ON JUNE 6, 1870, CHARLES Dickens strolled into the cellar of his country house, Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, and surveyed his liquor stores. The day before, wine merchants at Joseph Ellis & Sons had dropped off a cask of good sherry. If Dickens wanted whiskey, he could dig into stone jars of it, including some of the 30 “very fine” gallons that had been delivered the previous January.
Walking into Henrietta Hudson feels like taking off a heavy backpack. It’s a humid June night in New York’s Greenwich Village, and inside the reggaeton-pulsing bar, a sparse crowd drinks beer and laughs. My shoulders instantly relax, and not just because I’ve escaped a spring downpour.
A SPECTRE IS HAUNTING TRIER, Germany—the spectre of Karl Marx. Today, tourists to the small Rhineland city visit the house where Marx was born and gaze at the armchair he died in. They take selfies in front of a larger-than-life Marx statue, gifted to the city in 2018 by the Chinese government.
IN 2010, A TEAM OF underwater salvagers toasted a deep-sea discovery with a rare vintage. Their discovery? The very wine they were about to drink: 350-year-old bottles they had fished out of a decrepit shipwreck off the coast of Hamburg, Germany.
When rape makes the headlines in India, talk of hanging begins. Commentators blare from news screens; politicians pledge death. These stories of brutal crime and brutal punishment, all in the name of protecting women and girls, tell us something important about contemporary Indian responses to rape. They also tell us about a fundamental flaw in our thinking about sexual violence and punishment across contexts: a mistaken idea that the primary threat to women and children is from the “outside” or the “stranger” rather than our own homes.
The death penalty has emerged as a response to rape in India two major incidents in the past few years. After the horrific rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, known in the international news as Nirbhaya, “the fearless one,” on December 16, 2012, demands for the death penalty clamored. Five years later, the Indian Supreme Court, which recently has been restrained in its approval of the death penalty generally, approved the hanging of four of Jyoti Singh’s murderers (one had killed himself in prison; one, a juvenile, had already served his time).
The death penalty has emerged again following the disturbing rape and murder of Asifa. Asifa was a Muslim nomadic child, gang raped and killed in a Hindu temple by a group of Hindu men who wanted to send a gristly, unthinkable warning to the Muslim nomadic people to cede their traditional land use rights. In the outpouring of grief and anger afterward, the Indian cabinet approved the death penalty as punishment for the rape of a child under twelve.
This is precisely opposite the response to rape advocated by Indian feminists. Following the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a group of Indian feminists were appointed to the Justice Verma Committee constituted under the former Chief Justice of India to draft a proposal for improvements to India’s rape law. The report’s suggestionsincluded criminalizing marital rape, which remains legal; reviewing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives the military impunity in contested regions of India, and which has been used to prevent prosecution for military sexual violence; and a Bill of Rights for Women, which would specifically ensure women’s sexual autonomy in relationships. The Justice Verma Committee Report was specifically opposed to the death penalty. Yet none of the previous three recommendations have been made law; the death penalty, meanwhile, nearly has been.
It’s almost cartoonishly clear where the state’s priorities are: tough, even fatal punishment rather than the promotion of women’s rights and autonomy and the checking of state impunity.
But who is this tough punishment for? Contained within the notion that people who rape children should be killed is a set of assumptions about who these people are—and who these people aren’t. This mistaken idea should be familiar to Americans living in a “tough on crime” landscape of sex offender registries and life-long jail sentences: that people who rape children are strangers, recognizably dangerous and sinister, and that the problem of sexual violence and the sexual abuse of children can be snuffed out like someone’s breath at the end of the rope.
This is false. While the media focuses on the figure of the evil stranger abuser, and while cases of stranger sexual violence like Jyoti Singh’s and Asifa’s are especially brutal and deserve all the outrage they got, these cases are not representative of sexual violence as a whole. In India, according to the the 2016 National Crime Records Bureau report, 94.6% of girls and women are raped by people known to them. In the United States, 93% of children who are sexually abused know the perpetrator, and of the thousands of cases a year investigated by Child Protective Services, 80% of perpetrators were a parent, according to RAINN. Most of these cases happen in private; most are covered up or go unreported.
In this context, the death penalty is not only archaic, evil, and a violation of human rights—it is utterly ineffective. As Indian human rights groups, feminists, the Delhi High Court, and child rights groups have already argued, the death penalty and similar lifelong punishments against rapists would be ineffective as a deterrent and unequally applied. Even more disturbing, in the Indian case, imposing the death penalty for rape possibly incentivizes a perpetrator to murder a victim, as the punishment for murder is life in prison rather than the death sentence.
The proposal that rape should be punishable by death—when murder in India, in contrast, is punishable by up to life in prison—suggests several ideological assumptions about rape and rape victims. It suggests that rape is worse than murder; that being raped is worse than being killed; and that if a child is raped, they are, to use the Hindi phrase bandied about by conservative politicians after Jyoti Singh’s murder, a “zinda lash”—a “living corpse.”
The death sentence also implicitly denies the actual conditions and likely perpetrators of child sexual abuse: family, caretakers, or acquaintances in private spaces. There is evidence that permanent punishments (like the sex offender registry in the American context) actually serve as a disincentive to report perpetrators, who may be the victim’s caretaker, material provider, or relative. In a context where targeting of rape victims by the family or even murder to cover up a rape is not uncommon, drastic punishments would incentivize family members to cover up the crime and shun the victim.
For most of us who are opposed to the death penalty anyway, it seems easy enough to reject the punishment for cases of child sexual abuse. It is more difficult to confront the underlying reality that our “safe” homes and communities may be deeply violent. Sexual violence is not a monster in whose heart to drive a stake; it is a social and political problem, and it can only be solved through social and political means. Actually supporting survivors means centering their need for safety and healing, encouraging family accountability, and intervening to prevent people at risk of perpetrating, like pedophiles, from perpetrating in the first place. It means being willing to confront the reality that what we fear out there is often, in fact, contained within the intimate.
When trans women of color led the way in the Stonewall Riots of 1969, Pride was born. It was a movement against police harassment and to claim space for a marginalized community. By fighting back, members of New York City’s queer community signaled they would not be pushed into the shadows anymore.
The Stonewall Riots are part of a decades-long campaign for LGBTQ visibility, inspired by the belief that accepting and celebrating ourselves and our community — even when society won’t accept or celebrate us — is a radical act. The courage to come out transformed LGBTQ people’s status in society, and in the face of continued discrimination, it remains a powerful weapon to guard one of our most powerful resources: our mental health.
Ah, summer. Ice cream cones, innovative woman-focused multimedia content, and good ol’ warm-blooded American men naturally responding to sluttily raised hemlines with unwanted sexual overtures.
You know what they say: As the mercury rises, so does my patience totally fucking evaporate because I am done — do you hear me, internet? DONE — with constant gendered aggression in public spaces.
You guessed it! I’m talking about street harassment.
Maybe it’s just me (it’s not), or maybe all the street harassers have returned from their Super Fun Annual Street Harassers’ Convention on How to Be a Street Harasser itching to put to use 2015’s Hot New Tips For Forcing Women and Queers from Public Spaces(!)(™) — but boy have I been getting it this summer.
Like, guys, yes, you and I both have a deep and profound appreciation for my ass in those black shorts with the corset lace up on the back. This is why I purchased them for $10.99 from my local consignment store. You were not part of that decision and your feedback, though ostensibly favorable, is not currently requested.
And yes, I agree, it is a bummer for you that you cannot immediately, or likely ever, engage me in sexual intercourse, because you are correct, my pussy is indeed magical, and missing out on that experience is a grief you will bear for the rest of your life. But it is also a grief you need to deal with in the silence of your own heart. It is not a grief I can assist you with. The patriarchy does not pay me enough for that.
Okay, so I have some feelings about street harassment. Actually, I have a lot of feelings about street harassment, and they’re not all anger, and they’re not all sass. Some of them are confusion and some of them are sadness and some of them are profound ambivalence and some of them are — well, yeah, anger and sass.
I want to inquire into this constant dance of eyes and legs and comments, this thing that makes me feel outside of my body, this thing that I shrink away from and secretly long for, this thing I hate when I get and sort of miss when I don’t get — this thing that makes me shrink into myself or lash out. This strange continuum from seemingly innocuous inquiries as to whether I would be interested in a date on Friday (no) to full on subway masturbation (I saw you that time on the J train and I did NOT APPRECIATE IT), following (DITTO FOR YOU BALDING MAN DON’T TELL ME YOU REALLY HAD TO GO TO BUSHWICK THE EXACT SAME WAY I DID STARING AT ME THE WHOLE TIME AND NEVER WALKING FASTER THAN ME EVEN WHEN I PRETENDED TO DROP SOMETHING), and groping (NO THE BUS WAS NOT THAT CROWDED, YES THAT WAS YOUR DICK).
Here are my questions:
What even is street harassment anyway?
Why is it such an act of aggression?
How do we understand the nature of consent in public spaces?
Why and how exactly does street harassment hurt us — all of us?
How is street harassment culturally, racially, socioeconomically, sexually mediated? How do we experience it differently based on who we are? How is it contextual and affected by other issues pertaining to identity and public space — like police violence and gentrification?
What if we kind of like it sometimes when dudes say we’re pretty in public but also don’t like it and feel confused and maybe we’re bad feminists and Roxane Gay help me.
And what in fuck’s name do we say back?
Because feminism happens through consciousness-raising and because this is my column and I can cry if I want to, we are going to address these feelings here together in the coming weeks!
Send me an email or leave a comment with street harassment questions, comments, feelings (no, don’t actually harass me — I see you, internet, back away from the keyboard) and let’s see if we can be opinionated street-harassment explorers/adventurers/ass-kickers together.
In the meantime, maybe you’ll join me, my angsty heart, and my, as they say, “great rack,” as we check out currently available resources at places like Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback! and some previous cool stuff at Feministing.
“When I introduce myself, I tell people I’m a sexologist and a minister. The most likely response is that people laugh,” says Reverend Debra Haffner. “They see those terms as oxymorons, kind of like ‘jumbo shrimp.’”
Haffner, the jumbo shrimp in question, is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. She is also the co-founder and president of the Religious Institute, a multi-faith organization that advocates for sexual health and education—including abortion and contraception access—in religious communities and beyond.
In a political landscape that seems destined to pit Bibles against birth control for as long as the culture wars shall persist (see: Hobby Lobby), the Religious Institute is just one of numerous organizations advocating for contraceptive access, abortion rights, and LGBT rights motivated by—and not despite—Christian faith.
Considering where most Americans stand, this makes sense.
According to most major polls, a slim majority of American adults support abortion rights: 51 percent of American adults think that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 43 percent think it should be illegal in all or most cases.
Yet some research suggests that Americans’ thinking on abortion is more complicated than this simple binary—and that more people than previously thought support the right to choose. Only a small minority of the public believes abortion should never be legal, and large majorities think that if a woman gets an abortion, the experience should be supportive, comfortable, and non-judgmental. .
Americans’ stances on abortion are more complicated than the political rhetoric may lead us to believe. Our understanding of religion and reproductive rights should follow suit.
The majority of Americans are religious. Over 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, while 22.8 percent don’t identify with any particular religion at all. Despite the growth of these so-called “nones,” over 90 percent of Americans still believe in God.
It’s a statistical inevitability: Many, if not a majority of, Christians in this country support reproductive rights. Of Christians, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used some kind of contraception at one point or another. Over three fourths of Catholics believe that the church should permit birth control, while 53 percent of white Catholics, and 43 percent of Latino Catholics, think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Why do I find this so surprising?
“The American public by and large on some level has bought the myth of the far right,” Haffner says, in answer to my unvoiced skepticism. She’s referring, of course, to the myth that religion and reproductive justice are mortal enemies. “The reality is that the majority of people of faith in this country support all of those things.”
In fact, Haffner says, religious peoples’ advocacy for reproductive rights is almost as old as modern birth control itself. “It might surprise you to know that the very first denominational statement on reproductive health and birth control was in 1929,” she tells me.
It does and here’s why: I’m Catholic. Well, okay—I was raised Catholic. Italian Catholic from New Jersey.
In a town where “It’s Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve” was still considered a clever punchline, we were Black Sheep Catholics, cultural-heritage Catholics, Kerry-and-Obama Catholics, the Catholics who nuns didn’t like. My mother, a feminist physician who attended Catholic school, was known to get into “disagreements” with church people about contraceptive access, abortion rights, and the war in Iraq.
During mass, I learned to mouth —not say—the prayers for the little aborted fetuses. I learned I would not be permitted marriage in the Church. I learned that I had to choose between my rights as a woman and a queer person, and my belief in God.
So, like youths from time immemorial, I flipped God the bird and pulled my pants down.
Reverend Harry F. Knox says there are a lot of people like me. Knox, president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC)—a coalition of faith organizations that promotes reproductive health and education access—has a slow, gentle voice with a twang.
“It often surprises people when Christians are pro-choice,” Knox tells me. “This normally comes from folks whose particular faith backgrounds have a narrow view of reproductive health and rights.” This narrow view, says Knox, can sometimes make it difficult for people in the secular reproductive rights movement—people like, you know, feminist journalists—to collaborate with people of faith.
In some ways that’s understandable. When right-wing politicians affront our rights under the guise of “religious liberty,” it can be easy to see politics as a rumble between Obamacare-covered progesterone and, well, God. “We have a few partners who sometimes have trouble allowing the faith voice to be heard because of the very real hurt that has been done in the name of religion to women over the years,” Knox says of this tension. “One of the roles that RCRC plays in the larger movement for reproductive health, rights, and justice is a bridge role in helping our allies deal with that pain.”
Knox would know. First denied ordination in two denominations for being gay, Knox, finally ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church, served for years in justice ministry for LGBT people. He came to reproductive rights work through what he calls an “abortion crisis” in his own family.
“The Christian church often seeks to control people through shame,” says Knox. Part of his job, then, he says, is to help people “tell their own stories about sexuality, about their own experience as spiritual people who are also sexual beings, fully embodied, and made in the image of God.”
And Haffner and Knox tell me that Protestants aren’t the only pro-choice Christians. There are, my mother will be delighted to know, Catholics in the game, too. “We say that good Catholics do and can use reproductive healthcare services,” says Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, Domestic Program Director at Catholics for Choice.
Catholics for Choice educates and advocates for sexual health—including, yep, abortion rights—both in religious organizations and the government.
Ratcliffe, and Catholics for Choice’s materials in general, put a lot of emphasis on conscience: The idea that decisions about the morality of abortion, contraception, and other sexual matters must be decided in—as they used to say in mass—“the silence of our hearts.” This line of thinking comes with a real anti-authoritarian streak vis-à-vis the Church authorities. Their very sassy mission statement reveals some of this tension, calling out the “Catholic hierarchy” for its tendency to “punish and publically shame” pro-choice Catholics.
Ratcliffe elaborates: “As Catholics, we actually have a right to dissent from teachings.” She identifies this as a mission of religious liberty. “The idea that someone would tell you what you can and cannot believe, or what you can and cannot access because of what they believe, is anathema to Catholics.”
How did I not know about this group as a little gay kid?
Probably because—to no one’s surprise—both the American and Canadian Conference of Bishops have denounced the organization. (A choice excerpt from the denouncement: “CFFC is, practically speaking, an arm of the abortion lobby.”)
Indeed, the group’s been ruffling papal feathers ever since its beginnings. In the seventies, a woman leader of the group had herself crowned Pope, and a member priest baptized a child who had been forbidden baptism by the Archbishop of Boston because his mother was pro-choice. In 1984, the group took out a full-page New York Times ad calling for the Church to accept pro-choice Catholics. It was co-signed by, among others, two priests, two brothers, and 27 nuns.
Which brings us to the nuns themselves. Lay people aren’t the only Catholics advocating for reproductive freedom—there’s also the nun contingent. Here’s how the most prominent among them got their start. In 1969, a group of women religious with the Catholic Church— many of them radicalized by the women’s movement—created the National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN), whose support for abortion and contraception rights and belief in the ordination of women continue to fly in the face of official church teachings today.
The organization has been headed for the last few decades by Sister Donna Quinn, herself an activist with a much-storied history. Quinn has been a vocal spokesperson for reproductive rights in (or adjacent to) the Catholic Church for years. She has even volunteered as a clinic escort. NCAN was active most recently in the midst of the Hobby Lobby hullaballoo. The coalition came out in support of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate and a “Stand with the Nuns” petition garnered signatures from over 12,000 pro-contraceptive rights people of faith.
“The institutional church men forget that we are women who are educated, articulate, seekers of truth and very, very holy,” said Quinn in a 2012 article in Reuters of her and her fellow pro-choice sisters’ work.
While remaining active in contemporary debates, however, many activist nuns like Quinn are aging. According to some, a new generation of nuns is less inclined to ruffle feathers. At the same time, the overall Church’s influence may also be waning, as more and more Millennials leave the church.
Still, with 65 percent of Millennials identifying as religiously affiliated, the question of religiosity and support for reproductive rights is far from obsolete. And it’s more complicated than the political debate would have us believe, with more young people than ever—even religious ones—supporting causes that have traditionally been met with religious opprobrium, like marriage equality.
For Haffner, the continued relevance of these questions reflects our collective need for meaning.When Haffner tells me that the majority of Americans attend worship services at least a couple times a year I let out an involuntary “Wow.”
Right, because it’s not your friends, she says.
It’s true. I’m a writer for a feminist blog and my voice over the phone sounds twenty-two years old, suburb-raised and Ivy-educated, all of which I am. Two of my four college roommates were presidents of the atheist club. I’ve got “friends are non-church-going” written all over me.
But when I was researching this article—poring over the Religious Institute’s website or the nuns’ social justice writings—I found myself crying. Not hard, not uncontrollably, but I kept getting this lump in my throat. And then it occurred to me, washed over me like a watercolor, like, oh, duh—that I am actually, in a lot of ways, a very religious person. And I think that the polarization of faith and reproductive justice that the contemporary political landscape so naturalizes does us all a big disservice.
Don’t get me wrong. I still think we are all fortuitous conglomerations of cells and St. Teresa was having an orgasm. But I was raised by a family raised on Vatican II, on Sacco and Vanzetti, on the Beatitudes, and every time someone starts talking about the inherent dignity of humankind, and social justice, and mercy, and compassion, I want to weep because I know that my grandmother votes Democrat and is mad about police violence and thinks I should have abortion rights and loves me as a feminist and loves me as a lesbian because she loves God. And God loves the most vulnerable.
Haffner, of course, is onto me.
“An anecdote that is really interesting to me is the number of weddings and memorials and baby christenings I’ve done since I became a minister in the reproductive health field,” Haffner says. “People call me because they still need somebody to marry them, they still need somebody to bury their mother.”
Yeah, you might no longer go to church, she seems to be telling me. You might have forgotten the Nicene Creed when the mass was re-translated from Latin and you might only take the Eucharist at Christmas because you think when you cross yourself and your cleavage jiggles you look like Madame Bovary.
But you know what? You may be back. You may be back because all those things you believe in, all those things about humanity and dignity and choice? Yeah, Haffner seems to be saying. We’re working on that.
“People return,” she says.
This piece was originally published in Feministing.
Does God exist? Fuck if I know. I gave up on the Catholic Church at fifteen after seeing Jesus Christ Superstar. Christ was a megalomaniac, and I wanted to do Mary Magdalene. But I’m holding out hope for the hereafter. This week, the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics (HCHAA) has invited me and my two lady Roommates to their meeting, to drink wine which ostensibly has little relationship to Christ’s blood and to talk about God, or the lack thereof. Atheists like wine because they don’t have spirits.
André Extra Dry: “crisp with notes of apple and citrus”
(“Egregiously a little over four dollars,” says my host)
André is like my sophomore year sex life: Sweet, dependable, and utterly unthrilling. Its bubbles go straight to my head in a sorry attempt to sweep me off my feet, but I am merely left headachy. At the same time, André is solid. André is faithful. André is someone in whom I can believe.
Lest we think humanists, atheists, and agnostics lack beliefs, a wall decal in the Humanist Hub—the center in Harvard Square devoted to all things ungodly—kindly offers a list of values for our consideration. Seemingly gleaned from the corporate training manuals of vastly disparate sectors, these abstract nouns include: reason, passion, creativity, justice, integrity, awareness, environmentalism, feminism, equality, science, authenticity, pluralism, skepticism, dialogue, diversity, progress, service, love, and intersectionality.
“Do we ever feel like intersectionality is the one they throw in at the end not really knowing what it means, but because it sounds like a catch-all?” my Roommate—a former HCHAA honcho herself—asks.
Replies resident atheist operative: “It’s more about the stereotype of atheists as angry white guys.”
I ask what activities happen at the Humanist Hub besides male caucasian anger. I am told that the Humanists host speaking series, sing songs, encourage children to make happy birthday cards to Charles Darwin, and, apparently, drink cheap wine with snarky lesbians. Diversity!
Purple Moon Merlot
($3.99 at Trader Joe’s. I have never seen it elsewhere.)
Purple Moon Merlot, which previously tasted like the lead-in to lesbian shower sex, now has overtones of the holy wine at Catholic mass. Considering the sheer quantity of nun-themed pornography available free of charge on the internet, these flavor profiles are probably more similar than one might think. This is especially true considering Purple Moon’s spoOoOoOoky, Twilight-resonant branding and the fact that lesbians, vampires, and Catholics all ritualistically ingest human blood.
The wine is dull, chalky, forbidden to minors, and with the vague tang of other people’s spit.
I regularly drank holy wine in my Catholic youth. That was the brief, glimmering period between when I became old enough to be permitted holy alcohol and when I was told by my doctor mother that holiness does not actually prevent the transmission of germs. This realization coupled with Jesus Christ Superstar to leave me faithless.
Well, not quite. As I finish the last of my Purple Moon, it occurs to me that I do in fact have a faith: Mommyism. Based on the Gospel of Mommy, revealed to me and my fellow disciples/sisters between the years of 1992 and 2011 in the burned-over district of New Jersey, the central tenets of Mommyism include:
1. You don’t have to be friends with everyone, but you have to be nice to them;
2. Breathable cotton panties;
3. If someone is mean to you, they are probably having problems at home;
And, for good measure,
(Presumably also “egregiously a little over four dollars.”)
My Roommate calls this “virginity champagne.” It is “fruity with notes of raspberry and honey,” which is indeed the vaginal bouquet secreted by virgins (the breaking of the hymen triggers a flavor shift to barbecue seitan and day-old sushi). Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take cunnilingus exit surveys until quite recently, so this particular gustatory phenomenon remains largely undocumented.
“This wine is thus, like virginity, a construct,” Roommate concludes, blushing with champagne and her own radical wit.
It is now 6:25 pm, almost time for Roommate’s piercing appointment (a great thing to do while tipsy), and time for the Reina-and-Roommates train to glide away. Tipsy, sparkly with environmentalism, feminism, and equality, we don our coats with a flourish and bound out.
We pass the Humanist Hub’s wall of values; we stop, on the way down the stairs, to gawk at the acolytes of Bikram yoga through the studio glass; we step out into the rain holding hands.
We are skeptical, we are holy, we believe in ourselves, and as we leave to get a metal rod pushed through the complicatedly swirling skin of Roommate’s snail-like ear (“Oh God. Oh God.”) we most of all have faith in each other.
Why am I wearing a rain jacket? Why do I have an umbrella inside?
Unclear. What is clear: This is a new website!
Previously at The Harvard Crimson, Four Dollar Wine Critic will now be posting here weekly on cheap wine, other intoxicants that are equally cheap as cheap wine, and *feminism.*
Joint me every Tuesday night to contemplate the paradox of embodiment – or, you know, for booze.