I am living with my boyfriend (and what that means for my purity)

Dear Dad,

In a lot of ways, yesterday’s phone call was a relief. I had been so afraid to tell you, but now I can freely say: I live with my boyfriend.

In the past, when the topic of men in or near my residence came up, you became distressed, so I thought I’d save both of us the emotional strain. When I told you I was moving into a house with a couple guys and a girl, you were so unhappy that I fretted about it for weeks, though I knew the men were honorable and they made good roommates. When I told you a funny story my neighbor told me about blue balls, your face became dark red and you said, “I’m going to kill him.” So obviously, I worried saying,”I’m moving in with my boyfriend,” would bring some backlash. I’ve learned to just avoid certain topics to keep from upsetting you.

But now, the cat’s out of the bag. I live with my boyfriend. And of course, that means we’re having sex.

This is the real heart of the matter. This is why I couldn’t tell you. Because you raised me to believe that a woman’s worth is in her purity, her value is in that she has “saved herself” until marriage. Not that she has waited to engage in a sexual act until marriage, but literally saved her entire being.

You raised me to approach sex with fear and shame, not open communication. Instead of discussing how or when to decide to have sex, I was told simply, “Don’t do it. Doing it is bad. You’ll regret it.” Remember that story of your friend who had sex once in college and felt everyone was staring at her and knew her guilty secret, Dad? Yeah, that story haunted me.

Even after I decided I would not wait until marriage, it took me years before I felt I was free of that guilt, before I trusted that I could make conscious, informed sexual decisions without hating myself afterward for somehow being less good than before.

This is a problem, Dad. This purity culture taught me that my value was inextricably linked to whether or not I had had sex. And if I had, I was less desirable or good than if I was “pure.” My smarts, my accomplishments, my integrity, my talents, my goals, none of them are as important to my value as a woman as my sexual activity, according to this belief.

But sex does not have to be like that. It can be enriching and fulfilling. It can be fun. It brings partners together and is an expression of both affection and desire. And it is not necessary to marry a virgin for this to be true.

Do I regret some of my decisions? Of course. But then, I regret what I ate for lunch yesterday. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy dinner. If I had waited until marriage, I’m sure I would still have regrets, as I’d have no idea how to express my wants or communicate my boundaries.

In the end, I’ve learned that what is most important for a fulfilling sexual relationship is trust, open communication and attraction. My partner and I have all of these. We care about each other and communicate and have a fulfilling relationship. He wants me regardless of whether or not I’ve “saved myself.” And I have freed myself from shame and can openly, joyfully ask for what I want. It’s wonderful.

I am sorry I hurt you and mom by not telling you sooner. I knew you would disapprove and was afraid of your anger. I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused you. I’m not sorry for having sex.

Love,
Victoria

P.S. For more on how purity culture leads, Christianity and fulfilling relationships, check out Libby Anne’s blog Love, Joy, Feminism. This is a good post on how purity robs women of sexual agency. And I highly recommend Samantha Field over at Defeating the Dragon’s post about how harmful tying women’s worth entirely to their virginity is. I related very strongly to the Christian object lessons she describes, as well as deep feelings of shame and dirtiness.

Feminism is for mothers

Dear Dad,

I’ve noticed a disturbing pattern in the news lately: Pregnant women and new mothers being discriminated against in the workplace.

A silhouette from profile of a pregnant belly.

A pregnant woman shouldn’t have to surrender her career.

It started last month, when I read the story of Stacy Ehrisman-Mickle, an attorney whose request for a continuance because she had an infant was denied. Ehrisman-Mickle, an immigration attorney, requested continuances from three judges so she could have a six-week maternity leave with her newborn child and still fulfill her duty as a lawyer and serve her clients fully. Two judges granted that request. The third, however, not only denied her request for a continuance, but scolded Ehrisman-Mickle when she brought the baby to court and the baby began to cry, as babies are wont to do.

As if this case isn’t upsetting enough, a couple weeks ago, a pregnant lawyer, Deborah Misir, says she was shouted at and ridiculed when she asked that a trial be delayed because of her high-risk pregnancy. Misir says the judge’s refusal to allow her request forces her to choose between possibly losing her child or letting her client down. It’s a very literal choice between work and family, and neither option is suitable.

In a case that echoes almost too closely Misir’s story, Rep. Tammy Duckworth is being denied her request to vote in Congress by proxy. Duckworth, an amputee and Iraq War veteran, is eight months pregnant and her doctor has instructed her not to travel. She requested to vote long-distance, but House Democrats say allowing her request would mean they would have to allow everyone’s request to vote by proxy. Unfortunately, this means Rep. Duckworth is being denied her voice in our government because of her decision to have a child.

This is the very real dilemma women are faced with every day: work or family. And while it’s not easy to balance both, it’s even harder when institutions and those in power actively restrict women’s ability to do their jobs because they are choosing to have children. As Amanda Marcotte wrote in her piece on Rep. Duckworth,

Duckworth may be in an unusual position, but the experience of losing esteem and power at work because you got pregnant will feel awfully familiar to all too many ordinary women. Particularly since pregnancy is seen as a “voluntary” condition, it becomes very easy for employers to deny rights and guilt trip women for needing even the smallest accommodation.

As a woman, I shouldn’t have to be forced to choose between my career or my kids. Ideally, my employer would empower me to be a good parent, and by empowering me to take care of my kids, I would be better able to focus on my job while at work.

In the administrative parts of your job, Dad, I am sure you’ve had to work with pregnant employees. I know how much you value parenthood and can’t imagine you’d behave like these judges or politicians. I imagine that cooperating and communicating with pregnant employees helps build a better work atmosphere, and more positive, productive office. I hope in the future that others become aware of how valuable women are in the workplace, and that pregnancy doesn’t have to hold any worker back.

But for now, I’m just hoping for success for Ehrisman-Mickle, Misir and Duckworth, three

Love,

Victoria

A big week for women in STEM

Dad!

We landed on a comet! How cool is that?

Everyone’s been really excited about this Rosetta mission, and so have I. It’s a cool example of the international community working together, plus there’s space! I love space.
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To top it off, the project director for NASA’s contribution to the project is a black woman, Claudia Alexander. She spoke with the LA Times about being a woman in a predominantly white male field. Alexander said her experiences as an African-American woman were even a benefit in communicating with the European Space Agency:

I’m used to walking between two different cultures. For me, this is among the purposes of my life — to take us from states of ignorance to states of understanding with bold exploration that you can’t do every day.

She’s a great role model for girls interested in STEM fields (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). I’m really glad she’s been visible in this project, actively combatting the stereotype that women can’t science.

Speaking of which, did you see the story about the Rosetta scientist who wore a sexist shirt, Dad? This dude wore a shirt covered in sexy ladies for an interview, sending the message, as The Atlantic’s science writer Rose Eveleth pointed out, that STEM is maybe not so welcoming to women.

To his credit, the scientist, Matt Taylor, has apologized for his fashion choices. It’s a very good example of how critique and dialogue can help bring about more thoughtful choices.

But Rosetta’s not the only great thing happening in science right now. In the fictional science world, we have a whole slew of new scientists to admire. I just recently saw both “Interstellar” and “Big Hero 6,” and have to recommend both. In addition to having great stories and wonderful, emotional depth, these two movies put science at the forefront, and women play huge roles in that.

In “Interstellar,” which had a physicist as one of its executive producers and has won praise from Neil DeGrasse Tyson for its faithfulness to Einstein’s theories, two of the main scientists are women. Dr. Brand is a gutsy explorer and physicist who risks everything to save humanity, while Dr. Murphy Cooper is a plucky young kid who grows into a brilliant and perceptive physicist. Both of these women are main characters and have wonderful story arcs.

Big Hero 6” is an awesome movie for kids that makes science and education cool. While maybe less faithful to reality, the robotics at play are fantastic and riveting. In addition, it features a diverse cast (with an Asian-American protagonist) and two more female roboticists! I loved, too, that these two women show there’s no one proper way to be a girl. Honey Lemon is bubbly and loves pink and is super feminine, while Gogo is tougher, riding a bike she invented and telling people to “woman up.” Both are independent, developed characters.

So there’s a lot of things to be excited about this week: I’m excited for my female friends in engineering, that they have more examples of women like them; I’m excited for the little girls watching movies and comet landings, seeing what women are capable of; I’m excited for the guys who will see these women and understand how valuable it is to have multiple viewpoints and voices in projects; I’m excited for both the arts and the sciences to have more women making inroads, setting examples, and diversifying the stories and ideas that are available.

And I’m just feeling positive and encouraged over all.

Love ya,
Victoria

The power of words

Dear Dad,

As a writer, I know you meditate frequently on the power of words. Growing up, I admired how you pored over different versions of the Bible. I remember the time I asked you to translate to me from your Greek Bible, and you laboriously worked out each word from the passage. In sermons, you’d expound on the value of understanding that the Greek word for spirit was also wind, or ghost.

I’ve grown up with an awe of the power of language, not just writing, but how language shapes our perceptions (just as I’m sure you’ve realized when comparing the impression Holy Spirit makes compared to Holy Ghost).

This week, I received a particularly nasty hate message. I’m not posting it because it’s vulgar and hateful. But the troll did say that my blog proves why we need “police MEN and army MEN” to protect weak women like me. Instead of thinking how much I needed a man for protection, though, his emphasis on the word “men” launched me into a reflection on how words create our perceptions of the world.

Gif of Sailor Moon jumping into the sky triumphantly with sparkles behind her and the text

See, things are not exactly as they seem. In fact, language creates much of our reality. For instance, different languages have different words for colors. In Russian, light blue is an entirely different word, and color, than dark blue. Might seem strange until you realize that in English, dark red and light red are defined as different colors, and words: red and pink.

For decades, police were defined as policemen, firefighters were defined as firemen, etc. Sometime in the late 20th century, however, people began pushing for gender neutral language. Policemen become police officers and firemen become firefighters.

To some, this may be just fussy PC language, but it makes a big impact. Switching to gender neutral terms makes a field open to people of all genders. There are, after all, female officers and firefighters and members of the military. Changing the terminology makes those fields more welcoming.

A vintage photo of three men and three women gathered around a table, looking at a piece of paper. They wear civilian clothes and carry firefighter helmets.

During World War II, English men and women volunteered as civilian firefighters in England. They are all heroes, regardless of gender.

And, as the troll showed, the old terms maintain a patriarchal structure. My disgruntled hater placed an emphasis on men to erase women’s existence in the military and police force, and to reassert male dominance. Policemen are strong, he said, to defend weak women, the inferior sex. It’s language used to keep women down.

I’m not particularly phased by the hater. He’s going to hate. But I am intrigued, in a world where women are fighting to make inroads into even the most male-dominated fields, by his insistence on using traditional language to keep women out.

Our words shape the very way we think. Awareness is the first step to changing them.

Love,
Victoria

Let’s stop romanticizing the predator/prey relationship

Dear Dad,

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence in relationships, and specifically stalking. I can’t escape the impression that everywhere I look, there’s another romantic depiction of a predator/prey relationship. Our culture has a terrible tendency to glorify “the hunt,” and it has dire consequences.

A drawing of a bobcat chasing a bunny. The bunny is diving into a hole between two rocks and looking behind it with fear.

Not a depiction of the dating world.

I’ve dated men before that I wasn’t attracted to. After a date or two, I decided that we didn’t jive, and I respectfully made clear that I was not interested in a relationship with them. Some of these men express disappointment, try to convince me otherwise or understand my motives, but eventually agree that I have a right to date whom I want.

Others, on the other hand, don’t let go so easily.

The scariest example I can think of was a man who, when I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore, started sending me angry text messages. He accused me of being rude to him when I ran into him in public, though he ignored me when I said hello. He later texted me to ask why I was so bitter, why I hated him. He started calling me in the middle of the night. I remember waking up at 2 a.m., terrified, my phone vibrating and lighting up my whole room. I remember staring at it until it went to voicemail. I remember thinking how grateful I was that I’d moved out to the country and that he didn’t know where I lived.

We had only dated for a week before I realized that we didn’t really relate. I told him I wasn’t interested and so I was harassed for months. I never knew when I’d receive a midnight phone call. I never answered.

It seems so obvious that this is wrong. It should be obvious that this man was an aggressor and that I was lucky to get out with only psychological trauma. And yet these predators think of themselves as the romantic hero in some movie. Just look at people like this creep, who writes about how he is a “benevolent stalker” because his harassment is “purely an expression of affection.” Again, it seems obvious that this is not love but sexual violence, but our society is full of examples of this same type of sexual violence glorified as romance.

Just look at Maroon 5′s creepy “Animals” song. When I heard it on SNL, with lyrics like “Baby I’m preying on you tonight” and “Maybe you think that you can hide/Hunt you down, eat you alive,” I was already repulsed. Then the band released a video where Adam Levine stalks his real-life wife, complete with graphic blood rain. Given Levine’s sexy image, this video was particularly terrifying, a sex symbol portraying a stalker.

Of course, this isn’t the first time sexual violence has been glamorized in pop music. The hunter/prey dichotomy has been glorified in too many songs to count, including Pharrell’s recent “Hunter,” off of an album that is supposedly a tribute to women’s power following the critique of his creepy Robin Thicke collaboration “Blurred Lines.”

“Just because it’s the middle of the night/That don’t mean I won’t hunt you down,” Pharrell sings in “Hunter.” And in case you have any doubts that the “hunter” in this song thinks he’s being romantic, that’s immediately followed by, “‘Cause up, in, deep inside/It’s pulling me and I want your love.”

And then there are books and movies like “Twilight,” in which Edward standing in Bella’s room watching her sleep every night for months is romantic because he JUST LOVES HER SO MUCH. And girls read this and believe it!

Then, when a man “loves” a woman so much he can’t resist her, he stalks her, harasses her or assaults her, we say he’s a creep. We say these people are scary anomalies. What’s scary to me, though, is how much our society tells them that they’re good and romantic, right up until they cross some unspoken line. This includes female stalkers, though they make up only about 15 to 20 percent of all stalking cases.

It’s time to say enough is enough. I don’t support artists who create work glorifying stalking. It’s harmful and perpetuates this belief that if you love someone enough, stalking can be “benevolent.” Let’s call if what it is: sexual violence.

And I’m not standing for it anymore.

Love,

Victoria

“The Book of Life” tells stories of strong female characters

Hey Dad,

Have you seen trailers for that new Day of the Dead movie, “The Book of Life”? I’d seen some trailers for it this summer, so when it came time to plan a Halloween activity for the boyfriend’s kids, I recommended a trip to the movies.

The plot seemed simple enough: Two deities make a bet on which of two boys will marry a girl both boys are in love with. Life and death stakes and journeys through fantastical afterlives as a bonus.

I was looking forward to beautiful animation, kid humor and a movie that focused on Mexican cultural heritage. As a bonus, I got a movie that was chock-full of awesome, independent female characters.

The first is Maria. She’s gorgeous and charming, but not content to be a simple love interest or prize. She’s the hero in her own story here, and she’s not afraid to assert herself. When a pig liberation runs amok, her father declares she must become a proper lady. Her response is, “Why?” When others refer to her as one of the male character’s “woman,” she makes it clear she belongs to no one. And when a suitor tells her it’s okay to accept his proposal because her dad already gave his permission, she is anything but happy with her father.

To top it off, she reads books, fences and knows kung-fu. And she rallies the troops when the town is threatened. If she marries anyone, it will be her own choice, and it will be someone who respects her as an equal.
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I mean, the Maria toy comes with a freaking sword.

Then there’s La Muerte, ruler of the Land of the Remembered, a gorgeous, strong and wise deity. She juggles her duties as ruler of the Land of the Remembered and her tense marriage with the ruler of the Land of the Forgotten. She’s a fabulous matriarch who is always five steps ahead of her rivals.

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And then there’s the twins, Adelita and Nina, I believe. Their roles are fairly small, but they quickly became the boyfriend’s favorite characters (and possibly mine). These rambunctious skeletons fought in the revolution, “and we won,” they tell their cousin.

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I loved that these two women didn’t have love interests, and it didn’t bother them in the least. What they cared about was fighting for their cause, and how good they looked in their boots. They have some of the best comebacks in this film.

I’m pretty sure this film passed the Bechdel test on multiple occasions. And there are plenty of other women and girls I didn’t mention. The men in the film range from emotional to macho, too. Plus, directed and written by Jorge R. Gutierrez and produced by Guillermo Del Toro, with many Mexican voice actors, it isn’t a movie about Mexican culture that’s been coopted by white Americans.

It’s also funny, beautiful, memorable, and boasts a great soundtrack. I was really glad we took the boyfriend’s daughter because this was a movie with some great role models.

So if you’re looking for a good Halloween movie (and totally not scary), I recommend “The Book of Life.” As a feminist, it was a joy to watch.

Love,
Victoria

Speak low: Pitch and feminine vocal tics

Hey Dad,

Remember that car trip where we all discussed the phenomenon of vocal fry? You know, when a woman’s voice drops to a sort of growl at the ends of words? Remember how I mentioned an article I’d read that said college women tend to use vocal fry (subconsciously) far more than older women?

That article, and conversation, made me very conscious of my own voice, and how it could communicate traditionally feminine or masculine traits. I was just starting college, and suddenly, I was hearing vocal fry everywhere. Even I was using it. And I also was working as a barista at a cafe, where I learned to speak in a higher, lighter, more girlish tone to put the older male customers at ease and make them welcome.

Over the last five years, I’ve become conscious of how I instinctually change my voice based on situation. When asserting authority or speaking up for myself, my voice drops. When I’m calling people to confirm dinner reservations at the restaurant, my voice is higher, more melodic.

Yesterday, I visited a radio station for an interview (so exciting!). As the host introduced me and then welcomed me, I thanked her before realizing I was in my warm telephone voice. I thought about how much better it would be to speak more deeply about the issue of feminism. As the interview continued, I noticed how my voice fell. (Check it out here. I talk a lot about the blog and our relationship.)

A vintage photo of a man and woman sitting across from each other with a microphone in the center. The man is talking and pointing at the woman. The woman is sitting, arms crossed, smiling and looking above his head.

This isn’t to say that one voice is better than another, or that changing voices is manipulative. Many women change their voice without realizing it based on situation. I’m guessing men might too.

I do want to point out, though, that we give more authority to male voices, and so women adapt and adopt traits traditionally thought of as male. Though vocal fry has been written off by an older generation as “annoying,” it signals a career woman to my peers. We have learned that lowering our voices grants us more weight in discussions, asserts our place at the table.

Love,

Victoria