The H-Word: WTF, America.

Melissa Petro
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photo of students rioting at Penn State

Every now and again I’m struck immobile by the state of our nation. I had wanted to prepare an article on the risks of sex work, real versus imagined, but I’m thinking what the fuck. Why bother. This country sucks. No one’s listening. I turned on the news this morning and they’re rioting at Penn State over the firing of a football coach, a man who played a pivotal role in covering up the actions of a child molester. In the next segment, a Republican audience is booing Maria Bartiromo for questioning their candidate about claims of sexual harassment, two of which extend beyond allegations into the realm of fact, as those cases were settled. Whatever he says, they cheer. This is the same candidate who said that the unemployed and working poor should “blame themselves” and insinuated that a woman who is raped and gets pregnant has exercised a choice. This is the same audience who booed a gay soldier, cheered another candidate’s unparalleled record of execution and supported another candidate’s conclusion that an uninsured man be allowed to die. This is not my country, I sometimes think. I don’t belong here. “Let’s get out of here,” I say to my partner, who is getting dressed for work. I mean let’s leave this country, this city and our apartment, which is rent-controlled and so we will never leave. This is my home, this disorganized space which in the morning smells of coffee and sleep, the sweet smell of two familiar bodies. And go where? He says. Clink goes the heat kicking on. They’ve cut to a commercial.

Last night I had the privilege to attend Breakout: Voices from Inside, a fundraiser in support of the PEN Writing Program, which provides hundreds of inmates across the country with skilled writing teachers as well as audiences for their work. Last night’s event featured invited guests reading the poetry and creative nonfiction of currently incarcerated men and women, followed by a panel discussion.

“Imagine being in a room for years the size of your bathroom with only hostility around you,” author Susan Rosenberg beseeched us. Prison, it was described, is a place of rules, regulations and restrictions. “Imagine spending the most productive years of your life living in a cage.” Sitting in the gallery of the National Arts Club next to Audacia Ray, with whom I’ve just had a lovely working dinner (it is always and never work when you do what you love), I can’t imagine. I won’t pretend to try or to equate any experience I’ve ever had to the experience of being locked up, although I used watch those prison shows on TV and think how it reminded me of teaching. Not always but too often, teaching children was less about teaching and more about managing. In graduate school, we were taught how to “manage” a classroom. We were taught theories of discipline rather than content. In practice, this meant bribing kids with “table points” which added up to prizes (most often, candy). We trained the children like dogs to follow rules that only make sense when you are one of thirty. When you are institutionalized, the answer is no. No, you may not go to the bathroom. No, you may not wash your hands. Sit down. Stay in your seat. Raise your hand. Speak only when you are called on, and the answer’s still no. 

In prison, one of last night’s speakers said, there is no positive reenforcement. There is only punishment and the risk of making it worse. In this way, an individual labelled a convict is defined only by the negative. A convict is defined by her crime. “People are frozen in their worst moments,” Susan said, adding that “it is a very hard thing to live with.” Susan Rosenberg didn’t discuss why she, herself, had been locked up in prison and I was glad because this information was beside the point. Guilty, innocent and everything in between, “we are all people with something to say,” Susan said. “Prison takes that from you, or tries to.”

black and white photo of a girl scribbling on a chalkboardSometimes I am an angry person, and to be an angry woman in this culture is particularly not good. I feel as if I walk this earth clenched up tight like a fist. Sometimes I think they are right, the word for me is unbecoming. Unbecoming: not appropriate, unattractive, not flattering. Unsightly. Something or someone that should be neither seen nor heard. But I refuse to be invisible! I fight and fight and fight! Some days it all feels like too much. Some days, I want only to surrender, to call off this fight I’ve picked with the world. Some days, I prefer to be numb, asleep, invisible, to be silent, to be nothing at all. I let myself sleep in and not leave the house but to walk the dog. I watch TV. I don’t write. I let myself be lulled into complacency by all my comforts: food with no nutritional value, my warm apartment and the Real Housewives of what-the-fuck-wherever. Because if it wasn’t either anger or dumb and numb there might be sadness. I mean sorrow. Floods of disappointment, confusion, alienation. Don’t turn to MSNBC. Don’t watch Comedy Central or risk feeling alienated by the unbelievable amount of sexual harassment jokes and rioting in support of child molestation—provided that the child molester wins football games—and suddenly I am mad again. This is a childish way to live. 

“I don’t write good unless I see something wrong happening,” one of last night’s speakers had said. “I turn on the TV, the news–” he laughed– “that’s where my motivation comes from.” He talked about his experience of writing in prison. He described being led from his cell and gathering with others, together, in one room. “We had the agent of oppression sitting outside the door,” he laughed again. He talked about the honesty, people expressing themselves in their writing, saying things in ways they couldn’t say out loud. “In that hour and a half you were no longer in the penitentiary,” he said. “You were somewhere else.”

a prison cell window with grass growing outside

When I stopped having sex for money, I told myself I would not overthink it. Right or wrong, it wasn’t right for me. It was killing me, in fact. Whether it was the actual work or the stigma surrounding it, prostitution was destroying me. It was making me feel so alone and lonely, the isolation and the alienation I felt was unbearable. The money and the sexual attention did nothing to assuage my loneliness, in fact it only made it worse, and so I had to stop. I had to stop drinking and thinking myself into despair. I needed to be “normal.” Get a “normal” job. Surrender. Again, when I surrendered my case against the DOE, I promised myself I would not be angry forever. I told myself I had to let go. 

As I’ve previously written, it is my experience that when society turns its back on you, you turn your back on society. It takes incredible courage, humility and strength to turn back around. Prisons don’t reform people—last night’s speakers seemed to be claiming—but those locked up in prisons, it was evident, could be reformed in spite. In spite of everything they’d gone through, no one who spoke last night sounded angry. Some days I realize I haven’t let go. I don’t let go entirely because I believe in the depth of me that there’s something worth holding on to. Yes, there is something worth holding on to—but whatever that is, it’s not anger.  


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24 Comments Have Been Posted

Thank you. Thank you so much

Thank you. Thank you so much for this. I literally can not express how grateful I feel for this entire post. I have been lurking around the Bitch blogs for a long time now, and I have read many, but this is the first one that has gotten me to make a comment. Not because any of the others were not comment-worthy, of course, but because this one literally came at the perfect time. I have been feeling so angry, and if I'm not angry, I am just numb. And it really is because if I don't hold onto the anger, or succumb to numbness, I will just be so, so sad. I have become a social recluse lately because I feel like I can never escape the constant criticism of EVERYONE! Sexism is killing me. I'm supposed to feel empowered, embrace my sexuality.. and yet, at least once a day I hear a guy make some rape 'joke', and it's back in my shell I go. Everytime I'm feeling good, someone says or does something sexist that just brings me right back down. Thank you again for this. It was simlpy perfect.

Wow, did I write this?

<p>I'm with you, lurker. I'm afraid to leave my home, because I never know if I'll "just" get yelled or whistled at, or if this is one of the times I'll be followed and/or molested. Either way, I'm sure to go home feeling like crap. I catch myself wondering, when I have to run errands, if this time I'll be lucky enough to not be sexually harassed at all, which is so gross. Stepping outside without being threatened and having strangers assert a perceived right to my body is not "<em></em>luck"; that's the bare minimum of what's acceptable.</p>
<p>Melissa, like a lot of people, I found this post is beautiful and timely. The news recently, especially from Penn State, has been so disheartening, and I'm sick of the constant mansplaining that, "Some countries have it worse!" Being a woman, a victim of violence, or both in the USA is not "luck," either, and demanding better doesn't make us weak.</p>


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Thank you for this. I think

Thank you for this. I think it's important to remember that while anger can be empowering, sadness can also be empowering. It's often hard for us as feminists to feel like we are showing any "weaknesses", but allowing ourselves to feel sadness can be empowering in the way that we are shaking off the concept of showing emotions as "weakness" and acknowledging that allowing ourselves to care for others can be powerful and that sadness can be motivating. Sadness and empathy are also important tools in working against a political and economic system that teaches us that empathy for others is weakness. It isn't and we need to show them how powerful and necessary it is.

".... it is my experience

".... it is my experience that when society turns its back on you, you turn your back on society."

So very true, and that's my experience as well. For so long I had all the energy in the world to rage and work and fight against the powers that be, but the older I get the more I feel that energy being drained from me. The fight feels too be, the obstacles too enormous. I hope I can somehow find the courage to stand back up, but how long can we fight this endless, losing battle?

This is beautiful. Thank you

This is beautiful. Thank you for writing this.

I share your anger and

I share your anger and frustration but I wouldn't stop at calling Jerry Sandusky a "child molester". He's a child rapist. He raped a boy in the showers of the Penn State lockerrooms. That's so beyond "molestation" that the former almost sounds like a euthamism to me. But also remember, while some students went on a riot, other students, faculty and alumni wore blue (the color worn in rememberance of child abuse victims). And not everyone at the Republican debates booed the soldier, cheered over the death penalty, etc. There are some people out there that do stupid things, but there are many that don't and it's best to perhaps focus on those who don't behave and think terrible things.

Thank you so much for this

Thank you so much for this posting. I literally just finished having a discussion (read, fight) with my partner on the very issue of the football coach and the surrounding culture of football, and after finally blowing up and questioning how he could still watch a sport that supports secrecy, aggression, and abuse as ideal characteristics of manhood, I walked away in tears. Then I came to Bitch Media, and here your article is! I too feel "as if I walk this earth clenched up tight like a fist," and it is so frustrating to me that my own partner, whom I love and share my life with, cannot fathom what I see and feel in this world. Thank goodness Bitch is here so that I am reminded that I am not alone in my frustrations!

Thank you thank you thank you

Thank you thank you thank you thank you.

I am so happy to have read this post.


Can I ask what the pictures are?

The first pic is from the NY

<p>The first pic is from the NY Times article on Joe Paterno. I thought it was fitting because I feel like everyone in the picture looks a lot like the 'popular' kids I went to high school with, and they are all pointing and laughing at me. The second picture was found by googling "vietnam war photograph child fire." I was looking for that iconic photograph of the napalmed children running in the street, but then I found this one-- which was called "disturbed child"-- and it seemed more fitting. I forget how I found the third picture. I think I searched "prison wall" at Deviant Art. Incidentally, if you think <em>you</em> have problems, google image search "vietnam war photograph child fire." Seriously.</p>

I find it ironic ...

I find it ironic that you obsess over the COLOR of the attacker (white) and the GENDER of the attacker (male). You even label PSU a "quasi-RELIGIOUS" university -- a truly bizarre label given that PSU is rigidly secular and government-run.

But .. what you obsessively IGNORE in your artciles on the scandal is the SEXUAL ORIENTATION of the attacker. Yes, gasp, we have yet another, ahem, homosexual serial rapist on our hands.


Catholic priests committing serial rape of teenage boys. And the Media calls is "pedophilia" .. a grossly false description since pedophiles explicitly focus on pre-pubescent children often without regard to orientation, while virtually all of the priest molestations were of pubescent boys. That is, the NAMBLA profile victim.

And here, an adult male having anal sex with a 12 year old pubescent male in the showers is not "pedophilia". It is a gay man acting out the EXTREMELY COMMON gay fantasy of a twink partner.

But keep it quiet, okay? Just point out their RACE and GENDER and keep it hush hush as to their HOMOSEXUALITY.

I wonder if you appreciate the IRONY of your condemning others for "covering up" facts.


...take your homophobia to another site. Thanks.

Race and gender were

Race and gender were mentioned in the context of privilege not cause. And to be gay provides no privileges.

There is so much wrong with you're saying.

<p>I'd get into it line-by-line if I thought you were interested in a civil conversation. As it is, let's go with the most egregious bit, for the sake of other readers:</p>
<p><em>And here, an adult male having anal sex with a 12 year old pubescent male in the showers is not "pedophilia". It is a gay man acting out the EXTREMELY COMMON gay fantasy of a twink partner.</em></p>
<p>I'm aware that the term "pedophilia" has a wider definition than it used to, but whether one calls it "pedophilia," "hebephilia," or anything else, someone who rapes a child is a <em>child rapist</em>. Simple, and yes, a twelve-year-old is a child, while the term "twink" in queer culture refers to a gay <em>young man</em>, as in, an adult. Even if you were right that "a twink partner" is an "EXTREMELY COMMON gay fantasy"--and how, exactly, do you claim to know that?--equating the rape of a child with a sexual encounter between adults is ridiculous.<em></em></p>
<p>Sandusky victimized kids. Trying to turn that into a condemnation of a huge population's consensual sex life isn't just homophobic; it's absurd.<em><br></em></p>

Don't feed the troll

<p>Troll: One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.</p>
<p>This comment ("I find it ironic...") is not in response to my post. I didn't mention anyone's race or gender. I didn't label PSU a "quasi-religious" university. My piece is not about the "covering up" of anything. "David Sanchez," maybe you are responding to the link(?), or to another article you have read on the subject or to the homophobic voices in your head. Urban Dictionary has a word for commentators like this one and that word is "troll." Don't feed them.</p>


Go back to your bridge, where you belong...out of sight., you homophobe.

Thank you

Thank you, for this today. To read so much that is in my head so many days on a computer screen and know it is in someone else's head (of course it is. why wouldn't it be!!) is important.

Word. Thanks for this.

Word. Thanks for this.

Canada wants you grrrl!

Move to Canada! It is different. It is so beautiful here!
even though my family doesn't have that much money we've never ever had to worry about paying for medical bills. (if we did we would be not just on the poverty line we'd be super poor.)
There are a lot of stereotypes about Canada but I really love my country and I wouldn't want to leave it. Maybe you could even learn French and live in Montreal, that city is so fun and sexy! :)
In my province you are never more than a half hour from the ocean, the beaches are so beautiful and the city of Calgary Alberta is a place where you can make a TON of money. People come from all over the country to make big money, they have an oil boom and are in need of workers. Even kids in grade school at fast food places make 18 dollars an hour.
We like Americans, we even learn about them in school.

be proud.

be proud that this is your country. be proud that you have the OPTION to applaud a presidential candidate, because he represents your beliefs, or boo someone who is attacking his personal life, and not asking about his presidential policies or what he can do for the country. be proud that you can riot because your school lost someone great, someone who was actually a face of your institution, because they were fired after 40+ years of service all because they told the athletic director and nothing was done. but also be proud that "justice" was done (if that's your opinion) since he and all the alleged are now resigned, fired, or facing criminal charges. be proud that you actually have the CHOICE to sell yourself in order to help provide for yourself or your family instead of just suffering and having you or your kids pick through garbage because your government wont help. but also be proud that you chose a different and better life, and you actually had the CHOICE to choose. be PROUD that you can actually express yourself for millions to read, reflect, and relate. sometimes in life we take things for granted. even simple things such as the CHOICE to post your opinions on a website, when across the globe there are people who don't have choices. women who get raped and don't have the choice of going to authorities. teenage girls in Africa who undergo FGM (female genital mutilation) and have to suffer from genital infection or tetanus with NO medical help and never had a choice. you have your opinion, and i have mine, and we all have our own. but that's the thing about this country that people forget or take for granted. i don't like politics, and I'm aware that the government is cruel, insensitive, and greedy, but be thankful, be appreciative that you still have the freedoms to express yourself and shape your life in your desire. whether it's morally wrong to you or not. I'm not arguing against ANYTHING your writing about, that's not my intention, i only ask that if you take into account the freedom of life that we have over a lot of other people in this world, even though all humans should be blessed with the same freedom, they aren't given it by other humans who seems to think they shouldn't have it. so thank you for posting this, because we all need to appreciate our ability to have choices. and as you taught me, i hope that i have shed knowledge on you as well. take care.

American Values

And you, anonymous, are a proud child rapist defender. Your mother (or young siblings) must be so proud.

Look, these kinds of "Be proud you live in a country where you can speak poorly of it" arguments are plagued with straw man logic. Being proud of one's country does not preclude one from articulating its social ills. And what seems more ironic and contradictory to me is that in these overplayed and predictable pedestrian straw man arguments, you are, essentially, advocating silence (not to mention, again, RAPE). And being silent is not American.

Thank you.

I agree with you completely.

Can't Believe I Thought I Was Alone...

I always feel alone in my quest for equal rights, because I'm so disgusted with it all. It's depressing. It feels as if I'm yelling and no one can hear me. It's repulsive that after all this time we're STILL fighting for equal rights, the right to an abortion, women health clinics. Sometimes I feel like giving up, because it becomes too much to bear.

Yet, I keep fighting, because it disgusts me so.

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