Sunday, May 3, 2015

The other day in an advanced theories course for my psychology discipline a student gave an overview of the chapter he had read for class. The chapter is from Evidenced Based Practice in Mental Health and it is about working with diverse individuals, something that is incredibly important and often an area where people do not receive enough training. About half way through his four-page outline my professor stopped the student from reading and asked everyone to discuss what it was like to hear the outline explained. Instead of referencing the great new information or even a strong commitment to cultural diversity, the group was silent. After a moment or two she asked, “Is everyone bored?” The whole group nodded.
What is wrong with this picture? A subject that could be so powerful is boring a group of 20 PhD students who want to give their professional lives to working with people because they genuinely care. Why? Well, one reason is because the way the material was presented in the chapter was so dull it became hard to follow and even harder to track when a single person monotonously related it to the group. Is it then the reader’s fault for not imbuing enough life into the reading? Certainly there could have been more enthusiasm, but the presenter himself was bored and couldn’t muster the energy to present it in a more exciting way.
What’s happening here? If a group of 20 PhD students and a tenured professor all agree they can’t get through the end of a chapter on working with diverse populations then maybe the problem isn’t the group of people, but instead the way the chapter is written. We’ve all struggled through the long, verbose article so dense not a single sentence is comprehendible. However, in this case the long-winded, boring article is part of a power dynamic. The authors are old, white men. The subject matter is anyone of diverse backgrounds who needs mental health care. The authors (intentionally or not) created extreme distance from the subject of diversity, thereby removing the ability to connect or relate to the people the article is supposedly about.  
Oppression is a human universal in group dynamics. This has been demonstrated by the likes of the Stanley Milgram prison experiments and even international politics. Every individual has the power to oppress and to submit. In the case of reading this article and similar cases, we need to ask, what is my response to the reading or situation. Who is dominating? Why? And most importantly, do I want to go along with it? We must first label the power dynamic to be able to choose our response.
This applies to all of us when interacting with information like reading a textbook or a newspaper article, watching a video or the news, and listening to music and the radio. We are all responsible for evaluating the power dynamics inherent in these messages and choosing how we respond. Choice is one of the tenets of feminism. We do not have to blindly consume the information in front of us. It is up to us to think critically about what ideas and information we allow to dominate us.

- Written by Alyssa Tedder-King 

Why don’t people want to talk about women?

I believe it to be vitally important to have discussions of our society’s notions of masculinity and begin to address how it has affected boys, girls, men, and women.  There is no doubt in my mind that the way we raise our young boys can very severely negatively impact their development; particularly the aspects of their development that we, as a culture, have feminized (emotions, relationships, intimacy etc.).  These are aspects of the individual that we as a society encourage boys and men to minimize in themselves.  Discussing these issues and figuring out what to do about them is enormously important to the future generations of men and women. 
As a psychology graduate student, just about all of my colleagues and friends would agree with me.  Most are interested in having these discussions and readily engage in reflection on how boys and young men are being impacted.  This is awesome!  And yet I feel irritated.  I’m not irritated that people want to talk about the construct of masculinity.  As I’ve stated, this is an incredibly important topic to me.  I am irritated because my experience has shown me that people are much more interested in discussing masculinity as it relates to boys and men (often ignoring how it relates to those who are not cisgender males) than they are to discuss issues more specifically related to girls and women.  Often, when I bring up issues related to women people’s eyes glaze over, they zone out, or in some cases they immediately become defensive.  Of course, there are many, many people who are invested in exploring issues as they related to girls and women but in my experience that has been the exception and not the rule.  What is the deal with this reaction?   Why are people so “over” talking about women? 
These frustrations re-emerged after co-hosting an event for a screening and discussion of a documentary examining masculinity and how it impacts boys/men and girls/women [an awesome documentary that everyone should check out if you can! ].  When advertising for this documentary, the response I got was incredibly positive.  People were interested, wrote down the event in their calendars, and many of them even showed up.  Last semester, when I co-hosted a screening and discussion of a documentary about the impact of the media on girls and women [another awesome documentary, ], I had a few people who were interested and a total of four people attend the event.  I could feel a difference in how people reacted to me when I told them what my event was about.  For the event last fall, I could immediately tell that most people had no interested in attending an event related issues of girls and women.  Of course, some key factors play into folk’s reaction to the event about masculinity: the topic of masculinity is not discussed very often in classes, very few events on campus have focused on this topic, etc.  But guess what else is true: we don’t really talk about women either and hardly ever have campus events focused on girls and women!
Now obviously the context from which I am sharing these experiencing is a very specific one: a graduate school for clinical psychology in the Bay Area, CA in a program whose mission statement includes a commitment to the integration of cultural and diversity issues into all classes and curriculum.  It is likely that outside of this school, the interest in both of these topics would be much less; however, based on my experiences speaking to others about discrimination towards women outside of my academic and professional life, I believe that outside my school I would see a much stronger interest in discussing issues that more closely pertain to men.  My question today is: why don’t people want to talk about women? 

- Written by Vanessa Shafa, M.A.

Women Aren’t Funny?

            In today’s popular culture, comedians like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have become common staples among award shows, television and film. These women are screenwriters, actresses and have written their own autobiographies. Despite advances for women in the field of comedy, there continues to be a lot of pushback from larger popular culture.

            These few sentences are one’s that I don’t write lightly. I LOVE TO LAUGH. I am a big fan of comedy both on film and stand-up. As I look back on my last few years of my doctoral program, I remember all the trials along the journey, of course I do. However, I mostly remember the laughter. The nights I spent with friends laughing about our days, watching films, TV (Parks and Recreation) and of course, stand-up comedy. Currently, I am writing my very last paper for my degree (I can’t believe it!). The prompt was to write about anything to do with women. Instead of writing on my typical research interests, I decided to branch out and write something new, different, and exciting. I chose to write about the work of female comedians, thinking I would be able to read the autobiographies I have wanted to read for some time but never got the chance. In this process, I have learned so much about myself, but also about the comedians who I have admired for so many years.

            In 2008, Christopher Hitchens wrote an article in Vanity Fair claiming “Women Aren’t Funny.” To him, there was no denying that women are far less funny than men. In fact, he speaks further to say that “Women do not need to be funny, for men not being funny removes them from the evolutionary contest to get laid…with women there is no need to find you attractive in that way, we already find you attractive, thanks” (Hitchens, 2008). 

            How can this be? I have grown up watching funny women, how can this man not see it? How can he not see what I see? I think the answer here is difficult and it is a fact that faces all, if not most women. Why am I seen differently because of my gender? Why am I not expected to be funny or smart or capable?

            Prior to working on this project, I made the assumption that female comedians had it all. However, as I delved deeper into the research I realized that females in comedy are facing the same backlash that other women in the U.S. are facing. Why did I think this was any different? The answer, these women were openly laughing and joking about their experiences with marginalization. I mistook their laughter and jokes as happiness; I didn’t understand their laughter as pain. I am around funny women all day long. In addition, although I have talked about my experiences, I have not spoken out in big arenas or venues for hundred’s to see. This is why I have grown to admire female comedians. Their ability to discuss the difficult topics and to put themselves “out there” is moving. In feminist theory, we discuss the person as political. I believe the role of the female comedian has evolved into becoming an outlet for humorous political and cultural oppression. Something that society can digest and understand. It is a venue for people to feel comfortable, while still gaining knowledge. It goes past the comedy.

The truth is, women are funny. Women are hilarious.

- Written by Emily L. Barnum, M.A.


Fifty Shades of a Blockbuster Fantasy: Troubling Reality of BDSM and Women

With the recent release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey, heterosexual sadomasochism has once again entered the pop culture stratosphere. With its release comes the visual representation of ‘what women want’ that reifies the dominant discourse of male dominance over women. 

Nearly four decades ago, Dworkin (1974) critiqued the mainstream appreciation for the erotic novel of dominance and submission, Histoire d’O (Story of O; Réage, 1954), as she viewed the book as situating men and women “at opposite poles of the universe – the survival of one dependent on the absolute destruction of the other” (p. 63). In the following passage, Dworkin (1976) argues that women need to confront their own masochism, so as not to preserve the systemic male dominance over women (p. 111):

I believe that freedom for women must begin in the repudiation of our own masochism. I believe that we must destroy in ourselves the drive to masochism at its sexual roots. I believe that we must establish our own authenticity, individually and among ourselves—to experience it, to create from it, and also to deprive men of occasions for reifying the lie of manhood over and against us. I believe that ridding ourselves of our own deeply entrenched masochism, which takes so many tortured forms, is the first priority; it is the first deadly blow that we can strike against systematized male dominance. In effect, when we succeed in excising masochism from our own personalities and constitutions, we will be cutting the male life line to power over and against us, to male worth in contradistinction to female degradation, to male identity posited on brutally enforced female negativity—we will be cutting the male life line to manhood itself.

Although Dworkin was attempting to rally women to abstain from sexual practices that maintain the power structures of male dominance, she was also discounting other ontologies of same-sex desires and behaviors, female domination over men, and the intersection of other oppressed identities in sexual encounters; all of which could very well disrupt the status quo of sexual dominance that assumes white heterosexual male domination over white heterosexual women. Nevertheless, the foundation of sexual oppression needs to be brought to the fore when examining the impact of Fifty Shades of Grey and kink culture on women.

One might ask, “What if it is the white heterosexual woman’s choice to enter into a BDSM relationship with a white heterosexual man?”

In an online post, BDSM: Breakdown by the Numbers (Lucas, 2013), 75% of the women in Dutch sample and 69% of the women in the California sample were exclusively or mainly submissive; as opposed to 61% of the men in the California sample and 48% of the men in the Dutch sample who identified as exclusively or mainly dominant. As the numbers suggest, more women than men are identifying themselves as submissives, which challenges assumptions of ‘choice;’ instead, suggesting the subtle dominant discourse of male domination over women. Winnubst (2006) writes,

“The unnerving influence of power surfaces, however, as we realize that this free choice become the exclusive power of the subject position valorized in cultures of phallicized whiteness, the white propertied Christian (straight) male who determines when, how, and which differences matter.” (p. 41).

Therefore, ‘choice’ is defined and dictated by those who are most privileged in society. It is, for that reason, that kink culture can be critiqued for its failure to recognize how the use of the words ‘slave’ and ‘master’ make light of colonized histories of persons of color and how sexual practices can perpetuate the oppression of individuals in the margins of dominant discourse. Through a neutral voice of kink, women and people of color are disavowed of their historical and cultural oppression and thereby sustain the power structures that determine how, when, and which differences actually matter.    

“Neutrality thus functions as the conceptual glue of the modern political project of classical liberalism. It allows the model of ownership to take hold as the dominant conception of selfhood: one’s true self resides in a neutral space and from that space one owns one’s power, one’s freedom, and one’s attributes” (p. 42).

The neutral voice in kink culture, therefore, is one of the white male, with same- and/or other-sex desires. Women and others in the margins of the dominant discourse of kink culture are then ignored in this fundamental valuing of neutrality, where differences should not matter. From this neutral stance, one may argue, “Women have a choice to engage in BDSM and they are in complete control of their bodies.” However, in the same way as people of color within the contemporary rhetorics of color-blindness that control discourses about the “desired endpoint of a ‘just’ – and therefore raceless – society” (Winnubst, 2006, p. 43), dominant discourses within kink culture become a gender-blindness rhetoric that perpetuates aversive sexism

Therefore, cultural domination of women through the arts (e.g., books and movies, such as Fifty Shades of Grey), popular culture (e.g., advertisements, music videos, magazine articles), and institutions continue to degrade and distort the image that women have of themselves, as such an image is constantly being reflected in a patriarchal culture, where ‘men’ are still the neutral ‘culture.’ This lack of women’s cultural autonomy, is summarized by Bartky (2008) writing, “The subordination of women, then, because it is so pervasive, a future of my culture, will (if uncontested) appear to be natural – and because it is natural, unalterable” (p.54).

In such a culture, it is therefore, ‘natural’ for women and people of color to be perceived by others in a sexual light. As such, sexual objectification allows objects or parts of a person to represent the whole being. Bartky (2008) argues, “sexual objectification occurs independently of what women want; it is something done to us against our will” (p. 55). In the same vein, Winnubst (2006) purports:

“Female, black, brown, non-Christian, yellow, poor bodies are delimited on the basis of their bodily appearances. They are trapped in and by their bodies; they do not exercise proper authority of ownership over them… This entrapment by their bodily characteristics imposes brutal limitations upon their freedom and their individuality; they are not free to do as they please and, perhaps more damningly, are read as kinds of bodies, not as individuals.” (p. 46)

Men, on the other hand, are seen as unaffected by such delimitation, as explained in the following passage by Winnubst (2006):

“He is neither reduced to his bodily characteristics, nor limited in his freedom or individuality. He owns his body, properly controlling its power in the social world. The white male Christian propertied (straight) body speaks, acts, and desires not on behalf of his sex, race, class, or religion (or sexuality), but exclusively on behalf of himself – the autonomous individual” (pp. 46-47).

So, kink and popular culture need to better recognize that “the decisions about when, how, and which differences matter will remain in the power of the neutral individual, the subject in power – and the one who is free” (Winnubst, 2006, p. 43). Kink can easily perpetuate the dominant discourse of women’s bodies as something to own, possess, and dominate. As such, a call is being made to think critically about our sexual desires, fantasies, and practices, and to understand how they are all situated within a larger discourse of privilege and oppression.

This is not to suggest that women cannot willingly enter BDSM relationships nor is this an argument against BDSM practices. Rather, this contribution is merely urging the readers to think critically about the insidious ways dominant discourse and the neutral gender-blindness rhetoric influences the sexual practices we, as women, engage.

Though six decades have passed since the release of Histoire d’O (Réage, 1954), very little has changed in a society that continues to perpetuate the subtle and not-so-subtle domination of women cloaked in a pretense of love and desire. It is for that reason I encourage all who read this blog to have frequent and open conversations about our fantasies, desires, and sexual practices in relation to others and us as women.

Although I appreciate kink and enjoy the varying expressions of sexual desires that are open to me as a woman, I must also continue to reflect on the meaning that such sexual practices have within dominant discourse. It is for that reason that I encourage all who read this blog to think about the following questions: (a) what is pleasurable for you and what do you desire, (b) how can these desires be practiced, and (c) what meaning do such practices have to you and to those who are in different social locations?

- Written by Brittan L. Davis, M.Ed., PC-CR


Bartky, S. L. (2008). On psychological oppression. In A. Bailey & C. Cuomo (Eds) The feminist philosophy reader (pp. 51-61). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. (Reprinted from “On psychological oppression” from Feminity and domination: Studies in the phenomenology of oppression by S. L. Bartky, 1990, New York, NY: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, Inc.

Dworkin, A. (1974). Woman hating. New York, NY: Plume.

Dworkin, A. (1976). Our blood: Prophecies and discourses on sexual politics. New York, NY: Perigee Books.

Lucas, J. (2013, July 12). BDSM: Breakdown by the numbers. Retrieved from

Réage, P. (1954). Histoire d’O. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Winnubst, S. (2006). Queering freedom. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.