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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

“You Would Call It Rape”: Sexual Assault in China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station”

[Content note: rape, torture; spoilers for Perdido Street Station]

Cover of Perdido Street StationAfter reading almost nothing but nonfiction for years, I finally decided to check out China Mieville’s work and have developed a bit of an obsession. As in, five books of his in a row in the past few weeks.

Mieville has a talent for incorporating contemporary social issues into settings as fantastical as you can imagine (or can’t, in some cases). His novel Perdido Street Station tackles rape at the end, when the main character learns that the friend he is trying to help is a rapist.

Some background for those who haven’t read it:

Early on in the novel, the main character, Isaac, receives a visit from a mysterious man seeking his help. Yagharek belongs to the garuda, a nomadic race of people with human bodies, birdlike heads, and huge wings with which they can fly. However, Yagharek’s wings have been sawed off as punishment for a crime that he is unable to explain to Isaac due to the differences in their cultures. He calls the crime “choice-theft” and explains that among the garuda, the worst thing one can do is take away someone else’s choice. He seems horribly ashamed of both what he did and what happened to him as a result, and wants to somehow regain the power of flight.

Yagharek has traveled to the city of New Crobuzon to see Isaac because Isaac is a rogue scientist who researches arcane and experimental forms of physics, and might be the only one who can help Yagharek fly again. Isaac, horrified at the brutal punishment, accepts the huge sum of money Yagharek offers and agrees to try to help him.

This ends up indirectly leading to the main plot of the novel, which involves creatures called slake-moths terrorizing the city and feeding on people’s sentience (long story). At the end, the slake-moths have finally been killed with the help of Yagharek and others, and Isaac is finally ready to return to the problem of helping Yagharek fly again.

But then, Isaac receives another garuda visitor, Kar’uchai. She asks Isaac not to help Yagharek fly, because their community has judged him guilty and carried out the appropriate punishment. Isaac protests, saying that Yagharek is his friend and saved his life. He demands to know what Yagharek has done to deserve such a punishment, and Kar’uchai tries to explain:

“He is guilty,” said Kar’uchai quietly, “of choice-theft in the second degree, with utter disrespect.”

“What does that mean?” shouted Isaac. “What did he do? What’s fucking choice-theft anyway? This means nothing to me.”

“It is the only crime we have, Grimneb’lin,” replied Kar’uchai in a harsh monotone. “To take the choice of another . . . to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget that you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choice of another being. What is community but a means to . . . for all we individuals to have . . . our choices.”

Kar’uchai continues to explain how the garuda classify choice-thefts: for instance, some are done with respect, such as when a child steals the cloak of an adult they love to sleep with it at night. Others involve disrespect, such as killing someone. But in each case, the garuda view the primary crime as being taking away someone’s choice–to use their cloak, to continue to live, or whatever the case may be.

Isaac, still frustrated and confused, asks once again what Yagharek did. This time, Kar’uchai replies, “You would call it rape.”

Oh, I would call it rape, would I? thought Isaac in a molten, raging sneer; but the torrent of livid contempt was not enough to drown his horror.

I would call it rape.

Isaac could not but imagine. Immediately.

As Isaac tries to make sense of what Yagharek did, Kar’uchai reveals that she is the one he raped. And although she gave him the word to understand the crime, she resists his attempts to imagine the crime through the lens of his own human culture:

“Yag . . . a fucking rapist,” he hissed, and she clucked.

“He stole choice,” she said flatly.

“He raped you,” he said, and instantly Kar’uchai clucked again. “He stole my choice,” she said. She was not expanding on his words, Isaac realized: she was correcting him. “You cannot translate into your jurisprudence, Grimneb’lin,” she said. She seemed annoyed.

Isaac tried to speak, shook his head miserably, stared at her and again saw the crime committed, behind his eyes.

“You cannot translate, Grimneb’lin,” Kar’uchai repeated. “Stop. I can see . . . all the texts of your city’s laws and morals that I have read . . . in you.” Her tone sounded monotonous to him. The emotion in the pauses and cadences of her voice was opaque.

“I was not violated or ravaged, Grimneb’lin. I am not abused or defiled . . . or ravished or spoiled. You would call his actions rape, but I do not: that tells me nothing. He stole my choice, and that is why he was . . . judged. It was severe . . . the last sanction but one . . . There are many choice-thefts less heinous than his, and only a few more so . . . And there are others that are judged equal . . . many of those are actions utterly unlike Yagharek’s. Some, you would not deem crimes at all.

“The actions vary: the crime . . . is the theft of choice. Your magisters and laws . . . that sexualize and sacralize . . . for whom individuals are defined abstract . . . their matrix-nature ignored . . . where context is a distraction . . . cannot grasp that.

“Do not look at me with eyes reserved for victims . . . And when Yagharek returns . . . I ask you to observe our justice—Yagharek’s justice—not to impute your own.”

So much to unpack in this dialogue. Mieville almost seems to be speaking through Kar’uchai, and through her cultural lens, to critique the sexualized framing of rape that is so often used in our society. In a discussion with friends recently, I noted how rape is often considered “the worst thing that can happen to a woman” purely because constructs like “purity” are so essentialized. It brings to mind the old debate of whether rape is “about sex” or “about power.” Kar’uchai introduces a new frame: rape is about theft. Specifically, the theft of someone’s choice not to have sex.

Although this sounds a little like the icky libertarian practice of viewing everything in terms of theft of property, the garuda don’t seem to see it that way. Rather, they combine what we’d call individualism and collectivism: they consider all individuals part of the “matrix” of society, but they also view individual freedom and choice as extremely important. Although Mieville (regretfully) doesn’t expand much on garuda culture apart from these passages, it seems to me that the garuda understand that the only way a nomadic and interdependent society like theirs can function properly is if its members respect each other’s freedom to choose for themselves.

Without knowing what exactly the gender politics of the garuda are, it seems that this framing of rape does away with a lot of the problems that occur in our own society. When Yagharek later reflects on what he did, there is no hesitation from the other members of his band about his guilt. It didn’t matter to them what a “nice guy” Yagharek had previously been, and whether or not Kar’uchai somehow “asked for it” never entered into the judgment. Her sexual history was never brought up, because sex had nothing to do with it. Yagharek stole her choice, and admitted to it when asked. (I do wonder, though, what would’ve happened if he’d given in to his initial urge to deny it.)

After Kar’uchai leaves, Isaac ruminates over the situation and can’t seem to find a way out of it. He thinks of his partner, Lin, whom he recently freed from her imprisonment as a hostage, and who has bruises that suggest rape. He thinks of how Yagharek fought beside him and saved both him and Lin. He thinks of Kar’uchai and thinks of her ordeal as “rape” even though she has asked him not to.

He realizes that no matter what he does, he is judging someone and something. Here his thoughts start to follow a familiar path to what we often hear when someone’s accused of sexual assault: “It’s he said/she said,” “Well I don’t know the facts,” “Who am I to judge them,” and so on:

He tried to extricate himself.

He tried to think himself away from the whole thing. He told himself desperately that to refuse his services would not imply judgement, that it would not mean he pretended knowledge of the facts, that it would simply be a way of saying, “This is beyond me, this is not my business.” But he could not convince himself.

He slumped and breathed a miserable moan of exhaustion. If he turned from Yagharek, he realized, no matter what he said, Isaac would feel himself to have judged, and to have found Yagharek wanting. And Isaac realized that he could not in conscience imply that, when he did not know the case.

But on the heels of that thought came another; a flipside, a counterpoint. If withholding help implied negative judgement he could not make, thought Isaac, then helping, bestowing flight, would imply that Yagharek’s actions were acceptable.

And that, thought Isaac in cold distaste and fury, he would not do.

After this realization, Isaac suddenly knows what the right thing to do is. He writes Yagharek a letter explaining Kar’uchai’s visit and revelation, and his decision not to reverse Yagharek’s punishment. He leaves the letter in the hut where they’ve been staying and, along with Lin and their friend, flees the city to avoid capture by the militia. The novel ends as Yagharek finds the letter, relives his crime and his shame, and resolves to live in his new home as a flightless being, a man.

While this treatment of sexual assault is not without its issues (as all representations of pretty much anything are), I think Mieville does an amazing job of having his characters grapple with the ethical issues raised. Part of Isaac’s dilemma is that he considers Yagharek’s punishment so gruesome and cruel, which influences his decision to try to reverse it. Interestingly, while Yagharek desperately wants to fly again, he pushes back against Isaac’s judgment of the punishment by pointing out that New Crobuzon’s punishments, which often involve a torturous procedure called Remaking that alters and disfigures people’s bodies in macabre ways, are really no better. Isaac, who runs with a group of radicals who protest the city government’s cruelty, immediately agrees.

I don’t get the sense that at the end of the novel, Isaac has decided that having his wings sawed off was a just punishment for Yagharek’s crime. However, he feels that reversing the punishment would nevertheless imply tacit acceptance of what Yagharek did. He is able to acknowledge that the punishment was grotesque and that Yagharek nevertheless did wrong. And as the reader, I felt sympathy for Yagharek as he tries to find his way in a new city, an exile not just from his community but from his entire race; nevertheless, I held him fully culpable for his crime.

In our own society, punishments for sexual assault are not even remotely on the level of that of the garuda. Yet people constantly bemoan how “unfair” it is to hold rapists accountable for what they did, how “tragic” it is that their lives have been “ruined.” Rape survivors are publicly excoriated for naming their rapists, as Dylan Farrow was when she named Woody Allen. Even the suggestion that people stop inviting a friend who has violated another friend’s boundaries to parties is often met with disdain, because it’s “unfair.”

Through Isaac’s moral dilemma, Mieville points out that “neutrality” in these cases is not truly neutral. It sends a message of acceptance in the form of a shrug of the shoulders.

~~~

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18 Things Mark Saunders Seems To Not Understand (Because, Male Privilege)

I have a response up at the Daily Dot to the latest ridiculous assertion that “female privilege” exists:

Mark Saunders’ recent Thought Catalog piece, “18 Things Females Seem To Not Understand (Because, Female Privilege),” announces its ignorance right from the title. The only people who still call women “females” are scientists, sexists, and Ferengi. (I suppose these three groups may overlap somewhat.)But while it’s easy to poke fun at the ridiculous title, it’s a little harder (though not by much) to show how wrong Saunders is.

Consider the first item on the list:

“1. Female privilege is being able to walk down the street at night without people crossing the street because they’re automatically afraid of you.”

It takes such incredible chutzpah to turn yourself into the victim in that situation. Women are afraid of men because we’re taught to, because we’re blamed for anything that happens when we’re not afraid enough, and because of personal experience. Saunders’ male privilege means he’s never had to feel what that’s like, and he should be grateful. The most visceral fear of my life has been when I’ve been walking down a dark street alone and heard footsteps behind me, knowing that the first question I’d be asked if the worst thing imaginable happened would be, “Well, what the hell were you doing out there alone?”

It is not a privilege to live in constant fear of rape and death.

Keep reading here.

Relatedly, there’s this Storify of a Twitter rant I directed at Thought Catalog in response to the piece.

When Neutrality Is Really Just The Status Quo

[Content note: sexual assault]

Someone who declares neutrality on a particular question, issue, or debate seems to automatically gain an intellectual (and, sometimes, moral) upper hand.

While there are often social consequences for picking one side or another, declaring neutrality has a very low barrier to entry. Outside of radical circles, nobody will criticize you for not taking sides. In fact, they may admire you because, after all, “the truth lies between two extremes.”

I saw this happen recently after Dylan Farrow published her piece in the New York Times about being abused by Woody Allen as a little girl. Almost immediately there was a collective chorus of dudes being like “Well we don’t really know what happened here I mean innocent until proven guilty right I mean that’s awful if he really did do that but I’m just not gonna take sides on this one and I mean like his films are just so brilliant.”

And this was, of course, presented as the righteous and proper response.

(Ashley Miller wrote an excellent post about why taking a neutral stance on the Woody Allen allegations doesn’t make sense, and Lisa Bloom, who has represented victims of child sexual abuse in court, offers a defense of Dylan Farrow’s credibility here. So, that’s not what I’ll be addressing in this post. Please don’t argue about it in the comments either.)

Another example that may at first seem unrelated: Jessica Valenti found out that TEDWOMEN, a series of TED Talks featuring women and promoting women’s issues, specifically avoided covering abortion in any of its talks. She writes:

When I asked around, the consensus was that the omission was simply an oversight. But it turns out TED is deliberately keeping abortion off the agenda. When asked for comment, TED content director and TEDWomen co-host Kelly Stoetzel said that abortion did not fit into their focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights.” “Abortion is more of a topical issue we wouldn’t take a position on, any more than we’d take a position on a state tax bill,” Stoetzel explained. She pointed me to a few talks on women’s health and birth control, but this made the refusal to discuss abortion only more glaring. In the last three years, the United States has seen more abortion restrictions enacted than in the entire previous decade; the United Nations has classified the lack of access to abortion as torture; and Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland because a Catholic hospital refused to end her doomed pregnancy. Just how is abortion not an issue of “justice, inequality and human rights”?

The comparison of abortion access to state tax issues is glaring, as is the presumption that refusing to “take a position” on this issue is in any way superior to taking a position on it. As this piece at ThinkProgress points out, there are plenty of reasons TEDWOMEN might make this choice besides a desire to appear neutral on the topic; however, I see this as part of a larger trend in which “hot-button” issues are seen as somehow beneath an esteemed organization or individual, and taking a position on such issues is seen as being petty or pedestrian.

And so TEDWOMEN carefully avoids taking a stance on a major women’s rights issue, and prefers instead to discuss how rich white women may better distinguish themselves in the corporate world, or whatever.

(Apparently the conference itself claims that Valenti took their words “out of context” and that they “welcome” talks on abortion. However, Valenti provided the full text of the email she received, and the fact remains that TEDWOMEN has never hosted a talk on abortion, which is one of the most well-known issues affecting women in the United States right now. If this controversy makes them host a talk on abortion, though, that’ll be great.)

In many cases, neutrality is extremely sensible. That is obvious. I would never deny that.

For example, if a well-designed, peer-reviewed study supports a conclusion you agree with but another well-designed, peer-reviewed study fails to replicate those results or suggests the opposite conclusion, you should probably try to remain neutral until more data is available rather than cherry-picking the results you agree with. If a couple you’re friends with breaks up and Alex blames Sam for cheating and Sam blames Alex for never wanting to have sex anymore, it’s fair to say that you’re not sure whose fault it was and to remain neutral by not taking sides.

But if 98% of the published research supports the conclusion you agree with and only 2% does not, it’s no longer very reasonable to declare neutrality as though both sides have the same amount of evidence backing them. And if Alex and Sam break up because Alex claims that Sam raped them and Sam says that Alex was “totally into it,” remaining neutral makes little sense. Alex doesn’t have much of a motive for lying, and, statistically, false rape accusations that name an attacker are very rare. Saying, “Well, I don’t know what really happened, I’ll remain neutral” means saying, “Well, I don’t know, Alex might be lying about getting raped.”

There is nothing courageous, original, or unpopular about being neutral. While that doesn’t mean being neutral is wrong, obviously, it does mean that you should be wary of people who paint themselves and their neutrality as morally heroic. It’s a cheap tactic, a way to puff up your credibility without having to actually demonstrate any knowledge or understanding of the situation. In that way, it has a lot in common with the related tactic of declaring oneself the True Skeptic/Rationalist, unlike one’s opponent, who is clearly incapable of rational thought, bless their heart.

Neutrality becomes a problem when it becomes an excuse for doing nothing–as it often does. We are neutral on the subject of climate change; therefore, we will not commit to researching ways to slow, stop, or cope with it. We are neutral on the subject of abortion; therefore, we will not invite speakers who advocate for reproductive rights. We are neutral on the subject of whether or not our friend raped you as you say they did; therefore, we will not stop inviting our friend to parties, because that would be rude. In fact, we’ll stop inviting you, because your outlandish claims are making us uncomfortable.

When someone claims neutrality, assess the situation. Whose interests are being served by refusing to take a stance? Is the evidence disproportionately on one side of the debate rather than another? What’s the worst that would happen if you took a side? What’s the worst that would happen if you did not take any sides?

(“Innocent until proven guilty!” is a lovely battle cry until you’re far from a court room and the question is whether or not to believe a woman who says very convincingly that your hero sexually abused her.)

Sometimes neutrality is a reasonable response to a situation with lots of conflicting bits of evidence, none of which is significantly more compelling than any other.

Other times, neutrality is a lazy excuse to avoid engaging with a difficult subject and to do nothing.

~~~

P.S. My favorite commentary on the Woody Allen situation is a comment from this post by Amanda Marcotte:

Occam’s Razor:

Thesis 1: A mother who otherwise loves and cares for her children chooses to deliberately implant a memory of painful molestation to get back at her partner, and was so good at memory implantation, better even than Korean War interrogators, that the memory persisted into adulthood and was powerful enough that the daughter felt the need to be dragged through the mud and called a liar just for expressing it.

Thesis 2: A guy who has admitted to having sex with another minor, and who makes movies about how fun it is to fuck minors, actually abused a minor.

Wow. Such leap of logic. Much unlikely. So irrationality.

Learning Sexuality: Children, Marketing, and Sexualized Products

[Content note: sex, child sexualization, child molestation and rape]

I’ve been depressed lately so writing has been difficult. (Here’s more about that if you’re curious.) Hopefully this isn’t the only thing I’ll be able to produce for the next few weeks.

~~~

Children and teens should be able to express their developing sexuality (safely and appropriately) without being shamed for it.

Adults are marketing sexual ideas and behaviors to children at very young ages, and this isn’t a good thing.

Both of these things may be true, but I’ve noticed that many people of a progressive persuasion often have trouble entertaining both of these ideas at the same time.

That is, whenever someone is claiming one of these, someone always appears to argue the other one as though they disprove each other. If someone says, “You know, it’s really sketchy that they sell pole dancing kits for little girls,” someone will inevitably counter, “So you’re saying there’s something wrong with girls expressing their sexuality? You’re slut-shaming.” If someone says, “We shouldn’t prevent children from exploring sexuality safely,” someone will respond, “Yeah well they only want to explore it because the mainstream media is teaching them inappropriate things.”

Much has already been written and researched about the sexualization of childhood (particularly girlhood). One study suggests that almost a third of girls’ clothing may be sexualized. The American Psychological Association released a report on it in 2007 and discussed some of the negative effects of sexualization. And, of course, commentary abounds and you can easily find it online.

Are some of the critical responses to sexualized children’s toys and clothing prompted by, as counter-critics love to allege, “prudishness”? Probably some of them. But that’s not all there is to it.

First of all, as the APA report suggests, increased sexualization of girls can have negative consequences for individuals and for society. But beyond that, I think there’s something to be said for discovering one’s sexuality through experimentation and exploration rather than by looking at commercials and magazines to see what other people (supposedly) do. Many of us grow up with images of what sexiness and sexuality is that later turn out to have absolutely no resonance for us. It’s a particular facial expression, a particular way of dressing, a particular procedure for hooking up and getting off, a particular move or strategy or “trick” to get a potential partner interested.

Eventually, some people unlearn some of these things and decide which of them really feel sexy and which don’t. For instance, some of the things I think are sexy are pretty “normative,” such as high heels and PIV intercourse. Other things that have been presented to me as sexy by my surrounding culture, though, I do not still think are sexy, such as men who ignore my boundaries, falling into bed together without having to say a word, and long straight hair. Some things that I think are sexy are things that have generally been presented to me as decidedly unsexy, such as asking for consent before kissing, having upper body muscles, and women who are dominant rather than submissive.

But some people don’t really question what they find sexy and why, and end up having a sexuality that’s pretty close to what they’ve seen advertised. And some of them are totally happy with that. But others are not, and they never really realize that they have other options.

Cliff Pervocracy once wrote about the experience of realizing that a particular pornographic image with which we’re all familiar isn’t necessarily how everyone likes to do it:

Rowdy and I watched porn together last night.  Because Rowdy is a gentle soul in ways I am not, I tend to watch hardcore kinky porn and he tends to watch porn of real couples having sweet lovey sex.  We were watching his porn.

The woman in the video had sex the way I do.  When she was on top, she didn’t pump her whole body up and down, she just moved her hips rhythmically.  And she didn’t stay on top forever going poundpoundpound like a champ; she did it for a few minutes and then switched positions.  I think that’s the first time I’ve seen a woman in porn do that.

The part that blew my mind: the guy in the video was way into that.  And Rowdy was way into that. And it was in porn, which gave it the official stamp of People Think This Is A Sexy Thing.  I was astonished, because I always thought wiggling my hips on top meant I was incompetent at sex.  I thought you were supposed to bounce full-length on a guy until he came, and since my thigh muscles can’t do that, I thought I was too weak to do me-on-top sex correctly.  It was amazing to see people accepting a less athletic method as a totally valid, hot way to have sex.  Hell, it was amazing just to find out that I wasn’t the only person on Earth who has sex that way.

Kids are probably not going to be exposed to hardcore pornography, of course, but they get exposed to other messages about what normative sexuality is, such as high heels and makeup, female passivity, and, apparently, pole dancing.

Aggressively marketing particular sexualized products or behaviors to little kids means that they are that much more likely to grow up with the idea that that’s how you do sexuality. It gives them that much less room to discover for themselves what’s fun and pleasurable as they become old enough to try it.

But the problem with this whole situation goes beyond people growing up forced into little boxes of sexual expression. Namely, there is a terrible and dangerous hypocrisy here. Adults create ads and marketing campaigns that persuade little girls to want pole dancing kits and t-shirts with sexy messages on them, and adults make horrible assumptions about the girls on whom this marketing works. It’s a rare case of molestation or statutory rape in which some source doesn’t claim that the female victim dressed “older than her age” or “seemed very sexually mature.”

Every bit of me just rages and rages when I read these things. We have people who are paid more money than most working adults will ever see to manipulate girls and their parents into wanting and buying these things, and then we blame these girls for being preyed on by adults who ascribe to them an awareness that they probably cannot have yet.

First of all (not that this needs to be said), statutory rape is wrong no matter how sexually mature a child is. (I’m not talking about those “grey areas” where one person is 17 and the other is 19 or whatever. I’m talking about those cases where the victim is 10 and the predator is 45, for instance.) But regardless, when little girls wear “revealing” clothes or put on lots of makeup or dance in a “suggestive” way (whatever that even means), they’re almost definitely not doing it because they literally want to have sex with someone. They’re probably doing it more because it’s been presented to them as a fun and exciting thing to do, something older girls do, something that just you’re supposed to do as a girl. It’s adults who interpret children’s exploration as necessarily sexual, or as a sign of sexual maturity. Just as adults freak out when they catch little kids playing with their genitals (or with a friend’s). They assume that just because it’s an expression of sexual desire when they do it, it must mean the same thing when children do it.

Of course, there’s nothing anyone, even an adult, can say or do that guarantees sexual interest, short of clearly saying so or initiating sexual activity. Little girls in miniskirts aren’t “asking for it” and neither are adult women in miniskirts. Or boys or men or gender-nonconforming folks in miniskirts, for that matter.

If we’re going to relentlessly market these types of clothing and toys to children, we need to stop making gross assumptions about “what it means” when a child wears those clothes or plays with those toys. It means nothing. It means that marketers know what they’re doing. It means that dressing up or dancing and shaking your butt can be fun. It means that kids enjoy exploring their bodies and what they can do or look like. It means nothing.

I’ve spent most of this post critiquing the marketing of sexualized stuff to children, but it’s also worth talking more about the other half of the false dichotomy I presented at the beginning. I think a lot of the panic about children doing “sexual” things is caused by what I just mentioned–adults’ (mis)interpretations of what that means. It’s also caused by general prudery and “but I don’t want my kid to grow up and do grown-up things!” Incidentally, very little of the panic about childhood sexuality seems to focus on the fact that children sometimes do (and are encouraged to do, particularly if they’re male) nonconsensual things, but sometimes that does happen and sometimes adults do (justifiably) worry about it.

Being neither a developmental psychologist nor a parent, I can’t tell you what is and is not appropriate for a child in terms of sexuality. In fact, I don’t think any developmental psychologist or parent could give you a definitive answer to that, either, and don’t believe them if they say they can. Things like this will always have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, because children develop at different rates and have different levels of understanding and awareness of their own urges and desires. But I want to legitimize the idea of letting children discover their own sexuality without being shamed or punished for it.

Further, the fact that children’s expressions of sexuality may be strongly influenced by what they see in the media does not mean those expressions are Wrong or Bad, or should be curtailed (necessarily). First of all, they will probably feel very “real” to the child, just as passivity and silence used to genuinely feel sexy to me. Second, you can’t strong-arm someone into discovering what feels authentic and what doesn’t. Telling a little girl that thongs are bad and she should never wear one or want one isn’t going to get her to think, “Hm, I probably only wanted the thong because I saw it in a Victoria’s Secret commercial and I really want to be pretty like the lady in the commercial.”

It’s impossible to avoid being influenced by one’s sociocultural context. Everyone changes and adapts to that context. (Yes, even you, hypothetical person who thinks you’re above all this.) So kids will always pick up on cues in their environment about how they should act. The problem is that, right now, sexualized images and products are being purposefully marketed to kids who are probably too young to even have the desires we associate with those images and products. Case in point: we think of pole dancing as something women do to arouse straight men, and even though it’s something that people now often do for fun or exercise, that’s still often going to be the meaning we ascribe to it. Do you really think a four-year-old has any understanding of what it means to turn a man on, or any desire to do so?

The problem is also that the range of sexualities that kids will encounter in the media, and in marketing specifically, is extremely narrow. Since sexuality is something that develops partially in response to what the developing person sees around them, this gives them a very short menu to choose from. Some may not ever realize that there are tons of other, longer, more interesting menus out there.

~~~

Note: There are a bunch of issues that I’m aware of but didn’t have space to discuss in this post, such as the even greater sexualization of children of color, the invisibility of queer and asexual expressions in this whole marketing/advertising bullshit, the fact that boys and girls are both impacted by this but in different ways, and so on. Future posts?

On Not Holding Our Models Sacred: Some Feminist Theories And Their Flaws

Social science relies on models. (No, not that kind.) If you’re familiar with social science, you might be used to referring to them as “theories.”

A theory or model in social science is like a theory or model in any other science. It is developed based on evidence and used to explain various phenomena. A model that is not developed based on evidence (but rather introspection or assumption) is probably not very useful, and neither is a model that can’t explain much. (See: psychoanalytic theory.)

In a great post on models that you should read all of before going any further, Crommunist says:

The key to models is this: all models are wrong. All of them. Every last one. However, some models, carefully designed, can help us test hypotheses about the world without having to somehow re-create a process in real life and then observe it directly. But the models are still wrong. They are, as a necessary consequence of their utility, reductive. They omit some data, they make assumptions, they do not explain every single observation, and they force some observations into states that they might not actually belong in the real world.

And so we constantly look to improve models. We strive to use the appropriate model to answer the appropriate question: the nuclear model is perfectly useful for answering questions about electron bonding and valence, but it’s less useful when we want to talk about the behaviour and movement of electrons. Newtonian mechanics is great if you want to predict what a baseball will do, but terrible if you want to predict what a quark will do. In the case where an old model fails to properly predict reality, we develop a more sophisticated model.

It is important to critique the models we use because that’s how we make them better. It’s also important to distinguish between criticism and denialism. People who support and promote models that are often unfairly attacked by denialists who have a vested interest in suppressing those models may start to mistake useful criticism for yet more denialism. Critics should be aware of this and endeavor to avoid using denialist talking points, accidentally or otherwise. (For instance, this is probably not the best time to use snark as a rhetorical device.)

Supporters, meanwhile, can do their part by welcoming smart, useful criticism and by continually seeking to improve their own views and arguments. In fact, sometimes the best critics are supporters who care deeply about making their models better.

So what I’ve decided to do here is to look at three models commonly used in social justice and point out some of their weak spots. I probably won’t get much into actually improving the models or else this post is going to be book-length, but I might do that in the future. I think there’s a dearth of good criticism of social justice concepts from people who actually understand those concepts and are willing to engage with them in good faith and support the idea of social justice in general, so hopefully I’ll be able to do something the MRAs and biological essentialists will never be able to do.

Some caveats:
1. This post contains a lot of intellectualizing and a little bit of devil’s advocate as they apply to a few social justice ideas. If you don’t like these things, please don’t read this post, but please don’t argue with my decision to write it, either.
2. I’m pointing out a few weak spots in a few models. I am not–not–saying that I think these models are completely flawed and should be thrown out. I think privilege exists. I think rape culture exists. I think gender is largely a social construct. 
3. While you’re welcome to discuss strengths of these models in the comments section, please don’t try to do so as an argument against anything I’m saying. If I point out a way in which a model is flawed and you point out a way in which that model works, you’re not proving me wrong (and I’m not proving you wrong, either). If you disagree with my analysis of the flaws themselves, that’s a different thing.

The three models I’ll be looking at are gender as performance, rape culture, and privilege.

I. Gender as performance

The idea that we “perform” gender originates with the feminist theorist Judith Butler, who wrote a rather dense book about it called Gender Trouble that I confess I haven’t read. But most people who use that term probably haven’t read it. It’s a sticky idea.

Gender-as-performance works very well to explain why many people who do not identify particularly strongly (or at all) with masculinity and femininity feel compelled to act in masculine or feminine ways. It also helps explain why someone’s femininity doesn’t necessarily correlate with their sense of being a woman, or their masculinity with their sense of being a man.

However, for the people for whom their assigned gender role feels fitting and appropriate, gender-as-performance doesn’t really explain much. Here someone might argue something like, “Well, deep down, they don’t really feel that masculinity (femininity) is natural for them, they’re just doing it because that’s what’s expected of them as a man (woman). But I don’t know how I feel about making such assumptions about what’s in people’s heads.

Butler’s model is also weak when it comes to explaining the experiences of trans people, particularly trans women. In her book Excluded, Julia Serano discusses this:

The assumption that my gender is artificial or a performance is regularly cited by those who wish to undermine or dismiss my female identity. I refuse to let anyone get away with the cissexist presumption that my gender must be a ‘performance’ simply because I am a transsexual. And I similarly refuse to let anyone get away with the masculine-centric presumption that my gender must be a ‘performance’ simply because I am feminine.

I also find the notion of femininity as a performance to be somewhat disingenuous and oversimplistic. I mean, I can ‘perform’ femininity. I can put on makeup, skirts, and heels. I can talk with my hands or twirl my hair if I want. But performance doesn’t explain why certain behaviors and ways of being come to me more naturally than others. The idea that femininity is just a construct or merely a performance is incompatible with the countless young feminine boys who are not self-conscious about their gender expressions, who become confused as to why their parents become outraged at their behavior, or why the other children relentlessly tease them for being who they are. Many such children find their gender expression to be irrepressible, and they remain outwardly feminine throughout their lives despite all of the stigmatization and male socialization to the contrary. Other femininely-oriented male children learn to hide their feminine gender expression in order to survive, but at a great cost.

I was one of the latter children. I know that for many cis queer women, femininity is something that others foist upon them, an unwanted burden, an expectation that they are unable or unwilling to meet. THis is perhaps why so many cis lesbian feminists have gone to such great lengths to argue that femininity is artificial, a mere artifact of patriarchy. But for me, femininity was like ether or air–it was always there, just waiting for the chance to leak out of me. When I think about gender expression being a ‘performance,’ I think about myself as a kid, watching my S’s when I spoke to make sure they didn’t linger. ‘Performance’ was me fighting back the urge to be more animated with my hands when I talked, or learning never to use words like ‘adorable’ or ‘cute’ nonsarcastically. ‘Performance’ was going to the barber to get my hair cut short like my parents wanted it, when what I really wanted was to let my hair grow long. Like I said, for me, masculinity always felt artificial, while femininity felt natural.

Not all trans women identify with femininity, but Serano shows that the idea of gender as a performance does not resonate with her experience of wanting desperately to be able to express herself in a feminine way, even as a young child. In fact, if all gender is merely performance, the existence of trans identities makes no sense. Being socialized as a boy should make you a masculine man. Being socialized as a woman should make you a feminine woman. End of story.

(I wouldn’t be surprised if the inconvenience of trans identities for certain second-wave feminist theories helps explain, in part, the vitriol and exclusion that trans people have historically faced from radical feminists.)

Of course, it’s possible that, as a trans woman, Serano was born with a sense of herself as a woman, but not with a sense of herself as feminine. The latter might have been part of the meaning that Serano attached to being a woman, given the prevalence of messages in the surrounding environment about what being a woman means. While we usually think of gender roles as something children learn through socialization, they also pick up plenty of not-so-subtle clues about how people of the other gender ought to act. In this way, gender-as-performance might still make sense, in that Serano learned to perform femininity because she thought of herself as a girl rather than the boy that others saw her as.

But that seems pretty spurious. I’d have to see the evidence that children at that age even know what it means to think of themselves “as a woman” or “as a man.”

Further evidence against the model of gender as performance is that inborn psychological gender differences do seem to exist. They aren’t nearly as significant or pronounced as the media and some evolutionary psychologists paint them to be, but they exist. Some studies have shown differences in perception between male and female infants at ages as young as four months. While most psychological gender differences seem to be created as a result of socialization and all the processes associated with it, it seems very unlikely that in just four months, male infants could have learned, through differential socialization, to become better than female infants at mentally rotating three-dimensional objects. Although I suppose it’s possible.

If psychological gender differences that are caused by biology exist, then there may be a small biological component to gender roles, as well.

Butler’s model of gender-as-performance implies a false dichotomy between things that are both natural and genuine and things that are both constructed and performative (or fake). Even if gender is completely a social construction, that does not mean that its expression is always a performance. True, some people must perform gender, as Julia Serano had to as a girl who was expected to behave like a boy. But for many (if not most) people, their gender role does not feel, and never has felt, like a role they have to perform as an actor would in a play. Gender could be a social construction that still feels real to people, because in constructing it, they make it real. The fact that gender feels so natural to most people does not have to mean that it is all biological, and the fact that it is socially constructed (to whatever extent) does not have to mean it is a mere performance.

In her book, Julia Serano rejects both gender determinism (the idea that gender is determined completely by biology) and gender artifactualism (the idea that gender is completely a social construct) and argues in favor of what she calls a holistic model of gender and sexuality, which is based on solid scientific evidence and accepts a role for all sorts of factors in the development of gender: biology (including genetics and other biological factors), socialization, environment, and so on. Her new model is an improvement over the simplistic models promoted by both the most myopic biologists and the most myopic gender theorists.

II. Rape culture

(For reference, here’s a great introduction to rape culture.)

If the central premise on which the model of rape culture rests–that our society trivializes, accepts, condones, encourages, or even at times celebrates rape–were completely true in all cases, you might not expect rape to actually be illegal. And even if it were, you might not expect for there to be any stigma associated with being a rapist. But there is. The problem is that it takes a lot to be considered a rapist. Often, not even undeniable evidence of rape will do it, because we keep shifting the goalposts of what rape is.

But if you do find your way into the rapist category, you might actually face consequences. And, while that infamous study suggesting that atheists are even less trusted than rapists was flawed, there’s a reason the “even less than rapists” part was so significant to so many people.

The prevalence of rape jokes is sometimes taken as evidence of the existence of a rape culture. I’m not sure where I fall on this. Some rape jokes, like the one Daniel Tosh famously made, seem very rape culture-y to me, because the joke is a woman being raped as punishment for not being quiet and feminine enough. Same goes for every time someone threatens to rape someone for having an opinion they disagree with on the internet, and same goes for every time someone makes a joke about prison rape, because again, that joke hinges on the unspoken belief that there are people who “deserve” rape.

Other rape jokes, however, resemble typical jokes about awful things like death or cancer. We (arguably) do not have a culture that trivializes or even promotes death or cancer, and yet we joke about them.

It’s the response that people get when they criticize rape jokes, though, that makes the strongest case. I find it hard to imagine someone saying, “Actually, my grandpa has cancer, so please don’t make those jokes around me,” and receiving anything other than an apology. Yet when women speak up against rape jokes, they are often ignored, ridiculed, or literally threatened with rape. (Because nothing makes the point “I am not a creepy rape apologist” better than threatening your interlocutor with rape.)

Because whether or not rape culture as a model explains the existence and popularity of rape jokes, it explains the fury with which many men respond tot he reminder that rape is a real horror that affects real humans.

Rape culture as a model is also not very useful for explaining the fact that consent and self-determination are devalued in many other contexts that have nothing to do with sex. Children are expected to hug relatives whether they want to or not. Pregnant women are subject to constant belly-touching by random strangers, so much so that laws have been passed against it. People of color have their hair touched without their consent all the time. People who don’t want to drink or go out or try a new food or play a game are often pressured into doing so by their friends. The idea of getting consent before hugging someone is often laughed at.

You could try to intersect this with the privilege model and claim that people who lack privilege in particular ways are more likely to have more powerful people try to override their right to autonomy, but then sex seems like just a subset of that general rule, as opposed to a special case called “rape culture.”

Some people extend “rape culture” to include all situations in which people’s consent is overridden, including non-sexual touching and various social situations. But parents inevitably (and understandably) bristle at being told that when they wheedle their child into giving Grandpa a hug, they are somehow promoting rape. While there are parallels between that and overriding people’s sexual consent, I don’t think those parallels are strong enough to justify claiming that a parent who wheedles their child into giving Grandpa a hug is promoting the very same rape culture that gets promoted every time a victim of sexual assault is asked what they were wearing at the time, or when a man expects sex from a woman because she smiled at him or because he bought her a drink.

Maybe a more useful way to conceptualize all of these patterns together isn’t by calling them all “rape culture,” but by referring to them as evidence that we lack a consent culture. That is, we have a culture that devalues consent in most (if not all) situations. (Here I make a mental note to write about this more later. [Edit: Actually, I sort of already have?])

III. Privilege

(For reference, here’s a great introduction to privilege.)

One problem with the concept of privilege is that it’s not always very useful at the individual level. For instance, say you’re talking about the way that women are taught to second-guess themselves while men are taught to be confident. This is true in a general, collective sense, but you can’t point at a specific man and say, “This man was taught to be confident.” Maybe he was, but maybe he was abused or bullied as a child and therefore learned not to be confident. Maybe he has a mental illness that precludes confidence. Maybe he’s a trans man who was socialized as a woman (and, in fact, whose very stratus as a man is constantly being contested). Maybe he simply missed out on this aspect of normative male socialization.

Privilege may also fail as a model when you try to use it to explain why some people understand certain things and others don’t. For instance, a feminist might claim that a man doesn’t understand why telling a woman not to wear revealing clothes as a rape-prevention tactic is wrong, and that he doesn’t understand it because he has male privilege that prevents him from ever having to deal with this firsthand. But many women also give the same slut-shaming “advice.” I’ve heard many women, including ones I know very well, say that a woman who goes out dressed “like a slut” is “asking for it.” But they also lack male privilege. What then?

Well, then many people use the term “internalization,” which basically means that you’ve accepted the messages our society sends about the group you belong to and assimilated these messages into your own beliefs. This explains why many women believe that women should stay at home and raise children, that “slutty” women “deserve” bad things, that women are less logical or capable of certain things than men, and so on.

But in that case, privilege isn’t doing very well as a model for explaining why many people believe these things about women. The women who believe these things may lack the same privileges as the women who do not believe these things.

(The internalization theory also works particularly awfully when used as a debate tactic. If you’ve ever witnessed a progressive man accusing a non-feminist woman of having “internalized” misogyny, or a white person accusing a person of color of having “internalized” racism, and cringed, you know what I’m talking about.)

Privilege as a model is also less useful in discussions of gender than discussions of other axes of marginalization. Namely, there are very real disadvantages to being male. There are. You’re more likely to be a victim of violence, more likely to end up in prison, more likely to be profiled by the police (especially as this intersects with race and class status), more likely to have the burden of supporting an entire family (at least in certain demographics; this, again, intersects with race and class), less able to show your emotions, more susceptible to certain mental illnesses, more likely to commit suicide (though not to attempt), less able to come out as a rape survivor, more subject to gender role policing, and so on and so forth.

I don’t know if this is sufficient to argue for a so-called “female privilege” (especially since most proponents of the existence of female privilege insist that one of those privileges is being able to get laid more easily), but I do know that there are disadvantages men face because they are men, while there aren’t really any disadvantages that white people face because they are white or that straight people face because they are straight. (Most people who argue that there are seem to think that it puts them at a disadvantage when other people gain access to the rights and resources that they have had for centuries.) The disadvantages that men face also seem to stem from the same screwed-up system of gender roles that harms women as opposed to any supposed “power” that women have over men, or unearned advantages that they receive at men’s expense. (This is why MRAs are so misguided when they point out ways in which men actually are disadvantaged and blame it on women or, more bizarrely, the small minority of women who are feminists.)

Male privilege is also not sufficient to explain the fact that men’s gender roles are policed so much more stringently than women’s. While a (female) tomboy may face some disapproval, she probably won’t face nearly as much as a boy who wears dresses (or even “acts” feminine in some way). But people of all genders who choose not to present as either masculine or feminine face opprobrium, too. Maybe the way to explain this is three intersecting privileges: the privilege of being perceived as a man, the privilege of behaving in a masculine way, and the privilege of having your gender “line up” with the sex you were assigned at birth. But that starts to get very complicated.

Another problem: once you start conceptualizing privilege as a quantity that can be had or not had, people inevitably start quibbling over who has more of it–the much-maligned “oppression olympics.” Not having privilege comes an optimal state, and having privilege becomes bad in and of itself (as opposed to bad if it causes you to be ignorant or hurtful). An an essay on how the privilege concept may prevent collective thought and action, Andrea Smith writes:

In my experience working with a multitude of anti-racist organizing projects over the years, I frequently found myself participating in various workshops in which participants were asked to reflect on their gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. privilege.  These workshops had a bit of a self-help orientation to them: “I am so and so, and I have x privilege.”  It was never quite clear what the point of these confessions were.  It was not as if other participants did not know the confessor in question had her/his proclaimed privilege.   It did not appear that these individual confessions actually led to any political projects to dismantle the structures of domination that enabled their privilege.  Rather, the confessions became the political project themselves.    The benefits of these confessions seemed to be ephemeral.  For the instant the confession took place, those who do not have that privilege in daily life would have a temporary position of power as the hearer of the confession who could grant absolution and forgiveness.  The sayer of the confession could then be granted temporary forgiveness for her/his abuses of power and relief from white/male/heterosexual/etc guilt.   Because of the perceived benefits of this ritual, there was generally little critique of the fact that in the end, it primarily served to reinstantiate the structures of domination it was supposed to resist.  One of the reasons there was little critique of this practice is that it bestowed cultural capital to those who seemed to be the “most oppressed.”  Those who had little privilege did not have to confess and were in the position to be the judge of those who did have privilege.  Consequently, people aspired to be oppressed.  Inevitably, those with more privilege would develop new heretofore unknown forms of oppression from which they suffered.  “I may be white, but my best friend was a person of color, which caused me to be oppressed when we played together.”  Consequently, the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible.  These rituals often substituted confession for political movement-building.  And despite the cultural capital that was, at least temporarily, bestowed to those who seemed to be the most oppressed, these rituals ultimately reinstantiated the white majority subject as the subject capable of self-reflexivity and the colonized/racialized subject as the occasion for self-reflexivity.

This way of thinking about privilege creates contexts in which it’s okay for someone without a certain privilege to say a certain thing, but not okay for someone with that privilege to say that thing. Of course, I’m being simplistic; often people without certain privileges are still rightly criticized for saying inaccurate or harmful things. But I’ve definitely come across situations where people have outright said, “If he/she/they weren’t a ______, it would’ve been okay.”

Sometimes this makes sense. For instance, it makes sense that members of marginalized groups can reclaim slurs and use them in a celebratory way while still reading those slurs as insults when used by people outside of the group, because you cannot reclaim a slur on someone’s behalf. And in many cases, our priors suggest that the same argument can read very differently when coming from different people. But this is just a heuristic, a cognitive shortcut that works in many cases but not always. At its worst, it can keep harmful people trusted by those they are harming, or it can cause good-faith critics to be ostracized when their criticism might have been useful.

For instance, when I imagine this blog post being written by a man, I imagine it being read much less charitably than it’s (hopefully) being read having been written by a woman. I’m not sure that I wouldn’t succumb to that bias myself, because I’ve read so few good criticisms of feminist theories written by men. (Which is not to say that men are categorically incapable of producing good criticism of feminism, just that the majority of it tends toward your typical anti-feminist talking points.)

But maybe this is just more evidence that more of us insiders should become critics, like Julia Serano, a feminist, did in Excluded, and like every progressive atheist does when they criticize some of the reactionary threads in this movement.

Almost everyone lacks privilege in some ways (not just the silly and illegitimate ways Andrea Smith mentions in her essay), so it might not be particularly useful to speak of “having” or “not having” privilege in general. It might only make sense to speak very specifically: “You have the privilege of being perceived as white, so cops don’t profile you.” Or “You have the privilege of having been born into a family with lots of money.” (I discuss this more here.)

Absent from my critique of the concept of privilege is the fact that it pisses people off. It’s this criticism I see most often, sometimes from people who actually concede that such a thing undeniably exists, but we shouldn’t talk about it because it’s divisive/makes people feel bad/turns people off of social justice/distracts from the larger issues.

The word privilege offends because the idea of privilege offends. You could call it whatever you want and it would still offend, because people desperately want to believe (despite what your mom told you when you whined that “it’s not faaaair”) that this world is just and that we’ve earned everything good that’s in our lives. Nobody who has not yet abandoned the just world hypothesis will react well when confronted with the concept of privilege. While I wouldn’t call this a feature, I wouldn’t call it a bug, either. Just something we have to be aware of and work around.

I’ve also heard the argument that privilege is a poor choice of name for privilege because in its original meaning, it has a negative connotation. It’s associated with having nice things you didn’t have to work for, like trust funds or inherited manors in the countryside. The negative connotation of the original word comes from the fact that people “of privilege” in this sense often feel entitled to what they have and are ignorant of the struggles faced by those who do not share those privileges.

But, negative as that connotation may be, it is not entirely inapplicable to the social justice context.

Inevitably, debates like these dissolve into arguments about whether or not a given concept’s name conveys its meaning accurately and effectively. I am sympathetic to these arguments at the same time as I find them not especially useful.

Of course I wish that every term we used when talking about psychology or sociology or politics sounded exactly like the concept it describes. If I could wave a magic wand and rename a bunch of these terms, I would. I’d probably even rename “privilege” and “feminism” (though I don’t know to what). But guess what? Plenty of smart people would still disagree with what I chose, and the people who chose the original terms were smart and knowledgeable, too.

Besides, I don’t actually know how to make thousands of scholars, activists, and ordinary folks all over the world stop using words they’ve used for years and use new ones instead. Even if I did, I don’t think that would be the most productive use of my time.

A better use of our time is probably cultivating in people the sense of free-spirited curiosity that will encourage them to look up terms they don’t understand rather than assuming, as many people do, that feminists use those terms specifically in order to blame, guilt trip, or hurt them.

It may feel sometimes that recognizing and acknowledging a model’s weaknesses will make it seem weaker to ideological opponents, but I’d argue that we seem more consistent and intellectually honest if we do so. Yes, privilege may not explain why men are disadvantaged in ways no other dominant group is. Rape culture may not really explain why so many people don’t give a damn about consent whether the situation involves anything sexual or not or not. Gender performativity seems to shrug its shoulders where the experiences of trans people are concerned.

Acknowledging these flaws allows for better, more useful models–which will inevitably have flaws of their own. And we’ll critique them too, and start the cycle over again.

~~~

Edit: Awkwardly, I forgot to link to my relevant posts on strawmanning rape culture, parts one and two.