A Reminder About Sexual Assault

I think Garrett Epps nailed this.

The gendered subtext of this moment is, not to put too fine a point on it, war—war to the knife—over the future of women’s autonomy in American society. Shall women control their own reproduction, their health care, their contraception, their legal protection at work against discrimination and harassment, or shall we move backward to the chimera of past American greatness, when the role of women was—supposedly for biological reasons—subordinate to that of men?

That theme became apparent even before the 2016 election, when candidate Donald Trump promised to pick judges who would “automatically” overturn Roe v. Wade. The candidate was by his own admission a serial sexual harasser. On live national television, he then stalked, insulted, and physically menaced his female opponent—and he said, in an unguarded moment, that in his post-Roe future, women who choose abortion will face “some form of punishment.”

In context, Trump promised to restore the old system of dominion—by lawmakers, husbands, pastors, institutions, and judges—over women’s reproduction.

And as they point out, the subtext has now become text with the allegations of sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh. There are plenty of other reasons to deny Kavanaugh a Supreme Court seat, mind you, but the Republican Party has descended so low that corruption and a dismissal of human rights mean nothing when it harms them (but everything when it harms their opponents). Even Senator Susan Collins, considered to be on the liberal side of the Party, still twists in knots to defend Kavanaugh. These allegations of sexual assault might have been the straw, though.

Of course, now that sexual assault is back in the news, all the old apologetics are being vomited up. “Why didn’t she speak up?” “Boys will be boys.” “You’re ruining his life!” “There’s no evidence.” “This can’t be a common thing.” “Just trust the system.” It’s all very tired, and has been written about countless times before.

For instance, here’s a sampling of my own writing:

Evidence-Based Feminism 2: Sexual assault and rape culture

Debunking Some Skeptic Myths About Sexual Assault

Index Post: Rape Myth Acceptance

Christina Hoff Sommers: Science Denialist?

A Statistical Analysis of a Sexual Assault Case

Men Under Construction

Sexual Assault As a Con Game

Consent on Campus

Colleges and Sexual Assault

Destruction of Justice

Sexual Assault as a Talking Point

“There are no perfect victims.”

False Rape Reports, In Perspective

Everyone Needs A Hobby

Steven Pinker and His Portable Goalposts

Perfect, In Theory

Holy Fuck, Carol Tavris

Recovered Memories and Sexual Assault

Talking Sexual Assault

The evidence around sexual assault is pretty clear, and even in Kavanaugh’s specific case there’s circumstantial evidence that makes the accusations plausible. If people are still promoting myths about it at this point, it’s because they want to.

[HJH 2018-09-17: Added a few more links. Props to Salty Current of the Political Madness thread for some of them.]

Don’t Do This, Skeptics

Science is not kind to minorities. Discrimination can make them difficult to identify and count, which combined with the minority’s relative rarity makes it nearly impossible to gather accurate statistics; convenience samples are the norm. Their rarity mean few people are researching them, so the odds of minority overcoming their discrimination and surviving academia to become a researcher are very small. Conversely, the few number of researchers means one bad apple can cause quite a bit of damage, and there’s a good chance researchers buy into the myths about this minority and thus legitimize discrimination.  A lot of care needs to be taken when doing science writing on the topic.

If you want to learn how to do it properly, read Dr. Harriet Hall’s recent article on gender dysphoria in children and do the opposite of what she does. [Read more…]

Why TERFs are not feminists

Nah, I’m not trying to start something with Siggy; heck, I too have pointed out the historical connections between TERFs and feminists. Whether one is a subset of the other will always be a secondary concern next to combating the damage they do. Still, I think there’s an argument for the other side, one that’s worth writing up.

Let’s start with a protest I’ve meant to blog about: a number of women attended a men’s-only swim night. Given just that, you can sketch out a rationale for the action. Sex separation for social gatherings has its roots in a time when we believed men and women should never mix, that we occupied separate spheres. The only good reason I know to allow sex segregation is to help victims of sexual assault, who in some cases can relive their trauma if they share a space with someone of a specific sex. Since that isn’t universal, sex segregation shouldn’t be either, and invading a space that wasn’t separated for that reason is a legit form of protest.

Female activists took a group of male swimmers by surprise on Friday evening when they attended a men-only swim session wearing just trunks and pink swimming caps. Amy Desir, 30, was one of the two women to gain access to the south London pool session, as part of a protest against proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, which would enable men and women to choose their own gender.

Both women explained their attendance to staff at Dulwich Leisure Centre by saying they “identified as male” and subsequently had the right to be there. […]

Their actions form part of a nationwide campaign formed on Mumsnet called #ManFriday which encourages women to “self-identify” as men every Friday in protest of the proposed amendments to gender laws, which would enable people to self-identify as men or women.

When we add more information, though, things get twisted around. TERFs believe men and women occupy separate spheres, otherwise they wouldn’t have identified as male; at the same time, they also argue that housework shouldn’t be a woman’s duty and the workplace shouldn’t favor men. They also believe that anyone with a penis is a man, to the point of obsession and despite scientific arguments to the contrary. Because of those points, they believe men should be disgusted and unsettled to find women invading their spaces.

They also used the male changing rooms before going into the session and were later asked by an elderly man if they realised it was a male-only session.

In reality, the most common reaction is puzzlement or a shrug of the shoulders. Just recently, in fact, while running some chores I noticed a guy stopped right in the entrance of a men’s washroom, blankly staring at the “Men’s Washroom” sign as if deciphering some puzzle. I walked past, turned the corner, and sure enough someone identified as a woman was in there. She gave me an embarrassed glance as she hurried out; I rolled my eyes as I continued to the urinal, without missing a single step. Women participating in marathons will sometimes “claim” men’s washrooms, due to a lack of facilities and their greater numbers in these events (at least around here, YMMV elsewhere). I know it happens, because I helped do it once; there were no complaints, no protests, no need for guards, everyone just got on with their business amid a few nervous giggles.

Every premise behind that TERF protest is either contrary to another premise they believe, or the best evidence available. As I’ve pointed out before, TERFs do not have a coherent theory of sex or gender; in contrast, feminists bend over backwards to establish coherency. This solves Siggy’s best argument.

On the flip side, there are also real pretenders to feminism. One of the best known examples is Christina Hoff Sommers, who identifies as a feminist, but who has been a conservative critic of feminism for her entire career. Sommers is one of several public figures who call themselves “equity feminists”, a term that, as far as I know, does not have any real history within feminism, and seems to have been invented by external critics.

So it seems we have a difficult task, finding a definition for feminism that includes TERFs, and yet excludes equity feminists. Ideally, the definition would also apply to feminists of the past and future.

No matter where you stand on Christina Hoff Sommers’ feminism, she has a more coherent theory of sex and gender than TERFs. That is a line of demarcation.

As just hinted at, Siggy’s other main argument is that feminism has historically been quite transphobic. Fair enough, in fact at one point a significant number of feminists opposed any LGBT activism. But pointing out that this bigotry was once part of feminism does not demand that we continue to accept those bigots as feminists, any more than pointing out that astronomy was once astrology demands that we consider astrologers to be astronomers. Words and definitions can change over time. If the majority of contemporary feminists are bullish on LGBT rights, if the majority of them agree that gender identity is a fundamental right, then we can consider transphobic feminists to be anachronisms. To bring up another anecdote, I attended Calgary Pride and was heartened to see half the floats had “trans rights are human rights” or similar explicitly plastered on them. The lead float was trans-inclusive, too, which was welcome given the bullshit TERFs have pulled at Pride marches.

Given that very few feminists are TERFs, and even mainstream society has accepted that gender identity is a thing (on paper, anyway), counting TERFs as feminists muddies what “feminism” means, in my opinion. That may not be your opinion, and that’s cool! Whether we call TERFs bigots pretending to be feminists or bigoted feminists, we can all agree the stress should be on the “b.”


HJH 2018-09-10: Oh dear, I seem to have started something anyway. A small and insightful thing, thankfully. Read Crip Dyke’s posts, especially her second one as it has some good points to make about sexism. I mean, damn:

Sexism = Sex Prejudice + Enhanced Power of one sex relative to another

In the course of it all, though, I’m getting feedback from Siggy and others that suggests I could have done a better job in this post. The crux of it can be handled via a little copy-pasta.

Shoot, I should have explained this point a little better. I don’t argue that having a consistent definition is necessary for being a feminist, instead working towards a consistent definition is the key. You can see this quite clearly with Judith Butler:

Before Undoing Gender, Butler never addressed the T or the I (transgender and intersex) in GLBTQI in any sustained way. In turning her gaze toward what is unthinkable even for many gays and lesbians, Butler has continued to push against the boundaries of the field she had a large part in creating. Undoing Gender constitutes a thoughtful and provocative response to the new gender politics and elegantly employs psychoanalysis, philosophy, feminism, and queer theory in an effort to pry open the future of the human.

Zavaletta, Atticus Schoch. “Undoing Gender.” The Comparatist 29.1 (2005): 152-153.

Compare and contrast with this with TERFs. Confronted with evidence that their definition of “sex” is too simplistic, they discard the evidence rather than update the definition. Bigotry takes precedence over consistency, and we can exploit that to draw a dividing line.

The worst of it seems to flow from that misunderstanding, at least so far.

Secular Women Work

One reason why Adventure Time may be popular with adults is its complex emotional content. Via the creator, Pendleton Ward:

Dark comedies are my favorite, because I love that feeling – being happy and scared at the same time. It’s my favorite way to feel – when I’m on the edge of my seat but I’m happy, that sense of conflicting emotions. And there’s a lot of that in the show, I think.

The best example I can think of came in Season Four: the Ice King visited Marceline to get her help writing a song. Her conflicted emotions towards the Ice King are eventually explained via notes that he wrote to her. The result always crushes me, turning a comic character into a deeply tragic one.

I walk away from Secular Women Work in a similar state. It is very easy to look upon the works of others and despair, as a starter. Bria Crutchfield fundraised for and delivered four trucks’ worth of water and supplies to Flint, Michigan; Danielle White’s activism helped overturn HB2 in South Carolina, which discriminated against trans* people; Mandisa Thomas founded Black Nonbelievers, a thriving atheist community which has expanded into twelve cities; Lauren Lane founded and ran Skepticon for a decade; Debbie Goddard has been within organized skepticism/atheism for over sixteen years, splits their time between multiple organizations, and specializes in campus outreach. Every speaker was an activist with several wins under their belt, working to make this community a better place.

There was also despair over the state of the movement. One of the panelists mentioned graphic threats leveled by fellow atheists against herself. Bria mentioned how someone tried to get her fired for bringing water to Flint, during a panel devoted to the blowback activists face for doing their work. An offhand conversation I had turned to the women who have been driven from the movement due to harassment or worse. Five years ago, Melody Hensley gave me a warm hug to welcome me to Women in Secularism 2; roughly a year ago, she had to commit social media suicide to escape years of harassment directed at her, harassment that continues to this day. There are many more examples, most of which I’ve never heard.

But the human cost really hit home while I was packing to leave. Niki Massey’s name came up during this conference; she was someone I had the fortune to see at the first Secular Women Work, both on stage and at an after-conference dinner, but that was the extent of our connection. As a result, her death never carried the same impact for me that it had for so many others. While organizing my things, however, I reflected that three years prior Niki was doing the same thing. She too was organizing her things, she too was reflecting on her conference experience. Was she also thinking about attending the next one? It weighed heavily on me that she’d never have the option.

Still, while Secular Women Work did load me down, it was also a great release. Merely being in the same room as people I admired, soaking in the conversation, was a trip. There were fascinating discussions both on and off the stage, including a long one about IT management during a beautiful sunset. I found myself actively seeking light conversation, and I’m not the light conversation type. On the stage, Mandisa not only talked of her experience growing Black Nonbelievers, she also laid out her full management strategy. In a workshop, I scribbled down a few pages of notes as Elise Matthesen held forth on codes of conduct. Debbie pointed out there was little we could do about Trump, so she suggested redirecting our attention to local politics where we could have an impact. Cassidy Slinger argued that mission statements weren’t just for attracting new members, they also made it easier to kick troublemakers out. Mandisa made a similar point during her talk: joining organizations is a privilege, so no single member has a right to be a part of it. Gretchen Koch stated that all art is political, so decrying art for its politics is a smokescreen for arguing against politics you don’t like. There’s a lot more where that came from, I could easily fill another paragraph just using the notes I took during the direct action panel.

Inspiration for activism was in ample supply, too. During a workshop, Trinity Pixie argued the most effective way to help the trans* community was to donate cash directly to those in need. There’s a tonne of discrimination against them at work and elsewhere, so earning a paycheck is difficult, yet it is common for charity groups refuse to help trans* people. Donating directly also cuts out the overhead inherent to charities. Here’s a Twitter thread to get you started, but consider actively searching for such fundraisers if you have a little cash to spare. Even a few dollars could make a huge difference.

I walk away from many atheist/secular conferences giddy at hanging out with cool people. I walk away from Secular Women Work thinking deeply about myself, and how I can help the communities I belong to, and a little bummed at the state of the world, and giddy over cool people. It’s like the difference between snacking on candy and eating soy people.