Perspective, Privilege, and the Anti-violence Movement

For those of you who might not be aware, the annual National Sexual Assault Conference (NSAC) is underway in Los Angeles, California today and will continue with inspiring speakers, exchanging of business cards, and sharing of stories for the rest of the week.  Fourteen hundred advocates, activists, allies, and academics from all over the country are gathered for a few short days to discuss best anti-violence practices and moving forward together.  They will then go home reenergized, with a few new tools, some powerful connections, hopefully good memories, and will report promptly back to their organizations about what they learned.  It’s pretty standard, as far as conferences go, with a price of admission of about $475 (and that’s the early-bird special). 

A few blocks down the road, you will find another group working just as passionately on similar issues of anti-violence and systems of oppression. You will find patches of a survivor collective, known as the IX Network, who have organized in order to hold their schools accountable for their climates of rape culture and illegal handling of sexual misconduct cases.  These are the students and few staff members who road-tripped 12 hours to Sacramento last week to testify in front of a joint legislative body for four University of California schools to be audited under Title IX and the Clery Act. These are the students who spend late nights informing others of resources, researching school policies from the public library, brainstorming on the floor in crowded rooms, and writing legal complaints by hand. And although this group of students received a shout out in the opening key-note from Lynn Rosenthal , White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, this is also the group that cannot afford seats at the NSAC conference table. 


First, I want to acknowledge my privilege (link a good article if you can find one). I’m white and a lot of the anti-violence movement is white-centric.  While my personal story isn’t often represented, my gender and racial identities are, which already gives me an upper hand, and I have a responsibility to acknowledge my privilege and when appropriate, use it to teach.  I’ve also had the privilege to be in spaces like NSAC before; I’ve received scholarships to conferences, I’ve presented, and I’m connected technologically to the world.  

But today, I’m physically excluded from this conversation.  I’m literally outside the doors of workshops and best practices and I’m shut off from the dialogue inside.  There’s privilege on the other side of the door that I can’t access for socioeconomic reasons.  At bare minimum in order to attend the supposedly representative National Sexual Assault Conference, one must:

-Know that the conference is happening
-Somehow be able to pay the registration fee 
-Pay for air travel
-Have a place or pay for a place to stay in Los Angeles
-Have a supportive employer or school who lets you take time off/ be able to afford the time off
-Buy food for the days you’re traveling 
-Be in a family situation where travel is possible
(and the list goes on)

That’s a lot of privilege. 

In no way am I discrediting NSAC 2013 or it’s attendees; I’m not blaming them for their privilege, and to be honest, I’d love to be there right now. Some of my colleagues from North Carolina are in attendance, and I acknowledge the hard work our non-profit, the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault , has done and the great struggles it has been through. Our incredible director and dedicated team there work long hours and are rarely given enough credit, as many in anti-violence work can relate.  The grant writing process is never ending, there are always state budget cuts, and by the time you are finished cutting through the bureaucratic red tape, the work comes home with you and you are left on Sunday night planning the next week’s training sessions.  Am I right?   

But today, they and others have the privilege to be in a space with individuals dedicated to a common goal.  Someone still paid almost $500 for attendees to learn and have this experience.  I hope they learn from this experience and share the knowledge learned with those not in attendance.


The Anti-Violence Movement

So conferences are expensive; non-profit life is hard; what’s the point? 

Here’s my issue: I see this conference as a microcosm of the anti-violence movement, and that’s problematic. Those who are privileged enough to gain admission to the “conference” are listened to, and those who can’t “afford registration” are often silenced. Of course, socio-economic status is only one example.

As an anti-violence movement, we do an OK job of spouting the rhetoric of inclusivity and intersectionality ; we do often talk about cultural confidence and we claim to value diversity.   But do we really always follow our pontifications in practice?   

I want to pose a few questions, some food for thought: 

Beyond the class privilege and education it takes to know about and get to a conference such as this, whom else are we intentionally or unintentionally leaving out of this NATIONAL conference?  While I know people of color who are attending, what is the representation like?  How many young people are there?  Are the materials only in English?  And importantly, which groups are being erased repeatedly and left out entirely?  

Obviously, I’m speaking more broadly than NSAC; I’m talking about the anti-violence movement as a whole. 

For those of you at the “conference,” (literally and metaphorically) I challenge you to be cognizant of your privilege and/or non-privilege in the way you interact with other allies in the movement.  How would you (or would you?) navigate the anti-violence movement differently if you were a male immigrant? A queer person of color?  A low income student? An elderly woman?  A veteran? A low-income trans* student? 

If you’re at this conference, then you are likely passionate about these issues and want to work for change.  So think about it: How can you use your privilege and your voice to make our movement more inclusive?  How can you open the windows and doors of the conference hotel to create a more accessible conference experience?

These conversations are happening outside of the walls of your conference hotel and your non-profit organization, on a daily basis.  Let’s acknowledge who isn’t at the table and then figure out why not. Invite people inside. Learn from them and teach them.  There can be space for everyone in the anti-violence community and those of us with privileged voices do have a responsibility here. Violence does not discriminate; let’s do our best to make sure this movement doesn’t either.

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An open letter to RDU

To whom it may concern:

Two weeks ago I was headed out of the country for a conference when I went through security at RDU.  There was not a line, so I expected the process to be routine and relatively painless.  Unfortunately from the time I entered the security area until I left the area, I experienced verbal sexual harassment from three male employees.

Multiple disrespectful statements were made about my body, how I looked, and how they would like to “search me.”  When I bent over to tie my shoes at the end of the process, one TSA officer commented “How am I supposed to concentrate on my job while looking at that?,” referring to my behind.

While this behavior is inappropriate and degrading, it is also irresponsible.  One man was too busy ogling me to look at my bag going through the x-ray machine.  Another even commented: “I don’t care what you have; you can take anything on my plane.”  Obviously, I was not carrying on any dangerous materials, but if I was, no one would have noticed.

Verbal sexual harassment is inappropriate at all times from anyone—but to have a TSA employee not do his job because he is too busy engaging in harassment is inexcusable.  These men were disrespectful, but perhaps most importantly, they were threatening RDU’s security.  These employees failed to do their job to protect passengers, airline personnel, and the airport.

This is not the kind of environment in which passengers, especially female passengers, feel comfortable travel traveling.   My goal is not to get any individual in trouble; instead I hope you take time to address all of your employees about this issue.

Please contact me with questions or information on how you intend to make sure employees do not continue to ignore their security duties or engage in sexual harassment.

Annie Clark
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Observations from the Hostess Stand

The Wednesday before the Memorial Day weekend, the local restaurant business is slow to say the least.  People are getting ready to go out of town, and eating out at an upscale French establishment may not be what people want to do in middle of the week, particularly in this economy.

So while I’m not running around like I would do normally, I’m not bored.  A slow night gives me the opportunity to watch people, to observe the foodie happenings, and to interact with guests.  Last night, I met a lawyer (UNC alum), a lobbyist (another UNC alum), someone with the same name as one of my friends, a young couple planning a wedding, and a woman getting a bike rack installed on her car.

I also got to witness the interaction of two males choosing a place to sit.  When people come in the restaurant on a slow night, they have their pick of seats: the restaurant is their oyster.  One can sit outside on the patio, in the main dining room, in the café area, at the bar, or in little window alcoves that are inside but open to the outdoors.  On busy nights the private dining room becomes another option.

And as a hostess, a guest choosing a place to sit is something I see time and time again.  People want booths, square tables, more comfortable chairs, close to other people, far away from people, to the left, only table 53 only, etc. I get to see groups of people agonize over this decision daily, which I let them do, on a slow night.

Yesterday, however, was particularly interesting, not because two men couldn’t decide on a spot to eat their dinner, but because the interaction illustrates a bigger problem within our society.

These two men, both good looking, nicely dressed, and in their late twenties, approached my stand and took a long glance around the dining room.

“Hi, how are you?  Would you like a table?”

“Uh, um, no…see we’re not together like that.”

What? I just asked if you wanted a table, not if you were together, not if you were friends, not about your job, your political affiliation, your education level, how much your designer suits cost or your sexuality.  I just asked if you wanted a table.  I ask if you wanted a place to sit.  This is a restaurant and people sit and order food together.  It’s just what you do.

But of course, being a polite hostess, I didn’t rush into a rant about heterosexual privilege, hegemonic masculinity and social construction.  I didn’t quote Butler or launch into a discussion about ENDA or DADT and how much it’s related to homophobia;  instead, I merely gave them their other seating options.
These men then quickly and embarrassingly retreated to the café, where they proceeded to discuss whether they would sit at a bar table together, or at the bar.  After a long time, they approached the bar, and sat down where they wouldn’t have to face each other or be seen as “together.”  Then, the two men ordered beers.  How manly!

Their debate over seating did not stem from comfortable chairs or the weather outside, but whether or not people would think they were together.  Not just together as friends, but… “like that.”  Gay.  Queer. Second class.

What a problem we have when two straight (or LGBTIQ for that matter) identified people are afraid to sit together in public because they might be treated differently because of their assumed—not even known!—sexuality.   Were they scared that they might not get heterosexual privilege?  Were they gay and just not out?  Were they scared I might judge them?  Scared of being seen out “together” by others they might know?

People presumed to be heterosexual get heterosexual privilege, which includes legal things like marriage, and being able to serve in the military with a partner, to social things, like being treated equally in a restaurant and not being the subject of everyone’s’ dinner conversations.

I have a friend who knows two heterosexual guys that arrive at the movie theater early, just to make sure there is a seat between them, so people don’t think they’re together.  Really?

Discrimination not only hurts LGBTIQ identified individuals, but also society as a whole.  Why can’t two men hug in public, be friends, have dinner, talk together about their heterosexual partners in an open setting?  It’s so harmful to relationships.

Think about kids growing up in a society like this:  Enforced gender roles and social construction make it so two men can’t have dinner.  They can’t show their emotions or get too close to another male.

Of course, all of this comes back to privilege.  If people were treated equally, legally and otherwise, would this be so much of a problem.

DADT repeal is being discussed as I write this, and it kills me that something like equal rights is not more obvious.  Homophobia is literally plaguing society and our day to day interactions with one another. How much time and energy do we waste in our daily lives trying to prove our heterosexuality or hide our LGBTIQ sexuality?

Besides, the hostess could be serving you drinks, but instead, we’re all too busy “defending” our heterosexuality.   Really, America?

We could and should all be sitting down, ordering food, having intellectual conversations on why it’s taboo to sit together.  We could and should be getting on with our lives.   Of what are we really scared?

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Red Light Thailand, Part II

“The place was teeming with farangs. I had never seen so many in the one place at the one time. Spirits were high, whether it was from alcohol or the sheer electricity of the atmosphere. The farangs descended on the area to watch the lewd shows, drink beer and, above all else, fuck Asian women.”

The problem of sex and sexual exploitation is complicated and cyclical. While prostitution many argue is okay and should be legalized, it contributes to trafficking and a culture of unequal-ness, where subjugation is the norm, and paying for a week to have an underage girlfriend has become acceptable. It’s hard too because while many Thais I spoke with hate the life and want to leave, many embrace it as a choice they’re happy to make and the monetary rewards are great. I don’t want to go in as some foreigner to “rescue” these women from situations I really don’t know much about, many of whom would be offended by an offer to help. Where do you draw a line? What if both parties are happy—does something need to be fixed? How do you help without offending? How do you help without yourself getting hurt?  Why can’t I do anything when I see an older man inappropriately touching a boy at a bar—a boy not old enough to drink, a boy who should be in bed reading bedtime stories and having nightmares, not living one.

I wonder constantly how to combat this global problem.

While the poverty compounded with sex with a veil of choice literally broke my heart daily, I dug deeper and ended up learning a lot. I hear stories from both sides; when people are drunk, they talk, and people talked to me.  Broken hearts, broken marriages, broken truths, broken people. I have notes from coasters and bar napkins, all of which scribbles involve me trying to make some sort of sense out of my surroundings. Seeing places first hand which Boonmee wrote about was surreal. Things haven’t changed, and besides places becoming more touristy, I don’t see change in the immediate future. Farangs pump money into the economy and the people that are exploited and don’t want to be, don’t have a voice. Money talks.

I asked my Thai friends if she thinks things will change. I ask a woman who has worked at a bar for 3 years if it still hurts her. I ask my foreign friends if they are still surprised at the kids working the streets generation after generation. I asked my professor why the international community is making the problem worse instead of helping to alleviate it. I asked the South African man running our hostel if people using his place for only sex bothers him.

“ ‘Welcome to Patpong,’ Nok said, smiling at my widened eyes.  ‘You’ll get used to it,’ she assured me. ”

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Red Light Thailand, Part I

The following is the first part of an entry I posted to other Phillips Ambassdors via Blackboard about my time in Thailand.  We had to read a book and relate it to some of our experiences there.

While in Thailand, one of my main goals was to learn about sex tourism and the way the trafficking industry works, not in the textbook way, but to wrap my head around real life…not numbers or stats, but people.  Some of this learning was more formalized with interviews and emails to different organizations, but a lot of it was learning through observation. While in Thailand, I went to some touristy spots known for their prostitution, trafficking, and sexual service industry. This wasn’t the reason I visited these places though, and many times I was uncomfortable. Still, I learned, and talked with many people, hearing stories from all different angles. 

Without launching into a long discussion on rights and choice and the numerous shades of grey coloring the world of prostitution, I will attempt to recount some personal experiences in this post. All excerpts from my book (Miss Bangkok) are in quotes.
The book I chose to read for this assignment is entitled Miss Bangkok. Written by author Bua Boonmee, she tells us her own story with the help of a translator, Nicola Pierce. Boonmee was a poor, uneducated, and abused girl growing up in rural Thailand. She went to Bangkok with her mother to find a better life, where she ended up meeting her first husband. While she was still young she left her abusive husband for a better life, but ended up working as a bar girl in one of Bangkok’s most notorious prostitution areas. This wasn’t her original plan; she got a job as a hostess and never imagined she would be one of the go-go girls whom she saw nightly. But with kids to support, a promise of a job and a sugar daddy, working as a prostitute seems like her only option in the world.

“You can buy me for 2,000 baht a night. In return, I will do anything that is asked of me, but I won’t kiss customers—some things are just too intimate to do with a stranger. Kissing is for a wife or girlfriend; sex is for Thai girls like me.”

I left the book in our international house in hopes that other students would read it and gain some insight into the tourist/sex worker relationship that is prevalent in SE Asia. I heard some of the exchange students say that they were excited about the fact that there were so many prostitutes in Thailand, so many opportunities for cheap sex. I hated the fact that some exchange students were coming here, supposedly to learn, but ended up exploiting the people here.  I thought of this issue and this book often, and Boonmee’s views sometimes worked my way into the way I saw various interactions. Reading her book and then traveling was like reading a book and then seeing the movie. I saw various unspeakable interactions play out in real life, no actors, no screen, but lots of money traded hands.  

While I do not want to take away the agency of prostitutes by saying that they have no choice, I argue that the concept is difficult to examine due to the current sexist framework in which society operates. In SE Asia we have numerous things which influence the way we view sex tourism including basic socioeconomics. While many argue that mutual exploitation is okay as long as both parties are aware it’s happening (lots of money for lots of sex), I’m not so quick as to jump to this conclusion.  

It’s hard to watch. Old white men flock to the beaches of Phuket and in particular to Patong, for its go-go bars, prostitutes, and lack of law enforcement. When I see a sixteen year old with a seventy year old, I can’t help but judge. I can’t help but look into the girls eyes and see if she’s happy or not. Even if she is getting paid, is this any way to make a living? Is it a choice if it’s your only choice? As I walk down the beaches at night, parts of Boonmee’s books and all of my work and research come flooding back to me. Her descriptions fit my surroundings to a T.

 “Every colour of the rainbow shone down on the streets from the neon signs and the strobe lights of clubs. Giant screens advertised every commodity imaginable.”

I was with friends, all female, one American and two Germans. Mostly we were observing and talking. Occasionally we would duck into a bar and play a game, either one involving a hammer hitting nails in a tree trunk or a dice game called “Jackpot.” We’d sit and play these games with Thai natives, mostly all prostitutes. These were the women from whom I learned a lot about the sex culture of Patong. We would hear their stories on occasion, although many times they would stare blankly, either deep in thought or too tired to care about something for which they weren’t getting paid. Many appeared very happy and would come and go whenever a new guy came around the bar. I sat there one night for a few hours, my emotions swirling. Right and wrong had been blurred, although part of me would still crumble every time one of my new found friends would go off with another guy. The atmosphere was almost neo-colonial; there were the farangs who needed and wanted things and the Thais who would service them.

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Advice from a friend…

The following is part of blog from my friend Caro; you can read her full blog here.  Carolin will be my roommate next year and she’s currently studying abroad in Paris, France.  She’s commenting on what she’s learned abroad, what she will miss about Paris, and what she will take with her when she leaves.

“…Thus, my task when I return is to not fall prey to the vicious generation America has raised– that is, MY generation– the super-smart, super-motivated supermen and superwomen who consider the smallest setback a monumental failure and will do anything to be the one who wins the prize. Who knows what prize we’re all striving for! Paris has taught me there is no prize other than to relax and be happy, to live and to love, to help others, to enjoy yourself. I refuse to sleep less than 8 hours a night, refuse to get straight A’s, refuse to choose writing a paper over seeing a friend, refuse to let the priorities reorient from “what will make me happy?” to be “what will look good to others?” I refuse…”

Especially with exams coming up, I think these words are relevant.  While grades are important, your GPA isn’t you and it’s not going on your tombstone.  So chill out, relax a bit, have a cup of tea and enjoy :)

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Congratulations Vickie and Oliver!

Check out my Daily Tar Heel blog!  Here’s the link for this post:

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