Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Women Experiencing Homelessness and Survival Sex

This report (link here) by Juliet Watson (Lecturer, Urban Housing and Homelessness, RMIT University) for the Conversation is about Melbourne women experiencing homelessness and the gendered violence they experience. In relation to sex-for-rent situations, Watson uses the term “survival sex” in her article, a description that might be new to some; let’s break it down.

"Lack of money, welfare support and social capital meant, for some, their only resource was to exchange sex for somewhere to stay." (link here)

Survival sex is a term used to describe a person engaging in/trading sexual acts out of desperate need. To be clear: this is not sex trafficking, but to push it under the sex work umbrella obscures the dynamics underpinning it. I believe it is its own category. While sex for survival is a choice a person, usually women, makes, it is not chosen for empowerment. Sometimes people have limited options, and this can make those people vulnerable to exploitation.

From the outside, in the view of sex-for-rent situations, it can be difficult to draw a clean line between exploitation and a mutually beneficial agreement between two parties as there was a choice and agreement made, and the parties are consenting. 

I’ll use an example where the boundaries might be clearer: There’s evidence that U.S. Amazon warehousing workers, with their intolerable working conditions, including fractured feet from walking miles on a concrete floor (link here), are being exploited.

As the employee chooses to work at Amazon, we could assume this choice was made in a good environment, and therefore the choice is the best situation for all parties. But to do so, we have to ignore that for some people there are additional variables that have secretly powered that choice.

Maybe they can’t get another job for whatever reason, or 12.50 USD an hour is the best they can make in their area and they need that job to make ends meet. Amazon in turn understands the limited options feeding the choices of their employees, and doesn't treat them well or with respect, because Amazon knows the employees can't/won’t leave or, if they did, they are easily replaceable. This is a form of exploitation.

This situation doesn't mean we should blame the worker for not leaving, it’s not a "well you made your bed so you should lie in it" situation, we need to support the worker and turn a critical eye to the institution that allows this exploitation to take place and try to enforce changes there.

Women experiencing homelessness have few options, and they are vulnerable to exploitation for the following reasons.

"Women experiencing long-term … homelessness are most likely to have a range of complex issues such as histories of sexual abuse and/or domestic violence, problematic drug and alcohol use and mental ill-health." (link to document here ) - Quote from 2009 report Somewhere Safe to Call Home: Violence against women during homelessness by Dr Sueellen Murray)

Also from Dr Murray's report: men’s violence against women was the most common source of violence when they were living in homelessness services, especially mixed sex operations. (My emphasis)

This is an important piece of the puzzle, because if women are intimidated or assaulted in homelessness services, they are less likely to go to them. I know this seems obvious, but in discussing the research I’d done for this piece I was asked: "why don’t they go to a (homelessness service)?"

Bronwyn…: I first experienced homelessness when I was 13. I left home because of an abuse situation and I stayed on the streets for about two weeks before DHS picked me up … It was really rough because I was only a kid. I got bashed up a lot and then they put me into a lot of kids’ shelters and I got also bashed up there too. Then they put me in adult shelters as well and the sleazy men tried to take advantage and stuff.”

Women tend not to go places they are unsafe.

"Sexual violence and intimidation were common experiences for this group of women. Anita described several experiences of sexual assault in homelessness services. As a young woman she had spent some time in a youth refuge and a neighbour of the refuge had sexually assaulted her. Later, staying in a mixed-gender crisis accommodation service, she was raped by a co-resident." - Quote from 2009 report Somewhere Safe to Call Home: Violence against women during homelessness by Dr Sueellen Murray

And sleeping rough is also dangerous:

Young teenager ZoĆ« had a frightening experience while sleeping rough: I was sitting in a corner [in a bus shelter] and he was standing over me like this and because I wouldn’t kiss him he abused me, he punched me on the top of my head and that was quite scary. And I guess that’s what sort of veered me away from the streets … even to this day I’d be too scared to go and curl up on a seat because I’m too scared someone’s going to come and you know ...

These examples, in women’s own words, can help illustrate the environment in which they live. Limited options to escape violence, sexual or otherwise, often leaves women with limited choice.

When we analyse sex for rent situations, we can use this lens if appropriate.

This is an example of an advertisement that was up on Craigslist.

It’s much easier to consider these agreements as mutually beneficial, without applying the lens of exploitation. But, to me, this is what feminism is for. Feminism is an analysis tool. I sometimes see feminism as the questions no one else wants to ask.

Sex for rent situations haven’t only cropped up in Australia. London, enduring years of austerity measures which hit women the hardest (link here), is rife with landlords asking for sex for rent (link here).

The landlords see this as a business transaction. And while some women may find this arrangement fine, more power to them, I am really writing this piece to boost the voices of women devastated by this.

The bad part about being homeless is that people think they can take advantage of you because you’re going to do anything ’cause you’re homeless. Especially guys think, ‘Yeah, she’s out there on the streets, she’ll fuck me, she’ll do me.‘ The way they think [of you] – as just a piece of meat. – from an interview with Hayley, from Juliet Watson’s book Youth Homelessness and Survival Sex.

These sorts of potentially exploitative situations are a cause for concern, if we understand that women earn less than men in Australia, and domestic violence (which affects more women) is one of the leading causes of homeless conditions. Homelessness among 19-24 year olds is up 117% this year in NSW.(link here). This is unsurprising as we have an incredibly high cost of housing. 

And I want to reinforce that you can support women who have to make these choices less than willingly, without supporting the institutional failures that led to those choices being made. Just as we can support Amazon workers who choose to work at Amazon, without supporting their exploitation.

By: Tee Linden

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Strong Women Roles and Girlhood in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

This week, I want to talk about feminism in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009). Not to be confused with Fullmetal Alchemist (2003). After a grueling two months, and a roller coaster of emotions, I finally finished both TV series. Although I did enjoy the first series, I fell madly in love with Brotherhood. I know I’m a bit late to the game, as I only recently got into anime. But Brotherhood still contains important messages today. In fact, I found a lot of the political messages applied even more to a 2018 context. Brotherhood has certainly aged well, a fete not many TV series can pull off well. A quick google search will tell even the most novice of anime fans Brotherhood is one of the best known and most loved anime series to date. And for good reason. If you haven’t heard of it or watched it yet, I highly recommend it. The world is so well defined and every character (there are a lot of them) is unique and relatable. For an added bonus, the author of the manga series, which Brotherhood follows, is a woman. Across her works, Hiromu Arakawa works to tackle and dismantle various forms of oppression. There’s plenty to talk about it in terms of critical race studies, disability studies and more in Brotherhood. For an interesting breakdown of how all of these topics converge in the series, check out Caitlin Donovan’s piece on MarySue (link here). My focus today is on the women of Brotherhood, and how the series subverts common yet damaging feminine tropes in the portrayals of its female characters.

I’m not sure I would go so far as to label Brotherhood a feminist TV show. By that I mean, I don’t think feminism is a purposeful part of its story arc. That’s not to say feminists or feminisms can’t claim some of the moments or characters in this series in productive ways. Rather, Brotherhood functions in a different way, culturally, than say, Jessica Jones. It is not responding directly to the feminist contexts of its time. The author of the Fullmetal Feminist Wordpress site sums it up nicely when they write, “Not every depiction is what I would call perfectly feminist, but the wide range and type of people who happen to be women is definitely feminist-friendly” (link here). Feminist friendly is an apt phrase to use for Brotherhood. There are plenty of flawed parts of the series. For instance, the main female characters are all mainstream attractive. And, while I appreciate the variety of women characters in the show, it would have been nice to see them interact with one another more and for longer periods of time. Still, as one critic puts it, “FMA is chock full of excellent and badass ladies from every walk of life, who exemplify that there is no single right way to be an awesome lady” (link here). The sheer breadth of female representation in Brotherhood is a breath of fresh air, especially in comparison to most other anime shows. I’m personally grateful for all the female characters in Brotherhood, the ways I was able to relate to them and the barriers they are surely breaking down in the anime scene.

My analysis of Brotherhood is tinted by my Western background and the fact I watched the show in its English dub. I’ve not seen the movies or read the manga. I haven’t watched much anime or read much manga at all, and thus don’t have a lot with which to compare Brotherhood. A lot of context must certainly have slipped through the cracks for me, then. If you’re interested in reading more in depth commentary on the women of Brotherhood, there are plenty of resources on the web. Generally, Winry Rockbell and Riza Hawkeye are the most commonly analyzed through a feminist lens. Izumi Curtis, a.k.a Teacher, and General Olivier Mira Armstrong also garner their fair share of feminist fan articles. You can read some background on them here: link 1, link 2, link 3. I loved all four of these strong female characters. However, I wanted to spend some time thinking and talking about an often overlooked character in the show: Mei Chang. Mei is technically a secondary character, though she plays a central role to the plot. In general, Brotherhood does such a great job with its secondary characters the very definition of “main character” comes into question. Mei is just one example. She is a twelve-year-old princess from the eastern country of Xing who crossed a notoriously dangerous desert in search of a Philosophers Stone to save her people. Mei enters the series as a side character, but quickly becomes central to the plot.  Towards the end of the series she has almost as much screen time as the Elric Brothers.

One of the biggest strengths of Brotherhood, for me, was its treatment of Mei. Mei is portrayed as a relatable character, with realistic background and motivations. At the end of the day, she looks and acts like a young girl – without ever having to apologize for it. Many films and TV series struggle with the depiction of young girls, either infantilizing them or forcing them to behave as maturely as their older counterparts. Mei falls into neither of these harmful traps. She is a brave fighter and extremely knowledgeable about her culture’s ancient form of alchemy (alkahestory). She is tough as nails and doesn’t take crap from anyone – even the characters from which other characters back down. At the same time, Mei is caring and emotional at times. She also enjoys a lot of stereotypically “girly” things. She wears pink, has an adorable pet she fawns over and crushes obsessively over first Edward, then Alphonse. These “girly” traits are all a part of Mei’s character, but they don’t define her. On this topic, Erin E. Rand states, “The show doesn’t demean her for this. It embraces the fact that cute fuzzy pandas and getting psyched about talking to a boy that you like are parts of adolescence” (link here). To clarify, these things clearly aren’t a part of everyone’s adolescence, or even every girl’s adolescence. Still, Mei’s character reclaims many of the negative stereotypes associated with young girls and repurposes them to create a portrayal of a compelling and multifaceted individual. For this reason, among many others, Mei stands out as one of the strongest feminist characters of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. 

By: Brittany L. 

Would you like to read more of this type of pop culture analysis? Check out our Tumblr for more of Brittany (and other writers!) as they discuss films, series and more.

https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=bgsu1395617137&disposition=inline (someone wrote an entire thesis on this topic and I think that’s amazing).

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