I’m Over It, Too

If you’re following these issues at all, you probably already know three things about rape culture:

  1. Indian women are over it. Don’t even make me put all those hyperlinks in here. It’s not just New Delhi. If you really want a new definition of brutal sexual assault, use your Google machine and type in the words rape or gang rape and Haryana. If you’re not in a place where it will be okay to weep openly, try not to read the stories about prepubescent girls – and be warned, there are lots of them.
  2. The U.S. Congress doesn’t care. (Why are we not surprised?) America may be starting to, as fallout from the Steubenville, Ohio attack is finally hitting the news, or it could just be another case of the somebody-should-do-somethings.
  3. Eve Ensler is over it, and asking us all to be the somebody who does something.

Well, I won’t be reading any of her monologues anytime soon, but I will be joining Ms. Ensler to Occupy Rape on February 14, 2012. One way or another, I’ll be telling my own story.

Why? Because we have allowed shame to silence so many victims and empower so many perpetrators. Because we’ve accepted this culture for so long. Because yes, there is a link between sexual violence and women’s ability to succeed in the workplace.

A culture that passes off sexual harassment as mere “eve teasing” – sorry, in Western parlance, “boys will be boys” – is a culture that will never treat women as equals.

So why do we – nice, polite girls who try to cover up our cleavage and suck it up when the powerful old guys talk to us like we’re trash – let Slut Walk and Eve Ensler do our dirty work?

I joined Ms. Ensler’s campaign, but for me, standing up doesn’t mean reading one of her plays. It means speaking up in my own voice. It means pointing out that rape isn’t just something that happens in Appalachia or at frat parties or in far-off places. A culture that blames women’s bodies for tempting the men around them is reprehensible, whether it’s expressed by covering women in burqas or firing them for their curves or even shunning them from church because their God-given breasts are too big. (And I’m not just talking about Jessica Simpson, here.)

In this kind of culture, the only way to be taken seriously as a woman is to erase your body as much as possible. That can take the form of voluntary breast reduction, something many women I know have done. It can take the form of weight gain or loss. It can take the form of dressing as masculine as possible, as commentators like Ruth Marcus recommend, condemning young, single women to a joyless future with no room for sexuality.

That’s why I’m inspired by other women who refuse to play by those rules, and I don’t mean by wearing skintight dresses in the workplace. I mean by simply being women, their full selves, in whatever context, and refusing to accept any gender-based barriers to success.

Don’t just do it for the rest of us, do it for yourself. It’s a question of honor.

Sorry, I Had To Fire You For Being Hot

This is for everyone who thinks I’m joking when I say that women who are in any way up-front about their sexuality (ie refuse to wear that modern version of the burqa, the ill-fitting grey suit) face workplace discrimination.

“These judges sent a message to Iowa women that they don’t think men can be held responsible for their sexual desires and that Iowa women are the ones who have to monitor and control their bosses’ sexual desires,” said attorney Paige Fiedler. “If they get out of hand, then the women can be legally fired for it.”

Yeah, just like it’s our fault for having boobs.

Continue reading

Keepin’ It Classified

[The] next time a cabinet official sleeps around, he’d better make sure his mistress keeps the affair offline.

— Spencer Ackerman, at wired.com, naming Paula Broadwell one of “The 15 Most Dangerous People in the World”

Classy, Spencer, classy – especially when just one paragraph before, you’ve noted that the General was a willing participant in the cyber portion of this affair, if not its driver. (And please, would all the women who’ve been hit on by Petraeus over the years please stand up? I know you’re out there, but I can’t do it for you.) That’s without even mentioning that we still aren’t clear how she got the information in the first place. In the actually existing world of security clearances, you get a violation not for reading stuff you shouldn’t, but for letting others have access to information they don’t need to know.

In Ackerman’s defense, he’s less lenient toward another officer: Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, who stands accused of rape. However, that case is unsettling for additional reasons. Continue reading

Why Sex Matters

I know I am on a kick recently. Someone politely asked me what all this discussion of sexual assault and lipstick had to do with work/life balance, motherhood, and similar issues concerning women in public life. Another asked, is it prudent for you to write about this when you want professional women to trust you with their life histories? The answer is simple: No, it’s not prudent. And the fact that it’s not prudent is precisely the issue.

On some level, it is possible – and sometimes politically necessary – to isolate issues and to distance ourselves from them. Maternity leave is perhaps the easiest example. Some institutions, such as the Department of State, still require women to take sick leave to have a child. We treat childbirth, upon which our continued existence as a species depends, as an illness. Women who do not have enough sick leave saved up can invoke the Family and Medical Leave Act, but that leave is unpaid. This is an easily understood problem with a clear fix. You don’t have to get emotional to see my point.

But even that simple issue reflects bigger problems with the role of women in public life. One of the women in my binder put it this way: “As a woman, your invitation to the table is conditional.” At work, we are seen as optional, not indispensable. Likewise, institutions assume that our income is not critical to our household finances.

The only way to get around that right now is to style ourselves as men. That can mean following Ruth Marcus’ advice to hide our attractiveness, which is particularly devastating for single women whose only hope of finding a partner is during their nonstop workday. That can mean being the kind of woman who schedules her C-section for the weekend and comes into work early on Monday, earning the praise of her colleagues and superiors (not a theoretical example). For many women, it means paying out-of-pocket for breast reductions so that our bodies don’t automatically compromize our public image (also a true story). When we are harassed or assaulted, we are told to remain silent, lest it harm our own reputation (it happened to me in 2004, in 2006, and in 2007). In essence, to gain acceptance as professionals, we have to prove that we are just like men.

I find that unacceptable. At the end of the day, sex – that loaded term – is what distinguishes men and women. It is the number one method of human reproduction. It is one of the strongest desires expressed by our species, the pursuit of which causes people to seek power and to put it in jeopardy, to earn and to spend money, to win and to lose social status. It is the area in which social attitudes toward men versus women differ most sharply. And it is the topic that lurks under our most powerful emotions. Which issues most deeply divide our nation? Abortion and gay marriage – both of which revolve around sex.

I don’t ask any of the women in my binder to discuss their sexuality unless they choose to, and I do not want to become known as a single-issue advocate. But after years of trying to talk around this issue, I think it’s time to talk about it. Too many of us stay silent about sexual harassment and sexual assault, accepting the argument that it is all women’s fault. We live fearfully in the gray zone, where we want to be found attractive by potential partners but do not want to be blamed for the unwanted attention that also comes our way.

By mainstream logic, men are so weak that a pair of “toned triceps” can threaten our national security. If women want to work alongside men, they must do everything in their power to avoid tempting them. We pretend that the United States is so different from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iran, but our society merely expresses the same prejudices in different ways. I am no more willing to stay silent about our own distorted attitudes than I am to endorse public stonings – especially not when the women of Afghanistan are risking their lives for change. In comparison, my worries about my reputation and possible future employment seem absurd.

I love my country passionately. I believe that we can only fulfill our potential as a nation if women are fully included in public life. I will not betray the trust of the women in my binder or put words in their mouths, nor do I wish to make them uncomfortable by affiliating them directly with my outspoken voice – which is why I repeat that these are my opinions, not theirs.

But I have agreed to remain silent for far too long. No more. If a teenager in Kentucky can stand up for herself,* so can I. Stay tuned.

 

Let’s Talk About Sex

I’m reposting this after writing the most recent entry, on hiding in public. That is, after all, what professional women must do with their sexuality in order to succeed. It’s the subject that very few of the women in my binder want to talk about publicly, even though it’s there every time they open their closet to get ready for work – especially if they’re single. What’s the right amount of makeup to signify that they’re single and looking without painting themselves into a low-ceilinged corner? Is it possible to be young, sexy, and successful?

While the policy world and pop culture are far apart, we have to start with our society’s general ideas about female sexuality. Over at the Atlantic, Ashley Fetters is arguing that Ke$ha “is 2012’s answer to The Feminine Mystique.” What she means is that Ke$ha’s life and attitudes – her imitation of a particular version of masculinity  – embody what “our” feminist foremothers dreamed of for us.

Fetters might be right, but forgive me for being unimpressed. She quotes the pop star saying, “[I] can work and party as hard as any man.” As any man. Ke$ha’s feminism is merely an imitation of agressive masculinity. The images – dancing with her mom in a penis costume, bragging about objectifying men for sex, even sitting quietly on a rock and deciding she’s a warrior – don’t add anything new to the universe. They merely pretend to subvert it. This is Tuckerina Max and nothing more.

Is that really what Betty Friedan and Virginia Woolf and Naomi Wolf had hoped for? Perhaps it’s the logical extreme of some of their ideas, but I would argue that all Ke$ha does is reinforce an idea of masculinity that is as harmful to men as it is to women. I’ll never be a whiskey-swilling frat-boy partier who’s all, “Let’s not make this a thing.” If I want a warrior princess, I’m going to have to look elsewhere.

Cue Beyonce, who, in “Countdown,” articulated a version of femininity that I could get behind. I like to get all up in the kitchen in my heels. I want to win a man’s mind and show him I’m the flyest. Like Beyonce, I want to make it through the tough times with someone, have a love that grows with the years, and still be lip lockin at the end of the day.

But I can’t say that – not in my career.

Luckily for these ladies, they’re in a business where sex sells. It isn’t easy, but redefining our ideas about womanhood is kind of their job. What about the rest of us? I have known a lot of successful women in politics, but with all due respect to Madeleine Albright, I don’t want to be known for my brooches. The closest I’ve got to a Beyonce in my profession is Huma Abedin, and even she couldn’t find a man who was worthy of her.

Whether we’re discussing Holly Petraeus or Hillary Clinton, what no one will say in writing is that these women – pantsuited, “frumpy,” put aside for more openly sexual alternatives – played the role we cast them in. In politics, you can be intelligent or you can be attractive, but to be both is to be under constant attack. A colleague I was dating over a year ago actually told me that, because I dressed cute for work and wore makeup and talked about my weekend interests, he didn’t think I wanted to be taken seriously. I dumped him, but I kept my red lipstick. I am inspired by the women in my binder who do the same. They are incredibly brave.

If I’m lucky enough to be so successful that I’m one day tapped as Ambassador to TinyWar-TornCountryNoDonorWouldEverConsider, I’m sure this post, along with every sexy picture of me ever posted to Facebook, will be fair game for Congress – proof that I’m an unserious floozy who can’t be trusted to represent America. Someone will make the argument that no male diplomat in his right mind would talk about his love life online.

And they’d be right. Because men don’t have to choose. They’ve got James Bond, Bill Clinton, and David Petraeus in their binders. Meanwhile, women like me still need someone to look up to.

So keep singing, Beyonce. You’re all I’ve got.