April 24, 2014

The Anyion: By any name

Before I went to this mecca of liberal ideas we call college, I would never have labeled myself a feminist. Did I think women should get equal pay for equal work? Yes. Did I think women should be more represented in politics and corporate life? Of course. But those, to me, weren’t feminist ideas—they were common sense.

Feminism for me carried—and still carries—a stigma. When somebody starts trying to prove to me that catcalling is sexual harassment, I still tune out. Honestly, I think catcalling can be flattering.

That particular conversation can, for a moment, make it easy for me to imagine feminists as a bunch of women overreacting. But, as with any movement, bra-burning, Pussy Riot–listening extremists are rare, and I’ve come to realize that just because I disagree with women who get insulted when somebody opens the door for them because “they’re perfectly capable of doing it themselves” doesn’t mean I can’t identify with the spirit of feminism. I’ve always had certain feminist ideals—I’ve called people out on inadvertently slut-shaming so many times I almost feel like a vigilante. But until now my ideals weren’t concretely solidified.

Listening to and agreeing with the many powerful feminist women at UChicago has made me pay more attention to the nuances of feminism. What is the difference between feminist and just believing everybody should get equal opportunity and respect? Does there have to be a difference?

I’m still struggling with the answers to these questions. I was talking to a very religious acquaintance about modesty, asking him why, in the Catholic belief system (or what I perceive to be the Catholic belief system), modesty is inherently better than a lack of it. What is it about exposing your cleavage that is inherently worse than wearing a turtleneck? What is it about being a virgin that’s “purer” or “cleaner” or “better” than sleeping with as many men as you damn well please?

As I found out, there’s a metaphor for male versus female sexual availability that goes something like this: “A key that can open any lock is a pretty good key. A lock that can be opened by any key is a pretty shitty lock.” Discussing this topic with my Catholic acquaintance, I realized that I was the only one in the room whose blood boiled at hearing that metaphor, so much so that I started thinking that perhaps my beliefs can be accurately labeled as feminist.

Volunteering for Peer Health Exchange is also both complicating and enriching my views on feminism. When I teach a class on rape and sexual assault, one of the myths we debunk is that “a person who is dressed sexy is asking for sex.” This myth is a problem for many students. When I explain to them why every person has a right to express herself and have control over her sexuality, I realize that, because of the value-neutral nature of the curriculum, I can’t just talk about women who are shamed because of their preferences, or their clothes, or because they’re victims of rape. Instead, my attention is drawn to any person who is criticized, who is ostracized, or who is hurt in those contexts. Is that feminism? Or is that developing a concern for those basic human issues? Does it matter?

You might say that I probably didn’t need UChicago to figure out that the key metaphor is insulting and that all people deserve respect, no matter their choices or experiences, and you’d be right. But could I therefore have labeled myself a feminist back in high school? I don’t think so. In my view, a large part of feminism—or perhaps any ideology or movement—is trying to figure out exactly what it encompasses. Unraveling issues and the questions that they raise is an intimate and imperative stage of subscribing to an ideology, a stage that, for now, I have yet to complete.

Anya Marchenko is the blogger behind The Anyion. She is a first-year in the College.