Is Something Lost When We Say Coercion Is Rape?

Coerce (v): 1. To compel to an act or choice. 2. To achieve by force or threat. 3. To restrain or dominate by force.

Rape (v): 1. a) archaic To seize and take away by force. b) Despoil. 2. To commit rape on.

An anonymous account of a horrific date with actor and self-avowed feminist Aziz Ansari has been posted everywhere on the Internet; responses appear to range from the self-proclaimed sensible guy saying ‘look, we can’t read women’s minds’ when women are not exactly saying, “no, I don’t want to have sex with you and please go away,” to a number of prominent feminists arguing that what is described is nothing short of rape. I am reading the arguments from my fellow feminists closely. I am receptive to considering these arguments. Still, I am left uneasy that we are missing an opportunity to talk about coercion on its own terms. After all, Ansari says he believed the activity was consensual and while I believe there is a serious argument to be made that what is described is sexual assault, I also believe there is a serious argument to be made that what is described is instead coercion.

Coercion and rape are cousins. They are part of a horrific continuum of what heterosexual sex has meant for too many women for too damn long. Coercion, or the act of making a person in some way or another go along with having sex with you even if and as they have serious misgivings, is terrible. Rape, or sexual assault, is terrible. They do not necessarily need to be the same thing in order to be terrible. I worry that by talking about coercion and rape as interchangeable we are losing an opportunity to address coercion head-on within mainstream culture, where, let’s be honest, coercion is a common part of women’s lives and a practice that remains largely unquestioned.

In the middle of all these linguistics, what men need to know is that a woman should be consenting to have sex with you. If you are not sure, you should check. Checking does not mean assuming based upon body language. Ask — Do you want to do this? If you don’t hear yes, then stop.

In real life, lots of sex does not work this way, with an explicit “may I?” and a corresponding “yes” proceeding with every step. Perhaps where we are headed is that everything that does not conform to that standard is now labelled rape. I am open to these arguments, and urge careful consideration of them. We live in a massively unequal society and with sexual relations between women and men in particular, it’s impossible to pretend like it does not matter that women have been socialized to not articulate their desires and men have been socialized to pursue sex until they get it.

Viscerally, the Aziz Ansari story and the responses I am reading leave me troubled and frankly very sad, personally. Like women the world over, I have experienced coercion and I have experienced rape. Notably, I have experienced repeated instances of coercion and other times rape at the hands of the same person. And when I think back, I am horrified, just horrified by my experiences with coercion; as a general rule, I am more ashamed of my experiences with coercion than I am of my experiences with sexual assault. I feel more culpability for them, as if the disgustingness imposed upon me and the memories searing my brain with a spiked hot iron are, in part, a measure of who I am and the depravity I am capable of, even though I know logically that the deck was stacked against me. I can’t even list the catalogue of horrors that happened; I am so deeply ashamed.

With the rape, at least, I tried harder.

I read these insistences that what Aziz Ansari did was rape, and I hurt. I want someone to go back and hug the emaciated young woman I once was, her back raking the carpet as she finally hit her breaking point after so many bouts of humiliating coercion, crying and openly weeping, whispering, “no, no, please stop, please please stop,” over and over. The physical pain and the white ceiling. The tears rolling slowly and sideways down, nobody catching them.

I had been coerced into so many horrible things, and so many times, but that rape was worse and I knew it then and I still know it now. I want someone to validate that. More than anything, I want someone to go hug that girl and acknowledge her strength and her gall for finally fucking saying no, getting raped anyway, and knowing for certain, for textbook certain, that she was getting raped and he was still going. It was different. And it’s easier to tell you about this because I’m not ashamed because I tried harder than ever before to make it stop, and it still didn’t work.

I also know that what led up to this rape was repeated, humiliating coercion. That it was coercion that brought me to that point, where doing degrading, despicable things to me while I openly cried and said stop could be ignored, because degrading, despicable things had happened to me without my explicit, verbalized entreaties to stop and so they could probably continue regardless. That it was coercion that brought me to that point where my feelings didn’t matter, even when openly you-can’t-miss-it expressed. That it was coercion that was part of the sexual histories of all of my young friends, in that age when Britney Spears dressed like a school girl who didn’t know. That we were socialized to be coerced and sometimes raped. That we more often went along with it, until, bravely, sometimes we didn’t.

I want to see the bravery of rape victims who tried to stop being raped acknowledged. I want women who couldn’t resist rape to be saluted for their survival and savviness to know that resistance might have meant death. I want to see the survival skills of women who experience coercion saluted, to the point where we don’t internalize shame about being coerced — to the point where it is no longer easier to talk about experiences with rape or sexual assault than it is to talk about experiences with coercion. I want men who do not identify themselves as rapists to learn how common coercion is and learn to better process and respect signals from women, and to make asking for consent part of their pursuit. I want women to know what coercion means; I want boys and girls to be taught about coercion, and not just rape, in school. I want heterosexuality to stop being so awful for women, especially young women. I want #MeToo to include a spectrum of behaviors — all of the behaviors that hurt us — without insistence that they must be the same to count.

But mostly, I want the young women who felt safe to resist to finally get their acknowledgement for sticking up for themselves even when it was futile, and going through a rape they knew to be worse than all the other unspeakable, entirely relatable, “bad date” times.

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Let This Be The Year Your Internal Bully Dies

Your internal bully is an asshole. It is not an internal voice that is helping you. It is designed to destroy you. Let this be the year your internal bully dies.

Here are some things your internal bully might tell you:

– You are not good enough.
– You’re going to be alone.
– You didn’t get invited to a thing because there is something wrong with you.
– That thing you said that sounded dumb? People are still talking about it.
– Your body shape isn’t good for that outfit.
– You need to go on a diet.
– You’re no good at fitness anymore because you are lazy.
– If you admitted you needed help, they’d laugh.
– The terrible thing you have done means you should go away.
– No matter what you do or how hard you try, you can’t do that.
– It’s not your turn yet and you need more credentials.

There is no point to continue; chances are, your internal bully has told you things that are worse and more cruelly personal. Often, internal bullies masquerade as a ‘voice of reason’ that are helping you to ‘improve.’ That’s poppycock. An internal bully exists solely to shut you down. The internal bully is not here to help, unless if by help you mean feel crappy and miss out on opportunities you deserve.

Internal bullies manifest in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are quiet bursts of self doubt in an otherwise clear head. Sometimes they are addictions or mental illnesses that ebb at times and take over at others. Other internal bullies are encouraged and planted by mainstream “self-improvement” programs or advertising, or abusive bosses, family members, frenemies, or romantic partners.

Internal bullies are absolutely a gendered phenomenon that impact some people more frequently and severely on the basis of many intersecting identity-based oppressions including racism, heterosexism, and ableism, although they can strike anyone.

If you are a woman who identifies as feminist it’s basically your patriotic duty to tell your internal bully to fuck off. Not to say that discarding internal bullies is easier for feminists; in my experience it can be harder to admit you have negative feelings about yourself. But, I suspect the reward for shucking internal bullies is explosively rewarding for feminists. The personal is political indeed.

Seeing your internal bully as an internal bully strips it of its power. Naming it out loud and continuing to live your life anyway does the same. We are not weak because we have thoughts of self-doubt. We are strong when we recognize the thoughts for the unhelpful bullies they are, and choose to ignore them.

You don’t need self-improvement. You deserve to live and enjoy your life. That doesn’t mean you need to stay the same. You can make changes you want and do the hard work to become the person you want to be without beating yourself up for being the person you are now. Self-love is revolutionary. Self-honesty is not self-badgering. If you wouldn’t say it to someone you love you definitely shouldn’t say it to yourself. Let this be the year your internal bully dies.

Vacation Is A Feminist Issue

Vacation is a feminist issue. A report from Project Time Off showed that women are less likely to use vacation time provided to them by an employer. The numbers are notable for millennials: Just over half of millennial men (51 percent) are using their vacation time, versus less than half of millennial women (44 percent).

In the study, women were more likely to say cite guilt about taking vacation and the mountain of work they return to as factors that influenced their decision whether or not to take vacation. Further, women were slightly more likely to say they were nervous taking vacation would make them appear less committed to their jobs.

Okay, let’s stop talking about the study and start talking in plain English:

Vacation is a feminist issue. If your employer is providing you with paid time off, you should be taking it. You are literally not getting paid in full when you are not taking your vacation days. Add this to systemic pay inequity experienced by women, most profoundly experienced by women of color, and it’s grosser still.

Whether you “vacation” in the travel sense of the word or simply take the time to rest (or take care of your home-life obligations, which has been, real talk, much of the vacation time I’ve been using at the end of this year), you are more free to be happy, healthy, and productive in your life, including in your workplace.

Within feminist and/or non-profit professions specifically, can we just cut it out with the martyrdom complex? You are not more committed when you are working yourself to the bone. You are, however, more likely to be unhealthy and stressed out.

I sincerely doubt that at the end of your life you will wish you had spent more hours on the clock. TAKE YOUR VACATION TIME, LADIES!

Rosie the Riveter image over a desert island

Raising A Girl During #MeToo

The #MeToo reckoning has only started to reveal the routine and gratuitous presence of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in the lives of women and girls. It’s going to be a long, slow burn of new stories coming to the surface, some of them shocking and others as duh-tastic as possible (you mean that pompous guy who was known for treating his employees like shit and the “pro-life” congressman who obsessed about controlling women’s bodies all day long on the House floor were treating their women employees like their own personal sexual property? NO WAY!). There will be more backlash, and considering who is president of the United States, it is going to be terrible.

Meanwhile, a whole bunch of us still need to raise our daughters.

I’ll be honest, I find this a particularly challenging moment to parent a girl who is getting ready to go to kindergarten. Here is where I’ve landed:

I’m no longer turning off the radio or television as these stories come up on the news. As much as I would like to, I can’t protect her from every sexist thing in the world. If she asks what these stories are about, I’m going to tell her the truth in age-appropriate terms (such as, someone didn’t respect her body, and only you get to decide what to do with your body).

I’ve been thinking a lot about the encouragements we give our children to give someone a hug. This isn’t a new line of thought for me, but it seems to take on new urgency in this moment. Why are other people telling my daughter to go give someone a hug? Why am I? As it pertains to teaching her how we act around family and close friends, there is balance to be found here, but I’m also getting increasingly uncomfortable with suggesting physical contact if she clearly doesn’t want it.

Donald Trump is not a person we talk about in neutral terms. If there is one thing I want my daughter to remember about growing up during the disastrous period of Donald Trump’s presidency, it is that we did not look the other way — we spoke up and we took action. Donald Trump’s disrespect for women and girls is but one of many hate-fueled reasons on his part as to why his presidency should never be normalized before our children. I still remember looking at her the morning after the election and crying. My political work is, in part, a fight for her.

If the Access Hollywood bus won’t pick him up to remove him from the Oval Office where he clearly doesn’t belong — it is up to us.

Abortion “Big Tent” Sellout Theory Disproved in Virginia Democratic Sweep

Earlier this year, several national Democratic Party leaders appeared to collectively lose their minds by suggesting – with no supporting data – that the path to reclaiming power depended on welcoming anti-abortion candidates into the fold.

Helpfully, Virginia voters have stepped forward to provide the data they were missing. Voters are enthusiastic and motivated to elect candidates who act like Democrats, and that means candidates who stand up clearly and affirmatively for abortion rights just like the party platform does.

This spring, as Bernie Sanders stood on a stage with anti-abortion mayoral candidate Heath Mello in Omaha and Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez prepared to meet with the paper tiger advocacy group that calls itself “Democrats for Life,” national press focused on the philosophical cat fight. They largely overlooked the real ground zero of this debate: the Virginia elections.

One of the key differentiators in the primary between Ralph Northam and his challenger Tom Perriello was abortion. As a state senator, Northam had successfully led the fight to relax Virginia’s transvaginal ultrasound law and during the primary gave an unequivocal “no” to a reporter from Rewire who, no doubt referencing the debate taking place among national party officials, asked if there was a place in the Democratic Party for politicians who don’t support abortion.

Perriello had voted for the Stupak-Pitts abortion restriction to the Affordable Care Act during his term in Congress and he apologized for that vote in during the primary. Though he had been personally involved in advancing an anti-abortion agenda, unlike the national Democrats fomenting controversy by suggesting a “big tent” on abortion for candidates in order to win elections in the Trump era, Perriello was able to connect dots that out-of-touch national Democratic leaders have still failed to  – buddying up with the right wing and working in opposition to abortion rights won’t fly with the Democratic voters of today, even in swing states.

Ultimately Northam won the primary with a 12-point lead – and that election had the highest turnout of any Democratic primary in Virginia in a non-presidential year. In the general election, he doubled down on his commitment to abortion rights, saturating the Northern Virginia airwaves with commercials spotlighting Republican Ed Gillespie’s contention that he would like to see abortion be banned (disclosure: my daughter and I starred in that ad). That Northam ran a mild-mannered, genteel Southern gentleman’s campaign made his unflinching commitment to reproductive rights ever more notable.

Again, Northam won, this time with a nine-point lead – and winning more votes than any previous Virginia governor. But perhaps the biggest story of the night was the Virginia House of Delegates, where, pending recounts, Democrats picked up at least 15 seats previously occupied by Republican legislators. Women swept the overwhelming majority of those seats, including the poetic justice of Danica Roem, a transgender woman, sending the notoriously anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion Del. Bob Marshall to lick his wounds somewhere in the bowels of bigotry and shameful footnotes. Anti-abortion Democratic candidates were not a presence in the Virginia statehouse election, and all of the incoming new Democratic legislators are pro-choice.

It turns out that the path to Democratic victory in the age of Trump is not paved with anti-abortion candidates. Bernie Sanders, Tom Perez, and other leaders on the left in national spaces should lay off the conservative movement’s anti-abortion talking points and take a cue from Virginia voters who are getting resistance to Donald Trump done in the most spectacular and unanticipated ways. We take our cues from the millions of women who marched around the world the day after Trump’s inauguration. Those women were not confused about their bodies or their rights, and the Democratic men in the national spotlight who are should stop insulting us.

There is no such thing as a progressive opposed to abortion rights. The anti-abortion movement employs fake science, terrorist violence, and works in opposition to public health, equality, and justice. In fact, they have been fanning the flames of the big tent divide they dreamed for in hopes of having no functional opposition in policy arenas and lower Democratic voter turnout due to infighting they started. Virginia voters have proven that the answer is, no thanks.

Republicans don’t need Democrats to join them in voting to ban abortion and criminalize the women who have them, as is evidenced by the felony charges currently facing a woman named Michelle Roberts who allegedly gave herself an abortion in Virginia. Republicans are able to hang to dry with Donald Trump, and themselves.

What Kind Of Candidate Truly Respects Women?

Note: Today, Leeann Tweeden said Sen. Al Franken forcibly kissed her and released a picture of him groping her as she slept. Sen. Franken apologized. On June 7, 2008, I published an OpEd in the Star Tribune with Shannon Drury with the same title as this piece standing up for Al Franken just before a difficult Democratic primary, in which the center-stage issue for him was controversy over rape jokes he had written for Saturday Night Live. The piece was influential in his moving forward, and noted that we were the current and immediate past presidents of Minnesota NOW. Tonight, I hurt. This is what I have to say on November 16, 2017, under this same title. What kind of candidate truly respects women?

Why are we asking the wrong questions?

Why is the most sought-out speech for a feminist woman the praise or denunciation of a man in politics?

Why are our voices most compelling when we are supporting the guy, taking down the guy, or sharing our pain? Why are the roles available to us cheerleaders, hecklers, and the injured? When will we get to be the referees and the players?

Why are almost all the political leaders men?

Why is the partisan divide more powerful than public disgust with men sexually assaulting women?

Why did white women vote for Donald Trump? Why do they think white supremacy will give them an advantage when so clearly, white supremacy and sexism are inextricably interconnected? Do we hate ourselves that much?

Why are creeps cultivating support from feminist women and using the little political capital we have when they know they are grabbing ass and even if we don’t know that, we’ll be the ones left to pick up the pieces later?

Why are men so loved for repeating feminist women’s words, including within the women’s movement?

Why are we knowingly tolerating posers? Who don’t we know is a poser?

Why are women being raped, harassed, propositioned, stalked, and belittled in spaces that call themselves progressive?

Why are we not connecting politicians crapping on a woman’s right to abortion to those politicians cupping women’s asses or refusing to meet alone with us? Why are our bodies an open buffet when our minds are shoved off the table?

Why are we not collectively demanding that they all resign, including the president of the United States, Donald Trump?

Why are we being used? Why are we allowing ourselves to be used?

Where are the men who proclaim to be our allies? What is the true end for which we are the means? Why aren’t they working on the men who would never listen to us in one-on-one conversations instead of being the women’s columnists in The New York Times? Why aren’t they using their platforms that are supposedly all about advancing women to demand that women sit on the platform?

Why are we weaponizing lecherous men against women? Why do we ask the wrong questions and point fingers in the wrong directions?

Why? For God’s sake, why does no man seem to respect women? Who can we trust? When will we be free? Why, Al, is the joke coming back to us?

Wondering If He’s Watching On Social Media, Waiting For #YouToo To Speak Up?

Hey, girl,

If you were watching #MeToo and wondering what would happen if you weighed in — specifically, if your abusers* were watching you on social media to see what you would say — I see you. (*Let’s default to plural, as the topic is sexual abuse of women in real life.)

You are not less courageous or brave about sexual violence you have experienced if you do not share your story out loud.

You do not have to speak up every time you have experience with something that hurts you, just because it has become the topic of the day.

Your pain does not exist for the consumption of others or to prove a point.

Social media sharing can be epically powerful. It can fundamentally change you and how you see the world, the things that have hurt you, and yourself. It can be a powerful tool for transformation — personally and socially.

I believe in storytelling and sit with tears for the people who are bravely speaking their truths. I have done it many times and I am not sad, nor am I ashamed. I have experienced firsthand the radical storytelling online that is a modern-day form of consciousness-raising for women, and especially how it has changed me (for more on this topic, see my chapter titled “Feminist Over-Sharing in the Wake of the Ray Rice Scandal” in Scandal in a Digital Age).

For all the benefits of storytelling, they are not accessible to every person at every moment of her life.

On social media, many people are directly connected or otherwise accessible to an awful lot of people — some of whom have treated them awfully.

Did you see #MeToo and wonder if someone who had raped, sexually harassed, assaulted, abused or otherwise mistreated you was watching your pages and lying in wait, waiting to see if #YouToo would speak up? Did you wonder if they would reach out to you to dispute what you had to say; or if they would see themselves in your carefully non-detailed storytelling; or if they were interacting with the posts of women they hadn’t abused, maybe with likes and supportive comments and the shit that sticks in the cracks of broken mirrors?

I see you. I hold you. Sometimes our rapists and harassers are our friends online. Sometimes they may have no idea what the fuck they did and how much it destroyed us or devalued us. Other times they know what they did or at least that we freaked out, but you know, power dynamics. Sometimes they contact us.

The horror is real.

You’re so vain

You probably think this song is about you

You’re so vain, you’re so vain

I’ll bet you think this song is about you

Don’t you?

Don’t you?

– Carly Simon

I’m Not Waiting Until The Polls Close To Say It This Time: Virginia Democrats Have Got To Put More Women On The Ticket

 

So this puppy just landed on my doorstep:

I’m not waiting until November 2017 to say this:

One out of nine candidates as a woman is an insult to women. One out of nine candidates as a woman is a gigantic reveal of sexism. One of out of nine candidates as a woman four years after the choices were zero out of nine candidates as a woman shows you how entrenched this is.

Four years ago, I wrote I Waited Until The Polls Closed To Say This: It’s Insulting To Have Only Men Running On Women’s Issues, which was subsequently picked up by Talking Points Memo and run as It’s Insulting To Have Only Men Running On Women’s Issues in Virginia.

I wrote it on November 5, 2013, literally as I watched poll results come in. My hands were shaking and I wrote so fast. I was furious and had been balling it up for months. Not anymore.

I am working to elect Democrats in my community. I am knocking on your door, calling your cell phone, and asking for your money and vote. I am also openly mad about the failure of Democrats in my community to live our stated values, which is what’s happening when we have a woman problem.

So here’s the deal for you non-Virginians: Arlington prides itself as being the most progressive corner of the Commonwealth.

If the most progressive means putting men forward for nearly all of the elected positions, count me out. I want to be clear that I strongly support each of these leaders as individuals and will vote for them this year. They are wonderful people.

That said, it’s simply inexcusable that the choices are nearly all men. The “women won’t run” excuse is flimsier than a high-quality pantyhose. Our progressive pipeline in Virginia is brimming with talented, capable women who are ready and eager to lead, and Arlington is not an exception to this rule.

How are we to evaluate conversations within the Democratic Party about easing up on abortion rights and women’s rights at a time when women hold so few of the power-holding positions? Exactly as they appear: Dismissing the importance of abortion rights to a progressive agenda is part of a broader, stubborn problem of marginalizing women within the party that purports to be our party.

I write this as an ardent supporter of our Lieutenant Governor and candidate for governor, Ralph Northam. I have personally raised this issue with him. I’m pleased to say that not only has he always resolutely stood for women’s rights, he did not get defensive and say ‘well, I’ve always stood for women’s rights.’ He did not grab for the second-most frequent excuse you’ll usually hear, which is blaming women for not having the self-confidence to run (not the issue; there are women trying and the old boys — many of whom position themselves as the new boys — are coalescing behind other candidates). He listened, acknowledged the problem, and said he would make certain to appoint women into key positions. This is a step.

Some of the speed bumps on the road to hell are the shushings of Democratic Party operatives (even non-self identified Democrats) who dismiss women running for office as “the establishment.” Look at your freaking GOTV fliers. Denying that putting few women into the elected positions is an issue, much less a progressive one, means that you are part of the problem.

It’s 2017. Let women lead.