How the Purity Myth Perpetuates Rape Culture

[Content note: sexual assault, racism]

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

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

Some components of the purity myth include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Sex workers cannot be sexually assaulted.

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

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

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

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

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Celebrity Women Are Not “Asking” For Stalking & Harassment

[Content note: stalking & sexual harassment]

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

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

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

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

What do these justifications remind you of?

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

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Confidence Is Not the Solution To Gender Inequality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

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

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On Women Who Lie About Having Boyfriends

[Content note: sexual harassment and assault]

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

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

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

Here’s the first argument, steelmanned:

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

Here’s the second one, also steelmanned:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Individualized Feminism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(And also because fucking profit motive.)

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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It’s Okay to Lean Out of Silicon Valley

I have another Daily Dot article. This one’s about the the guy who wrote an article saying he doesn’t want his daughter to work in Silicon Valley. I talked about why he’s probably taking it too far but also why the counterargument–demanding that women sacrifice themselves to make sexism go away–is misguided.

Excerpt:

Arguably, you can’t change an industry simply by leaving it. You’d think that women fleeing Silicon Valley in droves would get the men running it to realize that they’re driving women away, but the Valley’s almost religious adherence to the theory of meritocracy will prevent that from happening. If women aren’t working for us, they’d think, that’s just because they’re not good enough—or strong enough. And that’s assuming anyone notices or cares about the lack of female representation to begin with. Therefore, women who want Silicon Valley to change should occupy it, not leave it.

But this view, too, often puts the onus on women to expose themselves to sexist microaggressions and harassment for the greater good. The idea that women (or, at least, feminists) “should” force their way into spaces like technology, business, and politics to “fix” the sexism within places the needs of others before the needs of those women, especially since any complaints they make about the sexism they encounter are likely to be met with, “Well, you knew what you were getting into.” Ironically, the expectation that women always put their individual needs last is a key component of sexism.

Furthermore, it’s not necessarily the case that getting more women into a given space makes that space friendlier to women in general. As Segan points out, women who want to work in Silicon Valley are expected to demonstrate the same stereotypically masculine traits as men are—with, of course, the added double bind that feminine women are considered incompetent while masculine women are considered unlikeable. Neither incompetence or unlikeability is a huge help when it comes to getting a job.

Women who do manage to break into and succeed in Silicon Valley are likely to be women who gamely laugh at sexist jokes and brush off harassment in the office—and expect other women to do the same. AsAshe Dryden describes, women who speak up about sexual harassment in the workplace risk retaliation, such as firing. Success for a woman in Silicon Valley therefore seems to depend partially on keeping quiet about the mistreatment she encounters, and the easiest way to keep quiet about mistreatment is to not view it as mistreatment at all.

Read the rest here.

As a sidenote, this Daily Dot gig is really making me write more, which is great.

Shifting The Blame For Sexual Harassment (Or, Damn Those Mysterious Women And Their Weird Mystery Feelings)

I’ve written before about how it’s actually not very difficult to tell the difference between flirting and sexual harassment. I’d like to get at this issue from a slightly different perspective by talking about the purposeful obfuscation of women’s* desires and boundaries that I often hear as a defense of those accused of sexual harassment.

What am I talking about? Things like this:

  • “Well, you know, you can never know when she’s gonna suddenly cry harassment.”
  • “Oh, women, they call guys ‘creepy’ only if they’re not attracted to them.”
  • “Oh, it’s only ‘harassment’ if they’re not trying to get laid right now, know what I mean?”

Often this is served with a large side of “Wow Women Are So Mysterious I Mean Wow Who Can Even Understand Those Women Their Emotions Just Change So Quickly Wow.”

The implication is that if a guy finds himself accused of sexual harassment or of being creepy, the problem isn’t with the guy’s behavior, it’s that the woman found him unattractive or she isn’t looking for sex or dating right now or she was just having one of those Female Mood-Swingy Things. The responsibility is shifted from the man who’s initiating to the woman who’s interpreting–from the man’s choice of words or actions to the woman’s supposedly unknowable and mysterious moods, desires, and preferences.

I can see how this is a convenient narrative. A guy who hits on a woman inappropriately and makes her upset or angry can just throw up his hands and be like, “Whoa, no idea what just happened there.” Or, worse, he can go post on an MRA forum about how women discriminate against unattractive men by calling them creeps.

Often even terrible ideas have a grain of truth, so here’s the grain of truth in this one. Sometimes people excuse bad behavior in those they really like (or who are skillful enough at manipulation to convince them it’s okay). The halo effect is a thing. That means that, in theory, a really attractive man could hit on a woman in ways that she’d consider creepy and off-putting if anyone else did it, but she reacts positively because she’s so attracted to the man. Maybe.

But in this case, it’s bad behavior being excused because the person’s attractive, not good behavior being problematized because the person’s unattractive. (I’m tempted to call this the Don Draper Effect, but I’ve been watching too much Mad Men lately.) Needless to say, it’s really creepy to hear someone essentially say, “I wish I were more attractive so I could get away with harassing and abusing people more easily.”

To use another example, sometimes men catcall women on the street and those women are flattered. (Before you dismiss this, women have actually told me that they find it flattering. It’s rare, but it happens.) That doesn’t mean that catcalling them is ethically okay. It just means that sometimes unethical behavior gets excused. Oftentimes, really.

More often, though, women appear not to be weirded out by the inappropriate come-ons of a guy they may or may not find attractive, but are too scared to tell him so or just don’t know how to react. (We aren’t raised to react at all, remember, except perhaps a polite smile and a “Thank you,” followed by burning whichever clothes we were wearing at the time because clearly that’s what caused it.) Another guy may witness this as a bystander and think, “Seeshe didn’t get pissed off when he did it!” Right, probably because she’s too intimidated to.

While there’s some degree of uncertainty in all human interactions, even ones that are very obviously inappropriate, that doesn’t mean there’s much mystery. Sometimes women don’t get creeped out by creepy men because they feel very confident in their ability to escape the situation, or because they weren’t raised by parents who inculcated in them a fear of men who act creepy, or any combination of factors. Often they do get creeped out, because it’s uncomfortable to feel like a piece of meat on a serving platter.

Women have been trying to explain to men how this fear and discomfort works for a while now in the form of the “Schrodinger’s Rapist” argument. Many men have resisted this explanation relentlessly because they get stuck in WAIT SO YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY THAT YOU JUST ASSUME I MIGHT BE A RAPIST I AM A GOOD PERSON HOW DARE YOU mode. They miss the part that basically explains this: if you send me the signal that you don’t care about my preferences and boundaries, then I’m going to assume that you don’t care about my preferences and boundaries.

There is no great mystery to this. If you make sexual comments to women you don’t know or persistently pester a female coworker to go on a date with you, those women are going to assume that you’re treating them like an object to be fucked and not like a human being, and they’re going to have opinions of you and your behavior in accordance with that.

Sometimes people misinterpret innocent behavior as malicious, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “irrational” or “wrong” in doing so. Suppose that 90% of the time a man I don’t know has asked me what I’m reading, it has turned into him hitting on me or refusing to leave me alone when I was clearly sending “please leave me alone” signals or calling me names when I politely asked to be left alone so I could return to my reading. One day I’m sitting in Central Park reading a book and a guy comes up and asks me what I’m reading. I shoot him an angry look and ignore him. He walks off, confused and embarrassed. He had simply thought the cover looked like the cover of his favorite book about social psychology and wanted to know what I thought of it.

Maybe we could’ve had a great conversation. Maybe we could’ve made friends. But, unfortunately, his behavior just looked too much like the behavior of the men in 90% of these situations, who ruin a quiet and thoughtful moment by using my reading as an excuse to hit on me in public. And if he thinks about this, and reads this blog post or the Schrodinger’s Rapist one, he’ll realize that it makes complete sense that I reacted the way I did, given what I have to deal with 90% of the time. It was no mystery. It was unfortunate and disappointing, but at the same time, entirely rational**.

(If you think I should cheerfully engage all of these men and tolerate the 90% who are awful in order to “just give a chance” to the 10% who are not, you don’t understand cost-benefit analyses.)

As I noted in my post about women not actually being “mysterious,” acting as though they are mysterious keeps men from really trying to understand them and puts the onus on women to stop being so damn mysterious, not on men to try a little harder to listen and understand.

If you’re a man and you often find women responding with confusion, discomfort, or even disgust when you interact with them, it might be time to ask yourself why this pattern exists***.

~~~

*I’m using a male harasser/female victim dynamic here because that’s what the conversations I’m responding to are about. Obviously, anyone of any gender can harass anyone of any gender.

**These discussions always devolve into this, but for the moment, I’m not interested in answering any questions to the tune of “Wait so then how DO I approach a woman I don’t know in public and get her to talk to me?” You don’t. Meet women at places where people gather to meet each other, or through friends, or through online dating.

***I do want to note, however, that there are cases in which intersecting identities influence how someone is perceived. For instance, thanks to ableism, a woman may respond with disgust at (totally appropriate) flirtation from a man with a disability. This, I think, is the sort of dynamic that able-bodied cis white men are appropriating when they go on MRA forums and claim that women react with disgust to anyone who doesn’t significantly resemble George Clooney. In my experience, men who are actually impacted by bigotries like ableism or transphobia tend to know that that’s what’s really going on. They’re not being rejected because they’re men; they’re being rejected because they have stigmatized identities or conditions. We can–in fact, we must–fight the fact that some people are automatically perceived as disgusting because of the prejudice that others have against them.

Having To See It To Believe It: Men and Online Sexual Harassment

[Content note: sexual harassment]

Jezebel recounts the tale of Reddit user OKCThrowaway22221, who pretended to be a woman on OkCupid and was so dismayed, disappointed, and disgusted with the messages he received that he shut it down after two hours.

OKCThrowaway22221 is pretty clear about the fact that, at the outset, he did not truly believe that women’s* online dating experiences can be really awful, and, in fact, believed that they “have it easy” with online dating:

Last night I was bored and was talking with a friend on skype about her experiences with online dating. I was joking with her that “girls have it easy on dating sites” etc. etc. I had never really done anything in the online dating world but I had set up a real profile a few years back and didn’t use it much aside from getting a few nice messages and decided it wasn’t really for me. But, as I said, I was bored, so I decided that I would set up a fake profile. Set it up as a gender-swapped version of me essentially see what would happen. So I did the username, and I was up. Before I could even fill out my profile at all, I already had a message in my inbox from a guy. It wasn’t a mean message, but I found it odd that I would get a message already. So I sent him a friendly hello back and kind of joked that I hadn’t even finished my profile, how could he be interested, but I felt good because I thought I was right that “girls have it easy”

But soon enough OKCThrowaway22221 is realizing just how wrong he was:

At first I thought it was fun, I thought it was weird but maybe I would mess with them or something and freak them out and tell them I was a guy or something, but as more and more messages came (either replies or new ones I had about 10 different guys message me within 2 hours) the nature of them continued to get more and more irritating. Guys were full-on spamming my inbox with multiple messages before I could reply to even one asking why I wasn’t responding and what was wrong. Guys would become hostile when I told them I wasn’t interested in NSA [no strings attached] sex, or guys that had started normal and nice quickly turned the conversation into something explicitly sexual in nature. Seemingly nice dudes in quite esteemed careers asking to hook up in 24 hours and sending them naked pics of myself despite multiple times telling them that I didn’t want to.

I would be lying if I said it didn’t get to me. I thought it would be some fun thing, something where I would do it and worse case scenario say “lol I was a guy I trolle you lulz”etc. but within a 2 hour span it got me really down and I was feeling really uncomfortable with everything. I figured I would get some weird messages here and there, but what I got was an onslaught of people who were, within minutes of saying hello, saying things that made me as a dude who spends most of his time on 4chan uneasy. I ended up deleting my profile at the end of 2 hours and kind of went about the rest of my night with a very bad taste in my mouth.

I came away thinking that women have it so much harder than guys do when it comes to that kind of stuff.

That’s exactly it. The experiences many women have with online dating* are just so fucking icky that they made a dude who “spends most of his time on 4chan” uncomfortable.

As usual, I have two very different thoughts about the whole stunt.

On the one hand:

I’m tired of this. I’m tired of men getting attention for saying things that women have been saying for ages. I’m tired of the fact that men don’t believe women’s experiences unless they find a way to have those same experiences for themselves. I’m tired of the fact that women’s experiences are constantly being dismissed as overreactions or distortions or outright lies–until a man comes along to validate them. I’m tired of the fact that these men can then delete their online dating accounts or take the women’s outfit off, but I can’t stop moving through the world as a woman.

On the other hand:

Gender certainly plays a role, but so does the fact that most people aren’t that great at imagining how they would feel if they went through an experience they’ve never gone through. Just like appeals to kinship, experiencing something for yourself often helps make it feel more important and relevant to you. I hate the fact that this seems to be the only way this guy learned, but I’m still glad he learned. That’s one more person who’s going to stop spewing the bullshit that women are “privileged” when it comes to online dating, one more person who will hopefully be a little more supportive of his female friends when they get harassed and abused online.

I’ve seen a few comments about how this guy is speaking for women and whatnot, and while that obviously happens a lot, I don’t think that I see it happening in this case. He did a little personal experiment for himself, not for some grand political purpose, and shared it on a subreddit frequented mostly by women. The fact that his perspective inevitably gets elevated above many women’s perspectives is not something that he is responsible for as an individual; it is something that we are all responsible for collectively.

In that way, what happened here–the fact that this man didn’t believe women when they talked about online dating, the fact that he only started believing them when he pretended to be a woman, the fact that the story of his daring escape from the Land of Women Have It So Easy has been upvoted and shared so many times–this is not the problem. It’s a symptom of the problem.

It’s not just with online dating and harassment that this sort of thing happens. A little over a year ago, for instance, Cory Booker (then mayor of Newark, NJ; now senator) made the news for taking the Food Stamp Challenge, in which you live on the equivalent of a food stamp budget for a week. Writing at xoJane, Melissa criticized the stunt:

Dear Mr. Mayor and anyone else: Want to know what it’s like to live on food stamps? Read thisthis or this — or ask the 46 million Americans who do it every day, not as a “challenge” or for publicity but because they can’t afford food.

[...]There’s a big difference between being someone who is “challenging” themselves and has all the immaterial benefits of being not-poor, and being someone who is truly poor, and who’s suffering and has probably at other times in their life suffered from lack of food. It’s like Tyra Banks putting on a fat suit and acting like she gets it.

(Wearing a fat suit is, in fact, not very much like being fat.)

Of course, the difference here is that Booker is a well-known person, not a random throwaway Reddit handle, and was doing this to raise awareness–and probably for political reasons as well. Although he certainly didn’t intend to, Booker did sort of end up speaking for the millions of Americans who are actually on food stamps rather than elevating and centering their voices and experiences.

In her article, Melissa also points out that living on food stamps for a single week can’t possibly resemble the actual experience of a person living on food stamps, who may live in fear of losing what little resources they have and who may be chronically malnourished–and who doesn’t have the comfort of knowing that after the week’s over, everything will be back to “normal.”

OKCThrowaway22221’s experience is slightly more similar to that of a woman on OkCupid than Booker’s is to that of a person living in poverty, but at the end of the day (or at the end of two hours, rather), he could delete the profile and never have to think about it again. A woman can choose not to do online dating, but she can’t generally choose to stop being perceived as a woman by men and treated accordingly. The abuse women get on online dating sites is not unique to online dating sites.

I don’t want guys to stop doing things like this if that’s what helps them learn. In fact, I’ve suggested things like this to men in the past when they’d ask me, “Why do we still need feminism?”

I also want every guy who does this, or who learns something from reading about it, so ask himself why women’s stories weren’t enough.

~~~

In case you’re curious, here are some of my OKC experiences:

youlldo

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 6.30.01 PM

alpha

feministbuttplug

answermebitch

*It’s important to note that not all women experience sexual harassment in the same ways or at the same levels. Women who are marginalized in other ways besides gender are often harassed in ways that interact with those marginalizations (for example, this). Some women are largely ignored by men when it comes to sexual attraction, so it’s important not to present online dating experiences like these are representative of all women.

Edit: Heina of Skepchick also has a great post on this, which I didn’t see until after I wrote this because I’ve been traveling.

Women Are Not “Mysterious”

I came across this meme in my Facebook newsfeed (with criticism, thankfully):

A man opens a huge, several-feet-tall book. Caption reads, "The book 'Understanding Women' has finally arrived in bookstores."

It was shared by the page “Engineer Memes,” which makes sense given the trope that it references. You know the one: the brilliant, successful scientist/engineer/mathematician who can solve any problem, invent a lifesaving drug or device, and understand the most complicated theories of physics, but there is one enigma in this world that even he cannot comprehend…the human female.

This trope is tired and old and boring. It’s also harmful.

Here’s an abridged list of things women are not:

  • an alien species with incomprehensible thought processes and behaviors
  • rocket ships that require years of training to operate
  • ancient scrolls written with indecipherable runes
  • never-before-seen weather patterns that have meteorologists stumped

Nevertheless, women are invariably referred to (by men) as “the ultimate enigma,” “mysterious forces of nature,” and other such lofty descriptions. Women’s personalities and sexualities are considered infinitely more complex than men’s supposedly simple ones. When it comes to sex, especially, many people continue to believe that there is something “complicated” or “mysterious” about pleasing a woman, but not about pleasing a man. The female orgasm glimmers in the imaginations of men like Atlantis.

At first glance this sounds like a compliment. Shouldn’t women be glad that they get to be “mysterious” and “complex” while men are simple and boring? Shouldn’t women feel flattered that their male partners are willing to brave the dark labyrinths of their Complex Lady Brains in order to try (in vain) to Understand Women? Isn’t this proof that it’s really women, not men, who are superior, in that they captivate helpless men with their feminine mysteriousness?

I view the women-are-mysterious trope as an example of benevolent sexism, which I’ve written about here before. But here’s a refresher. While hostile sexism consists of the beliefs we typically think of as misogyny–women are stupid, women are weak, women are shallow and catty, women just want to fuck men over and get their money, etc.–benevolent sexism is the set of beliefs that puts women on a pedestal. For instance, the idea that every man needs a woman to take care of him and to make sure he washes his clothes and eats good food is an example of benevolent sexism. So is the stereotype that women are better caretakers than men and that they are superior at communication.

Benevolent sexism and hostile sexism are strongly correlated; people who score high on one tend to score high on the other as well. Benevolent and hostile sexism each also includes beliefs about men, such as “men are strong and competent” on the benevolent side and “men are all lying cheaters” on the hostile side.

Although hostile sexism (toward either gender) is arguably more directly hurtful, benevolent sexism has negative consequences as well. It tends to promote gender roles and it allows men to stigmatize and marginalize women who don’t fit the tropes associated with it (if “real” women are good caretakers, what do you do with a woman who has no interest in taking care of anyone?). Benevolent sexism is a system in which women who conform to their roles receive limited rewards for doing so, but attain little actual power for themselves.

Besides the fact that it’s a type of sexism, the women-are-mysterious trope is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It prevents men from learning how to understand women by teaching them that trying to is a waste of time. In doing so, it ensures that women will remain “mysterious” to men.

Over at Crates and Ribbons, Leopard writes:

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Stephen Hawkings can declare women to be “a complete mystery”, and have newspapers gleefully latch on to this, declaring women “the greatest mystery known to man”. It is a common refrain for men to bleat about not understanding women, but this is because they have simply never tried, because society has trained them to never look at life through the eyes of a woman.

In other words, the women-are-mysterious trope is not an accident and nor is it free of consequences. It stems from the historical privileging of men’s viewpoints (and the marginalization of women’s viewpoints) and results in men’s unwillingness to try–to really try–to understand the women in their lives. It’s much easier to write off women’s behaviors, attitudes, and emotions as “mysterious” and “indecipherable” and perhaps arising from mystical female biological processes than it is to actually listen to and try to understand them.

It is, of course, false that men and women are completely the same in every way. They are not, largely because of different socialization. If men were encouraged to learn about and understand this different socialization rather than throwing their hands up and giving up on understanding these mysterious forces of nature, men and women would communicate better and gender roles would break down faster. It’s a win-win!

Understanding women is, indeed, not at all like understanding physics and mathematics. It’s like understanding people, plus being aware of how different groups of people sometimes face different experiences and expectations in society. It also means understanding that while there are some differences between men on average and women on average, the differences among men and among women are much larger–and, arguably, more significant if you’d like to understand individuals as opposed to groups. The best way to understand a particular woman’s–say, your girlfriend’s–needs, desires, expectations, and preferences isn’t to try to Understand Women, it’s to try to understand her. And that means actually communicating with her.

You don’t need a two-foot-thick book to understand women. You do, however, need to learn to listen.

~~~

P.S. Not the subject of this post, but women who claim that it’s Impossible To Understand Men should stop doing that, too. It’s not impossible.