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Sep 302014

I just can’t wrap my brain around rape jokes being funny or appropriate.

This came across my virtual desk yesterday, and I am—I guess baffled is the best word for it. Quick version, there was a joke in the Simpsons/Family Guy crossover episode, which aired on Sunday, that poked fun at the idea of someone being raped. I’m baffled by how “Your sister’s being raped.” Is supposed to be the punchline of a joke. (I’m presuming this joke aired as planned, but I don’t know.) No matter how many times I read through the sequence, I still don’t get it, and I don’t think that’s just because I don’t particularly want to get it. I’m baffled by how an anti-sexual assault organization would see this “joke” as a tteachable moment.

I’m just plain confused.

How could an organization devoted to educating about and preventing sexual assault think this joke has educational potential? It just doesn’t. It’s nonsensical. Plus, in a comedy context it’s likely to go over people’s heads. Hell, I read it out of that context—you kno, the context where you laugh at everything and punch your buddy in the shoulder when it’s especially funny—and it went over my head. So yes, people might laugh at it, because they’re already laughing at everything else. They’re certainly not going to think about what their take-away from this scene should be. Most people don’t analyze their cartoons as they watch them.

One thing I’m wondering is if the idea that the “positioning” of the punchline being a pointer to why rape just isn’t funny is based on the idea that asking for lee Keybum (leaky Bum) isn’t all that funny. Thing is: Bart Simpson calling the bar and asking for nonsense names has been a gag on The Simmpsons since its early days. I personally find it amusing—not rip-roaring funny as I’m sure I did when I was a child—but certainly amusing. Maybe if someone doesn’t find that amusing, they might think that ending the scene with a rape comment makes it clear how ridiculous the hole sequence is. If indeed that was anyone’s logic, I’m not buying it!

Whether rape belongs in comedy is hardly a new debate. I knew I’d seen a particular feminist response the last time this issue came to my attention, and raced across the Internet (all the while feeling guilty for using the term “funny rape jokes” in a search engine) to find

Apr 222014

Okay, confession time:

A year ago I would have told you that I hated watching Law and Order: Special Victims’ Unit but that I couldn’t help myself. I would have told you that SVU WAS my drug, my guilty pleasure. The more I watched it, the more I saw to find fault with, yet the adrenaline-rushing, nonstop drama kept me hooked. I’d sit, watching episode after episode on Netflix, eating organic string cheese and getting high on having my emotions tweaked every 30 seconds or so.

An episode in which Detective Benson goes racing after an assault survivor, urging her to stay at the ER, get examined, and report her assault because “what if he does it to other women” was what finally broke this compulsive watching cycle. That particular episode morphed into a quite fascinating mystery that had nothing to do with sexual assault, yet that scene stayed with me. I felt the horrifying, traumatic unfairness of it.

Theoretically, I understand the concept of gathering evidence from survivors that may lead to getting a predator off the streets (or out of the boardroom, or away from schools), but… We all should always get to decide what happens to our bodies, including being able to decide how we talk about what has happened, what is happening now, or what we think, fear, or hope will happen in future. Our bodies are ours,and at no time is this more important than after a violation.

There was a time when I thought SVU was revolutionary, enlightening people on various gender, sexual, and social issues. It couldn’t be a bad thing, I thought, that the realities of sexual assault, domestic violence, and trauma were being emphasized.

Another but…

Forty-four minutes (that’s without commercials, some episodes are as short as 40 minutes) is not enough time to deal with any complex issue adequately, especially when such dealings are interrupted by the necessary plot twists, emotional outbursts, inter-character conflicts, and the like that make up popular nighttime drama. So ideas become skewed, fact becomes conflated with fiction (E.G. DNA results are rarely available as quickly as the show implies), and people wind up knowing little more about the social issue being tackled than they knew before they started. Sometimes, they know even less, or gain an unhealthy perspective.

In my life as a crisis hotline volunteer, and in my personal life, I’ve spent hours just doing the emotional support part of sexual assault response for one person at a time. It’s not easy; it’s not quick; it rarely involves sudden revelations which make everything clear and help details fall into place.

Having someone disclose also doesn’t mean that you can then, as a support person, prevent any further assault from happening. I couldn’t, and it took a lot of healing before that stopped haunting me every day. Even as I write this, the heaviness of that burden returns for a brief visit. I couldn’t stop assault, and neither can the police always do, as assault often happens within complex family or social systems which victims are afraid to break. Many victims are reliant on those who abuse them for financial or other resources, and social services are almost never as quickly mobilized as SVU IMPLIES.

The dramatization of pain, of violence, of terror numbs people to the reality of victimization, the gut-level, tear-wrenching, fist-clenching, body-cringing reality. I feel a little nauseated when I think about the emotional titillation, the morbid fascination, people have with violent dramatic portrayals on TV or in movies.

The portrayal of the investigative process is not only misleading, but is set up, I think, in such a way as to minimize the toll of that investigative process on the person who has experienced the assault. Have you ever seen, up close and personal, the evidence discovery kit they use after someone has been sexually assaulted? I have. During my training as a sexual assault hotline volunteer, I got to see a bag full of collection items—and that’s what they are. Syringes of various sizes with various tips, tweezers, swabs and little baggies. I don’t mind telling you I’ve never been assaulted, but I can tell you with almost complete certainty that I wouldn’t want to experience the invasion of a rape kit afterwards. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t do so, only that I wouldn’t want to.

So, to see detectives on SVU calmly asking questions while the survivor is being examined messes with my head. I don’t know whether this is common practice in real-life, but I just feel, on that gut-level, like it’s more violation. That examination needs to be a time when a survivor is supported by a trusted friend or family member, or a sexual assault advocate, or to be alone with the medical personnel if they choose.

It’s not just SVU’s treatment of sexual assault that bothers me.

I’ve never seen an episode in which alternative sexualities weren’t attached to criminal or disturbed activity in some way. Oh yes, they’ve got the gay and lesbian thing down just fine (for the most part), but anyone who enjoys kinky sex, or swinging, or group sex is fair game.

There was the episode in which a murder victim was found to have frequented a sex club. This “promiscuity” was explained by the way her abusive father had oversexualized her as a child. This wasn’t an isolated incident either. Whenever someone is found to have an association with alt sexualities, including in private spaces such as home or club, the detectives’ suspicion levels elevate.

In reality, many people who enjoy group sex, or swinging, or any other sexual practice outside of the rather limiting norm set by our society are doing so in healthy ways. They’re not working out childhood traumas. This isn’t to say that some haven’t experienced those traumas, only that they’ve worked them out in other ways, are aware of possible triggers, and are playing sexually for healthy reasons (like wanting to have fun). People with sexualities seen as alternative run the same gamut of personalities, professions, quirks, and personal life histories as anyone else. Many people assumed to be following sexual norms—aren’t, and are none the worse for not doing so.

Another episode I recall took this even further. A suspect or a witness (I don’t remember which) was goaded into telling the truth by detective Benson, who, after learning that he enjoyed submission and humiliation inn his sexual play, and had payed for these services, gave him orders and called him names during the interrogation. (And, of course, he fell for it hook, line and sinker. That’s TV drama for you!) It’s almost (but not quite) laughable that this man’s fetish was assumed to be his overall trigger; in other words, most people who enjoy submission, humiliation, or both in sexual contexts won’t just automatically respond to those triggers in everyday situations (if interrogation by the police can be considered an everyday situation). Again, too, a person’s sexual needs or preferences don’t automatically indicate criminality unless they’re acting them out on children or on anyone who hasn’t consented.

Over the years, many people have talked about the good SVU has done. I think that, at the beginning, there was more attention paid to gentleness and respect for the painful complexities of sexualized violence. As more characters were added, and the drama quotient was elevated (c’mon! Did we really have to have the Olivia-Eliot attraction subtext thing?) that attention to detail faded, or morphed into focus on the salacious parts. A good story has taken the place of attention to realism and humanity.

I don’t doubt that mariska harjitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation, and the other work she has done, has done some good. There’s very little in life that is truly good or truly bad. I don’t doubt that many women have written to harjitay to share their own experiences of assault. Any representation that isn’t wholly victim-blaming (in early episodes Harjitay’s character calls out victim-blaming quite frequently) is going to help someone feel safe enough to reach out. The injunctions from attackers, and often from society, to keep silent about assault, to keep secret, eat away at victims and survivors, and anything that helps at least one person isn’t all bad.

Much of harjitay’s work has been to clear the backlog of rape kits that has built up in state laboratories, so that more evidence can be processed and more people, theoretically, can be brought to justice. Again, theoretically, (since I don’t know of any recent case in which this has happened) processing all this evidence could also identify serial attackers, which would lead not only to mdealing out justice (whatever justice really is) but to crime prevention.

For justice to really be served, though, the criminal justice system needs a major overhaul. We need to see more work done on prevention, less vilifying of the victims, more vilifying of the crimes. We’ve not yet moved past the time and space in which people who’ve been assaulted aren’t blamed or bullied, in which their sexual histories, or choice of clothing, isn’t used as evidence in a courtroom, in which prison sentences for sex crimes are longer than those for burglary, and aren’t suspended based on time served before trial. (Yes, usually I’d find you references to cases where any of these things have happened, but it’s honestly just too depressing so I’m going to ask you to do your own research this time.)

There’s likely more I could write, but since I haven’t been watching SVU lately, except for the occasional viewing when visiting family, I don’t have any more episodes to deconstruct.

Ultimately, I just want to leave you with this thought (which could be applied to many other forms of entertainment besides SVU): We cannot trivialize strong emotions in TV drama. WE can never forget that sex crimes (or other violent crimes) can happen to all of us, at any time—that most of us know people who have been victimized.

This is real life, people.

Apr 132014

If we don’t remember history, we’re doomed to repeat it.

Yes, this is an old worn-out adage, and really should be: If we don’t do our research, and talk to a good cross-section of people, our understanding of history will be skewed and incomplete—and nothing good can come from that.

Not so catchy, but much more real.

What I’m finding these days is that as more histories come to light, as the realities of more people are given a voice (hello social media!), some histories, some realities, are still left out.

As a visibly disabled woman, I’m particularly conscious of how the histories and realities of disabled people are often left out of dialogues which include the histories and realities of other marginalized populations. This stings a little every time I see it, not because it’s specifically my reality being left out (as a North-American born white woman with economic advantages it often isn’t, but because the minority populations discussing these realities aren’t doing their research. They’re not practicing what I think of as true intersectionality, which isn’t just making sure all the voices are at the table, but including the histories and realities of those whose voices aren’t at this particular table. Yes, it’s a fine line between including those histories and speaking for the people those histories discuss (and we want to avoid speaking for) but so long as we use documented fact and anecdote, we’re practicing due diligence.

Can we include every single person’s reality? Likely not, we’re too individual, have too much amazing, beautiful diversity. Yet entire populations, populations with well-documented histories and realities if one knows where to look, are still being left out.

I’ve been noticing this particularly in the reproductive justice movement, and it was particularly obvious as I was reading this position on proposed changes to consent requirements around sterilization published recently at RH Reality Check.

I’m pleased that the groups who put this position paper together are reminding the public about this country’s long history of reproductive abuses against women, and urging reproductive justice advocates not to be so quick to dismiss safeguards against those abuses. But am disappointed that such an aware, well-cited mini-history leaves out the well-documented experiences of disabled people.

Disabled women were one of the primary targets of involuntary sterilization laws, which fell under the umbrella of eugenics, and became particularly prevalent starting in the 1920s, yet this article makes only one mention of women with disabilities.

Any quick Google search will pull up references to online and offline resources about the unconsented/involuntary sterilization of disabled people. This is not> a hidden history.

This history of eugenics and this archive from the Chicago Tribune are but two publicly available online resources, available to any interested party with a computer and Internet connection.

I’m disappointed that the organizations who signed this position paper left out this key part of history.
I’m disappointed that they seem to be following the common trend of rendering invisible any reality that doesn’t specifically speak to the one we’re trying to bring into the fore.

While the article nicely addresses the pros and cons of a thirty-day waiting period before sterilization procedures—we’re not nearly far enough away from the days when sterilizations were incorporated into other medical treatments without patient consent to do away with safeguards—I do wish that the mention of women with disabilities that does exist wasn’t so perfunctory and one-dimensional.

This is the only mention of women with disabilities in the entire piece:

What improvements to the Medicaid sterilization consent form would reflect the needs of women with disabilities, limited English proficiency, and low literacy levels, who want sterilization?

This feels an awful lot like being talked about, while rendering our collective history invisible. In other words, we don’t get to be part of the history-telling (and in so doing be empowered to speak our truth) but we can fit into a bullet list of policy-considerations.

Not only does this single mention in an article all about something that has routinely happened to us erase our reality, but it reinforces the assumption that the relationship women with disabilities have to sterilization is unilateral, and is that we would want it. This reinforces the idea that women with disabilities are not capable of the full range of reproductive decisions that other women—other people–are and that we don’t, in the course of our lives, find ourselves considering and making that same range of decisions.

I can tell you that this just isn’t true. Disabled people worry about getting pregnant, make decisions about whether to parent, have abortions, feel a range of feelings about those abortions, experience unwanted pregnancies and unplanned parenthood, think about how many children they want to have, wind up having fewer or more than they’d intended, and all the other health and life circumstances that fall under the rubric of reproductive rights or reproductive justice.

Looking at the list of organizations which put this position paper together, I noticed a distinct lack of organizations run by women with disabilities or devoted to disability research. I reached out to my favourite grassroots women with disabilities thinktank Gimp girl, to find out if any organizations were in fact addressing reproductive justice for disabled people.

They pointed me to these groups:

Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD)
and The Initiative for Women With Disabilities.

Both look excellent, and I’m happy to have them in my virtual rolodex of research.

They don’t appear to be doing any significant cross-issue work, such as with other reproductive justice organizations, though, and reproductive justice organizations don’t appear to be looking critically at the place of disability or disabled people either.

It’s not an easy thing to critique the work of prominent reproductive justice organizations, particularly when what they’re calling for is critical dialogue.

However, When we have a position article that references secondary sources, and which was clearly researched and constructed thoughtfully, the absence of information right there in the open, ready for the taking by anyone, is disappointing and frustrating. The reduction of disabled women’s reproductive realities—no matter how unintentional—to how and whether they can access consent forms for sterilization is, again likely unintentionally, harmful.

How do we, I wonder, integrate the voices of people with disabilities, and awareness of our collective history, into the general reproductive justice conversation?

Feb 202014

In the first part of my commentary on “porn for the blind,” I suggested that visual forms of porn don’t retain much of their eroticism if they’re made accessible. Erotic picture does not necessarily equal erotic tactile picture.

This isn’t because blind people’s erotic sensibilities are any different from those of people who can see (the continuums of what people find erotic are the same whether a person can see or not) but because the frame of reference is different. The whole of a visual image is more than just the sum of its parts.

Today, let’s find out what happens when people give audio descriptions of visual erotic material.

As always, I’ll be as objective as I can, but I’m only one blind person among many, so reactions may vary.

PornForTheBlind.org is a crowd-sourcing site at which people can upload their narrations of mainstream porn trailers from around the net. There are no guidelines for these descriptions, and no obvious forms of oversight for what is uploaded.

Listening to the handful of descriptions I was able to get through, I was bored to tears, and ready to go do the laundry or some other equally mundaine, non-erotic task.

This site falls into the category of interesting, not erotic. Describing what video porn looks like is not the same as consuming it as porn. The erotic elements are not there.

Granted, each narrator describes differently (there are no guidelines or even guiding principles for describers) so the quality varies. But, while some were narrated more helpfully than others, none of the descriptions floated my erotic boat.

What does lacking erotic details look like? No coherence, lots of ums and uhs, no emphasis on using sexy or descriptive language, no panache, and most of the narrators sound bored out of their skulls. The majority of the narrators speak in a monotone, and don’t seem to have practiced their spiel ahead of time.

Perhaps consequently, many of the descriptions are funny (not erotically funny), and the funniness is more painful than entertaining. The language used is often clinical at best, and missing colour supplied from adjectives, setting descriptions, and sexual slang.

this article explains the nature of the material on porn For the Blind this way:

…there’s something hot about the absolute amateur quality of the submissions, just like a homemade snapshot capturing real sexual energy can have more impact than a studio photograph of a professional model.

If there’s something hot here, I’m missing it. This writer may be confusing amateur with raw. (She is also, I suspect, assuming that everyone describes with the rich detail she uses; Her descriptions (which she provides links to in her article) are, so far as I can tell, the exceptions, not the rule.) She sounds like she’s enjoying herself, and does supply descriptive detail.

There is definitely something raw about the porn being described, but the descriptions lack “sexual energy” and are so stark E.G. (“there is a man lying on a couch; a woman is on top of him; they’re having intercourse.”) that any raw sexiness is edited right out.

Again, we have a situation in which making the visual genre accessible to people who can’t see strips much of the erotic appeal out of the content. With Tactile Minds, I assessed part of the problem as being the presence of too much stylized detail. With Porn for the Blind, I believe we have too little.

were the narrators of these clips to script their narrations, using words which set the stage and describe the mood of the activity as well as what is happening, I think we’d have more of that sexually raw content available in the audio. As it is now, we’re just hearing what happens on the screen. This is not the same watching experience as that which people watching it firsthand get; They’re absorbing the mood of the setting, the characters’ actions and body language, all with their own concepts of what is sexy informing their reactions. While word choice in narrations would necessarily influence the hearer’s perception of the scene (we’d be getting the narrator’s perception of what’s happening) it would add more in the way of interest and appeal than what is currently there.

So, the description I quoted above might then become: “A man is reclining on a leather sofa; he lies still as a woman straddles him and vigorously fucks him.” or, it might read: “A man reclines on a leather sofa, arching his hips up towards the woman who straddles him, her long hair brushing his chest as their pelvises rock together. (No, I’m not going to sign up to describe porn any time soon, but hopefully you get the picture.) :)

It may be too that this genre of porn really cannot be narrated. Listening to these descriptions reminded me of the time I watched a full-length artsy erotic film with some friends, and the machinations they went through to describe to me what was happening on-screen left all of us in peals of laughter. The film was essentially a montage of elaborate sexy scenes that switched about every minute. The scenes in a 30- to- 45-second trailer flip even more rapidly, and with less context, than those in a full-length film. Keeping up with these flips, plus supplying evocative information, is a challenge for any person trying to describe, and if it is going to be done, should probably be done by someone who has experience with providing audio descriptions.

So, in short, Porn For the blind is an interesting exercise the result of which ends up pretty far away from the intent.

Conclusion: Not erotic, not entertaining, and (because of the generally inexpert description) not even overly educational as to what happens in porn.

Next time, a review of a site with exclusively audio content.

Dec 202013

My ire was roused recently when reading about Dan Savage’s artistic venture, Miracle, a retelling of Helen Keller’s story. So that I don’t have to recap, I’ll let you read about it for yourself.

Yes, I know. I’m a little late (at least a year) to the game hearing about this, and later still talking about it. I needed time to gather my thoughts and calm my pounding heart of anger and disbelief. I needed time to think about whether I wanted to speak out against the work of someone who is such a publicly lauded member of the sex ed community.

I’ve taken that time, and I have no choice, per my sense of integrity, but to say what I think and how I feel. And, after all, Miracle was hardly educational.

Oh, and I’m still angry.

Furthermore, the broader issue here is timeless and one that isn’t discussed nearly often enough–how we talk about disability, and who gets to do that talking.

It’s pretty clear to me, with the recent, highly publicized debacle of the sign-language-interpreter-who-wasn’t and the ignorant, ableist theories, beliefs, and attitudes that have been voiced in response, that inclusion and acceptance of people with disabilities–in all spheres–still needs to be talked about. (There are also some pretty hefty concerns with how mental illness is being discussed around all of this, further complicating the disability discussion. While we only have part of the story, I suspect, from what we have heard, that this man should never have been put in the position he was in, for his sake as much as for anyone else’s. The South African government’s responsibility to ensure that it was hiring a qualified interpreter–preferably more than one–for deaf people’s access to information cannot, to my mind, be disputed. Yet, that’s what some people seem to want to do.)

All this to say that we’re not anywhere close to being done with the need for speaking up, clearly and often loudly, for how people with disabilities are perceived, included, and represented publicly, whether that’s in the arts or at an internationally important event. It also means we have to speak clearly, and often loudly, about the words and actions around this inclusion and representation.


presumably, Miracle is supposed to be humourous. A discussion of the ethics and respect lacking in the mockery (no matter how artful, and no matter how humourous”) of a population one is not a member of would fill pages. Minority humour is live and well, and must, by virtue of respect, and of an inner knowledge of the workings of that minority group, be left to members of that group. Attempts at humour by people not belonging to that minority group smack of power, of appropriation, and of mockery. I think we call making fun of people for their differences bullying.

From an artistic, as well as human equality perspective, any humour not informed by the group the humour is about is bound to fall flat. Humour, as with everything else in life worth knowing about, requires thoughtfulness.

Since I haven’t seen this play, I’m not in a place to evaluate its humour objectively. I don’t like what I’ve heard, though, and think that it likely appropriates something the playwright has no knowledge of and views it through the lens of something he does know. Viewing someone else’s experience through our own lenses usually yields a mirky, and incorrect, image.

Helen Keller’s story is powerful. Through finding a way to transmit language to a child who could neither see nor hear, Anne Sullivan helped that child transform her life, and paved the way for other people to take hold of their lives in similar ways. That’s powerful, but not superhuman. Ms. Sullivan solved a problem for Ms. Keller—how to communicate—and assisted her with interacting with the rest of the world who didn’t communicate in the same way. The rest was up to Ms. Keller. Indeed, the story of what Ms. Keler did as an adult is at least as interesting as her childhood.

Most retellings of “Helen Keller’s story” leave her later years out. Also left out are the problems both Helen and Anne faced throughout their lives, not only individually, but in their interactions with each other. Very often, their story is told as “the Helen Keller story” not “the story of Helen Keller’s life.” See the difference? One is her story, the story other people put onto her; the other is the real story, nothing left out to make it more palatable or sensational.

While Keller and Sullivan’s story is often overdramatized and simultaneously oversimplified, it’s a pretty amazing story in itself. It’s not a story that anyone has the right to appropriate. Sadly, too many people have done so far too many times, though never, to my knowledge, in quite the way Miracle does.

What really rouses my ire about Savage’s play—and what I’ll talk about here–was the sign that was apparently posted above the stage. Ironically, if I had been to see the play, I’d not have known about this sign unless someone had told me about it, since I can’t see.

It said this:

This play will be deeply offensive to the deaf/blind community, so please don’t tell them. Keep your hands shut!

Really? Seriously? Someone thought it was okay to say this in public? A whole bunch of someones agreed with this decision? No one, from the actors, to the stage hands, to the theatre manager, realized that this crosses the limits of human dignity? In any other context but an artistic one, this sign would be seen as discriminatory.

I’m ordinarily quite gentle, too gentle, often too willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. Too many times I’ve been told to not object to someone’s disrespect of me as a disabled person as “They meant well.” Or “They don’t know any better.”

I’m not feeling particularly gentle this time.

Dan Savage is not, so far as intellect goes, a stupid man. So, he did know better, and, I’ve know doubt he did mean it—I imagine it’s “just a joke.”)

“Just a joke” is a worn out cop-out for saying something that shouldn’t be said.

“Just a joke” is a rickety bridge between the speaker of the “joke” and what they’re actually saying—a way for them to release responsibility for the true meaning of their words.

Suggesting that information be withheld from anyone is not a joke.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m blind and have a bilateral hearing impairment, though I do not use sign and can usually hear what is said to me. I have friends who are deaf-blind and use sign, a computer, or a mobile device when out and about to communicate. So, this is personal for me, but I’d like to think that those for whom this is les personal could still know in their minds and feel in their guts that even the suggestion to withhold information is just not okay—and certainly isn’t funny.

I’d like to take away Savage’s (and anyone who agrees with him) mobile phone, his car keys, and his computer, and see how he feels about suggesting that communication should just be kept from anyone intentionally. I wonder if he’d think it was funny then?

Savage has likely never, as an adult, been denied information because someone else didn’t think he needed to know it. He’s likely, at least not in the computer-age, never had to solely rely on another human being for information.

To suggest that someone keep any knowledge from someone else who otherwise wouldn’t know or be able to access it is disgusting in the extreme. Think, for a moment, what it would be like if someone filtered what you knew through a screen of what they thought you needed to know. This information could include anything from the specials posted on the chalkboard in your favourite restaurant, to the fact that the people behind you are talking about you because they know you can’t hear them, to the plans everyone is making for going out, plans they’re conveniently leaving you out of. This can also include things like the entirety of what your doctor, lawyer, or financial advisor just told you. Get the picture?

Well, people do that to children all the time, you say. Yes, but disabled adults aren’t children! I’m also not a fan of keeping information from children anyway, though do recognize that information sometimes needs to be doled out differently based on cognitive and emotional development. Even then, I’m a fan of sharing and adapting the information in a cognitively-appropriate way, and not of willfully keeping information secret.

No, this isn’t like talking to children. We were all children once. We all had the experience of growing up, of having adults filter what we knew in one way or another.

No, what Dan Savage is talking about here is keeping information from adults because they might be offended by it. And…if they’re offended by it, that might mean that people will say he shouldn’t have written the play in the first place.

Oh, pardon me…I forgot. The whole thing is just a joke, including that sign.

Ha! Ha! I mustn’t take things too seriously…

Except for that part where it makes a joke of something that really happens to people, the withholding of information—something that denies their humanity, limits their options, and, depending on the information in question, puts them in danger.

I still find it ironic that I wouldn’t have known about that sign if I’d gone to see the play—unles, of course, someone had told me about it. I would have been ignorant, not of the play’s offensiveness, but of the excuses around that offensiveness.

I’m not the only one expressing these concerns. Given Savage’s work around the needs of young people, I think this young disabled lesbian’s words are particularly important. What she has to say about this play and its broader implications for Savage’s work and her own place in the world is worth a read, or two, or three.

Dec 112013

Porn for blind people. Does it exist?

With the rich variety of erotic materials available to everyone who wants to access them (and knows where to find them), is specially-developed content necessary?

Erotic material comes in a variety of formats–film, audio, and written word to name a few–and is marketed in myriad ways. I suppose then that it’s no surprise to find erotic material marketed as being “for the blind,” though it’s a bit of a misnomer as plenty of people with visual impairments do consume and appreciate some visual materials.

What I have seen of “porn for the blind” has shown me that visual forms of erotic material do not translate well. In other words, it makes much more sense to focus on the development of written and oral erotic content if one wants to make sure that blind people have access than to try to make visual material accessible.

What I’ve seen of these attempts has either resulted in a substandard product or in a product that is interesting, but not overly erotic.

Perhaps the most well-publicized “porn for the blind” is the book of tactile erotic pictures, Tactile Mind.

I got to see this book a couple of years ago, when I visited Come As You Are in toronto. This book of photographs turned into tactile graphics, complete with Braille descriptions, got a fair bit of news coverage when it first came out. Unsurprisingly, the appelation “porn for the blind” came from this media coverage.

I confess when I first learned of this book I was dubious. I have been blind since early childhood, and have never gotten much more from raised drawings than a sense of shape and placement. Raised graphics were what I used to learn about Venn diagrams and geometric shapes, not about sexuality. No, we didn’t have raised anatomy charts in sex ed class though we probably should have—particularly if they had been rendered with the attention to detail found in this book.

These were by far the most detailed raised images I’ve ever seen.

I was also suspicious of the porn label. Pornafter all, is meant to arouse the senses. I had my doubts that raised images could have the same erotic impact as pictures do on many people who can see them. Turning two-dimensional images, with shape, line, angle, colour, lighting, et cetera, into raised line drawings means losing most of those characteristics, the colour, shading, et cetera, that make the picture more than just a picture in the first place.

I doubted these tactile pictures would have any erotic impact at all.

Since I had unexpected access to the book at Come As You are, though, and time to peruse it, I was able to take a good look. It is, incidentally, a really freeing experience to be able to sit in a store’s reading corner and read a book. That’s not an experience I get very often at all.

I scrutinized this one from cover to cover.

Tactile Mind is a spiral bound book of 17 tactile images with Braille descriptions of each one. Also included is a print copy of each image. Artist Lisa Murphy selected seventeen of her photographs—one of which is a self-portrait–and reproduced them in raised form.

The most important difference between the way a blind person processes an image and the way a sighted person processes is the amount of information that can be taken in at one time. I can only touch one part at a time—two if I use both hands. The amount of detail in these photos made creating a mental picture really difficult. My fingers flitted back and forth between the description and the image, trying to make sense of each individual part, trying to understand what I was feeling.

Did I find these images erotic? Some of them. The simpler the photograph, the more I could appreciate the spare symmetry of lines and curves, or the grace or erotic potential in body position. The masks and props are part of an artistic world I cannot share in; when translated into tactile form, they detract from the picture rather than enhancing it.

Though the photos were taken specifically for this book, they were not appropriate photos for this project. Murphy’s desires, to make her models feel comfortable with being photographed nude by decking them out in silly costumes, and creating a book of tactile pictures that can be appreciated by blind people, don’t match. The more detail put into a tactile drawing, the less most people reading that drawing with their fingers are going to get from it.

Having said that, the level of tactile detail in these images is impressive. Textural differences bring more life to images, though not necessarily more eroticism. Beards and pubic hair were textured much as hair would be. Some skin was smooth while other pictures showed the dimples of cellulite.

Overall, though, with a few exceptions, these images were interesting to me, not erotic.
For me, any eroticism in this book came from the suggestion rendered by reading descriptions. There was just so much going on in the images, that the words were more comprehensible, more evocative of mental pictures than the photos themselves.

So, do we need to render visual forms of erotic material to be accessible to blind people?

I don’t think so. I just don’t think they translate. The kinds of tactile detail put in this book still don’t mirror the kinds of tactile detail one would associate with interacting sexually with someone else, or with oneself. There’s a closer connection between pictures and everyday erotic interactions for people who can see the pictures; there’s not as much translation that needs to happen.

Does this mean that what all blind people find erotic is the same or that there is no benefit to making erotic images tactile? Certainly not!

To Be Continued…

Nov 292013

It seems that people lose all perspective on the nature of human interactions when visible disabilities are at play.

Last week, I read this blog post about just such a loss of perspective.

Apparently, a newspaper decided that two college football players sitting with a visibly disabled fellow student in their school cafeteria was newsworthy.

karin of claiming Crip gives a brilliant analysis here. She offers the clearest, most concise, most down-to-earth deconstruction of ableist thinking I’ve seen in a while–the most honest, most no-holds-barred explanation of exactly why it’s unacceptable–and inaccurate–to view disabled people, and the nondisabled people who associate with us, as inspiring.

It’s pretty apparent that, in this story, the perspective of the student these football players sat with wasn’t terribly important. There are quotes about him, but not from him.

It’s further apparent, to me, anyway, that this reporting is also a reflection of the cultural view of college athletes.

College athletes are often held in hero status in general, lauded at a level and for things far beyond their age and degree of life experience. Lauded in a way that actually negates their humanity. Here, praising them for–even reporting on the fact that they did–choose to sit with a visibly disabled fellow student in the cafeteria is ridiculous, and sends a larger message. Sitting with, spending time with, disabled people is inspirational.

Between the elevated status of college atheletes, and the reduced status of people with disabilities, there’s a real lac of balance in the way this was reported, never mind that it wasn’t worth reporting at all.

Having what is usually a visible disability–blindness–and having had numerous people sit with me while I ate alone in my university’s cafeteria, I certainly hope no one ever saw them as inspiring.

Yes, I even had a college hhockey player join me a few times. We had really pleasant, down-to-earth conversations, and he’d even say “hi” to me if he saw me other places on campus. Did this make him inspiring? I sure as hell hope not! He was a pleasant, well-spoken, intelligent guy. Lauding him for being friendly to me would just have degraded him, on top of what it would have said about my equality as a human being.

This inspiration credo is incredibly dehumanizing to disabled people (and to the people who genuinely care for or love us). It’s dehumanizing on an individual level, yes, but also in collective cultural consciousness.

One or two isolated incidents of being out in public with an able-bodied person and hearing that person’s actions praised can make one start to doubt oneself. One may look to others, ask about their experiences, start observing interactions in which they are not involved; one will see and hear the same story. That pervasiveness leads to the message that we are less than human, or that we’re superhuman for drawing friends to us who will be patient and caring for us, in spite of our subhuman disabilities. It also negates any caring or kind actions or feelings on our parts, making relationships with us appear to be one-way.

Sometimes, it doesn’t even take experiences to send this message; it’s built into the underlying consciousness: you are object, to be feared, admired, inspired by, but not equal in your humanity.

When I was getting ready to leave home for university, I was told by many well-meaning adults that people at college might be afraid of or put off by my blindness, that they might not know how to interact with me. I was told that I might have to go the extra mile to make friends, to be willing to meet people beyond halfway.

I believed this! Ironically, this belief trampled my confidence and led me to be more afraid, more timid, less friendly with folks. It led me to behave in ways that were probably seen as weird, rather than just settling into my shy, slightly nerdy,, but ultimately sweet and friendly self. It led me to question everyone’s interactions with me, to hold them at arm’s length rather than to welcome.

Remember that hockey player? I never asked if we could co-ordinate to meet at the cafeteria some time, or if we could hang out somewhere else. perhaps if I’d had more confidence, rather than feeling like I had to apologize for myself and avoid any awkwardness, perhaps if I hadn’t felt like I was a bother to people, I would have felt more comfortable making connections when they presented themselves.

I could have become friends with many people, or at least gotten to know them better if I had known how to step beyond my appreciation and gratitude that he had gone the extra mile, had met me more than halfway, by choosing to sit with me.

These messages elevating the actions of able-bodied people to hero status can leave their mark on we disabled people.

The idea of nondisabled people being brave, stepping outside themselves, even inconveniencing themselves to be nice to a disabled person is harmful in the extreme, both to the self-esteem of many disabled people and to how valid relationships (of any kind) are seen between disabled and able-bodied people.

I know of one situation where a lesbian couple- comprised of a Blac woman in her forties and a blind white woman– in her twenties had a lot of problems because of how they were perceived in public. The older partner felt that she was always seen as the caregiver of her younger partner, not as her equal, let alone as her partner. Given the history we have in this country (and others) of women of colour being in caregiving roles related to white children, elderly people, or sick people I can certainly see how this perception could have really hurt, on so many levels. Ultimately, from what I understand, it was one major factor that damaged the relationship beyond repair.

With all of these meanderings, the one thing I keep coming back to is humanity. the humanity of people in a romantic relationship. The humanity of people just headed off to college. The humanity of college students eating lunch in the cafeteria.

I don’t want to say we’re all the same, because we’re not–and that’s a good thing. I’m not saying that there aren’t really special, generous people out there–because there are.

They’re just not generous and special in who they choose to eat lunch with in a public space with multi-person tables and general seating.

Nov 082013

Recently, I came across this article about the alarming rate of forced marriages of women living in Britain and elsewhere. Essentially there is an increasing trend for families to arrange for women to be married without their knowledge or say-so. This is something quite different from other current arranged-marriage practices in which all parties involved are made fully aware of what is happening and often get to meet the person chosen—or sometimes have the opportunity to date a few selected possible future spouses to determine compatibility.

The article addresses approaches these women (and girls) can use to help themselves escape this, and ways that travel officials, teachers, healthcare providers, and other people in positions of authority can keep their eyes open and alert for signs of impending forced marriages.

Reading this article set off giant alarm bells for me, but I’ve been cautious in writing up a critique. While I very much believe that it is a problem to marry off any woman (or girl!) and send her, in some cases, away from her home to a stranger in a strange (to her) land, I’m aware of my bias as a White, Western woman and will critique only the impacts of this practice on the women, not the practice itself. When I call this practice abusive, I am talking about the impact it has on the people it affects most, rather than passing judgment on a history and culture I know nothing about.

My purpose here is actually to critique the way this was reported. I’m appalled by the level of detail given in this article for the approaches used to help these women.

Who thought it was sound to make public the tools someone might use to help herself escape an abusive, unsafe, unwanted situation?

In the same way that many shelters for people escaping domestic violence need to have their address kept secret and their physical location guarded with locked doors and video cameras, so to do the techniques for people to escape or avoid other types of abuse need to be kept close to the vest. People who exert control over others will use any information they can get their hands on to help them maintain this control.

It’s foolish to think that they won’t see this article, or any other news sources reporting on this organization, and become more vigilant of their womenfolk.

Foolish—and dangerous.

Making public that this organization advises the women calling them for help to put a spoon in their underwear before flying so that they’ll be pulled aside for extra security screening and can then ask for help out from under the eyes of their family makes many of these women susceptible to being searched after they dress, or scrutinized while they’re dressing. Not only does this violate their sense of safety even more, but it opens them up to emotional, or even physical, violence, should family members in control discover that they are indeed doing the very thing that might help them escape.

They’re not expected to be able to escape, not expected to be able to decide, and act on the decision, that this isn’t what they want for themselves.

Let’s stop for a moment to remember that this is not likely thought of as abuse in the circles in which it is happening. No, it’s more likely to be couched in terms of financial need or obligation and family honour.

While I detest the idea of women—from little girls to elders—being shipped off like so much property, I do think it’s important to remember that I’m not in this world. Any judgments I pass are about the safety and welfare of the unwilling brides. The impacts of western colonization and world and civil wars on the development of cultures is a long and involved discussion, not for this post, but the impacts of all these factors on cultural growth, such as seeing all people as human with the right of self-determination seems pretty obvious to me. It’s hard for cultural mores to develop when a country, or specific population within a country, is in a desperate bid for political or cultural survival.

The women being married off, sent to (or left in) places they may never even have visited before, let alone wanted to live in, are, of course, not property, but breathing, thinking human beings.

They have the right to have their story told with respect, and with consideration of their safety.

There seems something unacceptably titillating about reporting that one way these women can help themselves is to put cutlery inside their clothing. The public likes sensationalism, and this story is sensational, made even more so by the feel-good aspect of there being an organization that is “doing something” about this, and the implicit, subtle, behind-the-scenes imagery of women putting foreign objects in their clothing, next to their bodies.

We’re still far from a space in which women’s bodies aren’t seen as sexual, or as objects of curiosity and open access. I’m worried that sharing a specific detail like this invites people to think about women’s bodies in a way that is neither necessary nor respectful, and this doesn’t make me feel at all comfortable.

I’m done with feel-good articles! We want to know everything these days, and the hard, hard reality (a bitter pill to swallow when we, for example, have Web sites called Gawker) is that we can’t know everything and shouldn’t know everything. When our quest for more and more salacious information means we’re interfering in people’s safety by reporting on the things they can do to keep themselves safe, it’s got to stop!

Giving these women tools to give them a hope of self-determination is terrific. We need more grassroots work like this. What we don’t need is the media reporting on this grassroots work and allowing the information to get into the wrong hands. Not only might it prevent some women from finding escape, but, again, might put them in danger of emotional abuse and physical violence.

Lest I sound holier-than-thou, do know that I’m as interested as the next person in unique ways to help people. I love the hidden stories, the community-driven movements to help people. I get this wonderful tingly feeling of amazement when I read about something I didn’t know before, some behind-the scenes movement or action that confounded or went against the grain in some way.

Learning about the “Great Spoon-Rescue of 2013 and beyond” is something I want to hear about in 25 (or more) years’ time when forced marriages are a thing of the past. I love hearing about hidden pieces of history, but this piece of history needs to be hidden in the first place. I’m really distressed that it wasn’t and am disappointed that the organization suggesting this approach chose to make what should be secret information part of the story.

We always need to put human safety–not public feel-good–at the forefront.