Joining Humanity’s Immune System: In the Body, in the Classroom, in the World

I had a tough day today in the classroom. I guess I brought it on myself by daring to raise unmentionable issues like violence against women and cancer….daring to follow Eve Ensler’s lead by assigning my students to read her remarkable cancer/incest survivor memoir, In the Body of the World. Unknown I assigned it for my class on “Media Strategies for Social and Environmental Justice.” The first book we read was Bill McKibben’s activist memoir Oil and Honey, about how he founded 350.org in a college classroom and how it grew to be a hugely successful global movement aimed at raising awareness about climate change and pressing for swift transition to renewable energy models.

This week we’ve been looking at Eve Ensler’s trajectory from a theater artist interviewing women about their vaginas and creating the series of monologues that would become “The Vagina Monologues,” to founding the V-Day movement to end violence against women, and now the One Billion Rising for Justice global phenomenon. Eve Ensler TED

But along the way, Eve Ensler got cancer. It arrived, she says in her viral TED Talk “Suddenly My Body,” with the force of a bird smashing into a plate glass window.

Her cancer memoir, In the Body of the World, is remarkable in its fearless interweaving of the personal and the political, the individual and the global, the violent rape of a daughter (Eve herself) with the violent rape of our Mother Earth by Western capitalist culture.

 ***

My plan for the class was to focus mostly on the cancer issue…to look at the horrifying statistics of cancer in the U.S., to name it as the runaway pandemic it is, and to think with the students about how we might most effectively employ media tactics and tools to raise awareness and push for social change. But I didn’t realize how deeply Eve Ensler’s description of violence against women, as related the violence of our chemical assault on Mother Earth, would resonate with these young people. Some of them were deeply troubled, even to the point of having to leave the class.

With the students who stayed, I had a good discussion about cancer itself. We looked at the most recent statistics of cancer in the U.S. (1.6 million NEW cases projected for 2014 by the American Cancer Society) and discussed the most common media strategies for dealing with the issue of cancer in the U.S.: walks, runs and galas “for the cure.” LivingDownstream_Portrait1

It took some pushing, but eventually I got the students to begin to discuss how activism that only focuses on “the cure” is missing the huge point: we need to focus on preventing cancer, not just curing it once it’s appeared. In Sandra Steingraber’s famous formulation in her cancer memoir Living Downstream, we need to start looking upstream.

What would looking upstream really mean? Buried deep in the American Cancer Society report is a short section on the environmental causes of cancer. This is what it says: “Environmental factors (as opposed to hereditary factors) account for an estimated 75%-80% of cancer cases and deaths in the U.S.”

Let me say that again.

“Environmental factors (as opposed to hereditary factors) account for an estimated 75%-80% of cancer cases and deaths in the U.S.” Environmental factors in the context of this report mean manmade chemicals and toxins present in our environment, from water to air to soils to our bloodstreams and mothers’ milk.

So what would it mean, I asked the students, to really probe this issue with the intent of stopping cancer before it begins—going to the source of the problem? It would mean, of course, we agreed after some discussion, pursuing the mining, chemical, pharmaceutical, atomic energy, fossil fuel and industrial agriculture companies. Oh yes, those—the ones that rule the world. It’s a tall order. Just like stopping violence against women, or reining in the carbon polluters and shifting to renewable energy. These are the major issues of our time, though. If we’re not stepping up to work on these issues, what are we doing with our brief, precious lifetimes?

***

In my next class, “Islamic Women Writing Resistance,” we were talking about violence against women, this time in the geographical context of Afghanistan.

Malalai Joya

Malalai Joya

Since we were reading the autobiography of Malalai Joya, the young woman who was elected a member of the Afghan Loya Jirga and famously called out the mullahs on their oppression of women, I steered the conversation into a discussion of leadership. How was it that despite the horrifically violent Afghan society under the Taliban and the warlords, where 90% of women are subjectd to physical, mental and sexual abuse, Malalai had managed to retain her confidence and bravado, her sense of herself as a leader?

And more importantly, what are the costs to a society that not only doesn’t respect and include the talents of 50% of the population, but actively works to suppress these gifts?

The answer to the first question has everything to do with Malalai’s father, who encouraged her to go to school, to become a teacher, and eventually to become an activist politician. Without his support, she could never have succeeded as she did. Chalk one up to the power of allies.

The second question is the one that really interests me. It seems to me that it takes tremendous energy to oppress half the population. Eventually so much is going into terrorizing the women and their potential male allies that there is nothing left over, in terms of psychic energy, to build a healthy, vibrant society.

It’s a true zombie society, with the powerful preying on the weak and the whole social fabric fraying into oblivion.

Is it an accident that the societies where women are being most savagely oppressed are also the societies that are poorest, most chaotic and most violent? Think Somalia, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnia….

There are some countries where wealth has made it possible for strict patriarchal control of women to proceed without terrible violence and disorder: Saudi Arabia and the other Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Egypt. Even, maybe, the U.S., Russia and the E.U., where women tend to self-regulate their own subservience to the patriarchy, conditioned by high doses of media and peer education.

In every case, though, what we’re talking about is the same. We’re losing millions of bright, talented, gifted people to cancer every year. We’re losing millions of bright, talented, gifted women to violence and self-sabotage every year. And at the same time, this is happening against the backdrop that Eve Ensler describes so movingly in her book: the interweaving of the violence against women, the violence against individual bodies, and the violence human civilization is perpetuating against the Earth.

“Cancer is essentially built into our DNA, our self-destruction programmed into our original design—biologically, psychologically,” she says. “We spend our days, most of us consciously or unconsciously doing ourselves in. Think building a nuclear power plant on a fault line close to the water. Think poisoning the Earth that feeds us, the air that lets us breathe. Think smoking, drugging. Think abusing our children who are meant to care for us in old age, think mass raping women who carry the future in their bodies, think overeating or starving ourselves to look a certain way, think unprotected sex in the age of AIDS. We are a suicidal lot, propelled toward self-eradication” (194).

??????????????????????It doesn’t have to be this way. I am so glad to be reading the new edition of Joanna Macy’s classic work Coming Back to Life, as an antidote to the darkness described by Ensler and Joya. Macy quotes Paul Hawken, who refers to activists and activist organizations as “humanity’s immune system to toxins like political corruption, economic disease and ecological degradation.”

This immune system, Hawken continues, “can best be understood as intelligence, a living, learning, self-regulating system—almost another mind. Its function does not depend on its firepower but on the quality of its connectedness….The immune system depends on its diversity to maintain resiliency, with which it can maintain homeostasis, respond to surprises, learn from pathogens and adapt to sudden changes” (qtd in Macy, 55).

A current example of such an immune system in action is Sandra Steingraber’s anti-fracking movement in upstate New York. She and her Seneca Lake defenders have come to the rescue of the fragile environment of the Finger Lake region and its jewel, Seneca Lake, putting their own bodies on the line just like Eve Ensler did when she allied herself with the women of the Congo, vowing to stop the violence. 10470955_854714074549076_2405675760464249402_n Any one of us has the power to become a defender of life. All we have to do is to pay attention to what’s happening, start asking the hard questions, stop going along with the flow. We need to do this is in a proactive way. We’re not looking for a cure to violence against women/against the Earth—we want to address the underlying causes of the violence, to look upstream and stop it at the source.

This necessitates a willingness to spend some time outside of our own comfort zones of denial and voluntary blindness. It involves looking at painful, messy, upsetting aspects of human existence, and taking responsibility for the ways in which each of us contribute to the status quo, if only by looking away. It will be personal as well as political in ways that will often hit entirely too close to home.

We need to open our eyes and really look at what our Industrial Growth Economy and the society it has created is doing to our bodies and the body of the world. We need to look at the way women’s bodies, in particular, are forced to bear the brunt of the pain, even though women account for just a fraction of inflicted violence in the world.

Don’t look away. Take it in. And then think about what you can do to join “humanity’s immune system.” Look for me on the front lines—I’ll meet you there. Dandelion_seeds_Computer_backgrounds

Of school shootings, misogyny and the dream of gender equality

The lovely Commencement at my institution this weekend was shadowed, for me at least, by the latest school shooting—the psychotic Californian kid who blew away six other kids in a highly premeditated murderous vendetta against young women who, he claimed, refused to cooperate with his sexual fantasies.

The shootings have prompted millions of social media postings and propelled the issue of misogyny on to the front page of The New York Times and many other staid bastions of male-dominated media, which only pay attention to the most sensationalized of crimes against women.

The latest high-profile cases of campus sexual assault have provoked outrage from women and the men who respect them. Young women are refusing to be muzzled by their colleges, filing lawsuits recently bolstered by the Federal government, which has ordered colleges and universities to get their act together and stop the sexual harassment and assault of women by men—or face Federal Title IX lawsuits.

Yes, imagine that—singling out women for assault on a college campus is actually a Federal crime. That this should come as a surprise is a measure of how very normalized the sexual targeting and bullying of women has become.

 ***

Lately I have been thinking a lot about how much one’s physical body matters. In an ideal world, it should not matter what kind of genitalia or hormonal make-up you’re born with. Men and women may be differently abled, but we are certainly equal in our potential for positive contributions to our society and planet.

However, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a highly cultured world where, unfortunately, the dominant messages young people receive about what it means to be masculine and feminine are highly differentiated.

We all know the stereotypes. Manly men are strong, dominant, powerful—leaders, speakers, do-ers in the public sphere of business, government, finance, medicine, media. Womanly men are compliant, nurturing, sweet—homemakers, caregivers, do-ers in the private realm of the home and family.

Kids absorb these messages like sponges, often uncritically, especially when these are the norms they see around them in the real-life environments of their families and schools.

To live the stereotype of the manly man, a man has to distinguish himself from being a “sissy,” “pussy,” or “girl” by putting females in their place. Woman are there to serve, whether it’s mom getting dinner and doing the laundry, or a hook-up partner giving a blow job. Women wear those skimpy clothes because they “want some,” and they like men who are aggressive in “getting some.” They like the attention of catcalls and fondles. After all, the girlie-men are nerds and they never get the pretty girls.

UnknownWelcome to the imaginal landscape of the stereotypical teenage boy, reinforced by thousands of video game sessions played, movies and TV episodes watched, comedy routines and talk radio listened to.  Even in the cartoon world of super-heroes, female heroes have to wear swimsuits and show a lot of skin.

Girls inhabit a parallel universe for the most part, a soft, rosy pink-imbued landscape where romance still takes the form of a gentle, courtly but powerful knight on a white charger who will make everything all right.

Is it any wonder that when these two universes collide on college campuses, mighty rumbles and explosions result?

 ***

So to those delightful, earnest young men who keep telling me that gender is just a social construction, that discrimination against women is historical, in the past, and that today women don’t need any special attention or bolstering—I have to shake my head sadly and say simply, “I wish that were the case.”

The casual disrespect of and disregard for women runs deep and wide in our culture. For young women, it often wears the venomous face of sexual assault. For women of child-bearing age, it’s about being culturally encouraged to stay home with the kids in a career environment that is entirely un-family-friendly, resulting in effective career sabotage of women on a society-wide scale. For older women it’s about ageism in a youth-obsessed society, where it’s assumed that if you haven’t “made it” by the time you’re 40, it’s because you’re mediocre and don’t have what it takes.

Women of all ages suffer from the arrogance of the male-dominated cultural oligarchy (otherwise known by that loaded term, “the patriarchy”) that assumes that women are under-represented in Western intellectual history because they never did anything important enough (and weren’t intelligent enough to do anything important enough) to merit representation.

We got a recent example of this unthinking cultural misogyny in the two most recent New York Times columns by David Brooks, entitled “Great Books I & II,” where in all of written history the only female author who made it on to his great books list was the one who forced herself to write under a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously: George Eliot.

 ***

There has never yet been a mass shooting by a woman. Women are far more likely to be self-destructive, turning the razors against their own arms and legs, or starving themselves as anorexics. It’s the boys who turn their rage outward, bringing down innocent people before they turn the gun to their own disturbed heads.

The truth is that both boys and girls in our culture need a lot more support than most of them get. We need to start combating the ugliness of gender stereotyping early, long before the girls start trying to conform to unrealistic body image expectations, and boys start thinking of purchasing the all-too-easy-to-obtain shotguns and pistols.

Because we live in a patriarchy, girls and women still do need extra support and encouragement to raise their voices against discrimination and cultural sabotage, to insist on equal treatment and respect in every social sphere.

We are an imitative species—we learn by observation. Every adult should be conscious of the need to set a good example for the young people in our lives, and that includes the adults—mostly men at the moment—who control that incredibly powerful educational system, the media.

Boys and girls need to see men and women relating to each other in responsible, respectful ways, in the media and in the flesh. If we could accomplish this, then maybe we could cry victory and declare unnecessary the need for Title IX and affirmative action protection of women, as well as the kinds of work I do in support of women and girls through my teaching, writing and activism.

I hope that day does come soon…it’s clearly not here yet.

Who’s Got the Balls to Take the Porn Industry On?

Could it be that the pornography industry has something to do with women’s continuing struggle for equality and respect?

Brig. General Jeffrey Sinclair

Brig. General Jeffrey Sinclair

So it would seem from the case of Brig. General Jeffrey Sinclair.

It was not surprising to learn that a military judge accepted General Sinclair’s strategy of pleading guilty to lesser charges in exchange for the dismissal of far more serious counts, including violent sexual assault, that could have put him behind bars for life.

According to the New York Times,  “General Sinclair formally pleaded guilty to mistreating his former mistress — an Army captain — as well as disobeying a commander’s order not to contact her, misusing his government charge card, and using demeaning and derogatory language about female staff officers.”

In exchange, military prosecutors dropped the more serious charges that “General Sinclair twice sexually assaulted his former mistress by forcing her to have oral sex, threatened to kill her and her family if she revealed their affair, and engaged in consensual but “open and notorious” sex with her in a parking lot in Germany and on a hotel balcony in Arizona. Those charges could have led to life in prison for and registration as a sex offender, if convicted.”

You have to dig deeper into this unsavory story to discover that General Sinclair learned his technique for violent fellatio from the thousands of violent pornographic photographs and videos he had stored—against military orders—on his computers and other devices in Afghanistan.

Prosecutors initially tried to get that nasty porn admitted as evidence in court, but the judge refused to allow it, saying it could “taint the jury’s outlook on the trial.”  The jury, let it be noted, consisted of five generals.  All men.

In the Army, it’s illegal to possess pornography while on deployment.  It’s illegal to engage in adultery.  It’s certainly illegal for a superior officer to force a soldier to have sex.  According to the Captain, whose identity is being withheld, General Sinclair “grabbed her by her neck and shoulder and forced her to perform fellatio….It happened again some days later, she said. This time, he stopped only when she threatened to scream.”

This is precisely the kind of case that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s landmark legislation, which aimed to take the trying of sexual assault cases out of the hands of the military, was designed to address.

Imagine how this case would be different if instead of a colonel as judge and five generals as jury (judge and jury all-male), the court case was tried by a civilian judge and a jury composed of 12 men and women who were not in any way beholden to the military.

Illustration by Jerry McJunkins; fayobserver.com

Illustration by Jerry McJunkins; fayobserver.com

Of course, even civilian rape and sexual assault cases are notoriously hard to successfully prosecute.  Men still get away with minimal sentences as victims are blamed with “leading him on” or “asking for it.”  Some 97% of rapists never even spend a day in jail.

In the Sinclair case, the Captain is being caricatured as a typical “jealous mistress” who blew the whistle on the General as revenge for his inability to make any commitment to her.

But really—would any woman, let alone an Army Captain, put herself through the torments of a sexual assault trial merely for revenge?

She may not realize it now, but in refusing to be browbeaten into silence she is standing up for every military woman and every civilian woman who has had to bite her tongue and comply with abusive behavior from men with greater social status and privilege.

But the deeper question that deserves to be asked here is why it’s OK for violence againt women to be represented through violent pornography, such as that possessed by the General.

Defenders of the porn industry insist that: a) a penchant for watching violent porn doesn’t imply a desire to carry it out in real life and b) porn is just acting—it’s not real.

Tell that to the porn starlet whose throat has been bruised and battered through violent fellatio.  Tell that to the girl who is forced to have sex from behind while her head is dunked repeatedly in a toilet.  Tell that to the girl whose anus is torn apart as three men gang-bang her—“only acting,” of course.

Is this too harsh for you to read?  Does it offend your sensibilities?

I’m sorry, but I am of the opinion that if something is too horrible for us to read about, it’s too horrible for us to permit to go on in actuality.

From violent porn to factory farming, from mountaintop removal to sex slavery and lab animal torture—if it’s so bad we have to avert our eyes, then it’s so bad we have to do something about it.

I salute the tearful Captain who testified valiantly in that military courtroom, knowing that every man in the room hated her for daring to tell the truth.

Our military women deserve better.  All women deserve better!  The violent porn industry is a pus-filled abscess seething below the sight lines of society.

If we want to get a handle on why women continue to be disrespected, the multi-billion dollar porn industry would be a good place to start an inquiry.  Who’s got the balls to take those bastards on?

**The upshot, 3-20-14: the General got a very gentle slap on the wrist.  Are we surprised?  Hell no!  It is almost impossible to convict on sexual assault, at least as long as the judges and juries are all-male, with the opinion that “boys will be boys” and “she led him on….”  GRRRR!!!!!

Penn State Sexual Assault Verdict: Victory of the Homophobes?

Jerry Sandusky

You have to wonder how much of the hoop-la over the Penn State sanctions can be attributed to simple homophobia.

Is it because the NCAA was totally grossed out at the thought of a football coach making out with a boy in the showers that they were moved to actually impose a sanction with some teeth?

After all, how many cases have we had nationwide of football and other athletic teams being involved with sexual assault of young women?  Can you think of any such cases where the top dogs actually took the victims’ side?

Penn State is different because it was a coach preying on underage boys. But how different is that, really, from team athletes preying on young women?

Certainly in both cases we have had many scenarios where administrators chose to turn a blind eye rather than discipline the offenders.

Generally speaking, sexual assault of young women is just boys being boys or men being men.

But sexual assault of boys by men is unmanly, and therefore deserving of major fines and sanctions.

What does it mean that the slide show published by The Huffington Post focuses especially on the horrified reactions of young women to the news that Penn State will be fined and have to forego its wins for more than the past decade?

Is the silent subtext that if women think this is over-the-top reaction to Sandusky’s sodomy, then it really is?

The truth is that American sports culture celebrates the cult of the male at the same time as it is rife with homophobia.

Clearly, Jerry Sandusky crossed the line and committed an unforgiveable crime against boys who trusted him.

Clearly no coach should be allowed to abuse his position of authority with either boys or girls.

But why is it that when girls are abused at the hands of sports teams, they face a tremendously difficult, uphill battle to get their claims recognized as legitimate in court, while when boys are victims, it’s really a crisis?

At its most basic, sexual assault is about the domination of the weak by the strong.  It really doesn’t matter so much what gender the underdog is.  I am as disgusted by the sexual assault of boys as I am by the sexual assault of girls.

I just wish I could say the same for our nation’s sports leadership.

It’s past time to clean up our act.

Sexual harassment, from 7th grade to Herman Cain

Observing my total lack of interest in Herman Cain’s sexual peccadilloes, I find myself amused, in a sad, resigned sort of way.  Another wanna-be politician trips himself up in his own boxer shorts.  Ho hum. What’s for dinner?

Something far more upsetting than the image of Herman Cain groping under a woman’s skirt while forcing her head in his lap was the recent report that more than half of American girls in 7th to 12th grades were sexually harassed in person–as opposed to online–in the past school year.

“The report documents many forms of harassment. The most common was unwelcome sexual comments, gestures or jokes, which was experienced by 46 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys. Separately, 13 percent of girls reported being touched in an unwelcome way, compared with 3 percent of boys; 3.5 percent of girls said they were forced to do something sexual, as did 0.2 percent of boys. About 18 percent of both boys and girls reported being called gay or lesbian in a negative way.”

Should it surprise anyone that a culture that tolerates these kinds of conditions in public schools gives rise to politicians, from Bill Clinton to Elliot Spitzer to Herman Cain, who feel entitled by their power and success to indulge themselves sexually with subordinate women?

Sexual harassment of women by men is remarkably constant across cultures–it varies only in degree.  Some cultures deal with it by demanding that women cover themselves from head to toe; others pressure women to go around half-naked and inure themselves to the catcalls and feel-ups.

What few, if any, cultures do is demand that men be accountable for their own behavior and keep their hands and their whistles to themselves.

I admire women like the defendant in the DSK incident, or the Cain accuser who had the guts today to come forward on the record and in front of the cameras to tell her story.

Why should women make it easy for men to get away with blatant sexist bullying?

More to the point, why does our society make it so easy for men–all men, not just the rich and powerful, though those are the ones we hear about most frequently–to shrug off incidents of sexual harassment, or even assault, as minor, unimportant issues, hardly worthy of mention?

That was certainly Herman Cain’s position, until the tenacity of the women he had abused made it impossible for him to continue to play innocent.  The same playbook was used by countless politicians before him–which is why it’s so hard to get excited about any of it today.

I’m just relieved that the swampy pit of Republican contenders for President will almost certainly be shrinking by the end of tomorrow’s news cycle.

Or maybe I shouldn’t take that for granted.  Look at Clarence Thomas, after all–our Supreme Court Justice, for crying out loud!

Women of the world, unite!  Our silence on sexual harassment and assault will get us absolutely nowhere.  If you care about the mental and physical well-being of your daughters, your sisters, and yourselves, you need to condemn this destructive social norm in the strongest possible terms.

And then let’s get on with that dinner.

Challenging the culture of (white male) entitlement: Come on, Occupy, let’s do it!

I spent several hours today listening to a friend tell me, with much anger, sadness and frustration, the story of how her marriage of more than 20 years has crumbled.

Then I went up to see my son’s soccer game, and could not bring myself to say more than “hello” to my own ex-husband, who chose freedom and autonomy over his 25-year relationship with me, and the satisfaction of living in the same house as our children.

When I got home, I checked the Occupy Wall Street website and found a statement from the “sexual assault survivors team,” describing and condemning the recent attack on a female protester by a man who apparently already had a record of sexual assault.

I also got a blog post from a student in my gender studies class, about an organization called About Face, which strives to get viewers to question the fashion industry norm of presenting emaciated women as “beautiful.”

What connects these dots?

A culture in which men feel more interested in following their own selfish desires for personal fulfillment (aka, sexual fulfillment) than in upholding their roles as fathers and husbands.A society that makes it easy for them to choose this route: why struggle to please a demanding wife when you can have sex with someone else with no strings attached?

A society that tells women that the more pale, limp and weak-looking they appear, the more beautiful they are in the eyes of men.

A society where women have to be guarded, even at protests that supposedly entertain no gender disparity, because there could be sexual predators around any corner.

A society that makes it terribly difficult for women to find independent means to self-respect.

Too often, in previous revolutions, women have supported the movement but found that the men in charge were not willing to give women’s issues equal footing with class issues.

If the young men and women of the Occupy movements are serious about creating true social change, they must put the issue of entitlement squarely on the table.

Not just the entitlement of the 1%, but specifically male entitlement, and white entitlement.

We will not be able to bring a new social structure into being unless we hit these areas of privilege and entitlement head on.

And no, we are not substituting women’s empowerment for men’s.

We are after another world entirely, in which gender, class and race are not the arbiters of power.  In which power flows from the collective wisdom of the group, rather than top-down in hierarchical fashion.

The Occupy movements are on to this shift with the general assemblies and the consensual mode of decision-making.  Breaking with the gendered conditioning of Western society, which gives men all the power, all the time, is not going to be easy.  But if anyone could achieve it, it’s the young men and women of the Occupy movements.

I want to see these young people make this an explicit focus of their movements.  Because otherwise, on a certain level, it’s just business as usual, no matter if the masters of Goldman Sachs come out to lick your boots.

Change the disrespectful attitude of men towards women, and you REALLY change the world.

Let’s give it a try, and see what happens.  Things could not get much worse, and they could get a whole lot better if men and women worked together for the good of ALL.

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