Don’t Ban All The Fraternities, Lower The Drinking Age

Sexual assault on campus is an epidemic. Estimates suggest that one in five young women will experience sexual assault while in college (and the statistics are worse for women of the same age who don’t attend college). Most of these crimes will go unreported for a variety of reasons: the victim is not “perfect,” there can be devastating social consequences to reporting that someone raped you, and on and on.

In response, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has clarified that universities have a responsibility to address sexual harassment and sexual assault as part of their obligations under Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education. This development is strongly positive, although colleges and universities still tend to suck at implementing the requirements. (In the words of the youth-led activist group Know Your IX: “But aren’t colleges handling these reports terribly? Yup, they absolutely are. But so are the police.”)

Know Your IX is right; the best way forward is to require better enforcement so schools live up to their legal obligations. Public law enforcement involvement and response also carries wide room for improvement — although this is tricky, as bringing police in can make the situation worse for some victims, especially undocumented victims, victims of color, and those victims for whom their assailants bear continued control over their lives.

But legal strategy will only get us so far. We need cultural change as well. Some cultural change is directly traceable to activism: victims speaking out (brava!), students holding their institutions accountable (hooray!), and conversation-creators like the brave and creative Emma Sulkowicz, who commanded national attention for carrying a mattress throughout the Columbia University campus. Other cultural change will come with policy change.

One proposal increasingly floated to combat sexual assault on campus is to ban all the frats and shut them down. It makes perfect sense to close down fraternities that have been found to engage in overt racism or empower sexual assault. But shutting down every fraternity nationwide because we have proof that some are terrible is untenable. A better solution would be to defang fraternities as monarchies of rape culture. We need to take away the social gatekeeping power older men have over younger women on campus. We need to lower the drinking age.

College students are going to drink. We can get weird and moralistic about that, à la the disastrous reformers (including feminists) who brought us Prohibition, or we can accept that society as a whole benefits when unstoppable private behaviors and desires are permitted under the law.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 used the enticement of federal funding for state highway funds to drag states into raising the age for purchasing or publicly consuming alcohol to 21. Now many will recite for you the often-argued reasons why that’s offensive: 18 is the age of adulthood; you can vote at 18; you can enlist in the armed forces and fight and die for your country at 18, but you can’t have a drink at the bar at your homecoming party if you in fact survive. These reasons are right.

But less examined is the role that an arbitrary drinking age of 21 plays in creating destructive cultures on college campuses, particularly rape culture, and particularly for young women. Many college gatherings do involve alcohol. By granting less than half of a campus access to purchasing alcohol by virtue of their age, this situation empowers older men — including the small proportion of those older (and for that matter younger) men who are sexual predators — to control younger women’s access to social gatherings that include alcohol.

Fraternities have the power they do, by and large, because the many underage people, including underage women, who do drink must go to frat houses and other private settings to hang out. Now, one common objection raised by apologists for campus sexual assault (even if they see themselves in a very different light) is that young women should learn how to behave and be smarter about drinking. Until we are telling our young men with equal vigor that they must stop doing keg stands in order to be safe, I’m going to call that a sexist comment. Young women deserve to be human just as much as young men, without fear of getting raped. Even those young women who play drinking games before they turn 21.

If the drinking age were lowered to 18, all students would be able to go to the bar on a Friday night. This might take away some of the pressure some underage students feel to get really drunk (“pregame”) in their dorm rooms before going out for the evening. It would definitely take away this choice: Sit home and not go out and party, or go to a private house party controlled by older people you may not know who have bedrooms upstairs.

Rather than banning fraternities, this feminist argues that we should siphon away some of their power by lowering the drinking age.

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When Someone Asks If You’re Pregnant … And You’re Not

Yesterday, I was checking out at the vet when the receptionist smiled. “I shouldn’t ask this,” she said, looking at what I thought was my wallet. “Is that a baby bump?”

“No,” I said.

Where is my dog? Bring back my dog. It’s time to get out of here. 

The dog came back. I played it cool, smiled at the receptionist even. The dog wagged her tail as we walked to the car.

And then I cried for thirty minutes in stop-and-go traffic, on my way to pick up my daughter.

Apparently I’m fat, I thought. And then my thoughts got very, very ugly. I used to have an eating disorder — anorexia nearly killed me. Since yesterday afternoon I have encountered the ugliest body-image thoughts I’ve had in more than a decade.

On this blog I have written extensively about my experience with pregnancy after an eating disorder and related concerns. Less than a month ago I served as a keynote speaker and did a workshop on pregnancy and postpartum concerns at an eating disorder recovery event hosted by the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. I spoke honestly, as a person in recovery who has been doing damn well for a long time.

It is because of this, in part, that I want to be honest. Recovery is not always easy, and things can come up and bite you in the ass out of nowhere. Living in recovery means confronting those inconveniences at inconvenient times.

What happened yesterday hurts me so much.

I cried another round telling my husband later last night. I was ashamed to tell him, for fear he would see me differently.

Shame is the dominant emotion I feel, which raises a flag. Shame is what is causing me to write about this incident openly and honestly now. I have long felt that unmasking shame is at the heart of the feminist project, that when we talk about shame it loses its power to keep us down.

It is shame telling me my body is not acceptable, when I know perfectly well that my body is healthy and a gift and powers this amazing life that is mine. It is shame telling me to feel bad personally, when in reality we should all feel bad about a culture that deems it acceptable to comment on women’s bodies and make pregnancy (actual or presumed) a spectator sport. It is shame telling me that you will look at me differently after reading this post, staring at my stomach and judging me, when in reality if that is true I should grab my dog and get away from you as quickly as I can.

A good piece of what has made me cry so hard is being forced to have the ghosts of my eating disorder engage in open combat with my political beliefs of today. I know better, and I also want better; being forced to contend with a reality I very much don’t like — being the weight my body wants to be, getting assessed and confronted by others on the basis of how I look, considering the civil rights implications of presumed pregnancies — is unpleasant.

Another piece revolves around my daughter. She watches everything I do, even when I think she’s not, and mimics my behaviors to hilarious precision. If I hate my body, I am teaching her to hate her own. If I let an idiot comment stop me from moving forward, I am teaching her to do the same thing.

I refuse to do that. Not just for her. For me. And frankly, for all of us.

So A Northern Feminist (Me) Marries Into A Southern Family

Three years ago I married someone who so happened to grow up in rural Georgia. Prior to this, my knowledge of the South was limited.

Sure, I went to the South on occasion and I knew people in the South: Mainly Southern feminists and racial and queer justice advocates living in urban areas. The majority of my knowledge about the South was confined to knowing exactly how to drive to its abortion clinics, the dossiers of the terrorists with track records targeting them, and who the brave people are willing to engage in clinic defense.

Beyond that, I was not particularly interested in engaging. I was both a product of my environment and, by virtue of my laziness and relative tunnel vision, an active participant in creating that environment for others.

It is fashionable in some circles I run in to make an outrage porn show out of legislative oppression in the South. Largely the purpose is to capture attention and raise money for national organizations. As a matter of activity, those types of national organizations primarily hold self-congratulatory events for Northerners in the North and Californians in California.

A good number of progressive people make their jokes about how Southern secession would benefit the country, which basically means they are just as guilty of dehumanizing and throwing people away as those segments of Southerners who actively do wish to restrict the rights and dignity of people on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation (these people very much exist and hold at least a modicum of power in all regions of the country, by the way).

Before my spouse, to say nothing of before we moved from Capitol Hill to Virginia, my life experiences didn’t point me toward deeply probing or questioning these practices.

In hindsight, I can say barely engaging with Southern people and understanding Southern culture deeply limited my potential as an organizer, as a feminist, and as a human being.

Some of my prejudices were just trivial. After one nightmarish experience with grits at a YMCA camp in Wisconsin decades ago, I had closed myself off to the possibility of cheesy grits — a major clown move.

You could forgive me for my ignorance of the South and say it was because I just didn’t have time to learn, but that’s far too generous for someone who has always cared deeply about politics. Of course I had limited time, but even though I’ve always kept a full plate, I still managed to spend a good portion of my hitherto adult life reading books, watching The Twilight Zone, and agonizing over busloads of Mr. Wrong. I had time; I didn’t use it.

The plain truth is that it’s easy to spend your life interacting with people who think like you and talk like you, or at least think and talk a lot like you. Further, people like me who spend time working for diversity and equality and justice don’t necessarily have it all figured out in our progressive circles.

It would be arrogant and totally untruthful to say I understand the South today. I don’t. However, I have learned many things in the past few years. The best are related to cuisine because cobbler and cheesy everything, but I’ve also been pleased to experience and begin to understand the strength and persistence of progressive activity and values in the South — even in the one-room, all-white church out in the country I’ve been as surprised as anyone to attend (scratch that, my mother is probably still shocked enough to burn a hole in the Minnesota snow).

What I have learned most of all is that I have so much more to learn, and that this learning will only benefit my work toward equality and justice. The more time I spend in the South the more I am genuinely curious to know what the Confederate flag means to the people who fly it. (This is not to say I think it’s acceptable; I don’t support the continued use of symbols, language, mascots, team names, and the like that signify discrimination, hatred, or oppression, even if the people using them claim it has nothing to do with that.)

I have strong opinions, yes, but even more that that, I have a strong desire for equality. Progress toward equality isn’t going to come about through conversations with people who generally see the world as I do; it’s going to come through courageous conversations with people who don’t. In order to truly be conversations, that means listening as well as talking.

A white, progressive friend remarking upon the Black Lives Matter movement noticed a tendency of her white, progressive friends to defriend people on Facebook who were saying racist shit. We all have our lines to draw and are the best judge of what those lines need to be in order to take care of ourselves (I defriended an abortion opponent from my high school who made a nasty comment about me during my pregnancy, and have never looked back). Still, there are some conversations that don’t violate what we need but are merely uncomfortable.

This is a profound point that applies to conversations about discrimination and the desire for social change. If we really want to be change agents, we need to engage with people we know who have different views — even views we strongly disagree with.

Which brings me back to my new Southern family and this deeply personal opportunity I’ve been given to learn more about the South. I’m learning, and frankly sometimes the simple act of listening is scary and hard as hell. And yet I continue.

On Nostalgia In Feminism

It is dangerous to present progress for women as an achievement of the past, but hey, it happens all the time. Today’s women’s movement is rife with nostalgia.

My argument is not that sharing stories is bad, nor that people with wisdom and experience to share are useless; in fact, education about the women’s movement throughout history and tapping into the talent of feminists of all generations is a vital part of moving forward.

But there is a line where the pursuit of an action agenda turns into a reflection on the past as an end in itself. Too often, that line is crossed.

Here’s just one tangible example (good grief, there are many): A few years ago, I attended a meeting of advocates working toward the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The woman opening the meeting said — I see the faces of all the people who’ve been talking about this with me since the ’80s. Who is new to this issue?

This statement wasn’t welcoming, undermined the knowledge of people who may have worked on the issue for years or even decades after the ’80s, and failed to place the emphasis where it belonged — the accountability of current elected officials holding the power and obligation to ratify the women’s treaty today.

The results of nostalgia-dominated feminism are manifest: newcomers are silenced,  others choose not to come back, and above all swapping memories takes the place of working together to set and achieve goals. This environment creates a vacuum where a movement is supposed to be. What is understood to be feminist action turns into a largely fear-based electoral push to “protect” the gains of the past by electing Democrats and defeating the guys who say rape isn’t so bad because then you get a baby. 

Recently Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid sent me a letter that pretty much says it all:

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(You bet I wrote back to him!)

The voter priorities suggestions are instructive. We can — and should — raise the minimum wage, reform campaign finance law, regulate Wall Street and big banking, and expand health care coverage. These are all positive goals, and activist goals at that. (Beyond the abortion whopper, WHICH WE’LL GET TO NEXT, notice that the only other negative statement of priority refers to “protecting” Social Security and Medicare. Figures. Expansions to these programs would disproportionately benefit women, since women tend to live longer and have fewer savings.)

But “defending a woman’s right to choose” is laughable because people are faced with a reproductive health care crisis today in large part due to very new laws that restrict the human rights and dignity of women.

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Abortion clinics are closing, y’all. Terrorist group Operation Rescue claims that three out of four abortion clinics that were open in 1991 are no longer open today — and that 73 clinics closed last year.

So when Harry Reid sends out a mailer in early 2015 saying we need to “defend” a woman’s right to choose, I frankly wonder what the Jupiter he is talking about. How much is left to defend? The financial and logistical barriers to abortion created and approved by elected officials of all parties means this country is filled with women who can’t “choose” their way out of a one-way street.

And while the abortion crisis is grave, and our elected officials who claim to care should stop reminiscing about a court decision from four decades ago and start working to expand abortion access, abortion is just one of so many things needed to ensure the full participation of women as equals in society.

Hanging our hats on the achievements of the past isn’t going to cut it; proactive action is the sauce. The United States needs paid parental leave like whoa. More than 5 million people don’t have health insurance because 22 states have failed to expand Medicaid. The new report from the Department of Justice makes it clear — it’s time to fire the Ferguson police department and start over. How about an Equal Rights Amendment? We could go on. 

I am talking about external, observable realities that can be seen by those outside the women’s movement, but the Democratic Party’s ‘throwback feminism without big, bold goals’ is absolutely related to what happens within explicitly feminist quarters.

Just earlier this week I attended a woman-focused gathering where a contingent of the room directed much of the conversation around their stories from the 1970s and ’80s. The stories were interesting, to be sure; but what I frankly don’t know is whether the women doing that hard work in the 1970s and ’80s spent as much of their time being told what happened in the ’30s and ’40s. My suspicion is that they spent much of their time focused on deconstructing the realities of their present and demanding a better future — which is how we will win now.

An over-reliance on the past is dangerous because much of second-wave feminism has become, ironically enough, a conservative position — within the movement and beyond. There aren’t many people who will look you in the face and tell you women’s shouldn’t be equal, and this holds true even for most of the people who push the most anti-woman policies.

Nostalgia is also dangerous because however important the gains of the past were, they were incomplete. Women have never achieved parity in this country, and the gains of the women’s movement have always centered around the needs of white women with money at their disposal. Hanging our hats on the progress of the past is a pathetic agenda for the present.

Finally, needs evolve over time, and that’s a good thing. Twenty years ago the Vagina Monologues was revolutionary; today many young people find that language limiting and exclusionary toward transgender people. (I wrote about this issue at length over at RH Reality Check.)

At the same time, we do need more history.

Women’s lives have been systematically excluded from history curricula, and everyone (boys and girls) should be taught about them in schools. March is Women’s History Month; that’s cool, but it would be nice to have all year.

In particular a deep examination of the strategies and tactics that produced gains could prove extremely beneficial to those working for change. For example, my friend Zoe Nicholson’s examination of Alice Paul’s life and strategies is electrifying, and I think about it often in the context of my organizing work today — read about Miss Alice Paul here.

The line between nostalgia/sentimentalism and drawing upon history to kick ass for the future is often difficult to draw. But it seems that, as always, women as a whole stand to benefit from making painful attempts to grow toward more accountability, and the inclusion of new perspectives, within the women’s movement.