If anything, that pose—I am harmless, I am toothless, you can fuck me—is why I find myself rejecting the feminist label: All these bad feminists, all these Talmudic “can you be a feminist and still have a bikini wax?” discussions. All these reassurances to their (male) audiences that they don’t want too much, won’t go too far—“We don’t know what Andrea Dworkin was on about either! Trust us.” All these feminists giving blowjobs like it’s missionary work.
Somewhere along the way toward female liberation, it was decided that the most effective method was for feminism to become universal. But instead of shaping a world and a philosophy that would become attractive to the masses, a world based on fairness and community and exchange, it was feminism itself that would have to be rebranded and remarketed for contemporary men and women.
They forgot that for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible. Hence the pose. People don’t like change, and so feminism must be as close to the status quo—with minor modifications—in order to recruit large numbers.
In other words, it has to become entirely pointless.
Radical change is scary. It’s terrifying, actually. And the feminism I support is a full-on revolution. Where women are not simply allowed to participate in the world as it already exists—an inherently corrupt world, designed by a patriarchy to subjugate and control and destroy all challengers—but are actively able to re-shape it. Where women do not simply knock on the doors of churches, of governments, of capitalist marketplaces and politely ask for admittance, but create their own religious systems, governments, and economies. My feminism is not one of incremental change, revealed in the end to be The Same As Ever, But More So. It is a cleansing fire.
Asking for a system that was built for the express purpose of oppression to, “um, please stop oppressing me?” is nonsense work. The only task worth doing is fully dismantling and replacing that system.
This is why I cannot associate myself with a feminism that focuses dementedly on “self-empowerment,” whose goals include not the full destruction of corporate culture but merely a higher percentage of female CEOs and military officers, a feminism that requires no thought, no discomfort, and no real change.
If feminism is universal, if it is something that all women and men can “get on board” with, then it is not for me.
If feminism is nothing more than personal gain disguised as political progress, then it is not for me.
If by declaring myself a feminist I must reassure you that I am not angry, that I pose no threat, then feminism is definitely not for me.
I am angry. And I do pose a threat.
Jessa Crispin, Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, 2017.
IT TOOK ME A LONG TIME TO REALIZE I WAS NOT THE ONLY GIRL whose high school teacher asked her on a date. Not the only one who sat on the train across from a man who had “forgotten” to zip his fly on the day he “forgot” to wear underwear so that his penis, still tucked in his jeans, was fully visible. I remember joking about it with my father—the weirdo with his dick showing! He had to explain to me that it wasn’t an accident.
I am not the only one who had a boyfriend who called me stupid. Not the only one who grew up being told to be careful around groups of boys, even if they were my friends. When I was twelve—the same year I saw my first penis on a New York City subway platform, two years before I would lose my virginity to a guy from Park Slope who filled in his sideburn gaps with his mom’s eyeliner, and six years before I would fail out of college, tired of frat boys taping used condoms to my dorm room door—I started to have trouble sleeping. I felt sick all the time.
I KNOW IT’S CALLED THE CYCLE OF VIOLENCE, BUT IN MY FAMILY, female suffering is linear: rape and abuse are passed down like the world’s worst birthright, largely skipping the men and marking the women with scars, night terrors, and fantastic senses of humor.
My mother told me about getting molested by a family friend as part of our “bad touch” talk. She called him her uncle. We were sitting on my twin bed in a room covered with glow-in-the-dark star stickers. She was eight when he came to the house with ice cream, and while her mother cooked dinner in the kitchen he told her to come sit on his lap if she wanted some. She doesn’t remember what he touched or how, just that it happened, and that she said nothing afterward. Some time later the neighborhood barber told my grandmother that if my mom would fold some towels for him, her haircut would be free. So my grandmother left while she worked, and he took my mother into the back room, where he rubbed his penis on her eight-year-old body.
When my grandmother was ten, her father died of alcoholism and she went to live with an aunt and uncle. When she was eleven, her uncle raped her. She told her aunt, and was sent to St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Brooklyn the next day.
It’s losing steam with each generation, so that’s something. My grandmother’s rape is my mother’s molestation is me getting off relatively easy with abusive boyfriends and strangers fondling me on subways—one time without my realizing until I went to put my hands in my jeans’ back pockets and there was semen all over them.
My aunts and mom joked about how often it happened to them when they were younger—the one man who flashed a jacket open and had a big red bow on his cock, the neighborhood pervert who masturbated visibly in his window as they walked to school as girls. (The cops told them the man could do whatever he wanted in his own house.) “Just point and laugh,” my aunt said. “That usually sends them running.”
But worse than the violations themselves was the creeping understanding of what it meant to be female—that it’s not a matter of if something bad happens, but when and howbad.
Of course what feels like a matrilineal curse is not really ours. We don’t own it; the shame and disgust belong to the perpetrators. At least, that’s what the books say. But the frequency with which women in my family have been hurt or sexually assaulted starts to feel like a flashing message encoded in our DNA: Hurt. Me.
My daughter is five and I want to inoculate her against whatever it is that keeps happening to the women in my family. I want Layla to have her father’s lucky genes—genes that walk into a room and feel entitled to be there. Genes that feel safe. Not my out-of-place chromosomes that are fight-or-flight ready.
This is the one way in which I wish she was not mine.
When I was pregnant, I often joked about wanting a boy. A baby girl would turn into a teenage girl, and I remember the young asshole I was to my mother. But this is closer to the truth: having a girl means passing this thing on to her, this violence and violations without end.
Because while my daughter lives in a world that knows what happens to women is wrong, it has also accepted this wrongness as inevitable. When a rich man in Delaware was given probation for raping his three-year-old daughter, there was outrage. But it was the lack of punishment that seemed to offend, not the seemingly immovable fact that some men rape three-year-olds. Prison time we can measure and control; that some men do horrible things to little girls, however, is presented as a given.
Living in a place that has given up on the expectation of your safety means walking around in a permanently dissociative state. You watch these things happen to you, you walk through them on the subway and on the street, you see them on the television, you hear them in music, and it’s just the air you breathe, so you narrate the horror to yourself because to engage with it would be self-destruction.
I spoke on a panel once with a famous new age author/guru in leather pants and she said that the problem with women is that we don’t “speak from our power,” but from a place of victimization. As if the traumas forced upon us could be shaken off with a steady voice—as if we had actual power to speak from.
Victimhood doesn’t need to be an identity, but it is a product of facts. Some women heal by rejecting victimhood, but in a world that regularly tells women they’re asking for it, I don’t know that laying claim to “victim” is such a terrible idea. Recognizing suffering is not giving up and it’s not weak.
“Something bad happened to me.” More accurately: “Someone did something bad to me.” This happened. This happens.
When this reality started to become more and more clear to me, as I grew breasts and took subways, watched movies and fucked boys, I didn’t make a conscious decision not to lie down and die. But do I know that my survival instinct took over and I became the loudest girl, the quickest with a sex joke, the one who laughed at old men coming on to her.
If I was going to be a sex object, I was going to be the best sex object I could be. Over twenty years later, I still feel sick. I still can’t sleep. But at least now I understand why.
1984: I’m born in San Diego on Good Friday, which was also 4/20. Before you think this is some kind of omen, let me assure you that the only thing I smoke is my competition. 1989: I smear poop on the wall in kindergarten; perhaps my first true artistic expression. 1993: My fourth-grade teacher thinks something could be wrong with me. The list includes ADD and Tourette’s syndrome. 1994: My dad takes me to Wal-Mart, where I ask a sales associate if they have “the Ren and Stimpy dolls that flatulate.” This is evidence that I possess both a large vocabulary and a slightly twisted sense of humor. 1997: I fall in love with my first article of vintage clothing: a persimmon-red pair of disco pants. I secretly change into them in the bathroom of the roller rink. 1999: I land my first job, at a Subway. I get OCD on the BLT. 2000: I hate high school, and am sent to a psychiatrist who diagnoses me with depression and ADD. I try the white pills. I try the blue pills. I decide that if this is what it’s going to take to like high school, forget it. I throw the pills away and decide to homeschool. 2001: My parents get divorced. I’m okay with it and take the opportunity to move out and be on my own. I choose an apartment in downtown Sacramento with a bunch of dude musicians. My room is a closet under the stairs, and my rent is $60 a month. 2002: I hitchhike up and down the West Coast, finally landing in the Pacific Northwest. I pursue a life of dumpster diving (do not knock a free bagel until you’ve tried one) and petty thievery. 2002: I sell my first thing online. It’s a stolen book. 2003: I am detained for shoplifting. I quit cold turkey. 2005: I leave my boyfriend in Portland and move to San Francisco, where I am fired from a high-end shoe store. 2006: I get a hernia, which means I need to get a job to get health insurance. I find one checking IDs in the lobby of an art school. I have a lot of time to kill, so I dick around on the Internet and open up an eBay shop called Nasty Gal Vintage. 2014: I am the CEO of a $100-million-plus business with a fifty-thousand-square-foot office in Los Angeles, a distribution and fulfillment center in Kentucky, and three hundred and fifty employees.
(Insert the sound of a record screeching to a halt here.)
I was a student of the humanities, including histories of colonialism and revolutions and, despite Mark’s talk in All Hands, I knew that the war that Facebook was waging, if it continued the way it was going, wasn’t exactly revolutionary. The company’s entire human-resources architecture (and, conveniently, Facebook had no actual HR department to correct any of this for a long time) was constructed on the reactionary model of an office from the 1950s, in which men with so-called masculine qualities (being technical, breaking things, moving fast) were idealized as brilliant and visionary while everyone else (particularly the nontechnical employees on the customer-support team, who were mostly female and sometimes, unlike the white and Asian engineering team, black) were assumed to be duller, incapable of quick and intelligent thought. It was like Mad Men but real and happening in the current moment, as if in repudiation of fifty years of social progress. For example, on Mark’s birthday, in May 2006, I received an email from his administrative assistant telling me that it would be my job that day, along with all the other women in the office, to wear a T-shirt with Mark’s picture on it. Wait, what? I thought, he’s not my god or my president; I just work here. The men in the office were told that they would be wearing Adidas sandals that day, also in homage to Mark. The gender coding was clear: women were to declare allegiance to Mark, and men were to become Mark, or to at least dress like him. I decided that this was more than I could stomach and stayed home to play sick that day. I was the only one. The other women in the office, including Mark’s girlfriend, who did not work at Facebook, but had come to the office to celebrate his birthday, happily posed for pictures wearing identical shirts printed with Mark’s picture, like teenage girls at an *NSYNC concert or more disturbingly, like so many polygamous wives in a cult. These pictures also appeared in Gawker years later, making me relieved that I had stayed home so that I wasn’t immortalized forever online in such a strange, Stepford-Wives- like pose. I wondered if any of the women had been secretly troubled by the request that they pay homage to Mark or if, as often seemed the case, everyone was just happy to belong to something.
Maryann also often came to the pool in her bikini and set up her towel nearby, tanning quietly behind big sunglasses, pleasant and reserved as always. She was unequivocally considered hot at the company. But, I sensed, the last thing you wanted at Facebook was to be the hot girl, especially if you weren’t protected, as Maryann was, by a close group of college friends who also worked there. One day, one of the sales guys told me pointedly that I was hot, reminding me that I was surrounded by men who were in the habit of sorting women into hot or not-hot categories. Facemash, Mark’s first website at Harvard, was designed to allow viewers to rank the attractiveness of Harvard students’ photos. I wanted to be the cool girl, not the hot girl. The cool girl always has a chance of winning, because she has something beyond looks. As Stevie Nicks once said about her trip through the male-dominated music business, “I never wanted to be too pretty.” At another summer barbecue, I overheard Mark talking with some engineers about whether it was better to date a girl for looks or intelligence. “I dated a model once who was really hot, but my girlfriend is actually smart,” he said, as if they were mutually exclusive categories. “Why can’t a girl be pretty and smart?” I asked him in front of everyone. “Why does it have to be one or the other?” The group went quiet for a second, seeming confused. I knew then that if you had to pick one in order to succeed at Facebook, smart, not hot, was the thing to be.
In one of the last photos Luke took, Mark is gesturing at me haughtily like an emperor as I stand doubled over in laughter with the bear suit draped over me. It was all innocent fun; everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves, but when I saw the photograph appear in a Facebook album on Monday I was struck by the loaded nature of the image, ripe for interpretation, in which Mark appeared to be commanding an employee, female, to submit. If I were his PR person, I thought, I would tell Luke to take it down. Whether to protect the company, or Mark, or myself, I wasn’t sure. In this take-no-prisoners company, where you were either willing to devote your whole young life to it or not, it was starting to be hard to tell the difference. I felt certain that some gossip writer was going to find the photo and post it in an article about Facebook someday. In fact, the photograph appeared in Gawker four years later, with the caption, “This one also might lead the confused and bewildered to conclude that Mark Zuckerberg got drunk in Lake Tahoe and taunted a coworker.” Perhaps more interesting than the fact that the photo was taken and posted on Facebook is that it didn’t occur to anyone in the office that there was anything wrong with it, or that the picture revealed something about the culture of Facebook that it shouldn’t. Mark was too busy programming to get to the part of a liberal arts education where you study social inequality. As he wrote on his business card with boyish hubris, “I’m CEO, bitch.” That image was saying that power wasn’t something to be questioned; it was something to collect and brandish. This—not the anarchist ethos I knew from my punk-rock hacker friends—was Facebook’s new world order.
Katherine Losse, The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network, Free Press 2012.