Sunday, June 15, 2014

The problem with rape and incest

There are so many things I have been wanting to write about.

The folly of more U.S. intervention in Iraq, of thinking that we can control the sectarian violence we spent years and billions fomenting.

The irony and the ecstasy of Eric Cantor.

Tony Kushner’s play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide toCapitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, which I saw last weekend.  The play is even longer than the name.

But when I looked at this morning’s New York Times, the phrase that called to me was this one, “even in cases of rape and incest.”

The article in question was a call for women in the Peace Corps to be able to use their federally funded insurance to pay for abortions when pregnancies result from rape or incest or when their lives are endangered by the pregnancies.  No controversy from me.  I did not actually know, but was glad to read, that women who are raped in federal prisons have the right to federally funded abortions.  Seems like the least they can do, given that any pregnancy that occurs while a woman is in prison is going to be a result of rape, since the only men in women’s prisons are staff.  In trying to find out how many incarcerated women have actually benefited from this regulation, which I could not find, I did learn that “The governors of Idaho, Texas, Indiana, Utah and Arizona have informed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that they won't try to meet the standards required under the Prison Rape Elimination Act.”  Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the requirements were too expensive.

Honestly, I didn’t even know that there was a Prison Rape Elimination Act until I heard the aforementioned interview with Nell Bernstein, who aptly raised the question, “Why do we need a special law to stop guards from raping inmates?”

Why indeed?  An interaction during that interview illustrates the why.  The interviewer, Dave Davies, kept trying to soften the language and Bernstein, with incredible poise, kept resisting.  So he kept talking about “detention,” “custody” and “child welfare services” and she kept saying, “prisons.”  She told one story about a girl who had been a prostitute, whose counselor demanded that she “reenact” her sexual experiences with him.  A guard walked in on one of these “sessions” and the girl thought he was going to help her but instead, he apologized to the counselor and left.

Davies:  “[He walked in] while they were having sex?”
Bernstein:  “I would say while he was raping her.”

What that interaction shows is how hard women have to work to show that they are blameless for sex before they are entitled to any protection.  This was the message that #YesAllWomen was trying to get across.  And it’s exactly what’s wrong with the “rape and incest” clauses.  Is it more traumatic to have a child resulting from rape than to have one you can’t afford?  One resulting from a one-night stand you regret or can’t remember?  One resulting from failed birth control, or birth control you didn’t have access to or ran out of or didn’t know how to use?

Maybe, maybe not.  For sure, a pregnancy and a child will always remind you of your rape, but I assure you, every rape survivor remembers the rape very well.  That’s why defense lawyers always insist their testimony was coached, because you go over every detail again and again in your mind for years.  You try to think about how you could have done things differently, not taken that ride, not gone to that party, not had that drink, not worn that dress, not kissed that guy.  I’m sure that’s also true for women who got pregnant with a broken condom.  You imagine not having sex, you imagine choosing a different condom, you imagine being more careful, you imagine using more lube.

What about the trauma of having a child when you’re sick?  Or maybe you were raped or battered but not the day you got pregnant.  How much do you need to suffer before you have a right not to have a child?

The vast majority of our social welfare policy is about punishing women for having the wrong kind of sex.  You only have to look at attacks on welfare, marriage incentives, denial of contraception, criminalization of addicted pregnant women, lesbians of color and sex workers, and on and on.  Of course, it’s also about punishing women for being the wrong kind of women – especially African American, Latina and poor.  But the demographic objectives of the right – to preserve a white majority, at least among the voting public – would be better served by promoting abortion and birth control among women of color and immigrant women.  (The Israeli army does exactly that; they have a fund to help Palestinian women get abortions.)  Their obsession with denying women access to those forms of health care only makes sense as a means of making women pay for the crime of sex.

By that logic, if you can show that you got no pleasure from the sex, you have the right not to be further punished, but otherwise, you don’t.  That’s why you get people like Todd Akin, talking about “legitimate rape” and the body shutting down.  If your body didn’t shut down, that proves you must have enjoyed it, QED you did not suffer enough. That’s why as feminists, as people who believe that health care is a right and a woman’s health care should be her own damn business, we should expunge that clause, “even in cases of rape and incest,” from our rhetoric.

It’s very tempting to use it.  It’s the icing on the cake, it proves how unreasonable our opposition is and inversely, how reasonable we are.  But by using it, we give legitimacy to the idea that some women deserve abortion more than others.

Sex is not a crime.  Women are people.  Abortion is health care.  Health care is a right.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Diary of a Confused White Woman

Disclaimer:  This is a diary. It's not a manifesto.

Wednesday, May 7: I interview Rebecca Solnit about her forthcoming book, MEN EXPLAIN THINGS TO ME for KPFA Women’s Magazine.  Before we start, she asks how much time I want.  I say an hour.  She looks surprised, and mentions that she really hasn’t written that much about gender.  I tell her not to worry, I don’t plan to spend the whole time on gender issues.  The interview goes well.

Friday, May 23, 4:45 pm:  I start off the holiday weekend at a demonstration to shut down Guantanamo.  I hardly know anyone there.  I stand quietly near the cage I helped build long ago, holding my sign so the people coming out of the BART station can see it.  It’s a poster I made four years ago, that says Shut Down Guantanamo, Bagram and Pelican Bay – Torture Is a War Crime.  A young South Asian man (I later learn he’s Pakistani) comes up and asks me what Pelican Bay is.  I explain that it’s a supermax prison in Northern California, where men are held in solitary confinement for years on end, that it’s where the hunger strike that swept the California prisons last summer originated.  He tells me about being detained after 9/11, because a neighbor he went to junior high school with called the police to report that he was dating a white woman.  His parents first learned he had a girlfriend from the FBI.

4:55 pm:  A Vietnamese man comes out of BART and asks me what’s going on.  I explain it to him briefly.  He argues that it’s war, these things happen in war.  “Which came first, the attack or the locking up?” he asks.  The young Pakistani man quickly takes over the task of educating this guy, using lots of examples he’s accumulated from his work with a civil rights organization.  I’m happy to let him do the talking for a long time.  The Vietnamese guy says, “Well, I came from a Communist country and this is still the freest place on earth.”  I can’t stop myself from mumbling, “Not really.”  Both men scold me for interrupting him and disrespecting his narrative.  I feel terrible.  I’ve acted arrogantly out of privilege.  I stand silently, listen to them argue for about ten minutes.  The I move away from them and spend the rest of the hour standing with my sign, talking to no one.  When I leave at 5:45, they are still talking.

Friday night:  As I’m coming home from dinner with a friend, it occurs to me that those men used privilege as well, to silence and shame me.  I wonder whether they would have spoken to a white guy that way, and whether he would have taken it so hard.  I think about my South Asian woman friend who has trouble arguing with older women, even when she knows she’s right, because her culture taught her respect for elders.  Clearly, this young South Asian man had no such difficulty.

Saturday, May 24:  We’re working on UltraViolet, the quarterly newspaper I help produce.  I decide I want to write about how power and privilege analysis, for so long confined to activist circles is starting to be discussed in the mainstream due to Twitter hashtags like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and #NotYourAsianSidekick and the media frenzy over Tal Fortgang’s “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege.”  I can’t get a handle on the subject.  I spend three hours and write two paragraphs.  I get home late and don’t see the news about the killing spree at UCSB.

Sunday, May 25:  On the way to UltraViolet production, I skim the New York Times story about how Eliot Rodger’s hatred of women who rejected him drove him to kill.  I’m too stunned and creeped out to think much about it.  I manage to finish my article.  I mean to put in the story about what happened at the demonstration on Friday, but in the end I don’t.  It ends up being mainly about whether Ta-Nahisi Coates’ cover article about reparations will help people understand what white privilege means.  I worry that I’m not saying anything everyone doesn’t know, but my co-editors like it.  Layout takes longer than we hoped; we finish about 9:45 pm.

Monday, May 26, 1:00 a.m.:  I finish everything I need to do and send the paper to the printer.  I look at my Twitter feed.  The first tweets that catch my attention are on the hashtag #YesAllWhiteWomen.  (I recently started following Suey Park, Mikki Kendall and Lauren Chief Elk.  I might have to unfollow them soon ’cause man are those girls prolific.  I don’t want to because they’re interesting, but I’m constantly scrolling back and back and back to try to find the beginning of the conversation.)  I read between the lines that something called #YesAllWomen is a phenomenon.  I don’t realize how big of one.  I check it out and it doesn’t seem that white to me.  It seems like a lot of women from many demographics (mostly young, but it’s Twitter after all) sharing stories and pain - an online consciousness raising group.  I don’t see any need to post anything.  No one’s online anyway at that hour, and I have almost no followers.

Monday afternoon:  I take a long walk and think about what I would like to write about this episode.  One phrase that immediately comes to mind is the title of one of Rebecca Solnit’s essays, “The Longest War.”  I think about how much U.S. policy since before there was a U.S. has been about denying women’s sexual autonomy.  I think about how Andrea Smith says that one reason Native American tribes had to be subjugated was to eliminate examples of societies with gender equality.  I wonder if Rebecca Solnit has read Andrea Smith.  I think maybe I should ask her.

Monday night:  I get home and look at Facebook.  Everyone’s talking about #YesAllWomen.  Interesting the way my worlds are starting to collide.  People I didn’t think knew each other apparently do at least on Twitter.  I look at the tweets, favorite a few.  Feel sad.  Finally post “We don't need a hash tag. We need a real anarchafeminist revolution. #YesAllWomen  2 people favorite it.  The average tweet in the convo seems to be retweeted 200+ times and favorite 300+.  I’m not surprised; the hashtivists aren’t going to like my tweet and the twitterphobes aren’t going to see it.

I check out Facebook, where at least I have a more respectable number of “friends.”  Someone has posted an article about “The Woman At the Heart of San Francisco’s Anti-TechGentrification Protests.”  The woman is someone I recognize from demonstrations but don’t really know.  She’s young, white, college educated and has been in San Francisco for about a decade.  She’s awesome, but it seems to me there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people at the heart of the anti-gentrification protests.  It occurs to me that she probably had no idea that was going to be the headline and was only trying to get more publicity for the issue.  The article is pretty sympathetic given that it’s on  I feel bad for being snarky.  I chalk it up to the fact that it’s been a long war, I’ve been at this losing activism thing a long time.

I get email from a friend who’s writing her memoir.  She mentions that she’s finding it hard to compress her 85 years into a manageable page count.  She worked with Alice Paul on the National Women’s Party, the campaigns to free Joan Little and Yvonne Wanrow and moved to Wilmington, North Carolina as part of a multiracial women’s group supporting the Wilmington 10.  I think that I haven’t been at this so long at all.

Tuesday morning, May 27:  Rebecca Solnit is on Democracy Now.  She’s good.  Amy Goodman keeps asking her specifics about Eliot Rodger and she keeps saying, “We need to stop focusing on this one guy and talk about the systemic violence that women face every day.  This guy killed six people, but three women are killed by intimate partners every day in this country.”  The segment includes a clip from the video posted by Eliot Rodger.  I've avoided watching or listening to it.  It makes me cry.  It's not the good kind of crying.

Tuesday afternoon:  I check out #YesAllWhiteWomen.  There are a lot of tweets from white women cautioning each other not to be defensive, to listen.  There are a number of tweets on #YesAllWomen saying “Remember to retweet women of color, not just white women.”  I wonder if they can always tell the race of people on Twitter.

I see a tweet from Ken Jennings, Jeopardy Super-Champion.

I think, “We may really be getting somewhere.”  I click on Ken’s feed and see this:

(Julia Collins just won her 17th game, with a total of $372,000.  I'm completely in love with her.)  I wonder why Twitter ruined Ken Jennings' life and think maybe I'm lucky to have almost no followers. I consider that the woman who started #YesAllWomen had to shut down her account because of all the hate mail.  I think spending your life in anonymous activist collectives may well be underrated.

Tuesday, 6:10 pm:  I get off work and walk to an event about Oscar Lopez Rivera, a Puerto Rican independentista who has been imprisoned by the U.S. government for 33 years this week.  Walking up Market Street, I think about what I want to write about all this.  I keep thinking of more and more things I want to pull in, but no unifying theme.  I pass the massive @Twitter edifice, which used to be Western Furniture Exchange and Merchandise Mart, and the soon to be closed Flax art supply store.

I get where I'm going and decide to post this as a diary.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Why Ivo Welch Will Fail

After reading Ivo Welch’s op-ed, “Why Divestment Fails,” in Saturday’s New York Times, I sat down to write a response called “Why Divestment Works.”  Welch is an economics professor at UCLA, and he was writing about why the victory of Stanford students last week, convincing the school to divest from fossil fuels, would not help to promote cleaner energy or stop climate change.

His contention is based on “an academic study, [in which] my co-authors and I found that the announcement of divestment from South Africa, not only by universities but also by state pension funds, had no discernible effect on the valuation of companies that were being divested, either short-term or long-term.”

So first of all, even if that’s true, something caused Polaroid to leave South Africa in 1977 (only seven years after African American employees made it the first major target of a disinvestment campaign in the U.S.), Chase Manhattan to end loans to the country in 1985, GM and IBM to pull out in 1986, etc., etc.  That something may have been the general instability of the country by that time, but the timing was suspiciously close to the wave of college and university divestments triggered by campus activism between 1984 and 1987.

“The wide ostracism may well have weighed on President F. W. de Klerk’s mind. But it was not the economic effect of the boycott that forced him to the table,” Welch writes.

The fact is, we all know, that the impact of divestment is not primarily economic, either on the companies or on the governments that are its targets.  Divestment and boycott campaigns largely work through “shaming and blaming” and they are very good at it.  Take, for instance, the recent short-lived campaign against Mozilla, after they appointed a CEO linked to anti-gay activism.  It goes without saying that the threat to Mozilla of people boycotting its free service was not economic in the immediate sense.  Companies generally don’t want a bad image, and if their image gets bad enough, it’s worth it to them to try to distance from whatever the bad behavior is.  Anyone who has watched “Have You Heard from Johannesburg” (and if you haven’t, you have to) knows that South African officials were worried enough about the boycott/divestment threat to spend quite a bit of their own money bringing business leaders on junkets to South Africa so they would go home and tell their buddies how “complex” the situation was.

Now admittedly, it’s going to be a bigger deal to get oil companies to stop producing oil than to get them to pull out of South Africa, which was hard enough.  But that does not mean that the student activists are wrong to demand that the money they’re giving their schools (often at great cost to themselves) not be invested in technologies that are killing their futures.

As I delved into the 1999 research which now makes Ivo Welch a sought-after debunker of the fossil fuel divestment movement, I discovered a small cottage industry of social scientists using graphs and regressions to prove that student protest is ineffective, and they’re specifically targeting the anti-apartheid movement because it’s the most recent successful, large-scale campus-based social movement.  A lot of this research is done by a Stanford business professor named Sarah Soule, whose 1995 doctoral thesis argues that student protest was not effective because “Educational institutions which hosted shantytown protests had slower rates of divestment policy adoption than did those institutions without shantytowns.”  

Ten years later, Soule tempers her dismissal of the movement, concluding, “certain kinds of divestment policies were, in fact, impacted by the presence of a student movement. In particular, universities appear to have responded to shantytowns by adopting partial divestment policies, however full divestment policies were driven by entirely different factors, most notably a higher proportion of black students and the presence of Black Studies program or department.”

Her conclusion, I think, points to a fundamental flaw in this kind of research.  While it’s certainly useful to try to determine whether protest has a verifiable effect on policy, political decision-making is not a virus in a test tube.  You can’t simply introduce protest to a na├»ve mouse and see how it responds.  I would assume that campuses with a lot of Black students and Black Studies departments were probably for a lot of reasons more likely to be open to the arguments for total divestment.  This is borne out by the details of Soule’s research, which finds that smaller liberal arts colleges were more likely to pursue total divestment based on moral suasion (although I can attest that it did not happen without student activism), while larger schools with larger portfolios tended to be more motivated by concerns about the cost of divestment and enacted partial divestment only in response to student protest.  Thus, it’s clear that the only way to really measure the efficacy of protest would be to measure the pace of divestment at schools which had protests with similar ones that did not.  That could prove harder to do because protest was viral (even though protest is not a virus either), so similar campuses probably had similar protests.

My first question when I saw Ivo Welch’s piece was, “Who’s paying him to discredit divestment?”  I couldn’t find an answer to that; his old website from Brown says “there are almost no grants available for academic finance research.”  That doesn’t mean no one is, but at least in Sarah Soule’s case, I have the nagging sense that she’s genuinely trying to shed light on the process of social change.  Nonetheless, when Welch writes in the New York Times, “Morals matter. Would I have divested from South Africa? Yes, but I would have had no illusion that doing so would have made a difference,” he is basically a softer version of George Will, who wrote in 1985, “the current campaigning against South Africa is a fad, a moral Hula Hoop, fun for a while.”

But the students should take heart.  Those who try to stem a rising tide of campus activism with calls for a modulated inside strategy usually fail.