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It occurs to me that, between freaking out over finishing my thesis and my week of fangirlish anxiousness, I never wrote in here about the protest I helped plan a couple of weeks ago. So I wanted to take some time to dwell on that a bit-- what happened, what worked, and what didn't.

The Tuesday before last, my friend Angie sent me a text message while I was studying in the local coffee shop. She had been driving down one of BG's main drags (we have two; maybe you could count Poe Road as the third. Let's split the difference and say that BG has two and a half main drags), and had seen the Girls Gone Wild van in front of Ziggy Zoomba's, a local bar. The Girls Gone Wild franchise and its founder, Joe Francis, have a varied and well-documented history of treating women in an illegal, semi-legal, and just plain exploitative manner, so naturally we were not best pleased to see Francis and his ilk in our town. But by the time we knew they were there, it was 3 p.m., and the Girls Gone Wild "party" was slated to start at 9. So I won't say we planned the best protest ever, but I think we did pretty damn well for only six hours of preparation.

From the beginning, Angie and I were very clear on the fact that we wanted this to be a sex-positive protest, or at least one that evaded the debate over whether pornography is inherently exploitative altogether. I, for one, do not have any problem with women taking off their clothes and/or engaging in various sex acts for the camera-- provided that they are sober, consenting, and adequately paid for their efforts. A film company-- and I use the term "film" very loosely here-- whose primary MO involves plying young women with cheap or free drinks so that they pass the point of being able to make meaningful consent, separating them from their friends so they are more likely to cave to a camera crew's pressures, and who rarely pays girls more than a hat or a T-shirt for participating in their films, obviously does not meet these standards. So Angie and I wanted to create a protest that focused on Francis and his film company's shady past and questionable practices, not on the sexual acts and choices of the eponymous girls.

Initially, I wanted to try and find some of that police tape-- you know, the kind that says, "CRIME SCENE-- DO NOT CROSS" on it-- and have the protesters surround the Girls Gone Wild bus while having conversations and passing out info about GGW's dubious legal and labor practices. Angie was not so into it-- we weren't sure how many protesters would show up on short notice, so we didn't know if we'd actually have enough people to surround the bus. And even if we did have enough, such an action would be, you know, illegal. So we settled for something a bit more conventional: standing on the sidewalk outside the bar (where it's legal and no one can stop us), holding up signs, having conversations, passing out info. Meanwhile, my friend Megan and I would travel to all the bars in the downtown area, taping warnings about GGW to bathroom stall doors and encouraging people to boycott Ziggy Zoomba's that night.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of protesters who joined us that night. My friend Joelle, who visited Angie and me later on in the afternoon and helped us with some of the protest planning, estimated that there were probably about 30-40 protesters there. When we first got to the bar at 8:45, there were a couple of 16-year-old girls who were really excited that we were protesting, and offered to stay for a while (but not too long-- they had curfews!) and hand leaflets out. We had a great conversation about how to get involved with feminist activism in BG, which totally heartened me and temporarily gave me a reprieve from the curmudgeonly "kids these days" attitude I've been gradually developing since coming here and teaching undergrads. As the night went on, several people I'd never met joined us-- including people who had never gone to the university, and several men, which made me happy. One such man made and held up the memorable sign, "Feed the porn stars, not Joe Francis." (I, for one, spent most of the night holding up a sign that read, "Girls Gone Wild exploited me, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.") I found it really heartening that we drew such a varied and supportive crowd-- one that was full of people I didn't know; people outside of my very narrow circle of socially progressive grad students.

What wasn't heartening were the varied knee-jerk, even verbally abusive, reactions some bar patrons and passers-by gave to our protest. I'll be the first to admit that protests are not, perhaps, the best way to convey nuance in an argument. But we did the best we could with six hours of preparation, and the best we could do was a protest-- and I argue that assuring that Girls Gone Wild's presence in BG did not go unopposed was more important than waiting until we could formulate the perfect response (if, indeed, a "perfect response" is ever attainable). Still, I was really upset by some of the reactions we got-- and I'm not usually one to lose my cool in a protest; I can usually deal with opposition pretty well. Some of the people who passed us decided, without really reading our signs, asking our reasons, or reading our literature, that we must obviously be (prude) born-again Christians or (equally prude) anti-porn feminists who wanted to ruin women's sexual "fun." Sometimes, I didn't even like the people who identified themselves as our allies, because they'd follow up thanking us for our presence with the declaration that "people don't have values anymore." Which-- we weren't there to issue condemnation. If a sober, consenting woman makes a conscious decision to pose or "perform" for Girls Gone Wild, while abdicating her financial stake in her performance, I don't agree with that decision, because they are supporting an exploitative business with their (free) labor. But I do not intend to condemn women's choices, and I will not (and did not) make any move to stop her, as long as it is clear that she is of sound mind and body while making that decision.

More upsetting was the loud, drunken counterprotest across the street. They probably would not have lasted long-- they were pretty much drunk out of their minds by the time they started protesting back-- had not the Girls Gone Wild camera crew shoved a camera in their face and encouraged them. They held up signs that said, "It's a woman's choice if she wants to show her boobies" and "These people got kicked off the bus." Which, basically, gives you an idea of the tone of their protest. Both the counterprotesters and several passers-by kept making the point that women made the choice to go to the party, to get drunk, to get on the bus; and so presumably, there was no point in protesting, we were somehow denying women's rights(!!!) by protesting, and that if a young woman got drunk and ended up going on the Girls Gone Wild bus to do something she'd regret, it was her "choice," and therefore her fault. I haven't completely thought this through yet, but it's interesting (by which I mean: infuriating) that these counterprotesters-- and, I think, a lot of mainstream antifeminist thought-- invoke a woman's "choice" only to assign blame. I'm certainly not saying that all women make good decisions, all the time. But c'mon, there are several people in this scenario, making several choices! Why is it that a woman's choice to get drunk and show off her body is simultaneously protected and justification for assigning individual blame; while Francis' and the camera crew's "choice" to get women drunk (and sometimes high, sometimes without their knowledge or consent), film them while drunk, and exploit their labor in the process passes without comment? Or worse, is hailed in many cases by passers-by as a smart capitalist move? Why do we not condemn the owners of the bar for inviting Girls Gone Wild-- indeed, for paying them to show up-- when it is a known fact that the company's owner has been in trouble with the law for sexual assault, drug trafficking, and child pornography? Who, in this scenario; who, in the counterprotesters' minds; get to make legitimate "choices"?

When that approach didn't work on us, the counterprotesters, predictably, resorted to ad hominem attacks. My friends and I-- we don't look like the kinds of girls you see on Girls Gone Wild commercials. And apparently, this means that we must only be protesting because we're jealous that Joe Francis and co. won't exploit our labor. Angie, who wears cat eyeglasses and a lot of vintage wear, was castigated by the main counterprotester for being "fat" and "look[ing] like my mom." Several people yelled at the male protesters that the only possible reason they could object to Girls Gone Wild is because they're gay. As I previously mentioned, I was holding a sign that read, "Girls Gone Wild exploited me, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt." Being a fat woman, several passers-by yelled at me that the saying on my sign couldn't possibly be true, and one person said, "Is that why you got fat, bitch?" And after I had a brief verbal altercation with a man on the street, I heard him mutter, "Well, I put that lesbian in her place." (Apparently, calling me "fat" and/or a "lesbian" was suppsed to insult me. Epic fail. Try again.)

What really struck me, though, were the transphobic comments people hurled at Joelle. Joelle is a trans woman, but not one who passes. And seemingly every time she said something, one of the counterprotesters would yell at her, "What are you? Are you a he or a she? Why are you even here? You're confused! Make up your mind!" The transphobic comments seemed to carry the most vitriol, and ultimately led to the scariest moment I've ever experienced during a protest. A young man-- one I'd peg as a skinny, frat boy type-- walked past us on the street, and when he saw Joelle, he got up in her face and started yelling at her, demanding to know what she was. I was afraid for Joelle's safety, so I stood between them and said, "You need to stop threatening my friend. You need to leave her alone, and get off this stretch of sidewalk." The young man started yelling back at me: "I just want to know what it is. What do you mean she? Why are you calling it a she?" The whole time, he was carrying a cigarette, and I was seriously afraid he was going to put it out in my face-- or Joelle's. He eventually left, but I was pretty shaken by that experience. I know Joelle has told me that she receives transphobic comments like that all the time, and I know intellectually that transphobic hatred and violence are epidemic in American culture. But I'd never really experienced that kind of thing myself, and it isn't lost on me that the scariest, most potentially violent moment I've ever experienced at a protest revolved around transphobic attitudes. I'm still kind of reeling from that, and working my way through it.

Despite it all, I'm grateful we were there. My friend Heather brought her partner, Terre, with her, who is a freelance journalist. He interviewed several people while there, including the Girls Gone Wild production crew. Apparently, they almost never get protests when they show up in a town. So, in that sense, I count the protest a success-- that at least we didn't let the film company's presence in this town go unquestioned or unopposed. What I have learned since the protest, though, is that it's easier to prevent Girls Gone Wild from coming to your town than it is to plan a protest once they're already there. So that's the next step: remaining diligent, finding out when (and it's not an if, it's a when) GGW comes back, and then starting an advance phoning and letter-writing campaign to make sure they never show up again.

Also: let me tell you, it feels great to be doing good old-fashioned grassroots activism again, and not just teaching, researching, and writing and hoping that counts as my activism. =)
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