Being Extra Nice To Abusers Doesn’t Stop Abuse

[CN: abuse]

So I’m reading this Washington Post article about some recent research on abusive bosses and come across this perplexing bit:

But the researchers also found something they didn’t expect. They predicted that acts of compassion and empathy—employees who assist bad bosses by going above and beyond, helping bosses with heavy workloads even when they’re not asked—would be negatively linked with abusive behavior. In other words, such acts of kindness might help lessen future rude or abusive behavior.

The study, however, found that wasn’t true. “Abusive supervisors didn’t respond to followers being positive and compassionate, and doing things to be supportive and helpful,” said Charlice Hurst, an assistant professor at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business who was a co-author on the paper. Their findings, she said, seem to “clash with common sense.”

To put it mildly, these findings only clash with common sense if you’ve never been abused or bullied. If you have, then you know that abuse is not about persuading people to do nice things for you. It’s about controlling them: their feelings, their thoughts, their self-esteem, their experiences, their behavior, even the course of their lives. It is also about asserting power publicly to control bystanders as well.

That’s why bullies and abusers “win” almost no matter how you respond. If you lash out in anger, they get to use their higher status to get you in trouble for your anger. If you cry, they get to ridicule you. If you ignore it and walk away, they get to paint you as a coward–and, regardless, they still get to influence bystanders even if they haven’t influenced you. If you start being extra nice to them, then they reap the benefits of your niceness while reinforcing their dominance over you. The only way to “win” in an abusive situation is to find a way to get out of it entirely and never look back, and that’s exactly what abuse is designed to prevent you from doing.

And in the event that a boss is deliberately choosing to be abusive in order to elicit “supportive and helpful” behavior from you, then behaving in a supportive and helpful manner would only reinforce the abuse*. It would be like feeding scraps to a dog that begs at the table, except that dogs that beg are at worst annoying and bosses that abuse are at worst life-ruining. I am absolutely horrified at the idea that people are advising victims of workplace abuse to perform “acts of compassion and empathy” towards their abusers, because if anything, that’ll only teach the abusers that abuse is an effective method of getting people to kiss your ass.

The article continues:

In the paper, the researchers say one explanation may be that bosses just see all that extra work as part of the job, something academics refer to as “organizational citizenship,” and therefore don’t feel the need to treat their employees any better because of those efforts.

I submit that it’s not that at all, but rather that people who abuse, whether they do it in a school or their home or their office, do it because they reap some psychological reward from it. Why would they give that reward up just because you did some of their paperwork?

One might protest that this is making it seem like there’s nothing that victims of workplace abuse can do to stop the abuse. Indeed, the article notes that the researchers have so far “only discovered what not to do” to stop abuse, and nothing to do to stop it.

While that might aggravate those who believe strongly in a just world, it makes complete sense. Abusive situations are abusive precisely because they involve a significant imbalance of power. The person with less power does not have the capacity to influence the situation significantly. If they did, they probably wouldn’t have been abused in the first place. And the thing about having relatively little power is that you can’t just decide one day to have more power. That’s not how power works.

That’s why telling victims of abuse and other power-based acts of violence (such as sexual assault) to prevent that violence is not only hurtful and condescending, but also totally useless. That’s why comparing abuse and sexual assault to other situations, like stolen bikes, doesn’t work.

The researchers in this particular study seem to have wised up a lot about abusive dynamics over the course of their research. Co-author Charlice Hurst says that in order to prevent workplace abuse, “Companies have to create cultures where abusive supervisors are not acceptable, and they have to implement policies for employees to report being bullied.” In other words, the responsibility for preventing bullying rests on the shoulders of those who have more relative power within the workplace, not those who have less. The way to stop bullying is to implement reforms at the systemic level, not at the individual level.

(And no, before anyone jumps in with “but some employees are just terrible and rude and bad at their jobs, so shouldn’t they improve,” that’s completely irrelevant. The solution to a bad employee is to tell them how to improve and if they don’t, fire them. It’s not to abuse them.)

While victims of abuse do not have much control over the abuse itself (unless they manage to extricate themselves and leave), they do have some control over their emotional reaction. It is very important that I said “some.” I didn’t say “complete,” or “a lot.” And that control can include, for instance, going to therapy to learn coping skills. But the reason I bring this up is that “passive-aggressive retaliation,” one of the reactions the researchers showed to be ineffective in terms of stopping abuse, was also shown in a different study to be effective for a different purpose: helping employees cope. In sum, “Employees felt less like victims when they retaliated against their bad bosses and as a result experienced less psychological distress, more job satisfaction and more commitment to their employer.”

Of course, retaliation of any sort can be dangerous, you know your situation best, take all psychology reporting with an appropriate grain of salt, et cetera. I’m hesitant to do some sort of “coping with abuse” advicepost because I don’t want to come across like I’m condoning abuse or being fatalistic about it, but on the other hand, 1) abuse happens and 2) it’s already been demonstrated numerous times that you cannot prevent your own abuse. Using whatever coping strategies work for you seems like a good idea.

I hope that studies like this one bring more awareness to the psychology community about the dynamics of abuse. Too often, psychologists fall into the trap of focusing overly on individual factors (like what abuse victims can/should do) as opposed to structural factors (like what communities/systems can/should do). This causes them to make ridiculous assumptions like “it’s just common sense that being nice to an abuser would make them stop abusing!”

It makes sense that only someone with more power (whether individual or collective) than an abuser can make them stop abusing, although that may not always be sufficient. If an abuser holds such absolute power in your workplace that nobody and nothing can hold them accountable, you’re going to have issues with abuse no matter how nice the abuser’s victims are.


*I want to be very clear here that sometimes being extra nice to an abuser feels like the only safe thing to do, in which case you should do whatever makes you feel safe first and foremost. I will never pass judgment on the ways in which individuals choose to cope with their abuse. However, I also don’t think we should advise people to do things that seem like they’d make abuse worse, so, that’s what I’m getting at here.


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Why You Should Care About Violence Against Sex Workers

[CN: sexual assault, anti-sex work stigma]

Last month, the Chicago Sun-Times published a shameful column by Mary Mitchell regarding a recent case in which a sex worker was raped by a would-be client. Unusually, the rapist was actually charged with rape. Mitchell refers to this as “making a mockery of rape victims” and states that she is “grateful [the rapist] isn’t being accused of snatching an innocent woman off the street.” She says it’s “tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim” and that “because this incident is being charged as a criminal sexual assault — when it’s actually more like theft of services — it minimizes the act of rape.” She also includes this amazingly contradictory bit of reasoning:

I’m not one of those women who believe rape victims are at fault because they dressed too provocatively or misled some randy guy into thinking it was his lucky night.

But when you agree to meet a strange man in a strange place for the purpose of having strange sex for money, you are putting yourself at risk for harm.

Anyway, that’s enough of that. I recommend reading these excellent responses from sex workers.

First of all, if you care about the issue of sexual violence, as Mitchell claims to, you should care about sexual violence against sex workers. Even if you aren’t one. Even if you don’t know any (although you probably do). We can’t restrict ourselves to caring about problems only when they affect people who look and act like us, or else things will only get better for the people who have the most people who look and act like them. (Who might those be?)

But even from a more self-interested point of view, it makes no sense for anti-rape advocates to excuse sexual violence against sex workers.

If you think you’re going to find success by portraying yourself as pure and good compared to those nasty women* who “sell themselves,” you’re mistaken. Sex workers aren’t stigmatized simply because there’s an exchange of money involved. After all, many of the women who cheerfully dismiss sexual violence against sex workers would be horrified at the idea that a woman “deserves” to be raped because she went on a date with a man to get free dinner. (Of course, though, there are plenty of other people who nevertheless accept both scenarios.)

Women who do sex work are stigmatized for many reasons, many of which intersect with class, race, and other social categories. One of those reasons is that their sexual behavior is “improper” and therefore suspect. We can’t seem to trust a woman who actively pursues sex (whether for pleasure or money or both) rather than letting herself be “chased.” People who don’t understand consent think that a sex worker can’t be raped because she already agreed to have sex (never mind that sex workers can be assaulted by people who aren’t clients at all). They believe that consenting to one sex act means consenting to all sex acts, forever, and that “putting yourself out there” as a person who’s willing to have sex means that people can do whatever they want to you.

But sex workers aren’t the only people impacted by these myths. You know who else’s experiences of sexual assault are routinely dismissed because of their perceived sexual “availability”?

Most survivors’.

If you’re assaulted after agreeing to do something else sexual with someone, you’ll be blamed for agreeing to that. If you’re assaulted by someone you’ve had sex with in the past, you’ll be blamed for having had sex with them in the past, even if you made it abundantly clear that you didn’t want to do it again. If you’re assaulted by someone you never agreed to have sex with but did go on a date with, you’ll be blamed for agreeing to go on a date with them. If you’re assaulted by someone you’ve never gone out with but did flirt with–or were perceived to be flirting with–then you’ll be blamed for flirting. If you never flirted but dressed “revealingly”; if you never dressed “revealingly” but drank alcohol; if you never drank alcohol but let yourself be alone with them for any reason; if you did none of the above but have a race, body type, or gender identity that people devalue and treat as sexually “available”…and on and on it goes.

The point is that as long as we treat a survivor’s prior sexual behavior, actual or perceived, as relevant to the question of whether or not they were really assaulted, nobody is safe. The justifications we use to dismiss assault of sex workers are basically identical to the justifications we use to dismiss assault of anyone else.

Sex workers pursue sex with people; non-sex workers pursue sex with people. Sex workers agree to do some sexual things but not others; non-sex workers agree to do some sexual things but not others. Sex workers may have had many different sex partners; non-sex workers may have had many different sex partners. Sex workers may have sex with strangers; non-sex workers may have sex with strangers. The only difference is the exchange of money.

And if you claim that these victim-blaming narratives suddenly become acceptable and proper when the exchange of money is involved, then you’re claiming that being a sex worker is so bad that it means you deserve to be raped.

In which case, you should just say that so that people know what you mean rather than obfuscating the issue needlessly.

Keep in mind that if you believe that sex workers deserve to be raped, you’re including the ones who don’t experience sex work as a choice. (While activists rightfully challenge that idea that all sex workers are exploited, some certainly are.) Can a sex worker forced to do sex work be raped? If so, why can’t one who chose sex work? Can someone who used to do sex work but stopped be raped? If so, why can’t a sex worker who’s not working on the day they are assaulted, or whose assailant is not one of their clients?

You can see how tricky things get when you claim that there are cases in which the absence of consent does not equal sexual assault.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise me when people who have a vested interest in violating others’ consent oppose the idea that yes means yes. All those men in my Twitter mentions yelling “But that would make me a rapist”? Well, yeah. But it does surprise me when people who advocate against sexual violence twist themselves into the same arguments.

It is apparently tempting for some of these people to create hierarchies of survivors with themselves or the people they care about at the top. Maybe they think there is safety in that, in always having someone below them.

But there isn’t. The prejudice and violence of others is not a force you can harness and control so that it always points away from you. That’s why what we call victim-blaming is always invalid. If directing others’ prejudice and violence away from you were a real option, then there’d be no such thing as victim-blaming.

Besides that, though, it’s monstrous to use people who are more marginalized than you as shields. Too many people take it for granted that sex workers should serve as bait, to redirect male violence away from women who do not “deserve” it.

I can’t live at ease in a world in which we’re shifting the burden of violence onto other people rather than ending it. Of course, ending it is easier said than done, but it begins with acknowledging the problem whenever we see it, including when the victim is a sex worker.

We will not be safe if we throw sex workers under the bus. We will not be safe by creating categories of people who are rapeable, expendable. Those chickens are always going to come home to roost.

The only way to fight sexual violence is to keep centering consent in the discussion. Not what the victim looks like or acts like. Not what the victim did in the past. Consent. And once we’ve finally got that down, maybe we can even go beyond it.


*Although I’m mainly talking about female survivors in this post–because the tropes that Mitchell used are based on that–it’s important to note that sex workers are not all women, and that the violence and stigma faced by sex workers applies to sex workers of all genders.


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How Rolling Stone Failed Rape Survivors

[Content note: sexual assault]

My new Daily Dot piece discusses the Rolling Stone mess.

Last month’s groundbreaking Rolling Stone piece about sexual assault at the University of Virginia recently came under scrutiny from reporters at Slate and the Washington Post, leading Rolling Stone to retract the piece on Friday.

Unfortunately, many are taking this to mean that “Jackie,” the college student who described her brutal gang rape in the original piece, was lying about her ordeal. Based on everything I have read about this story, however, I find that exceedingly unlikely.

One major criticism of the original Rolling Stone piece has centered on the fact that the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not reach out to the students Jackie accused of rape or to the fraternity where she claimed the assault happened. In the retraction piece, the editors wrote, “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

I understand this decision, and I understand how difficult it must’ve been for Erdely to try to keep Jackie comfortable enough to speak publicly about such a traumatic experience. But this goes against journalistic ethics and leaves the journalist, the publication, the readers, and the subject of the piece—Jackie—vulnerable. Since Jackie was already going on the record with her accusation, refusing to try to interview the men she accused would not have helped prevent retribution against her. Unfortunately, that is a risk any time a rape survivor goes public—in fact, any time anyone publicly accuses anybody of anything.

Reporting the story ethically and rigorously doesn’t have to mean disbelieving Jackie or treating her insensitively. There’s a difference between a reporter who says, “I’m going to interview whoever I want regardless of what you want” and a reporter who says, “I understand your concerns, but in order for this story to be as powerful as we want it to be, I need to reach out to the people you’re accusing.” If Jackie refused to speak given these terms, perhaps this was not the right time to try to write this piece. As Audrey White writes at Autostraddle:

Erdely’s job as a reporter required she create a bulletproof story to protect Jackie, avoid libel against the alleged assailants, and achieve her ostensible goal of revealing a culture at UVA and in Greek life that promotes and protects sexual assault. … If respecting Jackie’s wishes meant the reporter couldn’t contact anyone else related to the assault, even to confirm basic details like a person’s membership in the frat or the date of an event, she should have found a different source or approached the narrative from a different angle. As it stands, she put the integrity of her story and of Jackie’s search for resolution at risk.

Indeed, it’s now unclear how willing Jackie was to be a part of this story at all. The Washington Post reports: “Overwhelmed by sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused, and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless.”

While Jackie doesn’t specify exactly how or why she was overwhelmed by this process, the fact that there appear to be “inconsistencies” in her recollection of her gang rape gives a possible clue.

Read the rest here.

Why You Should Believe Shia LaBeouf

My latest Daily Dot piece is about (male) actor/performance artist Shia LaBeouf’s claim that he was raped during an art piece.

What’s the worst thing that could happen if you believe that Shia LaBeouf was raped?

I ask because plenty of people seem entirely unwilling to entertain that idea. For example:

It’s unclear how exactly believing a survivor “demeans” other survivors. There is not a limited amount of empathy and concern in the world. You can care about survivors like LaBeouf and you can care about survivors who look and act like whatever you think survivors should look and act like.

Some people have said that they can’t believe LaBeouf because he’s an “unreliable narrator.” I was initially tempted to look up and comment briefly on the actor’s apparent history of twisting the truth, but then I realized that it absolutely doesn’t matter. Everyone lies, albeit to varying extents, and lying about rape in particular is so rare that I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt even if he has lied about other things before.

At the Guardian, Daily Dot contributor Lindy West writes:

A victim doesn’t have to be relatable or reliable or likable or ‘normal’–or even a good person–for you to believe them. You can be utterly baffled by someone’s every move and still take their victimization seriously. LaBeouf’s bizarre behavior and his sexual violation are in no way mutually exclusive, nor are the latter and his gender. ‘He was asking for it.’ ‘Why didn’t he fight back?’ ‘Why didn’t he say ‘no’?’ ‘He must have wanted it.’ ‘He seems crazy.’ These are flat-out unacceptable things to say to a person of any gender.

Others have pointed out that LaBeouf did not resist the alleged rape. Some of them acknowledge that survivors often “freeze” and are physically unable to resist, but claim that because LaBeouf has stated that for him the reason was that he did not want to compromise his performance art piece, then it’s not “really” rape.

I will grant that this may seem confusing. After all, if he was ableto stop the rape but didn’t, how is it still rape? If he allowed it to happen “for art’s sake,” isn’t that the same as wanting it to happen?

It’s pretty simple, and thinking of rape in terms of affirmative consent may help. Did LaBeouf make it absolutely clear that he wanted this woman to have sex with him? Did he verbally or nonverbally indicate that in a way that would be unmistakable?

No, he didn’t.

Read the rest here.

Four Better Ways To Prevent Sexual Assault Than Blaming Victims

My newest Daily Dot piece is up. It’s about Don Lemon’s inappropriate remarks to Joan Tarshis about her allegations against Bill Cosby, and how we can do better.

As allegations that Bill Cosby raped 15 different women continue to ripple through the Internet and the entertainment world—spurred, perhaps, by the fact that a man finally signal-boosted them—controversial CNN news anchor Don Lemon wants to know: Why didn’t accuser Joan Tarshis simply bite Cosby’s penis to avoid being coerced into giving him oral sex?

This, apparently, was the question on Lemon’s mind as he listened to Tarshis’s story.

Lemon later apologized, stating that he “never want[ed] to suggest that any victim could have prevented a rape.” While this is notable, unfortunately, that’s exactly what was suggested.

While Lemon’s question, which he claimed that he “had to ask,” stands out in its graphic inappropriateness, it’s a common practice to ask survivors of sexual assault why they didn’t “just” this or “simply” that. Whether it comes from prurient interest or supposed concern, many people who try to discuss sexual assault with survivors get caught up in the details of what the survivor could have theoretically, in a perfect universe, if they had thought of it in time rather than experiencing (as many victims do) too much fear or shock, done to prevent the assault.

First of all, it is not the responsibility of people targeted by sexual assault to prevent said assault. The fact that this still needs to be repeated, over and over, is disgraceful.

Second, there are many more survivors than there are rapists, and rapists get away with it because they are rarely held responsible for their actions.

Throughout history, the responsibility for preventing sexual assault has been placed on the shoulders of its potential victims. People like Don Lemon have probably been giving women these “tips” for millennia. Yet it hasn’t seemed to do any good. Isn’t it about time to try something else?

Maybe Lemon should be giving us some tips on how to hold powerful men accountable instead. Here’s a start.

1) Recognize celebrities have power.

In general, people seem to be pretty bad at thinking of social dynamics in terms of power. Many have trouble understanding the fact that white people and men have excess power in our society, for instance.

So do celebrities of any gender, and male celebrities especially. People who are so widely and strongly admired and valued wield a tremendous amount of influence without even intending to. When they do intend to, it gets even stronger.

This is especially true when a celebrity has something a non-celebrity wants—like fame, access, and opportunities. Many (if not all) of the women who have accused Bill Cosby of rape were young aspiring entertainers to whom Cosby offered mentorship. When people dismiss their allegations because some of them took a long time to come forward, ask yourself—what would it take to get you to destroy what might be your only shot at the career you want? Would accusing a famous, beloved man of sexual assault—and probably being dismissed, harassed, or even threatened as a result—really seem worthwhile?

Men like Cosby know this. They know that they have the power to make or break these young women’s chances in the industry. They know that they will be allowed to get away with it. And so they keep doing it.

Read the rest here.

Should We Outlaw Street Harassment?

I wrote a piece at the Daily Dot about a proposed ordinance that would make street harassment illegal.

Street harassment is dismally common–a recent study commissioned by the organization Stop Street Harassment found that 65 percent of the women surveyed had experienced it.

But up until recently, most strategies to stop harassment have focused on the victims. For example, the Hollaback app allows people who experience street harassment to document the incidents on a map, perhaps helping others avoid areas where lots of harassment occurs. And then there’s the usual, mostly-useless advice: don’t wear this, don’t do that, don’t walk alone.

However, that’s starting to change: some cities are adopting laws that attempt to criminalize street harassment. For example, a new proposed ordinance in Kansas City would make it illegal to purposefully frighten or injure a pedestrian or cyclist and lists a number of behaviors that would qualify, such as “threaten such person” and “place such person in apprehension of physical danger.”

It’s heartening that city officials are starting to take the issue of street harassment seriously. It’s a strain on individuals’ mental and physical health and creates a hostile, unwelcoming environment for women and gender non-conforming people whenever they leave their homes. Passing an ordinance that bans street harassment can send the message that this is wrong and will no longer be tolerated, thus indirectly helping to change the social norms that make street harassment so common.

But as much as I want to be optimistic about this, I’m not sure that these laws will be effective. For starters, enforcing them is probably impractical. Suppose you get harassed by someone on the street. You immediately call the police. They arrive. By then, the harasser is long gone. You give them a description. Now what? The likelihood that the police will prioritize locating a catcaller based on a physical description when there are so many other, more physically violent crimes to investigate seems low.

Moreover, we live in a society in which many people still insist that catcalls, even when made with a threatening tone and body language, are “compliments.” Such perceptions make a difference when it comes to law enforcement, even though many people still believe that police officers are objective enforcers of the law. (If the events in Ferguson haven’t changed their minds about that, I don’t know what will.)

Many sexual assault survivors report that the police refused to pursue their allegations. Some even intimidate or threaten the survivors to convince them to recant those allegations. Why wouldn’t this happen with street harassment claims, which most people probably take even less seriously than they take claims of sexual assault?

The wording of the proposed ordinance may not even include many instances of street harassment. Someone mumbling “nice tits, slut” while leering at a woman would not be breaking the proposed law. Someone saying “fuck you, cunt” when the woman walks away wouldn’t be breaking it, either, as long as they don’t make “loud or unusual sounds” in the process.

Read the rest here.

Ten Ways Sexual Assault is Not Like Getting Robbed

[Content note: sexual assault]

Anytime someone speaks up about victim blaming and the expectation that women drastically limit their own lives in order to prevent themselves from being raped, someone will appear like clockwork to go, “Yeah, well, shouldn’t people lock their homes so they don’t get robbed?”

I am not an authority on what people should and should not do (besides not rape people), but I would argue that sexual assault has vanishingly little in common with robbery, and preventing sexual assault is not at all like locking your front door.

All analogies are imperfect by definition; if they were perfect, they would not be analogies anymore, but rather comparisons between two nearly or practically identical things. You can always find spots in which analogies fail.

But the sexual assault-robbery analogy fails on so many levels that I believe it to be useless for any sort of explanatory function.

None of this is to say which is “worse.” I’ll leave those pointless exercises to Richard Dawkins. I would personally imagine that most people who have experienced both found sexual assault to be “worse,” but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are sufficiently different that an analogy between them doesn’t really make any sense and is usually only used to silence people who speak out about sexual assault and victim blaming.

So, here’s how sexual assault is not at all like robbery.

[Read more…]

Are Anti-Rape Devices the Best We Can Do?

[Content note: sexual assault]

Four students at North Carolina State University have developed a nail polish that can detect the presence of certain drugs used to facilitate sexual assault and change color in response. The team said:

All of us have been close to someone who has been through the terrible experience, and we began to focus on preventive solutions, especially those that could be integrated into products that women already use….Our goal is to invent technologies that empower women to protect themselves from this heinous and quietly pervasive crime.

The students have created a startup, Undercover Colors, to produce the nail polish. The company’s tagline reads, “The first fashion company empowering women to prevent sexual assault.”

I do want to say, before anything else, that I think it’s commendable for an all-male team of engineering students to choose this issue as their focus. Although I, like many others, am extremely critical of the expectation that women (and only women, even though they are not the only rape victims) buy products and seriously restrict their own lives in order to “prevent” sexual assault, the Undercover Colors team is not ignorant of the importance of true rape prevention work. In a recent Facebook post, they linked to the pages of RAINN and Men Can Stop Rape as examples of other organizations that are doing such work and need support.

[Read more…]

How Young Girls Internalize Rape Culture as “Normal”

[Content note: sexual assault and harassment]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

Learning Sexuality: Children, Marketing, and Sexualized Products

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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