Men, Sex, and the Rhetoric of Need

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A man has needs.

Ask yourself how many times you’ve heard the above statement, or some variation of it? If you’re like me, you’ve heard it so many times that you’ve internalized it, learned to accept it as fact.

Now ask yourself how much bad behavior those four little words have excused? How many cheating partners, rapists, human traffickers, and pedophiles have deployed those very words to justify some unconscionable act? It’s time to remove this statement from our modern parlance because it’s dangerous. Don’t believe me? Let’s break it down to find out why.

First, A man

The indefinite article “a” allows this statement to be applied to any and every man–past, present, and future. And we are, obviously, talking about men. I suppose you could substitute woman for man, i.e. A woman has needs, but that’s not how this statement is commonly used. A woman has needs simply doesn’t have the same power–more on this later. The point is that any man anywhere can pull out this little dictum whenever he needs to rationalize some inappropriate behavior. 

Next, has

The verb “has” serves many functions, but in this sentence it denotes ownership or possession. A man “has” needs in the way my youngest child “has” a cold. The slippery thing about “has,” however, is that the word is often passive, obscuring the subject or actor of a sentence. In this case, we don’t know how the man got his needs. They’re just sort of there. And he’s just sort of there, hanging out. With his needs.

Which brings me to, needs

“Needs” carries the most weight in the sentence, in a few ways. At five letters, it’s the longest word. The sentence is iambic, like a heartbeat–da dum da duma man has needs–which means “needs” is stressed when the sentence is said aloud. Try it. “Needs,” like “has,” is slippery. It can be both a verb and noun, but in this case it is a noun. A need. Need-the-noun is defined as a thing that is necessary or required. Human need is often thought of in connection with survival. So we can understand how the word need is functioning in this statement if we think about other things that a man “needs” to survive, for example: food, water, shelter from predators, healthcare, you know–the essentials. The specific need this statement refers to is sex. So the most obvious question is: Is sex a need?

In barest terms, no, it is not. Is sex necessary for the survival of our species? Sure. Individuals? Absolutely not.

Some people might hate that I’m saying this. After all, when sex is cast as a need, some of the stigma around sex is removed. If you’ve been raised in a culture that is both sex-obsessed and sex-phobic (read: America), removing stigma surrounding sex is a good thing. After all, there’s so much shame associated with sex and that shame can lead to an unhealthy self-loathing, which is bad for us as individuals and as a society.

But there are serious problems with calling sex a need.

First, what happens when you deny someone something they need? If someone is starving, and you have food to spare but don’t give it to them, what kind of person does that make you? Cruel. Heartless. Selfish. Cold. Frigid. If a man wants to have sex with me and I say no, if I believe sex is a human need, I refuse with the understanding that I’m denying him something he needs to survive that is in my power to give. Can you see how I or others might be convinced to have sex with a man, even if we don’t really want to, out of a sense of duty or generosity? That is not a good thing.

Second, “needs” have this slippery way of morphing into “rights.” (So much slippage!) We can see this with the healthcare debate. Politicians are beginning to call healthcare a human right. Nobody should be too poor to go to the doctor, they say. Lives are at stake; therefore, something people need to survive is cast as a right they are entitled to. We can see the same sort of argument in this age-old ethical problem: if a man steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, is it a crime? The law tends to break down in this instance. The implication is that the man shouldn’t be punished for stealing because human life is at stake. Regulations around housing costs are another example. People seem to believe that we have the right to affordable housing because housing–shelter–is a human need. So, can sex morph from a human need into a human right? I think we all know that it can and does (Research “Pick-up artists” or “PUAs” for short). This is really dangerous. It allows people–let’s be real, men–to move through the world believing that they deserve access to others’ bodies for the purpose of sexual gratification, and that the person who denies said access is in the wrong. When a man rapes, which is a crime, are we willing to overlook that crime, much like we are when a man steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, because he needs to have sex? THAT IS A BAD THING.

Where did the idea of sex-as-need come from? I think, and this is just a hypothesis, it’s rooted in our once emergent and rudimentary understanding of the physicality of male sexuality, i.e. that something is produced inside a man that comes out during sex. A primitive conception of physics might have convinced people that because it can come out it must come out, kind of like a vessel that will only hold so much water before it overflows. I mean, can we have a discussion about men and sex and need and not talk about blue balls? Yes, blue balls are real, but no, they will not kill you. This is why I think the statement A woman has needs simply does not have the same power. So much of the physicality of female sexuality is unseen, especially if you don’t know where to look. Ahem. 

All joking aside, the fact is, for whatever reason, we have privileged male sexuality for centuries, probably longer. Sex-as-need is merely one manifestation of this, but it’s a pernicious one.

Recently, Barbara Streisand, yes, that Barbara Streisand, offered this sentiment about Michael Jackson’s molestation of underage boys, “His sexual needs were his sexual needs . . .” She said more, and worse, then walked back her words and apologized after much criticism, but her invocation of “need” here is an effort to shift blame, to justify or excuse an egregious sexual violation of CHILDREN. Michael Jackson’s sexual needs are placed above the minor boys’ actual need for safety. I can’t think of a clearer example which shows how very dangerous A man has needs is, but here are a few more: R. Kelly, Robert Kraft, Jeffry Epstein, Bill Cosby, Bryan Singer, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., The Catholic Church, . . . . Need I go on?

We could eliminate the statement entirely as I suggested before, but I think I’d rather modify it thusly:

A man has needs.

A man has needs.

A man needs.

A man needs consent.

There, much better.

Diversity and the Institution: Questions of Being and Belonging as An International Student

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I had the privilege of hearing Sara Ahmed speak in person for the first time last Thursday. For me, her talk on the complaint as diversity work reinforced the necessity of thinking through the many ways in which the brick wall of the institution can simultaneously appear and disappear for different people depending on their subject positions in relation to the institution. My first encounter with Sara Ahmed’s work was in my Intro to Grad Studies seminar during my first semester at Lehigh. In the introduction to her book, On Being Included, Ahmed talks about the relationship between identities and institutional spaces, “about how some more than others will be more at home in institutions that assume certain bodies as their norm,” and how this sense of belonging (or non-belonging) characterizes and affects diversity work (3). A question that has stuck with me since then is the extent to which my identity as a non-White scholar coheres with the university as an institution, and the complexities of navigating this space as an international student from a postcolonial country.

I am ethnically Chinese, but a Malaysian citizen. I have only been in the U.S. for five years on a student visa, yet I belong in this institutional space as the child of college-educated parents with white collar jobs. This sense of institutional belonging decreases, however, because I am a woman and an ethnic minority. But even as a person of color, my experience “goes with the flow,” to borrow Ahmed’s phrase, in certain ways that differ from other international students for whom English is not their primary language: I don’t speak with a discernible accent and I am comfortable with many aspects of Western culture, having grown up in a cosmopolitan environment. Do these qualities make me more effective as an advocate for racial diversity or do they reinforce institutional “holding patterns?”  

I don’t know that I am offering a solution to this question as much as highlighting the possibilities and limits of diversity work as an institutional project through my experience as an international student—an experience of describing “the world from the point of view for those who do not flow into it” (On Being Included 176). For me, the institutional diversity agenda is limited by the ways we take a racial binary as its primary point of reference and U.S. nationality as a given in most manifestations of institutional diversity projects.

For starters, I was hesitant to use the term “person of color” in reference to myself for the longest time because I had only ever seen it being used to reference Black Americans. I did not see myself reflected in the work on intersectionality and diversity, so I questioned my right to claim the term for myself. In making blackness, and blackness that is tied to a U.S. nationality, the sole referent for diversity, we risk eliding how other ways of “not being” can manifest.

In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed asserts that to “To be in question is to question being” (134).

My name, for example, is a question for some.

“Hi, my name is Cherise.”

“But what is your real name?”

(The assumption: You look Chinese, and Chinese people should have Chinese-sounding names, certainly not English ones)

“Cherise,” I repeat, “it’s on my birth certificate.”

My name becomes a question of existence, my real-ness. The question of my existence haunts my presence, makes me both present and non-present. “Questions can hover around…an arrival. Perhaps we come to expect that murmur…we might come to question ourselves. Do I belong here? Will I be caught out? Do I fit in here? ‘I am becomes ‘am I?’” (Living a Feminist Life 131).

There is another question that plagues me, and that is one of claiming the English language as my own.

Every time I fill out any kind of institutional documentation and there is a question of my native language, the question of “am I?” spirals into a frenzy. I want to check “English,” but feel like a fraud because for all institutional intents and purposes, I am not a citizen of an English-speaking country. And yet, I feel more at home expressing myself in this language than any of the other ones I speak. (British colonialism, goddamnit!)

In many ways, this space is mine and not mine.

I grew up consuming British and American culture. I spent many hours as a child reading Peter and Jane, Nancy Drew, and the Harry Potter series. For years, watching American Idol was a weekly family ritual. My dad is obsessed with the Bee Gees; he sings along to The Beatles’ songs. My mom loves ABBA. Still, I sit in conversations inside and outside class now sometimes not knowing half (or all) of the cultural references to songs, movies, slang, socio-political movements, etc. I understand this kind of “not belonging.” And yet, I can speak the language of the academy in ways many of my international friends cannot. I know that being able to use this language makes a difference when I communicate concerns about diversity as an outsider. I see the looks of relief on the faces of university administrators and government officials when I open my mouth to speak. My American accent mitigates the impact of my physical “foreign-ness.”

What I do not know is whether using this ability translates into benefits for the institution more than the international students themselves. I resisted being put on promotional posters for the international office at my alma mater for this very reason. I refuse to have my story used as evidence of the office’s success in diversity recruitment when I came up against all kinds of walls during my time there. I roll my eyes when professors ask domestic students to interview international students for a “cultural assignment.” I cringe at existing for these students only in the narrow parameters of this assignment, and ceasing to exist once the interview is over. Sometimes, I am less cynical and concede to doing such an interview, knowing that there can be benefits in cross-cultural encounters. But benefits for whom?

According to Ahmed, diversity workers are essentially “institutional plumbers” who not only “point out what is getting blocked,” but in doing so, are themselves “experienced as the blockage point, as the ones who are getting in the way of a flow” (On Being Included 186). If so, speaking the language of the (Western) institution and adhering to its norms would thus reduce my ability to some degree as an effective “blockage point” for those who do experience the wall as solidity (On Being Included 186-187).

I remember the self-doubt that plagued me when I stepped into my classes as a first-year undergraduate student in the U.S. I felt the weight of being classified as a non-native English speaker despite scoring in the 99th percentile on the reading section of the SAT. I remember sitting in the office of the English Department chair asking why I had been placed in a remedial ENG 22 class – a prerequisite most “native” students don’t have to take before the standard introductory composition course – despite a 93rd percentile score on the writing section of the SAT, only to have her condescendingly reply that this was a requirement for “all international students.”  Consequently, I worked hard to acquire an American accent quickly, paying attention to differences in pronunciation and word choice – “trash,” not “rubbish;” “trunk,” not “boot”. These differences would not have mattered as much if I were White and had a British accent. Seven years into my stay here, I no longer have to work as hard to maintain this new accent, but I’m still conscious of saying new words the “right” way.

In some ways, I admire other international students who own their “foreign” accents. They own their “otherness” in ways that I dare not. They insist on mixing up their “Vs” and “Bs”; they persist in saying “lift,” not “elevator.” I realize I am guilty of practicing and embodying “institutional passing” (Living a Feminist Life 131). And then I feel shame: shame at speaking about gender dynamics, and intersectionality, and microaggressions. In talking about concepts that do not register outside the Western diversity project, I am conscious of how I am displaying (Western) institutional knowledge, and the ways in which this in and of itself distances me from other international students who do not possess this knowledge. But there are also times when I want to raise hell for having to ease the burden of my own difference (Living a Feminist Life 131).

In some ways, I have been included. I am in the U.S. due to an academic scholarship from my undergraduate institution, awarded because of the ways in which I do not flow. But there are also many other ways in which I remain excluded.

The paradox of the diversity project is asking to be included while coming up against the wall of the institution and becoming a wall yourself in obstructing institutional flow (On Being Included 186). At the same time, however, I recognize that participating in this project comes at the price of exclusion from other spaces such as the international student community.

More questions arise than answers in the meeting between my body and the institution. Sometimes these questions make me angry; sometimes, they make me laugh. At times, they make me cry.

All I have to offer in response to these questions is my “stranger experience” (On Being Included 3) to provide a glimpse of how these walls operate for someone who does not exist in the binary of black and white.

Sources:

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

On Being Included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Duke University Press, 2012.

Top 6 Places to Cry on Campus

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Let’s face it, crying is a thing that happens in grad school. If you’re like me, it happens frequently. Rather than being ashamed, be prepared! The following are the top six places on campus to cry, based on the following criteria:

1.) Privacy, because the public display of grief is stigmatized like little else.

2.) Proximity to tissues, because snots.

3.) Sound reduction, because sometimes you want to let it all out.

4.) Comfort, because you don’t want to be uncomfortable in addition to being sad.

5.) Ambiance, because lighting affects mood.

Disclaimer: This list is crowd-sourced. I haven’t personally cried in all these places, but I trust my peers.

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Lehigh University Celebrates Frankenstein

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This Halloween celebrated the culmination of a year-long celebration of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein. Arguably the inventor of the science fiction genre, Shelley’s tale of creation and destruction still resonates two hundred years later. The Lehigh University English department teamed up with the Bethlehem Area Public Library, ArtsQuest, the Health Medicine and Society Program, and the Center for Community Engagement to host a variety of discussions and movie “talk-backs” to bring Shelley’s creature to life for the South Side community ending in a marathon reading of Frankenstein for the international celebration #Frankenreads on October 31st at the main branch of the Bethlehem Area Public Library. 

English graduate students dissected the novel in three part in a series of themed talks open to the public at the main branch of the Bethlehem Area Public Library, with copies of the book on hand for attendees to follow along. Ashlee Simon and Gill Andrews discussed Victor Frankenstein and bioethics in connection with Volume 1 of the novel. The creature as minority, refugee and orphan was the them for Volume 2 with Trisha Nardone and Claire Silva leading the talk. The book talk series wrapped up with Volume 3 and a discussion of companionship, loss and isolation with Cherise Fung and Dr. Elizabeth Dolan.

What Frankenevent would be complete without showcasing some of the most iconic film adaptations? Steel Stacks Banko Alehouse Cinema hosted the classic 1931 James Whale Frankenstein with the talk-back hosted by Shelby Carr and Lauren Van Atta. The Sinclair Auditorium at Lehigh University was the site for a showing of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein hosted by Katherine McCaffery and Ava Bertone. The final film in the series was Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein hosted by the Bethlehem Area Public Library with a post-film talk back led by Sarah Anderle and Heather Flyte. All showings were free and open to the public.

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The premier event was the marathon reading of Frankenstein at the Bethlehem Area Public Library as part of  FRANKENREADS – an all-day reading of the novel. Guests and library patrons wandered in and out all day listening to snippets of the book, while volunteers donned Halloween costumes and performed their readings in 10-minute sections. While the event marked the end of Lehigh University’s celebrations, it may also have marked the start of a new series public readings of beloved novels at the library. Stay tuned for details.

Monday Meet and Greet: Ava Bertone

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Tell us about yourself!

Hi! I’m Ava, and I’m in my first year of the MA program. I was born and raised in northern New Jersey. I’m an only child. I have what all of my former (and, possibly, current — hi, Reagan) housemates would call an unhealthy passion for Halloween décor. At home in New Jersey, I have a toy poodle named Lola and three cats: Muffin, Amen, and Binx (stories behind their names available upon request). I’m incredibly clumsy and the stairs on this campus are not my friends… I once showed up to Prof. Lay’s Milton class actively bleeding through ripped jeans, after having fallen on my way to the building.

Why did you choose Lehigh?

I helped a family friend move into his first-year dorm here the summer before I started 8th grade. The campus felt incredibly collegiate to my 13-year-old self (although, I can’t say I feel much differently now). When I began my own college search, Lehigh was #1 on the list. I ultimately ended up applying Early Decision and, thankfully, got accepted. I certainly had my ups and downs during undergrad, but the English Department always felt like my place on this campus. It just felt right to apply here for grad school, too! Plus, I’m looking forward to learning more about social justice through the program’s LSJ emphasis.

What is your favorite book outside your field of study?

Anything by Mitch Albom, simply because his prose is evocative and beautiful. My top two favorites are The Five People You Meet in Heaven and Tuesdays with Morrie. I also have to include a children’s book called Lily’s Ghosts, by Laura Ruby. I reread it every summer because it reminds me of going to Scholastic book fairs as a kid. There’s something nice about the simplicity of returning to a childhood favorite!

What are you most looking forward to this year?

I’m hoping to get more involved within the department! Being here as a grad student feels so different from my undergrad experience, so I’m looking forward to exploring all that grad life has to offer. I’m also excited to continue working with some of my favorite professors in the department (as well as some new ones!) and building upon the academic interests I’ve cultivated over the last four years.

What We Need to Hear

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I started practicing mindfulness and meditation exercises when I was 11 years old, though at the time I didn’t know that was what these activities were called.
I was part of a group of kids in middle school that met with a counselor every few weeks to discuss our concerns about the school at large and occasionally, learn stress-reducing techniques like counting the breath and contracting/relaxing the muscles.

People are impressed when I tell them this fact. “Wow! Your school taught you mindfulness? My doctors/teachers/parents/guardians/friends just ignored my issues/forced me on meds/told me to stop being dramatic!”

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Monday Meet and Greet: Naashia Naufal

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Tell us about yourself!

I’m interested in Southern Gothicism and the intersection of medicine and literature. I’m currently also working on a historical fiction novel; fingers crossed that it’ll be finished by next year!

Why did you choose Lehigh?

I chose Lehigh because it seemed to be a very interesting but almost secretive place – one of those hidden University gems your read about. Plus, there was just something about the social justice component of the Lit program that struck with me.

What is your favorite book outside your field of study?

Outside of my field, I would say that my favorite book is The Rivals. There’s something very fresh, very contemporary and very comical about the love tangle in the play.

What are you most looking forward to this year?

I’m really looking forward to the chance of finishing a paper and presenting at the next conference hosted by the English department!

Tackling T.I.N.A. and Creating a Successful Public-Facing Discussion Group

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Tackling T.I.N.A. has entered its second year and is going strong.

The reading for the September meeting was an approximately 30 page selection from Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted, published in 2016, in which Desmond tracks the precarious lives of people in Milwaukee as they face eviction and homelessness while he explores the policies that cause these problems. Desmond also offers concrete solutions to begin fixing the problem of eviction, making an argument for increased housing subsidies.

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