Mar 062013

Misadventures in the city

By Beth Connors-Manke 

In December, I wrote a column about stickering over sexist images and graffiti that popped up along on my daily commute. In both cases, my resistance was reactive: I was trying to block someone else’s message.  Since then, more sexist—sometimes virulently and violently sexist—messages have come my way, although not always at street level. 

There was the gang rape and eventual death of an Indian physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012. I read the details once and then stopped following the story. It’s too hard to live in the world with that kind of knowledge. There were protests in India, I know that; I listened to what a friend in Calcutta had to say about the cultural shifts that must happen. Ok, fine, I guess it’s heartening to know that the country roiled a bit after the violence, but the young woman’s suffering is too hard to look at with being swallowed up with hate that’s way bigger than I am.

Next, a few weeks ago the radio show Democracy Now reminded me of the 2010 recording of Yale fraternity pledges chanting “No means yes! Yes means anal!” while they paraded near women’s dorms. The context of the story was the documentary Brave Miss World directed by Cecilia Peck, which follows Linor Abargil, Miss World 1998. Abargil was abducted and raped weeks before the contest; now she campaigns against sexual violence. I listened to most of the story about the documentary, but when I stepped on campus to teach my own freshman, some of them pledges in sororities and fraternities, the record in my head was broken: it kept playing “No means yes! Yes means anal!” It’s hard to be reminded that some young men are schooled (literally) to deny the dignity of others—that it’s their prerogative to interpret what women want.

Around that same time, the third message arrived, although this one was more ambiguous than the first two. I saw male students on campus wearing shirts and buttons that read “I heart female orgasm.” I had heard nothing about the sex education event from which these came, so I was both wary and quizzical when the slogan arrived in my classroom.

Please allow me an aside. For the last two semesters, I have taught case studies about human trafficking in my classes. As important as the issue is, I repeatedly cringe at the moment when it’s clear that some student or another is actually being titillated by the sex trafficking information. It happens, and there’s little way for a teacher to mitigate the reaction if someone is going down that road. These two things—people getting off on sex trafficking and male sponsorship of the phrase “I heart female orgasm”—seem to be on a strange collision course in my class.

So “I heart female orgasm” broadcasted itself in class a few times before someone confronted it. To make a long story short, what ensued was a young man telling several young women about the importance of their own orgasms. I witnessed this happen more than once after the sex ed event, which was surely well meaning, but turned out, in my purview at least, to result in more male presumption about the female sexual experience. Mix this with the fact that, in class discussion, I had already had to repeatedly stress that legally there’s no such thing as an “underage prostitute”; a thirteen year old cannot consent to commercial sex. But my message was not being received. The counter-logic circulating in my classroom seemed to go like this: if she’s doing it, she likes it; if she likes it, it’s ok to sell her. Put these two views together, and one can “heart” female orgasm and still have sex with a thirteen year old who’s being sold by her pimp. Crash.

But this is a column about the street and the city, so I’ll get back to my point. It took me a while to get what was happening: those communiqués from the universe were telling me that reactive wasn’t going to work. Simply stickering over nipples and violent lyrics wasn’t enough. Street feminism needed to be offensive. With that in mind, NoC is sponsoring a street feminism design contest: send us your designs for an anti-sexism, anti-violence sticker. We’ll choose one design, print up a bunch of stickers, and then take them to the street. You’ll see them places that have already been marked by sexism; you’ll see them places that haven’t. Either way, you’ll see our message, or rather, your message.

Email digital designs to Be aware that the winning design will have to conform to specific parameters for printing. Design for a round, 3×3 inch sticker; vector art or at least 300 dpi; preferably a .pdf or .jpeg. Can’t do that? Send us your design anyways, and we’ll run the coolest ones in our print edition. Submissions due by April 1.

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