My Wounded Activist Heart

I’m not a Trump fan by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m as eager as anyone to see him discredited, dethroned, impeached, jailed, etc.

But I draw the line at attacking his wife.

Since the election, I’ve seen an upsurge of Facebook posts suggesting that Melania’s former work as a nude model makes her unfit to be the First Lady, disparaging her for being an immigrant, or negatively comparing her with “classy” first ladies like Michelle Obama or Jackie Kennedy.

As a liberal, feminist, bi activist, I cannot participate in those efforts in good conscience because they conflict with my values.

How Melania has expressed her sexuality shouldn’t matter. No woman deserves to be ridiculed and shamed for how much or little of her body she has shown. Having a history as a porn model or sex worker should have no effect on whether someone is qualified for political office, much less on whether she’s qualified to be the wife of someone in political office.

On a similar note, her former work shouldn’t imply that she’s less “classy” than other First Ladies because claiming such would require a view that sex work is shameful and debasing–a premise I adamantly reject.

Ironically, I have periodically heard people try to justify these attacks on Melania by claiming that it is no different from how Michelle Obama was treated.

But in my book, turn about is not fair play.

It’s not making people reconsider how they might have talked about Michelle Obama. It’s not preventing Melania from being the First Lady.

It’s not even hurting Trump because he unquestionably demonstrated that he had no problem taking jabs at Melania at the Al Smith Charity Dinner, despite his visible discomfort with any jokes directed at himself. Melania is expendable to him, only useful insofar as she feeds his need for power and prestige.

But I have another reason for my refusal to make sexist attacks on Melania. She is the first First Lady that I have worried about her treatment at home.

Trump is publicly emotionally abusive to virtually everyone he dislikes, particularly towards women. He has been accused of rape and sexual assault from more than one woman, including an accusation of marital rape and domestic battery from a former wife.

I have no confidence that he suddenly becomes a docile teddy bear in private with Melania.

It’s hard enough to get out of a toxic relationship in normal circumstances, but when your husband is suddenly the Commander and Chief with the secret service at his disposal and an ego as fragile as a butterfly wing…I don’t know about you, but I’d probably keep my head down and beg people not to make him angry as well.

Ultimately, I see attacking Melania as more than a direct conflict with my values; it’s potentially heaping yet more mistreatment onto an already mistreated woman, demonstrating to her that those who claim to be “on the side” of women are hypocrites, neither a safe haven nor living example of respect for her.

But standing true to my social justice values has resulted in some unexpected conflicts. Others that I would have previously assumed shared my values have reacted with hostility towards my discomfort with the treatment of Melania. I’ve found that people are willing to resort to prejudice and then claim oppression when I speak out against that prejudice. Just yesterday, I was accused of being a homophobe and a white supremacist because of this stance.

It’s a discouragement I didn’t expect to face as I headed into a Trump presidency. I’m not only contending with the horrible realization that sexism, racism, and despotism won the election, but I’m also having to face the reality that it’s infiltrated what I would have considered “my turf” and poisoned those I would have called “my people.”

Trump has said and done some truly awful things that shouldn’t be ignored…but if the attempts to oppose him sound more like something he would say, I’m not sure that’s a movement I actually want to be a part of.

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Why Won’t You Stay on the Damn Pedestal?

Jennifer Lawrence has become my hero. I’ve fallen in love with her as an actress who chooses strong, fantastic, and meaningful roles. I’ve fallen in love with her as a celebrity who criticizes and rejects the ridiculous beauty standards and expectations of the media.

85th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room

It’s the most adorable middle finger I’ve ever seen! *swoons*

And I’ve just plain fallen in love with her because she’s adorable and beautiful and the type of girl I would totally date if she’d go out with me.

Have you spotted the problem yet?

I didn’t initially, but there’s another celebrity who has opened my eyes: Miley Cyrus.

How could Miley have anything to do with my admiration for Jennifer Lawrence?

Just that the whole reason why Miley is facing so much criticism for her current choices is because she used to be a kind of Jennifer Lawrence to a lot of people.

Found over on Perez Hilton. The caption really says it all about the expectations she faces.

Would Hannah Montana act like this? I don’t know. Is it fair to expect a person to remain true to a FICTIONAL personality for the rest of her life? Hannah Montana was created by screen writers. It never has been who Miley is, just who she played.

I’m talking about pedestaled celebrities. Our role models, our activists, our political compasses, our surrogate dates, our media representatives that verify our own disgust of whatever else is happening in the media—we deify them, stalk them, and hang onto their every word.

And when we discover that they’re human, that they make mistakes, that they don’t always know what they’re doing, that they change their minds, that they cave to pressure, or that they don’t agree with all of our own political or moral stances, we’re inevitably disappointed.

Devastated really.

And then we take it out on them, because it’s obviously their fault that they fell off of the pedestal we so generously bestowed upon them.

How could they? How could they do something so disagreeable when they have such a heavy influence with their position and popularity? How could they pass those messages onto children who look up to them the way we’ve trained children to look up to them?

But the question that we really should be asking ourselves is, “How could they not?”

I can’t imagine what it would be like to live with a camera in my face all of the time. I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through my day knowing that thousands of other people were scrutinizing my every move in order to emulate or criticize.

That kind of pressure is insane.

Admiration is one thing, but I think we are doing a huge disservice to both celebrities and ourselves when we expect them to be the perfect example of how we should live our lives.

Miley got me thinking about how I would feel if Jennifer Lawrence was exposed by a tabloid as anorexic after all the things she’s said about rejecting the impossible weight standards others have tried to force on her.

Part of me felt that it would be tragic but understandable. Part of me felt outraged and devastated at the possibility.

I took that as a good sign—my sanity hadn’t entirely fallen asleep yet, despite the way I’d been mooning over her the last few months. I want the understanding part of me to win out. I don’t want Jennifer to have so much power over my views of the world that her own personal, human struggles and choices can devastate me.

Nor do I want her to live her life in fear of ever making mistakes because of what others (strangers) might think. That’s no way to live. Without the freedom to make mistakes, what is the value in making good choices? She deserves to have the right to make mistakes and make bad decisions—just like me.

It’s not Jennifer’s job to convince me that my body is worth taking care of. It’s not Miley’s job to show me what a healthy sexuality looks like. It’s not their job to make sure all of their personal decisions meet my approval. It’s not their job to make sure they’re only sending out the messages to the world that I want them to send out.

I hope Jennifer continues to fight the pressure in Hollywood, but not for my sake. I hope she fights the pressure for her own sake. I hope she stays true to herself, regardless of whether her fans approve or not. I hope when she speaks out in interviews about the unfair weight expectations actresses face that she does so because that’s the person she wants to be, not because she’s trying to live up to some role that someone else she’s never met has placed on her.

It’s my job to make sure that my admiration for celebrities doesn’t turn into a foisting of my own responsibility to think and make choices for myself onto them. It’s my job to make sure that I’m promoting the principles and ideas that are important to me.

To build on the famous Gandhi quote: I have to be the person I want to see in the world. And I don’t want to be the type of person that can’t handle someone I admire being a human being who makes mistakes. I don’t want to be the type of person who can’t tolerate a stranger making a personal choice that I might disagree with.

As a note, I’d like to make it clear that I’m referring to the sexual aspects of Miley’s VMA performance and the nudity in her music video for which she has been so heavily criticized. I am not diminishing or dismissing the racial issues of her performance. I think there is a huge difference between her sexual expression and her treatment of racialized people. 

We need to have a conversation about how celebrities treat other people and other groups, but it would be downright hypocritical if we didn’t also talk about how we treat female celebrities as a society and racialized performers as a society (hint: Robin Thicke isn’t being criticized for his performance with Miley. No one is mourning Beyonce’s fall from ‘role model’ status after the Super Bowl; although she certainly faced her fair share of ridiculous slut-shaming).

For more on the racial problems of the VMAs, Gradient Lair does some good pieces here and here. In her analysis of privilege in human rights campaigns, Dani Kelley links to a good article on the problematic meaning of Black bodies to highlight a White performer. And check out this post on the hypocrisy of slut-shaming and how the feminist defense has a tendency to differ based on race. All of these posts are good reads to spark some thought about privilege and race that don’t fall into the trap of slut-shaming at the same time.

When the Fight Against Slut-Shaming Overlooks Victim-Blaming

Although I’m thrilled that so many people are fighting back against slut-shaming, I’ve been disturbed to see a significant gap in the discussion. When some asshole says something typically misogynist like, “She’s dressed like a prostitute; she can’t expect men to respect her,” there are plenty of feminists willing to step up to defend a woman’s right to wear whatever the hell she wants without becoming “fair game.”

But where are the people taking issue with that tiny little phrase “like a prostitute”?

Nobody, at least no one I’ve seen, ever brings up the whore-shaming, which is what I’m going to call the “permissible” slut-shaming of sex workers. No one even bats an eye at it. We take issue with sexually active women being called whores, but no one ever tries to defend the “whore” herself.

That bothers me—a lot!

Over the weekend, I made the mistake of paying attention to a discussion amongst some Christians. Normally I try to stay away from things like that because my stupid-tolerance meter quickly overloads, but I hung around and watched for a while. The topic was on lying, so it made some sense to bring up Rahab, the prostitute in the Old Testament who helped two Jewish spies escape from Jericho before that famous non-battle where they knocked down the walls of the city by blowing trumpets (why did that sound so much more believable when I was locked away in funderland?). However, just as quickly as she was brought up, someone else dismissed her as “a whore who did God’s will.”

Just like that everything about her was summed up—she was a whore, aka a piece of filth not worthy of anyone’s attention, who redeemed herself by doing a really good deed. And her life revolved around her whoredom/shame and her obedience/redemption.

I was the only one who pointed out that it was offensive.

Other people tried to defend her with suggestions like maybe she wasn’t a prostitute or she was one but then she stopped. But the attitude that she, as a sex-worker, was somehow “less than” was accepted silently.

It’s not so different from Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who became a disciple of Jesus—except that there is no indication that she was ever a prostitute in any of the gospels. The rumor that she was a prostitute was completely fabricated to discredit her and remove some of her power as a close female follower of Jesus . . . because somehow spreading a rumor about her selling sex is the worst insult you can give to this feminist Christian icon. As a prostitute, everything in her life suddenly becomes shameful and tainted except for the part about Jesus taking her under his wing. (Notice it defames her, but Jesus’ purity never comes into question for hanging out with a prostitute.)

But it’s not just Bible characters who are being whore-shamed. Real people are experiencing this. Just this past week, a court in Texas ruled that a man was not guilty of murder after fatally shooting a call girl who refused to have sex with him. The reason? He was just trying to get what he paid for.

And if you thought the victim-blaming was bad for “promiscuous” rape victims, it’s nothing compared to what sex workers go through. They’re much less likely to be believed if they report that they’ve been sexually assaulted or raped because, as a society, we have this idea in our heads that being a sex worker means you don’t get to say “no.” (Which is stupid and a little bit like saying a store owner can’t get robbed because he has stuff for sale.)

But why? Why do we view sex workers as the scum of the earth? Why are they the most insulting thing to compare other women to? Why is their entire life defined by their work? Why are their choices revoked because of their day–er–night job?

As far as historical judgment, Rahab making a living by getting money for sex isn’t all that different from the other form of “making a living” that was open to women at the time—you know, getting married and having sex with a man so he would put a roof over her head and feed her. Marriage wasn’t about love in the past. It was about ownership of women—kind of like buying a permanent prostitute for the home. If anything Rahab should be a feminist hero for choosing a slightly more independent life!

For that matter, you never see David or Solomon dismissed as “womanizers who did God’s will.” No, they’re biblical heroes who “messed up.” The fact that David’s mess-up was murder and sexual coercion seems to be largely overlooked. The “good” far outweighs the “bad” . . . as long as you’re a man.

Modernly, we seem to be capable of making strides towards allowing women the same sexual freedom as men, but we’re still hung up on the idea of them making money that way (even though we don’t seem to have a problem with men hiring prostitutes–again typical double standard).

Who cares if a woman is a sex worker? If she thinks being a prostitute or a stripper is the best job ever, that’s her free choice. I will fight for her right to do as she pleases with her body. I will fight for her right to be viewed as a human being, treated with respect, given access to health care and protection under the law. No matter what her profession is (no matter whether I like her profession or not), it doesn’t diminish her humanity.

I wish I could end my piece there, with the whole “stop being so judgmental” bit, except that there’s a far greater problem with whore-shaming than just judging someone else’s free choices.

Sometimes, there is no choice.

According to Somaly Mam’s website (and some fancy math on my part), approximately 10 million women and girls are sex slaves. In some countries, children as young as three are sold into prostitution. The sex trade here in the United States is devastatingly successful. Since I can’t summarize it better than this handy little bullet list from The Covering House, I’m posting their list here:

  • Human trafficking generates $9.5 billion yearly in the United States. (United Nations)
  • Approximately 300,000 children are at risk of being prostituted in the United States. (U.S. Department of Justice)
  • The average age of entry into prostitution for a child victim in the United States is 13-14 years old. (U.S. Department of Justice)
  • A pimp can make $150,000-$200,000 per child each year and the average pimp has 4 to 6 girls. (U.S. Justice Department, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)
  • The average victim may be forced to have sex up to 20-48 times a day.(Polaris Project)
  • Fewer than 100 beds are available in the United States for underage victims.(Health and Human Services)
  • Department Of Justice has identified the top twenty human trafficking jurisdictions in the country:” Houston
• El Paso
• Los Angeles
• Atlanta
• Chicago
• Charlotte
• Miami
• Las Vegas
• New York
• Long Island
• New Orleans
• Washington, D.C.
• Philadelphia
• Phoenix
• Richmond
• San Diego• San Francisco
• St Louis
• Seattle
• Tampa  (Department of Justice)
  • A pimp can make $150,000-$200,000 per child each year and the average pimp has 4 to 6 girls. (U.S. Justice Department, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)
  • One in three teens on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. (National Runaway Hotline)

This is where my biggest beef with whore-shaming lies. NO ONE ever wonders if the prostitutes they are dismissing, devaluing, and dehumanizing even want to be doing what they are doing. No one wonders if they are there of their own free will or if they’ve been forced into this life and don’t see a way out. People are so caught up with what prostitutes symbolize that they can’t even see the human being behind the label; with the numbers of sex slaves out there, consent should be the first question anyone asks.

It’s bad enough that we dehumanize someone for their consensual sexual activity. Victim blaming and slut shaming are never okay. Sex workers deserve as much respect, safety, and protection as any other person. But when dealing with people who don’t even have a choice, the whore-shaming is that much more sinister! Whore-shaming reinforces the sex trafficker’s power over his victims—telling them that they are worthless, they don’t have the right to safety, they don’t have the right to say “no,” they don’t have the right to be treated as a human being. We need to get over the stupid false dichotomies between the virgin vs. whore and sex-for-pleasure vs. sex-for-money and start worrying about the very real difference between consent and rape.

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