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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

How Sex Education Can Combat Sexual Violence

[Content note: sexual assault]

I have a post up at Secular Woman for their sex ed series! Here’s a preview.

Comprehensive, evidence-based sex education is usually framed as a remedy for the usual culprits: STI transmission, teenage pregnancy, having sex “too early” or with “too many” different partners, and so on. Although this sex-positive feminist bristles at the fact that one of the goals of comprehensive sex ed is to delay sexual initiation and reduce teens’ number of sexual partners, overall these programs are extremely important to promote, and they are effective at reducing STIs and pregnancy in teens—unlike abstinence-only sex ed.

However, I would argue that the goals of secular, scientific sex education should not end there. I believe that we have the responsibility to teach young people sexual ethics and to use education to challenge a culture that too often excuses or even promotes sexual violence.

How do we accomplish such a monumental task? The same way as we teach kids to do school projects: by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts.

Rape culture is an ideology that consists of a number of interrelated but distinct beliefs about gender, sexuality, and violence. These beliefs are spread and enforced by just about every source of information that a child interacts with: parents, friends, teachers, books, movies, news stories (on TV, in magazines and newspapers, online), music, advertising, laws, etc..

Traditional, abstinence-only sex education promotes a number of these beliefs in various ways. Here are a few messages that these programs send to teens either implicitly or explicitly, along with how these messages support rape culture:

1. It is a woman’s job to prevent sex from happening.

Abstinence-only sex ed is full of religious ideology, and one example is the idea that women are “clean” and “pure” and must safeguard their own chastity before men can strip them of it. This idea suggests to women that 1) men who keep pushing them for sex are not doing anything wrong, and 2) if they eventually get pressured into having sex, that’s not rape—that’s just the woman not being strong-willed enough.

2. Men always want sex.

A corollary to the previous message, the “men always want sex” meme implies that men who use coercion and/or violence to get sex are only doing what’s natural for them. It also erases male victims of sexual assault, because if men want sex all the time, how could they possibly be raped?

Here’s the rest.

Sexual Assault Is Not A Force Of Nature

A creatively annotated screencap of Yoffe's Slate piece.[Content note: sexual assault, victim blaming]

Remember my intent piece? This week we saw a great example of what I was talking about. Slate’s advice columnist, Emily Yoffe, wrote a piece that can basically be summarized as, “I don’t intend to blame the victim or anything…but here’s why women shouldn’t get drunk or else they’ll get raped.”

Frankly, Slate has been on a disturbing trend lately of publishing needlessly provocative articles with even more needlessly provocative headlines. I find this tactic patronizing and harmful (s.e. smith has a great piece about it). I expect more from progressive media outlets.

So, I’m committing to not sending Slate any more pageviews, but I also feel that this article is very important to discuss. So, here’s a PDF of it that you can read. And here are some great responses that have already been written by Jessica Valenti, Ann Friedman, Amanda Hess, Roxane Gay, and Feministing’s Alexandra. (Seriously, read those first, because they get into the nitty-gritty details of why Yoffe is wrong and I’ve decided not to reinvent the wheel here.)

Almost as infuriating as the inaccuracy and poor reasoning exhibited by the article is Yoffe’s insistence that we as a society are “reluctant” to tell women to prevent their own rapes. I have nothing but contempt for people who take popular, extremely widespread ideas and try to pass them off as something new. But I don’t believe that Yoffe is really so clueless as to believe that telling women not to drink so they don’t get raped is controversial in our culture at large.

Rather, she seems to be aiming her article at the progressive community as a sort of plea for us to be “reasonable” and stop getting our knickers in a bunch over some so-called victim blaming. The solution to sexual assault is just within our reach and yet we won’t reach out and grasp it because of some silly political qualms.

Except that rape survivors do not grow up in cozy progressive bubbles where nobody ever gives them harmful, useless “advice” that makes them feel like shit.

They get it from everyone. Families. Cops. Teachers. Educational posters. Friends. College orientation. TV shows. Magazines. Advice columnists. There is no shortage of people telling women not to drink or they’ll get raped. None at all. It is a long and storied tradition that Yoffe is joining.

Yoffe comes across as though she thinks her views are unpopular because people just can’t handle the truth. But sometimes, opinions are detested and ridiculed not because they’re just 2 BRAVE 4 U, but because they’re wrong and harmful. Yoffe does not examine any of the negative externalities of telling women not to drink or else they’ll get raped, so here are some:

  • Rape survivors who were attacked while drinking may feel (even more than they already do) that it was their fault–as if coping with the rape itself weren’t enough.
  • Cops will focus on telling women not to drink rather than on finding their rapists.
  • Believing that rape is the result of an individual failing (on the part of the victim, not the rapist, no less) rather than a systemic problem, people will fail to organize meaningful collective action to end sexual violence.
  • Assuming that they’ll be blamed for drinking, survivors will be less likely to go to the police or reach out to others for emotional support.
  • Gender inequality will be exacerbated. Men can drink but women can’t? What kind of 1950s bullshit is this?
  • This is the most important one. Rapists (or would-be rapists) will know that they are not going to face any consequences. This, not any lifestyle choice on the part of the victim, is one of the biggest reasons people rape.

We’re accustomed to thinking of people or organizations or perhaps even institutions as harmful, but ideas and opinions, many believe, are “just an idea” or “just an opinion” and should be respected no matter what.

But they can be harmful. They can have negative consequences. Yoffe’s do.

I’ve seen a few people online defending Yoffe’s piece by saying that binge drinking culture is dangerous and that we need to talk about it. Yes, we do. But Yoffe is not contributing anything useful to that discussion, either.

People seem to worry more about binge drinking when it’s women doing it. Men have been binge drinking since alcohol entered human culture. For women in Western societies, however, partying and drinking a lot–especially without the company of boyfriends or husbands–hasn’t been a socially acceptable option until relatively recently. Sometimes equality means that risky or unhealthy behaviors that had previously been restricted to one gender are now available to everyone. It’s unfortunate that this means that more people are doing the thing, but that’s part of what it means to have an equal society. Promoting inequality is not, in my opinion, a justifiable way to reduce unhealthy behavior.

So, the problem with binge drinking is not that women do it too. There are a lot of interesting and important issues around alcohol in our culture, such as:

  • many people feel that they need alcohol just to be comfortable socially
  • there are relatively few social options for non-drinkers, especially in college and generally before people start having children
  • if you’re interested in certain things, such as sports or live music, alcohol is often part of the package
  • many people lack access to or knowledge of the mental healthcare they need, so they self-medicate with alcohol
  • if you don’t drink, you are likely to be pressured to drink
  • it is socially acceptable for men to use alcohol to manipulate women sexually

But Yoffe is not discussing these issues. In fact, she completely ignores that last item, which is crucial.

Yoffe treats women who get drunk and then get raped like people who get drunk and then throw up. Throwing up is a natural consequence of drinking too much. It’s a physiological reality. If you don’t want to risk throwing up, be very careful about how much you drink, or don’t drink at all.

Being raped is not a natural consequence of drinking. It happens because people (especially men) are taught that you can and should use alcohol to get sex. They are taught that drunk people are “fair game,” “asking for it” by getting drunk. Whether she intends to or not, Yoffe is participating in this education.

Sexual assault is not a force of nature or a law of physics. It may not be fully preventable, but neither is it something we have to resign ourselves to living with, the way we accept the fact that our bodies need oxygen or that things fall when dropped.

Many people–Yoffe’s intellectual predecessors–used to accept many things that we’d now consider unacceptable, such as women not having the right to vote and husbands being legally allowed to beat and rape their wives. But others throughout history have fought and dedicated their whole lives to making things better. There is nothing courageous about stating that that can’t be done. Rather, it’s the definition of cowardice.

Advising women to prevent their own rapes is not brave. It is not original. It is not edgy. It’s the damn status quo.

Stop Telling Harassment and Assault Survivors To Go To the Police

Note: Yes, this is prompted by something that happened to me this weekend. But I’ve been thinking about it for a while and it applies to many events and situations, so I’d rather the comments section didn’t dissolve into a discussion of me and my specific (frankly rather mild) situation. I’m doing fine. However, the snark is on high for this post, so please do take what I just went through into account before complaining about my “tone.” 

So, let’s talk about when someone gets harassed or assaulted and they make it public (whether to friends and family or, like, public-public) and everybody always comes out with the same line: “Oh my god! You need to go to the police right now!”

Stop, rewind. Please stop saying this. I know it’s well-intentioned. I know you want us to be safe. Please stop saying it anyway. It does more harm than good. Let’s talk about why.

First of all, it’s unsolicited advice. Unsolicited advice is frequently annoying, especially when it’s coming from internet randos I don’t even know and who shouldn’t presume to know me. As is often the case with unsolicited advice, it completely ignores my situation as a young woman who’s just started grad school and is terribly busy and has few social supports in the huge new city into which she’s only recently moved. Do I look like someone who has the time and resources to pursue a court case right now? If we’re being honest, I haven’t even had time to call my doctor and ask her to rewrite a prescription I need, let alone spend hours having a lovely tête-à-tête with a cop who tells me I was probably asking for it by being a woman and existing.

So I don’t need your advice. Sometimes people respond to this with “Yeah well if you didn’t want advice why’d you post it online?” Oh, you know, many reasons. In my specific case, it was to highlight a ridiculous flaw in Facebook’s moderation system, to bring attention to the abuse faced by virtually any woman who writes online about feminism (or does anything online, let’s be honest), and to get some emotional support.

Emotional support, by the way, is not (necessarily) advice. Emotional support is, “I’m really sorry you’re going through this.” “You don’t deserve to be treated that way.” “How are you doing?” “Do you need some distractions?” “Whoever did this is a really shitty person.” “This wasn’t your fault.”

As I said, I’m personally totally fine and I didn’t need to vent to anyone or anything. But I appreciated it when people said things like this to me. Many victims do. You do not need to pile advice on us to show us you care! There are better ways.

Second, any person over the age of 5 is aware of the fact that the police are a thing that exists. We don’t need to be told to go to the police any more than a hungry person needs to be told that maybe they should consider eating some food. I mean, really, do these people think we’re not aware that we have the option of calling the police? (I’ll grant that maybe sometimes people may not know that certain acts, such as blackmail or death threats, are a crime. But sexual assault? And still.)

So if you tell me to go to the police, you’re sort of (unintentionally) treating me like an idiot. Yes, I know that the police exist. And guess what? A dozen other people already had the same idea you did, so if I didn’t know about the police before, I sure do now.

Third, going to the police is not effective. It’s just not. So you’re giving me advice that is not helpful. The stories of what happens to women who report harassment or assault to the police are plentiful and really sad. Yes, sometimes it works out well. But generally, either nothing happens, or the women get revictimized by the police. (Sometimes, the police also do this.)

I have been sexually assaulted and sexually harassed and threatened with rape and death. At no point have I seriously considered reporting any of these things to the police. I am not an irresponsible or uninformed person, so please trust me when I say that I have good reasons for not even considering the police as an option.

Fourth, telling a victim over and over to go to the police sends a message. And, unfortunately, that message is generally not “I care about you.” That message is, “It is your duty as a victim to go to the police, or else you’re being irresponsible and immature and making me worry about you and failing to prevent your attacker from hurting others. You are not responding to your harassment/assault in the right way.”

Did you mean to say that? Probably not. But I’m telling you right now that this is how many victims are going to perceive it. When someone becomes the victim of a gendered crime (or any crime, but we’re talking about specific crimes here), that is a time to consider this person’s needs first and foremost. You may indeed be very worried for them. You may wonder what this means for you or others you care about. It is tempting to treat the survivor as though they and they alone hold the power to stop these crimes once and for all in their hands, and all they have to do is pick up the phone and call the cops.

It’s telling that many of the people who told me to go to the police this weekend and who received a curt response from me (curt, not nasty or abusive) immediately took it personally and lashed out, whining about how rude I was and how I didn’t appreciate that they were worried about me. (Keep in mind that these were total strangers on the Internet, not friends or family or anyone else entitled to my emotional energy.) Of course. Because it was about them, and not me, all along. It was about their understandable need to contribute to the conversation and feel useful and tell a young woman what they, as older and wiser adults, thought she needed to do.

At no point was there any acknowledgement from these people that I was dealing with fucking death threats and maybe wasn’t in the best emotional state to be sweet and cheerful about rejecting their unasked-for, completely unhelpful advice.

That’s how I knew it was never about me.

Fifth, law enforcement is a deeply problematic institution that some people choose not to willingly engage with. I won’t say too much about this here because it’s just too immense a topic to cover in a paragraph or two. But yes, I have some ethical qualms about working with a police force that, in my city, fines women for carrying condoms (must be prostitutes amirite?) and profiles people of color with its stop and frisk policy. Sometimes contact with the police is unavoidable, and I would obviously call them if I were facing an immediate risk of injury or death as opposed to some dumb random Facebook death threat.

Stop telling harassment and assault survivors to go to the police. Stop treating us like we don’t know what’s good for us. Stop acting like the police are a panacea to all the world’s evils. Stop making it about you. Stop. It’s our turn to speak.

All Nonconsensual Sex is Sexual Assault: How We Categorize and Minimize Rape

[Content note: sexual assault, statutory rape]

People, as it turns out, really love to categorize sexual assault.

They like to speculate about which ones are worse or more traumatic. They like to refer to certain sexual assaults with sanitized language that either glamorizes or minimizes what happened. If at all possible, they like to leave words like “rape” and “assault” out of it.

Here are two recent examples of these tendencies.

1. Richard Dawkins has previously claimed that sexual abuse of children by priests does less “lasting damage” than “the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.” Recently, he ignited controversy again by stating that he cannot condemn sexual abuse of children by teachers–which he himself went through–because standards were different back then and he doubts that “he did any of us any lasting damage.” Dawkins also made this type of move during the Elevatorgate incident, in which he mocked Rebecca Watson’s discomfort with being propositioned in an elevator in the middle of the night because Women In The Middle East Have It Worse™.

2. Last week, a video posted on Instagram showed a frosh week event at Saint Mary’s University in which students chanted, “Y is for your sister […] U is for underage, N is for no consent […] Saint Mary’s boys we like them young.” So, they were chanting about rape. However, many news articles covering the story only referred to the chant as promoting “nonconsensual sex” or “underage sex” rather than statutory rape or sexual assault.

Nonconsensual sex. Underage sex*. That old standby, sex scandal. The lengths to which writers and editors will go to avoid using the words “rape” or “assault” are impressive. It’s interesting because usually journalists make an effort to choose language that grabs as much attention as possible (at least, that’s what was impressed upon me repeatedly during my year in journalism school).

“Sex scandal” sounds like something you’d find in a tabloid and forget by tomorrow, when yesterday’s papers are today’s subway litter. “Underage sex” sounds like “underage drinking.” “Nonconsensual sex” sounds like a bad idea fueled by apathy or impatience, like having sex without a condom. It makes it sound like consent is just an added bonus, in case you really want to cover all your bases.

All of these common journalistic tropes insist on using the word “sex,” but all sex without consent is by definition assault or rape.

This doesn’t mean that all sexual assaults are identical. They can be perpetrated by strangers or friends or acquaintances or partners or family members or authority figures. They can involve physical force, or they can not. They might leave the person in need of medical attention, or they may not. They may be nonconsensual because the survivor is a minor or because they were intoxicated or because they simply didn’t give consent. They may be motivated by a desire to punish or to “turn” a queer person straight or to take what one feels owed or to alleviate boredom. They may or may not lead to pregnancy or STI transmission. They may be perpetrated by someone of any gender upon someone of any gender. They might take place in the survivor’s home or in the assaulter’s home or in someone else’s home or at a bar or club or outside or in a school or in a medical facility or at a prison. The survivor may not have consented to any sexual activity with the person who assaulted them, or they may have consented to some of it. They may have had consensual sexual encounters with that person in the past, or they may not have.

These distinctions are relevant in some contexts. They are relevant for researchers studying the causes and effects of sexual assault, and for those who want some descriptive statistics. They are relevant for activists and educators who may want to target particular situations in their prevention work. They are relevant for survivors who might want to get support from others with similar experiences.

They are not relevant in deciding whose sexual assault was “worse,” because the same event could affect different people differently. They are not relevant in determining which sexual assaults are “legitimate” and which are not.

They are not relevant in determining which sexual assaults are “really” sexual assaults, which ones we’re going to refer to as “assault” and which ones we’ll just call some form of “sex.”

Sexual assault is the only crime to which the reaction is frequently some version of “Well, maybe it’s not that bad.” “Maybe she was mature for her age.” “Maybe he deserves it; he’s in prison after all.” “Maybe they actually wanted it.” “Maybe it wasn’t even that traumatizing.”

Or maybe we keep trying to minimize sexual assault, both with our words and with our actions, because treating it with the gravity it deserves is harder–harder emotionally, harder strategically. It requires eradicating the disdain with which many people view assault victims.

A good place to start is resisting this dilution and weakening of our language. Call sexual assault what it is, every time. Poynter has some great guidelines:

Describe charges of sex without consent as rape, not anything less….[S]ometimes writers minimize the trauma of rape by describing it as sex or intercourse if the rape doesn’t involve the kind of physical violence that requires medical attention.

And stop it with the masturbatory thought exercises about which assaults are “worse” than others.

~~~

*Originally, when I posted it on Twitter, this headline at least included the word “non-consensual.” Then it inexplicably disappeared.

Making the Normal Abnormal

Much of progressive activism focuses on making things that seem weird, abnormal, and wrong to many people seem more ordinary, normal, and acceptable. For instance, activists have tried to show that being attracted to someone of the same gender is no different from being attracted to someone of the opposite gender, that eating vegetarian or vegan is no big deal, and that abortion is just another medical procedure that everyone should have access to.

Making the abnormal seem normal is a crucial part of activism, but so is the opposite, which is less talked about: making the normal seem abnormal.

Here is a “normal” thing in our society: a young woman walks down the street at midnight, one hand clutching her keys and the other holding her pepper spray with her finger poised on the trigger. Her heart pounds and she walks as fast as possible. Few other women are still out, but plenty of men hang around, walking freely down the street. A few of them shout sexual comments at the woman just for shits and giggles.

This is our normal. This is okay to many people. Not only do they think this is normal, but they might even advise this woman to do this whole keys/pepper spray/avoid certain streets/don’t show skin charade. They might even consider her stupid or foolish if she does not perform the charade well enough.

So what I want to do is to get people to look at this differently. I want them to see how weird, how artificial, how bizarre this actually is. I want them to imagine a sentient alien species visiting Earth and furrowing their brows (if they have brows) and wondering, “Wait, so, you divide your species in half and one half can’t walk down the block without getting harassed or threatened by the other half? And your solution to this is not for the ‘men’ to stop harassing and threatening, but for the ‘women’ to stop walking alone?!”

I want them to see how utterly fucking weird it is that one half of humanity has a socially-imposed curfew every evening because we won’t teach the other half to leave them the hell alone.

Here’s another normal thing. An 8-year-old boy likes the color pink, so he brings a pink lunchbox to school. He gets bullied mercilessly. People might agree that this is sad–the more liberal among them might even say that they wish things weren’t this way–but many will agree that responding to a little boy wearing pink by bullying him is normal, understandable, “natural.”

No. It’s not. It’s really fucking weird. Wearing or possessing something of a certain color makes you a target for abuse? And our solution to this is to teach children not to have or wear things of certain colors?

We created pink as a signifier of femininity. Girls are not born swaddled in pink blankets (and neither are boys in blue ones). This is not some all-powerful, hurricane-like force of nature that we just have to live with and plan our lives around.

But we throw our hands up and let children be abused by other children because of their aesthetic preferences.

One more example. In this country, unlike in many others, you have to pay inordinate sums of money to get an education that will allow you to have a job that you can actually support yourself and your family with (unless you’re Bill Gates, but most of us are not). And unless you are lucky to have a family with tons of money, you have to take out loans with horrible interest rates to get this education. Sometimes these loans will be 3 or 4 times what your starting salary will be. People will tell you that this is a “bad idea,” but you don’t really have much of a choice. No, being born into a rich family is not a choice.

Isn’t that kind of weird? We need people trained in all kinds of professions (not just business, finance, and engineering) in order to have a functioning society. But rather than making this training affordable to those who want it, we either discourage people from getting it or make them take out huge loans that they may default on. We shoot ourselves in the foot, and we wonder where all the good teachers and therapists and so on are.

When you start to see how abnormal many aspects of our day-to-day existence are, you realize that changing them is not optional.

People have a vested interested in seeing injustice as “normal,” not only because that frees them from the obligation to fix the injustice, but also because it spares them from the despair of realizing–really realizing, not just in the abstract, platitudinous, “yeah well life’s not fair” sort of way–that injustice exists.

Always remember that. And know that most people do not do this intentionally. Most people do not maliciously decide to treat terrible things as okay because they want others to suffer. And although intent matters when assessing an individual’s character, it doesn’t really matter when it comes to the consequences of that individual’s actions, especially not when viewed in the aggregate: many individuals making many little choices that all add up to create a society in which it’s viewed as “normal” that, for instance, a teenage girl should expect to be brutally gang-raped if she decides to hang out with some male classmates.

Whether or not anyone intended to create this society, it is nevertheless the one that we created. Debating intent diverts attention from the more important question: how do we fix it?

When someone says that rape is “just a thing that happens” or that “it’s only natural” for poor people not to be able to have healthy food and a safe home, what they’re doing is normalizing injustice. They’re constructing injustice as a regular, expected, run-of-the-mill fact of life, to be met not with anger and collective action, but with a resigned shrug of the shoulders.

Don’t let them.

The Law is Not on Our Side

[Content note: sexual harassment and assault]

Many brave writers have described what happened to them when they reported gender-based threats and violence to the police. Occasionally the outcome is positive, but often nothing at all happens and often something terrible happens.

Here are two recent examples I’ve read. The first is by Heina of Skepchick:

When the officer called me in, I was shaking a bit, but spoke as clearly and calmly as possible, presenting my evidence and voicing my fears. He responded with laughter.

Taken aback by his trivialization of the situation, I asked him if he could look at my evidence. I knew who the guy was, I pleaded. Couldn’t he, as an officer of the law, do something? Take the guy to task for threatening me somehow? At least take down a report so that if something happened, there was a record? He replied with an incredulous no to all my inquiries.

Out of the blue, he asked me if my picture included my face. I said no. He asked me how I expected to attract responses with a picture that didn’t include my face. Before I could respond, he answered his own question: it was a sexy picture, was it not? Feeling shamed, I was unable to speak and merely nodded.

“Don’t worry about it, then,” he chuckled. “Go home.”

What choice did I have other than to begin to gather up my things and prepare to leave? Before I could make my exit, though, he told me that he often visits women-seeking-women for the pictures, winked at me, and expressed his hope that he would see me on there sometime. Taken aback by the lechery in his tone, I half expected him to take a swat at my ass as I walked out the door.

The second example is even more jarring and painful to read, and deserves a strong trigger warning. It was a comment by EEB on a post of Jason’s, and Stephanie reprinted it with permission:

Two male detectives arrived at my house. I stammered out a request for a female detective; it was denied. (I learned later that they violated procedure by not accommodating the request.) They made me go through what happened. I was in excruciating pain and dripping blood but they didn’t want to take me to the hospital just then, and said the hospital “wasn’t ready” anyway. So I described the rape. Then they asked if I was taking any drugs. Well, just my medication. I thought it was strange that they literally spent more time asking about my mental health history and the types of medication I took, instead of the rape, but at the time, again, I was in shock, and not thinking much.

[…]Over the next few months, I submitted to multiple, horrific “interviews” that really felt like “interrogations” as time went on. I was also dealing with a serious medical condition at the time (I almost died; my intestines ruptured, but was almost certainly not a result of the rape, just bad timing). But I still believed in the system. I still didn’t want the man who raped me on the streets. I did everything they requested, answered every invasive question (the were really focused on my mental health history!), even got on the ground and acted out the rape for them, with the head detective on top of me acting out the part of the rapist. Not only was I absolutely hysterical by the time we were done, I’m positive that aggravated my PTSD for a long time after.

And after all that, I was called in for an “interview” to discuss “a new lead in your case”. They didn’t let my rape counselor in the room–again, against the law, I found out later! For about an hour (I think; my sense of time was not that great) they were no longer even pretending to be supportive. They accused me over and over of making it up. They had very flimsy “evidence” (which I won’t go into because it’s both complicated and ridiculous) but mostly it was their “instinct”.

Because I have a mental illness. Because I was hospitalized after attempting suicide. Because I “claimed” I had been sexually assaulted in the past. Because I was crazy, and he was sure I was just looking for attention. He had a bipolar ex-wife, you see, and she made his life a living hell. He told me how he understood mentally ill women, and how we need to create drama. How we’re liars, and we crave attention.

And over and over they accused me of lying. Alone in this tiny room with two large, angry men, I was doing everything I could to keep from having a panic attack. I couldn’t respond to what they were saying; again, I think I was in shock. And they threatened me with jail time, with a felony on my record, destroying my family, public humiliation (he threatened to call the papers–something he did anyway, because, quote, “the community needs to know there was no threat to public safety”). They said I would be charged with a false report, with terrorizing the public (there was a public awareness campaign initially after my attack, though I didn’t have anything to do with it. After the rape, I did everything I could to maintain anonymity, and only told two people–beyond my family and the cops–hat I was attacked. But…I did it for attention, which was why I didn’t tell anyone? I’m just sneaky like that, I guess!). Accusations, threats, anger, pounding the table, over and over and over.

The detective looked at me. His whole demeanor changed; he tried to seem kind, avuncular. “Tell me you made the whole thing up. This whole thing will disappear. Nothing will happen to you. You can leave, if you just tell me you made it up. Tell me you made it up and you’re sorry for lying, and I’ll let you leave.” I tried to hold out–but I didn’t last long. Honestly, at that point, all I wanted in the entire world was just to get out of that room. There are very few things I wouldn’t have done, if I could only leave. So I looked at him and lied. I said, “I made the whole thing up. I’m sorry.”

Through both of these examples, we see that women who are marginalized along other axes besides gender face additional injustice–cruelty, even–by law enforcement officials. Heina’s sexual orientation was used against her both by the man she reported for threats and by the cop who was supposed to be helping her. EEB’s mental illness was used as an excuse to abuse her, accuse her of lying, and ultimately coerce her into recanting her accusation despite overwhelming physical evidence that it was true.

The more intersecting marginalizations you have, the less likely you are to be treated fairly by the police. This is, sadly, nothing new at all, and it’s not limited to sexual violence (see: Trayvon Martin, stop and frisk, queer people being arrested for being queer). So why do people still insist that 1) survivors of sexual assault have a moral duty to report it to the police, 2) if the police do not prosecute a rapist, that means that no rape occurred, and 3) if a survivor chooses not to report, then they do not deserve any accommodations from their communities, and those communities must pretend that nothing ever happened?

EEB’s story, in particular, suggests that at least some false rape accusations are not actually false rape accusations. More research is urgently needed to determine how common this is, but my fear is that it is not uncommon. This story also shows how ableist ideas about mental illness–that people with mental illnesses are just “crazy” and “delusional” people who make shit up to ruin people’s lives–prevented a survivor from seeking justice and allowed a rapist to go free.

I used to be sympathetic to the idea that people should report sexual assault to the police, but I’m becoming less and less so. While I think we have an imperative to reform this system and make it work, for now, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable for a survivor to choose not to report. If I were advising a survivor, I’m not even sure that I would feel comfortable encouraging them to do so.

And, dudes, next time you show up demanding to know why so-and-so didn’t report if they were “really raped,” I’m going to link you to this post. Remember that feeling safe around police officers is a sign of privilege, as is the belief that they will treat you fairly.

Strawmanning Rape Culture (Part Two)

[Content note: sexual assault]

In the first half of this post, I covered three strawman arguments against the concept of rape culture. Read that post first! Then, here are three more.

“So you’re saying that all men are rapists.”

Nope. Men are more likely than women to be rapists for all sorts of reasons that are both central and tangential to rape culture. For instance, aggression is encouraged in men but not in women. Women are treated as sexual objects, there for men’s taking. Even a woman passing by on the street is considered fair game for sexual comments and come-ons, simply because she happens to exist and be attractive to someone. While women can and do become rapists (more on this later), they aren’t taught from an early age to think of men as something they should just “take” whenever they feel like it.

It is, in fact, the reactionary, anti-feminist position to claim that men are by nature rapists, and you see conservatives dancing around that claim all the time. They’ll say that Boys Will Be Boys and men can’t control their sexual urges when they see an attractive woman (all men are heterosexual, in case you didn’t know)

Feminists understand that, because of a variety of cultural factors, men are much more likely to accept and commit rape than they otherwise might be. Feminists believe this is 100% solvable.

Schrödinger’s Rapist, a common component of rape culture arguments, is also often misconstrued as claiming that all men are rapists. It is not.

Claiming that we’re saying that all men are rapists is an easy and lazy way to write off our arguments by making us seem like every boring stereotype of feminism that has ever been trotted out.

“So you’re saying that only women get raped.”

No. Women do comprise the majority of rape victims because women are systematically disempowered by sexism. Similarly, queer people, disabled people, people of color, and so on are disproportionately likely to be raped. People who lack privilege are more likely to be the victims of all sorts of crimes, but with rape there’s the added dimension of rape-as-punishment–a hallmark of rape culture. People are often raped to be “put in their place.”

Obviously, none of this means that men do not get raped. First of all, being male is only one type of privilege; a man could still lack others. Second, rape culture means that nobody is taught good sexual ethics unless they teach themselves. Women who do not understand and value consent can rape men, as can other men. I think that one of the reasons women are relatively unlikely to be rapists is because they are so strongly discouraged from being sexual aggressors, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

Men are affected by rape culture. It’s the reason male rape victims face so much shame and blame; it’s the reason prisoners (who are disproportionately male) are so likely to be raped and why people still think this is okay to joke about. The recent revelation that women are not the only ones being targeted by rapists in the military is another example of this; rape is used as a form of bullying or hazing of men as well as women. That’s rape culture in action.

Rape culture affects (or at least appears to affect) women more than men because of sexism, but when it comes to rape culture, everyone loses.

“So you’re saying that rape victims are the only type of crime victims who ever get blamed for what happened to them.”

Victim-blaming is a component of rape culture, but it’s not the only component and it’s not exclusive to rape culture. It’s likely that rape culture increases victim-blaming by teaching people scripts about sexual assault that blame the victim (i.e. the “What was she thinking going out to that bar alone” script and the “Why would she flirt with him if she didn’t want to have sex” script and the “Well if a woman goes out wearing something like that, what are men supposed to think” script). Because of rape culture, basically everyone grows up learning to think about and discuss sexual assault in this way.

But victim-blaming doesn’t originate with rape culture; if it did, it indeed wouldn’t make sense that we blame the victim in many, many other situations–being sick, being mentally ill, being the victim of some other crime, being abused by one’s family or partner, being discriminated against, being poor, being unemployed. Basically every terrible thing that can conceivably befall a person is something that people have tried to blame on that person.

Why? Just-world fallacy. Believing that other people are to blame for their misfortunes helps us sleep better at night. We will be more responsible and prudent than that. We will not wear slutty clothes and go out drinking. We will be smart with our money and work hard and thus never end up poor, unemployed, and homeless. We will not be weak enough to succumb to depression; we’ll pull ourselves out of it.

If that sounds cruel, that’s because it is. But it’s also a very understandable response to the horror of a dangerous world where terrible things seem to happen to good people all the time, a world we realize, deep down, that we ultimately have little control over.

People do in fact blame victims of crimes other than rape–for not locking their car, for leaving their bike with an easily-broken chain, for going out with a laptop bag, for going to a “dangerous” neighborhood, for not being careful enough with their credit card information, for being “stupid” enough to fall for a pyramid scheme, for wearing a hoodie and being mistaken for a criminal and murdered. They blame the victims because the thought of doing everything “right” and still becoming the victim of a crime (or other misfortune) is horrifying.

This is why teaching people rational thinking is so important. Rational thinking doesn’t just help you get stuff done; it’s a necessary condition for a just society, because victim-blaming is incompatible with a just society.

Victim-blaming isn’t all there is to rape culture, though. As I mentioned when I discussed other crimes, rape is dismissed and hand-waved away in ways that other crimes are not, so the fact that victims get blamed in all sorts of situations doesn’t mean rape culture does not exist.

It just means that advocates of rational thinking and social justice have our work cut out for us.