The boys I hookup with hate asking questions. We’ve all sat in health class and listened to Mr. G describe consent as an ongoing conversation, But questions like “Do you like this?” and “Would you do X?” and “Is this okay?” and “Did you finish?” are questions no one ever even thought to ask me until just this past year. If our hookup culture is anything, it is notoriously silent on all fronts. In sexual encounters where this culture of silence feels most prominent, I have this image of myself that pops into my head wherein I am just a trash can with my name scrawled on it in sharpie. I can’t talk, I can’t move, I can only hold things. I call it a sexual receptacle.
The first time I conjure up this image I am in tenth grade, making out with my boyfriend when he starts to push on the top of my head. At first I think maybe this is just him trying to be sexy–a misguided attempt to be hot by being rough. But he keeps pushing, and it’s not painful or uncomfortable and I don’t feel unsafe, it’s just constant–almost in the background. And I realize that he thinks he is posing a question. To him, this is equivalent to asking politely for a blowjob. I silently push back, a firm “no,” holding my lid tightly shut.
The second time this happens, I am in the middle of a subway car on my way to a party, talking to an upperclassman who wants to know whether he has a shot with my friend. I tell him I think she might be interested in someone else, and he looks dejected for a minute before leaning in and kissing me. I pull away, refusing his offer. He looks at me, vaguely surprised. I stare back. He leans in again and I, pushed back against the wall of the car, reluctantly oblige, my lid pried open.
A few weeks later I am with the same boy at a different party. I am talking with friends when he approaches and puts his arm around me. I walk away, pretending to go join another conversation across the room. He follows me a moment later and drapes his arm back across my shoulder. I silently shrug it off, give a small smile and pretend I need to use the bathroom. I spend the rest of my night dodging eager arm attached to clueless guy, once again stuck in the position of having to defend my space.
In too many of my sexual encounters, verbal conversation seems replaced by a kind of sexual charades–clarity and consideration sacrificed out of fear that talking will ruin “the mood.” That rocks though, because I hate “the mood,” because a lot of the time “the mood” is absolutely toxic. A lot of the time, “the mood” seems to promote unwilling silence and and utter lack of interest in the other person’s comfort. I hate the mood because the mood makes me a receptacle: ready and eager to give you head, something to do with your tongue or your arm. Slowly, though, I am learning not to take shit from the boys I hook up with–to talk to them and demand that they talk to me. With words, not actions.
This past Saturday a handful of us were lucky enough to attend Between The Door and The Street, a performance art piece/feminist gathering crossover conceived of and executed by the artist Suzanne Lacy in collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum. Up and down Park Place in Brooklyn, groups from various feminist organizations held conversations about political and social issues that affect women, or that women have a unique perspective on. Among a crowd of hundreds of spectators, we floated from stoop to stoop, hearing snippets of insightful debate. It was encouraging and uplifting to set our own thoughts, questions, and worries in the context of this vibrant community of intelligent, active, progressive feminists. Afterwards, in a buzz of inspiration, we sat down and had our own “stoop talk”, a debriefing of our experience. Here are some of our favorite takeaways from the day:
Things We Heard
– “If I want to worship at the Church of Bringing Down the Patriarchy, I have to constantly practice it.” Sexism exists in assumptions not in conscious decisions. Feminism, thus, must exist in consistent conscious decisions.
– A hard but crucial part of the modern feminist movement is the part where “we all grab all the men in our lives and convince them to engage in the practice of feminism”. Again, misogyny can live comfortably in the subconscious, and excising the ingrained sexist tendencies from our world can only be achieved by women and men together.
– When we talk about domestic violence, we have to be aware of how much we normalize violence. We have to acknowledge that we are all complicit in the development of domestic violence when we allow our children to link violence and love in their heads. It starts so early. We tell our 5 year olds: Don’t worry, he’s just hitting you because he likes you.
– Looking beyond blatant harassment like catcalling, women are also demeaned by other women. From girls making fun of eachother to the expectation to always wear makeup, or to straighten your hair, a lot of pressure, especially on young women, comes from other women. Perhaps we should start a national holiday, where people honor natural beauty by going a day without affecting their appearance. It’s a start.
Things We Said
– Calling yourself a “Practicing Feminist” borrows terminology from religious “practices”. It is interesting to think of feminism as a kind of spirituality or a lifestyle rather than a purely intellectual concept, because the hyper-intellectual element of feminism can be alienating (it takes a certain amount of privilege to obtain the vocabulary necessary for purely intellectual feminism).
– The idea of a practicing feminist might illuminate the difference between women’s liberation and where we are in the movement today. One of responsibilities of feminism today is to constantly point out what in our society is a product of the patriarchy, no matter how mundane or seemingly insignificant (e.g catcalls on the street, problematic elements of women’s magazines, dress codes, etc). Second wave feminism was about raising a collective women’s consciousness and exposing gender-based injustices in society. Modern feminism is tasked with wiping the deeply imbedded sexist habits out of our collective behavior.
– What does it look like to teach children about identity outside the gender binary? Do we have a responsibility to deter our girls from playing with barbies at a young age? What about our boys? When we villainize and remove princess toys and barbies, we create a confusing stigma around femininity, which can be as dangerous as allowing them to be influenced by these things directly. To what extent can we safely and effectively pass our principles on to children? We should attempt to teach children in a maieutic fashion, meaning we pose questions and challenge assumptions and lead our children to their own conclusion about gender.
– When, as a feminist, so much of your movement is about resisting the resistance, it is easy to constantly be ready for battle, so to speak. This event was particularly refreshing because it was a reminder that we can engage with feminism in a way void of aggressive conflict.
-One person commented on how refreshing it was to see men on a handful of the stoops, involved in debates, conversations, and showing support for the feminist movement. Although through movements like this it’s easy to villainize men, these conversations cast light on the fact that without accepting, incorporating and working with our patriarchal society, we will not move forward. Instead of advancing by degrading men we need to empower ourselves by honoring the distinctive strengths of men and women alike.
– The question we heard most frequently, on the stoops and in our own conversation, was: What does that look like? What does it look like to honor natural beauty? What does it look like to divorce the notions of violence and love? What does it look like to eliminate the gender binary? This is perhaps the greatest mental exercise of the feminist movement. None of us have ever seen a world remotely like the one we are striving to achieve. We must not let this deter us from the effort, we must simply keep asking and answering this question: What will it look like?
This post was written as a collaboration by Priya Dieterich, Isabel Cristo, Rayna Holmes, Nora Delf, Naomi Chasek-Macfoy, Maggie Duffy, and Odette Blaisdell.