Tag Archives: scary shit

Slut-shaming, Suicide, and Mrs. Hall

6 Sep

Most of you have probably already seen Kim Hall’s post FYI (if you’re a teenage girl). Both the original and the many, many brilliant take-downs written in response have been circulating social media this week, so it’s been pretty hard to avoid. If by some chance you’ve managed to miss out on all the fun, I highly encourage you to take a moment to go read Mrs. Hall’s open letter to all girls everywhere. It sure is something.

A lot of really smart folks have written some incredible posts touching on Mrs. Hall’s contribution to societal problems like slut-shaming, rape culture and body image issues. I don’t have anything new or brilliant to say on those topics, but I do want to talk about an aspect of Mrs. Hall’s message that hasn’t really been touched on yet: the very real link between the ideas that she’s putting forward and the recent rise in cyber-bullying, online slut-shaming and teenage suicide.

When I read Mrs. Hall’s letter, the first people that I thought of were Amanda Todd, Retaeh Parsons, Audrie Pott, Cherice Morales. In each of these cases, photographs of the girls that showed them either in various states of undress, or else showed them being sexually assaulted, or in some instances both at the same time, were circulated on social media. In each of these cases, the girls became social pariahs. In each of these cases, the girls committed suicide after enduring bullying and slut-shaming both online and offline.

I am not saying that Mrs. Hall is consciously suggesting that her children should shame or bully their classmates, especially those who have been sexually assaulted. If you asked her, I’m sure that she would tell you that those ideas are so far from what she intended to communicate as to be almost laughable. But still. Slut-shaming, ostracizing and bullying are the end-game of everything she is teaching her children.

When she writes:

And now – big bummer – we have to block your posts. Because, the reason we have these (sometimes awkward) family conversations around the table is that we care about our sons, just as we know your parents care about you.”

And:

And so, in our house, there are no second chances with pics like that, ladies. We have a zero tolerance policy.  I know, so lame. But, if you want to stay friendly with our sons online, you’ll have to keep your clothes on, and your posts decent.  If you post a sexy selfie (we all know the kind), or an inappropriate YouTube video – even once – it’s curtains.

What she is really telling her children is that girls who do not conform to her particular ideas of “modesty” are bad. She is telling them that the girls who post sexy selfies are worth less than the girls who cover up. She is telling them that the girls who pose with an “extra-arched back” and a “sultry pout” are not good enough to associate with her children. Worst of all, Mrs. Hall is telling her sons and daughter that it is fine – in fact, actively encouraged  in their household – to shun and ostracize these girls.

By saying that these teenage girls do not respect themselves, Mrs. Hall is teaching her kids that they are undeserving of anyone’s love or respect.

And that’s a pretty fucking toxic message.

If you think that this is too much of a reach, think about it this way: when Mrs. Hall and her family sit around their dining room table and critique the selfies posted online by her sons’ female friends and Mrs. Hall announces that yet another girl needs to be blocked because she’s showing too much skin, what her children learn is that the way that those girls are behaving is shameful and they deserve to be shamed in a way that makes them face real-life consequences. And when a Hall boy goes to school and tells his friend that he’s not allowed to hang out with so-and-so because her pictures are too slutty, and that friend tells a friend, and that friend tells a friend – well, it’s not hard to imagine what those real-life consequences will be.

And, of course, in high school, as in the Hall household, there are very rarely second chances.

When Mrs. Hall advises her son’s female friends to, “take down the closed-door bedroom selfies that makes it too easy for friends to see you in only one dimension,” I can’t help but wonder how many dimensions her sons and her sons’ friends saw those girls in before they heard those comments. Probably they saw them in the same way that they saw all their other female friends: as girls who were funny, girls who were smart, girls who were good at sports or art or music. Probably the Hall boys saw them as brilliant, well-rounded individuals, each contributing in their own interesting way to their lives. Probably they saw them as people.

But now?

Well, now they likely only see them in, as Mrs. Hall says, one dimension. That dimension being, of course, their physical bodies. Mrs. Hall has successfully reduced these girls to little more than pretty, shiny, skin-baring objects. And it’s pretty fucking easy to treat an object badly. It’s pretty easy to treat it cruelly, sub-humanly, even, because objects don’t have feelings. Objects don’t have thoughts. Objects exist only for the pleasure of others.

Objects are not people.

And so I worry about those girls, the girls that have already been branded as impure and immodest. I worry about the other girls that her sons will meet and, armed with their mother’s opinion, brand on their own. I worry for them because of the teasing and humiliation that they might have to endure; I worry about them because of the ways that the Hall boys and their friends might other, might even dehumanize these girls. I worry that when these girls tell adults about how they are being treated, they will be made to feel as if it is entirely their own fault, as if they were asking for it. I worry that they will start to think that, as Mrs. Hall said, there are no second chances. I worry that these girls will feel like their worlds are closing in on them, that one stray picture has ruined everything forever, that there is no way out of the mess that they believe they’ve created.

I worry for these girls’ lives.

slut

Trayvon Martin, The East, and the Consequences of Privilege

16 Jul

I remember being a kid and wondering why the fuck all of the grownups I knew seemed so incredibly laissez-faire about everything that was wrong with the world.

I mean, here I was being told that I should treat other people with respect, that I should be kind to and tolerant of those who were different from me, that I should recycle and compost and pick up litter and do all kinds of stuff that was supposed to help turn me into a model citizen. And I did do all of those things, both because I was told they were important and because I wanted to; my understanding was that these things needed to be done if we were going to live in a decent world.

I remember thinking, though, that none of the adults around me seemed to be holding up their end of the bargain. Like, I was doing what little I could, but they should have been doing so much more: shutting down environmentally dangerous power plants or stopping cities from dumping raw sewage into the river or flying around the world ending wars or whatever. Instead, I would catch them tossing recyclable items into garbage cans, and when I called them out they would just shrug sheepishly.

And I was like, fuck grownups. It was pretty obvious to me that our world was such a fucking mess because all of the people in charge were both grossly incompetent and frighteningly uncaring. My only consolation was that some day I was going to be bigger and older, and then I would finally be able right all these wrongs.

Of course, every kid’s a zealot, and they don’t understand things like grey areas or compromise or picking your battles. Everything is done full-throttle, every issue is black and white, and every battle is there to be fought and won. If you’re in it, then you’d better be in it to win it, at any cost. And there’s really nothing wrong with living this way when you’re seven – in fact, these are very normal and natural tendencies to have. Unfortunately, this take-no-prisoners philosophy becomes a bit problematic once you have to earn your own living and raise your own kids.

All of which is to say that I’m not the grownup I thought I would be.

I have an easy life. It’s so easy that I mostly don’t even have to think about how easy it is. My life, society and culture are set up in such a way that I am able to benefit from certain things like race and class without ever really having to acknowledge that those realities exist. And, I mean, that’s real privilege, isn’t it? If you can forget that you even have privilege, or if you can easily ignore the various ways that it improves your life – well, that’s basically the definition of privilege.

Two things happened on Saturday night. First, I saw The Eastwhich is a smart, thoughtful movie about a woman who infiltrates an eco-terrorism group in an attempt to bring them down. Then, I got home and found out about George Zimmerman’s acquittal.

I should probably also add a third item to that list, namely the fact that after learning about Zimmerman’s verdict, I spent an hour on social media watching white people either denying that race had anything to do with the outcome of the trial or else trying to somehow make this whole thing about them.

The idea that we live easy lives built on conveniences that are deeply detrimental to others was a theme that came up over and over in The East. We burn coal for power, and the leftover waste poisons our rivers and lakes. We drive cars powered by fossil fuels and ignore the fact that burning those fuels is causing our planet to heat up at an alarming rate. Unless it directly affects us, we very conveniently ignore the environmentally destructive ways that both coal and oil are extracted from the earth. We buy clothing made in unsafe working conditions because it’s cheap. We cut corners in all sorts of dangerous ways because a few moments of ease is so much nicer than contemplating a lifetime of consequences.

The East is, for the most part, about a group of people who have decided that they’re not going to stand by and watch rich white people profit off of the misery of others. So they start fighting violence with violence, taking and eye for an eye and not really giving a shit if all of us end up blind because, to extend the metaphor a little further, most of us are already halfway to being sightless. Saying that an eye for an eye will make the world blind is to work off the assumption that all of us start out with two eyes, but really, that that’s just not true. Rich white people are born with two functioning eyes; the rest of the population has to figure out how to get ahead with whatever disadvantages they’re given.

On Saturday night I watched the neighbourhood watch captain of a gated community get off scot free for murdering a Black teenager in a hoody. I watched privilege play out both in the official news reports that I read and in people’s reactions on social media. I watched a whole fucking lot of people refuse to admit that the conveniences that make their lives as easy as they are exist as the flip side of the same coin that let Zimmerman walk free. I watched white people ask for comfort and sympathy when faced with hard evidence of a system that they are happy to benefit from until something like this comes along and shows its dark underbelly. I watched white people share pictures of kittens and cute babies, watched them tweet about how they were going to go home and hug their kids, without ever accepting the fact that because of their tacit permission for the way things are some folks wouldn’t ever hold their kids again.

I watched white people make this about them, and then I watched them slowly but surely provide themselves with the tools to forget that this had ever happened.

And I watched Black people wonder if their kid was next.

I live an easy life. I live on the backs of others, because I was lucky enough to be born at the top of a pile that has hurt and killed a whole lot of people. My life is safe, and the real kicker is that most of the choices that I make mean that it will continue to be so. And why shouldn’t I want to be safe? Why should I want an easy life, not just for myself, but for my kid?

Because my safety and ease come at a pretty fucking high cost, that’s why.

This is one of those days when the world seems to be nothing more than a relentless list of one terrible thing after another. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed – how and where do I even start to fix any of this? It’s too much, and I’m not enough. I want to pick up my magic time-travel phone, call my seven-year-old self and explain that I’m really, really sorry, but I’m not who she wanted us to be. I’ll try to explain all about grey areas and compromise and all that stuff, and maybe she’ll even try to understand, but I think that both of us will know that I could have tried harder.

I should try harder.

I’m just not sure what trying harder would look like.

I mean, how do you fight against problems that are so deeply woven into the fabric of the way you live? How do you fight, for example, against environmentally destructiveness of coal-fired power when every time you turn on the light or plug in your computer or watch your favourite movie, your actions contribute to releasing an extra little bit of noxious gas into the air? How do you fight against huge, often unethical drug companies while at the same acknowledging that they create and manufacture the drugs that have helped keep you and your loved ones alive? How do you fight against something like the mining of the Alberta oil sands, when every time you ride in a gas-powered vehicle you add a little more carbon dioxide to the air? And sure, I don’t own a car, and I take public transit just about everywhere, but isn’t that what we call compromise? I mean, I tell myself that I’m less responsible for ruining the environment than, say, the dude with the fancy SUV, but really, I’m still culpable, you know? I’m still benefitting from mining and burning fossil fuels, and I’m certainly not doing anything to end these practices.

Most of all, how do you fight against all of the insidious, institutionalized racism that you encounter a thousand times every day? You can call out the more obvious stuff, you can take people to task for using racial slurs or referencing racial stereotypes, but what do you do about all the big and little ways that privilege affects your life? What do you do about the fact that you live in a mostly white neighbourhood, a neighbourhood whose whiteness is definitely a large part of why it’s considered to be “safe”? What do you do about the fact that your career caters almost exclusively to privileged white people? How do you handle the dawning realization that the majority of your encounters with people of colour are mostly when interacting with those working service jobs, and could, at best, be described as casually friendly?

My seven-year-old self would almost certainly want me to take the route of the eco-terrorists in The East, complete with living off-the-grid in the burned out shell of a house in the forest. My seven-year-old self would want me to fight fire with fire, taking no prisoners and teaching huge asshole corporations that they can’t knowingly hurt others and get away with it. My seven-year-old self would want to do something equally huge and visible as a protest against Zimmerman’s acquittal. She would want me to fly to Florida, raise a ruckus, start a riot; she would want everyone to know how outraged she was.

And ohhh of course there’s a part of me that sides with my seven-year-old self. I want to do something big; I want to stand up against evil, and, if I’m being totally honest with myself, I want everyone else to see me doing it. There’s a strong desire in me to right the wrongs of the world, of course, but there’s also a dash of ego in there, whispering that I should right those wrongs in a way that makes me out to be a hero.

I mentioned the other day on Facebook that I want to be a brave person who changes the world, but that I wasn’t sure what bravery was or how change happened. In response to this, my friend Jennie said,

Bravery is not a single decision. It’s the overall effect of every brave decision you make: every time you do something because it’s right, or kind, or honest, rather than because it’s convenient or because it’s less hard. So do the needful, kind, honest, things, one thing at a time. Then, when something really hard comes up, you’ll have the practice you need, and you’ll do the needful thing.

So this is how I’m going to start: by practicing bravery in all kinds of little ways, so that when the big things come, I’ll know what to do.

I’m going to initiate more discussions about my own privilege, and the privilege found both in my neighbourhood and in many parts of the Toronto yoga community.

I’m going to think about the ways that my life more closely resembles George Zimmerman’s than it does Trayvon Martin’s.

I’m going to think about more items that could be added to this list.

I’m going to start teaching Theo about racism and privilege in ways that are appropriate for his age.

Most of all, I’m going to try really, really hard to not make this about me. When people of colour raise their voice, I’m going to do my best to make sure that they get a megaphone, and then I’m going to hightail it to the back of the room and listen. I’m going to try harder to promote writing and thoughts and music and art that come from marginalized people. Rather than wearing a hoodie in solidarity or joking about starting riots, I’m going to talk about how I, a white woman, can do these things without fearing for my personal safety. I’m going to keep calling out racism and classism and sexism and ableism and homophobia and transphobia and all that other bad shit, even when I feel uncomfortable doing that.

I’m going to be brave.

civil-rights-march

Disney’s Rape Problem

19 Jun

Disney.

Now there’s a word that’s bound to conjure up some kind of feeling in pretty much everyone in the western world. And, I mean, love ’em or hate ’em (and there are tons of people in both camps), you can’t ignore the fact that, as a brand, they’ve had an enormous cultural impact.

My own relationship with Disney is pretty ambivalent. I grew up watching the movies, and I would be lying if I said that there aren’t a few of them that I can still quote, verbatim, to this day – especially Disney’s Robin Hood. Man, I watched the shit out of that movie, and I still love it, even now. I like to joke that it was my introduction to the social justice movement; it was the first time that I’d ever realized that just because something was against the law didn’t mean that it couldn’t also be morally right, and it taught me that even just a few people standing up against powerful government forces could affect change. I also think that that movie was the beginning of my love for all things historical, especially the medieval period in Europe. And yeah, for sure, Disney didn’t come up with the story of Robin Hood, but they did present it in a way that was fun and relatable for children, and they added foxes. Man, I love foxes! In fact, I can’t help but wonder if Disney’s Robin Hood is responsible for that, too.

Disney's Robin Hood also taught me that men can cook and do their own laundry!

Disney’s Robin Hood also taught me that men can cook and do their own laundry!

As a teenager and young adult, I became pretty critical of Disney and all that it stood for. I became conscious of the toxicity of “princess culture,” and began to question why basically everyone in their movies was white. I became cynical of how aggressively Disney tried to breed brand loyalty among even the youngest of children, up to and including offering free Disney onesies to new babies in hospitals. On top of that, the more that I learned about Walt Disney and his business practices, especially the special deals that he brokered in Florida while building Disney World, the more weirded out I became.

Still, when my mother announced a family vacation to Disney World a few summers ago, I was game. I’d never been before, but my mother and sisters had done the Disney thing back in 2005, while I was still living in Halifax, and I knew that they’d had a blast. It wasn’t so much about the brand or even all the fun things to do, my family insisted, it was about how well the staff treated you, how special and important you felt. And when my family and I, my five-month-old son in tow, descended on Disney World in July of 2011, I discovered that they were right. And maybe it was because I was still in the middle of that funny culture shock that comes after you have a kid, those few months where you’re slowly and painfully discovering that the world is nowhere near as easy to navigate as you once thought it was, but I remember being so incredibly grateful for the fact that Disney World seemed to have thought of absolutely everything when it came to dealing with families with small children. Disney World was the first place that I’d ever taken Theo where I didn’t feel like my child’s needs were a burden or a hassle to the staff.

And let’s just get one thing straight here: Disney’s staff are excellent. Really, really excellent. They are people that the company should be incredibly thankful for. Instead, as I’ve recently learned, Disney doesn’t have much interest in caring for or protecting their staff. In fact, when it comes to the issue of sexual assault in the workplace, they’re pretty happy to throw their female employees to the wolves and wash their hands of any responsibility.

In fact, Disney is pretty firm on the idea that if you are an employee who was raped while drinking and socializing with employees of the opposite sex, then it’s all your fault.

Many of you have probably already read Dana Wierzbicki’s post on XOJane from Monday called “It Happened To Me: I Was Raped Disney World And Nobody Cared” – for those of you who haven’t, I’ll give you a  brief rundown:

Dana was an employee at Disney World while participating in the Disney College Program, a program that allows post-secondary students from all over the world to come live in Florida, work at Disney World, enjoy unlimited access to the parks all summer, and take a few courses in business management on the side. It should have been the best summer of Dana’s life, and it was, up until she was raped by a co-worker. She says,

He and I went to a party together, we went back to his apartment later, and I said “no,” but he wouldn’t stop.

For two months I kept everything that happened that night to myself. I told my roommates that things went fine and I had a good night.  I didn’t know how to feel about what happened. In the beginning, I told myself it was a misunderstanding; maybe he hadn’t heard me. I blamed myself; I should have yelled louder. I should have pushed harder. I should have punched him and ran out of the room.  I always thought that if I was ever raped I would beat the guy up. Does that mean I wasn’t raped?
After trying to handle the emotional and physical fallout of the rape on her own, Dana eventually decided to seek help from the counselling service that Disney provided. This decision, she writes, was triggered by the fact that she later saw her rapist flirting with other girls at a party, and realized that if she didn’t do something, anything, then he would almost certainly end up raping someone else.
Her experience with the counselling service was, unfortunately, pretty grim. At one point, the counsellor told her, “Well, now you know not to be hanging around boys in the middle of the night. You know what they want.”
When Dana told her about seeing her rapist flirting with girls at a party and expressed concern that he was likely to rape again, the counsellor took this to mean that she was jealous of the attention that these other girls were receiving. She advised Dana to show up at the next party looking “hot” and tried to reassure her by saying, “You’re a pretty girl. I’m sure you get all the boys.”
Dana then spent several days trying to figure out how she was supposed to properly report her rapist. She was passed from one department to another, and no one seemed to be entirely sure who or what was supposed to handle this type of stuff. Finally, she spoke to someone in Employee Relations who gave her more victim-blaming bullshit and told her that she should have gone to the police back when the rape had happened, but there was nothing that anyone could do now. The woman in Employee Relations told Dana that they would open an investigation, but likely nothing would come of it.
Dana flew home and tried to resume her normal life, but she did follow up with the Employee Relations office several times. She was eventually told that her case had been closed. She called a friend of hers who was still working at Disney World and was told that her rapist was still employed there, and had suffered no repercussions for what he’d done.
After reading Dana’s story, I was admittedly shocked by how terrible Disney’s response was. Surely they couldn’t actually care so little about their employees, could they? Dana’s experience must have been a fluke right? So I spoke to my friend Laura*, who had also participated in the Disney College Program, and asked her if any of Dana’s story meshed with what she’d seen during her own time at Disney World. She said that Dana’s experience unfortunately wasn’t uncommon, and that she’d realized from pretty much day one that Disney was not interested in dealing with sexual assault. She said,
In my first week I was in a room with about 250 Canadian kids learning the rules of the dorms and this big, corporate guy comes in and starts talking to us. He tells us – and I’m paraphrasing a little here – that this is a high crime area and there are sexual assaults regularly around the dorms. That if you are a girl, you should not go out after dark alone, or you might get assaulted. That you should not go to the bars, and definitely not alone, because ‘girls get drugged.’ That you should not make friends with strange men, not go into other people’s dorms alone and not dress provocatively, because girls get assaulted and go home all the time. And if you do get assaulted, don’t go to the housing department, call the police, because there is nothing that housing or Disney can do for you.
And, you know what, without even touching on any of the victim-blaming bullshit that Disney is spewing, can we talk about how fucking ridiculous this is when it comes to anti-rape advice? Like, you are bringing in hundreds of people in their teens and early 20s to work and live together, and you somehow think that it’s sensible to tell people not to associate with the opposite sex? Not to drink? Not to wear “provocative” clothes? Not to go to boys’ dorm rooms? Like, that’s what these kids are there for – I mean, yeah, they are there to work at Disney, but a lot of them are also there to have a good time, and that good time involves drinking and having sex. That is what a lot of people do, and just flat-out advising them not to do it is not going to change anything. But Disney, meanwhile, feels as if they’ve covered all of their bases, and if a girl ends up being the victim of a sexual assault, well, Disney doesn’t want to hear about it because it’s all her fault.
And before you jump in and say that Disney has no control over what their employees do within the comfort of their own apartments, and that the girl should have gone to the police instead of Disney, let’s be clear on something – these dorms and apartments are belong to Disney. Laura says,
[The apartments] are not in “Walt Disney World” itself, they are about 10 minutes away in Lake Buena Vista, FL. Which is fine. They are contracted out from Disney and run by a separate property company for maintenance and stuff, but they are gated residence complexes run exclusively for the Disney college program, the rent money is taken by Disney and Disney Housing arranges everything and has offices on the properties and as a member of the program you are not allowed to live anywhere else but these residences. So, while the rape wouldn’t have happened on “Disney property,” as in not in Walt Disney World proper, it did happen at Disney, in a residence run by Disney, where Disney was forcing it’s program participants to stay and collecting money for it.
With regards to the whole “she should have gone to the police” idea, the fact is that the majority of the people participating in the Disney College Program are not from Florida. In fact, many of them are not from the United States. So it makes sense that they would go to Disney, the employer that brought them there and was housing and educating them, for help after being raped. It’s also not uncommon for people to be intimidated or afraid of the police, and it’s totally logical for someone to feel that going to their traditionally helpful and caring employer when dealing with the fact that their co-worker has raped them.
Look, Disney, you are totally dropping the ball when it comes to handling sexual assault. Not only is your approach gross and victim-blaming, but you’re fucking up from a brand approach as well. So if you can’t bring yourself to change your policies with regards to employee rape and sexual assault out of sheer human decency (which, by the way, you should), then maybe you need to look at it this way: you are losing customers. Big time. The people who go to work at Disney World are some of your most brand-loyal consumers. They want to work at Disney because they love the company and the brand. When you can’t step up and do what’s right for your employees, you are losing their loyalty, and the loyalty of any children that they might have, and their friends’ loyalty, and their family’s loyalty.
You can do this, Disney, you really can. You can make these changes, and I guarantee that they will make Disney World a safer, better place for your employees. You can fix this, I promise. You need to start by providing better training for your counsellors, You need to reach out to organizations that fight against sexual assault, and get some tips on how to deal with rape without blaming the victim, You need to provide better training and education for your employees. This stuff might not be easy, but it’s necessary. Please, please make this effort – if you don’t, stories like Dana’s will continue to happen. And the outcry against you will grow. And you won’t be able to stop it.
I’ve started a petition here to try to convince Disney to put some of these changes in place.
*Not her real name
Cinderellas_Castle

The Ten Dollar T-Shirt Is Not The Problem

6 May

In the wake of the April 24th Bangladesh factory collapse, which is now considered to be the most deadly accident in the history of the garment industry, I’ve been hearing a lot of people sharing some pretty uneducated and uninformed opinions.

I’ve heard stuff like, “Well, where did you think your ten dollar t-shirt came from?”

And, “Major clothing brands should refuse to do business with manufacturers in Bangladesh.”

And, “Why do we even make stuff overseas anyway? It’s all crap.”

There are a lot of problems with these types of statements. For one thing, the price of a piece of clothing is not at all indicative of the working conditions of its manufacturer. For another, implying (or outright saying) that there is something morally wrong with paying ten dollars for a t-shirt is incredibly classist. And finally, saying stuff like this shows a serious lack of understanding about how the garment industry works.

So let’s debunk a few of these myths, shall we?

1. Expensive, high end brands are ethically preferable

This is not at all true. Spending more money on an item of clothing doesn’t guarantee that the factory worker in Bangladesh who made it is earning a higher wage. It doesn’t even mean that the quality of the garment is any “better” than something you could buy for half the price. The truth is that when brand names charge higher prices for their items, that extra cash usually goes to two places: into the pockets of CEOs and other higher-ups, and into the company’s advertising budget.

Even buying clothing with a “Made in Italy” or “Made in the USA” label doesn’t guarantee that that piece of clothing was made by people working in decent conditions. In Italy, for example, labelling laws are extremely lax. A product can be almost totally manufactured elsewhere, but so long as it’s “finalized” in Italy (adding leather trim, for example, or sewing on buttons) it can be labelled as “Made in Italy.” As well, it should be noted that just because something is manufactured in Western Europe or North America doesn’t mean that the factory employees who made the item were paid a fare wage – illegal immigrants are often hired and paid under the table, meaning that employers can pay them whatever they like and the employees believe that they have no recourse for action. In Prato, Italy, Chinese immigrants were found to be working in garment factories for as little as €2 an hour.

But even when companies do pay their workers minimum wage, it’s often not enough. In many countries, minimum wage is not a living wage, especially if you live in a big city.

2. Our society’s desire for cheap clothing is exploitative and unsustainable. People should be willing to pay more money for their clothing.

First of all, let’s talk about how classist this assumption is. I mean, if you’re well off, then sure, you can probably afford to pay more than ten dollars for a t-shirt. But if you’re making minimum wage and living below the poverty line, then cheap clothing is the only type of clothing you can afford.

Take Toronto, for instance. Ontario’s minimum wage is $10.25 an hour, and the average cost to rent a bachelor apartment in Toronto is $840 per month (this figure most likely does not include utilities, phone/internet, or parking). If you’re making minimum wage, then you’re only bringing home $1,640 monthly before taxes. If you’re paying the bare minimum in income taxes (so, no union fees or anything like that), then you’ll be taxed $236.38 a month (according to this calculator on a government website), leaving you with $1,403.62. After paying rent, you’ll have $563.62. That $563.62 has to pay for everything other than rent – your phone, internet, food, transportation, utilities, clothing. And those are just the basics – what about entertainment? Things like going out to see a movie or having a few drinks with friends at a bar?

And all that is assuming that you’re single, childless and living in a bachelor apartment. Imagine how little would be left if you were the only breadwinner in a family with several dependents.

At that point, even a ten dollar t-shirt starts to seem astronomically expensive.

3. Major brands should just stop doing business with manufacturers in Bangladesh

And this would solve what, exactly? It certainly wouldn’t improve working conditions in Bangladesh factories. In fact, it would probably lead to a loss of employment opportunities in Bangladesh, meaning that the few companies that still hiring would be able to pay their employees even lower wages if they chose. People would be scrambling and competing for jobs, and would have to accept whatever came their way, no matter how badly it paid.

The other thing is that no matter what country those companies are manufacturing their goods in, so long as they are trying to keep their wholesale prices as low as they are, the manufacturers will have to cut corners, pay their workers substandard wages and skirt safety regulations in order to satisfy the companies’ demands.

Here’s what major brands actually should do: cut CEO salaries. Seriously. In the US, the average multiple of CEO compensation to rank-and-file employee is 204. Yes, you read that correctly. A CEO earns, on average, two hundred and four times what their retail employees earn. And let’s not even get into how much more a CEO earns when compared to one of the employees in their overseas factories.

How is that even a little bit ok?

Imagine how inexpensive clothing could be if we cut CEO wages. Imagine how much we could improve working conditions in countries like Bangladesh if CEO salaries were cut in half?

Companies also need to institute frequent, surprise inspections of the factories that manufacture their goods. They need to find ways to ensure that their goods are being made by employees who have fair wages and decent work environments. They need to actually take responsibility for how their business is being operated.

4. Why do we even make stuff overseas? Why not manufacture more stuff in North America/Europe/etc.?

The truth is that manufacturing clothing in North America and Europe is becoming more and more difficult. It’s less expensive to manufacture in Asia for a variety of reasons, and not just because labour is cheaper there. Another important cost factor is that many of the raw materials are now more readily available overseas than they are here. For example, China is the leading grower of cotton in the world, meaning that even if an item of clothing was sewn in Canada, the used would most likely come from overseas. Is there really a difference in how “ethical” your clothing is if the finished product is made here but the raw materials are harvested and processed by underpaid workers overseas? How ethical is it if the water used to grow those raw materials (cotton, for example, is a notoriously water-intensive crop) is partly responsible major water shortage in China? How can we ever make sure that every person who has somehow contributed to making our clothing is treated fairly?

Look. The garment industry is fucked up and major changes need to happen. Factories need to be unionized, workers need better conditions, and CEO pay needs to be cut. Here at home we need to increase minimum wage to a livable wage. We need to figure out a way to make sure that everyone who participates in the garment industry, whether they’re an employee in a retail store, a worker in a factory or a small child whose water supply is being used to water cotton crops, is getting a fair deal.

I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure how we can make any of this happen, or what the world would look like if these changes were to take place. But what I do know is that the way that we live now is not sustainable, not by a long shot. I know that we need more accountability from the companies that make our clothing, and more tools like Good Guide to hep us figure out where to spend out money. We need to make more of an effort to educate ourselves about how and where our goods are made.

Most of all, though, I know that the ten dollar t-shirt is not the problem. It’s just a symptom of the problem.

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Five Year Old Indian Girl Kidnapped, Sexually Assaulted and Left For Dead

26 Apr

Trigger warning for rape, sexual assault, abduction, torture and murder.

A reader from India asked me to blog about this at the end of last week. At the time, I told her that I was feeling burned out, but promised to write about it on Monday or Tuesday. I’ve been procrastinating, though. As much as I know that this is something that’s important to talk about, I’ve had a hard time bringing myself to read about it, let alone write about it.

But I promised that I would. And it’s important. So let’s do this.

In India, a five-year-old girl was kidnapped, raped, tortured and left for dead.

She was held captive for four days.

Her parents say that the police ignored their reports that their daughter was missing.

Her parents say that the police offered them money to keep quiet about their daughter’s rape.

She is now in critical condition in the hospital.

She’s five.

When I was five, my biggest upsets in life were that I couldn’t wear my party dresses to kindergarten and that I wasn’t allowed to have chocolate milk with every meal.

And, you know, here I sit in my privilege saying that I’m too burned out to read her story, that it’s too hard for me to write about.

Of course, for other people, other women, this type of story is the daily reality that they have to live with. They don’t have the ability to tune out and think about other things the way I do.

This girl, this five year old girl, is fighting for her life, in part because the police weren’t terribly interested in finding her. Because she’s just a girl. Because she’s disposable. Because she was born in a country where sex-selective abortion is so common that, in some provinces, 126 males are born for every 100 females.

This, on the heels of the brutal gang rape in India that happened back in December. In that case, the victim wasn’t so lucky – she died of her wounds several days after her attack. The most brutal of her rapists, who was sixteen years old, received a sentence of only three years in a “reform home” because of his status as a minor.

This, in conjunction with another breaking story about a five year old Indian girl who was raped and murdered.

And yet another breaking story about a thirteen year old Indian girl who was gang-raped.

And a story about a six year old Indian girl who was raped.

And a story about eleven and thirteen year old sisters who were raped by their mother’s boyfriend.

All of these rapes happened within a week’s span. All of this is in just one country. And these are just a few select stories I pulled – there are more, so many more. Not just in India, but everywhere.

There are people who want to dismiss this as a problem with the way that Indian culture treats women. There are people who say that, sure, this type of thing happens over there, but it would never happen here. Maybe India has a culture of rape, but here in the West we sure don’t.

But, of course, we do.

Rape culture knows no borders, and while it might be worse or more obvious in certain parts of the world, the truth is that it’s everywhere. We all live in it. We all participate in it.

In fact, just today, a university student in Arizona was photographed holding a sign that said, “You Deserve Rape.” This man, Dean Saxton, is well-known for delivering “inflammatory sermons” on the University of Arizona campus. Today’s sermon was about how women who dress like “whores” are responsible for being raped or assaulted.

It just seems so relentless. Every day there’s a new story of some kind of horrific sexual assault, every day I hear about police and politicians who don’t care, every day there are men and women spreading the message that rape is somehow the victims fault. It just feels like it never ends, and it’s sometimes so hard to keep fighting in the face of something that’s so unbelievably pervasive and overwhelming.

But we need to keep fighting. That much is obvious.

I want to share with you guys the message that my reader sent me, because her words are more powerful than anything that I can come up with right now:

The last time it happened, I signed petitions with friends for severe punishment to those rapists who raped a 23 year old, I wrote articles, protested, debated. But the second case, that happened just yesterday has shattered me so much I seem to have lost my voice In India, we all protest and then our voices just die down. No kind of internal pressure makes the government take strict decisions. Rather, in the December 2012 case, a religious leader came up with the hideous statement that had the girl begged for her life from the rapists and called them her brothers, they would have stopped and she would have survived. One of the leading female politicians said, “Women shouldn’t go out after 9 at night or dress provocatively.” We scream, we shout and the police bashes up innocent protesters and social workers and students. Our voices die down within the country and awareness is blindfolded by our own leaders.

I am writing to you to beg you to talk about these women just like you talk about those who are close to home. Perhaps international pressure and shouts for justice would reach the deaf ears of our religious and political leaders and the pathetic, perverse men who don’t think twice before doing this to us women. Why should we dress modestly? Clothes provoke them, no clothes provoke them, we get raped in a sari, in jeans, in skirts, in salwaar kammeez and even if only our face shows. We get raped in the morning and at nights. If they can’t control their desires after 9, shouldn’t the men be locked up after 9? A lot of people blame the victim back home and not the criminal. How is that fair? 

Indian women today are aware, enlightened and educated but far from safe. We are scared to go out and work and we’re scared to stay inside. Who knows what familiar face would be the Big Bad Wolf? And he strikes us at any age, at 23, at 45, at 5! 

So as a woman to another, this is a plea to support our protest because even though we may speak different tongues and belong to different nations, we suffer the same abuses. 

Please raise your voice. Help spread the word about this. Join us in this fight. Because together, we are much stronger. Together, we can beat this.

We have to.

A few inspiring images from the protests in India:

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Rehtaeh Parsons

9 Apr

The story is disturbingly familiar.

A teenage girl goes to some kind of get-together, maybe a party.

She is raped by multiple assailants.

The rape is photographed and distributed via social media.

The girl is subjected to horrifying acts of bullying and shaming. She is branded a slut. Her life becomes a living hell.

This girl is not Steubenville’s Jane Doe, although their stories bear a remarkable resemblance. This girl is Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, who hanged herself on April 4th, a year and a half after being raped. Her family took her off life support this past Sunday.

Reading the account of what happened to Rehtaeh is like watching a deadly accident slowly, methodically unfolding in front of you. And there are bystanders, plenty of bystanders, who had any number of opportunities to step in and do something, but none of them do.

And, in many ways, you are one of these bystanders, too. I am, too. We all are.

Rehtaeh did not have a rape kit done because she was too ashamed to tell anyone about her rape until several days later, at which point it was thought to be too late to retrieve medical evidence.

The boys (there were four of them) accused of raping Retaeh were not interviewed until long after the family tried to press charges.

They were not separated for their interviews; they were interviewed together, meaning that they were easily able to corroborate each others’ stories.

The investigation took over a year. In the end, it was decided that there was insufficient evidence of sexual assault, no charges were laid, and the boys got off scot free.

No legal action was taken with regards to the photographs of the rape that were distributed through social media. Rehtaeh’s mother was told that this was because there was no way of proving who had taken the pictures.

Rehtaeh struggled to survive for seventeen months. She moved to Halifax, unable to cope with the fact that her rapists were also her high school classmates. She checked herself into the hospital when she felt suicidal and stayed there for six weeks. She made new friends. She saw a therapist. She fought to live. She fought hard.

And then one day, she couldn’t fight any longer.

And when I read her story, I can’t help but wonder:

Where the fuck were all the grownups?

Where were the grownups who were supposed to love her and protect her? Where were the grownups who should have kept her safe? Where were the grownups who were supposed to make sure that she received some kind of justice for what she suffered?

And I don’t mean her parents, because it’s clear that they, too, have been struggling for the past seventeen months, doing what they can to try to help and advocate for their daughter. I mean where the fuck were the school officials, the members of the law enforcement, the people who should have made sure that she had adequate follow-up mental health care after her hospitalization? Where were they, and why didn’t they do anything? Or if they did do something, why didn’t they do enough?

Rehtaeh’s rapists are still out there. They are still in high school, they are still going to parties and they are, quite likely, still raping. Why wouldn’t they? They got away with it once, didn’t they? Rehtaeh’s rapists are still living normal, untroubled lives, and she is dead.

She’s dead, but even in the wake of her suicide and the attention her case has gained, government officials are refusing to review why the RCMP declined  to lay charges against Rehtaeh’s rapist.

Instead, Nova Scotia’s justice minister, Ross Landry, released this fucking joke of a statement:

“As a community, we need to have more dialogue with our young people about respect and about support to educate our young boys and our young girls about what’s appropriate behaviour, what’s not appropriate behaviour,” Landry said.

“We have to make sure that we’re cognizant about what gets online and what doesn’t get online and what the impacts are, so it’s having that dialogue.

“That still doesn’t take away the fact that we’ve lost a beautiful young woman … and I’m very upset about the loss.”

Saying that we need to educate boys and girls about appropriate behaviour is victim-blaming. Saying that this wouldn’t have been a problem if the pictures hadn’t ended up online is like saying that rape is fine, but publicly broadcasting it isn’t. Calling Rehtaeh’s death a tragedy because we’ve lost a beautiful young woman is a joke – seriously, what bearing does her appearance have on how sad her death is? And since Landry is refusing to open an official review into how the RCMP handled this, isn’t he basically saying, “I think she was lying about the rape, but gosh, she sure was hot”?

All of this, every single word of this statement, all of the things that Rehtaeh endured, every single detail presented here is rape culture.

This is rape culture. This is our culture.

I never thought in a million years that I’d be saying this, but I wish that Rehtaeh’s case had had the same outcome as Jane Doe’s. Because while Jane Doe had to endure some spectacularly vile, awful shit, at least she made it out alive. At least her rapists suffered consequences. At least her case actually made it to trial.

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This is Rehtaeh Parsons. When she was fifteen, she was raped by four boys. When she was seventeen, she committed suicide.

She is dead because we, as a society, failed her.

There is a petition up demanding an inquiry into the police investigation of Rehtaeh’s rape. I’m not sure if it will do anything to help, but signing it sure as hell won’t hurt. Right now, this petition and bringing awareness to what happened to Rehtaeh seem like the only concrete ways of helping her. Right now, I need to do something, anything to stop myself from feeling like a bystander. I’m not going to just shake my head and sigh over this. I’m going to raise my voice until everyone knows what happened to Rehtaeh.

Edited to add:

Ross Landry now says that he will be moving forward with a review of Rehtaeh’s case. Thank God. An excerpt from the article I linked to:

Justice Minister Ross Landry said today, April 9, he has asked senior government officials to present options, as soon as possible, to review the Rehtaeh Parsons case.

“This situation is tragic, I am deeply saddened – as I think are all Nova Scotians – by the death of this young woman,” said Mr. Landry. “As a parent, I can’t imagine the pain this family is going through at this time. My thoughts are with them.”

Mr. Landry said he hopes to meet with Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, to discuss her experience with the justice system.

“I know that law enforcement and the public prosecution service do their best, every day, to administer and enforce the law,” said Mr. Landry. “It’s important that Nova Scotians have faith in the justice system and I am committed to exploring the mechanisms that exist to review the actions of all relevant authorities to ensure the system is always working to the best of its ability, in pursuit of justice.”

Mr. Landry said he has been reviewing details of the case and consulting with officials throughout the day, and expects options within the next few days.

On Race and Feminism

3 Mar

In the online fallout of The Onion’s vile tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, one fact has become abundantly, dismayingly clear:

White feminists have a hard time talking about race.

And we have a hard time talking about the fact that we have a hard time talking about race.

Jessica Luther has a fantastic post up over on Shakesville about the lack of white feminists decrying what happened to Quvenzhané. And while I think that what she wrote is perfect and spot on and everyone should go read it right now, what I find truly fascinating is the weird backlash that she’s received from other white feminists.

It was the same backlash I saw on Twitter the other day when @graceishuman called out white feminists for not defending Quvenzhané.

That backlash? A whole bunch of white feminists explaining why they, personally, chose not to write about it. And I’m sure that they had some spectacularly good reasons (I’m not even being sarcastic), but that’s not what this about. Not by a long shot.

I have actually never seen so many people miss the point of something all at the same time.

What this is about is the lack of intersectionality in feminism. Specifically, it’s about the fact the women of colour do not feel that they are represented or heard within the feminist movement. As Kirsten West Savali wrote for Clutch, it can feel like the feminist movement encourages women of colour to,

” … shrug off our Blackness for the greater feminist good; the end result being a contemporary plantation tableau defined by Ole Miss and Mammie slaying the patriarchal dragon while the issues of racism and classism are hidden behind the veil of  “progress.”  And while this scenario is about as feel-good as The Help, expanding white privilege — feminist or otherwise — is not equality.”

So how the fuck did it ever get to this?

Is it because we (white feminists) feel that racism is an entirely separate issue from feminism? 

Most white feminists that I know would answer that no, of course it’s not, in the same way that homophobia, fatphobia and transphobia are not separate issues either. They would readily admit that women of colour experience misogyny in ways that white women do not. They would say that of course they care about racism.

But these same women, in their own writing, mainly stick to topics that specifically affect them or women like them. They very rarely address issues that are faced only (or mostly) by women of colour. They almost never talk about racism within the feminist movement. Which is funny, considering the racist history of our movement; shouldn’t this be something that we still talk about, all the time?

Is it because we worry that we’ll be co-opting women of colour when we speak out against something like what happened to Quvenzhané? Is it because we’re worried about making a misstep, about somehow accidentally being racist in our fight against racism? 

I would wager that the answer to this is yes, yes and yes. I’ve heard this same argument from several women as explanation of why they didn’t speak out against The Onion, or why they primarily focussed on the misogynist aspect of The Onion’s tweet and not the racist aspect. White feminists mentioned again and a again that they felt that women of colour should take the lead in this discussion, the rationalization being that white women speaking for others’ experiences was, in itself, a racist act.

And yeah, I guess if you’re a white feminist speaking for women of colour, that’s racist, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t call out racism when you see it. Like, fuck, I don’t want men speaking for me, but I sure as hell do want them to stand up against sexism. We complain so often about having to educate men with regards to feminism, and yet we (white feminists) do so little to educate ourselves when it comes to racial issues.

We make comments like, Well, I don’t even know what to call them, like do you say black or Black or women of colour or Women of Colour or minority or non-white or what? I don’t want to accidentally say the wrong thing.

We make comments like, They can write about the issues they face, and I can write about the issues I face. What’s wrong with that?

We make comments like, I thought we were all in this together.

For a group of people who are so hell-bent on (rightfully) pointing out male privilege, we sure as hell don’t like to be reminded of our white privilege, do we?

Which brings me to my next point …

Is it because we don’t want to admit that, as white women, while we do face a lot of overt and insidiously subtle misogyny in our day-to-day life, we face less barriers than women of colour do?

Privilege is comfortable. Privilege is easy. Privilege is invisible and difficult to quantify, facts that make us comfortable ignoring the fact that we benefit from it.

Privilege lead to write a post the other day that I felt was clever and insightful but, as others pointed out, was in several ways flawed and problematic.

I have a lot of privilege, white privilege, cis-privilege, thin-privilege, but it’s easier for me to talk about the privilege that I don’t have. I suspect that the same is true for many other women.

Being reminded of privilege makes people defensive – especially when those same people are complaining about the oppression that they face as women. There’s a tendency within feminism to want to gloss over racial issues and say, Well, first let’s fight against the problems that ALL women face, and THEN we can talk about racism, and I think that feels okay to a lot of us because in a fucked up way it feels like equality. In reality, though, it’s not equality at all – it’s asking women of colour to do work that will especially benefit white women, and then having those white women turn around and refuse to address the additional challenges faced by non-white women.

I think that another issue at play is that it can be hard to view yourself as both the oppressed and the oppressor. But the fact is that we do participate in the oppression of others, and our reluctance to examine that is pretty fucked up. Like, white feminists are perfectly articulate about how privilege works when they’re talking about male privilege, but they seem to plead ignorance pretty quickly when they’re reminded of the privilege that’s associated with their skin tone.

So what do we do about all of this?

Well, first of all, we fucking sit up and pay attention when women of colour tell us that they feel that we dropped the ball on this one. Because you know what?

A) They know what they’re talking about, and

B) They’re right

And then, after we admit that we fucked up, we talk about it. We talk about race until we’re blue in the face. Because pretending that this isn’t happening isn’t doing anyone any favours, and continuing to ignore the racial issues within the feminist movement is only going to serve to further divide us.

Finally, we need to change how things are structured in order to see real equality. We need to give more platforms to women of colour. We need to be more willing to listen to what they have to say. We need to be willing to be called out on our racism. Most of all, though, we need to let women of colour lead the way and let THEM tell us what they want and need in order to do that.

Because reaching down and giving a boost to someone who has less privilege than you do is what real fucking equality looks like.

And to those of you who aren’t interested in doing that, I would ask that you please stop using the word equality. You’re not interested in equality; you’re only interested in benefitting yourself.

I don’t want to just benefit myself. I want my actions to benefit everyone. And right now, I especially want my actions to benefit this kid:

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