Sarah Jayne: Feminism, Fear and Friendship

When we started our Feministing College Tour this year, we had decided that we’d give each school we attend an opportunity to include one of their students as a panelist at our presentation so that we can have the school be a part of the process as well and speak to some of the issues that their feminist organizations and groups have been addressing. We also offered the student panelists the opportunity to feature their presentation as a guest post on Feministing. The wonderful and amazing Kym Nacita wrote the first of many to come. And here’s our next student panelist, Sarah Jayne, from the University of Ottawa.

Hey everyone! I’m Sarah Jayne, and I want to thank all of you for allowing me to speak on this panel (students voted on the panelist) and also the Feministing bloggers! I won’t spend much time talking about myself specifically, but I will say that I am pretty sure have been a feminist from birth, living in a world where feminism exists. Does this mean the struggle is over? No. it means we have to push harder. I have been raised to challenge power relationships and hierarchy, with an open view which respects my surroundings. I have learned since becoming and developing as a feminist and an activist how to use language more effectively (not to say I always get it right) and how to make decisions in a way that is inclusive. The first protest I ever attended was a pro-choice rally, at age two! I used to go to a lot of punk shows; I like to make my own clothes and ride my bike; I grew up listening to feminist artists, mostly thanks to my mum. I grew up in a world that benefited from the previous waves of feminism.

So what does this mean for us? It means we’re challenging language. It means we’re acknowledging the integral role that men play in ending violence against women. It means we understand that men can be feminists. It means we have finally started to push for the inclusion of other forms of oppression in our discourse. We are starting to see how race, gender identity, income or class status all play a role in the world we live in. The world we want to change.

That world is full of unhealthy standards for both women and men, that world is full of complicated politics which often make change slower than we want it to be, that world operates on an economic model – capitalism – that inherently promotes inequality in many forms, and that world is full of us.

I want to talk about a few things in my short time here. I want to give a general overview of some amazing feminist campus and community activism in recent history, focus on how men are implicated in ending violence against women, and talk about fear and insecurity and how that impacts our actions.

First of all, that primer of feminist activism on campuses. At uOttawa we have won a number of successful media battles against articles and ads that appeared in our student newspapers and promote sexism, racism, gender norms, or even incite hatred towards women. Much of this occurs through internet activism, blogging, writing to the newspapers, facebook, postering, etc. It often requires a swift response, and it’s often effective.

Recently at Carleton, there was an intense need to respond to the outrageous statements made by the university, where they blamed the victim of a brutal sexual assault for not taking enough measures to ensure her own safety. Individuals and organizations including both student unions quickly wrote press releases, letters of opposition, and mobilized for a rally at Carleton to make sure the administration knew that their actions were wrong. Many of these women formed the Coalition for a Carleton Sexual Assault Support Centre- something the university doesn’t seem to want because that recognizes the fact that sexual assault is not isolated and IS a problem on our campuses. This event gained national coverage – Feministing picked it up as well.

What should we take away from this? Women need to write more. Women need to feel they have the space to speak up. But not just women. When we get together and do this, we can accomplish a lot.

What is sometimes discouraging, though, is the way in which fear and blame are placed on women and survivors of sexual violence. I want to read to you some messages that we often hear from Campus Protection and the Police regarding sexual assault:

Make sure your home is not an easy target for criminals.
Be aware of your surroundings – know who’s around you and what’s going on. Walk with confidence and purpose. Be wary of isolated spots – basements, laundry rooms, and parking lots.
Don’t let drugs or alcohol cloud your judgment – limit your beverage intake, and never leave a drink unattended.
If you think you’re being followed, change directions and look for open stores, restaurants or a lighted home, flag down a taxi or police officer.
Avoid traveling home alone from bars or parties.
Organize safe and reliable transportation back home, and always carry enough cash for a taxi or bus ride. (Oh, so as a woman I have to spend more money on cabs? Thanks.)
Keep your cellular phone handy to call for help.

So, now some alternative messages. Helpful tips for women’s safety:
Men should stay in their houses, and lock their doors
Men should not walk alone late at night, and should stay in populated areas where they can be seen
Men should stay in groups of people they trust to not let them walk off alone
Men should refrain from telling or laughing at sexist jokes, perpetrating violence against women
Men should refrain from attending parties and drinking
Men should refrain from intimidating women
Men should refrain from following women
Men should refrain from putting drugs in women’s drinks

The alternative helpful tips were part of a response to the messages issued after a series of sexual assaults in the Sandy Hill area this past winter. A group of people made this poster and put it up around the university and community. It received some backlash as it is at first a shocking message – but the idea behind it isn’t that radical. It’s about implicating men in ending violence against women (not simply taken in this literal way) and stopping the blame placed on women who bare the burden of dealing with sexual assault. Since then, the Women’s Resource Centre has revised it a bit and posted it widely
to raise the issue of men getting engaged in ending violence against women. They have also consulted with Campus Protection to improve their messaging.

I also just want to quickly mention that the WRC has resources available to survivors or people with questions, and that Foot Patrol is totally a great service – folks will walk you home safely. Because it sucks feeling unsafe walking alone, and unfortunately we need to do something until fear no longer follows us home.

But anyways, I went to the ManTalk event at Carleton last Friday. The talk was geared towards young men and how they can understand masculinity and the standards they are expected by society to live up to, why this often leads to violence, and the importance of consent. As we know, we are bombarded by it every day; masculinity and femininity are very much defined for us. It isn’t just about women and men anymore – masculine traits are highly valued while feminine traits and acts are generally downplayed in society. Where we can define our own identities we can in some ways overcome these norms, however this struggle is ongoing and faces constant discrimination. And this is where movement is occurring. When we can value defined feminine and masculine traits with the same respect, we can move towards equality. When we challenge these definitions we can change the view of the world. Everyone can be a part of that.

I’ve talked about how fear is placed upon us, along with constructed ideals and expectations around masculinity and femininity. This also fuels insecurity. One point I want to make is that this fuels sexual violence and inequality, but it also fuels consumerism in many ways. Because we’re forced to be afraid as women, we’re taught to be insecure no matter who we are or how much we try to live up to unreal – often contradictory – standards (but men are expected to hide that insecurity).

I think a very positive move is the inclusion of men in feminist dialogue. I know a ton of amazing male activists on this campus. Allies are key to any movement, because they are implicated in the change as much, if not more, than the subordinated group in question, be it women, queer folks or otherwise. Not that I’m going to have time to get into it, but I want to point out that there is also work being done around combating the dichotomous relation of both sex and gender as well as queer approaches to feminism and queer issues. I haven’t discussed them enough here but I have to say that they are totally important and totally relevant to changing our society.

We’ll end on a lighter note though. I am a feminist and I am an activist. It’s fun and rewarding, if not a bit tiring at times. I’m going to steal from a friend of mine who said it perfectly – that feminism is about waking up and finding yourself in a community, its about having wicked empowered sex, feeling like you can take on any challenge, build real love, and stop feeling like you are the only person ever thought…. damn, this world needs to change…

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