September 10, 2013

A feminist's open letter to American teenagers

Let me start with with this:  I'm a feminist.  I'm damn proud of it.  I have a tendency to read articles that I find sexist, chauvinistic, and that perpetuate rape culture and I get really mad.  And then I read through the comments until I either feel a little better or seriously furious.  I'm fortunate that the man I live with gets even more mad than I do, and he tolerates me soap boxing even though we're on the same side.  And I find that my perspective as a feminist informs the way I see the world and the way I want to change it.  Because of that, I'm letting you know up front that this is a big part of why I'm saying what I want to say.  Take it or leave it, but I hope you at least think about it.

One issue I'm especially passionate about is sexual education of children and teenagers.  The frustrations of the recent political climate around sex education aside, we can do a lot to help children, teenagers, and young adults develop healthy attitudes regarding sex.  Regardless of your position on premarital sex, I hope we can agree that we would like young people to grow up to a part of healthy relationships and to treat others with kindness and respect, which is what this all boils down to.

Today I came across this article in my news feed.  It's a blog post written by a mother of teen boys about how teenage girls ought to behave.  She's not a famous person, it's not widely published, but she does verbalize very common ideas about what young women should do, and it was received positively (for the most part).  And unsurprisingly, it made me mad.  Yet another person telling young women that their worth is based on their clothing, and worse, it's saturated with the underlying assumption that those clothes reflect an assumed promiscuity, and that assumed sexuality makes women lesser.  Young women like this are not worthy of her sons.  And that string of assumptions and the shame that they put on young women is entirely unacceptable to me.

Now, I've got some facebook friends that are teenagers and I'm certainly no stranger to a saucy selfie- they were myspace shots in my day.  I live a block away from a high school so I'm more than aware what normal high schoolers wear these days (at least in Chicago).  And it really was not very long ago that I was a teenager myself.

This is what I wish I could teach every single teenager around the world: it is not a woman's responsibility to act in the way you find appropriate, but it is everyone's responsibility to treat men and women with respect, regardless of whether you approve of their choices.

Let's start with clothing.  

Young Women:  Wear whatever you freaking want.  Or at least whatever your parents let you out of the house wearing.  My mom would want me to include that people may judge you on appearance.  They will.  I always would tell her that if someone made snap judgements and disliked me based on an outfit they weren't a person worth caring about.  I still think that's true.

You like showing off your belly ring with a short shirt?  Rock it.  Do you feel more comfortable with something that keeps your cleavage safely contained?  Go for it.  Other people will criticize you no matter what, so you might as well do what you like best.  We need to be proud of the bodies we inhabit, and dressing in a way that makes you feel beautiful is one way to take pride in yourself.

Never let anyone tell you that your clothing makes you a slut, whore, or trash.
The only thing your clothing makes you is a woman wearing clothes.

The other side of the coin is true too.  There's nothing worse than a woman who perpetuates sexism and misogyny by talking crap about other women based on their appearance rather than their substance.  If we want to be valued for more than our looks and our sex, then for god's sake we better start practicing what we preach.

"Judgements" by Rosea Posey 

Young Men:  A woman's outfit is never a form of consent or a statement of promiscuity.  An outfit does not qualify as "asking for it".  An outfit does not justify lewd looks or comments.   It definitely does not give you permission to touch her.  Do not lower yourself by reducing a woman to the clothes she wears.

I urge men to hold themselves to a higher standard, and those who mentor them- teachers, coaches, parents- to hold them to a higher standard as well.  I urge men to think of women as more than their bodies.  After seeing a young woman in less than a full snowsuit, you should still see her as a person, not a sexual object. You should still see her as a friend who helps you with math homework, who kicks ass on the soccer field, who is loyal to her friends and who has earned and kept your confidence.  She is more than her body.

In America, all men will see pictures of scantily clad women.  In time, they'll probably see an actual scantily clad woman too.   Maybe even a naked woman.  Whether his eye's linger is not what defines his integrity.  How he treats other human beings is what defines his integrity.  That includes how he treats women.


People get really touchy when talking to teenagers about sex.  Some are afraid that if you talk about it you'll put ideas in their heads.  I think that most teenagers are already thinking about sex, some of them are already engaging in sex, and the vast majority will have sex at some point in the future.  Our children deserve an education about how to have healthy and safe sex- whether they use that information now or have it for later reference.  Ideally, this is supplemented with discussions at home with a trusted parent or family member.  If we want to have an educated, healthy adult population we've got to start teaching them when they're young.

Having sex is a personal choice.  Every time a person has sex it should be an individual choice.  And not just sex either; all activity should be consensual.  That means every single time you should be asking for consent.  Being in a relationship is not consent.  Just because you have had sex with someone before does not mean they are consenting to do it again.  And everyone should be aware that if the other person is under the effects of alcohol or drugs they are unable to give consent.  Similarly, consent given when a person feels threatened is not valid.  Men especially should be aware that their size and demeanor can feel like a threat to a woman without that being their intention.

Credit to Catherine Camp

All people, men and women, should gain consent before any level of intimacy.

When I was in high school, it irritated me how often people would say, "wait until you're ready" or "you'll know when you're ready".  What the hell does that mean, anyway?  I never figured it out.  I don't have an answer now, but I do have two things you want to think about.

You should be able to talk open and honestly with your partner about what you want.  Talking about sex can feel awkward and embarrassing, but it's also an important part of any mature sexual relationship.  This is true for adults too.  Whether you're in a serious, committed relationship or are looking to have sexual intimacy without emotional intimacy, you should be able to talk about that up front with your partner.  Both people should know what they're looking for and what they're getting.  Consent to one activity doesn't mean consent for another- you should be clear about what it is you're consenting (or not consenting) to each step of the way.  Your communication will be even better if you can tell your partner what you like so that you're having sex you enjoy.

You should be prepared for the consequences.  About every other adult will get weird and tell you to make sure to "wear a raincoat" or some equally strange euphemism for contraception.  You need to use contraception.  Also know that even with the best intentions and protection, you could still get a sexually transmitted infection or become pregnant.  You should think through what you would do were this to happen.  Men- what a woman decides to do should there be a fetus growing in her body is her decision.   If you're a person who is adamantly against abortions you should make damn sure you or your loved ones won't need one: use contraception yourself and make sure your loved ones have access to contraception.  And of course, the only way to make sure you're not going to have any consequences is to not engage in any sexual activity (i.e. abstinence).

So that's all about your sex life. What about other people's sex lives?  
A: It's none of your business.  
B: Respect their right to make their own choices.  

There's nothing wrong with saving yourself for marriage and there's nothing wrong with deciding to have safe sex with someone you trust.  I encourage every person to follow their heart and conscience in that matter.  But don't use someone else's choices as a reason to mock, criticize, or make assumptions.


And now that we got all serious, I think it's time to wrap up with possibly the most important point I have, which is to just be yourself.

It's probably one of the biggest cliches there is, but that's for good reason.  At this point, you've got some idea of who you are.  You have interests, passions, mannerisms and quirks unique to you.  But all the stuff that fills in about your values, and what you sets you apart and what you want to do with your life is totally up in the air.  Don't worry about that.  This is your time to make mistakes.  I certainly made my fair share, and I definitely made a good number of choices that gave my mom some grey hairs.  Some things turned out to be phases, some things turned out to be me.  You're not going to know unless you try.

That said, don't do anything permanent.  Supposedly we don't have fully adult brains until we're 25, so even I've still got time to morph.  So while it's totally fine to try out neon hair, gothic clothes, or a can of beer in your friends basement it's not a good idea to try out driving under the influence.  In the words of my brother (an expert on trial and error), the only things you can't come back from are getting pregnant or getting arrested.  Avoid those things.

But beyond that, go wild!  Be weird.  In my experience, the most interesting things about people are the things that make them different and themselves, not anything you get by trying to be someone else.  So accept the fact that you're still figuring it all out and just give life all you've got.  Life's the best gift you'll ever get- use it for all it's worth.

I hope that you will treat yourself and others with kindness and respect.
This goes without saying, but it can't hurt to repeat it: only do what you want.
Be strong, and stand behind what you think is right.

"The Voice" by Shel Silverstein

 "And above all, watch with glittering eyes, the whole world around you 
because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.  
Those who don't believe in magic will never find it."
Roald Dahl

And of course, if you have any questions, please ask.  Ask me.  Ask your parents.  Ask a doctor or nurse or someone who knows more than your friends or google.

And finally, for those who enjoyed this article, I've put together a little list of some extra things you can read and watch that take things that are pretty standard in our culture and turn them on their heads.  Feminism gets a bad wrap.  People think we hate men, refuse to wear make-up or shave our legs, and are extremely angry.  I very much love men. Especially my boyfriend, father, brother, and couple dozen male friends.  I basically live in sundresses.  Make-up.. well I forget that sometimes.  Forget the stereotypes and assumptions and open up that mind of yours a little to a different perspective.

Bonus Resources:

A TEDx video about how to talk about sex and potentially teach sex in a much healthier way.

A fantastic piece from a father to a son about how to see a woman.

Why the concept of female "purity" is bullshit.

The flaw in the label of "strong female characters".

A comic showing the stigma that necessitates feminism.

If you have others you'd like to share, please share them in the comments!  There are so many out there, this is just a sample of the ones I've come across recently.

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