Martial Arts for Feminist Journos
Four days after the Ghost Ship fire, I was sitting awake at 4 a.m. in front of an empty Word document, crying. I was crying not only from immense fear and feelings of loss, but because I could not bring myself to write. And that made me feel useless.
The requests to cover the tragedy began arriving almost immediately. Editors empathized and understood my initial nauseated refusal. But a sharp sense of shame accompanied that admission — a shame that jabbed at me incessantly, because it seemed to confirm my lingering suspicion that I was too soft to be a real journalist.
When I finally decided that I would, in fact, contribute to the Ghost Ship media storm, it was in part because friends had convinced me that it would mean something to them if I were to stand up for the underground artist community. But it was also, in part, to prove to myself that I had what it takes; that I am not too emotional, too anxious, or too weak to be not merely a writer, but a Reporter.
Yet, on the one day that I had set aside to hole myself up and write, as many colleagues I admired had been doing, I couldn’t stand to be alone. I wandered to the house of my friend who had been missing and cried with a dozen others as we heard the final news. When I returned home, I had nothing to say.
Finally, around dawn, I patched together an emotionless op-ed for the Washington Post. It was all that I could muster, and it sounded nothing like me.
In the months since, as that shame has subsided, I’ve reflected on my internalized biases and assumptions about what it means to be a successful journalist. I’ve held in my thoughts a slightly younger version of myself who had only a skeletal sense of what kind of writer she wanted to be, or had the capacity to become. Cutting my teeth at a newspaper helmed by men who I looked up to, my experience enforced what popular depictions of journalists had proposed to be the case: That to be a worthy reporter required a toughness, assertiveness, and emotional impenetrability that was wrapped up in notions of masculinity — and which felt hopelessly contradictory to my own character. In short, I had subscribed to a gendered system of assigning journalistic merit that dismissed the worth of characteristics normally considered feminine.
That’s not to say that because I am a woman, I inherently approach reporting with a set of practices defined by my femininity — although that enduring assumption has been prevalent ever since women gained permission to publish work in mainstream outlets. It is rather to say that because of my predilections — and, in part, because of the ways that society has groomed me based on my biology — I find it difficult to employ certain masculinized practices, which, through a long history of the journalism industry structurally privileging cis-men, have come to be seen as the epitome of what a real journalist looks like; have come to render other approaches less than legitimate; have, at times, made me feel less than.
Sixteen-year-old me is lying naked in the bedroom of the boy to whom I lost my virginity, attempting to articulate the feeling of just not being in the mood — a concept that his teenage brain finds challenging and oftentimes hurtful. I try to explain, in the words I have available to me, that opening myself up to penetration requires a certain kind of emotional work; that although it might seem as if I am merely acting as a receptacle for his thrusts, it takes effort — effort that I sometimes don’t feel like exerting.
I think about that clumsy conversation when I think about “circlusion,” a feminist term proposed last year by Berlin-based writer Bini Adamczak. “Circlusion” denotes the opposite of penetration, specifically in the context of penetrative sex. It’s what we would use to refer to the act of a vagina, mouth, anus, etc. encircling a penis, dildo, finger, etc., and thrusting onto it. Technically, the sex act stays the same. But “circlusion” shifts the active agent away from the penetrator and names the effort of the other partner, typically rendered passive.
As Adamczak unpacks the illogical ways we talk about sex, she writes: “Stranger still is that a person who has genital sex, tensing their pelvic muscles all the while and vigorously rocking their hips, can nevertheless believe themselves to be the one who got fucked. This person is encouraged to think that they have ‘bottomed’ even if they were lying on top! Simply because they functioned as the bearer of the vagina or anus in relation to the possessor of the dildo/penis. […] It’s remarkable how quickly this supposed link between power and effort is forgotten where blowjobs are concerned… but that’s beside the point. What concerns me here is that this direct link exists between penetrating and power. That’s what has to go.”
Adamczak’s essay is itself clumsy at moments, but it provides a foundation on which we might begin to understand the direct link between macho-ness and journalistic respect. Just as we culturally assign power to the penetrator, we award perceived competence to journalists who insert themselves into situations and extract the desired information — asserting power over a source, or dominating a story, if you will. But what of the journalist who is an exceptional listener, or a quiet and keen observer; who draws out information from a source by making them comfortable; who is so sensitive that they can feel out a story on an intuitive level?
By favoring masculinity in journalism, we effectively erase an entire set of skills that are as essential as the valorized digging and pushing and door-knocking. These are approaches rooted in the strategic and deliberate practice of receptiveness and the knowledge that listening is not a passive activity, but rather an active one that must be honed.
I believe that journalists of all genders are already practicing these approaches to varying degrees. We just don’t talk about them. We don’t because, ironically, we don’t have the language. And because the logic of American life is to erase feminized labor, to assume that the receiver is relinquishing agency, and, in turn, to assume that to be the receiver is to be fucked. This is the logic that most obviously governs rape culture, and seeps into nearly every other crevice of our hyper-gendered lives.
What would it mean to begin valuing the circlusive acts? How would it change our conceptions of sex and journalism and power dynamics in general? And beyond increased equity, what is there to gain?
At a certain point in his early twenties, my ten-years-older brother stopped giving me noogies. Instead, he’d put me in these painful wrist locks, where he’d twist my hand and push it up against my chest. Rather than resisting, he’d advise me to “fall into it.” And eventually, I learned that I could escape by following the flow of his attack, twisting my arm under and out of the knot.
At that point, my brother (like my father) was an avid practitioner of aikido, a martial art that also doubles as a philosophical approach to life and relationships — something he was obviously taking a little too literally. Rather than practicing in opposition to a competitor, aikidokas practice alongside a long-term partner. Each person takes turns being the nage (the thrower) and the uke (the receiver) of attacks. Each is contingent on the other, so in order for an attack to be “honest” (that is, properly executed), it must be properly received — something that often looks like twisting your arm out of a hold or gracefully tumbling onto a mat.
I’m no aikido expert, but I find the basic philosophy informative. As I’ve been taught, the practice of receiving is the most difficult and important aspect. It involves anticipating and adjusting to balance the physical power differences between you and your partner, while also dismissing projections of what your partner might do next in order to broaden their possibilities of movement and best react in the moment. It means strategically opening yourself up to an energetic blow with the intention of harnessing that energy and throwing it back at your partner.
As the Aikido West online handbook advises: “It is helpful to remember that as uke, your primary responsibility is to serve your partner. Try to bring out his or her best. This is best accomplished through sincerity and sensitivity: by bringing them to the edge of their capabilities and extracting their maximum performance, but without undue strain.”
I understand why journalists are expected to be tough. There’s an inherent vulnerability to the profession that elicits compensation. Publishing publicly means that you’ll always be up against critics, angry sources, and threats of legal action, if not outright violence. So, the answer is to grow a thick skin and keep a pint of whiskey in your desk drawer. The trope of the heavy-drinking journalist endures, I suspect because it offers a cool way to cope with frequent emotional attacks. (I prefer to cry. And often do.)
But being a journalist is also a position of privilege and power. In your choice of words, you hold the decision of what will be added to a historical record assumed to be objective. There’s a due diligence involved with that power: research, fact-checking, and getting “both sides” of the story. But, beyond reaching out for comment, we also hold the responsibility of attempting to shift that power onto our source — to assist them in offering us their most honest and accurate testimony. And doing that well, I’d say, is not so different than being a well-trained uke.
Along with centering notions of masculinity in journalism, we center a sense of accuracy that is based on feeling out for lies and condemning the bad guys. Of course, rigorous watchdog journalism is of utmost importance. But accuracy, as an ideal, is so much larger and muddier than that narrow definition suggests.
I often write profiles of people who have niche and unwavering views about identity politics, a process that exposes the challenging intricacies of accuracy. Is it more accurate, for instance, to describe people the way you see them, or to describe them as they see themselves? The former is necessary in many cases, but in others robs sources of the agency to self-define. As a journalist, your job is to document the world in the terms that we’ve all agreed to recognize; so how, then, to best write about identities that complicate those terms? How to allow those subjects to show themselves rather than simply be seen?
I prefer to conceptualize reporting as channeling the world around me, rather than documenting it — and I’m convinced that’s the more accurate approach. What if we conceptualized the practice as filtering for lies, rather than picking at the world and pulling out the truth? Ultimately, the act looks the same. But the way we talk about it, think about it, internalize it, is important.
A few months ago, I gave a workshop on the necessity of not making assumptions about sources from marginalized communities — deeply and openly listening to them — in order to more accurately report their stories. Afterwards, a young Asian-American journalism student approached me to ask how, first, to deal with sources making assumptions about her. When being herself, she’s seen as too docile to be taken seriously as a journalist, she said. And when trying to appear assertive, she is seen as an Angry Asian Chick.
I told her that as a fellow Asian-American woman, I constantly struggle with those same expectations and so many more. I suggested that she leverage her sources’ underestimation of her to tease out quotes that other journalists might never hear. But I wish I could offer her more than how best to work with what she’s given.
Expanding our recognition of valuable journalistic tactics means letting more people in; allowing more writers to hone their strengths rather than waste time attempting to fit into a sometimes ill-fitting mold of success. It’s important because it can mean reassuring someone who’s been told that they’re too soft to write hard news, by letting them know that having what it takes sometimes looks like holding space for sensitivity.