Force vs. Nonconsent: The Fight to Redefine Sexual Assault

[Content note: sexual assault]

My piece at the Daily Dot today is about efforts to legally define sexual assault.

Like all laws, the legal definitions of crimes have changed throughout history in response to social, cultural, scientific, and political forces.Sexual assault especially is a crime that depends on social consensus for its definition. After all, while killing another person isn’t always considered “murder,” most of us at least agree on what it means to kill a person. Not so with sexual assault.

Feminist activists have been fighting for decades to expand and improve that definition, from including marital rape to deemphasizing vaginal penetration as a criterion. (Yes, people without vaginas can be raped.) They have also urged state legislatures to rewrite laws so that rape does not have to be “forceful” to count. After all, what matters isn’t whether or not force was used, but whether or not consent was given.

Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, however, wants definitions of rape to re-emphasize force. The reason, he claims, is that using consent (or lack thereof) as the basis upon which rape is defined leaves room for all sorts of ethical quandaries.

For instance, if someone falsifies their identity in some way to convince someone to have sex with them, then that person did not technically give informed consent, and could consider the act rape even though they appeared to fully consent to it. If we criminalize non-consensual sex, how could we not also criminalize sex under false pretenses?

Rubenfeld does include the caveat that the definition of force should be broadened. He says, “I’m in favor of an expanded force requirement, an understanding that sees force in threats, in drugging, in physical restraint (holding the victim down, locking the victim up), and so on.”

But even then, many (if not most) sexual assaults do not involve any of these things. Nor should they have to in order to be considered sexual assault.

Read the rest here.

~~~

Liked this post? Please consider donating so I can speak at conferences.

How the Purity Myth Perpetuates Rape Culture

[Content note: sexual assault, racism]

I was thinking about the source of all the problematic ways in which our society views and responds to sexual assault–the victim-blaming, the simplistic construction of “real” victims and “legitimate” rape, the erasure of certain social groups of victims–and I realized that much of it comes down to antiquated views of female sexual purity.

I don’t doubt that there’s much more to it, obviously, but this is a piece of the puzzle that isn’t discussed as often as it should be. The purity myth, as Jessica Valenti calls it in her book of the same name, includes several interlocking beliefs about women and sexuality that are enforced by many religions and ideologies and continue to inform many Americans’ views of sex–even those who consider themselves liberal or even progressive.

Some components of the purity myth include:

  • There is such a thing as “virginity,” especially for women, and once you “lose” it, your value as a partner decreases
  • Having sex makes women, but not men, “dirty”
  • “Good” women don’t “really” want sex, so men try to persuade and coerce them into it
  • Even if you’re not actually sexually active, there are things you can do that suggest that you are, and therefore make you seem “dirty”
  • The only type of sex that is not “dirty” is that between a husband and a wife

In case it’s not immediately obvious how any of this relates to rape, here’s how: traditionally, in many cultures, rape was construed not as a crime against the women who was raped (only women could be raped in those legal definitions), but against her father (if she was unmarried) or her husband if she had one. The rape of a virgin was often seen as worse than the rape of a non-virgin (whether because of marriage or less socially acceptable choices), because it meant that something–namely, purity–had been “spoiled.” Some women, such as sex workers, were not “rapeable” at all. Some sources, such as the Old Testament, suggest that the proper thing to do if a virgin has been raped is to force her to marry the rapist; then it’s sort of retroactively not a big deal anymore, because all that happened was that she had sex with her husband shortly before marrying him. And, of course, there’s no way a husband can rape his wife, because marriage involves the privilege of sex-on-demand, and the wife’s “purity” is long gone anyway.

Although the laws regarding sexual assault have been steadily reformed over the centuries, many of these attitudes about rape and sexual purity remain. Here’s how they play out in some common myths about sexual assault:

1. Rape is “the worst thing that can happen to a woman.”

This probably seems like the least harmful of all the myths, so I’m starting with it. This idea originates from the fact that a woman who has been raped (and was presumably a virgin before) loses her “chastity,” and thus the bulk of her value as a potential partner. This essentialization of sex and sexual purity frames sexual violence as necessarily the worst type of violence a person can experience, to which all others pale in comparison.

It’s certainly true that for many survivors of all genders, sexual assault is a traumatic experience that may cause or exacerbate mental illness and change the individual’s life forever. (Although it’s hard to tell what’s caused by the assault itself and what’s caused by society’s fucked-up response to it.) For others, however, sexual assault is not significantly worse than other crimes they may have experienced, and being expected to be traumatized can be harmful, even a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When rape is viewed as “bad” only to the extent that it traumatizes its victims, it can prevent people from taking sexual assaults seriously when they do not cause trauma. For example, an actual university professor argued last year that raping an unconscious person might not be such a bad thing because they won’t feel a thing.

2. Rape can only be committed by a (cis) man against a (cis) woman.

If the problem with rape is that it “spoils” a woman’s “purity,” then it doesn’t make sense to conceive of nonconsensual sex involving any other combination of genders as sexual assault. A man has no “purity” to lose, and a woman can’t take away another woman’s “purity” because only a man can do that.

The repercussions of this view should be obvious: rape between same-sex partners is routinely ignored, rape of men is routinely ignored, and laws are only now starting to recognize the fact that men can be raped at all.

3. A woman who has had sex before, especially with the alleged rapist, can’t really be raped.

Most people can probably grok the idea that having wanted to have sex in the past does not necessarily mean you want to have sex in the future, even with someone you’ve already had sex with. Yet female rape survivors’ sexual histories are still being trotted out in court proceedings to attempt to discredit their claims. Why?

One convoluted argument that people make to defend this practice is that “Well if she’s had sex before how could he possibly have known that she didn’t want to have sex this time?” It’s actually pretty easy: you ask. This idea that once a woman has been spoiled by a penis, she’s fair game for all links up easily to the idea that such a thing as sexual purity exists.

4. A woman who belongs to a group considered “impure” by definition can’t really be raped either.

At least in the United States, sexual “purity” is a concept that largely applies only to middle-/upper-class white women. Many women of color, for instance, aren’t thought to be “pure” regardless of whether or not they’ve even had sex before. They are immediately suspect as rape victims because they don’t fit the profile that we imagine rape victims to fit: innocent, chaste, white.

Throughout American history, white people have focused on the specter of Black men raping innocent white women, while ignoring entirely the actual reality of Black women being raped by white men. As Black women aren’t assumed to have any “purity” to lose, their rapes are not nearly as tragic as those of white women. This is what happens when two terrible ideas–racism and sexual purity–combine.

5. If a sexual act doesn’t make a woman “impure,” it can’t really be sexual assault.

While women can and do get shamed for engaging in behavior other than sexual intercourse, it’s only intercourse that can supposedly “take” your virginity (and therefore your purity). Definitions of rape have historically specified vaginal penetration, although they’re now starting to expand a bit. But if sexual assault were framed in terms of consent rather than in terms of sexual purity, it would make no sense to minimize forms of sexual assault that don’t involve vaginal penetration. Violating someone sexually is violating someone sexually regardless how you do it.

To make things worse, this framing of sexual assault is part of the reason male victims and women who are assaulted by other women frequently get erased from the conversation, since their experiences are presumed, at best, unfortunate events that have little to do with capital-R Rape.

6. A survivor who was behaving “provocatively” when the assault happened wasn’t really assaulted.

Insert standard victim-blaming tropes here. Of course, just about anything gets classified as “provocative” when it’s expedient to do so: drinking, flirting, making eye contact, dressing a certain way, dancing, wearing makeup, discussing sex. The implication is that once a woman has behaved in a way some would consider “unchaste,” she may as well have already had sex, and any subsequent assault doesn’t really “count.”

7. Sex workers cannot be sexually assaulted.

Since they have already been “spoiled” even more than typical sexually active women. Some people will refer to the assault of a sex worker as “theft,” which I consider degrading and dehumanizing in the extreme. A sex worker doesn’t sell or give away their right to bodily autonomy; they sell a specific and agreed-upon service. If I walk into a store, take a package of cheez-its off the shelf, open and eat it because I’m starving, and then pay for it as I walk out, I haven’t stolen anything. But even if you sexually assault a sex worker and then pay them, you’ve still assaulted them, because you still violated their consent. It’s pretty simple.

A lot of people think they have abandoned the idea of female sexual purity simply because they are liberal and/or nonreligious. As a person who runs in liberal and nonreligious circles, I can tell you that this is not necessarily the case. People just find other ways to justify the purity myth, or they don’t bother trying to justify it at all. Atheisty types love to use evolutionary psychology (or unscientific permutations thereof) to draw conclusions about what men and women respectively value in their (obviously opposite-sex) mates, claim that women just aren’t “as sexual” as men (a convenient way to vilify women who have lots of sex while high-fiving men who do), and, in the most extreme cases, justify rape as an adaptive evolutionary mechanism.

Once you hold a belief strongly, perhaps because your parents or your erstwhile religion taught it to you, it’s difficult to let go of the belief even if you’ve let go of the overall ideology that originally spawned it. So it’s easy to twist science or “folk wisdom” to maintain the idea that women are, or should be, or can be more “pure” than men, however you happen to define “pure.”

The idea of female sexual purity is as nonsensical and irrational as the ideas atheists and skeptics criticize every day, and it’s about time it got more attention as such. Not only does it mess with people’s sex lives and give them all sorts of unnecessary anxieties and guilts, but it also feeds into the myths surrounding sexual assault and ensures that they continue to harm survivors. It’s long past time to let it go.

~~~

Liked this post? Please consider donating so I can speak at conferences.

“But a feminist was mean to me!”

Every so often a man publishes some screed about how he’s no longer a feminist because feminists have been mean to him. Every very often, some white person opines that they’d be totally on board with this whole anti-racism thing except that people of color are just so damn rude to them all the time. Or a religious person says that atheism is wrong because atheists are condescending. Or a person who consumes animal products dismisses the idea of veganism because they, personally, found some vegan or other to be annoying.

I have seen this happen enough times and with enough different beliefs and social groups that I’ve noticed it as a pattern. I’ve written before about the specter of That One Meanie-Face Feminist Who Got All Bitchy When I Offered To Pick Up The Check, without which no discussion of feminism with a non-feminist man could possibly be complete. This supposedly very rude woman from my interlocutor’s distant romantic past is now trotted out what I imagine is very often to provide an explanation for the man’s distaste for feminism. Or, perhaps with a caveat, “modern” feminism.

But it doesn’t happen just with feminism. It happens with every political issue.

First of all, the most important thing to remember is that when feminists(/women/people of color/vegans/etc.) are accused of being “mean,” this is only actually the case a fraction of the time. (Even if the exact fraction is debatable.) A lot of the things that get people with minority identities or viewpoints are labeled “mean” go completely unremarked-upon when done by someone with a dominant identity or viewpoint. I have a lot of theories for why that is: the expectation that minority or subordinate groups be quiet and not rock the boat; the unfamiliarity that people in dominant groups have with those views and opinions; and the stereotyping of certain groups, such as women and people of color and especially women of color, as being “emotional” or “hysterical” or “angry.” This leads to the simplest cognitive bias of all: confirmation bias. You expect a woman of color to be angry, and lo and behold, you perceive her that way.

“Mean” is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s easy to rationalize why a certain tone or behavior from a female feminist is “mean” while the same tone or behavior from a man is not. And that’s not even to imply that anyone is lying or intentionally skewing anything. It’s subconscious; that’s why it’s called a bias. I have no doubt that everyone who has ever accused me of being “mean” about my feminism genuinely felt that I was being mean to them. But that doesn’t mean that perception wasn’t influenced by their bias.

I’ve seen this play out numerous times with my own writing. A year ago I wrote a post about street harassment that went viral and got tons of comments about how I’m being so mean to men and clearly I hate them and blame them for everything. (For a fun exercise, count how many times I use the phrase “not all men” or variants thereof in the post.) And look. You can disagree with my entire thesis–that “compliments” made to random women on the street are a sort of power play, and that the reason many men feel so compelled to make them is because they’ve been socialized to believe that their opinions on women’s looks are extremely important and worthy of expression–and still see for yourself that there’s no way a person thinking clearly can conceive of that post as being “mean,” or of me as “hating men.”

But sometimes feminists (and vegans and atheists and whatever) are mean. Of course they are. Everyone is mean sometimes, but “default” categories like “white” and “male” are made invisible because they’re considered the norm from which everyone else deviates, so nobody besides women and minorities and their allies usually makes much of fuss about the meanness of men or white people specifically.

For instance, if you do not identify as a feminist or you consider yourself actively opposed to feminism, you probably don’t think of yourself or others like you as especially mean. It looks a little different from over here, though. I’ve been angrily fumed at and condescended to by you. I’ve been called every possible insult and every slur that could possibly apply to someone like me–bitch, cunt, whore, slut, dyke–by you. I’ve been threatened with various acts of violence. I’ve been alternatively called gruesome and unfuckable and told exactly how I should be raped.

And yet, except for when I get especially upset (which isn’t very often anymore) I avoid claiming that everyone who disagrees with feminism is “mean” (or much worse), because I actually have evidence that that’s not true. Most of the people I’ve met in my life have been opposed to feminism, and most of them have been perfectly decent people.

Hopefully we’ve established that people of all genders and races and religions and political beliefs can be “mean,” although some get accused of it much more readily and harshly than others, and not necessarily because they are any more likely to be “mean.”

Now let’s get to the main point, which is the utter ridiculousness of dismissing someone’s argument or opinion merely because you find them to be mean.

It doesn’t actually matter if a feminist is mean to you–at least, not in terms of making up your mind about feminism. Feminism is based on a wide variety of observations and theories that are empirically testable. Either women (especially women of color) make less money than men for the same work or they do not. Either women are less likely to become CEOs and film directors and elected politicians or they are not. Either women are held to impossible and unfair standards of beauty that are impossible for most of them, especially for women of color and women who are not thin or able-bodied, to achieve, or they are not. Either women are interrupted much more often in conversation by men or they are not, and either resumes and applications belonging to men are more likely to be read and approved of than those of women or not. Either women (especially women of color and women with disabilities) are subject to extremely high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault or they are not. Either people of all genders are frequently blamed for being sexually assaulted or they are not. Either trans people, especially trans women, are socially persecuted for allegedly violating the gender binary or they are not. Either men are expected to be “strong” and “manly” at the expense of their emotional needs, or they are not. Either women (but not men) face a double bind between being considered competent but unlikable or incompetent but likable, or they do not. Either reproductive care for people with uteri (but not for people with penises) is constantly being attacked, or it is not.

Hundreds or thousands of pages of research are available about all of these questions. Even if you peruse the research and find it wanting, the reason you are not a feminist should be because you don’t find the evidence compelling, not because some woman yelled at you for offering to pay for her meal. I’ll still disagree with you about the evidence, but at least then you have a real argument, and not one entirely based on feelings.

Likewise, the criminal justice system is demonstrably discriminatory against people of color at every level regardless of whether or not you personally enjoyed your recent interactions with people of color. The production of animals for human consumption has negative effects on the environment even if many vegans are snobby. There is no, and has never been, any evidence for the existence of a higher power, even though some atheists are pretty crappy to religious people. (By the way, one way to help would be to stop calling them mentally ill, but you already know that)

It’s common to claim that a feminist who is arguing with you and also calling you names is making an ad hominem fallacy, although the argument there is usually less “You’re wrong because you’re an asshole” and more “You’re wrong and, by the way, you’re also an asshole, so there’s that.” Bu in fact, it seems like an ad hominem fallacy to dismiss someone’s arguments because they’re mean. People aren’t wrong because they’re mean; they’re wrong because they’re wrong.

If I wanted to, I could explain to you that 2 + 2 = 4 in the most nasty, condescending, stuck-up, snarky, hateful, vicious way possible. (I’m trying to imagine this now, and it’s funny.) You might never want to interact with me ever again, but that doesn’t mean 2 + 2 suddenly doesn’t equal 4 anymore.

What would be fair to say is that you’re now upset and not interested in trying to learn about basic arithmetic from me anymore, so while you still haven’t been convinced that 2 + 2 = 4, that doesn’t mean it necessarily doesn’t. You can also say that the emotional response that you’re experiencing is interfering with your ability to think clearly about this subject.

Feminism is not as clear-cut or obviously correct as 2 + 2 = 4, but the same principle applies. It’s natural to start to feel very bad when you perceive (accurately or otherwise, doesn’t even matter) that you’re being personally attacked, and that can make you not want to engage with this person, listen to their arguments, and reevaluate your own opinions in response. But that doesn’t make them wrong; it just makes them ineffective–for this particular purpose in this particular situation. Remember that meanness is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, and what may seem mean to you may be just a normal spirited debate to someone else.

At this point, the rational thing to do is to tell yourself that your unwillingness to agree with or even consider the person’s opinion has less to do with the merits of the opinion and more to do with your emotional response. Disengage, let the emotions subside, and, if you’re interested, find another way to learn about the view in question.

And now I’ve written over 1,500 words, and, to be honest, I think most of the people who say things like this already know all of this. Of course someone being mean to you doesn’t suddenly invalidate all of their opinions. So when you say that you disagree with feminism/veganism/atheism/anti-racism/queer rights/whatever because someone you have apparently designated an official ambassador of one of those views was unkind to you, you probably really mean one of these two things:

1. I disagree with feminism/veganism/atheism/anti-racism/queer rights because I hold a diverging opinion.

2. I feel hurt by a discussion I had with a feminist/vegan/atheist/anti-racist/queer rights advocate, and that makes me not want to think about this issue anymore or reevaluate my opinion on it.

Say what you mean.

~~~

Liked this post? Please consider donating so I can speak at conferences.

Celebrity Women Are Not “Asking” For Stalking & Harassment

[Content note: stalking & sexual harassment]

My latest piece at the Daily Dot explores the disturbing similarities between the ways people dismiss harassment of celebrities by the paparazzi and the ways the dismiss harassment of ordinary women on the street by men.

It’s easy to dismiss the paparazzi’s harassment of famous women. After all, they’re usually incredibly privileged. Their lives are—or seem—enviable. Their complaints about being followed and photographed constantly sound to many people like humblebrags.

You’ve probably heard (or perhaps made) these common excuses people make about harassment of celebrity women:

  • “If she didn’t want it, she shouldn’t have become famous.”
  • “She should take it as a compliment that people want photos of her.”
  • “Yeah, right, I bet she secretly likes the attention.”
  • “It’s not a big deal, she should just ignore the paparazzi.”
  • “Well, I’d love to be famous and get photographed all the time.”

What do these justifications remind you of?

  • “If she didn’t want it, she shouldn’t have gone out wearing a revealing dress.”
  • “She should take it as a compliment that guys on the street tell her she’s hot.”
  • “Yeah, right, I bet women secretly love getting hit on.”
  • “It’s not a big deal, she should just ignore the catcalls.”
  • “Well, I’d love it if women hit on me on the street.”

That second set is what women often hear when they speak out about catcalling and sexual harassment. It should be clear that these are all variations on a theme: some women do things that make them deserve harassment. Women should take it as a compliment that men violate their space and their sense of safety and privacy. Women may say that harassment feels violating—but deep down they like it. Women shouldn’t let the harassment get to them; it’s just a part of life. They don’t know how good they have it.

There are differences, of course. Photos of celebrity women produce money and fame for the photographer, whereas a guy who gets off on sexually harassing ordinary women on the street gets only his own twisted satisfaction.

But in both cases, both the harassment and the subsequent justifications for it stem from the fact that women and their bodies are still seen by many people and in many cases as commodities.

Things that would be considered extremely inappropriate when put in general terms (e.g. “stalking strangers to take their picture” or “yelling at strangers in a threatening manner”) suddenly become acceptable to many people once the target is specified as a woman that people (especially men) enjoy looking at, and once the behavior is specified as being motivated in some way by sexuality or by an appreciation for the woman’s appearance.

Read the rest here.

~~~

Liked this post? Please consider donating so I can speak at conferences.

Confidence Is Not the Solution To Gender Inequality

My latest piece in the Daily Dot discusses research on the double bind that women have to navigate in the workplace, and why I’m so fed up with all the demands that women Just Be Confident and Ask For What You Want at work:

Women face a classic double bind: if they confirm female stereotypes of gentleness, communality, and physical attractiveness, they are liked more but presumed less competent. If they disconfirm female stereotypes and act confident and assertive, they are liked less and presumed to have poor social skills. Both being liked and being considered competent is vital for getting hired, retained, and promoted.

These effects are especially pronounced in domains that are considered traditionally “male,” which would include most of the types of fields that everyone’s always wringing their hands about female underrepresentation in: law, business, politics, science, and technology, to name a few.

Another study suggests that interviewers evaluating women who behave in a more stereotypically masculine way emphasize social skills more than competence in their hiring decisions, but when they interview men (or women who are more stereotypically feminine), their hiring decisions hinge more on competence and social skills.

Since we already know that women who are more confident and less feminine are perceived to be lower on social skills, this seems like a convenient way to penalize them in hiring decisions.

In a study published in Research and Organizational Behavior, researchers Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan described the multiple ways in which women who act contrary to female stereotypes face backlash in the workplace.

For example, women are constantly being exhorted to self-promote so that supervisors and managers notice their skills. However, while women who self-promote may be considered more competent, they are alsoconsidered less likeable and are less likely to be hired. In another study, men who used an “assertive style” in their job application materials weremore likely to be hired than women using an identical strategy, and the actual job applications were identical except for the fictional applicant’s gender.

Once hired, women continue to face this double bind over and over again.

Read the rest here.

For the record, I did not choose the headline or the header image, and I apologize if either is offensive.

~~~

Liked this post? Please consider donating so I can speak at conferences.

On Women Who Lie About Having Boyfriends

[Content note: sexual harassment and assault]

Lately one of those articles has been going around again about how women should stop saying “I have a boyfriend” to deflect unwanted male attention. I’m not going to link to it, because I don’t want to make my entire post about that one article. I’ve seen that argument made in many different ways and from many different perspectives.

One I often see from men who date women, who are either not feminists and do not recognize the reality of systemic male violence against women, or are, sort of, but only recognize that reality to some extent and in certain contexts–never ones involving themselves, of course, because they’re good guys.

Another I often see from women, many of whom are feminists, who believe that it is each individual woman’s duty to uphold the author’s vision of Feminist Principles regardless of the individual woman’s priorities or needs.

Here’s the first argument, steelmanned:

It’s wrong to lie to people without a very compelling reason. If a guy is interested in you but you’re not interested back, just tell him so honestly. I’m a decent and respectful guy and I always back off when someone says they’re not interested. Besides, if all you say is “I have a boyfriend,” I might assume that that means that you’d be interested if that relationship ended, and it’s really hurtful to find out that you were lying and I got my hopes up for nothing.

Here’s the second one, also steelmanned:

Women have the right to have their desires and preferences respected. The reason you shouldn’t keep hitting on a woman who isn’t interested in you isn’t because she “belongs” to another man, but because she isn’t interested in you. If we keep using the “I have a boyfriend” excuse, men will never learn to respect our agency as individuals rather than as someone’s girlfriend. Being honest with men you aren’t interested in about the reason you aren’t taking them up on your offer is the only way to promote this feminist goal.

I resent both of these arguments. Both of them, even the second one, place the individual woman’s needs last and instead prioritize other needs: the man’s need for honesty, the feminist movement’s need for women to stand up for its ideals. Both of them expect women who are being harassed to just shut up and take it for someone else’s good.

Let’s start with the first one. I think we can all agree that, in general, lying is to be avoided. I think we can also all agree that sometimes lying is preferable or necessary. Where I think we disagree is where that line should be drawn. And I would argue that the person who stands to lose the most in a particular interaction is the one who is more qualified to determine where that line goes.

It’s like Schrödinger’s rapist. And I know dudes have so much trouble grasping the rape version of this principle, so I don’t expect them to have an easy time grasping the sexual harassment/unwanted flirting/whatever you want to call it version.

Say I am approached by a dude at a bar. Ignoring all of my signals (looking away, checking my phone, answering monosyllabically, desperately pouring my drink down my throat), he keeps trying to chat me up and hit on me, perhaps even propositioning me directly. At this point, I could say, “Actually, I’m not interested in you and I don’t want to keep talking to you.” Or I could say, “Sorry, but I have a boyfriend and I’m not available.” Which should I choose?

Given that this guy has already showed an apparent lack of interest in my desires and preferences by not reading my nonverbal cues, and given the wealth of experience I have with these situations (“Come on, why do you have to be such a prude?” “Fucking bitch, I was just trying to be nice.” “What are you talking about? I’m not even interested in ugly sluts like you” “Yeah, right. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t trying to get some.” [insert sexual assault here, and yes, groping is sexual assault]), I’m not likely to have a lot of confidence in this guy’s ability to take it well if I politely tell him I’m not interested.

Sure, this guy could be different. He could be perfectly nice! He could politely say, “Oh sorry, my bad, have a great night”! He could clarify that he’s not interested in anything sexual and we’d have a great conversation and maybe even become friends!

And that’s what men making this argument always say. “Yeah well how do you know he’d take it badly if you just told him the truth?” Exactly, I don’t know that. If I did, I’d have cleared the fuck out of that bar as soon as I saw him walking up to me.

I don’t know that, but I live in a world in which it can be very dangerous to assume that I can know that before it’s too late.

Now, a lot of men making this argument will sorta-grudgingly include the caveat that, well, if the woman is afraid for her physical safety, then of course she should do whatever she needs to do to get out of the situation! But otherwise, lying is not okay.

So. Why are we prioritizing physical safety over emotional safety? If you accept that ending up assaulted or raped is bad, why do you not accept that ending up feeling violated, terrified, or even traumatized is also bad? How much emotional pain and damage is worth avoiding hurting a guy’s feelings by lying to him? (Don’t ask me how telling a lie that he’ll never know is a lie hurts him more than saying “I’m not interested in you,” but ok.) How much emotional pain and damage is worth fulfilling some bullshit philosophical ideal of Not Lying?

Things impact different people differently–a point I’m always trying to drive home in all mental health-related discussions. Personally, I got over my sexual assault rather easily. What I still haven’t gotten over is feeling like a fucking piece of meat, a deer being chased by hunters no matter where I go. That’s the feeling I try to avoid on those rare occasions when I feel compelled to say, “Actually, I have a boyfriend.”

As for the “feminist” argument that we all, as individuals, have the responsibility to Uphold Feminist Principles in our daily lives at all times: I’ve already dealt with this more generally here. Specifically, the feminist movement will not be destroyed by some individual women choosing to prioritize something other than feminism at certain points in their lives. I promise.

Besides, any feminism that prioritizes The Good Of The Movement over individual women’s safety and happiness is no feminism of mine.

Of course, if we’re ever to get these remaining men who harass women and on whom “Actually I have a boyfriend” works to stop viewing women as property, we have to speak up. But we, as individuals, get to decide where and when and how we do that. Demanding women to turn every bar outing into a one-woman feminist protest is puerile beyond belief.

I completely understand that some women choose not to lie about boyfriends and husbands, and they find this empowering despite the risk. That’s great. Where I start to get irritated is when they translate this into “…and therefore all women have to do this too.” Your empowerment may be someone else’s trauma.

Some misunderstand this as some sort of convoluted Choice Feminism (not actually a real thing, by the way) about how All Women’s Choices Must Be Respected Because They’re Made By Women. It’s not. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that choices are not made in a vacuum, and nobody has more information about a given choice than the person who made it.

I wish people who preached at women about not lying actually listened to the words of the women who do and tried to understand the circumstances that might lead someone to do something that most of us agree is usually wrong. For instance, from a piece at Shakesville by Ana Mardoll:

I live in a community where I have on more than one occasion been forced to haul out the words “because my husband doesn’t like me to” in order to get out of situations where I was being bullied and pressured into doing things that I didn’t feel comfortable doing. After saying firmly and repeatedly that I didn’t want to do these things, that I wouldn’t do these things, and that I didn’t feel comfortable being repeatedly asked to do these things — all to no avail — I dragged out the magic words that I hate-hate-hate to use. “My husband doesn’t like me to” is the mantra that evaporates every objection in my community; a protective cloak that I resent being forced to wear by a community that considers my own consent to be meaningless even as it values my husband’s consent not for who he is but for what he represents. (And, for the record, my husband respects my consent even when our community does not. I have his consent to use him as an excuse when I am forced to navigate these social hurdles.)

And because I am a feminist and because I care about the social messages involved in this daily navigation and specifically because I have entrenched issues with being Hard On Myself, I frequently feel guilty for making the compromises I have to in order to navigate safely through a conservative patriarchal environment. And I feel cowardly for not being more vocal, more obvious, more “out” — and professional and personal consequences be damned.

But then I remember how much I need my job and my health care just to survive and how strongly I require a robust social network in order to live with my disability, and I remember all over again all the reasons why I don’t say the F-word, why I don’t openly and vocally identify as a feminist in facespace: I can’t afford to. It’s too risky. It’s too dangerous. And so I creep back undercover and long for the day when my online activism can meet my facespace movements without fear of reprisals.

Ana isn’t talking about the exact sort of situation I’m talking about, but it’s similar enough to warrant a mention. Namely: not everyone always has the privilege to be honest and open.

Most people don’t lie for the fun of it; they lie because the alternative doesn’t seem reasonable. Others may judge them as taking “the easy way out,” but again, I’d question why there’s anything morally superior about subjecting yourself to sexual harassment and possibly violence.

It’s not surprising to me that people who don’t have a personal stake in this often start discussing it in grand abstract terms like Ethics and Honesty and Morality. Here’s the reality on the ground: I’m at a bar, some dude won’t leave me the fuck alone, and I’m scared and uncomfortable. Maybe you want to philosophize, but I want to escape this situation however I can.

And incidentally, for anyone who’s worried that I’m somehow abdicating my responsibility as a feminist by inventing a fake boyfriend, believe me when I say that I’ll be a much more effective activist if I take care of my mental health and emotional safety before I try to do activism.

The fact is that many women apparently feel like they can’t escape men except by lying to them. I would think that more of the responsibility for this should be allocated to the men who won’t accept any answer besides “I have a boyfriend” than to the women who feel they have no choice but to say it. And if you’re a guy who’s more concerned about the fact that women sometimes lie to you about having boyfriends than about the fact that women are subjected to constant sexual harassment just for existing in public, you’ve got your priorities pretty screwed up.

~~~

Liked this post? Please consider donating so I can speak at conferences.

A Review of the White House’s Report on Campus Sexual Violence

[Content note: sexual assault]

I wasn’t really paying much attention to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault because I think that that kind of stuff makes a lot less of a difference than good old-fashioned grassroots activism, but I did pay attention when RAINN, an organization that I otherwise really respect the work of, sent the Task Force its recommendations, which ridiculously stated that we should stop blaming this whole “rape culture” thing and recognize that sexual assault is caused by individuals. Amanda Marcotte takes this down quite well here.

So when the Task Force released its first report recently, I decided to read it and see how useful it was and whether or not it followed RAINN’s lead in trivializing the role of culture and socialization in producing widespread sexual violence.

Here’s what the report gets right:

1. It acknowledges that schools have a strong incentive to avoid publicizing sexual assault statistics:

For colleges and universities, breaking the cycle of violence poses a unique challenge. When a school tries to tackle the problem – by acknowledging it, drawing attention to it, and encouraging survivors to report – it can start to look like a dangerous place. On the flip side, when a school ignores the problem or discourages reporting (either actively or by treating survivors without care), it can look safer. Add to this the competition for top students or a coveted spot on a college rankings list – and a school might think it can outshine its neighbor by keeping its problem in the shadows.

We have to change that dynamic.

The same thing happens with mental health, hazing in the Greek system, and basically any other problem faced by college campuses. It’s good that the Task Force seems to realize that universities aren’t exactly going to fix this problem out of the goodness of their hearts.

2. It acknowledges the importance of social norms about sexual assault.

Social norms research reveals that men often misperceive what other men think about this issue: they overestimate their peers’ acceptance of sexual assault and underestimate other men’s willingness to intervene when a woman is in trouble. And when men think their peers don’t object to abusive behavior, they are much less likely to step in and help.

This is part of the report’s recommendation for bystander intervention programs, which are a good first step but have a number of problems that I’ll discuss in the second section of this post. Notably, the report never uses the term “rape culture,” not even in this section, but that’s the sociological term for what it’s getting at here. People think that rape is okay and/or that certain things that are rape are not really rape and are therefore okay.

What this section doesn’t mention is that teaching people that sexual assault is unacceptable isn’t just important for getting people to step in when they see sexual assault (or harassment, or coercion) happening; it also helps prevent sexual assault directly. As has been pointed out numerous times, rapists rape because they think (well, they know) that they’re not going to face any consequences for it.

3. It emphasizes research and evidence-based prevention approaches.

According to the report, the CDC plans to convene a panel of “experts” (by which I hope it means researchers) on sexual assault prevention to discuss best practices that will then be put into place. And the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women plans to evaluate prevention programs used on campuses to get data on their effectiveness. The report also lists three universities that have committed to research projects about campus sexual assault, though it’s unclear whether or not they are receiving grants for the research.

4. It recommends that campuses provide confidential victim advocates to whom students can disclose sexual assault without having to initiate a formal investigation.

I know many people’s version of “feminism” is raking survivors over the coals for choosing not to report their assault to the authorities, but this is crucial. Contrary to popular belief, a survivor who has nowhere to go to discuss an assault that will not initiate a disciplinary or criminal investigation will not go ahead and tell someone who will initiate a disciplinary or criminal investigation; they may not tell anyone at all. And students who initially do not want to file an official report may decide to do so after receiving compassionate and trauma-informed support from a confidential professional. The Task Force’s report correctly emphasizes the importance of empowering survivors by letting them decide what happens after they disclose an assault rather than making that decision for them.

5. It discusses how trauma can impact survivors and how school officials should be trained to respond to it.

Some common victim responses (like not physically resisting or yelling for help) may seem counter-intuitive to those unfamiliar with sexual victimization. New research has also found that the trauma associated with rape or sexual assault can interfere with parts of the brain that control memory – and, as a result, a victim may have impaired verbal skills, short term memory loss, memory fragmentation, and delayed recall. This can make understanding what happened challenging.

Personal biases also come into play. Insensitive or judgmental comments – or questions that focus on a victim’s behavior (e.g., what she was wearing, her prior sexual history) rather than on the alleged perpetrator’s – can compound a victim’s distress.

Specialized training, thus, is crucial. School officials and investigators need to understand how sexual assault occurs, how it’s perpetrated, and how victims might naturally respond both during and after an assault.

Therefore, according to the report, the Justice Department plans to develop a training program to help school officials involved with sexual assault investigations understand trauma and sexual assault. And I hope that the bit about “questions that focus on a victim’s behavior” (or, what we call “victim blaming”) focuses not just on the fact that it’s hurtful, but that it’s unnecessary and counterproductive. Whether the victim was wearing a revealing dress or has had consensual sex with the rapist before has nothing to do with whether or not a sexual assault has occurred.

6. It puts all this info on a single website that students, university administrators, and anyone else who wants to know can access: notalone.gov.

Granted, I don’t know how many students are even going to realize this is a thing, but I’m still glad it’s a thing.

And now, here’s what the report could’ve done better:

1. Not using female pronouns for sexual assault survivors.

Although the report explicitly mentions male survivors several times, it often defaults to female pronouns. Why? This is so unnecessary and such an easy thing to fix. Just use “they.” Anybody who seriously has a problem with that grammar can deal with it easier than male and genderqueer survivors can deal with being erased.

2. Not treating campus sexual assault like it happens in a vacuum.

While I understand that this particular task force was created to address sexual assault on college campuses, it seems remiss not to mention that campus sexual violence doesn’t happen just because it’s a college campus. There are factors that make it more prevalent there, sure–alcohol use, the entitled attitude of many athletes and fraternity members, the close-knit social circles that make it difficult to accuse someone of sexual assault–but these factors also play out elsewhere. There’s a whole blog basically dedicated to showing how they play out in tech culture, for instance.

But it’s difficult to acknowledge this without using that dreaded term “rape culture.”

3. Specifying incentives for universities to complete the campus climate surveys.

As I mentioned earlier, the report points out that universities have a strong incentive not to do this, and that they will be provided with an evidence-based survey that they can use. The report also states that the task force will be looking at ways to legally compel universities to do it, but I wonder why they didn’t just include incentives for doing it voluntarily (perhaps distributing some of the grant money that way, for instance).

4. Implementing a simple way for those who are interested to keep track of the Task Force’s efforts.

Much of the report concerns future plans for research and implementation, and it mentions several times that updates will be posted on the NotAlone.gov site. However, looking over the site, there doesn’t seem to be a way to keep up to date on this. There’s no blog. There’s no “news” section. I actually take this pretty seriously because I do intend to follow these efforts, but I don’t know how besides watching the same blogs I always watch.

5. Less emphasis on bystander prevention or more caveats about it.

Okay, I get that this works in at least some cases. But first of all, bystander intervention asks students to expose themselves to danger by taking responsibility for another student’s choice to threaten, coerce, or assault someone. Men can intervene more safely than women, but 1) the programs target students of all genders; 2) even for men it’s not always safe; and 3) there won’t always be a male bystander. There won’t always be any bystander, in fact. In many campus sexual assault cases, the victim left willingly with the assailant because they did want some sort of sexual contact with them, but then the assailant presumed that to mean that they have a license to do whatever. (Because rape culture.)

I didn’t really see anything in the report about other prevention methods, such as teaching students what sexual assault actually is (contrary to popular belief, it need not involve both a penis and a vagina). To be fair to the task force, that section of the report emphasized the need for more research on prevention, so I’m not condemning this too strongly. It does seem (at least from what I’ve read of the research) that bystander intervention has been tested more than other types of prevention initiatives, and therefore there’s more evidence for it at this point in time.

6. Even more transparency.

In accordance with the Task Force’s recommendation, the Department of Education released a list of 55 universities currently under investigation for Title IX violations. However, all it gives are the names of the schools, not what they’re actually under investigation for (besides, well, violating Title IX). Maybe there are legal reasons why they can’t release even a very general statement about that, as it is, the list is not very useful. There are tons of schools on it. (And, incidentally, there are definitely a few that should be but aren’t. Before you pick a college to attend, you should definitely google its name + “sexual assault.”)

I guess it’ll take time to see whether or not this will be more than a purely symbolic gesture. I think it has the potential to be, at least insofar as universities carry out the recommendations. While I don’t have an extremely in-depth knowledge of how university administrations work, I’ve been involved with campus activism enough to know that there will be staff (and students) at many campuses who desperately want to see these ideas implemented, but they may not necessarily receive support from the upper-level administrators who can make it happen. It pains me when I see sexual assault prevention and health promotion staff get lambasted for “not doing enough” when they’re almost always trying to do everything they can with the limited power they’ve been given.

And the reason those upper-level administrators aren’t always supportive isn’t because they’re Evil or don’t care about sexual assault; they’re generally people with lots of types of privilege who can afford not to think about these things constantly like some of us do. But there’s limited time and money, and there’s a lot to be lost if you’re one of the first universities to publicly and loudly take a stand against campus sexual violence. There shouldn’t be, but there is, and I’m glad the Task Force is trying to address that.

~~~

Liked this post? Please consider donating so I can speak at conferences.

How Young Girls Internalize Rape Culture as “Normal”

[Content note: sexual assault and harassment]

My newest post at the Daily Dot is about a study showing how normalized sexual violence is for young women:

They grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it’s okay, I mean…I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone.

This is how a 13-year-old girl described being groped by boys at school in a recently published study from Marquette University. Researcher Heather Hlavka examined recordings of interviews with girls who had experienced sexual assault and found that many of the girls consistently tried to minimize their experiences of sexual assault and harassment by claiming that it’s “just what guys do,” “just a joke,” or “no big deal.”

Sexual violence against women is so tragically normal, it seems, that girls grow up expecting it to happen or at least not being very surprised when it does.

Meanwhile, on the internet, a veteran of the comics industry who also happens to be a woman wrote a critique of a comic cover that she found objectifying and gross: specifically, it featured 16- or 17-year-old Wonder Girl with huge, clearly-fake boobs. Predictably, she received numerous death and rape threats online for daring to do this.

Dr. Nerdlove, a blogger who normally dispenses dating advice to (mostly male) geeks, wrote a blog post in response, saying:

Here’s the thing though: this isn’t about whether or not Asselin is legitimately afraid for her personal safety—while not ignoring that these are threats from people who know what she looks like, where she works and where she lives—or if these threats are at all credible. It’s about the fact that this is so common place, that women get so many threats that it stops bothering them.

I want to reiterate that so that it sinks in: women getting so many anonymous, sexually violent threats that it just becomes normal to them.

This is what we’re letting our culture turn into, people.

These two seemingly different examples have a common thread: women viewing sexual violence and threats of it as normal.

When women speak out against sexual violence and harassment, a common response from men is that other women seem fine with it. Other women take it as a compliment. Occasionally a woman or two will join the debate on their side, testifying to the fact that they don’t see anything wrong with catcalling or pressuring someone to have sex with you.

But studies like these show that even from a very young age, many women accept threatening, coercive, and even violent behavior from men because they don’t think anything else is possible. That’s “just how men are.” It’s “no big deal.”

Read the rest here.

On Demanding Solutions To Social Problems

One of the most frustrating and most understandable responses I encounter in the course of activism goes something like this:

“Okay I get that this is a problem but what am I supposed to do about it? Should I decline a job that I supposedly got because of my privilege? What are your policy prescriptions? What’s the point of talking about this all the time rather than doing something about it?”

I hear variations on this theme all the time, and they vary from well-intentioned to not well-intentioned, from honest to dishonest. It’s not always clear what’s really going on. Questions often contain a declarative layer to them, even when someone claims they’re “just asking questions.” (Perhaps especially when someone claims they’re “just asking questions.” For example:

  • “I’m frustrated by the immensity of this issue and I feel like it’ll never be solved.”
  • “It makes me uncomfortable to have to listen to people talk about how injustice has impacted them. I’d rather hear something more positive.”
  • “I bet you’re about to suggest that the government intervene to fix this and I want to argue about the role of government rather than listen to what you want to talk about.”
  • “I don’t actually think this is a problem.”
  • “I don’t think there’s anything we can to do solve this problem, so I’ll dismiss your proposed solutions anyway.”
  • “I don’t think it’s worthwhile talking about problems if we’re not also taking immediate steps to solve them.”
  • “I don’t think it’s all that important to understand the nature of a problem before trying to solve it.”
  • “Not knowing how to fix something makes me feel inept and useless, so I want to know how to fix it.”

I disagree with some people that it’s always necessarily possible to tell when someone is arguing (or asking) in bad faith, and I disagree with some other people that one should always assume good faith. So I tend to just take these questions at face value and try not to guess at which of these layers may be hidden inside them.

There’s a reason why activisty/writerly types are often advised to include “where to go from here” or “suggestions for action” or “next steps” in their works, and a reason why books about social causes often have that as the last chapter. I think it does make the medicine go down a little easier by showing that all hope is not lost, and it also encourages people to take action by giving them simple ideas for things to do.

But sometimes it’s impossible to include such a section, either because we simply don’t know what to do or because that’s not the intended focus of the piece.

“Raising awareness” gets sort of a bad rap because of its association with car magnet ribbons and Facebook memes about where women put their purses. It’s true that most people are already “aware” of breast cancer, for instance. But most people are not aware of what often happens when someone tries to report a sexual assault to the police or what often happens when a person of color shops at an upscale store or what often happens when you’re a teenager trying to start an atheist club at your high school in South Carolina, for instance.

And with activism, as with any big project, you have to break it down into smaller steps. Sometimes the immediate step isn’t “solve the problem,” but “get people to agree that a problem exists,” and then “show people how the problem impacts others.” Trying to skip one of these steps is like trying to, say, plan a renovation for a building without first taking note of what’s wrong with the building currently, or even getting anyone else to agree that a renovation is needed.

And guess what? If you do genuinely see the problem that’s being described to you, you’re already ahead of most people. If you’re talking about the problem with people, you’re already “doing something” about it. Talking is doing, not only because it educates others, but because that’s how the doing ultimately gets done.

It’s understandable that people find it uncomfortable to listen to really sad stories about really sad things happening to people. Some might even find it triggering or otherwise detrimental to their mental health. At this time, you have a decision to make, and only you can make it for yourself: are you able and willing to deal with this discomfort? If not, you owe it to yourself (and perhaps to others) to step back. Don’t attend the panel, take a break from the book club, stop reading blogs for a while. It’s not your fault that you’re feeling this way, but it’s not others’ responsibility to stop sharing things that need to be shared, either.

But if it’s not an issue of triggers or mental health, then I think that people should make an effort to learn to sit with discomfort without needing or demanding immediate relief from it. Yes, it feels a lot better when someone finishes their presentation or blog post with, “Want to help make a difference? Just donate to our fund/write to your representative/spend a few hours volunteering with us/sign this petition!” Sometimes that’s how a difference gets made, but sometimes it’s not.

It’s uncomfortable to listen to stories of oppression and injustice, and it should be. That’s a feature, not a bug. These stories are not shared to make you feel good, and they’re not always necessarily being shared to “inspire” you to action. More often than not, they’re shared because this is information you need to know to be a good citizen (and a good person). If you take the time to understand the issue, you might find that potential solutions start coming to you, and that you don’t need someone to include a bulleted list of action items in their PowerPoint. You might even feel compelled to implement some of these solutions. You may even succeed.

The people who respond in this way, the “okay just tell me how to fix it” way, are not always men, but they usually are. That’s probably because men are socialized to fix things, and their security in their own masculinity often rests partially on their ability to fix things–not just the broken toilet or the leaking roof, but things in general. It happens on the macro level and the micro level: for example, all the male partners I’ve had who would neither allow me to talk about my depression without trying to fix it, nor ask me to please not share it because it’s too frustrating. They would insist that I share it, and they would insist on trying to fix me, and they would fail, and so would the relationship.

Social problems are similar to depression in that they are complex and require patient and knowledgeable effort from people who know what they’re doing. There is no quick fix for any of these things.

If you’re a man and you find yourself demanding immediate solutions when social problems are described to you, ask yourself if the way you’ve been brought up as a man might be impacting your reaction to the situation. The fact that a feeling stems from gender roles doesn’t make it wrong or fake, but it does mean that the problem isn’t with the person who’s refusing to give you a ready-made solution, but with the lessons you were taught about being a man.

Obviously, looking for solutions to problems is a Very Good Idea in general. But in this specific way, during these specific times, it may not be a good idea. It would be nice if every problem came with a prepackaged bulleted list of Next Steps, but that’s just not life. Don’t let your earnest wish to see the problem solved keep you from listening to the people dealing with the problem.

~~~

Liked this post? Please consider donating so I can speak at conferences.

Individualized Feminism

Public scrutiny of individual women’s choices is a spectator sport in our society. Women’s aesthetic, sartorial, professional, parental, sexual, social, and health decisions are debated passionately whether these women are entertainers, politicians, business executives, relatives, neighbors, or fellow PTA moms. These decisions are presumed to reflect strongly on who these women are as mothers, daughters, friends, girlfriends, wives, and employees, much more than they reflect on the context in which they are being made.

This is not surprising when you consider how individualistic American culture is–much more so than other cultures that fall on that end of the individualistic-collectivistic spectrum. It seems to be difficult for many people raised in such a culture to think about other people in ways besides the individual. If we believe that everyone’s ultimately on their own and gets to make their own decisions without much influence from other people or from the surrounding society, then it makes sense to believe that how someone raises their children or which career they choose says a lot about who they really are deep down, and does not say very much about anything else.

For societies with a high value of individualism and a high value of sexism, a particular love of scrutinizing individual women’s actions to determine how Good At Being Women they are especially makes sense.

Feminist theory and practice replicate the biases and prejudices found mainstream culture. That’s the reason feminism has such a storied history of racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other bigotries. We keep realizing that the rabbit hole of bad thinking and the oppression that results from it goes so much deeper than we thought.

Another (much less harmful but still counterproductive) way in which feminism as I often see it practiced here in the U.S. carries on preexisting cultural trends is a myopic focus on individual choices. Should women stop shaving? Should women wear their hair short? Is this a feminist thing to do? Is that a feminist thing to do? Can you be a feminist and love football? Can you be a feminist and wear feminine clothes? Can you be a feminist and a stay-at-home mom? Can you be a feminist and let the guy pay for dinner? Can you be a feminist and wear makeup? Can you be a feminist and _____?

Consequently, it seems that no major feminist website is free from frequent articles to the tune of “Why I Shave My Pubic Hair” or “Why I Gave In And Married The Guy I Love” or “Why I Stopped Shaving My Legs” and so on.

First of all, I do recognize the value of women speaking and writing about their experiences as women, especially in a society that often treats these narratives as “inappropriate” or “silly” or “gross” or what have you. This is the case not only for stories of sexual assault or harassment and such, but also for stories of these everyday choices and decisions that are influenced by our socialization as women, and then further impacted intersectionally by factors like race, class, and so on.

especially recognize the value of these types of articles when they’re coming from voices that we don’t hear very often within the feminist movement or anywhere else: women of color, gender-nonconforming folks, women from impoverished backgrounds, and so on. At that point, these articles are vital because people need to hear these stories and try to understand these perspectives. 

But yet another article from an able-bodied thin white woman about her decision to shave her legs despite her feminist ideals isn’t the same thing. Or rather, it is precisely the same thing as we’ve all read a dozen times before.

It seems that the constant production of these narratives and their eager consumption by readers speaks to two problems with the way many people understand feminism: 1) that to be a feminist is to perform a certain series of actions and make a particular set of choices, and 2) that if you identify as a feminist but stray from these actions and choices, you have to justify yourself by writing an article to explain how you can be a feminist and still love football/love men/get married/shave your legs/shave your pubic area/wear feminine clothes/wear makeup/stay at home with the kids/choose a traditionally feminine profession/”lean out”/etc.

It’s no wonder I’m constantly having to explain to men that who pays for the damn date is not the be-all end-all of feminist discourse.

As feminists, we all presumably understand that society puts a lot of pressure on women to act a certain way, and that women who ignore this pressure face backlash. So nobody should be particularly surprised that a women who identifies strongly as a feminist may nevertheless do certain things that she doesn’t really want to, or that don’t feel entirely genuine, but that are prescribed by her feminine role.

But it’s also quite possible to be a fierce feminist and to also genuinely want to stay at home with the kids or wear high heels or whatever. In fact, it’s probably impossible to pick apart what is “genuine” and what is not, because we all grow up hearing certain messages about how we should live and many of those become internalized and therefore start to feel authentic and good and meaningful.

Men, too, face a lot of pressure to act in line with the masculine gender role. Yet I don’t see a preponderance of articles about whether or not you can be a male feminist who also works in the tech sector, who prefers having lots of facial hair, who plays sports, who wants to advance to the top of the career ladder, or whatever. I find this interesting.

The pressure that many feminist women feel to refrain from doing traditionally feminine things may stem from the belief that if everyone just started ignoring gender roles and doing whatever the hell they want, they would just go away. While the particular gender roles being flouted might subside if a critical mass of people started to ignore them (which would probably require a LOT more people than currently identify as feminists, anyway), new ones would probably emerge to take their place. For instance, some have noted that advertisements for children’s toys (and, therefore, the toys that end up being bought for children) have become more gendered, not less, over the past few decades. How could this be? Women’s rights have made so much progress!

Because we keep looking at it as a matter of individual lifestyle choices rather than as an entire system in which the only two recognized genders are strictly divided, and one is considered more powerful, agentic, and strong, while the other is considered more sexually attractive, gentle, and pure.

(And also because fucking profit motive.)

Sexism would still exist even if every single woman stopped shaving her legs, and feminism is not being held back by every single woman who has not stopped shaving her legs. While these individual choices can be (and often are) politicized, focusing on them myopically at the expense of the bigger picture means much less time spent discussing the rigid gender binary itself or the glorification of physical beauty or the double bind that women find themselves in at the workplace.

It’s not surprising to me that the sort of feminism that focuses so intently on individual choices is also the sort that often fails so badly at intersectionality. When you make it all about individual choices and not about the context in which those choices are made, you miss the fact that, for example, a woman of color might not view staying at home with the kids while the husband works as “traditional” because women of color have not traditionally had that option. A trans woman might not view cutting her hair short as “edgy” or “political” because all it means is that she doesn’t pass anymore. A woman who grew up poor might not see anything “liberating” or “radical” about growing her own vegetables in a cute little balcony garden because her family had to do that to survive.

I get that it’s easier to talk about personal lifestyle choices that everyone makes and understands than it is to talk about all the sociological structural shit, but it’s not getting very much done. As far as I’m concerned, the only individual choice that is “not feminist” is the choice to restrict other women’s rights and freedoms. That’s why, no matter how you try to spin it, you cannot be a pro-life feminist. You can be a feminist who personally feels that abortion is morally wrong but that others deserve to make that decision for themselves, but you cannot be a feminist who advocates for reduced (or no) access to abortion and contraception.

Otherwise, any negative impact you have on the dismantling of the patriarchy by continuing to shave your legs can only be so minuscule as to be irrelevant.

And I can only hope that I never have to hear “I know this makes me a bad feminist but–” ever again.

~~~

Liked this post? Please consider donating so I can speak at conferences.