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Tilting at windmills

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#YesAllWomen Quiet moments of creepiness

Published May 25, 2014 by Shannon

The #yesallwomen hashtag on Twitter is necessary and compelling reading. If you missed it, or haven’t seen much about it, there’s a good explanation of it here. Go read that. I’ll be here when you get back.
So now that we have that out of the way, it’s story time. Because I can’t write about these things in 140 characters, and it’s a topic I’ve needed to bring up for a while.

Story 1: I was nine years old, and seemingly overnight, my body grew in ways I didn’t understand. I had to wear bras, which were the height of uncomfortable fashions, and still are, though decades later I’ve come to realize there is no better alternative. During that summer, I ended up taking summer school classes with another girl about my age. For whatever reason, my TVI (Teacher of the Visually Impaired) had the lessons at this girl’s home. The girl had two siblings close to our age, and I had to play with them when my teacher was working with the other girl. I don’t remember what we played, but I sure as hell remember them groping my breasts–those strange things I wasn’t so comfortable with myself. I did tell my teacher, and it did stop, but I had to go through junior high and high school with them. One of those boys was on our football team. The other was in the orchestra. Basically, they did pretty well for themselves, all things considered. At any point, did I ever get an apology from them? No, I did not.

Story 2: When I was living in my first apartment, I met a man online through a role playing game. He was married, and they were expecting a baby. He was also local to me. Occasionally, he would IM me with flirty messages, but I thought he was harmless because… married. With a baby. I ended up meeting him, and he ended up taking me back to my apartment due to reasons that are too complicated and irrelevant. When we got there, he hugged me. And then didn’t step back when the hug should have ended. His hands started moving in non-regulation ways. I was terrified, and the moment lasted for what felt like a long time before he pulled away. I closed the door between him and myself with relief.

Being a nonconfrontational person even then, and more so than I am now, I called a mutual friend and told her what had happened. She was appropriately sympathetic and she did talk to him. Did I get an apology? Kind of. I got a “I’m sorry you were so freaked out. I didn’t mean anything, Jesus. Besides, you hugged me.

Nearly 15 years later, I now live in an apartment by myself. A male friend (who is also happily married) has been wanting to get together at my house instead of his, where we have been meeting. At first I thought my reluctance to let him was silly. I mean, he wasn’t even interested in me that way. But then, I hadn’t thought that other guy was, either. So I had to email him and tell the whole story. Unlike the douchebag above, he totally got it and has never pushed to be alone with me in my space again.

Story 3: I have heard from a number of blind women that conventions for the two national consumer groups for the blind often feature men sort of “accidentally” groping women. Because oopsie, they’re blind, and they didn’t know the women were there. Convenient how much reaching around to explore their surroundings happens at breast level. Having heard these stories from numerous people has dampened my desire to attend any of these conventions. I’m sure they provide much that is valuable. But I don’t want to be cornered in some elevator by a creeper with wandering hands. Been there, done that. Don’t need to do it again.

What’s worse is that I can name names. I have heard terrifying stories about very prominent men in the blindness community who have used their power to make moves on women who had less power. I have no reason to believe that if I ever met them, and ended up alone with them, anything would happen. But I’m certainly not taking the chance. None of the women whose stories I have heard have ended their tales with, “And then he felt super bad about groping me/making unwanted suggestions/crossing my boundaries and apologized.”

Story 4: I don’t know how many of you know this about me, but I read romance novels. Some of them are steamy. Since Twitter is where my romance reading friends hang out, sometimes I get into giggly, bawdy conversations about them. Sometimes this bemuses some of my non-romance-reading followers, but they either put up with me or quietly unfollow. Given how little I pay attention, I honestly don’t know.

Several weeks ago, during the 24-hour Readathon I tweeted something about how I wanted to write something, because all the books I’d been reading had caused my creative juices to start flowing. A few minutes later, I got a DM from someone who was not a romance fan, which read, “Are you sure those are the only juices that are flowing? I know what you read.” After staring at that for a few minutes, I shot back with something like, “Wow. That’s a really rude thing for you to say. You’ve lost your DM privileges.” I felt proud of myself in that moment for not putting up with shit that makes me uncomfortable. Did that guy ever apologize? No. He bitched in DMs at a mutual friend about how humorless I was.

No one has ever asked me to do any sexual acts that I wasn’t down for. But “accidental” groping, bizarre boundary-crossing private messages, and men making me feel otherwise unsafe are all too common. The heartening thing about the #yesallwomen hashtag was reading other women’s stories and learning that I wasn’t alone or unreasonably creeped out by the things that happened to me.

I used to think that my creep radar was set to “really fucking high.” I have had conversations all too recently with my nearest and dearest female friends in which I’ve uttered the phrase, “It’s OK that I find this creepy, right? This is over the line to you, too?” I hate that I have to even have these exchanges. I hate that society has taught me too well that a woman’s reaction should be mild amusement. Just go along with the flirty IMs/”accidental” groping, but don’t get too excited, because the boundary between “chill girl” and “slut” is permeable. I hate that society has also insinuated that as a fat, disabled woman, I should be flattered by any attention no matter from whom, because it’s not like it’s going to happen that often, right? Creepy attention is at least attention.

It’s heartening to know that I’m not the only woman who’s heard these messages. I’m not the only woman who’s gotten these stories. Yes, many have had it worse, but in those moments of profound physical and mental discomfort, it’s easy to feel isolated. That serves the purposes of all the creepers. If we all talked openly about unacceptable creeping behavior, it would be less OK to do it. And that is a world I want to be in.

Just a note: If you want to leave a comment that contains the words “But not all men…” or “I certainly would never…” and you’re a dude, save yourself the five minutes, because duh. Not all men are creepers, but all women have been creeped on. This is seriously not about you.

Tilting at windmills: Heroines who top?

Published February 14, 2014 by Shannon

I just got a DM from a reader who wanted my romance expertise. (Ha!) She’s looking for books where the heroine is the one who tops, or at least is the sexual aggressor. I still stand by my Kit Rocha rec, because their characters totally run the gamut of sexual positions and methods, but my Reader’s Advisory brain is failing to engage. I do know that sex as something that’s being done *to* a woman is kind of a pervasive cultural narrative, and it would be good to see less of it.

Tilting at Windmills: Why It’s Not My Job to Educate You

Published January 29, 2014 by Shannon

Inspired by a question over at an open thread at Ana Mardoll’s:

Someone wanted to know if there was an article about why it’s not anyone’s job to educate people. This is something I’ve long thought, so here’s my crack at it.

Let’s be clear. I think educating people is important. I even enjoy doing it sometimes. One of the reasons I decided to start writing more about disability issues on my blog is that my vocal readership is largely sighted, and willing to learn, and I think the lessons that stick with us the most are the ones that draw on our innate empathy. I want to convey my experiences in hopes of starting conversations about them. The fact that I might choose to often, however, doesn’t mean I always choose to do so, nor should it be expected of me. Here is why, in neatly digestable, bite-sized bullet points. I could write whole posts about each of these topics, but I’ll try and be brief.

  1. My experience is not universal. I’m a white, cisgendered woman with a disability. I have privileges that my friends who are POC and trans* do not. I also handle being a woman and a person with a disability in ways that work well for me, but might not work well for others. Let me give you some examples. I use a white cane. I’ve never worked a guide dog, and the chances are good that I never will. I prefer for people to say that I am “blind” rather than “visually disabled”. I read romance novels, and don’t see that as an entrensically unfeminist thing to do, even though I do acknowledge that romance novels perpetuate problematic tropes. All of these choices are personal ones, and if you think that people don’t argue vociferously about each of these topics, then I invite you to leave this blog and go hang out on the Internet for a while longer. I’ll wait.
  2. I don’t always have the time. At my job, we often get tour groups visiting the library, which are invariably fascinated by all the cool technology I use. I love that my boss always asks if I have the time to show off the tools I use, because sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I have another project going, or I’m on the phone talking to a patron, or I’m about to go on lunch. I should be allowed to do all these things. When I have the time to have an in-depth conversation and answer people’s questions, I’m more than happy to, but my life does not revolve around curious people. This is doubly true for the Internet, where so many other sources of information are available to you.
  3. I don’t always have the energy. I love this post about the spoon theory. For me, not having enough spoons has nothing to do with chronic illness. I lose spoons when I find I’m being dismissed or not listened to, or when accessibility barriers make it harder to do what I want to. Sometimes, I just don’t want to bang my head against certain walls anymore. To name and shame: I’ve given up on Netgalley as a source of books for review despite the fact that lots of book bloggers rely on them, because every website upgrade has meant loss of accessibility features, and their devs don’t seem particularly inclined to do anything to rectify the situation. I have talked to them. I have tweeted with them. For literally years. Nothing has changed. It’s not my job to continue to run around in these circles. I get nothing out of the experience but a headache, so eventually I just quit trying. It’s not just Netgalley either. This happens a lot. Every time it does, it’s disheartening, and my desire to help fix things is diminished just that little bit further. So if you’re being a troll and demanding that I explain how my disability works (or how you think it should work) and I don’t engage, it’s probably because you’re not the first to ask and I don’t have the spoons.
  4. There are other things I would like to do. I do have other interests besides blogging about disability issues. I like to read. I have friends I want to hang out with. I role play. I should be allowed to focus on all those other things, because that makes me a well-rounded and happier person. I would give you the same courtesy, so I expect it in return.
  5. We should all endeavor to educate ourselves. Recently, a dear friend came out to me as trans*. I was not the best ally for her in this process, I’m sure, but I knew that I wanted to understand her experiences. I asked her lots of questions, but in the end I also googled, and I found books. I am by no means an expert on trans* issues and never will be, but having read other people’s accounts, particularly Julia Serrano’s excellent Whipping Girl, helped me understand her a little better. One of the ways in which educating myself proved helpful was that I didn’t ask my friend about the potential future status of her penis. It was something I had wondered about, but both Serano’s book as well as the outrage over a recent interview Katie Couric did with some trans women that really brought it home to me that not only don’t I need to know this very private information about my friend, but that it is not owed me in the slightest. After all, the chances that I will ever need to know this information are infinitesimally small. By finding other ways of being told that particular line of questioning was not OK to pursue, I avoided at least one awkward conversation.

In conclusion: Most of the time I don’t mind sharing my experiences with people and offering what knowledge and insights I have to give. However, it is not anyone’s right to expect to be educated, especially not by random people you meet on the Internet. Always feel free to ask me questions, but do understand if I choose not to answer or want to engage with you about other things.

Question of the day

Published January 17, 2014 by Shannon

I don’t read books with disabled protagonists because I can usually count on authors to get disability terribly, terribly wrong. At best, the results are silly and nonsensical. At worst, they are demeaning and othering. But I sometimes treasure a misplaced sense of optimism.

Have any of you read good books with disabled protagonists? Leave them in the comments.

The only example that came to mind for me of a disabled protagonist who gets to be awesome without having to make excuses is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan. He has some fairly serious disabilities, and they aren’t just shrugged off when the author needs for him to be a bad-ass. And yet, all the girls want him. (All the girls, in this case, are phenomenal characters in their own right. My love for Elli and Taura is almost as great as my love for Miles. Also I really must read the books where Miles’s future wife shows up. I hear they’re some of the best, but high expectations, I has them. *End tangent*.)

The only other character who comes to mind who is awesome and also disabled is Cormoran Strike from The Cuckoo’s Calling. I don’t recall his disabilities being written off or downplayed when J. K. Rowling needed them to be, and come to that, his milkshake clearly brought at least one supermodel to the yard.

I literally cannot think of other characters, though, especially in romances. Instead, I can think of millions of characters in romances who were such bad stereotypes of disabled people, and more are written every day. I get the power and allure of the rescue fantasy, which is what disabled characters generally express in romance, whether they’re male or female. I even enjoy a good rescue fantasy story now and then–problematic though the trope is, it’s one of my favorites. I just hate the thought that anon-disabled person can only be interested in being with someone like me because they are pure of heart and just love taking care of people, or the thought that if a disabled person is having a bad day and occasionally expressing some discomfort and anger about how ableist the world is, a little hot smexing will fix that right up. Because, seriously, a world of fuck that noise.

But there have to be good representations of disabled people out there, right? I really hope so, because two characters out of millions that have been written are shitty numbers indeed.

Tilting at Windmills: The makeup rant

Published December 11, 2013 by Shannon

Note: Trigger warnings for discussion of disability and body image issues.

I was about to post a comment on this thread at Ana Mardoll’s Ramblings, but ended up bloviating at length, so I erased it and decided to write it up over here, where I could go on as long as I needed to. I am working on a book review, so will try to have an on-topic post for later.

I am ambivalent about makeup. I know that most women wear it, because it makes them appear more professional and put-together. I know these are reasons why I, personally, should wear makeup. After all, I am not only visibly disabled, I’m a fat woman. I need all the put-togetherness I can get.

And yet…

When I was a teenager, my mom gently explained that I was pretty enough without makeup. She told me that wearing lots of makeup is actually counterproductive and makes you look prematurely older. I never questioned this. After all, I like being a low-maintenance sort of girl. I roll out of bed 45 minutes before I have to leave for work, which is long enough to get a cup of coffee and some cereal and pack my lunch and brush my teeth. I don’t want to give up valuable sleep time to put something on my face that I can’t reap the benefits of. (I love the smell of perfume. I like the polished feel of acrylics on my fingernails and they keep me from biting them. Makeup, though, at least for me, is for other people.

And yet…

I was eating dinner with some friends earlier this year. Three of the group were blind women, and the topic of cosmetics came up. One of my friends told us that her mother had told her the same thing mine had told me, to which another of the group, who is quite a bit older than I am and an absolute sweetheart, despite how this story is framed, snorted a laugh and said, “Well, yeah. She told you that so she wouldn’t have to actually teach you how to put on makeup.” She then explained how it wasn’t that hard and she did it all the time. I remember feeling so very small in that moment, because it seemed to be confirmation that blind femininity: I was doin’ it wrong. Not only that, but she was right: my mom had done me a disservice, and this was just confirmation of things I already knew: Mom was not a very patient teacher, so of course she wouldn’t have wanted to teach me about makeup because she had no way of knowing how. I found myself wanting to join in my friends’ conversation, to eagerly accept my older friend’s words of wisdom on the topic of makeup. Equally strong was my desire to thumb my nose at her and tell her she could take her patriarchal bullshit and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine and no way would my mom lie to me about something like how I ought to present myself to the world. In the end, I said nothing and just sat there feeling miserable and unlovely and confused.

I do want to be pretty. Hell, I want to present as sexy sometimes. I honestly don’t know how to do that. The awesome fat women in my life who offer me what I think are good fashion suggestions are my mom and sister,and you know who I don’t want telling me ways I could look desirable to potential hookups? Someone who shares my genetic material. Plus there’s still that stuff above about my mom and whether or not I can accept or trust her taste.

And yes, I understand that beauty is only skin deep and pretty is as pretty does. And I don’t want to feel pretty and ultra-feminine every day, but once in a while I would like to achieve this effect by myself.

I do know other blind women besides my friend who apply at least foundation. I think it is conceivable that I could learn. I just don’t know if I want to badly enough. A part of me thinks I should, for the intellectual exercise if nothing else. A part of me wants to learn how I can make myself look prettier and more presentable, and even how to look sexy, though of course I have fewer causes to present as sexy than I do to present as professional.. . An insidious other part snarkily wants to know who,exactly, I am hoping to impress, and also noting that nobody expects any better of me because,after all,people are frequently amazed I get out of bed and have a job,so I’m already at least somewhat ahead of the curve there.

Mostly, I’m comfortable with who I am. Mostly, I probably wouldn’t often wear makeup if I ever learned to apply it competently. But the pull between cultural expectations (you’re a professional woman in your thirties who is already fat and disabled, which are two strikes against you) and my rebellious inner feminist (Fuck societal norms. You’re put together enough that no one treats you with obvious contempt, plus, what do you care what judgey people think of you anyway?) is sometimes quite strong, and I haven’t figured out how to navigate these waters.

Note: I just want to make it clear that I am not fishing for compliments. I know I’m not the only blind woman who grapples with this conundrum. (Or the only woman, full stop, who does.) This has been on my mind for weeks, and tonight I finally decided it warranted a post.

What say you, gentle readers? How do you deal with the makeup question? I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments.