Monday, October 28, 2019

What We're Really Talking About When We Talk About Nudes

I'd honestly never heard of California Congresswoman Katie Hill until she resigned from Congress following the unauthorized publication of sexually provocative, intimate pictures (aka "nudes") of her and a staffer and/or a campaign worker (?) a relationship that is prohibited under Congressional ethics rules. 

There are a few different things going on here, and it's interesting to unpack them.

First of all, having a relationship with a subordinate at work is a very bad idea. It is unethical or even illegal, and it is almost always very ill-advised because the power dynamic in the relationship is inherently exploitative. It is not out of the realm of normal, I don't think, for the party in the superior position to resign their job because of such a lapse in judgment.

That is an entirely different question from whether it is a bad idea for women (and also men, although they've been conspicuously absent from this conversation) to exchange nudes with intimate partners as a more general matter. 

Some people argue that women should never, ever let anyone take nude photographs of them or take nude selfies because they can only harm women in the future and serve no other purpose. But I would argue that they do serve a purpose and also are not the problem. 

The unauthorized disclosure of nudes--aka "revenge porn" is the problem, not the pictures themselves. Society needs to punish the vindictive, unauthorized release of nudes, not tell women they should never take them. I went to law school with a woman, Carrie Goldberg, who specializes in this burgeoning area and, a victim of revenge porn herself, has a practice dedicated to protecting women from it.

Although some people perhaps wish it weren't so (at no time in history has there ever been a shortage of pearl-clutching around erotic art) the reality is that nudes are a normal part of intimate modern relationships. That’s a fact and it's not going to change. Scolding and shaming women over nudes because someone might later weaponize them robs women of agency and places the blame for malicious conduct on victims instead of where it belongs: on perpetrators of this type of harassment.

Furthermore, the logic of “don’t take nudes because you assume the risk of their disclosure” also applies to many other situations that the law protects: having a nice car or a house (you might get robbed) wearing a miniskirt (you might get raped) or arguing (you might get assaulted). Yet we don't suggest that people shouldn't have nice cars or stand up for themselves. Life is a series of calculated risks, and we need not cater all of our lawful conduct to criminals.

Nudes also serve the simple, human purpose of pleasure--women's and men's alike. For many people, nudes are a form of expression, art, eroticism, and sexual agency. There is nothing wrong with exchanging nudes with trustworthy intimate partners and consenting adults who have equal power in a relationship.

So what are we *actually* talking about when we talk about nudes, then?

What we are really talking about in this whole Katie Hill nudes scandal is the perpetual shaming of women's sexuality. We are blaming the exposure of--and attacks upon--women's bodies against their will on the victim of the illegal or unauthorized conduct, rather than addressing the perpetrators. We are saying, shame on her, she shouldn't have done that, she deserves it, she assumed the risk, and so on.

And why are we doing that? We are doing that because it's easy. It is much easier to sit in judgment of women's sexual expression than it is to hold men accountable for violating their bodies and their trust. And that's fine, but let's at least be real and honest with ourselves about what we're really talking about when we talk about nudes.



Image: Shriver Report 

Friday, October 18, 2019

My San Francisco Dongucation

Every little girl remembers her first glimpse of a real live adult male peen. 

If she’s lucky, it was an innocent and accidental encounter with her dad or older brother — a slipped towel or unlocked bathroom door, perhaps. If she’s less fortunate, it was a flasher on the subway or something far worse that precipitated years of trauma and therapy.

For me, it was some random dude’s dong in San Francisco. 

Now, you wouldn’t think it would require a transcontinental flight for a 6th grader from the Bronx to peep her first real-life dick pic, but you’d be wrong because that’s exactly what it took. 

It was my first trip to the west coast, and my parents and I were visiting my Cool Young Aunt Alexis. Alexis made her own jewelry and had big, beautiful curly black hair. She looked and sounded like my mom, but seemed so alluringly different—artistic and free-spirited in stark contrast to my mother’s macabre pragmatism. She had just returned from a stint living at an ashram in India and somewhere else in the mountains near Boulder, and was now in a basement apartment in the Haight. 

“There’s San Francisco!,” my dad said as we came in over the bay for a landing. He let me sit on his lap at the window seat in the non-smoking section of the plane as he pointed out some landmarks. My parents were well-traveled, but I thought this trip was the coolest thing that had ever happened to me. 

I fell asleep at dinner the first night because of the three hour time difference—my first experience in another time zone. We did all the touristy San Francisco things on that trip: drove down Lombard Street, swam in the Pacific Ocean, went to Fisherman’s Wharf, and walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. 

But what do I remember most vividly as the most fascinating thing I saw that week? Well I’m glad you asked, because the answer is a drunk hippie’s wang. Unlike the other sights, I didn’t take a Polaroid of this one, but if memory serves this spontaneous attraction presented itself to me outside our hotel one morning.

My mom and I had walked down the street to get breakfast, and there on a bench was a passed-out dude. Being from NYC, I was no stranger to passed-out dudes on benches, so I thought nothing of it until I noticed that he was wearing baggy shorts and his ENTIRE humongous, pink junk was pretty much just hanging out in the breeze.

Something deep in my monkey DNA told me this was a fight-or-flight scenario, so I yanked my mother’s purse and leaned into her side. 

“MOM!” I whisper-hissed. “I can see that man’s penis!” 

My 43 year-old mother was unfazed and had never been particulary attached to her only daughter’s innocence. A Bronx-born orphan and scrapper from youth, not to mention a medical doctor, the woman had seen her share of dicks by this time and was decidedly circumspect.

She put her arm around my shoulder protectively and seamlessly steered us in the other direction. “Uch, Feh!” she shuddered in Yiddish under her breath, “Don’t look.” Of course the ONLY thing I wanted to do was look, and I was disappointed that my traveling companion didn’t share my enthusiasm.

“Remember this moment, Elizabeth,” she said when we had given the man and his genitals a sufficiently wide berth. “Because the fact is you won’t be able to forget it even if you want to.”

As with so much else, she was absolutely right.