It's not a competition

Disclaimer: Blog is an ugly word. It distresses me. Creating and sharing work in an online forum on an author’s individual terms is such a lovely and liberating concept, but then I say the word outloud - BLOG - and I get a little vomit in my mouth. It’s like the word ‘masturbate’ - it’s as if someone decided to find the most unappealing and unattractive word imaginable and pair it with an activity that is actually quite harmless and enjoyable. Even Google doesn’t know where the word masturbate comes from *(see below screenshot from Google evidencing that Google doesn’t even know where the word comes from). But it was my blog that ultimately gave me the space to explore my own questions about the world around me - issues like gender inequality, poverty, racism, military culture, and the war on drugs. It was my blog that served as my entry point into applying for the Cultural Studies program.

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Mainstream it

I agonized over naming my blog. I spent $17 on a wordpress domain name that didn’t include the “” part. I wanted it to look legit, you know, like or I went back and forth between publishing it under my real name or using a witty alias. There were valid reasons to hide my identity: I had been terrorized for several years by a stalker. But I had also come to a point where I wanted to reclaim my name and stop living in fear - it had been years since he’d contacted me and I felt like publishing a blog was a deliberate and definitive way to reenter the world I’d been hiding from for so long. I would no longer be voiceless and faceless. I had shit to say, goddammit. I settled on Stephanie D. and I named my site mainstream that shit.

I planned to write about things that made people uncomfortable or things that were glossed over by the mainstream media - things that weren’t mainstream. My first entry was actually about guns. I don’t love guns, but I was once at a point where I felt I needed one for my personal protection - and I bought one. I was tired of seeing the extremely polarized pro- and anti-gun stances. There was no middle ground, no nuance. People were screaming at each other and no one was listening. I began to dissect the news stories I read. Were there actually only two sides to every issue? Nope. What wasn’t being said? How were the things that were being said framed or presented? I was also curious about how social issues were framed. Support for issues like same-sex marriage and cannabis was gaining momentum in Washington State when I began my blog. How did issues like this that were previously contentious gain social recognition and acceptance? As the name of my blog suggests, my theory about this was that we all had to talk about it a whole bunch until people got used to the (negatively received) idea. I still think this theory holds water, although obviously it’s become much more complicated through in-depth analyses I learned in Cultural Studies.

I was asking all these questions but I had no idea where to look for many of the answers - if, in fact, there were any answers. And I was dissatisfied with my career trajectory. After serving in the military and working as a corrections officer, I specifically wanted to do work that wouldn’t hurt people. My time in Iraq and in the corrections environment felt like a weight I was dragging behind me; yet, these very experiences kept getting me amazing job interviews - and then a really well-paying job - but I felt like they represented things I was no longer proud of, that I no longer identified with. Over the previous couple of years I’d attempted to engage with groups like VoteVets and The Truman National Security Project, both of which operate with the notion that military veterans are superlative humans. That idea was starting to gross me out, but I couldn’t figure out why. I come from a military family, all of whom take great pride in their service. Many of my friends, who also proudly proclaimed their veteran status, were involved in these organizations as well. I was having a really difficult time connecting with the sort of activism that is marketed and readily available. I was in political and intellectual limbo.

A few months after I published my first blog entry, my newly awakened mind was stalling; I didn’t know the answers to the cascading questions that drove me in circles around the Internet social justice blogosphere - in actuality, I wasn’t sure I was even asking the right questions. I started looking for graduate schools, but after going the practical route for my BA with a Security Management degree (read: boring and intellectually stifling), I decided to pursue something that satisfied my soul. I ruled out business school and the UW Master in Teaching program, I didn’t know what else there was to study. I actually did a Google search for evening classes in a 25-mile radius and the Master of Arts in Cultural Studies showed up in the top results, and everything clicked into place.

I didn’t know what the hell I would do with a Cultural Studies degree, but I knew that I had an untapped reservoir of passion and care within me, and my hopes/goals were to find ways to effectively channel that shit. My application letter (artifact 1) articulated this desire pretty clearly. In my letter, I provided an example of a group of veterans’ wives who wanted to help wounded veterans, but they didn’t check to see if what they were doing would actually be valuable to the people they were trying to help - and it turned out not to be. I knew I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted to be effective and useful. At that point I had no idea how to be useful, but my personal experiences as a soldier and corrections officer were prompting me to examine how gender and race and sexual violence shape our understanding of the world.

I believe it speaks to my level of institutional indoctrination that I didn’t think to include my blog entries in my application package. During the first and second quarters I struggled with imposter syndrome, and I kept apologizing for my  online for-profit undergraduate degree. I was getting good grades, but I didn’t know what that meant. But while at the time I didn’t feel like my personal writing was as important as my school writing, it was the very process of blog writing that helped me tease out the new and complicated ideas that were presented during our first quarter in Cultural Studies. It took me some time to recognize that my blog writing - that all my writing - was and is as valid and important as the writing I was doing in class.

“It’s not a competition”

The hell it’s not. I have a 3.9 GPA for the first time since 11th grade.


Sort of.

I didn’t have a 3.9 GPA in 11th grade.

“It’s not a competition,” the professors in our first core class reiterated for the second time that week. And it was a balm to my terrified, insecure, reeling-from-cultural-studies-vocabulary, over-taxed brain.

Our cohort was freshly formed and still testing the waters of intellectual collaboration. Our first real group project would be a teamwork proving grounds and would set the tone for our cohort dynamic for the next year and a half.

Chrysta, Nafasi, Mahala, and I were placed together in a group, and there was instant chemistry. These women were nice, they were kind, they were thoughtful, and they were brilliant. I began to realize the quality of the human beings in my classroom. My awareness shifted from my own anxieties and insecurities about being in the program to recognizing the value of my classmates. And as I recognized how amazing they were, I recognized the same qualities in myself. We were supposed to be there, all of us. Each of us brought strengths and unique experiences to the cohort. Each of us added to the collective awesomeness.

Throughout the program, it was the cohort that served as the site of my knowledge production, an extension of my own cognitive processes. It was where we posed questions and brought our ideas forward for consideration; it was where we recognized our own biases and became aware of our privilege. It was a site of support and, in many instances, friendship.

I’d never, ever, considered myself a good group member. I disliked the pressure and the compromise, and I hated having to trust that other people would pull their weight and do their work to an acceptable standard. In short, I wasn’t a great team player. But my first group project - the one with Nafasi, Chrysta, and Mahala - was transformative (artifact 2). For me, this project served as a representation of the larger cohort experience. Together, we challenged each other and our professors, and we questioned our own beliefs and recognized how ideas can be affected by context and lived experience. We validated each other and eased insecurities, and we supported each other both intellectually and emotionally.

There were carry-over effects in our elective courses, as well. As a part of my work in Dan Berger’s class, Prisons, Politics, and Activism, I worked with people from outside of my cohort. It was my first time during the program doing so and it was scary. The safety net of being surrounded by people who knew me was temporarily dismantled. But I quickly realized that the ways in which my cohort worked together to research and produce knowledge could be replicated. Intellectual relationships and conversations could occur outside of our tightly knit group. Of course, it wasn’t the same - I didn’t have the same rapport with the Policy Studies students; in fact, the way some of them processed information differed greatly from how we did it in Cultural Studies. At first I thought that was a detriment, but it ended up being the opposite. In the cohort, it had become an environment where we were essentially preaching to the choir. We’d all learned how to historicize socially constructed identities together and there were very few, if any, issues that any of us fundamentally disagreed on. So re-engaging with people who thought differently than me was an exercise in patience, empathy, and self-analysis. It also made me realize that collaboration and knowledge production isn’t limited to working with people who thought like I did - generative research could and did happen in a disputed space.

One example of this occurred during a class discussion about Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of race/racism:

Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.

It broadened the idea of how we view race from just the color of a person’s skin to any category of people systematically oppressed by the government in a way that leads to decreased life span and/or a lower quality of life, which ultimately results in premature death. Echoing Audre Lorde’s essay There is no hierarchy of oppression, this definition exploded and then collapsed concepts of race/class/gender/disability, etc.; each are socially created and supported constructs that are not, in fact, essentialized identities. What this meant to me was that ‘racism’ could be an umbrella term that described any group of people disproportionately affected by poverty, incarceration, lack of or decreased access to administrative services, lower overall lifetime earnings, higher infant mortality rates, and so on, that resulted in factors leading to decreased quality of life and/or a shorter lifespan. Others in the class were not in agreement, however. They were adamant that race could only apply to the perception of one’s ethnic/racial background. And they were insistent that race was the primary and most severe category subjected to oppression; the black man being the apex of this suffering. Even after some amount of discussion trying to deconstruct this notion, those students remained unconvinced. But while we were unable to have complete consensus on this definition, we realized that we were all still working towards similar goals. For that class, specifically, we were working on a collective project to map the carceral state in Washington (artifact 3). But more broadly, we all recognized that social and administrative systems of oppression are key components in continued mass incarceration.  

Another example was the discussion of how a few of the people in the class felt that grassroots movements were necessary for revolution and that social revolution was the only way for society to progress. Others vehemently disagreed and felt that policy changes and shifts in governmental policy application were the only way to affect social change. I believe this discussion highlighted for most of us (those who weren’t being stupid and binary) the need for work to be done in both areas, thus reinforcing the interconnectedness of work in all sectors.

Platonic Life Partners? A Capstone Collaboration

My research partner, Mahala Lettvin, has become one of the most important people in my life. Without her friendship and support, I might have finished the program, but it wouldn’t have been meaningful. Nor would it have been as fun. The work we have accomplished together has far exceeded anything I could have imagined 18 months ago. The premise of our research has always been based on the idea of collaboration with the sex worker population, but the journey we took to get to where we are now has been almost as informative as the research itself.

Initially, it didn’t seem like our research interests aligned. I was interested in gender and violence in institutions (e.g. sexual assault in the military) and newly concerned about how women were sexually objectified in online media. I had narrowed my focus to how sexual violence is used/implemented by institutions as a method of control, but in discussing those interests with Mahala, who was looking at how sex workers are represented/silenced in anonymous online escorting boards, we realized both of our interests were stemming from similar places - how sexuality is viewed in society and how sexuality, especially women’s sexuality, is policed in order to maintain systems of gender-based oppression.

We became interested in the way sex workers are represented in the media - either portrayed as a victim or viewed as broken, often both. Narratives supported by religious ideology and anti-sex feminist rhetoric seemed to dominate how people in this industry are represented. Where were the stories from sex workers themselves? Mahala was doing research on how women on online escorting discussion boards are representing themselves, and how the male customers respond to them. I became aware of an entirely new industry/lifestyle. Despite my pre-existing opinions about prostitution, - I felt it was generally bad and unhealthy - I endeavored to listen with an open mind. Our discussions challenged my own discomfort around sexual representations and sexuality. I had to process my initial emotional reactions and deconstruct why I felt threatened by the idea of sex work. I had to work through ingrained feelings of pity and disgust about men buying sex. It was a weird place to be in my brain, no longer trusting my gut response to things, but actually analyzing and challenging my (previously assumed) innate thoughts.  It was emotionally draining and I was constantly second-guessing my own responses. The question was no longer, “Are these things wrong or right?” but “Why do I feel/believe these things are wrong or right?”

But while these discussions were extremely difficult, they were also generative. In Kari Lerum’s class, Regulating Sexuality, we learned that a growing number of people who work in the sex industry prefer the umbrella term, “sex worker” and through the reading assignments, we became aware of how moral panics throughout history shaped/shape how we perceive sex work today. We decided to work together on our capstone proposal for a sex worker representation project. Our project would be AMAZING! Ground breaking! We were going to help SO MANY PEOPLE!

After submitting our initial capstone proposal for a sex worker photovoice/representation project, we began attending social events with members of the local chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP). There, we hoped to meet people who would participate in our project. At the first event (a casual dinner party), we met an attorney who was also an escort and we were introduced to several people who only worked once or twice a month and were able to fully support themselves on the income they generated. We met others who were in film (yep, that kind of film) or technology. Almost every single person there was fully versed in the legal and theoretical vocabulary that we were just being introduced to in Kari’s class. These people knew what was going on. They were activists and educators, authors and radio hosts. Sex workers were already representing themselves.

Not only that, but we immediately realized that our desire to do this project was partially rooted in our fascination of the sex worker population. After the dinner party, we were sitting in my car excitedly discussing an upcoming visit to a local escorting meet-and-greet - and how cool it would be to watch sex workers interact and actually talk with clients  ....and we both stopped talking. Holy shit, we were pretentious academics. Our project was going to be a total waste of time. Our intentions, while partially well-meaning, were useless and misplaced. But this was a prime cultural studies learning opportunity. We had a chance to engage more deeply with our topic- how would our work work in and among the population we were identifying as ‘misrepresented’? What would actually provide value to a population comprised of individuals who were not only capable, but already doing work to represent themselves? By critically examining our own position and being honest and reflexive about our research goals, we avoided a major misstep. We realized that we should shift our research to examine how narratives about sex workers are created/perpetuated at administrative or organizational levels. Our updated capstone proposal expressed our intentions to conduct a comparative analysis of two local sex worker outreach groups, The Genesis Project and SWOP. Through interviews, participation in events, and our own experiences, additional research, and observations, we collected enough information to complete the proposed comparative analysis, but we also compiled so much more that couldn’t be neatly captured in a traditional academic paper. For example, in Ben Gardner’s class, Development and Globalization, we developed a map that examines how and where people buy and sell sexual services in Washington State (artifact 4). And we documented our (disappointing) experiences at the conference we presented at in New Orleans.

FireShot Capture - not-craigslist -

Towards the end of our research process, we moved into a more uncomfortable relationship with academia - what role should the academy play in our research? Would a traditional paper provide any value, or was there a way we could represent our research that would potentially contribute to the growing body of sex worker-created work that challenged traditional representations about sex work? As with everything else, it wasn’t as binary as we imagined it to be. There was space for a traditional approach and a more imaginative reflection of our research. We developed both a paper and a website modeled after craigslist and called it not-craisglist (artifact 5). Our paper and our presentation provide an overview of the harmful practices perpetuated by organizations like The Genesis Project. We highlight how those practices are damaging, and we make recommendations for a more harm-reduction-oriented approach, like the framework used by SWOP. In our site, however, we re-imagined how research and knowledge can be collected and presented. Much of what we did and experienced was not linear - there are ideas and experiences that are seemingly disparate yet connected, and others that are multi-layered. The site itself mirrors the simultaneous coming together and divisions of community, and the legal history of craigslist’s erotic services section represents US/western views about sexuality at large. We also wanted to create a space that had the potential for future contributions. Rather than a scholar-sponsored representation site - for “others” by “the academy,” - not-craigslist already serves as a portal for contributions from sex workers and allies.

Mahala and I could not have accomplished all that we have done had we not been working together. And there were many projects that I worked on independently that Mahala provided feedback or support. But throughout this process I began to question and wonder how I could move forward with cultural studies work on my own? What did I want to do? What am I good at? What would make me happy and also contribute to progressing the work of cultural studies? I considered how I personally interface with CS - I connect with fiction and art; I connect with emotion and ideas. I connect when I engage in the stories - the “big T” Truths - of humanity. In BCULST 511 we were tasked with dreaming big. Five years from now, if I could be doing anything, what would it be? I set aside my insecurities and imagined the future where I would be happy. I imagined a future where I was reaching people with my words, where I could open minds and change perspectives. I found myself struggling to identify with any particular movement or cause - they are all important, and I felt that to devote myself to one movement was to abandon or disregard the others, because many of these human rights movements are fighting back against similar root causes - white patriarchal imperialism, gender inequalities, and adherence to binary concepts and western ideals. I am an ally to all human rights movements, but I am a stakeholder in very few -okay, just one - I am a stakeholder in the “white middle class cis-woman” group - and I recently learned that there are very competent and more appropriate stakeholders within populations striving to dismantle oppressive systems and they don’t need me speaking for them. But I’m pretty good at pointing out/writing about the shitty systems and ideologies that negatively affect many humans. And sometimes you can change minds if you convince people you’re not there to change minds, but to entertain.

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words. - Ursula K Leguin

I have a huge and savage conscience that won’t let me get away with things. - Octavia E. Butler

While I have very little (no) experience writing fiction, I feel an urgent connection to works from Ursula K Leguin and Octavia Butler, women who challenged the world we live in by creating entirely new worlds. They crafted stories that shifted our perspective and allowed us to imagine a different reality. So my five year goal is to become an author of social justice oriented fiction (fantasy, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and science fiction).

My final artifact is a short story (artifact 6) based loosely on some of my own experiences, in a new but familiar world where people face many of the same struggles we are facing today. I had originally intended to be my final portfolio essay, a stand-alone piece with artifacts as footnotes. But my real experiences in MACS trumped my fledgling writer’s ego and I couldn’t bear for my work with Mahala to be relegated to the footnotes.

The work I’ve done with Mahala, and the work we have accomplished in our cohort and in the Cultural Studies electives like Prisons, Politics, and Activism; Regulating Sexuality; Writing the Americas; and Development and Globalization are all phenomenal examples of knowledge production through collaboration. Individuals who have different motivations can work together toward common goals, and those people can still benefit emotionally and intellectually from working together and contributing their unique perspectives and efforts. And while the cohort was a major site of knowledge production during my time in the Cultural Studies program, it is the very idea - the spirit - of collaboration that I will carry forward with me in my future research and cultural studies work. Collaboration is collective, and all work - all of it, EVER in the history of Earth - is a result of the collective efforts of human contributions - be that scholars, artists, scientists, or just regular people who don’t have or need a fancy title who learned stuff and then shared it with other people. Maybe I’ll never work in a group as well as I did during my time in MACS - or maybe I’ll never work in a group ever again - but in all of my future work, I will contribute to and rely upon the larger body of work that none of us is solely responsible for creating, but that each of us can collectively claim as our own. “It’s not a competition” - no truer words.

Subpages (1): Portfolio Archive