On Being Undiminished

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Last night an anonymous man sent me a message comprised solely of hateful, demeaning comments about my body. The message came about, it seems, because he recognized me from my presence in my local Pride parade and wanted to wound me. I believe, though I am not certain, that it is someone who made a pass at me once and whom I turned down. The comments were designed to make me feel insecure and small. And I will not lie: they had this effect. The comments haunted my sleep and they have haunted my day today, not only because of what they said but because of the reality that someone I don’t even know would reach out to me with such cruelty and hatred.

But I think this sort of experience is all too common. It is the reality of being a woman with any kind of presence on the internet. No, let me amend that: it is the reality of being a woman with any kind of presence in the world. People (usually straight cis men, but not always) feel entitled to map, assess, characterize, and legitimize women’s bodies.

I am writing this because I want to own this experience and transform it. I will not let a stranger take my joy away from me. My presence in the Pride parade this year meant the world to me. I danced through the whole parade. Joyfully, blissfully. I danced because I was surrounded by people who mean a lot to me and because am in a place in my life where I am genuinely happy. I have a job that I adore, I write songs that fill my mind with beautiful electricity when I play them, I love the people in my life, and I love my presence in the world. All of the things are possible because of my body. My body is my voice, my movement, my heart, my hands, my bliss, all I am, and all I create.

I am 34 years old. It is probably only in the last couple of years that I have come to love my body. In my younger years, I struggled with, and overcame, an eating disorder. I internalized the message that my body would only be ‘right’ if I changed it in some way, reshaped it, cut away at its contours. I believe that I would have the right my place in the world only if I occupied less space in the world. And so I reshaped my body. I participated in a long, soft process of self-diminishment, of slowly disappearing like a shadow that slips under the door as the day moves on its axis.

But I am done with disappearing. I love my strong leg muscles, the curves of my stomach, and the feeling of the wind in my hair when I am dancing. I may never be completely free from the inner voices that tell me that I am not good enough, but I am finished with disappearing. I will dance in every parade that means something to me. I will occupy space, I will create, I will make change. I will not be silenced: neither my voice nor my footfalls as I move through the world with joy and presence. I am a formidable human being.

And to all the women (or people of any gender) who have been made to feel like your bodies are not good enough, who have been subject to cruel words and glances that cut you to pieces, I want to say this: I send you all my warm thoughts and love in solidarity that, if you wish, you can wrap around yourself and hold for a while. Come dancing with me, if you want to. In the streets, by the ocean, in songs sometimes, and sometimes in silence. We can undisappear, we can be whole, we can be undiminished.

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On Bisexuality, Three Fears, and, Ultimately, Love

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One of the realities that I deal with as a bisexual person (yes, I said that word, because silence is good for sleep and stargazing but not so much for changing minds) is that I live with three particular fears. These three fears come alive most vividly when I am dating someone new. They wind around me, bind me tightly, and ask me to choose one of two directions. Fears do not beseech with gentle words; sometimes they speak without words at all, or they shout loudly in the most hidden places, but they always seem to convey their meaning.

One of these fears is that, if I am dating a man, friends from my queer community will reject me (as sometimes has happened in one way or another) for not being or acting queer enough.

Another fear is that, if I am dating a woman, other folks in my life will see it as an experimental whim (as has happened, even from those who are dear to me). Being bi is so often assumed to be just a phase. This is hurtful because to me it is a vital element of my identity.

I am someone who is capable of being romantically and sexually drawn to people of more than one gender. I’ve known this since I was 14-ish, though for many years I seldom spoke of it. I have spoken about it lot more frequently of late. I’ve written about it too, and probably will so more – partly because a dear friend (someone whom I love ferociously and devotedly) recently referred to me as a ‘bisexual activist.’ Coming from this person, these words made me infinitely proud and made me want to shake up the world with words and dancing.

If I am going through a phase, realistically it’s a twenty-year-long phase because I’ll be 34 in less than two weeks. Happy birthday, me, let’s have a party and eat some delicious cake! But oh goodness, that brings me to another assumption: the assumption that as a bi person I want to have my cake and also eat another cake too. That, if I really like more than one gender, then I will never be satisfied. And there it is – there’s the third fear that nestles itself gently between the other aforementioned two.

This third fear is that the person I fall for will believe that someone like me can never love one person fully and completely. That this person will be wary of me because of that notion that bi folks can’t settle down and be satisfied with one love. I can’t speak for everyone, but I for one just want one that person to write songs about forever (as realistic or unrealistic as that hopeless and yet hopeful romanticism of mine may be).

Some people who read this will think to themselves, why can’t she just be more confident? Why focus on fear? Let the fears fall away. Don’t give them your breath, and they will just die naturally on their own.

But the thing is, I am confident. This post was born of fears, but just as much it was born from love. It is about whom I choose to love, but it also comes from a very deep place of self-love. Despite the fears and stereotypes that have haunted me, I am proud of who I am.

And I’ve come to realize that the problem is not that I have these fears. It is that I have good reason to have these fears. I have twenty years’ worth of interactions with friends, lovers, family members, and strangers to confirm to me that these fears are neither irrational nor benign. The problem is not me, but the biphobic stereotypes and myths that still thrive. These stereotypes and myths are often silent but they are still brazen. And their brazen silence is the reason I feel that I need to speak – because people like me have sometimes chosen a long, intricately woven hush rather than bare our authentic selves. Because fear has told us that love and acceptance cannot exist for us without compromise and erasure. This is not a reality I want to endorse; I’m rather fond of love.

I don’t claim to speak for all bi folks. Everybody’s lived experiences are their own. I only have one voice and one heart, but I am at the point in my life where I find value in using both of these instruments unyieldingly. Love is worth the risk. It always is.

“Asking for It”: some thoughts on conquest, discipline, and girls’ bodies following the Steubenville rape verdict

I have been thinking a lot about the recent Steubenville rape decision and its coverage in the media. The one phrase that has been stuck in my mind all day today is this one: “asking for it.”

I have spent much of my life playing with words, sometimes building them, sometimes dismantling them. To study language and to love writing: both involve no less than this. So when I think about words and phrases, I want to break them down and look at them. And with some phrases, I want to break them apart, to crumble them into small pieces of sand. I want to look at the pieces in my hand, then scatter them into the wind.

If you don’t know the extent that the sentiment of “asking for it” has been invoked following the Steubenville verdict, you can visit here. Countless twitter users, not to mention the mainstream media, have articulated sympathy for the Steubenville rapists while simultaneously chastising the victim. The chief basis for this victim blaming is that the victim was drunk when she was raped. The logic of victim blaming will tell you that this young woman should have been aware of her surroundings. It will tell you that she invited dehumanization and violence on her body. That she implicitly requested to be raped. That she asked for it.

But, as a phrase, what does “asking for it” really mean? What has it come to mean? Through use and repetition in media and subcultures, words and phrases take on particular, honed meanings and connotations beyond their literal structure and origin. At this point in time, “asking for it” does not actually mean to ask. It does not mean to vocalize consent. It does not signify an articulation of desire. When you think about it, it is actually not used to suggest that a young, unconscious woman literally or implicitly said, “Do this to me.”

Instead, what it says is that she deserved it.

“Asking for it” has come to be used in reference to perceived weakness and the perceived necessity of punishment. This is clear in uses of the phrase outside the context of sexual assault.

“Asking for it” is used by the tired parent whose child won’t stop yelling in the middle of a busy mall. The parent slaps or spanks the child. The child cries even more. But that’s okay, right? She, the child, was asking for it. Her misbehaviour, the parent believes, warrants such stern reprimand.

“Asking for it” is used in military strategy games when your opponent is distracted and lets down his guard for that crucial moment. His defences are down. So you take action, because you are playing a game and the purpose of this game is to win. As a consequence, you make major ground. Your opponent is upset at your success, of course. But he let it happen. He displayed his own weakness. He let his guard down. He was asking for it.

I could think of many more similar scenarios, but I think these two are enough to make my point. “Asking for it” is used when someone has acted in a way that reveals a weakness. It is used in situations when someone is seen to deserve violence in order to discipline them for bad behaviour.

It does not really mean to ask. And yet, strangely enough, it is conflated with the concept of consent, as if consent could be implicitly given by being drunk or unconscious.

All day, I have asked myself how it could be that so many people have expressed the sentiment that a young woman who was unconscious was “asking for it”? But as I think more about it, I think my two examples above are oddly appropriate. We live in a culture that so often sees young women as small children who need steering and discipline so as to protect them from themselves. And we also see young women as military-esque targets that are the objects of battles and conquests. We tell women not to wear certain clothes because we believe men cannot help themselves. We tell them men only want to conquer. We tell them don’t walk in certain areas. Watch your drink. Don’t wear that skirt. And if you don’t behave as we say, you are responsible for the punishment that others allot to you. You should have better guarded your fortress.

But, as a culture, we don’t tell men not to rape.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I have never been raped. I know so many people, all across the gender spectrum, who have been subject to sexual violence. I am humbled by their strength and their resilience in overcoming what they have been through and speaking out about it.

Statistically speaking, you know these people too, whether or not you have heard their stories. This kind of violence is all too common.

I haven’t been raped, but I have been beaten up. I think of the Steubenville victim, who was only sixteen when she was raped. When I was sixteen, one night I was at my then-boyfriend’s apartment. He and I were drinking wine. He picked a fight with me. I told him that I wanted to go home. It was after midnight, and I was tired of being called names. I told him I wanted to see my dad. I reached toward the doorknob of his room. This was the first time he hit me. It didn’t leave a visible bruise, but for a week after, I had a small red blot that seemed to hover just on the surface of my left eyeball. Like a tiny red planet in motionless orbit around my iris. No one else noticed.

When I started to be vocal about him hitting me, I was keenly aware of how many people within my group of friends (who were also his group of friends) started to change in how they acted toward me. I knew what was said behind my back. I knew that some people sympathized with me. But I knew that others expressed in so many words behind my back that I had asked for what had been happening to me, because I was a strange, awkward girl who wore particular clothes and flirted too much and should have been more sensible about where she went and who she spent time with.

I have no idea what it is like to be raped. I have no idea what it is like to know that there are images of your rape around the internet. I have no idea what it is like to be revictimized at trial and then once again in the trial of public opinion. But I do remember a little bit about what it is like to be a drunk sixteen year old girl, even though I’m almost twice that age now. And what I know about that is that no matter how drunk you were, you did not ask to be mistreated. More likely than not, you believed in the goodness of other people. You did not ask to be treated as a thing. You did not ask to be someone’s object of conquest. You did not ask to be punished, dehumanized, and humiliated. Your body did not ask for discipline.

I know that you were never asking for it.

Because asking for it, if you really, really take a moment and think about what that phrase should mean, would involve a girl opening her mouth and speaking consent. Or writing it down. Or making some kind of meaningful communication. It would involve an action: to ask. Not lying down limp and unconscious or saying nothing. We all deserve, and we must demand, a better world than the one that exists now. And part of demanding this better world is refusing to accept the idea that others have some kind of implicit right to articulate their rage on girls’ bodies.

No one ever asks for this.

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