for heart disease, fit into their old jeans, to train for a marathon, or to simply feel better. They are not seeking the best way to be able to walk to the corner or have enough strength to shop for more than half an hour. Those in the health industry who endorse one-size-fits-all solutions—“We just need to jog/Start tai-chi/Eat beans, and all our troubles will go away!”—rarely address minority cases that prove to be the exception to their rule. But atypical bodies have just as much to teach us about our health as typical bodies, and leaving them out of the conversation benefits no one but those seeking to profit off easy answers.

When it comes to seeking treatment for my condition, I follow a simple rubric: I don’t want to be the smartest person in the room. I have no professional training in medicine or anatomy. As this physician explains so well, self-diagnosis is a very dangerous game. Yet I sometimes am the expert on my body thanks to the relative scarcity of people with achondroplasia—there are only 250,000 of us on earth, or 0.00004% of the world population—compounded with the scarcity of people with achondroplasia who have undergone limb-lengthening and sustained bilateral injuries to the anterior tibialis tendons. A visit to a healing center or a hospital often entails conversations like these:

Shiatsu Healer: You’re walking with a sway-back. Your wood energy is obviously misaligned because you are stressed.

Me: My hips sway when I walk because the ball-and-socket joint in the hip is shaped instead like an egg-and-socket in people with achondroplasia.

***

Physical Therapist: Your hips sway when you walk because one leg is obviously longer than the other.

Me: No, I have my orthopedist’s report documenting that my legs are precisely the same length. My hips sway when I walk because the ball-and-socket joint in the hip is shaped instead like an egg-and-socket in people with achondroplasia.

 ***

Nurse: Your temperature is pretty high. I’m a bit worried.

Me: These anesthesiology guidelines I got from the Federal Association for Short-Statured People say that hyperthermia is to be expected post-op in patients with achondroplasia.

Sometimes the information I offer goes unheeded. In both the U.S. and in Germany, I have found arrogance is equally common among doctors and healers. Some of them are delightfully approachable, and others are so socially off-putting that they make you want to throw your wheelchair at them. The same arrogance, however, can take different forms. I have documented before the particular brand of pomposity so endemic to doctors, and it is safe to say that holistic healers are less likely to treat their patients like products on an assembly line because, by definition, they are more likely to take psychological well-being into account. But they are also more likely to endorse a one-size-fits-all solution for health, which invariably marginalizes minorities like me.

Those of us with extremely rare conditions are far more likely to find specialists among those licensed in medicine than among alternative healers. Living Naturally, the only website on alternative treatments I could find that even mentions achondroplasia, emphasizes that none of the therapies they suggest for achondroplasia have ever been tested on patients who have it. To be fair, rare conditions by definition are not well-known to your average GP either. But physicians more often know how to work with the facts, embracing the medical literature on achondroplasia I hand to them. Some alternative healers also embrace such literature, while others dismiss anything written by anyone in a white coat.

Even when a visceral hatred of hospitals and their hosts is irrational, it is understandable. My most recent stay involved some of the kindest medical professionals I have ever encountered but nevertheless left me waiting for two and a half hours on a metal bench with no back support in a hallway glaring with fluorescent lights and echoing with the cries of patients in pain. I respect everyone’s right to opt against surgery, or any medical treatment, as long as their condition does not cause others harm. But no matter how much modern medicine has abused minorities’ trust, disabled people are the only minority that cannot afford to forgo it.

A worldwide study presented to Little People of America found that, at this point in history, dwarfs have a higher quality of life—i.e., access to effective health care, employment opportunities, acceptance in society—in Northern Europe than anywhere else on earth. Reductive arguments that demonize all of Western medicine because the Nazis! can be canceled out by reductive arguments that dismiss anything developed outside the West because Asia’s terrible disabled rights record!  

Broad generalizations like “Natural is better” can only be upheld by those ensconced in the privileges of a non-disabled body. In 2011, the parenting website Offbeat Families banned the term “natural birth”—urging writers to instead refer to “medicated” and “unmedicated” birth—because “natural” had so often been used to imply “healthier.” An unmedicated birth is wonderful for anyone who can and wants to experience it, but it is important to remember that it is a privilege. A privilege, like a disability, is neither your fault nor your achievement.      

“Healthy” is a relative idea. Our choices about our bodies will always be limited. This is a sometimes terrifying fact to face. But in the public debate, we must remember that it is a fact those among us with rare disabilities and conditions can never avoid. In failing to remember it, we fail to make decisions about human health that are truly informed.

 


What’s Privilege?

7 Oct

(Via)

 

This week I led a workshop about teaching pre-school children about diversity.  I started by asking the teachers what privilege is, and I got the same answer a family member had given just days before: “Privilege is what people who are really lucky have.  Like being born into a rich family, going to nice schools, or even just being exceptionally good-looking and therefore having an easier time of it.”

It is interesting that so many seem to be under the impression that privilege and luck are what extremely well-off people have.  Privilege does belong to anyone whose place in society is considered “better than normal,” but also to anyone whose place is considered simply “normal.”  As said before, privilege is granted by society to certain people based on things we had absolutely nothing to do with: our gender identity, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our physical traits, our mental capabilities, our class background.  That is why any privilege—like any form of disenfranchisement—is unjust.     

In the workshop, I read off the following list of statements that illustrate privilege to the participants who were lined up in a row.  (It’s a hodge-podge of original statements and ones taken from privilege activities created by Peggy McIntosh, Earlham College, and the Head Start Program.)  Anyone for whom the statement was true could step forward.  Anyone else had to stay behind.  All of us in the group stepped forward at least half the time.  You can see for yourself where you would have ended up: 

 1)      I always felt safe in my neighborhood as a child.

2)      If I wish to, I can be with people of my race/ethnicity most of the time.

3)      I never have to plan how to reveal my sexual orientation or gender identity to friends, family, or colleagues.  It’s assumed.

4)      I can go out in public without being stared at.

5)      I participated in extracurricular activities as a child (swimming, football, ballet, piano, yoga, painting, etc.).

6)      I can easily buy posters, picture books, dolls, toys and greeting cards featuring people of my race.

7)      I can wear a skirt, a dress, jeans, or pants, without anyone staring or asking me to explain my choice.

8)      In school, I could always take part in whatever activity or games the class was assigned.

9)      None of my close friends or family has ever been arrested.

10)  Rarely have I been asked to explain why my body looks the way it does or why I move or speak the way I do.

11)  I have never worried that I might not be able to afford food.

12)  When I learned about “civilization” in school, I was shown that people with my skin color made it what it is.

13)  I have never heard of someone who looks like me being given up for adoption or aborted because of it.

14)  Who I am attracted to is not considered a political issue.

15)  I attended a private school.

16)  I am never asked to speak for everyone in my ethnic group.

17)  I can find colleges that have many people from my class background as students.

18)  I can criticize our government without being seen as an outsider.

19)  My family never had to move for financial reasons.

20)  If I am assertive, it is never assumed that it comes from my need to “compensate” or struggle with my identity.

21)  When I was a child, I never had to help my parents at their workplace regularly.

22)  When I talk about my sexuality (such as joking or talking about relationships), I will not be accused of “pushing” my sexuality on others.

23)  If I make a mistake or get into trouble, I am usually judged as an individual, not as an example of people who look like me.

24)  I can go for months without being called straight, heterosexual, or cis.

25)  I can use public facilities (store shelves, desks, cars, buses, restrooms, and train or plane seats) or standard materials (books, scissors, computers, televisions) without needing help or adaptations.

26)  When I dress for a formal event, I don’t worry about being accused of looking too dolled up or not pretty enough.

27)  As a child, I never had to help care for a family member.

28)  When I watch family advertisements for food, medicine, clothing, games and toys, the families on TV usually look like mine.

29)  I grew up feeling I could be whoever or whatever I wanted.

30)  I have never been asked, “What do [people like] you like to be called?”

 

 

In Comedy, It’s All About Deciding Who’s Us & Who’s Them

28 Apr

Krampus twins(Via)

 

The Guardian’s stylebook contains the greatest commentary on style I’ve ever seen in print:

political correctness: a term to be avoided on the grounds that it is, in Polly Toynbee’s words, “an empty right-wing smear designed only to elevate its user.”

Around the same time, while researching the back stories of Life’s Too Short for my review, I came upon the controversy over the word “mong” in which Ricky Gervais found himself embroiled this past fall.  Apparently “mong” is a British English insult derived from “Mongoloid,” the very antiquated and now unacceptable term once used to describe people with Down’s Syndrome.  Both Americans and Brits have probably heard “retard” used the same way.  Gervais eventually apologized to those who objected—including the mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome who has frequently endured the insult—but not without first dragging his heels screaming at what he called “the humorless PC brigade.” 

I will never get over how many comedians insist that any criticism of their work is an indictment of all comedy; as if there’s no such thing as an unfunny comedian, only stupid audiences.  This logic sets the bar for comedy so low that no comedian need ever try to be original.  Ignoring the “PC brigade” (i.e., anyone who doesn’t live with the privileges they do), they can simply regenerate old stereotypes, mining the minstrel shows, the frat houses and the school yards, and if no one laughs at this, it’s simply because we’re all too uptight, right?  Wrong.  We don’t refrain from laughing because we feel we shouldn’t.  We refrain because, unlike the repressed who giggle away in awe, we’ve heard it a thousand times before and we know it’s far from unique.  And isn’t unique what every comedian, entertainer and artist strives to be?   

Like politics, comedy can be divided into two categories: that which confronts our problems with our own selves, and that which confronts our problems with others.  Xenophobia literally means the (irrational*) fear of strangers and the second type of comedy relies upon this fear.  There has to be a “them” for “us” to laugh at.  So Republicans laugh at Democrats.  Hippies laugh at yuppies.  Academics laugh at hippies.  Progressives laugh at bigots.  It’s fair game when beliefs are targeted because we must always take responsibility for our beliefs.  However, when the joke defines “them” as those who have had no choice whatsoever about their distinguishing quality—ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, physical traits, mental or physical capabilities, or class background—and who continue to be disenfranchised by society’s delusions of normalcy, the joke had better target those delusions to be in any way original.  Otherwise, why pay for cable or tickets to hear someone lazily reiterate the guffaws of playground bullies? 

Every good comedian, from Stephen Colbert to Eddie Izzard to Christian Lander to the writers at The Onion, knows that the best jokes mock people’s hang-ups and clumsy reactions to minority issues, not the mere existence of minorities. My beloved Flight of the Conchords frequently flip gender roles and ethnic stereotypes, exposing the absurdity of racism and misogyny.  As the following video demonstrates, 1970s machismo has been begging to be made fun of.  However, when it comes to physical Otherness, it is the body—not fearful attitudes toward it—that they choose to snicker over, 54 seconds into the video:

 

 

Hermaphrodite?  Really?  An intersex kid’s medical reality is your toy?  C’mon, Conchords.  You’ve proven you’re great at making fun of white Kiwis tripping over Maori culture.  (“Jemaine, you’re part Maori…  Please be the Maori!  If you don’t do it, we’re gonna have to get Mexicans!”)  Surely you could come up with some good bit about hipster comedians clinging to lookist and ableist jokes like teddy bears and throwing temper tantrums when they’re taken away.  Or take a tip from Mitchell & Webb and take a jab at the way the ableism of reality TV masquerades as sensitivity:

 

 

Of course comedians have the right to make jokes objectifying minorities.  But I’m more interested in why they feel the need to, why they choose to objectify some people and not others.  Being gay, disabled, trans, intersex or non-white is not inherently hilarious to anyone who doesn’t live their lives sheltered from anyone unlike them.  The American freak shows of P.T. Barnum and the racist British sitcoms of the 1970s signify not just how profoundly disenfranchised minorities were in these countries, but how absurdly provincial audiences must have been in order to be so easily titillated.  Many comedians who reiterate chauvinist jokes argue that in doing so they are pushing the boundaries, expanding freedom of thought in defiance of PC oppression, when in fact they are merely retreating to well-trod ground, relying on ideas that challenge nothing but the very young idea that minorities deserve to be included in the dialogue as speakers, not objects.  As Bill Bryson has pointed out, the backlash against “political correctness” took place the moment the idea was introduced and has always been far more hysterical than what it protests.   

Toni Morrison has said, “What I really think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define.  The definers want the power to name.  And the defined are taking that power away from them.”  Revealing that it is all about power explains why emotions run so high whenever minorities get upset by certain jokes and comedians get upset about their being upset.  But this redistribution of power can be productive.  Taking old slurs and xenophobic tropes away from today’s politicians and comedians challenges them to think beyond their own experience and to wean themselves off society’s long-held fears, to redefine “them” as those enslaved by the limits of their imagination; in essence, to really push the boundaries.  Yet too often they default to the tired claim that this challenge infringes on their right to free speech. 

Some progressive critics do bring on the censorship accusation by using the ineffective phrase “You can’t say that!” and sometimes this is indeed an open attempt at censorship because most media outlets self-censor.  For example, Little People of America has called for the Federal Communications Commission to add “midget” to its list of words you can’t say on television.  I understand the temptation to insist upon the same treatment afforded other minorities: If certain ethnic and gender slurs are banned by newspapers and TV networks, why not others?  But this tactic too easily insults those other minorities—are you claiming black people have it easier than you?—and creates the concept of a forbidden fruit that will only tantalize right-wing politicians and shock jock comedians.  Simplifying the issue into Good Words/Bad Words can be a waste of an opportunity.  Instead of limiting itself to which words are always unacceptable regardless of context or nuance, the dialogue should always aim to reveal which minority jokes truly blow people’s minds and which lazily replicate institutionalized chauvinism. 

Instead of splitting hairs over the modern meaning of the word “mong,” I’d love it if a comedian went at the fact that Dr. Down came up with the term “Mongoloid” because he thought patients with the diagnosis resembled East Asians.  Because really.  Who’s asking to be made fun of here?

 

 

* “Phobia” always indicates an irrational fear, hence arachnophobia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, homophobia, etc.  Fears that are well-founded are not phobias.

On Not Being Thought of as “Suspicious”

24 Mar

Like many horrified readers, I’ve been following the news of the murder of Trayvon Martin this week, waiting for more information, waiting to see if his case will even be tried.  His killer, George Zimmerman, has yet to be arrested, protected by a seven year-old Florida law called “Stand Your Ground,” which was enacted after hurricane lootings and which essentially promotes vigilante justice.  No matter how the legal system deals with Zimmerman, if at all, Trayvon Martin—like Amadou Diallo before him—will never be able to tell his side of the story. 

Those of us who choke back tears on sight of Trayvon’s picture do so with one thought echoing in our heads: What if it had been me.  Except there is a system in place that makes many of us edit that thought into What if it had been my little brother or What if it had been my best friend because we are automatically less vulnerable, because we are not men and/or we are not black.  That’s what privilege is.  And it tastes terrible to anyone with a conscience.

While the extent to which Trayvon’s killer was willing to pursue an unarmed boy may be exceptional, his prejudice against the boy is anything but.  White privilege does not only give most white people in North America, Oceania and Europe the benefit of the doubt, but it frees us of the burdens of having to represent our race with every step we take in public.  In public we are judged as individuals, not examples. 

Of course younger people will always be eyed with more suspicion of violence than older people, but finding oneself at the intersection of youth, maleness and black ethnicity automatically attracts such suspicion like nothing else.  Unlike President Obama, I’ve never once been followed by security guards simply upon entering a shopping center.  Unlike a friend from Côte d’Ivoire, I can go on vacation anywhere in Europe, even though I’m not a European citizen.  I take these freedoms so much for granted that I view them as basic rights, but since they are only accorded to some citizens, they are privileges

In this NPR article, Corey Dade talks about advice his parents gave him as a young man built on their experience of being black in public in the United States.  Cynicism would consider it just another set of privileges to add my list, but it’s been a while since I’ve read anything so humbling.  I’ve never once worried about police officers surrounding my parents’ house after I went out to retrieve something from the car.  I’ve never had to.  That others do makes me lucky.  In the coldest sense of the word.

 

 

When It Comes to Sex, Fair Is Fair

17 Mar

Boy Toy(Image by Ian used under CC license via)

 

Disclaimer: This post is going to talk a lot about sex, so for my relatives out there, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

***

I was recently walking around Tokyo’s Electric Town, a sensory overload of video game stores, electronics boutiques, and maid cafés.  Wait, what?  The young women outside these cafés were dressed in lacy maids’ outfits, complete with fishnets, platform shoes and cat ears on their heads.  Addressing their customers as “Master,” they apparently serve them on one knee, providing spoon-feedings and massages to those willing to pay extra.  These cafés were everywhere.

The guy accompanying me probably sensed my feminist judgment before I voiced it.  “So, what would have to change for you to be okay with it?” he asked. 

Quite simply, half the cafés would cater to female customers, hosted by provocatively dressed, eager-to-please, teenage-looking boys.  Half the people on the street in Tokyo are women, but the maid cafés offer them only work, not service.  No wonder nerd women feel so alone.  But it’s not fair to single out Electric Town.  Every well-known naughty incarnation of sex from the Playboy Mansion to token event dancers embodies the same problem: Whether selling dominance or submission, it’s all for the straight male customer.  In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine has identified one of the panes of the glass ceiling to be the not uncommon tradition of businessmen bonding by going to strip clubs together.  The most a straight female customer can hope for at such venues is to be bored, however much her partner may hope she’s taking down notes. 

Just as the word “doctor” or “lawyer” almost always causes a listener to envision a man, the word “escort,” or “stripper” evokes a woman.  Girls are aware of this from the earliest of ages.  Many have argued with me that the lack of lascivious fare catering to female clients is indicative of supply and demand; women aren’t as interested in commercial forms of sex, so there aren’t any.  It is true that the demand may not be overt enough for the market to notice, but this is not because it is non-existent.  It is because, like the demand for non-heteronormative sexuality, it has been discouraged for millennia. 

Men are animals, they can’t help it, goes the traditional view.  But women are not and thus they should only be sexual when satisfying men’s desires, either by playing the role of the virgin he wants to have a family with or the whore he wants to have fun with.  Yet if women’s sex drive is indeed naturally lower than men’s, why are so many societies so concerned with suppressing it? 

Around the world from Kuwait to Kansas, authoritarians go to great lengths to reduce if not altogether prohibit female sexual expression.  Over 92 million girls have undergone genital mutilation in Africa alone in order to reduce their libido.  American evangelical Christians oppose mandating the HPV vaccine for pre-teen girls, arguing that reducing the fear of cervical cancer will increase girls’ promiscuity.  In Haiti, Jordan, Syria and Morocco, “honor” killings and crimes of passion in instances of adultery are still legally permissible (only) when it is a female who has had pre-marital or extramarital sex.  A 2002 U.N. report found legislative provisions allowing for partial defense of “honor” killings in Argentina, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, Iran, Israel, Peru, the Palestinian National Authority, and Venezuela.  Let me repeat: Politicians, religious leaders and parents endorse scaring women with the threat of murder, others with the threat of cancer, to control their sexuality. 

I’m sure this sounds outrageously antiquated to most readers, but aside from the fact that it is a grave reality for women in many cultures, vestiges of this machismo endure in secular culture.  Guys still try to insult each other by attacking their mothers’ sex lives, and women’s bodies and promiscuity are still discussed far more than men’s.  Have you ever heard anyone say, “Your dad’s a whore”?  Or heard a guy who won’t put out described as “frigid”?  Chloe Angyal summed it up beautifully at New York’s Slutwalk this past October:

The idea behind the word “slut,” and the beliefs and behavior that it justifies, is alive and well.  This idea says that sex decreases a woman’s worth.  This idea says that a woman who steps outside the bounds of acceptable femininity by enjoying sex, or seeking sex, or having a lot of sex, deserves whatever sexual violence is done to her… This idea says that almost anything a woman does, says, wears or is, can be used to justify that violence. Are you confident and outgoing?  That could have been construed as flirting, and that is practically consent.  Are you shy and reticent?  You should have been confident and outgoing enough to firmly say “no.”  Are you considered attractive by the standards of our culture?  Well, you know how men get around pretty women.  Are you considered unattractive by the standards of our culture?  What man would force himself on an ugly woman?  You must have asked for it.  This idea sets up a no-win situation, where no woman is pure enough to be blameless.

However, as women’s scantily clad bodies are condemned in Congress and in churches while being used to advertise everything from ice cream to phone companies, I suspect it’s not only the suppression of female desire at work.   When I imagine men being marketed as boy toys, the first obstacle that comes to mind is homophobia.  I’m sure you can just hear the shouts of “Yuck!  Sick!” that would erupt if male butts were given as much attention on television as female breasts are, or if guy-on-guy action were insinuated in music videos as frequently as lesbianism is.  Men who dislike the self-objectifying performances of Mick Jagger or Robbie Williams or male ballet dancers usually call them gay slurs.  I feel safe in assuming similar insults would be hurled by many male Star Wars fans had the master at Jabba the Hut’s palace been a madam who enslaved Luke Skywalker on a chain in a pair of golden briefs.  In 2008, a study found nearly 40% of women appearing in films wore sexually revealing clothing, compared to 7.8% of men, proving that straight women put up with sexy representations of their gender with the same frequency that straight men are shielded from it.  The homophobia behind these cultural patterns is the very same that restricts gay sexuality to the gay district.  And it is often to these corners that lusty women go.  Sex and The City was addressing a real problem when it encouraged women to watch gay male porn in order to see men that are truly sexualized. 

However, as discussed in my last post, sexualization comes at a price when it is the result of overwhelming demand, not free choice.  The American Psychological Association says a person is sexualized when their “value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics; [when] a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy; [when] a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.”  Self-objectification is a free choice an individual can make only insofar as that individual has never been pressured into it.  Bombarded with the media images cited above, women are taught to self-objectify from girlhood on.  Even the professional dominatrix, no matter how powerful, is fulfilling a male customer’s requests.  The beauty standards embodied by these sexualized models result in women and gay men suffering from eating disorders at far higher rates than straight men.  In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein writes:

I object—strenuously—to the sexualization of girls but not necessarily to girls having sex. I expect and want my daughter to have a healthy, joyous erotic life before marriage.  Long, long, long before marriage.  I… want her to understand why she’s doing it: not for someone else’s enjoyment, not to keep a boyfriend from leaving, not because everyone else is.  I want her to do it for herself.  I want her to explore and understand her body’s responses, her own pleasure, her own desire.  I want her to be able to express her needs in a relationship, to say no when she needs to, to value reciprocity, and to experience true intimacy.  The virgin/whore cycle of the pop princesses, like so much of the girlie-girl culture, pushes in the opposite direction, encouraging girls to see self-objectification as a female rite of passage. 

Reciprocity is the key word.  If you want your girlfriend to accompany you to a maid café, you’d better be willing to follow her to a Fantasy Boys’ Strip Tease.  If you want her to learn a naughty routine to add some spark, you’d better learn one for her.  If you want your wife to be fine with you sleeping around, you’d better encourage her to have affairs.  If you ask for oral sex, you’d better be willing to give it.  And don’t you dare make your daughter wear a purity ring until marriage if you won’t demand the same of your son or your own self.  Indeed, if the social pressure that urges women to submit were diverted to straight men, the resulting dialogue would reveal a great deal about how much free choice really enters into it. 

Studies in sex-positive feminism and BDSM culture reveal that many self-confident, consenting individuals are interested in the sex industry, but without the gender disparity pop culture promotes.  And while it is true that many women have no interest in commercial forms of sex like pornography or strip clubs, nor do many men.  Whether the red light district is silly or sexy is a matter of taste.  Whether it is male chauvinist is not.  In the words of one YouTube commenter—a rare source of inspiration—“this is what music videos would look like if women ran the world.

Look ridiculous?  In the words of Nadine Gordimer, “So many sensual moves are, if you set yourself outside of them.”  It’s no more ridiculous than the song it parodies or the cat ears donned by the Electric Town maids.  If every second maid were replaced with men posing like Bret and Jemaine do, I’d find nothing wrong with Electric Town, except for its carbon footprint.