An Open Letter To Mars, Incorporated: Why Using Rape Culture to Sell M&Ms Isn’t Okay

Dear Mars, Incorporated, and, specifically, those involved in creating advertisements for M&M chocolates,

There’s this thing that happens sometimes, when you’re a survivor of sexual violence, or if you study it for a living, or if you’re simply attuned to and interested in how sexual violence continues to permeate our society. You start to see sexual violence everywhere. You hear it referenced in songs, like Rick Ross’s “U.O.E.N.O.” that casually mention using date rape drugs. You notice it in rape chants sung on Canadian university campuses. You may start to find out that a large number of your friends, family members, and acquaintances (of all genders and sexualities) have experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact. And, most notably, you see sexual violence in numerous advertisements, especially in the fashion, alcohol, and luxury goods industries. In fact, once you look around, you tend to find it in more places than you might have previously liked to believe. You might even ask yourself: “How has this become a socially acceptable thing? Why is rape the punchline of a joke, the casual lyric of a song, or a popular image used to sell anything from handbags to shoes?”

Of course, once you start to notice this, people will probably tell you that you’re overreacting. They might tell you that the critiques of rape chants on university campuses are proof that “feminist ideologues” are just pushing their “pro-consent propaganda” on everyone, and that anti-oppression activists are always just looking for a way to ruin people’s fun. Because they’ll say, as you might have previously believed, that rape culture is just something that can “build community and bring people out of their bubbles,” like when they chant about it at a frosh week event. Or they might tell you that you’re totally missing the point, and that images of a woman’s bruised and battered face are just a creative choice and that you’re clearly not appreciating what constitutes art.

I was actually eating M&Ms while doing my research on sexual violence yesterday. An unhappy coincidence.
I was actually eating M&Ms while doing my research on sexual violence yesterday. An unhappy coincidence.

But, you see, there’s this problem. Rape chanting-students, Rick Ross, and Dolce & Gabbana aren’t the only ones who are using sexual violence as a means of having fun or selling products. You are too.

Last night, after unwinding from a long day of feeling sick and doing work, I decided to watch some television. Rather coincidentally, I had just spent the afternoon eating most of a bag of M&Ms. And that’s when I saw one of the commercials that you released earlier this year. You’re obviously familiar with it, since you created it, but for those who aren’t, here it is. I’m going to put a TRIGGER WARNING on this.

Now, here’s the thing. I wonder that you think your ad is kind of funny, I mean, these cute little M&Ms are about to be devoured by this big bad red-haired lady who totally just can’t help herself around chocolate! That’s not like rape at all, right? I mean, first of all, they’re animated chocolate characters. Plus, the “big bad devourer” who is unwittingly going to attack the little anthropomorphized M&M is a woman, so, obviously that’s way more funny, and way less rape-like than if it had been a man, right? And it’s an advertisement for chocolate, not for alcohol, so that totally has nothing to do with sexual violence, right?

I’m sorry. But I’m going to have to tell you that you’re wrong. 

The entire premise of this advertisement is a classic reflection of real-life scenarios of sexual violence, and it’s being used, just like so many other companies, to try and sell products. An anthropomorphized M&M is “warned” about the predatory nature of a woman who “just cannot help herself,” then sets up her M&M friend to be taken away from the party by this predatory woman, who then leads that M&M away to her car, locks the doors, and attacks him. The last frame of the advert is the a shot of the parked car, with the poor little red M&M screaming.

The advertisement does not merely “imply,” “gesture towards,” or “hint” at what has happened to so many victims of sexual violence, it actually mirrors it and reproduces it, line by line, word by word, action by action.

  • People setting up their friends to be assaulted? Definitely happens.
  • People having to be warned of the predatory nature of certain partygoers? Definitely happens.
  • Perpetrators being justified in their actions because they or others say that they “just couldn’t help themselves?” Definitely happens.
  • Individuals being isolated, especially in cars, by their perpetrators? Definitely happens.
  • Women being the perpetrators of sexual assault? Definitely happens, even though society keeps treating male victims and female perpetrators as a source of comedy. [Just read, if you can stomach it, the absolutely abhorrent article that Star columnist Rosie DiManno wrote following the gang assault of a young man in Toronto.]

M&M has a long history of being a successful and well-known product, and the Mars Chocolate company has a long history of being a successful and profitable corporation. You certainly don’t need to stoop to shock-tactic advertising in order to garner more sales.

Corporate responsibility goes far beyond product safety and health standards about how many calories are in M&Ms and are there peanut-free facilities, etc. Your responsibility extends into social responsibility. As a consumer, especially one who has bought your products, I do not need to be reminded that rape is taken so lightly in this culture that it is being used to sell candy. I do not need to hear the lock of a car door and a scream, to be reminded of what once happened to me in a car. Male victims, especially, do not need to be reminded that they face an uphill battle in being taken seriously.

You don’t have to sell out rape victims in order to maintain a hefty profit margin, or or in order to keep your consumers amused. Your website says that you “take [your] responsibility for marketing brands appropriately very seriously.” As a well-known global brand, it is your duty to live up to that statement.

In the meantime, consider me a lost customer. Not surprisingly, I’ve lost my appetite.

“To Speak is Never Neutral”: A Photo & Audio Journal Entry

There’s a kind of nervousness, I think that goes along with speaking out about anything. Is this the right time? Am I saying the right things? And what will people think of me? What happens if they know my deepest secrets, and I can’t take them back? 

And I think that initially there’s a kind of pride that goes along with telling. With the sadness, there’s a bit of adrenaline, like you did this thing you thought you could never do. And you have your family and friends supporting you, and it’s really powerful.

But then, once the telling is over, when the news cameras or the reporters leave, or even when you’re just walking out of your therapist’s office and going home, or after you hang up the phone after talking to a friend, a strange sense of quiet comes over you. And you ask yourself: what the hell did I just do? 

Then all that confidence just kind of melts away, and it’s as if you know that you never, ever want to talk about it again, that price you pay for talking about it – the price of remembering it all, of feeling vulnerable and exposed, is just too much. So you go quiet again. 

But that doesn’t last very long, because you start to just feel so fucking angry, so incredibly consumed with rage, all stuff that you started to let out when you spoke for that first time is coming out, but now you’re alone and you’re expected to deal with this deluge of emotions yourself. It’s a total Pandora’s Box.

Once the anger passes you might feel sad. And that brave face you wore for the cameras is swollen from crying and you can barely breathe through the tears and you there’s sinking feeling that you almost wish that THIS is what they’d seen, because this is the real shit that you have to deal with, this is what happens in the middle of the night when people aren’t around to listen.

But you do what you can. Maybe you make art, or go for a run, maybe you play music, and you get lost for while in something else. Maybe you speak about something that’s completely unrelated – you express yourself in different ways.

There are, of course, moments of irritation. When you see comments on articles, or people seem dismissive, and you’re really fucking tired of speaking out because why is this still happening? Why do we still live in a world where violence continues to perpetrated? And sometimes people are just so ridiculous in their attempts to legitimize it,  and you’re just tired of rhetoric, and the dismissal, and the blatant disregard.

But, you know, you can have joy, too. And that joy can be a result of speaking out, or it might not be. You can be happy at the same time as you’re sad, you can have mixed feelings about it. There’s not one single way to feel about having spoken out. And those who wish to mandate your joy, or tell you that because you seem happy are therefore you must be totally over it, they need to just shut the fuck up.

I think ultimately after speaking out, there’s a need for momentum, after that initial moment of catching your breath. That if you can just keep creating, singing, dancing, running, being, going on with your life, that maybe speaking out wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe what happened doesn’t feel like it is going to consume every single moment forever.  And maybe, just maybe, you helped somebody. Even if (especially if) that person was yourself. 

Spelling Lessons: A Spoken Word Response to the UBC & SMU Rape Chants (Trigger Warning)

This spoken word piece is a way of responding creatively to the various voices that I’ve heard in the past week since the news about the rape chants on two Canadian campuses broke. I have been fortunate to be able to speak with many news outlets about this issue, but I felt that I also wanted to craft a longer and more nuanced response. I speak back not just to the justifications by those who participated, but to the other voices that still condone, excuse, or rationalize this type of behaviour. I speak as way of contextualizing why these chants are not merely innocuous, and as a way of situating them in a broader culture of violence. 

You say that Y is for your sister but it’s always somebody else’s sister, isn’t it? It’s always the sister of the friend or the family down the street or the sisters of colour who face disproportionate violence, or the fact that so many of them have been slaughtered for the colour of their skin, or the fact that so many are missing, are absences in the family tree. Or perhaps they are sisters that you don’t recognize as yours because they say that a sister is determined by her biological sex and not by the knowledge that she was born into the wrong body. Because heaven forbid that you have to say “yes, this is my sister,” mine, a person for whom I am responsible, a person with whom I share relation, if not through blood or name or shared appearance but through the social fabric that binds each of us together. No man or woman is an island.

You say that O is for oh so tight but it’s always about how tight a woman’s pussy is, isn’t it? It’s always about the value that we place on the vagina and virginity, about how much you hate a loose woman. Because you want it tight like that first time. Tight like a woman who hasn’t opened her legs wide because you believe the myth, of course, that every man that a woman allows to penetrate her is taking up space, stretching her out, reducing her value like the time that you called that woman a “slut” for having too many sexual partners, that time you said that girl was a “whore” for sleeping with half the football team, like that time you said a friend was devaluing herself and that she shouldn’t just “give it away.” But her body does not belong to you, or to anyone else. It is hers to share, to enjoy, to take pleasure in and from.

You say that U is for underage but then again aren’t kids just having sex younger and younger these days anyway? Can’t we blame this on Miley Cyrus somehow? Because Cherice Moralez, a fourteen-year-old girl who was raped by her fifty-year-old teacher was “as much in control of the situation” as her perpetrator, was “older than her chronological age.” At least that’s what the judge in Montana said anyway. At least that’s what was said by the people who make excuses for a culture in which many adults have consistently abused their power and tried to paint their victims as mutually consenting parties. At least that’s what said by the perpetrators of sexual abuse. Tell me again how a child asked for it. Tell me that statutory rape isn’t as “real” as “rape-rape.” Tell me again how funny that is.

You say that that N is for no consent. It’s almost as if you know that it’s wrong. It’s almost as if you realize that you should have stopped chanting by now. But you weren’t really listening to the lyrics, were you? I mean, it’s hard to keep the rhyme and the meaning in your head at the same time, isn’t it? You know what’s hard to keep in your head? The constant memories kept by those who have known intimate violence, the ways that you try to keep the nightmares from disrupting your sleep, the way that you try not to flinch when someone walks to close to you, the way the word “rape” or “sexual assault” always catches your ear on the news because it is happening again, it is always happening again, it is happening right now. Someone is not giving consent. Someone is being held down. Someone is unconscious. Someone is screaming “no, please stop, don’t, please stop.” Someone is being silenced.

You say that G is for “grab that ass,” but it’s always that street harassment isn’t such a big deal, right? As if women should just ignore the constant deluge of comments about their bodies when they are getting groceries, crossing the street, or going to work. As if a woman should simply not pay attention to the man who decides to sidle up to her, real easy, on public transit, and grope her repeatedly. As if her body does not belong to her, but is a public commodity, placed on the meat market with a high turnover and a low rate of exchange. Or maybe you say that G is for “go to jail,” but what you need to know is that the legal system is not perfect, and that even with forensic evidence, few perpetrators ever serve time. Do not buy into the fantasy that the perpetrators of sexual violence do not walk among us.

Maybe you say I’m too sensitive.

Maybe you say that I’m a feminist bitch.

Maybe you say that I should just learn to take a joke.

But I say to you that the language you speak and the words that you spell have meanings far beyond the spaces in which you say them, that the breath of your words is not a declaration of neutrality. Words and phrases are not benign, not drummed into everyday existence simply because they have been repeated over and over by generations of students. You have been given the gift of freedom of speech: use it wisely, and know  that the seemingly innocent syllables you speak may just be the word-weapons that wound others.

It Happened On My Campus, Too: Rape Chants at UBC

Just two days ago, I published an article  (which was also republished on Rabble.ca) detailing my concerns about having heard misogynist lyrics being played loudly on campus during frosh week at UBC. The song, which was played at a booth run by an off-campus nightclub, right near the Student Union Building, described—repetitively—being here “for the bitches and the drinks.” I expressed my frustration at having to be exposed to such misogyny in this environment, especially when we know that sexual assaults (especially those facilitated by drugs and alcohol) and sexual harassment run rampant on so many post-secondary campuses.

Shortly after I posted my article on my blog, national news services began sharing coverage of an egregious frosh-week incident at Saint Mary’s University, which involved 80 student orientation volunteers leading a chant that promoted underage sex and rape. Every major newspaper and television station in Canada has carried the story, featuring interviews with SMU students, SMU frosh leaders, the SMU president, women’s centre and sexual assault centre staff, and concerned community members. While there have been a predictable number of individuals who have dismissed the incident as a mere moment of “juvenile ignorance,” or, as former SMU student union president Jared Perry put it, something that just happened “in the heat of the moment,” many have been quick to condemn the behaviour. SMU president Colin Dodds, in an interview with CTV Atlantic, expressed his shock at the situation, even apologizing to the family of Rehtaeh Parsons (the Halifax teenager who took her own life after being sexually assaulted and viciously taunted) for the likely impact it would have on them.

Despite my anger at the situation in Halifax, I also felt somewhat relieved. While my article about hearing misogynist music was referenced in a GlobalBC article about SMU and rape culture on campuses, what happened at SMU wasn’t happening on my campus. I mean, if the worst thing that happened at my campus at frosh week was an off-campus nightclub blasting a song about “bitches and drinks”, rather than student representatives of a university actively cheering about underage sex and sexual assault, then it couldn’t possibly get worse, right? Right?

Wrong.

Late this evening (September 6), my university’s student newspaper, The Ubyssey, published an article revealing that the exact same thing had happened during Sauder FROSH, the “long-running three-day orientation organized by the Commerce Undergraduate Society (CUS)” (Rosenfeld, Ubyssey). Not only was I appalled to know that the same chant apparently had a long history of being used at frosh events here at UBC, but even more appalled to hear the reactions of the FROSH co-chair and other students. Co-chair Jacqueline Chen reported to The Ubyssey that previous complaints had been articulated about the chant, but that its use during frosh week had not been prohibited. Rather, Chen says, “We let the groups know: if it happens during the group, it has to stay in the group” (Rosenfeld).

Beyond the disgust and shock that I feel towards the fact that this chant is clearly widespread among university campuses (and who knows which other university frosh weeks have also used it), I am quite literally sickened by the attitudes towards this chant. Rather than the seeming-remorse and regret expressed by SMUSA president Jared Perry, UBC students who participated in the chant do not seem particularly concerned with the fact that it was brought to light. Indeed, unlike what we heard at SMU, the UBC students interviewed seem perfectly aware of the troubling and offensive nature of the chant, but opted to keep it under wraps, or argued that it was fine since it was only chanted in less-public areas.

I am going to make it very clear why this is a problem: using secrecy to legitimize violence and sexism is precisely the tactic used by abusers and assailants themselves. Suggesting that things are “okay” so long as they are not brought into the public eye is exactly how domestic abuse continues to be perpetrated and excused. Informing people to “keep a secret” is one of the top tactics used by abusers to silence their victims.

It is reprehensible that the same rhetoric and the same dynamics of power are being used in this context.

It is shocking that at UBC, a place when students will be excused from classes on September 18th to attend events at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—which focus on the legacy of horrific abuses, including the physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools—that callous and casual attitudes towards sexual violence are being openly flouted.

As a survivor of sexual assaults, including one that occurred on the UBC campus, I am tired of this.

As someone whose research focuses exclusively on language and its importance to cultures of sexual violence, I am tired of this.

As someone who wants a safe campus community, for my colleagues, for my mentors and supervisors, and for my own students, I am tired of this.

I am tired of living in a world where even the youth that we expect will be educated leaders of the future are engaging—and actively encouraging others to engage—in the mockery and dismissal of violence.

UBC’s motto is “Tuum Est,” which translates to “it is up to you.”

It is up to the UBC students who participated in this chant, to take true responsibility for their behaviour, and to understand why it is not even remotely something to joke about.

It is up to UBC, as a institution, to draw a line in the sand about what kind of behaviour will and will not be tolerated on campus.

It is up to UBC, as a community, to come together to stand against sexual violence. We must empower our students to call each other out when they hear or observe statements or actions that support or condone violence, so that this chant does not get simply pushed back underground, to be repeated again outside of the watchful eye of the university. We must offer support to those who may have been re-traumatized by this kind of behaviour.

For nearly 4 years, I, like many other students, have proudly called UBC my home. It’s time to make it feel safe again.

  • If you would like to contact me about this article: llorenzi@alumni.ubc.ca

Articles Referenced:

Tucker, Erika. “Difference between SMU and chants of froshes past is these students got caught.” GlobalBC. September 6th, 2013. 

Avalon Sexual Assault Centre – PRESS RELEASE: Frosh Week Chant Validates and Perpetuates Rape Culture 

Willick, Frances.  “SMU rape chant a mistake ‘heat of the moment’.” The Chronicle Herald. September 5th, 2013. 

“SMU president calls sexual assault chant ‘biggest mistake I’ve made.'” CTV Atlantic. September 5th, 2013. 

Rosenfeld, Arno. “‘N is for no consent!’ Sauder first-years led in offensive chant.” The Ubyssey. September 6th, 2013. 

Other Resources and Articles:

UBC Sexual Assault Support Centre

List of Vancouver Sexual Assault Support Centres/Crisis Lines

Draw The Line Ontario (explore your attitudes/responses to various types of sexual violence)

“Bitches and Drinks”: What I Overheard at Frosh Week at UBC

Yesterday marked the first day of classes for colleges and universities across Canada, and on my campus, like many others, the spirit of excitement was palpable. In spite of the rain, thousands of University of British Columbia students congregated on campus to celebrate “Imagine Day,” a day when undergraduate classes are suspended so that a variety of festivities and welcome events can be held. There were dozens of campus tours being led by guides in brightly-coloured UBC shirts, a frenzy of students gathering their supplies and course materials at the bookstore, and hundreds of people checking out the many booths that lined the streets near the centre of campus.

These booths offer a wonderful way for students to check out services on campus (especially those provided by the Alma Mater Society), to find a variety of clubs and activities that they may be interested in joining, and to familiarize themselves with some of their departmental student unions. As with many universities’ frosh weeks, a fair number of booths are also sponsored by various off-campus corporations and businesses, ranging from cell phone providers to banks.

However, one booth in particular got my attention, and not because I was intending to seek it out.

When I exited the Student Union Building after having run some errands, I heard extremely loud music. Now, loud music coming from a booth is not a particularly unusual or offensive thing in itself: it’s part of building the atmosphere and maintaining the excitement of campus events. However, when I heard Trey Songz’ lyrics “I’m only here for the bitches and the drinks, the bitches and the drinks,” I suddenly found that my sense of campus spirit faded away rather quickly. I turned the corner to find the source of the music, and, not much to my surprise, it came from a booth run by an off-campus nightclub, one which is generally frequented by undergraduate students. With that song still blaring, I walked away, troubled, and a bit angry, wondering if any other students had felt the same discomfort as I did.

Now, I’m sure that some of my critics might tell me that I am over-reacting, or that my tendencies towards feminist analyses and my work on sexual violence have simply made me sensitive to anything that might be vaguely construed as misogynist. So, too, it is possible that someone might remind me that free speech is a right, or that this music was played not by a campus group, but, rather, an off-campus company who claims no inherent affiliation with the university.

However, want I want to explore is not “whether or not” this song should have been played. Instead I want to talk about why I find it troubling to have heard it so loudly on campus, especially during frosh week.

For starters, we know that sexual violence, ranging from harassment to rape, is still a big problem on university campuses, both in Canada and in the United States.

  • I know individuals who have been the target of sexual violence on campus: one friend in particular reported being verbally harassed and groped during her first week on campus, an altogether unwelcome and unexpected treatment at what she thought would be a place of higher education, not a place of street harassment.
  • A number of American universities have recently been served with Title IX complaints after numerous allegations and incidents of sexual assault were either dismissed or improperly handled.
  • Even faculty are not immune.  In the U.S., Midwestern PhD candidate and blogger GracieABD has written a two-part series of blog posts about having been sexually harassed by a student.
  • According to statistics cited by the Canadian Federation for Students, 4 out of 5 female undergraduates on Canadian campuses are victims of violence in dating relationships.
  • Moreover, many incidents of violence occur within the first 8 weeks of the new school year (CFS). 
  • Undergraduate students in particular, who comprise the largest population on campus (and who are, indeed, the target of Imagine Day’s events) may have moved away from home for the first time, may be isolated without much support, and may be especially vulnerable to alcohol or drug-facilitated assaults at on- or off-campus establishments. UBC alumna Meghan Gardiner’s one-woman show on this very topic, “Dissolve,” has toured Canada for a decade.

“Bitches” and drinks, indeed.

We also know that sexual harassment and institutional sexism are still insidious in many campus cultures, whether overtly or covertly, whether within undergraduate or graduate populations, or amongst staff and faculty. Universities, including UBC, have policies against discrimination and harassment for a reason: university campuses are supposed to be safe spaces.

Look, I’m not here to rain on someone’s parade, or to act as the campus music-police. I realize that there are much more offensive and contentious things that have been displayed publicly by off-campus groups, and I don’t believe that playlists should be “filtered” by the university before they are used for campus events.  I am not interested in preventing off-campus establishments or companies from advertising themselves, nor am interested in suggesting that on their own time, and in privately-owned spaces that they choose to attend, students can’t listen and dance to whatever music they choose. I’m not trying to hold “UBC” responsible for anything. To be clear, I am also not suggesting that songs about “bitches and drinks” are the CAUSE of rape on college campuses.

That being said, I would like my university (an ostensibly PUBLIC space) to be a space where I feel safe, and where I can walk across campus without being reminded LOUDLY that as a young woman, my value to many people is still just as a “bitch” (or a “ho,” or any of those horribly derogatory terms). I want my university to be, as its slogan proclaims, “a place of mind,” where all community members and, especially, campus guests, are mindful of not perpetuating sexism.  When I heard “bitches and drinks” repeatedly for several minutes—at a location right near the Sexual Assault Centre, the Equity Office, and Counselling Services—I started to feel like I wasn’t really on campus at all.

Play whatever you want in your club: people pay to be there willingly with the knowledge that it is a particular kind of environment. But I attend my public university with the not-so-unreasonable expectation that I won’t have to listen to  misogynist lyrics when I’m just trying to walk across the quad.

Resources & Information 

Canadian Federation of Students Factsheet on Sexual Violence on Campuses

UBC Sexual Assault Support Centre

List of Local Vancouver Sexual Assault Resource/Crisis Centres

What’s In a Name?: The Legacy of Street Harassment and Everyday Sexism

When I was growing up, I fervently disliked my first name. I can’t quite explain why. Perhaps it had to do with the numerous times that people mispronounced it, or the fact that I honestly thought that “Sophia Lorenzi” would be a much more poetic and dramatic moniker. As I got older, however, I learned to embrace my name as a wonderful gift that my mother had given me. Lucia is from the Latin word for “light,” and I can’t think of a more apt description for myself, as someone who is curious, creative, and stubbornly optimistic.

During the process of learning to accept my name and to enjoy hearing it spoken by others, especially by those who I loved the most, I also learned that there was another process of naming that I had started to face: the ways in which I was spoken to and addressed by people who saw me not as a person, not as Lucia, but as a sexual object.

 “Hey, sexy.”

“Hey, baby.”

“Hey, gorgeous.”

These names—adjectives or nouns turned into imposed identities—have been hurled at me from across the street, whispered into my ear by abusive individuals, or spoken to me by men who were little more than acquaintances and wanted only to sleep with me or objectify me. I was no longer myself, but was being claimed, written on, territorialized by the naming practices of street harassment and male entitlement. And it didn’t just stop there. The re-naming of women is often followed by attempts to solicit sexual favours, to imply sexual availability, to taunt, terrify, and to try and tell women that they are nameless, faceless, and powerless.

 “Hey, sexy….wanna fuck?”

“Hey, baby….why don’t you smile for me?”

“Hey, gorgeous….nice ass.”

I became very confused. It had always seemed to me that pet names (honey, sweetie, darling, dear, baby, sexy, beautiful, lover, depending on one’s relationship to a person) ought to be an indication of familiarity and affection, trust and mutual respect. It seemed that to call someone something other than their given name ought to be an indication of an pre-existing relationship, and of intimacy. It seemed to me that it ought to denote shared vulnerability. And yet, it wasn’t. I felt dehumanized. I felt ashamed.

This troubling re-naming practice doesn’t just manifest itself in the ways in which street harassment and catcalling dehumanizes women by suggesting that their identities and personal lives don’t matter, because they are objects to be targeted, identified, and (potentially) consumed or used. It also extends to the ways in which individuals in relationships only use these names when they want or are engaging in sexual acts with a person, when you’re only “baby” in the bedroom, “sexy” in the sack. I’ve been there once before. I’ve been the girl who is kept a secret, the girl who is good enough to sleep with but not good enough to acknowledge or hold hands with in public. It’s humiliating.

It’s this incongruity, the strange melding of affection and violence (or affection and cruelty, affection and coldness, affection and indifference, etc) that can be so difficult to reconcile. It’s unsettling. It feels unsafe. At times, it has made me question whether or not I will ever be seen for any more than my body. It makes me start to question myself, and wonder if because I dress a certain way, or look a certain way, that that’s all I’m seen for, in spite of the creativity and intellect that I nourish and cultivate. It makes me wonder if people see ME at all. While I may embody sexiness at times or a particular heteronormative aesthetic of femininity at times—especially considering my love of fashion, modeling, and photography—those things are not who I am, and nobody has the right to make those things my identity, or to reduce my value to my presumed sexual availability. I,  Lucia, may feel or be or look sexy, but “sexy” is not an outright replacement for my legal name.

Naming practices and acts of address are powerful, and they are deeply political. One need only look to histories of colonization, in which names are and were either “Westernized” or erased entirely. For instance, consider the recent incident involving Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis, who stood up to an AP reporter who refused to learn to pronounce her name and call her “Annie” (Wallis’ upcoming role) instead. Think about the how the term “slut” is part of a deep history of the sexualization of racialized women, and the precarious politics of the attempted reclamation of that term. Think about how women who suffer sexual assaults are referred to only as “Jane Doe,” or, in the case of victim-blaming, as “that whore, that walking mattress, that skank.”

I want to be very clear: I am absolutely not suggesting that there ought to be a radical policing of language, nor do I want to assert that “sexy” or “beautiful” as adjectives should be completely erased from conversations with and about women.  Given how often women are shamed for confident, assertive displays or articulations of their sexuality, I think that it is important to recognize sexiness and beauty of all kinds. I think it’s important for women to be able to use those words in order to describe themselves without being shamed or seen as objects. I consider myself to be sexy. I consider myself to be someone who embraces her sexuality. I enjoy it when people recognize it in a positive and kind way, whether they are acquaintances on Facebook or friends or otherwise. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with exchanging a knowing glance or a smile with a stranger. Flirting isn’t off-limits.

But I also think that an awareness, especially in interpersonal relationships that take place in private (whether online or offline), in dating, and in flirting, of the histories of oppression that many women have faced with regards to certain naming practices, is equally important. I believe that it is important to recognize that women all have different experiences with street harassment and sexual assault, and that treading lightly at first, finding different phrases to express a thought, or being up front in asking if it’s okay to use certain language is thoughtful, valuable, welcomed, and necessary. I can’t be the only one who thinks that asking for consent and having discussions about things is a super-mega-turn-on. I’ve had male friends and acquaintances who have asked me. It’s wonderful.

Having read through the various stories featured on the @EverydaySexism Twitter account, having followed the #streetharassment hashtag, and doing the research that I do regarding sexual violence and sexuality, I know that while many women have different experiences of naming practices, there are a large number whose experiences have been similar to mine. Sometimes, you never know when that “hey sexy!” hollered at you from across the street is going to turn into someone grabbing you, following you, or assaulting you. I was stalked on my old university’s campus several years ago, and I can tell you first-hand that what seem like “compliments” that women should just “take lightly” from strangers can quickly escalate into terror.

While Shakespeare suggested that “rose by any other name” may still be a rose, a woman by any other name is often made to feel that she is not still a woman. She’s made to feel like an object. And that’s not okay, because as we know, such practices of harassment and dehumanization often lead to other forms of violence. It reinforces an environment where it’s seemingly okay for those things to happen. It’s really fucking not okay.

I still struggle all of this myself, and I certainly don’t pretend to speak for any woman other than myself. However, I wish so badly that those words I’ve called, those names I’ve been assigned, could become precious again, saved for the mouths of people I feel safe around, and loved by. But they’re not. And I can’t pretend that “words can never hurt me,” because sometimes they still do. I can’t pretend that it sometimes feels strange to hear those words from a partner or a lover. I can’t erase their history, and I won’t, because as so many of us know all too well, the line between terms of endearment and terms of endangerment is a very fine one.

For more information and stories about street harassment, visit:

Hollaback! A Non-Profit and Movement to End Street Harassment

Michael Laxer’s Rabble.ca article: “Sexual harassment on the street: taking misogynist hate speech seriously.”

The SFTUCatcallers Tumblr