My involvement in the Mapping Privilege project has taken me all over the country to talk to people about issues relating to identity. At times, though, I’ve found that observing billboards in any given area can often tell me just as much as my human interactions do. Noticing what advertisers spend their money on reveals a lot about what a community values, and who they worship.
In San Francisco, there is no shortage of symbols from our patron saints of innovation; whether it’s the new smartphone you didn’t know you needed, or a new program to make you work more efficiently, the writing is literally on the wall. As my cross-country drive eventually took me into the heart of Texas, the proliferation of gun range and Jesus billboards (often un-ironically adjacent) cued me in to what many Texans hold in high regard.
Born and raised in Louisiana, with the state motto of "Sportsman's Paradise," I arrived in the Lone Star State familiar with gun ownership as it relates to hunting. But the bumper stickers I saw peppering gas stations were different, and they made the local perspective abundantly clear: "Ammo is expensive. Do not expect a warning shot." When I arrived at my lodgings, the message was driven home further with the most unwelcoming of mats: “Warning: Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again."
In the midst of such fervent gun culture, a growing student activist movement at the University of Texas, Austin, is fighting back. For over a year, members of Cocks Not Glocks have made international headlines with their unique method of advocacy: rocking dildos on their backpacks as they stroll around campus and attend their classes. For these students, sex toys are the perfect accessory to, as their organization's tagline explains, "fight absurdity with absurdity."
It all started when Texas' Republican-controlled Congress passed a campus carry law that permits licensed gun owners to carry concealed handguns throughout college campuses, classrooms, and even dorms.
Jessica Jin, a UT Texas Alum, responded to the news in 2015 the best way she knew how -- by posting "the most crass joke on the subject" to social media.
This joke became, in her words, "lightning in a bottle" and inspired Jin to create the first Cocks Not Glocks event page on Facebook, which, in turn, ended up attracting thousands of attendees and media attention (The Daily Show, MSNBC, Time, The New York Times, History Now, and many more).
Jin is open about her childhood experiences growing up in Texas, which she feels helped shape her current understanding of privilege. As a first-generation American, Jin recalls a strong desire in her childhood to fit in with other students. As she got older, she started to gain more perspective on how she was viewed.
"'We’re just going to Jessica’s house!'" she laughs, explaining how friends would use her as a reliable excuse to convince their parents they were studying, when actually they were going to a party. It wasn’t just the gullible parents of her friends who were convinced of Jin’s inculpability. She started to notice that she could get away with a lot of things in high school too. She describes typical teen shenanigans -- skipping a class here or there, nothing too scandalous -- but there were rarely consequences from her teachers. Jin's theory? The teachers carried as many assumptions about her as her friends' parents did.
“This model minority thing played to my advantage,” Jin says. “I didn’t realize it was inherent bias mixed with my ability to confirm it.”
The model minority idea to which Jin refers is the cultural expectation that Asian American and Pacific Islanders are more likely to be docile, hardworking, highly successful, and intellectually gifted in math and science. Jin became aware, as soon as she became the spokesperson for Cocks Not Glocks, that the same stereotype still follows her today.
“This protest came about and lots of people didn’t expect it from an Asian American woman," she says. "Perhaps the quiet and submissive stereotype is what made it easier for me to come out of nowhere and scare people.”
"Scare" may be putting it lightly. From the outrage and vitriol Jin has received so far, it’s clear that a remarkable number of people have a hard time seeing sex toys in public. Jin and the other Cocks Not Glocks organizers have experienced everything from an unending amount of hateful online comments from trolls, to having their families targeted and addresses shared. At one particularly horrific point, somebody made a short film depicting one of them being murdered.
“It’s a learning process," Jin admits. "This has been the most insane few months of my life. They are doing work for us. They are proving a point for us. They are not the type of people you want to be carrying guns or making rules in society.”
Jin wrestles with the reasoning behind the outpouring of hate and the need to control rhetoric around safety for women, when many gun advocates suggest that women would be safer and less likely to be attacked if they were carrying a gun.
“What makes these guys feel so entitled to set the narrative for safety?" Jin wonders. "Is it privilege? Their manhood? How about you ask a woman what safety means?”
Jin and her fellow Cocks Not Glocks advocates are clear that their movement is bringing up multiple conversations at once, and they are ready and willing to have all of them.
One of the most remarkable things about the Cocks Not Glocks campaign, is that, through using sex toys as metaphors, the protest has now crossed into an incredibly intersectional landscape of issues. What started as a protest about gun control has now turned into a conversation about sexual assault, owing to the fact that the number one threat Jessica Jin and other advocates receive is that of rape (statements like “We can’t wait for you to be raped or assaulted because then we’ll be proven right” and “I hope you get raped” are alarmingly common).
Prompted by the threats, Jin consulted with her fellow Cocks Not Glocks activists at UT Austin and found that many of the women in the group had already experienced sexual assault.
“They are quick to use that because they think it can control us," Jin suggests. "What they don’t know is women have been dealing with this all their lives. We understand it better than they do.”