quick hit: men + books

My friend Danika @ The Lesbrarian alerted me to this blog post at The New Yorker: What We Talk About When We Talk About Men Not Reading by Macy Halford @ The Book Bench. The post was written in response to a recent article in Publisher's Weekly about the body count in the publishing industry: the fact that there are more women in the book trade then men. They speculate, "does the lack of men in publishing hurt the industry?" meaning, does the higher proportion of women in publishing mean that fewer books of interest to men will be published? (queue hand-wringing).

Man watching books
by Davide Rappucci @ Flickr.com
This anxiety, of course, could be situated within the context of conservative fears that feminism and/or economic and political gains for women equals a loss for men (as if it were a zero-sum game).  More specifically, though, Halford situates this article within late-twentieth century anxieties about whether boys and men, in fact, read books -- and if they do, what kind of books they read. 
The article does nod at the problems of low pay and "gendered jobs" (and doesn't nod at the fact that there are indeed many books "for men" published each year), but if we're going to continue having this conversation, and it seems that we are, I think we should stop conflating the issues, of which there are four, at least:
  1. Reading practices among men.
  2. What gets published and what doesn't (and the reasoning behind it).
  3. Low-paying, dead-end entry-level jobs in publishing (and the structuring of the entire industry).
  4. Women being willing to take these jobs and men not being willing and/or senior editors' hiring practices.
Each of these needs more serious investigation before we can draw any conclusions, but I'm fairly certain that, however low reading rates among men are, the blame for them can't be laid at the feet of the army of female assistants. So let's stop talking about them as if they could.
A couple of observations I would add to Halford's (really good) list of things we need to think about when we think about boys and men reading. 

The first is the fact that these conversations about boys and men reading are curiously separated from the conversations about men writing, and that both of these conversations about men + books are ahistorical.  With all the brouhaha recently surrounding Jonathan Franzen's place in the American literary scene and the way we gender writing (by style, by genre, by level of "serious" literary merit), it seems clear to me that as a culture we sex-type the activities of writing and reading, expecting different types of writing and reading from individual people based on their gender.  Yet most of these conversations in the mainstream media take as a common sense fact that male and female human beings approach these activities differently, rather than questioning the belief that one's sex, gender, and (implicitly) perhaps one's sexuality shapes one's reading and writing habits. In scholarly terms, this is known as "denaturalization": taking something that we assume to be "natural" or "innate" and examining how and why we have come to this belief, and whether it is, in fact, true according to the evidence.

A little awareness of historical change over time might aid the cause of this denaturalization. Today, for example, it is "common sense" that men prefer non-fiction to fiction; in the late 18th and early 19th century fiction was considered dangerous for women's physical and moral well-being. Reading was coded as a masculine activity; now it is coded feminine.  The fact that we have seen a shift over time in our understanding of how reading and gender relate suggests that what we believe to be true about men and their relationship (or non-relationship) to books and reading is at least in part culturally constructed.
Which leads me to my second observation: the fact that the assumption underlying the majority of these stories about men + books is that books for "men" and books for "women" are two distinct categories. Or, at the very least, that they are highly differentiated: perhaps overlapping a bit in the muddy middle, but on the whole make up an industry that is sex-typed by shelves of books for "him" and shelves of books for "her." If we didn't believe that gender mattered in relation to reading habits, then there would be no cause for alarm about the gender of the people involved in making publishing decisions -- aside from a concern about economic inequality.

What if, instead of being preoccupied about the gender of the people choosing books, we asked (for example) about their expertise in certain fields of nonfiction and literature? Their depth or breadth of knowledge about (for example) science fiction and fantasy literature? graphic novels? genre romances? nonfiction military histories? science journalism? I have known women and men who read and enjoy all of these categories of printed matter, and who are knowledgeable about current trends. 

Yet despite our own anecdotal experience (which, I admit, cannot stand in place of solid social science analysis) that the individual men and boys in our lives do, in fact, read -- and read across a great variety of publication type, writing style, and subject matter -- the idea that men and women approach reading differently is a powerful narrative because gender in our culture is a powerful organizing narrative.  We take for granted that men and women are innately different, and so it makes "sense" according to our narrative of the world that women and men would read differently, and read different things.  Sadly (or happily, depending on your point of view!) the fact that this is a powerful story that we tell ourselves, and that it makes sense does not also make it right or useful

I just finished reading a book on brain organization theory by sociomedical scientist Rebecca Jordan-Young called Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. I plan to write up a booknote on Brain Storm once I've digested it a little more, but for now the point I want to make is this: the scientific evidence we currently have to support the commonplace idea that male and female brains are differently organized (and thus process the world, including books and reading) differently because of their sex is weak at best and often poorly-conducted and poorly-reported science. This is not to say differences in brain organization have been categorically disproved -- it simply means that there is no solid evidence to support what most Americans understand to be proven fact. 

Which brings me back to men + books. Since we're primed to believe there's a difference between men and women when it comes to reading habits, we see statistics like the gender imbalance in the publishing industry and it fits with our expectations concerning men and reading to interpret that imbalance as somehow related to men's (supposed) disinterest in books, or interest in different books than those women are interested in. We construct a gender-based explanations, rather than stopping to ask a) if the imbalance is problematic, and b) if so, how is it problematic? rather than assuming we already know.


from the neighborhood: non-humans center stage

Hanna and I have been talking about adopting a cat for several months now, and this weekend we went to visit the first candidate -- a two-year-old female, Marie, who is currently living at a lively foster home in Haverhill. Her foster family patiently allowed us to sit with her for about an hour and despite the lack of sardines in our pockets we did not seem to offend her. Stay tuned for further developments!

Marie having her supper. Photograph by Anna 25-Sept-2010.
Haverhill, Massachusetts

In unrelated news (besides being in the realm of cool photographs and animal photography), Hanna finally succeeded in capturing a decent photograph of our resident spider, Charles, who resides outside our kitchen window on a beautifully-constructed web.

Charles the Spider in our kitchen window. Photograph by Hanna 24-Sept-2010
Allston, Massachusetts

Have a good rest of the week everybody!


quick hit: asexuality awareness week (a retrospective)

Last week, my friend Minerva over at Hypomnemata wrote a series of five delicious posts on the topic of asexuality, in honor of Asexuality Awareness Week. I wanted to give you all a taste in hope that you hop on over to check out the subject in full (along with lots of fun and informative graphics and videos!)

Asexual Awareness Week: Day 1 – What is Asexuality?
In honor of this, my first experience of this week as a completely out asexual, I’ll be posting every day on a topic relevant to asexuals and the asexual community. For this post, I’ll be focusing on the many definitions of asexuality as well as the subtle side and subgroups present within the community. Tomorrow I’ll be tackling the subject of attraction and asexuality, and you’ll just have to stay tuned to find out the rest.
Asexual Awareness Week: Day 2 – Asexual Attraction
The last sense of attraction that I’ll talk about here is a bit more personal and a bit more murky, which is why I left it for last. I’m definitely not sure how much of what I’m about to say is generalizable to the asexual community as a whole, so don’t assume so. There is a sense of attraction that I generally feel in addition to aesthetic and intellectual and emotional (personality) which I would have to admit is decidedly physical.
Asexual Awareness Week: Day 3 – Relationship vs. Friendship
Since I already established on Day 1 that asexuals experience love and can have a romantic or affectual orientation, I don’t think it’s unforeseen that some of us are going to want relationships. Personally, I’d be more than willing to give it the old college try. However, there’s an obvious question looming in the periphery of the discussion when talking about asexual relationships. How is it a relationship and not just a really close friendship?
Asexual Awareness Week: Day 4 – Asexuals and the LGBTQ Community
The question of the day: should asexuals be considered part of the LBGTQ community? Honestly, I never really thought this was an actual question to be asked in the past. It was only when I attended my first meeting of the Smith College LGBTQ group that I became aware of how narrow the definition of community can actually be. A brief synopsis of the experience follows: (N.B. I’m pretty sure the group has changed since my time. They’re probably all lovely ladies now, not that they weren’t then, just a little judgy.)
Asexual Awareness Week: Day 5 – Asexuality and Feminism
So what does all of this have to do with asexuality? If you would have asked me a year ago, I would have said nothing. I perceived no contradiction or problematic interaction between my feminism and my asexuality. I technically still don’t, by I’m not the only feminist or asexual on the block. The way I (inexpertly) see it, the problems between asexuality and feminism revolve around three main topics:

1.) Helping women to have positive images of their bodies and sexuality

2.) Helping women to take control over the expression of their sexuality

3.) Combating negative perceptions of feminism

Before I really start all of this talk about the quarrels between feminism and asexuality, I’d like to point out that there are some issues on which we agree well, like breaking down gender roles in relationships, or challenging gendered notions of intimacy. We’re not all judgy all the time.
Go forth and learn awesome new things! Happy Monday.


sunday smut: tumblr highlights (no. 3)

So I'm still getting used to using my tumblr account as a way to share links. It's a really strange hybrid of Google Reader (through which I get aggregated blog stories from the various blogs I follow, can share and comment on them to friends who also use the Reader), Blogger (wherein, as now, I generate original content in the form of fully-developed blog posts) and Twitter (where thoughts, exchanges, and links are limited to 140 characters).

One of the oddest features of the tumblr interface is that when you post something to a tumblr blog, people who want to respond to what you share have only two options: to "like" the post or to "reblog" it, or quote the post in part or in full, with or without additional commentary. There is no comment feature, so conversations bounce back and forth between tumblr blogs in a very disconcerting way. At least, disconcerting for me.

An example from this past week.

Yesterday morning, I "reblogged" a post from a blogger named genderbitch about the birth rape language discussion/intra-feminist controversy and added some further thoughts of my own. genderbitch reblogged that post with comments/responses of her own, which in turn I wanted to respond to. And the only way I could respond was to reblog the post again. And again. And again. Until, I feel, the two of us got into an incredible tangle of mis-communication (about which there might be a more lengthy blog post coming next week ... still not sure). This seems incredibly clunky. Tips from anyone with more tumblr experience than I are welcome ... though perhaps the answer is just to limit my tumblr use to reblogging without my own added commentary!

And with that observation, here are a couple of my favorite tumblr stories from the week.

The Right to Bear
It’s not ‘babyish’ to find ways to self-soothe and to cultivate feelings of security: it’s human, and it’s smart. It’s not wrong to form attachments and dependencies and when it’s people and things that do not harm us, it’s actually desirable to do so. There is no prize for growing up the fastest, especially when growing up means shedding, or hiding, human vulnerabilities.

~Spilt Milk
Toward a Taxonomy of Homophobia
The problem, it seems to me, is that we need a more nuanced vocabulary for ‘homophobia’ (and likewise for transphobia). There is homophobia like that of Phelps, stemming from hate or deep fear, and directed with deliberate negative intent towards LGB people. There is homophobia like that of people who oppose, say, marriage equality or allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military, but who do so out of misunderstanding, not out of hate. They might vote against us, but only because they have never sat down to talk with any of us. There is homophobia like that of Rice, where LGBT-related language is used in an insensitive and thoughtless way, but is not directly aimed at LGB people.

~Dana Rudolph, Change.org’s Gay Rights Blog.
and Suffrage On Stage: Marie Jenney Howe Parodies the Opposition
My first argument against suffrage is that the women would not use it if they had it. You couldn’t drive them to the polls. My second argument is, if the women were enfranchised they would neglect their homes, desert their families, and spend all their time at the polls. You may tell me that the polls are only open once a year. But I know women. They are creatures of habit. If you let them go to the polls once a year, they will hang round the polls all the rest of the time.

~Mary Jenney Howe, “An Anti-Suffrage Monologue” (1913).


family leave: some reflections the workplace and relationship care

Earlier this week I shared a personal essay on the feminist librarian reads by Nathan Hegedus, an American man living with his Swedish wife and two young children in Sweden. The essay describes the culture of parental leave and childcare in Sweden, his own changing relationship to the idea of family leave, and the way the Swedish economy has adapted to government-mandated leave time for parents with young children. While I don't think top-down enforcement of new norms is always the best way to go, in this case the passing of legislation meant that the workplace was forced to adapt to the modern reality that workers do not exist in a vacuum, and that sometimes the needs of families require job flexibility. The fact that employers providing family leave time are actually following the law means that both employers and employees are supported in creating an environment in which workers are guaranteed leave (and their jobs upon return) and employers are encouraged to find solutions to the question of staffing while their regular employees are away caring for family members.
The working world has adjusted accordingly. Most companies seem to fill parental-leave vacancies with short-term contracts, and these seem to function as good tryouts for permanent employment. It all feels pretty organic in a globalized world of flat organizations and gender equality, of employees who are not locked into one assignment or skill set.

. . . If you had asked me in, say, 2001, if I would ever take a long paternity leave, I would have answered, "Yeah, sure," because I was a liberal guy—but then ignored my own answer because I was also an ambitious, career-driven type. Then I married a Swede, and we moved to a small town outside New York City that was close to no family or friends. Out of necessity, and my wife's Swedish expectations, I got deeply involved in our upcoming baby's life, though probably still no more than many American dads-to-be. We had a rough ride. My wife had bad doctors and a bad back, and we lived in a house covered with lead paint and infested with bats, rats, and bedbugs. It all began to seem overwhelming. In the end, almost more than my wife, I pushed for the move to Sweden, to the promise of parental leave, shorter work days, five weeks of vacation, and unlimited paid sick days if your kid falls ill.

Still, the prospect of telling my boss I wanted to take paternity leave paralyzed me for weeks. Surely I would get fired for taking six months off. Or I would return to a job cleaning the bathrooms with pencil erasers. I think I chickened out completely and just sent an e-mail. But my supervisors took my leave as a matter of course. I have small children; hence, I was likely to take paternity leave of some sort.
While Hegedus is focused here on the needs of parents with young children, and the social change providing these parents with support has wrought in Sweden, I think it's important to think about how the lessons learned in Sweden (and other countries with strong social welfare policy) can be applied beyond the realm of parenting and care of young children. The elder-care of parents, for example, which will become an increasing issue as the baby boomer generation ages and the social safety net enjoyed by many of their parents no longer exists. The care of spouses and partners with mental or physical health issues, for another, is important to recognize.

The needs of parents and dependent children are (superficially, I would argue) an "easy sell" in a culture that pretends to champion young people and their caregivers. Yet the creation of an economic culture that successfully supports the well-being of workers (and, thus, increases productivity and the potential for innovation) needs to include all of us, whether we have the responsibility to care for dependents or not. Advocating such comprehensive change in the way we think about "work" vs. "life" as a society also puts an end to the parents-vs-non-parents friction that develops, in feminist circles at least, when we begin to talk about support for working parents. Single people and people with no children often feel like this conversation privileges the "choice" of people with children by allowing them extra time away from work that, as persons who will never have children, they are not offered. As parenting is increasingly seen as a freely-chosen lifestyle (rightly or wrongly), parental leave becomes yet one more policy issue dividing caregivers of the young from others. 

Instead of running with this limited view of "parental leave," we need to start talking more holistically about care and the needs of all human beings to give and recieve care, regardless of age, of physical or mental ability, or of their position within family systems. And we need to think about how that care can be incorporated into (and ultimately benefit, or at least not weaken) the modern work environment that dictates so much of the rhythm of our daily lives.


from the neighborhood: hanna's new toy

It's been one of those weeks where I'm a little brain-dead and don't have much of substance to say. Luckily, I have great friends who do blog-posting for me when my brain has died. So today, I'm sending you over to Hanna's blog to check out some wonderful photographs she took recently with her brand-new digital camera.

Our living room doorknob, by Hanna Clutterbuck, 17 September 2010

Check the rest of her work out at ...fly over me, evil angel....


further thoughts: "birth rape" and feminist policing (the curvature)

An anyonymous woman's postpartum body, posing nude. Image from The Shape of a Mother.Note/disclaimer: This post was written last Saturday, following which I had several really good conversations with friends about feminism, exclusion, inclusion, and language. To those of you who were involved: this post doesn't reflect those conversations and how they have helped me think about some of these issues in new ways! Maybe I'll write a "part two" one of these days, but for now I'm leaving this one as-is ...

There's a good conversation going on in comments over at The Curvature about the concept of "birth rape" and why some feminist activists are resistant to acknowledging the way violations of bodily integrity during pregnancy and birth are often experienced by women as a form of sexual violence.

Cara's original post is a brilliant, articulate response to several previous posts from within the feminist blogosphere that expressed discomfort with the term "birth rape." To which Cara responds,

Birth rape describes the experience of women and pregnant people of other genders having their bodies violated and penetrated without their consent in the process of giving birth, usually though not always through the forcible insertion of hands or medical tools into the vagina or anus without consent, and frequently with explicit non-consent. Victims are often physically held down, told to shut up, ignored when they scream or cry or plead, threatened, and/or called names as their bodies are violated. Just as survivors of other forms of rape, birth rape survivors experience physical and emotional trauma, often rising to the level of PTSD — only compounded by the general lack of recognition that birth rape is real, and the frequent guilt at having such trauma associated with their new child coming into the world.

In other words, birth rape is a term used to describe a specific form of rape that is committed in a birthing context, without the use of a penis.

. . . When women come forward and start saying “I was raped,” when they find the power to use that word to describe their own experiences and open up to share their trauma with the world, responding with “no you weren’t” — with whole blog posts about the subject, in fact — is about the worst possible way that a person can do feminism.

. . . Telling other survivors that their experiences of violation aren’t real enough, and just weren’t sexual enough of all things, to use our special fancy word is wrong. And if this is how the word “rape” is going to be used against other survivors of abuses of power and abuses of bodily autonomy and violations of self — as a weapon, like it is right now — then I don’t want it. If the word rape doesn’t include all of those victims of violence that it needs to include, we need a better word. If the word rape is so fragile that we must minimize the horrific experiences of some survivors, the violence they lived through, and the violations they felt in order to protect it, we need a better word. And when the major response to a somewhat mainstream conversation about birth rape is quibbles about words rather than compassion and organizing, we need a much, much better feminism to become the dominant one.

You can read the whole thing over at The Curvature. And I highly recommend that you do, since it's passionate and just the sort of inclusive feminist thinking that brought me into activist feminism in the first place.

I asked in comments, "What on earth do we gain from telling them their experience doesn’t count?? I really don’t get the prickly reaction to this language." To which commenter lauredhel responded

I think that to really understand the reaction, one needs to look at the broader picture of mother-exclusion in this particular brand of Feminism. Once you’ve had a kid, you’re ripe for the exclusions – it’s ok to keep you out of feminist organising because kids are all complicated and loud and annoying, it’s cool to dismiss you as ‘merely’ a ‘m(u)(o)mmy blogger’ and not politically relevant, it’s fine for you to be excluded from public spaces (with a hefty dose of Feminist shaming for your temerity in having a child-accompanied life outside the domestic and playgroup sphere), and you need to lie back and think of England when doctors are doing their thing, because it’s for your own good, dear, you made your motherbed, now lie in it and don’t get too uppity while the real feminists are talking. As soon as you make it clear that that fetus is staying put and coming out of you, you’re out of the club.

It's not that I've never thought before about the way our culture devalues the bodily autonomy of pregnant women and denies the personhood of birthing mothers -- but I think this conversation around the recognition of birth-related sexual violence is a striking example of the way in which certain contingents within feminist activism resist including women who are pregnant, birthing, and mothers within the movement -- resist incorporating their particular concerns. Instead, they parrot back the misogyny of mainstream culture which simultaneously idealizes motherhood and hates on actual mothers and children. There are complicated reasons for this (as my friend Laura Cutter so eloquently pointed out in a guest post recently).

But the fact that it's complicated is not license to just give up. Rather, I think the complexity of the issue invites us to examine the way in which feminists (no more or less than anyone else!) can sometimes use the language and concepts that have given them voice as tools to turn around and silence other people.

Which is, to put it simply, not cool.

When the strength of our self-identities and political activism lies in denying other folks a place at the table, it's time to re-examine the way our actions reflect our core values. I became a vocal, self-identified feminist in order to advocate for a world where there is less policing of gender and sexuality, not more. I work every day to practice radical acceptance of the rich diversity of being-in-the-world practiced by those around me, and to protect the ability of all people to feel safe, at home, and loved in the bodies and lives that give them well-being. That, to me, is what feminism is about.

*Image credit: Bittersweet (Anonymous) from The Shape of a Mother.


sunday smut: tumblr highlights (no. 2)

Katy Manning (who played Dr. Who companion Jo Grant, 1971-1973) poses nude with a Dalek.
Image from Whoniverse.

This week on the feminist librarian reads.

The Boiling Frog Principle of Boundary Violation | Thomas @ Yes Means Yes

"The issue of boundaries is not an individual issue of what one rape survivor did or didn’t do. People are targets more for structural than personal reasons. There are lots of reasons that people don’t have the tools to set boundaries and have them respected. A lot, but not all, of these things have to do with the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ and the social constructs around them, but there are others. People are raped because they’re vulnerable due to incarceration or other institutional confinement; because they have a disability and the culture around disability means people feel free to violate them and others don’t listen to them about violation; because their social position is such that they will be blamed and rebuked instead of defended if they report a violation — how many trans women think that going to the cops after being raped will go well for them? How many trans men, how many non-binary identified folks, think they could go to the cops?"

Conversations About Body Image: A Place at the Table for Me? | s.e. smith @ FWD/Forward

"For people who may dislike their bodies, for any number of reasons, these conversations end up being exclusionary, as they are often treated as ‘unenlightened’ for not loving their bodies and they are lectured in an attempt to get them to submit."

Talking About Sex Without Talking About Myself | Amanda @ Love Letters From Hell

"I do want to talk about my own [sexual] experiences, very much, but I feel that morally, I can’t. Not with my name attached, and not in a public forum where anyone I personally know can easily read my writing. It’s also egotistic, in a way— why on earth would my sex life be important?"

For more, visit my feminist librarian reads tumblr blog.


alma mater musings: individuals + institutions

This past week, I had an exchange with one of my faculty mentors from undergrad who is currently collecting stories from queer students and allies about their experiences at Hope College (for previous posts on this topic go here). A group of faculty are hoping to collate these narratives and take them to the Board of Trustees on October 10th as part of a presentation on the hostile climate for non-straight folks at Hope College, in hopes that personal stories will help reshape the discussion around homosexuality on campus.

At first, I didn't really think I had much to say beyond what I already put into my letter to the Board of Trustees. But since writing that letter in April I've been doing a lot of thinking about Christian higher education and about the intersection of organized religion, personal faith and values, and formal learning. This is going to be a rambling sort of post, but I wanted to share some of my in-process musings. I welcome responses and further thoughts in comments!

One of the things I think we often overlook when we view institutions like Hope College or Calvin College or even Patrick Henry College from the outside is that even the most close-minded institutions can be sites where individuals learn, grow, and can even become subversive. Sometimes, that subversive impulse is born of resistence to the oppressive nature of the institution and the subculture within which that institution is situated. But I don't believe that's the whole story. Often, some parts of the institution or the subculture themselves enable that growth and change within individuals who care to take advantage of it.

To take an obvious example, young people who grow up within the Christian subculture learn at a very early age what it means to move between cultures: their own and the dominant American culture. They learn the positive aspects of being bicultural, of having a critical perspective on mainstream values and beliefs, of being an outsider who belongs to an identity community. They know how to speak what my mother used to call "God talk" and they know how to edit those references out of their vocabulary when they know such language won't help their cause. All of these skills and experiences are transferable to other sub- and counter-cultural experiences -- including the experience of belonging to feminist or queer identity groups. To many of us, feminism and a more open concept of sexuality are, in fact, extensions of the values we saw modeled within some Christian communities. I know that, when I first discovered feminist theology as a first-year college student the possibility that Christianity could be reconciled with the values I held as a feminist brought me closer to religious faith than anything before or since. I came closer that year to joining a church than I had in all my years of teenage involvement with organized religion.

The fact that the values of feminist theology were viewed with skepticism by some and outrage by others within the college community was incredibly alienating to me (as a seventeen-year-old) ... and yet at the same time, it was Hope College that had, however imperfectly, exposed me to those ideas in the first place. I was instinctively feminist before going to college -- in my auto-didactic way I knew my feminist history -- but it was at this religiously and politically conservative institution that I actually found the thinkers and activists of who helped me clarify those instincts and turn them into both meaningful scholarship and daily action. I was being marginalized by some people within the school for ideas and values I had been invited to explore by others at the same institution. Complicated? Complicated.

As I wrote in response to my friend's email,

It was through Hope College that I was able to explore political feminism, feminist theology, non-straight sexuality, and connect with folks like Linda and Denslow [members of Aradia]; to ground myself in a network of intergenerational feminists who experience sexuality in myriad ways. It was an integral part of my growing into myself and arriving in a place where -- when I decided to explore my own sexual desires and seek out sexual relationships -- I was open to being with those human beings who turned me on, regardless of gender. Hope as an academic institution (and more precisely the faculty I worked with there) gave me a place to develop the intellectual and political framework to articulate myself and from that position of strength enter into a relationship that (ironically!) Hope College officially does not condone. It is sad, to me, that I can't really celebrate that learning experience with Hope as an institution because it is a type of learning that isn't valued -- it doesn't fit within the narratives of alumni achievement. The most valuable gifts that my Hope College education gave me are the things the college likes to keep at arms length. And I feel like that's their loss.

And then in a follow-up email,

My experience at Hope has given me a uniquely personal perspective on the way individuals negotiate their personal life stories within religious and educational institutions ... The fact that students and faculty at a socially and religiously conservative institution like Hope can manipulate the learning experiences in liberatory ways contradicts (in my opinion) the mainstream narrative that tends to downplay individual agency within religious/educational institutions and focus on the official message or the stories told by people with structural/social power and authority (usually not where the most interesting stuff is happening!). The complexity of the real lived experience is a difficult one to get across to people who haven't grown up in that environment or been required to develop those skills for subversion.

[Since graduating from Hope, I have become more] aware of the complex sociocultural and structural reasons students choose to attend the institutions they attend (church connections, family relationships, friendships, finances, geography, etc.) and how so often those initial choices they make cannot begin to reflect the people they become during their tenure as students. It seems to me (idealist that I am!) that it is the responsibility of a college like Hope to acknowledge that even students who may come to the college as religiously conservative straight folks could discover their sexual fluidity or finally come to terms with their orientation during their time at Hope. And I think Hope College would benefit (as both an institution and as a community of individuals) from being the sort of environment where that personal journey was embraced as a mark of individual strength, openness to change, opportunity for developing personal ethics around sexuality and political identity. Right now, the institutional position seems primarily to be one of fear, which in turn communicates to students that exploration, questioning, and change are threatening to both personal and social well-being. Hardly an attitude conducive to meaningful learning!

I am reminded of a post by Sharkfu at Feministing on the complicated balancing act of being involved in religious institutions with which you do not wholly agree. Such relationships can often be a constant re-negotiation, an assessment of whether the benefit of being involved with the institution outweighs the cost of membership (both to the self and to society). From the outside, it is all too easy to condemn people who stay affiliated with such institutions, since it is difficult to see the complexity of the relationship that person has had with that community, with that space, with those ideas, over time. And I would like to emphasize once again: I don't mean this in a purely negative way. Yes, sometimes being part of a subculture can cloud your perspective, isolate you from ideas and people that might otherwise give you a more meaningful life. But sometimes, those same subcultures can be the doorway (however inadvertently) into those very same ideas, into those very same communities, that "officially" the subculture/institution/community is attempting to police, control, or even eradicate.

In other words: while the social structure and official position of Hope College as an institution is homophobic, judgmental, and I would even say violent and anti-Christian ... for an individual person? The space created by that structure existing, and the opportunities (intellectual and otherwise) that reside in that space, could well be the doorway they needed in order to discover a much more exhilarating, loving, hopeful, potential-filled sort of world.

Such liberating potential doesn't in any way erase or mitigate the violence wrought by the official position of the college on human sexuality any more than the existence of pro-queer Catholic groups, liberation theology, and Catholic reproductive justice advocates erases or mitigates the homophobia and sexism of the institutional Catholic church. It doesn't absolve the individuals supportive of the official position from their participation in that act of violence. It does, however, suggest that such violence is also tangled up with much more nuanced interpersonal relationships. That an official institutional stance -- once you zoom it at a higher resolution -- is riddled with tiny fissures. Fissures that represent opportunities for people to grow and change, and become themselves far beyond the wildest imaginings of the college administration.

Right now, it seems like the college officials fear that wildness -- I do hope they come to embrace it for the hope and joy it can represent. Best wishes to all the folks at Hope College who are trying to help them see that possibility.

*Image credit: Nykerk Hall, Hope College, Holland, Michigan. Image from Hope College Public Relations (they keep this up and eventually I'm going to run out of scenic campus shots and have to start in on the student facebook photos ;)!).


"people are DESPERATE to be told what they're like": discuss

Vintage Erotic from Queerest of Them All @ Tumblr.com

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been having a slow conversation-in-comments with Emily Nagoski over at ::sex nerd:: about human sexuality, sex research, and the classification of human sexual experience in the two general categories of female-bodied and male-bodied individuals.

The original post Emily wrote is about the problem of asserting sameness across sex/gender identity when it comes to human sexuality. From her position as a sexuality educator, specifically working with undergraduate women at Smith College, Nagoski highlights the ways in which a narrative of sameness works culturally to erase the experience of people who have don't have the "sexual hardware" of the default human (a man)

Treating women’s sexuality as though it’s "the same" as men’s, in the social world and in science, results in women feeling broken and ashamed.

As in: We should want sex as much as and in the same way that men do. We should be able to have orgasms the way men do – as quickly, in diverse situations, and through intercourse. Our sexual orientation should be the same. Our responsiveness should be the same. Our fantasies. Our porn. Our feelings about our bodies. I mean, where does it end? You might as well be saying women should have penises.

You can read the whole post over at Emily's blog.

There are a lot of really awesome aspects to this argument, chief among them that asserting that different bodies respond differently to sexual stimulus is a great step away from the monoculture of "sexy" that our culture is currently saturated with. I also like the way it grounds physical sexual experience in the body, and encourages folks to learn about how their bodies work as a way of gaining a better understanding of their own sexuality.

It also pulls us away from the default understanding of sexual arousal as something that is primarily experienced by people with male bodies and hormonal profiles. It helps clear the ground for women to assert their sexuality without shame and without requiring them to mimic a type of sexuality they do not feel in order to be taken seriously as sexual subject.

From a personal perspective, I will say that one of the most valuable learning experiences in my early career as a sexual being was finding a second-hand copy of Shere Hite's 1976 report of women's sexuality in which she quotes long excerpts from questionnaires in which women describe in detail the diversity of their sexual desires, fantasies, physical arousal and relational experiences. Pages and pages and pages of women describing, in minute detail, how they masturbated, what sexual positions worked and didn't work for them, what kind of touch they liked, whom they enjoyed making love with and how. Since the publication of Hite's research, questions have been raised about the scientific rigor of her methodology -- but to me the power of the book is not in its statistical validity, but in the individual voices that disseminate a type of information that is incredibly difficult, even in this era of the internet, to obtain: how actual people in the actual real world get off? what makes them horny? what fantasies do they carry in their innermost souls? what sensations push them over the edge? It seems so simple, banal almost, and yet there can be radical power in seeking the answer to those questions.

So what's my problem with the emphasis on "difference"? It's the fact that that human sexual difference is framed using a binary sex/gender system that simply doesn't work for a lot of people. What about people with a "female" hormone profile who have penises? What about folks whose sexual arousal cycles seem to be spontaneous despite having a clit? And what about us cis-gendered women who, despite being accepted by the medical and social world as "female" and "feminine" just don't see ourselves very well represented in the narratives of female sexuality that are out there? It feels to me like we're rejecting one set of restrictive categories for another set of restrictive categories that just aren't going to be very helpful to any of us in the long run.

We're still going to end up feeling shamed, just for different reasons: maybe it'll be okay not to be sexual in the same way as boys, but now we'll feel the pressure to be sexy the same way as girls.

What gets lost is the question of how to be sexy like ourselves.

When I raised this issue in comments, Emily pointed out that scientifically-speaking, studying a species that reproduces sexually (as we do) means that it does make a certain amount of sense to examine the human population as one that is made up of two basic iterations (male and female). I get that talking scientific data is different from talking about cultural perceptions, but I also believe that the two interact in ways we often cannot even see. I also think that the language and results of scientific studies get misinterpreted by the media and the general public, and often translated into sound bites that end up supporting pre-existing notions of sex and gender difference: employed in making truth claims far beyond the scope of the original researchers' work.

Emily also suggested that using the female/male categories as a launching-point to discuss sexual diversity is a useful educational tool.

You don’t want women to be told they’re like men, but you also don’t want them to be told they’re like women.

That’s fair enough, actually, since people just vary (though men vary around one standard and women vary, more widely, around a different one). But my experience has been that people WANT – no, they’re fuckin’ DESPERATE – to be told what they are like. They want a category. They can’t cope without one. And since we’re a sexually reproducing species with males and females, the man/woman split is a natural-seeming division. It’s a comfortable couch for radical information.

So here's my question to y'all. Do you want a category?

I'm curious. Because, see, I really, really don't want to be told what I'm like. I have what's probably an unhealthy aversion to being categorized. Do I like to run into stories that mirror my experience? Yeah, sure! It was an incredible experience to read Lisa Diamond's book on sexual fluidity and finally hear the women she interviewed putting into words thoughts and feelings and physical experiences I had known intimately but did not have the language to articulate. But for me, it is enough to know that there are other like-minded or like-experienced people out there in the world. As soon as those beings start being grouped and generalizations are made about them, I develop a twitch.

I'm curious what responses other people have to this discussion of difference and categories, the comfort of categories and the danger that categorization will lead to marginalization or erasure. What have your experiences around descriptions of "female" and "male" sexuality been? Are there particular categories that resonate particularly strongly with you, that have been of use to you in better knowing and expressing your sexuality? Have other people tried to categorize you in ways you feel are just plain wrong? What cultural and/or scientific narratives were at work creating and enforcing those categorizations?


from the neighborhood: colors from maine

Fresh tomatoes from Kevin and Linda's garden.

Balls of carded fiber, dyed with home-grown indigo by Linda.

After hurricane Earl blew through, we had a gorgeous weekend.

Monty the cat on Linda's lap
Monty is suspicious of visitors, but braved our presence to spend a few minutes on Linda's lap Sunday evening while we were watching movies.

Hope y'all are having a good week; happy 15th of September ... in six more days it will officially be fall. Maybe next time we head north, there will be some red and orange color in the trees.


multimedia monday: "sensitivity" and "got-no-sensitivity"

Last week on my tumblr feed, I shared a web video from the awesome Jay Smooth of Ill Doctrine on the political use of the word "sensitivity" in recent weeks. The next day, while I was doing metadata entry at work, I heard this commentary on Fresh Air by linguist Geoff Nunberg about the modern evolution of the work in our political vocabulary.

A full transcript can be found on the NPR website.

Nunberg observes (emphasis mine):

At the outset, the approach seemed to have a lot to recommend it. For one thing, it was easier to persuade people to modify their language than to get them to root out their deep-seated attitudes about race, gender and the rest. And the hope was that if you changed behavior, attitudes would eventually follow. It's cognitively more efficient to believe the words you're obliged to say rather than always surrounding them with mental air quotes.

But over the long run, the stress on sensitivities probably set back cultural understanding as much as it advanced it. For one thing, it permits people to blur the distinctions between mere thoughtlessness and antipathies that run deeper in the heart. It's only insensitive when Michael Steele uses the phrase "honest injun" he probably never gave the expression any thought before. But there's a moral obtuseness in talking about the insensitivity of carrying a sign that depicts Barack Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose. A lack of sensitivity is the least of that person's problems.

And while most people are raised to be polite, it turned out not to be such a good idea for institutions to try to impose deference to the sensitivities of certain groups. In response, a lot of people took to pronouncing sensitivity with that mocking tone and derided it under the heading of political correctness.

Points for the turn-of-phrase "moral obtuseness," which I'm now going to have to find opportunities to use! Meanwhile, I don't think I have anything super intelligent to say as a response, beyond the fact that it sure as hell is complicated to foster empathy and understanding between people who are divided by fear. I'm always grateful to have NPR out there sharing this sort of long-range perspective, even if they can't offer any solutions.


sunday smut: tumblr highlights (no. 1)

Gouache Nude Painting by Armando Martires
made available at Flickr.com

As I dive into the semester, here's a sampling of stories I shared on my tumblr blog, the feminist librarian reads, this past week. Here are a few samplings from the past week ... head on over to tumblr for more!

What Comes After the Gender Binary by Marissa @ This Is Hysteria!

"This is not the first time that I’ve seen somebody think that when I talk about eliminating the gender binary that I envision a world of uniform androgyny.

What the elimination of the gender binary means to me is that people can be as masculine or feminine as they like. But the performance of masculinity or femininity is not compulsory depending on sex. Being masculine in some respects would not put femininity out of bounds for you, and vice-versa. Gender could be played with, freely, without social sanction.

That is, there would be more variety in gender expression, not less. Instead of black and white, we would have a rainbow, not a homogenous mass of grey."

kinky by Emily Nagoski @ ::sex nerd::

"Sex positivity is part of it. Kinky folks have often had to take a long, hard look at sexuality – their own and the world’s – and come to the conclusion that their own desires are actually completely FINE, in the context of consenting adults, and that people who don’t agree with them (a) can go fuck themselves and (b) are probably suffering from that self-imposed moralizing and narrowly conscribed ideas about sexual expression, and are therefore to be pitied.

That combination of I-pity-you and you-can-go fuck-yourself rings very true to me. I appreciate both the empathy and the lack of tolerance for bullshit."

Gender divide a myth, says expert by Amelia Hill @ The Guardian

“[Cordelia] Fine is unabashed. ‘There are sex differences in the brain. There are also large sex differences in who does what and who achieves what,’ she says. ‘It would make sense if these facts were connected in some way, and perhaps they are. But when we follow the trail of contemporary science we discover a surprising number of gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies, poor methodologies and leaps of faith.’

Combing through the latest research in psychology and neuroscience, Fine concludes that ‘the sheer complexity of the brain lends itself beautifully to overinterpretation and precipitous conclusions. It’s a compelling story that offers a neat, satisfying explanation, and justification, of the status quo.’ Fine warns that ‘brain facts’ about the sexes – in fact, stereotypes with a veneer of credibility – are worming their way into apparently scientific books.”

Read the rest over at my tumblr blog.


work+school+life: launching year four

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge (Boston, MA), by garreyf.
Made available at Flickr.com.

It's the week after Labor Day and thus that time of year again ... to look back and look forward and wonder when that third year (that seemed so speedy-fast and incredibly filled with eventfulness at the same time) slid by and to wonder what the year ahead is going to bring.

Hard to believe this is the third anniversary, already, of my move to Boston. (See my post from the end of year one and from year two here). With the hectic nature of the last two weeks (punctuated by several severe migraine-grade headaches), I can't say that I've had a lot of time to reflect meaningfully on the question of whether I feel more authentically "Bostonian" now than I did at this point last year, when I was still very much on the fence. But here I still am, and here Hanna and I are likely to stay for at least the medium term (job opportunities willing!). I admit, in my heart of hearts, to longing for the Pacific Northwest now and again, since it has always felt like something of my second home -- and both of us have close friends and family ties there. But the possibility of such a cross-country move is in the distant world of future possibilities, alongside Hanna's equally important lifelong desire to live, for at least a time, in England. For now, our life is here.

And a jam-packed-full life it is at the minute!

Hanna, who graduated with her MA (History) and MS (Library Science) last December, is working as a processing archivist at the Countway Medical Library at Harvard and as an archives assistant at Northeastern (a position I now share with her). She's working on studying for her GRE, with plans to pursue her PhD in Irish History, and in her spare time can be found blogging both at ...fly over me, evil angel... and her recently-created companion tumblr feed, evil angel. I suggest to any of you reading this that you check out both if what you're looking for are all the most entertaining links on current events in Britain/Ireland, in the world of books, libraries and archives, and genre fiction/film. As she regularly points out, Hanna's RSS feeds are way more diverse than mine, and I always end up learning the most random and interesting things!

I'm in my final semester of work for my Library Science degree, and taking two classes: one on archives management and the other on the curation of digital materials. While both classes promise to be useful for my future work as a librarian, I'm definitely ready to be finished with formal schooling. Being a student makes me claustrophobic, prone to migraines, and depressed; it also tends to sap the pleasure out of the pursuit of learning, which I adore, and on the whole seems to be an unhealthy sort of thing for me to engage in. A bad match, personality-wise, I've discovered. Ironically even more so when the learning is intended to be of professional use rather than something I do because I find it intrinsically valuable (as with my history research).

To celebrate the completion of my degree, I am making plans to get my first tattoo. While I have yet to settle on a design, we discovered a kick-ass artist at Chameleon when Hanna got own inaugural tattoo (a Dr. Who question mark) over the summer, a joint birthday present from me and our friend Diana. I have two or three conceptual ideas in the pipeline right now, although I think for numero uno it might be one of the boats from Swallows and Amazons. My friend Ashley counsels that tattoos should be symbolic enough to be re-interpreted over time, wise words that make me hesitate to use something so pictoral. But I'm sitting with the image for the next few months to see how it feels, and then we'll go from there! (If it all goes well, I'll have to start thinking about what to get when I turn in the final draft of my thesis!)

Speaking of my thesis, the draft is away in the hands of my readers and will likely not be completed until next spring, although final deadlines are still in high-level negotiations. There are some arguments for finishing it this fall, but for quality-of-life reasons, and for quality-of-thesis reasons the handwriting is on my own personal wall that this isn't going to happen. I don't want to be miserable and over-extended for four months, which in turn will make my girlfriend feel miserable and over-extended as she tries to mop up my tears, soothe my migraines, and manage all of the things I simply won't have time for. So we're shooting for May, 2011 presently. Which is actually the term I originally projected I'd graduate (I'm making progress: it took my seven years for the B.A., so four years for the double Masters' degrees ain't shabby!)

Meanwhile, I'm working at my beloved Massachusetts Historical Society (from whence I am writing this) and also at Northeastern, as previously mentioned, where I tag-team a position as archives assistant with Hanna. My latest project is 20.65 cubic feet of records from Northeastern University's cooperative education program, dating from the mid-1970s to the present. Lots of folders of interdepartmental memos and committee meeting minutes, not to mention all the internal dramas to which any organization is prone. I should also (fingers crossed!) finally be wrapping up, this October, the Marjorie Bouve scrapbook digitization project. We still don't have a firm idea for how to display the images and information for users, but as soon as we have anything up and running I'll be sure to link it here.

That's all going to keep me more than busy enough, although I'm definitely looking forward to an October visit from my parents, over the Columbus Day weekend, and to some new blogging projects (i.e. the continuation of reading the (lesbian) classics with Danika the Lesbrarian; my copy of Beth Goobie's Hello Groin arrived in the post just this morning!). Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to staying in touch with y'all via the usual modes, posting here when I can, and tumblr when I can't.

And maybe, some time later in the fall or early next spring, you'll see that we've finally taken the plunge and adopted a cat like we keep talking about doing. If we do, you'll be some of the first people to know ('cause who can resist cute cat photos; I know I can't!)

Best wishes for a lovely early autumn to you all, wherever you may be, and you'll be hearing from me soon enough.



librarianship =/= dick-waving contest

Okay, so I gripped about this on Twitter, and then because that wasn't enough thought about posting it on Tumblr. But then the draft of my tumblr post got way longer than I planned so now it's going to be a bona fide blog post.

AndyW @ LISNews appears to be surprised that an MLS degree does not exempt him from plebeian tasks such as checking out books to patrons and staffing the reference desk (instead of holding court in private with "people who have actual reference questions").

On any given day, I can be standing at the circulation desk side-by-side with a support staff member doing the same thing that they are doing. So long as this arrangement exists, the perception that librarianship does not require an advanced degree will continue to taint the image of the profession.

One response to this state of affairs for any individual with critical thinking skills might be to ask "if the tasks of librarianship do not require an advanced degree, then why are we requiring advanced degrees of librarians"? This is, in fact, a question that has already been asked in comments to AndyW's piece and no doubt will continue to be a subject of debate. (See, for example, my post from May on this very topic).

AndyW doesn't ask this question, however. He's pretty clear on the fact that he likes the status his library science degree grants him -- or rather, he wishes that his library science degree would give him the sort of status he imagined it would grant him. (Aside from, presumably, his ability to apply for professional positions which are compensated financially above the paraprofessional and nonprofessional level). He wants the whiff of authority. The deference. The aura of mystery, perhaps? And rubbing elbows with the working, uneducated masses just isn't cutting it.

It is a disservice to the education, to the degree, and to the profession when the bulk of a librarian’s daily tasks could be performed by someone with a GED. It does not take a master’s degree to place a hold on a book, clear a copier, push in chairs, tell people they are being loud, shelve items, or other similar tasks. When librarians are seen doing this and then told there is an advanced degree requirement, there is a reasoning dissonance that occurs in the outside observer.

Because, you see, it's all about appearance. About the need to ensure that patrons who are using the library (in ever-increasing numbers) understand Andy's credentials. What sets him apart. That, while he may be assisting his staff in a time of need, such tasks as reshelving or helping patrons find and check out the books they need to meet their information needs (or thirst for pleasure reading) are generally below him.

As a fellow librarian, may I suggest it would be a professional move to spend less time worrying that observers won’t be able to tell you apart from the paraprofessionals and "someone with a GED" (damn those lowly plebes and their ability to work with books!). To insist on the distinction, particularly in such dismissive terms, is insulting to your staff. Staff who presumably, though lacking credentials, are working in a library for a reason (and it's probably not because it pays incredibly well). It is also insulting to your patrons: is assisting them -- even if it's simply to point them toward the bathroom or unjamb the photocopier -- somehow beneath your dignity? Those "observers" whom you imagine are so obsessed with your credentials are probably, in the end, much more interested in whether their information needs are met promptly, knowledgeably and courteously than they are in whether the person meeting those needs has taken a class in Information Organization. As a commenter on the LISNews site suggested rather pointedly, "Staff who aren't willing to chip in to do ALL the things to make the library a success aren't professionals - they are just getting a paycheck." To seek professional respect by denegrating the work of non- and paraprofessionals whose service unarguably enables a library to function is (to put it bluntly) the behavior of an asshole.

Librarianship is not some giant dick-waving (er, degree-waving) contest. An advanced degree is not a magic, respect-demanding bit of psychic paper. It is, arguably, an outdated method by which certain knowledge workers in the late-19th and early 20th century made the case for their work to be given social status. But that's a blog post for another day.

In the meantime, I mostly want to say: Way to reinforce the kyriarchy, dude. In a totally uncool sort of way.

off to maine (my thesis draft is complete)!

Kevin and Linda Clutterbuck's garden, Norridgewock, Maine
July, 2010; photograph by Anna Cook

This week, right in the middle of a heat wave here in Boston and between a two-day migraine headache and the start of fall semester classes, I decided my first full draft was as done as it was going to be. I closed the files, saved them to my USB drive, and tomorrow morning will print two copies and drop them off in the mailboxes of my first and second readers.

The draft comprises an introduction (context and methods) and three chapters. It clocks in at 98 pages, which is longer than my adviser will like but shorter than the final draft is likely to be. I feel very proud to have written those 98 pages over the past twelve weeks, however rough they may be (and believe me, some sections are rough).

What happens from here? Well, first Hanna and I are going -- hurricane Earl permitting! -- to spend Labor Day weekend free of labor at her parents' home in central Maine (see above).

Then, my readers will look over and comment on the rough draft and my adviser and I will sit down and plan out the timetable for my final version. There are some constituents voting for a final draft to be submitted in September, and some in the May completion camp. I myself am divided, but leaning toward May for both personal and scholastic reasons. I'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, I'm pleased that this phase of the project -- which at times felt endless verging on the hopeless (Hanna will testify to the tears involved) -- is over and the next phase can begin. I've always been a bigger fan of revision than I have of the initial, terrifying draft.

Cross-posted from my oregon extension oral history project blog.