Bitch Magazine

5 Ways to Prevent Yourself from Despairing Over Donald Trump's Rise

Donald Trump has been playing target practice on all my identities.  As a Muslim, as a woman, as a feminist, as an Iranian-American, and as a comedian, I am the butt of his jokes. Listening day after day to his slut-shaming and his threats against Iran, then to pundits’ notions that he’s just a funny, “tough-talking” candidate, I’m starting to feel like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: I’m either going to wind up strangling the nurse or getting the lobotomy. Eric Liu, a civic educator and founder of Citizen University, refers to this helpless feeling as “creeping fatalism.” I’ve got to find ways to keep myself from that pit of despair.

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Black Women Are Beaten, Sexually Assaulted and Killed By Police. Why Don't We Talk About It?

On June 9, 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer was arrested in Montgomery County, Mississippi, along with June Johnson, Euvester Simpson, Rosemary Freeman, and Annelle Ponder. The five women were on their way back from a voter registration workshop in South Carolina. Upon their arrival at the Montgomery County jail, Hamer, Johnson, and Ponder were subjected to vicious brutality at the direction of notorious racist Sheriff Earl Wayne Patridge. 

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Activist Group Comes Under Fire for Equating Abortion Restrictions With Slavery

Inside the federal courthouse in Austin, Texas, Whole Woman’s Health and the Center for Reproductive Rights spent Monday morning fighting to preserve access to safe, legal abortion. Outside the courthouse, a group of people called Stop Patriarchy marched around, proclaiming, “Forced motherhood is enslavement!” 

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Is Girl-Power Advertising Doing Women Any Good?

I can see the history book headlines now: “Feminism Through Capitalism: How Tampon and Soap Commercials Struck The Fatal Blow To Sexism in 2014.” 

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7 Studies That Prove Mansplaining Exists

Remember when Kanye West cut off Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs? As Swift launched into her acceptance speech for Best Female Video, West ran onstage and grabbed the mic and said, “Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’m gonna let you finish, but I’m sorry, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” Both Beyoncé and Swift looked stunned.

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Native American Activists Fight for Plan B Access

The following piece was originally posted on WhereIsYourPlanB.com, Reproductive Justice Reporting Project of the Media Consortium and the Association for Alternative Newsmedia that will focus on the accessibility of Plan B.

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Oral Sex, Yoga, and God's Eternal Wrath: Inside the New Hipster Megachurch That Tells Modern Women to Submit

When Jess came to the University of Washington as a freshman, she was a feminist economics major whose postcollege goal was to land a position at an organization dedicated to social entrepreneurship. Now in her early 20s and just a few years out of college, she is married, looking forward to a life as a homemaker, and involved full-time at the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church, one of the hippest, fastest-growing, and most conservative evangelical churches in the nation.

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Christian Fundamentalists and Private Military Contractors? The Strange Bedfellows of the Sex Slavery Anti-Trafficking Movement

In the 2008 film Taken, Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a retired CIA operative whose undercover past is called into action when his daughter is kidnapped while traveling abroad and sold into sexual slavery. Using his counterterrorism skills to torture and murder those who stand between him and his daughter’s captors, he eventually rescues his daughter and comes home a hero, with no consequences exacted for the violence he’s inflicted in the name of his daughter’s safety.

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How Disney Invaded American Childhood to Shill Worthless Crap to Our Kids

From the outside, Peggy Orenstein epitomizes feminist success. She’s an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in such distinguished publications as the New Yorker, Elle, Vogue, Discover, Mother Jones, and O: The Oprah Magazine. But her work itself is dedicated to asserting the ways in which “having it all” -- or trying to -- in a world built to the measure of men can have profound effects on women and girls.

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Why Are There So Many Right-Wing Extremist Women?

It all started with Sarah Palin.

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The Grace Lee Project

The theme song for "Cheers" famously posits a universal desire for community based on name recognition: "You wanna go where people know, people are all the same/You wanna go where everybody knows your name." But what happens when everybody knows somebody who has the exact same name as you? Would it make you feel cozy and connected, or would it make you question the uniqueness of your own identity?

Filmmaker Grace Lee, whose name is ubiquitous among Asian-Americans, grew up in Missouri as the one Grace Lee she knew. She was, she explains in her funny, smart documentary The Grace Lee Project, "the only Asian girl for miles," and this made her "proud to be an original."

When she left the Midwest, she found that her name was ridiculously common -- and she kept hearing the same stories about her namesakes. Grace Lees, she discovered, were uniformly smart, nice, quiet, and accomplished. They were class valedictorians with advanced degrees whose successes made them poster girls for Asian-Americans as the model minority group. At the same time, their generic names and natures rendered them, as she puts it, simultaneously "impressive and forgettable."

We talked to Lee shortly after she won the Emerging Director Award at the 28th Asian American International Film Festival in New York City. She spoke of the personal obsession that led her to make the film: "There is this stereotype of an overachieving Asian-American that I wanted to explore. I mean, there's an image of myself that I have -- which may not always align with how other people perceive me. I would tell my friends about the film and the Grace Lee stereotype -- really smart, quiet, accomplished -- and then my friends would say, 'Well, you're just describing yourself!' It was this tension that fueled my investigation. Even I had stereotypes of the other Grace Lees until I actually really started to get to know them. That to me was the kernel that kept me going."

The more Lee learned about the other Grace Lees, the more she obsessed about how bad they made her look by comparison. Early in the film, she admits to feeling overwhelmed by having a "name that makes me the one loser in a sorority of super Asians." So she set out to meet as many of them as she could, building a website, to publicize the project and crafting a survey -- eventually filled out by more than 250 Grace Lees from 23 countries -- that included questions about ethnicity (60 percent were Korean), age (50 percent were in their 20s), and years of piano lessons (50 percent had five or more). Most (78 percent) said that they liked their name, but a significant minority (21 percent) said they did not.

The film opens with a montage in which one woman after another identifies herself as Grace Lee, calling into question the idea that there can be only one "real" Grace Lee. Since virtually everyone in the film bears the same name, taglines come in handy. In addition to Filmmaker Grace Lee, we're introduced to News Reporter Grace Lee, Pastor's Kid Grace Lee, and Pastor's Wife Grace Lee, among others. Although a few Caucasian Grace Lees answered the survey, in the film Lee focused on Asian-American women because she feels that the way people talk about "Grace Lee" closely resembles the way they talk about Asian-American females in general. (According to Lee, "the vast majority of Grace Lees [who answered the survey] were given the name by their immigrant parents.")

In an e-mail interview, one of the subjects, a teenage Grace Lee from Cupertino, California, expresses a similar anxiety about being associated with other Grace Lees: "I'm naturally a nonconformist, so having such a stereotypical Asian-American name bothered me…. Not only that, I thought other Grace Lees were quiet and perfect. I should have known better -- that's what people thought of me. As I was watching the movie, the irony of my delusions struck me. It was, frankly, stupid of me to think that my name represented a herd of blank, identity-less girls…. I couldn't believe I fell into the rut of prejudice -- when I myself was Grace Lee and was fighting against being seen as run-of-the-mill."

No doubt there are many people with common names who fight against being perceived as nonentities. The Grace Lee Project, in fact, was preceded by the 2001 film The Sweetest Sound, in which director Alan Berliner rounded up and interviewed a dozen other Alan Berliners from around the world. For Grace Lees, things are even more complicated. Linked with stereotypes about Asian-American females, the name sets up expectations that go beyond that of a colorless, generic person.

Lee particularly hoped to discover the anti-Grace Lee. In the film, she tells of her excitement when she learned of a Grace Lee who set fire to her school, only to be disappointed when she researched the event: Arsonist Grace Lee turned out to be a typical, studious, hardworking Grace Lee, who was trying to prevent a letter on her less-than-perfect schoolwork from going out to her parents. A gay Grace Lee agreed to participate in the film, but out of fear of shaming her family, she appears in pixelated form, a masked phantom rather than a fleshed-out Lesbian Activist Grace Lee.

And then there's Socialist Philosopher Grace Lee Boggs, a black civil rights activist who inadvertently served as the catalyst for the project. Lee first learned about Boggs when she was an undergraduate at the University of Missouri. "I had no consciousness of Grace Lee being a common name at that point," she says. "I just assumed [Boggs] was white, and I assumed 'Lee' was her middle name." Years later, after Lee had learned that Boggs is actually Chinese-American, she had the opportunity to hear her speak at UCLA. "This was when the Grace Lee project was still just in my mind, like an idea…. As soon as I saw her, I knew she would be a great subject because everything about her defied what I had been hearing about other Grace Lees. I waited until the end of the meeting, and I walked up to her and said, 'Hi, my name is Grace Lee, and I'm making a documentary about women named Grace Lee, and I'd love for you to be a part of it.'" The film began at that moment.

In an e-mail interview, Grace Lee from Sacramento, California -- who grew up in an abusive Caucasian household in which her parents refused to admit that she and her Asian brother were adopted -- writes that she saw in the film "a message of hope [for] other women about not allowing what happens in the past [to] define you for the rest of your life."

Of The Grace Lee Project, Lee says, "I always joked and said it's a different kind of identity-crisis film. It's one of those things that constantly nags at you. I feel like maybe I've gotten to the acceptance stage."

Weighing Reality

"Obesity," declares Charlotte Cooper, author of 1998's Fat and Proud: The Politics of Size, "is just a word used by people to medicalize fat."

Extra weight, once considered a genetic short straw, is increasingly characterized as a crisis threatening the physical, political, and moral health of our nation -- even as large bodies are becoming increasingly visible in popular culture.

Medical and public-health sources define obesity as weighing more than 20 percent over one's "ideal weight." However, the methods that are used to determine "normal" weight ranges are limited in their estimation of what constitutes obesity. And as the ranks of overweight and/or obese Americans swell, they challenge the very notion that fat is not "normal."

So what's making us so fat, and why? In the past, overweight Americans have had several tried-and-true explanations: genetics, an underactive thyroid, and that old favorite, big bones. But a quick review of studies and books on the plumping of the American populace shows that there is no consensus about the etiology of individual weight gain. Increasing rates of obesity have been attributed to a wide range of factors both personal (overwork, food obsession, yo-yo dieting, stress) and social (poverty, the rise of fast food, poor nutrition education). Now, a handful of scholars and psychologists are attempting a deeper evaluation of this hefty new body, while even the basest expression of popular culture -- that is, reality tv -- is revealing some intriguing things about American corpulence.

Linda Papadopoulos -- a British psychologist, author of the 2004 book Mirror Mirror: Dr. Linda's Body Image Revolution, and consultant on the U.S. television show "Celebrity Fit Club" (more on that later) -- says weight gain is "not as simple as 'people just eat.'"

Psychologists like Papadopoulos and psychoanalyst/writer Shari Thurer (author of 2005's The End of Gender: A Psychological Autopsy) find that individual weight gain can be attributed to causes as benign as eating when bored or as extreme as responding to sexual abuse by piling on pounds to make oneself unattractive. They also tend to link pathological eating disorders -- including anorexia and bulimia as well as compulsive eating -- to deeper issues around relationships and control, often rooted in childhood development.

In his early writings, Freud avoided arbitrary separations between psyche (mind) and soma (body), and in this approach Australian neurologist/psychologist Elizabeth A. Wilson sees fertile ground for new theories about eating and weight. She decries the progression of psychoanalytical investigation toward purely ideational theories of eating (what does it mean?) and away from biological explanations (what happens in the gut?).

In her 2004 book, Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body, Wilson expands feminist theories of the body through the illustration of biology's dynamism. Intrigued by the positive effects of using antidepressants to treat bulimia, she points out that the majority of the body's serotonin is found not in the brain, but in the "complex neural networks that innervate the gut."

Whether fat is viewed as a medical problem or as an indication of a damaged psyche, the message that permeates pop culture is the same: Healthy people are not fat, and fat people are not healthy. This rhetoric ignores the fact that a thin person can be weaker or more prone to illness than his or her fat counterpart, and it coerces us into a constant vigilance against what could be an evolutionary preference for amassing energy reserves (fat) to sustain us in periods of famine. If it were so easy, natural, or normal for us to be our "ideal" weight, perhaps we wouldn't need to struggle so hard or become dependent on external supplements and medical intervention to maintain it.

Scholar Kathleen LeBesco, author of the 2004 book Revolting Bodies?: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, thinks that the problem with psychological approaches to fat is their tendency to collapse all weight gain into "disordered eating." She argues that we need a new angle of looking at fat that can "tease out who is engaging in compulsive overeating or bingeing -- versus who is fat for reasons that aren't what you'd describe as 'psychologically unhealthy,' but that end up being aesthetically 'vile.'" She points out that in American culture, "we don't seem to care about compulsive overeating as long as the body looks a certain way. So it's not really about the practice, it's about the aesthetics."

Nowhere is this call to conformity seen more clearly than on television. Hefty individuals have expanded beyond the stereotypes of, for instance, the fat comedian, and spilled over to talk shows and reality programming, but they haven't necessarily fared better for their efforts. Daytime talk shows love to feature social outcasts in a parade of shame and judgment, and fat folks -- along with more active transgressors like cheaters, beaters, and sexual predators -- are a staple of the afternoon tv dial. But to dig into our culture's obsession with weight and dieting, we need to tune in to two reality shows that purport to tackle the real issues behind weight.

Both NBC's "The Biggest Loser" and VH1's "Celebrity Fit Club" divide their participants into two teams and put them through a series of competitive weight-loss tasks. Combining the challenges with a generous helping of tough love, they ultimately reward those who lose the most. I first tuned in to "The Biggest Loser" during a week in which all food was removed from the house except temptation food supplied by the producers: piles of cookies, stacks of donuts. The ostensible reason for this was, as the show established, that the "real world" outside the cloistered set is full of temptations, and that none of the contestants would succeed in keeping weight off if they easily succumbed to breaking their diets. In practice, though, it was akin to putting a group of alcoholics in a room with an open bar and chastising them when they cracked.

On "The Biggest Loser", losing weight is simply another strategy in a means to an end: winning the "game" and collecting the $250,000 prize. And while a short disclaimer at the end of each program reveals that a physician and nutritionist provide supervision, the camera's gaze rests only on the contestants and the two trainers. The focus on calorie counting and exercise flattens the discourse about roots of weight gain and roads to real weight loss. It eliminates any consideration of the social and political implications of corpulence, evaluation of fat rhetoric, or analysis of the very concept of "obesity" itself.

In the more realistic (and, one might argue, more humane) "Celebrity Fit Club," celebs stay at their own homes, keep their day jobs, and remain on the show throughout the season; a nutritionist and a psychologist (the aforementioned Dr. Papadopoulos) are integral parts of the show. Although viewers aren't privy to the details of all psychologist-participant interactions, we do learn enough to make rudimentary analyses of each celebrity's psyche and the root cause of their weight issues.

For instance, we witness the gymnastic-coach father of onetime "Saturday Night Live" cast member Victoria Jackson as he flips through photo albums of a young Jackson. "Here she is at 5," he says, pointing his daughter out from an indistinguishable group of leotard-clad girls. "See, she's already bigger than the other girls."

Later, Jackson reveals that when she confronted her father about his fatphobic comments he insisted that he was just joking. "And what are you now?" one of the "Celebrity Fit Club" panel of weight-loss experts asks. "A fat comedienne," she laughs.

In these discussions of the psychological implications of the participants' weight, we get a more expansive view than that provided on "The Biggest Loser." Still, these are simplistic evaluations: While one person has an addictive personality rooted in a shortage of nurturing, another let his need for career success distract him from his health.

Not least of "Celebrity Fit Club's" shortcomings is its superficial sketching of such recurring characters as Addict on the Verge of a Relapse, Sassy Black Woman, and (my personal favorite) Fat-Positive Plus-Size Model -- filled last season by rock offspring Mia Tyler and this season by former "America's Next Top Model" contestant Toccara. Both seasons' FPPSM initially resisted the compulsory weight-loss quest and offered subtle resistance to body norms -- but in the end did lose weight. Toccara's weight loss was spurred by the eventual resentment of her teammates as well as a growing competitiveness. Still, she remained comfortable in her body and in the season finale announced she would gain weight to return to her "perfect weight" of 180 pounds.

What, exactly, are the producers hoping to convey with a participant like Toccara? Is she there to build drama, add conflict, or provide an opposing viewpoint? We'll never really know, because "Celebrity Fit Club" positions all participants -- even the few who are clearly self-confident and well-adjusted -- as pathologically wounded, medically unhealthy, and in deep denial. When Toccara loses weight, we're expected to think, 'Damn, she looks good,' and join the panel in expressing chagrin at her determination to replace her (slightly) minimized curves.

Even Papadopoulos, who is proud of her efforts to provide a positive influence on "Celebrity Fit Club," recognizes that "in general terms, what we are still saying is, 'Your value lies in the way you look.'" Not surprisingly, Cooper goes further, arguing that the show reinforces "the wrongness of fat" and, worst of all, disconnects viewers from their own bodies.

It's worth wondering who, in the end, these shows are for, and whether the intended audience alters their meaning. Perhaps in between the sit-ups, the judgment, and the baring of psychological wounds, viewers are intended to get a sense of what it means, in this time and place, to be fat. However, since we're provided such shallow representations of each fat contestant, viewers are more likely to walk away feeling good about ourselves in comparison to corpulent participants, and validating our feelings that fat is bad, dieting good, and competition even better. There are small sparks of political resistance implicit in the presence of hefty bodies and fat-positive individuals on shows like these, but they are too quickly snuffed by the larger context. When it comes to reality diet shows and their ritualized exorcism of our shadow selves -- the internal Other, the Fatty within -- we all lose.

Laughing All the Way to the Polls

Once upon a time, politics was serious business.

These days, however, presidential merit is measured as much by frat-house standards as by traditional approval ratings (apparently, American voters would rather have a beer with Bush than with Kerry), and a well-timed joke can sometimes sway public opinion more effectively than a reasoned argument.

Thanks to the advent of television as a force in politics -- not to mention the rise of 24-hour news channels and the internet -- politicians now work closely with comedy writers to add laugh lines to their speeches and, in the process, improve their images.

But when it comes to women in politics, the rise of humor as a campaign requirement only makes their efforts more difficult. Former Texas governor Ann Richards may have gotten laughs at the 1988 Democratic National Convention when she described George H.W. Bush as having been born "with a silver foot in his mouth," but she also made enemies. A few years later, when George the Younger defeated Richards for the governorship, his supporters cited that very line as a particular offense.

Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins, in an interview with political analysts Sue Tolleson-Rinehart and Jeanie R. Stanley for their 1994 book Claytie and the Lady, said of Richards: "I think…[one] thing that men find very threatening is funny women. I mean, with Ann it was a real problem…. They just did not know what to make of her…. If they realize that a woman can be funny, I think men are afraid that that tone can be used against them. And they don't like it."

In 19th- and early 20th-century America, women were generally viewed as entirely lacking in a sense of humor, and witty women were deemed not only aberrant but most likely sexually promiscuous. It's arguable whether things have changed much since then: While there are certainly more female humorists now, the shibboleth "women just aren't funny" persists everywhere from comedy clubs to TV networks to high schools.

None of this has ever kept women from being funny, of course, but the substance of their humor continues to be subject to the judgment of men, who have historically deemed themselves arbiters of what's funny, not to mention who's funny.

Simply put, a woman who makes jokes -- much like a woman who seeks public office -- steps outside the bounds of traditional femininity. So when it comes to women using humor in the realm of politics, they're damned if they do and damned if they don't.

Ann Richards herself recognized that having a flair for the witty remark was a mixed blessing. Early in her career, she received numerous invitations to speak at roasts, and even though she enjoyed these appearances, she realized the potential pitfalls. As she wrote in her 1989 autobiography Straight from the Heart:

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How To Sell a Stereotype

When Damali Ayo was 12, her parents sent her to day camp with 20 white kids.

The kids were fascinated by the way Ayo's hair maintained its texture in the pool. Even after she deliberately dunked her head in the water, they were convinced that black hair doesn't get wet.

This experience stuck with her as she launched her art career in the predominantly white city of Portland, Oregon. Ayo often felt she was the token black person relied upon for opinions and advice precisely because of her skin color.

"I know you're going to be interested in this," people would say whenever an exhibit or play depicting racial issues passed through town. Even when it came to Ayo's own multimedia artistic creations, she often felt like her audience judged her work as that of a "black artist," rather than evaluating the artistic merit on its own.

Ayo's mother recognized her daughter's dilemma as one that black people have consistently faced in postslavery America. Recalling an old comedy routine by '70s-era comedian Godfrey Cambridge, she said, "Damali, you can't be everybody's rent-a-negro." Mother and daughter laughed at the allusion, but Ayo recalls that moment as a flash of entrepreneurial inspiration: "I just thought, What happens if I actually do this?"

It was thus that, two years ago, the now 33-year-old Ayo launched the website Rent-a-Negro.com, offering "state-of-the-arts" services that provide customers with a "creative, articulate, friendly, attractive, and pleasing African-American person" on a pay-per-service basis.

In white-dominated American culture, Ayo suggests, white people, knowingly or not, tend to "rent" black people -- to informally yet routinely expect black people to educate them on black culture and to stand as a symbol of diversity. Ayo's website simply commodifies this service, making it a product like any other.

"When I started [Rent-a-Negro], I thought it was as real as anybody else did. I thought it would be a great way to make a buck," Ayo says.

She wrote up an introduction to the concept of the service, came up with a pricing scheme ($35 to touch her skin, $150 to call her "sista," $500 to challenge racist family members, and a $10,000 annual package including 12 events, 15 phone calls, 10 appearances, and 3 consultations), set up a payment system through PayPal, and waited for the orders to come in.

Ayo insists that providing casual education on race is no different from any other service out there. "I'm neither suggesting nor inventing renting -- this is something that exists. I'm just ascribing a name and fee scale to it, in the spirit of capitalism."

Ayo believes that the practice of renting is the very real, socially acceptable legacy of slavery. "We continue to look at black people in a service mentality, whether it's bringing somebody their evening meal or serving up their education on racism," she says. "And this, as we know, is not the role of black people in our society anymore. I was really interested in the way white people would get offended when I was reluctant to let them touch my hair or explain rap music to them. I realized that they had an expectation of me as a black person to do as they asked."

Not long after Rent-a-Negro.com hit cyberspace, Ayo began receiving applications. "I didn't anticipate it being such a huge hit, or [inspiring] such an intense reaction," she says.

Some applicants caught on to the satire, while others submitted genuine requests for services they just couldn't find elsewhere. Applicants offered various reasons for seeking to rent Ayo: Simon Gray of Los Angeles, the director of multicultural affairs for his company, needed a black spokeswoman "to help me show the black people at my Company [sic] that I can relate to them"; 65-year-old Gloria Roberts of Aberdeen, South Dakota, wanted to prove to her friends that she loves black people ("They are almost as good as white people," she explained).

Ayo estimates that about a third of the several thousand rental requests and employment inquiries she received were real. E-mail messages arrived from all over the country asking about franchising opportunities. "After all," one letter said, "you can't be everywhere at once, and I'm sure that I'm as serviceable a Negro as any for rental purposes."

Rent-a-Negro.com has served as a successful tool for generating dialogue: "People have told me that they've directed white people to the site in lieu of explaining race relations to them," says Ayo. While fans who understand the satire praise her for illuminating an under-discussed issue, many reactions fall somewhere between confusion ("Is this a joke?") and outrage ("This is so racist").

What ultimately kept Ayo from actually going out on rental appointments were the applications inviting her to lynching and gang-rape events. Threats included vulgar e-mails from black and white people alike. "The first one did send a shiver down my spine, but after four or five, I got used to it," she recalls. While there was no way of knowing whether the threats were serious ("How does one gauge a 'real' threat? This seems to be a question the whole world is contemplating lately," she muses), Ayo decided that it wasn't worth the risk. "I'm not one for spontaneous, unfounded paranoia, but I did decide not to test my hunches. One of these requests came from my area code," she explains, "and I realized it wasn't very safe."

Still, for Ayo, who is a conceptual artist -- someone who reframes aspects of society and presents them creatively to the public -- Rent-a-Negro.com is first and foremost a piece of art. "My medium is ideas, and that means I can use any material to create those ideas," she says.

Her other creations include panhandling for reparations on the streets of New York, Chicago, Portland, and Boston; selling t-shirts with "Hello, my race is…" tags; and various explorations of skin color, femininity, politics, society, and sexuality using everything from paintings to performances to nail clippings, blood, condoms, wax, and dirty underwear.

One of her newest art pieces is the recently published book How to Rent a Negro, a satirical, step-by-step instructional guide to renters and rentees, based largely on the website.

"I don't create fiction, ever," Ayo states. Indeed, each rental service outlined in How to Rent a Negro -- from dancing lessons to a primer on genocide in Africa -- is drawn from an actual request from someone at some point in her life. She views the book as a tool for inciting dialogue about what she calls "social junk" -- issues that are "felt but not always heard."

And despite, or perhaps because of, its bluntly provocative language and concepts, she anticipates that it will work as a mirror of society. "I believe that all art is a radical form of social activism. In the art world and in our society, we've made the grave mistake of separating the two -- sometimes, when we look at socially minded art, we think it's less artistic, when it's actually the height of art."

How to Rent a Negro includes first-person accounts of Ayo's rental experiences, as well as such "tools" as a checklist for the prospective renter (among the criteria: "an unflappable faith in your respect for black people," "a sense of entitlement," and "an unwillingness to educate yourself"); a quiz to determine whether you are being rented ("People ask you for your fried chicken recipe"); and guidelines on how to show that the customer is always right. ("You want your renters feeling good about themselves after your interactions with them. You're not there to further political issues or start the second wave of the civil rights movement. Forget about the debate team awards and learn to smile and nod.")

"The book is way more fleshed out, playful, involved [than the site]," Ayo explains. "It allowed me to tell my experiences in detail and really dive into the nuances of life as a rental."

At its heart, Ayo considers her book an absurdist text. "It is absurd the way white people continue to treat black people with a service mentality," she explains. "It is absurd the things I have had to learn about white culture in order to hold a simple conversation in this 'pluralistic society,' while white people remain ignorant about people of color. It is absurd that we continue to have a 'dominant culture' in the United States. The book, in order to illuminate this, proposes the absurd notion that we pay people for these interactions."

The book allowed Ayo to dive into the challenge of using satire gracefully and accurately to depict a very real problem. "Satire cannot exist without reality," she insists, "and only reality can be absurd enough to build solid satire. I find reality to be far more provocative than anything I could ever make up, and this couldn't be further from the idea of 'making fun,' which people often shorthand this book as. They can't be more wrong."

Ayo believes that some folks have a problem with her depiction of racism in part because of their unfamiliarity with her art form. She also believes that people who write her off as racist are either unable or unwilling to deal with their own biases. But How to Rent a Negro neither solely intellectualizes nor laughs at the ingrained racism in American society. "Intellectualizing and comedy both create an atmosphere where action becomes an option. This is in between those two extremes -- it is at once really funny and really not funny."

Following the modest proposal once made by Jonathan Swift, Ayo believes in the need for startling provocation in order to instigate meaningful change. "We need to throw the pepper in the sauce [in order] for people to start tasting things. When you intersect the radical with the mundane, the socially weighted with the everyday occurrences, that's when things get really fascinating."

Find out more about Damali Ayo's projects at her website.

Chronicling Conflict

When Mimi Chakarova was in Ghana working on a photojournalism project, someone in a car full of young men grabbed the strap of her camera bag and attempted to drive off with it. Chakarova wouldn’t let go of the camera case, and was dragged behind the car for half a block until the case’s double-stitched strap broke. “I just couldn’t stand the thought of some German tourist buying my Leica for $100,� she says.

Chakarova, a documentary photographer who teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, is currently immersed in two long-term projects, one documenting the military standoff in Kashmir and the other focusing on the sex trafficking of women in Eastern Europe. Born in Bulgaria under communism, Chakarova grew up in a village “running barefoot and playing with the chickens.�

When she was 13, her family traveled to Baltimore, Maryland, on a three-month exchange program sponsored by her father’s research position at Johns Hopkins University. Chakarova spoke no English, and the inner-city public school she attended classified her as developmentally disabled.

As a teenager, she worked three jobs in order to afford her first camera, which allowed her to communicate visually rather than verbally. She went on to study fine-arts photography, receiving a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, but she became frustrated with the endless introspection of the art world and turned to journalism, finding the field’s outward gaze refreshing.

Chakarova, who is now 29, has traveled all over the world, documenting living conditions and human rights in Africa and the Caribbean for her graduate thesis, and shooting the daily lives of Cubans surviving in the country’s two rival economies�the black market and withering communism�in photos that are featured in the book Capitalism, God, and a Good Cigar: Cuba Enters the Twenty-First Century.

“My mother asked me recently, ‘Mimi, it’s taken us so long to get out of poverty, why do you keep going back?’� Chakarova recalls. “I said, ‘Because it’s so familiar, Mom.’�

Kashmir
The disputed region of Kashmir, located on the borders of the two nuclear powers of India and Pakistan, has suffered an estimated 85,000 fatalities as a result of the conflict hinging on the national and religious strife between the Hindu and Muslim countries. Flare-ups between regional militants and Indian troops stationed in the region create a climate of perpetual war.

Chakarova’s photos of Kashmir, which were exhibited at the San Francisco World Affairs Council of Northern California this past winter, depict a world of torture, forced relocation, decimated villages, and traumatized civilians. Chakarova focuses on the war’s impact on civilians, specifically women, whom she believes disproportionately bear the brunt of the war’s hardship.

In one photo, beds are lined up across the front lawn of a psychiatric hospital. The facility is filled beyond capacity, as the war results in not only physical injuries but also cases of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The text accompanying the exhibit explains that women in the region attempt suicide with an unusual frequency�on average, five to seven attempts per day are recorded. (In hopes of forgiveness, attempts are most frequent on Fridays, the holiest day of the week in Islamic tradition.) Most choose to consume organophosphorus pesticides used in agriculture.

A young woman working in rural development, quoted in the exhibit, declares, “I am fighting a war on two fronts; I am fighting a patriarchal society and also dealing with the conflict that’s existed here since I got out of school.�

After photographing a massacre that included women, children, the elderly, and the disabled, Chakarova chose to exhibit only a photograph of the evidence left behind. After the 23 bodies were removed for burial, a flip-flop leaned against the padded armrest of a crutch, and a woman’s shoe rested against a dark stain of blood on the autumn leaves of the forest floor. Because viewers are already inundated with violent images, Chakarova prefers to capture and display those that raise questions, rather than titillate with shock value.

Instead of titling her photos, Chakarova captions them with descriptions of the conflict’s history and excerpts of interviews. A man clasps the head of his tortured brother, who is perhaps dead; beneath the image is his, rather than Chakarova’s, explanation of what happened: “They blindfolded him, poured salt and pepper in his wounds, and electrocuted him.�

In a picture of a military bunker, an enormous gun leans against a wall plastered with photos of naked blond women and clothed Indian fashion models, diligently cut out in silhouette; “i love my india� is scrawled across it in white chalk. Chakarova’s caption describes her encounter with a general who, as a matter of national security, forbade her from photographing inside the military camp.

“Kashmir was incredibly lonely,� Chakarova remembers. “All of my friends were male journalists. As a woman, once it gets dark you can’t wander the streets because there are soldiers everywhere.� She took to sleeping with her film in her pillowcase, partially to guard it but also to stave off feelings of total isolation. “The majority of people I’ve met don’t want to be part of India or Pakistan; they feel like they’ve been used.�

Chakarova will return to Kashmir this summer, and plans to release the project as a book.

Sex trafficking
As economic conditions continue to deteriorate, increasing numbers of women and girls from postcommunist Eastern European nations are being trafficked into the European Union, as well as Asia and beyond. From Dubai to Israel to Southeast Asia�wherever women migrate to after leaving their economically depressed homelands�prostitutes are known simply as “Natashas,� and women with Eastern European complexions are assumed to be sex workers.

On the streets of Turkey, men holler the name at Chakarova. While it’s not uncommon for impoverished, desperate women from these regions to immigrate to wealthier cities to find employment in sex work, trafficking is something else entirely. Many of these women and girls are duped into indentured sexual servitude, often believing they are being transported to work in the mainstream service industry.

“One girl grabbed my arm and said, ‘Do you want to know how it was? Thirty customers per day, the youngest was 11 and the oldest was 83,’� Chakarova says. She quotes another woman: “Some of the men felt sorry for me when they saw I was pregnant, but they still had sex with me.�

Chakarova and her collaborator, writer Lauren Gard, traveled to Moldova, which has the highest incidence of trafficked girls and, not coincidentally, is also the poorest country in Europe. Located between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova’s living standards declined after communism fell; poverty is still on the rise and wage discrepancies between men and women are growing rapidly.

Through a shelter frequented by girls who had been trafficked, Chakarova and Gard met Olesea. Their project retraces Olesea’s path from Moldova to Turkey, where Chakarova’s fractured Russian, dredged up from childhood, allowed them to pose as girls looking for work in order to meet one of Olesea’s clients. Through him, they made contact with her pimp.

“Here, I have my credentials and my affiliation with the University of California,� Chakarova explains. “There, that was all gone�all he saw was a girl from Bulgaria looking for work. Imagine having a man stare at you and evaluate you like cattle based on your appearance, the way you talk, and how you move. Everything about you has a certain price. This pimp was notorious for doing sadistic shit to these girls. I had seen the scars and I had heard the stories. These guys know how to perform abortions and how to hit you so you don’t bruise. They raped the girls many times. He didn’t know that we knew any of this. He was giving us his best facade, which is ‘We’re gonna be partners, 50-50.’ I knew he was offering to buy us, and if we were ignorant and desperate village girls, we would look at him as our savior.�

For reporters who want to do more than interview girls after the fact, there are two routes to a firsthand account of sex trafficking. Female journalists must pose as girls looking for work; male journalists can pose as customers. Chakarova comments that because these men are playing the part of customers�and, later, of sympathetic would-be saviors of trafficked girls�the images that result from their charade too often resemble soft-core porn, playing up the sex appeal, rather than the horror, of sex trafficking. “In a lot of the cases, the girls are wearing a bra and bikini and lots of makeup. It’s almost like lingerie ads. The photos show no insight into who they truly are.�

Chakarova sees this as contributing to a common inability to see the underlying causes of trafficking. “I read everything there was on sex trafficking in Moldova, and always there was the same bullshit, which is ‘Why is the demand so high for girls from Moldova? Because they’re incredibly beautiful.’ That’s the stereotype, and journalists publishing these photographs and printing these words are adding to the stereotype, because people read this and think, I want a girl from Moldova because they’re gorgeous. Guess what? These girls who have been trafficked and at the high schools in the villages, they’re not supermodels. They’re just ordinary girls with pimples and imperfections. Ordinary girls living in really poor circumstances.�

With her basic Russian, Chakarova was only able to ask simple questions of the women, like “What happened?� But when she did, they would spill over with information. “On several occasions, I said, ‘Why are you telling me all this? Why are you giving me so much?’ and they said, ‘You’re the only one who isn’t judging me for what has happened to me.’�

Chakarova spent time photographing the shelters in Moldova where the women were living. “To me it’s really important sometimes just to put the camera away and be a person, be compassionate, and be yourself. The main thing for me is just to be there and make girls laugh, dance in front of them, say something in Russian that’s really silly. Just make them laugh. Do you know how good that feels when I know what they’ve been through? They’re at a shelter and we’re all smoking and they’re just giggling like they should be because they’re 19 and 20. I don’t have pictures of that, because I was actually experiencing it. A lot of photographers are always behind the camera and quit experiencing what’s in front of them. I want to be able to say, ‘Fuck it, I’m not going to have these shots, I’m not going to take pictures right now.’ They see that: ‘So she’s not just taking and taking and taking, she’s actually giving something in return.’ That’s what I mean when I say I leave behind pieces of myself.�

To contact Mimi Chakarova or view her photographs and other projects, visit www.mclight.com. Capitalism, God, and a Good Cigar: Cuba Enters the Twenty-First Century, edited by Lydia Chavez, features more than 70 of Chakarova’s photos.

A Down Low Dirty Shame

Late in 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study showing that black women accounted for 72 percent of all new HIV cases, and that they were most likely to contract the disease from heterosexual men. But additional data collected by the CDC also found that a "significant number" of black men who sleep with men identify as heterosexual, and that black women at risk "may not be aware of their male partners' possible risks for HIV infection such as...bisexuality."

While there have always been closeted gay men and men living so-called double lives, the supposed trend of black men who hide their homosexual encounters from unsuspecting wives and girlfriends -- termed "living on the down low" -- has recently blown up big.

In 1991, E. Lynn Harris published Invisible Life, a novel about a man on the DL who infects his girlfriend with HIV, and since then a smattering of articles on the topic have appeared, including a lengthy 2003 New York Times Magazine profile of the flourishing DL scene in Columbus, Ohio. It was in 2004, though, that mainstream forums from Oprah to The New York Times to Essence to the Advocate took on the topic in earnest; the subject even made it onto an episode of Law & Order. As a hot topic, the DL is tailor-made: Widespread publicizing of alarming disease statistics like the CDC's that all but confirm DL prevalence as the number-one reason black women contract AIDS, coupled with the timely emergence of a media-savvy DL poster boy and a generous sprinkling of Oprah's magic, have turned the down low into a downright phenomenon.

In April 2004, a convenient few months after the CDC's bombshell, Chicago native J.L. King released his first-person account of living on the DL. On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of "Straight" Black Men Who Sleep with Men not only positioned King -- who for years had been an anonymous source on the DL lifestyle for mainstream media -- as a bona fide expert, but inspired a full-blown media exploration of the trend. The book centers around King's jousts with men while he was married, and is peppered with CDC statistics and a dash of irresponsible assertions ("Women involved with DL men are being infected with HIV because these men do not believe in wearing condoms and they don't know their HIV status"). King also details how both his relationship with god and his concern for the type of man his daughter would marry led him to write the book, and then launches into flashback tales about sleeping with a married man from his church and hooking up with a (male) preacher.

King's tale of well-orchestrated deception, which quickly hit the bestseller list, was generally treated as a self-help book -- and accepted as gospel, despite the lack of statistical information to back up his pronouncements about seemingly straight black men. When, in April 2004, the Queen of Talk herself tried to get some concrete answers from King, he dodged even her. Discussing the "secret fraternity" of men who sleep with men, Oprah asked:

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Full Frontal Offense

There's a new front in the battle for abortion rights – the literal front, that is, of a T-shirt designed by writer and feminist activist Jennifer Baumgardner that proclaims "I had an abortion." The shirt, initially for sale on Planned Parenthood's national web site and now available on Clamor magazine's web site, has generated controversy among not only the anti-abortion community but also pro-choice feminists.

Inspired in part by the bold irreverence of second-wave feminists, who circulated a petition proclaiming the fact of their own abortions and published it in the first issue of Ms., Baumgardner created the T-shirt in order to remove the stigma that relegates those who have had an abortion to shame and silence. The shirt is one component of a multipart project Baumgardner conceived to draw attention to women's experiences of abortion. Other elements of the project include a film that will debut at the anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January, featuring interviews with women who have had abortions; a guidebook to busting through the gridlock on the abortion debate, with a photo essay by Tara Todras-Whitehill, that will be published by Akashic Books; and the creation and distribution of resource cards that help women locate abortion services and obtain post-abortion counseling.

Only the shirt, however, has become a phenomenon. Because of its public nature, the tee has sparked a national response that neither Baumgardner nor Planned Parenthood anticipated.

"The shirt was always the least significant part of the project," Baumgardner says, explaining that she printed 500 shirts, mailing some to influential feminists and selling the rest at last April's March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C. Soon afterward, Planned Parenthood offered to carry the shirt on their web site to "remind everyone that abortion policy affects real people," according to Gloria Feldt, president of the organization. When the Drudge Report posted a photograph of the shirt on its opening page, however, what a Planned Parenthood media representative termed a "media tsunami" soon followed.

The shirt has certainly fulfilled Baumgardner's hope that it would start a conversation about abortion, but the very brevity of its message has had an unanticipated consequence. Although it's no surprise that individuals such as Jim Sedlak, executive director of the American Life League's STOPP International, think the shirt "celebrates an act of violence" and demonstrates that Planned Parenthood "lacks any sense of integrity, tact and compassion," it's interesting to note that many pro-choice feminists are ambivalent about – or even angered by – the shirt's message. Why, they ask, is the abortion fight taking place on something as public and casual as a T-shirt?

In one respect, creating a T-shirt to proclaim the reality of abortion in the plainest of language is the perfect antidote to the climate of fear that informs the ongoing battle for women's reproductive rights. The Bush administration's attack on public health – including sex education, as well as abortion – is taking place in multiple arenas. Family-planning organizations that receive federal funding are forbidden to present information about abortion to their clients. President Bush has refused to provide federal funding for research on new stem-cell lines because the cells are garnered from embryonic tissue. The successful passage in Congress of the partial birth abortion ban has caused doctors who perform abortions to fear for their medical licenses because the law's wording is so vague. The recent passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which allows a defendant to be charged with two federal crimes when a fetus is killed or injured during an attack on the pregnant woman, presents an even greater challenge to Roe v. Wade, because it creates a precedent in which the fetus is granted the legal status of a person. The House has also passed a bill that allows healthcare providers who oppose abortion not only to refuse to give their patients information about abortion or perform the procedure but also to deny them emergency contraception; it would also prevent government officials from penalizing healthcare institutions for refusing to provide information or services to their patients. The Republican Party platform contains a plank calling for an explicit ban on all forms of abortion, even if the health of the mother is endangered.

In the face of such a far-reaching anti-choice agenda, the presence of women wearing T-shirts proclaiming their decision to have an abortion would seem a forceful response. As Barbara Ehrenreich recently reminded readers in a New York Times editorial, "Abortion is legal – it's just not supposed to be mentioned or acknowledged as an acceptable option." Since Roe v. Wade, she writes, "at least 30 million American women" have had abortions, "a number that amounts to about 40 percent of American women." Yet according to a 2003 survey conducted by a pro-choice organization, "only 30 percent of women were unambivalently pro-choice." Ehrenreich logically surmises that many women who refuse to state publicly that they are pro-choice have nevertheless obtained safe, legal abortions. By remaining silent about their experience, or by refusing to call the act of terminating a pregnancy because of fetal birth defects an abortion, these women are tacitly supporting those who seek to outlaw abortion. To be vocal about abortion – not by supporting an abstract "freedom of choice," but instead by naming abortion as a fact of women's experience – is thus to break the dual threat of political and private shaming that keeps women silent.

That both Ehrenreich and Baumgardner have called upon women to speak publicly about their abortions is no coincidence; rather, it represents their desire to honor, and perhaps resuscitate, a tactic integral to the politics of second-wave feminism. Many of the political agendas of second-wave feminists were the by-product of consciousness-raising groups, which encouraged women to speak out – not only to break the silences that foster discrimination but also to build community. This legacy of speech-as-activism is still found in Take Back the Night vigils – in which women name their experiences of physical and sexual abuse – as well as in the explosion of feminist zines and the music of riot grrrls.

Like Ehrenreich, who called for women to "take your thumbs out of your mouths, ladies, and speak up for your rights," Baumgardner sees a direct correlation between the increase in women's speech and the increase in their rights. "When women were most vocal about their experiences of abortion," she said, "Roe. v. Wade was enacted. Now that women are silent about their experiences of abortion, we are seeing a decline in their reproductive rights." Given this history of feminist politics, it's no surprise that Planned Parenthood, which initially agreed to sell 200 shirts on its web site, sold out so quickly that it had to refer potential customers to Baumgardner's site to meet the demand. Ehrenreich wears her shirt to the gym; Ani DiFranco wore hers to an interview with Inc., an apolitical business magazine. When the photograph of DiFranco sporting the shirt and holding her guitar appeared, readers wrote to the editors to protest, sparking an extended dialogue about abortion rights on Fresh Inc., the magazine's blog.

One of the most fascinating things about the shirt is the fact that it says so little and yet is interpreted in such radically different ways. I spoke with many women in the Atlanta area about the shirt, most of whom were pro-choice feminists, and heard it called tacky, cavalier, simplistic, arrogant, cool, shameful and brave. One 24-year-old woman found the shirt offensive because it returns the abortion debate to the public realm. "The whole purpose of abortion rights," she told me, "is to ensure that a woman can make her own decision about her body, in private, without having to seek permission from anyone else – not even her partner." A woman wearing the T-shirt, she explained, is asking for comments of approval or disapproval from men and women. "My body is mine," she said, "and I shouldn't have to justify or announce my decisions to anyone else."

Another woman told me that, though she's pro-choice herself, she couldn't understand why a woman would announce her abortion unless she was doing so as a matter of pride. "Does she want me to think about the fact that she had an abortion every time I see her?" she wondered out loud. "Because if I saw her wearing the shirt, that is what would stay with me, even if she never wore it again." I asked why she was associating a factual statement with the sentiment of boastfulness. "Because it's on a T-shirt," her friend chimed in. "Like the one I have that says 'No One Knows I'm a Lesbian.'" Her statement was greeted by nods of approval from the other women who were listening to our conversation. Because there are so many T-shirts that function as affirmations of identity, people have a hard time seeing the shirt outside of a pre-existing context. The logical question to ask, then, is the extent to which the fact of having an abortion is an aspect of a woman's identity. The decision to have an abortion is complex. A woman may respond to having an abortion with relief, guilt, grief or any number or combination of emotions, each of which will contribute in some way to her identity.

And what about the shirt as a fashion statement? If a woman wears the shirt because she likes it but hasn't had an abortion herself, she could be seen as an ally in struggle, or she could be faulted for appropriating another woman's experience – or, worse, disregarding it altogether. It all depends upon the way others perceive her. An activist from California told me that she wants to see as many women as possible wearing the shirt, regardless of whether they've had an abortion, to "participate in the collective destigmatizing of the procedure." To represent the fact of abortion, as the shirt certainly does, is not equivalent to representing experience. It's only an opening line.

But the question of representation is not limited to the shirt itself. The woman who wears the shirt creates a context for its reception in multiple ways. Her appearance, the location in which she wears it, and the fact of her being alone or in a group all add to the shirt's meaning. A woman wearing the shirt in a progressive city like Madison, Wisconsin, or Olympia, Washington, or in a "hate-free-zone" neighborhood like Atlanta's Little Five Points would probably get a reaction, but she'd be as likely to receive positive as negative comments.

What about the shirt's power to belie the stereotype of the kind of woman who has an abortion? A married suburban mother keeping a distracted eye on the children spilling out of her minivan is just as likely to have had an abortion as a single woman in her early 20s. If it comes as a shock to picture the shirt worn by a middle-aged, middle-class woman, it's a testament to the success of conservative rhetoric in casting woman who choose abortion as irresponsible, selfish, or overly careerist.

The negative reaction many feminists have to the shirt reveals a fundamental contradiction in the current state of pro-choice politics – or, more precisely, the extent to which those who are pro-choice feel ashamed, at some level, to support abortion. The fact that so many women read a simple statement as a "celebration" of the procedure speaks volumes about the feelings women have internalized as a consequence of the conservative assault on women's rights. Although most of the women I spoke with were uneasy about their response to the shirt, repeatedly insisting that they were pro-choice even as they told me they would never wear it, some reacted to a photograph of the shirt with anger.

"The only reason anyone would wear such a shirt would be to piss people off," one 19-year-old woman snorted. "No one who was serious about supporting abortion rights would wear it." Those who saw the shirt as an aggressive tactic also thought it was perfect ammunition for the anti-abortion movement, playing into the propaganda that paints pro-choice women as glorying in the selfish taking of a life. And judging from the comments on conservative blogs like Outside the Beltway and Baby Center, this argument has some merit. Amidst the usual vitriol and sardonic humor (one person wrote that the back of the shirt should say "Roe v. Wade – Eliminating Future Democrats One Choice at a Time") is a sense that, by creating a T-shirt so many would see as offensive, the pro-choice movement had intentionally sought to outrage the Christian right.

In fact, the fear that the shirt could inflame the existing passions of the anti-choice movement has led some Planned Parenthood affiliates to condemn it. Here in Georgia, I first learned about the shirt when Denise Noe wrote an editorial in the Aug. 2, 2004 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution criticizing the shirt and calling for "famous women who have had babies and given them up for adoption [to] announce this fact." The following Sunday, the paper's Woman to Woman column featured a point/counterpoint discussion of the shirt by a liberal and a conservative female commentator. Because the shirt's reception in Atlanta was anything but positive, I was curious to see if Planned Parenthood of Georgia was selling it. When I spoke with Leola Reis, the organization's vice president of communications, education, and outreach, she told me the chapter had not been consulted about the national organization's decision to sell the shirts. When media attention to the shirt escalated, she reported, the chapter had a lengthy and difficult discussion about the issues it raised.

"Women have enough trouble trying to secure a safe and legal abortion without having to become the unwitting victims of pro-life wrath," she says. Though she understands the intention behind the shirt, she's not sure it will have a positive effect on the actual experience of women trying to attain abortions in such a conservative time. Chapters of Planned Parenthood in Idaho, North Carolina, and South Carolina have criticized the shirt outright, and Planned Parenthood Canada distanced themselves from the controversy by saying, via their web site, that they "cannot comment on the approach" taken by Planned Parenthood of America.

It's important to recognize the extent to which the attention of the pro-choice movement has shifted away from the bodies and lives of women who need abortions and toward those who aim to strip women of the right to control their reproductive lives. So it's not surprising that a large part of the movement is plagued by the notion that anti-choicers riled up by the sight of women proclaiming their abortions on their chests will want to step up their efforts to deny them this power. Given this fear, it would seem a smart strategy to keep quiet, stay under the radar, and hope that women will vote anti-choice legislators out of office. Such a focus, however, ignores the effect pro-choice speech, including the shirt, might have on a woman feeling isolated and ashamed because she had had an abortion or is considering it. A public sisterhood of those who have chosen abortion, for a variety of personal reasons, could do a lot to counteract the hateful rhetoric of the anti-choice movement.

Baumgardner's T-shirt is a lightning rod for the emotions that surround the abortion issue – especially among feminists – because it forces the current unspoken contradiction of the pro-choice movement into public speech. It's smart to recognize the current political climate, the fact that abortion providers have been targeted and killed and clinics bombed, and that women's health clinics operate under the awareness that their staff might be assaulted or murdered for doing their job. In the face of real violence and real political majorities, it might seem logical to lie low and safeguard the rights of women by creating an environment in which they can exercise their right to terminate a pregnancy without fearing for their lives. At the same time, some of the most powerful slogans from both the feminist and gay rights movements focus on the act of speaking up: "Your silence will not protect you." Keeping quiet might seem like a smart political tactic, but when women muzzle themselves because they are afraid, their silence can masquerade as the appearance of support for the anti-choice agenda.

If we don't break the silence about abortion, our right to control our reproductive destiny will never seem as natural as the right to wear our political opinions on a shirt.

I Am Ro

Jennifer Robles is a recognizable figure in her South San Francisco neighborhood: navy-blue bandana folded over her forehead, tattoo of the Golden Gate Bridge scrawled across her right forearm, pants baggy enough to hide her slight, 5'3" frame. She answers her cell phone with the sharpness and urgency of a numbers runner, spitting her habitual greeting three times in a row: "What's the deal, what's the deal, what's the deal?"

"Typical San Francisco-reared gangstress" might be your first impression of JenRO, until you see the random collection of objects scattered around her bedroom: a furry zebra-striped bedspread, a Gay Pride calendar with dates scribbled in permanent marker, a desk cluttered with cologne, amps, lava lamps, empty Pueblo Viejo bottles, CDs from Jen's favorite artists in rap, merengue, and reggaeton. Most noticeable of all, though, are the baby-blue walls covered with images of the standard-bearers of West Coast gangsta rap: Equipto, Snoop Dogg, Playa Rae, Tupac, San Quinn, Messy Marv, Killa Tay, and – larger than all of them – her name spray-painted in black graffiti letters.

It's not unusual for a 21-year-old newbie MC to situate herself in a pantheon of big names. What's striking about JenRO, though, is her inclination to mix the different sides of her personality, making the seemingly disparate worlds she inhabits – queer, Latina, gangsta – all of a piece. On her debut album, "The Revelation," which dropped on the label La Movida in September, she spits lyrics about everything from street hustles to hooking up with fly girls. Watching her take the stage in settings as far removed from each other as San Francisco Pride and San Quentin prison – where Jen has performed with the nonprofit anti-gang organization United Playaz – you wonder how easy it is for a queer female artist to embrace the contradictions of her sexuality and her gangsta consciousness, and express them in a genre whose penchant for misogynistic and homophobic lyrics seems like a prohibition against women in general, and queer women in particular. But JenRO enjoys pushing the limits of the medium, and she looks at the labels others might use to describe her with a blend of ambivalence and disregard. Ultimately, she insists, "I choose to say who I really am." And if her honesty means she can't front like a mack daddy, she's not worried – she's got plenty more to say.

How did you get interested in hip hop?

In eighth grade, I used to hang out with a friend after school and we'd talk shit about people – the way eighth-graders do – and put it into rhyme. So my first raps were mostly cracks about people I knew; I wrote them down and recorded them on a cassette player. The first [time] I actually performed was at summer camp – I was supposed to do a skit about preserving the redwood forest. Instead, I rapped about raccoons getting it on in my bunk bed, to the tune of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice." The counselor picked me up and dragged me offstage.

Rappers like Busta Rhymes and Juvenile were really popular when I was in high school, and it seemed like everyone around me listened to hip hop. We used to form cipher circles anyplace we were hanging out – basements, garages, playgrounds. I even used to panhandle on Market Street, where I made about $13 an hour rhyming and playing beats on a little drum pad. But the main hangout for rappers was at the top of the stairs that led up from the school auditorium. When I first got to high school, I always saw guys rapping there during lunch, and I wanted to join them. I tried to get my best friend to go with me, but she said that hanging out with dudes was too boring, and that I was wasting my time. Eventually, I just came up to them by myself, and started spitting my own lyrics. Whenever I joined the circle, someone would start rapping about how he was annoyed that a girl joined the cipher. So I would come back at them harder, and rap about how I didn't care what they thought. I sucked at first, but as I started practicing more at poetry slams and talent shows outside of school, I eventually got better, and in the end, they always gave me props for being a girl and having the nerve to join.

A couple months ago you signed to La Movida Records, a label that mostly promotes Latino, Spanish-speaking outfits. Why did you choose La Movida?

I'm Salvadorean and Filipino, and I grew up speaking some Spanish at home and in school, even though my first language is English. La Movida appealed to me because they were making a lot of practical decisions, financially. The label is based in Los Angeles, where they have their own office and studio, and they make real glossy music videos. They work with a lot of different Spanish-speaking acts, from thrash-metal groups to R&B-type singers. One of the hip hop groups they work with, called Akwid, is platinum on the Spanish market – since hip hop is new to that world, their album is selling like crazy.

The label isn't advertising me yet – I'm mostly doing that on my own. I guess that once my album drops, they'll play up my Latino side, even though all the raps are in English. They want me to put out an all-Spanish album, and I'm thinking about it. It's easier to rhyme in Spanish because so many of the words end in vowels, but it's harder to write about themes, or things that happen to me, because my vocabulary is a lot more limited than in English. Also, the slang I use in English won't directly translate into Spanish – in my English raps, I use phrases like "I'm thuggin' it" or "I'm posting on a corner." How do you translate that into another language?

What do you like about gangsta rap?

I like the street sound, because that's the beat I can relate to. Plus, the lyrics in gangsta rap tell stories about the kinds of communities I grew up in. The neighborhoods I lived in as a kid were mostly populated by people of color – I lived in the Mission District in San Francisco, and also in [the North Bay city] Vallejo – and all the people on my block listened to hip hop.

Good gangsta rappers give you a lot of details to paint a picture of what [they're] talking about, and have strong voices that fit with who [they are]. More important, the lyrics sound as though they don't care what anybody thinks, and I love people who can do that. Even though I used to hate Eminem because he always dissed gay people, I think he has all the qualities of a good rapper. And I heard rumors that he's really gay, which makes me like him a lot more. I even started spreading the "Eminem is gay" rumor in some of my own songs. I mean, c'mon, look at the evidence: He's obsessed with anal penetration; he talks about gay people in his lyrics with so much aggression, even for the genre he's working in; and he even performed with Elton John.

Are you saying that rappers sound better when they're less aware of themselves?

The better rappers are the ones who talk about what's going on in their lives, and put it in a way that makes it sound believable. They don't have to resort to imitating everyone else, because they can take stories from real life and tell them in creative ways. I like Nas because he talks about the streets, but he tells his stories in a way that a lot of people can relate to – he's not just playing for a street crowd. Take [his] song "All I Need Is One Mic," for example: Anyone who's felt like she was up against the world at one point or another will be feeling that song. I like Jay-Z too, because he's a poet – I wouldn't really consider him gangsta, but he takes the spirit of gangsta rap and uses it in a convincing way.

Do you ever feel limited by the medium?

My dilemma is that I want to appeal to everybody, but I also want to come off as who I am. A lot of people will cast judgment if I say one little word about my sexuality in a song. But the gay thing is only one little part of me; it isn't what makes me. I was rapping long before I knew I liked chicks.

Generally, I do different shows for different audiences – I'll shout out to all my dykes and all my transgendered folks if I'm performing at the Pride parade, but I'll choose different songs for a majority-thug crowd, or for the shows I do at San Quentin. My lyrics aren't just about being gay, even if that's how a lot of people like to categorize me. I have stuff about the lack of opportunities for people of color in this country, about what it's like to fight against authority, or what it's like to feel as though you're stuck in your environment. The fact that I often rap about being gay doesn't matter, because I have the same opinions as people who aren't gay. But I also like to mix the material up a bit, and push people's limits. A lot of people in jail or on the street have the same frustrations that I have, even if our situations are different.

Have fans ever reacted to your lyrics in a way that upset or surprised you?

One time when I was performing in San Jose, there were some gang-bangers in the crowd who knew one of the guys I was rapping with. They tried to rush the stage and flash their rags, pretending they were with me. But I wasn't trying to be affiliated with any of that. I might represent Latinos, but I'm not gonna claim north side, or south side, or anything like that. My friend Florencia (a.k.a. Lady Trajik) and I perform a song called "Gangsta Dykes," which is kind of a joke, but maybe you could say that's my gangsta side coming out.

As for bringing out my gay material, I usually get a feel for the crowd first. Obviously, an audience of dykes isn't gonna react to me like, "You fucking carpet muncher!" Regular thug crowds might not be as eager to accept that side of me, but I always see how far I can take it. Actually, you'd be surprised at how many guys are open to the gay thing. When I rap "If you're a girl with a girl break her off now" on the hook of "Baby Girl," I can usually get a male audience really pumped.

Do you feel that by talking about lesbianism in your raps and speaking as a member of the queer community, you have an advantage over other rappers?

I think the disadvantages are more obvious than the advantages. After all, I might get a stage cracked in San Francisco shouting out to dykes, but there are plenty of ass-backward places in the U.S. where people won't be feeling those lyrics at all – which is why it's fortunate that I have plenty of other things to talk about.

But it sounds like you're able to move between communities in the underground, and find the points of intersection between them. Do you think that as you get more popular, you're going to have to suppress the gay side of your personality?

OK, want to know my big secret? Well, I guess it's not a secret if I'm saying it in an interview, but whatever: Secretly, I really want to be someone who's privileged to have her voice heard in the mainstream. If I have to censor my lyrics in order to rise to that level of fame, so be it. I just want to get to the point where I have enough power to have access to crowds that wouldn't otherwise listen to my songs if they thought of me specifically as a queer rapper. Once I get to that level of popularity, then just give me a few years and I'll put it back on really tough. There will be some kid out there who will have all my CDs and think I'm just the tightest, and then one day I'll come at him with the wildest gay shit, and he'll have to take it or leave it. In my head, I'm thinking it'll be like launching this huge movement, Rosa Parks-style. You know, you can only hold a group of people down for so long.

But then again, maybe I'm wrong for thinking that people who like my music aren't gonna accept every part of me. Basically, your CDs always tell who you are, even if you communicate it in bits and pieces. Think about it: If you have somebody's album, and you listen to all 20 tracks over and over again, then you're gonna find out all the different sides of that person. You're gonna hear everything that rapper has to say, even if the final product doesn't fit your initial impression of her. So if a person really listens to all the songs on my album, he's gonna know my sexuality by the end – he's going to hear that I'm calling out to bitches as much as the next guy, and that's fine with me. If I'm not speaking true to who I am, then I shouldn't be rapping.

I'm intrigued by how the word "bitch" pops up in your speech, and occasionally in your lyrics. Does the word have a different meaning when you use it than when it comes out of the mouth of a male rapper?

I guess some people think it's tight for females to reclaim the word "bitch," but in my case, it's not necessarily a conscious, politically motivated thing. I might call someone a "bitch" or a "ho" if I'm trying to diss her, or fight her, but I try to avoid using it as a uniform substitute for "woman." Even though every situation is different, I'm not gonna come off like a regular old rapper who just refers to all of his girlfriends as "my bitch."

But a lot of people malign hip hop – and gangsta rap in particular – for being misogynistic. Do you think they're right?

I think we can all agree that dudes like to talk about women, and how they desire women, and how they want to control women. But that kind of [derogatory language] was more popular a couple years ago. And besides, I can't knock people for being how they are in real life. They're just rapping about how they normally treat women, and even if I don't think they're right, I can't expect them to be politically correct all the time. I can't expect a rapper to spit lyrics about how much he loves and respects his girlfriend if that's not part of his personality. Sometimes I listen to songs that I don't necessarily agree with politically if I can relate to the sound of the music. I like a song called "Manipulate the Women" by 1st Degree the D.E., because it has a tight beat and a lot of interesting wordplay. It doesn't necessarily have to speak for my views.

You're traveling among three discrete scenes: Latino, gay and gangsta. Do you ever worry about losing part of your fan base?

I've had counselors ask for my CD, just to help youth who are struggling with their sexuality. I've had old white people who have never listened to hip hop buy my mix tapes because they're curious about how I fit into the rap scene. Just the other day, in fact, an old man with a cane came up to me and said he never listens to "that kind of music," but he really likes my lyrics.

Queer sexuality is part of me, but it's not all of me, even if I play for a lot of gay audiences. At the same time, representing that community makes me feel important, like I'm standing at the beginning of something. I mean, we have Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on prime-time television right now, and I think it's just a matter of time before queer acts rise to fame in popular music, without always having to be special. For me, it feels like the beginning of a movement, so just talking about it gets me all pumped up. Maybe not that many people are open about queer issues right now, but eventually, this thing's gonna catch.

The Adolescent Mind of Washingtonienne

"I have a 'glamour job' on the Hill. That is, I could not care less about gov or politics, but working for a Senator looks good on my resume. And these marble hallways are such great places for meeting boys and showing off my outfits." So begins The Washingtonienne, the short-lived blog of one Jessica Cutler, a young Capitol Hill staff assistant since dubbed the "New-insky" for her chronicling of kinky sex among D.C.'s power elite. Using her e-nom de plume, Cutler spent a few weeks earlier this year posting online commentary regarding her job, her shoes, and her liaisons with six Hill-dwelling dudes – er, Men of Power – ranging from MD ("Dude from the Senate office I interned at") to R ("aka 'Threesome Dude'") to F (married government chief of staff paying her for sex). This cash-dispensing, anal sex-loving crew will presumably be fleshed out, so to speak, in The Washingtonienne's upcoming eponymous novel, for which she recently received a reported six-figure advance (from HyperionDisney, that avatar of family values).

What with the hubbub about the 26-year-old Cutler and her sexcapades, I decided a read-through would be in order, and I curled up the other day with the blog and a martini in a state of high anticipation. I was expecting salacious. Purple. Titillating. Highballs and low morals, detailed with evil glee and sophisticated immorality.

Not.

In fact, it was the opposite: as I read, I started to feel gawky, uncomfortable. Giggly. I fought the urge to make prank phone calls and toilet-paper the house. I was regressing. I finally realized why: with the exception of the sex-for-money scenes (okay, all the sex scenes), this twenty-something's blog read a lot like my own eighth-grade diary. Squirming with embarrassment, I recognized the hallmarks of myself at age 14 – the self-conscious coquetry ("Item! A new contender for my fair hand"), the supreme self-confidence ("I know I'm hot and everything") juxtaposed with adolescent gawkiness ("I got nervous and acted weird. Shit!"). Most of all, I was struck by the resilience of youth, the ability – for better and for worse – to move forward from difficult experiences without emerging scarred for life. Cutler may be down ("I feel bad about what I did to MK") (translation: "I feel bad about cheating on a serious, long-term partner") but she's not out. Turns out that "new stuff from Martha Stewart!" facilitates the healing process just as well as, say, honest communication.

It's fitting that Cutler's blog was originally brought to light by another blog: Political e-gossipmonger Wonkette broke the "news" of Ms. Cutler's online journal several months ago, and if the writing style is any indication, the friendship between Wonkette and Washingtonienne is off to a beautiful start. "WASHINGTONIENNE SPEAKS!! WONKETTE EXCLUSIVE!! MUST CREDIT WONKETTE!! THE WASHINGTONIENNE INTERVIEW!!" So Wonkette hyperventilated last May, fanning the embers of a sophomoric blog into a scoop and trumpeting her own role as star-finder in the process. Attracted by the scent of all those capital letters, other Web-trawlers and bloggers converged, and soon Washingtonienne was appearing in rants and raves throughout the virtual world (e.g. Wizbangblog, Swamp-City, PoliticalWire), all bristling with feedback from readers – and, of course, linking to each other.

Given the fuss, it was only a matter of time before the debacle ensnared more mainstream print media outlets. The Washington Post interviewed Cutler, while Playboy went one better and paid her to pose nude. (Never one to miss a business opportunity, the magazine has since posted a casting call on its web site: "Attention Interns: Pose for Playboy Magazine!") Our culture rewards self-promotion in exactly the way the self-promoter would want: with visibility, in this case literally. The preliminary groundwork for that visibility is relatively easy thanks to the Web, where increased accessibility of information breeds increased appetite for information, and vice versa. The more press that was generated about Washingtonienne, the more readers wanted to know, and the more press was generated, and the more readers wanted to know. Cutler was happy to oblige.

But given Washingtonienne's sophomoric prose and extremely short lifespan, what's the brouhaha about? Well, we all love a guessing game. (Although if you have anything to do with government, chances are the list of suspects – identified by their initials and their positions, governmental and sexual – will be easily deciphered. For the rest of us, it might be time to learn the names of our elected officials.) And no, none of the suspects works at the political level of Dick Cheney. "Absolutely not," Ms. Cutler tells Playboy. "I think I would have tried to cash in on that earlier." (Good lord, whom to root for in that battle?) And do we even need to acknowledge that we get off on sex and power? Who can resist a peek at the salaciousness seething behind the sober suits and marble halls of American government? Finally, we love a good villainess – a sexually voracious woman incurs our particularly punitive wrath. Slut! Whore! we cry, wringing our hands, our eyes glued to her cleavage.

But these kinds of puritanical, knee-jerk catchwords are too easy, and they obscure a more complicated truth. Jessica Cutler is a sexually voracious woman. But her problem is not appetite – it's etiquette, or lack thereof. Her gleefully tawdry publishing of the sexual secrets of people she purports to care about is tacky and disrespectful, and it's this, not her sexual zealousness, that should incur our eye-rolling. Take her latest beau: Turns out this fellow (a committee staffer in her office, former cop, "looks just like George Clooney when he takes off his glasses," initials RS – how hard would it be to figure out his identity?) "cannot finish with a condom on. He can barely stay hard." On the other hand, he did ejaculate twice in one evening, so maybe that lessens the sting? A cursory read through the rest of the blog gave no evidence that RS had sinned badly enough to deserve this kind of outing. So ... why, Washingtonienne, why? Likewise, the hapless R, "aka Threesome Dude." So Ms. Cutler had a three-way with two other consenting adults? Bully for her. What's appalling is not the encounter, but the way Cutler chooses to present it to the world. Not only is this Dude probably recognizable to his peers, but his earnest, awkward attempt at a thank-you note merits this online comment from our narrator: "Jesus, what a douche."

It's one thing to slam sexual partners to their face, or to a best friend, or to a therapist. It's another to broadcast their thinly disguised identities and their shortcomings to the entire online world via non-password-protected, real-time updates. And it's this breathtaking lack of respect – not the number of partners or choice of sexual positions – that left me wanting to scrub the virtual bathroom walls free of Cutler's callous graffiti.

Cutler is not the first, or even the nastiest, blip in the blogosphere. But she has been able to parlay her private exploits into a public spectacle thanks to an ally arguably more powerful than any wealthy political appointee: the Web. Without it, she might have been just another exhibitionist, albeit one who's rather boorish, opportunistic and, despite her claim of an IQ exceeding 140, not too bright. (From her Playboy interview: "I'm registered as a Republican. That doesn't mean much, though. I'm from New York. New York's different. I'm more the Giuliani/Pataki style Republican, which basically means you're against crime.")

But so what? From the Lascaux cave painters to Jenna Jameson, humans have always been willing to make their sexuality a part – or the whole – of their public image. What's so modern about this affair is not Cutler's character, nor the desire to publicize her dalliances, but rather the ease with which she was able to broadcast her exhibitionism and bad manners to the world. Back in the pre-wired days, she might have limned her encounters in a letter, or waited for friends to visit before drawing them aside in the parlor to whisper her indiscretions. But thanks to the Internet, anyone can, with the literal click of a button, eradicate the boundaries between us and All Information Everywhere.

With that in mind, it's Cutler's manipulation that becomes the focus of the story. Initially, I tried to see her as a victim – an emotionally vulnerable young woman alone in the big city, manipulated by powerful men and shocked – shocked! – to discover that with "a blog, you can't expect your private life to be private anymore. You just never know." But she isn't a victim – at least, not of anything other than her own psyche. In fact, reading her recent Washington Post interview, I began to feel that she was not only unmannered, but unbalanced. She protests that she "feels bad" for a lot of people around her, but the claims come across as the wide-eyed, theoretical compassion of someone who has never actually experienced the emotion. She tells a reporter, "I was only blogging for, what, less than two weeks? Some people with blogs are never going to get famous, and they've been doing it for, like, over a year. I feel bad for them." On behalf of all the less-notorious bloggers and other struggling-writer types: thanks for the sympathy. On behalf of the hundreds of female interns and assistants who come to D.C. to work and learn – not just meet guys and show off cute outfits – thanks for further damaging our reputation and rendering questionable our motivations. As for the men formerly in her life? "I feel really bad for the guys," she says. "They didn't deserve this" – as if "this" were a consequence of God pointing the finger, rather than Jessica Cutler typing out their sexual secrets onto her computer screen. Item! Good sex and good manners? Not mutually exclusive, even in politics.

Triple-X Offender

In most places, paying for sex is illegal. That is, unless you document the transaction and sell the footage on the internet. And if you show an attractive young woman, enticed by promises of cash, having sex with a complete stranger in a public setting – only to be kicked to the curb afterward with no pay and plenty of insult – chances are your porn site will be very, very popular. Unoriginal, but popular.

Gonzo. Porno verité. Reality porn. Whatever you call it, this particular variety of smut has flooded the internet in much the same way that reality shows have taken over television. "Real" sex has always been valued in porn, but even the casual consumer can testify that realistic trappings – sets, plotlines, and especially dialogue – are usually an afterthought. The genre's latest offshoot, so-called reality porn, has upped the ante, featuring scenes that appear to unfold unedited and in real time, with participants who directly acknowledge the camera. But what really distinguishes this new smut from its predecessors isn't whether the action is scripted, but whether it's portrayed as nonconsensual.

Reality porn features some of the most violent and demeaning porno scenes to hit the mainstream, what some call "humilitainment." Tagging these disturbing spectacles of deception and abuse with the "reality" label enhances their allure, as it claims to offer consumers unstaged and authentic action. Where reality TV usually panders to the collective schadenfreude – that sordid side of human nature that finds us taking delight in others' misfortune – pornographic content sends already sleaze-bound reality entertainment into new and disquieting territory.

Take, for instance, the pithily named BangBus, which debuted in 2001 and features two men roaming the streets, trolling for young women they can lure into their van to have sex with them on camera in exchange for a little cash. The bang squad searches out "every girl's inner slut," testing how far she'll go to sexually satisfy a stranger. BangBus's popularity led to other reality sites popping up overnight like silicone implants. The throng of high-profile sexploitation offerings now includes web sites like BangBoat, BaitBus, BackroomFacials, XratedGangBang, and Trunked ("It's simple. Throw the bitch in the trunk. If she doesn't like it, she can get out. Oh yeah. We're goin' 55 mph...").

The guiding premise of these sites is that a woman must be coaxed into sex – but, once persuaded, she's soon begging for it upside down and sideways. "Under every skirt is a pussy that just wants to be fucked," proclaims BackseatBangers. Penetrability is simultaneously celebrated as a woman's most valuable quality and scorned as evidence of her indelible sluttiness. In the end, she always gets her due, with most episodes culminating in a facial (and not the spa treatment kind), and many topped off by the guy spitting on her face. After the besmeared, duped woman musters a grin for the camera – sometimes, as on Trunked, with a sticker advertising the site plastered across her forehead – she is left stranded. While the money shot is the crown jewel of traditional hardcore porn – proving the action is genuine – reality porn derives its authenticity from a thornier crown: Someone has to be humiliated, and that humiliation has to look real.

While degradation in porn is certainly nothing new, the presentation of it as real rather than performed is a more recent innovation. The producers of these sites position their works as erotic documentaries that capture real encounters with eager women who are dumb or desperate enough to fall for their trickery. The people who have engineered these scenarios thereby downplay their own hand in the abuse in order to make viewers feel better about getting off on it. But behind the scenes, reality-porn producers must document the fictive nature of their productions in order for the operations to remain legal. They need to juggle the fantasy of authentic humiliation with the reality of staging in order to elude law enforcement's scrutiny – or even to maintain personal integrity. "We do it where the girl has fun, not where she feels bad. I'm not into that," says Greggory Meyer, whose company, PhotoGregg, provides content for more than 40 reality-porn sites. And though he provides site copy like "This little cum dumpster just has that look. The look that says, 'I suck dick!'... I guess you can tell a slut by her looks!," Meyer doesn't believe any of his creations are degrading.

It's worth wondering how many keyboard-noodling at-home viewers are taken in by the proclaimed reality. PhotoGregg's ubiquitous disclaimer makes it clear (to fine print readers, at least) that the smoke isn't confined to postcoital cliché nor the mirrors to the ceiling:

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Bohemian Rhapsody

Ann Powers was an editor at the Village Voice when she and fellow journalist Evelyn McDonnell published Rock She Wrote in 1995. It was the first anthology of music writing by women, and revealed a side of women's experience as creators, critics, and chroniclers of music that, until then, had been given very little consideration. Since then, Powers has continued to write about music from a much-needed feminist perspective, and is currently the New York Times' regular pop-music critic. By looking at rock and pop music within the context of the larger culture, Powers brings insight to musicians and events that other magazines gloss over with big numbers and flashy hyperbole -- her look at the recent resurgence of rock misogyny and how it converged with the events at Woodstock 99, for example, was the most thoughtful and nuanced consideration of the subject in any major publication.

With her new book, Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, Powers turns her attention to alternative culture and its influence on her own life. Offering up an engaging, witty valentine to the improvised life and an equally impassioned rebuttal to the idea of the bohemian as a bongo-beating caricature (think Pia Zadora in Hairspray, listening to Odetta and ironing her hair), Weird Like Us is equal parts memoir and manifesto. Powers takes us through her San Francisco post-adolescence -- a dumpster-diving, working-in-a-record-store, living-with-seven-roommates bohemian rhapsody -- and into adulthood, discovering it's possible to face maturity with both ideals and Buzzcocks records firmly in hand. She visited old friends, housemates, and co-workers from her years in San Francisco, checking in to see how their own idealism has weathered the years. The resulting accounts -- of people turning personal passions into passionate careers; forging new definitions of love, sex, and marriage; and redefining previous generations' ideas of idealism and success -- round out her own story.

Bitch met up with Ann to chat in a cafe in Manhattan's West Village, where Leonard Cohen alternated with French electronica on the sound system and people nursed cranium-sized bowls of latte and smoked cigarettes that were probably hand-rolled. Does it get any more boho than that?

AZ: Weird Like Us is an autobiography that's kind of in the service of defining a larger concept. I'm interested in why you decided to approach it that way.

AP: The original idea of the book came from a column I used to write for the SF Weekly -- it started out as a listings column, but I made it into an arts/music/culture column. It was very personal, and I often wrote things about things that happened in my personal life that I felt connected with the larger issues. It was very exciting because I felt truly in touch with a community at that time; I really felt like I was chronicling a world. And when it came time for me to think about [writing a] book, that was the world I wanted to talk about. I knew it was vital and happening, but I felt it was very underrepresented in the mainstream media -- I mean, it's represented in things like the trend of the moment, but not in terms of the values or the private life of bohemia.

When I worked at the Village Voice, I became aware that here's a long tradition, now less common -- in fact, now not really happening in the Voice at all -- of personal essays that would combine reporting, autobiography, and analysis. It's a real New Journalistic, counterculture style of approaching things, and I wanted to do that.

AZ: I liked the idea of you going back years later on a sort of "Where are they now, my bohemian friends?" mission.

AP: [Laughs.] That was pretty intense, on a personal level ... I mean, gathering together people who I hadn't seen, some of them, or heard from, for 15 years. It was really interesting, and a good corrective, too. Like in the work chapter, when I talk about the whole Planet Records part of my life ... I mean, I went into it feeling very positive about what had happened [at that job], having almost a nostalgic view. But it was good to talk to some of my coworkers, who had a more negative take on the experience. I would have just written a paean to it, and wouldn't have talked about the fact that maybe we sabotaged ourselves a little bit by not organizing in a labor union. I needed the other points of view to check my own.

AZ: Do you feel that the version of bohemia that you came of age in, that was happening at that time, is still relevant today?

AP: That's interesting. I think that there's a stereotype about young people today, and in fact anyone under 35: "Oh, they're all careerists, and they're not interested in living alternative lives, they just want to make money." But in fact some of those people are also the same people who were involved in the WTO protests, a lot of them are leading the animal-rights and environmental movements, and the youthful end of queer politics. And they're doing it under the radar. These people aren't the picture we're being offered by either the mainstream media or the -- I won't say the alternative, underground media, but let's say the hipster media, you know? The hipster media wants us to think that everybody just wants to have silicone implants and a cell phone and be all dot-com. But there's a real hunger right now for figuring out what the point of it is, the yearning that goes beyond the material. That's why everybody's doing yoga, that's why everybody's getting their aura read and getting aromatherapied. All that kind of new-age stuff is all about that, and I think that's something -- not the new-age stuff specifically, but the hunger -- that's going to lead people toward a different assessment of their lives. I think there's a very strong element of a counterculture that's going to resurface within the next few years, and I do think [bohemia] is still relevant.

AZ: In alternative culture in general these days, it seems that irreverence and irony have taken the place of politics in many ways, and irony used to market and advertise things is also pretty much inescapable. I think of bohemianism as a very earnest and romanticized way to live; it's all about really believing in it. So that seems like it would be at odds with all this irony.

AP: It's definitely a pet peeve of mine. I expect that this book will receive some snide reviews because of that; I expect it to be dismissed by a certain kind of hipster thinker. I'm an earnest person, I believe that my life has a purpose or whatever [laughs], and that's very unfashionable. I think it's easy to use irony to free yourself from responsibility or get out of thorny questions that you don't really want to confront. And I'm sure that at any given cocktail party on any given Saturday night, I've been guilty of doing that.

I do agree with the side of the Baffler argument that holds that hipsterism -- as opposed to bohemianism, to make the distinction -- can be turned to the service of consumerism almost exclusively. Personally, I feel like you can engage with the larger culture, but I know a lot of people who feel frustrated right now, who feel that their efforts are being pushed aside in favor of the flip, dismissive attitude -- sometimes a very crass one -- that's hipper. Eric Weisbard, my partner, made a point in an article he wrote in the Voice about Generation X, that its comedy has been its biggest product. You know, we're this amazing generation of comics -- Chris Rock, Janeane Garofalo, Jim Carrey, etc. -- and I think that's partly a reflection on our willingness to dismiss ourselves.

AZ: That's interesting.

AP: It is. Yet I also think that comedy's not going to get you through. It may make you popular at parties or make you the fashionable It person of the moment, but when you're alone ... I just can't believe that people can really be ironic at their core. And so I think that impulse to make meaning, if you will -- to figure out how we have a place in the world -- leads people away from that. I do believe that's happening -- I believe [mock-compassionate voice] even the hipster has that moment.

AZ: What effect do you think the rise of alternative culture, or maybe more specifically the mainstreaming of alternative culture, has had on feminism?

AP: That's a complicated question ... I used to be very much in the camp of, like, "Madonna is feminism, and that's all good." But I have to say that I am now somewhat discouraged by the fact that the political side of the feminist movement has waned. At the same time, I think that this is where the whole definition of "political" becomes very complicated. I think young women today are almost anarchistic in their approach to feminism -- middle-class young women especially. They're much more into alternative health, alternative birth-control methods, self-defense, all those kinds of movements. But I think the tendency to think that we can create our own systems of not only survival but how to thrive has another effect. First of all, it makes people less interested in joining a political movement, because they feel efficient on their own. And the other thing is, I think that there's a lot of strength among young women and girls today, and sometimes it makes them walk into situations that aren't good. Like Woodstock [99].

I go to so many shows, and that's a main arena where I see sexual politics displayed -- that's what rock 'n' roll is all about, on some level. And I see these young women, and they're all, you know -- when guys say "Show us your tits!" they show them. I think some of that came out of sex-positive politics and the feeling of, "We're confident in our bodies, and we love our bodies, and we're sexy!" But what those young women are not seeing is the larger context. It's very different [to do that] if you're at an orgy organized by Carol Queen in some loft space in San Francisco, where there's a certain consciousness that's shared. But if you're at an Insane Clown Posse concert, and the whole room is screaming "Show us your tits!" ... you know?

AZ: They're not going to know that you're actually making a feminist statement by doing it.

AP: And that's the problem So then it gets really thorny, because it becomes, like, "Well, do those women not have the right to have sexual pride?" Where I come down on that is that I hope that women who feel that they are enlightened, sexually, [who] are confident and strong and their lifestyles have led them to feel that -- I hope that they look beyond themselves and see who else is in the room with them. Sometimes literally. Think about the fact that, in a situation like Woodstock or even a smaller concert, if you participate in that -- men shouting "Show us your tits!" and you show them your tits -- you are putting the woman who doesn't want to do that in the same situation. That's the kind of thing I feel has been lost a little bit because people aren't connecting lifestyle to politics.

AZ: Something I've noticed, and I'm sure you've noticed, is the fact that within different subcultures certain gender-role patterns always float to the surface. Even in the most supposedly enlightened sphere, those lines are there. People talk about "alternative," but when things like that don't change, it just comes down to the clothes and the music.

AP: Right. And that's one of the reasons I deliberately talk so much about queer politics and queer in my book, and not just about indie-rock culture. Admittedly, the book represents a fairly white, middle-class milieu. Gender-wise and sexuality-wise, though, I feel like the vanguard is lesbians and gay men -- queer women in San Francisco especially, because their identity just confronts all those things you're talking about.

I do realize how incredibly groundbreaking the Beats were in the repressive '50s. But the problem with the Beats is that women were very much relegated to the role of wife, support, sex partner. When the woman would try to change the terms of that deal, she became just another confining mother figure. Same thing with a lot of the '60s counterculture. And that's why it's so important that this world that I'm describing, the world that we're living in, is a feminist bohemia. Because that's different than any other era. Even in the '20s or the teens, when there was a lot of talk of women's rights, it's never been as much so as now, that consciousness.

If you look at the indie world, with Riot Grrl, all these girls deciding that being relegated to holding their boyfriend's coat while he looked for records in the record store was not a role that was working for them ... That was the historical movement from a '70s-style feminism to a return to bohemian values, to a sort of mixed-gender scene. And I think that pattern just keeps repeating -- right now it might feel like it's retreated a little, but I think it's going to burst forth again. I hope so.

AZ: My feeling is not that it's retreated, but that some women who originally started out strong -- Courtney Love is an obvious example -- have ultimately fallen into traps of equating convention with power, sort of pushing the idea that as long as you're selling sex, you can be strong, but otherwise you're just a ranting bitch.

AP: Well, that's one problem with looking to our entertainment, uh, heroes for our values. I mean, the world of mass-mediated entertainment -- and I participate in that world all the time -- is a world of surface values. It just is. And Courtney's such a complicated character, we could talk for hours just about her ... but I almost think she's the exception and not the rule in some ways.

AZ: Right, but the women who just play music and don't make a big statement about it also aren't the ones who are getting play in the mass media, so we're not getting a balanced picture.

AP: Well, it's really interesting -- recently I was writing about these records, one by Tara Key and Rick Rizzo, and then one by Sue Garner and Rick Brown. Sue Garner and Rick Brown are married, Rick Rizzo is married to Janet Beveridge Bean from Freakwater, there's Georgia and Ira from Yo La Tengo ... I realized that's there's this whole community of musicians working together, often married and with families, and the women are often the leaders. It's like a little microcosm of artistic equality. But yeah, those people are never going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone.

AZ: Because men and women working together and not having any conflicts is not a story.

AP: But to me it is, and that's why I'm trying to tell those stories.

AZ: I saw a lot of parallels between your book and Pagan Kennedy's Martha Stewart parody, Pagan Kennedy's Living, which focused a lot on alternative lifestyles and family structures. And it made me think it's possible that women are more likely to feel that they have to justify or contextualize their bohemianism, whereas we're used to men who simply do it and write about it.

AP: I'll tell you, I didn't know about that one book of Pagan's until I was well into writing this book, and somebody gave it to me one day, and I was like "Oh my god!" But yeah, I think that there is that outlaw role that men can just walk into, and it's a more attractive one.

I was at the Northwest Book Fair this year, and there were these two panels: One was these women writers, women working with young girls and writing children's books and doing websites. And during the same time slot there was this, like, incredibly macho panel -- Jerry Stahl, who wrote Permanent Midnight, Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote Fight Club, and some other male writers. The women were all talking about creating a community -- contextualizing, but in a very earnest, constructive way. And the men were just like, "my balls" this, "my balls" that. I swear to god! They were all enjoying being assholes and insulting each other. To me, that was just like the perfect representation of this age-old dichotomy where men want to be very singular, very much [manly voice] my own mountain goat, and the women are trying to create a circle. I think what you're saying is true, and not only because of this cultural context where there is a Kerouac role for men and it's unclear what the role would be for women. It's also because of the practicalities of a woman's life, especially if a woman is heterosexual, and also if the woman decides to have a family. Women, more than men, are still confronted with the issue of balancing family with lifestyle, and I think that maybe makes them more interested in figuring out the logistics of an alternative life than men are.

AZ: Something that you said in the book that I thought was really illuminating was that -- you were talking about yourself in high school, and how you were sort of this new wave girl, but you looked up to the punk guy like he was more worthy. And there's a quote: "Throughout the history of mainstream encroachment on bohemian scenes, the emergence of female interest in a form, be it jazz, Beat poetry, countercultural rock, hip-hop, or electronica, often signs, to insiders, that subculture's corruption."

AP: I think that's really true, and has been historically true in the arts: Shakespeare was serious, but Jane Austen was frivolous, and so on. Jazz is still a world that women haven't penetrated that much as musicians, and what's the music in America that's the most serious? It's jazz.

AZ: When I read that, it made me think of what happened at Woodstock last year -- the idea that women have a certain place, and when they do something that's considered trespassing, if they get hurt or hassled it's deserved because they shouldn't have been there with the boys, they should have been listening to Sarah McLachlan.

In the female ghetto, yeah. Elysa Gardner had a piece in Billboard about the artists who came out in the Lilith wave, how a lot of them have had their second records receive a lot of backlash. Paula Cole is the most notable example -- it's amazing the vitriol that's leveled at her. And the whole armpit-hair thing, that was just so -- that would never happen to a guy. Do people say that kind of shit to [Limp Bizkit frontman] Fred Durst? He's got hair hanging out all over his body!

At the same time, there's more women in popular music at the top of the charts this year than ever before. And in all different genres. I think those women made it possible for this to happen.

But then, look at what happened once alternative music became a big cultural thing: A lot of hipsters turned to electronic music, which is a very boy-oriented field. It was like [snotty hipster-boy voice] "Oh we're done with that now. We'll let the girls have it -- we're more interested in this." And I like electronic music, and there are some great women involved in it. But it's really boy. I was at a Fatboy Slim show -- and I know Fatboy Slim is like the ultimate frat music now, Fratboy Slim, but it really was a show-us-your-tits kind of night. What happened to the so-called futurism, the progressivism of the scene? It seems like the same old thing to me.

AZ: I read an interview with [musician] Bob Log III, and he was talking about something he supposedly pioneered called tit clapping, where he encourages women to clap their tits during his shows, and had women do it in the recording studio on his new record. And he said something ridiculous like, "When was the last time something brand new happened in music? I better stick with it."

AP: Oh yeah, that's so original. Can we just say that Lisa Suckdog did this before any guy ever thought of it? But that kind of thing is one of the reasons why I wanted to write about the aspect of alternative culture that's about day-to-day life, rather than the spectacle of the artist as transgressor. Because many, many accounts of bohemia throughout the ages have been like, "Oh, look at this crazy poet on the corner, screaming," you know, or the punk rocker who gets the girls to clap their tits together, or whatever. To me, that's not where change is happening. It's almost -- I don't want to say it's boring, because sometimes it can be interesting, but it's ... it's time-honored, you know, it's the old side of it. To me, change is more in the decision you make of how to form a family, how to have your work life work, how to be an adult. And I think when you really have to confront that side of your life, things like easy displays of sexism are going to be much harder to explain away. And that's where consciousness is really changing. I hope. Maybe not for Bob Log.

AZ: When did you start seeing the series of choices you made in your life as a coherent whole, as something that formed a larger picture for you?

AP: I think that I always was very interested in the idea of counterculture. But in my early 20s when I first moved to San Francisco, I remember very vividly going to Haight Street and just being grossed out by the hippies. So I think that I didn't think of myself as a countercultural person in that way, but I certainly always looked at rock 'n' roll and punk and indie as something beyond just the music.

Also, in the '80s and early '90s when all these attacks on the arts and the NEA happened, it politicized a lot of people who I think before just thought of themselves as living an arty lifestyle. The other thing that was happening at the same time was ACT-UP and Queer Nation, and even though I'm a heterosexual women, I really identified with that movement and still do -- the queer identity felt like it encompassed much more than who you were having sex with. Those things combined with the primary ingredient -- when I was in college I took my first women's studies class, and that showed me a whole history of women seeing the most personal choices in their lives as very political. And I'm still very inspired by those early women, whether it's Shulamith Firestone, or the Redstockings, or Robin Morgan. So I had that in my head as I was moving through these different milieus and contexts.

AZ: The whole style of Rock She Wrote was such a change from most rock criticism, which reflects a very male point of view. There are a lot more female rock critics these days writing for major magazines and newspapers and I was wondering how, as one of them, you've seen that realm change.

AP: There was a window that opened in the early 90s -- I'm the first to admit that the "women in rock" thing did benefit me and a lot of other women writers of my age. At the same time, I always qualify that by complaining, "If I have to write another women-in-rock article ... "

One thing Evelyn and I noticed when we were editing the book is that a lot of women stopped writing about music around the age of 35 or 36. They turned to other things -- they had families, they became editors, etc. If you look at the eminences grises of rock critics, they're overwhelmingly male. I once had a female former rock critic, who shall remain nameless, actually say to me, "Well, I just grew up." To me, popular music is one of the main avenues of communication in our culture, it's one of the major ways that the values and views of our society are aired. Especially in terms of gender politics. So I feel it's an important thing for people to be looking at this stuff and trying to figure out what's going on. And it's really important to have women joining in that conversation, because all those easy myths of rock 'n' roll, the boys-club stuff, is habitually resurfacing all the time. I hope that women can find a way to step to the next level -- of being the ones who are writing the books, being the ones who are always invoked the way Greil Marcus is always invoked, or Bob Christgau -- the rock critics who are considered intellectuals and authorities.

AZ: At the end of Weird Like Us, you talk about your wedding and about marriage in general. Chronologically it made sense, but the wedding-as-happy-ending is also a very traditional way to end a book. I kind of questioned why I inherently saw it as logical -- like, was it logical because it implies some sort of resolution?

AP: That's funny, you're the second woman who's said something about that. [Filmmaker] Sarah Jacobson brought up the same point. Well, the segment on getting married was actually added after the first draft of the book was completed, and part of the reason I put it in was just my obsessive need to be honest. I wanted to represent myself as I am, and that's how I am now -- I'm married. But I also included it because I wanted the selling-out chapter to not be only about selling out in the commercial sense. The whole issue of how your domestic life becomes more conventional is often something that makes people feel like sellouts, and like they're no longer allowed to call themselves alternative.

I do believe you can remake institutions from the inside, slowly, and that's what we're trying to do. I don't have any illusions that two people are going to change what heterosexuality means, but I do think that the ritual we created did at least make a roomful of people think about what it means to be married. And maybe that's all you can ask from one night. When it comes down to it, I married one guy. But I wanted to do it in a context where I could see if I could do anything to the institution. And I think I made a tiny dent, scratched about a thumbnail's worth of plaster off it [laughs]. And I also hope that, just on the level of sheer fun, I can help somebody see that you don't have to, like, wear the horrible white dress and worry about the food and do all those cliches, and you can make a space where radical queers from San Francisco and conservative Catholics from the heartland of Wisconsin can be in the same room, dancing the hora together. I think that one of the legacies of the counterculture, for our generation, is that we look at the '60s and we say, "Well, they tried to levitate the White House and they didn't do it, so we shouldn't entertain serious ambitions to change the culture." I think that's made it so we can't even see how we are changing culture.

AZ: Do you find that your sense of community, in the bohemian sense that you first experienced it in, has changed or evolved over the years?

AP: Yeah, definitely. One of the things about living in New York and being a quote-unquote media professional is that you spend an awful lot of time living in this weird media bubble. I feel like it sometimes obscures the sense of community that we might otherwise feel. But at the same time, I live in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where a number of my friends now live, in various kinds of group houses and arrangements. We're all in our 30s now, confronting different issues -- children, long-term relationships, home ownership, all these things that we never thought we would. And I see the same kind of conscientiousness and attempts to make the world around us a healthy place that we had -- even more so now in some ways, as we're less prone to do hallucinogenic drugs. I'm seeing people figure out how to grow up and not just make [bohemianism] a phase in their lives or part of their crazy youth, but a life in itself.

There will always be people who want to continue, to play out the choices they made in their youth, and for whatever reason -- whether it's their sexual identity, whether it's their race, whether it's their personal predilections, whether it's their commitments -- will find themselves not fitting in with whatever the dominant stereotype is. And I think that's an unsung story in this country right now. We're living in this rather strange moment when you have a huge variety of lifestyles on display, but also this sort of mood of conservatism and of material greed. Like I've said before in this conversation, the panorama is blocked and we're only seeing one image of an American right now, and it's so much more than that. My book is a chronicle of one slice of that. So I hope that's something that people are interested enough in to buy the book [laughs].

AZ: Those bohemians, always trying to sell their books.

AP: Yeah, because I just want to make money! Please -- if I wanted to make money, I wouldn't have written this book. I would have written, like, the biography of Fred Durst.

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