Photo: R. Karthik via Flickr.

Dear Emma Scoldman

Dilemma in Delhi

May 10, 2018Emma Scoldman

Readers, send your questions to Emma Scoldman at dearemma@jewishcurrents.org.

 

DEAR EMMA SCOLDMAN,

I’ve had a pretty firm tsedoke discipline for the past 20 years—I give small amounts of money to people who ask me for it (there are exceptions, but not many) without judging their worthiness. I think of it as a tax and I never go to the city without change in my pocket. But I’m about to go to India, where I’m expecting to be surrounded by beggars, including children and their mothers, and I’ve been warned by experienced travelers that I have to say “NO!” firmly and walk away. This is extremely upsetting, anticipating having to harden my heart. It feels very un-Jewish. But I’m afraid if I start giving out rupees, I will be giving out rupees 24 hours a day, which is not why I’m going to India. What’s a Jew to do?

Dilemma in Delhi

 

Dear Dilemma in Delhi,

The injustices of this world are so many, and our exposure to them is so constant. Becoming numb is one of my greatest fears, and fighting it is an uphill battle. I empathize with your concerns over having to harden your heart.

I imagine that, when you think of your tsedoke practice “as a tax,” you mean that it’s non-negotiable. I respect that, and more people would do well to adopt this perspective. In the case of your trip, I encourage you to broaden your definition of a tax. It’s required, yes, but it’s also a set percentage of your income. You don’t spend all your money on giving to those who need it—you also spend money on rent, food, clothing, entertainment, and, yes, travel. This is okay; working for social justice doesn’t mean that you need to consistently martyr yourself or refuse to spend money on anything that brings you joy. A compromise might be for you to set aside a certain percentage of your travel budget—not enough to make your trip financially unfeasible, but perhaps enough so that you might have to forgo a few luxuries—for giving to those who ask. You’ll still have to say no to some people, but a practice of planned, specific giving feels better than a blanket position of refusal.

As I wrote this, I had to stop myself from calling this approach “a happy medium” or describing this compromise as a fair one. There’s nothing happy about it. I encourage you to not ignore the sadness and anger that you might feel when you have to say no to some people; these are reasonable responses to the ravages of capitalism and colonialism. This is one of those times when choosing not to harden your heart may mean allowing your heart to break.

Love and solidarity, Emma Scoldman

 

DEAR EMMA SCOLDMAN,

I met this guy through a mutual friend and I'm really into him. We've gone on half a dozen dates so far, and the chemistry is crackling. We have a great time together and the sex is great.

The trouble is, he told me on our last date that he needs to be able to call his partner a girl in bed. That's weird both because 1. I'm non-binary, and he repeatedly assumed I'm a woman even though I'm super open about who I am, and 2. I'm a fucking adult.

He otherwise checks all the boxes: beautiful, confident but not a douche, seems to be genuinely kind, has close friends of at least two genders, has baseline emotional labor skills, has interesting hobbies to talk about but doesn't dominate conversations with his interests and seems to actually care about what I have to say, and of course, super-duper attracted to me. He gave me the best orgasm I've ever had while on psychiatric medication, so it's really a bummer to have to let him go. But calling an adult a girl in bed? Especially when said adult, me, is not a woman? I've gotta let him go, don't I?

The real question is: do I scold him? How much of his education am I responsible for when I dump him, and how much joy am I allowed to take while dumping his ass without crossing the line into unseemliness? I want to be the bigger person here, because I'm, you know, an adult.

Not A Girl

 

Dear Not A Girl,

While I also find it off-putting when adult men use the term “girl” for their partners (in any setting), it’s not necessarily inherently wrong for a man to enjoy calling his partner “girl” during sex. As kinky folks everywhere can attest, many people enjoy consensual bondage, power play, and all sorts of behavior that they would never participate in outside of the proverbial bedroom. Emma Scoldman is not in the business of kink-shaming.

My concern, however, is not about this man’s sexual proclivities. My concern is about whether or not this man is willing to respect consent and boundaries. Everyone gets to set their own sexual limits, and if you don’t want to be called a girl, in sexual contexts or otherwise, then no one gets to call you a girl. Period. He certainly shouldn’t have assumed you were comfortable with that term—to make that assumption about a non-binary person is insensitive and transphobic, even if he didn’t intend it as such.

We all make compromises in our relationships. If he wants to continue seeing you, then he needs to do so without using this one word during sex. If, on the other hand, he’s simply unwilling to respect your boundaries around what language he uses during sex, that’s a major red flag in terms of his trustworthiness (or lack thereof) around consent, and you absolutely should dump him. Maybe in the future, he’ll remember to check in first with his partners about what sort of dirty talk they do or don’t like.

Love and solidarity, Emma Scoldman

 

DEAR EMMA SCOLDMAN,

For the most part, I'm very happy at my shul. I like the rabbis, and the community is very warm and welcoming. My main issue is that there is a cultural norm wherein men kiss women on the cheek to say hello. I hate this so much. Not every man does this every time, but it is common enough that no one seems to blink when it happens. There's a significant age difference—I'm decades younger than the average member of my shul. For what it’s worth, I doubt these men think twice about what they're doing. For them, it's more or less like shaking hands (except they wouldn't kiss another man's face, but that's a whole other issue). But after one particularly egregious case (I avoided a hug from X, 10 minutes later he pulled me in for a cheek-kiss hard enough to leave a mark on my wrist for a few minutes afterwards), I went to the rabbi. Thankfully, he was very understanding and has taken steps with the board to figure out how to address this broadly. He even wrote a D’var Torah in the local Jewish paper about unsolicited kisses being bad in the context of Rachel and Jacob at the well.

I don't want to have to give Consent 101 lectures at shul, and I'm afraid of getting too emotional if I have to explain what's bothering me. Or is this just a generational divide that I need to learn to tolerate?

Don’t Kiss Me

 

Dear Don’t Kiss Me,

Whatever the reason for this behavior (hint: patriarchy!) you do not need to “learn to tolerate” being touched or kissed without your consent. Even if this touching is meant to be friendly and benign, it sets a creepy precedent. To be very clear: you should not have to take on the labor and responsibility of teaching these men about consent. They’re the ones at fault, not you.

The bind we’re in is that unless someone takes on the labor of making these behaviors stop, I doubt they will. Next time a man moves in for a cheek kiss, you might try stepping back, and saying calmly but firmly, “Hey, please don’t kiss me, thanks,” then quickly shift the conversation to “How’s your Shabbat going? What are your kids up to these days?” or any other pleasant, neutral piece of small talk. You can be friendly, but you certainly don’t need to apologize or act as though you’re in the wrong. What you want to do here is set the standard of good behavior: this person will respect your boundaries for your body, and if they don’t then they—not you—are the one behaving inappropriately. If they ask about it or push, you can repeat “I don’t want to be kissed,” as many times as necessary. If they harp on it, then they’re the ones being obviously creepy and disrespectful of boundaries.

Women are often socialized to avoid making men uncomfortable at any cost. While keeping your safety in mind (these fears are, unfortunately, not unreasonable), I encourage you to experiment with prioritizing your own comfort. If these men feel embarrassed, well, maybe they should feel that way, and it will remind them to respect your “no” next time.

Love and solidarity, Emma Scoldman

 

DEAR EMMA SCOLDMAN,

One of my dearest longtime friends recently confessed to me that he voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. This friend has always been there for me when I needed him, and I've found him to be consistently genuine and kind. He said that while he doesn't support many of Trump's actions, he still believes he made the best decision at the time given the information he had. I've been too shocked and nervous to continue the conversation. His friendship is important to me, but I don't think I can get past this. What should I do?

 Flummoxed Friend

 

Dear Flummoxed Friend,

I would not blame you in the slightest if you decided to cut this friend off. This administration’s actions cause real damage to real people’s lives. Would you want to be friends with someone who supported taking away your healthcare? Banned people by religion from entering the country? Described neo-Nazis and white supremacists as “very fine people"? Bragged about being a sexual predator? Living under this would-be fascist government is stressful enough; you don’t need to be friends with someone who condones Trump’s policies.

And yet, I don’t think you’d have written this letter if you were completely comfortable with the choice to unequivocally cut this person off. That’s fair—longtime friendships are hard to simply end. And if, like me, you possess some privilege—i.e., we’re not the first on Trump’s chopping block—we may have the responsibility to at least try and reason with the fascist sympathizers in our lives, because we carry less risk in doing so than so many more marginalized folks.

So, let’s consider: what if your friend actually meant it when he said that he doesn’t support many of Trump’s actions? What if he believes people shouldn’t die for lack of insurance, that Nazis are vile, that the US shouldn’t ban immigrants and refugees from countries that we destabilized, that queer and trans people should not be denied basic legal protections, that black lives do, indeed, matter? If even some of this is true—if, contrary to his vote, he believes in basic human dignity—then he can prove it. If he truly values your friendship, and if he’s truly the good person you once believed him to be, then he should willingly take this opportunity to do some significant, challenging, inconvenient teshuvah and political action. He should take some time to educate himself by researching and reading work by people who were already deeply marginalized before November 2016, and whose lives are now even more at risk. While he gives of his time, he ought to also give of his resources: he could donate a significant-for-him amount of money to a rape crisis center, or to bail funds for black folks who are incarcerated under a racist legal system, or to an abortion fund, or to any of the countless movements fighting for justice against enormous odds.

You said that this friend has “always been there when [you] needed him.” Right now, being there for you, as a friend, means helping you to resist fascism. The onus is on him to prove whether or not he’s capable of being that friend.

Love and solidarity, Emma Scoldman

 

Emma Scoldman (Yonit Friedman) lives, creates, and organizes in Brooklyn.