Masculinities Mondays: 26th of May 2014

Before I moved to Colombia I had heard, of course, about the culture of machismo here and all of my Latin American friends had tried their best to mentally prepare me for the sexist context that I was walking into.  Upon arriving in Bogotá, however, I immediately noticed how polite and respectful the majority of men here seem to be, especially compared to my experiences with men in Bangkok. They give me right of way on public transport even during peak hours, they appear to be more likely than women to give up their seats to the elderly and those in need on the bus, they respect ‘no’ as an answer when they approach and you’re not interested and, although they do often make comments when I walk past them on the street, it’s usually just a relatively inoffensive, ‘Buenas días!’ (‘Good morning!’). I was beginning to wonder what all of the hype about machismo was…until I went on a four-day trip with three Colombian male friends.

Apart from (jokingly and unsuccessfully) trying to convince me on the first day of our travels that “in Colombian culture, everyone takes a shower together” and knocking on the door while I was in the shower to ask if I needed help, they always treated me with respect and are (what I would call) nice guys. But perhaps because women were so underrepresented – with me being the only girl on the trip – or maybe because they just forgot that I was there, it didn’t take them long to slide comfortably into ‘guy talk’ – a state in which they happily stayed for the next four days. This involved them making detailed ratings and comments about the body parts of all of the women in a 360 degree radius of anywhere that we sat/stood/stopped for 10 seconds or more. Come to think of it, we didn’t even need to be stationary; they were very adept at drive-by harassment, at least some of which was definitely audible to the women targets on the street. Thankfully, my Spanish wasn’t good enough to understand about half of their comments about women but, needless to say, I returned from that trip with a very colourful vocabulary list that they certainly don’t teach in my Spanish course. For efficiency, they made use of the convenient clock face method (ie. ‘Check out the ass at 4 o’clock’) and even where we sat at every café, bar or restaurant was determined by how well the table provided a direct line of sight and proximity to women they found attractive. They made elaborate, ultimately unsuccessful, plans to hook up with the local girls. And, to top it off, the theme song they’d unanimously chosen for the trip was a delightful number called ‘Prende la Moto’ (‘Grab the Motorcycle’) whose lyrics go something along the lines of: “I know that you’ve come here to enjoy / And you know what I’m going to give you / And you’re going to like it / With your permission (at least, he asks for permission), I ask you to rise / grab it with your legs / and, with your hips, give the endurance to last all night long…”  They had all of the corresponding movements down too.

At first I just cringed inside and tried to make myself as small as possible in the back seat of the car, but that’s just not me, and by the third day, I’d really had enough. I told them that the way that they were talking about women wasn’t cool and that I didn’t appreciate it. They laughed, quieted down for a few minutes, and then started up again as soon as the next woman walked past. I guess they just saw me as a feminist killjoy but, after years of working on gender issues, I automatically see even this type of verbal harassment and objectifying of women as inextricably linked to more violent acts against women like, for example, Friday’s misogyny-driven California killing spree.

I’m not at all saying that I think my guy friends would ever do anything like that, or even harm a woman in any way. But men’s use of verbal harassment and objectification demean women and feed a culture in which men’s use of violence against women is normalised, even accepted, because women are seen as ‘lesser than.’ As Anne Theriault explains in her post about Friday night’s murders: “We need to talk about this. The media, especially, needs to address this. We live in a culture that constantly devalues women in a million little different ways, and that culture has evolved to include a vast online community of men who take that devaluation to its natural conclusion: brutal, violent hatred of women. And I don’t mean that all these men have been physically violent towards women, but rather that they use violent, degrading, dehumanizing language when discussing women. Whose bodies, just as a reminder, they feel completely entitled to.”

When my workmate and I were walking down the street last week and a guy stuck his head out of his truck and whistled at us, when a guy walked past me on the street in Thailand and grabbed my breast, when a guy followed me home in Switzerland, when a guy flashed me in Australia when I was ten years old, I did not take it as a compliment. It did not make me feel more beautiful or desirable or valuable. It made me feel sick, angry and unsafe.

This is obviously not an issue isolated to Colombia and, certainly, many Colombian men are actively taking a stand against harassment and violence against women. It was just my first journey with a group of straight guys where I was the only girl and I suspect that ‘guy talk’ is pretty similar in other parts of the world. So, to all of my guy friends out there, even if you think it’s just a bit of harmless flattery, think twice before you tell that woman how nice her ass is, or before you describe the body of the new girl in the office to your friends, or before you whistle at those women on the street. And say something when you hear your friends do it. All of our actions have consequences far beyond us. 

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Masculinities Mondays: 19th of May 2014

If you watch any video online this week, I strongly recommend that you make it Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk, ‘We should all be feminists.‘  Okay, so it’s a year old but, in this unapologetic and hilarious talk, Adichie makes some excellent points about gender equality: “Take cooking, for example. Today women are more likely than men to do the housework – the cooking and cleaning – but why is that? Is it because women are born with a cooking gene? Or because, over the years, they have been socialised to see cooking as their role?…Cooking, by the way, is a very useful skill for a boy to have. I’ve never thought it made sense to leave such a crucial thing – the ability to nourish oneself – in the hands of others.” On the theme of masculinities she also argues, for example, “We must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently. We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way; masculinity becomes this hard, small cage and we put boys inside the cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear; we teach boys to be afraid of weakness; of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves.”

Similarly, this article by sociologist at the University of Woolongong and White Ribbon Campaign ambassador, Michael Flood, ‘Feminism Needs Men. Men Need Feminism,‘ explains that “Men need feminism because, without it, we will be stuck in a box. Stuck in an “Act Like a Man” box. Stuck in narrow gender roles which are suffocating, unhealthy and dangerous for us and for others.”

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And to celebrate and support breaking out of narrow boxes, don’t forget that the 17th of May was International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. If you’re a teacher, or just interested in learning more yourself, here’s a list of resources I’ve compiled for different age groups:

UNESCO Lesson Plan

Ready, Set, Respect! Elementary Toolkit

* Video – STAND UP Against Homophobia

* Video – Imagine a world where being gay was the ‘norm’

* More resources available here and here

And, finally, my old stomping ground, the Institute of Development Studies, has just released a Sexuality and Social Justice Toolkit: a practical and hands-on guide for anyone working in these areas.

 

Masculinities Mondays: 12th of May 2014

This week it’s all about breaking down barriers, diversifying categories, and redefining the ‘norm.’

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As you may have heard, Conchita Wurst, of Austria, took home first prize at the Eurovision contest this week. Oh, and she has a beard. Although a transgender woman has won Eurovision in the past, in pairing a sequinned dress with a beard, as Paris Lees argues in The Guardian, Conchita Wurst was refusing to be pushed into a box (the ‘male’ box, ‘female’ box OR the ‘trans’ box). Although any perusal of videos related to Conchita Wurst’s win reveal a plethora of negative and bigoted comments, the fact that a person so obviously defying traditional gender norms was able to win a competition based on public votes is at least a positive step towards a more accepting society.

And, on the topic of diversity acceptance (or recognition), I highly recommend this TEDx Talk by iO Tillet Wright about the problems (and uselessness) of boxing people into categories of sexuality, as the reality of humans sexuality seems to be more of a spectrum than distinct, clear categories of ‘straight’ or ‘gay.’ Wright, for example, was born as a girl, lived as a boy for 8 years, and then decided to live as a boy again; she likes boys and girls. Wright’s point is that these dubious categories should not be used to designate some people in society as second-class citizens. In a move close to my heart, Wright is using photography as a means to fight discrimination, because of the art form’s ability to illustrate our shared humanity, despite our infinite diversity. 

Always on trend, Facebook in the US has recently increased the number of gender identities that people can choose from on their profiles to 56. And soon all of us in the rest of the world will be granted this same right by the almighty Facebook gods. As The Guardian argues, however, (echoing Wright’s points) perhaps it’s best just to have a blank box that people can fill in themselves because, clearly, when you reach 56 categories it’s probably time to acknowledge that the limitless range of people’s genders (and sexualities) do not fit so nicely into predefined boxes. 

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also recently released a Bollywood-style video combatting homophobia. The video depicts an Indian family preparing to meet their son’s new partner, only to discover that the partner is a man, and follows how the family reacts. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, explained, “As awareness grows, attitudes will change. We need to do all we can to hasten change by challenging the myths and misinformation that get in the way of understanding. That is what this campaign is about.”

Reading through all of these articles this week reminded me of an essay I wrote during my undergraduate studies. Clearly ahead of my time in 2005, I wrote:

“A few days ago, while I was ordering my usual medium, fair trade, skinny latte, with one sugar and a marshmallow on top, I thought to myself how wonderful and intriguing the world would be if we could all have our own personally-designed sexualities just as we all have our own, unique ways of drinking coffee…The notion of sexuality was born out of the realisation that sex did not have to be procreative and out of a need to classify human beings after the immense proliferation of sex-related discourses in Europe during the Victorian era. Creating the concept of sexuality gave European scientists, doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists the power to define who was ‘deviant’ and who was ‘normal;’ hence the emergence of the homosexual and, eleven years later, the heterosexual…With so few categories to choose from, it is likely that the majority of us have to force ourselves – and sometimes, physically alter our bodies – to fit into the identities of ‘heterosexual,’ ‘homosexual,’ ‘bisexual,’ and ‘transsexual.’ Perhaps nobody really fits. How many people have to endure life feeling like they do not belong, before the discourses which hold the power of definition finally construct a wider variety of sexual identity categories?”

It may have taken nine years, but perhaps these events of the past week are a sign that the social change I was hoping for as a 22 year-old are finally, slowly, beginning to become a reality. 

 

 

Masculinities Mondays: 5th of May 2014

This week, it’s all about masturbation.

While reading this week about Betty Dodson, the 85 year-old who is teaching women in the United States how to make themselves orgasm, it dawned on me that pleasure (female or male) played no part in the sex education that I received at my non-denominational international school in the mid-nineties. Certainly, from speaking to friends, it seems that even just by having any information about sex, my school was better than most. However, from what I recall, it was all about how to avoid getting pregnant and getting HIV/AIDS. Essentially, I guess, the point was to terrify us into not having sex (because, of course, that has been proven to be a really effective method!!). Sex was depicted as something dangerous and scary, with devastating consequences. I recall vividly a graphic showing a pyramid of people, illustrating how quickly HIV can spread, as well as a video of a live birth, exceedingly up close and personal. The words ‘pleasure,’ ‘masturbation,’ and ‘fun’ were entirely absent. When we were about 10 or 11, they split us up into boys and girls and they told us girls about periods. Perhaps the boys learned about their own pleasure then (guys – do any of you remember?) but female pleasure was certainly never mentioned. Is it any wonder, then, that many women have trouble reaching orgasm?

And it doesn’t seem that things have gotten much better in the last twenty years. The Australian news has recently been reporting on the need for an overhaul of the nation’s sex education curriculum as teenagers have revealed that the information they are receiving is insufficient. Two years ago, the Government of Bogotá received harsh criticism for publishing an illustration of a girl that implied that she was masturbating. And NGOs and inspiring individuals alike have been critiquing the absence of information about consent in sex education in the U.K.

Call me crazy but, as I see it, both pleasure AND consent are central to sex and, yet, if we still don’t teach kids how to understand their own bodies, how can they articulate what they like and don’t like – and what they consent and do not consent to do – with their sexual partners?

I’d love to hear about what sex ed (if any!) was like when & where you were growing up; positive or nightmarish approaches – all stories welcome!