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Monday, November 16, 2009

Against Pseudonymity and Sexual Shame


posted by Silvana
I've been fascinated with the internet since about 1998. It was during the spring of my sophomore year of high school that my best friend turned me on to a website whose name I can't even remember now. I do remember that it was a fan site for Ani DiFranco, with whom I was obsessed at the time. I wonder sometimes if it still exists. I think it happens this way for many people--their imaginations first alight on the internet because it provides the possibility of being able to connect with people who think like you, talk like you, fangirl-out like you, act like you or fuck like you.

In my particular case, my best friend and I would geek out on the Ani DiFranco fansite in the computer lab after school; neither of us had internet at home. Both of us were self-styled poets, and the fan site had a section where people could post their poetry, get feedback, and comment on the works of others. We would hurry over to the computer lab every day to see whether we'd gotten any more feedback and to look for the new entries of our favorite writers there.

That year we were both in an English class taught by a brilliant, beautiful, sharp-tongued Canadian woman who kicked our asses almost every single day. She was demanding, funny, incredibly secretive and more than a little neurotic. We didn't study that much poetry in her class, but it was her course that turned me into a poet. She believed it was vital that young students understand literary and rhetorical devices, and quizzed us on them relentlessly. Merely knowing the names of these devices, and being able to spot them, made me suddenly fascinated with the contents of my own work. We were assigned the task of writing a Shakespearean sonnet with a litany of said devices employed; I worked on mine for weeks. Having a massive girlcrush on a teacher is certainly a good way to get one to work hard.

We also joined the high school's Writer's Group, which met weekly and was surprisingly free-wheeling. Sometimes the faculty adviser showed up, sometimes he didn't. We sat in the backyard of one of the participants and smoked cigarettes right in front of the teacher, who either didn't care or pretended not to. We drank coffee and some of the seniors would even drink wine. We would read our latest work, attempt to give each other feedback, and shoot the shit.

It was these two communities, both online and off, where I started to grow as a thinker, a feminist, and a writer. I can't emphasize enough how important it was to me to be exposed to women just a few years older than me, confident and cosmopolitan-seeming, who said things that first shocked and then galvanized me.

Now I'm part of a different, bigger, much more diffuse community of feminist bloggers and thinkers. Yet, I don't feel that I can throw myself fully into membership, and I think that artifact of blogging, pseudonymity, is partly to blame.

When I started really being involved in the internet, like most people, I had no idea that I was going to become a blogger that anyone had ever heard of. My first significant contribution was as a commenter at Unfogged, which is where I first became acquainted with and deeply influenced by our blogmistress, the original Bitch. I commented under my own first name. I had a livejournal under my own first name (now defunct). I didn't know, or think about, the fact that who I was might end up mattering. Eventually, I started to think that it might matter. So, about three years ago, I adopted the pseudonym M. LeBlanc, deleted my livejournal, and started a blog called Rock, Paper, Swords which wasn't read by too many people beyond my friends from Unfogged.

Last Friday, I was guest-blogging for Spencer Ackerman at Attackerman, and one commenter said something that reminded me of this whole history, this whole life of writing that I've been relaying. He said "I’m having a hard time forming an opinion about your opinion, since you blog under an initial and I therefore can’t tell your gender." He was being funny, but I didn't realize that for about thirty seconds and I was like "whoa."

You see, when I first adopted the pseudonym M. LeBlanc, I was intending on blogging under a genderless identity. M. LeBlanc was the pseudonym of the nineteenth-century mathematician Sophie Germain, which she adopted so she could actually get some of her work published. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to conceal my gender and see if it affected the reception of my work.

But I couldn't do it. I couldn't keep it up for more than a few weeks. It was too hard for me not to say things that would give away my gender. To talk about my relationships with men, to discuss feminism in an intensely personal way, to talk about my experience of street harassment. I gave up. Quickly.

Three years later, I'm thinking about giving up my pseudonymity entirely. I had coffee with Ann Friedman of Feministing and The American Prospect on Friday and we talked about the problems of pseudonymity. The thing is, writing under a pseudonym is absolutely great for blogging. Unfortunately, it's not much good for anything else. If you want to write for a major publication, even one that's just online, and if you want to get paid for your work writing anywhere, you basically have to write under your own name. Which is all well and good, except for that without my writing that I've done under a pseudonym, I'm nobody, just a young lawyer with a little work experience and a lot of attitude.

So I feel torn. While writing under a pseudonym, I've written about a lot of topics and said a lot of things I probably never would have said if I were worried about how they would reflect on my real identity. I wrote about my feelings about porn. I wrote about menstruation. I wrote about my sexual life as an adolescent. I wrote about street harassment again and again and again; I wrote about using emergency contraception. I wrote about being raped.

I look back and think, man, if I were writing under my real name, would I ever have written any of those things, all of which I'm proud of? I know I wouldn't have.

But why?

What is the source of my nagging feeling that if those things were on the internet, popping up under a Google search for the name I was given at birth, that a wide swath of the employers I might someday want to work for would never hire me?

It's one thing only: externally-imposed bogus sexual shame. It's not as if my political opinions are so far out as to represent some kind of employment liability. I'm a pretty standard liberal. I haven't written anything racist or offensive. No, the only reason I'm worried about these writings is that they acknowledge, frankly and openly, that I'm a sexual being. But it's not like I'm writing a sex blog filled with the details of my exploits. I'm simply exploring the ramifications of sex and sexuality in the life of a young woman, a politically-minded feminist. And that, to my mind, is dangerous.

At the same time, I've written a number of things that I would be proud and unhesitant to have associated with my real name. Things that I even think would reflect positively on my abilities as a lawyer and advocate. I wrote about the rhetoric keeping so-called terrorists in legal limbo in Guantanamo. I wrote about becoming a lawyer; I wrote about growing up as the child of a single father. I wrote about re-conceptualizing anti-choice violence, analyzed anti-choice rhetoric, and talked about the moral case against torture. I wrote about racial identity and intersectionality.

I've been wanting to come out of the pseudonymity closet for over a year, and each time I discuss it with my boyfriend, he seems perplexed by my fear. Each and every time, he asks me, what is it, what, that you've written that you think would be such a liability? I name the same topics that I named above. He is unconvinced, always. When he signed up for a twitter account and "followed" both me and his boss, I did a double-take and asked him if he was okay with the possibility that his bosses might read my blog and know it was me. He shrugged and said he thought the women who supervise him would dig my work.

Feminists rag on male privilege a lot, but I think my boyfriend's attitude here is one of the best kinds of privilege I know--the lack of fear. Being unafraid to be yourself, being unashamed about your personal and political views. Being confident. Not having that feeling that you're on the brink of making a single mistake that could make your whole life fall apart and doom you to a life of obscurity and mediocrity.

Since I'm unemployed, I've been thinking a lot about doing more writing. Maybe even getting paid for it every now and then. But I feel hampered by fear. Once you're out, you can't go back in, it's true. However, on some days, courageous days, I think, will I ever want to go back in? I've been writing ever since I was a kid--short stories, poetry, essays, diaries, reviews, polemics, confessionals. What makes me think that I'm going to want to stop any time soon?

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