Tag Archives: feminism

Sexual Assault On Campus. Sexual Assault, Period.

by Erin Poythress

rapevc(ed1)

I’ve been trying all day to find a way to talk about the announcement we all got in our boxes about the sexual assault on campus, and the words keep failing me. But this is exactly the kind of thing that needs to be talked about on college campuses (virtual or not), and because words matter, and this is a literature course,* it is perfectly appropriate to our learning goals to look closely at the words that went out to the whole UNCG community on a matter that I think we can all agree is terrible. So I decided that an imperfectly worded conversation is likely better than a perfectly crafted treatise days after the fact. I’m siding with it being more responsible to broach a tough topic than ignore it. Silence offers too much protection for perpetrators of sexual violence.

I’ll start with the easy stuff: I am saddened and outraged this happened in my community, even though this is merely the first campus-wide report, not the first on-campus assault. UNCG is my community, my intellectual home, and it is hard to fight the sense that this happened in my own house. As a member of the faculty, I feel responsible for my students, despite their age or life experience. I’m also concerned that the safety tips offered up were problematic at best, and at worst, part of the problem. I will get into that as we go.

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Here’s the email that went out from Campus Police, cut and pasted for reference:

TIMELY WARNING

September 10, 2014

On the evening of Wednesday, September 10, a UNCG Housing and Residence Life staff member received information that a university student was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance in a residential room in […] Residence Hall.

University officials outside of the police department know the identities of both parties and are proceeding with actions in accordance with university policies. The student has selected not to proceed with a criminal investigation at this time, and UNCG Police are respecting her decision to remain anonymous and are not investigating this incident.

In response to this incident, the UNCG Police are providing the following information on acquaintance sexual assaults. This information is general in nature and is not specifically related to this incident.***

It is estimated that nationwide one in every four to five college women will be the victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. The most common type of sexual assault is not a stranger but someone the victim knows, typically a date or acquaintance. To minimize your risk of being sexually assaulted by someone you know, it is critical to keep the following points in mind:

  • Alcohol and drugs are sometimes used to create vulnerability to sexual assault and may impair yours and your acquaintance’s judgment. Studies of sexual assault incidents show a high correlation between acquaintance rape and drug/alcohol usage. Keep control of your drink.

  • Always trust your instincts. If you feel uneasy or sense something is wrong, do what you can to get out of that situation.

  • If you engage in sex, be sure you understand your partner’s limits, and communicate your own limits clearly. Don’t engage in sexual activities without affirmative consent from your partner. For more information see http://sa.uncg.edu/dean/ sexual-misconduct/consent/.

  • Have a companion or a safe means of getting home, i.e., a trusted friend, taxi, public transportation, or Spartan Chariot, if available.

  • If you are sexually assaulted, you have several options; please see related information at this website:http://sa.uncg.edu/ handbook/wp-content/uploads/ assault.pdf . If you choose a police investigation of this crime, we will investigate, provide support, and offer related services.

  • Sex offenses are treated with the greatest seriousness on our campus; criminal and/or severe disciplinary action can be taken. If a criminal case is brought, we will support you as much as possible as you pursue it. In the case of disciplinary action, it is our university’s commitment that a victim shall be informed of the outcome of any institutional disciplinary proceeding brought alleging a sex offense.

UNCG Police offer Rape Aggression Defense courses as well as personal safety information at the following web address http://police.uncg.edu/ Programs/. UNCG Police recommend people walk in groups when possible and report crimes immediately by calling 336-334-4390 or 911. They also encourage people to use public transportation, Spartan Chariot, and other reliable transportation services and avoid situations or circumstances that may increase the risk to their personal safety.

This information is being released in accordance with the federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. The Clery Act requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and near their respective campuses, including timely warnings of crimes that may represent a threat to the safety of students or employees.

***(Safety tips were obtained from the the University of Iowa website on timely warning notification,http://tinyurl.com/k6yh56j).

ineedfeminism

Let’s deconstruct that message…

Regarding the suggestions to “minimize your risk of being sexually assaulted by someone you know”I just need to talk about this with you for a moment, even though many of you don’t take any classes on campus, even though some of you don’t even live in the same state.  You do live in the same society, and acquaintance rape and sexual assault occur all over, so you need to be part of the conversation. I firmly believe that if you are not part of the solution to a problem, you are part of the problem. Since most of what we do in this class is take a close look at language, and unpack its denotation, connotation, innuendo, and implication, I want to do the exact same thing to these suggestions.

“One in every four to five college women will be the victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.”
This statement suggests that 1 in every 4 or 5 (20-25%) will be a victim of an assault or attempted assault. This leaves it open as to how many of these member of our community were actually assaulted and how many endured uncompleted attempts of assault. Don’t get me wrongan attempted assault is certainly traumatic, and erodes one’s sense of safety, but most of us would agree that it’s worse to be the victim of a completed sexual assault than to endure an unsuccessful attempt. The law also agrees, as the penalties are heavier for a completed assault than an attempted assault. Given that phrasing, someone might imagine many of those women in that 20-25% of the female population of college campuses all over the country survived attempts and not assaults. “Someone” would be wrong. One in five female college students, according to the White House, are victims of sexual assault. Period. The quoted phrase in the tips from the campus police may not technically be inaccurate, but in grouping assaults with attempted assaults, it can minimize the trauma these women experience, and allows the reader to imagine a less criminal, less traumatizing experience for the victim. (Note: I usually prefer to refer to sexual assault victims as “survivors,” but since the text in question can be interpreted to minimize the very harm itself, for now I’ve sticking with “victim.”)

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“To minimize your risk of being sexually assaulted by someone you know….
Here’s the thing. There is nothing anyone can do to reduce risk of harm to zero—no nail polish, no anti-rape underwear, no protective amulets, or mindreading glasses. Women are often advised not to drink in public, not to wear “racy” clothes, not behave in certain ways in public so that she is not a target for predators. But guess what? Predators predate. Most rapes are planned in advance. Rapists observe and then manipulate people they perceive as vulnerable to get what they want from them. So while I would never discourage a woman from taking steps to make herself feel safer, whatever that looks like, one may also be able to imply, when these well-meant suggestions are offered based on observations of commonalities in the circumstances of these crimes, that if she did not take these precautions then she either wanted to be sexually assaulted (or it wasn’t truly assault but a misunderstanding, which I will get to later) or deserved it somehow. There is no one in this world who deserves to be raped. No one. The idea that—instead of teaching people not to rape, and teaching people to recognize and intervene when they see signs someone may be targeting another person for sexual assault—targets of rape should alter all their behaviors and take all the responsibility for protecting themselves is backward. Again, it is easy to see how someone might turn that around on a victim and imply or even say outright that she should have known because she went to a frat party/got drunk/wore that dress. Law enforcement has said these things to women reporting rapes before. Just sit there a second and imagine how that feels, especially if you have already endured a rape examination (that link describes briefly what really happens– it is not a short or simple or painless exam). This is another case where focusing on a victim’s behavior allows us to avoid the questions about why that attack really happened, and the cultural currents that allow these attacks to take place.

no excuses drunk 500

“Alcohol and drugs are sometimes used to create vulnerability to sexual assault and may impair yours and your acquaintance’s judgment.”
As a friend of mine once aptly put it: “A woman’s outfit may very well be an invitation. That does not make it an invitation for you.” This also applies to people getting drunk in public (after all, isn’t getting drunk all alone a warning sign of addiction?). There are many reasons it may not be a great idea for anyone to get highly intoxicated (Who likes throwing up? Weepy, humiliating public scenes, anyone?), but it is really important for me to point out that a woman out getting drunk is not necessarily interested in sex, and even if she is, any old partner likely does not do. And going out to have anonymous, consensual sex isn’t the same as going out to get raped, since rape is about power, not about sex. Let’s go back to that whole most-rapes-are-planned-in-advance thing. Seen through the lens of that fact, it’s easy to see that alcohol is a means to an end here—to lower inhibitions and confuse our instincts that might put us off a creep. Here’s an article to back up that alcohol is not the cause of male aggression, at least in terms of sexual assaults happening in bars.

no excuses kissing 500

That bit about it “impairing…your acquaintance’s judgment” suggests that the assailant did not realize he was raping someone, or that he would not have committed this act sober. This is a problematic assumption in the best of lights, and carries with it a whole lot of assumptions about gendered expectations around sexuality. The first thing I’ll say about it is that the notion that the victim and the assailant in this scenario could be on equal footing in terms of power and decision making is not consistent with the facts we know about acquaintance rape, since it is usually premeditated. It’s also highly insulting to someone who has been raped, because the implicit suggestion is that all she needed to do was communicate more clearly or have less drinks so she could do so. This blames the victim for what happened to her, and this is toxic for both that person’s healing as well as society, since it allows the rest of us to tell ourselves we’ll never drink that much/wear that dress/go off with someone we don’t know well/insert whatever makes you feel superior to that poor hapless girl, so we won’t be raped ourselves. That may help us sleep better, but it doesn’t make a dent in the crimes, and it allows us to focus on the victim’s behavior and not on the perpetrator’s, which only gives a predator cover. The implication that a person can always be free from sexual assault simply by being aware of his or her surroundings is the very root of victim blaming and rape culture (what’s that? Read this). The fact that rape happens everywhere to every demographic should illustrate that it is not an epidemic of drunk girls not walking home with friends.

alcoholisnotconsent

“Always trust your instincts…do what you can to get out of that situation.”
Of course, trust your instincts. But if your instincts are confounded by intoxicants and/or manipulation by someone who has singled you out, this is less simple than it appears. In situations where a sexual assault may be more likely (see that White House doc about the Red Zone), it’s great to have a buddy system and take other sensible precautions, but it is just as vitally important that everyone take responsibility for those around us when we see they can’t do it ourselves. Bystander education has been really driving down campus sexual assaults recently. Of course I am not saying that someone in this situation should not try to get away if they feel trapped. I think every woman alive has been there at some point, and I know some men have, too. But not getting away, or placing conditions upon what is considered a vigorous enough effort to escape an attack, further blames the victim for the attack. Even in a stone-cold-sober rape scenario, the adrenaline response, which is commonly called “fight or flight,” can also cause a person to freeze (think deer in headlights). Some people, in some situations, completely shut down in the face of extreme fear. I think we can all agree that shutting down in fear is not consent.

not-sex-car(crop)

“If you engage in sex, be sure you understand your partner’s limits, and communicate your own limits clearly. Don’t engage in sexual activities without affirmative consent.”
This is where I actually started yelling at the screen. This assumes that sexual assault has happened because of a failure to communicate, and in addition to going against established facts about sexual assault (again), it assumes that had the victim only said “no,” the attacker would have backed down. This also completely ignores the long-established position of the psychological community (and others) that rape is about power, not sex. Think about it. A regular, non-rapist human, in a sexual or turning-sexual situation with someone desirable, gets the “no” signal. Maybe their partner breaks away from the embrace, maybe the person says something that isn’t “no” but indicates they aren’t into it right then, like “Man, I really need to get to sleep.” A non-raping human might be disappointed or even angry—there might even be words about it (PS: this is a terrible idea, and in the history of human civilization, never has anything good happened right after those words, just FYI). But the difference between someone who rapes and someone who doesn’t is that a rapist may then decide that he (statistically, he is a dude, and I will get there, male readers) will get what he wants, no matter what his partner thinks about it. The rest of us, who make up the vast majority of society, do not want to be intimate with someone who doesn’t want to be intimate with us. Because we aren’t rapists. Rape is about power, not sex.

The next bullet point, about having a safe means of getting home, is more of the same. After all, using manipulation to isolate someone sets them up to not have a safe way out. This tip places the responsibility of remaining safe on the victim instead of instructing people not to rape, or better yet, to intervene.

rape-aggression-defense

“UNCG…Rape Aggression Defense course.”
I have no firsthand knowledge of this course, though I did follow the link to its description. I am all for people doing what makes them feel safe, and while I don’t know what they say over the twelve hours of instruction, I really hope one of them is that nothing reduces one’s risk to zero, and that if someone takes that class and then gets raped, it isn’t their fault. Because remember—rape is usually planned, and rape is committed by people who don’t believe that “no means no” applies to them. If taking any kind of self-defense class makes someone feel empowered—great! That just might make them less vulnerable to attack down the road, or better at stopping it. But it also might not, and as I’m sure you’re tired of hearing, you can imagine how awful it would be to hear that you kind of asked to be sexually assaulted because you didn’t take such a course in self defense. This places the burden of responsibility on people (mostly women) not to be raped, instead of teaching (mostly) men not to rape.

By now you are probably trying to figure out, after all this dissection of what troubles me about the tips in this email, what I think we should be saying and doing.

1. Don’t rape.

dont-rape(edit)

The next should come as no surprise by now:

2.It is never the victim’s fault. The first step to transitioning from victim to survivor is having the support from family, friends, and the university community (if it happened on campus), starting with telling the person that nothing they did occasioned the attack. And then seeking to resolve the case as the survivor wishes. I am a part of the UNCG community. The idea that someone among us is harming us is very, very difficult for me to live with. I’d prefer the assailant, if determined guilty by the justice system, be as far from our red bricks as possible, because many offenders repeat. I feel like someone has harmed a member of my family because they have. But it isn’t my place to tell any survivor how to proceed, even if I want our world safer.

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3. We have to change the culture around these issues. That is a much bigger issue, because it involves social conditioning that happens all our lives. That is too big for any university or all of them together to be expected to tackle all by itself since students arrive as adults. But that doesn’t mean we just accept this sorry status quo. As I mentioned above, bystander awareness campaigns have been very successful on many college campuses. In addition to talking through some of the more contentious consent issues (some college students don’t know someone can be too intoxicated to consent to sex at all, for example), the value of peer groups has also been recognized in research as critical to helping curb sexual violence on campus. Everyone cares what their friends think of them, even people at risk for committing sexual assault. So with specific training and awareness programs, students learn ways to safely intervene when they notice, for example, someone, usually a girl, suddenly quite drunk, cornered by someone, usually a guy, and looking uncomfortable. They help the would-be assailant want to identify as and be accepted as a man who respects women and doesn’t let other men act that way, either. Many of you have probably done that before without even realizing you were participating in bystander intervention because trying to keep your friends out of harm’s way is also part of being a good friend, and that includes a playful “Dude, she is not into you,” and a firm steering to the other side of the bar. Will that stop all rapes on campus? Sadly, no. But it starts to change the conversation. It starts to question the paradigm that allows sexual assault to happen.

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I promised I’d talk a little more about the gendered stuff. By now, I’d bet there is at least one reader squirming, maybe male, maybe even feeling possibly judged. Assuming you are not one of the 3% of men who has committed sexual assault, I am not pointing at you when I talk about rapists. I don’t believe for a second that all men would rape given the chance, and my belief is backed up by the stats. Three percent is not a lot of people, but one in five women have been affected by them, and one out of 16 men have, too. That is a lot of collateral damage. If “See Something, Say Something” is good enough for a counter-terrorism campaign, then maybe it should be good enough for a sexual-assault awareness campaign. If it threatens your safety to intervene, call 911, of course. I want all my students and their kids and grandkids to live a long, happy life, wherever they are, so don’t go getting yourself hurt. But if you see a situation in which a person (usually a girl, but not always) looks uncomfortable and stuck or too intoxicated to know what is going on, and you see one or more people acting a little too interested, go talk to her. About anything. Maybe you’ll find you misinterpreted the cues, and everything is okay. Maybe, though, you’ll find a way to breed disinterest in the ne’er-do-wells, and she’ll be grateful. Or she will be too drunk to get it and won’t even be grateful, but it won’t matter because you still did the right thing. Take it from a teacher: if doing the right thing were only about the unwavering gratitude we got in return, we’d give it up and never look back.

___

* Ms. Poythress originally wrote this to send out to her BLS 321 class.

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Editor’s note: UNCG Campus Police has been receptive to criticism of that email text from the campus community, and has taken steps to update that information. UNCG also has a bystander-awareness campaign beginning this month.

UNCG Sexual Violence Campus Advocacy page

 Some suggestions for further reading

hobartReporting Rape, and Wishing She Hadn’t
How One College Handled a Sexual Assault Complaint

Obama College Sexual AssaultsEnding College Sexual Assault
Can Obama’s new campaign bring change?

Edit: New video released this week by UNCG SAF:

Pornography For—and As—Education?

by Ann Millett-Gallant

"Belle Knox."

“Belle Knox.”

As a college professor and a resident of Durham, NC, I have been following the stories in the local, national, and even international press about the Duke University student known as “Belle Knox” (or “Lauren” in some articles) who has been performing in pornography to pay her tuition. If you’re interested in reading along, you can check out these articles from The Duke Chronicle, WNCN, The News and Observer, The Washington Post blog, The Huffington Post, Gawker.com, and UK’s Independent.

I am fascinated by the articles written about and by this, shall I say “candid,” young woman, who declares her rights to own and display her sexuality. She is repeatedly quoted as saying she does the work to make money to pay for her $60,000+ per year tuition to Duke.

She wrote this blog about her experiences for XOJane, and as a follow-up article, she addresses the responses she received from the first article. In these pieces, Belle Knox asserts her rights to participate in pornography and to own her sexuality. She also responds to the criticism and harassment she has received in response to her story, saying that no one has the right to judge or vilify her.

The issues raised by this case relate directly to two of my BLS classes, Photography: Contexts and Illusions (BLS 345) and Representing Women (BLS 348).

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977.

In Photography, we study the work of Cindy Sherman, who photographs herself in the guises of stereotypical film characters (the housewife, the femme fatale, and the victimized girl of horror movies, for examples), women in art historical portraiture, and mythological, monstrous female forms to critique and parody the representation of a “Woman” across visual culture, specifically as a fantasy persona constructed through the male gaze. Sherman’s strategic role playing in the images articulates the artificiality of her staging and asserts ideas that identity is a performance.

Sherman also makes works that critique the pornography industry specifically. She photographs herself in excessive compositions or uses prosthetic or mannequin bodies to recreate explicit porn-like poses. Her images attempt to frame how these images are staged and strategically non-lifelike.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #255, 1992.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #255, 1992.

(Follow this link to see more of Sherman’s work at MOMA).

Lyle Aston Harris and Renee Cox, Venus Hottentot 2000, 1995.

Lyle Aston Harris and Renee Cox, Venus Hottentot 2000, 1995.

In Representing Women, we analyze the work of Renee Cox, who also photographs herself in the poses and costumes of various dubious roles for woman. These works satirize and critique the ways women, particularly black women, have been objectified in visual culture historically.

(See more of Renee Cox’s work at her website here).

Renee Cox, Olympia's Boyz, 2001.

Renee Cox, Olympia’s Boyz, 2001.

These classes debate how effective Sherman and Cox are in their postmodern parodies. Many students feel these artists are simply contributing to the profusion of visual culture that objectifies women’s bodies. I wondered about the Duke student’s actions and whether they could be thought of as performative acts. Maybe she is working within the system of pornography to expose its problematic history. Perhaps she is acting in the traditions of Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who was employed as a Playboy Bunny in New York’s Playboy Club in 1963. Steinem then wrote a two part article for Show Magazine exposing how women were treated in the clubs. Here are links to a scanned PDF copy of her essay on the subject and an article about her acts in the New York Times from 1985.

Gloria Steinem as a Playboy bunny.

Gloria Steinem as a Playboy bunny.

Is Belle Knox doing research for an exposé? Is she gaining experience for the future career goals that she claimed on ABC’s The View, where she stated that she plans to pursue a law degree to advocate for Civil Rights, and particularly women’s rights? Is she a Feminist?

I still have these questions, and found this provocative article, written by Duke professor Robin Kirk, which raises more issues.

In the article, Kirk underscores the role pornography has played in the objectification and abuse of women, historically and specifically on the Duke campus. Pointing to more distinctly Feminist forms of pornography, she questions what is Feminist or even avant-garde about the student’s performance in this media.

My questions mount! I was particularly moved by seeing Belle Knox speak on ABC’s The View on Monday March 17, as she was interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg, Sherry Shepherd, Jenny McCarthy, and Barbara Walters. I was disappointed that no one on the show spoke of Barbara Walters’ own experiences with pornography, or the display of women’s bodies. In 1962, in an act similar to Gloria Steinem’s, Walters was a Playboy Bunny for a day and reported for NBC’s Today Show. Here is an article about the event with a clip of the story.

On The View, the 18 year old student reported that she has made 25-30 films, for which she was paid $1000-$1500 each, and that her parents supported her positions. She also spoke about the hostile reactions of others when her story was exposed: People have declared she should be expelled from Duke, or even raped; she has received thrash thrown at her and numerous death threats. I found her to be very intelligent and eloquent in speaking about her beliefs and defending her actions, as well as every woman’s right to ownership of her sexuality.

Belle Knox on The View.

Belle Knox on The View.

The co-hosts were varied in their reactions. Whoopi Goldberg said she understood why the student has said she felt “empowered” by doing the films. Sherry Shepherd, who tends to be the most morally conservative of the group, was almost in tears as she said that her heart broke for the girl and expressed how she would feel if any of her female family members “sold” their sexuality. And although I respect and support many of the Duke student’s positions, I shared Shepherd’s sadness, not from personal or familial experiences of my own, but from thinking about the woman (as well as men, AND children) who have been and continue to be exploited, degraded, and abused in venues of pornography. I would advocate the rights of the Duke student’s and other artists’ and Feminists’ participation in these venues, most especially when their projects intervene on and critique the traditions within they work. And as an educator, I see these acts as stimulating material for conversations and debates about key contemporary issues.

———

* Update: Condé Nast’s The Scene has produced a 25-minute web documentary about Miriam Weeks and her alter-ego Belle Knox that may be worth a watch:

BecomingBelleKnox

Baby’s Hungry: A Daddy’s Perspective on Nursing (and Nursing in Public)

by Jay Parr

A quiet moment in the country.

That special bond between a mother and her child.

I was about twelve, riding the DC Metrobus home from school, when a woman started complaining loudly about another woman breastfeeding her baby on the bus. I didn’t see anything, so I don’t know if the nursing mother was covered up or not, but that’s irrelevant here. The complaining woman made her way up to the driver, a taciturn and tough-looking man who looked like he would as soon cut your throat as say hello (I remember him because he drove that route often). He focused on the afternoon traffic as the woman complained, until he came to a light and she demanded, “Well? Aren’t you going to do something?”

The driver looked out at the cross traffic for a moment, absently drumming his fingers on the fare box, then turned to the woman and shrugged.

“Baby’s hungry.”

BLS 348: Representing Women

BLS 348: Representing Women

I can’t say for certain that the woman immediately stopped complaining, either to the driver or to the other passengers around her, but I do remember that as far as the driver was concerned, the conversation was over.

Baby’s hungry. So feed the baby. ‘Cuz if baby ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Until thirty years later when I became a father, I never thought much about breastfeeding. I knew some people did it and some people didn’t. I knew medical opinion was evolving back in the pro-breastfeeding direction—the implicit concession being that millennia of natural selection just might trump a few decades of medical inquiry. I knew I was more likely to see women breastfeeding their children when the acoustic band I worked sound for played at places like hippie music festivals and communal farms, and I found it vaguely amusing that the medical establishment and the crunchy-living community seemed to be on the same page about something for once. That was about as far as it went.

Then we had a baby, and everything changed.

Selfie with week-old Baby Girl.

Selfie with week-old Baby Girl.

Common words like “latch” and “letdown” suddenly took on new and highly-specialized meanings. The entire household became centered around the mother-baby nursing nest. I learned that breastfeeding, while clearly the most natural process, was not without its setbacks and complications (and blood and tears). I learned about the important contributions of lactation consultants. I learned that some people who aren’t breastfeeding would much rather be breastfeeding, but can’t for some reason or other. I learned about breast-milk-sharing networks, and the amazingly selfless mothers who contribute to them. And much to my dismay I learned that breastfeeding—especially breastfeeding in public—is an absurdly controversial topic in this country.

WPA poster, circa 1937.

WPA poster, circa 1937.

But let’s back up a little. The benefits of breastfeeding are numerous and well-documented. For example, the nursing mother’s immune system works in tandem with her child’s, detecting pathogens to which the child has been exposed and producing antibodies that are passed through breast milk (if you’ve ever wondered why mothers have a strange compulsion to kiss their newborns’ hands, one theory is that it’s related to this immune support). Nursing produces hormones that encourage bonding, relaxation and a sense of well-being for both mother and child. Night milk contains tryptophan, that legendary compound that makes you so sleepy after feasting on your Thanksgiving turkey. The composition of a mother’s milk changes over time as the baby matures, to meet the baby’s changing nutritional needs. The mother’s diet affects the flavor of her milk from day to day, and children who have been exposed to that variety of flavors  at the breast tend to be much less finicky about new foods than children who have been raised on a single flavor of formula. Even among toddlers who are eating mostly solids, mothers’ milk provides a high-quality nutritional supplement, and continues to bolster the child’s still-maturing immune system—all the way up to school age. The list goes on, but I think I’ve made my point. And where the medical establishment swayed toward formula in the mid-20th century, that opinion has swung strongly back in favor of nursing in recent decades, despite the best efforts of a well-funded formula industry to keep its foot in the door.

Still, even with all that backup from the scientific and medical communities, and even with prevailing attitudes renormalizing breastfeeding—even with laws from both liberal and conservative state governments protecting a mother’s right to nurse wherever she and her child are both allowed to be—we as a culture just can’t help but be a little squeamish about the whole topic.

There seem to be two main points of debate about breastfeeding in this country: 1) How public is “too public,” and 2) how old is “too old.”

How public is too public? According to the North Carolina statute addressing indecent exposure, there is no such thing: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a woman may breast feed in any public or private location where she is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether the nipple of the mother’s breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breast feeding” (§14-190.9).

INFACT Canada transit poster, World Breastfeeding Week 2000.

INFACT Canada transit poster, World Breastfeeding Week 2000.

Does that mean a business owner or manager can’t ask a nursing mother to leave the establishment under the state’s trespassing laws? As far as I know, that part remains unclear. And of course, the laws vary widely from state to state.

Just last week a woman in Austin asked to use a fitting room at a Victoria’s Secret to nurse her child (you know, so she could nurse discreetly without flashing her breast all over, of all places, Victoria’s Secret), and was told no, thanks for your purchase and all, but go use the alley instead. She went to the news, and the story went viral, and Victoria’s Secret issued a statement distancing itself from the actions of its employee, but the fact remains that the business may have the legal right to deny anyone (even a customer who just made a $150 purchase) the use of a fitting room for any purpose other than to try on merchandise. She may have been more legally within her rights to sit down right out in front of the store and oh-so-shamelessly whip out some boob right there under the Texas sun, like a good in-your-face lactivist. Because we all know every nursing mother is really just looking for some public humiliation and controversy, right?

David Horsey / LA Times, 12 July 2012

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2012.

To look at the comments in the media, especially social media, public opinion seems to be that anything a nursing mother does (short of, perhaps, staying at home) is wrong. The mother who asked to use a dressing room was asking a private business to risk losing sales (you know, if all the other dressing rooms filled up and someone got really impatient). The mother sitting outside the store should have sought a more private space, like maybe a dressing room. The mother with her baby under a nursing blanket should have gone out to her car. The mother nursing in her car should have gone inside to a bathroom (would you eat your lunch in a public bathroom?). The mother in the restaurant should have—oh I don’t know, something. Just gone home, maybe? And we haven’t even gotten to the mother whose baby won’t tolerate being covered up, or the one who’s struggling with latch issues or has some other reason she needs to constantly watch and adjust the nursing baby.

The public’s uninhibited judgment of parents in general is pretty harsh, but the public’s judgment of nursing mothers is amazing. Check out any article about someone encountering trouble for nursing in public, and you’ll find all kinds of enlightened comments from the hoi-polloi. Anyone who’s not going about it exactly as the commenter would do it is some kind of radical or attention-monger (to use a polite euphemism), trying to cram her breast down the public’s throats. You’ll see breastfeeding equated to public masturbation, public fellatio, and even public defecation. Excuse me? Feeding the baby is a sex act? Sodomy, even? Nursing a hungry baby is equivalent to dropping a deuce in public? Now you just sound like someone who has never actually had to change a crappy diaper in a public place. It’s a hoot, let me tell you.

This commercial takes on the issue with just the right touch of humor:

Baby Mama has referred to herself as an “accidental lactivist.” Baby Girl would never tolerate nursing under a cover. Her latch was horrible early on (and has always been tentative), needing a lot of revision and pop-off re-latching. Oh, and we’re in no rush to wean, so she’s still nursing at eighteen months. Which brings us to the second major point of debate.

Kayapó mother and child in Brazil.

Kayapó mother and child in Brazil.

How old is too old? We in the United States are in an awfully big hurry to wean, and despite the fact that most of the developing world (and much of the developed world) recognizes the benefits of extended breastfeeding, we seem to view anyone who nurses beyond a year as some kind of radical. Baby Girl’s favorite toddler-class teacher recently asked Baby Mama not to nurse her in the classroom at pick-up time anymore. She justified the request with an insinuation that new dads coming in to pick up their children might be somehow “offended,” but we can’t help but wonder if it’s really driven by an opinion that at eighteen months, she shouldn’t be nursing any longer. Especially among our parents’ generation, there seems to be an opinion that if the child is still nursing at her first birthday, it’s time to cut her off (which is one lousy birthday present, if you ask me). Others will say that if she’s old enough to ask for it, she’s old enough to wean. We’re more of the opinion (as is much of the world, I think) that if it’s not working for both mother and child, well then it’s just not working, but as long as it’s still working for both, why mess with it? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, you know?

We’re not alone in that opinion. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding alongside appropriate solid foods “up to two years of age or beyond” (WHO). Here in the States, there’s something of a movement afoot toward extended breastfeeding, going hand-in-hand with the movement toward what has been dubbed “attachment parenting.” In a nutshell, attachment parenting is built around the notion that humans are naturally an offspring-carrying species (à la higher primates), not a nesting species like dogs or cats or birds. As such, the argument goes, we are more within our natural element carrying our babies, or wearing them, or co-sleeping with them at night, than we are to plop them in a stroller or a bouncy seat or a playpen or a crib (as were most of us as children). Far from spoiling the child (as the old-schoolers would say we were doing), the theory is that keeping our children physically close to us—carrying them on our chests or backs when we’re out and about, engaging them with direct attention, allowing them to sleep close to us or even with us—helps the child grow into a secure, empathetic, and nurturing adult.

Attachment parenting has something of a guru in a fellow named Dr. Sears (actually the elder of several Dr. Searses), who may in fact have even coined the term. I’m not much of a joiner, and Baby Mama will attest that I’m horrible about doing my parenting homework, so I’m not really an expert on the Doctors Sears or the current theory and research around attachment parenting. I only know that the general precepts make sense to me. Children are hardwired to bond with their core caregivers (parents, et al.), and to be more secure around them than around relative strangers such as rotating day-care providers. To get all Darwinian, it’s reproductively advantageous for children to hew toward the adults who are most driven to look out for their safety and welfare. It just makes sense.

Cover article on Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting, Time, May 31, 2013

Cover article on Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting, Time, May 31, 2013

To judge by the subtitle on this Time cover, attachment parenting is not without its detractors. Nor is extended breastfeeding. And of course, there are going to be extremists on both sides of any argument, because the world is full of nutjobs. We could talk about how part of the problem is our culture’s hypersexualization of the breast—our hypersexualization of any kind of nudity or intimate physical contact, really—and how that creates a cycle of shame and repression. We could talk about the role of patriarchal traditions and systemic misogyny (‘cuz let’s face it, fellas; those yummies aren’t there for us). We could talk about how all this is compounded by our country’s pitiful maternity leave policies, and the ways in which we make work and parenting mutually incompatible. But I’m running way too long already, and I’m bucking my deadline, so all that will just have to wait for another time.

So how public is too public? If you ask me, there is no such thing. Riding a bus, sitting in a restaurant, in uniform, in Parliament, in front of the Pope—you name it. A nursing baby is so much more pleasant than a cranky, hungry baby. Don’t want to see it? That’s simple: Don’t look.

And how old is too old? As far as I’m concerned, as long as breastfeeding is still working for both mother and child, no one else really has much right to chime in. If you’re not the mother, it’s not your body and it’s not your child, so it’s not your business.

BLS 385: American Motherhood

BLS 385: American Motherhood

In short, as the partner of a nursing mother and the father of a happy and healthy breastfed toddler, I believe that no mother should ever be made to feel that she has somehow transgressed public decency simply by feeding her infant or soothing her child. It’s not an act of rebellion. It’s not an attention-seeking spectacle. In fact, it’s not about you at all. It’s an act of love between a mother and her child. Baby’s hungry.

Why Venus Can’t Find a Modeling Gig

by Jay Parr

We have a print of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus hanging on our wall at home, and lately it occurs to me that if Botticelli’s Venus were looking for work as a model today, she would never find a job.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

I should clarify my credentials here by saying that I am neither a gender-studies scholar nor an art historian. On the gender-studies front, I’m basically just an all-around egalitarian … just feminist enough to recognize my own male-gaze tendencies. On the art-studies front, I did minor in visual art as an undergrad, but my concentration was in photography. I do also have a Master of Fine Arts, but the “art” in question there is putting lies on paper … um … fiction.

Oh, and I have no credentials in the fashion world, either. Beyond, that is, being subjected to its daily assaults along with the rest of us.

Rihanna looks like this?

Rihanna’s everyday look. No, really.

But compare that canonical painting to the images of women that bombard us from all directions today, and you will plainly see that this goddess–the very quintessence of feminine beauty in 1486 when she was painted–need only go through a supermarket checkout to learn just how desperately lacking she is in “feminine allure” today. The cover of any Vogue, Allure, Vanity Fair, or any of the other myriad fashion/celebrity-gossip/consumerist-culture magazines will inform her, without a single word and without a hint of a doubt, that she stands no chance of competing with the professionally made-up, professionally lit, professionally photographed, and professionally photoshopped images of feminine beauty that set the standard today.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Just go do an image search on the word “beauty,” and guess what you’ll find. Screen after screen after screen of women’s faces, all obviously (and heavily) coated in cosmetics, professionally coiffed, professionally photographed, and then photoshopped to the point that they bear little if any resemblance to what was actually in front of the camera lens. When I did that search while working on this post, one relatively natural-looking face jumped out at me. So I followed the link to discover that no, she was actually pretty heavily made up, with perfectly plucked eyebrows and perfectly mascaraed lashes and perfectly subtle “natural” makeup, and the hair that was out of place was, in fact, that way by design. Even better, the image was an ad for a full-service spa-salon offering such treatments as laser hair removal, microdermabrasion, skin peels, spray tanning, eyelash perming, and lash extensions. No, really. Eyelash perming. Lash Extensions.

Because that’s what women look like, right? They have thin eyebrows and thick eyelashes and translucent, perfectly-toned skin and plump, moist lips and delicate little noses and big, round eyes and tiny waists and full bosoms that utterly defy gravity.

What I look like when I wake up.

What I look like when I wake up.

Even the hippie-living magazine that somehow found its way into our house is guilty. What’s the biggest headline? SEXY SKIN! What’s the standard set by the cover? A healthy and unusually attractive young woman peering over her naked, smooth-skinned shoulder, with straight white teeth peeking through her smile, subtle “natural” lip color, “natural” makeup on her sun-kissed and lightly freckled cheeks, perfectly threaded eyebrows, and what would not be too much of a stretch to describe as something of a come-hither look in her eyes. Oh, and what was that about the out-of-place hair being that way by design? Yeah.

Birth of Venus detail

Detail of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

And that is why Botticelli’s Venus cannot find a job. I mean, just look at her. Her brows are okay, I suppose, but her eyelashes are too anemic, and her skin is too motley, and her nose is too crude and lumpy, and her mouth is too small and her lips are too blurry, and her chin is too big, and her jaw is too heavy, and her hair is all split ends and tangles (but not wild enough to be interesting), and with her brownish auburn hair and medium-brown eyes and dun skin-tone, she’s all one washed-out color. No punch. No pizazz. No waifish, delicate, might-be-dead-tomorrow magnetism here. No sir.

And that’s just her face. Look at her figure through the eyes of the porn fashion industry and you’ll see that her belly’s too soft and her waist is too thick and her breasts are both too small and too low, and her shoulders are too sloped, and her arms are too thick, and her hips are too square, and she could use a manicure.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

I mean, she doesn’t look at all like Keira Knightley on this cover of Allure, so heavily made up and post-processed that the closer you look the more she looks like a video-game avatar. Ms. Knightley doesn’t even look plastic here. Because she doesn’t even look that realistic. She looks like pure CGI. Oh, and what’s with the open fly and the sequined bolero jacket with nothing in between? Correction, nothing but body makeup and post-processing. Is this the new fashion? ‘Cuz I work on a campus with a lot of young women on it, and I ain’t seen no one walking around dressed quite like that.

I’m reminded of the first viral video of that Dove “real beauty” campaign, which, despite getting some harsh criticism from pretty much every direction, actually did a little bit to maybe get people thinking about just how realistic the images in that supermarket checkout (or on that billboard) really aren’t. At least for a moment.

Is it any wonder we have a distorted standard of feminine beauty in our culture? When the high-fashion publications and high-fashion advertising bombard us with images that are more fiction than fact? When even the “real” images are so idealized? When Venus herself looks frumpy and plain?

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Not that men in the public eye are entirely exempt from unrealistic standards of (and undue emphasis on) physical beauty. It’s certainly to a lesser extent, and less all-consuming, but I have a feeling that no one who looks like Abraham Lincoln would stand  much of a chance of being elected president these days. The fashion industry does have its unrealistic images of masculine beauty, of course. Open any high-fashion magazine and you’re going to see the images of the guys with their waxed chests and shaped eyebrows and flawless skin, because the ideal for either gender is a post-pubescent physique, minus the hormone-ravaged skin, with prepubescent hair growth (i.e., none to speak of). And the cosmetics industry does keep making attempts to get its toe in the door of the male market, with some success (skin care, shaving accoutrements, deodorants, gray-hair color and the like), but not nearly to the extent that it dominates the female market. A guy who’s out on the weekend unshaven in rumpled clothes and bed head is still just being a guy on the weekend. A girl who does the same thing is being unkempt and needs to clean up her act. No double standard there at all.

Thinking about this issue makes me miss that little Quaker college six miles west of here where I finished my bachelor’s degree. The traditional college years are an age when a lot of people experiment with nonconformity anyway, so combine that with an institution that was founded by nonconformists and actively encourages individuality and nonconformity in its students? It’s a thing of beauty, let me tell you. You’re more likely to find a copy of Adbusters lying around than a copy of Vogue. Attractive young women eschewed cosmetics, cut their hair into wake-and-go hairstyles, grew out their armpits, unibrows, mustaches, and leg hair, dressed in comfortable clothes and comfortable shoes, and headed out to class. Or to question authority. Or both.

I dug around for a while trying to find a picture from those days, but the closest I could come was this image of English-German author Charlotte Roche looking like she could have been one of my classmates there.

Charlotte Roche

Charlotte Roche

Around that time there was a billboard in town for a laser hair-removal “clinic” with a heavily-retouched photo of a hairless young woman in a postage stamp of a bikini, smooth pits open to the camera, with the legend, “You didn’t shave. You didn’t have to.” I wanted to make a spoof of that ad, same image same pose, same bikini, same legend, only with one of my classmates who was just as fit as the model in the original, except, and this is the important part, spectacularly furry.

But we’re all brainwashed. We’re so saturated with the industry’s definitions of beauty that our capacity for critical thinking just doesn’t even bother to kick in, because we see no reason to question it. I don’t think I realized quite how bad it was until just now, when I was doing the search that led to the Charlotte Roche image. Almost everything I found on the internet was ridiculing those women. Because clearly any woman would have to be a bit crazy to admit she had hair in her armpits. Or on her legs. Or in her pants. Or that she had a little bit of fat protecting her abdomen. Or that her breasts were lower than her pectoral muscles.

And that, my friends, is why Botticelli’s Venus can’t find a modeling gig.

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus,

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863

Cabanel’s Venus, on the other hand, might manage to find work, at least as a plus-size model. I mean, she does kinda look a little like Christina Hendricks.