Laurie Penny on Social Justice (if you’ve already read it, read it again)

This is me throwing my lot in with the feminists.

First, here’s what Laurie Penny has to say: Why We’re Winning: Social Justice Warriors And The New Culture Wars.

Penny is one of those rare people who can articulate ideas and great anger in such a clear, unsentimental fashion that it is very difficult to disagree with her without resorting to obtuseness, metaphysics, or name-calling. This is one of her strongest essays and reading it makes me eager to get my hands on her new book  (Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution).

The mere fact that I don’t know if I can add much to what Penny says won’t stop me from trying.

I’m old. I’m old enough to remember when the term “glass ceiling” was new and women were only beginning to gain a foothold in American businesses. As with any “boys club” that finds itself forced to be more inclusive, corporate management did not take it well. I remember staff meetings held in “gentlemen’s clubs” for no reason other than to exclude the women or at the very least make them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. This kind of crap has been around for a long time.

I’ve been a part of it, too. I cringe when I remember some of the things I did to women I worked with, things that “everyone” (meaning “most of the guys) did. I said and did things that would be so beyond acceptable now that I’d be sacked on the spot if I were to do them today.

That’s the point, though: The tide has turned inevitably against our culture accepting that kind of behavior. Even temporary setbacks, like new technology creating a new area for men to dominate and intimidate women, is only an unfortunate blip that can and will be set right.

Unfortunately, we still have a long, long way to go before we can start tossing around words like “equality” at the end of phrases like “We have now achieved…”  A friend of mine recently called my attention to this relatively minor story about a school dress code banning yoga pants.* Dress codes exist all over the place, but for some reason, this particular story made a it’s point very clear in my mind: As a society, we treat differences between the male and female bodies as a way to punish women for being women.

Too harsh? I don’t believe so. The purpose of most dress codes is to shame women for their bodies and treat the women as responsible for how males react to those bodies*. The fact that women are required to cover their secondary sexual characteristics but men are allowed to shamelessly display their beards in public is, if you step back, completely absurd.

Let’s look at the reproductive end of things. It’s still very much a “two-to-tango” situation, but the way we deal with the prospect of pregnancy isn’t remotely balanced. A vasectomy is covered by almost all insurance policies, but this gets almost no press and is not considered controversial. Women’s birth control, on the other hand, is hugely controversial in the U.S. Let’s let that paragon of What It Means To Be An American Male, Rush Limbaugh, weigh in:

“So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

-Rush Limbaugh, responding to Sandra Fluke’s congressional testimony regarding birth control

You’d think it would be the other way around, because, while it does take two to create a pregnancy, only one party is physically affected for a year or so by it. Therein, I believe, we find the reason for why birth control for women is so “controversial:” It puts women on a more equal footing with men. This is why a viagra-smuggler is engaging in slut-shaming. It’s not really about the sex; it’s about the control.

I know it’s cheap to use a quote from Mr. “Sometimes No Means Yes” himself, but he’s still an influential and much-listened-to radio personality. Fortunately, his influence is waning and the number of dead-enders under who take him seriously is shrinking. Limbaugh is, in his own small, sad way, sort of a microcosm of the reactionary assault on feminism. He’s not the voice of “the righteous retaking this country and returning it to its past glory.” He’s the last gasp of a worldview that has long outlived its usefulness. The death throes are ugly, but that’s exactly what they are.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I am extremely pro-yoga pants and I wear them wherever I can, even though I’ve yet to do one…what is the proper unit of yoga? Anyway, the pants are brilliant. You ought to be wearing them right now.

** Well, ok, to be fair, sometimes dress codes are about racism more than sexism.

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