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Category Archives: Society

On Geeks and Privilege

So yeah, another tech conference, more problems with racism and sexism. BritRuby has been cancelled. (And yes, I’m as startled as you are that it’s a Jezebel article that gives the best run-down of the issues. You can also read here, but please, for the love of bunnies and sanity, don’t read the comments.)

You may at this point be idly wondering, “Why should I, weighing everything up here, bother giving a fuck?” Because the otherwise pointless fuckuporama produced this: Geeks and Privilege.

The reason we’re seeing such vicious anti-equality bullshit in the geek community over the BritRuby situation and other conference type stuff is because the very existence of societal inequalities (against women, racial minorities, gender/sexual minorities) threatens the whole idea that hackers got where they are because they are super-fucking-smart.

That piece is a really good run-down of unacknowledged privilege in the geek community. What I want to add to it is basically, “Because Intersectionality.”

Intersectionality is a long word, but not a difficult concept, at all. One day I might strip it back to its bare bones for Public Address, but here I’m going to assume people have a grasp of it.

One of the reasons that geek men are resistant to having their privilege pointed out to them is that they perceive themselves as outsiders. Not so much for geeks my son’s age, but for my cohort, people who were interested in (or, more accurately, obsessed with) science and computers and role-playing were not the Cool Kids. Part of the whole Freaks and Geeks stereotype is being the socially-awkward outcast. Hardly the recipients of social privilege in the adolescent hierarchy.

So like Pakeha women and gay men, if you’ve been on the receiving end of social bigotry and put-downs and people making life hard for you, it’s much harder to recognise that not only do you have privilege over other people you’re not aware of, but you might actually be exercising it against them.

And no, privilege is not luck. Finding ten bucks on the ground is luck. Having a family with money is privilege.

I don’t feel guilty about being a man but I do realise that it has certain benefits that women don’t get and certain opportunities I get that women have to fight much harder for. This doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. But denying that this is the case in order to preserve my illusions makes me an ignorant person.

Now, I’ve seen conference organisers, and other people too, try very hard to find willing female voices, and fail. But they’re not pretending that diversity and privilege aren’t problems. These guys really were. And, y’know, fuck those guys. Don’t be those guys.

This is no country for women

Cross posted from Tangerina-land

Today one of Wellington’s most vital and underappreciated services, Wellington Rape Crisis, announced that they will be reducing their service by a day per week. They simply cannot keep up with the demand for their services without adequate funding, and they are uncertain of their future due to operating under a $55,000 deficit.

Wellington Rape Crisis is 35 years old, and was started as part of the international Rape Crisis movement. It continues to be politically revolutionary in that the organisational values explicitly state that women are at the centre of their practice*, and a feminist analysis of rape and sexual abuse underpins all their work. Not only do they provide frontline services, but they advocate politically for women’s rights to autonomy and self-determination over their own bodies. If this seems like nothing special, or if you’re of the opinion that we’ve already achieved these things, then you might want to do some serious reading.

Let’s be clear about these “vital” services. All too often, WRC staff are the difference between life and death for their clients, both metaphorically and literally. WRC provides clients with tools and support to work through trauma, and helps provide survivor’s loved ones with the strength and knowledge to confidently stand by them. Staff can help with housing issues, medical referrals, access to funding for study or training, childcare and much more. The organisation recognises that rape and sexual abuse affects every part of a person’s life, and works holistically within this.

Unbelievably, despite the huge amount of resources that sexual violence response requires, WRC still allocates funds and energy into preventing rape and sexual abuse in the first instance. WRC, along with other agencies, makes up the Wellington Sexual Abuse network, which provides education and campaigns which helps to combat sexual violence. The organisation is committed to not just being an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, despite this being the service which gets the most funding from the Government.

However, no matter how vital an organisation is, if the climate in which it operates doesn’t value or support the work it does – it will die. Our Government has created a hostile environment for many community not-for-profit agencies. I want to be clear in stating that WRC is not the only agency in this dire situation. We live under an administration that feels competition is a good thing, not just in the private sector, but in community service provision.

While excellence in service should always be strived for, the way to achieve this is not to pit tiny, often volunteer-run organisations against each other for laughable sums of money. Money that they have to annually re-apply for at great expense of their already stretched resources. Money that makes organisations scared to speak out against Government initiatives for fear of being reprimanded through the loss of their funding.

This Government believes that the answer to everything is the private sector, and that corporate/community partnerships are the way of the future. But while the term “survivor of rape” still makes people shut their eyes and block their ears, Wellington Rape Crisis has no chance of being the next glossy recipient of the Vodafone Annual Feel Good Backpat Fest 2012.

I am sick to death of people desperately trying to rally 11th hour awareness for services people like to have, but rarely want to think about. Just last year Auckland’s only 24-hour crisis line for people who have experienced sexual violence was almost shut down due to a lack of funding. It was saved literally the day the service was due to be cut off, by ACC finally bowing to public pressure.

When previous governments are prepared to form a Taskforce for Action on Sexual Violence, yet no one is willing to implement their recommendations, it becomes a question of priority. One in four women in New Zealand will experience sexual assault. One in four. That’s a quarter of all of the women you know. If that isn’t a crisis, I’m not sure what is.

But, of course, our Government would much rather invest billions of dollars in a sports tournament, or millions into private schools, or tax cuts for the top tier of New Zealanders. Regardless of whether you broadly see value in these investments, a specialist organisation shutting its doors on Wellington’s most vulnerable women – even for just a day less per week – is unacceptable. It is undoubtedly the start of a slippery slope for all community services the Government doesn’t see as a priority.

This shouldn’t be about National politics. This should be about recognising, like WRC does, that rape is a crisis. If I’m going to be glib (which I am) I might also point out that investing in the prevention and treatment of sexual assault enables more women to be productive little cogs in our economic wheel. It’s a safe, reciprocal investment.

But it shouldn’t be about that. It’s about the fact that we live in a society which teaches women to consider themselves lucky to not be survivors of sexual violence. We live in a society where women are most likely to be raped by someone they know and trust, in their own home, yet they are made to feel like the aesthetic and transport options they choose every day make them responsible for any assault which may befall them.

We live in a society in which every single woman who you have ever known or even walked past has a script for protecting herself. She knows which neighbours keep the lights on for the longest, which shoes she can run easily in, and how to slot her keys between her fingers to use as a weapon if she needs to.

And nobody wants to talk about it. Well, that’s fine. Don’t get your hands dirty thinking about things which make you uncomfortable, that’s your choice. It’s a shit choice, but it’s yours to make. It’s not a choice that one in four New Zealand women have, however.

And for those women, thankfully there are agencies who don’t have their hands over their ears. But for how much longer? When a 35 year old organisation which is relevant to a quarter of all New Zealand women is slowly starting to close its doors…we are in crisis mode. This is no country for women.

I am despondent at the thought that months from now, if WRC has to close for another day, and another day and then maybe forever, that Wellington women will have to call for help from around the country like Auckland Sexual Abuse Help did. Are we doomed to repeat these last minute tearful pleas in which the public has to briefly acknowledge how vital these services are, every time the Government quietly suffocates one to death?

This is no country for women.

If you want to help. Please, please do. Though it needs to be said we should not have to self-fund a service as vital as this.

*Wellington Rape Crisis provides services to anyone who identifies as female. Their skills and physical space are designed solely for women and children, recognising that women are overwhelmingly and disproportionately affected by sexual violence. However, Wellington Rape Crisis works to refer male survivors of sexual violence to services that cater for them, and provides assistance to male support people of women who have experienced sexual violence.

On Straights for Marriage Equality in Aotearoa New Zealand

Cross posted
I was a young student at university when Fran Wilde’s Homosexual Law Reform Bill was introduced to the House in 1985. Back then, over quarter of a century ago, it caused an uproar. And back then, as now, groups sprang up in support of the bill. I recall one group in particular: HUG, or Heterosexuals Unafraid of Gays.

I was puzzled by HUG. Why did one need to assert one’s heterosexuality in order to support decriminalising consenting homosexual sex between men aged 16 or over? I thought that a person who was truly unafraid of gay men wouldn’t need to run up a banner to declare themselves straight.

I see the matter a little differently now. Perhaps it’s just the passage of time, and the sky hasn’t fallen. Perhaps it’s because I have come to realise just how malleable sexuality can be. Perhaps it’s because I have been happily ensconced in a monogamous relationship with a man for so long now that I am very secure in own identity as a straight woman. Perhaps it’s because New Zealand society as a whole is much more accepting of difference. To me, there is no great import to declaring my sexuality. It just is, and that’s all there is to it.

But of course, I am free to say that, without consequence, because my sexuality is accepted, and acknowledged, and even valorised by our society. What I see now is the great need for people like me, straight, accepted, acknowledged, valorised, to stand up and say that it is important to work to create the same possibilities for all people in our society. Not just say it quietly in the privacy of our homes, but OUT LOUD, in public. There are no consequences for me declaring my sexuality: there can be enormous consequences for the boy in Stratford, the woman in Hokitika, the lad in his first job labouring on a farm, the girl sitting in the pews every Sunday listening to homophobia because her parents make her go to church. We need to shout, as loud as we can, that there is a massive amount of support for gay and lesbian New Zealanders, to have exactly the same rights and privileges as New Zealanders who are straight. A huge number of people who are straight support marriage equality, and support people who are lesbian and gay, just because. And that’s all there is to it.

That’s why I’m part of Straights for Marriage Equality in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s part of the shouting and clamouring and agitating for change.

In a perfect world, I’d be looking for really extensive change to our marriage laws, so that they worked for bisexual and polyamorous people too. But I’m not about to let the perfect defeat the good. While my longterm ideal is for people to be able to form households and homes and marriages in whatever configuration they like, with the support of the state, I will at least support and work for this particular change, that people who are gay or lesbian can enjoy the same rights as people who are straight. It’s a start.

If you’re on Facebook, you might like to like Straights for Marriage Equality in Aotearoa New Zealand.

How may I erase thee? Let me count the ways.

Cross posted

Bouquets and brickbats time, for the New Zealand Listener.

The cover story this week is about weight loss myths. It’s not on-line yet, but if you can buy a dead tree version, it’s worth it. The story is familiar to people who have even a passing acquaintance with the fatosphere and fat acceptance, as I do. The standard points:
– Dieting doesn’t work for the great majority of people (that would be 95% of people).
– Fat seems to be linked to poverty;
– Diabetes and heart disease don’t have a causal relationship with fat, or if there is a causal relationship, it’s a minor one, or it comes about through side effects.
– The death rate for fat people is no better and no worse than the death rate for thin people.
– Health At Every Size (HAES) is the way to go.

So far, so good. The story even ventured into some difficult territory, talking to a woman who had instigated severe diet control, and lost a huge amount of weight, going from size 22 to size 12 through dieting alone. But is she happier?

“… It’s still the same me and in some ways I am happier. There’s no doubt you have more social approval…. but there are things that I miss from when I was a larger woman. I got enormous pleasure from eating and loved to feel as though I could eat when I wanted to eat. That’s a wonderful thing and a wonderful pleasure…” She weighs herself every day and says sometimes she feels that her life is destined to be one “where I hardly eat anything”.

The story works hard against all the myths about weight and weight loss. There’s no alleged “balance” from people think that it’s just a matter of will power and diet. It’s all about debunking the myths. In the mainstream media. That’s fantastic.

But… the writer talked to four people, all of them academics: Andrew Dickson, Linda Bacon, Robyn Longhurst, and Cat Pausé. The printed article had pictures of three of them: Andrew Dickson, Linda Bacon, and Robyn Longhurst. Dr Dickson is a large man. Dr Bacon seems to be of slender to moderate size. Dr Longhurst is slim. Only one largish body in sight, and certainly not a fat body. The only person who was interviewed for the article, and who was not pictured, is a fat person, Dr Cat Pausé. Cat is fat. Not large. Not weighty. Not chunky. Fat.

So as far as the New Zealand Listener is concerned, we can talk about fat, but we can’t picture it. Erasing people who are fat, and hiding them from view, turning fat people into just words, but not whole people with bodies and faces and lives and realities, even in a sympathetic article. Erasure. So many ways to do it.

So here’s a picture of Cat. It’s her signature piece.

Dr Cat Pausé

And here’s a google image search.

Here’s her page at her place of employment.

Here’s a 20/20 segment about fat acceptance in New Zealand, featuring Cat.

And here’s Cat’s reflection on the 20/20 segment on fat acceptance in New Zealand.

My Saturday Night

I’ve been thinking a lot about Constance’s post, and how it actually relates directly to my last Saturday night. And I’ve mulled whether or not I should talk about this, because it’s personal. Repeatedly, though, I’ve found that I’ve managed to get through to people from different backgrounds and mindsets by relating personal experience. It bridges the gap in a way detached theory can’t. I’m going to take the risk. You don’t have to take it with me.

See, I want to go further than Constance.

But when we default to yelling “sexism!” at images of women in submissive sexual positions, I would argue that we are actually being oppressive ourselves.

I agree with this, completely. But I’ll go further. It’s not just oppressive, and erasive, it’s dangerous. Reading BDSM as abuse is dangerous. And to explain why I think that, I’m going to tell you something about my experience of being a female sub in public. And to do that, I’m going to have to reveal what might be the worst-kept secret on the internet.

For the last while, I have been in a Male/female (M/f) Dominant/submissive (D/s) relationship. The scope might be referred to as “in the bedroom”, but that would be misleading. It extends beyond the infliction of pain and the use of restraint in conventionally “sexual” situations, and into psychological submission. When we are together, I am always his sub, and he is always my Dom.

In this relationship, it’s actually never occurred to me to wonder if I am respected or valued or seen as an equal. I know I am. In the past I’ve been sexually and physically abused, and I’ve been in relationships that were psychologically abusive. I know when I’m being abused, and when I’m not. Anyone who wants to suggest I don’t, go right ahead. I have no problem with other people coming across as patronising ignorant fuckwits.

What fascinates me is how other people react to me when they realise I’m a sub. Oddly, there’s significant cross-over with how people react to my bisexuality.

I’m talking about fairly liberal, open-minded, licentious people who are (for the most part) not kinky. People who have spoken to me for the couple of minutes it takes to realise that I know my own mind and speak it. (I don’t really understand why so many vanilla people think subs are weak, and are surprised when they turn out to be strong. You don’t think this takes strength?) On Saturday night, I openly subbed for my Dom at a party. I wore my collar. There was enough “behaviour” for people to realise what I was. Overall, this was an enormous amount of fun for everyone, and something I was massively glad to be allowed to do. And I know some people would be disturbed by the sight of a woman being undressed by a circle of her lover’s friends, but that unease fails to take into account how I felt about it, which should be the most important thing.

There were a couple of times during the night, though, when the reactions were interesting.

Sometimes, just like when I tell people I’m bi, there’s the Jaded Disbelief. My sexuality isn’t real, it’s a put-on, a desperate attention-getting device. (My Dom gets this too, the whole “Oh yeah right” thing.) I’m acting, and if pushed far enough, I will crack, and react like a Normal Person. And that? The urge to make me Prove It? Is dangerous. If people in general both knew and accepted more about BDSM, for a start I wouldn’t have this pain where someone hit me in the small of the back. You know, over my kidney, right next to my spine. Something my Dom would never, ever do because it’s stupid and dangerous. A good Dom knows how to inflict pain without causing damage. He has no desire to cause serious injury, because BDSM is not abuse.

And then, just like when I tell people I’m bi, there’s the Salacious Fetishisation. This guy (it’s almost always a guy) simply can’t believe his eyes. He’s come into this believing it’s not real, and when it turns out to be genuine? He thinks it’s Christmas. The woman is doing what she’s told. She’s enjoying being beaten. He can, therefore, do anything he wants to her. Because he can’t tell BDSM from abuse. And he’s dangerous. If you read BDSM as abuse, you can’t read a boundary between the two, so you’re going to cross it.

Those are the more obvious and serious dangers. But let’s not forget about the quiet sneering, the concern-trolling, the fake pity. The theoretical discussions that erase my experience to my face. The things that ensure I won’t be coming to them for help.

I’m proud of my Dom, who kept me safe in difficult circumstances, who read little shifts in facial expression or small touches to realise when I was uncomfortable and needed rescuing. The nature of our relationship means he shows more active care for me than a vanilla lover would have to, not less.

I’m proud of what I am. It brings me peace and surety: the opposite of the effect of abuse. The nature of our relationship means I need to be stronger than a conventional lover, not weaker.

There are photos of me that perhaps resemble some of those White Ribbon ones. The idea of anyone seeing those as sexist, as abusive, makes me feel sick.

Someone else’s inability to tell the difference between a M/f D/s relationship and a sexist abusive one should be their problem, not mine. Yet that’s not how it works in practise. My life would be easier if more people were at least aware of the possibility that what they’re seeing might be consensual. In the meantime, if you’re really worried, can I suggest quietly coming to me and saying, “Are you all right?” In BDSM circles, we call this a check-in. We do it all the time. And when I say yes? Believe me.

Let Clamour Ring

It’s not often that your opposition tells you exactly what you should do. Even less often it turns out to be a good idea. But, and I can’t really believe I’m saying this, John Key is right.

Yesterday he was asked his opinion on marriage equality. Turns out he doesn’t have one. He’s put as much thought and sense of personal ethics into this as he did the Springbok Tour.

He said he didn’t think there was any “clamour” for gay marriage in New Zealand and it was not on the government’s agenda, NZ Newswire reports.

Got it? No clamour. If we want marriage equality, we need to make some noise about it. And given how often this issue actually makes an impression in the media in New Zealand, we need to do it NOW.

Those in favour of same-sex marriage outnumber those opposed nearly two to one. Yet you’d never guess it from the amount of noise we make. This is our chance to make ourselves heard on an issue that, apparently, our Prime Minister has no strong views about. David Shearer and the Greens are in favour. Peter Dunne wouldn’t comment.

So let’s clamour. Make some noise. Tweet. Facebook. Say you support marriage equality in New Zealand. Use the #clamour hash-tag. Write to Key. Tweet him (@johnkeypm). Go to the marriage equality website and sign up. If you’re in Wellington, Queer the Night is tonight. Go be clamoury there.

I don’t often get hectory. But this isn’t a lot to ask. If you’re in favour of marriage equality, if you think it matters, say something. How can we expect schoolyard bullies to treat us as equals when our government doesn’t?

If you have friends or co-workers or schoolmates who are on the fence or who argue against, try sending them here: if they’ve got an argument I haven’t covered, I want to hear it.

One thing Key has admitted: there are no legitimate arguments against gay marriage. Just a lazy feckless government that doesn’t give a shit. It’s up to us to change their minds. Who else is there?

Towards a Sex-Positive Utopia

Cross-posted from Public Address.

Back when I first started reading feminist bloggage, there was a question I used to see pretty often: the Feminist Utopia Question. Would there be pornography in your feminist utopia? Prostitution?

As a dirty filthy incrementalist, it always kind of annoyed me. What use was it, without considering the steps along the way? Didn’t the very question prioritise ideology over the effects on real people? Wasn’t it just, basically, a big pile of intellectual wank?

Now, though, having been in the game for a while, I’m tempted to give intellectual wankery a try. What would an ideal sex-positive society look like? What would be different, that perhaps is not so obvious? What would have changed along the way?

Before we begin, a word about what sex positivity is, and ridiculously more to the point, what it isn’t. This is my personal interpretation: everyone’s will be slightly different. See herehere, and of course the Chocolate Manifesto.

Sex positivity is not the belief that all people everywhere should have as much dirty dirty sex as possible. The essence of sex positivity is embracing the diversity of human sexuality and gender identity. It’s about actively seeking to remove both shame and privilege from particular kinds of sexual activity – or a lack of sexual activity. It’s about everyone being able to make the sexual choices that are right for them, free of stigma: having the knowledge and the social freedom to do so. It’s about being positive about all sexual choices and the biological bases we make those choices from. And, of course, celebrating the joy of dirty dirty sex.

For a start, in a Sex-Positive Utopia, the Period Planner app on my phone wouldn’t say “love connection”. It would say “sex”. With no stigma around sex, there’d be no need for euphemism. We wouldn’t have to pretend sex was love, or sleep. That wouldn’t mean the loss of magnificent figurative language around sex: rather the opposite. We’d have so many more sexual ideas to explore and discuss.

With the loss of its taboo, sex would actually become less important on a social level. You’d no more use sex to sell a car than you would golf. There’d be no point in policing people’s clothing choices, because no-one would care if you were trying to get laid or not. Worried about losing the specialness? Individuals would still be able to create circumstances that made their sexual experiences sacred, or sordid.

We’d talk openly about sex a lot more, but with less significance. Sexual mores in other times and places would be a simple, matter-of-fact part of History and Social Studies, just like customs of dress and diet. If you were studying Roman History, you’d actually know about this. (Link mildly NSFW – an acronym I wouldn’t need in this future.) Sex education would be about sex, not puberty, and focus on the reason most people have most of their sex: pleasure.

Speaking of school, you know what you wouldn’t find there? Gender-based toilets. Having done away with the assumption that absolutely everyone is either male or female and everyone is straight, there is no fucking point in having Girls’ Toilets and Boys’ Toilets. Ditto changing rooms. And good riddance too, to our earliest introduction to the idea that males and females are mutually-incomprehensible aliens.

Depending on the survey, somewhere between 5 and 15% of people report having experienced same-sex attraction now. Removing the stigma from non-heterosexual sex is hardly going to push that number down. Segregation by gender simply makes no sense at all.

We are never going to stop passing judgement on each other’s relationships. But after the Sexy Revolution, the gender and number of participants and the nature of their sexual practices will be irrelevant. We’ll have to stick to judging relationships by the content of their members’ character.

And yes, there would still be prostitution. Good sex is awesome, and not everyone can get as much as they would like, for many reasons. Some people are good at sex and want to make a living from it. In Sex-Pos Wonderland, we could treat those people with the respect they deserve.

There would still be sexually-explicit imagery. There always has been and there always should be. I just don’t know if you still call it “pornography” when it’s not stigmatised.

We would also have a completely different idea of ‘masculinity’. Our concept of what it means to be male would bear some resemblance to the men we actually know. We’d finally be free of the Masculinity Box. That doesn’t mean automatically rejecting traditionally masculine values. It means including the behaviour and values of all men, until the concept basically becomes meaningless. Having a cock would no longer require or excuse being a cock.

As a result of all of this, of living in a world free of sexual shame and repression, perhaps the two most significant benefits. One: teenage girls would be allowed to direct their sexual energy into sex, rather than One Direction concerts. There goes the screaming and fainting and incoherent babbling. Two: more people would be having more and better sex. Possibly with screaming and fainting and incoherent babbling.

Awesome.

IME

As I have been saying to pretty much everyone I know in every format I can (yes, oral transmission of links is somewhat tricky) please go and read this. I’ll wait here til you get back.

Okay. I’m working on a column on the bisexual-specific aspects of that for Public Address, but there was too much to unpack for just one piece. What I want to talk about here is the tension between theory and personal experience.

Ironically, to explain my attitude to theory, I have to talk a little about my personal experience. I grew up in a poor working-class family in a state-housing neighbourhood and went to what was then a working-class school. Yet my family’s values were very middle-class.

I was the first person in my family to go to university. Others had done tertiary vocational training (teachers’ or technical colleges), but I was the first to get an expensive education without specific purpose. Now, I was already pretty used to being a social chameleon, but boy was uni a squishy comfy couch of unconscious middle-class privilege.

At high school, I’d automatically considered myself a feminist. Who wouldn’t, it was just common sense. At uni, I stopped. And it was because, at base, the theory I saw there didn’t accommodate my experience. Now I’ll admit that I made assumptions. That, for instance, if you were yelling at men for holding doors open for you, you were probably one of those comfortable white straight middle-class girls I was flatting with whose life experience had left them short of actual significant things to complain about. Nevertheless, when I listened to these women talk, there was no sign that socially, romantically or especially sexually, I existed. And there was an awful lot of “women don’t” that quite specifically erased me. So I shut up about my experience, and I walked away.

Now, over the intervening couple of decades, my “experience trumps theory” attitude has somewhat softened. I will still immediately shut down if someone uses the phrase “false consciousness”. I still believe that if your theory is in conflict with the experiences of a bunch of people, then your theory needs amending to have validity and you need to listen and acknowledge that. Theory that is entirely removed from the real world seems to me to be utterly pointless.

But. One of the things I really like about that Huffpo column is the way Emily Dievendorf marries her experience with broader theory, with stats that unite the experiences of large numbers of bisexuals. Detail and big picture. Lots of people have told me how shocked they are by this:

Bisexuals have higher incidences of depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, alcohol and drug abuse, and poor physical health in general than their heterosexual, gay and lesbian counterparts…  Bisexual women with monosexual partners have an increased rate of domestic violence compared to every other female demographic. Compared to lesbians, bisexual women are twice as likely to live in poverty… While lesbians earn 2.7% less than straight men, bisexual women earn nearly 11% less.

Yes, because they’re surprised, but also because they’re responding to an abstract ‘big picture’. For me, what resonates is this:

I’m currently dating a man. I refuse to hide him because being in a relationship with him is part of who I am. If asked about my sexuality I would expect him to answer without pause that I identify as bi. Still…  I feel like a traitor, I feel like I took the easy way out, I feel like I’m not relating and might, therefore, not be able to represent the queer community.

A couple of years ago I was at my book launch in Auckland, and a woman came up to me. She explained that she was related to a friend of mine, and then she said, “I hear you’re Family.”

After the minute I spent working out that she didn’t mean biological family, I said, remembering experiences with ‘LGBT’ community at uni, “Well, I’m bisexual.”

She made a sort of dismissive snorting noise and said, “You’re Family.” I nearly bloody cried. (Yes, of course I had been drinking.)

The thing with the abstract, the stats, is that they can seem so big and so overwhelming they make us feel helpless. Yes, I can make people more aware that actually, the mental picture people have of happy extroverted sexually-voracious bisexuals isn’t accurate, I can do Awareness. But each and every one of us can change the balance of a person’s individual experience. Listening, genuinely listening, to people whose experience contradicts our theory is a great place to start.

Since when does a guideline become a rigid rule?

Cross posted

More on breastfeeding, and how those silly naughty mothers are just wilfully doing the wrong thing. This time it’s an article in the NZ Herald, coming out of the “Growing up in New Zealand case study”: NZ mums ignoring breast feeding advice.

An official guideline that babies should be fed only breast milk for their first six months is being challenged after a study of almost 7000 babies found the vast majority of mothers ignore it.

The director of the study, Dr Susan Morton, runs through some of the reasons for many mothers not breast feeding exclusively for six months, including the pressures of work, and the reality that in our developed first world nation, the water supply is reliable. She points out that the directive for women to breast feed exclusively for six months sets many women up for failure.

That seems to me to be a useful way to reflect on the advice handed out so freely to new parents. Instead of always pushing the ideal, let’s think about the practical realities, and see if we can develop guidelines, and support to help parents to with achieving the goals of the guidelines.

But the Children’s Commissioner is having none of that.

But the Ministry of Health and Children’s Commissioner Dr Russell Wills are standing by the official guidelines. Dr Wills said Dr Morton’s comments reflected a classic “authority’s dilemma”.

“What should authorities advise when what good science says is best for baby is not what most parents do?” he asked.

“If you compromise and say that something is fine when it’s not, you are misrepresenting the science and selling parents short.”

Hmm… let’s focus on that word, “authorities”. Yes, people can be authorities, and experts in their field, and someone that other people turn to for advice. But the way that advice is translated into practice often turns into on-going policing of parents, and in particular, women, and instead of being a guideline, the advice becomes a rigid rule.

Let me tell you a story. When my younger daughters were tiny, my Plunket nurse kept up home visits for a long time. For people overseas, Plunket is a child-health service, designed to support new parents and babies and young children. In the first few weeks after your baby is born, a Plunket nurse will visit you in your home, and offer you advice and assistance.

My Plunket nurse was, for the most part, excellent. She was unintrusive, she quietly made some very helpful suggestions about how I could manage my infant twins, and she had her eye on my elder daughter too. Of course, I would find it all comparatively easy having a visiting nurse in my home, because I am white and middle-class, and any judgements she was making were likely to be positive. I felt assisted, not assessed.

But one thing puzzled me. By the time my little girls were about 18 months old, they were fully weaned, and drinking cows’ milk. Not a lot, because they weren’t big milk drinkers. One little girl was drinking about 400mls a day, and the other about 500mls. “You should really try to get them up to 600mls,” the Plunket nurse said. “That’s the official guideline.”

Then, “What about your elder daughter?” At that time she was aged about four, and she was drinking somewhere between 800mls and 1,000mls a day.

“Too much!” said the nurse. “She should only be drinking 600mls a day.”

So it turned out that in my Plunket nurse’s mind, what was supposed to be a guideline was in fact a rigid rule. Children should drink 600mls of milk a day, no more and no less.

This to me is a large part of the problem with the rules about breastfeeding. What is intended to be a guideline is interpreted as a rigid rule, with no flexibility for the needs of the individual baby, nor for women’s and families’ varying circumstances.

I think that the “authorities” need to engage a little more with the realities of women’s lives, instead of turning guidelines into hard and fast rules, and then wondering why women ignore them.

Pearl clutching

Apparently The Lady Garden is just too full of naughty words for some people, so there are places where we are blocked. McDonald’s doesn’t like us, and neither does the CentralCiti FreeWiFi in Palmerston North. Out of idle Friday afternoon interest, where else have people found that they are not allowed to access our lovely mix of feminism and sex positivism?