Friday, February 21, 2014

Girl On Girl

I took my 11 year old daughter to the movies a few nights ago. The film was Girl Rising, screened in the gymnasium of her former elementary school. Beautifully told, it profiles several girls in developing countries who are fighting for the right to gain an education. What I expected was to experience a sense of gratitude that my own daughters will never have to wage such a war, and perhaps to put some of the junior high school girl angst that my daughter has been recently exhibiting into some perspective as she compared her own life with girls her age in less fortunate circumstances. I mean, millions of girls around the world are fighting to simply learn the alphabet of their language, to understand basic math, for entry into a world of words much safer and more vibrant than her own, where poems float across the page and ancient fables keep her company. They'd love to be sitting where my daughter is, even to endure the torment that American sixth grade girls inflict on each other so regularly.

She gets it. I am raising her to be a champion of justice. I got part of what I bargained for. My daughter was moved. She felt grateful, appreciative even, of the comfortable privileges and pleasures she is afforded as a citizen of the developed world, and incensed that those privileges aren't a guarantee for every girl.

Me? Not so much. I should have emerged with a sense of gratitude that my daughters have shoes on their feet, let alone a school to welcome them. Instead I left infuriated and inspired to consider the truth for them. How much better off are they than the girls on the screen? Is it good enough? Are we, as a nation, doing enough in the arena of gender equality and the promotion of women's rights that I can relax into complacency? Am I comfortable that they will be cared for when they're not in my line of sight? In pouring over statistics on the websites of the U.S. Department of Justice, The State Department, The Centers for Disease Control, my local newspaper, and having sifted through the painful evidence of my own personal experiences, I find that the answer is a resounding NO. We've come a long way, baby, but there is much work still to be done.

Every day in the U.S., nearly 1,500 girls go missing. 74% of victims of non-family abductions are girls. 94% of victims of human sex trafficking in America are women, and the average age of entry into forcible prostitution is 12-14. 98% of all reported survivors of sex trafficking have previous involvement with Child Welfare Services, and many of them were in the custody of the state when they while they were being prostituted. This is a billion dollar a year industry, the sexual exploitation of very young girls. The basic principle of economics in a capitalist society means someone is paying. It's basic supply and demand. Enough men recognize young girls as sub-human sexual objects that millions of them are spending billions of dollars a year for a chance to abuse them. Others, short on cash perhaps, just rape them. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 1 in 5 women in this country will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Some studies cite this likelihood as an underestimate, that 1 in 4 is more probably accurate. 1 in 4 women in America report having experienced violence in an intimate relationship. It is accurate to say that 1 in 4 women will experience sexual assault, an attempted assault, threatening, stalking, domestic abuse or some combination thereof.

One of every Four. I have Three daughters. I am One mad mama.

So I've set about asking myself why this should be so. How is it acceptable in this wealthy nation, this technologically evolved nation, this educated nation, this nation founded in Christian principles, that we treat 20-25%of our women and girls as throw away objects and punching bags? Wait. Back up the truck... this Christian nation. Let's pop the lid off this one, shall we? Stir some shit up and see what sinks and what floats. If we're going to elect representatives (as we've done en masse in 2010 and 2012) who promote scripture-based legislation, how should we expect that to play out for women and girls? How does the bible weigh in on the role of women? There's lots of great stuff in there about the honoring of husbands and wives, about people glorifying God in their treatment of each other. But even in all that, there is also this long, dark shadow cast by Eve, who, through no invitation of her own, was created from, by and for the patriarch. Then she was like, Hey Man, none of this was my idea, I didn't ask to be born and you can't tell me what to do! (the war-cry of every 14 year old girl ever)... I'm going to eat this pomegranate.  After that, woman is often described as "weaker" in the bible, and implied to be more prone to stepping out of line. The role of a husband then is to keep his wife in said line.
1 Corintihians 11:8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9 for indeed man was not created for the woman's sake but woman was created for the man's sake.
(Then there's something about her needing to keep her head covered because of the angels. I think that is likely the source of frat boys' insistence that women aren't hot if they don't have long hair... very few of those dudes are angels.)
There's plenty of mention of woman's submissiveness, her servitude to man, and always with paying it back for that goddamned pomegranate.
1 Timothy 2:11-15 Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; She is to keep silent; For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
It's antiquated, of course, and progressive Christians know better than to impose a literal application of these passages. I'm not suggesting that contemporary Christians have a problem with women being teachers, or that they expect them to keep their heads covered, or even that they consider them lower in esteem than men. Unlike some of its more obvious and overbearing religious counterparts to the east, Christianity has steeped itself in American culture more subtly. That old separation of church and state is a very thin membrane... in some states it's more of a mesh these days, really. Like the midriff net shirts Madonna wore with suspenders in the 80s. In a far more subversive way than extreme religions impose restrictions on women, there is simply a current running through our culture that tells us we are here to serve man, and not to expect too much in the way of change.

In some countries, there is a blatant and overt attempt by governments and men to keep women in submissive roles. Those women know exactly where they stand. Our situation is a confounding juxtaposition of pop culture with emphasis on bare-it-all girl power, and a Christian heritage that subliminally pits women a peg below their male partners and counterparts. Is it any surprise then, that politicians who promote a Christian agenda should be systematically attacking our rights at state level?

I know that I'm tipping sacred cows here. I understand that I am stepping on the toes of some of the people I love most in the world. To them I can only say this: I understand that you are a person of faith. My intention is not to shake that faith. I am also a person of faith. Like you, I also believe in things that I can't see: my daughters' boundless potential, their possibilities, future accomplishments, the strength and wisdom that will come to them as they grow. I also see something more tangible. I see recent laws, rooted in Christian scripture, which limit them, oppress them, shame them, and undo protections of their health. I'm not asking anyone to question their faith. Rather, I am searching for the consequences of the Word as it manifests in a world that is increasingly dangerous for girls. I want to explore the caves of culturally acceptable norms that do not vanquish evil and wrongdoing, but encourage it. A sort of cultural spiritual spelunking, if you will.

I recognize that thousands upon thousands of faith-based organizations are committed to helping women who are the victims of poverty and assault. But where have we, through bible-based legislation, been complicit in abetting the criminals and blaming the victims? Where have we assumed that our experience is universal, and that our sense of morality can be spread like buttercream across the nation? Where have we aided in shaming girls, in boxing them in? Where have we created the very poverty and abuse we seek to amend? Where have we placed female modesty and patriarchal reverence ahead of womens' safety?

Steubenville, Maryville, small-town USA, somehow we continue to hear of girls being raped, the crimes against them photographed and digitally distributed in evidence of HER shame. And of police investigators and a compliant township who still hold some bizarre 14th century notion that the onus is on a girl to keep from "getting herself raped" while the rest of us look on, some of us in horror and disbelief, others in agreement with such backward logic. She shouldn't have had so much to drink; she shouldn't have been wearing that; she should never have been there in the first place...

Attacks of our wombs on the street and in the fraternity yard are met with equal ferocity where ambitious Tea Party politicians preach from the pulpit of our state houses about the sins of birth control, abortion, sex-education and welfare. Make no mistake, the scripture-based lobby has tremendous influence over policy, most notably policy that affects women and children. I listened to Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (one of D.C.'s most influential Christian lobbys), on his radio show a few weeks ago as he labeled food stamps for single mothers a "surrogate husband." The implication being that if we remove supplemental food assistance from a mother and her children, she will be encouraged to "find a man to take care of her" and be in compliance with biblical family values. Today in this country, 41% of women live at or below the poverty level. Cases of extreme poverty more often affect women, and the rate for single mothers is especially alarming. Mr. Perkins, I'm not sure where you're keeping this stash of princes on white stallions, but for God's sake, let them out. I bet it reeks like hell in that storage unit! There must be millions of them in there!

Fundamentalists like Tony Perkins and scores of Tea Party legislators argue that a return to Traditional Family Values is the cure for the ails of women, and I submit that those are what got us here in the first place. The assumption that women have men to take care of them resulted in lower wages for equal effort, in inferior legal recourse for abuse inside her home, in pushing her to the margins of society. In such a system, she is less likely to be educated, less likely to contribute to the GDP, less likely to seek justice for transgressions against her. Her thoughts matter less. Her inclinations outside the home are seen as trivial. Isn't it nice that she has a hobby, sacking groceries at the corner store on her feet for 9 hours a day? 

What say you, Mr. Vonnegut?
Women are so useless and unimaginative, aren't they? All they ever think of planting in the dirt is the seed of something beautiful or edible. The only missile they can ever think of throwing at anybody is a ball or a bridal bouquet.
While the men of the world were busy bloodying the earth, shouting about boundaries and resources, women have been quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) planting the seeds of what is beautiful and edible. Women in what is now the developed world have been slowly but steadily rising from the shadow of Eve for centuries. In the last hundred years we've witnessed the fight to vote, to own property, to make decisions about our own bodies. We've fought for equal treatment in the workplace. We've taken the witness stand in testimony against our objectification, our harassment, our right to make decisions for our families and our communities. And the women who do the fighting? They're the lucky ones who aren't being physically or psychologically restrained from participating.



Policy steeped in patriarchal religious scripture is dangerous. The effect is to demean women, to marginalize us, to revoke our hard-fought rights, to enable our abuse and mistreatment. Power up, sisters (and brothers, thank you!). Vote. Vote. Vote. Someone's life is a stake. And until we vote out every last motherfucker who is complicit in creating or continuing policies that are killing women and contributing to their disempowerment, their spiritual and economic poverty, donate. Formula, diapers, time and money to organizations that are helping at street level.



I am not learning quietly, I'm asking questions. I am not modest. I am not servile. I will not submit while my sisters are raped, beaten, impoverished, marginalized. One in Four. One in Four.

One in Four is not a park bench to pause and catch my breath.


I am the face of feminism. On the outside, I may not look like much. I smile and pour coffee. I nourish and nurture anyone I can get my flour-dusted hands on. I wear a bra. Most days. Okay, not today, but yesterday I did. I look like almost any other lady, but my guts look like this:

I want you to be nice until it's time to not be nice.
I am the face of feminism, and someday I'm going to blow the lid clean fucking off this joint.
I will read. I will study. I will learn. If you try to stop me, I will just try harder. If you stop me, there will be other girls who will rise up and take my place. - Girl Rising

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

From Kansas, I'm Sorry

Dear Whole Entire Planet Earth,

Hello. My name is Kansas.

Until recently, I went almost entirely unnoticed by the rest of the you, just sitting here in the middle of fly-over country. Every spring, the winds swell up from Oklahoma and tumble down the Rockies to roll across my wheat fields and turn cartwheels in my tall grasses. Other than that, I don't see a lot in the way of tourism. No one thought much of me unless it was basketball season.

But lately I've been getting noticed. A discriminatory bill in the Kansas House of Reps last week was profiled on some major progressive media outlets around the country. I wish I could say that I loved the attention, but everyone was saying things like "What's the fucking matter with Kansas?" and "Shame on you, Kansas!" and I was like, hey man, I'm just sitting here, same as always. It's these assholes walking around the capitol that you should be shaming. What's the matter with them, not what's the matter with me!

The people of Kansas reacted swiftly. Petitions against the bill were drafted, representatives were flooded with calls and emails, protests were organized. A Facebook page opposing the bill garnered something like 40,000 likes in a single day. That may not sound like much to folks on the coast, but remember, this is the Heartland. For every one person who sounds off about something they don't agree with, there are ten more who are too polite to say anything.

Then the news broke that the Kansas Senate has no interest in taking up the bill in its current form, that it will likely die in committee there. A collective sigh of relief rose from many who opposed it. Whew! they said, Common sense prevailed in Kansas. But that's not really the deal. The real deal is that it's a gubernatorial election year in Kansas. The current governor is running for re-election and he was like Shitballs, people are really freaked out about this anti-gay policy stuff! Hello, Senate: this bill better not see the inside of my office...yet. Wait until after the election. 

There are several measures in the Kansas legislature right now that have Kansans equally disgusted. Let's see... there's HR 6043 urging that Congress Oppose the President's Climate Action Plan. This resolution was introduced by the state Committee on Environment and Energy. The chairman of that committee is Dennis Hedke, a geophysicist who contracts for the oil industry. Last year he authored a bill outlawing sustainable endeavors by any government or municipal agency in Kansas. The chair of the committee on environment is a climate change denier, and he wants to make certain that the oil and gas industries have full access in Kansas. I know. Gross, right?

There are others. So many others. Bills which seek to eliminate protections of my people and my natural resources; measures that will hurt my children, the impoverished, the elderly, the disabled; bills that would dismantle the balance of power by stripping the rights of the courts in Kansas, which are the last remaining treasure of a bygone era of moderate politics here.

The last four years has been an experiment in industry-funded Tea Party politics, and it has failed the people of Kansas. The latest piece of hate-laced, openly discriminatory legislation was met with a fury. Kansans woke from an exhausted state of disbelief and rallied against it. It's not dead yet. It is still open to amendment or revision, but it would be impossible to disguise its hateful intent now. Its opponents are vigilant. They are collectively stomping the bill into the ground in front of the capitol. Once buried, they'll spit on its grave and dance down to the bar.

I could not be more proud.

To the rest of the world, I'd like to issue a formal apology from the state of Kansas since my elected officials won't. I'm sorry if this feels like a hostile place. It's not. The latest bill preserving religious freedom made it sound as though Kansans have been hoping for a law that makes it legal for them to say that they won't sell a gay person a bowl of soup. I assure you that is not the case. The people here are kind. They're smart, mostly. Kansas has a long history of championing civil rights. Prejudice is not a pronounced mindset here, contrary to what our leaders would have you believe.

Currently in Kansas, our representatives...don't. They're not speaking for us. I can hear the dying breath of their radical, scripture-based agenda gasping out over the prairie. To the people of Kansas: thank you for leading the charge in protecting your fellow Kansans. Stay angry and remember to vote the bastards out so I can resume being ignored by the rest of the world. All this attention makes me uncomfortable. Love, Kansas.

Dear everyone, I'm sorry my House of Reps is stupid. I got you this kitten. I also got you a cake, but I ate it. I'm sorry about that, too. Sort of. Love, Kansas

Monday, February 10, 2014

Impure Thoughts: Taking Shame Out Of Sex



Last week my husband and I talked to our oldest kid about sex. We've had an open dialogue about anatomy and biology and the basic clinical facts of human sexuality for many years. My husband and I are affectionate. There is a nearly constant line of innuendo around here that no longer goes over the older kids' heads. They know that if they wake up in the middle of the night for a drink of water and hear grown ups on the pool deck, they shouldn't come out there. But the time has come to talk about sex as it applies to him, and the real issues that surround teenage sexuality in contemporary American society. He's started kissing his girlfriend regularly. I hope (and he assures me) that he's several years from even making the leap to heavy petting, but you know what they say about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of not-having-a-baby-when-you're-in-high-school... we need to talk about it. You know: It.

I suspect that most people, even those who grow up with very conservative parents, eventually find their way into their own sexual comfort zone. It's not supposed to happen when you're a teenager. Don't misunderstand and think that I'm trying to rush any of my kids into being sexually active. I'm not. 


But listen, when I look at the current legislative agenda in my home state, I see a whole lot of really uptight policy rooted in sexual shame. Some people might call it salvation, but I don't think that legislating discriminatory policy is saving anyone. Generating hate-filled laws centered around sexual identity, or stripping women's rights to make their own choices about birth control and health care is not going to save the environment nor the economy from destructive corporate practices. It's not going to make our kids smarter. All this sexual repression happening at the state level is distracting us from the real issues we need to be paying attention to. Maybe that's their agenda. Just smoke and mirrors to get us riled up so we won't pay attention to all the shady shit they're pulling with defunding education, degrading the environment, and shifting the tax burden onto the middle and lower classes. And we are like moths to the flame.



My job as a Kansas mama is to raise kids who aren't uptight about sex. Maybe they'll do a better job of staying focused than the current moral majority.

I don't ascribe to a set of religious principles to guide me through the discourse, but I have a code of morals, nonetheless, and I'm leaning heavily on them for inspiration on how to best guide them. My son listened while I lectured about condoms and watching for signs that the girl wants you to stop. He participated with mild embarrassment, but he seems pretty comfortable talking about sex with us. The fact that he could hold the conversation without once giggling or rolling his eyes means I was right. It was time.

How we address sex will ultimately help shape our kids' attitudes about it. It's like priming the canvas so the colors of their own growth and experience will be bold, bright and not flaky. I can't impose my morality on my kids, nor would I want to, but I can introduce them to my thoughts on the subject of sex. First, I had to define my objective. That part was easy for me, it's like everything else I want for him: to be happy and to be kind.

So here's the deal, kid:

As you know, sex is something all mammals do to propagate their respective species. Human mammals do it for lots of other reasons, too, some simple reasons and some not so. Sex between a male and female sometimes results in pregnancy. Pregnancy is miraculous. It's mysterious. And in my case, it's usually a bit of a fluke. Some couples try and try for many years. Others have two too many margaritas on the porch on a fine spring night, and miscalculate their ovulatory cycle in the heat of passion. That's how your baby sister got the nickname Tequila Bad Math.

Rules Number One, Two and Three: Don't Leave It Up To Your Partner To Be In Charge Of Birth Control. Until you are old enough and experienced enough to confidently rely on alternate birth control methods, you simply must use a condom and spermicide every time you have sex, no matter what, no matter what, no matter what... My husband will read this and nod gravely in agreement, silently mouthing the words every time.

I'm not giving my 13 year old son permission to have sex. On the contrary (and I know this would freak the knickers off of the Purity Movement folks), I'm telling him that he doesn't need my permission. He needs his own and his partner's. The same applies to my daughters. I don't want them to rush, but when the time comes I do want my kids to be prepared, unashamed, and supplied with what they need to be safe and responsible. The more comfortable and empowered they feel about sexuality (their own and others) the better. Rule Number Four: Get To Know Yourself. Good luck. It's a long and winding road, my friend.

I talked to my son about how to talk about sex with his partner. Before, during, after: Is this okay? Do you want me to do this? Sometimes body language will be all you need to communicate, but it's important to address any hesitation immediately. Rule Number Five: Talk About It. Your girlfriend needs to hear that you won't think she's stupid or immature if she's uncomfortable with something. She needs to know that you value her more than the sex. You deserve to know how she feels about you.

Sex is not vile. Sex is not filth. Sex does not demean educated, consenting participants. Sex does not defile them nor damage them. Rule Number Six: Treat The People You Sleep With As A National Park. Leave nothing but footprints - transmit no std's (in fact, last month my son voluntarily began the vaccination process for HPV, the little sweetheart!); kill nothing but time - be kind with your words and deeds; and protect the enjoyment of future generations - when you're old enough to vote, support legislation that promotes women's reproductive health and comprehensive sex education in public school.

However, your partner is not actually a National Park, so take no pictures. I repeat: take no pictures! And please gently discourage any teenage girl who wants to send you a racy picture. She's not ready for that, please just take my word for it. That's Rule Number Seven: Take NO Pictures. 

I understand the precept of the Purity Movement, of promoting virginity until marriage. I don't agree with it, but I understand it. To me, the emphasis on maintaining purity as a measure of the genuineness of one's faith seems misguided at best. At worst, it is a brand of slut shaming that can deeply scar a young woman if she strays from her promise. We have taken her sexuality out of her hands and placed it in the hands of men. If we say that a girl's virginity, her purity, belongs to Jesus (or in some extra creepy cases, her father!) until the Charming Prince comes along to claim it, we have effectively made the contents of her panties a dowry. Some of these girls make purity promises as young as age five. When I was five, I promised my friend I could climb to the top of the biggest building in town and fly back to our driveway.

What exactly is the point? Is the Purity Movement an effort to circumvent the overtly sexual onslaught American girls face in the everyday media and advertising? If so, I find it ironic that the method of combat is to further reduce them to their sexuality. Why can't a girl be sexual and smart? Why wouldn't I want my daughters to know that about themselves? That their worth has nothing to do with the state of their hymens. Just yesterday, my five year old daughter promised me that she will never grow up, that she'll stay little forever. She said it because she knows I want it to be true. I love her fivey-ness. She's so fivey!! But that is a promise she can't keep. And I told her that it's okay for her to grow up. I'm not going to ask her to promise me something today and hold to it until she's 25 years old! Rule Number Eight: You Do Not Belong To Me. You don't belong to me, and neither does your virginity. Those are yours. You don't owe me anything but honesty and respect, the same things you owe the rest of the world.

The leaders of the Purity Movement talk about sacrifice and morality as though they are a uniform circumstance. It’s very convenient to don a cloak of morality that fits you well, but it’s impossible for some of us to squeeze in there. I’ve tried to shimmy into those skin tight values. I couldn’t even get them over my hips. That one-size-fits-all code of morals? It doesn’t. The tag lied.

I don’t expect everyone to try on the suit I’m wearing. Actually, if I could call my morality any article of clothing, it’s more like a wrap-around dress. My experiences and observations have changed my shape over the years, and the ties allow for this. Also, there’s usually a lot of cleavage showing because I have a pretty nice rack. But I’m not saying to anyone: you have to wear my dress! Rule Number Nine: You Do Not Have To Wear My Dress. If you decide that a stricter code of morals than mine (or looser, if you can find one) is in order, you go for it. As long as you're following the rules above, you are entitled to decide for yourself what feels right to you. Experiment with different philosophies. Read spiritual texts. Talk to people. Meditate. Above all, take your time. There's no hurry. You'll be amazed how much there is to learn about yourself and life through sex. This works especially well if you don't start out with some pre-supposed notion that you already have all the answers about what is "right" and what is "wrong."

Which brings us full circle, back to the Kansas House of Reps... and to Rule Number Ten: Your Sexual Morality Is Yours To Explore, To Define, And To Redefine. For your whole life. Don't be ashamed of it.