American feminists have their work cut out for them. There are clear and articulated principles of gender equality that are alleged to be present in this country and that our more progressive representatives like to tout as signs of our modernity as a leading nation. It is the drastic measures by which we fall short of these standards that feminists can point to as the issue in need of a solution.
In so many other regions of the world, feminists face an entirely different set of challenges. There is no standard or expectation of women as equal. There is no ladder for women to climb; rather, they now find themselves having to build the ladder. From education to sexual freedom and reproductive rights, millions of women face many challenges that must be acknowledged within the context of current gender relations and power dynamics where they stand if they are to make progress that sticks. This is true in all cases of gender inequality, including the U.S., where matters of women’s rights are far from resolved, and where the belief that they have been hampers the next steps needed.
Here, the American college atmosphere is a far cry from “real life” life in terms of attitudes toward sexual and reproductive choices. Would-be progressive liberal arts universities seeking cred for being socially advanced advertise sexual exploration and dialogue as encouraged. Open discourse about diverse sexual orientations, safe sex, STDs, pregnancy/abortion, slut-shaming etc. is not uncommon on college campuses. They are, however, stunningly lacking in the post-college world. It often seems as if college is the designated time of discussion and exploration and calls for reproductive justice and individual control of bodies that all neatly comes to a close come graduation. At this time, post-grads are expected to entertain fewer sexual partners, commit to one orientation, be less vocal on issues of sex and essentially “settle down.”
When I first encountered this collegiate environment, I was inspired. Having grown up in an ultra-conservative and heavily Christian atmosphere, the discussion of sex had always been essentially non-existent. On the rare occasion that it was brought up, the message was abstinence only, and sex education was out of the question. As someone who realized fairly early on that I didn’t buy the agenda being presented to me, I was very frustrated with the stigma and social shame associated with issues so relevant to the experience of a teenage girl- in my case, a feminist bisexual teenage girl. My relief to be in an environment where that was no longer so taboo but rather embraced lasted only until I realized the limits of this newly found freedom. It exists only in this social scene, where it is acceptable to be “experimental” on the condition that it is only temporary. It is also widely non-inclusive and heteronormative, with little to no discussion of the experiences of trans or gender-nonconforming people. Too often people fall into the role of radical college feminist heralding the value of reproductive justice, sexual exploration, and the female experience, but abandon their stances upon the joining the “real world,” where that kind of rhetoric is simply “inflammatory” and “radical.”
Dialogue on gender inequality and experience cannot be compartmentalized to one life phase- it has to continue to be relevant every time and place if any progress is to be made. Gender awareness is not a trend, but a reality in every aspect of life for persons of every kind.