Sunday, 27 May 2012

Hey gorgeous, nice tits!

The first time I tried talking about street harassment with a male friend, he told me that he would be flattered by the attention.  This sort of stymied me, because I couldn't agree with him, but didn't have the words to describe how being the subject of street harassment feels.  That experience prompted me to consider precisely why street harassment is more than just compliments from strangers.

What is street harassment, I hear you ask? It's catcalls, and compliments yelled from passing cars, whistles directed at 14 year old girls and 40 year old women alike.  It's feeling nervous when walking down the hill from my school at night because of the one time there was a group of teen-aged boys leaning nonchalantly on the fence by the tennis courts.  The inevitable hoots (and less inevitable but still depressingly common offers from passing drunks to be the man in a lesbian sandwich) when two women are seen holding hands in public.  I could go on.

At its mildest, street harassment reminds me that I do not belong on the streets.  Being told to smile, having the driver of a passing car yell out "nice tits," or "show us your map of Tasmania" (which is apparently a thing), or feeling the need to stare intensely at the pavement as I pass a construction site, reminds me that I am there on sufferance.  It is not my place. It's the feeling that not even my body is mine.

The idea that any woman volunteers for this sort of treatment by wearing a low cut top or a sexy red dress has been shot down many times.

Too many times, street harassment is also just plain scary.  Fortunately for me, my experiences rank towards the lower end of normal; I've never seen a man jerk off while staring creepily at my face, or rub against me in a crowded train.  One time I was riding my bike, just around the corner from my home in a suburban area, and a car full of young men slowed down behind me.  [Its reflective of how we talk about street harassment that I initially described my outfit here].  I didn't look behind me at first, but when I reached the end of the road, where I had to turn right (across the traffic here in Australia), they were still there. When I stopped, waiting for them to pass me so I could turn, they stopped too.  They called out to me, winding down the window, and the man in the front passenger seat opened his door and started putting his foot on the ground. I don't remember what they said, or their faces, but I remember his foot very clearly.  I just bolted.  I swung my bike round, cut in front of the car and started pedalling furiously for home.

"Man getting out of car" does not bring up masses of intimidating images, funnily enough.  

A week later, I had a similar, although less scary experience.  I was on my way to uni, on my bike.  I came to a stop in front of a set of traffic lights, where a line of cars were also waiting.  As is my habit, I waited for the lights to change just in front of the leading car, and was off the minute the lights changed, my torso low to the handlebars and my legs pumping to accelerate quickly from a low-ish gear.  The temptation proved too much for the driver and passengers of the white sedan which had been next to me at the lights, and they started cheering and hooting.  I was so incensed I kept pace with them until I had to turn off onto a side road, trying to work out what I could yell back which would convey how unsafe and objectified they'd made me feel.  I couldn't think of anything.

I bet she's tired of  street harassment too.

Interestingly, this image was illustrating a post on a conservative American blog about the rising price of petrol.  
My next experience took place while overseas in France, and probably falls more under stalking than harassment, but I'll post it here regardless.  I was heading out to Versailles to see the famous palaces, and successfully navigated buying a regional train ticket and finding the right platform.  I wasn't sure, so I struggled though asking someone on the platform if I was in the right place or not in my then meagre French. He said I was, and asked me where I was from.  We were in the midst of a relatively pleasant conversation when my train arrived.  Unfortunately, it was also his train, and when I unthinkingly took the window seat, he sat down on the aisle, blocking off my escape route.  The journey took roughly 45 minutes, and what where at first relatively innocuous questions about my travels so far and my home country began to get more ... uncomfortably serious.  He asked me if I had a boyfriend, and I responded that I was single but gay, and really-seriously-not-kidding-this-time-not-interested.  The questions continued in this vein for some time.  It was only when I got off at Versailles that I realised that he had stayed on the train past his stop.  He had to go buy another ticket to get out, so I took my chance and powered on ahead, although he caught me up when I stopped to ask for directions.  He asked me to lunch, and continued to walk beside me.  I debated telling him to stop following me, but thought that he would not be willing to pay the museum admission fee.  He was.  By this point I was revising my French phrases, desperately trying to remember if I knew how to say that I was being followed.  I told him to go away in English and French, but he pretended not to understand.  Eventually, I came up with a crafty plan -- I said that I needed to go to the bathroom, and we set off to find the restrooms.  Once there, surprise surprise, there was a queue for the ladies, which I joined.  He rounded the corner to the gents and as soon as he was out of sight I took off for an exhibit on 18th Century horticulture, sure that it would be the last place I'd be likely to bump into him.
I actually quite enjoy looking at stuff like this, and learnt interesting things about the introduction of the potato and tomato to France, but I still wish I'd been comfortable returning to the royal chambers

A similar event happened in Lyon two weeks later.  I was walking down the street, and a man smoking in a doorway called out to me.  When I didn't respond to French, he switched to English and started walking beside me, asking me to go get a drink with him.  I was clearly uncomfortable, and again kept moving and making minimal responses.  He followed me to the train station where I was going to buy a ticket for a trip to Marseilles that weekend.  I did not want him to know the details of my travel plans, so I gave him a phone number.  My dad's Australian mobile number, without an area code.  Maybe this was a bit of a bitchy thing to do, but just two weeks previously I'd felt very threatened by a man following me who would not take no for an answer, and I worried that if I said no this time, he would continue to bug me.  Also: the fact that I DID feel threatened, should have been enough to make him back off, whether my feelings were justified or not.

So what hope is left in the world, now that men cannot hit on women in the streets?

This advice is nothing if not equal opportunity.

To answer this question, I spent a long time looking for a blog post I remember reading last year, which was written in response to Rebecca Watson of Skepchick's story of feeling threatened by a man asking her up to his room after a short conversation in a hotel elevator, which went viral after Richard Dwarkins posted a highly demeaning and sexist response.   I found a whole pile of other really interesting responses, but I think I was thinking about this blog post by PZ Meyers of Pharyngula about how Decent Human Beings hit on strangers.  His point was that asking a woman up to your room for coffee in an elevator  does not give a woman a graceful way to refuse and is insensitive to the legitimate anxiety she may have about being alone in an elevator with a man.  In another post on the same topic he suggests that the sceptical reader google "elevator rape," and consider it is a moment where a woman is actually, physically, unable to get away.  I am happy to take his word that the images are brutal and numerous.  He suggests strategies like giving a woman your number rather than asking for hers, creating opportunities for her to gracefully decline and watching for her reaction, ready to back off if she looks nervous.

She looks to be having fun, even though her escape route is cut off.  It all depends on context.

Also, is anyone else freaked out by tanned-guy's hair?

I have one good story to share: I was at an ice rink with some friends who'd come up with the crazy idea of going skating while in formal wear.  One of the better skaters slid up next to me partway through the evening to say that I looked lovely.  It was awkward, largely because he was obviously nervous, and skated away immediately, and because I'm bad at accepting compliments (I once completely cut the cute girl I'd been talking to all night when she asked for my number, because I was so shocked.  Fortunately I got her number from a mutual friend once I'd had a chance to think about it and rectified the damage), but his compliment did not make me feel unsafe, or like an object.  He didn't call out "nice tits" while racing past, or put me in a situation where I had no graceful exit.  Copy this.

I believe this is a problem we can solve by talking about it loudly, please share your stories in the comments.

PS: I really can't say anything on this topic without linking to this article by Annika of Transgender Express at Autostraddle.  It's a fascinating analysis of the male gaze, not least because Annika's life experiences have allowed her to see the phenomenon from both sides of the street.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Rebellious cross stitch

My current project is a cross stitched image of Kathleen Hanna.

I turned it into a cross stitch pattern at, and am planning to add text to the final image.  Here's a few of the quotes I've gathered:

I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe.

Rebel girl she is the queen of my world.

Art revolves around creating something that isn't there

You learn that the only way to get rockstar power as a girl is to be a groupie and bare your breasts and get chosen for the night.  We learn that the only way to get anywhere is through men.  And that is a lie

I need a short quote to go on her shirt, and more to go around the perimeter.  Any suggestions?

Complicating matters is the fact that I live at home, and my father views my feminism as personally antagonistic to him.  It's not, but  I value my relationship with him enough to try not to antagonise him.  This means that "I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe"; the quote which inspired me to undertake the project, will probably be relegated to the border.  Fortunately, he's never listened to Rebel Girl, so my allusion will not be obvious.


Saturday, 19 May 2012

Lesbian feminist or feminist and lesbian?

I'm fond of saying that everyone should be a feminist, because everyone either is a woman, loves a woman, is queer* or all three; which is why lesbians make such good feminists.  When I told my friend B this, she saw right to the heart of the matter, and asked if I had a girlfriend.  Astute friends like that make coming out easy.

I'm not a lesbian because I'm a feminist, and I'd always presumed the contrary was true as well; but B made me think about the link.  Am I a feminist because I am a lesbian?

Six months earlier I'd been expounding on a feminist point with another group of friends, and K asked me, whether, being a feminist, I was also a lesbian.  I denied this with the fervour of the still-in-denial-but-slowly-watching-my-certainty-fray-at-the-edges self-closetee.  Looking back two years later, I know I was wrong about me being straight, but was I also wrong in saying that there is no link between being a woman loving woman and fighting for gender equality?

Lesbians experience the power of the patriarchy in real terms.  Sex without men baffles a society which is deeply uncomfortable with female sexuality, and society's response may be seen in the prevalence of girl on girl porn and erotica for male consumption -- it functions as a way of bringing men into an act in which they are otherwise absent.  The pop culture norm of performative and male centred lesbianism is something that lesbians encounter regularly in jokes, but also in the inevitable straight man at the gay bar, looking for hot threesome action/creepy staring.

See what I did there?
The fact that women earn less than men,  even after factoring in pregnancy and children, has a greater impact in a household made up of two women.
[see for a persuasive breakdown of the American pay gap.  I can't be bothered looking up the Australian stats tonight, but last I saw they were pretty similar]

Gender studies classes are commonly prescribed methods of meeting girls.

Gay women may find it easier than straight women to live out feminist relationships, and are less likely to dismiss sexist behaviour with a fond, "boys will be boys."

Not only this, but while straight women might linger at the dangle-the-toes-in stage of feminism for fear of being labelled a lesbian, lesbian and bi women are more likely to jump right in upon hearing that lesbians await the intrepid voyager into feminism.

This last was probably what snatched my interest.

I was 14 or 15 the first time I called myself a feminist.  I had no idea that my ideal family structure would involve two substandard female paychecks.  I was largely unaware of the extreme objectification of the female form in lesbian sex as packaged to straight men.  I had no reasonable prospects of meeting gay ladies by venturing into feminism, did not know that I might even desire to.  But something in my adolescent brain started jumping around excitedly when I discovered the idea of lesbian feminists.  Something caught my eye, so to speak.  Inspired me to take a closer look.

My mother told us about lesbians when my sister and I were 9 and 10.  Someone had slung the word at my sister at school, and on the way home that day she asked what it meant.  Mum told us that gay means happy, and that homosexuals adopted it because people were insulting them and they wanted a word that described, but did not insult them.  She told us that our uncles T and D were gay, and that women could be gay too.  She didn't make it sound exciting.

There was absolutely no mention of this:

I immediately dismissed the possibility that I might be gay; I wasn't special or lucky.  I'd never be able to be so cool as to be an actual lesbian.  I'd just be a wanna-be lesbian feminist.

But I could be a feminist, and I got right on to that. 

So, maybe, my early feminism was a result of seduction by the sexy, sexy lesbians; sure, elements of my personal situation heighten my awareness of the patriarchy, and empower me to act on that awareness.  But largely I am a feminist (who happens to be a lesbian) and not a lesbian feminist.

*I see links between feminist causes and LGBT rights causes beyond any incidental alliances.  

Hi, salut, hallo, hola, ciao

A little introduction may be in order.


A student
A woman

A reader

A sailor

A compulsive fiddler

A feminist
Black and white theme fell through.  Can you blame me though?

I've started this blog because I want to take my interaction with feminist media to a new level.  This interacts a bit with my compulsive fiddling, because the treatment I have discovered is crafts.  My clandestine knitting and embroidery has sometimes seemed at odds with my political leanings, but I have been thinking lately about combining the two in this thing called Craftivism -- craft plus activism.  I first started interacting with this in a major way a month ago, so please join me in a voyage of discovery, but do not expect a well experienced skipper.

I chose the name "when feminists attack" on a whim.  I think it came from a couple of things I've been thinking about lately.  One is a quote from an article on gothic literature which links feminists, vampires and aliens in their attempts to subvert the patriarchal order of reproduction.  The idea of the feminist as monster appeals to me, which says something about my sense of humour.
DYK -- the first vampire in English literature was woman who preyed on women?

Another is a conversation I had recently with a couple of friends.  I was labouring over a new mainsheet for a boat, bemoaning the impossibility of threading it through correctly.  My audience, my friend N and new acquaintance D were looking on.  D took my complaints as a request for help and started firing off ideas, at which point, I said something, I can't remember what, which had the effect of shutting him up, quite a remarkable feat.  N laughed and told him that I don't do advice.  "She's not telling you to go away, except that she is."  I have a very low tolerance level for anyone with less knowledge than I do on a subject butting in with well meaning advice because I see it happening so much when I'm attempting a traditionally masculine task (like starting a recalcitrant boat engine, or hitching a trailer to my car), and see their response in that context. The point of that rambling story is that attack is a somewhat apt word for my blunt response to perceived sexism.