Not purely animals

Paris, July 2016.

I have only rarely felt physically unsafe around a woman. This is not the case for everyone, I am sure, but it’s probably true of the majority of people, regardless of their sex. Women are safer than men.

I have felt unsafe around men many times, more times than I can count. Men have taught us, over and over again, that they are not safe. I am not alone in this feeling; a veritable legion of women, half the Earth, has shared this feeling with me, at one point in their lives or another.

(Sometimes it not just a feeling. Sometimes the danger is tangible, experienced.)

In the company of men, especially unknown men, I have no expectations that I will be safe (free from bodily harm). I am far more alert, on edge, ready. In the company of women, I relax. I let down my guard. I exhale and trust that my body is safe, unhindered, mine. Unconsciously, I do not make the assumption of physical safely around an unfamiliar man in an unfamiliar place. I am on the edge of caution.

(Perhaps it is no wonder that we keep to ourselves.)

Women can and do, of course, make one feel emotionally injured. We’ve all been there, wounded by a stray barb thrown at a party or in passing in the break room. But this is not the threat of physical danger, which looms large. It can take over rational thought. And men can be afraid of women too. But as Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

(How long will fear have to flicker in our minds? Or is this merely woman’s “natural state”?)

“Nature” is on everyone’s minds these days, in the regular news onslaught of another man accused or convicted of sexual assault or harassment. Is this simply how men are? Roving around, threatening and challenging anyone who crosses their path? Andrew Sullivan, and many others who place their full faith in hormone levels, would like us to think so. Men are beasts, ruled wholly by testosterone and rapacious urges. If this were not the case, the argument goes, why else would the sexes languish in this everlasting tension between force and fear?

This line of reasoning makes me feel very tired. To Sullivan and to others fixated on hormone levels: I submit that humans are not purely animals.

It is futile to look at the ways that mice or lions or baboons or fruit flies interact and assume that this is the way the human sexes relate. Even our closest animal relations differ wildly from us in their sexual mores and practices. Extrapolating animal behavior onto human behavior is an interesting thought experiment, but that may be all that it is. We have studied every other species far more deeply than we have studied ourselves. We are still a profound mystery, perhaps because we are always spanning a duality: we are our bodies and our minds, our strength and our souls, our biology and our society.

Biology is not everything. And socialization is not everything, either. When it comes to being men and women, it’s always both. It’s your body and it’s your culture. You act “like a man” partly because of your biological impulses, which are always and forever interacting with society, with expectations, with how you were raised. It is nature and nurture, all the time. (Neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell parses out the so-called biological differences between men and women, and how they express themselves, rather neatly in this post.)

If this is the case, that testosterone and estrogen are not fate, we need a broader vision for male and female relationships. Banking on worn-out stereotypes (men are devils, women are angels; men are heroes, women are witches) is circular and shallow.

I am cheered by those who are still able to cast a vision for harmony and mutual respect between men and women. I still hope for this. I have no hope in evangelical leaders and sleazy politicians alike, who both claim, nauseatingly, that (1) this is just the way that men are and that (2) men should still be in charge of all spheres of public and private life.

Harmony cannot be achieved if we throw our hands up and say, “Boys will be boys!” By all means, let’s call it like it is: Men have a lot of reckoning to do. The murdering and molesting and raping and war-mongering are overwhelmingly the purview of the male sex, even in our presumably enlightened, developed country. But do we stop there? Do we have no hope for the future? Do we really not believe that men can resist the pull of biology when faced with a dynamic, expansive, civilizing culture? It’s a culture that is riddled with error, of course. Progress is slow, of course. But we have to believe in—and then pursue—some kind of progress, no matter how slight.

We must have higher expectations for one another. Nothing changes if we cannot.

On eating that which is real (and being relaxed about it)

Haricots with chevre

Americans never adopt fads lightly. When we take up a cause, we commit and we go to the extreme. Moderation is a virtue that we never seem to have much needed in the United States of America. Be it the size of our homes and cars, the depth and breadth of our reality TV, our fervent denial of climate change, or our mass accumulation of guns, we do nothing on a small scale. We take on nothing lightly. Nowhere does this tendency seem more clear to me than our current obsession with food.

We could talk about how enormously fat Americans are, which is true, but I am interested in the other side of the spectrum, where people are fixated on healthy food, where we consider ourselves holy because we have not (yet) slipped into obesity. It’s one pole or the other for me and my fellow patriots: Either we wantonly stuff ourselves full to bursting with tasty processed substances or we piously nibble on quinoa patties and congratulate ourselves on our freezer full of free-range, locally butchered delicacies.

Eating the right things has become a class-conscious mania that notably afflicts the middle- and upper-class, who can afford to eat well (which is in itself a terrible injustice). In lieu of humble-bragging about our legitimate virtues, we preen over our organic, local, free-range, grain-free choices at Whole Foods, and we impute it to ourselves as righteousness.* (*Side note: Concept lifted from this great/ruckus-raising sermon by Dave Zahl.)

I am as guilty of this natural-food worship as the next person. I too got fired up years ago when Food, Inc. came out. I too read all of Michael Pollan’s books and attended my farmers’ markets faithfully. I too became a vegetarian for a solid week after reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. I too believe that it is certainly better to support small-scale farming and to ingest organic food.

But for me, lately, the sheen of this fad has been dimming.

You can’t ask anyone over to dinner anymore without first inquiring about all of their dietary restrictions. Remembering your friends’ food aversions has become as culturally important as remembering their birthdays. Mothers self-flagellate if they don’t feed their children 100% organic, locally grown meals. Whole Foods denizens seem to have abandoned the joy of cooking and eating in exchange for the joy of self-congratulatory nutritional piety.

We eat not to enjoy food but to brag about its origin to our friends or anyone within earshot.

It’s getting out of hand.

I’ve been inspired to think about this loss of “real eating,” while reading the late, great Robert Farrar Capon’s delightfully bizarre book about food and faith, The Supper of the Lamb. As Capon says, considering a man who is obsessed by nutritional fads and rejecting food for the sake of his diet:The Supper of the Lamb

To begin with, real eating will restore his sense of the festivity of being. Food does not exist merely for the sake of its nutritional value. To see it so is only to knuckle under still further to the desubstantialization of man, to regard not what things are, but what they mean to us—to become, in short, solemn idolaters spiritualizing what should be loved as matter. A man’s daily meal ought to be an exultation over the smack of desirability which lies at the roots of creation. To break real bread is to break the loveless hold of hell upon the world, and, by just that much, to set the secular free.

—Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb

A touch dramatic, yes, but I take his point heartily.

(As an aside, I am looking forward to taking a page from the Europeans this summer, especially the French, who seem to have perfected the artful seesaw between moderation and indulgence in eating. Both seem to be necessary for a full, happy life.)

If I may bastardize the Gospel of Matthew:

And when you eat organic kale, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to eat organic kale standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you eat organic kale, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Eat real food and enjoy it. Divorce guilt from eating. Share food, not food judgments, with others, and be thankful.

Why I am not a lady

Even as a child, I have loved the boob grab. Photo courtesy of @jfarkle.
Even as a young child, I have been risqué with hand placement.

When I graduated from high school, an older woman (possibly a relative; I don’t recall) gave me a copy of this little pink book, How to Be a Lady. In theory, it was branded as a guide for contemporary etiquette, but it was mostly full of advice like: “A lady always wears pantyhose to church and never dons a pair with nicks or runs.” “A lady always crosses her legs at the ankles.” “A lady never initiates a date with a gentleman caller.” “A lady never swears or uses vulgar or graphic language.” “A lady knows when it is appropriate to drink using a straw.” And all that sort of vapid thing. Basically, it came down strongly on all the anti-lady things that I loved doing: never wearing pantyhose to church, sitting like a young bro, calling boys, using an ample dose of vulgar language (especially gratuitous sarcasm and potty humor), and never knowing when the moment called for a straw.

This book came to mind during a recent conversation in which a man I know told a prospective date that she needed to “act like a lady.” This injunction—much like that pink book—has never sat well with me.

“Acting like a lady” holds a lot of social currency in the South, the region I hail from. Aside from, perhaps, being a mother, being a lady is the most important thing a Southern woman can be. Best I can ascertain, being a lady means that you are polite, demure, coy, submissive, well-groomed, and super-boring. A lady knows how to host a perfect brunch and how to keep quiet at a dinner party when volatile subjects are being discussed and how to make cute handicrafts out of some old rickrack and sequins.

When a man tells a woman to “act like a lady,” he is asking for conformity to a rigid (albeit arbitrary) code of gendered behavior. Specifically, she should be quiet, mannerly, and easily controllable. She should not express a desire for sex. She should not make crude jokes. She should not enjoy a drink (at least, she should not say that she does). She should not run or shout or climb trees. She should avoid wearing pants too often. She should wait for instructions from a man before acting. She should not express her opinions too vociferously, and she should never argue with an authority figure. She should keep her emotions and her thoughts under control at all times.

I loathe this injunction, in any form, because all I want to be is a decent human being. I don’t want to be told to be a lady, anymore than I want men to be told to be gentlemen. I want people to be upstanding humans, first and foremost.

I acknowledge that there are certain virtues of ladyship, but they are applicable to everyone, regardless of gender: Be polite and kind to others. That is all that we need to say to each other.

You can tell me when I need to be polite and kind. You can tell me that I need to acquire a sense of decorum. You can tell me that I need to shape up and act like a decent human being. But don’t tell me to be a lady.

I don’t owe you a smile

Last summer, when my hair was very long. Source: Guion.

To get downtown, I have to walk over a bridge, adjacent to a lane of often busy traffic. As any woman who lives here will tell you, this bridge is an epicenter for cat calls, whistling, and shouted comments from male motorists. You get used to it. You start to expect it; you even develop an ability to predict which vehicles are most likely to contain men who will harass you.

On this particular day, traffic was stopped as I was crossing the bridge. I’m walking, trying not to make eye contact, when a man leans out of the window of a truck and says to me, “Heyyy, baby, give me a smile!” I don’t look at him and keep walking. Then, in my peripheral vision, I see him lean back out the window and he screams at me, “You stuck-up BITCH!”

It’s jarring to be called a “bitch” by anyone, much less by a man you don’t know, who feels justified calling you that because you won’t smile at his leering, pock-marked face after he demanded that you do. Even though nothing physically happened to me, I was upset by the incident for the rest of the day. I finally realized why I couldn’t get the encounter out of my head: This was the first time, in my young adult life, that I actively felt like an object.

We talk about “the objectification of women” all the time. It’s a phrase I’m very familiar with and I’ve sat in university classes about just that topic. But I never really thought it applied to me. Women in the media are objectified; models on billboards are objectified; actresses are objectified… but me? I’d never felt that way before.

Like any young woman in my general age bracket, I’m fairly acclimated to street harassment, but this is the first time that it made me feel angry, exposed, and even a little frightened. As I finished walking down the bridge, I grew increasingly self-conscious. I wanted to disappear. (And, alternately, slash that truck’s tires.) I had never expected to feel this way, but there it was, that feeling I’d only heard proclaimed from podiums or academic columns: I am a woman and I am therefore an object, free to be publicly evaluated, insulted, bossed around, and lewdly scrutinized.

I don’t really have an “action point” for this post. I don’t have any happy promises to wrap up the ending. Recounting the little incident still makes me feel furious. I take refuge in expressing anger (and sometimes bits of humor) about the culture of street harassment with other women, especially Stephanie, who has lots of stories in this dehumanizing department. But we don’t have any solutions. You get used to it, you adapt. You vaguely dream of a world in which your daughter might be able to exist as a human being, free to walk on a public street without being regarded as a sex toy, a manipulable body who owes mankind a smile. But that is often too hard to imagine.

Faulkner: Our way of living needs slamming

William Faulkner, chillin'. Source: This Recording.

Q: Are we degenerating?

William Faulkner: No. Reading is something that is in a way necessary like heaven or a clean collar, but not important. We want culture but don’t want to go to any trouble to get it. We prefer reading condensations.

Q: That sounds like a slam on our way of living.

William Faulkner: Our way of living needs slamming. Everybody’s aim is to help people, turn them to heaven. You write to help people. The existence of this class in creative writing is good in that you take time off to learn to write and you are in a period where time is your most valuable possession.

— William Faulkner answers questions from his students at the University of Mississippi in 1947, republished on This Recording.

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Taking off early this week to spend a weekend in the Triangle with old friends! Can’t wait. Pax. Remember what Faulkner says.