Thursday, July 28, 2011

Grown-ups and choices

When I last blogged about women and choices, I encouraged women to think about their own biases and to consider other women's situations before judging other women's choices. This may lead some people to the (erroneous) conclusion that I think all women's choices are equally good and empowering. Or that I think that feminists should never criticize other women's choices. (The latter would actually be a logical impossibility because I would be implicitly criticizing women's choices to criticize other women.)

Women make a lot of bad choices. Just like everybody else. Part of being a grown-up is accepting responsibility for your choices. It's accepting that people will criticize your choices. And when people criticize you, you have the choice to ignore them or to decide that they're full of it (just projecting their own issues onto you), or even to take their critique into consideration. Or some combination of the above.

On the other hand, I don't think it's a feminist argument to claim that another woman's (unempowering) choice isn't really a choice, or that she's somehow not responsible for that choice because of the way the patriarchy messed her up in the head. I think that if an adult woman is of sound mind and body, then she should be assumed to be competent to make her own life choices and she should be held responsible for her choices. Like a grown-up. Even if some women's ideas are negatively influenced by the patriarchy (or by something else), feminists should not argue that women need to be protected from their own choices.

Keep in mind is that being totally self-actualized and well-adjusted isn't the norm. It's not that women are messed-up by the patriarchy unlike ordinary people who aren't messed-up. Pretty much everybody has some kind of baggage. So when you see bad behavior, criticize away, and criticize with an underlying assumption that a grown-up woman can hear and learn from criticism -- she isn't just a puppet with a patriarchy hand pulling the strings.

Now, some of you probably thinking "Chanson, you're arguing with a straw-man! No feminist argues that the patriarchy renders women incompetent to make adult choices!" Not so. I've had this argument with fellow feminists more than once (though, fortunately, pretty rarely). And I was reminded of it just recently because of a discussion on MSP. On that thread -- in an interesting twist -- a gay man was passionately arguing that the hetero-patriarchy renders gay men unable to be held accountable for their own choices and behavior. If he (or someone else) had been arguing the same thing about women, I would have put up more of a fight.

That said, please note that often women's choices really are limited by ignorance, economics, and coercion. So when I talk about choices here, I mean choices among the range of real options and opportunities the woman has to choose from. Increasing women's educational and economic opportunities is the best strategy for encouraging women to make empowering choices on their own.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sex-positive vs. sex-negative feminism

When I sat down to write on being wrong a couple months ago, my first task was to go through my past posts for illustrations of how I have learned from being wrong. One of the first points that came to mind (which I hadn't really blogged about) is the divide between sex-positive vs. sex-negative feminism. No, I haven't switched camps -- it's that I've stopped believing that there's as sharp a divide on this issue and I've stopped believing that this divide is as central to feminist thought.

And this is a change of opinion that has come about in just the past couple of years, through reading other women's blogs and memoirs.

Here's an example of what I mean. Take Greta Christina's post on "elevatorgate". I agree with pretty much everything she said. Maybe everything. The issue she wrote about is male/female sexual interactions, and Greta Christina is pretty much as "sex-positive" as they come. But would a "sex-negative feminist" take on the incident be any different? Perhaps in tone, but in content? Probably not.

I've sort of grown into the conclusion that -- for a huge number of feminist issues, perhaps most -- the sex positive/negative distinction is irrelevant or doesn't make sense. And while some feminists can reasonably be divided into these camps, probably most can't.

To see my evolution on this issue, the best place to start is my post porn and me -- where I described how my outlook was shaped by some of my earliest encounters with feminist theory of sexuality. In a nutshell, I felt that women who enjoy having sex with men (including women who are aroused by the thought of arousing a man) should not be told that they're messed-up in the head or that they hate themselves or that they're tools of the patriarchy. And they should especially not be given this slut-shaming in the name of feminism.

While I was enjoying the pleasures of grad school, I once attended a talk given by Andrea Dworkin. My reaction? I was horrified. This was nearly twenty years ago, so my memory of the lecture is a tad vague. All I remember is that everything is rape. Everything. Even things that aren't sexual are rape. Naturally, I felt that expanding the definition in this way not only trivializes the experience of people who are actually raped, but (more importantly) it is counter-productive in the fight against rape. You don't solve a problem by obscuring it, you solve it by first understanding it. Of course, before I even walked into that room, I already felt that her stance on porn was totally counter-productive with respect to addressing the problem of rape. So who knows what she actually said that day...

My stance on porn hasn't changed. There exist images in the category of pornography that are offensive -- as there are in all media genres. But images of women that are created and used for the express purpose of male arousal are not a priori harmful or degrading to women. If anything, it's the opposite.

On the other hand, it's nearly impossible to draw a clear dividing line between explicitly erotic materials and other forms of entertainment. And, while I think it's A-OK for men to enjoy looking at depictions of sexy women, the overall entertainment industry has a bit of a problem with portrayal of women. Specifically, a piece intended for a general audience typically includes only one female character, and even for her to get a spot on the stage she has to be beautiful and she has to be the love interest who is peripheral to a main [i.e. male] character. (Even God's favorite musical suffers from this, as much as I love it overall.) Maybe this problem is related to erotica. It's certainly related to attitudes towards women and sexuality. After contemplating this for a number of years, all I can say is that I think it's not simple.

So I guess feminism ranks pretty high on my grand list of things that aren't that simple...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

So, how was German camp?

Here's the latest escalation in my ongoing battle with the German language: I packed up my whole family to Germany to spend our vacation on three weeks of German camp!

In case you're asking "Wait, don't you already live in a German-speaking country? Why do you have to travel to have a German-language immersion?" -- allow me to review. The problem with Zürich is they speak a flavor of German that is impossible for foreigners to learn without first learning German German. And everybody in Zürich speaks English anyway. So -- while I speak kind-of OK German -- I haven't felt confident enough to inflict my terrible German on unsuspecting Swiss people. Instead we've saved this fun for the Germans!

On the down-side, the camp kind of reminded me of that song "Camp Grenada." Particularly the line where they sing "...and they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining." I'd packed mostly Summer clothing (being as it's July and everything), yet the first week was unexpectedly chilly. Then the second week was even chillier, with occasional rain. But it didn't really start raining in earnest until the third week.

Then (while I'm on the complainy part), there was the food. My husband was already leery about the food when I first suggested this trip. ("Three weeks?? You have no idea how terrible the food is in Germany!") I then recounted that conversation to my boss (who is Swiss). He asked me what part of Germany it's in, and when I said it's near Köln, he immediately said, "Oh, the food is really terrible there! Oh... I mean... It's not so bad..." Anyway, with that introduction, the food at camp exceeded our expectations. Tragically. Picture a cuisine that's already not much to write home about, then imagine how it might be prepared by a school cafeteria for kids.

That said, I don't want to complain too much about the food because overall the camp was great fun, and we got a ton of good German language practice and instruction. And by the third week of people complaining, the food improved considerably. Either that or we just got used to it. My husband was only subjected to the first two weeks of it because he had a conference to attend, lucky bastard.

On the positive side, it was fun for the kids to get to attend the same school as their parents! After they divided us into classes, I told Léo that I'm in the same class with Daddy, and Léo immediately said, "I hope you get to sit by Daddy!" So cute! Naturally, why would he imagine that the grown-up classes would be any different from the classes for kids? He also assumed we'd be needing scissors and a glue-stick for our class...

Friday, July 15, 2011

I believe in science and logic -- but I like to make things up.

Today I have a few more scenes from the amusing adventure of atheist parenting!

My kids made some good friends at summer camp. Somewhat surprisingly, 8-year-old Léo told us that his new friend (an 8-year-old girl) asked him whether he'd read the Bible! Surprising because this is Europe -- it's not like we sent him to Summer Camp in South Carolina or something.

Anyway, Léo recounted that he told his friend that he doesn't believe in God, but that it's OK for friends to believe different things. To give examples of things people might believe in, Léo asked the girl whether she believes in monsters, and she said she does. Also Santa Claus. This was another point that demonstrated for Leo that it's OK for friends to believe in different things because one of Léo's best friends at school (in Zürich) also believes in Santa Claus. I'm getting this second-hand from an 8-year-old, so the details are a little vague, but Leo seemed to indicate that he's always discreet with his friends with respect to not insisting too much that Santa Claus is just pretend.

My husband asked Nico what he believes in, and Nico immediately said he believes in science and logic. That's the point where you might not believe us that we're not brainwashing our own kids -- but he's only 9. He'll have plenty of opportunity to think for himself.

Then my husband asked Léo what he believes in, and -- after thinking a bit -- said he didn't want to say. Actually, quite a good answer for someone who's only 8. Nico prompted Léo to say he believes in science and logic, and Léo answered with the above quote: "I believe in science and logic -- but I like to make things up." So true! These are imaginative little guys who are always inventing stories and jokes!