(This is part 2 in the series “F-Bombs.” To read part one, go here.)
I’ve mentioned before that words are strong and we need to be conscious of their meanings. In the first part of this series, I said that f*ggot is a word that gets treated much more lightly than it should be. We don’t treat it as a curse word, though we should. This next word is the converse of that.
The word is feminism, and it’s time to stop thinking it’s a bad word.
Before we get into it, I should disclose that this post and the next one (because the topic’s so big and far-reaching that I don’t want to squeeze it all into one) will deal with some touchy subjects. Naturally. So be warned that we’ll be discussing sexual violence, victim blaming, and slurs, among other things.
The fact that I include that warning should give you an idea of the gravity of the subject. These are the kinds of things we’re talking about when we talk about feminism. I get the impression that sometimes that isn’t clear. But that’s the point of having these conversations, isn’t it?
So let’s start at the start.
You may have seen that I put out a survey that I asked people to respond to for the week following my previous post. I had 34 responders which was frankly more than I was expecting, which is awesome! And the first question I asked was for a definition of feminism and a feminist. And the overwhelming majority of those responses were consistent with each other.
But the general gist, and the functioning definition I’ll use for the sake of these posts is this:
Feminism is a movement advocating the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes. And a feminist, as described by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is someone who believes in the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes.
And it’s easy to say that it’s as simple as that, but when we talk about equality, we need to understand a few things. The first is that equality, as much as we so widely believe in it, is hardly present in our society.
It’s also important to realize that gender and sex are two different words and two different ideas. They’re also not binary in the way we typically think of them. But suffice it to say that feminism isn’t a movement that’s based on the number of X chromosomes someone has.
When I wrote the question, I led it in a way that I was expecting people to be gender-specific in their definitions. That is, I was expecting something along the lines of “feminism is X, and a feminist is a woman who believes X”. Now, that’s an interesting point, because that is something of a debate: can men be feminists or is the extent of their advocacy limited to just being a feminist ally? I, as you might assume since I’m writing this, side more with the former, though I absolutely understand the line of thought that suggests the latter. As a man, there are things about feminism that I cannot fully understand or appreciate because I’ve never felt it or had to process it firsthand.
I assure you, I’m fully aware that I’m a middle class, straight, white male writing about feminism, and I am doing my best to do justice to the issues I’m presenting.
But now that we’ve covered all that, let’s dive into the first subject:
Feminism and Egalitarianism
One huge thing I hear often is a rejection of feminism in favor of egalitarianism. And to an extent, that is understandable. Egalitarianism is similar to feminism in a lot of capacities. It supports equality for all people across all plains. Now that seems like an idea we can get behind, right? Equality for everyone? Heck yes. But here’s why it’s problematic when we talk about it in relation to feminism:
Egalitarianism isn’t really on the table yet.
That is, it implies a baseline or standard for equality. But the fact is that we are not all on the same baseline, namely, as it pertains to this subject, women are at a disadvantage to men. Egalitarianism talks about equality in people moving forward together. We can’t move together while women are politically, socially, and economically behind men.
I used to say this, too. For the longest time I didn’t think I could support feminism because “Hey, that’s sexist in itself if it’s just about girls! It’s got ‘fem’ in it! I’m more egalitarian because that’s for everyone!” But that’s not the case, and it’s definitely focusing on the wrong parts, and I’ve since come to realize that this is a matter of playing fields.
We need feminism to even begin to think about egalitarianism. Once we’ve got the genders on the same page, then we can actually start moving forward together.
Rape Culture and Why What We Say Matters
I don’t feel qualified to talk about economic and political aspects of feminism because I haven’t committed enough time to sit down and research it. I could talk about the wage gap, but then I’d have to talk about rebuttals to the wage gap, and in either case, there is math involved that I don’t understand. Granted, most math is math I don’t understand. But what I do feel more comfortable talking about, and what I feel is more pertinent to the “layperson” in the first place is the social/cultural aspects of feminism.
And that means we’ve got to talk about rape culture.
If that phrase is unfamiliar to you, you can google the definition, but the short and skinny of it is that it’s a culture that normalizes rape. And I hate to tell you (though you hopefully saw this coming), but we live in a rape culture. Not only that, but many of us contribute to it, often unknowingly. That’s sort of the nature of a culture, right? It’s natural, normalized.
So what does that look like? Well, a huge part of it is the idea of sl*t shaming and victim blaming.
Ok, so let’s talk about the word I just starred out. In my previous post, said that f*ggot was the only word in the series I was going to star out. That was ignorant and short-sighted of me. Because sl*t is a slur as well.
In the survey, I asked people to say what constitutes a sl*t. There were two prominent responses, each totally at ends with the other.
The first was that someone is a sl*t if they have a lot of sex. Along with that is that it may be with a lot of different people, or that they go out of their way to destroy monogamous relationships, or someone who uses others for sex with no regard for their emotions or personal feelings.
The other is that nothing constitutes a sl*t. These also varied in verbiage, but the ideas remained consistent: that it’s a label, a slur, a derogatory term to refer to and control women and their sexuality.
Maybe you could predict this, but I absolutely lean more into the latter.
So what are we saying when we call someone a sl*t? Well, a few things. One, we’re absolutely defining a person by their sex life/expression/ whatever you want to call it. And that sort of reaches back to my previous post about how we use sexuality as an identifier for people. That makes the way we see people singular. That’s especially problematic when that singularity is rooted in sex which is something that we as a society still consider taboo.
Also, the idea of a sl*t is fraught with dichotomies. The first is the sl*t/stud dichotomy. That is, women who have a lot of sex are called sl*ts and guys who have a lot of sex are called studs or players. We celebrate guys who can get around, but marginalize and shame women who do the same thing. How does that check out?
It’s easier to see, then, how sl*t as a title is used as a means of controlling women’s sexuality. And that’s hard to digest sometimes because control is a strong word and I know I, as a guy, don’t want to be viewed as controlling. Control’s a sign of abuse, isn’t it? Yes, it is. And that is exactly the problem.
And that leads into the other dichotomy of sl*t/virgin. Because it seems like these are the only two categories we feel women can fall into. She either has “too much” sex, or she’s this precious virgin whose purity and chastity should be guarded at all costs. I know when I received the sex talk, being raised in a Christian household, I was taught in a way that was pro-virginity. But it was never implied to me that my self-worth was directly tied to the use of my penis. I don’t know of any guys who were taught that. And yet, girls seem frequently to be taught that their virginity is (at least one of) their most precious traits. It’s to be guarded, it’s to be kept sacred above all other things.
Don’t believe me? I won’t tell you to google this one like I did for rape culture, but there is an entire genre of porn- virgin porn- that focuses on the fact that it’s the girl’s first time. Like, what is special about that? From what I’ve gathered talking to friends and peers is that, if anything, virgin sex is largely just bad sex compared to the sex you have once you’re more experienced. Which makes sense: you’ve never done it before, whatever. So that just goes to further show that the appeal of virgin porn is based largely, if not entirely, on the fetishization of this precious virginity being taken. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the sl*t and that makes it just as arousing.
It’s about control on both ends. And it has to stop.
So what should we take away from that? A lot of things. Like I said, a lot of this is going to be me presenting ideas and throwing them out there for you to consider. One of those propositions is this:
There’s no such thing as a sl*t. It’s a label based on a double standard of sex as it pertains to men vs. as it pertains to women. Because if I asked you “what is that?” when you call someone a sl*t (and I did, by the way), it seems the most description I’d get is that it’s someone who has a lot of sex, but it’s negative. And I already looked at how it’s controlling.
So I plead with you: don’t say sl*t. It would be awesome to stop looking at that sort of behavior as a basis of defining the person anyway, but at the very least, don’t use that word. Consider what you’re saying: you’re gauging that person as lesser based on her sexuality, and you’re condemning her for it. If you’re talking about her sexual behavior (which, why are you anyway?) you can find words that don’t demean and speak ill of her character.
We’re talking about English here, one of the most nuanced and infuriatingly intricate languages in the world. We’ve got words that literally mean the opposite of themselves (see “weather,” “nonplussed,” and “impregnable”) and we can make an entire sentence using only the word “buffalo”. Surely you can find better words. Better yet, you can make the realization that your words probably aren’t warranted in the situation in the first place.
One of the other questions I asked on the survey was what questions are important to ask in a rape case. The results are listed to the right. And the thing is, these are the sort of questions that are considered today when rape cases are brought to court. (Brief history lesson I was made aware of: Rape Shield laws weren’t passed until the 70s/80s and they protect against a court cross examining victims about their sexual history. So we have that law but it only protects against that one aspect.)
Let me let you in on a little secret here: there was one right answer here (two, really, but I phrased it ambiguously, so that’s my own fault). And that is whether the victim consented to sex. Because if it wasn’t consented to by one party or the other, then it wasn’t sex, it was rape. And that includes if they consented and then changed their mind once they started going. Because people are allowed to change their minds. I can’t think of many things you’re not allowed to change your mind about, so why would it be any different in sex? That consent is revoked and if that’s not respected, then it’s not consensual, and it’s rape.
Rape culture is where these questions come from. I personally cannot believe the phrase “legitimate rape” even exists. The idea that an act of sexual violence has to meet certain parameters to be considered “legitimate” or worthy of being brought to court is absolutely ludicrous. Again, the keyword is consent.
So questions of if the victim was intoxicated, what they were wearing, how they were acting, where they were and when- all of that is rendered irrelevant. Because all of those play into this phenomenon called victim blaming.
Victim blaming is just what it sounds like. We look at a case and begin directing questions at the victim. Because if she was wearing a skirt that was too short or a shirt that revealed too much cleavage, she was asking for it. Or she should have known better than to go through that neighborhood at that hour. A woman can be fully nude and still not be “asking for it.” Or man. Rape isn’t gender-exclusive, and neither is rape culture.
What happens when we victim blame is that we put all the responsibility on the victim and none on the rapist. And it’s interesting that we look so much at risk factors for victims, but hardly look at those for the perpetrators. Some of the risk factors for perpetrators are an environment that normalizes sexual violence and ideas of strict gender norms (sounds a lot like what we talked about with saying sl*t, huh?), homophobia, hyper-masculinity, and exposure/adherence to a highly patriarchal family culture. See a common theme in those? And so if you weren’t convinced about what our words do before, think about it this way. Is the way that you talk about sex and the sexes contributing to a risk factor for a potential perpetrator? Because if you call women sl*ts or talk down about women and their sexuality at all, then that absolutely implies an environment that makes sexual violence seem acceptable. And I’ve said this before, but it’s worth reiterating that whether you intended it to or not, that is the effect it has. And wouldn’t it be awful to have to sit down and have to talk about your intentions behind your words that created that environment only after an act of sexual violence had occurred?
That may sound overbearing or even fear-mongering, but that’s not the point. The point is that the very nature of a culture is that it’s so deeply ingrained in who we are that we don’t often step back to see what’s actually happening.
There was a hashtag circulating earlier this week that went #WhyIDidntReport. Thousands of rape victims told their stories. And you can look up statistics on your own, I’m not here to give you numbers. But so many rapes go unreported for a myriad of reasons, and I cannot accept that that has nothing to do with rape culture and victim blaming. It’s a small wonder they didn’t report. We as a society have not created a safe environment for them to do so. And that breaks my heart. I hope it breaks yours, too.
Another facet of rape culture is sl*t shaming, and it goes pretty much with what we’ve talked about concerning the word itself and victim blaming. The thing is, though, we sl*t shame all the time.
Sl*t shaming and victim blaming are out of the same vein. I’m going to take the “vein” metaphor and extend it to say that if victim blaming is like blood, then sl*t shaming is like plasma because we “donate” it or shell it out more freely. We are fast to sl*t shame. This could be because it’s more common than victim blaming outside of a rape context. The trouble with that, though, is that we then make rape the end game. We only recognize the oppression of that person once they’ve fallen victim in a very specific way, a way that meets the criteria for us as a society to actually see them as a victim. Even then, it’s not seen as oppression or societal pattern, but as an unlucky individual experience. And if our understanding, sympathy, and willingness to discuss something are dependent on rape occurring, then there is something incredibly wrong with our perception.
Sl*t Shaming, the Church, and Modesty
Like I said, we are fast to sl*t shame. And especially in a church context, that is very difficult to reconcile with this idea of modesty that we have.
And I’ll be the first to tell you that I am not quite sure how to reconcile the two, so this will be a prime example of me throwing things out there for you to consider and then throw back at me.
Firstly, I’m going to draw attention to this article that got a lot of attention on the Christian (and non-Christian) blogosphere a while back. This was some grade-A sl*t shaming, as well as a vast double-standard. If you don’t want to follow the link, the abridged version of the story is that a mom explained to teenage girls that they will be unfriended/unfollowed if they post pictures in swimsuits, gym clothes, anything she deems “obscene.” And this was for the sake of her boys. The same boys that she posted a picture of in the post. A picture of them on the beach in swimwear. Because those sorts of images could cause them to stumble, and they don’t need to be associating with girls who would post that sort of thing anyway. Because “what are you trying to say?” as she put it. Which sounds a whole lot like a wind up to “what are you asking for” which sounds an awful lot like “you were asking for it.”
And there are a whole lot of responses to this post and controversy, many of which are from women, Christian and not alike, so I will encourage you to read those if you want more input because those are insights I can’t provide.
But I will provide this:
When it comes to how we talk about modesty, I think we need to shift the focus over.
One of the hardest things for me to wrestle with is my awareness of sl*t shaming as an issue and the full knowledge that one day I will enforce a dress code in my youth group. But what I’ve observed from years in youth groups and schools with dress codes, as well as what the blogger from the story up above is that the focus is primarily on the girls. And that can have to do with a million different things including, but not limited to their age/developing bodies, the images and expectations the media flashes up daily as to how women should dress and look, the styles of clothes that are popular and most available, etc.
But when you get down to the barebones of it, a common theme is that of not wanting to cause the boys in the group to stumble. An undoubtedly good goal, not wanting guys to stumble, but also undoubtedly problematic.
Men, we are so much more than our sexual desires and impulses. We can control ourselves. But putting up dress codes with the intention of not causing guys to stumble implies otherwise. And all rules come from somewhere. Which means that, unfortunately, somewhere along the line something happened to show that we could not control some urge.
I think the focus on modesty should shift from girls making sure they’re not tempting the guys to the guys keeping themselves and one another accountable for the way they see the girls.
Thankfully, my youth group was good about this aspect. It was very much treated as an issue of accountability: are you seeing the girls around you as children of God and not just sexual objects? (Sidebar: there’s another dichotomy lurking in there that demands either you’re objectifying or not thinking sexually at all. And what does that do for the general perception of sexuality? It blurs the line between sexual attraction/feelings and objectification, ultimately leaving the impression that both are bad. So then how do you distinguish the difference between the two? Like I said in my previous post, we have to change the way we talk about sex on the whole.)
I feel like this is a huge place that the church can fight against rape culture. If you frame modesty in a way that emphasizes the response rather than the stimulus, then you are raising a group of guys who understand self-control and place responsibility and expectation on themselves rather than on the girls. Sl*t shaming and victim blaming fall into the background at that point, and they may even speak up when they hear their friends who aren’t used to that train of thought objectifying a woman.
As far as the idea of modesty itself is concerned, I’m still up in the air. I see the value in it, but then what do you say to the girl who fights back on the dress code? I would hate to opt not to explain myself, but I also would hate to. Maybe it’s just a matter of looking “professional.” Maybe it has to do with something Jesus said somewhere.
But does this inherently plays into that sl*t/virgin dichotomy we talked about earlier? Especially in the church concept where sexual impurity is so stressed? And where do modesty and purity overlap and where do they differ anyway? And where are those same standards for the boys in the group? Like I said, I don’t have the answers, I’ve just got ideas to consider and discuss.
The Final Word
It’s important to point out that I’ve barely scratched the surface here. I left out a huge component, but it’s one that warrants a mention at least. And that is intersectionality. That’s the belief that feminism is has to reach all women- women of color, gay, trans, everyone in between. And that requires a more nuanced conversation, one I’m not truly qualified to facilitate. After all, as I said, I’m speaking from my own experience and observations. But every oppressed group experiences sexual violence in a particular way, and I’m frankly just not educated enough to speak to each of those groups’ experiences. Like I said, feminism is a wide, wide scope, and it affects a lot of people. And not just women, but men, too.
I’m going to talk about that some more in the next post, along with gender identities, gendered marketing, and gender roles in marriage and the church.
I also want to issue an apology for any pronoun usage/misusage, or other things that imply exclusivity in certain topics. Especially when talking about sexual violence, it’s immensely important to understand that all genders are victimized. Regardless of where they come from, or what the gender dynamic is, it doesn’t devalidate, minimize, or otherwise lessen what happened to them.
But I want to end the same way I did with the last one. Because when we talk about issues like this, especially when there’s so much to weigh and through so many lenses and worldviews, it’s easy to get bogged down in the logistics and semantics of it all. Those things are important. They allow us to communicate better.
At the end of the day, though, we’re still talking about people. And we’re talking about people because we care about people. We care about how we’re treated and we want to strive for something greater than what we currently have. Equality is something we all want. And equality is about love.
We’re still telling stories. We say we want it to be a story about love.
Let’s keep looking at ways to make it about love.
Good talk. Here I want to thank the people that participated in the survey. Your input was awesome and enlightening, even humbling in a lot of ways. Thanks for contributing to the conversation! Also, for the sake of transparency, I should include that of the 34 responders, 31 of them chose to disclose their gender. 27 identified as female, 3 identified as male, and 1 identified as other than one of those two. Also, 31 responded to whether they considered themselves a feminist, and 30 responded to whether they considered themselves an egalitarian. Of the former, 27 said yes, 4 said no, and of the latter, 26 said yes, and 4 said no.
I also need to thank Jordan for talking with me about this, and keeping me accountable for the words I used and the ideas I conveyed. Thanks for teaching me so much and always challenging me to look at things from different perspectives!
After the last post, I had several people message/contact me sharing their views on what I’d written. Which is awesome! I’m glad it’s gotten people thinking and talking to one another. To better facilitate that, I’m going to open a box using the same format that I used for the survey.
If you’ve got feedback, questions, or even just beef with something I said/how I said it, let me know here. I really want to be able to talk with you about what you want to talk about. I will, however, ask that you do tell me who you are so I know who I’m talking to. I find that makes for much better conversation.
Also, be aware that this is with the intention of, given that I get some feedback that perpetuates conversation, putting out revisions on the series after I’m done writing the main articles. This is to sort of cover the bases I may not have touched on in the main posts. Just because I didn’t touch on them doesn’t mean they’re any less important.
Another thing about those main articles: I’m shifting away from the original format. There will only be the two F-Bombs (f*ggot and feminism) though, part 3 will also address feminism. The third word was originally intended to be “freedom” to talk about American’s ideas of freedom, what that means, what we take for granted, and how that measures up to freedom in Christ. I think it’s still an important consideration, but I found I didn’t have as much drive or direction in writing about that as I did the other two topics, and I didn’t want to end on a fizzle. That said, I may very well write about it in the future. And if you want to talk to me about it in the feedback box or anywhere else, I am, of course, happy to talk with you.