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Monday, March 11, 2013

My Experience At A Feminist Conference: On Censorship, Objectification, & What It Means For Me

I'm writing this as I sit and wait for my flight, watching planes take off over the mountains of Salt Lake City. This would be a serene moment, if it were not for the rumbling of my upset stomach after eating McDonalds for breakfast. As if I don't already know better. Anyways, I am heading home after spending a wonderful five days at the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) conference, where I presented my project, "Sexism, Strippers, and Slut-Shaming," as part of a symposium. I was fortunate to spend time with former professors and colleagues that I haven't seen since leaving Connecticut. I was pleasantly surprised with Salt Lake City. My stereotypes were in full force when the plane touched down, and the woman who sat behind me rambling about the evils of welfare did not help. In reality, the city wasn't the scary Republican hellhole that I had imagined. We enjoyed good shopping (maybe too much shopping?), food (I tried Lebanese AND Himalayan food!), and of course several thought-provoking lectures as part of AWP.

The conversations that were had in these feminist spaces were stimulating, but not always comfortable. I found myself constantly vacillating between "Yes, I'm a feminist" and "No, my ideals don't fit with traditional feminist ideology, so therefore, I am not a feminist." The topic of violence in the media came up over dinner conversation, which led to a discussion of Rhianna and Chris Brown's newly rekindled romance. The knee-jerk reaction always being the same; "they're terrible, he's an abuser, she hasn't made any public statements that would help young women, they're setting a bad example, her lyrics are glorifying violence against women." At least one of these statements was my own, and I'm not disputing the validity of any of them. I'm not interested in having that sort of discussion or writing about it. That's not what this is about. This is about the proposed solutions. Just as many radical feminists (ahem, Gail Dines) would love to see porn censored, there are feminists who would like to see this couple, and their music, disappear. I will admit that I became defensive during the discussion, reminding everyone that shame and censorship DO NOT WORK.

Other points of interest- do her lyrics really glorify what happened to her? Who are we to judge her words, her art? Who the fuck cares what she's glorifying/not glorifying; in a community that values free speech, shouldn't this woman be allowed to express herself, and her pain, in whatever medium she chooses? Whose responsibility is it to make sure that young "impressionable" women don't hear these messages? What about starting in the home, and with education? The same could be said of porn. Porn is not meant to be used as sex education, and if it is, then we have a problem in homes and school systems. Why are we relying on media (that is supposed to be consumed by adults) to teach our kids about sex and relationships?

Back to Rhianna- it made me feel uncomfortable that she never released a public statement in regards to getting back together with Brown. I would have been more comfortable if she had said something along the lines of "What he did was terrible, but he is seeking treatment" or any variations of this. Let's look at how my statement began, shall we? "I would have been more comfortable." Well, art/music/writing isn't about making me, or anyone else, "more comfortable." If you don't like it, go out and create something that you do like. Don't censor, create something better. After all, does the removal of potentially harmful things ever actually work? Well, the war on drugs was a great success, so, perhaps.

Quick point on Brown- yes, he abused her. Does this mean he will always be an abuser? Fuck no. How could I have training and experience in the field of clinical psychology and have the nerve to assert that an abuser will never change? Is it likely? Is it easy? No, no. However, there's a danger when we begin to make blanket statements such as "once an abuser, always an abuser," when we assume that there is no room for improvement, no room for growth. These were statements and sentiments that I heard expressed various times throughout the conference, and it scared me.

Now, there's nothing wrong with discussions these issues. In fact, I think we should be talking about this topic; how it makes us feel, what we believe is the public perception, what young women and men are learning from these highly publicized romantic relationships. Unfortunately, in feminist spaces, I have noticed the conversation veer towards censorship far too many times. Just as it has done about porn, and about portrayals of violence in media. When we begin to censor, where do we draw the line?  Honestly, the whole idea frightens me; it scares the shit out of me.

Now, switching gears. One of the highlights of the trip was a conversation that I had with a fantastic feminist professor whom with I had previously worked. We discussed our views on pornography, sex work, and the objectification of women. We also discussed the hierarchy that exists within sex work, and I was the first to say that as as young white women, I am part of the privileged end of the continuum. There is no doubt about it. I have good height/weight proportions, white skin, and am in my 20's. There is no fucking way I am facing the same adversity as a minority status sex worker in her 40's. Or, I could have just left off the age, let's leave it at "minority sex worker." It's an intersection of age, gender, sexual orientation, class, race, and to  pretend that it's not is just ignorance, period. What does this really mean in terms of choice? What do I do with this knowledge and how can I still do good work within the community? Well, that's a conversation for another day, and one in which I look forward to having with others at the Desiree Alliance conference. My chat with this professor primed me for many NECESSARY conversations in the future. But, back to objectification. It's her belief that pornography, and the constant images of "sexy" women that serve as nothing more than jerk-off material, perpetuate a culture in which women's bodies are used and discarded. We agreed on the terms of objectification, but not on the implications. I am objectifying myself, there's no doubt about it. Do I feel good about this objectification, and am I making a choice to do it? Yes, and yes. It was a refreshing discussion, because unlike so many other feminists that I have talked to, her response was "and that's your choice, and it's okay. But, in regards to this issue, you're not a feminist." Would you believe that I actually felt liberated when she said this? I'm not a feminist, and that's okay. No judgment, no shaming, no chastising. I am making a choice, and that's okay. It also doesn't mean that I can't hold feminist ideals in other arenas, it doesn't need to be so black and white. Honestly, one of the most thought-provoking conversations that I have had in a long while.

Perhaps this objectification does have a negative impact on culture and the way in which women view themselves. Just as perhaps violent media and song lyrics have a negative impact, but again, what's the solution? We come full circle. It's not censorship; it's not pulling all porn off the internet; it's not telling sex workers to stop objectifying themselves; it's not telling Rhianna that she needs to stop expressing herself. Or that she needs to make a public apology, just to make US feel better about HER trauma.

I feel the  need to end this article by saying that I wrote this much as I would write an entry in my journal. These are only my views, and they're expressed (perhaps not as eloquently as they could have been) after five days at a conference. I wanted to share some of my thoughts and insights, and that's it. Pick them apart and bitch at me all you want, but they're still only MY views, and I'm allowed to have them.. Thanks for reading.