Saturday, February 28, 2015

Sexism and Sexual Assault

I've started to wonder whether rape is worse in our society than it might otherwise be because of how we view sex. So imagine a group of pre-linguistic humans (yes, homo sapiens existed for a very long time without language) who are hunter-gatherers: they have a community and community rules, but fewer ways of enforcing those rules than we do now, and less severe consequences. Actually, you could probably just picture a group of chimps and get more or less the same idea how social dynamics would work in a group of inherently intelligent and social beings who lack language.

Now, let's try to separate out things that are inherently bad about rape from things that are culturally bad about rape. I would imagine that in this group of pre-linguistic humans, rape would still be awful, because it's 1) physical assault, often painful, and 2) could possibly get you pregnant with the child of someone whose baby you did not want. This #2 is almost the same thing as pointing out that you should be able to choose your sexual partners, since birth control did not used to exist, and people choose sexual partners (attractiveness based on pheromones, immune system compatibility, traits that make one a good mate like being able to bring home the bacon, being kind, etc) in very similar ways to how they choose parents for their children. Possibly we could include a 3) Violation of personal choice in a very intimate, traumatizing way, but I would argue that this is probably more cultural and less innate.

What affects cultural attitudes about rape? For one thing, sex is shameful in our Western, puritanical culture. This makes a whole bunch of things more shameful than they might “naturally” be, with such concepts as shaming girls who like to have lots of sex as “sluts,” and, at best, relegating sex to something sacred and only to be shared with serious, long-term significant others, or after marriage. So this makes rape more shameful, too – rape survivors are sometimes seen as dirty or soiled, and there's a stigma against even admitting that one has been a victim of rape.

Why this stigma? I suggest that there are three parts to it: the first part I'll just say is unexplainable and stupid (simply because I think it's more complicated than my other two points alone). Society doesn't stigmatize being the victim of other crimes, so maybe it's just part of our many weird attitudes about sex. Part two is that people (often subconsciously) blame the victim for not standing up for themselves, with a thought processes of roughly “Well, if I were in that situation, I would do everything possible to get out of it, like kicking him in the balls, running away, and calling the police.” This view ignores the fact that most rape is more complicated than that: it is most often not a scary stranger man jumping out of the bushes at night, but is done by friends and boyfriends, people you wouldn't want to hurt or have arrested even if they're being coercive, plying you with drinks, or being oddly aggressive. Maybe the victims would wish after the fact that they had stood up for themselves more, but in the moment few people would have the instinct to kick your good friend in the balls. All I will say about that is I don't think any of us have the right to say how we would act in that situation unless we've actually been there. (By the way, this part of the stigma would explain why even fewer male victims report the crime than women. The fact that I'm primarily talking about women in this post doesn't mean I'm trying to ignore male victims here!)

Part 3 of my explanation for the stigma is that rape victims seem to be required by society to be perfectly pure, virginal, desire-less beings in order for anyone to accept that they did not, in fact, “want it.” (I have some texts from my GWS class I could cite, if anyone is curious.) Rape cases are rarely taken to court, but when they are, victims are questioned along the lines of “But you were kissing him earlier.” “Why did you go to the railroad tracks with him if you didn't want to have sex with him?” “But you said in this facebook correspondence that you 'love bjs' so clearly you like sex. How can you prove you didn't want it?” etc. Essentially, as soon as one admits that a woman has sexuality/desires (not something that our culture does), she loses the right to choose who she wants to have sex with, because clearly if you like sex, all sex is good, right? Logic. So rape victims are generally seen, at least in some – often unspoken – way, as dirty because they “wanted it”.

On a more broad and direct level (okay, I'm adding a part 4), it might be shameful just because of the overall stigma against sex. If sex is taboo and shameful, and people who have sex are dirty or shameful people, then rape victims, prostitutes, “sluts” (see above: this is just a derogatory term for women who like sex, which shouldn't be derogatory at all), and anybody else who has sex before marriage are all grouped into the same category, a very broad and meaningless category one could fall into via very, very different situations.

This stigma probably makes sex seem even more intimate than it already is. Naturally, it is intimate because having sex with someone could result in having their child, so we're programmed to be somewhat selective about it. But there's no inherent reason the organs under our clothes should be so taboo, and I'm fairly certain in any hunter-gatherer culture they would be far less taboo if not completely acceptable. Therefore, if we've made holy temples out of our nether regions, to be shared with only a select few, doesn't that make the invasion of that space even worse than other kinds of assault on less taboo places? Isn't that what separates rape from other kinds of assault and taking without permission, like mugging someone or beating them up? By this reasoning, rape in our pre-linguistic society would still be worse than mugging or being beaten up, because there is some inherent intimacy to sex, but would not be worse by as much as it is today.

Let's all agree that rape is inherently bad and should be avoided by all costs because it's very damaging to a lot of people for some natural reasons and some cultural reasons. (This is the sentence I will direct you to if anyone starts screaming about how I don't understand how horrible rape is and how could I possibly say any of this.) Now that that's been said, doesn't it seem like ending slut-shaming and being a sex-positive culture would actually help rape victims immensely, even if it doesn't stop rape? This is not a very conventional way to link these two different feminist issues, but I think they're incredibly related and that gives us even more cause to fight for both at the same time. And as one last side-note in a post riddled with parenthetical clauses, increasing sex-positivity would likely decrease rates of rape, because girls are pressured into denying wanting sex, which might make some men pay less attention to explicit consent. Essentially, because it's hard for girls to say “yes” since they aren't supposed to want sex, that makes consent seem fuzzier, and sometimes “no” is interpreted as playing hard to get, or being coy “like women do”. If we manage to be more sex-positive as a culture, and educate people openly about their choices instead of treating it as a shameful taboo, then I hypothesize that it would not only be awesome in many other ways, but would also decrease rates of rape and sexual assault AND make the experience (specifically, the aftermath) of rape less horrible and traumatizing for women. Naturally, I would much rather stop rape entirely – but just because one hopes to find a cure for cancer doesn't mean we should stop trying to find ways to manage and treat it.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Growing Up

I've always hated it when people talk about childhood or the teenage years as this utopia of carefree, responsibility-less playtime. “Oh, I miss the good old days when I didn't have to worry about job security, taxes, rent...” they say wistfully, gazing off into the distance, presumably imagining running naked through a field of daises as a happy 9-year-old. But I've always wanted to be older, wanted to have responsibilities and be treated like I knew what I was talking about, wanted the freedom to choose what to do with myself, to choose what to study and where to travel and live by my own rules. I think I knew the word “patronize” by the time I was 7 and would tell adults not to patronize me if they crouched down and talked to me like... well, like one usually talks to a 7-year-old. So I longed to be bigger, older, wiser and more respected. (Not yet knowing, of course, that small blonde women have trouble being listened to throughout their entire lives.)

In middle school I wanted nothing more than to be out of middle school. A reasonable desire. I still would, if I were there. Let's not linger on those years. In high school, things were starting to look up, but I still wanted to get out – away from my school, from home, from my state, my country even. I wanted to see the world and be independent. I got my wish, in some ways, by going abroad, though I wasn't given as much independence as I had had in my parents' household. And now college. The fledgling eagle stage, where I can leave the nest and fly, but still rely on my parents and am not quite a “real adult”, whatever that means.

Fledgling eagles are ugly birds

The things we worry about change as we age. I'm happier now than I've ever been, and dHappiness/dt seems to be a large positive number, at least as far as I know from t 19. (For those of you who just cringed, that was indeed the first way I thought of to say that happiness seems to increase over time.) That being said, I can understand why people think that to be young is to be carefree. Worrying about work, taxes, rent, insurance, etc. IS really stressful sometimes, and people forget the different pressures that they had when they were younger (figuring out social situations, grades, parental expectations, different worries about the future like college/student loans/asking that girl to prom, driver's tests, etc etc). Maybe they forget because they blocked it out – I know I blocked out large portions of my middle school experience! But legitimately, the much patronized youth have no way of understanding the different stresses their parents and other adults are under, and that's what I think adults are trying to say when they claim that the youth have it easy. They're trying to point out how much pressure they themselves are under, and so they do that by belittling the pressures of others. Just like how some people try to boost themselves up socially by putting others down (not a recommended strategy, by the way).

Slight tangent alert (it will all come full-circle, I promise). Anxieties that keep you up at night aren't always rational. Some of my brain's favorite things to do have at various times included: 1) Worrying about the fact that I wouldn't know right away if one of my close family members or friends died while I'm lying there in bed, 2) Worrying about every single conversation I've had during the day, and how I or the other person(s) involved could have misinterpreted the things that were said, 3) Worrying that there's something very important I needed to do that day, that I forgot to do, 4) Worrying that my excessive tendency to worry about things at night will keep me from getting enough sleep, causing me to perform poorly in classes, sports, and social events (talk about ironic), 5) Worrying about the future, and what I want to be doing 5 years from now, and a great many more. I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that other people also have this experience from time to time, and that I'm not just exposing myself as a horribly neurotic and anxious individual.

I had a very strange experience a few nights ago which actually inspired me to write a little about this. I couldn't sleep because I was thinking about my insurance, which I have taken upon myself to be responsible for. Now that I'm out-of-state and not on my parents' plan, I had to apply for insurance (thanks, Obamacare!) with all the convoluted paperwork involved, and it was generally not a fun experience, and one of those things that makes adults complain about how easy kids have it. In any case, it did actually work, so I should get my “Almost a Real Adult” card in the mail any day now. But I was up worrying because I realized I didn't actually know how it worked. If I got a spinal injury playing frisbee and went to the hospital, which hospital should I go to? Does it matter? Am I sure that all my paperwork is good to go, and I wouldn't be stuck with some ridiculous $40k hospital bill, because the US medical system is STUPID? Do I have copays? Holy crap, there's so many things I don't know and that's scary! (Don't worry, I have since taken it upon myself to find the answers to all of these things.) Point is, insurance is never something I would have stayed up thinking about a few years ago. So yes, there is some validity to adults' complaints.

But that got me thinking. What did I worry about in elementary, middle, or even high school that I don't worry about now? What kept me up at night then? Easy enough to answer: When you're very young, you worry about monsters in the closet, or if you're morbid like me, you worried about what would happen if Mommy and Daddy were killed by the monsters in the closet, or died for some other reason, and you were left all alone. In middle school, I worried about being sad and not knowing why I was sad, being more socially anxious than I am now, wondering why I felt so different and if things would ever change. Worrying about all the crazy changes happening to your pubescent body, and the unbalanced levels of hormones in your brain. And maybe the occasional worry about what a particular boy thought of me, worrying about my appearance and whether I was likeable and whether anyone would ever “like like” me. In high school, I worried about grades and college applications and what I wanted to do with my life, if I would ever have all the necessary skills to live on my own, not to mention many of the same worries from middle school (boys, girls, friends, relationships, appearances, and the inevitable social hierarchy of schools). There are very few of these that I still worry about now, and for that, I am grateful beyond words!

So I hope by now you're all convinced that people of all ages have stress. What else plays a role? Well, the things that younger people are stressed about aren't things they can change easily. They have little to no choice in school, rapid and awkward changes in their bodies, the social hierarchy, who they live with, how they spend their time, and really most other aspects of their lives. Being a kid sucks because for the most part, kids are powerless.

Adults don't always have free choice either. You need a job to pay rent, buy food, and have money, you need to finish education to get a job, and you need money to get an education, which is circular and difficult. Let's not even talk about if you're married and have kids, in which case you have far more obligations and I rest my case entirely. But you do still have a lot more say. You get to decide what you want to study and what job you want to have. Not all jobs make the same amount of money, but you get to decide that too: how important is money to you? If it's very important, you can be a programmer, a lawyer, a dentist or a doctor, an engineer, or many other things – you still have a wide range of choices for things that satisfy that value. If money is a lower priority, maybe a passion like art is a higher one, and you'd rather become a graphic designer knowing that you might have to live with roommates, travel less, and watch your expenses more closely. You get to choose your job, where to live, who to live with and spend time with, and so so many other things! You lucky adult you, on your path to the life of your own choosing. People forget how much say they have in their lives. And often people lose track of their priorities, and they work hard to get through med school because they think the prestige of being a doctor is a top value for them, and eventually they realize prestige won't make them happy and they have to re-evaluate what they want out of life and work towards a new goal. That happens. And it's unfortunate that we feel the pressure of other people's expectations so highly that we study for jobs we don't actually want, but in the end, it's on us to do a little soul-searching and figure out what we really want to be doing with our lives, because lucky us! We have the power to make those decisions! Wow, that's awesome!

Despite spending a full page talking about my various neuroses, I'm a fairly optimistic person, and the point of this whole meandering post is really just to say: look, you're an adult and you have responsibilities that are sometimes stressful, but you have a lot to be thankful for. And would you really rather be 13? No, I didn't think so. So stop telling people younger than you that they have it so good, and start appreciating what you have now that you didn't have before! I believe my father when he says that every year is better than the last, and every wrinkle is earned and not regretted, and that is how I want to live my life.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Things I learned about sports (and lots of gooey sentiments)

I wrote this at the end of last year in honor of fencing and frisbee and how much they've done for me, but I never ended up finishing it. Here it is now, finished and edited... although I'm sure I will add more things to this list as I continue learning things about sports.

Things I've learned from sports from freshman year:

1) It doesn't matter what it is, but do it.

Have you ever loved something so much it hurts? Something you just wanted to throw yourself into completely out of love for the thing and the people and the everything about it? I think a lot of people had at least one of those in high school. For me it was musical theater, and at least for a little while, marching band. Thinking about putting on a show in theater or performing a “golden show” in competition for band made my belly ache just thinking about it, I wanted it so much. All my friends were in band, and my few friends who weren't soon dropped out of my life because I didn't have time to spend with them and all I wanted to talk about was music, anyway. I considered majoring in music my sophomore year. I didn't tell anyone, because I was embarrassed to be considering the prospect when I wasn't really good enough to make it work. But it was an obsession and an addiction and my whole life, and I couldn't imagine not centering my life on music.

I fully intended to join a band in college, but it didn't happen. Somewhere between my two sports and classes and meeting new people and having exciting new experiences, I didn't make time for it. But the full force of my slightly obsessive personality is now fixated on sports. To a certain extent, it doesn't matter what you do – if you have a passion for music, sports, theater, art, fantasy, gay rights, video games, etc etc – all that matters is that you do something and throw yourself into it and love it. I couldn't imagine living without music, but I also love sports and it was easier than I would have thought to give up music by replacing it with frisbee and fencing.

So if I ramble constantly about fencing and tell you fencing jokes and “this one time at a tournament” stories and won't shut up about how boss my frisbee team is, please forgive me. I fell in love.

2) You are capable of so much more than you think. Confidence is everything.

I've run track and cross-country, did marching band, and played frisbee for years. I'm no stranger to exercise. But being on Bella Donna (my frisbee team) has been the most demanding sport I've been a part of. 2 workouts a week, 1 practice a week, 2 weight-lifting sessions a week when we managed it, tournaments every weekend in March and April, and all those nights practicing until midnight in the Shell made for a difficult year. It was difficult with respect to time-management, balancing practice with fencing and classes and homework and studying and sleep and eating and a social life often seemed impossible, and sometimes I slipped up and and fell behind (usually with sleep and studying).

It was difficult physically – I don't think there's a single girl on our team who went uninjured all season. Working out and playing that much take their toll on your body, but it felt like disappointing the team to be injured, so most of us would suck it up and play through minor injuries like pulled muscles and rolled ankles, only taking time out if absolutely necessary. Most days I had 2 hours of fencing practice, an hour break during which I would sometimes but not always get the chance to eat dinner, and then either an hour-and-a-half workout or a 3-hour practice for frisbee. Sometimes I would watch the clock creep closer and closer to midnight, just wishing I could go home and catch up on sleep and rest my aching muscles.

There was a period of time in early spring semester when I didn't put much enthusiasm into either sport, and I'm a little bit ashamed of that now. Because what I've learned is that even when you think you're exhausted, that's just your brain. Your body is a remarkable thing and is way more resilient than you think it is. During your 4th game on a Sunday of a hard tournament, you can simply convince yourself that you have more in you, and voilà! Somehow it's there. If my girl is running deep, I used to believe that she was faster and let her beat me, but rather recently I've discovered that I'm faster than I thought, and if I go in with a head full of confident arrogance and a heart full of belief in myself, I can almost always beat her. During my 6th workout in 3 days when I'm feeling worn down and dispirited, I can just tell myself that I'm excited about it and still have plenty of energy, and somehow I always do. Why waste time believing you have limits when your body hasn't given up yet?

This belief in oneself, this confidence, is also a huge factor in fencing. One of my foil mentors (hey Stephen!) likes to tell me I fence too timidly, which cracks me up because I'm an incredibly aggressive fencer as long as I stay in control of the bout. (He is right, though – as soon as the other person takes control of the bout and puts me on defense, I lose confidence and my limited ability to plan ahead.) But I will unashamedly brag about how well I did at club nationals in Tennessee, because I decided I was going to be a boss and scare the crap out of every girl I faced on the strip, and surprisingly it worked! My strategy is to be fast and aggressive and scare them until I hit them with my incredibly large lunge that they really should have parried if they weren't so intimidated. Against better fencers, this wouldn't work at all, but apparently this is good enough for club level fencing.

On a more philosophical note, it is my experience and my belief that people become what you expect them to be. If you treat someone like a criminal and a delinquent, there's a darn good chance they'll act like one. In high school I would get in trouble for breaking rules that I only broke in spirit, like getting disciplined for “ditching class” when I really only ditched school rallies because I hated that we were required to go to them. They had strict rules precisely because they expected us to push the limits and break all of them, and so I did. While on the other extreme, my parents treated me like I was a responsible, independent adult capable of making rational decisions from about age 12 or so. I can't even imagine how horrible it would be to let them down, since they believe that I'm a better person than I really am. So I try to live up to their expectations, and when I fail, it hurts and sometimes I try to hide it. So whatever you want people to be like? Treat them like they already are as kind, responsible, etc as you expect them to be, and hopefully it will push them in the right direction. Expectation is powerful, and I don't know which is more powerful: the effect other people's expectations have on you, or your own. But your own are far easier to hack. So go believe yourself into being good at math, sports, music, languages, and especially people skills. I believe it works for all of these.

3) Your teammates might just be the most influential people you'll meet.

It's hard to just generate confidence on your own though. A lot of us don't believe in ourselves and can't just start with a snap of the fingers. That's where the sidelines come in. On Bella, we really emphasize the importance of the “8th man on the field”: the players on the sideline. This is useful for practical and strategic reasons (telling the defensive players where the disc is and where they can be to play most effectively, for example) but also to give you the much-needed confidence boost when your fuel tanks are flagging and you don't believe you're fast anymore. You need people to believe in you for you sometimes, and for me that takes the form of my weight-lifting buddy Romy screaming her head off at me on the sidelines telling me “You're so fast, Ikwe! Deeeep! DEEEEEP!”. Or it's our coach Robyn sobbing after a point with too many turnovers to count in the most important game of our season, because she believes in us so much and was so overwhelmed with pride that we stuck it out and won the point. It's standing in a huddle, looking around at the determined faces of your teammates, knowing there is no one you'd rather play with, because we believe in ourselves and each other and we've worked so hard together to learn that trust. Being a part of a team is a powerful feeling. It makes you better AND it's the single most rewarding thing about playing a sport.

I've met so many amazing people through sports. They've inspired me and changed me and I feel incredibly lucky to know them. I was consistently humbled by the dedication and fire of the senior players on Bella (Forty, I'm looking at you) who never seem to lose intensity and are always working to become the best players they can be. My fellow new players learned the same lessons I did this year about time-management and pushing through pain and fatigue, and we've lived the same struggles and figured them out together. As for fencing, well, I owe everything to the senior foilists on the team. We have a coach, but he can't teach us all individually, so it's no exaggeration to say everything I've learned about fencing is thanks to David, Stephen, and Ruby. They gave up so much of their practice time to teach me, and were somehow patient through the frustrations of learning how to treat a thin piece of metal as an extension of your arm which is in turn an extension of the wire springs that are a fencer's legs. And we got to know each other, somehow we all became best friends. I guess fencing attracts a certain kind of personality, quirky and interesting and intelligent and kind. All I know is I could spend all day talking about how cool my fencing friends are, Stephen who's like a brother to me, Victoria who's a 500% nicer version of me, Foil-Mama David, Tommy who crushes lizard skulls in his free time, Sean the adorably neurotic punk, I could go on and on. What a cast of characters. There should be a reality TV show about us. Anyway, I didn't mean to go on and on about my friends because that's not very interesting to read about, but the point of all of this was that when you play sports, you become close with your teammates which is the best way of making friends I've found so far. And I am a very different person thanks to the people I met last year and my relationships with them.

4) You belong on the field.

In organized sports, everyone has a role. In frisbee, you're a handler or a cutter. No matter where you are on the field, you know what your job is. If you're a chaser, you look to open a window deep and then come under either as a continue or as a cut if the shots did not get open. (Yes, I realize this means nothing to you if you don't play frisbee.) On defense you're even more necessary. If it's man-on-man defense, you have to follow your girl, and if you don't do that, in all likelihood she'll score and that point is all your fault. In zone defense you're responsible for an area of the field, and not doing that makes the rest of the defense fall apart. My point is, you are necessary when you're on the field. You can't hang back because you think the other people on your team will do a better job. You know what you need to do and your team is relying on you to do it.

My coach Robyn mentioned an article that I can't seem to find right now talking about how women's sports (and specifically Ultimate) are so important because they teach women to be unafraid of their bodies, unafraid to take up space and be physical and use what they've got. All too often I see girls who try to take up the least amount of space possible. If they're tall, they stoop a little in embarrassment. They weave through crowds where large men usually just walk straight and people move aside for them. I experimented recently with not moving out of my way for people on sidewalks, just to see what would happen. I got ran into a lot and got some surprised looks, and eventually figured out a technique of walking with squared shoulders, head up, and looking people in the eyes that somehow made people step aside for me. This is why girls should play frisbee. Take up space! Box your girl out, and run as aggressively as you can in her space without making it a foul. I saw this at camp this summer too – when girls don't have mirrors for 4 weeks and are forbidden from using makeup or wearing pretty clothes by the circumstances they're in, somehow they become more comfortable with their bodies. They get muscle from canoeing, they get pride from portaging canoes on their head, and they get respect for how hard they work. They're worth what they can carry, what they can do to help, and how they contribute to the group, not what they look like. (Incidentally, one of my favorite parts of being a counselor was getting to break the mirrors off the port-a-potties so they wouldn't see themselves for 4 weeks. 21 years of bad luck here I come!!)

I want everyone to feel like they belong in whatever space they're occupying. Sometimes I'm on the field not knowing where to cut or how to help, but my goal now is to just cut more until I figure out how to do it better. By not participating, you're hurting your team, so get out there and be a presence on the field. You belong in your space. Own it.

So go out and play a sport. You might learn something. I learn something every single practice, and it's an amazing feeling.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


I haven't written at all this summer, and I have a lot of things to write about and don't quite know where to start. I finished freshman year, did lifeguard training, became a Voyageur camp counselor, chilled in Minneapolis and then the North Woods near Minocqua, came home, and went backpacking in the Emigrant Wilderness. It was a summer of laughter, love, learning, and lots of other clichés. I went looking for myself and found me in the woods where I belong. I learned that the most rewarding thing I could be doing is teaching high schoolers how to camp and appreciate the wilderness like I do, teaching them how to take care of themselves, be responsible, and have the confidence and maturity of the young adults they are becoming.

Being a camp counselor was a crazy and wonderful experience. I've always loved French camp, but I love it even more now. It changed my life and gave me a sense of self-worth when I was 14 and didn't love myself, showed me that I had valuable skills and interesting things to learn from interesting people. And that makes it very powerful for me to see that change happening in others. My family knows – when I came home all I could talk about was my campers, how cool they were and how much they learned and how proud I am. It's an intoxicating feeling, especially for someone only a few years older than they are, who's never experienced being a teacher before.

I'm still undecided; I don't have a major yet and don't plan on choosing one soon because I'm still exploring. But if I could be a camp counselor all year round, I would. I'm starting to look at outdoor schools and alternative education programs in the woods, because I believe so strongly in the good it does. I don't want to be a teacher because I don't want to sit in a classroom all day, but I do want to teach kids and see their confidence grow and watch them get better at French, or being responsible, or lighting campfires. We'll see where this takes me, but I've been waiting and waiting to see what I feel called to do, where my passion lies... and if there's anything I'm passionate about, it's this. I struggle with the idea of not doing something more academic, that the child of my brilliant parents “should” be doing, but on the other hand, I know that teaching makes a difference in the world, and in the end that's what I want.

Enough of pondering what to do with my life; I still have time before I have to decide anything. So camp was full of glorious sunrises and sunsets, cold Northern lakes and sun-warmed granite, beaches that disappeared under 5 feet of extra water and trees drowning in the record flooding, learning how to teach, loons, and sleepless nights packing equipment and writing blog posts. (I'm the blogmaster at camp! Here it is: (link) But I'm not responsible for all those 2nd session posts, so read everything earlier than July 22nd to get the stuff I worked on!) We had an amazing staff who are all very close to my heart, and amazing kids who worked hard, learned a ton of French, and suffered admirably through mosquitoes, cold nights, broken canoes, and last-minute changes of plan like always happen at Voyageurs. After one week of staff training and four weeks of campers, I left for Minneapolis, hung out with family, and ran my first 5k. I “trained” briefly with my cousin, meaning we went on a total of two runs, and then matched each other neck-and-neck during the whole race, finishing 15th and 16th place with the same time of 23:08. (That's a 7:27 mile time, and I was the 3rd woman to finish! Yes I almost threw up after the race... worth it!) I think 5k is a great distance for me and I'd like to run more of them and improve my time. My dad and Grace ran it too, and did pretty well. My dad finished 2nd in the 60+ category and was mad at the one 60-year-old who had the nerve to beat him.

Then I headed up to Minocqua with family, and had a week of relaxing at the cabin, running and swimming across the lake every day. My aunt is an amazing cook and spoils us rotten, so even though the cabin sounds like a rustic place, it's actually the height of luxury. Still, I was glad to get home, see friends, and play pickup Frisbee again.

But I can't stay out of the woods for long. I was invited by my good friend Tim to go on an “advanced” backpacking trip in the Emigrant Wilderness with 3 other experienced backpackers. I was the wild card; I had never gone backpacking with any of them before, but Tim assumed I could keep up because of the sports I play and my experiences backpacking and canoeing. What I wasn't used to was being the slowest one of the group. This crew was intense. We took plenty of long breaks, so much so that it felt practically leisurely, but when we were on the trail we hiked fast and covered a lot of terrain. A typical backpacking day that I'd plan for with my family or less experienced friends would be about 7 miles – that sounds short, but miles are different when you're at altitude, have to change elevation, carry a heavy pack, and are on rugged terrain. We were doing 11 mile days and still had so much daylight left over that we'd spend hours just lying in alpine meadows or swimming in granite lakes.

Excerpts from my journal: (August 19) “We broke out of the rocky stark mountains and came upon this beautiful high meadow, a plateau covered in green grass and abundantly strewn with wildflowers – Indian paintbrush, lupin, and many more I didn't recognize. Turning around we had a view of the granite peaks we just climbed, stark against the blue sky, and turning south to where we were headed, we could see a grey thundercloud starting to form. It was one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, with so many different kinds of beauty juxtaposed. So we hiked into the thundercloud that awaited us....” Fortunately we got our tents up before the skies opened up too much.

(20 August) “It rained during the night and everything was wet, but we were still without water, so we decided to eat breakfast at the next water source and dry out our tents then. So off we went, through a meadow strewn with dew. Everything was in miniature, from the stunted pine trees to the tiny perfect flowers and blades of grass, beaded with water so each was translucent and sparkling in the morning sun. It makes you lose your sense of size, like you're a giant in a world of dwarf plants. Four miles later, we finally stopped to eat breakfast at Deer Lake...” That night there was a beautiful sunset and then a sky so clear and star-strewn that it was hard to pick out constellations because there were too many stars. We stayed up late just looking at the sky and making our own constellations. The next morning there was frost on the ground.

On Thursday we hiked cross-country to Snow Lake, following an unmaintained trail which we lost halfway over a mountain. Going up was fun, hopping from boulder to boulder, and finally standing on top of the peak and seeing the view all the way down the long valley to Huckleberry Lake in the distance, spreading our arms and shouting “I AM ON TOP OF THE WORLD!” into the wind. But the way down the other side was tough on my knees and Kate's and Tim's ankles. So our “short day” didn't feel very short, because hiking cross-country is a horse of a different color.

The last two days were less beautiful and more strenuous. We were above the treeline for much of it, hiking at high altitudes which made our hands puffy and our faces windburned. The wind was enough to drive anyone mad, especially on Friday when we hiked over Big Sam and had to walk with a wide stance and bent knees to avoid being blown off the mountain. Even during the evening while we were cooking dinner at Leavitt Lake the wind howled mercilessly around us, making it a cold and haunting place to be. When it finally died down a couple hours after sunset we were incredibly grateful to be able to sleep in silence and warmth. On Saturday we hiked out of Sonora Pass, and Tim and I hitchhiked back to Kennedy Meadows to get our car. My first experience with hitchhiking was an astonishingly easy one: literally the first car that was going in the right direction stopped to pick us up, two nice old guys who were happy to give us a lift all the way to the parking lot where we left the car.

I feel humbled and accomplished at the same time to have done this 55 mile week with backpackers who could leave me in the dust. I would go again in a heartbeat, but it's a good reminder for me that you can do a lot more than you think you can, and that you're not the most hardcore person out there just because you go camping a lot.

How did summer go by so quickly? I don't feel ready to go back to classes yet. I do feel ready to see my friends in Madison, get back to fencing and back to my frisbee team. But I wasn't ready to leave home. There's some very special people in Sunnyvale who I'm going to miss a lot more than I'd like to admit. So here I am on an airplane somewhere over the middle of the country, sleep-deprived because I stayed up late packing, a little buzzed on caffeine, writing about how great my summer was and confused about whether my eyes are wet from happiness or sadness. All I can say is I hope this semester goes as well as summer did, because this summer was perfect.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Staying Silent

Someone I look up to and respect very much told me when I was fairly young about being groped and dry-humped in the Paris subway, and keeping quiet because of not wanting to make a fuss. I remember saying that I thought that was silly, that I wouldn't hesitate to scream and would turn around and try to punch the slimy bastard. She said something along the lines of “Good for you. A little assertiveness will serve you well, and I'm glad you have no inhibitions about that.” I thought it was silly that anyone would have inhibitions about getting a creep away from you.

Now, I have had a normal amount of interaction with creeps on busses or at frats, though I hesitate to use the word “normal” because normal ought to be zero. But it isn't. “1 out of every 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime” (more stats) and I would be surprised if any of my peers (young college age women) have not had some point been harassed, groped, or otherwise objectified without permission. (Side note: I have also read statistics saying that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted during their 4 years at college, which is both a higher percentage and a shorter time period than this statistic from RAINN. I don't know which is more accurate, though the discrepancy probably stems from broader or narrower definitions of sexual assault. Either way it's a lot.)

Now, rates of sexual assault have been falling in recent years, which is great, but it remains a huge problem. Look around a classroom full of people, or a supermarket if you're not a student, and realize just how many 1 in 6 is. It also remains a highly unreported problem. 60% of rapes go unreported to the police. Why is this? I can think of several reasons.

  1. Even when reported, rapists rarely spend time in jail. Maybe victims feel that it isn't worth it to go through the trouble when they probably won't succeed in putting the rapist behind bars anyway.
  2. About 2/3 of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. Maybe the victims feel that it isn't worth the pain of further destroying whatever relationship they had, or complicating relationships with other friends or family who would have to pick sides. Since the assault already happened, they probably imagine that it's less destructive just to ignore it and not make any more waves, since there's no undoing what has been done.
  3. On a related note, many victims probably feel that their assaulter does not deserve the full consequences of being tried for rape, or that their accusation wouldn't hold up in court, since many cases are more like cajoling women into sex rather than outright violence. Many rapists did not intend to harm the victim and did not consider it rape, which is no excuse but means that women are less likely to report men they don't see as malicious.
  4. Trauma. It goes without saying that rape or sexual assault can be highly traumatic, and simply not wanting to relive the event could drive people to not report it. Many people deal with trauma by trying to forget that it happened.
  5. Most people have this idea of rape being committed by a stranger and being fairly violent, while the vast majority of rapes are not either. Perhaps victims feel they can't talk about it or report it because it falls into the “gray rape” category and is therefore less real than those other mysterious rapes that adhere more to the stereotype (and are very uncommon).

But it seems like there's something more, to be. These are probably valid reasons, and there are probably more obvious ones I haven't thought of. But it also seems to me that sexual assault is one of the most taboo subjects there is, and that reasons for not reporting these incidents run deeper than this.

I theorize that somehow, even though most people don't dare to say it, people blame the victim. You hear about this all the time if you spend as much time on feminist blogs as I do. Google “Slutwalk” to find some examples: all of them are carrying signs with some variation on “Not asking for it.” This is a movement that's gained enough traction that most people will no longer say outright “Well, she was dressed kind of slutty, so what do you expect?” But they still think it. Other women who've had the good fortune not to be assaulted explain their success by what they think they've done right – naturally, humans like to attribute their success to their own actions and not luck, which is why rich people get all defensive if you remind them that they got that way because of the circumstances of their family, education, and other factors outside their control. (“Hey, I Worked Hard to Get What I Have!”) We all caution each other to not drink too much, have someone you trust walk you home, carry mace, and many other pieces of advice that may or may not actually help. If these pieces of advice did work, we would be smart to tell people to do it even though we shouldn't have to protect ourselves this way. But most advice is highly misinformed, assuming that rapists are scary ghetto men who jump out of bushes at night and put a knife to your throat. I wrote earlier about feeling safer walking home alone than with anyone other than a close friend or a whole group of people (link).

So, there's something that keeps women quiet. I think it's partly how society views sexual assault and ends up blaming the victims, and partly the other factors I mentioned earlier. But I still think there's one more thing.

Last night was a big deal for Badger basketball. I don't follow sports, but we made our way into the final four for the first time in a long while, and it was impossible to ignore. Everyone started yelling and running outside. State Street was insane: totally packed with people wearing red, screaming, giving high-fives, climbing stuff, and getting yelled at by the police. I was on State with a group of friends, all girls, and as we pushed our way through the crowd, we all got ass-grabbed by some disrespectful guy thinking with the wrong brain. This isn't the worst thing that could happen by far, and I wasn't shaken up over it. But still, I noticed that my reaction was just to keep walking and say nothing. How interesting. After thinking about it, of course, my reaction was a strong desire to go back and punch the guy in the nuts, but I didn't know who did it and the moment had passed. Why is the natural reaction of even a fiery “assertive” girl like me to stay silent? Why do victims often experience embarrassment and guilt?

I have no idea.

The best thing I've found that sounds right to me is this article by a rape victim who says: “But there’s another reason some women stay silent: Women have internalized the message that if it happened to them they must have at some deep, subconscious level caused, invited, even wanted it to happen.” I don't know how this happened or who gave us this horrible message. It seems pretty inexplicable to me. But it's the only thing that makes sense, given the shame victims carry with them and the stigma attached to being a victim.

I wish I had more concrete answers, and if you do, please share your thoughts. It's just something that puzzles me that I've been thinking about.

Friday, December 27, 2013

One semester of awesome

Well, I survived my first semester of college. It wasn't too hard! Here are some of the highlights and things I've been up to, in no particular order:

- I wrote a research paper about women in the sagas and how they are portrayed as powerful, a character type that ought to exist more today. I didn't think I was the sort to read into gender roles, but apparently I am. I am still struck by the images of Gudrun, Brynhild, Gunnhilda, and Aslaug – powerful, revengeful women, yet still sympathetic characters (not antagonists like the Wicked Witch of the West or Maleficent) and heroines in their own right. And it really did leave me wondering why I always pretended to be male characters when I was little and played pretend. Knights, heroes, captains... with the exception of Eowyn (and I would have rather pretended to be Legolas or Aragorn when it came right down to it), I was at a loss for strong female role models in popular fiction. It certainly didn't bother me at the time, and no one ever told me “Put down that sword, that's not a girl's toy!” But now I find it food for thought nonetheless.

This is yet another reason the Hunger Games series is so fantastic. A strong, emotionally stable warrior heroine helps her sweet but weak and dependent (boy)friend Peeta survive. (Hilarious and accurate article on this here.)

-I tried out for the UW women's ultimate team, Bella Donna, and joined them! It's been a lot of fun and I've learned a lot. It's also been pretty intense and hard to manage with also doing fencing. Fortunately, I've managed to keep my body in pretty good working repair and have had only minor issues with the arches of my feet and my back playing up like usual. It's always a trade-off between being in shape and wearing down one's body, though I'd rather get more than enough exercise than not enough.

-Fencing has gone well too. Since I have no experience with fencing and it's not as competitive, it's almost more of a social outlet. (Fortunately for me, since I definitely couldn't handle two sports like frisbee.) A lot of my favorite people are in fencing as well as this kid I'm dating oh wait I guess I should say “my boyfriend” now. He said I should write a blog post about him (egotistical, I know) but I don't know how I can do that without sounding all gushy and stupid. Oh well. Let it just be known that I am happy. Perhaps later when I'm more comfortable with writing about my personal life I'll tell you all about him.

-All of my priorities and things I thought were important to me changed. I thought I was going to college to figure out what subject fascinates me and to delve deep into whatever that is, but my favorite memories from the past semester are all very much social. I even have become less introverted and need more time with people. Favorite moments include 3 am talk with friends, getting to know people at the beginning of the semester, blanket forts in the basement, parties (which I hated last year, remember?), goofing off at fencing, dressing up for Halloween, sledding on Observatory Hill, and filming a group project with some very silly friends. I have time to figure out what I want to do, so this year is for shits and giggles and snowball fights. It's been a time very much of figuring out who I am now that I'm not living at home or in someone else's home in France, now that I have the confidence to be me and the freedom to do what I feel like doing and all the opportunity that comes with living on a very dynamic, exciting social campus. And apparently that person is a happy, somewhat impulsive, very active young woman by the name of Ikwe.

It's very strange to think about the year 2013 as a whole. I felt like life started over when I got to college, and I forget that I left France only 6 months ago. Studying abroad is a chapter of your life that gets to be very separate from everything else, almost like a whole different life. Coming to Madison, I had already been away from home for a year and yet I had just shut the door behind me on my experience in France, never intending to look back. Essentially, I came with nothing, knowing no one, having very few ties left to anything. And leaving Madison to come back to California, as I waited for the bus to take me to the airport, I realized that I have everything I could possibly want here. A lot can change in a semester. It's true that the years pass faster and faster as we get older, but to a certain extent this is counterbalanced by how much change there is in life at this age. In high school we don't see the years go by because they're all more or less the same, but 2012 and 2013 both had so much change that a new year seems like a new world.

I'm so pleased with where I am now that I'm having a problem I have never had before: I don't want anything to change and for once I'm not champing at the bit waiting for the year to pass. I didn't even want to make a decision about housing for next year because I just wanted to live with the exact same people in Cole again. This unprecedented contentment with the present, of course, doesn't mean I'm not excited for 2014: 2014 will have Israel, an awesome second semester, hopefully working at French camp and other summer shenanigans, and the first semester of sophomore year living on the Scandinavian Studies floor. I hope it will be even more awesome than the past semester has been. Cheers to the New Year! May the year ahead of you hold adventure, learning, laughter along with the occasional cathartic cry, serendipity and spontaneity, a healthy sense of romance, late night heart-to-hearts, good books, and good friends.

Friday, November 29, 2013

We're all bad at risk analysis

People are really bad at risk analysis. They are scared to take a plane or swim in the ocean but drive to work every day, though car accidents are pretty high up there on the list of causes of death and Wikipedia doesn't even include “plane crashes” or “eaten by sharks.”

But not only do we chose the wrong things to worry about, we also get the amount of worry wrong. “Better safe than sorry,” we say, and to a certain extent that's true. But the adage leaves something out: there is a downside to too much safety. After a certain point, we have to ask ourselves “Is it worth it? Are the downsides greater than the upsides?”

We all know by now that children need to play in dirt to develop healthy immune systems. Helicopter moms running around with hand sanitizer aren't actually doing their babies any favors. And what about giving your children independence? I didn't have a curfew, and the fact that my parents treated me as responsible meant I never did anything bad with it. I did plenty of other stupid things with my independence unrelated to curfews, but I learned from them, and feel a lot more prepared for real life because of that.

Risk is a part of life. Without accepting that fact, you can't do much of anything. You can't learn to drive, go backpacking, travel, or even step outside – who knows when a meteorite might just crush you, or you might “catch a cold.” (Ahem: “getting chilled or wet is not a cause of common colds” thank you webmd.) You always run a risk of dying, whether from illness or murder or the rare freak accidents people warn you about. Since you know you're mortal, you may as well have fun during the one life you have. By this I don't mean that you ought to be reckless and fearless because you're going to die anyway so you might as well die young. I just mean that there's a balance between too safe and too reckless, and I think that most people are too far on the safe side and don't experience a lot of fun things just because they're more scared than they should be.

The reason I'm writing this is because people tell me all the time that I shouldn't go walking or running at night by myself. I know that they are just concerned for my safety and I appreciate that they're trying to look after me, so this is not meant as a rant against them. But I have a lot of problems with this advice: first of all, it's just really not that dangerous. I go running on the Lakeshore path which is dark and in the woods. I'd feel far less safe walking through a city at night. There are no mentally unstable hobos who hang out in the woods, though there are many on State Street (downtown Madison). The only people I encounter are other late-night runners and bikers, usually college students. Out of all the places I could be late at night – a frat party, walking downtown, with dangerously drunk people – I think alone in the woods is honestly pretty safe.

Secondly, I think it's wrong to pick on being alone. I've often had guys offer to walk me home or go running with me so I wouldn't be by myself. Unless it's someone I know very well, I tend to turn them down. It's much safer to be on your own than alone with one guy, especially if he's been drinking. Most rapes aren't committed by crazy people jumping out of the bushes and attacking late-night runners. About 2/3 of the time the rapist is someone the victim already knows – if you click through that link there are more interesting statistics on that. I'm not being stubbornly reckless by walking home alone, I'm being safe by refusing to let a guy walk me home.

And lastly, I don't want to let my life be ruled by fear. I don't want to not do as I please because I'm afraid of other people doing something bad to me. This is especially true because I feel that the danger is hyped up, that rape and murder stories are good media shock stories that generate a lot of emotion and stick in people's memories and get into our heads more than they should. (I defy you, media! Sincerely, a rebellious teenager.)

I also want to mention the danger in conflating “steps to take to be safe” with “victim-blaming.” If something bad happens, it won't be my fault – it would be the fault of the person who does it to me. I don't want to be one of the many people contributing to the idea that rape is the victim's fault if they were “being stupid” by not taking the proper precautions – walking alone at night, wearing provocative clothing, etc. That idea is disgusting and every woman has the right to do what she wants without being sexually assaulted. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't take precautions when we can if it's worth it.

So, I acknowledge that I could take more steps to be safe, steps which I think are unnecessary. The statistics are on my side that going running at night is a fairly low-risk pleasure of mine. Granted, there is some risk, and I choose to accept the risk that comes with late-night runs. Unfortunately, there are rapists out there. But I refuse to let them take away my enjoyment of the woods at night and the stars out at Picnic Point and the ice-cold air in my lungs. This is my life, and I’ll live it how I want to. And next time you want to look out for my safety, just tell me to never get in a car again.