Monthly Archives: March 2012

Beastly Breasts. Patriarchy? Or Blasphemy?

Paper 4In honor of women’s history month I talked with Brock Neilson, a feminist artist who wonders if he might sometimes unconsciously support patriarchy.

Or, is he blasphemous instead?

BB: It’s very easy for anyone, including feminists, to unconsciously see and think in patriarchal ways, at least some of the time, since we’re all immersed in the system. You wonder if you sometimes unconsciously support patriarchy in your art. How so?

BN: This past year a lot of my art has been about someone – or something — that has enormous or strange looking breasts. These images are what I’d imagine a drunken fraternity or a 12-year-old boy drawing.

I imagine that these kinds of perversions are part of the package with which males are endowed in society, and I feel a responsibility to address that somehow.

Sometimes I might want the breasts to look uncomfortably disfigured or I might want the viewer to feel a kind of confusion about the body they are seeing. The breasts could also be more humane when they are not perfectly shaped or as easily sexualized, but I worry that I might be reinforcing patriarchy by not allowing something as commonly fetishized as breasts — or the person or entity to which the breasts belong — to just exist without having to be ugly, or strange, or beautiful, or symbolic. However, this concern is unavoidable as these images are being filtered through my nonobjective brain and hands.

The ultimate goal of feminism is to not have to be the mother, the champion goddess, the victim, or even a female or a male in order to have credibility and dignity. It is the hope that everyone could simply be who they want to be without having to force ourselves into degrading positions.

That said, I think it’s important to express these positions — or distortions — of power and powerlessness (and the variations between). My art is preoccupied with the slots we pop people into: the corporate leader, the androgynous, the porn victim, the violent athlete, the disabled or disfigured. I find that I’m often exploring possibilities for a better world by regurgitating things that are offensive to me.

BB: How might your work be blasphemous instead, working against patriarchy?

BN: There’s been a big focus among popular male artists to make big objects and paintings that can be bought and sold — similar to a Wall Street investment. This approach to art is problematic. I have been decorating a lot of brown paper in my work because it’s cheap and accessible. Being a male who is involved in decorating materials that require a kind of gentleness can be a blasphemous act.

I remember overhearing a mother years ago who was telling her five year old son not to smell flowers because she was afraid that this would make him look “gay.” I was so taken back that this innocent behavior — a child smelling flowers — was already perceived as inferior. My work, however crude it may be, is concerned with a hope of reclaiming this kind of sensitivity.

Tawnie Silva, an artist I discovered this last summer, made a beautiful inflatable sculpture of a quirky four-eyed girl with a rainbow coming out of her head. It’s made of fragile plastic bags, but Tawnie Silva’s body is brawny and masculine. It is especially sacrilegious to commercial gender ideals when men make things that are sweet and delicate. Both women and men need to protect and make space for vulnerable things in others and in themselves. This is an important way that we can expand and break dangerous gender stereotypes.

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I Didn’t Want To Be Pretty

By Victoria King

Man clothes, dark, heavy makeup, scarcely a trace of femininity: that was me in high school. I hated the notion that girls had to be pretty and were valued only for their looks. I wanted people to appreciate me for being fun, funny and a good debater.

I felt like women made themselves out to be pretty idiots because they were naturally shallow and stupid.

And envious. I hated the competition between females, so I looked as weird as possible hoping no one would see me as a threat.

Men don’t see attractive males as threats. They’re high-fived for getting women – the more the better. I wanted sisterhood, but was really more interested in having “brotherhood.”

It was a strange place to be, looking down on females as a female, and not wanting people to care whether I was pretty or not.

Yet part of me wanted very badly to be pretty. I believed I was hideous.

Despite a wholehearted attempt to free myself from incessant judgments on my appearance, I developed severe issues with self-image and self-esteem.

I saw myself being sidelined because of how I looked. I began to resent working that much harder to keep myself relevant and earn respect when other girls just stood there looking pretty. I felt trapped by society, my body and my inability to change myself or anything around me.

And so I fell into disordered eating in a desperate attempt to gain control over something. It didn’t work.

I began searching for answers. I wanted to know why women’s beauty seemed to be the only thing that mattered. I wanted to know why deep pain is associated with the beauty that is supposed to be a blessing.

The film, America the Beautiful offered a clue. The film tells how businesses make money when women feel dissatisfied with the way they look. If women weren’t satisfied, they wouldn’t spend money to make themselves “better.” I saw how we are manipulated.

As I studied more I began to see what it means to live in a patriarchy. It had never occurred to me that denigrating women’s appearance and capabilities could be a reaction to women’s gain of rights and power. If women have equal rights, you can still defeat their souls by draining their self-worth as they strive to live up to impossible standards.

The revelation was freeing. I didn’t have to accept impossible standards. I even stopped seeing anorexic models as attractive.

Now I feel that “pretty” is neither something to be obsessed over nor obsessively avoided. And I don’t think “attractive” comes in only one form. And that is freeing.

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Women Make Men Dumber?

“Talking to an attractive woman really can make a man lose his mind,” says The Telegraph. “Men get dumber just thinking women are nearby,” adds The Globe & Mail. And the more attractive she is, the dumber he gets.

Actually men may make women dumber, too. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Dutch researchers asked 71 straight male and female college students to perform a series of cognitive tests. Some were told they would be monitored by an unseen person. Others interacted with real live people.

When women were involved, seen or not, men’s performance dropped. But the presence of men had no effect on women’s functioning.

Why the difference? Lead researcher, Sanne Nauts, speculates that the men were preoccupied with how to impress the women – or how to make a good impression should they meet. And that distracted them from the task at hand.

While the researchers turned to evolutionary psychology to suggest that men get distracted because they pursue, while women wait and choose, I might note that while men are biologically more oriented toward pursuing sex (they have more testosterone, twice as much of their brain is devoted to sex, and their brain more quickly activates to pursue sex), in our culture men are also expected to take the lead. All this leaves them more distracted when given an opportunity to make that first move.

Interestingly, the study arose after one of the researchers was so struck by an attractive woman that he couldn’t remember his address when she asked where he lived. Apparently he was trying too hard to make a good impression.

But men may make women dumber, too. Once a woman is alerted to the fact that an attractive man might be interested in her, a woman may become flustered, distracted by the work of trying to look good.

Most people get distracted when they’re trying to look good. And that, unfortunately, can make us flub up. Sad but true: wanting to make a good impression can leave us looking like dimwits.

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Forced Births in the Bad Old Days

By Mijita @ Daily Kos

Judy was born in 1950 to an Irish Catholic family. When she was 12 her uncle began molesting her.

Like a lot of girls of that time, Judy didn’t understand sex, or what was happening to her. She liked the attention, but felt ashamed and couldn’t talk to her mother. At 13 she started getting sick, not just in the mornings, but all day long. Her mother took her to the doctor, and she learned she was pregnant.

As the doctor and her mom questioned her the truth came out. Judy remembers the doctor being very kind, and as he left he asked the nurse to “talk to her mother.” The nurse told them there was an option to childbirth. Judy’s mother felt that would be the right thing, but wanted to pray about it.

So they went to their parish priest, where her mother tearfully recounted what happened, and warned that if her husband found out, he would kill her brother. She also told the priest about the “other option.”

The priest, who had been kind and comforting, now turned harsh. He warned that abortion was both illegal and a mortal sin. It could not be considered.

And he told Judy that if her father learned of the molestation and hurt or killed her uncle, she would be responsible.

The priest then announced that Judy would be sent to a St. Anne’s, a home for unwed mothers in a city fifty miles away. She would have her baby and give it up for adoption.

Judy was terrified. She didn’t want to have a baby and she didn’t want to be sent away. She cried and begged her mother to let her stay at home. The priest said there was nothing else they could do and that it would be alright.

That night, Judy waited upstairs as her mother told her father the news. He yelled at her mom but never asked how she had gotten pregnant. And in fact, Judy wasn’t entirely sure — her body and sex were outside her understanding.

After the conversation Judy began pleading to see the nurse who had promised to help because she did not want to leave her home. When that failed she threw herself down the stairs, trying to kill herself or the baby. She only broke her arm.

She was sent to St. Anne’s. But because she was suicidal she was not permitted above the ground floor, was not allowed anything long or sharp, and was watched all the time.

But one day she heard some of the girls talking about self-abortion. Desperate, she tried pushing her hand as far inside herself as she could. When she was caught she was made to sleep tied to the bed. And because she was sick, she was kept in bed for most of the last two months.

Giving birth without her mother, in pain and among strangers was agony. She screamed so much that the doctor finally put her under. When she woke up the baby – a boy – was gone. She told the nurses she didn’t want to see him.

After she recovered and went home the pregnancy was never spoken of. And she never felt close to her mother again.

Judy left home the week she graduated from high school, moving as far away from her family as she could get. She never returned and never spoke to them again. She even missed her parents’ funerals.

Her son eventually contacted her through an attorney, but she refused to see him. She didn’t want to tell him he was the product of child rape, incest and forced birth. “Whatever he thinks can’t be as bad at the truth,” she said.

As terrible as the molestation had been, Judy feels that being forced to give birth against her will was far worse. And something, she believes, she will never get over.

She worries about the trend in politics today against contraception and abortion. She does not want other girls to undergo her ordeal.

As Judy told me, “Never, ever again.”

This edited piece was originally posted on Daily Kos and reprinted with permission. Go here to see the full original version.

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Are Blondes as Picky as the Men Who Prefer Them?

Jayne MansfieldI’m still regarded a libidinous lad by a lot of (especially buxom blonde) ladies, so this muscular, boyishly handsome 5’8 black 58-year-old ALMOST ALWAYS ogles well-endowed women because I’m proud to be considered an aging lad!!!! How ’bout it, girls?

That’s one of the more colorful comments I’ve received (slightly edited to include all the vital stats he’s provided over time).

“Lusty” (part of his moniker) has voiced his buxom blonde penchant on numerous occasions, so I asked:

“Do you think Buxom Blondes are as picky as you?”

“Well, maybe,” he responded. “But as long as I can remember, I’ve been captivated by bosomy women — white, black, Latina, etc. — but buxom blondes are my faves.”

Little wonder, since they are regularly presented as the most prized by our society — though the preference has been moving toward “racially ambiguous” (meaning you can’t tell what race the woman is). Still, most starlets today embody Lusty’s preference.

Sooo many men desire buxom blondes and think they’re “the best.” But if BB’s are similarly restricted in their preferences (and why not, when they’ve got so much to choose from) then few men would seem to stand a chance. It just doesn’t seem to occur to a lot of men that snobbery can run both ways, leaving them out of the running, too.

I suspect that narrow notions of beauty benefit few (mostly corporations that sell products by making people feel bad about themselves).

But when only some are esteemed, everyone else ends up feeling deprived and frustrated. Women, because they don’t fit the narrow notions, and men, because they can’t have the limited number of women who do.

Meanwhile fabulous people, who may be a much better match, and who could please us more, end up out in the cold.

And that leaves too many lonely and lacking deep satisfaction.

Instead of running about like lemmings, led around by society’s dictates, why not find beauty in the varieties of women and men around us? And in the men and women we are actually with?

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Prejudiced People Are Stupid

Prejudiced people are stupid. That’s not me pre-judging. That’s science.

An article published in the Journal of Psychological Science, and reported in Live Science says children who have low IQs tend to become prejudiced adults who are drawn to socially conservative beliefs that – in turn – encourage prejudice, adherence to hierarchy and authority, and promote resistance to change.

The researchers suggest that low intelligence makes it difficult to grasp the complexity of the world, which could explain the appeal of oversimplifications like, “Poor people are lazy.”

But you also have to wonder if the appeal of prejudice comes partly from a desire to feel like you are better (and smarter?) than someone.

John Dean wrote a book (which he had begun writing with Barry Goldwater just before Goldwater died) called Conservatives Without Conscience. These two conservatives presented a list of characteristics that are common among right-wing authoritarian “followers” (as opposed to “leaders”). The traits seem to fall into two categories: those that would appeal to the less intelligent and those that are just mean. Right-wing authoritarian “leader” traits fell almost entirely into the “mean” category.

Examples of beliefs and behaviors that fit well with not thinking too hard include: conventional, submissive to authority, highly religious (follow God’s authority), prejudiced, narrow-minded, inconsistent and contradictory (“Get your government hands off my Medicare!”) and having little self-awareness.

The “mean” list includes these traits: prejudiced, aggressive on behalf of authority, dogmatic, mean-spirited, intolerant, bullying, and highly self-righteous. All suggest a desire to feel bigger and stronger than someone else — as in overcompensating for insecurities?

Ahhh, that was fun for a liberal like me who gets so annoyed by both right-wingers and prejudiced people.

But there is a crimp in the analysis. First, the researchers recognize, not all liberals are brilliant, nor are all conservatives dense. We’re talking averages here. Certainly there are smart conservatives, including John Dean and Barry Goldwater. Also, the less intelligent are drawn to social and not fiscal conservatism.

And of course, extremists on the left and the right may both be simplistic. As the authors admit:

A study of left-wing liberals with stereotypically naïve views like “every kid is a genius in his or her own way,” might find that people who hold these attitudes are also less bright. In other words, it might not be a particular ideology that is linked to stupidity, but extremist, over-simplified views in general.

The main advantage of this research is finding clues to decreasing fear and hatred. For instance, many anti-prejudice programs ask people to see things from others’ perspectives, but that might be too hard for those with low IQ. And since prejudice is more emotionally than intellectually rooted, it’s probably better to change feelings instead of thoughts.

Who knows, perhaps the fear of appearing dimwitted will itself advance the cause against fear and hatred.

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Spilling Sperm Harms Unborn, Law Says

by  @ Ms.

Political and cultural debates over contraception and abortion loom large in the news these days, with a notable new twist. Instead of feminists being the butt of ridicule, the tables have turned. Comedians, pundits and even legislators are satirizing the extremism and sexism of anti-woman bills by flipping the gender script. Here are some recent legislative counter-proposalsby women lawmakers:

–In late January, Virginia state senator Janet Howell tacked on an amendment to the proposed transvaginal ultrasound bill requiring that men seeking erectile dysfunction medication submit to a required rectal exam and cardiac stress test at their own expense (mirroring the ultrasound bill’s mandating of an unnecessary medical procedure women seeking an abortion would have to  pay for out of pocket). The amendment failed, but only by a narrow margin of 21-19.

–In early February, Oklahoma state senator Constance Johnson, added a “spilled semen” amendment onto the state’s proposed “personhood” bill. Obviously a sardonic protest rather than a true piece of legislation, it would deem “any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina … an action against an unborn child.”

–A week ago, Georgia state representative Yasmin Neal, backed by a group of other women legislators, authored a bill proposing that vasectomies should be made illegal, also in response to legislation restricting women’s access to abortions.

It is patently unfair,” Neal writes, “that men can avoid unwanted fatherhood by presuming that their judgment over such matters is more valid than the judgment of the General Assembly, while women’s ability to decide is constantly up for debate throughout the United States.

What’s particularly smart about these legislative interventions is how they call into question the government’s ability to infringe upon the rights of an entire class of individuals based on the idea that they’re not fit to make decisions for themselves. Remarkably, faced with these inversions of their own restrictive policies, many in the anti-contraception crowd still don’t see the irony. Let’s hope, though, that most Americans do.

This was originally posted on the Ms. Blog

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What Gossip Magazines & Abusers Have In Common

By Linda Bakke

Star Magazine promotes violence against women.

Ok, that sounds like a tabloid headline, but the more I look over Star Magazine, the more I’ve been struck by a sense of violence directed at women.

The starlets are constantly attacked for any extra weight, cellulite, bunions, ugly fingers or thick arms. It feels like open season. “Kill the Celebrity” is the name of the game.

One section called “Knifestyles” advocates mutilating women through plastic surgery. With the accompanying message, “You’re not good enough.”

In fact, Star uses the same devices that characterize domestic abusers: watching the victim’s every move, humiliation, stressing the negative rather than the positive aspects of the victim (who is supposedly adored), using “it’s her fault” to launch an attack, and transferring the abuser’s dissatisfaction with life and himself onto the victim.

After a while, she starts to blame herself.

Paparazzi hunt celebrities down and we all become cannibals of the spoils, savoring the flaws of “perfect” idols as we bring them down a peg.

But it’s not just about starlets. It’s not just their bodies that are under attack. Yours and mine are, too. If they don’t look good, we don’t either.

The depiction of women in gossip magazines represents the degradation, abuse and mutilation of women. We must recognize how damaging these portrayals are for all of us, women, girls, men and boys.

For we are all encouraged to scrutinize and vilify women for being less than perfect.

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Wanting “X” from Sex, but Doing “Y”

Most people say they want pleasure and closeness from sex. But they don’t act like it.

Instead, they’re preoccupied with how they look, what their partner is thinking, how they’re performing, and what is “normal”

That’s what Dr. Marty Klein, a Certified Sex Therapist and sociologist, says in his book, “Sexual Intelligence: What We Really Want From Sex and How to Get It.”

Perhaps because of fashion magazines, or porn, or because we see “good sex” as the sex of our 20s, we conclude that great sex is looking like 20-year-old “perfectly” built porn stars, and doing what 20-year-old “perfectly” built porn stars do.

And that leaves most women feeling insecure about their bodies (since most women are insecure about their bodies): “Am I too fat? Are my breasts too small, too lopsided, too droopy? Do I have cellulite?” instead of having close, pleasurable sex.

Which naturally leads to: “Is my partner thinking I’m too big, too small…? Is he thinking about someone else?” Again, worries — not good sex.

Most men don’t yet expect to look like Ryan Reynolds. But they may worry about penis size. And they may notice that neither they nor their partners look like porn stars. Or, they may worry about performance or wish their bodies would do what they did years ago. And wish their ladies would act like porn stars. Or they may imagine porn stars instead of really being with their ladies. Distractions. Not good sex.

Too often, new positions or techniques are prescribed to perk things up. But Klein says the key is mind, not matter. Who can have great sex with all the distractions? You’ve got to clear out the baggage first.

A bit of advice:

First, embrace your body as it is – how it looks, what it can do. That frees you up to be present. As Klein points out, “You’d be foolish to craft a definition of sexy or manly or womanly that excludes you” (or your partner). He adds:

It is possible to detach how you look from how you feel and see that sexiness is not a product of what your body looks like from the outside, that sexiness is a product of how you feel on the inside… From there it’s a question of a person tuning into what do I have to offer somebody else sexually, and what do I have to offer myself sexually?

And let go of worries about what’s ‘normal,’ he says, because that takes us out of authenticity. Move “from ‘sex has to validate me’ to ‘I validate my sexuality.’”

The focus, according to Klein, should be on creating lasting physical and emotional connection with your partner. Don’t overburden genitalia with too much responsibility for making sex enjoyable. Media portray orgasm as the most important thing, he says, “But focusing on those few seconds misses most of what sex offers.” Instead, feeling good with your partner is the big payoff.

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Should We Ban “Slut” and “Ho”?

by  @ Ms. Magazine

I must commend Sandra Fluke, like so many others have already done, for rightly condemning “shock jock” Rush Limbaugh’s efforts in silencing women who dare to speak publicly about sexual politics by calling them “sluts.” The furor over Limbaugh’s slut-shaming tactics, however, seems to underlie a different anxiety that is more than just outrage over such blatant misogyny.

Rush Limbaugh is a bigot, a misogynist and a homophobe. His recent “slut” comments are right up there with his usual hate speech, and I distinctly remember him uttering the word “ho” to describe the black woman accuser behind the infamous Duke lacrosse case before that same case got dismissed.

What had impressed me back then was when I heard a white woman who called into his radio show and, without knowing much about the case or how it would unravel a year later, lambasted Limbaugh for using such an epithet to describe a woman. It was clear that Limbaugh was genuinely stunned that a white “conservative” woman didn’t rely on racial divides, or class and political “respectability” rules, to distinguish herself from a black sex worker. She understood that the “ho” label applied to all women, even if it was used to only apply to black women, and she did not let Limbaugh get away with it.

I also distinctly remember Don Imus’s “nappyheaded ho” comment and the furor over that, thus proving that while many are outraged over “slut” we’ve also been inundated with “ho” language–from radio shock jocks recently undermining Whitney Houston’s legacy with the dismissive “crack ho” label to popular presidential campaign posters back in 2008 championing Obama over Hillary Clinton with the slogan “Bros Before Hos.”

In many ways, the public furor over Limbaugh’s slut-shaming of Fluke demonstrates that, once again, women will not let him get away with it. But it bothers me that so many of our responses–from #boycottrushlimbaugh Twitter trends to President Obama calling Fluke to show his support–are based on the premise that to be called a “slut” is inherently to be shamed.  It bothers me that, despite all the efforts of the sexual revolution and women’s liberation–which have enabled women to avoid the stigma of having sex outside of marriage, having children outside of marriage or having sex beyond the confines of heterosexuality–that some hate-monger can just say, “You’re a slut” and a public meltdown ensues.

This suggests that women’s sexual egos are still fragile, but in a woman-hating society this should come as no surprise. In a sexually evolved world in which a woman proudly proclaims her enjoyment of sex, of kink, of polyamory, or even basic monogamy, the sex-positive woman should be able to respond to the “you’re a slut” woman-hater a number of ways:

  1. The flippant response: “How quaint of you. That’s so 50 years ago!”
  2. The defiant response: “Power to sluts and sex goddesses everywhere! Woo hoo!”
  3. The vulgar response: “Eat me!”

However, we do not live in a sexually evolved society, so to deliver any of these responses is to hint that you’re not quite the respectable lady so many of us work so hard at being. To do so is to invite suggestions that we just might be the “slut” those guys over there say we are, and that fear of sexual labels keeps us in line, or puts us on the defensive, with the retort “I’m not a slut!”

That Limbaugh–an admitted drug addict, bigot and proud chauvinist–responded to the furor not by apologizing (which would be like a Ku Klux Klan member apologizing for being racist) but by digging in his heels and suggesting that Fluke and other women who want contraceptives covered by health insurance should subject themselves to online porn, only proves that men like him are shameless in what they’re doing. But of course they can be: No matter what sexual misconduct men engage in–whether they are busted in prostitution rings or in child molestation cases–they never get slut-shamed.

Middle-aged Catholic priests and football coaches have institutions that cover up their bad behavior, but under-aged girls such as Amber Cole can be videotaped in sex acts and become YouTube sensations and Twitter trends, slut-shamed by the general public–as if any of the shamers have a moral leg to stand on while trafficking in child pornography.

This is the climate in which we live, where male privilege runs rampant and women are still on the defensive. And where “slut” will maintain its power over us as long as rape and other forms of sexual violence go unpunished, as long as our reproductive rights are undermined and as long as our reproductive health options are limited (the very issue that forced Fluke to speak out in the first place). Moreover, “ho” will maintain its power as long as we insist on racial and class hierarchies among women.

Isn’t Limbaugh’s slut-shaming based on the same sentiment that provoked a Toronto police officer last year to tell women not to “dress like sluts” to avoid being raped, thus igniting the worldwide SlutWalk protests in response? And isn’t the ensuing debate among feminists over this activist strategy indicative of our fear of the word “slut”?

As I suggested in a previous post, the SlutWalk has provided an ample opportunity for women to confront words like “slut” and “ho” head on and divest them of their power. If we really think these words can’t be reclaimed, and rappers like Nicki Minaj are wasting their time, then perhaps it’s time we get down to business and ban “slut” and “ho” from our lexicon, the way the N-word is now taboo.

Of course that won’t change the hate in the hearts of some, but we can mobilize that hate toward a counter-narrative for a new political movement.

This piece originally appeared in the Ms. Magazine Blog and is reposted with permission.

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