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I wrote a lot about rape when I was a teenager.

I didn’t write stories about rape. But most of the stories I wrote—and I wrote a lot of them between the ages of 12 and 18, some of them hundreds of pages long—included some form of forced sex. It’s kind of horrifying to realize that my teenage brain, processing thousands of hours of music videos, novels, comics, films, TV shows, and songs, had come to the conclusion that sex always had an element of coercion to it. That it was something men did TO women, not something two people did together.

Re-reading these stories as an adult, I spend a lot of time laughing. My prose is a mix of romance novel flowery-ness and awkward potboiler exposition. There’s a sweetness to it all. Reading these stories, I remember what it was like when everything was new and undiscovered, when my writing seemed original and daring.

The rape scenes break my heart, though. My female characters cry and plead and repeatedly blame themselves for what’s happening to them. They’re helpless, while the male characters are smart and in control. The rape is usually interrupted—back then I didn’t know the exact mechanics of sex, so I had to (thankfully) stop writing before the language got too detailed.

What I wrote back then isn’t so different from hundreds of bodice ripper novels, and even as an adult I find the occasional dominant male / submissive female storyline titillating or engaging. But bodice rippers are fantasies, written and read (mostly) by women who know they’re writing and reading fantasies. As a teenager, I thought that what I was writing was “real,” that this was the way that sex played out among adults.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the wake of the Steubenville verdict and the (long overdue) national conversation about rape that it’s inspired. In particular, I’m deeply disturbed and saddened by the idea that the two men in question didn’t know that what they were doing was rape.

Let me be clear: as many others have said, ignorance is not an excuse. Penetrating an unconscious or intoxicated woman with your fingers is rape, and a guilty verdict is a just verdict in this case. I have no patience with conversations about the perpetrators’ “promising futures” or the ludicrous idea that the victim (who committed the crime of going to a party and getting drunk) somehow “ruined” these men’s lives.

But I am still deeply saddened at the thought that these two men grew up in a culture that clearly failed them. That they somehow thought it was acceptable to penetrate a woman who was incapable of giving consent.

I wonder if they got a lot of the same contradictory messages about sex that I got as a teenager. Messages like:

1. A man rapes a woman when he loves her and she doesn’t love him back.

2. Men can’t control their sexual urges and it’s a woman’s job to protect herself against those urges.

3. A woman is supposed to dress sexily and make herself available to men, but she’s supposed to protest and push them away when they try to have sex with her.

4. Sex is something that men want and women put up with.

5. “Good girls” don’t want sex, or at least they act like they don’t want it.

6. If a girl stays sober and dresses conservatively she won’t be raped.

This was what I saw around me: in the relationships and quasi-relationships my friends were having, in the way that sex was depicted in all the media I absorbed. My own writing at that time is a reflection of the confusion I saw everywhere.

I was one of the lucky ones. My early sexual experiences were all consensual. But I shudder when I hear that large numbers of people still think it’s all right to force sex on a woman if she has “led someone on,” or if her date has spent a lot of money on her, or if he just can’t control his urges. Or when I hear that plenty of teenage girls don’t think sex is supposed to feel good for them, that it’s just something they’re supposed to do to make boys happy.

Steubenville has inspired a conversation not only about rape, but also a larger conversation that needs to happen, one that moves beyond legality and toward decency. As in, if a woman has only consented to have sex with you because you’ve bullied and guilted her into it, you may not be legally liable, but you’re still a raging asshole. And if you regularly have sex with no regard for the feelings, pleasure, or desires of your partner, you’re not a criminal, but you’re a raging asshole.

If I could go back in time and talk to my teenage self, there are a few things that I’d want teenage-me to know about rape and sex. They’re the same things that I wish all teenagers—really, all human beings who have sex—could understand today.

  • It is not a crime to go to a party and get drunk.
  • If you’re drunk, you can’t give reliable consent.
  • If you’re sober, it is unethical (and usually illegal) to try to initiate sex with someone who is drunk.
  • Rape is not inevitable.
  • It is not women’s responsibility to prevent rape.
  • Have sex with people who REALLY WANT to have sex with you, not people who are just going along with it.
  • Never have sex because you felt bullied or pressured into it.
  • Don’t automatically assume that rape victims are lying.
  • It is never okay to force someone to have sex. Never.

There you go, teenage self. May future teenagers be better informed.

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I begin to doubt the power of words.

This frightens me. My whole life is built on words–reading them, writing them, interpreting them, gushing over a select few of them. So I cannot condemn all words in all forms–just the dialogue and discussion and discourse that is supposed to elevate us, bring clarity to confusion, bring relief from isolation and grief.

I begin to feel that these kinds of words are just words and worse, that words have become a distraction and a ruse to keep us from acting.

I know that when we grieve, as so many must still be grieving in Colorado and now a new many are grieving in Wisconsin, we need to share that grief. I know that venues like Facebook have become a way for people to feel solidarity in grief.

But I am weary of grief that takes place against a backdrop of inaction and stagnation. Of grief that swells and grows while conversations and debates fall into the same patterns of stillness. I’m weary of grief that deserves better, of dead and dying who deserve better, of those left behind who deserve better, from all of us.

Mostly I’m weary of hearing these same responses to tragedy, well-meaning though they may be, and knowing that I will hear them again, because nothing will change, and if nothing changes then surely we will be tweeting and posting and condemning and analyzing all over again soon. I’m weary of being able to see a future stretching forward like a highway that narrows toward the horizon, the view so much clearer than I wish it was.

And yet of course I continue to use words, because they’re the only weapon I’ve ever really felt comfortable using, and they’ve brought me comfort in dark times. I use words, perhaps, to reclaim them, to convince myself that they can still mean something, even when these days so many of them sound empty.

I want words to mean something again. I want them to have weight, and I want them to propel us forward, not weigh us down.

I want us to have real conversations that don’t degenerate into finger-pointing and nationalist rhetoric and red herrings and slippery slopes. I want us to actually reflect: about guns, about mental illness, about safety nets and the lack thereof, about racism and fear of the Other, about anything and everything that could have had some bearing on these two people and the dozens before them who walked into public spaces and opened fire.

It might take us a long time to come to any conclusions. It might be painful. But at least all elements of the conversation would be laid bare on the table.

And maybe at the end of it all some laws might be passed. Not the kind of reactionary window dressing that so often follows tragedy, the sort of legislation that’s simply designed to appease. Maybe the laws would actually have teeth, would effect real change.

All of that seems like far too much to wish for, though, so I’ll just quietly hope that words regain some of their power, and that they bring some small comfort to those who need them right now, even if I can’t stop wishing that they could, and should, do much more than that.

 

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I’m kind of stuck right now.

I have a lot of ideas for posts in my head, some that I’ve actually written lengthy drafts of. But I find it a lot harder to hit “publish” these days.

Maybe it’s because Internet culture depresses me. So many online conversations about meaningful topics seem to degenerate into personal attacks, to the point where I tend to avoid any and all comment threads for fear of wanting to crawl into bed for a week. I write something, and then I imagine the kinds of attacks it might generate, and I curl up into a cowardly little ball and don’t share it.

Which is really kind of silly, because I know this blog doesn’t see a huge amount of traffic. (Interestingly, my most popular post remains one I did ages ago on the history of vibrators, though I think a lot of people click on it assuming it’s porn. Same with my posts on Japanese child pornography laws and hostess clubs.) I know that the majority of my readers are people I know. But I have this fear of a post going viral–which would be cool, actually, because I like the thought of a lot of people reading what I write–but at the same time it would be terrifying, because it would open me up to the kind of Internet mob attacks that seem all too commonplace for people who write about sex, gender, feminism, or really any topic that moves beyond the realm of  “stuff we all love.”

So I’m going to try to just write stuff for a bit. Feel free to ignore the posts that don’t interest you, especially if you’re subscribed to my blog. I can’t promise that I’ll follow through on this, but I’m going to make a concerted effort to just write and publish things and not dwell too much on how they might be received. Rest assured that not all of it will be navel-gazing. I really hope none of it will be navel-gazing–if I’m bored by something I don’t enjoy writing it, so the one reason that I *will* refrain from publishing something is if I’m bored by it.

Ganbarou. Clicking. Publish. Now.

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I’ve been telling this story a lot lately, and I’m not really sure why. Maybe getting to the end of my grad career inspires a lot of reflection. Or maybe it’s just that the story feels goofier and more unreal every time I tell it.

I was a drama major in college. Even though the drama department was large, roles were hard to come by, because any role with more than a few lines was essentially reserved for people in the Acting track (I was in the Theater Studies track, the one for people who wanted to be drama teachers). So whenever any audition presented itself I usually jumped at the chance to perform before I’d even read the play.

When I was nineteen I was cast in a production called Animal Magnetism. The show was conceived by Mabou Mines, an avant-garde theater group founded in New York in 1970. During the information session I learned that Animal Magnetism was a work in progress about a chimpanzee and a rhino who fall in love. I have this very vivid memory of a sign language interpreter translating that meeting (one of the students in the department–a really talented actor, I wonder what happened to him–was deaf). At one point she had to translate the words “make the rhinoceros fly.” Which she did, beautifully.

For the audition I was asked to do a couple of basic dance routines and a lot of “movement improv,” which essentially consisted of acting as freaky as possible. I got cast in the ensemble along with nine or ten other undergrads.

There may have been a script for Animal Magnetism, but it was a rough one, and it kept changing. The director, who I’ll call Rick, preferred a more free-spirited approach. He would sometimes change the story in the middle of rehearsal. I was in awe of him. I think one of my classmates, who I’ll call Melissa, was in love with him. Maybe had an affair with him, or at least wanted to.

The story involved a chimpanzee and a rhino in love. As in, they acted just like humans–talked on the phone, complained about their jobs, talked about sex–but they were a chimp and a rhino. Secretly, the rhino was selling rhino horns. At some point the girlfriend found out about this and was shot dead by the rhino’s henchmen. It was a pretty short play.

What I remember most are the costumes. Part of the deal that Mabou Mines made with the university stated that they’d put on a play and give undergrads the chance to work with a professional company, and in return the university’s costume department built two very elaborate costumes.

The rhino costume was…a life-size rhino costume. Okay, maybe not QUITE life-size, but the thing must have weighed a ton. There was an enormous rhino head and a full-body suit. The poor actor was sweating buckets the entire time he was in it. Oh, and there was a penis. An enormous, detachable rhino penis, made out of latex and stuck prominently on the front of the costume.

The chimp costume at least looked a bit more comfortable. It was a full-body leotard covered in hair.

A lot of the play consisted of the rhino and the monkey describing dreams they’d had. The absolute worst kind of dreams–the kind that some socially awkward person starts telling you at a party, that have absolutely no point and go on for ages without any conclusion. The dreams had no relation to the plot of the play–as much as the play could be said to have a plot.

For the opening sequence the rhino was flown in on wires with a bunch of balloons attached to him. That sequence took a really, really long time to plan.

At one point the rhino was again suspended on wires from the ceiling while I and the rest of the ensemble knelt below him holding arrows. Timed to certain music cues, we stabbed him in slow motion. He was dripping sweat onto the floor. At the end of the scene he said something like, “I watch the red chromosomes behind my eyes. Life goes on, and I’m dying.” Then the music got jaunty and he sort of danced in his wires as the lights went down.

The chimp also got hooked up to wires at one point and bounced all over the stage. There was something in the script about her room being “bugged,” so the director asked the props department to make a bunch of felt bugs and one bug-camera with a protruding eyeball. The chimp bounced all over the stage destroying the bugs.

The chimp and the rhino had sex on an airplane, with the chimp straddling the rhino and jiggling a lot. I was always worried that his penis might fall off.

I was at that age where I was in awe of a lot of things that didn’t really deserve it, when I hadn’t really learned to distinguish between high art and crap, and when I was terrified of voicing a negative opinion of anything artsy for fear of being labeled naive or mainstream. Still, I did voice a few doubts about the seemingly disorganized nature of Animal Magnetism. Most of those doubts were quickly shot down by my classmate Melissa, who told me that Rick was a visionary and had everything under control.

Apparently Animal Magnetism went on to enjoy generally positive reviews in New York (with, I’m assuming, a modified script). What we put on, though, was crap masquerading as high art. Which, I suppose, could describe a lot of university theater productions.

It’s a sort of magical time, that period when you don’t yet know good from bad, when you’ll basically just watch whatever movie / tv show / play is thrown in front of you, especially if it’s being endorsed by people whose coolness you envy. There’s an equally magical moment when you watch or read something and actively hate it–not because other people hate it, or because your parents love it, but because you’ve suddenly developed the capacity for passionate judgment.

The first movie I remember hating was Legends of the Fall. The hate was kind of beautiful. I was actually offended by how bad it was.

I don’t know what I learned from my Animal Magnetism experience, if I learned anything at all. It’s a time capsule of a different me and a different world. If anything it’s just fun to be able to tell people that at one point I was crouched on a stage under a man in a giant, anatomically correct rhino costume, stabbing him with an arrow while he danced above me in mid-air.

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Back soon

Apologies for the long absence–I’m in L.A. and will be defending that pesky dissertation on May 8, then graduating on May 10. Plenty to say about the weirdness and goodness that surrounds those activities, and will get those thoughts down soon. For now I’ll take suggestions for a new name for my blog, given that as of May 10 I will, technically, no longer be a grad student. Adventures in the Office? Adventures in Academic Limboland?

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Can we stop with this already?

There are plenty of public figures in the news these days whose views I find despicable. But why must criticism of them inevitably devolve into criticism of their age, size, or physical appearance?

Marcus Bachmann referred to gay people as “barbarians” who need to be educated. He runs a ministry that claims to cure homosexuality. There’s plenty to be disgusted by here. Why the fuck does it matter that he’s fat? Or has a feminine-sounding voice?

Rush Limbaugh said something stupid about women. Again. This is a guy whose ignorance could sink an oil tanker. Who cares if he’s fat and / or bald?

Criticisms of Newt Gingrich and his marital hypocrisy are not made any more meaningful by pointing out that he’s old, has multiple chins, or is generally unattractive.

No fan of Chris Christie–plenty to criticize there. So why does everyone feel compelled to mention his weight?

This kind of childishness comes from both sides of the political divide. Keith Olbermann’s credibility started dwindling rapidly for me when he felt compelled to always quote Lou Dobbs in a lip-smacking, mealy-mouthed, “old guy” voice. And of course there was his charming reference to Michelle Malkin as a “mashed up bag of meat with lipstick.” I adore Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but even they can’t seem to lay off the ugly / fat /old jokes.

It’s mean-spirited. It’s hateful. It weakens any argument we might make. It’s pointless, distracting, and it promotes the kind of bullying mentality that we so often criticize on the far right. Finally, it’s simply unnecessary. With the wealth of verbal sewage being spewed by the likes of Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, Marcus Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, and countless others, there is absolutely no reason to toss out an “AND you’re ugly / fat / old!”

Just stop it. Please. It’s low-hanging fruit, it’s not funny, and it distracts from the meaningful, rational criticism of these people that needs to be heard.

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I’ll be back with more posts soon–things have been a little hectic–but before then please read up on SOPA, the very scary might-just-pass bill that could make life really difficult for bloggers and many other small website operators.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that online piracy is a problem and we need to do something about it, but this bill is a mess. You can sign a petition in opposition to it here.

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