Friday, September 21, 2012

Ceci n'est pas un vagin - The "Vagina" Problem

"I say it because it's an invisible word - a word that stirs up anxiety, awkwardness, contempt, and disgust."

- Eve Ensler, in reference to the word "vagina", in her preface to the 1998 edition of The Vagina Monologues

"Because that word is either so taboo or surrounded with negative connotations or draped in shame or medicalised, it's really important to take it back."

- Naomi Wolf, on her choice of title for Vagina, as quoted in the Guardian in 2012

Naomi Wolf is a little late to the party on this one. In 1996, 16 years ago, Eve Ensler decided to write a series of monologues addressing issues of female sexuality, violence against women, reproduction, and all sorts of things connected with women's bodies. In her preface to the 1998 edition of the book, Ensler indicated that she had been ambivalent on the question of what word should be used to encapsulate the physical locus of so much female experience - the "entire area and all its parts" - and acknowledged the fact that she was warping an established term. This is what she said:

"I say it because we haven't come up with a word that's more inclusive, that really describes the entire area and all its parts. 'Pussy' is probably a better word, but it has so much baggage connected with it. And besides, I don't think most of us have a clear idea of what we're talking about when we say 'pussy'. 'Vulva' is a good word; it speaks more specifically, but I don't think most of us are clear what the vulva includes."

Really? Because thanks to you, Ms. Ensler, most of us are no longer clear on what the vagina includes.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

An Atheist Prayer for Peace

So, Friday is the International Day of Prayer for Peace. This is a thorny issue for me, because as an atheist I don't pray. In fact, I think that prayer is wishful thinking, and without action it is a method of self-placation that doesn't accomplish anything. My gut response is "why wish for peace, when you can work toward it?"

But then I think that not only is peace a worthy, lofty goal, and one that we should certainly turn our minds and hearts and hands toward, but part of seeking peace is opening myself up to the idea that prayer is sacred and meaningful and powerful to millions of people, and I need to respect that. And I want, as an atheist, to be a part of a movement and a moment that strives for peace. So I've been thinking about how I can do that. Here's what I've come up with:

1) Practice peace. There are so many variations on the "think globally, act locally", "peace begins at home" theme, and at their heart they are about practicing what we preach. They are about putting our lofty, abstract goals into concrete action. They are about making little, real differences on a day-to-day basis that have real impact on individuals' lives and consequently on the world more broadly. Be kind. Be compassionate. Be patient. Be generous. Be peaceful. Listen to and respect others.

2) Put your resources where your prayer is. War and violence are often rooted in ideology. But they are also often rooted in want and inequality. I contribute monthly to Care Canada, and for the International Day of Prayer for Peace I am donating to Project Ploughshares, an initiative of the Canadian Council of Churches, that works against armed conflict and for peace. Given that I don't believe in a deity, I'm at a loss to ask a deity to work toward peace. But I can certainly support - philosophically and financially - a real live organization that works toward peace.

3) Pray in another way. The word "pray" comes from the Latin precari, and it can also meant "entreat", "beg", "request", "plead", "ask earnestly". I understand that kind of prayer for peace. I entreat the reader to work for peace, in whatever way you can. I ask you, earnestly, to give some of your time or money toward making the world a more peaceful place. I beg you, when confronted with a choice between peaceful conduct and the escalation of conflict, to choose peace, and to let that little act of peace resonate and ripple outward into the world.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Quest for Consent Culture

As I mentioned last week, I find the word "rape" anachronistic in a country where for almost thirty years, "sexual assault" has been the official descriptor for non-consensual sexual touching and violence.

It is for this reason that I was originally so shocked and repulsed when I heard the term "rape culture" used to describe the complex and pervasive attitudes toward sex - and, usually, toward women - that not only enable and excuse sexual assault, but also make it difficult for people to gauge what sexual assault even is. My response was along the lines of "wait just a minute! Sure, we have all these culture-wide problems with sexual assault, but isn't 'rape culture' a bit much? What's next - 'murder culture?' 'Pillage culture?'" [Well, perhaps. But those are topics for another day]

Precisely because this culture and these attitudes have grown out of many aspects of our culture and society, all of which overlap and feed into each other, I think it is overly reductive and a bit misleading to call it "rape culture". It's a shorthand term that works well for the people who already know what it is, but it is problematic.

One term that has developed to describe the antithesis of "rape culture" is "consent culture". Consent is required, we say. With consent, we can all have good sex, positive sex, and we can eradicate sexual assault. But to do this we must address the greater issue of what "consent" really means, and how we as individuals and as a society have fostered an environment in which true consent is rarely sought, and in which we often lack the power, knowledge, and skills to exercise our autonomy in determining whether we consent. It often appears as though consent doesn't fit well within our established framework for dealing with sex. That framework itself needs to be changed before consent will take root and work.

What follows is simply a collection of my experiences and observations with regard to the ways in which our culture stymies consent, followed by my take on how we can foster consent. Throughout, I will refer to women and men in a very gender-binary way, in which sexual assault is done to women by men (who frequently have no idea that what they are doing is a problem). I am doing this because this is usually - but by no means always - the way in which sexual assault occurs, and I think that this is so precisely because of the way in which our culture and society create and enforce gender, and influence sex.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Cusco's New Airport: A Threat and a Promise

Getting to Machu Picchu is relatively easy these days. I've been there three times, each time with my children. The youngest was around a year old and not yet walking, the first time we went. We took a train as far as Cusco, and then another train. In fact, there is no road to Machu Picchu; one must either hike in along the Inca Trail, or take the train. I suppose one could attempt to boat as far as the base town of Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Village), but I don't know whether that's a truly feasible option.

Still, lack of roads aside, it's not hard to get to Machu Picchu. Visits to the site form part of whirlwind tours that are enjoyed by young and old, hale and frail alike, who barrel through the place on the heels of their tour guides. The site swarms with tourists. According to this article, the site receives some 2200 visitors per day.

The city of Cusco similarly does not suffer a lack of tourism. It is estimated that some 1.5 million tourists visit Cusco, with its population of less than 500,000, per year. The city is awash with restaurants, hotels, shops, travel agents and tour operators to fit the budget of any traveller. And yet one of Cusco's great charms is that it has a sort of rustic, ramshackle feel to it. Treading the cobbled streets, past low stone archways strung with brightly coloured fabrics, the breathy lament of pan flutes mingling with the smells of cooking - and sometimes of livestock - in the sharp thin air, one can forget the hubbub of tourism and feel apart and at peace. There's a glimpsing of something more, in some parts of Peru, that affects even the most jaded of travellers.

While snatches of this feeling may be caught in Cusco, they are much more common in the village of Chinchero. Chinchero - the "birthplace of the rainbow" in Quechua - is some 28 kilometres to the northeast of Cusco, and over 300 metres higher in elevation. It is a stop along the tourist trail, but most visitors arrive in tour buses passing between Cusco and the Sacred Valley and stay only a short time before carrying on. I doubt the inhabitants of Chinchero much mind - they seem largely unconcerned with the tourists passing through. The people of Chinchero have largely maintained their traditional life from pre-European days. They are an indigenous population who speak Quechua, and who sustain traditions that have been heavily watered down and repackaged for cultural consumption in other parts of the country. The women of Chinchero are gifted spinners and weavers, and the people continue to use traditional farming techniques to grow potatoes and lima beans, and to raise llamas and alpacas.

So I was deeply saddened to learn on Thursday that the Peruvian government has passed a law to expropriate land in Chinchero to build a new airport there. The airport is being billed as an economic boon to the area, promising desperately needed new jobs in an admittedly impoverished region, and expanded/improved service to Cusco and Machu Picchu. The BBC reported on the concern that the new airport would only create more taxing tourism at the Machu Picchu site, while threatening the natural and cultural heritage of Chinchero.

Of course, there is also the claim that a new airport will be safer. In 1970, a plane crashed at the Cusco airport, killing 99 people, and the airport often shuts down or runs at lowered capacity due to weather concerns and its mountainous location. However, so far no one has produced any evidence to suggest that it is an unsafe airport, or that the new airport will be safer. Rather, the official line is oriented toward the economic benefits and opportunities for increased tourism that a new airport will bring. On that front, I fear, the plan will do more harm than good.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why It's Not Called "Rape" In Canada

“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something, I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.” – Rep. Todd Akin.
I have been, like so many people, swept up in a hurricane of negative emotion, noise, and – frankly – nonsense in the wake of this statement’s hitting the airwaves. I want desperately to respond to the notion that the “female body” has some magical power to prevent conception in violence, which is so bizarre that I have trouble even grasping the concept. I want to respond to the question of whether the purpose of abortion is to “punish” a “child”, and like most people I have strong and often conflicted thoughts and feelings about abortion.
But these questions have been amply explored, as doctors have essentially debunked the “rape doesn’t impregnate” line of thought, and people have run fresh circles around the question of when and if abortion should be allowed.
There has also been a lot of talk in the past few days about rape. Legitimate rape, forcible rape, actual rape, violent rape, “rape rape” – the list goes on. And I think on this point, I may have something to add.

An Answer to the Question I Asked ...

... On Halloween, 6 years ago. I still have this blog because I think on some level I knew the day would come when I wanted to blog again. And that day is today.

It has been 6 years, and in the interim I have had a second child, moved to Peru, blogged for over a year in Peru (at, gone to law school, clerked at the BC Supreme Court, and become a lawyer. I have removed most of the old posts from this blog, because in looking back, many of them served only to express a fleeting thought that had no lasting value. Or they were sufficiently personal that, although I'm glad to have written them down, I no longer want them to be part of this blog. I have kept a few old posts, even though my perspective may have changed, and my writing style evolved, simply as a tie to the past.

But when I was keeping the blog in its original form, I was a pregnant stay-at-home mother who had been out of school for some time. Now I am a lawyer, and a working mother, and my purpose in writing and my expected audience have shifted. Thus, what went before is not indicative of what is to come. I do keep another blog in which to share my children's insights and observations, which are often quite humourous, and that can be found here:

I hope I will have the energy and the focus to make what goes into this blog, going forward, interesting, engaging, and useful.