The Week before the Festival: Druskininkai Poetic Fall

Phone Sex, or About Sexism in Lithuanian Culture

/ by Aušra Kaziliūnaitė

Sexism conceals itself. Can sexists notice and recognize their own daily practice as sexist? Perhaps, but it usually happens through a connection with someone else. When someone finds himself in their company, questioning, through his actions, view or position, the practice that is customary, and therefore “normal” to them.

Illustration by Magoz.
I have been attending various literary forums, festivals, readings, conferences for almost fifteen years now. As one of the organizers, sometimes, and as a participant presenting my creative work, or a listener, at other times. Over this period, I have experienced, more than once, what sexism means, exactly. I remember I was very nervous before a reading, so I breathed in loudly before starting to read. A poet who was given an award that year started giggling, deliberately loudly over the whole room, addressing another awarded individual: “Phone sex! Phone sex!” Nothing of the sort would have probably happened, if a young male poet had been standing behind the microphone. And even if it had happened, it would most likely have completely different significance, in the context of the cultural field.

This sexist kind of mockery, that objectifies a female artist, is a sort of a verification of a symbolic victory – the received award. Even more – in a way, this mockery lies in many prestigious Lithuanian literary awards, which are given out generously to male artists, thus providing them with an official status as an artist. Meanwhile, it’s very rare that female artists receive the prestigious literary awards. And so when, in the literary field, the award goes to a male artist, once again, I hear that giggling in my ears: “Phone sex! Phone sex!” Basically, the distribution of awards in Lithuania reduces the whole culture created by women to “phone sex,” repeatedly sealing and legitimizing the objectified and mocking viewpoint towards literature, art, science created by women.

In Lithuania, women not only receive fewer awards, but also are noticeably more rarely translated into foreign languages, or invited to international festivals. You’ll rarely see women-only readings, conferences, festivals. Even if there are some of those, the word “women’s” is added to the title: Women’s poetry readings, an exhibition of women’s painting, etc. However, there are plenty of men-only events, and it’s not that they’re called “men’s readings.” It is completely normal and customary, to many in our society, for men-only discussions, exhibitions, readings and other cultural events to be called, simply, “discussions, exhibitions, readings.”

The majority of cultural events in Lithuania are led by men. I believe that it’s not due to the fact that there are not enough talented and qualified female intellectuals here, but because we have not yet realized that a situation of this kind, where the authority is gathered by men in public organizations, committees, agencies, faculties, etc., is neither normal nor unquestionable, just as the custom to give priority to men when inviting to speak, to represent or to take part in events. Many would disagree, of course. They’d say that it wasn’t that men were selected to take part in this event on purpose; strong personalities and experts in the field were invited. I partly believe this to be true. We choose professionals, talents, coryphaei when making invitations, as well as presenting awards and pats on the shoulder. When doing so, we don’t think we choose them because they are men; we think we choose them because they are them. Only if there is at least one woman present in an event, or on the list of nominees for an award, does her/their gender become visible as a reason or selection criterion. The gender often draws more attention than actual accomplishments. This is how the discourse works, this is how the deceptive and overlapping layers of cultural recognition function, providing the owner of the authority with effect, while concealing and hushing up the reasons of the authority. This creates an illusion of absoluteness.

I have recently received an offer to submit my poems for an anthology. The texts were supposed to be about a woman. Included was an “introduction” of the future book, with the names of only the male artists (plus one poet, whose works had long before become classics – Salomėja Nėris). I realized, from the fact that I was also invited, that the works of female poets will, too, be published in the book. However, it did not prevent the publishers from mentioning the names of exclusively the male artists in the concept of the book, thus again placing a fat equality sign in the Lithuanian cultural field between a poet and a man, a writer and a man, an artist and a man. The concept was crowned by the following words: “The modern Ieva (Eve), troubling the minds and imagination of the poets, has a chance to show all of her power and virtuosity here.”

This project is a fine example of the contemporary Lithuanian artistic scene, where the objectification of women is still prevalent, in art and life alike. The awards go to men (and, on rare occasions, women who declare loudly enough that there is no discrimination), funding goes to men, the status of artist goes to men. And women? Women’s texts are still often comprehended as white spaces between the lines, which highlight the male geniuses. And, well, the authors of the white spaces between the lines are not included in concepts, introductions, etc.

Discrimination is not a dry fact, it’s a daily practice. Things we live with are hardest to notice. But noticing is simply essential. Because if no notice will be taken, and served, it will remain hidden, deep enough, from our sight.



Translated by Kotryna Garanasvili

Aušra Kaziliūnaitė

(b. 1987) is a poet, writer, philosopher, film researcher. She received a BA in History and an MA in Religious Studies. The poet, who is also a doctoral student of Philosophy at Vilnius University, so far has published four books of poetry: Pirmoji lietuviška knyga (2007; The First Lithuanian Book), 20% koncentracijos stovykla (2009; 20% Concentration Camp), Mėnulis yra tabletė (2014; The Moon Is a Pill) and esu aptrupėusios sienos (2016; I Am Crumbled Walls). She has received numerous national awards, including the Jurga Ivanauskaitė Prize and the Young Artist Prize of the Ministry of Culture.