On Abuse, Consent, & Life After Childhood Sexual Abuse

I’m so sick of talking about Lena Dunham. I’m even sicker of talking about what’s wrong with white feminists. Feel free to read any missing backstory here on how those things intersect for this piece.  It’s a lot to rehash & really the Google machine exists for a reason. But, people keep asking me about why I am not on the “Lena’s being maligned unfairly” bandwagon. And no, it’s not about my personal distaste for her work. I don’t like it, I’m probably not going to like it. I’ve long since accepted it’s not for people like me. And I have a long running policy of mostly ignoring it & by extension her because I don’t find “ironic hipster racism” funny or quirky or whatever it is that people are going to tell me her schtick is. That’s life. I don’t like Sarah Silverman, Lisa Lampanelli or a dozen other “Tee hee I’m too delicate to do harm” white comedians making their bones that way. You’ll note that none of them have been accused of writing about behaving in sexually inappropriate ways with a child. Because as far as I know, none of them did. Lena Dunham did. And yeah, we could debate the validity of the story from when she was 7 on any number of fronts. And I’ve seen a few defenses of the masturbation in the bed next to her sister at 17 too. You want to defend that? Your bag. Not mine. I find it repellent & vaguely triggering & I have learned how many people exist that I would never let watch my kids. And yes, she was younger & there’s a whole child development & parenting post that I could write, but really…I don’t want to write more than one post, and this one is probably going to be too long.

This isn’t really about Lena, Grace, or the dozens of people who are sure to flood my mentions on Twitter later to disagree with me from the bottom of their hearts. I read the book (well most of it, I skipped the food diary because really I just don’t give a fuck about it), and I have my read on the words on the page. But I’m not Grace. And I don’t have to live with Lena (thank fuck for that because OMG), or try to reconcile myself to a sister who outs me & talks about my private life as though it belongs to her. Who I am, what I am, is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who spent years pretending it didn’t happen, followed by even more years of trying to come to terms with it. And like everyone else my personal bias colors my interpretation of the words on the page. Lena is not my abuser. I know that, you know that, but damn…she sure sounds like him in so many awful ways.

The person who abused me was a long time family friend who told similar stories to me, and about me later at family functions. He had a special nickname for me that some members of my family might still use if I spoke to them because they don’t know any better. He plied me with candy, access to TV shows, and other treats to get me to sit on his lap, to get me to agree to things that weren’t necessarily physically painful, but are to this day emotionally painful. And while I hope and pray for Grace’s sake that I am misreading, that all of us that find this narrative disturbing are wrong as wrong can be…there is something starkly horrifying about the casual way an adult Lena Dunham describes herself as behaving like a sexual predator to win affection from her sister. This is not about punishing the 7 year old, or the 17 year old for me or many other people.

This is about all of us taking a good hard look at what the adult is saying, how the adult is saying it, and the way that people are rushing in to insist that the person they like, look up to, (or have a business relationship with) is completely innocent of all wrongdoing. This is a cultural problem writ small and large, inasmuch as we may never know what happened in the Dunham house, but we are still pretending that abusers can’t be children, can’t be women, can’t have meant no harm but caused it anyway. Because I suspect that conversation (which should be forthcoming) isn’t going to happen in any larger way I’m going to try to have a part of it here and now.

Here’s the thing about being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse that no one really wants to talk about, but maybe we need to anyway. A lot of it is innocuous, so much so that you may forever doubt if what happened to you is really abuse. Some of it even feels good. And if things never get truly painful or scary (mine did, which is not something I will detail, but in some ways it makes it easier for me to label) or if the abuser is someone you love, then your mind and social norms work together to make you reject the idea that it was really abuse. And maybe that’s Grace’s story. Maybe it isn’t. I don’t know her or how she feels. And that’s not all that unusual because there’s another peg in all of this which seems to have been tossed aside for some folks for whatever reason. Even when survivors admit the abuse to themselves they often don’t admit it to others. It was a secret, it stays a secret.

My primary abuser is dead. Has been for years, and while I still have nightmares about some things I have never ever come right out and told my family what he did to me. They loved him, have fond memories of him, and I don’t know what value there is for me in raking all of the bad things up now. They get to keep their memories, I don’t have to suffer through the telling, or the recriminations, or the questions I can’t answer without causing more pain about why I didn’t tell anyone. And while it has damaged some things in me, it doesn’t define me, so I have made the choices I can live with in handling it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Didn’t hurt. His love for me doesn’t lessen the harm he did to me. And the years I spent feigning affection for him that I wasn’t sure I felt are long gone, never to be recovered. But at least I get to be the one who tells my story, and since he can’t consent to me giving out his name in public, I choose to give him what he didn’t give me. Privacy. Respect for the harm I might do those who love him. Because consent always matters, even in situations that are awful and complicated. I was too young to consent to what he did to me (not that I would have I think, but who knows?) and as an adult I shudder at the thought of replicating that behavior. It might be my story too, but I’m not the only one involved.

Other survivors who are struggling to reconcile themselves with a feminism that says someone can’t be an abuser because…reasons are probably going to be more articulate in examining what’s gone wrong. In hashing out why consent keeps getting ignored, disrespected, and generally erased from a place where it belongs. They are probably better equipped to address this assumption that jealousy is a factor instead of you know…normal human feelings that we all have on reading something designed to evoke a response. It might not be the desired response, but welcome to the world of writing in public. People get to read what you put on paper and dislike it. They get to interpret the words on the page, and decide how to respond.

You don’t have to like my opinion of Dunham’s work, book, or self. That’s fine. But keep in mind I don’t have to like yours, and like so many other people in this conversation I don’t have to agree with it. Or keep liking you. We all have our places where we make a stand. Mine is: If you present yourself as someone who doesn’t respect boundaries, thinks racism is a joke, and who engages in a string of things that I find repellent? I’m not going to be here for you on any level. All your faves are problematic. Yes, including me. All I can do, all you can do, is decide what you can live with and move on. I can’t live with pretending to see nothing wrong with what Dunham says about herself, and so she can be your fave, but she’ll never be mine. All any of us can do is make the choice that suits our own morals.

On Annie Lennox and erasure.

(Morgan Jerkins graduated from Princeton University with an AB in Comparative Literature and is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars. Follow her on twitter @MorganTheScribe or her Tumblr blog, “Black Girl in MFA.”)

When I initially heard that Annie Lennox was promoting a new album, I, like countless others, was excited about it. Annie’s a living legend who has been in the music industry for nearly 40 years, and she’s a well-known social activist, raising money and awareness for marginalized communities affected by HIV/AIDS. So it was safe to assume that interviewers were going to ask her about feminism, right? After all, feminism has been a hot topic, and Annie was alive during the earlier waves of feminism.

In an interview with Pride Source, Annie is specifically asked what she thinks of Beyoncé in the context of feminism. She says that Beyoncéas well as a few others—are “feminist-lite,”calling their brand of feminism “tokenistic,” “cheap,” and shallow since it does not delve into the depths of feminism wholeheartedly. The crux of Annie’s argument lies within the polemic relationship between a woman’s body and her agency to use it however she chooses. More than that, her thoughts become complicated when we consider the polarizing relationship between black and white feminists.

Now, I cannot blame Annie for talking about Beyoncé because the interviewer, Chris Azzopardi, geared the question in that way which elucidates a point: the mainstream media is fascinated with Beyoncé’s feminism. He didn’t ask what Annie thought about Emma Watson’s feminism, but Beyoncé’s in particular. It’s not enough that Beyoncé said in an interview with British Vogue that she calls herself a feminist, believes in equality, and advocates for women to be whoever they would like to be. It’s not enough that Beyoncé included Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous “We Should All Be Feminists” speech in her song Flawless. It’s not enough that Beyoncé had a huge neon sign with the word “feminist” behind her during a MTV Video Music Awards performance. It was not enough, because Annie took it a step forward. In a later interview with NPR, Annie praises Beyoncé and says that her critique was centered on the singer because she was asked about her, which is fair. But she then goes on to say that twerking is not feminism.  Granted, Beyoncé’s feminism may be debatable to some because of her sexualized dance moves and her Bow Down lyrics, but whose feminism isn’t? What about Miley Cyrus, who popularized twerking for mainstream audiences, and proclaimed that she was one of the biggest feminists in the world in a 2013 BBC Radio 1 interview?

I don’t know what was going through Annie Lennox’s mind during either of these interviews. I don’t believe that she intended to maliciously single out Beyoncé, even though she and her interviewers know that Beyoncé is the biggest black female pop culture icon of this generation. However, we mustn’t forget how often Black female artists are challenged for their forms of feminism with a degree of severity. For many Black people across the globe, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna are feminist role models; but to others, their feminism is not feminist enough.

This inability to see eye-to-eye on how the black experience is oftimes misunderstood, neglected, or condemned revealed itself once again in a recent interview with Tavis Smiley, during which he asked Annie about her decision to cover Billie Holiday’s iconic song “Strange Fruit.” Annie was right in saying that “Strange Fruit” was a protest song but then fell down the slippery slope of political correctness when she said, “This subject of violence and bigotry, hatred, violent acts of mankind against ourselves…it’s a human theme that has gone on for time immemorial.” The song’s subject is the lynching of black people in the American south. It was not a violent act of mankind against ourselves, but a systemic and almost carnivalistic practice of lynching Black people that was carried out by racist whites. This song was specifically tailored to this “cultural sport,” which is why her words are so hurtful. One should not make the words of “black bodies swinging in the breeze” a universal issue.

Was it her intent to minimize the black experience in this country under the huge umbrella of universality? Perhaps not. But that’s the thing with words: you have to mean what you say and say what you mean. She’s a highly intelligent woman and I, as well as others, expected her to say outright what the song was about. It’s not enough for us that the song is not metaphorical even in the slightest. It would have been nice if she acknowledged what the song was truly about.

Shortly afterwards, Tavis Smiley rushed to Annie’s defense, arguing that those who were upset with Annie’s explanation of “Strange Fruit” because she did not say “our word of choice” were arrogant. Yes, lynching is bigotry and violence, but that is not the point here. What we seek is acknowledgment. The song is specifically about lynching. Lynching was racialized bigotry and violence.

How many people, especially Black men in media, have ran to the defense of Beyonce or Nicki Minaj whenever they were being attacked for their views, sexuality, or song lyrics? T.I. threatened to assault Azealia Banks, but rushed to rapper Iggy Azalea’s defense when Snoop Dogg lambasted her looks. These conversations about feminism and intersectionality seem circular because the same things keep happening: black women continue to be criticized for their choices, and left unprotected. Historical components of the black experience continue to be sugarcoated or ignored. When will there be a change?

#WeNeedDiverseMedia for reasons….part 96464864 of a never ending list

So this interview with Mathew Klickstein about the Golden Age of Nickelodeon is up at Flavorwire. It should have been a fluffy little piece as part of the press for New York Comic Con. I’m pretty sure that was the intent, and I say this as someone who has written these kinds of pieces, and who will be on a panel at Comic con preceded by a similar interview. Instead Klickstein decides to talk about how hard it is to be a white guy, with a side of “diversity is exploitation” that…well I think he had a point somewhere in there that doesn’t sound quite so racist. But I had to dig to find it, and I’m 99.9% certain that he made it by accident. What was it? That having white creators present one of a handful of characters of color isn’t really diversity. And I agree with him. Diverse media absolutely requires diverse creators, show runners, and executives. But, where things fall apart is his idea that there needs to be a reason for a character of color to exist at all. Because some how it’s find for kids of color to have to identify with white leads, but if the lead is a POC then there needs to be a reason for that.

Yet, it’s already been established that TV is damaging to the self esteem of anyone that isn’t a white male. And I guess it is possible that Klickstein somehow missed all of the discussions before and after that study about media’s impact on kids. Maybe he even ignored #WeNeedDiverseBooks and their data on the impact that having characters of color has on a kid’s desire to read, though one wonders how none of these things penetrated. Of course, it’s also entirely possible, and in fact probable that Klickstein is aware of these things, and just doesn’t care. It seems much more likely given his response to Clarissa’s success that anything that doesn’t center white men isn’t important to him. Nothing anyone says or does is likely to change that, and frankly I don’t really want to bother arguing that same point again.

It’s just more proof of why #WeNeedDiverseMedia. It’s not enough to be a token character bringing diversity to a white protagonist’s story. Nor do we need white savior creators to speak up for POC as though we don’t have our own stories to tell. We have been telling our own stories to combat racist tropes for generations.We haven’t let our history, our cultures, or our stake in our creations be erased even when it was just this side of illegal for us to exist at all.

Now, the problem is avoiding tokenism in terms of creators. What Shonda Rimes has accomplished is amazing, but she made history by being a showrunner on primetime broadcast TV recently. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could stop having “The first Black/first POC to do X in media” because it wasn’t so hard for creators of color to get access to major platforms? Wouldn’t it be great if the demographics of people in power in publishing houses, Hollywood, and major cable networks reflected the populations they claim to represent? No one’s going to hand us seats at those proverbial tables though, so we create our own tables, and clearly when we do, we have to be aware that for some people we need a reason to exist, and we can’t afford to worry about what those people, all we can do is focus on the work in front of us.

Delux_vivens…my feminist icon

My first attempt to run an intersectional feminist community was sex_and_race on Livejournal. Delux_vivens helped me found it, run it, and in the process became a mother to me. To this day, I don’t know what she saw in me (I was a mess in my 20’s) but she was always there in email or on the phone, whatever to tell me I could have more, be more, and should not stop trying. Her feminism wasn’t about waves, or performance or publicity. She was incredibly private to be honest, so much so that we joked about her being a spy. But, she reached out to a lot of young people who were struggling to find a place for ourselves in feminist circles and in the world. Her feminism was literally about community, I have siblings now because she loved so many of us, mentored, nurtured, supported so many of us when we needed it most. And since we first got news of her death, we have wept, raged, and denied our loss in turns.

It is a little discussed fact in some feminist circles how important it is to have mentors who are there for more than theory. Folks who will invest in you, support you, love you and be willing (when necessary) to check you or defend you. Delux did all of those things, and so many more as each person she cared for might need. She asked for very little in return (almost nothing to be honest), and always managed to guide you in the right directions without seeming at all preachy or overbearing. She’d probably hate that I wrote this post, but it has to be said that every day feminist icons exist and are all around us. The work isn’t just focused outward on larger issues, it’s focused inward on building up the people doing it so that they can keep doing it.

I won’t stop going. She would not want that and I will honor her wishes. But more importantly I will do more to honor her spirit. Try to be to others what she was to me. I may not be any good at it some days, but Delux was a voice of reason when I needed it. She kept me from making some big mistakes, supported me through others, and I was just one of several people who got the calls, emails, texts, you name it daily or weekly. Sex_and_race had a lot to do with the development of Hood Feminism, but more importantly Delux had a lot to do with my development as a person and a feminist. I only hope that I can do the same. Honor the feminist (whether they use the label or not) in your home and community who may never write a treatise, but who will always do the work. They’re the ones that matter the most.

 

 

Dispatches from Ferguson.

A makeshift memorial for another black boy felled by a policeman's gun.

A makeshift memorial for another black boy felled by a policeman’s gun.

You don’t know how to write this story. It’s difficult, due mostly to the emotional proximity of it all. You feel everything, and at once. The heaviness of the air, the apathy of the authorities, the grief and frustration of the residents who deserve answers and not nightly tear gassing. When you arrive Friday evening, you note the feeling of relief at the Qwik Trip, where ash and rubble has given way to an outdoor community center. Messages etched in sidewalk chalk conveying support from far-flung places, people healing through laughter and dance. Despite being so blatantly lied to earlier, there is a glimmer of hope that justice will be served. Somehow. Someway. 

Later that night, you watch helplessly and in horror, as local law enforcement attack residents again. Friends and family caution you against going back out to help, reminding you of your parental responsibilities. But those responsibilities are what led you here. You are here because eventually, the four year-old who clutches his toy turtle every night will grow into a teenage boy. One who does teenage boy things. And he deserves to exist in a world where policemen don’t kill him for jaywalking, or fitting the description. 

Saturday morning you find yourself back at the Qwik Trip bowing your head in prayer to a God you don’t believe in, clasping hands with those who still do. You talk to people who have come from Atlanta and California and Florida, all of them black women. They have brought supplies and bodies. They march alongside you to the spot where Mike Brown was murdered. They listen, heads bowed, as Rev. Jesse Jackson leads another prayer. They take pictures and comfort one another. Later, they help residents hand out hotdogs and chips, and mind the babies running around as the bikers drive through. 

After a brief respite and another supply run, you are back in Ferguson by nightfall. Rain is beating the pavement, lightning strikes in the distance, but the people are undeterred. Despite the midnight curfew (and neighboring towns imposing earlier ones) they are out, and ready. You’ve just left what you thought would be a strategy meeting with organizers, painfully white organizers who flinch when they see you and your friends arrive. There are no residents present, and after your phones get a decent charge, you leave and hit West Florissant again. A friend wonders, aloud, if residents were given access to that space during the protests. Probably not, you respond. 

The trained journalist in you has so many questions. Why are residents continuously being punished for peacefully assembling? Why is the man who murdered a boy in cold blood allowed to flee the county? What the fuck is up with the local government? You push them aside. Besides, there will be a million thinkpieces by a million armchair revolutionaries/blackademics/concerned white people who will peddle their theories from a safe and comfortable distance while dismissing the power of “hashtag activism,” the same activism that made this concerted act of resistance possible. The power of “Black Twitter” is formidable, and you are seeing it firsthand. 

You leave for home today, not knowing what to expect in the days to come. You will get more supplies to share with residents, you will attend the scheduled vigil, and you will be back on a bus to Chicago by nightfall as residents once again fight for their humanity. You will think of the kindness and generosity of the people here, who hug you hard and feed you without knowing your name. You will continue to lend your support however you can, while you continue to fight for your own city five hours away. 

And you will remember Mike Brown, the boy who should have lived. 

 

 

Maybe it’s time for #MyFeministIcon

It seems like we can’t go a week without a thinkpiece or two about who is a “real” feminist icon. So let’s talk about who our feminist icons are, not just the people on the “approved” list. I mean the people who matter to you. They don’t have to wear the label to inspire you to great heights. Post pics, write blog posts, tag it with #MyFeministIcon. It’s time we re-frame this conversation. It’s not about the “right” kind of feminist icon. It’s about the feminist icons that matter to you. Come on down to Hood Feminism, your blogs, Tumblr, or Twitter and talk about who matters the most to you. Personally #MyFeministIcon list would include Stagecoach Mary, Josephine Baker, Maya Angelou, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Shirley Chisolm…I have a lot of icons. You get the idea.

The Case of 234 Missing Nigerian Girls & Apathetic Media Coverage.

While racist ranchers and missing airplanes have been dominating the news cycle for days, another story–a heartbreaking one–has received scant media attention. On April 15, 234 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped after being summoned back to school for exams. Boko Haram, an extremist group that opposes the education of women, has claimed responsibility for the mass abduction.

According to a Reuters report, Nigerian President Johnathan held a security meeting with 36 state governors to address the kidnapping and widespread violence that has plagued the country for several years. Officials maintain that it is oil, not religion, that is to blame for the conflict. It is unclear what action these officials plan to take.

Apart from a handful of wire reports and articles, there has been little media coverage stateside, which is surprising, because one would think that the disappearance of 234 schoolgirls would make international headlines. So, it’s time for some action.

Start here by signing this petition. Use your social media networks to make #BringBackOurGirls and #BringBackOurDaughters trend. Contact your local media outlets. Let’s try to bring these girls home.

Many thanks to the bloggers, journalists, writers, and activists who have been working to spread the story. Check out Melissa McEwan’s post at Shakesville here.