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I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a while. Even as I sit here now beginning to type, I can feel my stomach tying up in knots. I’ve written at length about my sexual assault on this blog, but most of it has been in relation to some political rant or another. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in “the personal is political,” but this is a different type of post here.

I’ve decided to write this post today because the 1-year anniversary of my sexual assault is approaching. And so much has happened and changed in the past year. The truth is, though, it’s all been for the better. If you had told that to myself in October, 2010, I wouldn’t have believed you. I was at the lowest low in my life. The fact of the matter is, when a sexual assault happens to you, it’s like a domino effect of your entire world being shattered. It’s not just the assault–it’s the way others treat you because of it (no wonder so many choose to stay silent). My assailant was my best friend and a collaborator. I lost all of our mutual friends. I broke up with my boyfriend despite him being my biggest support system, because I couldn’t fathom the idea of being romantic with anyone ever again. I barely had the strength to go to school and complete my homework, despite my being just a few credits away from graduation. Literally, my entire world had been shattered.

And the assault couldn’t have come at a stranger time in my life, either. I had just gotten back from New York City a few hours before, where I’d seen my all-time favorite band, Pavement, perform the last leg of their reunion tour from the front row in Central Park (which, at that time, was probably #1 on my list of coolest experiences). I was set to perform in The Encyclopedia Show, one of the world’s (let’s be honest, probably the only) fastest-spreading literary variety shows, in the coming days, and I’d just finished writing the perfect poem on my topic: somewhat ironically given the events to come, “Bare Naked.” The same night I got back, I jet-laggedly rushed to meet up with my musician to show him the piece and finish writing the song–after all, the performance was just in a few days. When he offered me an adderall, I accepted, even though I’d never tried it before and had no idea what to anticipate, because I wanted to stay up all night to perfect the piece. How could I have known his intention would be to wait until I passed out, drugged out of my mind, and take advantage of me?

It was a Friday night. The show was on Tuesday. I won’t focus on the event of the assault here, because that’s not what’s important. What is important to me, today, is that I decided to do go through with the performance. Despite the fact that I had spent all weekend in a hospital room getting a rape kit done and talking to various authorities about the event, despite the fact that for at least an entire month after the event I was so depressed I literally did not get out of bed, I had to make a decision about what was important to me. And that decision was whether or not I would let my assailant take away an important opportunity in my life, or be strong, and find a way to perform my piece without the way I had practiced and prepared it with the man who had taken advantage of me. I asked my sister, a musician, to help me, and we came up with something the night before the show.

It’s strange for me to watch this video. The trembling in my hands and legs, the sadness in my eyes, seems all so obvious to me, although there were only a few people in the room who knew what had happened. I remember the moments while reciting that poem when my mind would wander back to what had happened to me just a few nights before–and I remember pushing those thoughts away to stay focused on my performance. There were several moments when I almost started crying, and didn’t. And in the end, when I crack a smile and look back at my sister, who smiles back at me–I can see the shared moment of trust and triumph. Needless to say, I feel very blessed to have this video as a relic of this small victory.

What’s more, this performance was a very important moment in my life for another reason–not that I knew it at the time. Like I previously mentioned, I lost all of my close friends in the wake of my assault. But today, I have something even more valuable–my sister, the people in the room, the poets who performed and came out to support me, would come to be my lifeline in the coming months, although they would be almost completely oblivious to it. Who would have thought that something like a sexual assault and the loss of all my close friendships would come to be the event that propelled me forward in my passion? Who would have thought that the utter despair and loneliness I experienced would send me somewhere completely unexpected, into a poetic community, that would welcome me with open arms and a type of love and understanding that I would never have to question or doubt?

There was another moment that came a little later that was very important in my recovery as well. Like I said, I spent literally months so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed. Then, one day, instead of choosing to do nothing about my emotions, I decided to write a poem. I’ve often said that I write a poem when I feel so much of a certain way that I can’t do anything else–this was precisely the moment when that first happened. I wrote a poem that contained all of my sadness and struggle from the past year. I made all of my emotions small enough to be contained in letters on a page. And then, a few months later, I performed again, in the Louder Than A Bomb College Indy Slam.

To be honest, I didn’t score that well in the slam (well, in my opinion–my goal was to win the whole thing of course). I was more interested in getting involved in LTAB for the opportunities to work with high school poets than to compete. I’ll be the first to admit that my competitive side isn’t pretty, and I’m a pretty sore loser. I cried a lot after the competition. But getting on stage and sharing a poem I’d worked so hard on, both in terms of literariness and performance, was incredibly important to me. As Robbie Q. Telfer, the co-founder of the aforementioned Encyclopedia Show and director of LTAB, says frequently: “The point is not the points, the point in the poetry.” And although I didn’t know it at the time, and certainly wouldn’t try to perform that poem again, opening up about my experience to a room full of strangers, unafraid of their judgment, was a profoundly empowering experience, and one that’s propelled me forward in the aftermath.

I’ll get to the point, here. A year ago, I was a senior in college, the president of a student poetry organization, oblivious to the fact that school was going to be over soon and I’d have to figure out how to make this whole “being a career poet” thing work. My priorities lied in getting drunk with my friends and having a boyfriend at all times. Of course poetry was important to me–it always has been–but it wasn’t my life. And for most people, it probably shouldn’t be their life. After all, everything I’m trying to say is that it took a life-changing, post traumatic stress-inducing event for me to get to that point.

But that’s not it, exactly. Yes, I threw myself into my poetry as a way to get my mind off of what had happened. But I did something else, too–I threw myself into the community here in Chicago as well. I surrounded myself with people who were poets, a couple of whom were my age and had merely been friends through association, who now are my very best friends in the entire world and have my back in a way no friend has ever had before. What’s more is that the poetry community in Chicago is a very special place where things like sexism, ableism, homophobia, and the rest won’t fly or get politely golf-clapped off stage when performed (unlike in New York where I watched a guy perform a poem about how “all women are whores” and “gay marriage isn’t in the Bible” get wild applause at the Nuyorican Cafe). I’ve become more than just a poet, but an organizer–someone who has given back to the community a hundred fold what it’s given to me–because I wanted to surround myself with intelligent people who had the strength to share their pain the way I did, but also the strength to just keep trying to be better. I think about the people who have become important in my life in the past year and scoff at what was important to me a year ago–people who held me back and distracted me from my dreams.

It’s weird how, a year later, I can look back at something like my own sexual assault and subsequent depression and see it as such a valuable and life-changing experience. I can’t say I wouldn’t have found my way to the 24/7 poetry lifestyle if it weren’t for my assault, but I do know that my life would be profoundly different. I wouldn’t have the good, supportive friends I do if I didn’t have a good reason to forget about the old ones. I wouldn’t have had the balls to compete in a slam if I didn’t write a poem that I thought was good enough for it. My life and work as an artist has taken a dramatically different turn–from organizing SlutWalk Chicago to having the opportunity to work with some of my most idolized poets–if I hadn’t had the hard life experience to propel me in that direction. And I certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunity to speak out about my own experience and help others who are going through similar situations if I hadn’t lived it.

So, here’s a final video: me, today, performing a new poem that addresses my beliefs as a feminist in a different way than the videos above. I wouldn’t have had the strength to do this, either, if I hadn’t let go of the pain that haunted me for so long.

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How many times have you heard a guy say this: “Women like you better when you treat them like shit.” Or: “I never get the girls I like because I’m too nice.” Or: “I’m a functioning alcoholic, and a complete asshole. Let’s date?” Okay, maybe that last one isn’t so popular (outside of my world, at least) but really, now, I’m sure all of us have heard the first two from multiple sources, usually men fresh from a break-up or another form of rejection. Really, it’s surprising that, being as gung-ho about gender equality as I am, that I’ve known so many men so eager to explain this rational to me.

The fact that many men categorize themselves/their behaviors toward dating women, unconsciously or not, as being “bad boys” or “nice guys” speaks less to the idea that women actively seek out men of either types and more to how society views women. “Bad boys” treat women like shit because they’re either to subdued or too stupid to know any better, while “nice guys” treat women well and get dumped because women are sex-starved bitches who do better when they’re treated like objects or children. Never does it cross their minds that they may not be treating their partner with respect. To avoid making sweeping generalizations as much as possible (since, after all, it’s these types of generalizations about women that really piss me off), it seems like, all too often, these guys are one in the same. These men never recognize or admit to their own flaws when it comes to dating; when a woman leaves, it’s always because “all women are whores,” “all women are bitches,” etc etc etc, instead of “maybe she has her reasons.” It’s always the “nice guys” claiming that women get turned on by being treated disrespectfully. Turns out they’re not really “nice guys” at all.

Now, again, this is with avoiding generalizations. As WhatEmbersConsume, a self-proclaimed “former Nice Guy,” points out, there are key differences between “nice guys” and “nice people.” A “nice person” will genuinely care about you, but also respect your boundaries and limits, and take responsibility for their faults and actions. On the flip side, here’s a few tell-tale signs that you’re dealing with a “Nice Guy:”

  • Often clingly.  May ask you far too frequently where you are, who you are with, what you are doing, etc. out of a supposed regard for your safety.  In reality, the Nice Guy™ wants to know where you are because he wants to keep tabs on you, like any other one of his possessions.
  • Easily prone to jealousy.  Doesn’t like you hanging around other people of your preferred gender and age group (or even your friends outside of your preferred gender).  This is because he is afraid of loosing you.
  • Will likely be upset when you try to put up healthy boundaries when it comes to personal time, space, etc.
  • Will often want to get involved with your family/friends as soon as possible if you have a good relationship with them.  This is because he thinks – subconsciously or not – that if he forges relationships with those close with you it will be harder for you to break things off.  The same goes for the reverse of this: he will likely want you to meet his friends and family for the same reason.
  • Will often talk about how important you are to him, how he couldn’t live without you, etc. especially as things get more serious.  He either really believes this, in which case it is because he has become dependent on the ideal of you; or is deliberately using it to manipulate you emotionally.
  • Will affirm you/praise you for your physical characteristics and accomplishments.  This is because these are the only things he cares about: things that others will notice and things that he can take advantage of.
  • Easily put off by arguments; not inclined to initiate serious conversations.  This is because he views differences between you two as freedom from him he does not want you to have.
  • Is not willing for you two to be anything less than he wants you to be.  If you maintain your boundaries, he will hightail it out of your life or seek revenge.
  • Will try to make you feel special.
  • Will never admit to making mistakes unless you threaten him with something.  He is always right, and even if your threats get him to concede that with words he will maintain that he was right in his own mind.

Looking over this list really startled me, because not only did it remind me of dating patterns I’ve witnessed, but also those my friends and I have experienced first hand–more than once.  And, what’s even scarier, is this lists’ similarity to that of an abusive relationship.  In fact, many abusive relationships–physically, emotionally, verbally, or otherwise–start off in the realm of the self-proclaimed Nice Guy and get that much more extreme as possessiveness worsens. The fact that so many men self-identify as “nice guys” is quite startling–even the OP recognized this trend in his dating choices (although he claims to be reformed now–we shall see).

So what’s the fucking deal? Why do so many men equate possessive behavior to genuinely caring? And why do so many guys think that they can’t get a date because they’re “too nice” when really they completely fail at seeing a woman as a human person with autonomous feelings and decision making capabilities?

It makes me really sad, to be honest. Some of these guys have serious issues.  This type of misogyny can often be a product or a side effect of other problems such as alcoholism, poor self-esteem, post traumatic stress disorder, or other serious mental/emotional limitations. Really, who’s to blame? The guy who thinks he’s supposed to treat women like shit, or the culture that says if he doesn’t manipulate her into submission, he’s not masculine enough?

Either way, it’s not an issue to brush over, and what’s most important is who this outlook affects the most—women.  Ladies, how many times have guys tried to guilt into dates, sex, or staying in a relationship, just because someone was “nice” to you? Probably a lot. Probably all the time. And chances are, when you reject these guys, it’s probably not pretty. He probably gets mad. He might use misogynistic language to describe you, like “bitch,” “cunt,” or “whore,” whether it’s to your face or behind your back. And a lot of times, he probably won’t back down after the first rejection.

What’s most important is to remember that you have control over your body and decisions first—no one else. I know a lot of times it doesn’t feel that way, but we must keep reminding ourselves. By owning ourselves first, before any ideas or cultural standards, we are taking a giant step against oppression every day. Don’t let anyone tell you whether or not they’re a “nice guy”—leave that to your own judgement calls.

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I’m lucky to live in the wonderful city of Chicago. It’s my favorite place to live, my adopted hometown, and an important city for poets as the hometown to the Poetry Slam. Recently I traveled to New York and took part in the slam at the world-famous Nuyorican Cafe (the former home to Def Poetry Jam) and noticed a key difference between their scene and ours–feminist poetry was pretty much non-existent, and in fact some openly misogynistic poems scored pretty well. Meanwhile, in Chicago feminist poems are prevalent at pretty much any poetry slam, and often come from unexpected sources.

I like the Chicago poetry scene because political poems are encouraged to be shared from all prospectives, even when it’s a white woman talking about race issues or a black man talking about domestic violence. I’d like to share some of my favorite poems about issues of gender, empowerment, and female oppression that belong to big-time poets and newcomers from the Chicago area. Watch the videos to let the poems speak for themselves, and then let me know what you think.

1. Tony Denis, “Mothers”

One of the few poems that’s made me cry, read by a classmate of mine at Columbia College. He got a perfect score in the slam but, in turn, got slammed by the time restraint (still placing fourth overall despite the 4 point deduction). It still remains a memorable poem, and I was impressed by the insight and empathy young Tony demonstrated. Mothers are understated heroes and I admire that he made an attempt to pay his dues with this poem.

2. J. W. Baz, “Anointing the Hand”

This poem is a poignant statement on what could be called “masculinism” but is nevertheless important in the context of a larger discussion on gender and violence. Baz is a former Def Poet who slams Hillary Clinton (rightfully so) for being old money and equating soldiers to barbarians. I like this poem because as a feminist, it’s easy to forget the everyday struggles that people face other than women, and this poem totally made me see the world differently.

3. Robbie Q. Telfer, “2002 Silver Chevy Cavalier”

Okay, so, this is a feminist poem, huh? Well, maybe not. But I still love it for its hilarious satire of manliness equating to how many “bitches” you fuck and how nice your car is. Robbie Q. is probably my favorite poet, not just for his mad skillz, but also because he’s made a career working with at-risk youths through his efforts with Young Chicago Authors. Respect.

4. Marty McConnell & Tristian Silverman, “The Female Body”

My favorite poetry power couple. I loved them both separately before realizing they were dating, and had the pleasure of hearing them perform this piece in person during class called Queer Poetry. They both are stellar poets apart from each other who are perfect examples of “the personal is political” without being boring, overstated, or pretentious, using their personal stories as vessels for a range of topics from confused sexuality to checking their own privilege. They never isolate anyone with their poems. I think in the context of that conversation, this poem largely speaks for itself, and I like the juxtaposition between Marty’s rambling definition of “the female body” and Tristian’s nervous apprehension when seeing a naked lover for the first time.

5. Andi Kauth, “Orchestra of Bones”

Andi is another old classmate of mine from Columbia who has recently propelled herself to National acclaim as a slam poet (go girl!). This is her signature poem and for good reason–it addresses issues of body image and self-esteem in a completely original way, one that takes gigantic risks through exposing the ways bulimia had failed her and the way the bodies of starving people are commoditized through photographs. It’s a controversial favorite, but one has to admire the fact that she was willing to share her very human story and prospective, even when unflattering, on a national stage.

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Black Swan is summing up to be one of the most controversial Oscar-hopefuls of the season.  There seems to be a strict divide on audiences’ opinions; “Either you view it as a flawed, gritty take on the rigors of ballet and how they affect this particular character, or you choose to view it as a Freudian nightmare of a woman contending with her repressed sexuality with the world of ballet serving simply as a backdrop.” Being the savvy peruser of all media on the internet, I found a DVD screener of the film and was able to watch it twice; the first try, I was unimpressed.  Natalie Portman’s performance was reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s superior portrayal of the damaged yet talented beauty throughout her career, but days later my mind was still reeling, dissecting the film, so I decided to watch it again. The second time around, I had the completely opposite reaction–I was moved to tears, feeling a deep sense of empathy and understanding for the protagonist Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman).  I definitely feel that it’s a film that haunts you, and it hits on a type of suffering that is very universal for women or artists (of which I am both), if you’re watching it in the right frame of mind.

I’ve heard a lot of arguments against the film’s perceived originality.  The psychological thriller is not a new genre, and in many ways Black Swan isn’t doing anything to its audiences that wasn’t done in Sixth Sense; its ambiguity is a bit frustrating in the context of its intense portrayal of female sexuality, more openly Freudian than Hitchcock’s best works.  It is clear at every moment that you’re watching a film written, directed, and produced from a male prospective, even down to the lesbian wet dreams and feminine sexual rivalry.  It’s perhaps the most open attempt at examining the male/female unconscious but it’s a Hollywood film that’s made over $60 million dollars.  With that in mind, Black Swan is not going to find a place among the great works of feminist cinema.

So it’s not the most groundbreaking film.  Compared to Darren Aronofsky’s other films, it’s not as original, nor does it offer an untold story as his other works (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream, Pi).  In fact, unlike his other works, Black Swan is a contemporary idiom on the story of Swan Lake–all the aspects of the original story are, in essence, borrowed from an early reference.  However, the film is still ambitious, relevant, even important as a testimonial to gender politics in post-modern cinema, if you’re willing to take the over-all ambivalent nature of the film with the highest expectations, placing a responsibility on the production values and semiotics in the visual aspects of the film.  That is to say, if you’re a person who is willing to see the film as the product of vision and struggle, rather than another voice yammering on in some conversation of what a man thinks it means to be a woman, you’re probably on the pro-Black Swan team.

For me, the beauty in watching Black Swan was knowing that all of the struggles of Nina Sayers were being felt by Natalie Portman through her preparation and portrayal of the role.  When Toma (Vincent Cassel) grabbed Nina’s face and shoved his tongue down her throat, the sexual aggression Portman had to endure in order to be professional was very real.  Although Portman is a trained ballet dancer, she spent a year preparing physically; Portman used the real, physical pain she felt as fuel into the psychological mindset of a prima ballerina, her stage being the silver screen rather than Lincoln Center.  Turns out Portman’s real life mother had some similarities with Nina’s as well: “She was always worried and scared about me working, asking me, ‘Do you really want to do that?’ And I would beg and cry and plead, but both my parents were very protective in not wanting me to act that much…. but she wasn’t a pushy mother at all.” The symbolic ending of the film added what I felt was a poignant statement on what it means to be an artist, visually portraying the physical manifestations of suffering one must endure through their bodies and minds in order to fulfill their purpose.

I thought the intense focus on the body that came with such a film was a greatly understated aspect.  Dance is the art of controlling one’s body, and I thought this played out in a very complimentary way in terms of this film being a product of post-modernism.  There is, again, the aspect of the interdisciplinary genre work–the fact that the actresses were all trained dancers, and also Clint Manswell’s reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky’s original Swan Lake score in order to create a new relationship between the choreography and cinematography.  But the other connection is one between female sexuality and the relationship with one’s body–at every turn, Nina’s body is rebelling against her, even to the point of psychosis.  This metaphor was perhaps a bit too obvious for most women, especially combined with all the prevalent bitchy dancer stereotypes that hinder Nina’s relationships with every woman she interacts with.  There’s also the fact that the famous French choreographer, Toma, was a huge pervert, with not even especially good pick-up lines, who basically gets away with sexually inappropriate relationships with his dancers because he’s just that good-looking and brilliant.  Not anything redeeming about that character, but, hey, maybe that was the point.

In the end, I liked Black Swan because I felt it was a film I could relate to.  I interpreted a lot of the more “ambiguous” parts of the film to be the product of Nina’s psychosis, which I think speaks to all artists who have ever struggled with mental illness or depression. The gender dynamics of the film didn’t offend me because I took them as a critique.  I came to accept the film’s similarities to previous works because of its success of reintroducing concepts that seldom seem to come out of Hollywood these days.  I related both the character Nina and the actress Natalie Portman’s process to writing a poem, and using your art to manifest all of the demons inside of you.  And I’d definitely recommend it to anyone prepared to stomach such a work. Like I said, there’s DVD screeners floating around on the internet, so take a look, and let me know if you think the film deserves any Oscars.

Or, just watch Jim Carrey’s portrayal of the Black Swan on Saturday Night Live to get the gist of it all.

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We all have our guilty pleasures, submitting to cultural forces even when they completely contradict our beliefs and identities–we can’t deny it. I love reality TV—I find shows like Jersey Shore and Keeping Up With the Kardashians addictive. Despite the fact that no matter how much I try to downplay my interests with a sense of irony, I’m still feeding into a capitalist mass-media phenomenon that’s ultimately perpetuating inane cultural ideals, mostly relating to fame, gender-constructed notions of sexual identity and dating, and especially money. I won’t try to explain it or justify it or say that it creates some sense of intellectual fulfillment, because it doesn’t, and that would just be flat-out pretentious. I try to keep my “guilty pleasures” on the downlow, queueing up the megavideos of Kourtney & Khloe at obscene hours of the night, only speaking publicly about these shows with my adopted grandmother who shares the same secret obsessions (and used an apt metaphor to explain herself: “You know when you’re driving on the highway and you see a horrible, fiery accident and you slow down to look? It’s exactly the same thing.”).

There is nothing wrong with being a feminist with guilty pleasures. But I do find it quite disgusting when people try to justify their indulgences with feminist commentary, as if they were serving some greater good by circle-jerking (online and off) about aspects of sexual liberation in Sex in the City.  The online magazine, Jezebel, has basically built a commentary empire based on post-feminist bullshit that tries (unsuccessfully) to reunite Western mass media with female empowerment. The thing that really irks me is that feminists, even the really intelligent, self-aware ones, keep buying into this crap, feeling some vague sense of fulfillment and pretension that somehow justifies what should be reduced to “guilty pleasures” instead of becoming over-glorified pseudo-social commentary that ultimately fulfills the same purpose as any other magazine “for women.”

Now, let’s be real for a second. Jezebel isn’t just a dumping zone for over-intellectual zealots, and for those who comb through the articles obsessively, it’s not too hard to find articles contributed by real activists with real, legitimate, culturally relevant opinions. But for the sake of example, today I loaded up the site and took a gander at the articles featured at the top:

Let’s take these headlines from left to right:

  1. “The Art of Getting Dressed While Drunk” – Hey, lady, even if you’re completely disoriented, you should still put thought and effort into your appearance because, after all, it’s an ART
  2. “Lady-Tears are Total Bonerkillers” – Don’t show your emotions in your heteronormative lifestyle because you will inevitably  push your man away and NOT GET LAID (and we all know that bad feminists don’t have sex)
  3. “Social Minefield: How to Deal with Shyness” – could be more aptly titled “How to Conform to Social Expectations and Succeed in Impressing People with your Fake Personality”
  4. “Cosmo’s Fake Cover Hides Orgasm from Advertisers” – Appropriate subtitle: WE DON’T!
  5. “Kendra and Betheny Dissect Their Own Body Issues” – Because models who willingly sexually objectify themselves and fulfill societal standards of beauty should also be the standard of how you measure your own body issues too.
  6. “What the Angle of your Ponytail Says About You” – Mm, yes, really important information for empowered women here.
  7. “The Harrowing Date-Rape Scene from Snooki’s Book” – Celebrity date rape, not regular rape, because that would just be too human for a celebrity gossip e-zine. Still not exploitative or anything. Nu uh.

Pretty much all of these articles are in reference to cultural ideals that promote “false-empowerment,” or the post-feminist notion of being empowered by choosing which ways to conform to society’s expectations. Jezebel ditched its title as a feminist pop-culture e-zine some time ago, now proudly toting themselves as “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women,” but its fans are not ready to let go. Smart women who consider themselves feminist still seek out Jezebel as a means to buy into the same cultural ideals that have oppressed women for generations, but then justify themselves as intellectuals — for some reason reading celebrity gossip on Jezebel is better than Us Weekly, despite the fact that it’s far more convoluted than just saying “Fuck it, I want to see Kourtney Kardashian’s exclusive baby pictures and I don’t understand why!”

Hell no–Jezebel is fucking proud of the way it can present the same topics that you’d find in any magazine “for women” yet justify it with some vague notion of being well-informed when it should be the exact opposite. If you’re well-informed, you should be dissecting the ways mass media exploits and oppresses women, not promoting it. I mean, if you want to buy into it a little bit, knowing full well you’re buying the ideas The Man wants you to, you can still keep a firm sense of boundary between your beliefs and their beliefs:  sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Yet Jezebel has no concept of this. In fact, it actively seeks to destroy it by continually attempting to reinforce the idea that if you’re a feminist, all aspects of your identity support this, despite the fact that no one is impervious to social pressures. In the end, if you want to continue to read Jezebel because they have articles that you like, go for it. Just don’t do it under the guise of being a well-read feminist. Please don’t encourage them or contribute to their sense of legitimacy as feminists creating change “for women. Without airbrushing.” Fuck no.

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On September 25, 2010, I was raped.

There. I said it. So what? Well, I really haven’t spoken much about the experience since it happened. Because I’m knowledgeable about issues of violence against women, I knew exactly what to do in this instance. I called a crisis hotline to calm me down and give me advice. Then I went to the emergency room and did a rape kit. I spoke to an advocate at the hospital who further helped to calm me. I was required to file a police report; a week later, after much deliberation on my part, I decided to go ahead and press charges against my perpetrator. I sought out free counseling at my school, and when that wasn’t enough, I started seeing a counselor at Rape Victim Advocates. I told those who were closest to me about what had happened. But still, despite the existence of this blog and the fact that there is very little about my personal life that’s off-limits in terms of discussion, it’s been excruciatingly difficult for me to speak about the experience. The only thing more painful than my own experience is the fact that once I did open up to people and talk about what had happened to me, so many women I spoke to in private in turn confided in me about their own experience with sexual assault. However, although they all recognized what had happened to them as non-consensual sex, none of them were able to use the word “rape” to describe what had happened to them, in part because of trying to repress the memories surrounding the event, but also because of the blame they had placed on themselves for not being able to stop it.

Let’s back track a little bit. In my first semester of college, I took a little class called “Service Learning: Women’s Issues.” I didn’t know exactly what the class entailed, but already being a raging self-proclaimed radical feminist at the time, I signed up. The class, taught by Michelle Sayset, a wonderful woman who deserves more credit for all the work she has done with students and survivors, focused specifically on educating us about rape and domestic violence through direct action in protest and volunteer work, reading and critical responses, class discussion, and lectures given by guest speakers. It was there that I learned about the sobering statistics surrounding rape, as well as what to do in situations where you or a loved one have been assaulted. In a world where college women are 25% more likely to be victims of sexual assault, the importance of such a class is not to be understated.

The semester culminated in facilitating The Clothesline Project along with featuring student performers. It was at this event, more than three years ago, that I met my perpetrator, who was bandmates with a classmate I had befriended and would come to be a part of a large group of friends who I’ve subsequently all lost in the aftermath of the assault. He came to be my best friend, my confidant, my collaborator in terms of my art work, before he drugged me and took advantage of me while in a semi-unconscious state. If the fact that someone who had enough insight to speak out against rape would also have the balls to do it themselves wasn’t enough of a unpredictable twist in the epic of my life, I was coincidentally wearing a free t-shirt I had gotten through doing volunteer work with a women’s shelter as part of the class at the time of my assault. So, last week, when someone from this semester’s class stopped by my student poetry organization’s meeting to invite us all to read at The Clothesline Project’s open mic, I had a feeling of my experience coming full circle. I made the decision to get up in front of a room full of people–some strangers, some colleagues–and speak about my experience through my poetry and through discussion, not only because I felt it was an opportunity to exemplify how to combine the knowledge gained from the class with artistic craft to a room full of art students, but because I felt it was necessary in the process of healing myself.

(Here is a video of an older version of the poem I read; you can read the version from the event here.)

Although I was personally motivated in my performance, something happened after the event that had already occurred too many times–someone I had known for several years opened up to me about her own experience with rape. Apparently she had never thought of what had happened to her as an assault; her perpetrator was her then-boyfriend who was sleeping next to her. And apparently, like all the other women who had opened up to me, she had never considered it as rape because she blamed herself for not stopping it. I had, apparently, inadvertently lifted the blame from herself by recognizing my own experience as rape. As with all the other women I had confided in privately about my experience who in turn shared their stories with me, she didn’t use the term “rape” to describe what had happened to her–and who am I to label her experience–but the fact that I could take my traumatic experience and use it to help someone else somehow has made everything I’ve gone through (which, believe me, could be an entire blog in and of itself) completely worth it.

I can’t say that everyone who has ever been raped should speak to a room full of strangers about their personal experience. Doing so doesn’t necessarily exemplify strength or help in the healing process of such an experience, as it did for me. But I will say this: because I mustered up the courage to speak about what had happened to me in a safe space, I felt a huge sense of fulfillment. Using my experience and my art to reach out to people, and, hopefully, help them, while in turn helping myself, made me feel that some justice had been served. The legal process of prosecuting someone for rape is a strenuous thing (something that’s all-too topical given the charges surrounding WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange)–I’ve made almost no process in my own case, and even if my perpetrator is behind bars, it won’t undo the damage that has already been done. We can, however–as survivors, as women, as people who feel the need to do something about it–speak out about these issues and educate men and women as a form of prevention against rape. Although these issues are something I’ve come to know all too well, unfortunately most people don’t realize how common place rape is. Not all men recognize their actions as rape even when it’s clear to the victim, and not all victims know not to internalize their blame. As I already mentioned, being educated about what to do when it came time to deal with being raped myself has helped a lot. Unfortunately none of the women who had confided in me were provided that privilege.

This blog post is a call to action. Whatever you know of rape, whatever you are comfortable speaking about, and whatever you can say without causing harm to victims, say it. Say it publicly outloud. Tweet about it or update your facebook status. Start a discussion at your school, workplace, or among friends. Do what I did and blog about it. You can’t always be there to physically intervene and prevent a rape from taking place, but you can raise awareness about the issues surrounding rape. You never know whose life you’ll be changing.

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My good friend Amelia recently wrote a post on how she became a feminist where she gave me more credit than was due for enlightening her to the meaning of the word back in high school. I feel kinda silly that she’d so specifically attribute me in her experience because, unlike me, she can date her realization that women are equal to men to a specific moment when she was very young. But the fact of the matter is, unlike Amelia, who clued in to gender equality at the ripe age of 6, my feminist identity was more the result of teenage angst and rebellion than anything else.

Like Amelia, I also remember the specific moment when gender equality entered my mind, setting into motion my thirst for feminist fury, but it came much later and started an avalanche of enlightenment that would make me into the green-haired, pot-smoking, self-proclaimed “poet anarchist” I developed into my senior year of high school (you know, the person in that little picture on the top of the page). I had a very traditional Catholic upbringing, which was just oodles of fun. My mother was a stay-at-home mom until I was 12, at which point my white-collar father decided to move into a bigger, nicer house that required her to get a job. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my mom was being subjected to a type of new oppression for women in the post-second wave America. She had to work just as many hours as my dad, but get paid less, at a less prestigious job, and then come home and keep house just the way she used to when she was unemployed, while caring for two adolescent daughters and an overgrown baby of a husband. In addition to all that, she continued to teach private music lessons as a way to stay connected with her passion in life. I remember most days when I’d come home from school, my mom would be with a student while periodically checking on whatever was on the stove. I never thought twice about how no matter how much my mom slaved for her family, my dad expected even more from her. In the world of Catholic Conservatives, that’s just the way the world works.

Like my good friend, my feminist enlightenment was also set into motion by one simple comment that blew the top off my head. One night, at dinner, my dad made a snide comment. He was upset that my mom never had dinner on the table when he got home from work because she was busy with lessons. He went on and on about how my great-grandmother would cook her husband eggs over-easy every morning and have a warm meal waiting for him when he got home each night. I remember him saying, “I thought I had a wife to come home to take care of me.” This type of rude conversation was pretty normal for the average Sutton-family dinner, but this night was different, because my older sister, an unabashed daddy’s girl, decided to speak up: “That’s chauvinist.”

I had never heard the word before and timidly asked what it meant. My sister went on to explain how women were exploited: they were expected to be beautiful and successful in competition with males, yet also rear children and keep house. Women were expected not only to adhere to traditional standards, yet also strive for success in a contemporary world. My dad was silenced, and my mind was completely blown. I remember posting about the event on my online journal, misspelling “shovenist” and being corrected by a friend. But at that point, I had found a new way to look at my strained relationship with my father: he disrespected women–he was sexist.

Unfortunately my sister’s outspoken attitude did not change my parents relationship. My mom filed for divorce earlier this year after my dad began a slew of affairs with women he met online who look creepily like a younger version of his mom. He once again cited wanting the envisionment of society’s perfect woman for his immature and inconsiderate actions–someone with good looks, prestige, and a paycheck that competes with his own. Not surprisingly, his quest for love continues, as women of that caliber are not only very rare, but dislike putting up with childish bullshit. Meanwhile, my mom has become the embodiment of a woman in charge of her own life: she’s bought her own home, continues to work–now getting paid more in a better position–and teach flute lessons, and has reconnected with old friends from college.

There were other factors that contributed to my coming-of-age as a feminist; mainly the efforts of my old high school’s social worker who gave an after-school lecture my freshmen year about body image issues that was surprisingly well attended. It was there that I first learned what it means to be a feminist, and knew I was one: it’s simple, if you believe in equal rights for men and women, you’re a feminist. End of story. Whether or not you’re an unaware douchebag is irrelevant, especially considering the fact that there are so many different sects of feminism that completely oppose each other in sub-beliefs.

I also have to give credit to the online community, because without people on online forums and livejournal communities continuously calling me out on my privileged brat douchebaggery, I would have never realized I had engrained attitudes that were racist, homophobic, or classist. It’s also because of the online community that I became enraptured by the abortion debate, declaring myself as pro-choice at the age of 14. “I hate babies and don’t give a fuck what other people do with their bodies” was my logic before my argument became much more complex and personal.

How did I become a feminist? Clearly the answer is complex, and still developing. As a white upper-class woman I recognize that there are many flaws in my outlook and experience; my beliefs are constantly changing based on continuing realizations of how I’ve been benefitted and disadvantaged just for being white and female. To be honest, I’ve changed a lot as a feminist as well; I no longer use the term as a blanket statement to describe my political beliefs because I also strongly believe in ending oppression for racial minorities and the working class. Nevertheless, I think it’s important for girls to become familiar with feminism at a young age in order to combat all the confusion thrust upon them, and if anyone asks, I will defend the “f-word” to the grave.

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