Risk

“Me Too” Stories and Thoughts on “Vulnerability”

The “Me Too” campaign is about abuses of power in the workplace, but it brought an episode from my past to mind.

In France they have a word for a man who takes sexual pleasure in rubbing against people in public places. He’s called a frotteur. I didn’t know that when I was sixteen.

I was an exchange student in high school. I lived in a village outside of Paris. It was a short train ride and a metro line or two to get to my favorite place, an English-language bookstore on the Rue de Rivoli. I often went into the city on my own, and bought Smash Hits Magazine to look at pictures of Simon Le Bon and INXS.

One day I was in the metro, riding back to the train station, when a man took the handrail beside my seat. He stood close, and it seemed odd because the car was not that crowded. There was someone in the seat beside me, and I inched closer to him to make room for the standing stranger. As the car began to move, I felt him rubbing against me. My first thought was that it was the motion of the train that was causing him to bump me, and I scooted closer to my neighbor’s lap. The man in the aisle continued to rub against me, and I soon realized it had nothing to do with the motion of the train. He moved in waves, emphasizing the motion of his pelvis. I had never had sex, but I understood the motion was sexual. I curled inward towards the man on my other side, catching a glimpse of the stranger out of the corner of my eye. He had a sickening, satisfied grin on his face.

My stop was a ways down the line, but as soon as the car stopped moving I bolted for the door and ran to another line. I didn’t know where I was going– just away. As the next train arrived at the platform, the man came around the corner. I got onto one of the cars, hoping he had not seen me, but he followed, still grinning. I took a seat and began to cry. The man looked at me, surprised. He seems to have believed that I was enjoying his game. When he saw my tears, thankfully, he got off the train and left me to find my way back to my route in peace.

I never told anyone about the incident, but not for the reasons you might think. It was shocking, upsetting and gross but I did not feel humiliated or ashamed. I knew the pervert was the one with the problem, not me. I was just taking my train home. The reason I kept it secret was that I was afraid that if I told anyone I would not be allowed to go to the city by myself any more, which was something I liked doing.  I was afraid that because I had been treated in an abusive manner I would lose my freedom.

“In our society, we socialize women to be aware of threats, especially from strangers,” wrote Sally Raskoff in the Everyday Sociology blog. “Girls are kept closer than boys when they are playing outside. Women don’t tend to go out alone at night, and there are a host of other protective behaviors that constrain what they do on a daily basis. We are taught these things to stay safe. In general, men don’t learn these things and they don’t grow up thinking about how safe they are at any given moment.”

How often have we heard the expression “vulnerable women and children.”  We’re trained to think of ourselves as at risk, and that it is our primary duty to stay safe.

When we are victims, we are often blamed for not doing enough to protect ourselves. Why were you in that neighborhood? Why did you go with him after midnight? Why were you wearing that dress?

I once told a boyfriend about an unwanted advance I had received after having a couple of drinks with some friends and he said, “You silly girl.” (I didn’t stay with him long.)

These questions are posed by people who want to believe that if they do the right things violence will never happen to them. Avoid drinking with male friends. Avoid drinking. Avoid going out on your own. Avoid being out at night.

School authorities think they have to train girls to dress modestly. Girls are vulnerable and boys cannot be controlled.

Jennifer Drew had this to say on the British feminist site The F Word:

There is a buzzword circulating the legal, media and societal systems, and it is being used to deflect attention away from male accountability and responsibility for men’s violence against women and girls. What is this word? Why ‘vulnerability’, and we increasingly hear this word being used by judges when sentencing men convicted of raping or murdering women and girls. Prosecution council too depicts female victims of male violence as ‘vulnerable’ creatures. The media, politicians and society in general are all claiming acts of male violence are ones perpetrated upon vulnerable women or girls. But rarely have I heard or read male victims of male portrayed as vulnerable victims…women survivors of male violence are victims of the crimes these misogynist males commit. Therein lies the difference – not powerless victims but victims of crimes men commit against them…

This is something different from how we treat men and risk. If, for example, a young man decided to take a year off after high school and drive around South America on his own, he would be taking a risk. If something bad happened to him on that trip, it would be seen as unfortunate, maybe tragic, but it would be much less likely that he would be asked in an accusatory tone “Well, why did you go to that South American village anyway?”

Young men are encouraged to go on adventures, and the stories of some of their foolhardy and ill-fated adventures become dramas. Women, on the other hand, in the same period of life when men are being encouraged to take risks and experience the world, are constantly reminded of our vulnerability. The orientation at my college dorm was almost entirely about not getting raped.

This is all a great advantage to men when it comes to careers and life experience. They work on fishing trawlers, hitchhike across Europe, go mountain climbing. They have great stories to tell and our culture values them as more interesting people. They’re the subject of most of our fiction. They’re who we think of when we imagine people who do things.

You may be interested to learn that men are more likely than women to be victims in every category except for sexual assault. So you could say that with the exception of one particular category of violence, men are more vulnerable than women.

Sally Raskoff analyzed the threat of sexual violence and she concluded:

…Adult males are much more likely to be raped or assaulted by strangers while women’s threat comes primarily from their intimate partners. Considering this data, do we socialize men and women appropriately?

If we socialize girls and women to suspect strangers and people outside their families, does that work effectively to protect them since most of the real threat comes from people they know?

If we socialize boys and men to assume they are safe from outside threats, are they adequately prepared to protect themselves in childhood and adolescence from people they know and from strangers when they are adults?

 

I kept my secret. I’m sorry that I felt I had to stay silent to protect my own freedom, but I am glad that I didn’t miss out on more afternoons in Paris.

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Adam Ant, Anthems and Oscar Wilde

“And even though you fool your soul your conscience will be mine, all mine.”-Adam Ant, Stand and Deliver.

This past Saturday I went to Cleveland to visit an old friend and see Adam Ant at the House of Blues. A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article for Booklovers Boook Reviews about the role of curiosity in inspiring, and giving an author the momentum to write an entire book.

I was looking back at the perennially popular essay I wrote the last time I saw Adam Ant in concert, and I was surprised by the date stamp that said it was four years ago.  Adam seems to have gotten younger since I saw him last, which is a good trick. It made me think that maybe I could choose not to age as well.

What I did not realize at the time I wrote that last Ant essay was that the experience of going to the concert would spark my imagination to the degree it did. Had I not been gifted those Adam Ant tickets in 2013, I would probably not have written my second novel, Identity Theft. You never know what will jog that part of your brain. With literary curiosity on my mind, I’ve been thinking about my Oscar Wilde curiosity and my Adam Ant curiosity to see if they come from a common source.

Adam Ant’s current tour is “The Anthems Tour” and I think the anthems are key. Something occurred to me on Saturday as I was watching the opening act, an energetic, fun all-female band called the Glam Skanks. There was a time when I had my own dreams of fronting a rock band. Although I had a decent voice, I never took the steps. Maybe I was waiting for an invitation?

The truth is that I could never put myself out there enough as a performer to be a rock star. I needed to keep a foot in the world of good girl respectability. If I’d been in a band with a name like Glam Skanks what would my dad think?

Slut fear is survival fear. When you’ve been branded a slut, you’re outside of society’s protection. So that was something I was never going to risk. If there had been a real “insect nation” I don’t think I’d have been brave enough to “throw my safety overboard” and join it. Ridicule, at age 13 or 14, is the thing you are most afraid of, Prince Charming.

But the call appealed to me. The desire was there, and I could at least sing the anthem and take occasional vacations to the Insect Nation in the form of concerts.  I was an “antperson” in a consumer fashion. I owned the white vinyl and picture discs. I was not a culture warrior. (I did wear unmatched shoes to school once on purpose.) But Adam Ant made me want to be brave.

The fear of being shamed runs through Identity Theft. The vague sense that I missed out on some experiences because of fear finds its way into the novel in the form of the character Lydia. Lydia, a middle-aged friend of the protagonist, half-jokingly says she regrets not having been more of a slut when she was younger, and unwittingly encourages Candi down a path that turns out to be disastrous.

We are attracted to the idea of throwing off social constraints in proportion to our fear of it. Oscar Wilde played on that dynamic in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Readers could indulge the fantasy of throwing off social convention, giving in to every impulse and desire.  There is a fascination as well with the figure of Oscar Wilde the transgressor. But both Dorian and his author were destroyed by their transgressions, at least that is what the mythology about Wilde suggests. His is the story of the wrath society can bring down on those who transgress. The desire to conform, and the desire to be free of constraints do a constant dance, and we always question our own choreography.

Adam Ant has an Oscar Wilde quote tattooed on his arm. (I have never been close enough to read his arm myself, but Reuters tells me this is true.) It says, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”

 

Da diddly qua qua, da diddly qua qua…

 

 

 

 

 

It Doesn’t Matter if you Are Safe, It Matters if you Feel Safe

I wrote a book back in 2004 called The 100 Most Dangerous Things in Life and What You Can Do About Them. With a view to humor, I looked at statistics on hospital admissions and so on, and contrasted the danger from every day items to the more exotic dangers that pique our imaginations. You’re more likely to be injured by a teddy bear than a grizzly bear. While on the subject of teddy bears, you know those stories they put out every year at Christmas time warning about dangerous toys? They include valid statistics about how many children are injured each year by toys, but when you look at the data, you find that most of those injuries are not from swallowing small parts or from defective merchandise. In fact, most “toy” injuries are from people tripping and falling over toys that were not put away or from siblings hitting one another with them. In fact, in all categories of household injury, regardless of the instrument of destruction, the most common way a person is hurt is by falling down and banging part of the anatomy on the object.

In the introduction to my book, I wrote:

As I was writing this book, and discussing relative risks, I came to see how influenced I am by the culture around me. When I discovered that there had been no documented cases of humans contracting rabies from dog bites in years, I still felt compelled to warn readers not to let their guard down around strange dogs. I figured that someone might take this information to heart, decide it was safe to, say, walk up to a strange dog and tease it with a cap gun. Then they would get bitten, contract a nasty infection, lose a limb, and sue me for creating a sense of false security. In our society it seems almost irresponsible NOT to sound the alarm about something, even when the risk is minimal…

I had the same thought again while working on an update to the Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation. Writing an entry on the annoyance of figuring out how car seats work, I came across some evidence that car seats may not actually be safer than a seat belt. I ended up not including that information, because it seemed too controversial. It is one we rarely discuss, but our culture dictates that we sound the alarm. It is a taboo to say “Don’t worry.”

But as I wrote in Dangerous Things:

Frankly, we worry about the wrong things. Why? It has to do with basic psychology. Human beings, in general, tend to overestimate the dangers of rare events while dismissing the dangers of every day events. In fact, every day events are more likely to cause you harm if for no other reason than they happen every day. Also, we’re much more likely to fear man-made problems than nature-made problems. Risk consultant Peter Sandman believes our level of fear tends to correspond more to our level of “outrage” than to our actual level of risk.

Never has this been more true. In recent years politicians, especially of a certain far right variety, have been shooting at phantoms, trying to make laws to protect us from dangers that they insist–without any data–lurk around every corner. These dangers are stoked by misdirected outrage. The outrage has little to do with crime and personal safety, although that is how it is framed. The outrage is over the existential question of “What is an American?” Do we need to be alike as a nation to be cohesive? How much difference can we tolerate before we are not a single culture or community? When should people conform for the good of society and when should society tolerate difference? Who gets to decide?

Back in May the people of North Carolina, and by extension the nation, became embroiled in the question of whether people with non-conforming gender identities should be allowed to use the restroom of their choice. This was framed breathlessly as a need to protect vulnerable women from sexual assault in public restrooms by men who gained access dressing as women. You may remember that while this debate was hot I wrote about the flame war that I got into with a friend of a friend on Facebook after I posed a simple question:

That is to say, if we grant that these legislators were really concerned about restroom safety, (rather than, say making a point that people are always the gender that it says on their birth certificates and will not be accepted in any other way) would requiring people to use the restroom of the gender on a person’s birth certificate solve the safety issue?

Clearly no.

Let’s grant for a moment the premise that there is a big problem with men putting on women’s clothing for the sole purpose of going into public restrooms and raping or gawking at women. There is no evidence this is actually a thing, my sparring partner said that “there are cases” but didn’t care to be more specific. In any case, for the sake of argument let’s grant that this is a problem that needs to be addressed with a new law.

Assuming your state is not also budgeting to have people stationed at public restroom doors to check birth certificates, or requiring businesses to do so, then people are going to be on the honor system.

So now our fictional cross-dressing rapist can walk into a women’s restroom with complete confidence without changing his clothes. All he has to do, if questioned, is say “I was born Jane Marie.”

Clearly the legislators have not thought things through.

The person with whom I was debating was so concerned with women’s safety that he replied that he hoped I would be raped in a bathroom.

In a pluralistic society, we have agreed not to legislate that people must be culturally cohesive. We cannot require people to be Christian or gender conforming or straight. We can, however, make laws in the interest of “safety.” The “dangerous other” has reared its head in an ugly way in the executive order that Donald Trump recently signed barring entry to the United States to people from certain countries.

Here is the most important fact about the list of countries in Trump’s executive order:

In the 40 years to 2015, not a single American was killed on US soil by citizens from any of the seven countries targeted – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – according to research by the conservative-leaning Cato Institute.

Not a single American. Not one. Left off the list are majority Muslim countries where Trump has business interests. Also excluded are the home countries of all of the September 11 attackers, most were from Saudi Arabia and the rest from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. Also excluded are known terrorist hotbeds Pakistan, Turkey and Afghanistan. It does, however, to a good job of targeting Shia Muslims.

This was legislation created in response to an applause line to appeal to people who have never been asked to take the time to differentiate between the citizens of different foreign nations. The general public might be outraged by terrorist attacks and blame a nebulous, overbroad “other.” We can perhaps forgive a busy person who was never really taught geography in school for not knowing the difference between Muslim nations, especially when our public discourse seems to do its best to obscure it. It is the job of our elected leaders, however, to be more informed and to come up with solutions that actually address the problem and not simply to make a show of safety. National security and our values as Americans are too important to be conducted by social media likes and television ratings. And shame on those politicians who know the difference, and who are willing to stand by and say nothing.

 

“Vulnerability”

Vulnerability

This morning two stories in my Facebook feed did a little dance around one another.  The first was a post from the Detroit Metro Times which linked to an Al Jazeera America story about small creditors who are left out of the negotiations in Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings. (Unfortunately most of the commentators on the Metro Times blog chose to comment on Al Jazeera rather than on the material of the story.)

 

Like pensioners and bondholders, these tort claimants are unsecured creditors who can walk away from the bankruptcy with only a small fraction of what they are owed as the city seeks to resolve its mammoth debt. But unlike pensioners and bondholders, they have been excluded from the process, given no seat at the table in the high-stakes negotiations over Detroit’s bankruptcy or the plan that has them taking a staggering 80 percent cut.

 

After reading the story, I returned to Facebook and the next post was from TED. A link to Brene Brown’s viral talk “Listening to Shame” with one quote highlighted; “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”

I thought about that word “vulnerability” as it applied to a man featured in the Al Jazeera story, Dwayne Provience. Provience is a father of three, who was wrongly convicted of a murder at age 26 based on the perjured testimony of a homeless man who said he had evidence on the crime he had not witnessed in order to reduce his own sentence for breaking and entering. After spending a decade in jail, he was finally exonerated with the help of the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic. After he was set free, his lawyers fought on his behalf to get a financial settlement from the city to compensate him for his wrongful imprisonment. They fought their way through a series of appeals and were “on the goal line” when Detroit filed for bankruptcy protection and all judgements were halted.

I thought about what “vulnerability” means as it is used by Brene Brown, and what it means when applied to someone like Dwayne Provience. Before he went to jail, Provience had no education and little money. (He went on to earn his GED in prison.)  When the police came after him, guns raised, he was vulnerable. When he went to court in an overburdened system, in a financially struggling city, he was vulnerable. Now as the city invites large creditors to the negotiating table to determine who gets what, he is vulnerable.

This is not the kind of “vulnerability” anyone in his right mind would hold up as a virtue or a gift. Compare this to what it means when someone like Brene Brown– and I count myself among these fortunates– talk about strength through vulnerability.

“Vulnerability is not weakness,” Brown says.I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives. And I’ve come to the belief — this is my 12th year doing this research — that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage — to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest.”

We are not talking about being afraid that we will not have food, or that we can’t afford to live in an area that is free of crime, or that we might be pulled over at a stop sign and be mistaken for a murderer.   When people like us use the word we usually mean emotional vulnerability. We are afraid of a loss of status and self-esteem. We are afraid we might not be as admired as we would like if we admit our imperfections.

Indeed, that sort of vulnerability is our strength, because if that is the only way we are vulnerable then we are lucky indeed. We are lucky indeed.

 

The Organization Man

I’ve been reading William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man.  First published in 1956, it describes a shift in American culture. The author argues that in spite of all of our rhetoric in praise of the American dream of success through rugged individualism, our real dominant mythos has to do with loyalty to organizations.

In some ways the book is dated, for example when it talks about young people today– the college graduates of the year 1956.

There were parts of the book, however, that seem as if they could have been written today.  I particular, Whyte describes how Americans continue to use the language of rugged individualism but put it into service of a new mythos of championing organizations.

“Officially we are a people who hold to the Protestant Ethic…there is almost always the thought that pursuit of individual salvation through hard work, thrift and competitive struggle is the heart of the American achievement. But the harsh facts of organizational life simply do not jibe with these precepts…When a young man says that to make a living these days you must do what somebody else wants you to do, he states it not only as a fact of life that must be accepted but as an inherently good proposition…the committee way simply can’t be equated with the ‘rugged’ individualism that is supposed to be the business of business.”

When the economy crashed in 2008 and so many Americans were laid off, the populace as a whole did not say what you would expect in a culture that truly praises its cowboys and risk-taking lone entrepreneurs. We did not hear that these people were laid off because they took the easy route and worked for someone else rather than blazing their own trails. No, what you most often heard was that it was unfair because these people “worked hard and played by the rules.” They got educations, they got good jobs. In other words, they played their roles as organization men and women.

Back in 2010 sociologist Claude S. Fischer took on the question of just how independent Americans are in his blog Made In America.

“There is considerable evidence that Americans are not more individualistic – in fact, are less individualistic – than other peoples,” he wrote.

The article displays the results of a series of responses given by people of different nations in the International Social Survey Program. Of the different nationalities surveyed, Americans were the least likely to endorse the idea that personal conscience should sometimes trump the law. They were the least likely to say that right and wrong were matters of individual conscience. Americans were the most likely to say you should support your country, even if your country is wrong.

Fischer resolved the seeming contradiction by saying that America’s real culture is neither that of the rugged individual nor of the organization man.

What makes Americans culturally exceptional is not their historical commitment to individualism, but their historical commitment to voluntarism. Voluntarism is about being part of a community, but belonging voluntarily. Americans have long held that people can and should join or leave groups – families, congregations, clubs, townships, and so on – of their individual free will. But Americans also insist that, as long as individuals are members of any such group, they owe their loyalty. “Love it or leave it” seems to be the dominant ethos.

This rang true for me when I first read it, but I would add that there is considerable pressure to “voluntarily” define oneself as part of certain groups. When politicians say that middle class people deserve a break because they did “all the right things” they are clearly defining what groups people should choose to join. You don’t have to be an organizational man. It is your choice. But being an organizational man makes you, in some way, blameless. You chose of your own free will to do what you are expected to do.

Writing, Risk and Reward

There is an interesting article today on Teleread that aggregates some of the comments flying back and forth between authors and Steven Zacharius, head of Kensingon Publishing. Among the comments from authors trying to explain the gulf between how writers and publishers view the business, was this one from Kathlena Contreras.

Okay, here’s the thing. Every single word I write is “on spec,” to borrow a contracting term. Every word. No matter how many hours, days and weeks I spend writing, there is no guarantee that anyone will ever buy my work, paying for my hundreds of man hours, much less whatever I spend on covers and so forth. I am taking 100% of the risk that I will ever see a dime of payback for my efforts.

Publishers, on the other hand, see manuscripts as fruit from a miraculous vine that never ceases producing. They go to the vine and select the most beautiful and succulent fruit, spend hours and money preparing it, then serve it for consumption. (Thanks to Kris Rusch for the metaphor of stories as produce.)

Does the publisher take risk? Yes. Does the publisher take as much risk as the writer? I don’t know. But if those hours and investments were added up, I suspect not, especially if you include all those manuscripts written that are never accepted by a publisher.

If I could have done so without causing the people in my immediate vicinity to give me strange looks I would have shouted “Hear! Hear!” 

When I first got a literary agent (I had sold my first books, including my best selling book to date on my own) I was initially thrilled with the work he did on my behalf. He got me a contract with a major publisher fairly quickly and after that he followed up with leads on proposals on a regular basis. These were not ideas I originated, but concepts pitched to me by the agent on behalf of an editor somewhere. I felt optimistic. I had never churned out as many proposals in my life– proposals for my own concepts, revisions of proposals to tailor them to specific editors, and proposals requested of me.  The good news was, I had constant work. The bad news was, none of it came with a salary. Few of the proposals actually panned out and became books. When I started to be a bit reluctant to keep doing full proposals, and asking how likely the lead was to have a result before I did the work, I got the sense that my agent thought I was lazy. I wasn’t. I was hungry and burnt out. I realized that if I was going to survive, I had to pace myself, monitor my energy, and make some money for the writing I did.

I have had almost as many proposals requested of me, for book ideas I did not generate, which were subsequently rejected by the very people who had come up with the idea in the first place, as I have had published books. (See also my previous article “You Weren’t Expecting to Be Paid, Were You?“)

Unless you are at a J.K. Rowling or Stephen King level, publishing contracts are generally designed to mitigate the risk on the side of the publisher. Let’s face it, the publisher has the upper hand when dealing with starving writers. It is standard, for example, for a contract to get first right of refusal on the author’s next work, and for the publisher to wait until the first book is published to see how much it makes before even looking at the next proposal. This makes complete sense from the publisher’s perspective, they want to hold on to the author if they have a hit on their hands, and they don’t want to be committed to publish a second book by an author whose book goes straight to the remainder bin.

“It is your advantage,” I have been told. It would be if it meant that they were going to snap up the next thing I sent them.  “Refusal” though, usually means exactly that– refusing to buy your next proposal.  It can be as much as a year between the time an author finishes a book and the time the publisher is ready to release it. After that, they want to wait until the first royalty statement and sometimes until the second to see the results.  That means it can easily be a year and a half or more before you know that you’ve been refused, a length of time that you are unable to move forward on your next project as an author. (You can, of course, always work– writing and saving up proposals and manuscripts. What you’re not able to do during that time is try to line up the next payment for your work.)  By the time the publisher does get around to first refusal, the fact that they have refused tends to remove some of the luster from the proposal and the enthusiasm on the part of the agent. Even if your agent remains enthusiastic and sends it around, it can be months before you hear back from everyone. It is a long time to wait between jobs.

The publisher is taking a risk with your book, and gambling on whether or not they will want to keep you. The writer is gambling with her ability to have a stable career, housing, food. If the risk the writer takes is not financially greater than that of the publisher, it is certainly more personal and deeply felt.

The idea of the artist as a risk taking entrepreneur is an important one. I don’t know if acknowledging the investment of the writer and the amount of risk she brings to the table will do much to change the dynamic between writers and publishers. It seems to me that businesses trying to capitalize on labor by minimizing their risk and keeping salaries down is not something that is going to go away any time soon. Changing the dialogue and the way we value ourselves, though, is a good first step.

See also:

Be Favorable to Bold Enterprises