opinion

Interview with Greg Kahn: Documentary Photographer by Safia Southey

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Greg Kahn (b. 1981) is an American documentary fine art photographer. Kahn grew up in a small coastal town in Rhode Island, and attended The George Washington University in Washington D.C. In August of 2012, Kahn co-founded GRAIN Images with his wife Lexey, and colleague Tristan Spinski. 

How much of your work is on assignment, compared to individual projects?

If I was wealthy I wouldn’t be taking assignments, I would just be doing the things I wanted to do. There are passion projects, and then assignment work, and assignment work is how I make my money. It’s not always editorial, it’s anything – it could be a commercial job, three days in a studio doing portraiture for a commercial client, or even the New York Times saying, “Hey here’s the story, can you take pictures of this?” I will take anything as long as it matches creatively with what I want to do. I haven’t been tested on this but I don’t think I would take things that didn’t fit into my moral code, I just wouldn’t feel right about it. That’s where money comes into play. If Coca-Cola wanted me to shoot an ad campaign, and I’m not really down with Coca-Cola, but an ad campaign would be a good chunk of money. I think we all go through that and question it and talk to each other to ask, “What do you feel about this?”

What originally attracted you to social justice issues such as mass incarceration and the forecloses crisis in Florida?

I was in Florida and working for a newspaper, and one of the things that I noticed when working on a story was the recidivism rate that was happening particularly in the area where I was living. I’m a White male, about as privileged as it gets, and I heard in Florida about the recidivism rate of Black males coming in and out of prison. They have no money by the time they get out of prison and are dropped at a bus stop where there are drug dealers waiting saying, “hey do you want to make some money real quick?” It makes sense why the system keeps churning, and I wanted to photograph and tell the story of someone who is trying to stay out of returning prison. I think it worked out really well, I met this wonderful guy with two kids who was trying really hard, and I followed him everywhere. He went to job fairs, he was being the quintessential example of someone making the effort to not go back to prison. And people still found fault, they said, “oh he’s got too big of a TV, he’s clearly not spending his money wisely.” And that just cemented the idea that people don’t generally understand – he has two kids, when he needs to get work done he can turn on TV. We all do it! Why are you criticizing this guy? Building off that, you just keep going deeper into these issues.

Identity for me is everything. I’m fascinated by how we identity ourselves, how we want other people to see us. A lot of the projects end up asking what is the construct that people are using to say this is who I am, this is where I’m from, this is where I want to be. And a lot of that builds off each other.

How do you usually choose your stories, do you go in with research and a clear idea or does it develop with time?

Both, really it can be both. Sometimes I read something and think oh that’s an interesting fact, and research it a bit more, and that turns into a story. Or sometimes there’s an idea and you go into saying oh I want to look at mass incarceration or youth culture. In Cuba, for example, it was actually being there and stumbling across some kids that actually spurred the story. I didn’t read it anywhere and didn’t come up with the concept off hand, it was that I experienced it and thought this was something that wasn’t being shown enough, there is a cultural barrier that people find as mysterious.

Some of the ideas I have for projects aren’t based on any experiences, but on something I’ve read. Reading long term stories are super important because I’ve learned a lot about constructing a narrative from them just because they’re so masterfully done. Places like the New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine do such an amazing job of telling long form stories that it helps me as a photographer as I’ve learned about storytelling through them. The combination of that and actual experience is key.

Do you find there to be big differences between your work within the US compared to your international work?

Logistically yes, and it’s culturally different in some ways. But fundamentally we’re the same, we want the same things, we strive, we’re influenced by the same culture. I think that it’s something that if you invest the time and effort into it, you can accomplish telling that story anywhere.

Why did you decide to pursue photography in the first place?

I got into photography when I was in high school, and I got a week-long scholarship which meant missing school so i was all in. I went to California for a week to study with National Geographic photographer, mostly on the nature side. We went to the San Diego Zoo and photographed animals and they gave us tips and tricks on how to do, and then after that I was so hooked, that was it. I went to college and George Washington University and studies photography there, it was a little more artistic. when I got out, I was like, how do I get to Nat Geo? How do I end up there? I didn’t even start in photography at that point because i needed to pay bills, so I was a webs designer. And I hated being in the office, I hated it! And I saw a magazine article about workshops, and thought cool, why don’t I do that? I signed up and it kicked my ass, and it made me a 10-times better photographer in one week. After that I found a newspaper job, then another newspaper job, and after that I decided to go freelance. National Geographic does such a great job with telling stories with their captivating narratives, and it doesn’t matter if it’s domestic or abroad, the way that they tell stories is the best I feel is out there.

You’ve worked for several different news agencies such as the New York Times, the Atlantic, National Geographic; what’s been your favorite?

I like interesting stories and they come from all over. The first place I’m typically pitching is National Geographic because my stories align with them best, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only place I would want to see work. I’ve got a list of dream clients, but the funny thing is that you never know when a great assignment is going to come along and where it’s going to come from. It can come from a publication that not a lot of people know about, it doesn’t have to be the most famous publication, it’s just a matter of what the story is. The first thing I did for the Atlantic was a wild story about teen sexting, which is a difficult assignment, but it gave me a window into doing something that wasn’t visually set up on a platter for you. And then they came back and said here’s mass incarceration; they always come up interesting stories. The Washingtonian is a regional publication mostly for people in DC, but every assignment I’ve done for them has been so much fun. You never know where you’re going to get good assignments.

How do you see photography as a medium changing?

Photography is in weird place right not because the barrier to entry is so much lower now than it has been, which is good because it allows everyone has something to say to visually tell their story. However, there is a sense the images are losing value, which is tough because you want images to say something and for people to see them and say this is one-of-a-kind and important, and when you flood the market with too much imagery there is too much supply and not enough demand and you end up making images possess less value overall. There is a give and take with what’s happening. I do know that photography is an important medium using and will continue to be, but where it goes I’m not sure.

You’re seeing big magazines hire photographers based on Instagram. It’s different landscape than just a couple years ago, as a photographer you need to stay light on your feet and be able to get into whatever is the next trend.

I love it, but on the business side of things it’s terrifying because you don’t know, as a freelancer, when the next time your phone is going to ring or the next time someone is going to send you an email. I’ve gone two months without getting a single email or phone call and just been like “Is that it, am I done? I guess now I’ll drive for Uber or Lyft.” You never know! But I guess the idea is that over time you just learn to have faith that with hard work and being persistent in the work you’re doing that you will eventually get another call, another email, and that it will keep you afloat. Freelance is really high-highs and really low-lows, and sometimes you get a dream assignment and then there’s nothing. You need to plan and save because you never can predict what will follow.

What are some of the ethical concerns you have when navigation others’ hardships?

There are a lot of photographers having a hard look at the industry itself, especially the exoticization of other cultures. It’s a very real thing, and something that I’m very conscious of when I travel, because I never want someone to look at the pictures and feel like it’s just another white male colonial viewpoint. I really want to change the way that I photograph so that the images say something and don’t fall into a stereotype. I’m very cognizant that I don’t go down that road.

You don’t want to get into photographing things like homeless people who stick out on the street with the mindset of “oh that’s not normal.” There are a lot of easy traps to fall into, but it’s necessary to question yourself and what the intentions are and why. When I worked with a newspaper before, I learned my legal rights that I could photograph anyone in public without their consent. And while I still work within this frame now, I consider it slightly differently. If it’s something that requires a genuine moment I usually won’t say anything, but if I’m doing something where I tend to collaborate more with the person I’m photographing, making it more of a portrait than just a fly on the wall, I like to talk to them and ask how this represents them. I take total input from the person I’m photographing so that it makes a better image, and so that it makes more sense. They know I’m there, there is hardly any a situation where someone doesn’t know a photographer is taking their picture so it’s silly to me that photographers try to pretend that they’re a fly on a wall. Personally, I can’t just take photos of people because it just feels like taking, it feeds into that colonial, conqueror kind of view.

This project I recently did in Columbia, I photographed people who were basically homeless, refugees from Venezuela living on the street. I didn’t want them to not have their dignity, I want to capture them being proud of who they are and didn’t want to show them as just homeless and poor in a foreign country. They all had past lives, and I want to show them as human beings with a sense of self-worth.

Just over a year ago these kinds of conversations were not being had at all, and I think the photography community is going through a very painful yet necessary process to correct these things that have existed for a long time. And it’s sad because a lot of the idols that we looked up to are part of the problem, but I think it’s okay to understand someone’s work and know it differently, and compartmentalize these things so that it doesn’t ruin the body of work. But when you understand the person who made it and you think about the work in today’s context it changes, and that’s important.

People take photos of the stereotypical moments and colorful outfits, and those do exist, but they aren’t the full story. The stories I want to tell exist outside of the narrow focuses that have existed for so long.

What is your opinion on photojournalism?

I’m starting to have a problem with photojournalism for nothing else than the moral authority that photojournalists claim in saying that their work is the purest form of photography. I was one of the carriers of the photojournalism banner for a long time, and upon going freelance started developing other forms of photography, I realized that just because a photo doesn’t hold to the ethical standards that photojournalism has placed on it doesn’t mean that it’s not telling a non-fiction story. For example, Daniella Zalcman has this story Signs of Your Identity for First Nation People and the schools they were placed into to indoctrinate them into Canadian or US culture. She’s gone all over the world documenting these people who were placed into colonial schools to wipe out their identity, and it’s without a doubt some of the most important work that’s been done in the recent years. Her photographs are a portrait combined with a landscape so that they make a double image, which is just breathtaking, just gorgeous stuff. It would be called a photo illustration in the photojournalism world, but it tells the most effective story about what is happening – so why are we dismissing it? Photojournalism says that it’s unethical, but is it? The goal is to inform people and to have them care, and to make a difference. If that story is accomplishing it, I don’t care how you do it. It’s non-fiction, she’s not making anything up, she’s not taking something that doesn’t exist or photoshopping things in. Photojournalism creates such a narrow structure for photography exists, that anything that falls outside of it gets called fake and phony and manipulative.

So that’s where I find a problem with photojournalism, as the people who carrier it’s banner have become even more hardline. Even when it comes to toning, they say oh that’s toned too much, but what would you say about black-and-white photos then? And if you go to someone’s house to take photos, they’re going to clean up before you get there. Nothing is completely pure. This notion that photojournalists never effect the scene, don’t even move water bottles, so what? How would that impact the story? Why does that matter? And I think that’s what photojournalism isn’t doing, it’s not changing why the rest of the world evolves. There are so many amazing projects that would never fit into the narrow vision of photojournalism, but told stories that made people more engaged and more aware than photojournalism can do with its restrictions. I love what photojournalism is meant to do, but I hate how it’s become so strict that it doesn’t allow for true story telling in a non-fiction way that is effective. It’s cutting off its nose to spite its face, as it won’t be able to expand its idea of its own genre.

And who are your favorite photographers right now?

I’d put Carolyn Drake at the top of the list, and Alec Soth for sure. There’s this fashion photographer I’m really into right now, Erik Madigan Heck.

What advice do you have for young photographers trying to break into the industry?

I would just have to say follow your passion. One of my pet peeves is unsolicited advice, because I honestly don’t know myself. I’m publishing my first book now with my Cuba work, and it’s been a lot of fun, but it’s also a learning experience and sinking into a lot of money into something makes you question if you should have done it. I’m still making mistakes all the time, so all I can say is that if it’s something you really want to do, then do it.  And don’t be afraid to continue with it and when you come up against challenges have faith that you’ll get through it and keep developing into the photographer you want to be. Many people believe that you get to this stage where you just are who you are, but I’m still pushing myself to get better and think differently and come up with better ideas. Myself and my collective that I’m a part of were just in the South of France and pushing each other to get better at our craft, and that’s a long-life journey. You look at someone like Alec Soth, and his book on Mississippi, he defined an entire generation of photographers. And since then he’s continued to develop his style, he’s evolved again and again and again and every time he’s mastered whatever he set out to do. I look at him as someone who a lot of people can look up to because he constantly finds new ways of photographing someone where he doesn’t get stale, and his ability to tell stories evolve.

Is it really helping? by Safia Southey

We attend a school for politically minded students, for those who possess an insatiable curiosity regarding the world and all its complex intricacies. Adorned with our elitist education and politically and culturally-astute sensitivities, we are driven by a desire to go out and do good in the world, help underprivileged and disenfranchised communities.

This gets complicated very quickly. While most of us are highly critical of US interventionist policies, we can be hypocritical in this regard ourselves, embarking on a journey to provide disadvantaged groups with what we feel will help them most. Take TOMS shoes for example - while they dedicated their entire mission to giving children in Africa shoes, this really wasn’t necessary and had no real impact on the community; the money could have been spent in much more effective ways (Buying TOMS shoes is a terrible way to help poor people).

That’s not to say all smaller NGOs are useless, and that the ones focused on more individual-scale issues should be completely disregarded - as the cliche goes, helping one person might not change the whole world, but it could change the world for one person. This being said, it is important to see what impact is really being made. New Western NGOs pop-up every day with identical mission statements, created by idealistic youth who believe that they know best, when in reality the money that is used to establish new programs in low-income countries could be so much more useful if given to already developed organizations with the proper connections and infrastructure to actually make a substantial difference. Of course innovation is important, but for the most part these organizations don’t truly hold any unique qualities.

Somebody once told me that it is necessary to consider when starting a new job or traveling to a new place under the guise of humanitarian work, are you doing more for the community, or is the experience doing more for you? There is a thin line between traveling to gain experience and using the information to learn in a useful manner (if there is one), and taking advantage of a place. “White savior complex” is a common phrase, but I believe that the definition should be more broad than some Westerner who visits war-torn communities, volunteers in unsustainable ways, and takes selfies with POC where the visitor is still the center of attention. Many NGOs are guilty of this same syndrome, never asking what the communities actually need and instead imposing their preconceived notions of good onto them.

What is truly beneficial is a complex network of intersecting trajectories. Some may consider that simply learning about the world and sharing these experiences is enough, however it is necessary to weigh out the positives and negatives of entry (particularly considering the profound carbon footprint, whether the money you spent on flights could have been spent on actually making an impact, etc.). The money spent on voluntourism and mission trips, (which are often unsustainable, succeed primarily in making the attendees feel good about themselves), could be used towards actually making a difference.

Sometimes international studies can be orientalist in themselves, and oftentimes people romanticize other parts of the world and try to help in a way that can do much more harm than good (The Exploitative Selfishness of Volunteering Abroad). Despite this, I believe that intent and application of these studies are instrumental in establishing if someone is taking advantage of others’ difficult situations for their own good, whether that be for their career, personal imagine, or sense of morality.

There is no easy answer to these considerations, it is just necessary to maintain a sense of self-awareness and to constantly be re-evaluating your intentions. This is something I am trying to navigate myself, and honestly don’t have many answers. Still, I try my best to keep a critical eye and to practice effective altruism, and encourage others to do the same.

Why I Will Never Go On Birthright by Safia Southey

Propaganda is not necessarily a monologue that intends to incite reflection. but rather works to produce echoes. Now, W.H Auden may not have been talking about Israel and their underhanded tactics, but his understanding of propaganda can definitely be applied to describe and explain birthright.

‘Taglit-Birthright Israel’ or simply 'Birthright' is a well-known Jewish heritage experience that many young Jewish people take part in. In its description, it sounds like a fantastic cultural experience that is packed with authentic cultural and historical experiences - and it's free! Unsurprisingly, this has led to me being asked the same question an umpteen number of times: "Why haven't you gone on Birthright yet Safia?” I continuously toss this question aside, having no intention of getting into an intense political conversation with family members and acquaintances who mean no harm - but then despite my efforts, I am bombarded with the same old slew of comments, "You really must go!” or  “It’s an unforgettable experience, you’ll just fall in love with Israel!”

But now, down the rabbit hole we go after all - once and for all I’d like to explain why I have never, and will never will, go on Birthright - even if it's free.

Taking into account the dozens of accounts of the trip, I can begin to piece together a slightly precise idea of the overall experience one receives from the trip; Sarah Rosenblatt, a popular illustrator, affirms that “The Zionist indoctrination I experienced on the trip was far more insidious and violent than I had expected.”

Escorted by IDF soldiers at most times, Birthright trips are meticulously designed to present a comprehensive flawless (and highly fictitious version) of Israel, ostracizing and obscuring any possible traces of Palestinian life. These trips, quite clearly,  are devised to establish cultural and political support for Israelis (which sheds light on why American Jews and the US, in general, are such avid champions of Israel); it doesn't end there though, the trip tries to obstruct the consequences of the country’s highly problematic policies that include but are not limited to:

  1. Israeli occupation of Palestine,
  2. an abundance of apartheid laws that actively discriminate against Palestinians in daily life,
  3. and the denial of rights to Palestinian refugees to return home.

I had a hearty laugh when I heard about various instances of tour groups visiting Palestinians schools - these school visits are intended to show young and impressionable Jews that YES! Arabs are in fact people too, and Israeli Jews and Arabs live in harmony and eat hummus and couscous together!

Ok, maybe I am being cynical, but what about the other elements of the trips? Another itinerary event involves quickly driving through Gaza with the sole purpose of saying, “look, no genocides here!” - the propaganda and manipulation are almost poetic at this point.

However, quite recently, Taglit-Birthright Israel’s education department made an announcement stating that all trips must cease any interactions with Israeli Arabs or Palestinians in their program. Brilliant! that was the authenticity that was missing from this propaganda trip - an established rule that now prevented contact with any non-Jewish state citizens. This is truly indicative of the problems with Birthright as Arab Israelis make up 21.6% of the population of Israel; they are a crucial part of Israeli culture and history. How can one truly learn about Israel, when they can't even interact with almost a quarter of its citizens? The idea that a proper dialogue was present before was quite ridiculous, but the lack of any remotely different perspective is frightening, especially for a 'heritage' trip. Tunnel vision is damaging,  multiple perspectives add multiple dimensions to any dialogue, thus neglecting and censoring them would be detrimental to actual growth or discovery - ironically defeating the purpose of Birthright trips.

To explain the depth of the consequences of birthright, bear with me as I share a bit of history and Palestinian perspective; during the 1948 Nakba, Palestinians were driven from their homes in the dozens, never to return. Many of them kept the key to their houses with them when they left and passed them down over several generations with the hopes that one day they would be able to return - not only can they never sleep in their own beds, they can never visit their own homeland of Jerusalem, the holiest place for most Palestinians. Now, in the status quo, take a moment and consider the 18-year-old American with a vaguely Jewish background, possibly not even Bat Mitzvahed, who is able to embark on an all-inclusive ten-day trip to Israel with every experience meticulously planned and censored.

Yes, I do agree, it’s a great opportunity for a free trip, but the pretense and political implications behind it are glaring. How can we ever expect to see anything but support from the young impressionable adults that only ever see such a one-dimensional view of their supposed 'homeland'? Furthermore, not only are these non-Israeli Jews given a chance to visit Israel, but they are also given the right to settle in Israel (with automatic citizenship) according to the 1950 Law Of Return. All these privileges while the while the people who built their homes and started families on those same grounds are locked behind guarded walls. It is well known that one of the primary goals of Birthright is to persuade young Jews to one day take advantage of the Law of Return and move to Israel. The intention is distinctly obvious, they are working towards ensuring that  the majority in Israel always remains Jewish, despite the presence of 1.8 million Arab Israeli citizens. The Israeli government is safeguarding the political power of Jewish people by maintaining this majority and thus will continue to build settlements and further assert their dominance over Israel and its surrounding territories, and subsequently the people who lived there before.

As Jewish Voice for Peace aptly explains, “It is fundamentally unjust that Israel’s Law of Return extends a ‘right to return’ to any Jew around the world, regardless of their personal familial ties to Israel, while denying the right to return to Palestinians, whose families have lived there for centuries.” If you cannot see the fundamental flaw with this ideology and legislation, than no amount of information or statistics will change your mind about why Birthright is a fundamentally bad idea, and why Israel is an oppressor.

Many a time, during these discussions, I am told that I am not allow to have an opinion on something or somewhere without seeing or experiencing it myself - this argument is absolutely incredulous and flawed. Will you discount a man’s activism and active involvement fighting patriarchy because he hasn’t experienced it? Is it inherently logical to shun perspectives and opinions of non U.S Citizens on Donald Trump? If you support this rhetoric of ‘No experience, no opinion’, all you’re doing is suggesting that it’s wrong for anyone who is not North Korean to comment on the country’s dire state and Kim Jong-Un’s tyrannical rule and policies.   

As someone who is majoring in Middle Eastern geopolitics, worked extensively in the region regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and interviewed people on both sides of the issue, I feel that I have as much of a right to an opinion as that of an American Jew who attended a 10-day  government-funded trip to Israel after graduating high- school.

Some of you have told me that taking part in Birthright is completely fine as long as you go in with a critical mind and ask the right questions - here’s the problem,  by doing that, all you accomplish is perpetuating an inherently corrupt system. In my opinion, refusing to go on Birthright is confronting privilege head-on, a privilege constructed on dispossession and injustice. If not from here, hear it from the educated activists at Jewish Voice For Peace who say, “Whether or not a Birthright participant has intentions to be critical on the trip, or to protest a settlement or join an anti-occupation collective after their trip, their participation in the program reinforces the interests of the state and right-wing organizations that shape Birthright programming.”


Here is some extra reading for those who are interested!

https://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/returnthebirthright-faq/
https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-law-of-return/
http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2014/07/max_steinberg_death_howbirthright_convinces_american_jews_to_embrace_israel.html
https://medium.com/the-establishment/racism-and-religious-hypocrisy-on-my-birthright-trip-to-israel-659ec1a1550a
https://forward.com/scribe/384016/why-i-refuse-to-go-on-birthright-and-you-should-too/
https://truthout.org/art/birthright-is-wrong/

Sex, Harassment, and Aziz Ansari by Safia Southey

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The current question of Aziz Ansari is an extremely polarizing topic; everyone seems to have an opinion. For those who are not familiar: Aziz Ansari went on a date with an anonymous girl, henceforth referred to as Grace. After dinner, they went back to his house where, according to her, he pressured her into sexual behavior that she did not feel comfortable with, which she fought back against with both verbal and non-verbal cues. Several months later she talked to a reporter from babe.net where the story was released, which resulted in a controversial debate across the internet.

To start, let’s speak about the journalistic integrity of the piece. While these types of articles afford women sexual liberty in being able to include this in discourse, when dealing with matters of sexual abuse or violence, this is not the best place for this kind of piece – on the same page as this call-out for feminist action, you can find a list of how to give the best blowjobs. Further, the author was extremely inexperienced, and only provided Ansari with less than six hours to respond with a comment, on a Saturday during awards season and the holidays, when the industry standard is 24 hours to respond. The article purposefully depicts Ansari in a very negative light, without a sense of neutrality on the subject, offering her own input every so often.

The journalistic standards and the platform in particular are an issue, especially the way the author chose to sensationalize the issue and cash in on this larger cultural #MeToo moment. But the fact remains that there exists a whole ethos where guys both “don’t have to pick up on non-verbal cues”, but can also be incapable of picking up on them – as they have no cognizance of such a vocabulary due their own social programming. The present imbalances in gender power dynamics cut both ways – in a best-case scenario, males are not equipped with the skills because they are not expected to develop them. That’s the status quo, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the way things should be. If anything, it’s about changing the conversation around expectations and behaviors during intercourse. Consent isn’t just about a hard yes or no (although Grace explicitly said no to Ansari), especially considering the power dynamics in these situations. This idea isn’t even remotely new to feminist and sexual health literature, and popular culture, as was pointed out by one of the many NYT articles on the subject.

The content of the article has deeply divided feminists and the current #MeToo and TimesUp movements focusing on sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and consent in general. The question was posed: what constitutes sexual abuse? What is sexual harassment? At what point are our uncomfortable experiences just “bad sex?”

I personally believe that the situation can be classified as sexual harassment, although I also see how it can be considered otherwise as just “bad sex”. Sexual assault is defined by the Department of Justice as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient,”. However the term ‘abuse’ is more typically used when more physical violence is constituted. We need to use this term carefully and critically, if we start using it for less extreme situations, we will desensitize the term and dilute its importance. This also crosses into legal implications, because sexual harassment and physical abuse have different consequences. While some may argue that this situation does not constitute sexual harassment due to it crossing from implications to actions, harassment does not necessarily need to be verbal – physical coercion can be included under this definition as well. If nothing else, Ansari’s actions were gross, offensive, and left someone feeling violated. We should all be able to agree on that.

One debate that has sprung up in the aftermath of the article is one regarding what constitutes “bad sex,” as it means different things to everyone, especially between men and women. Most typically, men consider “bad sex” to be sex that is unsatisfactory, short, non-adventurous, etc. Studies show that with women the same complaints still exist, but the more common response is description of painful, forceful, or manipulative sex; they have become so used to this kind of behavior that they simply categorize it as an unfortunate, yet normal part of life.

They also aren’t mutually exclusive experiences – sexual assault is always ‘bad sex’ whereas ‘bad sex’ is not necessarily always sexual assault

There are many shades of grey regarding consent and sexual misconduct, which is partially why this topic is so controversial and difficult to talk about. Sexual assault and “bad sex” are not the only binary options, there are many intricate aspects to this and everyone may categorize such situations in different ways according to their own experiences (they also aren’t mutually exclusive experiences – sexual assault is always ‘bad sex’ whereas ‘bad sex’ is not necessarily always sexual assault). The concept of this account “trivializing” other women’s experiences makes me uncomfortable; while this interaction between Ansari and Grace was not as extreme as other forms of sexual harassment or abuse, it should not be simply written off. If we just say, “it could have been worse,” then substantive progress will not be made in this field, and we will continue to permit men to take advantage of women in sexual situations.

However, the lack of a traditional mold of what is considered sexual misconduct doesn’t matter in this situation; what is more important is the perception and safety and overarching themes of men believing themselves inherently deserving of sex and women being conditioned to not only accept this, but suffer at the hands of it.

There are power dynamics inherently present in this situation, not only because Aziz Ansari is a man of some influence in society, but also because he is a man in general. Social programming condition both men and women such that there are certain expectations going into any social or sexual situation. These expectations usually mean there is some discomfort or awkwardness when women are put in positions to refuse men. Couple this with inherent and real fear that women experience and one can see how the power dynamics lend themselves to constrain women’s behaviour, unbeknownst to men involved in these very situations. Although Ansari may have never directly articulated that she had to comply with his sexual desires, women are socialized to believe that they cannot refuse sex without some sort of retaliation. The prioritization of male pleasure over female comfort is something many women have experienced, and most have this in mind when they engage with men. This is, in some ways, a nonverbal cue that women have been forced by these situations to understand and to worry about. Maybe men should take a page out of their book on the subject of nonverbal cues. Cognizance of the cultural power dynamic is important for men so that they reduce this sense of entitlement going into any sexual or romantic relationship. However, to expect these invisible constraints on women’s behaviour as being the impetus of solely the men is exactly the mind-reader concept that these articles refer to. Men should be made aware but it is negative reinforcement to take it far by saying that it is the onus of men to only recognize these nonverbal cues. It takes both men and women to communicate this explicitly using both a cognizance of non-verbal cues but also direct verbal ones.

I do not mean to infantilize the woman in question or say that she did not have agency over her own actions. We cannot blame her or any woman for feeling that she did not have the opportunity to say no or to just leave. While she made various other decisions that day that led her to Ansari’s bed, she did not deserve what happened. No matter what you think about nonverbal versus verbal consent, entering an apartment is not consent. We can discuss and contemplate what happened inside that apartment, but entering it was by no means consent to what happened inside.

While people have criticized responses to the article which attack Ansari’s sexual desires, such as him putting his fingers forcefully in the woman’s mouth, this leaves out the crucial aspect of consent. Of course we should not kink-shame, whatever people choose to do in their own beds is their own business. However, we cannot simply attribute the complaints of Ansari’s actions to it being “strange” to the general public. If the woman did not consent to Ansari’s behavior, aggressive, kinky, or otherwise, she has every right to be uncomfortable.

This debate is a good challenge to the current movement bringing attention to sexual assault and harassment. While some have argued that the babe.net article divides the movement and takes attention away from the larger picture, I believe that we ought to be conscious of all forms of sexual misconduct, from small gestures and unintended coercive tactics to rape and other forms of extreme sexual assault.

We cannot write off these small moments because there are “bigger things to handle.” That being said, the quality of the article does not adequately address the issue at hand. As I have said before, men are often unaware that their actions are hurtful, especially in a context where consent seems to be implied, such as on a date. Ansari has been lauded as a feminist and as someone who stands up against sexual harassment and such issues, which is exactly why this story is so controversial – if a male feminist can also commit sexual assault, who can’t?

Was it Ansari’s responsibility to recognize Grace’s actions and stop pursuing his sexual acts, even though she was not actively saying no? Should men be checking in every so often to ensure that the woman wants to continue? This seems difficult if not impossible to do consistently, and could certainly “ruin the mood.”

According to the original babe.net article, Grace had sent a message to Ansari the day after the incident saying, “I just want to take this moment to make you aware of [your] behavior and how uneasy it made me.” Ansari responded apologetically saying that he misread the situation. While I do not condone his behavior and believe that he acted poorly, I still respect Ansari for apologizing to Grace once he was confronted with his actions and do not believe that his career should be ended because of this incident. Men need to be held accountable for their conduct, but in the situations where they obviously were not aware of how harmful their actions were, it is much more useful to start a conversation and explain why it was inappropriate instead of merely attacking them, and we can start by creating a recognizable vocabulary to arm ourselves as both men and women for what may be perceived as an uncomfortable discourse.

Nonverbal cues are as important as they are confusing: was it Ansari’s responsibility to recognize Grace’s actions and stop pursuing his sexual acts, even though she was not actively saying no? Should men be checking in every so often to ensure that the woman wants to continue? This seems difficult if not impossible to do consistently, and could certainly “ruin the mood.” As many critics of the babe.net article have suggested, men should not be expected to be able to read their partners’ minds in order to achieve consent.

Sex should be enthusiastic, as consent is not simply agreeing to actions being forced on them; if someone is begrudgingly agreeing to participate in sexual acts, they are not truly agreeing. If they only consent after being begged or pressured repeatedly, then perhaps one should stop pushing and realize their partner does not want it.

Ansari should have stopped once he realized Grace was not enthusiastic, and sex and sexual acts should always be conducted by choice without intense encouragement from the other party. If you have to tell the other person to go down on them or forcefully move their hand such as Ansari moved Grace’s hand towards his penis, and if the other person resists with comments such as “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill,” as Grace said to Ansari, then perhaps it is not consensual. There needs to be mutual understanding of the situation with equal participation, or else it is not just “bad sex,” it is harassment.

While the journalistic integrity of the article is questionable to say the least, that doesn’t change what the woman’s testimony said. I don’t know about ruining his career – but I definitely will never look at him the same way or consume his material after reading what was written, especially since I personally have had similar experiences. The #MeToo movement isn’t about a witch hunt against men; it’s not about the punitive measure but rather accountability. There’s a subtle difference between the two. Punishing men who have aggrieved women in clear ways surely deserve it. But, it is in this conversation that we realize so many men do not fall in this clear category. Rather they are simply products of their social programming, of cultural expectations of masculine behaviour and sexual behaviour.

Ansari’s humiliation is the humiliation of all men who have in some way perpetuated this culture. To call Ansari’s actions reprehensible is to critique the social programming and the institutions that enable these vacuous spaces to be filled with disgusting behaviour. That’s what we should fight for and in my opinion, what the moderate interpretation of the #MeToo movement is. That is why, babe.net with its sensationalism undercuts the momentum of social reform and progress for feminism. Ansari has just become the scapegoat for a larger paradigm shift – that this social programming is wrong. It is not a personal indictment of Ansari but an indictment of all men (and women) who will continue to act according to this social programming where consent and cues are not considered, evaluated and then acted upon through clear and open communication.

Read the original article here.

Myanmar From a Different Perspective by Safia Southey

In the Western media, the Rohingya crisis seems to be a clear-cut moral issue: the military is conducting ethnic genocide of the Muslims of Rakhine State. The basic narrative regarding the conflict is agreed upon by both sides: Bangladesh Muslims emigrated to Myanmar, settled in Rakhine State, requested citizenship, and began to call themselves Rohingya in an attempt to assert their own ethnicity and achieve political recognition.

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This, however, is where the narrative changes. According to some sources, such as the BBC, terrorist organizations such as a group called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) emerged from these Rakhine Muslims, and frustrated by their lack of representation began to attack the military in an attempt to gain political power. The military, in part due to a general fear of Islam in Southeast Asia, responded with extremely harsh attacks on the Muslim communities. This is a different narrative than what is covered in the West, which is best exemplified by a CNN article explaining who the Rohingya are: “They have been raped, tortured and killed. They have been crowded on boats and ping-ponged between nations that don't want them. They have been forced into labor and have no rights to their land. Rohingya Muslims are among the most persecuted people in the world, and once again, they find themselves running for their lives.” The reports of the conflict from the Myanmar government have been proven to be enormously dishonest, as while the military and government denies their killing and raping of civilians, evidence collected by the UN and other agencies seem to prove otherwise. The government has tried to account for these differences, saying that the Rakhine Muslims were burning down their own houses and villages. As one Bagan local, named Christopher described, “It’s frighteningly similar to George Orwell’s, Animal Farm. Some people may think that something’s true, but nobody really knows if something is true or not.” 

However, speaking to people in the country exposes a much more skeptical perspective. Outside of Rakhine State, educated locals admit that there are attacks going on in the western part of the country, although they maintain these attacks are not as extreme as is often being reported. Christopher explained, “I don’t want to say I can’t believe it, but I can only believe one part. People say that their child was killed, but you would not throw a three-year-old child into a fire for no reason; it’s hard to believe. If you write about it, you need to have something behind it. I don’t want to say I don’t believe it, but people have their doubts.”

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Buddhists in Rakhine State argue a more extreme narrative, claiming that the Rohingya were originally Bengali Muslims brought to the area by the British in order to fight against the Rakhine and to work the rice fields. Now, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have come over the Bangladesh border illegally and are now referring to themselves as Rohingya, while raping and attacking villages in the area. The issue as explained by these locals is not that the groups are simply Muslim, but that they are terrorists demanding citizenship and political rights that the government will not agree to. Some even argue that the military is in fact defending the Rakhine Buddhists, and that though the Rohingya were offered an opportunity to become citizens, they declined, demanding further independence.

The Washington Post recently published an article addressing this local anti-Rohingya mindset, blaming new technology for spreading “fake news” fueling ethnic hatred against the Rakhine Muslims. As the article explains, “an endless stream of provocative photos and cartoons claim that there is no “ethnic cleansing” against Burma’s Muslim Rohingya minority. Instead, according to the posts, international news and human rights organizations are falsely accusing the military of carrying out atrocities against the Rohingya to help terrorists infiltrate the country, kill Buddhists and carve out a separatist Islamic province… A recent study found that 38 percent of Facebook users in Burma got most, if not all, of their news on the site. And news feeds in Burma are rife with anti-Rohingya posts, shared not only by ordinary people but also by senior military officers and the spokesman for Burma’s de facto leader, Aung Sang Suu Kyi.”

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There is truth to both sides of the conflict, and it is extremely important to consider all available information (which is quite limited). Western media definitely has a bias to it, as seen with the constant usage of the term Rohingya, which carries much more significance and meaning to it than is recognized in most sources. As explained by a Myanmar local, “we have eight major ethnic groups and 135 minor ethnic groups in the country… Rohingya Muslims believe that by naming themselves they can create their own ethnic group and their own state as a Muslim territory. That’s not how it works.”

Further, it is necessary to note the differences in why the conflict arose in the first place, as while it definitely seems like a “textbook example of ethnic genocide” in an attempt to rid the area of Muslims, it was also a reaction to small militant groups. Of course, it was an extremely disproportional and extreme reaction on the part of the military, carried out on a much larger scale than the original small group which conducted the original attack(s).

The treatment of the Rohingya is unacceptable, no matter what the context.

I did not write this to excuse the military’s behavior or the mass killings that are being systematically conducted against the Muslim communities in Western Myanmar. However, it is necessary to understand the mindset of the people on the ground, and to analyze ways in which information about the issue is being transmitted; propagating only one version of the narrative and offer a multiperspectival approach to a highly complex and volatile situation.

It is also crucial to consider Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s role in the Rohingya conflict. She has been consistently attacked in Western media for not defending the persecuted Muslim population, however there is uncertainty as to what this would actually achieve. The military has an incredibly strong rule over the country, and her speaking out against their actions may lead to her being removed from power, further hurting the democracy of the nation instead of fixing the humanitarian crisis in any manner. Most locals continue to support her as one of the sole protectors against the military rules, “I always supported Aung Sun Suu Kyi and I still believe in her, and I think she is going to do her best on the crisis. She doesn’t care about the religion, she cares about the country, and she’s going to make the country good. I never liked the military government, and if they take power again for some reason I will try to get out of the country as I don’t want to risk my child if they take power again.” Alleging that while she could be doing more to defend the Rohingya, it is perhaps politically shrewd for her to negotiate with the military behind closed doors. We do not know if she is fact attempting to do so, but it is potentially unfair to write her off already as disrupting the democracy that she previously worked so hard to achieve.

It is also interesting to note the similarities between this conflict and that of Israel-Palestine, with much of the same language being used in regards to an ethnic minority being displaced and systematically killed under the guise of being labeled as terrorists. However, when the West has less reliance on the country being called into question or political and economic care in the matter, it seems we are much quicker to call out genocide and mass murder.

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The Fight Is Not Over by Safia Southey

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Warning: this piece refers and talks about sexual harassment with some detail. Further, I refer to men nearly consistently as the aggressor in this paper and women as the victim, but would like note that this is not always the case, as men can just as easily be and often are the target of sexual assault and harassment (statistics show that 79% of victims are women, 21% are men). As well, most of my statistics solely regard the United States, due to the fact that there has been a great amount of data collected there on this topic.

My mother raised me traveling from the second I was born, running off to Egypt, Greece, Turkey, France, England, Mexico with just a small child and a backpack. I was always so happy when traveling with my mom, constantly receiving free food with strangers acting out of generosity and kindness; but never truly noticed the constant harassment that my mother faced as a white, unmarried American women. She was expected to provide something in exchange for all the hospitality (unwanted attention) from strange men in markets and on the streets and in the places where we stayed, leading us to have to hop from hotel to hotel, escaping the men who would touch her inappropriately during Turkish baths, appear at our door in the middle of the night, talk to her as if she was an item to be purchased. “You are a woman and therefore they believe they have access,” she once explained to me, teaching me that as a woman I will not receive the same opportunities or treatment or safety as men in an identical situation.

When I moved to Jordan after high school, I was warned by my family for my safety, with strict instructions not to walk around at night or talk to strangers, or really any men in general. I barely left my apartment except to go to work for the first month of my trip, out of pure fear. The first time I walked to the office, a three miles journey mostly along the highway, I was met with cars honking at me every ten seconds in attempt to scare me or get my attention, and stares that bore into my skull by every man I passed by. Every time I go traveling alone, I know I have to be careful. I hear stories about people hitchhiking through the countryside in the Caucuses and Western Africa and as much as I want to do that, I know that I will never be able to, at least not by myself. I do not believe that women should stay at home and hide from any potential conflict (I write while traveling through Asia by myself) but I’m also so naïve as to go into small villages where rape is common and women are treated as inferior. This is not about a lack of bravery, it is about safety.

I am lucky. Actually, no I’m not, but the fact that I believe that nothing “too bad” has happened to me yet shows the mindset instilled in women now; that unless you’re brutally raped or murdered, you are essentially lucky. We say that things are improving for women because people are becoming more aware, with Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, the #MeToo movement and the general recent onslaught of prominent men being ousted for their behavior. But the fact that the women who came out against these men are still being called liars and publicity whores, that when I told my friend about sexual harassment statistics he said “but you don’t know how many of those are made up,” and that men still do not understand that they are not owed sex in any context, demonstrates that things are not that much better than before – just better hidden.

Things may be getting better, but that doesn’t mean they are good.

We have become apologists for male behavior, blaming ourselves for putting out the wrong signals, or saying that they just didn’t know that what they were doing was wrong. Me, my mother, and women and general, have become so accustomed to harassment, that we excuse it now as a part of life. Men reaching up my skirt in my apartment elevator in New York, employers inappropriately touching me, older men utilizing unequal power dynamics to create sexual situations, waking up with bruises in somebody’s bed after drinking a little too much, boys holding me down with threats of “telling” if I don’t comply, being fingered while asleep, having boys beg for sexual attention because they believe they deserved it, tongues being stuck down my throat at hostels as I begged “please stop” – and those are just some of my personal experiences, not including any of the horror stories that I have heard from so many friends and family. According to RAINN, there are 321,500 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault on average each year in the United States. One in three women ages 18 to 34 has been sexually harassed at work, and one in six women will experience attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. At this point, when talking to a woman about sexual assault, it’s more surprising to me if they don’t have a similar story to share.

Most of the time, I hear about men using coercive or manipulative tactics for sex, believing that they are owed something, not understanding that this is a form of sexual harassment in itself. In fact, 13.3% of college women indicate that they have been forced to have sex in a dating situation, which is often not immediately thought of as assault. Rather than getting angry with men for actions that they aren’t aware of as harassment or assault, we should instead teach them. Next time somebody shames you or manipulates you or guilts you into sex, explain to them why this is unacceptable. This isn’t easy, and I admit that I don’t usually do this. It’s not easy to tell somebody that you don’t want to have sex, maybe because you don’t want to offend them, or because you think they’ll like you less, or because you don’t think you have a choice in the matter, or because you feel unsafe. But if we do not speak out in these situations then it will continue to happen and the cycle will never cease. Of course it’s not just up to the women; men, please be aware that you are not entitled to sex because you bought us dinner or a drink, or smiled at you affectionately, or touched your arm. And don’t resort to “negging” if rejected; bullying women out of insecurity will not fix anything and instead reinforces the belief that we can’t say no. In many ways, being aware of what you are doing is more difficult, as you may not know necessarily what behavior you are looking for. This is why we need better education systems in regards to sexual conduct. And while I appreciate that at least in the US there have been substantive changes in schools from elementary to college in order to prevent sexual harassment, there is so much more still to be done.

Sexual harassment often stems from gender roles instilled at a societal level, as women are socialized to be submissive in sexual situations. We are taught that we shouldn’t say no, that it’s unattractive to be aggressive or outspoken, and that while women should and can be leaders, they need to maintain their femininity and subservience in order to be successful. If you disagree, look at the 2016 election and the fact that our very own President encourages half the population to just “grab ‘em by the pussy.”

Most men are also taught from birth that they need to be aggressive and take charge, that women like a “bad boy,” and that you’re a “cuck” if you ask for consent. There needs to be a change in how we raise our children in regards to these gender roles, or else nothing will change. In schools, women are still taught not to be overly flirty, or else you will give men the wrong idea, taught that if you dress too provocatively you’re “asking” for assault, and that it’s only strangers to be weary of, when in eight out of ten rape cases the victim knows the perpetrator. A more open dialogue and a change in the language used is necessary or else these issues will continue to arise, no matter how many more men are exposed for sexually inappropriate behavior.

Let’s talk about Woody Allen. The concept of separating men’s sexual behavior from the work they have done or people they are otherwise confuses me; yes, we should not write off everything somebody has accomplished because they groped a woman, or masturbated in front of her, but we need to take it into account when evaluating them as a person. I remember the first time I told my (male) friends about being harassed by a mutual friend, and them defending this behavior by saying, “yeah, but he tells a different story, plus he’s never done anything to me so I still think he’s a great guy.” “He’s just joking around,” “it’s a different culture,” “he just had a little too much to drink,” “he’s not usually like this,” – too often, accounts of assault are met with doubt and defensiveness, justification and oftentimes anger. Women are not prone to telling stories of sexual assault just for the fun of it, for the attention; we know the skepticism with which it will be received. In 2016, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 12,860 receipts of sexual harassment in the workplace, 54.1% of which were dismissed as “no reasonable cause,” meaning that enough proof was not found to prove that discrimination occurred.

The American system of “innocent until proven guilty” can be problematic here, as sexual harassment is on occasion nearly impossible to verify. Even though every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, only 6 out of every 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison. This is exactly why is it so necessary for the mindset to change on this issue; instead of immediately doubting women and attempting to discredit them (such as calling Anita Hill “a little bit slutty and a little bit nutty” after her testimony against Clarence Thomas), we must genuinely attempt to find the truth. This does not entail always believing the accuser, as of course there are outliers, but we need to address the systemic disbelief and accusation that disincentivizes so many women from speaking out.

As Rhe-Anne Tan perfectly explained, “There is a deep complexity in defining a movement that is so personal and so tied to individual hurt – it’s both systemic and also deeply personal, and this prevents people from engaging with the usual detachment that they afford other issues. This is also what makes reconciling different branches all the more difficult, since positions are held so viscerally and strongly. To disagree with someone’s position is almost equated to invalidating their lived experience, their own existence as a female. Whether or not that’s valid is up for debate, but in the interim it’s clear that we need to respond with compassion and openness to change (which is easier said than done), because the temptation is to talk over the experiences of others.”

I had a hesitancy to write this and especially to use personal examples, as there is an inherent fear in not only opening up, but to being called a liar or too aggressive or that I am just looking for attention. The reason I’m writing this is because these are issues that need to be more publicly and openly talked about, and I want people to understand that sexually inappropriate behavior is not limited to just rape, but a whole list of other more subtle and often confusing experiences. Not all men are guilty of sexual harassment, but instead of getting defensive and saying that you’re one of the “good ones,” perhaps looks back at your actions and re-evaluate, and see if “#you too” were ever slightly too pushy, or could have handled a sexual situation with a little more consideration.

In this New Year, reconsider your resolutions. Women need to continue to lead the change for a different power dynamic, but men also need to make an enormous effort to create a different future, one where women do not need to be afraid.