Category Archives: Feminism

Milo, Laurie Penny, the Lost Boys, and Toxic Masculinity

 

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Milo Yiannopoulos lost a book deal, a plum speaking gig, and his job this week. Photo: Flickr

I’ve spent a lot of the last three months calling Trump supporters and the alt-right monsters. I did so on this blog. I did so in The Independent.

But there is something missing from my analysis, and it’s something Laurie Penny touched on in a much praised and much derided piece for the Pacific Standard. Before I get into what Penny did and didn’t say, though, let me tell you a story.

When I was 22, I met a young 18-year-old straight boy. We’ll call him Jacob. Jacob was white, blonde, heterosexual, and totally lost in this world. Beyond anything, he was impressionable. Jacob only wanted to be liked. To belong somewhere. Gangly, bumbling, and painfully awkward, Jacob and I met through student government. I took an instant liking to him. He was sweet, goofy, and though intellectually inelegant (as 18-year-olds are apt to be), clearly intelligent.

Jacob looked to me as a mentor, and I to him as a kid I could help. I nurtured him and invited him to hang out with friends and go to parties. Eventually he pledged the fraternity I always hung out with (but didn’t belong to). I didn’t think this a good idea – Jacob was too sensitive, too vulnerable, and frankly too cerebral to really fit in with this hard-drinking, fast-fucking crew. I’ve written about my own college years drinking and fucking my way up and down fraternity row, and I was afraid that blend of toxic masculinity (which at the time I got a high off of) would kill poor Jacob.

Fast forward eight or so years, and he probably disagrees. I still don’t. Jacob was relentlessly picked on, though I must stress not hazed, by the guys in the fraternity. Most of it was the good-natured banter that twenty-something men tend toward. Some of it was a lot crueller. All of it proved too much for Jacob, who began drinking heavily and was prone to becoming violent when intoxicated. It got him banned from some fraternity parties and even, for a time, my house – unless he stayed sober.

Around this time, Jacob took a women’s studies class at my behest, and even began dating a lovely feminist woman. It seemed that he would sort himself out. But a year after I moved to Chicago, I got a call from him saying they’d broken up, and that he was in a very dark place. No stranger to dark places myself, I took a Megabus to see him. He rebounded, and I left.

As friends who live hundreds of miles away from one another often do, we drifted apart. It wasn’t really until last year when I drunkenly called him to catch up that I realised the boy I’d met who entered this world of toxic masculinity grew up into a misogynistic man and Trump supporter. We’ve not talked a lot since.

I’m from Kentucky, so the fact that people I know and even considered friends voted for Donald Trump isn’t all that surprising. But reading Penny’s piece, I thought specifically of Jacob and the strange, drunken, and desperate course he travelled from a dorky college kid to a self-identified feminist to the type of guy who, had he been born a few years later, could’ve been in that car with Penny and Yiannopoulos, evacuating UC-Berkeley.

I’m going to quote at length from Laurie’s piece here, because I think she makes two important points – one clumsily and one cogently. First, this:

It is vital that we talk about who gets to be treated like a child, and what that means. All of the people on Yiannopoulos’ tour are over 18 and legally responsible for their actions. They are also young, terribly young, young in a way that only privileged young men really get to be young in America, where your race, sex, and class determine whether and if you ever get to be a stupid kid, or a kid at all. Mike Brown was also 18, the same age as the Yiannopoulos posse, when he was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014; newspaper reports described him as an adult, and insisted that the teenager was “no angel,” as if that justified what was done to him. Tamir Rice was just 12 years old when he was shot and killed in Cleveland for playing with a toy gun. The boys following Yiannopoulos are playing with a toy dictator, and they have faced no consequences as yet, even though it turns out that their plastic play-fascism is, in fact, fully loaded and ready for murder.

This is the bit that seems to have gotten Penny the most flack, and to be fair, I get it. Writer Mikki Kendall summed it up best in a Twitter thread, in which she points out that Penny building her argument on the bodies of dead Black martyrs is callous and insensitive. I take that point. (I’m posting the first tweet in the thread below; please read and consider it.)

Still, engaging with who gets to be seen as a child, or an innocent, or have their behaviour excused because of youth is a worthwhile intellectual exercise, because in our culture not everybody gets to have youthful indiscretions. That is, in fact, almost exclusively the purview of straight cis white men.

So while perhaps Penny’s word choice was unfortunate, I don’t think her point was far from the mark. And yes, impact matters more than intent, but I have always believed that intent should be considered when thinking of how we respond, because it does still matter.

I say this not only as a defence of Penny’s own work and intentions, but because it plays right into the next very important point she makes. While, as she writes, “these are little boys playing games with the lives of others,” she also points out that Yiannopoulos

exploits vulnerable young men. Not in a sexual way. Not in an illegal way. Yiannopoulos exploits vulnerable young men in the same way that every wing-nut right-wing shock-jock from the president down has been exploiting them for years: by whipping up the fear and frustration of angry young men and boys who would rather burn down the world than learn to live in it like adults, by directing that affectless rage in service to their own fame and power. This is the sort of exploitation the entire conservative sphere is entirely comfortable with. What happens to these kids now that the game has changed?

If you think that centring white male Trump supporters is the antithesis of everything you stand for and the very thing both Penny and I have dedicated our careers to not doing, well, you’re right. So let me say before we go any further that I will absolutely side with any marginalised community over angry, privileged, adultalescent men – whether 17 or 70 – who leverage their power and privilege to harm the most vulnerable. As I’ve said many times, to many friends, and on many panels, I say now for the first time in print:

Explanations are not excuses

There is absolutely no excusing the behaviour of Yiannopoulos, his fanboys, President Trump, or any of the enablers, gatekeepers, or even voters who propelled them all to where they are today. None. But I do think the left, the resistance, and for that matter American culture generally could benefit from asking ourselves what brought them to this point.

If you read Penny’s piece, it’s clear that it wasn’t economic anxiety. If you look at the polling data on who voted for Trump, it’s clear too. But I think Penny hit the nail squarely on the head when she labelled these groupies “the lost boys.” Because I know a boy like them. I know Jacob.

Jacob graduated university in 2013 and moved to a mid-sized southern metropolis in search of the elusive American dream. He found dead end after dead end, working a sales job he didn’t like which (if I recall) he was eventually fired or laid off from. He found dating hard, impossible even. Women just didn’t seem interested in him.

At some point between 2014 and 2016 he moved back to his parents’ house in a small southern city and resumed working at the fast food restaurant he worked at while in high school. Last I talked to him, which was probably last spring, he was the manager. He was still living at home. He was still single. And he was noticeably and perhaps understandably angry about it.

It was at that time he told me that he thought, like Yiannopoulos, that feminism was a cancer on Western society. It had damaged the natural order of men on top and women subservient. All the social progress we made wasn’t working for him, so it obviously wasn’t working for anyone. Best to go back to 1956.

This is of course absurd. It is also straight up sexism.

Yet – consider one of the young men in Yiannopoulos’ posse, who told Penny that “I think a lot of people in this crew wouldn’t be part of the popular crowd without the Trump movement. I think that some of us are outcasts, some of us are kind of weird. It’s a motley crew.”

This quote gave me pause, and I reread it probably four times before going on, particularly the phrase “popular crowd,” which is one most often heard in high school cafeterias, not political discourse. That phrase in and of itself conjures up adolescence, immaturity, and a childlike longing to be recognised as part of the crème-de-la-crème of your social unit. That is not the phrase a well-adjusted adult uses unironically.

I have often times thanked God that I’m gay, because I think it saved me from going down this darkly bigoted path. Being openly gay in Kentucky from 2001 – 2011 did for me what it clearly never did for Yiannopoulos: it made me empathetic to other minorities. But if you read the essay I wrote for Salon about trying so desperately to belong to Greek life at my alma mater, you’ll see that I tried desperately to fit in with the oppressive class:

But from under them I could still obtain a certain level of social cachet. My reputation as someone who would fuck but didn’t talk grew, and with that, came a certain level of trust. “Put a cock in his mouth and he’ll shut up,” one of my buddies once joked. Suddenly, I was invited to the premier parties, not just from the fraternity I was hanging out with, but others. And I went, because it felt good. Being invited signaled acceptance, even if it was only on their terms. I might not be one of them, but I could hang with them, and that meant something.

I was a women’s studies minor. I knew better. Yet I still fell for the trappings of white heteropatriarchy, which as I said in that essay, is one helluva drug – especially to a working class gay kid who had never found any semblance of social acceptance anywhere else.

The sociologist Paul Kivel has a theory he calls the “act-like-a-man box,” which explains the pressures men feel to achieve, to provide, to dominate women, and to suppress their emotions and how these things can negatively impact not only their mental health but their politics. It’s basically a handy diagram to explain the theory of toxic masculinity, and square in the middle of it can be found Jacob and the Milo Yiannopoulos fan club.

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Paul Kivel’s “act-like-a-man box”

Yiannopoulos first came to American prominence through GamerGate, which was a sexist backlash against women playing video games masquerading as being about journalistic ethics. He built his cult following of basement dwelling, Red Bull chugging nerdy men by tearing down the women who many of them felt were invading a space where they could live out their misogynistic, violent fantasies without retribution or critique. Games were all they had, because for many of these men, they were social rejects. (I can say this with some certainty, as the gamers I know who are well-adjusted adult humans reject GamerGate, Yiannopoulos, and Trump without hesitation.)

Yet these are men who were, for a variety of reasons – whether because they were nerdy, or more effeminate, or overweight, or socially awkward – emasculated by the patriarchal norms described in the act-like-a-man box. Instead of burning the box and liberating themselves, they retreated further into it, where they found Donald Trump and Milo Yiannopoulos waiting to exploit their anxieties and insecurities for profit and for power.

Jacob wasn’t a gamer, but he was in the act-like-a-man box too, and Trump and Yiannopoulos found and converted him too. These Lost Boys, as Penny calls them, were lost because they – for whatever reason, or for many reasons – couldn’t live up to the pressures of socially constructed toxic masculinity. So they turned to people who could help redefine that.

This is probably key to why Milo Yiannopoulos so appealed to these young men. Sure, as Penny points out, they weren’t gay, but Yiannopoulos simultaneously defied the norms of masculinity – camping it up, wearing his pearls, openly talking of sucking dick – while being embraced by the patriarchy. If he could do it, they likely thought, so could they. It actually makes perfect sense that Yiannopoulos was the standard bearer of these Lost Boys. He accessed the social currency they desperately want to possess.

Of course key to all of this is how they viewed what it means to be a man. The toxicity isn’t only what it does to them, but what it does to others. That to them being a man meant dominance, violence, and sexual control of women is exactly what enables rape culture to thrive and domestic violence rates to stay abysmally high. It’s patriarchal, white supremacist bullshit that keeps women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and other marginalised groups oppressed. But – and this is a fact many leftists don’t want to grapple with – it also hurts white cis straight men who are denied agency unless they fit these narrow parameters of what it means to be a man.

It has been pointed out numerous times that Yiannopoulos was brought down not by his bigotry but the bigotry of others, whose homophobia was so triggered by what he said about the pederastic paradigm (and I do believe that’s what he was trying to say) that they exiled him from Trumpland. Whether his Lost Boys continue to follow him remains to be seen. Judging from the comments on his Facebook page, I think many will. I also think, as someone who has followed Yiannopoulos’ career since 2009 (which is around the time Penny and I first followed one another on Twitter), that we’ve not seen the last of him. His career has at least six lives left. What the next one manifests as, though, is anyone’s guess.

If Yiannopoulos can’t rehabilitate his image in the alt-right and even mainstream conservatism, someone will surely rise to take his place. As Penny’s article shows, there are plenty of Lost Boys waiting to play Peter Pan. One of them will assume the mantle in due course.

When they do, though, I hope we have a better understanding of who they are and what they’re all about. Because I think understanding the toxic masculinity – and the denial of it – that gave rise to Yiannopoulos and his cult following is important. Besides the obvious “know thy enemy” trope, if we’re ever to successfully deconstruct white heteropatriarchy, we have to know how it harms men too, and also what it can propel them towards. I chose feminism, socialism, and queer theory, opting to burn this shit to the ground. Yiannopoulos, Jacob, and others chose instead to find alternative means of accessing the power and privilege they felt they were denied. That is the more pernicious and dangerous path, one which has undoubtedly led us to where we are today – an era where the progress we’ve collectively made over the past 50 years is in its greatest peril.

We need to think about how we can reach, maybe not these men who are already lost causes, but other boys and men who could become them. And to do that, we need to grapple with toxic masculinity. We need to include it in our analyses and activism.

That doesn’t mean we stop centring women, people of colour, LGBT folks, disabled folks, immigrants, or any other marginalised group. We can’t. That work is too important – more important – and frankly more pressing. Lives are at stake. When you’re in the middle of a war you don’t ask the soldiers to think about how they’ll rehabilitate the enemy after victory. But for those of us who have the currency to spare, we should start examining these questions and considering how to raise principled and purposeful boys into feminist men.

None of this is to excuse any behaviour. “I was just following orders” wasn’t an excuse at Nuremburg, and it isn’t an excuse here. These assholes need to be held to account, full stop. And they cannot be let off the hook. Again, explanations are not excuses. But to not examine how they became who they are is to risk raising the next Milo Yiannopoulos.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a journalist and essayist based in Chicago. He writes about British and American politics and pop culture. His work has appeared at The Independent, The Huffington Post UK, The Daily Dot, and Salon. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan.

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In Walthamstow, Nancy Taaffe challenges Labour from the left

Nancy Taaffe. Image: The Socialist Party

Nancy Taaffe. Image: The Socialist Party

Walthamstow, a quiet working class community in North-East London, is as safe a constituency as they come. Labour control the local council, and the party has held the seat consistently since the 1990s, and has only lost one election since 1972. In the 2010 election, Stella Creasy—widely touted as a possible future party leader and the current Shadow Minister for Crime Prevention—commanded over 50% of the vote with a nearly 10,000 vote majority. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the community has not heavily featured in the media’s election coverage.

But Walthamstow is a community at a crossroads. Gentrification has pushed more and more people from central London to the area, at the terminus of the Victoria Line, which is in turn pushing up housing prices and pushing out residents who for decades have called this area home. According to the Financial Times, property values increased 22.3% over the course of 2014. A new development, known as The Scene, has seen the demolition of social housing to make way for a brand new cinema, restaurants, and flats which are now priced at £500,000, according to local resident Sarah Wrack. These businesses “are not aimed at the poor people of this area,” but rather “the people they’re trying to attract,” she says.

“It’s not for the people who live here at the moment, it’s to move people in and literally move people who used to be in that social housing out.”

Sarah Sachs-Eldridge agrees, another Walthamstow resident, agrees. “It’s impossible to get a decent home in this area. All of us have difficulties with housing.”

She blames the cutting of council tax benefit and housing benefit for forcing residents out, something Ms Wrack also believes is making Walthamstow unaffordable for many of its residents. Ms Wrack grew up in Tower Hamlets, in Inner-East London, which at the time “had the highest rate of child poverty in Europe,” she says. “It was a poor place.” The redevelopment of Canary Wharf forced Ms Wrack out, something she sees being repeated now in Walthamstow. ““In an area like this, almost everyone is poor,” she says. The same process which brought her here is “being repeated, as people are forced out further and further.”

Both women were out on Monday campaigning alongside Nancy Taaffe, who agrees with their assessment of the housing crisis in the constituency. It “is an expression of accumulation of loss of council homes that have come together in a sort of economic crisis of not being able to get a job or not being able to get enough money to buy,” says Taaffe, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition candidate challenging Ms Creasy for the seat.

TUSC was formed weeks before the 2010 general election “to enable trade unionists, community campaigners, and socialists to stand candidates against the pro-austerity establishment parties,” according to its website. They are standing in 135 parliamentary elections across the country. Bob Crow, the late National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) leader, was one of its founders.

“Historically the socialist party which is part of TUSC was inside the Labour party,” Ms Taaffe says, noting that the Socialist Party left Labour “just before the ascendency of Tony Blair,” a time she claims Labour was “expelling all trade unionists (and) good socialists.”

Ms Taaffe: “They purged organisationally, they pushed socialists out and then they reconstituted themselves as a neo-liberal party.”

She stood for the seat in 2010, winning less than 250 votes. But she felt it was important to stand again. “The working class is disenfranchised. It doesn’t have a socialist voice,” she says, noting that “the Labour Party is no longer a socialist party.”

Ms. Taaffe’s comments, and indeed her candidacy, are part of a broader story that has dominated this election. Britain was, for nearly a century, a largely two-party system, with the Liberal Democrats a smaller but ever-present third party. Over the past decade, though, more and more voters have become disillusioned with what they felt were false choices between the Conservatives and Labour, and have migrated to smaller parties, including UKIP and nationalist parties such as the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales. In England, where nationalism lacks the cache on the left, the Green Party has largely picked up the progressive slack, with parties like TUSC emerging to carry the banner of the traditional, if dwindling, socialist agenda.

“Allegiances to Labour are fragmented,” Ms Taaffe says, “and you can see that in Scotland,” where the SNP look poised to completely wipe out Labour, which may lose more than 40 seats in the country tomorrow.

“The austerity cuts have been absolutely devastating for women and the public sector. A million jobs have gone. So in Scotland where these jobs are going, on top of its history of losing manufacturing jobs, the betrayal — I mean all around Scotland now they’ve got stickers saying ‘Red Tories,’” she says. “It’s like a perfect storm of 30 years.”

According to Ms Taaffe, it’s the same across the country, including in Walthamstow. “Labour completely controls this area. £65 million pounds worth of cuts. We’ve lost 1000 jobs to those cuts.” One of those jobs was Ms Taaffe’s. She worked for years at the local library, but was made redundant in phase 12 of the cuts.

Ms Taaffe: “When I debated with Stella, I said to her ‘I was a single parent with two children. And you call yourself a feminist… and yet you wouldn’t make a statement about us losing our jobs at the hands of your party?”

“The least you can do if you stand in the tradition of the suffragettes is to speak for the thousands of women who are losing their jobs, the women who rely on public service for social care for their families, who have been pushed back into the home. It’s been like, we would argue it’s regressive what’s happening to women, because we rely disproportionately on the services that are going. So if you’re a feminist, you’ve got to fight the cuts.

“She said ‘we can’t stand up to Eric Pickles’. Eric Pickles is a bullying conservative man.”* Mr Pickles, the Conservative Secretary for Communities and Local Government, led the coalition’s efforts to slash the budgets of local councils over the last parliament.

Earlier this year Ms Creasy, along with the majority of Labour MPs, voted with the Coalition for an additional £30 billion in cuts to benefits and services, a move which fellow Labour MP and London mayoral candidate Diane Abbott at the time called a “great disservice” to the working class.

While it is extremely unlikely Ms Taaffe will defeat Ms Creasy in tomorrow’s vote, she is looking ahead to the next battle. “We’re going to be fighting for the existence of our local hospital,” she says. “Stella (and) the local councillors are not being honest…. our local hospital is in debt to the tune of £90 million. The plan and the details of the cuts won’t be released until June, which is a month after the general election.

“It’s just an outrage. 340,000 people use the hospital.”

And though Ms Taaffe and TUSC hope that Ms Creasy and her party will fight alongside them, she is not optimistic.

“The fight now is outside the Labour Party.”

(The Curious American reached out to Stella Creasy for comment, particularly on the allegations she said she and Labour did not want to stand up to Eric Pickles, but as of the time of publication has not received a response. However, Ms Creasy did address the issue of housing with the Walthamstow Guardian: “The price of housing is driving many out of our area and leaving others in overcrowded accomodation… Only Labour is committed to building the homes that we need and ending unfair agency fees to provide a city fit for all.”)

Updated 2/12/2015: Last month, Stella Creasy responded to this piece on Twitter, asking us to remove the following statement made by Nancy Taaffe: “She said ‘we can’t stand up to Eric Pickles’. Eric Pickles is a bullying conservative man.” The Curious American wishes to to clarify this statement. Ms Taaffe repeated a quote she alleges is from Ms Creasy (‘we can’t stand up to Eric Pickles’.) This was in inverted commas and followed by a full stop, indicating an end to the alleged quote. Ms Taaffe then went on to offer her on analysis, which is that “Eric Pickles is a bullying conservative man.” Because this statement was made by Ms Taaffe, and because The Curious American reached out to Ms Creasy for comment on this specific alleged quote, we will not remove it. However, Ms Creasy has denied the comment on Twitter:

So, let’s talk about Phi Kappa Psi’s statement on Jackie, the Rolling Stone article, and rape at UVA

Photo credit: WVIR-TV/NBC 29

Photo credit: WVIR-TV/NBC 29

A lot has been made about the Rolling Stone article chronicling the rape of Jackie, who during her freshman year, alleges she was gang raped by a group of men at a University of Virginia fraternity house. Rolling Stone has since distanced itself from the story, which has kicked up a firestorm of controversy, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming on social media, as well as fuelled rape denialism and apologism.

What prompted the Rolling Stone apology? Apparently, some factual inaccuracies found by the fraternity in question, Phi Kappa Psi, as well as the fact that they never reached out to her alleged rapists, in particular the one she accuses of orchestrating the attack. We can debate whether Rolling Stone should’ve reached out to Jackie’s unnamed alleged attacker, but what I find more pernicious is that Phi Kappa Psi’s assertions have gone unchecked and unscrutinised. They’re taken as fact.

What most of you don’t know is that, for the past several weeks, I’ve been working on a piece about my own experiences with Greek life. I hope to see it published nationally here in the USA soon. But the fact is, I am somewhat of an expert, by virtue of my own lived experiences, on the fraternity system and fraternity life in particular. I wasn’t Greek-that’s part of the point of my article-but I was an outsider firmly on the inside. As such, let’s talk about Virginia Alpha chapter’s rebuttal of Jackie, the woman allegedly raped at their UVA chapter house:

First, the 2012 roster of employees at the Aquatic and Fitness Center does not list a Phi Kappa Psi as a lifeguard. As far as we have determined, no member of our fraternity worked there in any capacity during this time period.

So this is pretty damning, obviously, and something that was easily verifiable by Rolling Stone. At least, that’s how it seems on the surface. But what we now know is that Drew, the alias by which Rolling Stone identifies the man Jackie alleges raped her, may not have been a Phi Kappa Psi at all. It is unusual, but not unheard of, for members of other fraternities to attend a party at another fraternity house. It is less unusual for GDI-goddamn independent, or non-affiliated students-to wind up at these parties; I was one of them. So Drew might not have been a Phi Psi, yet the assault could still have taken place at the Phi Psi house. This means Phi Kappa Psi would have some liability. Could Jackie have mistaken Drew for a Phi Psi? If he talked a lot about it and hung out with a lot of them, yes. I was regularly mistaken for an active member of the fraternity I hung out with by people unfamiliar with the chapter or Greek life. Jackie was a first-semester freshman who clearly knew little about college life, let alone fraternities and sororities. It’s possible.

Second, the Chapter did not have a date function or a social event during the weekend of September 28th, 2012.

This one actually made me laugh out loud. On my campus, and so many of the campuses I visited, wet events were banned at fraternity houses by the national organisation and by the university, for obvious legal liability reasons. That Phi Psi’s nationals would know about every party that happened at that house is ludicrous. In fact, the active chapter would probably be at great pains to make sure nationals didn’t find out. A date function or social event, such as a mixer (a party featuring them and a sorority), a formal (which almost certainly would have been a destination dance, not something held at the house), or other registered party would be tame by comparison, because Phi Kappa Psi doesn’t want to get sued. Any party like the one Jackie described is extremely likely to be an unofficial function not appearing in the official records of the fraternity. That means, even two years later, the local chapter could say there was no date function or social event during that weekend, without having to admit that yes, actually, there was a party. These terms have specific meanings.

Third, our Chapter’s pledging and initiation periods, as required by the University and Inter-Fraternity Council, take place solely in the spring semester and not in the fall semester. We document the initiation of new members at the end of each spring.

This is interesting, but not necessarily a defence. Formal pledging happens in very structured and specific time frames, but informal recruitment (even if the men rushing have to go through the formal process) happens year-round, particularly with freshmen who may have missed the pledging process the year before. I’ve seen it happen, men who somehow befriended one or two active members and then decided to join their sophomore or even junior year. The time frame of when rush, pledging, and initiation happens at UVA is neither here nor there, because much like the party, year-round recruitment may well have been something not on the official records, but that is nonetheless a part of the routine and everyday life of this and many, many fraternities.

Moreover, no ritualized sexual assault is part of our pledging or initiation process. This notion is vile, and we vehemently refute this claim.

I 100% believe this. Ritualized sexual assault, I can say with total confidence, is not a part of Pi Kappa Psi’s pledging or initiation process, nor is it a part of any other North-American Interfraternity Council member organization’s ritual. If it were, we’d have heard about it by now, full stop.

But here’s where things become less clear. It is not unusual for individual chapters to have their own traditions and rituals. It could be as innocent as adopting a penguin as your mascot, or it could be something more odious, like the “hell night” I once saw a freshman pledging a fraternity notorious for hazing come back from. The bruises on his back and abdomen terrified me as an RA. I can guarantee you that’s not part of any national initiation ritual too, yet I witnessed the results. Reading back through the Rolling Stone article, it could be that these men were simply egging one another on by saying they all had to do it, even if they didn’t. It could be that Jackie doesn’t remember the details of what was said, which studies have proven victims of trauma such as sexual assault find difficult to piece together. Or it could be that this local chapter has a very dark ritual unto itself, one, again, that nationals would know nothing about. Until it did.

The fact is that the national Greek organizations, the headquarters, can only be so responsible and know so much about what’s happening at their individual campus chapters, run by 18-22 year olds with limited adult oversight. This means, invariably, that a lot of what actually happens doesn’t make it onto the official record, and doesn’t become part of the historic narrative. The chapter may have no record of the party Jackie attended, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a party that night.

And it also remains that what Phi Kappa Psi has said in their statement is only half the story. Yes, what they said may all be technically true, but it doesn’t mean that things didn’t transpire exactly, or close to, as Jackie described to Rolling Stone. Anyone who knows Greek Life will know this, even if they’re loathed to admit it.

We can talk about journalistic integrity and whether it was a dereliction of duty and due diligence for Rolling Stone not to contact Jackie’s accused rapists or look into some of these details themselves. But what we’re not going to do is cast the veil of doubt over Jackie’s account while letting the rebuttal by Phi Kappa Psi and others go unscrutinised.

The fact is, there’s a lot of wiggle room Phi Kappa Psi has given itself. They’ve done a good job of bringing Jackie’s account into question, but they have done it with the hope and the knowledge that most journalists don’t know the realities of how Greek life works on a grassroots, day-to-day level, and with the hope that no one would question this because, well, facts. But their facts give way to reality, and the reality is that what Phi Kappa Psi said in its statement is only the official truth. The actual truth is much more convoluted, and likely much, much closer to Jackie’s story than they’d ever care to admit.

Update, 5 April 2015: Today, the Columbia School of Journalism published its report on the journalistic lapses of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “A Rape on Campus,” and I wanted to make sure those were included here. Back when this blog was initially published, Rubin Erdeley’s reporting was just being called into question and the story only starting to unravel. What the CSJ report has found is a complete dereliction of duty. Make no mistakes: this report is damning. Rubin Erdely, her editors, and Rolling Stone should have and could have done better.

As a blogger, essayist, and especially as a journalist, accuracy matters. While I stand by my overall analysis of and commentary on Phi Kappa Psi’s statement from December 2014–the gist being that things on Greek Row are not always what they seem–it has become very clear and unequivocal that things likely did transpire closer to what Phi Kappa Psi claims than to what Jackie told Rubin Erdely. 

On Rose McGowan, gay male misogyny, and why intersectionality matters

Photo credit: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Photo credit: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Intersectionality. Louise Mensch thinks it’s bullshit. Caroline Criado-Perez thinks it’s bullying. Rose McGowan thinks it’s, well, we don’t know what Rose McGowan thinks it is. But her recent comments about gay men being “more sexist” than straight men, which she subsequently apologized for, demonstrate that she may not be an intersectional feminist herself.

I don’t disagree with Rose McGowan that a lot of gay men are misogynists. That’s a given, because a lot of men are misogynists. When I was 18, I briefly dated a man who referred to one of his close female friends as “Gash.” Reducing a woman to her genitalia is objectifying and demeaning, regardless of a man’s sexual orientation.

Back in January, Jezebel ran a lengthy piece by Rohin Guha, an out gay man, about just this topic, addressing the “myth of the fag hag” (itself a disgustingly sexist term) and the misogyny permeating gay clubs and the gay community:

It’s a dirty secret of a subculture of the gay male world about women: That they’re essentially unwelcome, unless they come to us as a Real Housewife, a pop diva, or an Tony award winner–or an unassuming fag hag. To anyone just coming out of the closet and hoping to get his bearings in the gay male community, the attitude towards women is simple: They are just objects whose function is to serve gay men. Maybe it happens when gay men get too comfortable in newly-discovered safe spaces–where they get to call the shots as their proudly out new selves. Or maybe it happens through cultural conditioning. Whatever the cause is, it becomes clear: If there isn’t any kind of transactional exchange happening, then women lose their value in gay male subcultures.

Rohin, like Rose, is talking about “gay male privilege,” but this is only part of the story, and misses the intersectional reality here, a point that Noah Baron cogently made in a rebuttal at the Huffington Post. There is no such thing as “gay male privilege.” There is male privilege, which gay men have. There is cis privilege, which cis folks have. There is white privilege, which white people have. A gay man can have, and should be expected to check, any and all of these privileges. But there is no “gay male privilege.” Being a member of the LGBT community means you are a member of the oppressed class, and by default lack privilege-in this case, “straight privilege.”

This is where intersectionality comes in. If Rose or Rohin were to speak of the male privilege which gay men possess and which many are oblivious to yet benefit from, while also acknowledging their simultaneous oppression, I wouldn’t be writing this. But neither does. Rose starts off by straightsplaining queer activism (around the Beverly Hills Hotel, specifically, and Sultan of Brunei’s brutal anti-gay policies more broadly), lecturing the gay community on why our response to our oppression is the incorrect response. Only after this does she begin lamenting the lack of gay male allies in the fight for equal pay and women’s liberation.

Rohin also addresses pay inequality. “So long as [gay men] know how to play our cards in the corporate world, we can potentially enjoy a higher salary than our female counterparts…” he writes, continuing with how, so long as we have a “poker face,” gay men can avoid sexual assault. “It isn’t perfect,” he says rather blithely, “but privilege is privilege.”

Indeed. But for the millions of Americans who live in states where they can be sacked or refused a job for being gay, this isn’t a privilege, it’s an oppression. For the millions of gay people, including in places like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, who have to assess their new workplace and think twice about putting up a picture of their families, this is not a privilege. We live in a white heteropatriarchy, which values heterosexuality and reviles homosexuality. Yes, my male privilege makes me less likely to face street harassment, assault, or gender-based discrimination. But you best believe I wouldn’t dare hold my boyfriend’s hand back home in Kentucky. You best believe I was a dirty little secret for years because my ex worried what coming out would do to his career. You best believe I still have to assess every situation, corporate or otherwise, to figure out whether it’s safe to come out.

Addressing men as a class, which includes gay men, and addressing the misogyny of gay men is not homophobic, and it needs to be done more often. Explaining how male privilege benefits all men is important. I’m glad that people are thinking and talking about these things, because the gay community has gotten a pass for too long. But there’s a way to do it that doesn’t dismiss the very real oppression that gay men face every day.

And that was my major problem with Rose’s comments, and it’s been something I’ve stewed over since Rohin’s piece went live last winter. Rose didn’t approach gay men as men, she approached them as gay; as such, it read as a member of the privileged (straight) class attacking members of the oppressed (gay) class. Similarly, Rohin is incredibly dismissive of “gay culture,” completely ignoring the sacrosanct nature of gay spaces (like gay bars, for example) to so many gay men, for many of whom it is the only escape from pervasive heteronormativity.

Should more gay men step up in the feminist fight? Absolutely. Should more gay men have our male (and white, and class, and cis, and able) privilege checked? Definitely. Should more gay men examine the ways in which we objectify and degrade women, invading their spaces and bodily autonomy? Yes.

But this isn’t because we’re gay. It’s because we’re men.

Comparing oppressions is tacky, but understanding the basic tenants of intersectional feminism is necessary. We are all differently yet simultaneously privileged and oppressed, and it’s important to recognise the differences, both in ourselves and in others. Neither Rose McGowan nor Rohin Guha did this, and it was to the detriment of their otherwise cogent point. Tackling sexism in all its pernicious forms, in every place, is imperative, but attacking an oppressed class is a lousy way to do it.

2014 And All That: A primer for the new year

Goodbye-2013-hello-2014-wallpaper

Right. Where was I? So here we are on Blue Monday, when the festive warmth dissipates and we suddenly realise that, without the intoxicating mix of Christmas lights and liquor, bloody hell, this weather is shit. We also realise that politics is, too.

What did we miss over the holiday season? Nick Griffin went bankrupt, as did Britain (at least according to George Osbourne). Ming Campbell began drafting the coalition divorce decree, whilst apparently most of Sunderland is drafting their own. Michael Gove created an uproar by making the past a topic of present debate. Nigel Farage did the opposite, proving decisively that he’d like the present to feel more like the past.

But while Gove and Farage look backwards, the media pundits and this fledgling blogger are looking forward. The standard prognostications have been made. Iran will take centre stage, Ukip will write the narrative of the European elections, Simon will return to X Factor.

So, joining the chorus of predictions, I offer a few buzzwords you should listen for in 2014.

1. Intersectionality

Anyone who has ever trolled the internet is familiar with the oft-derided phrase “check your privilege,” and Laurie Penny and Louise Mensch famously debated its usage last year. What most people don’t know is CYP’s provenance. Intersectionality, at its most basic, is a feminist theory that our experiences in this world are dictated by the varying degrees of privilege and disadvantage our many identities bring us. It’s the place where gender meets race, class, sexual orientation, disability, religion and so on. Before 2013, I’d rarely heard the term used outside of a gender studies classroom. With the rising refusal of many on social media to check their privilege, coupled with the emergence of such hashags as #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, #NotYourAsianSidekick, and #BlackPowerYellowPeril, I expect 2014 is the year intersectionality enters mainstream consciousness.

2. Independence

Scotland will vote on whether it ought to secede from the United Kingdom in September. This alone is enough to propel the word into the public discourse. But the ramifications of Scotland’s vote will have global consequences, from Catalonia to Chechnya. Even Quebec might start looking at nationhood again. Also in the mix is South Sudan, the world’s newest state, which ended the year with the start of one of the world’s bloodiest (and most under reported) internal conflicts, which is sure to raise questions about the stability of any sovereignty movement looking to create a new country. (See: Kurdistan.)

3. Somme

Less a prediction and more an observation, I confess. 2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and as mentioned above, we’ve already seen politicians trying to capitalise and rewrite history. Expect this to continue throughout the year, with Ukip using it to argue against a pan-European identity, the Tories using it to argue for a British identity, Labour using it to argue in favour of a multicultural identity, and the LibDems throwing their exasperated hands up.

Other words to keep an ear out include libertarian (with the parallels of Ukip to the American Tea Party and US midterm elections), Hillary (will she or won’t she), heterosexism (the presumption everyone is straight, and that being so is the norm), healthy obesity (expect a a heavy debate on weight-pun intended), al Qaeda (it’s been a few years since this was bandied about, but with the recent loss of Fallujah to the terrorist organisation, al Qaeda has proven to still be a threat), Zac Goldsmith (if airport expansion continues the way it’s going, he could throw quite the curve ball to Cameron), the Troubles (the Haass talk broke up with no agreement, meaning questions of the past will continue to plague Northern Ireland’s future), and globalisation (of the economy, the markets, feminism, gay rights).

If the first six days have proven anything, it’s that 2014 will be anything but dull. Watch this space.

Skylar’s Naughty and Nice List 2013

naughty and nice

It’s Christmas Eve, which means Santa’s making his rounds. While I expect coal-and hopefully some condoms-in my stocking, not all of us have been quite so naughty this year. With that, I revive a holiday tradition, and give you my naughty and nice list for 2013!

naughty

5. Katie Hopkins

Whether calling X Factor winner Sam Bailey “a fat mum in a tracksuit,” expressing her belief that Scots will do “anything to avoid working until retirement,” or slagging off ginger children as “harder to love,” this may well be Katie Hopkins’ naughtiest year yet-and that’s saying something. Despite a litany of inane ramblings throughout 2013, it was her controversial classist statement that she wouldn’t let her children play with other kids called “Chardonnay” or “Tyler” because their names imply a working class background which propelled her from annoying gadfly to unbearable git. Maybe I’m just taking this personally, as I am a chubby gay ginger called Skylar, but seriously, I need her to sod off in 2014. As that’s unlikely to happen-she’s tipped to enter the Big Brother house next month-I think I’ll just get a tattoo to spite her. Maybe one of Russell Brand.

4. Russell Brand

Just kidding, that man’s a dick. I mean, I know you did a lot of drugs Russell, but Ozzy Osbourne is more coherent and decipherable. This year’s verbal masturbation champion, Russell Brand has suggested a revolution of…? He’s rambled on and on about the need to have a banker-bashing orgy and the needlessness of voting, but here we are at Christmas Eve and I’m still waiting for his point. His talk is pretty and makes you feel good, but much like the Justin Bieber blow-up doll, there just isn’t much depth.

3. Justin Bieber

Speaking of the Biebs, much like his inflatable doppelgänger, he needs to take a seat. Seriously boy, what have we done to you? The first time I ever heard of Justin Bieber he was 3 years old talking to Chelsea Handler. That’s where it began. Nothing good can come from talking to Chelsea Handler. And then we let Usher raise him, and look what happens. From pissing in a bucket while sneaking out of a restaurant to visiting Brazilian brothels to playing naked guitar for his gran, it’s been a bit of a year for Justin. His worst act, though, was by far stepping on the Blackhawk head. Unless you’re a Chicagoan, you won’t get this; if you are a Chicagoan, don’t let the reminder ruin your Christmas. This boy needs to check it before he wrecks it.

2. Robin Thicke

Another man who needs to check something-his privilege-is Robin Thicke, the End Violence Against Women’s coalition Sexist of the Year. The only acceptable “blurred lines” are the ones the cops will likely make me walk tonight after my eighth eggnog. I just can’t.

1. That guy who kissed me by the Serpentine under a pale moon

😉

nice

5. Tom Daley

He’s Britain’s sweetheart, isn’t he? I mean seriously, how can you not just want to give this kid a pat on the back (or the bum)? Sure, he didn’t cure cancer-another LGBT kid did that-but in coming out, Tom not only gave hope to countless kids around the world, but blazed the trail for other high profile LGBT athletes to follow. Make all the jokes you want about diving being the second gayest sport in the summer Olympics (after gymnastics, duh), but sport is rife with homophobia, and Tom’s decision was makes him one brave little toaster.

4. Kellee Terrell

Journalist. Activist. Filmmaker. Kellee is a jill-of-all-trades, and has done so much in the past 12 months to further causes of social justice. Her short film, Goodnight My Love, takes a nuanced look at the last few minutes of a black lesbian couple in a zombie apocalypse, which in itself is awesome enough to land her on this list. But beyond this, her outspoken advocacy for HIV awareness has helped further break the stigma of the disease, and her unwavering support as an LGBT ally has helped shed light on the plight of queer people of colour. Kellee is the only person on either list who I can also claim as a personal friend, having met her at an Oscar viewing party last winter, and her wisdom, guidance and encouragement have been instrumental in my return to writing. I can’t thank her enough.

3. Jennifer Lawrence

God I just love this woman. She’s a feminist. She’s from Kentucky. I mean we’re practically besties right there. But seriously, Jennifer Lawrence has been eschewing conventional stardom for something with substance, taking on Joan Rivers and Kelly Osbourne for tearing into women’s appearances and telling the Guardian it should be illegal to call someone fat on tv. She’ll say what she wants, do what she wants, eat what she wants, and no shits are given. I fucking love her.

2.The British Twittersphere

You lot. Nothing sums up my experience on Twitter better than the time Louise Mensch and Laurie Penny teamed up to take down transphobic tweets. My followers aren’t many, but they’re proper quality, and my return to commentating on British life and politics has been met with a warm welcome home. Despite being an American and living in Chicago, y’all have welcomed my input and opinions as valid and, in some cases, worthy, never dismissing me or critiquing my imperial American privilege. I’m well aware that a foreigner constantly commenting on your politics can seem condescending and presumptive, but you have willingly engaged me and encouraged me. As one follower said, and I’m paraphrasing, “you know so much about what’s going on I forget you’re not here!” It’s tweets like this that make getting up at 3:00 AM to catch the British morning news cycle worth it. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

1. Caroline Criado-Perez

Whilst my followers are cracking, the same can’t be said for all the Twittersphere. For her resilience and sheer tenacity, Caroline Criado-Perez is the nicest of the nice this year. When the Bank of England decided women weren’t worth £5, Caroline led the campaign to keep a woman on banknotes-and to officially recognise the contributions of women throughout British history. Owen Jones has called her “a brilliant fighter,” which might well be the understatement of 2013. Caroline has put up with threats of rape and violence all year, but her voice is louder and clearer than ever before. When Caitlin Moran organised a “twitter silence” to protest, she acknowledged the show of solidarity but said that she would not be silenced by anyone. A true role model to all of us campaigning for social justice, Caroline has inspired me beyond most anybody this year.

I hope you made Santa’s nice list, and that all your Christmas wishes come true. To all of my readers, both here and at The Columnist, I wish you nothing but joy this Yuletide season. Thank you for making my return so rewarding. See you in 2014!

Why James Arthur’s apology is bullshit

James Arthur

James Arthur

I can’t believe I have to tell straight people not to say “fag” and “queer.” Seriously y’all? The words themselves send shivers down my spine, taking me back to my years spent in southeastern Kentucky, where they were regularly spewed in my direction, dripping with the vitriol of threats and intimidation. For three years I was terrorised, and I never once went to school in the morning convinced I’d make it out alive in the afternoon. It was a daily crucible of homophobia.

My story is sadly reflective of so many young gay men and women throughout the Western world. And that’s why, when James Arthur dropped his diss against some unknown rapper, my palm and forehead had a kiki. But if his use of “queer” wound me up, his apology really pissed me off.

James Arthur has sought forgiveness without contrition. He “has gay friends,” he says. Rylan Clark is his bestie! I mean for Christ’s sake, the man likes “Little Britain.” He can’t be homophobic! His backhanded apology betrays a nasty bigotry at worst or, as I truly suspect, an unabashed ignorance at best:

What the hell? There’s no “mistaking” the homophobia here. We’re not misconstruing anything. Does he really think that because he called a (presumably) straight rapper a queer that it’s not homophobic? Apparently so:

 

In fairness to James Arthur, it’s an easy mistake to make. “Faggot” and “queer” are dropped in rap battles like IEDs in real battles. Eminem made headlines earlier this month for the homophobic lyrics on his latest LP, taking me back to the my own high school hell by both using homophobic slurs and releasing new material. He was quoted in his recent Rolling Stone interview as saying “it’s more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or an asshole.” Similarly, South Park made a similar argument several years ago, saying that “faggot” isn’t a homophobic word anymore because the definition has changed.

For fuck’s sake. Let me break this down for you. Where do you think these words get their power? Why are they so insulting? If, in the context these men are using them, “fag” is used to question someone’s masculinity or humanity, it’s because the word is rooted in homophobia. To call someone a fag or a queer is to say they are less than a man, the subtext of which is “gay.” These words are so popular in disses because they cut to the bone, and that blade drips with the blood of martyred gay men.

Likewise, let’s entertain that “faggot” has evolved to mean “bitch,” as Eminem and the South Park pricks have both argued. Terrific. You’ve stripped it of its homophobia and instead varnished it with sexism. Suddenly “faggot” means “woman” and not “gay man?” You’re still using the word to emasculate your opponent, and because sexism and homophobia are so intricately connected, you’re essentially saying the same damn thing.

But beyond this, the fact remains that these words are still used to intimidate, bully, and harass gay folks. It happened in Chichester this month , in South Yorkshire just last month, and in the armed forces, too. It’s not just in the villages and towns, though; it’s happening in the cities too, like this case in Edinburgh and even right in the middle of Trafalgar Square. In so many of these attacks, homophobic slurs (like “fag” and “queer”) were used as the victims were ruthlessly and brutally attacked. And it doesn’t seem the were attacked for being “punks” or “assholes.”

Or, to put it blatantly enough for James Arthur and Eminem, they were called faggots and then physically assaulted for being gay.

So don’t tell me that word doesn’t mean what I know it means. Don’t tell me that the guys in high school were threatening my life because I was a dickhead. Don’t tell me that these words mean something they don’t. The meaning is obvious.

And, because I’m nice like this, I’ll make a deal with y’all. As soon as “fag” and “queer” are no longer used to harass and terrorise LGBT people, we’ll be sure to let you know. Until then, kindly shut the fuck up.

EDIT 18 November 2013 at 12:49 GMT: I just read this on the use of LGBT slurs in schools , and it’s relevant and worth a share.