Language that Hurts and Sensitivity Harassment

Today a friend told me a story about a writer he knew. The writer had written a novel that was accepted for publication at a trade house and was told all was well except for one element. The story included a trans character and the publisher wanted to send the book to “a sensitivity reader.” The author, who was not a trans person, did not like the idea of being vetted in this way and took the book to a different house. I wondered about other ways books could be vetted for “sensitivity.” Did the publisher send books about women written by men to female “sensitivity” readers? What about books about men written by women? Were there “sensitivity readers” for books about race, religion, nationality, forms of trauma the author had not experienced? What possible good could any of this do for writing, publishing, the issue itself of calming the frizz of bias and phobia?

Yesterday I posted on Facebook about the phrase “pussy whipped.” A friend used the term in a post, and I registered my reaction in a separate post. I asked a series of rthetorical questions some people mistook for real questions and began to “splain” some meanings the term had for men. I “splained” back, in the comment thread, that regardless of how men understand the phrase and used it jokingly among themselves and others, the term “pussy whipped” stings and stigmatizes people who actually have pussies. I wanted to say, simply, I feel a current of rage go through my body each time I hear or read the term “pussy whipped” as well as the equation of the words douche, douchebag, pussy (for weakling) wuss (variant of puss), and cunt with any vile piece of shit. I said: “The world is full of things viler than female genitalia and things that wash female genitalia. Such as the myriad hairy paws, coated with dried semen and redolent of rotting oysters, squeezing the balls of our society.”

I did not ask anyone to stop using these terms, not because I want to keep hearing them but because I don’t think social change happens through censorship and “sensitivity harassment.” I think it happens this way, in social use and reactions to social use. Every time I feel a surge of rage go through my body when I hear language that insults me and my body parts, I will call attention to the sliming and I will create a counter example that puts into relief the double standard. The double standard is where I have consciousness of sexism and misogyny because I have to, and you do not have consciosuness of these things because you do not have to and you risk little in life for not having it.

Every time I feel a surge of rage, I have been harmed a little. Disagreement is not trauma (especially if you grew up in my family or are simply a Jew), but the free flow of sexist and misogynist language tears at the safety and freedom of all women in the world all the time. It does do harm. The remedy is not resticting langauge and the crazy and at times poetically weird and unexpected meanings language can stir.

Back to the book publisher. If someone wanted to vet a book or even an article or story of mine through a “sensitivity reader,” I would pull it. In fact this happened to me in 2016 at the Columbia University radio station WKCR. (This story is well chronicled elsewhere if you want to read details.) How does a society designate a term hate speech? It’s weird and hard and mostly I’m against these determinations. Are the underpinnings almost always economic? Meaning, is the impulse to censor or moderate language stirred by fear of an economic backash by consumers? Is that what the book publisher feared, a backlash of disapproval about a nontrans person depicting a trans character?

Everyone wants to speak for themselves. I want the freedom to explain as often as I can how it feels to be stigmatized and demeaned by assumptions everywhere in the culture that the bodies of female humans and the lives lived in those bodies are viciously undervalued. I also don’t want anything to police or restrict your freedom to say the shit that pisses me off.

My Brilliant Friend Episode 2

I have not read the Ferrante books. Yes, I have been encouraged to. These thoughts refer to the HBO series, alone. I am most struck by the foreground of female rivalry set against a backdrop of male violence and the atmosphere of general terror it produces in the community. Fathers are supposed to rule their households even if they do not wish to. Girls are not supposed to be educated in the mainly lowly ranks of these villagers. Class and sexism join forces to confine girls to the role of drone in her family of birth and later in the family where she serves as a wife. The system feels feudal, although the story takes place in postwar Naples. The female teacher of the girls is the only force countering these values, and although she tries to steel Lila’s mother to intervene on behalf of her brilliant child, she relents, seeing the effort is futile. Lila’s father will throw her out a window after she says she will take the test to enter middle school regardless of what he says. Her arm is broken in the fall. It is a horrifying moment. The women gather around the child, who downplays the injury. The women, including Lila’s mother, say, “She fell.” Lila is going to exit her circumstance by any means necessary, and it kills her that Lenu, who is devoted to her, has been given permission by her father to take the test. Lila devises a scheme to sabotage Lenu by enticing her to cut school and walk to the ocean. The scheme doesn’t work, and Lenu understands the betrayal, but she also understands its twisted source. It is the logic of: If I can’t go, then why should you? And Lenu deals with another version of this with her mother, who seethes with resentment at the way Lenu’s father dotes on her. She can’t bear the disparity between her fate and the possibility her daughter will not replicate her life, and in their interaction we see the machinery of sexism working inside women. Lenu’s mother goads her husband to beat Lenu for cutting class, taunting him to show he is a man. If the world of female roles is not a fixed thing, if it can be altered, then Lenu’s mother did not have to forfeit her own buried hopes. The thought that her own existence wasn’t necessary is unbearable, and all her energy will go to propping up the system that will keep them both in place. There are moments of beauty along the way. Lenu’s father beats her but insists she will take the test, and Lila’s brother stands up to their father and says he will pay for his sister to go to school because, “Everyone knows she is the smartest person in the village.” He fails, of course, but it is a gorgeous gesture, as is the kindness toward Lila of another boy, whose intelligence has been thwarted and who has been tracked into hawking produce on the street. We see Lila through her actions and the ferocity of her calculating mind that she shares only with Lenu. She does not need Lenu to be who she is, but she wants an accomplice and an audience. Lenu needs Lila to become herself, so she forgives the betrayal. She does not want to know what she has learned about Lila, but she does know, and the knowledge will peek out from what obscures it from time to time. The episode is extraordinary in its complexity and in the way it remains focused at all times on the drama of the girls to become themselves. Their reading of “Little Women” over and over until the pages become grimy, is enormous here. It might as well be scaling a dangerous mountain. We’re inside Lenu’s consciousness. This is the mind we can penetrate partly because she is telling the story, sometimes in the voiceover of the adult writer. Also because Lenu is not fixed and rigid as Lila is said to be and as we can see as well. Lenu is the collector of ambivalence that will never be resolved.

My Brilliant Friend on HBO

The first episode aired last night. I have not read Elena Ferrante’s books. I was a captive of the show. At the center of the life of every female human is not a man, not a child, not parents, not siblings. It is a female best friend. It is the person you sit next to on the bus or are chosen for her kickball team, and you feel you never want to leave her. You will figure out a way to marry her. You will sleep in her bed. You will look for her for the rest of your life. She will leave you. You will outgrow her. You will find versions of her. Female friendship is your one true north, and it’s maddening and funny because no one depicts it. No one is willing to express the endless life of female friendship because part of its power is that it is a secret every female knows. The show knows this in every frame. The girls are beautifully cast. The way they eye each other before the bolder one who is also the more socially awkward one makes a move. Once they join hands, the bond it set. The bond is to escape the condition of being female. The girls understand it as a condition. Every girl does. It is the defining quality of girlness to know that girlness is a thing that you are born into and must escape by any means necessary. You need a partner. You need an army, but a partner is what you have for starters. You want to be who you are, and you are a girl, but girlness and the implacable march to a woman-future is not for you. In Naples it is opera day and night. Loud and sad and horrified and worn out by thirty. There are male humans, but male humans are registered only in so far as they are or may be instrumental to how girls will leave the condition of girlness. In a breathtaking sequence, Elena, writing as the older author looking back at her childhood, recalls a dream in which, suddenly, millions of beetles are released from sewers and fissures in the land and swarm the streets, scale the walls of the houses, and cover the bedding of sleepers, diving into the open mouth of a woman asleep on her back. The beetles with their hard carapaces and endless capacity to replicate are, collectively, the feeling of the female condition. When the girls clasp hands, they have begun the great adventure of their lives, which is to leave the understandings of other people and reinvent everything.

Hummingbirds

I watch hummingbirds at the feeder. One perches on the handle while the other dive bombs it for reasons that are a blur. They spin and fight. They arrive together and leave together, and no one gets to eat. I don’t know when I lost interest in why anything is the way it is. From time to time I find a letter, an email, a phone number from a person I sent love to and have forgotten exists. Today I picked a grapefruit from a tree, cut it the French way, as if to serve it, and ate it myself. I don’t remember when I formed a romantic image of traveling light, emotions being all you need to carry. The man I live with and I watched the Web series “High Maintenance,” about a guy who deals pot and enters the lives of his customers in the middle of a scene, not knowing the beginning or end. He is always kind and always a little stoned, and you think pot takes the edge off what is missing. There is something soft and tentative about him, which reduces his erotic energy, sex being about keeping absence unfllled. It reminded me of a man I had once loved who was mostly absent. The hummingbirds are so in love they can’t be bothered to eat.

Sex Crazy Now (or why you need a feminist analysis to understand the world we are living in as well as an appreciation for psychodynamics wherever humans engage with each other)

The wish is to preserve the notion that sex identity and the privileges accorded male humans are essential, ordained, real, and true. The secret knowledge is that male supremacy is enforced by power and is not biologically essential or determined. The secret understanding is that masculinity has to be learned and male supremacy has to be propped up by policing any threats to its control and understanding of itself. Females, homosexuals, trans people, gender fluid people, people who defy gendered dress codes, etc., all of these people threaten the notion that maleness is a single, biologically determined thing. Everyone on the planet by now knows it is not. Everyone knows you have to protect it all the time or the truth of everyone’s hybrid nature will force a redistribution of power between the sexes everywhere humans exist. The closer the awareness that male supremacy is not real, the higher the degree of panic. The higher the degree of panic, the more brutal the enforcements on gender separation and the quarantining of bodies, lest maleness itself be contaminated and fatally weakened by proximity to femaleness and other non-binary bodies. The panic suggests to those fighting the hardest that the contamination has already happened. The attack is the denial of knowledge that really can’t be deleted.

The threat to all trans people is also a threat to all female humans, whether or not they acknowledge it. Any woman and any feminist who does not see her predicament as intimately linked to the predicament of transpeople has a sadly enfeebled understanding of patriarchy. 

Dear Facebook,

I stayed in my apartment all day. I ate yogurt and some hamburger. I ate two calcium chews and took a biotin capsule for my hair. I drank two cups of English tea. I brought down the garbage to the basement and got the mail. I wrote the first part of a book review and a draft of a very short prose thing. I listened to classical music all day on my noise cancelling headphone, and three people called. One was the host of a radio show, and we spoke about the fates of prominent broadcasters whose lives, as a consequence of MeToo revelations, had been rearranged. I took a bath with epsom salts and lavender body scrub from Khiel’s. I thought about my sister’s husband and how missing her had created a bond between us. I responded to someone’s post on Facebook by referring to myself as the only sober person at the orgy, and I thought about how I often felt like the least cool person, because of my open desire for things, among the cool people I knew. One of my friends reminded me of my age. My friends tell me my age every day, as if I have left it on a bench during a walk. They want me to be the same age as them because I am the same age as them and we have made an unspoken pact to accompany each other through life’s stages. My friend said, “I remember when you once had flu You were wearing pajamas.” Maybe tights and a camisole, but pajamas? I think she meant when I was 33 or 34. No one knows what they are doing.

On the Bodies of Women

No form of abuse or indignity any woman could describe she has experienced because she is female would come as new information to anyone in the world. That female humans are a group it is okay and in some cultures and societies proper and ordained to torture and belittle is a fact everyone knows. The GOP is hoping it’s still okay to enough people in the world and especially in the US to practice business as usual. Presenting more evidence of rape and battering, as if this is evidence, demeans us. Destroying the right people would help. Just destroying them.